2018: THE YEAR HORROR REGAINED SUBSTANCE and RESONANCE!

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SPOILER WARNING! In order to properly discuss these films in context with this article, some important details that may be considered SPOILERS had to be included. If you haven’t seen one or any of these films, you may want to watch them first before reading this discussion. You have been warned!- MZNJ

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2018: THE YEAR HORROR REGAINED SUBSTANCE and RESONANCE!

 

Those who think horror movies are just an excuse for blood, boobs and boogie men are sadly mistaken and there is no more proof that horror flicks are capable of substance and emotional resonance than some of this year’s genre offerings. To prove these aren’t just the words of an overprotective horror fan, here are a few recent examples of how horror has returned to telling stories with strong emotional centers…

(Clicking the highlighted links brings you to the full reviews for the movies discussed below)

Pyewacket’s story is triggered by the fractured relationship between a mother (Laurie Holden) and daughter (Nicole Muñoz) who are both mourning the death of their husband/father in completely different ways. Teen Leah has turned to an interest in death and the occult and her mother wants to start a new life in a new house, taking Leah away from her friends and school. The resulting turmoil has Leah evoking a dark entity, Pyewacket, to kill her mother and learning the harsh lesson…be careful what you wish for. The dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter is strongly presented by writer/director Adam MacDonald and wonderfully acted by the lead actresses. The conflict between Leah and her mom is the catalyst for the horror that results and gives this spooky chiller a resonance that enhances it’s supernatural element, by giving it subjects to prey upon that are already emotionally vulnerable.

 

What Keeps You Alive tells the story of Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hanna Emily Anderson), a married, lesbian couple going to Jackie’s family cabin deep in the woods to celebrate their first anniversary. There, Jules finds out Jackie is not who she thought she was and that she may have married a psychopath. Jules is forced to fight for her life against the one person in the world she loves the most. Colin Minihan’s thriller works so well because it skillfully presents a loving relationship between two women and then tears the relationship apart in the most painful way as one woman finds the love of her life is a vicious and cruel person. Both actresses give fantastic performances as the cold and cunning Jackie and the heartbroken and terrified Jules. The film may be intense and brutal, but even more so because Jules’ betrayal and the torment she endures as a result, are portrayed so well and give the story impact beyond the violence we witness.

 

Feral is another film this year to present a lesbian couple as the character focus for it’s story. Here Alice (Scout Taylor-Compton) comes out to her friends on a camping trip by bringing her girlfriend Jules (Olivia Luccardi) along. It’s met with mixed emotions from her friends and adds conflict before our infected even appear. Once our creatures are introduced and the bloodshed and carnage begin, we watch a strong-willed young woman fight to save the ones she loves and even finding conflict with her new partner over how to handled those of the group who become infected themselves. Director and co-writer Mark Young elevates this cabin in the woods/zombie horror by having a strong and topical human interest story at it’s center with three dimensional characters well played by the cast, especially Taylor-Compton’s strong-willed but compassionate Alice.

 

Our House is a haunted house story that tugs at our hearts as well as chills us to the bone. Here, college student Ethan (Thomas Mann) is forced to leave school and abandon his dreams as the accidental death of his parents takes him from sibling to parent to his younger brother Matt (Percy Hynes-White) and his little sister Becca (Kate Moyer). Director Anthony Scott Burns gives us time to become endeared to this young, emotionally wounded family before introducing the supernatural elements brought into the house by Ethan’s experiments. Even if the basic haunting story is routine, it becomes very effective as the audience has a strong emotional investment in the characters from early on. We like them and fear for them. This could have been just a routine ghost story had Burns not given it such a very human heart and elevated it in a crowded sub-genre.

 

Hereditary may have split fans with it’s slow pace and extremely eccentric characters, but it was a story of mental illness as much as the supernatural. It had a very strong performance by Toni Collette as Annie, a woman dealing with her own mental health issues, as well as, those of her very offbeat family. Filmmaker Ari Aster could have left out the demonic portion of the story and still had a disturbing portrait of an unbalanced family created by some sadly damaged DNA. By giving us a strong picture of possibly mentally unstable characters, it kept us guessing till the final moments if it was the demonic or the psychotic that was to blame for this family’s woes. Again, basing the story in a strong human element that we can identify with and invest in, makes the supernatural elements plaguing our subjects all the more effective and believable…and thus more frightening.

These are just some examples, but one could site a few more illustrating how horror has refocused from blood, gore and things that go bump in the night to the matters of the mind and heart of some very human characters. It gives the films in question resonance and when we identify and care about characters, it makes their respective predicaments all the more effective. This year’s horrors also had something to say about some very topical human issues, while telling their stories of ghosts, ghouls and malevolent specters…and the genre is all the better for it.

…And obviously, I recommend you catch up with all these flicks if you haven’t already!

-MonsterZero NJ

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: HEREDITARY (2018)

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HEREDITARY (2018)

(Clicking the highlighted links brings you to corresponding reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Story finds an eccentric family, whose lineage has a history of mental illness, experiencing strange occurrences and tragic events after the death of it’s matriarch. Her surviving daughter Annie (Toni Collette) slowly begins to believe something supernatural is attached to her family, something evil, while her husband feels it’s all in her head. Is Annie losing her mind, or is she about to find out she inherited more from mom than just some mental issues.

The hype machine has been working overtime for weeks on this flick being an instant classic, but much like 2016’s The Witch, which received the same pre-release praise, this one has some merit, but is far from the traumatizing experience it’s being sold as. Hereditary is atmospherically directed by Ari Aster from his own script, has some very unsettling moments and the eccentric family members are enough to give you the willies themselves. From Collette’s Annie who relives traumatic events in her life by building miniature dioramas of them and daughter Charlie, who likes to cut the heads off dead birds, this is an Addams Family in the making. From a distance, the post funeral events could be the result of traumatic events, mixing with some bad DNA, but we slowly discover there might actually be something malevolent stalking this family. There are some creepy moments and Aster gives us some initial doubts whether this is elemental or simply mental, till a last act where we finally open the flood gates to hell and get what we came for…and that’s the flaw here. The film is very slow paced and while it seems to be intentional, it’s a bit too slow paced for it’s own good. Much like The Witch there are some very spooky sequences and visuals, but there are also long stretches that are just tedious. Some of the supernatural hocus pocus comes off as a bit silly, too, and the really scary stuff doesn’t happen until the last few scenes. It’s a long stretch till the film really delivers and while there is plenty of unsettling things to keep us occupied, there are also quite a few moments where you might find yourself checking your watch. The film does go somewhere that was very effective, had some chilling developments, but sometimes felt like it was rambling at times before getting to it’s Rosemary’s Baby-esque finale. On a strictly production level, the cinematography is very effective from Pawel Pogorzelski, as is Aster’s visual eye and a lot of the atmosphere comes from Colin Stetson’s goosebump inducing score.

Aster did perfectly cast this somewhat mixed-bag. Toni Collette is near brilliant as a woman with her own issues dealing with not only the trauma of two deaths, but the belief that there is some sort of curse or malevolent entity stalking her family. It’s an opinion her somewhat clueless husband doesn’t share, which isolates her. Gabriel Byrne does a wonderful job as husband Steven, a man who is sometimes too calm and emotionally detached to be of any help. He believes it’s all in her head and refuses to see there is something very odd going on. Milly Shapiro is downright creepy as the introverted and odd daughter Charlie. The young actress gives us goosebumps with just a look and a tilt of her head, not to mention carrying out the script’s extremely weird behavior for her. Rounding out the family is Alex Wolff as teen son Peter who already has a tenuous relationship with Annie thanks to her trying to set him on fire while sleepwalking at one point. He is very sympathetic, especially in the second half when things escalate. There is also a small part portrayed by Ann Dowd as Annie’s friend from a loss support group, who is a little off-kilter herself after losing her grandson.

In conclusion, the sum of it’s parts are greater than the whole. There are too many stretches where the film gets a bit tedious and borders on outright dull to be the modern horror classic PR hype wants us to believe. Ari Aster shows he has a nice touch for providing atmosphere and unsettling visuals and while it takes a bit too long to get to them, he can produce outright scares, such in the last act. The final ten minutes alone make up for some of the waiting. His characters were disturbing without the supernatural goings-on, though some of those those goings-on weren’t always as effective as they should have been, to keep the tension consistent. The director loses his grip here and there as his pace is a little too meandering for the movie’s own good. There is a lot of potential shown here for Aster as a filmmaker, just too soon to be calling him a master…or this a masterpiece. Despite being extremely over-hyped, it is worth a look for all the things that do work.

-MonsterZero NJ

 

Rated 3 cans of lighter fluid which should be kept away from sleepwalkers at all times.

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: EXCALIBUR and CONAN THE BARBARIAN

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Decades before The Lord Of The Rings films hit, these two 80s classics were among my favorite sword and sorcery flicks and while Peter Jackson’s adaptations of some of my favorite books has stolen some of their thunder away, these two still remain favorites and always will…

 

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EXCALIBUR (1981)

“A dream to some… A NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS!”- Merlin

John Boorman’s Excalibur is a beautifully filmed fantasy movie based on the classic legend of King Arthur (Nigel Terry). The film traces the tale from his father King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) and Arthur’s conception and birth to the wife of one of Uther’s rivals, thanks to the trickery of Merlin (Nicol Williamson). It then picks up with young Arthur drawing the sword Excalibur from the stone, going from squire to king and his subsequent marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and the founding of the round table. From there it follows his downfall from the betrayal of Guenevere’s affair with Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) and his redemption at the finding of The Holy Grail leading to a final battle with his sorceress half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and the warrior son she tricked him into conceiving with her, Mordred (Robert Addie).

Adapted from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and sumptuously filmed by Boorman, who co-wrote the script along with Rospo Pallenberg, Excalibur is a gorgeous and sometimes bloody and brutal film that is both fairy tale and dark fantasy and yet also portrays a time when Christianity was slowly forcing out the pagan ways and beliefs. We get some brutal battles along with the throne room melodrama and while the film is full of fantasy elements, Boorman uses in camera effects to portray most of them such as the very effective green light that bathes the legendary sword whenever it is in use or the works of it’s magicians and sorceresses. Every frame of the film looks stunning from the shining silver and gold castle that is Camelot to the final confrontation with Mordred that looks like it came from an Akira Kurosawa samurai flick. The numerous battles are exciting and quite gruesome with spurting blood and hacked off limbs and are a contrast to some of the more peaceful and visually beautiful moments such as Guenevere and Lancelot’s tryst in the forest or the strangely soothing multicolored cavern that Merlin calls home. The film is moderately paced and that is deliberate as it is truly a fairy tale on film and not just an action movie though, we get plenty of that.

If there is any real weakness here, it is that although leads Terry, Lunghi and Clay try hard, neither of the three really have a strong enough screen presence to really convey their character’s legendary status. But, it is supporting players like Williamson’s delightfully eccentric Merlin and Mirren’s sexy and sinister Morgana that really steal the show along with then unknowns Patrick Stewart as Guenever’s father, Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain of the round table and Gabriel Byrne as Uther. The leads aren’t bad and don’t ruin the film, it’s just that the before mentioned supporting players have far more impact in their smaller roles and have stronger screen presence then the lead characters that need it most. The film also gets very dark and slows down a bit in the middle but, that is part of the story and it does recover quite nicely for it epic final act. But, these flaws are only minor as the production design and cinematography by Alex Thompson are enough reason alone to watch this film and Boorman does deliver on all the medieval intrigue, sex, sorcery and heroic deeds not to mention the epic clashes and blood soaked combat that we expect from a tale such as this.

The film is highly regarded as a fantasy film classic by many and will always be among my favorites and holds it’s own against Peter Jackson’s fantasy epics quite well. A film that is both a dream-like fantasy and a brutally realistic portrait of a time when men faced each other with cold steal and sacrificed all for honor and loyalty and the film conveys the romance of the time period quite wonderfully as well. But most of all, it’s one of the best adaptations of the classic legend of Arthur and Merlin that even today has yet to really be equalled. A great movie and one of my all time favorites.

3 and 1/2 Excaliburs!

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CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)

“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”- Conan when asked ‘what is best in life?’

Conan the Barbarian is a bonafide classic, one of my favorite movies and obviously the film that started Arnold Schwarzenegger on his path to becoming one of the greatest action movie icons of all time. And if nothing else, it’s one of the most quotable movies as the above line illustrates. The film is based on the classic character and stories by Robert E. Howard and begins with a young Conan (Jorge Sanz) being taught by his father (Wiliam Smith) about the riddle of steel. But, soon the boy’s peaceful village is attacked by a band of warriors led by the sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones). His parents and people all slaughtered, the young Conan is sold into slavery and once grown into manhood (now Arnold Schwarzenegger) he is then forced into fighting in pits as a gladiator. His numerous victories win the powerful warrior his freedom and he takes to the road as a mercenary and thief joining up with the sly archer Subotai (surfer Gerry Lopez) and the beautiful thief Valeria (dancer Sandahl Bergeman). All this time Conan searches for the man who slaughtered his people and finds that he is now the leader of a snake worshipping cult with a large following that grows across the land. When good King Osric (Max Von Sydow) hires Conan and company to rescue his daughter (Valerie Quennessen) from the very same cult, Conan takes this as an opportunity to finally get revenge on those who slaughtered his people and parents. And a bloody revenge it will be.

Directed by John Milius and co-written by Milius and Oliver Stone, Conan is a violent and brutal yet, almost comic book style sword and sorcery epic filled with fierce and gory battles, daring heroics  and narrow escapes. Conan goes through a lot to gain his vengeance and there is a strangely philosophical side to this flick as one might expect from a film that opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche. The production design by Ron Cobb is simple yet gives Conan a bit of a unique look and style and is well photographed by Duke Callaghan who makes good use of the sets and Spanish locations. It has a bit of a sense of humor but, most of all, is a hard core fantasy with plenty of sex and bloodshed to delight fans of the pulp material. It’s then all wrapped in a wonderfully fitting score by Basil Poledouris which may be one of the legendary composer’s best.

But, as much as I love this movie, I will admit it has it’s problems too. Most come from the cast. Aside from brief cameos by William Smith and Max Von Sydow, there are only two professional actors in the movie, James Earl Jones and Mako. Mako is a bit over the top and eccentric in a film that plays it’s story straight for the most part and Jones, who is among our greatest actors, just doesn’t seem to quite fit in the long black wig and fancy robes of the Jim Jones like Tulsa Doom. He plays a man hypnotized by his own twisted philosophy and drunk on his own power but, when it comes down to it, he’s not as threatening an opponent for the sculpted and strong barbarian and once stripped of his henchmen, he’s poses little opposition for Conan. I’ve come to be endeared to these two characters over time but, will be honest that they didn’t quite work for me when I first saw this flick in 1982. The rest of the cast are dancers and pro athletes, such as Danish bodybuilder Sven-Ole Thorsen as henchman Thorgrim and former football player Ben Davidson as fellow henchman Rexor. These cast members are physically fine but, performances across the board are pretty wooden. Arnold is obviously physically perfect for the part of Conan but, it would be two or three films later before he developed his now legendary screen persona though, one of his best sequences in Conan as an actor was oddly removed from the final cut. Thankfully, the director’s cut restores Conan’s reminisce of the more peaceful days of his childhood with Subotai and we get to see some of Arnold’s best work in the movie as an actor.

As for the rest, the FX are decent and the action is bloody and furious but, it does take awhile before the film really starts moving and there are long stretches between the action scenes. To a degree Conan is considered a classic and I fully agree but, it is a slightly flawed one. The recent director’s cut on DVD is actually a bit better then what was originally released and includes some really nice scenes that flesh things out a bit more such as the Princess accompanying Conan on his final assault on Thulsa Doom in his fortress and a nice scene of Conan contemplating what to do now once his vengeance is complete. Some nice subtle moments that were, for some reason, cut out of the theatrical print are restored and do make Conan a better film. And It goes without saying that the director’s cut also includes a bit more violence that was cut to achieve an R-rating. Sadly this cut has yet to be released on blu-ray. But, all in all, I can forgive Conan it’s flaws as it is a favorite and also brings back memories of the great movie era that was the early 80s… and is the film that set Arnold on his course to legendary status.

The film was followed by an amusing but, inferior and lighter toned sequel and then recently, a somewhat entertaining if not forgettable remake with Jason Momoa as the barbaric hero. Word now comes that Arnold will return to the role as an aging Conan in a new film and it would be nice if this really happens and Arnold brings closure to the role he still owns. Can’t wait.

3 and 1/2 war axes!

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