‘The Midnight Man’ (2018) is Impossible to Take Seriously–But it’s Fun

While acting as caretaker for her crotchety grandma Anna (Lin Shaye), Alex (Gabrielle Haugh) stumbles onto a game from Anna’s childhood. It involves the Midnight Man (Kyle Strauts), a creature who appears when summoned with a precise sequence of events, including but not limited to turning off all the lights, writing down one’s fears, drawing blood from a finger, and lighting a candle. The main objective of the game is to avoid being killed by him until 3:30 in the morning. Faced with this irresistible concept, Alex wastes no time playing. Naturally, the demon has tricks up his sleeve for Alex and her buddies Miles (Grayson Gabriel) and Kelly (Emily Haine).

This is a face only a mother could love–on payday

I first watched this movie as part of a birthday celebration with my husband, sister, and brother-in-law. (I watched it a second time to review it–you’re welcome.) We’re Lin Shaye fans, and Robert Englund as Anna’s doctor is a happy bonus. It has a fun premise; I’m always down for a good boogeyman story. Unfortunately, it was so ridiculous that we laughed our way through it.

“I’ve got my eye on me!”

One of my biggest gripes is the lack of logical continuity. Things are one way, and then suddenly they’re the opposite. The rules of the game change to suit what’s easiest to move the plot forward. When Anna is a kid, the players all provide a picture of themselves, while Alex and her crew don’t have to bother. Alex doesn’t actually turn off every single light in the house, and while it’s supposedly crucial to relight each player’s candle within ten seconds of going out, they sometimes count so slowly that in real time they’ve had much longer than that. The plot is inspired by a Creepypasta story, which is acknowledged by Kelly in the movie; she comes in preening about being an expert because she read about it online. However, Alex and Miles act like destroying their copy of the game is going to accomplish something as far as stopping the Midnight Man. The characters are similarly erratic. Alex has no consistent pet name for Anna; she alternates between Nana, Grams, and Gran–which bloody is it? Who calls their grandma more than one thing? Anna sinisterly asks Alex to look in the attic for her hand mirror, making it clear that she’s enticing Alex to find the game, but after coming across Alex looking at it, she hollers “YOU OPENED THE GAME!!!” and faints. After she regains consciousness her emotional state is just as unclear (see below). Though to be fair, she does seem to be suffering from dementia.

“Nana-Granny-Grandma-Grammy-Grams is growling with happiness!”

In addition to being capricious, everybody does just plain stupid shit. In the opening, a flashback to Anna’s youth shows one of her friends freaking out and leaving the kids’ circle of salt–which offers protection from the Midnight Man–for no particular reason. Alex and Max sort of have feelings for each other, and while Kelly cowers in a salt circle that she can’t leave after her candle goes out, they decide to take off (for…reasons?) and end up making out, ’cause screw you, Kelly, no movie is complete without a heteronormative romantic subplot. And again, what exactly is Alex’s motivation for playing the game at all?

“Welp, I’m bored, let’s play the game that made Nana-Grams faint.”

Miles is pretty likable, but otherwise most of the characters leave something to be desired. Kelly delivers the entirety of her lines in a lazy whine. Anna is extremely over-the-top, and Shaye reaaaally overdoes it with the crazy faces and screaming. Englund does well playing against type as kindly Dr. Harding, but his dialogue often gets corny: “Your mother would be proud. The world lost a fine soul the day she passed and for that, I am truly sorry.” Alex is a totally unremarkable lead, and Gabrielle Haugh has moments where she spits out her lines as quickly and flatly as possible, like she’s in a hurry to get the movie over with (can’t blame her there), though her gestures and expressions are always on point (see below).

‘Getting my foot in the door, on to bigger and better things…’

It’s not scary whatsoever. The Midnight Man is a mass of makeup and special effects, even having a computer-distorted voice. (Yet I do like his motto: “Your tears mean nothing to me.”) The movie mainly relies on cheap jump scares and altogether too many shots of MM’s hand reaching out of a door.

Somebody’s been watching Donnie Darko

Buuuuut I didn’t hate it. The practical effects, like the sea of blood that accompanies a death in the opening, are notable. The music is creepy. Anna’s massive, in-some-areas-gradually-decaying-as-a-metaphor-but-otherwise-quite-lovely-house, is a great set; my favorite parts are the room full of clocks and the leaky greenhouse room. (You guessed it, they go in there with their candles and are surprised that leaky roofs leak.) Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something you can enjoy poking fun at that’s not so bad you’ll be miserable.

‘Seconds Apart’ is Worth Watching at Least Once (or Twice)

Twin brothers Jonah (Edmund Entin) and Seth (Gary Entin) are teenage psychopaths with telepathic powers and the ability to make folks hallucinate. As part of a mysterious project, they manipulate people into killing themselves. On their trail is the troubled but dedicated Detective Lampkin (Orlando Jones).

It’s like looking at two evil Rushmore-era Jason Schwartzmans

About ten years ago, I asked my sister for suggestions of movies I should review, and she mentioned this one. I haven’t gotten around to it until now, but it turned out to be well worth the wait.

The boys’ infinite synchronicity and their undeservedly smug parents add much to the creepiness factor

But first the gripes. I loved Lampkin; his angst coupled with his unflagging determination adds everything to the emotional journey of watching. Orlando Jones gives a heartbreaking performance. Unfortunately, he adds nothing at all to the plot. The movie would have rolled right along with or without him. Even the expositional info about the boys’ backgrounds he digs up could have been revealed without involving a whole other character–or left out entirely–why explain the source of their powers? Jonah’s love interest Eve (Samantha Droke) is not at all appealing. Most of her screen time is dedicated to talking about herself incessantly.

This is the face I make while listening to Eve, too

It also comes across as derivative at times. The scene below is strongly reminiscent of Carrie.

“Aw, we’re wearing the same outfit! They’re all gonna laugh at us!”

And the plot of twins divided by one of them falling in love is straight out of Dead Ringers.

However, there are some genuine and original shocks. The opening sequence, involving four sexist and arrogant but otherwise probably okay guys (except the one who might have killed a dog) being forced into a game of Russian roulette by the twins is highly disturbing, as are most of the scenes involving Seth and Jonah exploiting people (ew, the Guinea worm scene!). The visuals are gorgeous but haunting.

If this shot doesn’t make you want to watch, I give up

On the whole, I was impressed. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something with snappy banter, religious overtones, and stylish gore.

“When I’m with you, I’m so happy I’m beside myself.”

‘Death Bed: The Bed That Eats’ is as Bonkers as it Sounds

A demon-possessed sleeping receptacle nom-noms on people, apples, and chicken legs alike, while its companion, a haunted painting (Dave Marsh), watches and provides commentary and exposition.

Ooh, artsy!

I first became aware of this movie after hearing comic Patton Oswalt describe it in a stand-up routine. My husband and I sought it out, and it was just as ridiculous as Oswalt made it out to be.

It appears the bed is health-conscious enough to avoid eating plastic

The special effects are laughable. The audio frequently mismatches the visuals. The movie was made in the ’70s and not released until the 2000s, and it’s clear from the visible scratches that in the meantime the film reels were not taken care of (or possibly not taken care of in the first place). Most of the action seems like filler, for example the painting guy bringing the plot (such as it is) to a screeching halt to share flashbacks of random people being eaten by the bed. The performances are atrocious. Demene Hall (below) as Diane is the best of the bunch.

She got top billing, good for her!

Nothing makes a damn lick of sense. A lady dies and then turns into flowers. Characters do things that directly contradict themselves, like when Sharon’s Brother (William Russ, credited here as Rusty Russ) is told by their mother to go find Sharon (Rosa Luxemburg), he says he knows where she is, and then in his next scene he’s on the phone asking someone her whereabouts. Or when First Female Victim (Dessa Stone)–I’m not making these names up, by the way–asks for food and then says she’s not hungry. When the denizens of the film aren’t being ingested by what looks suspiciously like dish soap, they’re making baffling non-sequiturs like “That place looks clean for having been abandoned for so long. I hope there’s not a maniac around.” Yup, gotta watch out for them cleaning maniacs, they’re a real hazard.

Not to be confused with a cleaning monster

But my favorite thing is the characters’ tone-deaf reactions to what should be horrifying happenings. One guy tries calmly shooting the bed while being devoured. Sharon’s Brother stabs it–his hands are dissolved to the bone and replaced by plastic skeleton hands, which he just stares at bemusedly. Or when Sharon’s Brother serenely watches a severed eye jump around on the bed under its own power but whirls around, startled, when a door slams shut.

“It’s curtains for you, bed!”

I honestly can’t tell if the movie was meant to be funny. One might assume so given that the acts are broken up into segments called “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Dinner,” and “The Just Dessert.” I’m hoping that the bed’s sound effects like groaning, yawning, burping, chuckling, and crunching are meant to be humorous. I don’t want to think it’s possible that the filmmakers created something so stunningly bad with intentions of it being completely scary and earnest.

This is either a joke or product placement

According to IMDB, writer/director George Barry was inspired by a dream, which is why the movie is so batshit crazy, ahem surreal. There is one creepy scene. Diane is having a nightmare in which her friend Suzan (Julie Ritter) is telling her about a book of dead people: “I’m in it, and you are, too.” It’s the only part of the movie when the bizarreness is disconcerting rather than so over-the-top that it’s comical.

And then it catches fire, as books of dead people are wont to do

Interestingly, the movie is driven by women. The demon is motivated to create the bed due to its infatuation with a woman, and she’s its sole weakness. All of the main characters are female, besides Sharon’s Brother, who even in name is defined only by his relationship with her. It’s actually Sharon who takes over to fight the bed while her bro gives up.

“How many bones are in your hand?” “Sharon, no.” “About a handful.” “If I had the capacity to get upset, I totally would be right now.”

Sooooo, I didn’t hate it. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s endearingly wacky, original, and unpredictable. There are few movies I actively warn people away from, and this isn’t one of them. Actually, I recommend it. It has to be seen to be believed.

*Cleaning monster image courtesy of maidincalifornia.com.

‘The Hunt’: It’s Not Strictly Horror, But Give it a Shot

Twelve individuals from across America are drugged, kidnapped, and dumped in the woods. Shortly after, although they’re provided with weapons, they find themselves being hunted for sport. These “deplorables” include Staten Island (Ike Barinholtz), Yoga Pants (Emma Roberts), Gary (Ethan Suplee), Vanilla Nice (Sturgill Simpson), and Crystal (Betty Gilpin), who lead the wealthy “elites” pursuing them, headed by Athena (Hilary Swank), on a merry chase.

Staten Island loves him some guns

The Hunt was finished in 2019 and set for release in September of that year, but the combination of two shootings and political backlash caused it to get not just postponed but canceled entirely. Turns out that use of the word “deplorables” did not sit well with conservatives, especially when taken out of context. (Funny how the phrase “our ratfucker-in-chief”, used in the same scene, didn’t draw any ire.) In case you don’t remember that basket of controversy surrounding the d-word, during the 2016 election Hilary Clinton put her foot in her mouth calling Trump supporters deplorables and making sweeping generalizations that roughly half of them are just garbage people. Thankfully, the movie was later released in June of 2020, mostly thanks to Jason Blum of production company Blumhouse. You can read the whole story in detail here if you like.

Politics are a driving force behind the themes, but it’s not all that cut and dry. When the movie opens, we don’t know what’s happening other than people have been rounded up in order to be executed. It’s easy to assume that they’re Democrats, because stereotypically Republicans are the violent gun fans, and almost all of the deplorables are prominently wearing blue, while juxtaposed scenes of Athena show her wearing red. It’s ironic that conservatives got bent out of shape about the movie, since liberals are the villains. They’re simpering snowflakes who trip over themselves trying to be as politically correct as possible. Except for Athena, who’s pissed at the world and extremely stabby. The film plays with your expectations throughout, highlighting how unethical and frankly dangerous it is to blindly categorize people based on assumptions.

The blue-garbed deplorables figuring out the situation

The film centers around two strong female leads. Athena is cruel and deadly, yet suave and sophisticated. Crystal is a badass who handles all situations with grace, good humor, and lightning-quick reflexes. She’s out to protect herself first, but in one scene she shields a woman with a baby during an explosion.

Suspense is sustained throughout the movie, along with fast-paced action. It’s also surprisingly funny. I don’t want to spoil all the good stuff, but here’s one of my favorite quotes: [After a character is shot with arrows] “What is this Avatar shit?” Overall, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something thrilling but intelligent.

[Athena to Crystal, who’s about to throw her through a door]: “No more glass!”

‘The Evil in Us’: Celebrate the Fourth of July with a Movie About Narcotic-Fueled Monsters!

Independence Day weekend! Time to get drunk, do some coke, and eat your friends! At least that’s what’s going on for our little group of six: leading man Steve (Danny Zaporozan), sassy best friend of color Bash (Behtash Fazlali), token Black guy Wheeler (Ian Collins), Steve’s girlfriend Brie (Debs Howard), Wheeler’s girlfriend Trish (Kylee Bush) and the other one, Rox (Marina Pascua). Their plans involve going to a secluded cabin and partying their faces off. Literally, it turns out, as the cocaine they’re doing contains a human-made neurotropic virus that turns them into rage zombies straight out of 28 Days Later.

It’s not a movie widely loved by critics, so I went in thinking it might be cheap or technically amateurish. I was taken by the opening, which shows people literally bathing in blood to a metal tune. It’s oddly beautiful, and it looks entirely professional. The next few scenes were competently acted with what looks like quality cameras, and I concluded in my notes that “This isn’t horrible.” I continued to think so until about two-thirds of the way through when the movie, never full-on scary to begin with, becomes unintentionally funny. The characters with the virus (the guys anyway–for some reason women just hunker down and bawl) start acting like territorial velociraptors, pouncing on each other and snarling. It should not be funny when someone we’re supposed to care about rolls off of a roof or falls into a fire, but damn if I didn’t laugh when it happens.

Bash agrees with me

Half of the main characters are likable. Brie is pretty cool. She has medical knowledge, and she can work a CB radio. She’s the only one sharp enough to ask questions like, “Are there any other doors?” when the first of them goes berserk and is lurking outside. She doesn’t do drugs with her friends, not because she’s a prudish final girl but because she had a past problem. Bash is cute and funny (though his habit of delivering almost all of his dialogue in exaggerated goofy voices gets old after a while). Steve is vanilla on all levels but overall pleasant. Meanwhile, Rox’s entire personality is that she’s longing to get into Bash’s shorts, and Trish is insufferably snobby. Wheeler comes across as an okay guy, but severely troubled. He stands out as the only Black person–not just among the leads but in the entire movie–and he’s a criminal. A segment with detectives investigating a separate drug-related murder reveals Wheeler’s extensive record for violent assault.

The white characters are only assault-y after being given mind-altering substances

A resounding theme in the movie is that drugs are bad (mmmkay?). In one exceedingly heavy-handed scene a character looks square at Wheeler, who brought the cocaine and also expositionally dealt some to b-plot Zoe (Tatyana Forrest), and whines “You did this.” Immediately, the camera cuts to all the dead bodies lying around from the span of the movie. It might be okay for the filmmakers to make Wheeler Black (especially if he wasn’t the only Black person around) if they were emphasizing the issue of drug use in inner city neighborhoods (or, alternately, instead of a felon, making him as rich and spoiled as Trish, turning the angry Black guy stereotype that they went with on its head), considering the plotline that the government is behind the infections, mirroring the real-life theory that the CIA purposely distributed crack among the poor, but the main focus of the movie is how Wheeler singlehandedly ruins the lives of upper class white folks.

Tell me, Karen, is this ruining your day? Need to see a manager?

Overall, I found it entertaining but majorly flawed. I honestly don’t know if the bits I was impressed by (like the authentic feel of the friends having fun or the scene with the main antagonist’s wife–not spoiling that for you further) can counter the white privilege so heaped up that it’s almost physically palpable. Maybe do it for Bash?

Maybe you like un-self-conscious heterosexual dudes pretending to be into each other?

Leigh Whannell’s ‘The Invisible Man’ is Superbly Disturbing

Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is a woman trapped in a marriage to Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who is physically and mentally abusive. She escapes with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), taking shelter with new friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). However, Adrian is a scientist who’s as technically competent as he is sociopathic and manipulative, and with a fancy invisibility suit he fakes his own death and comes after Cecilia.

This movie originally started out as part of a plan to reboot many of the Universal Studios monster movies from the 1930s-1950s. Remember, we were gonna have Javier Bardem and Angelina Jolie in Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein? (If you don’t remember, you can read more about that here.) Thanks to the across-the-board loathing of and low ticket sales for The Mummy, Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man was scrapped, the director was scrapped, and the producers were scrapped. So what we ended up with was a Blumhouse-produced, Leigh Whannell-written-and-directed, Elisabeth Moss-led film. Which is most likely better.

Undoubtedly better

The movie builds tension expertly from the very beginning (then kinda slows down in the middle–but without being boring–and picks up again towards the end). It opens with Cecilia fleeing from Adrian in the middle of the night. If you know a single thing about the plot then you know of course she gets away, but it’s still damn suspenseful. Adrian’s presence is established gradually but creepily. He starts with stunts to undermine Cecilia’s confidence like sabotaging a job interview, eventually tricking her support system into backing off and isolating her. There’s a marvelous scene when Cecilia is cooking bacon and leaves the kitchen for a moment. The shot is wide enough to show the whole room and doesn’t cut away; we’re meant to be anxiously watching for Adrian to do something, somewhere, and it’s really effective. The filmmakers never stoop to cheap jump scares. There is one scene when Cecilia slowly wanders around investigating a strange noise like a slasher movie final girl, but it makes sense for her to be compelled to establish that her surroundings are safe.

The performances are amazing. In a scene taking place shortly after Cecilia moves in to James’s house, he has to coach her to go outside just long enough to get the mail. She leaves, shoulders hunched, taking small brave steps to the mailbox. Then a dude jogs by and throws her off, and she runs back in. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. But when Cecilia’s had enough of Adrian’s shenanigans, watch out!

The face of a woman you don’t want to fuck with

Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Adrian is also not to be missed. Adrian has no dialogue until over an hour into the movie, and you barely see him (’cause Whannell is smart about not overplaying his monster), but he’s really scary. In one of the few scenes when he we see his face, he has this terrifying blank stare.

Like this, but scarier

Aldis Hodge has less to do than his co-stars, but he shines as the kind and valiant James.

Go James!

Overall, I enjoyed it, as much as one can enjoy a movie with such an explosive subject matter. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something dark, well-crafted, and compelling.

‘Bliss’: I Really Wanted to Like It

First, a disclaimer. As stated by the opening title card, “Warning: This film contains flashing images that may cause discomfort or trigger seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Viewer discretion is advised.” Dezzy (Dora Madison) is a struggling artist. Her pieces aren’t selling, and she’s having a hard time producing anything new. Luckily, she comes across a helpful mix of cocaine and DMT that makes her black out and paint up a storm. Unfortunately, it puts a small hitch in her getalong when her pal Courtney (Tru Collins) makes her a vampire. In order to finish her painting within the three days left of her deadline, she’s gonna need lots of drugs and lots of blood.

It’s a Shudder Original, which tend to catch my eye. I also had it recommended to me on a Facebook horror forum as one of the best movies of 2019, so I was enthusiastic at first. When I found out the lead was played by Dora Madison, whom I know only as Masuka’s daughter Niki on Dexter who served absolutely no purpose, my enthusiasm was dampened, but I soldiered on. And then she opened her mouth. As a womanist, I hesitate to use the word shrill, but good God. Right from the beginning, Dezzy’s default tone of voice is an entitled, hipsterish shriek, which she uses to holler nothing but complaints. Less than five minutes in, I stopped caring what happened to her. By the time Dezzy is in full vampire mode, with Madison wearing a third-person Gopro and channeling what looks like Kristy Swanson in Deadly Friend, I was well past being able to feel anything but pity for myself. And it’s not just me. More than once in the movie, complete strangers are so nettled by interacting with Dezzy that in a matter of seconds they threaten her with violence.

“You will never know what it is like to create something.”–actual quote

It’s repetitive. You can sum up the movie thusly (in no particular order): Dezzy screams, drives, smokes, snorts, fucks, vomits, and wantonly murders people. She gets extremely stoned and looks at the ceiling in a sea of dissolves and superimpositions. Oh, and she also paints sometimes. There seems to be a message that drugs are bad; Dezzy’s dealer Hadrian warns repeatedly, “Start small,” “Even I don’t touch this shit,” and “You do too much of this shit and you’re done for.” You can interpret a theme of drug use as a metaphor for vampirism. It’s not clear what the solution is for Dezzy, though, since the stimulants and blood-drinking revive her creativity–she admits to not being able to paint in the months she was clean. So are drugs harmful or just what Dezzy needs to give her career a real shot in the arm?

“I wear my sunglasses at night…”

Okay, okay. Making movies is hard work, this is several someones’s baby, I’m not gonna just completely piss all over the whole thing. I love the cinematography. Check out this gorgeous sunset:

I totally missed this during the movie, but while looking for images for the post, I saw these clever inversions of religious symbols (in addition to the two stills under the first paragraph, in which Dezzy is worshiping her painting of an evil Jesus/angel figure): the upside down cross and reverse benediction hand:

I did perk up briefly during a threesome between Dezzy and Courtney, even though the third party is played by Rhys Wakefield, who’s best known for being this guy from The Purge:

This face is a lot less punchable with his natural Australian accent coming out of it

I rarely recommend flat-out avoiding a movie entirely, and I’m not doing that here. Other people seem to enjoy it; it has a solid 90% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Whether I like her or not, Dezzy is a strong woman who takes what she wants regardless of the consequences, which can be rare and refreshing in a movie. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something to delight the senses (there’s some nice synth pop and metal when Dezzy’s not squawking).

‘Brahms The Boy II’: Keep Your Expectations Low and Maybe a Strong Drink Handy

Directed by William Brent Bell and written by Stacey Menear, the team behind The Boy. Liza (Katie Holmes), Sean (Owain Yeoman), and their son Jude (Christopher Convery) are a tight-knit family living in London. Their feeling of security is compromised one night when Liza is assaulted by two burglars. Jude, who witnessed it, starts suffering from selective mutism (which is for the best, really, because what’s up with him having an American accent?), and everyone decides it would be a swell idea to head out to the country for a while to regroup. Unfortunately, they choose the guest house adjacent to the mansion from the first movie, and before long Jude finds Brahms’s doll, which, unlike in the original, is now both sentient and evil. Brahms is pretty possessive of Jude, and he’s also keen on hurting anyone who stands in the way of their friendship.

This seems like a healthy development

It has a low rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s PG-13, and it’s a sequel. While those aren’t necessarily mighty strikes against a movie individually (The Ring is PG-13, for example), the combination of all three is more likely than not to be a shit-show. I settled down with a nightcap and prepared to be underwhelmed. It isn’t terrible, but it clings tightly to conventions for both the rating and the sub-genre. Ancillary characters like Jude’s asshole cousin pop up out of nowhere to shed some (but not too much!) blood. Characters slooooowly investigate strange noises, uttering “If you’re trying to scare me again, it’s not funny.” Things move by themselves, phantom voices whisper, the dog that growls at the unholy spirit is brutally murdered (NOT a spoiler, name me five horror movies in which the dog lives that aren’t Poltergeist). Folks come out of the woodwork to fall all over themselves explaining Brahms’s story, but there’s still the requisite internet search.

“Hee hee, jump scares tickle!”

The family is not exactly unlikable, but it’s hard for me to take their issues coping with the break-in as seriously as they do. While being robbed is of course a brutal and violating experience, it could have been a lot worse. Despite Liza’s claim that “I nearly died”, all that happened was she was knocked unconscious. It bugs me that Jude whines that Liza can’t protect him, when actually she was putting up a damn good fight. She scratched one’s face and then went to town straight-up pummeling the other one; she only stopped when the first one hit her over the head.

Liza can take him

Overall, I would have had a better time watching it with someone or someones to poke fun at it with me (or at least listen to me gripe that the doll calling itself Brahms doesn’t make any sense because the guy who had the doll last was named Brahms, and he was only the latest one in a long history of people the doll attached itself to), and that’s my recommendation: (spooky voice) Don’t watch it alone.

Fuck this doll! He’s more maintenance than an actual kid.

‘Vivarium’ is Satisfyingly Strange Without Being Pretentious

Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple looking for a home. They come across a real estate office marketing the territory Yonder, which promises “Quality family homes. Forever.” After blithely ignoring the horrifying slogan, they find all the houses look exactly alike, and they’re completely devoid of residents. The realtor, Martin (Jonathan Aris), abandons them, and they’re unable to leave. They drive around in circles until their car runs out of gas, yet no matter what they do, they end up back at the house Martin showed them. They’re provided with boxes of supplies, but also a baby, with the message “Raise the child and be released.” The house is indestructible, but Tom distracts himself by digging a hole in the yard. The two of them are miserable, and their oddly fast-growing young charge (who starts bearing a disconcerting physical resemblance to Martin) doesn’t help.

The face of a real estate agent guaranteed to maroon you in a nightmarish suburban hellscape

Vivarium documents the sometimes cruel aspects of nature, opening with a cuckoo pushing its competition out of the nest so it can eat all the worms. The movie doesn’t take a friendly look at marriage or parenthood either, with Gemma and Tom forced into roles they don’t want and their lives reduced to a narrow routine they loathe: brush their teeth, eat, dig, sleep, get up and do it all again. The cyclical nature of family life is really emphasized in one scene: Gemma slumps in front of the spinning dryer while the nameless kid they’re raising, credited as Young Boy (Senan Jennings), runs around in circles. Barking. Because he’s an asshole.

Gemma tries to get some enjoyment out of and convey some compassion to the child, but Tom doesn’t disguise the fact that he hates him and spends all day digging to avoid being around him. At one point Gemma discovers that their car’s battery still works, and they dance to the radio. Young Boy comes out and tries to join them, really bringing home the message that kids ruin everything.

Well, this one does, at least. Did I mention he shrieks at the top of his lungs when he’s hungry, even long past infancy?

Tom and Gemma are quite likable. Tom is funny, and Gemma is kind. They bicker, but their love for each other is apparent throughout. They continuously come across as sympathetic, even though they’re mostly crappy parents to Young Boy. He really is the worst. As Gemma says, “That boy is always watching.” They don’t provide a good role model for the kid, who is constantly mimicking them (in their own voices, nonetheless), but he doesn’t give them any peace or time to regroup.

It’s not a scary film per se, but it has a disturbing premise. Creepily, the reason for trapping people in Yonder is never overtly revealed. According to dictionary.com, a vivarium is “a place, such as a laboratory, where live animals or plants are kept under conditions simulating their natural environment, as for research”, so presumably someone or something is studying them, but why? (There are theories online, like this one.) I totally never thought of it, but while looking for images for this post, I saw some reviewers are commenting on how the movie “nails the feeling of social isolation”. It was released on March 27, 2020, which is a week after lockdown started in my neck of California, so the timing is pretty apt. But if you’re looking for escapism, it’s still weird and unpredictable enough to keep your attention off of viruses.

If you are thinking there are certainly worse things than having a house and all the accoutrements provided for free, you would be correct. But look at that off-brand cereal, yuck!

Blumhouse’s ‘Fantasy Island’ is Actually Pretty Good, but Don’t Expect Gore

The mysterious Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña) runs a mystical island resort. Guests come with a fantasy, and the island grants their wish. We have Gwen (Maggie Q), who regrets turning down a marriage proposal from Allen (Robbie Jones), Melanie (Lucy Hale), who wants to humiliate Sloane (Portia Doubleday), because she bullied her in high school, and Patrick (Austin Stowell), who wants to enlist in the military with his deceased dad (Mike Vogel). Brothers Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) and J.D. (Ryan Hansen) want to “have it all,” which involves a big house with an armory and a panic room and models of both sexes (Brax is gay). But since it’s a horror movie, everyone’s wishes have horrible consequences.

And runny makeup

It’s based on a show from the late ’70s which was not horror, but apparently Mr. Roarke could have been supernatural and did seem kind of evil. The whole series was created basically on a whim. The movie isn’t especially scary or even very graphic–except one scene when a character’s eyes pop. There are occasional jump scares, but really it’s more like a supernatural action movie.

Ant-Man is just off screen

I expected it to play out like a slasher movie, with a clearly defined final girl (the white one, natch) and the rest of the cast dying off one by one. I was wrong. The characters aren’t cheap EC comic villains, greedy and immoral; they’re decent people who are full of longing for the past. Just about all of them are likable. Sloane, who starts out as a real butt, turns out to be a badass fighter. Refreshingly, all of the women are smart and resourceful. Even Brax and J.D. are pretty great, despite their constant high-fiving and millennial patter.

Sloane (left), giving off major Kill Bill vibes

The movie has multiple unexpected life lessons, like not holding on to the past and letting go of an idealized version of things. “Regret is a disease,” muses Mr. Roarke. Most of the characters are battling self esteem issues and work to overcome their self-condemnation. As Damon (Michael Rooker), a private investigator hiding out on the island, says, “Only you can fix you.” Even the powerful Mr. Roarke struggles with the notion that people often must do what they have to do, not what they want.

Damon, king of the pep talks

On the whole, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something fun and action-packed rather than horrifying.