Malevolent (2018)

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When your life is full of evil secrets, ghosts are an occupational hazard—and even a phony ghostbuster can save the day.

American college student Angie (Florence Pugh) is the front for a paranormal investigation racket in Glasgow.

Led by her brother Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), the four-person team sets up gadgets and spook detectors around the “haunted” house, while Angie makes contact with the restless spirit, imploring them to shuffle off their post-mortal coil. Jackson then swoops in to handle the messy but necessary financial arrangements.

It helps their reputation immensely that Angie and Jackson’s mother was a renowned psychic in her own right, albeit one who came to a sad end.

As word gets around, the team is contacted by Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie), the headmistress at a secluded foster home. Apparently the spirits of three murdered schoolgirls are stirring things up and nobody can get a proper night’s sleep.

There are few surprises in Malevolent, but it’s a tale well-told, as the ghost hunters unwrap a horrible mystery that won’t stay buried, even as their new client begins to suspect she’s been duped by some hustlers.

It’s a handsomely mounted British production, and director Olaf De Fleur effectively uses the decay and desolation of a once-grand estate to act as a visual metaphor for the darkness within.

As the ambivalent Angie, Florence Pugh turns in admirable work. Her point of view is chaotic and troubled, remaining duty bound to her conniving brother, but also coming to the realization that her mother was much more than a lunatic.

Like Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, the presence of ghost children is both terrifying and tragic, blameless victims of sinister intentions who must find a way to be heard so that a longstanding injustice may be rectified.

 

 

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Dead Shack (2017)

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Warning: Stranger Things template in full effect.

A trio of nosy teens and their piss-poor adult supervision spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Since the name of the film is Dead Shack, we can assume they don’t get their cleaning deposit back.

Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) gets roped into a camping trip by his obnoxious friend Colin (Gabriel LaBelle), which works out fine since he has a major crush on Colin’s sister Summer (Lizzie Boys).

Along for the ride are Colin and Summer’s party hearty dad Roger (Donavon Stinson) and his bored alcoholic girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian), who has zero interest in bedding down in the boonies with a bunch of goofy adolescents. At least not while sober.

Inevitably, the snoopy kids stumble upon a neighboring house owned by a lady in body armor (Lauren Holly) with a passel of undead kinfolk who need regular meals. Tonight’s Special: You!

Unfortunately, Roger and Lisa are too busy playing cards and getting plastered to listen to such an outlandish story, so it’s up to these wily misfit teenagers to save the day.

Dead Shack lives up to its potential and delivers splashy fun and flying body parts in Raimi-esque abundance.

With all the baggage present, director Peter Ricq could simply have allowed these characters to speak their minds, give voice to their dissatisfaction, and engage in Dysfunctional Family Feud for the entire weekend, but then we’d have a Tennessee Williams play instead of a grisly and often-amusing Zombie Comedy (Zom-Com).

We liked it. Worth a look.

 

The Meg (2018)

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[To be read with Australian accent]

“That’s not a shark. (pause) Now that’s a shark!”

You win. The Meg stars the biggest shark in sea monster cinema history, so it’s got that going for it. There’s also oodles of action heroics by the reliably shirtless Jason Stathem, a laconic swab with the gumption to save a darling little Pekinese dog from a watery grave right before the end credits.

This is hardly a spoiler. The titular apex predator is indeed a massive beast, but it wreaks precious little carnage on the civilian population. The body count is supplied principally by members of an underwater research station bankrolled by slacker billionaire Morris, played by Rainn Wilson.

His gonzo turn is a standout among a cast that includes such standard plug-and-play characters as a sassy black scientist (Page Kennedy) who sure as hell can’t swim and never signed up for any of this shit.

Stathem is Jonas Taylor, a hard-drinking rescue diver still haunted by a few lives lost during a risky mission several years before. In need of redemption, Taylor returns to the briny deep when his ex-wife Lori (Jessica MacNamee), is marooned and besieged by a prehistoric killing machine at the most remote spot on the ocean floor.

Rather than rekindle with the ex, Taylor is more or less thrown into the arms of Suyin (Bingbing Li), a fetching single mom marine biologist whom he obligingly rescues on several subsequent occasions. For sheer volume of last-second escapes, The Meg is up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But it’s an earlier Steven Spielberg blockbuster that fans still venerate as Lord of the Deep in the giant critter genre. At that point in his career (1975), young Spielberg hadn’t become commodified as the ultimate family friendly filmmaker.

In Jaws, the dog disappears. Remember the kid on the beach throwing the stick to a black lab named Pippet? You see the dog swimming and then the stick washes up on the shore. Spielberg’s movie is both bloodier and scarier, even 40 years later. Current audience research indicates a missing dog won’t cut it with a 21st century crowd.

There is certainly nothing as hair-raising as Ben Gardner’s floating head in The Meg. Instead, it’s a serviceable CGI popcorn flick content to elicit a few gasps—rather than a chorus of screams.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

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There’s much to admire about Don’t Breathe, a nasty, audacious thriller directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez and released by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. The technical finesse demonstrated throughout adds considerable impact and Raimi-esque style to the action, which unfortunately becomes increasingly preposterous under the weight of too many plot points.

Rocky (Jane Levy) is a hardworking single-mom burglar with dreams of relocating to sunny California from her blighted hometown of Detroit (actually filmed in Hungary—way to save money, team!). She and her coworkers Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) tumble onto a caper that looks like a piece of cake: bust into a blind man’s pad and steal a pile of cash that is supposedly on the premises, the result of a huge settlement he reached after a rich girl killed his daughter in a car accident.

The little old blind man (a superb Stephen Lang) turns out to be a chiseled combat veteran with a Rottweiller and a labyrinthine basement full of dangerous secrets, and the bad-ass burglars are soon trapped in a dark house with an even badder-ass “victim.”

The twists and turns that ensue range from deft and effective to downright ludicrous. If Alvarez didn’t feel the need to pad the script with unnecessary dramatic tropes (dead daughter, bad mother memories, male suitor rivalry, pregnancy), he might have had a lean, mean survival flick in the tradition of John Carpenter or Wes Craven. To his credit, he almost pulls it off.

The contrast between the lithe tracking shots of abandoned neighborhoods being slowly retaken by nature, to the tightly focused and creeping claustrophobia of the blind man’s lair is skillfully rendered, and Alvarez earns bonus points for keeping tensions taut.

What really detracts from those tensions is the director’s penchant for telegraphing every development well before it happens with a barrage of cutaways to objects that will play a significant role further down the line.

It’s an annoyingly condescending move designed to eliminate any obligation on the viewer’s part to pay attention. Alvarez cheerfully introduces us to a hammer, a piece of glass, a crowbar, a remote, a couple pairs of shoes, and a pistol hidden under a mattress just so we aren’t surprised when they reappear later. Raimi can get away with this chicanery in his own movies, but here it falls flat and goes splat.

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Train To Busan (2016)

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In this case, go ahead and believe the hype. Yeon Sang-ho’s nervy South Korean zombies-on-a-train epic is getting rave reviews, and deservedly so. Not only is Train To Busan a tightly wound horror movie, it’s also a tense disaster film in the spectacle tradition of Irwin Allen.

First and foremost, Train is an expertly paced thriller that darts deftly between hysteria-inducing sequences of undead mobs running amok, and scenes of quiet love and devotion between a father (Gong Yoo) and his daughter (Kim Su-an) that actually succeed in developing their characters to the point where we can root for them in good conscience.

Harried, overworked fund manager Seok-woo must escort his demanding daughter on a train trip to visit her mother and his estranged wife. As so often happens, real life gets in the way of even the best-laid plans, as a nearby chemical leak causes average citizens to turn hungry, fast, and ferocious. The featured zombies have a rubbery acrobatic grace as they gamely snap back to life after succumbing to lethal bites.

All too quickly the train is overrun with bloodthirsty berserkers, and the supporting players emerge from the chaos. There’s a tough guy and his pregnant wife; a high school baseball team; a sociopathic tycoon, and a pair of spinster sisters. Alliances form and crumble, and as we learned in Romero’s original, a house divided cannot stand. As usual, the rich guy can’t be trusted.

Nonetheless, these characters routinely sacrifice themselves for the good of the remaining survivors, continually casting humanity in a noble light. Seok-woo begins the story as an ineffectual office drone, but through attrition and necessity, evolves believably into a hero to save his child.

Director Yeon Sang-ho displays uncanny action-film finesse at times, contrasting the closed-room claustrophobia of the train interior with sweeping panoramic views of an embattled choo-choo chugging down the tracks to its final destination. Train To Busan is indeed a grim ride to survival, but it’s a satisfying one. And the scenery is magnificent.

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Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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Patton Oswalt was tweeting about this one recently, his observations growing increasingly agitated—and no wonder. Bone Tomahawk is a horse opera throwback that any John Ford fan will recognize without too much difficulty. It’s your basic, “OK men, let’s get us a posse and go save our womenfolk” tale, that gradually winds its way into an atavistic nightmare and a grueling denouement. And having goddamn Kurt Russell as the dutiful and superbly mustachioed sheriff doesn’t hurt one bit.

Russell portrays Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a turn-of-the-century lawman who watches over the frontier town of Bright Hope, situated somewhere in the Southwestern badlands. One fine evening, he and Chicory (the amazing Richard Jenkins), his backup deputy and comic sidekick, spot a fugitive in their midst (David Arquette), a craven bandit on the run from a tribe of bloodthirsty cave-dwelling savages, who have trailed him to his present location. Oh, and they’re cannibals.

The next morning, Hunt discovers that the bandit, Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), and Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) have been abducted by the fearsome flesh eaters. A posse consisting of Hunt, Chicory, John Brooder (Scott Fox), a sartorially splendid gunfighter, and Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a rancher with a broken leg, and husband of the kidnapped damsel, sets off in pursuit.

For most of Bone Tomahawk‘s two-plus hours running time, we plod along with the cowboy quartet on a near-hopeless quest. Hopefully, the pace won’t cause any premature bailouts, because this is where writer and director S. Craig Zahler demonstrates a sure hand. Alternating between meandering scenes of Larry McMurtry-esque cowboy banter and violent episodes of gunplay, Zahler keeps a tight rein on his players, moving them stoically forward to a hellish confrontation with a horrible enemy. And to their credit, the principle cast members (especially Russell and Jenkins) acquit themselves smashingly.

Hunt and his men prove to be fallible, but honorable avengers, capable of extraordinary acts of courage, even under extreme circumstances. These include helplessly watching a captured comrade writhe in agony as a clan of troglodytes readies him for supper. Suffice to say there’s more to this meal preparation than washing your hands.

Bone Tomahawk has its cringe-worthy moments, but the savagery is a vital story component, serving as a chillingly effective worst-case scenario, and not merely a cheap excuse for guts and gore. On the other hand, if you’re hungry for guts and gore, you surely won’t be disappointed by the time they arrive. Strong work!

It Follows (2014)

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It Follows is a real corker, and you should watch it, like right now. Daring and original, writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s tale of teens in trouble with … something relentless (Ghost? Evil spirit? Demon stalker?) is fascinating, freaky, and, above all, extremely well crafted.

Even as the constantly escalating sense of dread threatens to drag us down into perpetual darkness, observant eyes can’t fail to register Mitchell’s uncanny arsenal of 360 degree pans, unexpected angles, and sneaky shot compositions that prevent the viewer from getting comfortable with a stable perspective—thus ratcheting up our discomfort to strange new levels. Even mundane shots of characters watching TV or going to the movies are rife with tension, accompanied by discordant synthesizer static reminiscent of an early John Carpenter flick.

Nutshell: Heroine hottie Jay Height (Maika Monroe) gets dumped by mystery man Hugh (Jake Weary) after surrendering her virtue in his car. In this case, getting dumped entails fobbing sweet Jay off on a malevolent shape-shifting entity that can look like anyone, as it slowly, inexorably pursues its quarry. Hugh hastily explains that Jay needs to “pass it on” by having sex with someone else. “You’re a girl, it should be easy,” he tells her.

Jay’s sister Kelly (Lily Sepe) and neighborhood friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) valiantly attempt to keep her moving and close ranks around her, but it (Ghost? Evil Spirit? Demon stalker?) just keeps coming, forcing the group to make some very, very difficult decisions.

There’s almost no gore or computer-generated mayhem to be found in It Follows, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference. The hellish situation thrust on Jay and her friends is so confounding and unearthly, that fear of death and dismemberment places a distant to second to the awful, inevitable pursuit by … something really bad. Whether Jay’s running, driving, or hiding in a vacant beach house, we know there’s no escape—and eventually so does she.

Metaphorically, the implacable follower could represent any number of things: mortality, STDs, original sin, guilty conscience, loss of innocence, you name it. Unfortunately, Jay is too busy fleeing and concocting desperate schemes to really consider these implications.

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