I love me a good scary movie.
When I say that, I mean, "I love scary movies that are good." Which, unfortunately, can be difficult to find. Horror is probably one of the more prevalent genres in film right now, and for good reason: a serviceable horror movie can be knocked off for just a few million dollars, and almost always has a great rate of return. But with so many entries, it is also easy for overall quality to dip. Which, as a fan of good scares more than the genre as a whole, means I don't usually go out to many.
But It looked different, to an extent. For one, it comes from Stephen King's "golden age," rubbing shoulders with classics like Salem's Lot, Carrie, and The Stand. And even though it features a clown, that most tired of all cheap horror tropes, it's marketing seemed to focus more on atmosphere and story elements more than just "Hey, look, we have a clown." So I decided to check it out.
It is the story of a group of teenage friends trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearances that have been happening in their town, since the adults seem not to really care.
Although It does feature what is probably the most famous of all horror clowns, the film itself is actually pretty atypical, at least in terms of genre horror. For starters, it is long, clocking in well over 2 hours. This proves to be a tremendous boon: it means we are allowed much more time for exposition and actual character development than your typical 90-minute found-footage shocker or possessed-doll-runaround. There are wonderful moments of levity throughout, which, due to the film's breathing room, feel organic and not shoehorned in. It also means the film's scares are slower and, somehow, seemingly more numerous than what genre audiences are used to, which creates something of a unique viewing experience.
You've probably heard by now about Bill Skarsgård's Pennywise. Although little more than a personification of evil, Pennywise still feels like a character, which is the second key ingredient of this film's success. Basically any horror movie has a similar antagonist, and for the most part, they all feel the same: one poltergeist or porcelain doll is as good as the next. They are "scary" because they are supposed to be, not because there is anything in the film that earns them the distinction. Skarsgård makes watching Pennywise a strange kind of delight, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining or Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu the Vampyre. Working from the deficit of hackneyed genre expectations, he is able to portray something subtly more than just insensate evil. In addition to his immediate threat to characters we have come to genuinely care about, Skarsgård conjures a level of the uncanny that is genuinely unsettling.
The final element that makes It work, and work well, is the Losers Club. It could have been a losing bet indeed to rely on a cast of children to carry a horror film of such mass, but they are more than up to the challenge. The group of boys is delightfully rendered, but it is Sophia Lillis as Beverly who steals the show.
Some have even gone so far as to say that, because of its cast, It is this decade's Stand By Me. I think the cast is certainly capable of reaching that height, but the film itself is not. For all its subtleties of horror and structural integrity, its thematic elements of staying together and whatnot are always pretty on-the-nose, and Beverly is reduced, a little needlessly, to the damsel-in-distress. The film does not, in the end, transcend its boundaries as a horror film, but I do not think that is a bad thing. What we are given is an epic of terror with fully-realized characters and outstanding performances, and I would be perfectly happy if more movie-of-the-week horror outings followed more closely in that suit.
So I say, definitely check out It if you are into that kind of thing, but maybe don't if you're not, and look for Bill Skarsgård to join the ranks of great all-time horror performances.
It features Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff, and Bill Skarsgård, and is rated R for swearsing and general clown-related horror and violence.
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman
Directed by Andrés Muschietti
Welcome back! In this installment I'll be having a look at Edgar Wright's new film, Baby Driver. And let me just say, it has pretty much saved what has been for me a fairly lame summer movie season.
Baby Driver is the story of Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is, appropriately enough, a driver, specifically of getaway cars for a local crime boss (Kevin Spacey). I think that's all I will put here, for now at least.
To jump right in, the film is basically constant fun. It is full of really excellent car chases (like you'd expect), but that is really only where the movie begins. Edgar Wright has made his name in mashing up disparate genres, and this film is no different, really, although I wouldn't call it purely a genre mashup. Mr Wright has decided to make this story about a guy with tinnitus who uses music to drown out the constant hum. And music, therefore, becomes this film's chief stylistic tool, and even a primary engine in driving the film forward.
Mr Wright here teaches a master class about curating and employing a soundtrack. The music he uses is not simply a mixtape of classic tunes like might be featured in certain Marvel franchises; each selection is carefully woven into the structure of the movie starting at a script level. The music is the one common language the characters (deaf, young, insane, whatever) all share in this world, and it all culminates in creating what is essentially a feature-length choreographed dance with guns and automobiles. Some people (sometimes rightly) have issues with highly-stylized films, claiming an undue emphasis of form at the cost of substance. Here, the form is often the substance, or, perhaps better put, the substance is often the form. Mr Wright uses music as a crucial diagetic element and structural tool. Without its music we would have a perfectly serviceable heist movie; with it, we have something special.
But the film does not use its music as a crutch to mask underdeveloped storytelling. If Baby Driver's beating heart-rhythm is music, its soul must be its characters. Everyone in this film is a delight--even Mr Elgort, who you might only know from bad teen weepies, and especially Mr Spacey. Mr Wright's gift is to take "stock" characters--thug, kingpin, wistful waitress--and make them lovable (or at least enjoyable), relatable, and original in their own way. Their chemistry as an ensemble, and particularly that between Baby and Debora (Lily James), is simply a treat, and lays the sturdy foundation upon which all the film's stylistic flourishes can successfully build.
So I say, definitely go see Baby Driver. Spider-kid and Despicable 3 can wait for an evening when you have nothing else to do. Something like Baby Driver is a rare summertime treat best enjoyed fresh.
Baby Driver features Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jon Berthal, and is rated R for some swearsing and general mayhem.
Written and directed by Edgar Wright
I'm just going to come right out and say it, I think you should see this movie.
It Comes at Night is probably my favorite straight-up horror movie in a long while. That statement might not sound like very much on the surface, since admittedly a lot of horror isn't really my thing. But this film has much less in common with whatever iteration of Annabelle they were showing a trailer for than the casual audience member might think, which for me is a really, really good thing.
The film is the story of a family living in isolation in the woods to protect themselves from a deadly illness, and what happens when a stranger asks for help for his family.
What follows is straightforward enough on the one hand to not need further analysis on my part. It is solidly constructed, well-performed, unrelentingly atmospheric stuff. But on the other hand, this film raises far more questions than it answers, which I love it for.
So much of what I don't really dig about many horror films is how thoroughly explained they are. Say there is a ghost. By the end of the film we have a whole backstory for the ghost, know how it operates, what its plan is, etc. The only real open end is often a kind of obligatory, often unearned "But wait!" zinger after the resolution that loses any wait it might have had because we have forgotten the surviving protagonist's name. This after the trailer we saw thoroughly explained anything we might have wanted to know as well as where and of what type the jump scares would be.
An example: the only reason a film like The Birds has any impact at all is because it goes entirely unexplained. Tack on an explanation and you have a mad scientist B-movie, notwithstanding its brilliant sequences and pointed commentary. Leave it out and you have a social horror masterpiece. Explanations only work when they are themselves more horrifying than the events they caused--something like Psycho comes to mind.
There, I think I've mansplained that enough. For the time being.
It Comes at Night takes a different path than many of its contemporary horror brethren. While its story, as far as the characters are concerned, does find a resolution (and real human resonance to boot), the rest of the film just won't be boxed up. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults ventures into an imagistic dreamland time and again that begs for multiple viewings and (re)interpretations. We are invited to both participate in and offer psychoanalysis of the microcosm of self that is the solitary home in which we spend the film's runtime. It is as much about teenage loneliness and emotional anxiety as it is a study of post-modern naturalism and the bounds and limitations of society. All these elements meet under careful yet free-ranging direction. Its ideas truly are the focus rather than a thematically-minded afterthought, and the result is something that deeply terrifies without repulsing. Or mansplaining.
So I say again, go see It Comes at Night. And if you're sad that I didn't say anything about The Mummy, don't worry, I'm brewing something up as we speak. But priorities first.
It Comes at Night features Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr, and is rated R for general horrific stuff and a little swearsing.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults
It looks as though summer is upon us, which of course means it's blockbuster season. And while you'll have to look elsewhere for commentary about anything stemming from a comic book, I'm happy to here present a look at Sir Ridley Scott's latest addition to the Alien world. In short, I found it to be generally satisfying, although I am left with some lingering potential reservations about the future of the franchise.
Alien: Covenant follows some 10 years after the events of 2012's Prometheus, and indeed is in many ways a direct sequel to that film. A colonization ship is brought off its course by a cryptic signal, and naturally parasitic mayhem ensues.
I'll first talk about what Covenant does well, and for this writer one of the chiefest of those things is to make Prometheus have some sort of purpose. I was happy with this, because I really wanted that film to work, and it has only become more of a disappointment as time has gone by. But Covenant does much to right its younger brother's course.
This feeds into another element of what these two films do right, or at least work toward. I think that the premise of Alien (1979) only really works once. One reason it is one of the great horror films of all time is that is not reproducible. The only reason Aliens (1986) works is because it pivots from horror to more straight-ahead action. Prometheus and now Covenant have tried to take the series into more classic sci-fi territory, mainly dwelling on questions of creation and the origins of life. I think Covenant does this better than Prometheus (mainly due to less muddled storytelling) but I also think a single, concentrated dose would work better.
That said, Covenant tries harder to be more of a horror film than Prometheus did, and it has some pretty great sequences. But it also fights the temptation of veering into self-parody at times. After all, at this point we know exactly what a xenomorph can do, and the process by which anonymous crew members are weeded out. And I would say that one of the film's greatest weaknesses is the general forgettableness of those crew members. It is difficult if not impossible to develop truly meaningful characters in an action-orient ensemble film like this without relying on simple stereotypes, but other films in the series at least succeed in developing some sort of affection for their victims. Here the film is almost entirely populated with redshirts.
As I said at the beginning, though, my biggest reservation (and that word might be too strong) about the film is about what Fox and Sir Ridley plan to do next. Because the film does bring up some really fascinating and chilling ideas about life and creation. But I fear that those ideas have the potential to undercut much of what makes the good Alien movies good, and even what makes the bad ones Alien movies. Such is the risk with prolonged film franchises, though, especially one built on such a lean, singleminded premise as an incomprehensible, uncanny space monster. Overall, this singular installment works, often quite well, and helps improve its predecessor. But taken in the context of the rest of the series, I'm not sure that its charted course is quite needed.
Alien: Covenant features Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride, and is rated R because it's an Alien movie why do you need to ask.
Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Directed by Sir Ridley Scott
This isn't a great trailer but it's the not-redband one, if you aren't into that kind of thing.
Alright, folks, I'm back with another report from Movieland, and this time around it's Life, the sci-fi/horror film from Daniel Espinosa. While not a bad film, Life never really breaks out into anything particularly special, which is frustrating because it shows some pretty great initial promise.
Life is about a mission aboard the International Space Station, investigating a specimen from Mars representing the first evidence of life beyond Earth. And since it is a sci-fi/horror film things don't go quite as planned, for the humans anyway.
Ever since its first trailer, this film has been plagued by claims that it very closely apes Alien. And I will not seek here to refute those. Any film set on a spaceship where an alien runs amok will have to have parallels to that classic. Whether it does anything interesting with or against that archetype is where any new film will have to be measured. And Life does not accomplish much on that front. It shows skilled filmmaking in many areas, and is filled with well-paced, tense scenes. But it follows the established model faithfully, and therefore feels pretty by-the-numbers.
This is all the more frustrating because the film doesn't start this way. Its first scene, and by many measures the best, shows the real potential this film had. It follows the aesthetic established by Gravity and introduces our setting and characters in one long, slightly-disorienting take. Not necessarily groundbreaking, to be sure, but wouldn't an alien movie in that aesthetic be a great experience?
This scene feels like what was pitched to get the film made, and sadly it is quickly swept under the rug for a more conventional shooting style and story form. The remainder of the film is certainly competent, but lacks anything to distinguish it visually from any other space movie, and structurally from any monster horror film. Its thematic musings on the nature of life also have difficulty elevating themselves beyond the obligatory resting dialog before the film's final push. After a really gripping intro, we are left with little more than a generic riff on a genre that reached perfection in its first entry.
So Life is a film that, while not bad, is not quite good either. Its design, score, and actors' performances are all fine, but in the end do little redeeming work for a film that chooses to walk such an unadventurous line. Which was certainly a bummer for this lover of space movies.
Life features Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds, and is rated R for the things that happen when a terrifying space creature attacks you and some swearsing.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
by Chase Harrison