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.

Advertisement

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.

Men (2022)

These days, it’s almost impossible for anyone suffering a traumatic loss to be allowed the time and space to heal properly.

Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has just lost her husband to suicide, so she drives off into the timeless wonder of the English countryside to recharge her emotional batteries.

Unfortunately, her rural B&B is situated smack-dab in the middle of a metaphoric battlefield where she must face down unwanted masculine attention, principally in the form of Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) her temporary landlord.

All of the men in the nearby village are hostile to Harper, including a priest who asks her if she’s figured out what sin she committed to cause her husband to kill himself.

And then there’s a naked wild man that lives in an abandoned train tunnel who awakens at the sound of Harper singing and begins to pursue her relentlessly, enchanted by her “siren” song.

Writer and director Alex Garland (Annihilation) continually jabs the audience with a stick, asking us to consider uncomfortable ideas, such as, “Should both partners in a bad relationship go down with the ship?”

Men is a typically prickly A24 Production, depicting a society inhabited by a single man (demon?) who comes in many different shapes, and sits in judgment of Harper, a modern woman that ought to be ashamed that her husband James (Papaa Essiedue) jumped out a window.

That suicidal act appears to function as a blood sacrifice, summoning the Avenging Man Spirit (Kinnear, who is brilliant) to punish his wife’s transgressions—namely wanting her own life apart from a dangerously unstable partner.

The finale of Men is a queasily edited body horror freak out that will probably freak you out. After that, you can start unpacking all the subtext. Take your time: there’s plenty of meat on this bone, and I highly recommend savoring each bite.

Speak No Evil (2022)

Trauma warning: Speak No Evil is very dark and will probably leave a mark.

Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and Bjorn (Morten Burian) are an attractive Danish couple on holiday, with their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). They happen to meet Patrick (Feja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders), who are from Holland, traveling with their quiet son Abel (Marius Damslev), who is about Agnes’s age.

The two families have dinner together and promise to keep in touch.

Meanwhile, Sune Kolster’s musical score is erupting with sinister and ominous trumpet flourishes all over the place, as if Max Cady had just been released from prison and wandered over from Cape Fear.

What is happening here?

Director and writer Christian Tafdrup is actually tipping his hand. My first assumption was that the overblown soundtrack was parody and meant to mislead or exaggerate a threat.

This is not the case. The brass barrage is meant to be a warning of impending danger to the characters, and probably the viewer as well.

Speak No Evil is an excruciating slow death of a thousand cuts. What at first unrolls like a comedy of manners—urban, Danish sophisticates spend an uncomfortably rustic weekend as guests of less civilized Dutch acquaintances— gradually reveals itself to be mounting torments of the damned.

“It’s perhaps a bit too long to spend with some people we barely know,” Louise offers sensibly.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Bjorn asks a short time later.

This moment in time is played for (uneasy) laughs, but the answer to Bjorn’s question is a bottomless pit of micro-aggressions and red flags that culminate in a finale that is blistering, not only in the brutality it depicts, but in the utter hopelessness on the parts of Louise and Bjorn, who face a fate as grim as any I’ve witnessed at the movies.

Like Godard and Buñuel before him, Dutch director Christian Tafdrup has no sympathy for the bourgeoise.

Speak No Evil is not a cheaply made shocker. Tafdrup trains a razor-sharp eye on Bjorn’s smug boredom with middle-class domesticity as more than reason enough to seal their doom.

And what a dark little doom it is!

My advice? Never ever wonder out loud about how bad something can get, unless you want to find out. Or maybe you enjoy being punched in the stomach really hard.

Horror in the High Desert (2021)

Social influencers are horror movie gold!

I alluded to this situation in my review of The Deep House, as the answer to the burning question, “Why would otherwise intelligent people put on scuba gear to explore a haunted house at the bottom of a lake?”

The protagonists are compelled to take on insanely dangerous missions in order to attract (and maintain) followers! Building that brand is indeed hazardous to your health.

Horror in the High Desert is an 82-minute found-footage shocker about Gary Hinge (Eric Mencis), a popular outdoor adventure blogger who disappears under (you guessed it!) “mysterious circumstances,” while exploring a remote area of Nevada’s high desert.

Possibly based on the real-life case of Kenny Veach (Google that shit), writer-director Dutch Marich dutifully assembles realistic interviews with family, friends, and investigators, all of whom are trying to figure out what happened to someone who was, by all accounts, an expert at wilderness survival.

Spoiler alert: It ain’t good, and eventually the talking heads give way to Gary Hinge’s final creepy posts, from a location he clearly didn’t want to revisit.

The fearless blogger admits to increasing anxiety, and with good reason. All his instincts warn Hinge away from the nasty little shack in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada.

But his core followers have demanded video evidence, so he has no choice but to return to a cursed location. Film, or it didn’t happen.

As a blogger myself, I can only hope my dozen or so regular readers don’t start clamoring for personal peril on my part—unless you’d enjoy footage of me collecting dog poop in the backyard.

The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel (or three), as it’s reported during the credits that no less than 17 teams of danger bloggers went out to find Hinge.

Horror in the High Desert is a more than ample warning to the foolhardy. Don’t let obnoxious fans push you over the brink and into the arms of … someone you do not ever want to meet.

Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

An able cast saves the day!

Loosely based on Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, and directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9, Transsiberian), Stonehearst Asylum is a Victorian madhouse shocker in which the inmates literally take over the asylum.

Doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), an idealistic, Oxford-trained physician lands a job at a remote English asylum for wealthy lunatics, where he is taken under the wing by its director Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley).

Lamb chooses to leave the patients unmedicated and in some cases, even encourages them to pursue their delusions, as with the aristocrat who fancies himself a dog.

Newgate is drawn to Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a posh patient suffering from hysteria, and almost immediately begins devising escape methods on her behalf, even as she warns him to get his own ass outta town.

Stonehearst Asylum takes its sweet time about getting anywhere, but when you’ve got a cast that includes Kingsley, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, and David Thewlis as Lamb’s psychotic bully boy, Mickey Finn, it’s probably best to let these guys ham it up a bit.

Same goes for the ever-enchanting Kate Beckinsale, the ideal template for the role of the beautiful, mysterious madwoman in peril, with whom Newgate has no choice but to fall in love and try to rescue.

Who is she? Who is Newgate? Who is Lamb? Who is anybody in this picture?

Joseph Gangemi’s script wanders like a hippie on an OG Kush bender, but Anderson somehow guides his players to a blazing finale when murderous Mickey Finn bursts into flame and sets the whole place on fire.

I would characterize Stonehearst Asylum not only as a goth-styled thriller, but existing in the same cinematic universe as Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, and some of Hammer Films’ more outrageous period pieces, that likewise usually conclude with the house burning down.

I almost added Ken Russell to that group. Stonehearst Asylum stops short of achieving anything as stylistically unhinged as Russell’s maddest work, which is a tall order to be sure.

On the other hand, if you enjoy kooky costume drama with a first-rate cast attached, this is an Everything Bagel.

Umma (2022)

I swore I’d never be like my mother!”

It’s easy enough to say, and you can substitute “father” if you want. Mostly they’re just words, and they don’t help.

The central point of terror in Umma (Korean word for “Mama”) is the idea of inherited sin, and how kids are rotten fruit from a poison tree.

As conceived by Iris K. Shim, Umma is a ghost story about being haunted by your own family. Unlike the trend toward pitch-black horizons these days, Shim’s feature maintains its grace despite grim subject matter, and even offers a glimmer of hope.

Amanda (Sandra Oh), an agoraphobic beekeeper, raises her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) on a lovely, spacious farm, where electricity (phones, TVs, you name it) is forbidden.

Like all the other threads in the movie, it traces back to Amanda’s tortured childhood and the abuse she suffered at the hand of a mean, unstable mother (MeeWha Alana Lee).

Their idyllic existence gets upended by the arrival of a suitcase containing her mother’s remains, which coincides with the manifestation of her angry ghost, who proceeds to torment Amanda from the grave.

As if life weren’t stressful enough, she also discovers that Chris wants to leave the analog farm and go to college! The pressure to maintain her equilibrium overpowers Amanda, and that’s how the ghost gets in.

Filmmaker Shim isn’t afraid to tackle touchy subjects, and Amanda’s plight is pretty much universal, trying to shelter her own daughter from the worst family traits—even as she gains insight by subletting her soul to a mother’s rage.

In Umma, it isn’t curses or cannibalism that’s passed on, but fear and resentment. You know, real shit.

Pro Tip: Acceptance is your best option when confronted with an angry ghost.

Hellbender (2021)

If you recall the lavish amount of praise I heaped upon The Deeper You Dig, then you might have a clue of how stoked I was for Hellbender, the follow-up effort from the shockingly talented filmmaking Adams Family.

In a possible star-making turn, Zelda Adams absolutely smashes glass as Izzy, a mysterious teen who leads an isolated existence with her mother (Toby Poser) in the woods.

Izzy is not unhappy. Life with Mom rocks, in a modest way. The two create raw punk music together in a drums-bass duo called Hellbender. Mom is wise in the ways of the forest and teaches her daughter all about the forces of nature.

However, contact with the outside world is verboten. Mom tells Izzy she’s too sick to be around other people. Can this be true, or is there a more compelling reason for homeschooling such a bright pupil?

Written and directed by Adams, Poser, and John Adams, Hellbender is a bold, original movie told with fearless artistic flair. After a lightning strike moment, Izzy must adjust to severe growing pains when she accidentally meets a distant neighbor (Lulu Adams) who awakens all kinds of new, dangerous feelings.

It’s such a confident blend of folk horror and coming-of-age drama/trauma, that when Izzy begins to change, we truly see the world through her eyes, and it’s an unsettling trip. Her caterpillar stage has ended, and something more powerful is emerging, heralded by Izzy’s switch from a vegetarian diet to fresh, bloody meat.

It’s also quite a change for Mom, who recognizes that a new administration will soon be taking charge, and that it’s just the start of a new season.

Highly recommended. The collective vision, brains, and arboreal soul displayed by the Adams Clan in Hellbender is never less than spellbinding, and watching their unique ascension in the horror film landscape leaves me giddy with anticipation of future treasures.

I only hope they can maintain some measure of artistic control as the budgets get bigger and they ponder leaving the creepy bucolic comforts of their upstate New York headquarters. The energy this team brings to each project is somewhat feral, and perhaps shouldn’t be tamed by Big Business.

In any case, I’ll be there in the dark with eyes wide open.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)

It’s definitely an immersive experience and most definitely a horror film.

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun has found a fresh fear angle in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, forging sinister and frightening links in a story told largely online.

Casey (Anna Cobb) is the personification of teen restlessness. With establishing shots revealing a dreary anonymous urban nowhere, little wonder that she seeks stimulation and community on the web.

And so the web snares another fly as bored blogger Casey creates laptop videos of herself charting her progress through a horror-themed Online Role Playing Game called The World’s Fair.

To enter the game, a player must bleed. Not sure what kind of port you use for upload.

It’s a plot that cooks over a slow fire, but WAGttWF hums with a steadily climbing anxiety level. Our concern for Casey’s welfare deepens as we realize she’s not the only one playing, and the tone of her video posts get darker.

Casey mentions her father’s rifle. She knows where it is.

All kinds of red flags and warning bells go off, but Casey proves capable of mastering her game emotions, even if her opponent (Michael J. Rogers) does not.

Rogers portrays one of those super creepy concern troll that lurks under every virtual bridge. Switching to his perspective, Schoenbrum daringly gives us a nervous glimpse into his painfully shameful world—and that’s more than enough.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a minefield of a movie about a very real war between the sexes. You read about it every day: A lonely wretch goes bananas and kills people because they are psychologically incapable of real-life interaction.

These are the ones I’m warning you about. They are a cause for concern.

La Llorona (2019)

You can’t keep a good ghost down. Not when there’s justice to be meted out.

The titular spirit, who typically wanders the seaside mourning her deceased children in Mexican folklore, becomes a powerful avenger in the hands of Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante.

In La Llorona, the vengeful ghost not only seeks retribution for the death of her offspring, but for entire villages of Guatemalan natives slaughtered and enslaved in the 1980s by General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a military strongman currently on trial for genocide.

Now a delusional old paranoid, Enrique holes up in a spacious villa while outside the streets are stuffed with protestors, whose singing and chanting are a constant reminder of half-remembered atrocities.

Enrique’s sleep is troubled and he frequently sleepwalks through the house with a loaded pistol.

His steely wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic) is determined to stand by her man, but their daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz), a doctor, is having doubts about her papa’s innocence.

With the arrival of Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy), a beguiling Mayan maid, the stage is set and the Monteverde house is ready for its fall. Enrique is fascinated and troubled by the quiet girl with the long black hair, because she’s a dead ringer for one of his dead victims.

La Llorona is a riveting slow burner that draws substantial power from Bustamante’s steady-frame approach. Once he establishes a visually arresting tableau, he locks it down. There is almost no camera movement in the house and scenes run long with minimal dialogue.

This lack of flow effectively imprisons the viewer in the pressure cooker alongside the guilty parties, and it’s an unnerving experience.

After all, we’re not on trial here.