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!

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Little Deaths (2011)

I've been rolling the British-made Little Deaths around in my head since I watched it a few days ago, wondering what exactly to say about it. If you can't stop thinking about a horror movie - does that make it good? This is an odd one.

Little Deaths, as the name and the artwork suggests, is about sex and death. Two staples in our genre. Here we have three shorts collected together but without any wraparound or connecting threads. I suppose it's a bit like The ABC's of Death, with nothing but a common theme to unite the work.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I feel it works better with larger projects (like the alphabet). For this, when the credits rolled after the third story, it felt undercooked, somehow? I hadn't been keeping track of the time but I had assumed there'd be more than three segments in this anthology.

Anyhow, this trio of tales has elements of sex, death, and also revenge. House & Home (written/directed by Sean Hogan) seems to generally be considered the best of the three - at least judging by the Letterboxd reviews. It concerns an affluent couple whose hobbies include kidnapping and abusing young homeless women. This is a pretty typical "they picked on the wrong girl this time!" story, though the reveal wasn't quite what I was expecting. It's fine enough, but the degradation that comes before the payoff made me feel uneasy and kind of exhausted. 

Mutant Tool (written/directed by Andrew Parkinson) is bonkers but loses a lot of its impact due to its plodding plot. I am a fan of stories about imprisoned and exploited entities, so long as they escape and the captors get their comeuppance. This doesn't exactly happen here, but the ending is satisfactorily dark.

The third and final tale is Bitch (written/directed by Simon Rumley), and it's the one I've thought the most about post-viewing, but I honestly can't decide if I like it or not. 

Here, we witness the day-to-day goings on in an abusive relationship between Claire (Kate Braithwaite) and Pete (Tom Sawyer). Claire is mean and manipulative; she does what she wants and makes Pete feel bad until he goes along with it, treating him like shit in front of his friends as well as in private. They have a kinky "puppy play" situation where Pete wears a mask and leash, crawls around on all fours, and gets pegged by Claire (and sleeps in a kennel in the spare room) but we get the distinct impression that this is more for her enjoyment than his. Ultimately, after she literally fucks one of his friends right in front of him, Pete breaks. He begins to set up a revenge plot that preys upon her deepest fears.

This story is tough to watch, it goes without saying, as abuse is never a fun thing to witness. Sawyer does well in portraying Pete as a sweet bloke trapped in his relationship. He seems constantly agonised and yet the crumbs of affection or interest Claire throws him, plus the hope that things will improve are enough to keep him from leaving. 

Claire is - aptly, given the title - shown almost entirely as a bitch. A horrible, selfish, abusive woman. Her moments of phobia are the only glimpse we get into something deeper or less repulsive about this character. As the villain, I guess this makes sense, but it's a shame to see such broad strokes used. Tackling an abusive relationship from the lesser-represented side of a male survivor is refreshing, but painting Claire so one-dimensional makes it come across more like Rumley just fucking hates women. Her unpleasant fate is not entirely clear, and I hope this was the creator's intent and not an oversight. I won't spoil it, but I have my reasons for disagreeing with a few reads I've seen of what becomes of her.

(aside: well... yikes. I just found out that Rumley also directed the most upsetting segment of the aforementioned The ABC's of DeathP is for Pressure. So honestly, I'm not going to waste too much time wondering what his motivation was here).

I think what got to me most about Bitch was its use of music as it's made clear what Pete is doing. An emotive, uplifting instrumental plays over this montage, stopping with jarring immediacy on a shot of him weeping at what he's done. It's my favourite part of the entirety of Little Deaths, though I'm not sure it's enough to redeem the whole thing...

This is streaming on Shudder at time of writing. It's barely over 1hr30 so if you feel like gulping down three odd little stories, you could do a lot worse??