The Witch (2016): Turning Hansel and Gretel On Its Head (Review)

Anya Taylor Joy as Thomasin

Several things stand out in The Witch. Right off the bat, there is that heavy Yorkshire accent combined with the “Olde English” phraseology. Granted there is not one “Eee by gum” to be heard but writer director Robert Eggers’ decision to have his protagonists come from “God’s Country” was a sly bit of irony considering the circumstances of the plot and the players in it.

Another is the emphasis on the bleakness of the setting.  The downright dourness of all the early settlers who faced a new world with God in their heart and a blunderbuss at their side. Pundits today who work overtime to take the humor from this modern day world would have fit right in. Eggers’ pilgrims have no sense of humor at all.

Of course the main theme here is the simplicity of the people who believed that God almighty was to be found everywhere if they only kept him in their heart. Eggers took this belief system and infused it with a twisted version of Hansel and Gretel, with a touch of “Little Red Riding Hood,” where the witch is not vanquished at all.

Considering the dire reviews that some gave The Witch when it came out, it seems that that Yorkshire accent and all those thy’s and thee’s and come hither’s may have put American audiences off. But “by ‘eck that were how they talked” back then.

(Thick Yorkshire accents are best understood by those who come from “God’s Country.” The rest of the human race have to really work at picking out about half of what is said.)

The film does offer something else in spades though; above and beyond the woodcutter link to a Grimm’s Fairy Tale or two.

The Witch has atmosphere and a sense of foreboding so powerful it practically leaps off the screen.  Watching the film is an exercise in tension. There is also  a feeling that Eggers may well be telling his version of Job in the new world. (One of the characters actually references that particular parable.)

The moment the family are banished from the “plantation” we know this is going to end badly for William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their family. Sure enough, not long after relocating Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is out playing peek-a-boo with the youngest family member when the baby boy is stolen between glances. 

Eggers throws a lot into the mix. He includes the hysteria from the Salem Witch Trials and the two smallest children of the family, after the theft of the baby, sound nothing like their parents or older siblings. The duo are thick as thieves and sound years older than they actually are.

The youngest children, after the baby is stolen, are damned creepy and disturbing.

The two  throw fits and mimic the gyrations of the young girls who were responsible for so many being punished for witchery in Massachusetts. This adds to the suspense and overall sense of foreboding that rules the film.

(There is a bit where a hand flies up to cradle young Caleb’s head, played brilliantly by Harvey Scrimshaw, and the very sight of the hand is enough to make the keyed up viewer gasp and jerk away from the screen.)

Most agree that Anya Taylor-Joy nails it in this film. Clearly this young actress is one to watch and she will be the next big thing in the acting world for a long time to come.

However, this was not a one person show. All the actors knocked it out of the park. Ineson with that deep resonant Yorkshire voice of authority, Dickie ringing the changes on her emotional toil and inner strength, Scrimshaw and his change after that meeting in the woods and the youngest actors: Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson were just brilliant.

Anyone watching this film may never want to go near a black goat again…ever. (Black Phillip was damned creepy full stop.) It may also go a long way toward explaining just how well the mixture of religious fervor and old fashioned superstition combined to create such an atmosphere of sheer dread.

It is interesting to note that one of the plot devices entailed Katherine rounding on Thomasin and making the girl’s life a misery. Since she has “come into womanhood” the mother insists that it is time for the child to leave.

This appears to be an British cultural issue and is even alluded to, in jest, in the John Ford film The Quiet Man. In the 1952 film, the conspiracy against Squire Danaher is that two grown women cannot live under the same roof. (It holds true to this day as this writer can firmly attest.)

The Witch may not be the scariest film made in 2015, it had some pretty decent competition, it is, however,  undoubtably the most unsettling and atmospheric horror film of the year.

Cinematographer Jarin Blashchke does a brilliant job in terms of lighting and each frame is nigh on perfect.  The sound is spot on while the sets and  the costumes feel authentic  right down to the smallest detail.

Fans appeared to be split in their reactions to the film. Most seeming to want or expect jump scares every two seconds. There are, at least a couple of these popcorn hurling moments in The Witch and they are far enough apart that each come as a surprise.

For those who appreciate a nuanced horror film that takes its time to set up the finale, The Witch is a 4.5 star film. It loses a half star for that, at times, impenetrable Yorkshire accent.

The film  is on Amazon Prime at the moment as well as other streaming and On-Demand platforms and available on DVD. Fans of horror films will want to check it out if they have not already. It is worth watching.

Bad Building (2015): Just Plain Bad

Still from Bad Building
Directed and co-written by Philip Granger (Jeff O’Brien was the other scribe for the film) this 2015 Canadian offering, titled Bad Building is just plain bad. Nothing about the film works and at one hour 14 minutes long, it feels three times longer. Despite the filmmakers deciding not to go the “found-footage” route, this short feature bores, frustrates and annoys.

The plot has a group of ghost hunters who are going all out to keep their program from being cancelled. The first scene in the film is indicative of the rest of the movie. The “producer” who threatens the host with cancellation appears to have been brought in off the street to play the part.

Like the bad acting in the first frames, after a five minute opening credit sequence, all of Bad Building is bad. Bad editing, bad continuity, bad acting (again), bad lighting, bad sound…the list goes on. Sadly, the premise could have been good, although the “reality-TV-paranormal-team -investigating-the-haunted-asylum” has been overdone.

The catalog of things done badly, poorly or just wrong is long. Many could have been fixed with pickup shots or a bit of ADR or just having a good grasp of continuity. Most of the mistakes are not even laughably bad. A scene with a disappearing door (which leads to a stairwell) has a glaring mistake visible when the camera moves back for a long shot.

After the door vanishes, which is in the middle of a long row of doors, the camera angle changes for a long shot from behind the action. The missing door scene is now suddenly at the end of the hallway. There is no explanation for this sudden change. It is just there.

Another instance is when the group first go into the building. A member of the team places what is clearly tape on the wall behind a pipe where they enter. As the team pass, and the camera follows, the “tape” has been replaced with a green “magic marker” cross that then fades.

Clearly, this was, at one point, meant to be a plot device for the film which is never used or followed up on. Among the long list of things done badly are special effects which are either so blatantly computer generated or very poorly constructed practicals.

For instance, a member of the crew attempts to call for help from an upper floor window. Outside the window there are rows of metal “tines” used to keep pigeons from landing on the ledge. The character is forced onto the spikes and presumably dies. The gag does not work as the pigeon proofing is clearly rubber and so flimsy that it moves easily.

Other stunts make no sense and still more “action” scenes are either poorly filmed, or edited; leaving the viewer wondering what they have just seen.

The young actors in this horror film sound like their lines have all been improved on the spot rather than scripted dialogue. One can quite imagine these young professional performers leaving this credit off of their CV (resume). In a gesture of compassion, the actors will not be mentioned by name in this review. They should not be punished for a bad script and confusing edits.

In terms of editing, there are scenes which appear to be “out of sequence” and let things down badly. For example, after the host has a meltdown, he fires a gun to threaten the urban explorers who helped him and his team get into the building. Once his weapon is taken away (and he is thumped by the urban leader) he then goes back to acting as though nothing has happened.

Bad Building is just bad. Apparently, the film first appeared (via YouTube as a trailer) in 2011. Presumably the film sat unfinished or undistributed for four years. After spending 74 minutes watching this execrable mess, one cannot help feel that the film should have stayed on the shelf.

Literally .5 out of 5 stars. The film earns a half star because I refuse to give anyone’s hard work a zero and there was one halfway decent line, maybe two, in the film. Bad Building is on Hulu at the moment, avoid this one unless you really like badly done movies that leave you frustrated, bored and irritated.

Killjoys: Vessel (recap and review)

D'Av and the vessels in Killjoys
Killjoys could be called the SyFy version of “bubblegum pop,” but it is not. The show really is not that “middle of the road” nor does it fit that category of inoffensive material aimed at the masses. Last week’s episode, Harvest dealt with several different characters who worked outside the box and rules; illegal drug manufacture, slave labor and a doctor who practices her own version of the hippocratic oath. This week, Killjoys, in Vessel, broaches people being treated as chattel and a ruling organization that is too elite for the vulgarity of childbirth. It also looks at religious zealousness and shows just how little worth women in certain quadrants of this world have, i.e. Leith.

D’Av gets his first warrant, albeit a very liquidized one, and the team are approached by the “inbred” (Dutch’s wording) and oligarchical organization known as the Nine who want a surrogate pregnant mother moved to Qresh in order to fill out the Nine with a legitimate heir born on that planet.

In this dystopian future world land is all and only the richest and most powerful own it. The Nine own more than any other group and they rule the Quad where the RAC and the Killjoys live and work. Dutch takes on the assignment and D’avin Jacobi gets his level four approval outranking his little brother John.

The three head to a “nunnery” where the vessels are held by “nuns with guns” and once there, they learn that they have been followed. Moments after they arrive, Qresh troops infiltrate the building and try to take the pregnant girl by force. The Leith girls all turn out to be pretty empowered females despite their “calling.” The group arm up and head out to transfer the expecting mother to Qresh.

There are some pretty impressive moments in the episode. The pregnant girl overpowering the Mother Superior; who turns out to be a treacherous witch, Jenny martyr’s herself breaking the enemy enough for the remaining girls to escape, and D’Av’s apparent ability to bond with all the girls in what seems like seconds.

There is one moment in the tunnel which is annoying and makes no real sense. Seconds after entering the escape route, the mother is stabbed by one of the other side despite everyone having weapons at the ready. Still, it was in the script and used to up the stakes in the storyline.

By the end of the episode, Dutch has managed to make an enemy of Delle Seyah Kendry (played with exquisite coldness by Mayko Nguyen) and let the audience learn a little bit more about her backstory. D’Avin and John agree to treat their boss as family with the rule that D’Av is not meant to “plow” their sister.

Under the guise of old fashioned action television, Killjoys addresses some social issues and provides some pretty powerful empowered female characters. In this future world, women seem to have the upper-hand. Dutch is the strong and capable leader of the team, her boss is also a female and the world’s more important jobs are all held by impressively powerful women.

Both John and D’Avin appear to appreciate the powerful female’s they encounter and work for. Not all men in this world do and it is amusing to see these neanderthal’s get put in their place. The show may not be a purposeful flagship for feminism, but it could be. Providing women who rule this world, even the “chattel” in this episode are strong willed women, pretty impressive stuff.

The action filled and fast paced, yet low budgeted, production is another of the SyFy Fridays line up and the Canadian export is pure entertainment. It should also be noted that despite the weekly dose of violence, the show is totally PG with the exception of the “blood bag” filled with the first warrant of the show, the gore in this series is low key and slightly old fashioned…but damned entertaining.

Not quite “mindless” entertainment but close enough. This is not “bubblegum pop” TV, it cannot be since a talented cast plus fun scripts and an underlying backstory yet to be revealed equals great television. Well done SyFy, we can almost forgive you for Sharknado…

Between First Season Ends: Renewal?

Still from Between
Between, the Canadian series which was essentially a riff on the old New Zealand kid’s TV show The Tribe, has finished, the first season ended after it’s “ordered” six episodes and there is no news of renewal…yet. Starring Jennette McCurdy, Jesse Carere, Ryan Allen and Justin Kelly, the show follows the trials of under-22s in Pretty Lake who have survived a viral attack killing off everyone over the age of 21.

The town is broken down into the rich kid, the poor ones and the in-betweens, which includes the smarter-than-smart MIT accepted wunderkind Adam (Carere) and the teen mom, Wiley (McCurdy). The series started with a bit of a whimper. Although it has to be said that the deaths of the “grown-ups” impressed. A sudden coughing attack and then thick blood drooling from the mouth and…death. Quick, disturbing and set up in such a way that one knew the younger denizens of the town were completely freaked out by the sight and suddenness of their parents, teachers, and so on expiring so fast and inexplicably.

The first episode of Between had McCurdy’s character acting like another variation of Ellen Page’s Juno in the film of the same name, but that soon changed after it was revealed that Wiley’s “baby father” was the rich guy who owns most of the town and whose son, Chuck steps up to take charge after all the older citizens die.

The Creekers, born on the wrong side of the tracks and who are still living there, fight Chuck every step of the way and provide a lot of conflict for the rich kid who is trying to keep things together. There were some things about the show that grated.

For instance, the seemingly obligatory “mentally challenged” sibling, who is doomed to die, the drug addict brother who wants to be good, even if he does almost rape a girl, and the crazy smart teen prodigy who helps to figure things out. The entire plot does make one think of cult favorite The Tribe but the setting and the characters are wildly different. The change of locale along with the increased sophistication of the kids in the show made the whole thing refreshing although woefully slow.

For a season which was only going to consist of six episodes the very fact that things do not really “take off” till episode five shows either complete faith that there will be a season two, or that the show’s producers were not aware that the pacing was snail paced and annoying. Netflix does not have the problem of most networks, their rating system does not dictate whether they cancel a series or not, at least it certainly appears that way.

The show suffered a bit from clunky acting and storylines that were a little predictable. There were issues of events that were illogical and potholes that one could drive a lorry through…

But…

The pickup of action in episode five and six; the series finale, and the improvement in the performances made the show feel like it was finally sailing instead of tacking. This illusion of smoothness, versus fighting the tide, makes the short six episode season seem unfair and a tad annoying.

There is no word, not that this reviewer can find, on whether the show will be renewed or not. Entertainment review site Rotten Tomatoes slaughtered the series and on IMDb the rating of Between is a paltry 5.5.

Followers on Twitter, @betweenseries numbers 2858 and the show’s Facebook page has under 6,300 likes. The series may well vanish without a trace with fan numbers this low. If Between does hang on for another season, it will be a miracle as well as very annoying when one compares it to other, vastly superior, Canadian export The Lottery where Marley Shelton tried to save an infertile world inspire of a corrupt and evil government.

The six season series can still be seen on Netflix.

Killjoys: The Harvest (recap and review)

Still from Killjoys The Harvest John and Shyla
Before going into Killjoys, The Harvest, take a moment to appreciate the serendipitous casting of Lisa Ryder, aka Beka from Andromeda, aka Kay-Em 14 Jason X, as Keera Deen in this episode. Pause and savor the fact that the show’s makers obviously love the genre and that maybe Kevin Sorbo might be making an appearance along with many more science fiction television and film royalty.

At the end of last week’s episode Dutch provisionally hired D’Avin to be a Killjoy on her team and rather than kill the man her father targeted for her to assassinate, she captured him in order to lean why he had been chosen. This week, John goes with his brother to RAC and D’Avin applies, being accepted, by Keera Deen (Ryder) and starting at a higher rank than John, if he passes his psyche eval. Dutch is still questioning her intended target.

When the man insists he has no idea why he was marked for death, Dutch lets him go, telling the target to run and hide, she then sets fire to the room where she questioned him. D’Avin and John head to the bar and the harvest festivities are in full swing. D’Avin starts crowd control immediately and John heads straight for the bar and Pree pours him a drink.

Dutch comes in and calms things down, “I’ve got a gun and a badge, everyone calm down,” she says. Her appearance stops D’Avin from choking a man on the bar. Later John learns from a sex worker friend N’oa that her husband has gone missing from his migrant farm job at Leith. His visa is about to run out and the law says that if he is not found, she will be punished instead.

John talks Dutch into taking the job while D’Avin tries to get a RAC doctor to “rubber stamp” his psyche eval. Since he cannot go on a mission till he passes, D’Avin is to sit this one out and his brother and Dutch go undercover to find the missing Hock farm worker.

Entering the farm area as a worker John is tagged with an implant in his ear, that he soon learns is not just a deterrent but a incendiary device that explodes if he stops working. Dutch is posing as a Hock buyer and D’Avin takes the doctor to Leith Bazaar, to buy supplies, in return for her signature on his eval.

Once they arrive at the bazaar, D’Avin learns that Dr. Pawter Simms (Sarah Power) is not, strictly speaking, a practitioner of the “straight and narrow.” John is busy questioning a fellow farm worker while Dutch does some in-depth questioning of the farm owner, Martell (George Tchortov) and gets access to the farm files and the tracker in the missing farm worker Vincent Sh’ao’s ear.

When she and John run down the tracker device, they find not only Vincent’s ear but a lot more, all buried in the farmland. The question is whether or not all of the ear’s owners are dead, or just missing and why Martell has not reported it. D’Avin and Simms have a falling out after she triggers a stress attack in the former soldier and it looks like she may not sign his eval as a result.

John, whom Dutch ordered to lay low, talks to a coworker and it turns out that the ears have been cut off by the workers so they can escape. Dutch calls D’Avin to see if John has been in touch, she is tracking John’s tracker and finds it, and his ear, buried in the dirt. It turns out that the missing workers, plural, not just Vincent, are all working in the woods at a Jack “grow up”, a drug farm.

Martell discovers that Dutch hacked his system and called the authorities to report his Jack farm to avoid arrest, they are, he tells Dutch, on their way to kill everything in the woods, including Vincent and John. Dutch and D’Avin rush to the grow up and John has rounded up the missing workers along with Vincent. They, and Sh’ao, leave the area one step ahead of the deforestation ships, except for Shyla (Hannah Anderson) who says she would rather die than return to Westerly.

By the end of the episode, Dutch and John clear the air and D’Avin gets his eval signed by Simms. It looks like the doctor and D’Avin will be seeing more of one another since he has asked her to treat his Stress Response Syndrome and John gets his ear replaced.

Killjoys moves quickly and the fast pace, along with clever dialogue and some excellent one-liners makes for an entertaining show. This Canadian export is, like Dark Matter, a great example of what TV should be; fun and un-complicated. Aaron Ashmore, Hannah John-Kamen and Luke Macfarlane are a chemically viable trio of protagonists and SyFy has definite winner on its roster. Part of the #SyFyFridays line up.