Choose Or Die (2022)

Video games are bad, ‘mkay?

Choose Or Die takes place in a slightly dystopian future that looks like the present, where our protagonist, Kayla (Iola Evans), ekes out a living cleaning clean offices every night, plus whatever she can scrounge by refurbishing obsolete technology.

During a visit with her friendly fence Isaac (Asa Butterfield), she discovers an old text-based video game from the 1980s called Curs>r that more than lives up to its name.

Isaac informs Kayla that there’s an unclaimed $100,000 prize that supposedly awaits the player worthy enough to win.

The bummer is that it’s a sentient game made with sorcerous runes that can take over reality, forcing the player to make impossible choices, usually having to decide which friend or family member gets maimed in grisly fashion.

Therein lies the tension in all its one-dimensional glory. Dig it, or don’t.

Choose Or Die gets a needed boost from actress Iola Evans, who invests Kayla with brains and bravery. Even with loved ones in constant peril, she keeps her focus while trying to hack the sinister system.

Writer-director Toby Meakins does an adequate job of creating a cold and confusing reality in which financially trapped citizens like Kayla engage in risky occult business in hopes of a prize that will rescue them from wretched poverty.

You know, like in The Hunger Games.

Though Kayla is a talented programmer, she can’t get her foot in the door anywhere, leaving her stuck with mindless labor as the only way to keep the drug-dealing landlord (Ryan Gage) from stringing out her junkie mom.

You should be entertained by the painful predicaments pondered in Choose Or Die, and you will definitely root for the plucky heroine. But it’s all pretty one-dimensional. Hopefully that’s enough.

The Happening (2008)

And back for a return visit to the director’s chair is our ol’ pal M. Night Shyamalan! Hope he brought snacks.

The Happening is one of those Shyamalan features that feels very insubstantial, with an ending bound to elicit cries of “That’s it?”

Nigel Floyd from Time Out, summed it up thusly: “At first, a great deal happens, then nothing much happens for quite some time, then something so underwhelming happens that one is left wondering, ‘Did that really just happen?'”

It doesn’t help that stars Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel have precious little chemistry as Elliott and Alma Moore, a couple on the run from an unspecified menace.

Shyamalan can take some of the blame. His dialogue is so wooden you could build a raft out of it.

It could be argued, however, that MNS movies are seldom character studies in the traditional sense, but rather about subjects adapting to extreme situations.

In this case, the Moores, along with most of the eastern seaboard are fleeing from a mysterious ill wind that upon contact motivates humans to destroy themselves in gruesome fashion.

Fortunately, Elliott is a science teacher so he hypothesizes his head off, and figures out the virus is being produced by sentient plant life. Needless to say, the shrubs are pretty damn unhappy with our stewardship of the planet, and their intent is to pull a few weeds out of the garden.

Timing is everything in show business. The Happening wasn’t a commercial or critical success upon its release, but it certainly has more impact on an audience today, having collectively experienced the Covid-19 crisis and an ongoing pandemic.

Not only that, my allergies are killing me. I think MNS deserves credit for anticipating floral warfare.

The Beach House (2020)

Turns out an extinction event is no day at the beach.

Two couples get acquainted over wine and weed edibles at a sweet shack by the seashore during an atmospheric catastrophe, after which everything changes for the worse.

Written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown, The Beach House conjures scare scenarios along the same lines as The Block Island Sound and Color Out Of Space, a pair of recent cosmic horror entries that are also long on tension and short on answers.

College sweethearts in crisis, Randall (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato), take a break from academia to spend the weekend at Randall’s family beach house.

It all looks promising until another pair of beachcombers arrive with a reservation for the same weekend. Awkward!

Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), a distantly recognized, slightly older couple, are amiable and open to suggestions. The newly formed quartet agree to share quarters and a dinner party becomes the order of the day.

Like all civilized people, we welcome members into our tribe with barbecued meat, wine, and really potent edibles. Old records are played, dreams discussed, and for a short time these strangers relax in each other’s company in a beautiful home by the sea.

As a curiously glittered fog descends, Jane winds her way down to the beach.

It’s not a spoiler to say that everything falls apart, because it does so in such an artfully considered way. The Beach House depicts a low-key apocalypse that implodes an idyllic weekend getaway, and offers four stagnant souls an opportunity to embrace real change.

Writer-director Brown is an avowed fan of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (every iteration), and he creates perpetual nervousness by keeping the camera affixed to on-the-move Emily, who’s becomes the pivotal character forced to witness Jane’s uncanny transformation and Randall’s inability to adapt to a changing landscape.

It’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s in you.

With the same respect for bourgeois leisure time as New Wave bosses like Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, Brown pops his peeps into a pressure cooker beyond their control and reduces them to essential salts.

Speaking of waves, Mitch seems to have disappeared into them.

Characterizing some of the recurring elements here as “Lovecraftian,” isn’t misleading, but the term is becoming a convenient marketing junk drawer. It should remind us that the reclusive Rhode Islander doesn’t hold creative claim to the entire universe.

The nightmare evolution taking place in The Beach House could be accidental or inevitable; environmental or extra-terrestrial. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The scary thing is, it’s happening.

The Platform (2019)

Welcome to The Platform, a dystopian future where a prison sentence becomes a daily feeding frenzy or a grim kick in the guts, depending on what level of the prison you’re incarcerated.

Somewhere in Europe there is an immense tower with hundreds of floors. Called a Vertical Self-Management Center (or simply “the hole”), the tower has two prisoners per floor.

Once a day a platform with the remains of a grand feast is lowered to each floor, and famished convicts shovel as much food as they can into their mouths, caring not one whit for the unfortunates beneath them.

Prisoners on the highest floor gorge themselves, while those below Level 50 or so, find less and less to eat.

And if you’re on Level 172? Improvise.

Lest we think this set-up perpetually favors the higher floors, there’s a catch. After one month, the prisoners are put to sleep and moved to another level. So one day, you might be fine dining on prime rib, the next, your cellmate.

If you guessed that this is a brutal allegory of class warfare, give yourself a star.

The protagonist, Goreng (Ivan Massague), awakens in the tower, with vicious little cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) as his only company. Gradually, he gets used to the ugly routine, watching as Trimagasi literally pisses on the prisoners housed below them.

As Goreng serves his time, whether starving or stuffed, he attempts to talk to those above and below about a means of cooperation to feed everyone in the prison. Though his efforts are routinely scorned, he sees a bigger picture in the small solidarity movement.

Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia (The Platform is in Spanish with subtitles) has created his own Stanford Prison Experiment, where guards are only necessary once a month. The inmates provide their own cruelty, happily spilling blood over a chicken leg or an extra mouthful of wine.

Goreng, a fundamentally decent fellow who only wants to help, is forced into several violent confrontations with fellow prisoners. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s all rather harsh sledding and not intended for the squeamish, especially if cannibalism is a trigger.

As concepts go, “Eat or Be Eaten” isn’t especially profound. Fortunately, Gaztelu-Urrutia is an ambitious, inventive visual stylist, painstakingly painting a nightmare society that is literally devouring itself.

The Platform isn’t the least bit subtle. Sometimes a sledgehammer is the best tool for the job.

The Blackout: Invasion Earth (2019)

No need to overthink it. The Blackout is a slam-bang, sci-fi, action blockbuster from Russia that’s certain to hold your attention long after the Milk Duds harden.

Borrowing from well-sourced material like Starship Troopers, Alien, and War of the Worlds, directors Egor Baranov and Nathalia Hencker have dropped a fairly epic slab of space spectacle on our heads, featuring a cast of brave comrades from the former Soviet Union battling an unearthly menace.

Nutshell: The Earth has gone dark except for one small circle of civilization in Eastern Europe. Russian troops are deployed, but prove mostly useless against an unseen enemy that sends wave after wave of brainwashed bears and people at their shrinking defenses.

All seems lost until the arrival of Id (Atryom Tkachenko), an alien with godlike powers (but no mouth), who offers the beleaguered survivors a possible solution to the impending invasion.

“But at what cost?” as the saying goes.

Seen mostly from the grunt’s-eye view of two soldiers, Oleg (Aleksey Chadov) and Grubov (Pyotr Fyodorov), The Blackout serves up balls-to-the-wall military gear excitement and plenty of narrow escapes, while bodies pile up to the heavens.

Having the aliens enslave millions of human subjects and making them fight against the Russian holdouts is a brilliant strategy that also saves tons of money on the special effects budget.

No need for Godzilla to stomp Tokyo when there’s plenty of domestic cannon fodder at hand.

Thankfully, even at 2-hours plus, there’s no lag time in The Blackout, and that’s worth plenty in my book, especially since it’s light on CGI.

Turns out there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned blood and guts.

 

 

 

 

Pandemic (2016)

Nothing like a little light entertainment to help shake those quarantine blues.

Can we interest you in a first-person, point-and-shoot craptacular, with a side of zombie dressing?

Sporting a tagline of “You are humanity’s last stand,” Pandemic puts the viewer squarely behind rotating POV cameras in a breakneck race to save uninfected survivors in post-plague Los Angeles.

Nutshell: A virulent contagion has swept the nation, transforming average citizens into berserk cannibals. After the fall of New York, survivor Lauren (Rachel Nichols), heads to LA where doctors are in short supply.

Assigned to a four-person rescue team tasked with rounding up survivors and testing them for infection, Lauren, Gunner (Mekhi Phifer), Wheels (Alfie Allen), and Denise (Missi Pyle), cruise the streets in a retrofitted school bus, dodging and dispatching meat-seeking freaks and armed gangs of plunderers.

Although the team has been specifically ordered not to go in search of family members, this directive somehow gets lost in all the excitement, and personal agendas threaten to derail the mission.

My wife commented that Pandemic is more of a sketch than a movie, and there is truth to that. With only minimal time given to character exposition, it’s the seat-of-the-pants mayhem that’s designed to carry the story, and indeed, there’s no shortage of high-speed splatter.

Unfortunately, director John Suits doesn’t generate much actual adrenaline, and the action seldom rises above (old) video game quality. When the POV perspective shifts rapidly to different characters, it becomes disorienting trying to follow the identities amidst a barrage of choppy, spastic editing.

Instead of freely reveling in post-apocalyptic/undead shenanigans, it took Dustin Benson’s screenplay shifting its focus to Lauren’s private mission, to keep me involved on a basic level.

Rachel Nichols brings surprising depth to a role that could have been adequately filled by a CGI sock puppet, and her supporting cast, particularly Phifer and Pyle, more than pulls its own weight.

Pandemic does not break new ground or offer much in the way of spectacle, but time passes quickly, allowing us to put our own viral anxieties on the back burner.

That’s gotta be worth something, right?

 

 

The Void (2016)

Have a hankering for some top-notch cosmic horror? Then come and get it, Lovecraft Lovers! The Void is a veritable smorgasbord of guts, gory rituals, and tentacled abominations from beyond time and space.

Writer/directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski are clearly captivated by the works of John Carpenter (particularly The Thing and Assault On Precinct 13), Stuart Gordon, and the body horror of David Cronenberg. Their approach is to dole out generous portions of oozing carnage that saturates the landscape like blood gravy on hell-baked biscuits.

Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) is a small-town deputy getting ready to call it a night when he encounters a stumbling, bloody stranger (Evan Stern) in need of assistance. You can tell it’s a small town, because the nearest hospital is on the verge of closing and only staffed by a skeleton crew, including Carter’s soon-to-be ex-wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) and kindly old Dr. Powell (Kenneth Welsh).

Things go from bad to nightmare bad as the hospital inhabitants discover they’ve been cut off from civilization by a squad of whacked-out cultists in white robes awaiting a cosmic event. To make matters worse, patient and doctor alike begin changing—and not for the better.

There are no slow parts to The Void; it opens with a woman being set on fire and never pauses for breath. The requisite character development is handled swiftly and cleanly, coming to light as needed when Carter, Allison, and Doc Powell take extreme measures to fill their own personal voids.

The results are cataclysmic. Turns out when the stars are right, you can change the world. And not for the better.

 

A Quiet Place (2018)

Count me among those who thought A Quiet Place was an adaptation of the excellent Tim Lebbon novel, The Silence. The similarities are many, but chief among them is that both stories take place after the world has been decimated by blind, winged predators that attack sounds.

Furthermore, in each case the plot revolves around a family with a hearing impaired daughter, who have managed to stay alive due to their mastery of sign language. Coincidence? I hope Lebbon got paid for his trouble.

Real-life couple John Krasinski (who also directs and co-wrote the script) and Emily Blunt, star as Lee and Evelyn Abbott, the parents of three, whoops, make that two kids, who live the quiet life on several rural acres.

Perhaps not thinking far enough ahead, Lee and Evelyn conceive another baby, which, as we all know, never make any noise. If you can get passed this rather obvious lapse in logic, then you should remain emotionally invested enough to make it through the entire movie, as Mom and Dad heroically protect their offspring from flying terrors that look like gargoyles imagined by H.P. Lovecraft.

The Abbott clan’s desperate need to remain stone silent under any circumstances (including childbirth and stepping on a goddamn nail) keeps the stress level near the tipping point. And then it spills over into the audience where it belongs.

As the title suggests, the biggest change of pace happening here horror-wise, is the lack of not only dialogue, but sounds in general. A Quiet Place exists in an enviably noise-free environment, where children are encouraged to play the Quiet Game on a full-time basis, lest they become lunch.

 

 

 

 

It Comes At Night (2017)

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Earning someone’s trust can be tough. If we factor in a deadly plague that’s already wiped out a significant portion of the population, well, then it gets exponentially tougher, especially for two families under one roof.

With It Comes At Night, writer/director Trey Edward Shults has crafted a taut, apocalyptic domestic drama awash in tension and nervous decisions. It’s a movie that’s small in scale, but it carries a sobering interpersonal message that continues to stare humanity in the face.

Paul (Joel Edgerton) is a survivalist ensconced with his family in a deep-woods compound. Everyone wears gas masks and rubber gloves on group expeditions outside, like setting fire to Grandpa (David Pendleton), so we can safely assume something’s in the air.

The shrinking, demoralized tribe eventually welcomes another fleeing family into its barricaded midst, and for a short time new friendships blossom and an alliance is formed. But can real trust survive a viral holocaust? This dilemma weighs heavy on both sides, eventually spelling doom for all parties.

The horrors afoot in It Comes At Night are never fully explained and we have very little by way of actual facts to go on. All the unanswered questions make the danger even more menacing, as speculation and fear take the wheel. What the hell is the source of the contagion? Is there an antidote? How many people are still alive? What’s happening in the rest of the world?

We don’t know. We’ll never know. Not in this story.

Train To Busan (2016)

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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