Monday, April 15, 2019

The Ritual (2017)

I fancied watching this again recently, and I'm really glad I did. Spoilers incoming!

Based on a novel by Adam Nevill, directed by David Bruckner (who co-wrote and directed Amateur Night in V/H/S and The Accident in Southbound) this Netflix movie takes us deep into dark Swedish forests with a group of friends.

Dom, Luke, Phil and Hutch.

Tension exists between these men, as we find out that Luke (Rafe Spall) carries a heavy burden of guilt for not stepping in during a violent attack which opens the film. The knowledge they all have of Luke essentially standing by as their friend Robert (Paul Reid) was killed hangs heavily over the beginning of their trip. We see Luke wake from a nightmare about the murder, and throughout our time with him images ripple through his reality of the trauma from that night.

These scenes are some of my favourites, as imagination and reality/fabricated building interior and forest mesh so effortlessly and organically together. It's incredibly impressive and extremely disconcerting. It reads very much like something out of a dream, where details and settings bleed together in a singular landscape.

On the night Rob died the lads were trying to decide where to go on holiday together, and now, six months later they find themselves hiking as a tribute to him (as he'd originally suggested it). Hutch (Robert James-Collier) is clearly the most comfortable in the outdoors, with the others joining through a sense of sad duty. These are middle-class affluent types, paying £200 for their hiking boots but neglecting to break them in before the trip. They are kind of out of their depth before they even set foot in the forest.

The turning point of events comes after Dom (Sam Troughton) gets hurt, and they make the decision to take a short-cut back to their lodge. Rather than staying out in the open, they realise with reluctance that entering the dense forest is the quickest way back.

What's up? Are you scared of the woods?

It's dark, damp, and visibility is low through the arrow-straight trees. Luke repeatedly thinks he sees a glimpse of something moving in the distance and tensions increase as pain and exhaustion take hold. Everything changes after their first night in the forest. Breaking into an abandoned cabin during a storm, they wake the following morning, nerves shredded from terrifying nightmares and sleepwalking. 

There is a palpable feeling of a dark presence infiltrating their minds as they slept, pushing its way into their deepest fears. The most alarming awakening is from Phil (Arsher Ali) who is found naked in a "praying" position in front of a terrifying headless totem.

No one, especially Phil, is ever the same after that night. Arsher Ali doesn't have an awful lot to do aside from this, unfortunately, but he gives a haunting performance as someone who can't process or escape the fear of his ordeal. Phil is shell-shocked and violated.

Similar to the "lost in the woods" idea, the stripping back of anything our characters have -  in this case: possessions, unity, sanity - is not a unique narrative approach, but in capable hands, it's so effective. The lads start with the latest gear, and end with nothing, having lost tents, party members, and a full grip on what the fuck is even going on. With a steady hand, The Ritual peels back to the terrified primal core of these characters.

The creature reveal is what solidifies the success of this movie for me. This beast is a "Jötunn", an ancient god worshiped by villagers and offered sacrifices of unsuspecting visitors to the area (their possessions dot the landscape, nature claiming them in varying degrees). In turn, the locals are granted unnaturally long lives. The things we do for eternity, eh? I did find it interesting that none of the villagers seem particularly happy, however. Their lot appears more duty and fear-fueled than actively wanting to be eternally stuck in this existence.

The design of the Jötunn is stunning, even in full view it's difficult to comprehend as it seems compromised of human and beast body parts, as well as having aspects of the forest, too. It feels profane in a way that both captivates and repels.

As Luke attempts to escape his fate of being trapped forever, this showstopping moment is captured:

If he had lost his mind then and there, who could have blamed him?

As the third act draws to a close, the warm tones of a burning village give way to a landscape bathed in dawn light. In the far distance we see a car on a road. Luke is returning to civilisation and leaving old gods behind. At least physically. He was chosen because his "pain was great" - is his pain gone, by the end? I doubt it. If anything it's deeper, along with his guilt. His primal scream at the creature stuck at its forest's edge certainly hints at a lifetime of nightmares to come. 

This movie would pair well with Blair Witch for a night's viewing, as I think they'd complement one another for a "we're lost in the woods and we're f*cked!" double bill. Tents and trees by torchlight; distant, gigantic sounds you can't identify... That kind of fear pre-dates almost everything, it's woven into our lizard brains.

The Ritual is streaming on Netflix now. I appreciated the abrupt, not-necessarily-sad but definitely not happy ending (see also: Calibre). Beautiful landscapes, old gods and flawed humans - what's not to love? Very tempted to pick up the book and see how the two compare.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Us (2019)


We're Americans.

Hi! So I know I don't tend to review new stuff. This is because I feel a weird kind of self-imposed pressure for having an opinion that's somewhat topical...! Buuut I wanted to get some thoughts down about Us. This kind of starting writing itself without me making a conscious decision. So here we are :)

Okay firstly, let's talk about this fact from the IMDb trivia page:
Jordan Peele gave the cast ten horror films to watch so they would have "a shared language" when filming: Dead Again (1991), The Shining (1980), The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), The Birds (1963), Funny Games (1997), Martyrs (2008), Let the Right One In (2008), and The Sixth Sense (1999).

This list does two things: reminds me that I need to see Dead Again, again, (it was a taped off the TV favourite of mine, back in the day) and it gives some clue as to the calibre of storytelling and overall atmosphere that Us was reaching for - and in my opinion, succeeds in capturing.

And honestly, those film choices simply make my horror/thriller nerd heart happy. Pun intended: Peele is clearly one of us.

I'll say no more other than what's already out there with regards to plot: the Wilson family are on holiday when doppelgängers of themselves wearing red overalls invade their summer home, intent on forcing them to take part in some kind of ritual called "the untethering".

This film just kept turning down avenues I wasn't expecting and, as ever, that's truly the best way to experience it.

Worthy of mention though are the performances from the central four: Lupita Nyong'o as Adelaide, Winston Duke as dad Gabe, and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as their children, Zora and Jason. 

Instantaneously I believed in this family dynamic and all their superbly drawn little idiosyncrasies. From Winston's amusingly (and adorably) feckless father-figure, eliciting eye rolls; Wright Joseph's bored teen; Evan Alex as the "weird" little brother still into masks and magic tricks, and finally the force that is Nyong'o, whose performances are quite simply fantastic.

Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker also star as the delightfully loathsome bougie family "friends", the Tylers. They have twin teen daughters, to further the doubling/doppelgänger weirdness. Moss doesn't have much to do, but that's fine; she has a tonne of fun as Kitty Tyler, a sloppy WASP who clearly can't stand her husband or kids. The later scenes with this family are a great blend of humour and violence.

The more Us unfolded, the more I loved it. And yes, okay, I guessed a beat or two, but that didn't stop any of the gut-punch-like enjoyment as this peeled back to a story that is both brutally simple and simply brutal.

There's nothing like a shattering final shot in a horror movie, so enjoy this one while never being able to hear "Les Fleurs" the same way again.

And join me, won't you, in obsessing over the "untethered" mix of "I Got 5 On It"...

Us is in theatres now and hopefully smashing records and expectations all over the place. I recommend you go and see it, and then go see it again ✄✄✄

Argh, there's so much I haven't covered here! Partly through fear of spoilers, plus the need to sit with some of the epic themes or see this film again to fully be able to process it all. I may do a follow-up post exploring things a bit more - or at least giving links to further reading from voices better placed to comment than mine.

Bonus Jo-went-to-sleep-thinking-about-this content:

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Digging Up the Marrow (2014)

If you say "lower-budget passion project about monsters", I'm usually going to reply with "yes please". However, with Digging Up the Marrow, I'm having some slight viewer's remorse.

This "found footage" mockumentary is a strange mix of smug self-congratulation and geeky love letter from writer/director Adam Green. The creatures are drawn and designed by Alex Pardee and sculpted by Greg Aronowitz and they, along with the excellent Ray Wise, are the best thing about it.

We follow Green as he abandons writing duties for his then-popular (and real) TV show Holliston to go monster hunting with a man called William Dekker (Wise). Accompanying them is Green's real-life cinematographer and collaborator Will Barratt, who acts as camera man.

Wise was cast as an audience "signpost" of sorts so that they didn't get too convinced that this might be real and feel cheated at the first big reveal. While I get the logic of this, Wise's amazing, intense, wild-eyed self sits awkwardly next to literally everyone else onscreen. From Green's staff to cameos from other genre names, the acting in this is worse than daytime soaps. The dialogue, apparently scripted, does nothing to help matters as it's so uninteresting and long-winded that it comes across as bad improvisation.

This kind of criticism - and sadly, it's one I have with some regularity in this sub-section of horror - always makes me ponder the nature of "reality" a bit. Yes, the point of this is that it's meant to be amateur and real, so what's the problem? The problem is that to be enthralling and tense, this shit still needs a framework of considered, careful choices on which to drape its reality. As a filmmaker and horror obsessive himself, I would have assumed Green had better judgement than what is shown here.

And to get petty for a second, Green and his staff are almost exclusively shown wearing T-shirts advertising his own work... It's just a bit much? 

Is this a meta wink? Or does Digging Up the Marrow just have something in its eye?

And they all look brand new. I don't know why this irritated me so much.

This took five years to make, and I have to be brutal and ask, was it actually worth it? I see what he was trying to accomplish, but he just didn't get there soon enough or enough, enough, for my liking.

"Dig it up" on Shudder now. (...sorry).

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Evil Dead (2013)

This artwork by Laz Marquez is EV-ER-YTHING.

I remember when I first saw a trailer for this, and it looked INTENSE. So much so that I didn't go and see it on its theatrical release. Tongue slitting?! Wow... that's a bit much.

Well, times have changed! And just recently I was in the mood to pop this on and finally see how I felt about Fede Alvarez's take on the Evil Dead thing. And, honestly, I felt pretty entertained!

After a gorgeous title card/opening shot one-two punch, we're introduced to a group of college kids. In a spin on the original set-up, Mia (Jane Levy, doing most of the work but doing it brilliantly) is being isolated in this cabin in the middle of nowhere in order to go through drug addiction withdrawals. Her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) accompanies her to supervise, along with his girlfriend and Mia's friends (including Spring's Lou Taylor Pucci).

David is warned that his sister has paid lip service to quitting before, with all the heartfelt declarations and ceremony they just witnessed as she threw her drugs away moments before. So, he's told, they have to be harder on her this time if it's really going to work. This is obviously almost instantly the cue for demonic shit to go down and no one initially believing Mia, assuming she's either attempting to manipulate them or hallucinating through her withdrawal.

But as we know: she's not. This is demon dinnertime.

Fans of the originals will recognise some iconic plot points like the tree assault (feeling WAY less exploitative than the 1981 version but still horrible [I watched that to remind myself and YIKES x100]), the Book of the Dead (bound in trash bags and barbed wire; nice touch) the tool shed and an Oldsmobile sitting out to rust near the cabin.

This was neither as sick as I had assumed it would be, nor as redundant. And what I really enjoyed about it was the dirt under its nails. 99% of this film feels deeply unclean; slick with sweat/rain/vomit/blood and caked in mud (and blood!). When horror successfully feels so tainted, I'm so completely on board. I love it when world-within-the-movie feels this soiled.

Sure, the drug comedown madness/evil infiltration thing is a horror trope, but it works like a charm here, and once the demons have an "in" with this group, it's almost non-stop evisceration, self-amputation and screaming.

Taking into account the serious, practical gore + solid story + exceptionally bold visuals (the cinematography was by Aaron Morton, who's since worked on Black Mirror) I feel I must recommend Evil Dead. There's not much about this I can fault. Perhaps the ending? Just slightly? But that may only be because it's where we veer off from the known path more than at any other time and I wasn't quite ready for that. On subsequent viewings, I suspect I'll appreciate it more. For its pure insanity if nothing else.

Now that I've come to accept reboots, reimaginings and their ilk, it's easier to get excited about them. At the end of the day, it's more horror, and that's a good problem to have. None of these films will ever undo the classics, so why not enjoy them? Especially when they are as competently made as this is.

Perhaps the most disturbing shot in the movie, for me.

Raimi and Campbell were in fact producers on this movie. Apparently, the original plan was to make a sequel connecting both this and the originals, as this iteration was said to be set in the same continuity. Such info kind of boggles my mind as tonally they are so different; there are very few moments of levity here. I'm sad a connecting sequel didn't happen, as I can't imagine the middle ground. Would have been interested to see Raimi/Campbell and Alvarez mashup?!

I rented this on Google Play so I imagine it's easy to get hold of if you've yet to see it!