Spoonful of Sugar (2022)

Time for another installment of The Babysitter Saga, where we get to know the folks minding our precious offspring, while Mom and Dad sip martinis beneath a romantic moon, in search of dormant passion.

Spoonful of Sugar introduces us to Millicent (Morgan Saylor), an awkward college student hired to keep tabs on Johnny (Danilo Crovetti), a nonverbal autistic boy with a ton of allergies.

Johnny’s mother Rebecca (Kat Foster) is a successful writer married to Jacob (Myko Olivier), a hunky, shirtless carpenter that works from home.

Yes, this is a basic recipe for any number of Cinemax potboilers. Fortunately, director Mercedes Bryce Morgan and writer Leah Saint Marie have bigger fish to fry.

Nothing in the film is what it appears to be—it’s much, much worse, often to the point of absolute lunacy.

Millicent seems a virginal innocent, charged with caring for a seriously damaged child in an astronaut costume, whose parents are at the end of their ropes.

And that’s when Morgan brings her ingredients to a furious boil. Jacob and Millicent explore their animal attraction, even as the latter self-medicates with generous doses of LSD.

Historically (hysterically?), it could be argued that the combination of sex and drugs transforms Millicent into something evil, but the evidence presented indicates she’s already had a thriving career in the field, leaving a discreet stash of bodies in her wake.

It’s a calling she shares with young Johnny.

What ensues is a surreal, nightmarish custody battle, with both parties revealing a heart of darkness.

Millicent and Rebecca square off centerstage in a bloody contest of parenting styles, competing for Jacob, and the love of a mute boy with increasingly special needs of his own.

The outrageous extremes and shocking tableaux favored by Mercedes Bryce Morgan slow cook into a marvelously harrowing stew of taboos that satisfies a craving we didn’t even know we had.

Spoonful of Sugar is potentially dangerous medicine. Please consult your mad doctor before ingesting.

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Bones and All (2022)

Horror Romance. Seems simple enough, but there are thousands of things that can go wrong, and usually do.

Absence of chemistry between the leads; indulgent editing, inane dialogue, and indifferent art direction, to name a few usual suspects.

Director Luca Guadagnino—along with screenwriter David Kajganich, and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan—makes magic happen on all fronts in Bones and All, an absorbing and tragic love story, based on a YA novel by Camille DeAngelis.

The moods here shift like unstable weather. We’re following a narrative that’s by turns gruesome, seductive, and visually intoxicating, even when the protagonists are merely rambling down the road, which happens a fair amount during the slow-burning, 2-hour running time.

Or when they’re eating people.

Yes, we are talking about young cannibals in love, but don’t have a cow, man. Weathering the outré scenes is a small price to pay for a unique experience.

As for the subject matter, cannibalism fits snugly into the metaphor drawer under Dark Afflictions.

To say that Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) is a little different than the other girls at her high school, would be a vicious understatement.

While playing slap and tickle with friends at a slumber party, Maren, the new girl, mistakenly bites down on some finger food, forcing she and her nervous daddy (Andre Holland) to quickly relocate—again.

Soon after, Maren awakens to find Pops has abandoned her, leaving behind a cassette tape he made to help her understand her “condition.”

With little cash and no other options, Maren heads to Minnesota in search of her mother’s relatives and hopefully a sense of her own identity.

During her journey she meets Sully (Mark Rylance), a seemingly benign drifter who identifies her as a fellow “eater,” a small cabal of carnivores that strongly prefer human hocks to anything raised on the farm.

Sully, a smiling and helpful ghoul who feeds opportunistically, is a recurring nightmare for Maren, made flesh and bloody by Rylance’s riveting portrayal.

The next “eater” she encounters is Lee (Timothee Chalamet), a wiry skate dude with a lousy dye job driving a stolen blue pickup. This one sticks, and they drive off together like Thelma and Louise on a second date.

Luca Guadagnino makes bold style and story choices throughout Bones and All, and his judgment is razor-sharp. He grants the camera enough room to shape heartbreaking tableaux of faded beauty amidst a backdrop of rural American poverty.

Like Steinbeck characters, somehow retaining their humanity in the face of crushing circumstances, Maren and Lee are devoted and determined to carve out a bloody little life for themselves, no matter the price.

While they bear some resemblance to other fugitive movie couples (Sailor and Lula in Wild At Heart, Caleb and Mae in Near Dark, Kit and Holly in Badlands), these kids are a different breed.

Hunger is present in every word and action. It’s a black current that soaks into the fabric of a strikingly gorgeous film, and the actors, especially Taylor Russell, handle that internal struggle with amazing grace.

My wife (former Theater major, I’ll have you know!) remarked that Russell is flawless, and gives one of the most naturalistic performances she’s seen in recent years.

All that’s based on a single viewing. There will be more to follow.

Bones and All is an unexpected trunk of perilous wonders, with loneliness and loss lurking among shiner coins such as love and freedom.

It’s an emotional risk to sort it all out, but worth taking if we want to get better.

Escape the Field (2022)

I hate waking up in a cornfield with no memory of getting there. So, right away, I was a little reluctant to proceed with Escape the Field, a succinctly titled puzzler from English filmmaker Emerson Moore.

Six people regain consciousness amongst an endless jungle of corn. They’re each equipped with a single item (lantern, matches, water, knife, etc), and together must reason their way out of ear shot.

The field is loaded with booby traps, and there is a killer shrewdly disguised as corn, lurking about and making life miserable for everyone.

Sam (Jordan Clare Robbins), who is clearly the brains of this bunch, quickly devours clues and discovers an evolving map that presumably leads to a less starchy environment.

Joining Sam on her doomed patrol, is Ryan (Shane West, in the Adam Baldwin role), a seething, guilt-ridded soldier; Tyler (Theo Rossi, in the Robert Beltran role), a smiling divorced father who develops a crush on Sam, and Cameron (Tahirah Sharif), an emotionally unstable British intelligence agent.

There are two other people in their little posse, but they don’t do anything except die.

After dodging Corn Man and and assorted deadly pitfalls, Sam begins to see a pattern. Someone is obviously watching their progress through the deadly gauntlet.

But who? And what do they want?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for answers. As more than one person remarks during Escape the Field, “there’s no way out.”

This becomes apparent at around the 30-minute mark, leaving another 58 minutes of futile floundering in the field.

Writer-director Emerson Moore surely should have known that we’d get fed up with all this friggin’ corn.

In the case of Escape the Field, I would stick with the old horror movie adage, “Steer clear of the Moore.”

The Menu (2022)

Chef’s kiss for The Menu, a daily special filled with dark delights.

Directed and dressed with considerable panache by Mark Mylod, from a script by Will Tracy and Seth Reiss, The Menu is pitch-black comedy, skewering pretentious food snobs like so much shish kabob.

Twelve affluent diners are picked up by ferry and transported to Hawthorn Island, a self-contained culinary colony dedicated to growing, raising, and cooking food that’s showcased at its exclusive Hawthorn restaurant.

Here, Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) prepares mind-boggling tasting menus for $1200 a head. But this particular evening’s service is special. There will be no coming back for seconds.

In fact, there will be no coming back at all! Class warfare has seldom been served up with so many diabolical surprises.

Among the doomed diners are the Queen Bee food critic (Janet McTeer); a has-been Hollywood star (John Leguizamo); a multi-cultural trio of blowhard bros (Mark St. Cyr, Arturo Castro, Rob Yang), and fawning foodie fanboy Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), accompanied by his dazzling date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy).

Like a master showman in the guise of a humble cook, Chef Slowik meticulously describes each course. While doing so, he drops not-so-cryptic hints about the various axes he has to grind with each guest.

And when Slowik announces that there will be no bread served with the evening meal, because of its necessity to a working-class diet, the assembled eaters become even more uneasy.

Many timely topics are trotted out in The Menu—celebrity worship, commitment to ideals, pitiful power plays—and they all get seared by the heat of righteous service industry anger.

The quieter scenes of Slowik and Margot, slowly revealing themselves to each other, give us a breather between the mayhem of each successive course, until the feast’s fiery finale unfolds.

Margot wisely orders a cheeseburger to go. No surprise, it’s delicious!

You’ve gotta try this.

The Howling (1981)

I had an old friend crashing on my couch for the night so we decided to watch something horrific. After complaining about the paucity of decent werewolf features, we came upon The Howling, and the poor slob confessed to never having seen it.

Well, that settles that.

Plucky Los Angeles TV anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) has caught the eye of local serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who phones her to arrange a classy tryst at a local porn theater.

Of course, the police have Karen wired so they can capture the maniac. Sadly, surveillance technology is still in its infancy and the cops lose contact with the nervous reporter.

Eddie is gunned down but Karen can’t remember anything about their deadly encounter at the dirty movie house.

In order to dredge up every lurid detail of her trauma, renowned psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) recommends Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) take a restful vay-kay at his coastal retreat, The Colony.

There they meet Slim Pickens, John Carradine, James Murtaugh, and Elisabeth Brooks, all of whom are probably werewolves.

“Join us Karen! It feels wonderful!”

The Howling is a fantastic werewolf movie, maybe the best one. The only problem is, it came out the same year as An American Werewolf in London, which is generally acknowledged as the apex of the lycanthrope genre.

Granted, AAWiL is a terrific film, and special effects wizard Rick Baker’s transformation makeup hasn’t been equalled in over 40 years. Baker was also an effects consultant on The Howling, but the man in charge was Rob Bottin (The Thing, Total Recall, Fight Club), a man with a resume nearly as impressive as Baker’s.

In other words, prosthetics on both wolf and victim in The Howling totally shred.

Director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles bring a keen combination of wit and irreverence to the shaggy subject matter, mainly in the person of occult bookstore owner Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), who, when asked if he believes in the supernatural, replies, “What am I? An idiot? I’m trying to make a buck here.”

Cameos by Roger Corman, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Sayles himself should keep the film school nerds energized, and everyone else will be sated by premium werewolf carnage.

Note: There are a bunch of Howling sequels and I might revisit a few, to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

Watcher (2022)

Holy Hitchcock, Batman!

From its Read Window voyeurism to Julia’s (Maika Monroe) resemblance to classic Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren, Watcher is a first-rate homage to the 20th century’s finest suspense filmmaker.

Best of all, it’s exquisitely crafted by writer-director Chloe Okuno, who orchestrates grinding fear and dread for a serial killer’s potential victim, a woman who knows too much in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.

Julia and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just moved to Bucharest for his work. Julia, a one-time actress, is left to entertain herself in their new apartment for long periods of time while Francis wheels and deals.

Right off the bat, Julia is unnerved by a silhouette in a window across the street, a figure that seems to be fixated in her direction. In what becomes a pattern, she tries to tell Francis about the suspicious person, only to have hubby minimize her fears.

Meanwhile, women alone in their apartments are turning up headless. Yeah, thanks for your concern, Francis! Probably nothing to worry about.

There isn’t an ounce of flab on Watcher. Dialogue is minimal. Each frame is a precision brick in a wall of menace that threatens to fall on Julia at any moment. Precarious angles of endless invention are used to create a perpetual male gaze on Julia, a person seen, but not heard, due to a language (and gender) barrier.

Maika Monroe (It Follows, The Guest) continues to bloom, transcending the genre’s Final Girl status and emerging as a reluctant action hero, correctly channeling frustration and rage into not only self-preservation, but victory.

Make no mistake: in the hands of a lesser actress this film would not have achieved such thrilling peaks. As the unwilling object of a madman’s desire, Monroe is charismatic, capable, and committed to each character moment, as only someone fighting for their life can be.

Julia’s determination to find her tormentor and destroy her victimhood provides serious octane in Watcher, a sleek thriller that both embraces the Hitchcock tradition, and flips the camera back onto the audience (and Hitchcock), as if to ask, “What are you looking at?”

Definitely a Top Ten film of 2022. See it straight away.

Freeze (2022)

Well, let’s see you make a tale of Arctic terror on a microscopic budget!

Written and directed by Charlie Steeds (Winterskin, Death Ranch), a MetFilm grad with an abiding love of bygone horror tropes, Freeze is a Lovecrafty pastiche of Victorian Era exploration that bravely demands your attention, despite being financed by old soda bottles.

Captain Roland Mortimer (Rory Wilton) charts his warship the HMS Innsmouth (hint) to the North Pole in search of his best friend, William Streiner (Tim Cartwright), a fellow sea captain who disappeared two years before in search of a passage through the ice.

It doesn’t take long for the Innsmouth to get frozen in the ice and set upon by Deep Ones, so Mortimer and his intrepid crew of a half-dozen men abandon ship and try their luck on the frozen tundra.

The Arctic region isn’t very large, so Mortimer and company soon discover a massive cave containing a few stiffs from Streiner’s earlier voyage. After that, they discover Streiner himself, who has gone native and joined forces with the so-called “Icthyoids” in a vague scheme of world domination.

All he needs to lead his baggy suited fishmen to victory is his copy of The Necronomicon, which Mortimer thoughtfully provides.

Freeze is old, old-time entertainment that would have worked just as well as a radio play accompanied by scary sound effects and a wheezy organ. Of course, then we’d miss grotty details like Streiner biting his best friend’s fingers off, and admittedly, that’s a fun scene.

Steeds cheerfully peppers the proceedings with DIY practical effects that any Dr. Who fan would endorse, particularly the pesky Icthyoids, who resemble a Sleestack dance company when appearing en masse.

So what can we really say about Freeze? Campy enthusiasm and resourceful story telling can still save the day, if you agree to meet them halfway.

Alone in the Dark (1982)

Wow, two Oscar winners in one low-budget, 40-year-old slasher!

Jack Palance and Martin Landau are half a quartet of escaped lunatics paying a surprise visit to their new mental health practitioner in Alone in the Dark, a New Line Cinema oddity from writer-director Jack Sholder (The Hidden, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2).

Palance is underutilized as Frank Hawkes, a paranoid schizophrenic, but Landau chews the scenery like a great herbivorous swamp dinosaur as Byron Sutcliffe, a pyromaniac pastor with a permanently deranged countenance.

With the arrival of Doctor Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, from The A-Team), the new shrink at the Haven Mental Hospital, Hawkes takes it into his head that Potter must have murdered their former doctor, and that he will soon kill all of them.

Donald Pleasance does the heavy lifting as stoner psychiatrist Leo Bain, the director of Haven Hospital. Bain’s ludicrous touchy-feely therapy encourages the patients to truly explore their various psychotic “trips.”

“Preacher likes to set fire to churches, that’s his trip. Unfortunately he does it when there are people inside,” Hawkes explains to Potter.

Along with monstrous pedophile Ronald “Fatty” Elster (Erland van Lidth, The Wanderers) and a vicious (but shy) maniac nicknamed “The Bleeder” (Phillip Clark), Hawkes and Preacher escape captivity during a power blackout caused by theatrical punk band The Sick Fucks, who are playing at a nearby bar.

Could happen.

The showdown, the siege of Dr. Potter’s house, ain’t exactly Straw Dogs, but Pleasance does his zany best confronting his runaway loonies with platitudes and mumbo jumbo.

Taken as a whole, Alone in the Dark isn’t a very good movie. It’s light on gore, characters appear and disappear randomly, and at least one subplot, involving Dr. Potter’s wife and sister going to a Nuclear Power protest, stretches credulity beyond all known limits.

Somehow, through the awkward combination of dormant star power, budget-constraint innovation, and tongue-in-cheek pseudoscience, it remains a kooky curio worthy of attention even 40 years later.

When Potter tells Bain that the escapees are armed and have killed several people, the latter shrugs, “Well, what do you expect? It’s a violent world out there.”

Right you are, doc.

The Cursed (2021)

Lovely to look at but largely bereft of beast, The Cursed, written and directed by Sean Ellis, can’t decide if it’s a werewolf movie or a period piece homage to The Thing.

In true egalitarian fashion, we get a smattering of each, leaving both camps less than satisfied.

Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) is a 19th-century French landowner with a passel of problems. While slaughtering a band of gypsies who’ve taken up residence on his property, Laurent gets a horrible hex placed on him by a dying witch, who doesn’t appreciate being buried alive.

The local children immediately start having bad dreams about an evil mouth of silver teeth, supposedly constructed from the 30 pieces of silver that Judas was paid to betray Jesus.

Kids being kids, they find the enchanted teeth, start horsing around with them, and Edward (Max Mackintosh), Laurent’s son, gets bitten. Soon after, mutilated bodies begin turning up, and a visiting pathologist (Boyd Holbrook) is called in to investigate.

The Cursed is sturdily constructed and painterly pretty, but Ellis uses such a muted color palette, his framing dexterity often gets overlooked. Each set is either engulfed in fog or we get buckets of brown mud and green turf, so as to appear especially dreary. Visual monotony ensues.

And then there’s his cavalier attitude toward lycanthropy. Surviving victims of Edward’s rampage transform with tendrils emerging from their backside. Tendrils? Where did they come from? Is this Lon Chaney or Lovecraft?

Furthermore, the werewolf CGI isn’t anything special when it finally appears. Rick Baker’s seven Oscars are not in danger of being eclipsed by this bunch.

Even so, The Cursed isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s slow, overly talky, and there are way too many scenes of people waking up from nightmares. Turns out the dreams are the scariest part, unfortunately.

Editor’s Note: This is the second disappointing werewolf movie I’ve seen with this title. The 2004 Wes Craven-Kevin Williamson feature with Christina Ricci is also a dud.

Barbarian (2022)

We’re seeing an upswing of Air B&B-based horror movies, and writer-director Zach Cregger’s Barbarian currently sits alone at the top of the heap. It’s a stylistic cousin of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, as mood and tone careen crazily between multiple storylines that converge in one really bad house.

Our heroine Tess (Georgina Campbell) is on her way to Detroit for a job interview with a documentary filmmaker. She arrives at her rental, the only livable dwelling in a blighted suburb that looks like World War II ended last week.

To complicate matters, it’s a dark and stormy night. To further complicate matters, she finds her house already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgard), a somewhat intense fellow who seems determined to put her at ease, offering to share the house with Tess for the evening.

Eventually, and against her better judgment, Tess accepts Keith’s hospitality and the two get better acquainted over a bottle of wine.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, TV sitcom star A.J. Gilbride (Justin Long), is having a rough time with the #MeToo movement, causing his career to crumble.

He’s advised to liquidate his holdings, including some rental property in his native Michigan, currently occupied by Tess, Keith, and something else entirely.

There is a fearsome creature at the heart of Barbarian, but like any good monster, she’s highly sympathetic, certainly more so than the two male leads, neither of whom can adapt in the unexpected survival situation they all stumble into.

AJ in particular is a loathsome example of masculinity; a whiny, raging, mama’s boy, who proves to be the biggest obstacle in Tess’s escape from a hell-house that rivals the Sawyer Farm in Texas.

Frank (Richard Brake), the owner of the house and its hell, gets his story told in a narrative hopping flashback, and we realize that the thing haunting this hacienda is not the real monster here. In fact, she’s a remarkably nurturing creature considering her grim origin.

There’s a hell of a lot happening in Barbarian, and it understandably leaves the viewer a bit rung out. It’s shocking, periodically funny, and superbly realized by Zach Cregger, formerly of The Whitest Kids You Know.

Cregger’s commitment to creeping (and grossing) us out is impressive as layers of awfulness just continue stack up like mildewed laundry.

It’s also a film that’s not afraid to sound off on a laundry list of anxiety topics, including motherhood, property values, Cancel Culture, incest, hospitality industry paranoia, and awkward first dates.

Barbarian is a wild ride and there are no seat belts in this buggy.