Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Old Fashioned Tales That Satisfy – Review

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, based on the books of the same name, is the latest offering to come from Guillermo del Toro. He shares credits of both producing and co-writing the screenplay and the story is as old fashioned as it is satisfying. It is, in short, a visual treat.

Directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) the film looks brilliant. If one is of a certain age, the tones, hues, and overall colour of the film looks like all those old photographs from childhood. Every frame reeks of nostalgic melancholy that feels at home with bell bottom jeans and cars that all came from Detroit.

The film offers nothing new. It does, however, take one right back to their childhood. Tales told breathlessly around campfires or, in some instances, around Ouija boards, that invoked disbelief, at first, and then, at last, a sense of dread and acceptance. It is not the tales themselves that impress so much as they way that they are presented.

Each vignette offers a sort of variation on original tales that have been updated or altered to fit this particular theme. Not having read the books, which is now on my list of things that must be done, it is not clear how well the filmmakers managed to capture the spirit of the source material.

Regardless of whether the film manages to capture the intent of author Alvin Schwartz or not is not up for discussion. It should be noted that the first iteration of these books caused an outcry amongst concerned parents. (Apparently the illustrations of Stephen Grimmell were considered quite unsuitable for the targeted age group.)

Gore factor aside, which the film manages to control rather admirably, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark entertains without offending anyone. Deftly mixing urban myths with some original myth making, the movie does produce a few jump scares. Sadly, most of the “scares” rely on the rather tired device of cranking up the sound to Boeing 767 level, but some do work without the volumetric control used too often.

There are some nice touches for the horror fan. One of the male characters (Auggie, played admirably by Gabriel Rush) sports a Halloween costume that could be right from the frames of the 1978 film Halloween. The “clown” outfit; “It’s a Pierrot,” argues Auggie repeatedly, feels like a deliberate homage to Michael Myers’ outfit in the original horror film. (While the two outfits are nothing alike, there is an odd resemblance. Enough of one, at least to this viewer, that it seemed glaringly obvious.) It should be said that there are other nods and winks to classic horror stories throughout.

The cast of the film; Rush along with Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn,  give it their all. Each convinces admirably and at no time does one ever doubt their character’s veracity. (Colletti will obviously go far in her chosen profession. She knocked it out of the park easily.) It was lovely to see firm favorite Dean Norris as the father. More of Norris would not have gone amiss but one obviously has to draw the line somewhere in terms of running time.

The cinematography is brilliant and the use of hues and tonal shifts in terms of colour works wonderfully to establish mood and direction. While it would have been interesting to see a much darker version of this movie, in other words if del Toro had directed the feature, Øvredal does an excellent job.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not, overall, frightening. It delivers a great storyline reminiscent of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or Asylum and does so with a certain juvenile panache. This is a kid’s film, after all, but it entertains very well. It earns a full 4 out of 5 stars for delivery and one should see it in the cinema.

The First Purge (2018): A Template Tale (Review)

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The First Purge may feel like “Billy Jack ”  without the hat and the protagonist is a caring and sharing neighborhood drug lord, but it really aims for much higher ideals. Trotting out the tropes of “you cannot trust the government and that all people of color, even those of oriental descent, are to be exterminated with extreme prejudice, The First Purge follows its own template yet again.

All of the films in this popular franchise are carbon copies of each other. Albeit slightly different directions are taken in each iteration. However, apart from the tendency to stick with one small group throughout, the film offers the same overall theme: That government want to clear out the “minorities” and the ghettos via “The Purge.”

Written by James DeMonaco and directed by Gerard McMurray, The First Purge stars the heart stoppingly beautiful and abundantly talented Lee Scott Davis and features a biggish cameo by the evergreen Marisa Tomei. The film  tries to offer an insight to all that mercenary involvement that features heavily in the other installments of the franchise.

Unfortunately, the entire thing  feels like a template from the other films that followed the first offering back in 2013. With a final message (Spoiler Alert) of your local crime lord caring more for his fellow downtrodden and impoverished neighbors than the cold hearted government (read Donald Trump’s cabinet and the Republican Party here) the timing of this tale is, perhaps, too close for comfort.

While it strains believability, the film does throw shade on the current government. That being said, the earlier installments also cocked a snook at the establishment. One that was headed by then president Barrack Obama. So the message, which feels quite relevant now, is still trodding the path of good old Billy Jack: “We cannot trust government” or “the Man.”

(Or as the outlaw Josie Wales tells the Cherokee chief in the film of the same name – “Looks like we can’t trust the white man.”)

All racial aspects aside, and political relevancy ignored, The First Purge offers an almost eerily correct picture of the current government in the United States of America. We never see the president, but we hear the one-sided sycophantic conversation that the leader of the social experiment passes on to the “current leader” before sending Marisa Tomei’s character out to be shot in the head.

By the end of the film one feels that nothing is really new here. McMurray and DeMonaco both lead the audience in the same direction as previous offerings in the franchise. No one, in terms of the cast, really stands out. Y’lan Noel (as Dimitri) is limited by the script and Mugga  plays a role that, in earlier years, would have been filled by Octavia Spencer

Overall, The First Purge is not quite mutton dressed as lamb but it lacks the enjoyment level of the other offerings in this violent and, perhaps, prophetic set of films. The message is the same in this template tale of big brother murdering the lower classes and while the presence of Aunt May helps to a degree it is not enough to save this one from a certain mediocrity and mendacity.

(On a side note: The colored contacts that the “players” wear, is never really utilized to its full potential. It makes the purge participants look like zombies, to a degree, but it, in the end, detracts from the action.)

The First Purge is a three star offering; a stale and repeated tale without the personal touches of previous films in the franchise. Fans may enjoy it, although I am admittedly a fan of all the previous films and found it a bit…hum-drum, but this is one to view via DVD or streaming. Seeing it in the cinema is not recommended as this film follows the same old template ad nauseam….

Thelma (2017): Low Key Norwegian “Carrie” With a Twist (Review)

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Co-written and directed by Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt was the other writer who helped on the  screenplay, Thelma is a slow paced, almost languid twist on Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Starring the achingly beautiful Eili Harboe, this suspenseful horror film includes key elements that are present in King’s tale of repression, telekinesis and religion.

The film can also be seen as being influenced by the Richard Matheson tale “It’s a Good Life.” This Twilight Zone story (directed by James Sheldon) dealt with a young boy on a farm who holds his “terrified family” hostage with his incredibly powerful mental ability. The lad, played brilliantly by a young Billy Mumy, can literally “think” someone out of existence if they annoy him.

Thelma has mental powers but they have been repressed with a brand of zealous religion practiced by her family. When the girl goes off to college and starts to fall in love, the power re-emerges with a vengeance. Just before leaving her family, Thelma (Harboe) has a seizure and these become more prevalent at school.

We see the young woman cautiously spreading her wings as she meets Anja, played perfectly by Kaya Wilkins) and as the two become infatuated with one an other, Thelma has an increase in seizures and some disturbing visions/dreams.  Eventually she goes to a doctor for help and discovers that her grandmother, whom she believed was dead, suffers from the same problem. 

After being tested for epilepsy, Thelma tracks her grandmother down and starts remembering a tragic event from her childhood. Her father, Henrik Rafaelsen, a general practitioner, starts treating Thelma as her mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) uneasily watches from the sidelines. 

Thelma can be seen as a loss of innocence film, or a “coming of age” tale. Regardless of how the viewer opts to interpret this story, it is beautifully filmed and splendidly executed. At just under two hours, the film is a long one, but it never bores or drags.

The sequences where Thelma seeks help from the medical community do crawl but despite this, interest in the young protagonist does not wander. Trier gives us a plot and storyline that teases with flashbacks and ethereal connections between Anja and Thelma.

Harboe as the naive Thelma gives us just the right amount of wonder and dread as she starts to grow up outside the influence of her strict parents. We learn, as the film progresses, just why Trond and Unni keep close tabs on Thelma; they are already aware of what she is capable of doing.

The horror here is very low key. However,there are moments where it strikes fear right into the heart of the audience. These are not jump worthy moments by any means but the instances, a drowning and a moment underneath an icy lake, reduce us to a primal horror that stays long after the moment appears on screen.

Thelma, unlike “Carrie,” gives us a protagonist that is not a victim but is, rather, a young woman who has lived a sheltered life. There is a reason behind her earlier protected existence. This helps us to develop an empathy with the young girl and her increasing confusion.

This is a full 5 star film that grabs the viewer and draws them slowly into the world of Thelma. Norwegian, indeed Slavic films in general, are, at the moment, top notch and well worth sitting through, despite having subtitles. Check this one out as soon as you can.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer(2017): Stilted and Wooden Horror (Review)

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While the story of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is interesting and different, the execution leaves much to be desired. Leaden acting, wooden dialogue and line deliveries that feel stilted all make this odd horror film feel fake and throws one out of the tale being told.

Colin Farrell appears to be sleepwalking through his role as a surgeon whose drunken mistake costs a man his life. Despite speaking in his “native tongue” the Irish actor  comes across as disinterested, bland and disaffected.  The entire cast, with the exception of Nicole Kidman and Alicia Silverstone suffer from the lackluster delivery that writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos seems to expect in his films. 

In The Lobster (Another Farrell vehicle.) the dialogue was equally unenthusiastic but with the surrealistic setting and theme it almost fit. Here, in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it serves to take the viewer out of the film and it destroys whatever ambiance is needed to sell the horror of the situation.

The film shows young Martin (Irish actor Barry Keoghan) insinuating himself into Dr. Murphy’s life. Murphy accepts the young man  and introduces him to his wife Anna (Kidman), daughter Kim and his son Bob. In return, Murphy is introduced to Martin’s mum, the widow of the man that Murphy  killed.

(Alicia Silverstone plays the disturbed and somewhat twitchy woman in a delicious cameo performance that outshines everyone else in the film.)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer could have been a masterpiece. The setting, the use of discordant music and an interesting plot could have worked brilliantly had the performances not taken away from the film. Lanthimos destroys whatever affect the weirdness of the tale could have had by having his actors throw the viewer out of any disturbing moments.

The characters themselves do not appeal either. Kidman’s Anna is self serving and cold. The surgeon appears to lack any sort of feeling and their kids are  unlikeable. To be fair this is down more to the delivery of their lines rather than any particular shortcomings of the script.

We never learn too much about Murphy or his family before Martin starts his attack. For example, there is no reason given for his insistence that his wife lay stock still during sex and we are reluctantly given the backstory between the surgeon and Martin.

The film shambles along with too little information and not enough time spent on the two main characters. Interaction between Martin and the Murphy family follows the same wooden direction as the dialogue and we never buy into any of the emotions, or the lack thereof,  being shared with the audience.

When things start going wrong with Murphy’s children we literally do not care. Neither child comes across well like their father they suffer from a lack of emotion or nuance in any of their lines. It is as if removing anything remotely resembling a personality was top priority of the director.

The fact that Silverstone, in her “blink and you’ll miss it cameo,” comes out head and shoulders above the rest of the cast makes one wonder if Lanthimos allowed someone else to helm the picture that day.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer could have been a 5 star effort. Instead it is a dull and shambolic attempt at psychological horror that fails abysmally. Give this one a miss…

 

Get Out (2017): Blackly Comic Horror (Review)

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Written and directed by Jordan Peele (this is his maiden voyage as the man in the “big” chair) Get Out was inspired by an Eddie Murphy gag and borrows, just a tad, from other films. It is, overall, a blackly comic horror film that feels like a splendidly dark and morbid punchline.  The movie can, and does, make one feel uncomfortable and amused – often in the same scene.

We follow Chris Washington (played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya) as he goes, reluctantly, to visit his girlfriend’s parents. Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) is college co-ed cute – all big eyes, perfect teeth with an odd combination of droll yet goofy wit – who has arranged for Chris to meet the fam. 

All is not what it seems, however, as once Chris arrives in upstate New York, he finds his future in-laws are a combination of “trying too hard” and slightly antagonistic. Rose’s mum is a hypnotherapist who promises to cure Chris of his nasty smoking habit. Dad, a bit of east coast “whitebread,” tries to go ghetto and brother Dean is a snot.

Even without the kidnapping that takes place at the very start of the film, we feel uncomfortable and Peele manages to put the audience firmly in Chris’s shoes. The sense of unease increases even before Chris sits down with “mum” for that first unwitting hypnotherapy session.

The “big weekend” amps things up nicely as all the guests ask Chris seemingly inane and overly personal questions. (Including one strange interlude that harkens back to Madeline Kahn and “Blazing Saddles.”) He also meets, along the way, the two servants who work for the Armitage family.

All the black people he meets act oddly.  There are jarring moments: The maid’s unexplained tears, the handyman’s running in the middle of the night, the old woman with the hat-wearing young black man and the emphasis of the “white” diction used by all the above. There is another tense and weird scene where the flash of a camera gives “hat man” a nose bleed.

(This scene also harkens back to the Eddie Murphy gag about “Get out!”)

Peele has taken a concept which, initially, looks to be all about racism and turns it into a mix of neuroscience and immortality. It can also be seen as a snapshot analysis of social satire, a’la the 1989 Billy Warlock film “Society.”

(One could arguably compare the plot line with the 2005 voodoo horror film “The Skeleton Key.” Get Out addresses the same issues of living forever without all the magical hugger mugger of the Kate Hudson film…)

Get Out manages to both creep the viewer out, elicit a fair amount of chuckles and  shock in all the right places. There are sharp scary moments, the gardener running at Chris for example, and the place Chris is sent to after his session with mother disturbs on a much deeper level.

It is the mismatch of stereotypes that provides much of the comedy:  Chris’s best friend with his, mostly, improvised dialogue and the septuagenarian diction and speech patterns emerging from the servants and hat man  who  interact all too briefly with our hero at the party mixes absurdity with blackly comic moments that delight and add the right amount of quirky fear to the formula.

Get Out is a full five star film. It is full of slyly hidden black comedy that reveals itself with repeated viewings. Peele gives us a low budget masterpiece that earns each and every one of its Oscar nominations. If you haven’t already, check this one out and be prepared to be massively entertained.