Cinepocalypse: Mohawk; Applecart; secret screening

My fourth day of screenings (and sixth day of the festival overall) brought me MohawkApplecart, and the much-anticipated secret screening.

Mohawk

Mohawk

United States. Directed by Ted Geoghegan. Starring Kaniehtiio Horn, Justin Rain, Eamon Farren, Ezra Buzzington, Jonathan Huber. 91 minutes.

Ted Geoghegan’s follow-up to We Are Still Here finds the filmmaker in an angry mood. Set in unsettled New York territory during the War of 1812, Mohawk pits the Mohawk couple Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain), and their mutual lover, Englishman Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren) against a small squadron of American soldiers led by the ruthless Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington). The Americans’ goal is to secure the Mohawk as allies against the British—and to treat them as enemies if the tribe refuses. If you know anything about American dealings with the country’s indigenous peoples, you don’t need me to tell you that things go south pretty quick.

Geoghegan mixes genres unapologetically here, but the main vibe is that of a hunt/chase film with a hint of horror and a large portion of tragedy, with sharp and brutal action sequences; you can almost feel the musket ball as it tears through flesh. The three leads put in fine performances and have fantastic chemistry, but the American soldiers, villainous though they are, are drawn fully as characters; particularly memorable are WWE wrester Jon Huber as the hulking but strangely honorable Lachlan and Noah Segal as the foppish, cowardly translator Yancy.

The suspense, action, and overall intensity of the film help deliver its powerful social commentary. Mohawk’s resistance to the whitewashing (pun very much intended) of American history is especially important, for reasons I hope are obvious.

Applecart

Applecart

United States. Directed by Brad Baruh. Starring Brea Grant, AJ Bowen, Barbara Crampton, Sophie Dalah, Elise Luthman, Joshua Hoffman. 80 minutes.

Director/co-writer Brad Baruh (a protégé of Don Coscarelli, who executive-produced) subjected his feature début, Applecart, to “radical changes” since rolling it out at Fantastic Fest to what seems to have been a largely negative reception. I gather opinion of this “definitive cut” is still polarized, but fuck it, I really liked it.

Brea Grant and AJ Bowen play the parents of two teenagers (today in “You Are Old”: Brea Grant is old enough to play the mother of teenaged children) who head to an isolated cabin in the woods with their daughter’s plus-one; the horror starts when Bowen happens across an unconscious Barbara Crampton in the woods. Baruh and co-screenwriter Irving Walker interpolate the plot with scenes from a future episode of a true-crime reality show (shades of The Final Broadcast) focusing on the family’s tragic massacre at the cabin. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), the two versions of events don’t jive.

Baruh delivers top-notch gore and fantastic performances from his cast (particularly Grant and daughter Sophie Dalah, but Crampton steals the show), but what I really loved was the structure and commentary. Without it, all you have is another cheap Evil Dead knock of. Instead, Applecart delivers a wallop of a message about the importance of “controlling the narrative”—a powerful and devastating lesson, but a vital one in today’s post-truth culture.

It Came from the Desert

Secret Screening: It Came from the Desert

United States/Canada/Finland. Directed by Marko Mäkilaakso. Starring Harry Lister Smith, Alex Mills, Vanessa Grasse.

It is as Mark, the Elevator Operator, told us on the night we met David S. Pumpkins: “Hey, look, it’s a Hundred Floors of Frights. They’re not all gonna be winners.”

And so it was with the secret screening. After initially trying to wrongfoot the audience with the first twenty or so minutes of Barney’s Great Adventure (the first act of which bears an uncanny resemblance to, I bull you no shit, Troll 2), the programmers revealed It Came from the Desert, a dudebros-versus-giant-ants extravaganza with all the charm and appeal of an Asylum production: that is to say, none.

I gave up after about half an hour and went home. It’s conceivable that it improved after that…

…no, I take that back, it’s not actually conceivable.

Next

My last two movies of the festival will be the Canadian wartime horror Trench 11 tomorrow and the surreal-looking Animals on Thursday.

Cinepocalypse: Part 3

Cinepocalypse: Sequence Break; Dead Shack; Suspiria

On my third day at the festival, I saw two shorts (Feeding Time and Blood Shed), along with two new films (Sequence Break and Dead Shack), along with the Chicago premiere of the uncut, Italian-language, 35mm print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer.

Feeding Time

Short Film: Feeding Time

Directed by Matt Mercer, 2016. Starring Stacy Snyder, Graham Skipper, Najarra Townsend. 13 minutes.

Matt Mercer wrote and directed this delightful little horror-comedy, about a hapless teenager (Stacy Snyder) hired by an eccentric couple (Graham Skipper, of whom more later, and Mercer’s Contracted co-star Najarra Townsend) to babysit. Just lovely.

Sequence Break

Sequence Break

United States. Directed by Graham Skipper. Starring Chase Williamson, Fabianne Therese, John Dinan, Lyle Kanouse. 80 minutes.

According to an urban legend first recorded in 2000, several units of an arcade game called “Polybius” manufactured by “Sinneslöschen” appeared in the Portland, Oregon, area in 1981. The game was very popular, even though players suffered from side effects like seizures and hallucinations. Black-suited government agents occasionally showed up to download data from the units. After a month, the machines disappeared.

Genre mainstay Graham Skipper takes on the Polybius legend for latest directorial effort Sequence Break. Skipper reunites John Dies at the End power couple Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese as, respectively, an arcade-game refurbisher named Oz and an aspiring writer named Tess, who find themselves mysteriously drawn to an unnamed game cabinet in the corner of Oz’s work space, which begins to have sinister effects on the couple as they play it.

Skipper connects the Polybius story with the technology-as-flesh motif of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Unfortunately Sequence Break doesn’t display the wit or depth of the Cronenberg work. In compensation, the film offers some strikingly creative practical effects work, while Williamson and Therese prove engaging leads. It’s a perfectly enjoyable middle-of-the-road low-budget horror film, probably not something that you’ll regard as a classic in ten years, but a fun way to scratch your horror itch while also engaging in some ’80s arcade nostalgia.

Blood Shed

Short Film: Blood Shed

United Kingdom. Directed by James Moran. Starring Sally Phillips, Shaun Dooley. 13 minutes.

In this hilarious British short, cost-cutting measures result in a DIY garden shed that eats flesh and pukes buckets of blood on its owners. The shed’s name is Bunty, and it’s a she, because we all know that sheds are girls, just like cars are.

Dead Shack

Dead Shack

Canada. Directed by Peter Ricq. Starring Matthew Nelson-Mahood, Lizzie Boys, Donavon Stinson, Valerie Tian, Lauren Holly. 85 minutes.

Aaaaagh, I just could not get into this one at all. Fourteen-year-old Jason goes off on a camping trip with his asshole friend Colin, Colin’s asshole sister Summer, Colin and Summer’s asshole father Roger, and Roger’s girlfriend Lisa. There, they run into Lauren Holly, who’s raising a family of zombies.

As you can probably guess, I decided early on that I hated all the characters, although I expect I was supposed to find them funny. I just found their constant bickering and insults annoying. Judging from the consistent bursts of laughter from the audience, I’m probably alone in that.

I didn’t completely hate the film—I believe I chuckled once or twice, and appreciated the makeup work and production values overall—but this is not going to rank as one of the festival highlights in my memory.

Suspiria

Suspiria

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1976. Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Cassini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett. 98 minutes.

Look, I understand why people like Suspiria so damn much. Even today, there’s not much out there that looks or sounds quite like it, and that’s after forty-plus years as one of the most influential horror films ever made. So in 1976, American horror fans must have felt like they were viewing something produced on another planet.

But for myself, while I don’t dislike the film, it does have an actual plot. And I tend to feel that a film that has an actual plot should take care to make sure said plot makes a bare minimum of sense. Suspiria takes place in a world where the standard laws of cause and effect never existed. What does the rain of maggots have to do with anything? Why would a ballet school keep an entire room filled with coiled razor wire? Why doesn’t Sara tell Suzy what Pat told her before running off into the night? Why doesn’t Suzy ask Sara to tell her?

(On a positive note, I have finally seen the scene where Daniel gets kicked out of the academy, so the reasoning for his murder makes more sense now. And seeing the film in Italian means Madame Blanc’s line about “fifty of your American dollars” doesn’t stick out.)

The point is, Suspiria (to quote the Village Voice) “only makes sense to the eye.” (I would argue that it only makes sense to the eye and the ear: Goblin’s atypically dissonant and discordant score pushes even mundane scenes over the edge into insanity. Suzy enters the “world of madness” not when she crosses the threshold of the Tanz Akademie, but when she walks out the door of the airport in Freiburg.) I prefer movies that make sense to the brain as well. As a result, while I like Suspiria somewhat, I will never love it.

Next

On Tuesday, Ted Geoghegan drops Mohawk, his follow-up to We Are Still Here; genre legends Barbara Crampton and AJ Bowen team up in the Don Coscarelli-produced Applecart; plus: secret screening!

Cinepocalypse: Part 2

Cinepocalypse: The Crescent; Housewife

My second day at the festival (actually the festival’s fourth day overall, Sunday, November 5) included screenings of The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Baskin director Can Evrenol.

The Crescent

The Crescent

Canada. Directed by Seth A. Smith. Starring Danika Vandersteen, Woodrow Graves, Terrance Murphy, Britt Loder. 99 minutes.

Canadian filmmaker Seth A. Smith takes a cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey and turns the Infinite into a full-on psychedelic experience with The Crescent, using an artistic technique called “paper marbling” as a symbolic element while lulling the audience into a state of emotional suggestion with dense electronic-ambient soundscapes.

Oh, and there’s a story in there as well. Recently-widowed mother Beth (Danika Vandersteen) and her toddler son Lowen (Woodrow Graves) navigate the not-entirely-metaphorical waters of grief at Beth’s mother’s remote seaside house. There they come to the attention of old, creepy Joseph (Terrance Murphy) and young, enigmatic Sam (Britt Loder), representing opposed forces who want to use Beth and Lowen—mostly Lowen—for their own ends.

I could have done without the plot’s development into a supernatural thriller complete with third-act twist, but I don’t think that hurt my overall impression of the film. Even so, I don’t think there are too many other filmmakers out there doing this kind of thing, so I’m in.

Housewife

Housewife

Turkey. Directed by Can Evrenol. Starring Clémentine Poidatz, David Sakurai, Ali Aksöz, Alicia Kapudag, Defne Halman. 82 minutes.

The giallo influence on Can Evrenol’s sophomore effort has been overstated somewhat, but it’s certainly there: primary-color lighting sources abound, and lead Clémentine Poidatz has the look of someone who should really be in a Forzani-Cattet film. The plotline—a young girl watches her mother murder her sister and father, and grows up to gain the attention of a cult called the Umbrella of Love and Mind, two events that are strongly entwined—is 100% pure Modern Weird Fiction, not too far off from a short story Tom Ligotti or Laird Barron might write.

Housewife is as weird and violent as Baskin, but largely not as unsettling: the ULM and its rock-star-ish leader (David Sakurai) are too over-the-top to take seriously (even though I’ve seen video footage of Scientology conferences bearing a resemblance to the ULM seminar we see here). On the plus side, I was impressed by the screenplay’s clever structure.

One other thing—if Clive Barker’s serious about doing that Hellraise remake, Evrenol should be at the top of his wish list to direct.

Next

On Monday, scream king Graham Skipper (The Mind’s EyeBeyond the Gates) steps behind the camera for his directorial début Sequence Break, Canada offers up a zombie-comedy with Dead Shack, and the 33mm Italian-language print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer finally gets its hometown screening.

Cinepocalypse: Part 1

Cinepocalypse: Tragedy Girls; Get My Gun

This November marks the inaugural Cinepocalypse. While it can’t accurately be said to be Chicago’s first film festival dedicated to genre (Willy Atkins’ Chicago Horror and Indie Horror Film Festivals probably deserve that distinction), it does seem to be the first one with major power behind it. Co-organized by one of the minds behind the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival and boasting sponsorship from IFC Midnight, Bloody Disgusting and the AV Club, the basic idea seems to be Fantastic Fest-type fare, with 100% less Devin Feraci. The festival takes over Wrigleyville’s Music Box Theater for eight days, running from November 2 to 9.

And, of course, I’ll be there. I plan to see a dozen films, and as always, I’ll pass my opinions along to you—starting with my Friday screenings, Tragedy Girls and Get My Gun.

Tragedy Girls

Tragedy Girls

United States. Directed by Tyler MacIntyre. Starring Brianna Hildebrand, Alexandra Shipp, Jack Quaid, Kevin Durand, Josh Hutcherson. 90 minutes.

We haven’t had a teen horror movie since…uh, Happy Death Day, I think. I haven’t seen that yet, but don’t judge me; I was busy covering CIFF. Anyway, the dark high school comedy Tragedy Girls stars Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool) and Alexandra Shipp (Straight Outta Compton) as the titular Girls, a pair of morbid BFFs with a nascent social media empire. When a serial killer (Kevin Durand) takes up residence in their town, the Girls sieze their chance to boost their numbers by committing a few murders themselves.

So of course with a movie like this the major reference point will be Heathers (pay close attention when the Girls reveal the serial killer’s name) and the ’90s works of Kevin Williamson. What makes Heathers work, for me at least, is the fact that even if Winona Ryder’s character isn’t an actual outsider per se she has outsider cred. This means that, number one, she sees the high school social hierarchy for the steaming pile of bullshit it is, and number two, the target audience, whose members probably see themselves as outsiders, have an identification figure.

The Tragedy Girls, on the other hand, are two of the most popular students in their class—they’re cheerleaders, they run the Prom Committee. They pass for normal, and apparently always have, partially because almost all of their classmates are also sociopaths, and partially because everyone in town in any position of real authority is an idiot. They’re don’t want to burn the system down because the system sucks, they want to burn it down because they like burning shit down.

Now, none of this is automatically wrong per se, but since I found myself unable to root for the Tragedy Girls and the one other possible identification character was clearly doomed from the start, I felt adrift. Tragedy Girls is a comedy, and a lot of it is very funny. I liked the sly commentary about how important social media has become in our lives (and I found a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the neo-fascist “alt-right” movement about halfway through the film…at least I hope I did). I liked the visual shout-out to Cannibal Holocaust. I liked all the performances, particularly Hildebrand and Josh Hutcherson as a shallow kid who hilariously pretends to be deep.

But I also noticed I was only laughing along with the audience about half the time. Clearly they were seeing something else in the film I wasn’t.

Get My Gun

Get My Gun

United States. Directed by Brian Darwas. Starring Kate Hoffman, Christy Casey, Rosanne Rubino, William Jousett. 90 minutes.

Roughly three-quarters of the way through Get My Gun, its protagonist Amanda (Kate Hoffman) screams, “How the FUCK is this my life!” By this point, she’s been raped, impregnated by her rapist, and discovered that the woman who’d agreed to adopt Amanda’s unborn child has, shall we say, severe emotional and mental issues. We can reasonably assume things are not going to get better without getting much worse first.

Filmmaker Brian Darwas, alongside co-screenwriter Jennifer Carchietta, cast Get My Gun squarely in the tradition of exploitation classics such as Ms. 45 (and if you want to put the word “classics” in ironic air quotes, add I Spit on Your Grave and Thriller: A Cruel Picture). The overall film doesn’t focus as much on revenge as the opening scenes—which include Amanda clad in a nun’s habit, pointing a shotgun at a creep and demanding he “Get in the fucking car!”—imply. Instead, Darwas and Carchietta just keep throwing shitty situation after shitty situation at her, seeing how much she can take before she finally breaks.

Even with the filmmakers portraying Amanda’s rape as sensitively as possible without losing its intensity, this isn’t an easy watch, and I respect the filmmakers and the cast for their commitment to the material. Hoffman displays extraordinary vulnerability and bravery in her performance. Unfortunately, the introduction of Catherine (the psycho who wants Amanda’s child) sees the film stray too far into slasher-film territory. The script leaves too many gaps between characters: Amanda’s best friend sets up the practical joke which leads to her rape, but this doesn’t change their relationship at all. The final third of the film sees multiple characters gain superheroic abilities to suffer multiple potentially fatal injuries and not only survive, but not suffer any side effects.

I really wanted to like Get My Gun more than I did, but that third act pretty much killed it for me. Oh well.

Next

My next screenings are on Sunday night: the Canadian film The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Turkish director Cam Evrenol (Baskin).

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Part Three

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Offenders / Have a Nice Day

My third and final clump consisted of two World Cinema offerings: Offenders and Have a Nice Day.

Offenders

Offenders (Izgrednici)

Serbia. Directed by Dejan Zecevic. 107 minutes.

The CIFF program described Offenders as a “Serbian Pi” and certainly the film shares a few stylistic elements with Aronofsky’s début: the black-and-white presentation, the menacing EDM score, an academic discipline used as the basis for a thriller, the portrayal of an obsessed mind in free-fall. But Offenders is very much its own thing.

Using the classic video game Tetris as a metaphor for how ordered systems inevitably descend into chaos, a maverick sociology professor guides his three master’s candidates through a bizarre project: introduce chaotic elements into the Belgrade cityscape—a swastika spray-painted on a wall, bags of garbage deposited in a pedestrian tunnel—and observe the decay these elements incite. However, the arrival of the mythical “Statistanislav” triggers entropy in the experimenters as well as in the experiment.

It’s a fascinating study, but what made the film for me is its sharp monochrome cinematography, rendering Belgrade as a character unto itself, vivid as any human in the film. Great stuff, but then again, I could probably spend entire days watching footage of Cold War-era European architecture.

Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day (Hao ji le)

China. Directed by Jian Liu. 77 minutes.

A duffel bag containing one million yuan serves as the McGuffin in Have a Nice Day, a Chinese neo-noir in the Coen Brothers tradition: think Fargo, except animated, in Mandarin, and much shorter. The bag starts off stolen from a crime boss by one of his low-level couriers, who wants to use the money to pay for his girlfriend’s cosmetic surgery, and from there it makes its way through the usual assortment of fools, thugs, dreamers, or combinations thereof.

The plot drags a bit—I didn’t feel the story contained enough incident to justify its scant 77 minutes—and it never feels like there’s much going on under the surface (possibly the result of my ignorance of Chinese culture), but the characters entertain and engage and the animation, while not done in a style I much care for, fits the material well.

Overall I think there was a lot here that got lost in translation for me, but I still enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone who might think it’s their type of thing.

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: In the Fade / Mutafukaz / The Endless

My second “clump” of screenings included one World Cinema entry, In the Fade, and two After Dark offerings, Mutafukaz and The Endless.

Apropos of nothing, I can’t express how good it made me feel to walk up to the Advance Tickets counter at the theater and ask the festival volunteer to sell me a ticket to see Mutafukaz. Mutafukaz!

In the Fade

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Germany/France. Directed by Fatih Akin. 106 minutes.

Here in “Trump’s America,” we’re gradually coming to terms with the realization that the racist, neo-fascist element in our society has spread a lot wider than we wanted to believe. But white supremacist movements are certainly not confined to North America; German writer/director Fatih Akin’s latest effort, In the Fade (German title Aus dem Nichts, or “Out of Nowhere”), takes an unflinching look at the personal cost of racially-motivated domestic terrorism.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the film follows Katja, a German woman whose Turkish husband Nuri and five-year-old son Rocco die in a nail-bomb attack executed by a neo-Nazi couple, as she navigates the waters of grief while seeking justice from the German legal system. Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) won the Best Actress award at Cannes this year for her performance. It’s not hard to see why. While the film delivers many fine performances (especially Denis Moschitto as Katja’s lawyer and Ulrich Tukur as the repentant father of one of the killers), Akin’s screenplay and direction focus squarely on Kruger. She takes the audience through the stages of grief and brings new meaning to phrases like “steely determination.”

In the Fade is a grim and tragic film from start to finish, and in its final moments (some light statistics on racist terrorism in mid-2000s Germany), acknowledges that the only way to get true justice for the Nuris and Roccos of the world is to prevent such acts of terrorism from occurring to begin with. Over here in America, we’re going to have to wrestle with that as well.

Mutafukas

Mutafukaz

France/Japan. Directed by Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume Renard. 90 minutes.

Based on the comics by Guillaume “Run” Renard—who also co-directed and wrote the screenplay—Mutafukaz mashes up anime, West Coast gangsta culture (as seen through a white Parisian’s eyes), Lovecraftian horror, the bande dessinée tradition, and I don’t know what else. Angelino (usually just “Lino”) and the flame-headed Vinz live in squalor in “Dark Meat City” (or maybe “Dead Meat City,” the film’s not entirely clear on that point), a thinly-veiled caricature of mid-’90s L.A. The two—along with their annoying associate Willy, a cowardly talking bat whom no one seems to like much—find themselves at the center of a bizarre alien invasion plot. Which, somehow, also involves a team of luchadores.

It’s overstuffed with ideas but it’s entertaining enough—usually. The action sequences and meta moments aren’t quite as impressive as Renard seems to believe they are. This English-language dub (which may have replaced a subtitled version at the last minute) suffers from bland dialog and awful voice performances. Most of the cast seems to have learned their accents from old Cheech and Chong skits; the main second-string villain sounds like a bad impersonation of a bad impersonation of Sylvester Stallone; even the nominally white characters say “cock-a-roaches.” And the film’s only significant female character—a parody of the stereotypical anime schoolgirl, complete with gratuitous upskirt shots—could have been removed from the plot entirely without much effect, never a good sign.

However, I doubt the target audience will see these as flaws. Mutafukaz could be the next classic animated midnight movie, its posters replacing Akira and Ghost in the Shell in dorm rooms across America.

The Endless

The Endless

United States. Directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. 112 minutes.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, the team behind Resolution and Spring, are back with another excursion into cosmic horror and its effects on those who come into contact with the infinite. The Endless stars Moorhead and Benson themselves as a pair of brothers named (wait for it…) Aaron and Justin, who return to the “UFO death cult” they grew up in and escaped a decade earlier. They find that the truth about the cult is much, much weirder than they’d thought.

I have been critical of Moorhead and Benson in the past—Resolution maddened me and Spring, while much better, suffered from some typical indie-cinema issues—but The Endless delivers the goods. The pair understand that the power of cosmic horror comes not from the monster, but from how the monster distorts the world around it. This can be visual—a “freak atmospheric effect” is blamed for doubling the appearance of the moon in the sky—but it’s often psychological as well: think of the rising paranoia in Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Similarly, the brothers’ return to the cult forces them to confront some unpleasant truths about themselves and each other.

The pair use special effects sparingly and subtly, focusing chiefly on character and atmosphere. I was a bit dubious when I learned they play the lead roles, but they do well. The most memorable performance, however, comes from James Jordan as the perpetually angry Shitty Carl, who has perhaps the clearest grasp on what’s going on, and has suffered for it.

While it’s earned a good deal of festival-circuit buzz, it’s a bit early to tell whether The Endless will end up one of the “can’t-miss” horror films of 2017-18. It does share a reliance on atmosphere with It Comes at Night and (going back a couple years) The Witch, so hopefully it will reach those films’ audiences as well. At any rate, highly recommended.

Beyond the Gates

Beyond the Gates

Beyond the Gates

United States. Directed by Jackson Stewart, 2016. Starring Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton, Matt Mercer, Justin Welborn, Jesse Merlin. 88 minutes.

Over the past few years, throwback horror seems to have sprouted a sub-subgenre of its own, one taking the form’s commitment to retro elements (old-style storylines and plot devices, synth-driven scores) one step further by reproducing the practical-effect goriness of yore: Joe Begos’s The Mind’s Eye, for example, reimagines Scanners as Brian Yuzna might have made it. For some reason, they all seem to star Graham Skipper, who has developed the acting technique of “staring furiously” into something of an art form:

Graham Skipper

Beyond the Gates sees Skipper taking the role of Gordon Hardesty, returning to his hometown to join his brother John (Chase Williamson, John Dies at the End) in sorting out the affairs of their father, a video-store proprietor who disappeared some months earlier. At the store, they find the only clue to their father’s fate: a spooky “VCR board game” named Beyond the Gates, hosted by the cryptic Barbara Crampton. The brothers—along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant, Dexter and Heroes)—soon discover the game serves as a portal to another realm…and now that they’ve started playing, they have no choice but to see the game through to the end.

I can’t deny that the film has a whole heap of flaws. The pacing feels lopsided, with the first act overloaded with too much exposition, taking too long to get to the stuff that we actually care about. The supporting characters receive little in the way to define them beyond cannon fodder. Despite some impressive effects work, the gory bits play out too quickly, while the “gameplay” sequences quickly fall into repetition.

The three leads turn in decent performances in isolation, but have little to no chemistry with each other. In the case of the brothers, estranged for so long they can’t even hug each other without being awkward, this mostly works. It presents more of a problem for Skipper and Grant: their characters need to work through some long-term relationship difficulties but I could barely bring myself to believe the two actors ever met before beginning production on the film. Few of the supporting actors—including Matt Mercer (the Contracted franchise), Justin Welborn (The Signal), and C-list scream queen Sara Malakul Lane—bother to find much depth in their characters beyond “gonna die soon.”

In spite of all this, the production does have a couple of aces up its sleeve. Crampton, playing a bit more flamboyantly than her recent roles in You’re Next and We Are Still Here, dominates her scenes with a curious alluring menace. Another supporting player—Jesse Merlin, as an eccentric antique store owner who knows more about the game than he’s willing to say—steals his two or three brief sequences, playing the character’s camp to the hilt.

Meanwhile, Wojciech Golczewski’s analog-synth score owes little to John Carpenter’s spare pulsing waveforms, choosing instead to evoke the prog-rock stylings of Italian composers Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti; it’s a bit more interesting as a result. The music combines with director Jackson Stewart’s visuals to give the film a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere, not entirely dissimilar from Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. This doesn’t entirely balance out the problems, but it creates a context in which those problems become somewhat more forgivable.

Which doesn’t mean I can wholeheartedly recommend Beyond the Gates; it’s a middling effort that doesn’t get as much right as the audience might hope for. But it works better as a way to kill ninety minutes than it probably should.

Beyond the Gates poster

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

United States. Directed by David Mackenzie, 2016. Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham. 102 minutes.

Roughly halfway through Hell or High Water, Alberto Parker—a Texas Ranger of mixed Comanche and Mexican heritage, played by Gil Birmingham—lays out the film’s thesis. Looking over the picked-over remains of a dying Texas town, he observes that the land once belonged to the Native American peoples. Then the whites came and stole it. Today, the descendants of those white ranchers and farmers find that land being stolen from them in return, by the banks who were supposed to help them buy and keep it.

One such theft drives the film’s plot. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) has discovered oil on his late mother’s ranch, and he wants to give the land to his estranged sons in trust. Problem is, he can’t afford to pay off the reverse mortgage his mother took out on the property. With the help of his troubled brother Tanner (Ben Foster), just out of prison, he launches an audacious plan to pay back the bank with money stolen from its own branches. The resulting robberies draw the attention of the Texas Rangers in the form of the aforementioned Alberto Parker and his senior partner Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a curmudgeonly coot staring down the barrel of retirement.

Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (also writer of Sicario, but possibly best known as an actor on shows such as Sons of Anarchy) present us with standard crime drama tropes, such as the wise and world-weary cop on his last case, and the dichotomy between two brothers (Toby is down-to-earth, Tanner impulsive and hot-headed). But they resist the urge to paint the film by numbers, instead positing the story as an American tragedy. Not to say it’s all doom and gloom—Sheridan derives a few moments of levity from Hamilton and Parker’s working relationship—but darkness hangs heavily over the procedure. Toby meant well, but once he set his plan in motion, he sealed his own fate…and the fates of others.

Mackenzie underlines this theme with his visuals, presenting the setting as a hellish, desolate wasteland, seemingly populated only by lost souls and those who seek to take advantage of them. (Hamilton and Parker, representing the law, serve to preserve order but don’t act as moral agents.) Expect plenty of shots of thirsty desert and winding highways, but delivered in a subdued style. Action is used sparingly; violence is quick and brutal. Australians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who perhaps know Americana better than most Americans, add to the atmosphere with a sparse score occasionally punctuated by songs by the likes of Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch.

Ultimately, though, this is an actor’s showcase. Bridges, Pine, Foster, and Birmingham all bring depth to archetypal characters running the risk of seeming two-dimensional. But Bridges brings genuine likability to his gruffness (and seemingly endless supply of racial humor), and Foster reveals the humanity behind Tanner’s nihilism and borderline psychosis. These two roles are somewhat larger-than-life—this is Texas, after all—but neither actor goes over-the-top. Pine and Birmingham put in less showy performances, all the better to contrast with their partners.

Hell or High Water is more than a crime drama or action-thriller; by contrasting its character archetypes with the harsh reality of unrestrained capitalism’s vicious economic circle, it’s nothing less than an elegy for the American Dream. One of the year’s best.

Hell or High Water poster

I Am Not a Serial Killer

I Am Not a Serial Killer

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Billy O’Brien, 2016. Starring Max Records, Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Christina Baldwin, Raymond Brandstrom, Lucy Lawton, Anna Sundberg. 104 minutes.

We’ve all seen movies or read stories about ordinary folks who suddenly discover they have monsters living in their neighborhood. But how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) finds himself in just such a situation in I Am Not a Serial Killer, the Anglo-Irish adaptation of Dan Wells’s novel. An awkward social misfit, with morbid obsessions (at least partially fueled by the family business of undertaking) and unreliable estranged parents, would have a tough row to hoe in any small-town high school. But John has been diagnosed with clinical sociopathy. Early in the film, he describes most people as being like cardboard boxes: boring—until you open them up and see what’s inside. So he takes great care to keep himself on the straight and narrow. When a serial murderer strikes in his hometown, he naturally finds himself drawn to the mystery. The discovery that his elderly next-door neighbor Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) is responsible for the killings shocks him enough, but then it turns out kindly old Mr. Crowley isn’t even human…

Sociopathy is a tricky condition to portray in fiction, particularly when developing a character intended, to a large extent, as sympathetic to the audience: it’s hard to relate to a kid when he admits to suppressing an urge to abuse animals, even if you understand that the urge itself is not his fault. But on the surface, John doesn’t seem all that much different from any other misunderstood teenage outcast, which should give most of us a toehold in the task of accepting him as a character we can identify with. Records’s performance is the key to this, and he effectively interprets John’s central internal conflict, between his fascination with Bill Crowley and an intellectual understanding that Crowley poses a threat to John and the people around him—even if John doesn’t have much in the way of emotions for any of those people.

Bill himself proves to have more depth and complexity than your average movie critter. Lloyd delivers one of the best performances of his recent career in the role, subtly balancing Crowley’s harmless-old-timer exterior with a gradual creeping menace…and some other unexpected facets. The special effects work—with creature design provided by Toby “the bratty baby brother in Labyrinth” Froud—takes a minimalist approach, reminding us how specifically human a monster Bill is.

The strength of the character study doesn’t prevent the plot from going down a fairly predictable, X-Files-reminiscent path late in the game, but luckily the production has other cards up its sleeve to make up for that. The screenplay puts enough focus on John’s dysfunctional family dynamics to give the Cleaver household a genuine lived-in feeling. Director Billy O’Brien makes good use of his wintry rural Minnesota locations, giving the visuals a chilly vibe appropriate to the lead character’s psyche. Laura Fraser (as John’s mother April) seems to have carved herself a niche playing highly strung single moms (see also The Sisterhood of Night and her work as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle on Breaking Bad); her performance is solid, if not revelatory. Fine performances also come from Dee Noah (as Bill’s wife Kay), Anna Sundberg (as John’s sister Lauren), and Karl Geary (as John’s therapist).

Thought-provoking and quietly unsettling, I Am Not a Serial Killer delivers a fresh and unconventional take on the “monster next door” trope.

I Am Not a Serial Killer poster

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Ruth Wilson stars in I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE

Canada/United States. Directed by Oz Perkins, 2016. Starring Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Paula Prentiss. 87 minutes.

If you’re here, reading this, I reckon you’ve probably heard of Shirley Jackson. If you haven’t, long story short: writer from the 1940s and ’50s, chiefly of contemporary gothic stories and novels. In 1959 she published The Haunting of Hill House, which established the modern-day version of the Bad Place trope: it might not necessarily be haunted, not per se, but it definitely gets into your head and twists your thoughts around until you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Stephen King dedicated his novel Firestarter to her memory, observing that she “never needed to raise her voice.” Shirley Jackson didn’t do jump-scares. What she did was get under your skin, build a nest, and lay eggs.

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (whose title itself suggests another Jackson work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle) has the Hill House-iest haunted house storyline since, if not the actual Hill House, at least since The Shining. 28-year-old hospice nurse Lily arrives at the house at the end of Teacup Road to care for the aging and senile Iris Blum. Iris, once a successful horror writer, seems to think that Lily is actually Polly, the subject of her novel The Lady in the Walls. Or maybe it’s not really a novel. The house at the end of Teacup Road hides many secrets, the most important of which is who Polly really is.

As I watched Pretty Thing, I couldn’t go five minutes without thinking about Steve King’s dedication. Writer/director Osgood “Oz” Perkins paces the film slowly and deliberately, laying on the atmosphere with a trowel. He deploys very few shocks of any kind, and no jump-scares. He complements the proceedings with Julie Kirkwood’s lyrical cinematography and an unsettling ambient score provided by his brother Elvis. Skin, nest, eggs. If Jackson never raised her voice, Perkins spends the film whispering.

…or maybe it’s actually mumbling. I’m not going to lie to you, I think most people are going to hate it. I said before that Perkins paces the film slow; it might be more accurate to say that what little plot there is could fit in a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone—the ’60s version—with little to no abridgment. Ruth Wilson, playing Lily, spends much of the film slowly wandering from room to room, occasionally pausing to deliver a poetic soliloquy: “It has always been that wearing white reassures the sick that I can never be touched, even as darkness folds in on them from every side, closing like a claw…” Melodramatic, yes, but Wilson makes it work. Meanwhile, it takes Lucy Boynton (as Polly) multiple flashbacks just to complete the action of turning her head, and Paula Prentiss (Iris Blum) works on perfecting her vacant stare. I’d say she nails it.

Now, I will gleefully admit I love stuff like this: I get everything I like about Kubrick and Tarkovsky (lovely wide shots, slow pacing, music that makes my stomach churn) in just half the time. It’s a win-win! Other viewers, who prefer movies in which things actually happen are likely to reach the end credits wondering what all the fuss is about. That is, if they don’t suddenly discover they fell asleep halfway through the second act.

And that’s fine: I can’t blame anyone for being bored by this movie; it’s about slow people doing slow things very slowly, until they stop doing them. But I did find it pretty and poetic, almost like watching a morbid, gothic dance. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House isn’t going to be something I want to watch every day, but I’m glad it exists.