Saint Maud (2019)

Maud (Morfydd Clark) says her prayers at night, and impatiently asks God for a task worthy of her devotion to him.

Careful what you wish for, Maud.

English writer-director Rose Glass unveils a disturbing, disintegrating portrait of a pious hospice nurse so anxious for meaning in her dismal life, that she creates her own.

Judging by the fiery final frame of Saint Maud, things don’t go as planned.

In a gloomy English town, Maud gets up each day to tend the terminally ill Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a free-thinking extrovert whose bohemian behavior is a bucket of ice water on the nurse’s tightly held beliefs.

Her patient’s libidinous relationship with the seductive Carol (Lily Frazer) becomes unbearable to Maud’s ascetic sensibility, so she takes it upon herself to send the woman away—for Amanda’s own good.

This encourages Maud to step up her attempts to save Amanda’s damaged soul.

We patiently come to learn things about Maud, who comes from a long line of unreliable narrators. For one thing, that’s not her real name, and the devotional lifestyle is apparently a recent conversion, coming on the heels of a traumatic event.

There are ample clues to demonstrate her flimsy grasp on reality, as when Amanda ridicules her faith at a social gathering, and Maud slaps her face.

This rather unorthodox method doesn’t go over well, and it’s all downhill from there.

Without her mission to save Amanda, Maud hits the skids in a big way, seeking comfort at a pub where she gets wasted and sleeps with Joe Rando. She quickly realizes that secular pleasures don’t do anything for her higher self.

Just when all seems lost, Maud has a miraculous mystical episode in her dreary apartment that levitates her off the ground! And thus spiritually fortified, she returns to visit the dying Amanda one last time.

Recent fare like The Dark and the Wicked, Amulet, Antlers, and now Saint Maud, all seem to take place in the same pressurized godless vacuum, which can be challenging to absorb, especially if you’re allergic to hopelessness.

It can wear on you and leave a mark. But you won’t soon forget it, either. The talented Rose Glass has conjured powerful images here that are already filed away in your screaming subconscious.

Actress Morfydd Clark is a lightning bolt revelation in the title role, thoroughly committing herself to a difficult character. Maud is a well-intentioned soul, who, depending upon your interpretation of the final scene, stumbles over her pride and falls into darkness. Like Lucifer.

In this damned place, there are no other options.

The Last Matinee (2020)

We’re rolling down South America way for a truly international salute to Italian giallo cinema, that takes place inside a cinema.

In The Last Matinee, a handful of unlucky patrons and staff encounter a thoroughly disgusting maniac who eats the eyeballs of his victims!

Me? I prefer Junior Mints.

Writer-director Maxiliano Contenti hails from Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, where The Last Matinee unfolds on a furiously dark and rainy evening in 1993.

Industrious engineering student Ana (Luciana Grasso) is taking a shift in the projection booth, hoping to dodge the clumsy attention of Mauricio (Pedro Duarte) a boring usher with no game to speak of.

In the theater itself, a few parties settle in for a viewing of Frankenstein: Day of the Beast. There’s a couple on their first date, a little kid (Franco Duran), who hides in the aisle to see a grisly horror film, a trio of smart-ass teens sipping on a hooch bottle, and a grumpy old geezer who just wants to enjoy the movie.

While their collective gaze is locked on the onscreen atrocities, a beefy lunatic in a trench coat (Ricardo Islas) is stealthily carving up the “crowd” until the small audience gets noticeable smaller.

Editor’s note: Ricardo Islas, who plays the killer, also directed the gruesome Frankenstein feature being watched by the victims. How’s that for symmetry?

Contenti assembles a dreary little theater world peopled by very mundane citizens. When the action ramps up, the safe and predictable reality is shattered, heralded by blasts of dissonant synthesizer that generally indicates a crazed killer has entered the building.

Once the madman has announced his presence with a few preliminary cuts, the lurid elements of operatic horror (there is a poster of Dario Argento’s Opera on the wall) snap into place.

Doomed moviegoers are artfully slain and fall, like snack-bar sweets, to the cinema floor as seen through the eyes of poor little Tomas, the urchin who spends most of the film cowering in the darkness from authority and maniac alike.

A little parental discretion would have been a good idea. Tomas is going to need years of therapy.

Contenti isn’t the first filmmaker to draw a parallel line between screen violence and the behavior of deranged of individuals, but The Last Matinee is reverently rendered as a tribute to the giallo school, even if it lacks some of the top-drawer flair demonstrated by the masters of the craft.

The message comes through loud and clear, to those of us watching. We willingly put ourselves in the grip of horrifying stories. Buying a ticket is a contract that puts us is in the same line of fire as the characters.

And that’s the thrill of it all. Just ask Tomas, if you can find him.

To his credit, Contenti’s most vivid creation is the eyeball-chomping killer. Shortly before the conclusion, a few tattered survivors witness the fiend lustily chowing down on his favorite snack, just as they were minutes before with popcorn. This moment is such an over-the-top freakout, you could get whiplash.

It’s a surefire scream scenario that also folds in neatly with an earlier visual point of reference. Nicely done!

The Last Matinee is not the last we’ll be hearing from Maximiliano Contenti, that’s for certain.

Settle in and get comfortable, because there’s no walking out once the movie starts.

Antlers (2021)

“It all makes sense, you see. I mean, our ancestral spirits never died. They were here long before we were, and they’ll be here long after we’re gone. But now, they’re angry.”

Dark times call for dark movies. Antlers is a coal mine at midnight.

The opening observation comes from Warren Stokes (Graham Greene), the former sheriff of Cispus Falls, a blighted Oregon town where mutilated citizens are appearing with alarming frequency.

The current sheriff, Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons), is seeking counsel. He’s out of his depth and confused, hypothesizing a cougar or bear attack is responsible for the mayhem.

Meanwhile, Paul’s schoolmarm sister Julia (Keri Russell) is trying to figure out why her sullen student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is drawing pictures of demons and monsters.

In Antlers, all the dots connect to the decline of the planet’s structural integrity. Our systematic “pillaging of Mother Earth” has opened the door to indigenous spirits, most notably the Wendigo, a voracious cannibal that inhabits evil men.

Just below the narrative surface of this riveting supernatural thriller lurks mounting evidence of an infected society that has no access to spiritual vaccine.

Cispus Falls is a moribund mining town, an urban landscape littered with old machinery and empty storefronts, where the only thriving business is meth production.

Deep-rooted trauma is the norm. Julia, a recovering alcoholic with her own childhood of parental abuse, eyes liquor bottles at the store with palpable longing, searching for strength and comfort from any source.

In the background, the news drones on about the opioid epidemic, failing industries, and environmental collapse.

Kerri Russell owns her role as a damaged, unhappy woman who realizes her altruistic motives for helping Lucas are likely futile, but it’s marginally better than giving in to the despair that runs deep in these parts.

She recognizes the telltale signs of abuse in Lucas’s haunted face, a reflection of a home life that is literally hellish. He is a child doomed to maintaining the monstrous status quo at his house, while his younger brother Aidan (Sawyer Jones) is held captive by something that used to be their meth-cooking father (Scott Haze).

The thing Lucas calls “New Dad” is growing increasingly hungry and his grocery list requires fresh meat.

“Is God really dead?” Aidan asks Lucas. “Daddy said God is dead.”

Director Scott Cooper, working alongside executive producer/malevolent maestro Guillermo del Toro, has constructed a thoroughly ravaged world with precious little light—one that is bone-chillingly familiar.

Hey, isn’t that our civilization crumbling?

There are moments of brain-freezing terror in Antlers, including horned creature craft with genuine nightmare potential, a del Toro calling card.

Yet it’s the overall tone that proves the most unsettling factor, because it presents a terminally ill worldview, a pandemic of the soul that never ends.

There may be small victories to be had, individuals worth saving, but the inescapable conclusion is that humanity is fighting a losing battle with havoc we’ve wrought on ourselves.

In nearly every scene, Julia and Paul (the good guys) are stymied by inadequacy and failure. The coroner is apologetic because he can’t explain how the victims were killed. A doctor is unable to predict if a patient will recover. The harried school principal (Amy Madigan) tells Julia she isn’t allowed to intervene on a student’s behalf.

Even Paul admits he was reluctant to take the sheriff’s job, which mainly consists of evicting local homeowners.

“Everyone thinks these problems are just going to go away, and we know that they don’t,” Julia tells him. She could be referring to any number of societal symptoms depicted in Antlers.

The wound runs too deep, there’s no saving this patient. The downward spiral is well under way and no one’s getting off.

Hope you like it bleak.

Old (2021)

We’ve discussed M. Night Shyamalan’s work here before, and true to form, his new feature, Old has elicited sharply mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes has them squarely at 50 percent favorable.

Siting precarious fantasies such as The Village, The Happening, and Lady in the Water, fanboys and critics alike have pummeled the acclaimed genre director with charges of proffering half-baked, preposterous plots that don’t pay off. MNS routinely gets written up for Twilight Zone endings more befitting the small screen rather than a theatrical feature.

Stylistic quibbles aside, MNS is and always has been an artful storyteller, and in Old he delivers another dark fable, this time about a family’s vacation to a tropical resort that turns tourists into unwilling test subjects.

Having adapted the French graphic novel Sandcastle, Shyamalan fades in on a European household on holiday, comprised of Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton), and son Trent (Nolan River).

Along with a few other hotel guests, Guy’s group is bundled off to enjoy an afternoon of food and frolic at a secluded beach of postcard quality. Everything seems serene and wondrous, but time gets away from these blissful beachcombers, and they start aging in fast-forward.

The lion’s share of Old is spent with the unfortunate tourists as they try every method at their disposal to leave the beach, with very little success. Kids grow up. Young adults get old. Old adults get older and die.

Trent, a curious and open-minded lad, is soon replaced by successively older actors, but continues to try and puzzle out their predicament. He takes a quick time out to father a child with another guest on a similar biological clock, yet he remains committed to the task of liberating his loved ones.

Shyamalan gets credit for covering a lot of ground here, gracefully transitioning from drama, to horror, to deep questions about the ethics of scientific research.

Of course, we also get plenty of sentimental Mom and Pop moments to remind us that time slips away quickly so be sure to tell everyone you love that, blah, blah, blah.

In this fashion, MNS has always been able to have his cake and eat it, too. By combining humanity’s plight with forces at work beyond our comprehension, we are forced to consider perspectives other than our own.

Visually, Shyamalan continually disorients the viewer by having characters wake up in a daze and seeing familiar looking, but different people standing around them. Who are they?

A sunny, postcard beach isn’t supposed to this sinister, right?

This ambiguity provides the dark current that will keep you watching. It’s just like in real life, but in Old, we can feel the time passing. And it hurts like hell.

They Remain (2018)

Two biologists working for an anonymous corporation are dispatched to the former site of a Manson-type cult compound to investigate strange animal behavior in the area.

Keith (William Jackson Harper) thoroughly explores the acreage, setting up camera feeds to monitor the fauna. Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) examines the data trying to find anomalies.

This goes on for the majority of the movie, as we observe the scientific method gradually give way to something far older and more primitive.

As so often happens, the more time they spend at the accursed locale, the more things break down. Keith hears voices. Jessica hears knocking at the door. Keith chases a wolf. Keith and Jessica drink whiskey.

They Remain is a subdued film, and it helps if you’re in the mood for subtlety. Writer-director Philip Gelatt adapted Laird Barron’s 30 for the screenplay, and it’s told largely from Keith’s perspective, which gets less reliable as time rolls on.

“I trust everybody, just not people,” he says to Jessica during one of their Happy Hours.

Keith dutifully collects his data, but the more he ventures out into the silent forest the less confident, and more unmoored he becomes.

Jessica, who is white, is the obsessive one, and Keith, a black man, worries that she’s not telling him the truth about their situation. Though he’s an experienced woodsman, he finds that his senses aren’t much help when faced with something that doesn’t track like an average specimen.

In fact, we’re never quite certain who is observing whom in They Remain. Whether it’s ghosts, hallucinations, cave dwellers, or just the effects of isolation, the feeling of someone watching is quite inescapable.

In scene after scene, Gelatt’s camera finds Keith hunkered down in the bush, but he doesn’t blend into his surroundings at all. He’s nervous because he isn’t safe, and he can’t hide in what is rapidly shaping up to be a hostile environment.

That’s a scary position to be in. They Remain is a profoundly unsettling movie and a very effective one.

Head Count (2018)

The moral of the story: Don’t use the internet, it’s evil.

Evan (Isaac Jay) is a college kid on spring break looking for love and adventure. Careful what you wish for, my lad.

Instead of Lake Havasu, he heads for Joshua Tree to crash with his older brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe), and maybe bond over some hiking and camping.

Rather than pitch a tent, Evan ditches his brother at the first opportunity and falls in with a bunch of bohemian millennials renting a nearby house. Seeing attractive folks his own age that party all night is sufficient temptation for Evan, especially the beguiling Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), a photographer currently without a boyfriend.

Scenes of low-key hedonism (weed, shrooms, booze) are followed by everyone gathered around the ol’ campfire for ghost stories. Since Evan doesn’t know one, he is directed to a website where he mistakenly recites a summoning spell for a shapeshifting demon.

Editor’s Note: Check and verify your sources, people! How dumb do you have to be to read an incantation that warns you not to say a certain name out loud? What hayseed community college do these nitwits attend?

None of them are going to have to worry about graduation requirements, if it’s any consolation.

The malevolent entity called a hsijie can appear to look like anyone and even these inebriated dorks begin to notice that various members of their group seem to have gained the ability to be in two places at once.

This is called a clue, and Evan is the only one present who picks up on it. The carefree weekend takes on a distinctly ominous tone after pretty Zoe walks off a cliff and injures her ankle.

Did she jump or was she pushed?

Other than Evan and Camille (Bevin Bru), the rest of the group can’t be bothered to examine the evidence that’s all around them, preferring beer pong and Never Have I Ever to thoughts of self-preservation.

Head Count succeeds as a low-budge (but not to its detriment) thriller with a nifty paranormal threat that remains largely out of sight. Even so, writer-director Elle Callahan (Witch Hunt) brings tensions to a boil with strategically placed pointers amidst all the scenes of collegiate cavorting that inevitably ensue when the parents are out of town.

I told you kids! No parties! You’re all grounded.

Six feet deep.

Censor (2021)

To anyone who dares spread the rumor that horror movies are responsible for the moral decay of society, here is a provocative feature for your consideration.

Set against England’s Video Nasty outrage of the mid-’80s, Censor takes us inside the head of Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), an efficient and organized member of the government agency in charge of rating violent and disturbing films of the day, like Driller Killer and Deranged.

Enid is quite good at her job but her personal life hasn’t recovered from the childhood trauma of losing her sister Nina in the woods, and she continues to harbor hopes that she will turn up one day.

When she’s assigned a Nasty called Don’t Go in the Church, something shifts in Enid’s memories as the movie seems to be a re-creation of the day her sister disappeared, a haunting mystery that was never solved, and the details of which she can’t remember.

Her parents want her to move on with her life and meet a nice fellah, but Enid is determined to track down the cult filmmaker who could be the source of everything that’s gone wrong in her life.

Welsh writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond has fashioned a deeply drawn character in Enid, and the performance by Algar just keeps getting richer, even as her world gets darker, infected by the barrage of torture and cruelty she witnesses on a daily basis.

Bailey-Bond does a first-rate job of establishing time and place, when England was under a media-fueled frenzy of lurid details from “hardcore” horror films dubbed “Video Nasties.”

Enid’s office, with its dark little viewing rooms, becomes equally lurid, as screams and chopping sounds fill the halls.

Job pressures take their toll on Enid, a thoroughly professional woman with a complicated, compartmentalized life. Like Cassandra Thomas in Promising Young Woman, she has answered a calling and takes pride in her work.

Unfortunately, Enid, an otherwise intelligent and perceptive woman, ignores the warning issued by more than one character, that being, “Evil is contagious.”

In my estimation, Censor is one of the best horror films of the year.

Better Watch Out (2016)

Once again, the poor babysitter is left to deal with the devil while bourgeois Mom and Pop drink the night away. And right before Christmas! After watching Better Watch Out, I know of one kid who’s getting a load of coal dumped in his yard.

On the verge of leaving town for college, Ashley (Olivia de Jonge) takes one last babysitting gig for the Lerners (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen), keeping an eye on their son Luke (Levi Miller).

Unbeknownst to Ashley, Luke and his flunky friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) have contrived a “home invasion” to frighten her, in the hopes that a heroic-looking Luke will win her heart.

Yep, 12-year-old Luke has the hots for his sitter and his worst instincts take over. What starts out as Home Alone-inspired high jinks gets real dark, real fast, as Luke continually ups the stakes revealing him to be a vicious and clever sociopath.

“One-hundred one uses for duct tape,” he says merrily, as he binds Ashley to a chair.

The angel-faced kid is all bad, but when it comes to creating murder and mayhem he’s definitely a prodigy. They should probably consider moving him up a couple grades so he can torment older kids.

Miller is truly disturbing as Luke, imbuing him with a fiendishly high I.Q. His improvisational methods for dealing with a situation rapidly spinning out of his control impressive, to say the least.

De Jonge, for her part, is formidable as the object of Luke’s grotesque affection who goes to extreme lengths to thwart his sinister scheme.

With Better Watch Out, director and co-writer Chris Peckover has left a distinctive mark on the Babysitter Horror subgenre, where the evil is always coming from inside the house.

What Keeps You Alive (2018)

Talk about a relationship with serious obstacles.

Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Anderson) are a married gay couple who go off for a romantic weekend to a well-appointed house in rural Canada that belongs to Jackie’s family.

In horror movies, romantic weekends are second only to make-out pot parties as an invitation to trauma. What Keeps You Alive is no exception.

What’s different here is the source of the threat. Soon after their arrival, the couple is visited by Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), a local who recognizes Jackie, but calls her by the name “Megan.”

The next morning Jackie tries to murder Jules by pushing her off a cliff. This unexpected development caused my friend Kaja to remark, “I guess she fell for the wrong girl.”

Jules does not die in the fall, so Jackie begins tracking her, shouting conciliatory messages about how sorry she is, and that she wants to take Jules home.

The single scariest moment in What Keeps You Alive is when Jules, hiding behind a tree from Jackie, sees her wife’s flat emotionless face while she’s yelling endearments.

Presently, Jackie gets tired of playing the concerned mate and informs the unseen Jules that she knows the woods like the back of her hand and escape is impossible.

The sexual dynamic between the two lovers hovers over the carnage, occasionally referenced in flashback, as writer-director Colin Minihan explores the depths of betrayal that Jackie has orchestrated.

There’s plenty of nail-biting action, including a riveting rowboat chase across the lake, that will keep your hand close to the panic button.

Minihan alternates between closeups of injured and frightened Jules running through the house, and long establishing shots of the unforgiving terrain, effectively adding weight to the already considerable tension.

There are enough twists and reversals to keep even the most astute thriller fan off balance, and both Allen and Anderson bring everything they have to their respective roles.

We’re predisposed to root for Jules, who proves tougher than she looks, but Jackie’s unfolding madness is spellbinding. She shifts and sheds personalities seemingly at will to keep Jules on the defensive. Whether she’s cajoling, cursing, or crying it’s impossible to get an accurate read on Jackie.

Mercenary? Maniac? Misunderstood?

At one point, Jules demands an answer. “What happened to you? Was it your father? Did he do something to you?” she asks.

“It was nature, not nurture,” Jackie answers deadpan.

Definitely worth your time.

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.