‘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.

‘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.