‘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.

‘The Curse of Buckout Road’: Great Performances Make up for a Garbled Plot

Buckout Road, Westchester County, New York: “The most haunted road in America.” It’s a topic of study for Professor Hancock (Mayko Nguyen) and three of her students, Cleo (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), Erik (Kyle Mac), and Derek (Jim Watson), who are doing a presentation on creation and destruction of modern myth. Their quest to disprove the legends associated with the road instead cause them to be haunted by premonitions of their own deaths. Enter Aaron (Evan Ross), fresh out of Naval Postgraduate School and visiting his grandfather Lawrence (Danny Glover), who happens to be Cleo’s psychiatrist and a colleague of her father, Detective Harris (Henry Czerny). Aaron soon finds himself having crazy dreams, too. Can the young folks solve the mystery before they die?

This gang has no dog and two Shaggies

There really is a Buckout Road, and there really are legends associated with it, as depicted in the movie: a trio of witches burned at the stake, a guy named Buckhout shooting his wife, a woman named Mary hanging herself and reappearing as a specter dressed in white, and a family of albinos coming to attack if one honks one’s horn three times. (This article is very informative, if you’re interested in the real deal.) Cleo, Erik, and Derek disprove all of the legends in their video project, but they turn out to be true somehow anyway, and throw in some devil worship and lucid dreaming by way of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and you’ve got an interesting premise and some intriguing ideas about facts versus faith, but a storyline that turns to poo.

However, according to this article, earlier versions of the movie were even fucking wackier (and it was originally going to be directed by Jason Priestley). This is how John Pascucci, still credited for the film’s story but not script, described the movie: “Buckout chops off his wife’s head, and burns down a barn full of slaves after learning that his wife had an affair with one of the slaves. Voodoo witches place a curse on Buckout and his two sons, turning them into albinos who must eat human flesh to get back their pigmentation. It’s the ultimate price for being a racist.” That sounds…like a noble effort on the part of a clueless white guy…? Instead of what I can only imagine were well-meaning-but-racist depictions of voodoo, we have a script co-written by a man of color, Shahin Chandrasoma, and a fairly diverse cast.

The characters are likable, or if not likable then well-portrayed. Aaron is brave and strong without being all macho and braggy about it. Cleo is smart and kicks ass. Erik and Derek (they’re twins, by the way, that’s why their names rhyme) are not terribly annoying. Danny Glover, Colm Feore, and Henry Czerny are seasoned professionals, and not unfamiliar faces in the horror genre. I could have used more Glover, really. Okay, mainly who I had in mind when I said likable was Aaron and to a lesser extent Cleo. Aaron is just a good dude. He can carry the movie all by himself.

Look at him, all ‘I was in the military, so I’m tough and disciplined, but I like to read philosophy, too.’

Overall, I enjoyed it. I’m in the see-it rather than the not-see-it camp. The random attempts at humor and plot inconsistencies didn’t ruin the movie for me. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something fun with protagonists who think.

And supporting characters who think

Creepy Music Video Time! Greg Kihn Band: “Jeopardy”

I’ve recently read the book Horror Show by Greg Kihn. Published in 1996, it’s a tale about 1950s shlock filmmaker Landis Woodley (think Ed Wood with a little William Castle), and his entourage as they make the best movie a tiny budget has to offer–with real corpses. And, unbeknownst to them, a demon.

Kihn really gets the mindset of a horror fan: “All the crazy dreams that had been causing the kid sleepless nights since adolescence were suddenly real. It was just as he’d always suspected. There were monsters. Even at the movies, when he covered his eyes because he was too afraid to see something that he knew would haunt his dreams for years to come, he always peeked. He had to. Let me see. I want to see it.

The back cover of Horror Show

But before he was an author, Kihn was the frontman of the ’80s two-hit wonder (the other hit being “The Break-up Song”) Greg Kihn Band. The music video for “Jeopardy” reflects anxiety about the lifelong commitment of marriage by depicting couples as bickering Cronenbergian mutations. Check it out!

‘Little Monsters’: You Need it in Your Life

Australian film, not to be confused with the 1989 movie of the same title, which I reviewed quite a while ago, here. Dave (Alexander England) is a subpar musician who’s just broken up with his girlfriend because they disagree on whether to have kids–he doesn’t want to. He crashes on his sister Tess’s (Kat Stewart) couch and proceeds to corrupt his five-year-old nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) with shooty games and swearing. In order to get some time with Felix’s hot teacher Audrey (Lupita Nyong’o), he agrees to chaperone a class field trip to Pleasant Valley Farm, a petting zoo/mini golf course. Unfortunately, there’s a U.S. Army Testing Facility close by, and the latest project has created flesh-eating zombies, which escape and terrorize everyone in the vicinity. Dave, Audrey, and visiting kiddy show host Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) team up to stay alive.

The one in the foreground ate a hedgehog, if you’re wondering what’s all over his face

It was released October 2019, and I’d had it on my watchlist for months. Naturally, a movie about any kind of outbreak is rather timely while watching in spring 2020. What stands out to me most in this context (and in general, because she’s awesome) is Audrey. She’s absolutely determined that the kids aren’t traumatized by their experience, and she has them convinced that the whole thing is really a game. She even leads them in song with her ever-present ukelele. We all need some Audrey right now, telling us that we can make it and that we’ll be okay even though we’re in an insane situation. We all need to be Audrey right now. I couldn’t find any clips on YouTube, but here’s a gif capturing her commitment to getting through whatever shit comes her way: https://images.app.goo.gl/wfftHVjcJ4gCWhm46

Lupita Nyong’o: America’s sweetheart

Also delightful is Disney darling Josh Gad as foul-mouthed, selfish cynic Teddy. He’s the source of most of the comedy. (Though the American soldiers being stereotypical Americans is pretty great, too.) When Audrey tries to get Dave and the children into the shelter of the gift shop, Teddy wants to keep them locked out. Audrey: “We have kids out here!” Teddy: “Oh! Oh my God, I don’t give a shit!” There’s a poignant moment when, in desperation for something to get drunk on, he drinks hand sanitizer. Oh, when we had Purell to waste.

“I absolutely do not like warm hugs.”

Dave is likable despite being a typical movie slacker, lazy and unmotivated. He completes his character arc when he realizes that he’s refusing to start a family not on general principle but because he doesn’t want to be a bad father like his own dad. Thus, the answer to his problems is not to be single anymore. (It’s a movie, that’s the solution to everyone’s problems, in any situation.) He becomes a kid-loving, Taylor Swift-singing machine! Audrey in comparison has a lot less character development; I had expected her to be the main protagonist, given that the trailer is all about her, and she’s on the cover, but much of the movie is from Dave’s perspective. However, she starts out practically perfect and only becomes more badass as the movie goes on.

If you’re guessing that this guitar will be weaponized and destroyed in order to illustrate his growth, you would be correct

Overall, I loved it. Nyong’o’s singing alone is worth the price of admission. Give it a look if you want something gory but lighthearted.

And here’s one more pic for good measure:

‘The Tokoloshe’ is Absolutely Devastating

South African movie, in English and Zulu, by Black filmmaker Jerome Pikwane. Busi (it’s pronounced Boo-see–I’ve seen the movie, and I’m still reading it as Busy and I’m getting pissed at myself) (Petronella Tshuma) is living in abject poverty; her apartment building is condemned and she’s getting by on scraps. She vows to scrape up enough money to get her sister Lindi (Lebohang Mthunzi) out of their childhood home, where their father raped them under their mother’s eye. She gets a job as a cleaner at a hospital, where she befriends a neglected girl named Gracie (Kwande Nkosi). She’s being haunted by the Tokoloshe (pronounced toe-ko-loash), the Zulu version of the boogeyman, and Busi quickly finds out that it can–and will–follow Gracie anywhere.

The film depicts conditions of inequality, varying from age, economic status, and sex. The Tokoloshe is established as a creature that preys on “the lost, the weak” and “children and those left alone.” These are the people whose plight is highlighted in the movie. The hospital Busi works at houses children who are orphans or deserted for having AIDS. One scene includes a TV news story in the background, describing the country’s shocking prevalence of sexual abuse. The Tokoloshe isn’t shown onscreen as a literal molester of children (Gracie says of it, “I don’t like the way he plays. He plays rough.”), but Busi’s character arc of coming to terms with her traumatic childhood and battling the Tokoloshe are intertwined in the storyline.

Gracie hiding from the Tokoloshe

Busi meanwhile, is objectified and even assaulted by men. In her first scene she’s whistled at; her coworker advises her, regarding their boss Ruatomin (Dawid Minnaar), “Keep your tits tucked in and legs crossed and everything will be just fine.” It’s not “just fine,” however; Ruatomin, knowing how much she needs the job, tries to force himself on her. Most of the men in the movie are awful, from a mean bus driver to Jakes (Coco Merckel), a guy who jovially tries to have his way with Busi in lieu of rent, but there is one positive male character, Abel (pronounced Ah-bell) (Yule Masiteng). He’s a healer who makes masks that ward off evil spirits. He tells her, “If you want to be strong, you have to wake up and do something.” Then he disappears from the movie, because this is not a film where heroes come charging to the rescue.

“It’s really not, but thanks for trying.”

It looks like a low-budget movie, with passable special effects and makeup. But the performances are amazing, particularly Tshuma and Nkosi. And when the Tokoloshe shows up onscreen (late in the movie, like smart filmmakers do), it’s surprisingly eerie. Often what is used–quite effectively, too–in terms of scares is sound. The music is, as described by closed captioning, “ominous,” “sinister,” “tense,” and “chilling.” Then there are ambient noises like “whooshing,” “child laughing creepily,” and “child laughing hauntingly.” In addition, there’s a disturbing feeling of isolation throughout. The film is full of huge (pronounced hugh-je), vacant buildings and vast, empty landscapes. This sense of abandonment is really hammered home in the scene when the Tokoloshe attacks Gracie, whose screams echo all the way into the courtyard, but no one helps her.

Yeah, shots like these

Overall, I was impressed with it. There are hardly any cheesy horror movie trappings (Busi does go nosing around the dark, asking “Hello? Is there somebody there?”), and it’s earnest and thought-provoking. Okay, I just gave 2019’s Black Christmas a keyboard-lashing for being unsubtle and preachy, and yes, this movie can be a bit heavyhanded too, but at least it starts with a workable supernatural premise instead of shoehorning in a ludicrious one that barely keeps the metaphor limping along. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for creepiness and social commentary done right.

‘The Grudge’ (2020) is Worth Your Time

Taking place in the mid-2000s, the same time as the first American remakes of the Japanese Ju On movies, the film chronicles the swath of destruction caused by an American nurse, Fiona (Tara Westwood) bringing home the Saeki curse to her own house and spreading it to anyone who steps inside.

“In my professional opinion: ewwwww.”

I wasn’t big on the idea of yet another American take on the classic series, but I gave in out of curiosity, and it won me over. While there are jump scares, they’re pretty effective rather than cheesy and predictable, and the movie doesn’t rely solely on them. The main attraction is atmosphere: the sense of building dread and anticipation of horrible things to come. The creepy AF score by the phenomenal genre pros The Newton Brothers doesn’t hurt, either.

“She’s right behind me, isn’t she?”

The cast is amazing, and the characters are darn likable. Often it’s easy to be detached from more minor characters when there are a lot of them, especially ones that are obviously not going to make it, but in this movie it’s genuinely difficult to see them suffer. I got attached. We have John Cho and Betty Gilpin as Peter and Nina, an adorable married real estate team in charge of the cursed house, who are expecting their first baby.

No, Peter, not the closet! Why?!

We have Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye as William and Faith, the next tenants of the house, a loving couple (of “fifty beautiful years”) who want to stay together as far as the limits of the afterlife will let them, with the help of Lorna (Jacki Weaver), who initiates assisted suicides. (Okay, some people will morally object to liking those characters, but we can all agree that Faison and Weaver are national treasures.) We have detectives Goodman (Demián Bichir) and Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), good cops who are pulled into the curse by trying to solve the mystery. And the wholesome Landers family that starts the whole thing: mom Fiona, dad Sam (David Lawrence Brown), and young daughter Melinda (Zoe Fish).

She’s nowhere near as scary as Takako Fuji, but she’ll do, I guess

Naturally my biggest gripe is that while avoiding the xenophobia that permeated the first Grudge remake (it’s rife with westerners cringing at Japanese culture and driven by the idea that foreign is automatically scarier), instead everything is whitewashed. The ghosts are no longer Asian but white white whities. There is some diversity in the casting, with Bichir, Cho, and Faison, but mostly we’re seeing from the perspective of Muldoon the white lady (I guess yay for gender equality?). Also I’m thinking those parts were written with white dudes in mind, judging by their character surnames: Goodman, Spencer, and Matheson, respectively.

“What, I can’t be William Matheson? I’m an older Black man, so I gotta be Willie Johnson? Now who’s being racist?” Whoa, I just meant that Matheson is a Scottish name. And yes, you are an older Black man in a Hollywood movie, so I’m surprised your character doesn’t go by Willie.

I happened to awaken at three in the morning the night after I watched this (my reviews average a three-day turnaround), and I found myself dwelling on how creepy it was. I even turned on the light when I got out of bed. I can’t remember the last time that happened, that a movie stuck with me like that. It’s my understanding that a lot of people hated it, and I’m genuinely puzzled as to why. (Besides that it blatantly copies some of the coolest stuff from the original movies, like the fingers appearing in the shower, or maybe that the death rattle noise makes no sense coming from a character who drowned, because it originated with Kayako’s broken neck.) Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something eerie and gory and pulls no punches. (Okay, it pulls one punch, but I won’t tell you what it is.)

You can’t go wrong with Lin Shaye, right?

‘Black Christmas’ (2019): They Meant Well…

Christmas break is approaching, and the students at Hawthorne College are getting ready to party. And by party I mean the men are picking off the women because they’re possessed by the evil magic practiced by the founder of the college, Calvin Hawthorne. It’s up to a feisty band of fighters (with traditionally masculine names, ’cause it’s a slasher) to save the day: Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), and Marty (Lily Donoghue).

Left to right: Kris, Riley, Marty, and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady)–Jesse actually doesn’t do anything cool, don’t know why she’s holding a bat

The film has garnered multiple complaints that the filmmakers chose “agenda over plot“, the “agenda” being a woman-centered, girl power, call-out regarding the #metoo movement. A major plot point is that Riley has been raped by big man on campus Brian (Ryan McIntyre), and no one but her friends believe her. It is a female-fronted film, including writer/director Sophia Takal, writer April Wolfe, and most of the cast (even the sorority’s cat, Claudette, was changed from a male to a female–not just the character, but the actual cat). I consider myself a feminist, but I have to agree with the critics, to an extent. In some places the message is so dumbed-down that it’s insulting.

Here’s Cary Elwes as classics professor Gelson–look at that smug bastard!

It opens thoughtfully enough, with the bust of the founder, Calvin Hawthorne. The name Hawthorne evokes Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the many dead white males still worshiped in universities today. Then all subtlety is thrown out the window. Men say things like, “You bitches are all the same,” and “It seems Miss Waterson’s passion for equality cannot be bridled” and “We need more than feelings in this business” and “Boys’ll be…well, you know.” Even a bit of symbolism is driven into the ground; Marty mentions that she likes ants because they’re strong and cannot be separated. Then later she really emphasizes the point: “We’re ants, Kris.” I heard you the first time!

The black stuff leaking out represents toxic masculinity–not a joke

Of course, rape is not a subject to be taken lightly or glossed over. I used to be a writing tutor, and once I was helping a student write an essay about rape on college campuses. She was focusing on ways to prevent it, but when we were researching online, all we could find were tips on dealing with it once it happened. I am one hundred percent serious and speak with no hyperbole. There was nothing about preventing it–it was all about coping. The very college we were at has a history of women getting groped in stairwells and assaulted in the parking lots. Active students get notices about it by text. Non-feminists, this is why some people say we live in a rape culture. But the frat dudes in the movie are cartoonish supervillains–they literally go through a “supernatural hazing ritual”, which really undermines the seriousness of the message the filmmakers are trying to convey, that rape is bad. Instead we get something more like “the emphasis on the superiority of males in colleges makes all men evil rapists, and if they’re not rapists then they’ll stick together anyway, because brotherhood.”

These dudes sexually assault even as they’re getting ready to murder

Men are absolutely vilified. There are only two guys in the movie who aren’t total scumbags: Marty’s boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead) and Riley’s potential love interest Landon (Caleb Eberhardt). Even Nate has his issues. He’ s initially supportive of Marty and her friends, until he gets drunk and explodes that not all men are bad. The scene ends with Marty forcibly kicking him out, Nate all the while complaining about double standards. Landon is a skinny, gangly nerd prone to ugly sweaters. He’s clearly infatuated with Riley, but he’s shy and indirect and nonthreatening. You know, a good guy.

There aren’t many stills of Landon, but that’s him on the far right

There’s an attempt to be racially diverse, though of course Riley, the main final girl, the one around whom the movie really revolves, is white. She screams at Kris for being too woke (yes, that is actually a thing here–we hate men, not racism): “You’re so pushy, Kris!” Kris is the sassy best friend, the wacky gal who is pissed that Hawthorne was a slaveholder, who questions standard college reading material: “Whose classics are they?”

Nope, not even this movie will allow such an uppity main protagonist–who wants to see the action from her point of view?

Despite all my gripes, there are a lot of things I appreciate, especially compared to mainstream slasher movies. The female characters are strong and not given to the helpless hysteria you usually see in the genre. They’re not fashion plates, or scantily dressed–they’re not objectified. They solve their problems without running to men for help. (Except for Landon, who’s practically an honorary lady.) There is a really poignant scene close to the beginning, when sorority gal Lindsay (Lucy Currey) is walking to her grandmother’s house. She’s being harassed by phone, and getting nervous about her surroundings, especially since there’s a dude walking right behind her with his phone out, so she slips her keys between her fingers. This is a scene bound to resonate with women; we’ve all been alone on a dark street that may or may not be dangerous, but sure feels threatening, and many of us have felt safer by trying to weaponize our keys. To male viewers who are paying attention, it conveys the vulnerability that women can experience. No other scenes evoke empathy as skillfully.

P.S., if you’re gonna use keys as a weapon, do it right

To be fair, I did read that Takal edited the movie heavily in order to market to impressionable teenage girls. In that sense, the movie is a success.

“You messed with the wrong sisters.”–actual quote

*All trailers for this movie contain spoilers, but this is the shortest: