‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (2019) is Not Without its Charms

Jacob (Michael Ealy) is a former Afghanistan war medic who suffers from PTSD, which is exacerbated by the fact that he saw his brother Isaac (Jesse Williams), also a soldier, die on his operating table. In his current job at a veteran hospital, he bumps into guys who are on HDA, also known as “the ladder,” a drug that temporarily relieves PTSD symptoms but causes addiction and frightening hallucinations, and ultimately, death. Jacob is thrust into a government cover-up and finds out that Isaac is still alive. But the nightmare is only just beginning.

Yeesh, I don’t remember Joseph Sikora being this unsettling in The Intruder

I’m a fan of the original 1990 film, and plug for my review goes here. But I’m not out to compare them in terms of quality. The themes are a bit different. The original had heavy religious connotations, and this one mostly gives those up in favor of focusing on the PTSD angle. The plight of veterans not getting the care they need after the war is highlighted both overtly and symbolically, like when Jacob goes to the police after seeing an informant get pushed in front of a train. The cops tell him that it was a bag of garbage, not a person. The pain of PTSD is a major plot point, shown by the veterans’ need for HDA as “the only thing that helped.” Isaac likens his emotional struggles, the “memories I can’t get rid of”, to being in hell.

This is a hallucination Jacob has of a homeless dude’s gangrenous feet

In a welcome change from the original, Jacob doesn’t have a dead angel-son. In this movie, Gabriel is alive and well and an adorable baby rather than Macaulay Culkin. Jacob isn’t divorced but married to Samantha (Nicole Beharie, who is no Elizabeth Peña, but was absolutely riveting in Apartment 4E–see it!). Really, my only gripe is that in the switch to focusing on paranoia and the horrors of war, the whirring heads and creepy images from the original are completely underused here. However, some of the shots are absolutely breathtaking, like the recreation of the bathtub scene from the original: Jacob is running a fever and has to be put in an ice bath. Here it’s Isaac who gets the bath, and the slow-motion scene when he raises his head above the water is spellbinding; I can’t remember the last time I was so taken by a beautiful shot.

I wouldn’t say it’s an absolutely necessary remake, but it’s gorgeous and thought-provoking. The performances are terrific. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something creepy but also action-y.

‘Dreamkatcher’: No Surprises Here

2020 movie, not to be confused with the 2003 Stephen King adaptation, which I have reviewed here. Also, dreamkatchers are not to be confused with dreamcatchers–here’s the difference, according to a title card: a dreamkatcher is “a misshapen wooden hoop asymmetrically looped with blackened string, decorated with feathers and beads, believed to hold evil. Its origins are ancient and unknown…” Child psychologist Gail (Radha Mitchell) conveniently is dating Luke (Henry Thomas), a guy whose young son Josh (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) is traumatized by the recent death of his mother Becky (Jules Willcox), which is exacerbated by the three of them moving into her house. Turns out she was axe-murdered by a little boy after he came across one of those evil dreamkatchers because…reasons? The boy’s grandmother Ruth (Lin Shaye) has hidden the katcher safely in her barn, until Josh comes and steals it, which leads to him being possessed as well. Can Gail psychology him out of it?

Pictured: child psychology

If you’re thinking that perhaps a movie about white white whities playing with dreamcatchers (pardon me, dreamkatchers, totally different thing) is cultural appropriation, don’t worry, it’s totes not. Ruth runs a cute lil shop that specializes in spirit catchers and doodads. When Gail fingers a feathery, stereotypically Native American-looking object and states, “Some people might find this offensive,” Ruth counters that she appropriates items from all cultures, so it’s okay.

The movie had many of the cliches I’ve come to expect from mainstream horror: stuff moving by itself, whispering voices, the old character-appears-behind-an-open-refrigerator-door-and-is-suddenly-revealed-when-another-character-closes-it jump scare, dream sequences (including my very least favorite, the double dream sequence, when a character wakes up from a dream to find out that they’re in a second dream). Thankfully, the bathtub scene that appears exactly three and a half minutes into the movie doesn’t involve the character being startled or displaying full frontal nudity. But there is one extremely satisfying segment: Ruth busts into the house and confronts Josh with his theft of the dreamkatcher; she urges Gail to burn it, and wonder of wonders, she just tosses the thing right on a fire. Unfortunately, it’s indestructible and no one bothers to check that it actually burned up, but still, I think that’s the first time ever someone immediately followed orders to burn an evil artifact.

Pictured: Radha Mitchell questioning her recent life choices

I was bored a lot of the time. The filmmakers tend to rely on the plot points of a possessed kid and a kid haunted by his dead mom to be scary, things which are horrifying in theory, but not in this movie. Mostly we have things like twigs snapping, Gail waking up to multiple pictures of Becky around her, and Becky appearing in Josh’s dreams, but for the most part looking like her normal self. The characters are pretty unremarkable, and it feels like they spend an inordinate amount of time yelling about their situation rather than doing anything about it. It’s rated R, I guess for the subject matter of a kid hacking people to bits and a couple uses of the f-word. But otherwise it has a majorly tame, PG-13 feel.

Even her axe is underwhelming! It’s like they’re not even trying.

I wasn’t holding out much hope for this movie. I grabbed it from Redbox along with Uncut Gems for the sole reason that it was a freshly-released horror movie. Gems is a tough act to follow. Even its reference to The Exorcist is better than the one in this movie, when possessed Josh acts like Regan in her calm, talky mood. The first few minutes are confusing, and the cover, with some rando kid on it, is not helpful. On the plus side for James Wan-iverse fans, frequent collaborator Joseph Bishara has a cameo as a “Night Hag,” and he also scores the film. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something not too scary or original or thought-provoking.

Seriously, who the frick is this kid?

‘The Lodge’ is Just Painful–In a Good Way?

Richard (Richard Armitage), his wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone), and their kids Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) are going through a rough patch. Richard has decided that he’s in love with Grace (Riley Keough), one of the subjects of a book he wrote about cults: Grace’s father was a Jim Jones-style leader of a sect that committed group suicide. Richard informs Laura that their separation should commence into divorce, and Laura promptly ends her life. Cut to six months later, when Richard decides it would be a swell idea to take Grace, Aidan, and Mia up to the mountains for a Christmas vacation, even though Richard has to work, leaving Grace alone with the kids. What is already a monumentally shitty situation escalates into worse and worse scenarios when their stuff mysteriously disappears (including Grace’s pills and everyone’s winter coats), and the power goes out, and the generator breaks, and their phones die, and also the nearest town is miles away and there’s major snow and no car, and they’re running out of food, and Grace’s dog is gone.

No need to take two cars, Richard. What could possibly go wrong?

I watched this about a week after The Turning, which I wasn’t crazy about (it’s an easy comparison, what with both movies having a main character from the It reboot as a bratty teen with a little sister, resenting a new blond authority figure), and a few minutes after Cats, so my bar was set pretty low. I was still disappointed. It’s not poorly made whatsoever, but it is a premise that’s pretty hard to swallow. What kind of asshole would abandon his kids in snowy isolation with an unstable woman who’s barely more than a stranger to them?

Who wouldn’t want to destroy their family to marry this gal?

The filmmakers do a great job of building tension with the sets alone. The movie is populated with these horrifying, teeny-tiny hallways and suffocating, low ceilings. Pair these with multiple shots of Grace staring dreamily out the window at the mounting levels of snow, and things are creepy AF. Not to mention the dolls. Dolls for days, in varying states of foreshadowing bad things to come. It’s eerie, even when nothing scary is happening. But overshadowing the creepiness is a sense of sorrow. The lighting is dim and drab and the color scheme is monochromatic. Stuff starts out sad and just snowballs into even more tragic events as it goes on, without letting up. Just when things look their worst, shit gets even worser. I couldn’t wait for it to be over because it was so damn joyless.

Gah narrow spaces AND dolls! Make it stop!

There are heavy religious themes and imagery throughout. Laura passes on her Catholic beliefs to the kids, and in one scene, Mia cries inconsolably because she believes her mother’s soul won’t be able to go to heaven. (Richard, being such an emotionally intelligent dude, tries to soothe her by saying “Nobody knows where we go.” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so bad for a movie tween crying “You don’t understand!”) Crosses lurk everywhere, like the one looming ominously in a high-angle shot during Laura’s funeral. Religion is not portrayed very optimistically; it’s associated with cruelty and mania. At the cabin Grace becomes convinced they need to repent their sins and circles around in the snow on her knees; she also inflicts wounds on herself. (If you wanted to be even more bleak, you could invite the comparison between humans manipulating dolls and God manipulating humans.)

Christ figure, right here…

I’m not sorry I watched it, despite all my griping. It’s extremely powerful and moving, and the ending is worth the wait. And thank God, the little girl isn’t cutesy. Give it a look as long as you don’t suffer from depression, ’cause you might when it’s over.

The Lodge: Where being religious means you’re teetering on the verge of losing your damn mind at any given moment, and being agnostic means you’re a blithering idiot

‘Gretel and Hansel’ is Creepy and Weird

In the style of the Grim fairy tale, the land of long ago is in serious famine. At the home of Gretel (Sophia Lillis), who for the sake of the movie is a teenager, and Hansel (Samuel Leakey), their mother (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) is losing her shit after the patriarch has gone on to his reward. So she boots the kids out, inviting them to dig a grave for her while they’re digging their own. You know, typical fairy tale mom. Gretel is unperturbed, because childhood is a fairly recent sociological invention. She and Hansel wind up in the forest looking for work, and find a cottage full of food. The Witch (Alice Krige) who lives there is cool with letting them stay, and happily teaches Gretel woman stuff like cleaning and herbs and telekinetic Jedi skills. Both children eventually sense that something is off (like how she always has food despite never buying or growing or breeding any), but the Witch is not prepared to let them go so easily.

“Cool, a slide! Did they have these back then?”

It’s directed by Osgood Perkins, who did I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Basically, he’s the master of gothic, psychological, and moody films. This one is no exception. The tone is dark, the lighting is dark, and the overall essence is that of despair. It lightens up a bit eventually, but it’s pretty bleak. When apprenticing with a witch in otherwise total isolation is the best option for a character, when abundance is something to be afraid and suspicious of, times are pretty rough. It performed fairly well with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but not as much with fans. Pretentious is a word that’s bounced around a lot regarding Perkins’s films. I’m not saying I agree; I’m saying it’s hard to miss the continuous image system of triangles, but I have no idea what they mean.

In my review of The Turning, I griped about it being considered feminist. (It’s easy to associate the two movies, as both feature a lead actor from the It reboot saddled with a needy younger sibling.) This however is a film you could consider feminist, or at least an exploration of the shittiness of gender roles. Being a female of her times, Gretel is not given a multitude of options for living her best life. As the Witch cackles when Gretel addresses her as “Missus,” “You think I’m married? See you a ball and chain at my heel?” Prior to being forcefully evacuated from her home, Gretel is sent to see Master Stripp (Donncha Crowley) about housekeeping work. He leers at her, remarking “You will do well to limit the number of words that come out of your mouth.” After insisting that she address him as “Milord,” he inquires as to whether she’s still a virgin. Surprisingly, Gretel doesn’t stick around for such a tantalizing job. (See, this is how you point out sexual abuse is a thing in a feminist way–Gretel would rather let her family starve than be harassed.)

Also, being powerful involves having black fingers. Make what you will of that.

Meanwhile, the male characters are less awesome. In addition to Stripp and a parade of dead dads, Hansel is pretty useless. His main goal in life is to chop stuff with an axe, and he’s quite terrible at it. The Witch pokes fun at how he blames the trees’ strength for his own weakness, and points out how he’s a burden on Gretel (which Gretel secretly agrees with). There is one cool guy in the movie, for all of less than ten minutes. The first house Gretel and Hansel crash in is occupied by some kind of screaming humanoid creature, and the Huntsman (Charles Babalola) appears and kills it. He then proceeds to put the kids up for the night and let them eat his dinner. When Gretel is skeptical of his motives, he assures her that altruism will bring him good karma and being a shitty person hurts everybody, even the shitty person. A philosophy of self-sacrifice and kindness is pretty much the opposite of what the Witch is selling (and kinda traditionally feminine); she’s all about sacrificing whoever stands in her way (kinda traditionally masculine).

“How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your brother?”

Lots of reviewers complained it was boring. The pacing is a bit slow. For much of the movie, the Witch actually seems pretty okay. She’s kind and nourishing to the kids, especially in counterpoint to dear old Mom. She’s teaching Gretel how to develop her personal power and become her “fate’s own master.” This really could have been a whole different, non-horror movie about women making life choices that actually benefit themselves. But then there’s some blahdy-blah about kids’ trapped souls, it’s all very Coraline. There’s even a mystery closet. I didn’t find it boring per se; there is a building sense of dread throughout and some creepy images. It’s unpredictable for the most part.

This here scene is bad news bears

Overall, I was glad I’d watched it, even if I didn’t exactly enjoy it. Some parts irked me, like Gretel and Hansel’s habit of bolstering each other’s moods by snorting like a pig. Or the fact that Gretel sounds American even though it’s a period piece, which means that regardless of era or geography, everyone must have an English accent. Every other person has at least a vaguely European voice except her. And the scene when she barks at Hansel, “Fall quiet, boy!” bothers me to no end. The dialogue bounces back and forth between wannabe medieval and Victorian. Anywho, gripes aside, check it out if you’re in the mood for something unsettling and thoughtful.

“Fall quiet, movie critic! I’m my generation’s Jamie Lee Curtis!”

‘The Platform’ Asks Some Disturbing Questions

Spanish movie, AKA El Hoyo. Goreng (Ivan Massagué) is a principled man who applies to be sent to “The Hole”, a prison, in order to quit smoking and read a lengthy book. At the end of six months, he will have earned an accredited diploma. The Hole involves 333 floors, with two people per level. Each day, a table laden with food is sent down through a hole in the middle of the floor. Level 0 gets first pick of the food, and the table is sent down to level 1, and so forth on down. Each month, residents wake up on a new floor. Naturally, being on a higher level is more desirable, as there is less chance of the food being eaten. Goreng’s cellmate, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor), is a cynic who shows him the ropes. Goreng struggles to maintain his morals in an increasingly dog-eat-dog system.

Trimagasi really loves his knife

Each prisoner is allowed to bring in one item, and Goreng chooses Don Quixote, which is significant in the context of the movie. Quixotism, as defined by Wikipedia, is “idealism without regard to practicality”. Goreng starts out on a moral high horse, while Trimagasi spits on the food and doesn’t care who else eats as long as he gets his share. They’re on level 48 for Goreng’s first month, which still allows for an adequate amount of food for them, so Goreng can afford to be aghast. But next month they’re on level 171, and things become difficult, as no food at all is left on the table. There’s a caste system at play; the people on higher levels totally ignore the people below them, despite the fact that most likely the next month they’ll be lower. Goreng’s acquaintance Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan) tries every day to convince people to ration their food to stretch it as far as possible for everyone else, but they don’t listen until Goreng threatens to shit on the entire table.

Threatening people with getting their skulls bashed in works a bit better

This movie was recommended to me on a Facebook horror forum. I had seen the trailer, which looked interesting. So I was enthusiastic going in, and I was not disappointed. It’s suspenseful and unpredictable. As an added bonus, it was more diverse than I was expecting. I’ve seen a handful of Spanish movies, and the cast was Latinx or Hispanic white. In this movie, the actors are Asian and Black as well. The performances are great, particularly Zorion Eguileor. He makes Trimagasi, who’s completely repugnant, compelling.

It’s grubby and distasteful, and it’s a fascinating study of what people might be pushed to do when their backs are against the wall.  Check it out if you’re in the mood for something that’ll make you cringe–in a good way.

‘The Turning’: You’ll Be Turning it Off

Loosely based on the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw. It’s 1994, and Kate (Mackenzie Davis) is a perky schoolteacher who is hired on to be a nanny for young orphan Flora (Brooklynn Prince), who lives in a giant, giant house with only her maid, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten). The previous au pair, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) abruptly disappeared, which is not in the least disconcerting or suspicious. Flora’s sullen brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) joins them after being kicked out of boarding school for severely beating his classmate. The typical haunted house events occur: disembodied voices and footsteps, doors locking themselves, mannequins appearing out of nowhere. Before long, Kate is questioning her sanity.

“I’m feeling distinctly less perky.”

I was aware going in that people found the movie unfavorable, not the least of them being my friend Tabbitha, who absolutely hated it, on all levels. I didn’t hate it, but I did hate the characters. Kate and her wide-eyed enthusiasm, Flora and her giggling cutesy act, Miles and his toxic masculinity (more on that in a minute), Mrs. Grose and her insistence that “The children are very special, Kate. They’re thoroughbreds.” In one scene, Kate tries to make the kids bus their own plates to the sink, and no one’s havin it, not even Mrs. Grose. The most compelling character is, as per usual, the sassy best friend of color, Rose (Kim Adis). Naturally, there are no stills of her from the movie.

*Spoiler alert: she makes it*

The cinematography is gorgeous, and the set is gloomy and atmospheric, but the movie is just not scary. There’s one decent jump scare, and the many that come after fail to live up to it. Cliches abound, like Kate saying “This isn’t funny”. And the obligatory female character tries to relax in the bathtub but is startled scene. And the scene when a character is viciously attacked but it turns out to be a dream sequence. And the slowly creeping around to investigate mysterious noises scene–way too many of those.

The mannequin moving around by itself is no match for mid-’90s fashion trends in terms of disturbing content

Miles, who’s still in high school, is creepily sexual and dominant with Kate. Before his character shows up in person, we know that he thinks it’s funny to mutilate a mannequin’s breasts by jabbing them full of pins. Whether there actually are ghosts or if Kate is delusional is left ambiguous, but Miles is definitely being influenced by his deceased riding teacher, Quint (Niall Greig Fulton) (whose death was neither suspect nor cause for alarm). Miles is insistent on getting Kate up on a horse, leering, “Can I still give you your riding lesson tomorrow?” Quint forced himself on Miss Jessel (which we find out both by Kate hearing them and by Jessel’s unnecessarily detailed lesson plan). Miles and Kate engage in a power struggle the moment he walks in the door. Miles enjoys scaring her and completely rejects the concept of her being an authority figure. In one scene he comes into her room and touches her face while she’s sleeping.

“Quiet, peasant! Thoroughbreds are talking!”

While looking for images from the film to include in this post, I saw that one reviewer called the movie feminist. Pointing out that sexual abuse exists is not feminism, even if the film is directed by a woman. The movie is peopled by hysterical, powerless females and entitled males who subjugate them. As I said, I had warning ahead of time that I would hate it, but I felt compelled to watch it anyway and see for myself. So I won’t try to stop you. But for a palate cleanse, may I suggest Terminator: Dark Fate? It’s not a horror movie, but Mackenzie Davis’s character is much less someone whose face you want to smush. Or maybe that’s just me.

“As if! I am all that and a bag of chips!”
P.S., this spiders-coming-out-of-the-mouth scene does NOT happen in the movie

P.P.S., if you’re confused about the ending, as I was and many viewers were, here’s an explanation.

‘Underwater’: In the Mariana Trench, No One Can Hear You Scream

Norah (Kristen Stewart) is onboard the world’s deepest sub-aqueous drill. After a sudden pressure breach kills most of the crew, she and five other survivors, Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), Paul (T.J. Miller), Emily (Jessica Henwick), and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) set out to hoof it through the ocean to the nearest vessel, the Roebuck drill. Unfortunately, the breech was caused by creatures lying in wait for them.

Yup, these critters

The movie opens with Norah brushing her teeth and waxing philosophical about how she’s an empty-glass kind of gal, then jumps right into action and stays fast-paced and intense. It’s generally a paint-by-numbers subgenre: creature picks off crew members one by one. However, in this film, most of the problems come from the characters’ damn malfunctioning pressure suits–the creatures don’t really come into play as major antagonists until 74 minutes into the runtime. Still, it’s refreshing to have characters dying off from situations beyond their control rather than sheer stupidity. And the deaths aren’t super predictable; against all odds, characters survive acts like saying “We’ll be right back,” and poking a baby monster with a pen in the name of science.

I guess she’s wearing these glasses to look smart, ’cause she sure as fuck doesn’t need them to see shortly after this scene

I started out debating whether to watch the movie. I have a weird aversion to films that take place on the water, and this one has no scenes on land, not even for exposition. I wasn’t even sure it was strictly horror. But then I read that the creatures are basically supposed to be Cthulhus, so I gave in. It’s very reminiscent of Alien, from the drab color scheme to the characters. Norah is definitely almost as cool as Ripley. She’s the sensible one who says stuff like, “Dude, don’t check it out. Just come back.” She’s also tech smart, and she can defend herself; at one point, she straight-up pummels a sizable monster that’s trying to eat her.

The environmental bent to the script is obvious. Deepwater drilling isn’t great for the ecosystem. In case the opening, flashing newspaper clippings about how the drill’s shady-ass company keeps going even after weird sightings and crew disappearances doesn’t make it clear that underwater mining is dangerous and unethical in the point of view of the filmmakers, Emily blatantly points out, “We took too much. And now she’s [referring to Mother Earth] taking back. We’re not supposed to be down here. No one is.”

Emily definitely starts out as the Lambert of the crew

Circling back to the characters–they’re pretty likable. I didn’t wish any of them any specific harm, except maybe for Paul. He’s meant to be the source of comic relief, but I found him extremely annoying, particularly his habit of carrying around a stuffed rabbit named Lil Paul. I appreciated the more subtle humor, like when Norah ends up by herself on a shuttle, and the camera pans across a poster that states, “Working alone is against company policy.” Or my favorite, the ever-present robot voice extolling the virtues of the company playing over a shot of the creatures swimming outside: “Tian Industries. We’ve got big things in store for you.” Big things, indeed.

“Tian Industries. You want Cthulhus? “Cause that’s how you get Cthulhus!”

Overall, I was glad I’d watched it. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for sci-fi with a helping of eldritch horror.

‘Haunt’ (2019): Don’t Stick Your Arm in Mystery Holes!

Not to be confused with the 2014 film of the same name, which I already reviewed here. It’s Halloween, and our six main characters are looking for a haunted house. We have final girl Harper (Katie Stevens), her love interest Nathan (Will Brittain), her roommate Bailey (Lauren Alisa McClain), and her friends, token woman of color Angela (these days we get one fewer whitie in addition to the Black best friend if the main cast numbers at least six) (Shazi Raja), obnoxious but useful Evan (Andrew Caldwell), and the other one, Mallory (Schuyler Helford). The place they end up in is a labyrinthine hellhole full of murderers. Naturally, not all of them will see November 1st.

“Well, they’re not charging an arm and a leg for parking, but the admission price will be…murder…”

I’d heard good things about the movie, both from Facebook and a treasured professor from my college days who helped me realize how much I love writing about horror movies. It’s produced by Eli Roth and directed/written by the fellas who penned A Quiet Place, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. I wasn’t disappointed, but I did feel a bit confused as I was watching. The synopsis on Shudder makes it sound like it’s about characters facing specific phobias, describing the setting as a “haunted house that promises to feed on their darkest fears.” This seems to happen at first. We learn early on that Mallory is afraid of spiders, and once she’s in the haunt a shit ton of them are dumped on her head. But they disappear suddenly without harming her, and that tack is abandoned for the rest of the movie. The characters instead face their fears of getting straight-up murdered by lunatics.

“I hope it’s not a dick in a box. Again.”

It’s not scary, but it’s pretty unpredictable, which is something to treasure in a movie these days, particularly a slasher. The killers don’t have a definitively established motive, and are creepier for being unexplained. As you can expect from Eli Roth, it’s gory, sometimes shockingly so. The jump scares, refreshingly not over-relied on, are effective.

“I take a fence at this post!”

The characters are fairly likable. Once Harper settles in and realizes what’s at stake, she becomes a pretty badass final girl, smart and tough. One does have to wonder, though, at people who’d willingly go into a decrepit shithole in the middle of nowhere. They see nothing wrong with signing liability forms that we later find out ask for their addresses and their parents’ names.

“We’d like to enter your shady-ass establishment, please.”–actual quote by Bailey

My biggest gripe is that I’m puzzled about the inclusion of domestic abuse in the movie. Harper has flashbacks of her father battering her mother, and Harper’s current boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt) is similarly violent to her. It doesn’t have any real bearing on the plot or her transformation into a fighter. As I said, the characters aren’t conquering personal fears; she’s not drawing on her traumatic childhood to deal with anything currently happening to her. This is the sum total of information about the other characters: Nathan used to play baseball but got injured, Angela has 46 cousins, and Evan can pick locks. Why is Harper the only one who gets a backstory, and why such a pointlessly grotesque one?

But overall, I liked it. It’s not as good as A Quiet Place, but what is, really? Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something gruesome and startling.

‘The Shed’: A Decidedly Un-Sparkly Teen Vampire Dramedy

Stan (Jay Jay Warren) is living with his grandfather Ellis (Timothy Bottoms) on the edge of the woods. When neighbor Bane (Frank Whaley) is bitten by a vampire while hunting, he decides to snooze the day away in Ellis’s shed. This brings nothing but problems for Stan, as Bane tends to munch on anything that comes near him. It does however give his friend Dommer (Cody Kostro) some ideas for dealing with the bullies who have been hounding him.

“Oh, does it involve doin’ your mom? ‘Cause I’m doin’ your mom! That’s the extent of my repetoire for taunting people outside of homophobic slurs!”

The opening is suspiciously saccharine, with Stan’s mother waking him for breakfast: “Saturday means pancakes, your favorite.” His parents (Caroline Duncan and Sal Rendino) affectionately tease him about kissing his best gal Roxy (Sofia Happonen) at the Sadie Hawkins dance. This turns out to be a dream, setting the tone for the film as more reflective of harsh reality. The trailer makes it look like a straight-up horror comedy, but there’s a lot of teen angst going on. Stan’s a step away from juvenile hall, Roxy’s stepfather hits her mother, and Dommer loses his shit completely because of being harassed at school. The scene when he corners head bully Marble (Chris Petrovski), venting about what an asshole Marble is to him, is heartbreaking.

Marble’s contriteness might be more convincing if he’d lose the brass knuckles

The odd creature hiding in the shed brings to mind ET, and while the era it takes place in isn’t definitively specified (I decided mid-’90s, as Stan uses a Walkman, has a stack of cassette tapes, and spends time moping over physical photographs, and all the high school kids are wearing flannels–plus one of the taglines is “Don’t go there”), it has an ’80s feel. It’s easily comparable to Fright Night and The Lost Boys and other teenage-boy-fights-vampires movies–at least in terms of plot points.

Boarding up the house montage!

I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t set out to be racist, but the only people of color in the movie are cruel, cowardly, or stupid. (Though I have to admit, there is a shortage of likable characters–all the protagonists are white, though.) We have bully Pitt (Francisco Burgos), who shows up in the thick of the vampire battle and has to be saved by the guy he came to beat up. There’s Deputy Haiser (Mu-Shaka Benson), who shows up in one scene to hassle Stan and then disappears for the rest of the movie. And then the mean girl who hangs out with Roxy briefly; going by the credits, she has a name, either Christy or Donna, but I don’t know which she’s supposed to be. Oh and let’s not forget the Ancient Vampire (Damian Norfleet) from the very beginning, who’s so interested in biting Bane that he doesn’t notice the sun’s coming up. (Though to be fair, none of these are suit-wearing, erudite vampires–they’re more like if Nosferatu were also a werewolf.)

I should also mention that 95% of the people in the movie hassle Stan; even his grandpa wants to beat him up. He must have one of those faces.

Women fare little better. Sheriff Dorney (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) is pegged by Ellis as not very bright, and she doesn’t prove him wrong. Aside from her and dead pancake-makin’ Mom, we have Roxy. She provides emotional support and wet dream material (this movie has way too many goddamn dream sequences) when she materializes in Stan’s room as a character from the poster on his wall, Satanic Sorority Sluts. She helps some in the fight, but not before whimpering uselessly in the corner as the vampire advances on her. Not to mention the scene when she’s supposed to be securing the perimeter, but she stops to peruse Stan’s old pictures of her.

This is about ten seconds worth of cool–she doesn’t even inflict any damage with this gun

Gripes aside, I do have to appreciate Stan’s goodheartedness. One of the taglines for the movie is “Beware the evil within.” On the surface it refers to the shed, but it can also be extended to the potential evil inside a person. Dommer loses his humanity in his obsession with hurting the people who hurt him, but Stan never does. Even though he has as much reason to hate the bullies as Dommer, Stan still shows compassion for them.

“Look, Dommer, don’t fill your heart-shed full of hate-vampires!” “Huh?” “Shut up, it’s a metaphor!”

Overall, I’m not sorry I watched it, or even that I paid ninety-nine cents to do so on demand. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for beastly vampires and flawed characters.

‘In Fabric’: What In the Hell was That? (In a Good Way)

English movie, made by A24. London, sometime in the ’80s. Shoppers are highly enthused about the newly opened Dentley and Soper’s Trusted Department Store. The place is characterized both by reasonable prices and odd-speaking, Victorian-looking personnel. The majority of the movie concerns Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a single mum looking for love (though more than halfway through, it abruptly switches storylines to focus on Reg the washing machine repairman, played by Leo Bill). She buys a dress from the shop, which turns out to be…evil? The movie is quite cryptic about what’s up with the garment that gives it both the motive and the ability to kill, but anyone who comes into contact with it suffers the consequences.

“This dress looks great on you. It’s absolutely…killer…”–not an actual quote, none of the salespeople speaks that coherently

I can’t remember what caused me to put this on my watchlist, but it was not at all what I expected. The cover is so dark and dramatic (see below), I was incredulous that the film is classified as a horror comedy. But it is utterly, comically bizarre. Human interactions are stunted and awkward or just downright weird among most of the characters. For example Sheila’s bosses Stash (Julian Barratt) and Clive (Steve Oram), who continually call her into meetings for infractions like not having a meaningful handshake or waving at the boss’s mistress. Then, my favorite, Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) from Dentley and Soper’s. Her conversations with customers go like this: “Your changing room is waiting for you and your dress to coalesce into a simple union of wonder” and “Your shopping will conclude now. Pay us for your items and return to your house.” But the scenes without dialogue are even stranger, like Miss Luckmoore washing a menstruating mannequin while coworker Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer) watches and tosses off.

The A24 part should have clued me in that this was not going to be a mainstream-friendly experience

Which isn’t to say the entire movie is a laugh riot. There’s a prevalent influence of ’70s and ’80s horror, with all the freeze frames and synth pop. The vivid use of color–especially red–brings to mind Suspiria in particular. The comitragic events are totally unpredictable and completely mysterious, reminiscent of David Lynch productions. The ending is deeply disturbing and worth the wait.

Yes, this newborn is wearing a tiny version of the killer dress–this, thankfully, is a dream sequence

If I were to venture a guess about what the movie is about on a deeper level, I’d say…consumerism slash obsession with fashion? There is a fair amount of screentime devoted to folks queuing up to get in, with the shopkeeps eerily beckoning them inside. A fistfight breaks out between two ladies over who’s next in line, and it sweeps over the entire store in moments. And/or…objectification slash commodification of women? We see a lot of mannequins and clothing models. Sheila’s son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) has a girlfriend, Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), who models for him, but it looks like all he draws are representations of her fancy parts, which he occasionally uses as masturbation aids. Sheila is treated poorly by one of her dates, who deigns to squeeze her in between his many other outings and pouts that she doesn’t look like her picture. Hands are a constant image system throughout, but I have no idea what to make of that.

“Come buy, come buy.”

Overall, I came away glad I had watched it, and I look back at it fondly. It took me a while to get into it; again, I wasn’t expecting so much humor. Give it a look if you’re in the mood to forget your surroundings for a while and bask in some retro weirdness.