Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Ritual (2018)

The Ritual (2018): adapted by Joe Barton from the novel by Adam Nevill; directed by David Bruckner; starring Rafe Spall (Luke), Arsher Ali (Phil), Robert James Collier (Hutch), Sam Troughton (Dom), and Paul Reid (Robert): Tense and gripping horror movie follows four 30-something British friends on their annual holiday together, this time into the woods in Sweden. 

Adapted from a much more sprawling Adam Nevill novel, The Ritual explores that novel's themes within the context of films that include Deliverance and Straw Dogs, as the action tests the "manhood" of its protagonist. Rafe Spall plays that protagonist, guilt-ridden over a recent event involving these friends and starkly realistic in his fear and indecision. The acting by the six principal actors is believable and the action tense. There is something of a slow build for the first 45 minutes. 

Gratifyingly, The Ritual avoids the stereotypes of the genre of Bad Camping Horror Movies. Well, except for the one in which people take a shortcut. But that is explained in the context of the events of the movie. It also works as a riff on masculinity and competence, much as the sidelining of Burt Reynolds' macho man in Deliverance does -- the competent man is perhaps not as competent as he seems, or the less competent man must rise up. Take it as you will. 

Adapters Joe Barton and David Bruckner eschew some of the movie's more baroque climactic moments, probably with good cause -- faithfully adapted, The Ritual would be six hours long and have an hour-long climax. The monster is kept mostly shrouded, though its appearance at the end is a triumph of weird-creature design. Prior to that, the film does a nice job of playing hide-and-seek with glimpses of the creature, which has a disconcerting ability to be 'in the shot' without the viewer immediately realizing it... much less the characters. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Offices and Hillbillies

The Belko Experiment (2017): written by James Gunn; directed by Greg McLean; starring John Gallagher Jr. (Mike), Tony Goldwyn (Barry), Adria Arjona (Leandra), John C. McGinley (Wendell), and Melonie Diaz (Dany): A mysterious corporation with an office in Colombia is actually a social experiment in... well, Social Darwinism. It's an amiable comedy-horror movie with far too many recognizable actors to be effective when it comes to suspense: if you guess that the most recognizable actors will survive the longest, you'll mostly be right. James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) scripted this, a movie that would be a lot more fun if it were a lot cheaper, had a no-name cast, and were about 50% more vicious in its satire. Lightly recommended.

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (2010): written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson; directed by Eli Craig; starring Tyler Labine (Dale), Alan Tudyk (Tucker), Katrina Bowden (Allison), and Jesse Moss (Chad): Hilarious satire of the slasher film gives us Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine as hillbilly heroes whom a group of college kids believe to be serial killers (they're not), primarily because those college students have clearly watched too many backwoods-slasher films. Tudyk is great, as is Katrina Bowden as a college student who's not comfortable with the stereotype she's been stuck with by society. Tyler Labine gets pretty much the role he was born to play here -- comedic, sweet, disheveled. It's a clever film disguised as a buffoonish comedy, much like Labine. Highly recommended.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968): written by John Russo and George Romero; directed by George Romero; starring Duane Jones (Ben), Judith O'Dea (Barbra), Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper), Marilyn Eastman (Helen Cooper), Keith Wayne (Tom), Judith Ridley (Judy), Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper), George Kosana (Sheriff): George Romero's witty, gritty, subversive zombie film pretty much kicked off the entire genre of the walking, eating dead. 

The restored print used by TCM is a revelation. Romero's low-budget film now looks and acts more like an art-house classic than a drive-in staple. It's amazing how good the movie is, and how eccentric -- an African-American hero, a protagonist (Barbra) who slips into near-catatonia 20 minutes into the movie and pretty much stays there to the end, and those rapidly evolving zombies who quickly learn how to use tools. 

Night of the Living Dead is better than every walking dead movie or TV show that followed with one exception -- Romero's own sequel, Dawn of the Dead. Brilliant film-making, and acting by amateurs and local actors that works beautifully, none more beautifully than Duane Jones as Ben. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water (2017): written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor; directed by Guillermo del Toro; starring Sally Hawkins (Elisa), Michael Shannon (Strickland), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Octavia Spencer (Zelda), Michael Stuhlbarg (Hoffstetler), David Hewlett (Fleming), Nigel Bennett (Russkie), and Doug Jones (Creature from the Black Lagoon): 

Guillermo del Toro is in a groove here he hasn't been in since Pan's Labyrinth, combining genres and stirring up emotional attachment in service to a gloriously melodramatic story handled with delicacy and sold through terrific performances by the entire cast.

It probably helps to have seen The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature. But it's not necessary. The film hits some surprising notes as it plays with a comment made in del Toro's last movie that was metafictionally about that movie -- in Crimson Peak, we're told that this is not a ghost story but rather a story with a ghost in it. Similarly, The Shape of Water is not a monster movie but rather a movie with a monster in it. Who the monster really is... well, that's part of the story too.

Sally Hawkins is wonderful as the protagonist, mute because of an old throat injury, feeling excluded by the world of Baltimore 1962 except for her best friends Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer. Hawkins' Elisa is a night-shift cleaning woman at a US military experimental facility, as is Spencer's character. Jenkins is Elisa's room-mate and confidante, a gay man trapped in a very ungay world and a painter whose career has stalled out due to alcoholism and changing tastes.

Then along comes Jones, Doug Jones, the go-to actor for soulful monsters and super freaks, this time out playing an amphibious biped captured in the Amazon and much, much more than he appears to be. Jones is terrific, too. Michael Stuhlbarg is also excellent as a scientist with his own secret agenda. Michael Shannon is scary and warped as the sadistic neat freak charged by the military with learning the Creature's secrets.

It all runs beautifully and, unusually for del Toro, without any stretches in which one longs for an editor to curb del Toro's tendency to extending a movie 10-15 minutes beyond its optimum length. You've seen elements of this story in everything from Beauty and the Beast to del Toro's Hellboy movies. It's the style and the little bits and the performances that make this one special in and of itself. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook (2014): written and directed by Jennifer Kent; starring Essie Davis (Amelia), Noah Wiseman (Sam), and Barbara West (Mrs. Roach): A truly great Australian horror movie that rewards multiple viewings and supports multiple interpretations while also being Scary As Hell. 

A troubled six-year-old boy's imaginary friend may be neither imaginary nor friend. Or is his troubled mother suffering from the depression she's been fighting ever since the boy's father died on the way to the hospital on the day of the boy's birth? Is there really a Babadook? And where did the Babadook get that snazzy hat? 

Among other things, The Babadook suggests a mash-up of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, Home Alone, The Bad Seed, and an Australian children's TV series called Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. In any case, it's a fine movie -- a new classic of intelligent horror. Highly recommended.

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946): adapted by Curt Siodmak from a story by William Fryer Harvey; starring Peter Lorre as Peter Lorre, basically: Truly a boring, jokey botch of an adaptation of a clever original story. Only the scenes in which a detached hand stalks various characters work at all well. Peter Lorre stands out, excellent as usual and so much more excellent than everything else in this movie that he seems to be acting in a different, far superior movie whenever he's on-screen. Not recommended.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

Phoenix Forgotten (2017): written by Justin Barber and T.S. Nowlin; directed by Justin Barber; starring Luke Spencer Roberts (Josh), Chelsea Lopez (Ashley), and Justin Matthews (Mark):

Here in the real world, the Phoenix Lights that form the backbone of Phoenix Forgotten were a real thing. 

In the movie, a young girl's teen-aged brother disappears along with two friends several days after the Phoenix Lights. Now at the age of 26, 20 years later, the sister and her camera-carrying dogsbody go In Search Of...  Lost Brother.

Yes, Phoenix Forgotten is low-budget, found-footage horror. It's an enjoyable, low-key entry in this genre. And it involves UFO's instead of the supernatural, thus making it somewhat unique. The actors for both the 2017 and 1997 narratives are all quite charming. 

The panicked flight of the missing teenagers across the rapidly darkening desert, recorded for posterity in its near-entirety because no one ever stops filming in these movies, has some fresh moments of terror. The actors sell panic at things unseen or barely glimpsed.

The makers don't stick the climax, though the coda is unique among these things as filming continues in what's really quite an unusual and, by the end, hilarious situation insofar as, Jesus Christ, that goddam camera can't be destroyed, it can only run out of battery power. Recommended.