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.

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.

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.

The Rental (2020)

Not recommended.

Dave Franco (younger brother of James) is the fledgling auteur responsible for The Rental, and unlike most coattail grabbing siblings, he demonstrates legitimate ability in the cinematic arts.

Of course, vacationers in peril isn’t the most original concept, but we’ve seen filmmakers do more with less.

Charlie (Dan Stevens, who seems to be making a career in genre films), a big-shot tech dude on the verge of a major career spike, makes arrangements for a celebratory weekend getaway at a well-appointed beach house on the Oregon Coast.

His wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and underachieving kid brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) are part of the party, as is Josh’s Iranian girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand)—who also happens to be Charlie’s coworker.

Problems predictably boil to the surface in short order: Mina suspects that Taylor (Toby Huss), the beach-house caretaker, is a racist and makes an issue of it. Michelle doesn’t want any Molly, so the other three party without her. Mina and Josh bring an adorable French bulldog with them, despite a No Dogs clause in the rental agreement.

As the drugs take effect, Charlie puts the moves on Mina, even though she’s in a committed relationship with his hot-headed younger brother, currently crashed on the couch. While Charlie’s wife sleeps peacefully in the next room, the horny workmates knock boots in the shower.

Classy.

Shortly thereafter, Mina discovers micro cameras installed in the shower head and things take a very paranoid turn. Charlie and Mina immediately seize on the idea that Taylor, a man they’ve never met before, is going to blackmail them with illicit footage of their midnight hanky-panky.

If that wasn’t enough, the dog disappears. (He does not die.)

Franco succeeds in sparking tension and earning our interest, as it’s obvious from the assortment of perspectives we’re presented with, inside and outside the house, that someone is watching these frisky beachcombers screw around and catching it all on camera.

Sadly, The Rental builds shakily to a half-baked massacre that clarifies zilch. I honestly pictured a nation of viewers looking quizzically at one another while shrugging their shoulders.

My complaint is simply this: We spend 95 percent of the running time of the movie putting up with a philandering tech bro and his flawed posse, only to have a deux ex machina come in and wipe them all out?

Who’s the guy in the mask?

Hey Little Franco, if we’re forced to go online for an explanation of your movie’s ending, you’ve failed your obligation as a storyteller.

Brides of Dracula (1960)

“Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead, but his disciples live on, to spread the cult and corrupt the world.”

Like the gloomy narrator indicates in his ominous introduction to Brides of Dracula, the marquee bloodsucker, played by Christopher Lee, managed to get himself skewered in a previous Hammer Films production, so this time around we get Baron Meinster (the dashing David Peel), certainly one of the first examples of vampire as pop star.

When Meinster materializes at the Transylvania Academy of Proper Young Ladies to visit Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), the pretty new French teacher, the gathered gals go gaga over the dapper blonde Baron.

Check out the image above used to promote the film. It looks Heathcliff and Catherine off to a make-out sesh on the moors.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By this point in the movie, Marianne has already freed Meinster from captivity by his daffy dowager mother the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who for years has kept vigil over her evil offspring, aided by Greta (Freda Jackson), her equally loony servant.

Earlier, the Baroness discovers Marianne stuck at the local pub, abandoned by her cowardly coachman (Michael Ripper). Lonely for educated company, the increasingly unstable noblewoman invites Marianne up to her castle, to sleep in one of her many guest bedrooms.

From her window, Marianne spies the young Baron wandering on his own balcony below. Throwing common sense to the wind, she instantly believes the beautiful man has been wrongfully incarcerated and helps him to escape.

Nice going, Marianne!

The newly liberated nosferatu is soon feasting on the hottest peasant woman in the village (Marie Deveraux), as well as Marianne’s jealous roommate Gina (Andree Melly).

Greta, once his captor, has decided to help out Meinster by digging up the dead girls and making them more presentable for their master.

Now that’s what I call Goth!

True, there is no Dracula on hand, but we do get Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) the Hall of Fame vampire slayer, operating at the top of his game. Cushing is typically excellent and erudite as the dedicated undead destroyer, who has a couple gnarly brawls with the new count on the block.

After getting a bite from Meinster, Van Helsing demonstrates uncanny resourcefulness, by treating his unholy hickey with a hot branding iron and some H20 blessed by the local priest.

Despite the absence of the iconic Christopher Lee, Brides of Dracula gallops along at a brisk clip, with impending danger reliably signaled by Malcolm Williamson’s anxious orchestration, that during moments of high drama seems on the verge of complete nervous collapse.

The veteran supporting cast is spot on. Freda Jackson is a howling mad domestic that nonetheless adapts to new duties with surprising confidence. And the enchanting Andree Melly glowingly epitomizes the movie’s tagline: “He turned innocent beauty into unspeakable horror!”

Even minor characters, like Dr. Tobler (Miles Malleson), the dipsomaniac local sawbones, are given sufficient space by director Terence Fisher to have small comic interludes that prove successful more often than not.

Speaking of comic interludes, there is some lame-ass bat puppetry happening here that wshould also inspire a few laughs. That should not deter anyone in the slightest.

Brides of Dracula is Hammer horror at its hottest, featuring a plethora of glaring bloodshot eyes, heaving bosoms, and a fair amount of fang action.

Required viewing in my estimation. See what all the fuss is about.

Deadstream (2022)

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

As if to put an exclamation point on my earlier observation that internet adventurers are the new Red Shirts, along comes Deadstream, the Apocalypse Now of found footage horror.

Sean Ruddy (Joseph Winter) is an internet personality who stages dangerous stunts that also manage to be offensive, such as getting smuggled across the Mexican border in the trunk of a car.

After his latest spectacle goes horribly wrong, Ruddy hopes to apologize and move on, but his fans are deserting him in droves, peppering his inbox with destructive criticism.

Comments pop up throughout the movie acting as a sort of Greek chorus to the action, which is plentiful. Even as Sean battles all manner of paranormal entity, the comment string keeps up a barrage of fan posts that are funny, annoying, and even surprisingly useful.

Among my favorite comments: “Glad I’m not you,” “Better start praying,” and “Please sign this petition at Move.org so Sean will stop being be such a pussy.”

In order to atone for a bad call, Ruddy comes clean to his public about the one fear he’s never tackled—ghosts.

So, strapped with all the latest gear thanks to a sponsorship from an energy drink company, the repentant daredevil vows to spend a night in the most haunted house in America—that he can successfully break into without getting arrested.

The lion’s share of Deadstream originates from one of Sean’s cameras that are spread throughout Death House, the site of his viral vigil, or mounted on his person.

Admittedly, this is a long time to be looking up Sean’s nose, but writer-directors Joseph and Vanessa Winter reward our patience by throwing everything but the yeti at our fearful protagonist.

Sean spends an enchanted evening fending off angry spirits, misshapen freaks, and a hot girl named Chrissy (Melanie Stone) who wanders into the chaos.

Like the legendary Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mister Chicken, Joseph Winter delivers an unhinged scaredy-cat performance, that comes garnished with the best girlie shriek of man-terror I’ve heard in a minute.

As Sean Ruddy, a man who will do anything to please the ever-present and increasingly fickle comment string, Winter willfully throws himself into a thankless part, that of sacrificial lamb to his voracious followers.

Ruddy makes himself vulnerable to the dark forces of the house and to his followers. Will the truth set him free?

His unwavering commitment to see the project through drives Deadstream to thoughtful new frontiers that bear examining. For instance, shouldn’t everyone come equipped with a Stupid Things To Do spin board?

Simply in terms of pound-for-pound raw energy, and entertainment bang for the buck, Deadstream is a hot ticket.

I was a wee bit disappointed that the Winters decided to pay homage to Sam Raimi about three-fourths of the way through the film, precisely because they had managed to avoid doing so up to that point.

The Deadites must have a strong union.

Jamie Marks is Dead (2014)

“Adam, you don’t want a dead boy lurking around outside your house, trust me.”

Writer-director Carter Smith distinguishes himself mightily with Jamie Marks Is Dead, a ghost story about friendship and duty from beyond the grave.

Adam McCormick (Cameron Monaghan) is a high school cross country star who becomes curiously attached to the ghost of a murdered classmate, Jamie “Moonie” Marks (Noah Silver).

Marks’ body is found at the riverside by weird goth girl Grace Highsmith (Morgan Saylor), with whom Adam quickly becomes romantically involved. This development leads to the discovery of Marks’ ghost, still shivering and dressed in skivvies, skulking around Grace’s backyard.

“We all have a choice, Adam,” Grace tells him. “I choose not to see him.”

Driven by pity for Marks, a friendless boy routinely tormented by his fellow jocks, Adam vows to help the wayward spirit, giving him clothes and a place to live in his own closet.

Adam reaches out because he’s lonely, too. His own brother Aaron (Ryan Munzert) is a macho douchebag, while his trailer park mama (Liv Tyler) has chosen to share their home with Lucy, the drunk driver (Judy Greer) that put her in a wheelchair.

Adam affectionately nicknames her “the Paralyzer.”

At this point in the narrative, the viewer will surely make assumptions about Adam eventually being forced to disentangle himself from an increasingly needy spook. Smith, who adapted the novel One For Sorrow by Daniel Barzak, avoids the obvious track.

Instead, Adam atones for his callous indifference to the suffering of a fellow soul, by pledging emotional support to someone he never cared for in life.

The action takes place in another one of those blighted, boarded-up little towns that appear bereft of anything resembling empathy or compassion.

But sometimes humanity rises to the occasion.

Jamie Marks is Dead, is a fascinating, somber movie that will surprise a few people, thanks to an unexpectedly hopeful final act. One that allows for a smidgen of light into a 99 percent dreary reality.

My thanks to friend of the blog, Andre Hagestedt, for recommending it. You may want to thank him, too.