Tag Archives: Horror

New Shows + Movies by Women — October 8, 2021

When I research this feature every week, I end up seeing the scores every movie gets. I try not to look, but they’re just too prominent to ignore. One of this week’s new films is “Mayday”. The allegorical movie about women engaged in a war against men is getting tanked on IMDB. Why?

“Mayday” is getting hammered on its score for being “part white man bad”, a “childish game of misandry”, “misandrist fantasy” and my favorite: a “femalistic flop” because “theyve invented the new version of the atomic bomb, namely the #metoo threat that hangs over each and every man every hour, minute or second of the day”. But don’t worry, “the lead was pretty and on of the other brunets but that was it”. We got some real Eberts on our hands here.

The reason I bring this up is because sometimes a film that gets tanked like this on scoring sites is actually good. It’s not a guarantee, but when I see this kind of review brigading from other men, it’s often because it’s touched on a nerve in an accurate way. I covered this phenomenon in more detail on my review for Sophia Takal’s “Black Christmas” (which just returned to HBO Max in time for the holiday season).

A lot of hidden gems lose their audiences when they go to review sites, see a low score, and figure the movie must not be good. I haven’t seen “Mayday”. I can’t tell you how it is. This article is informational and a lot of the films come out the same day this feature does. What I can tell you is that I’ve been led to a lot of incisive, often-brilliant hidden gems when I see these kinds of reactions tanking a film’s score. Some are just OK, sure, but there are also a lot of very good films that get tanked and lose their audiences simply because they’re feminist. Seeing these kinds of reviews usually puts a movie at the top of my to-watch list.

Please don’t let review averages deter you from watching a film before you look more closely at the reason for their scores. Maybe “Mayday” isn’t your thing – hell, maybe it isn’t my thing – but a lot of films out there will be much better than the score belies.

NEW SERIES

Maid (Netflix)
showrunner Molly Smith Metzler

“Maid” is based on Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir. It recounts the story of a single mother who leaves an abusive relationship. Alex balances intermittent, underpaid work as a house cleaner with caring for her daughter Maddy.

Showrunner Molly Smith Metzler has written and produced on “Shameless” and written on “Orange is the New Black” and “Casual”.

You can watch “Maid” on Netflix.

NEW MOVIES

Mayday (VOD)
directed by Karen Cinorre

Ana is transported to a world that’s constantly at war. The women here are all soldiers fighting against men, but Ana can’t seem to fit in. Mia Goth and Grace Van Patten star.

This is the first feature from writer-director Karen Cinnore, who started out in set design and costume departments.

See where to rent “Mayday”.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (MUBI)
directed by Lili Horvat

Marta is a neurosurgeon. She falls in love in a whirlwind romance. She even leaves her career behind in the U.S. to move to Hungary. The only problem is when she meets her partner there, he says he’s never seen her before.

This is the second feature from Hungarian writer-director Lili Horvat after the well-received “The Wednesday Child”.

You can watch “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” on MUBI.

Stop and Go (VOD)
co-directed by Mallory Everton

Two sisters set out on a road trip to rescue their grandmother from a nursing home where COVID has broken out.

Mallory Everton directs with Stephen Meek. This is her first feature.

See where to rent “Stop and Go”.

The Manor (Amazon)
directed by Axelle Carolyn

Barbara Hershey plays Judith, just moved into a nursing home. She slowly becomes convinced that an inexplicable force is picking off the residents one by one. No one will believe an elderly stroke survivor, though.

Writer-director Axelle Carolyn once wrote on the history of horror movies, and she’s since moved onto directing in series like “American Horror Story”, “Creepshow”, and “The Haunting of Bly Manor”. This is her second feature.

You can watch “The Manor” on Amazon.

Black as Night (Amazon)
directed by Maritte Lee Go

Vampires are preying upon the disenfranchised of New Orleans. A band of friends spends their summer hunting these vampires down.

This is the first feature from Maritte Lee Go, who also directed a segment of “Phobias”.

You can watch “Black as Night” on Amazon.

Bingo Hell (Amazon)
directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero

When their beloved bingo hall is sold to the devil, Lupita and her elderly friends refuse to see it gentrified. With a vengeance.

Director and co-writer Gigi Saul Guerrero is a Mexican-Canadian director who’s helmed films, anthology entries, and series.

You can watch “Bingo Hell” on Amazon.

What Breaks the Ice (VOD)
directed by Rebecca Eskreis

Two girls form a friendship in 1998, as their vision of their place in the world is impacted by the country’s obsession with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When they’re invited to a rave, things go wrong and they have to defend themselves. Will the culture they live in ever believe their side of the story?

This is the first feature from writer-director Rebecca Eskreis. She got her start in production design.

You can rent “What Breaks the Ice” on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, or YouTube.

Queenpins (Paramount+)
co-directed by Gita Pullapilly

Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste star as women who start a coupon fraud scam. Their operation grows faster than they can manage in this crime comedy.

Gita Pullapilly directs with Aron Gaudet as Team A + G. This is their second feature film.

You can watch “Queenpins” on Paramount Plus.

Witch Hunt (VOD)
directed by Elle Callahan

Witches and witchcraft have been made illegal in the United States. It’s up to one girl to ferry two witches to asylum in Mexico.

This is the second feature from writer-director Elle Callahan after 2018’s “Head Count”. She got her start as a sound mixer and editor.

See where to rent “Witch Hunt”.

Spring Blossom (VOD)
directed by Suzanne Lindon

A 16 year-old girl passes a theater one day. Bored with her friends, she engages an older man. She eventually becomes involved with him.

Suzanne Lindon writes, directs, and stars. She began writing the screenplay at 15 and filmed it at 20.

See where to rent “Spring Blossom”.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

A Playful B-Movie for Terrible Days — “Nightbooks”

The day I watched “Nightbooks” was a terrible day. Work was taking longer because of internet issues that had spanned a week. I had a D&D session with friends scheduled online that night. It’s one of the few things that’s kept me grounded and de-stressed during the pandemic. Nothing worked; I couldn’t join. Try being on the phone with Comcast at 10:30 pm; it’s an awful way to end the day. I needed something exciting, uplifting, escapist, dark but…cheesy at the same time. I needed something like “Legend” or “The Goonies”, something that believes B-movies speak to our soul in ways awards contenders never can.

Well, there was that film where Krysten Ritter plays a witch. Wait, what? Yes, the movie where it looks like our goth queen chews every piece of scenery in sight. I mean, you can’t go too wrong with that, can you?

“Nightbooks” is exactly the kind of film I wanted. It’s a young adult (YA) horror movie that delivers a mix of cheese, earnest fairy tale, and horror homage to remind the kid in you that it’s not all pandemic and work delays and late-night Comcast rendezvous.

Winslow Fegley plays Alex, a child who runs away from his parents in a fit of anger and embarassment. He loves horror movies and writes scary stories, but now he wants to destroy them all. He gets off at the wrong floor and is lured into an apartment by a slice of pie and a TV playing his favorite movie: 80s horror classic “The Lost Boys”. When he wakes up, he’s confronted by a witch. How can he be useful to her? By doing the one thing he’s sworn to never do again: write scary stories. He’ll have to tell her one a night for eternity. If he misses one, he’ll be killed. It’s “One Thousand and One Nights” as YA horror.

The witch, her cat familiar, and the apartment itself all hold secrets to uncover, and secrets give Alex the hope of escape. There’s also Lidya Jewett’s Yasmin, a survivor who’s been trapped in the apartment for years. Will she help him, or has she already given up hope?

It’s all painted broadly, but as Krysten Ritter’s witch Natacha reminds Alex, every story must be based on some element of truth. So what is the truth at the core of “Nightbooks”? Why is it so successful at what it does?

The broad strokes of “Nightbooks” are familiar fairy tale territory. The details can remind you of other YA adaptations. There are notes of everything from “The Thief of Always” to “Harry Potter”. “Nightbooks” shares some DNA with those classics. Alex’s story is compelling because it’s the story of every kid who’s dealt with anxiety, self-hate, creative block, or impostor syndrome.

Natacha is a scary witch who can do terrifying things, and Ritter rides a Tim Curry-esque line of hamming it up while still nailing the point home. What truly makes her frightening isn’t her powers, though. It’s not the threat of a fate worse than death. The moments that cut most deeply are the ones where she picks apart Alex’s stories, tells him an idea is stupid or inaccurate, that he’s disappointing her.

None of us know what a scary witch can do. Few of us are familiar with fates worse than death. Yet so many know exactly what sitting in that chair can feel like as the things we care most deeply about, the futures we envision for ourselves, the passions that allow us to find value and meaning in our lives – we know what it’s like to sit there and watch them be torn down one by one. We know what it’s like when someone does that simply to remind us that they have so much power and control they can end with words our entire idea of who we want to be.

We also know what it’s like to fight back against that. We know what it’s like to decide not to believe it, to realize that they are just words spoken by someone desperate to frighten and control us. Sure, “Nightbooks” is a fairy tale about kids trying to escape a witch, tale as old as time. The truth on which it’s built is about kids realizing that who they want to be isn’t someone else’s decision.

“Nightbooks” couches this within a movie that genuinely embraces horror. There is a ceiling to the level of scary it becomes – it’s a movie for kids, too, after all. Yet it pushes the boundary and lovingly recalls a host of horror movies. It’s not just empty reference either. By repeating visual themes adults might already be familiar with, it deepens many of the emotional moments for the characters on-screen. This is absolutely a B-movie, but it’s a B-movie that fully understands how the genre disarms us. It doesn’t have to find a way around our guard when our guard’s already down. It has a deep understanding for horror, camp, and kitsch movie history.

The technical aspects are great across the board. There’s some exceptional sound editing in “Nightbooks”. That may not seem like the most exciting factor to point out, but it does so much to anchor us in its world. The cinematography and art direction also excel.

Fegley and Jewett are good as child actors go, especially in a project that asks a lot of them. I wouldn’t say they sell us on their situation in a dramatic way, but in a film like “Nightbooks”, that’s not their job. Their job is to be as much kids as they are actors, and they find that balance.

“Nightbooks” is also surprisingly funny. Alex’s stories-within-a-story are told as if they’re melodramatic, silent movies he’s narrating. They’re constantly interrupted by the witch’s criticisms, many of which make Alex change his stories on the fly. The presentation of these stories is genuinely endearing, and Ritter’s delivery has a way of both cutting deep from inside the story while making us laugh at her timing.

That may seem mean, but the way this type of B-movie communicates is to have us appreciate and love the references and performances even as we inhabit and feel its world. We can laugh at the comedy in Natacha’s delivery without laughing at Alex, and we can feel bad for what Alex is enduring while still wanting to hear more of Natacha. This is the magic B-movies can find, watching them from the outside as a performance and feeling them from the inside as a story at the same time. It’s not so different from what Charlie Kaufman’s done in films like “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation”, where we can feel bad for characters inside the story while still being amused at what an actor’s doing to elicit those emotions. He didn’t invent that meta-approach, he simply transported it. It’s existed in B-movies for decades.

That dual way of watching “Nightbooks” is its greatest strength. Ultimately, it’s not a perfect film. The CG elements are hit and miss. A mid-film action scene feels out of place. It could’ve cut an entire sequence out of its ending. Yet watching this kind of film, it’s hard to care about those things when it constantly recovers with another good sequence, unexpected laugh, or meaningful moment. What does work here is often a gorgeous re-purposing of the genre.

I think kids can get a lot out of the themes of “Nightbooks”. They don’t have enough stories that really deal with complex issues like impostor syndrome and anxiety. They need to see work like this because these are things that they’re already dealing with, but don’t have many stories to help them process it. It’s definitely a movie to watch alongside them, though. There are genuine scares here.

The awkward reality is that so much of “Nightbooks” speaks to horror fans who can identify and understand all the references and elements happening. These can really deepen the scenes’ themes beyond an initial sense of recognition or nostalgia. Yet the target audience for this is kids, who are pretty unlikely to have seen “Suspiria”, “Evil Dead”, or “The Lost Boys”.

For adults, I think “Nightbooks” is a lot better if you’re well-versed in horror and you’re content to put yourself in the mindset of a YA film. There’s a good amount of overlap in that Venn diagram, and you probably know if you’re in it or not. If you have any doubt, try having a terrible day first. “Nightbooks” can definitely help with that.

You can watch “Nightbooks” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

You Really Should Be Watching “Nancy Drew”

Every time I saw an ad for the “Nancy Drew” TV series, I thought its aesthetic looked superb. The ongoing CW adaptation of the children’s mystery series takes the concept sideways into horror with an adult Nancy Drew. After the death of her mother, Drew’s put off going to college and works at a diner. One night, a socialite is murdered in the parking lot. This makes her and her coworkers suspects in what starts as a smart distillation of late 90s teen horror. More importantly, it sparks a series of hauntings in their town.

The idea that it couldn’t be very good got stuck in my head before I’d seen it, I’m not sure why. “Supernatural” was a lot of fun, but it rarely delivered on the horror promise of its pilot episode. “Riverdale” and Netflix’s closely related “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” can have some clever episodes, but the horror backdrop of these is regularly sabotaged in favor of unwieldy, badly paced, season-long arcs. I do like those shows, but they all have a certain navel-gazing element that can wear a viewer down quickly.

Still, I’m a sucker for an intriguing aesthetic. At long last, I started watching “Nancy Drew” and it’s delivering in all the ways those other shows failed.

Let’s back up a second – what exactly am I looking for out of a show like this? When I talk about “Supernatural”, “Riverdale”, or “Sabrina”, I’m not saying I dislike them. I’m saying they all promised horror, showed a capability for it, and then chased something else. “Supernatural” initially promised a focus on horror and solving mysteries, but it very quickly became a meta action-comedy centered on world-saving heroes who moonlighted as pest control for ghosts and whatnot. Horror trappings were still there, but more as homages and scenery to recognize along the way. It was always interesting and often funny, but being frightening was a rare exception.

“Riverdale” and “Sabrina” showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has a rare talent for tapping into both the unsettling and reassuring elements within horror kitsch. He’s trailblazed a uniquely cinematic, unnervingly timeless style across both shows. There are standalone episodes in both series that belong among the best of the genre. Unfortunately, these are ultimately made to feel like diversions, trod under by larger plot arcs that feel uneven and unsupported. The superb world-building that establishes these universes is often undone by their larger arcs, where it turns out the hero knows everyone past and future already and the vast, mysterious, unpredictable world we were promised all turns out to be within walking distance.

I want one of these shows that plays with the kitsch and genre elements of horror to be frightening as well. I’d say “Evil” gets there, but as charming as the cast may be, it draws from a dire, harrowing, misanthropic side of horror that reflects a world decaying toward entropy. It’s an uncomfortable mirror that I highly recommend, but I’m not exactly going to describe it as a thrill ride.

That brings me back around to “Nancy Drew”, the show I’m disappointed “Supernatural” never became. There isn’t a shootout to be seen. Although both are filmed in British Columbia, gone is the Vancouver warehouse chic. Much like “Riverdale” and “Sabrina”, every location feels partly like an intentional set trapped in amber, but unlike those shows, they don’t feel like museum displays. It actually feels like people live here. There’s a distinct Stephen King vibe that’s appropriate for its coastal Maine setting, one that’s natural and precious, but also distinctly fragile.

“Nancy Drew” features very few murders for this type of show. Others are discovered along the way, but the first season of “Nancy Drew” focuses on the connection between only two murders. That’s even more focused of a season-long arc than any of the other shows I just criticized for their season-long arcs, but I don’t have a problem with that kind of storytelling. What I have a problem with is that kind of storytelling just being chucked into an A-plot/B-plot rotation. What I have a problem with is characters saying there’s no time to waste when the arc is an A-plot in one episode, and then wasting all their time when it’s a B-plot in the next. That rotation between standalone and arc cannot bleed into characters’ decision-making.

It’s a big part of why Kennedy McMann’s portrayal of Nancy Drew has become one of my favorite characters. If anything, the characters around her are regularly frustrated that she won’t let go of the plot arc. It needs to be solved, and she constantly excuses herself from life, work, expectations, and other cases in order to investigate. When a standalone element takes over, it’s because someone was kidnapped or there’s another impending murder to stop – delays that make sense.

One early sticking point is her boyfriend Nick wanting to prove a different murder case, but one that gets in the way of investigating the one she’s been after. There’s a right thing to do here, and she chooses wrongly. It’s intriguing and complex because there’s no easy out. Like any of these shows, the writing can occasionally deliver a revelation conveniently, but what’s unique to “Nancy Drew” is the interest in these no-win scenarios. It often becomes a show about not losing ground, mitigating damage, keeping an opportunity alive, or finding whatever the best trade-off is even if it isn’t fair. That can sound discouraging, but for all its affectations, that sense of getting through the moment so you can hit the ground running again feels very real and relevant.

It also clarifies Nancy’s laser focus not as a kind of exceptionalism, but rather as a survival mechanism. Her nose for mysteries led her to witnessing trauma as a child, she lost her mother, and she hasn’t trusted her father in a long time. Her character’s greatest strength as a tenacious investigator is never diminished or portrayed as a weakness, but there’s a surprising amount that underlies it and that the show seeks to understand.

The mystery writing here is also some of the best going. It’s difficult to stretch a mystery over the course of an entire season. Most shows end up forcing something to fit even if it’s obvious to an audience that it shouldn’t. Here, Nancy cycles through a different suspect each episode, gathering information until complications mount and the show can start unspooling more chaotic horror elements. There’s a sense of Nancy establishing a rhythm within the show that is repeatedly challenged and interrupted. As a storytelling pace, it serves as a perfect reflection of what her character is going through emotionally.

As the initially skeptical Nancy and her crew find out, hauntings usually arrive with a purpose. The ghost haunting Nancy is a murdered town parade queen from 20 years prior, Lucy Sable. The horror scenes often serve to isolate a moment when a clue is found or connected to another piece of information. This is a clever way to sear those clues into our heads and make us remember them as important, because these are the moments when we’re most attentive and our senses are heightened. That said, it would only work if the horror was done this well.

We’re not talking “The Ring” or “It Follows” level of feeling your blood suck into your core as if it’s trying to hide from your skin. Instead, it’s where I want this kind of series to land – an exciting chill of dread up your spine. Hitting that mark effectively and unexpectedly once or twice an episode and letting it sit there patiently is more than most horror shows seem to manage. Moreover, “Nancy Drew” isn’t about confronting these things aggressively; it’s about understanding why they’re there in the first place.

It’s great when you can shoot it and douse it in rock salt, but that makes ghosts about as scary as a henchman with sodium deficiency. What goes bump in the night is far more terrifying when you have to manage its escalation and risk your safety episode after episode, clawing your way slowly toward understanding why it’s acting out.

I mentioned Vancouver warehouse chic earlier and it wasn’t just a passing shot. I get it, TV in the 2000s had an unbridled passion for empty warehouses, but the reason I bring it up is because “Nancy Drew” doesn’t shift characters into “empty factory” or “abandoned hospital” or “the woods but with a blue filter” to represent other realms. Instead, it turns the sets we already know in on themselves, morphing a familiar house into a dream-horror web of stairs, or turning an apartment into a sinking ship. A lot of this is smoke and mirrors (sometimes literally), but there’s a real focus on ambitious and beautifully realized set design, practical effects, and those moments where a detail can speak volumes. Showrunner Melinda Hsu Taylor makes sure there’s nearly always something there for the actors to interact with in terms of being unsettled and displaced.

“Nancy Drew” also has some of the best staging and blocking in a series. It might seem inconsequential, but the most important hidden element in the direction of a show is good blocking. You could watch an entire episode on mute and still understand perfectly how the power dynamics between characters shift within each scene. Where characters stand in relation to each other, how they move through a scene, and how their relationship is visually depicted within a scene all feed into blocking. The shot choice in “Nancy Drew” feels built around how characters move through a space rather than that movement being built around the shot choice.

This lends a more organic feel for a show that balances layer upon layer of deceit and reveal, effective horror, a superbly written mystery, a character study, some well-implemented social commentary, and a healthy bit of kitsch and cheese. That’s too much to convey in a way that feels natural. The blocking and staging keeps the characters grounded in a way nothing else in the show does, and that gives each actor room to play off each other instead of just saying the lines on a mark.

This leads to characters moving a lot within scenes, which feels more cinematic and engaging, but also reflects the shifting power dynamics and the constant evolution of the mysteries themselves. Beyond that, every room and building seems to get an unnerving 12 hours a day of magic hour – seeing the characters move around as if they’re utterly familiar with these spaces makes them feel lived-in. That staves off the artificial, diorama effect certain other highly stylized shows in the same vein have suffered. This may all be happening in a small town with a lot of links, but it doesn’t feel as restrictive or suffocating to the viewer. Instead of worlds of possibility being limited to walking distance, the world of the small town they live in instead seems to constantly expand and encompass more possibility.

I won’t say it’s a perfect show – one or two brief ideas clunk – but it’s an intriguing, fun, and surprisingly complex one. “Nancy Drew” is the horror mystery I feel like I’ve been promised over and over again yet never turns up. It evokes that “just one more episode” feeling of needing to see what happens next and a love for how its characters react to it.

You can watch “Nancy Drew” on the CW app (which is free) or HBO Max.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

Superb Horror, Rushed Actioner — “Shadow in the Cloud”

The first half of “Shadow in the Cloud” is one of the most perfect pieces of cinema I’ve seen. It nails an atmosphere of mounting dread with the precision of early Spielberg and an assured retrowave aesthetic. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Maude Garrett, a pilot in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who boards a B-17 Flying Fortress as last second crew. It’s the middle of World War II, and her mission is to ferry a satchel across the Pacific. What’s inside that satchel is confidential.

She’s soon parted from her charge and locked in the plane’s bottom turret. The bomber had a crew of 10 and several turrets. One was on the belly, guarding the plane’s exposed underside. It overlooked thousands of feet of empty air. This is where the first half of the movie takes place.

On her radio, Maude overhears how the crew of men speak about her. They talk about fucking her, dismiss her concerns, challenge her mission, and refuse to believe her sighting of an enemy plane. Worse yet, there’s something climbing across the plane, a lurking shape that’s tearing out key parts piece by piece. When they won’t even believe the ordinary when she says it, when they charge her with hysteria simply for reporting what she sees, how can she report what seems impossible?

Moretz realizes a spectacularly written screenplay in what becomes a riveting one-woman show. Writer-director Roseanne Liang puts on a clinic of horror cinema. The sky is dark, full of shadows and lightning. Unsettling details mount: hydraulics hanging out under the plane, a hole in the turret’s glass, a shorn screw as thick around as your finger. What she hears on the radio with the crew, Maude imagines visually for us in deep reds and blacks.

The first half of “Shadow in the Cloud” is one of the best horror experiences I’ve had in my life. Then the second half happens. The second half feels rushed. There’s a reason the most effective moments in “Jaws” are the ones where we can’t see the shark. The moment that one-woman show changes into a more traditional action movie, it loses something key.

That rhythm of Liang’s dialogue, Moretz’s performance, the atmosphere of being trapped and disbelieved, and the awesome texture of Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s synthwave musical score combine to create something genre-defining, but it loses its magic when the film has to move on to resolutions. It’s still a solid film, but when you go from all-time great to OK, you can feel that swing as a viewer.

The second half of “Shadow in the Cloud” does hold onto that magic for a while, largely through Moretz’s performance. There’s also an audacious sequence under the plane that’s so driven and ambitious, and shot so creatively that I couldn’t have cared less if the seams of a low budget peaked out here and there.

The problem is more that the first half is so patient, exact, and grounded, and the second half accelerates without paying off on that pace. What was a mastercraft becomes a solid action B-movie, albeit one without enough rhythm or time. Many of the beats of the second half are good ideas, though your mileage on one particular twist may vary. The ending is just shoved into too short a time that makes it feel checklisted and predictable when the first half was anything but.

That truly unique, assured aesthetic that fuses war movie, “Twilight Zone”, “Amazing Stories”, 80s horror, Hitchcock, and social commentary together feels sidelined. The script shifts from nearly all-dialogue, expertly written, to very little, most of which we’ve heard before. It goes from Moretz absolutely living and breathing the rhythm of the movie, to the scenes rushing her and the other actors. There are times that the last half hints at a punkier, more meta, even cartoonish attitude that could’ve taken over, but it doesn’t have the time to make this shift fully enough.

That first half is so good that none of this stops “Shadow in the Cloud” from being a movie I like and recommend. It’s just that first half is a cinematic holy grail. It is magic. It’s what you sit down and hope every movie is as a critic. Forty minutes in, the thought was forming that this goes up there with “It Follows”, “Alien”, “The Orphanage”, “Ravenous”, “John Carpenter’s The Thing”. Almost nothing achieves the tension this can. I mean, look what it can do in two minutes:

And the second half is a sillier, often rushed action movie. It keeps the thread on its social commentary, but even this can feel rushed at points. It may have been more effective in a film that was able to sustain that early energy. Moretz carries the first 40 minutes of the film through the dialogue, and Liang through patient, stylized directing. If they’d found a way to carry it this way through the last 40 minutes (or extended it to 60 or so minutes to allow that same textured approach), I think it also could have capitalized on what it set up in other ways. This could’ve made that social commentary even more effective. I also think if they’d managed that, I’d be calling “Shadow in the Cloud” one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

Do half a film that’s utterly perfect and half a film that’s uneven and rushed equal a good film? Yeah, no question. Some films don’t start well, but come together in the end and we’re perfectly fine with calling them good. A movie that starts perfectly, but doesn’t bring all those strengths through in the end will be enjoyable in different ways. It may challenge our concepts of what in the storytelling makes it satisfying, but I’m deeply glad I watched it and got to see something as spellbinding as that first half. A lot of good, more consistent films never even approach 5 minutes like that, let alone 40.

I’d also point out that a 40-minute first half and 40-minute second half equal an hour-and-20 minute movie. Take that, kids who don’t think they’ll use math as adults. You’re not sacrificing a whole evening to take a chance on “Shadow in the Cloud”. The film as a whole is so wild, opinions on how well it carries through that initial energy and tone are going to vary a lot.

This is something I know I’ll go back and watch, even if the viewing experience does feel inverted. It is so unique, knowledgeable about the genre foundations on which it stands, and deeply ambitious and creative. Those first 40 minutes are one of the most rewarding movie experiences I’ve had. As I sit with it longer and longer, I like “Shadow in the Cloud” more and more. It’s just so much of what I want to see on screen, even if the conclusion doesn’t pull through.

I’ll certainly keep an eye out for Roseanne Liang. Anyone who can write and direct that singular a stretch can make a great film.

For her part, Moretz is proving she wasn’t just a child actor with an off-kilter taste in projects. Few actors can carry a project alone on-screen for this long, few actors can haul a film ahead regardless of whether it loses its footing, and few actors embody the social commentary of a project this effectively through their character.

“Shadow in the Cloud” is available on Hulu, or see where to rent it here.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Why the “Suspiria” Remake Gives Me Hope

by Gabriel Valdez

It may’ve slipped minds that there’s a “Suspiria” remake due to hit theaters on November 2. I’m not going to pretend I remembered. I had clicked to see just how bad the “Bumblebee” trailer for the Transformers spin-off is (hint: really, really bad) when I spied the new “Suspiria” trailer lurking at the edge of the screen.

A constant churn of directors and stars have been attached in the last decade to the remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic. This includes a long-gestated David Gordon Green salvo that thankfully didn’t come to pass. (Green is more fittingly directing the eleventh “Halloween” movie due out two weeks before “Suspiria” on October 19.)

The point is, I’d diligently trained myself to ignore news about a “Suspiria” remake for the past 10 years. There’s a lot of conjecture that “Suspiria” can’t be remade, that its essence can’t be recaptured. I don’t buy into that, and watching the first trailer…this is just about the best approach to “Suspiria” I could have hoped for.

The strength and weakness of giallo filmmaking is just how Freudian it is. It’s a murder mystery mixed with psychological horror, eroticism, and often supernatural elements. “Suspiria” is generally regarded as the exemplar film of the genre. Giallo films are often impressionistic because of how well they bridge basic, gut-level metaphor to complicated, dreamlike concepts of dread.

Freudianism is a double-edged, er, sword. Women are often enabled or empowered in these films only at the expense of other women succumbing to violence, or after paying fetishized visual dues to the director and audience. Yes, giallo can be violent toward men, but it’s never built value on trading or fetishizing us the way it has women.

(I’d argue there’s a reason the Dario Argento films with the strongest women leads involved Daria Nicolodi as a driving creative force in front of and behind the camera, but that’s an article for another day.)

Modern giallo needs to be able to escape some of its tendencies and comment on them, while still processing in violent, Freudian metaphor. It’s a fine line to walk. It’s going to be difficult to present a film about young women at a dance academy being murdered in surreal fashion without building plot value off of fridging women.

“Suspiria” is considered impossible to remake because of its visuals…but that’s never struck me as the problem. It’s this central theme that presents the greatest bar to the success of “Suspiria”…and maybe its greatest opportunity. We’ve seen films that are able to inhabit their genre while still stepping outside of it – art is one of the few places where you can have your cake and sometimes eat it, too.

In terms of visuals, a number of Grand Guignol films have met the visual bar “Suspiria” set, Guillermo Del Toro’s take on it in “Crimson Peak” being the most recent. Grand Guignol can be far more outlandish and winking than giallo can – it’s a more mischievous genre. The point is that there are plenty of art directors and costume designers capable of building a space that’s right for a “Suspiria” remake. “Suspiria” is essentially designed like a stage where a play or dance might take place, just three dimensionally. Take a look at a trailer for the 1977 version. It’s fan-made, since the 70s trailers don’t always do the film justice.

The dreamlike sensibility of giallo is in the editing, the writing, and in a place that’s far too overlooked: the performances. Actors need to be able to play giallo scenes with a broad non-specificity, in a kind of overstated, almost directionless performance that’s built for theatre, to be viewed at a distance. At the same time, those actors need to be playing to the understated detail, realism, and intentionality of close-ups and long takes. It’s that bridge between anchored reality and being flung untethered into an abstract dreamspace that makes giallo work and gives it its purpose.

(This was aided at the time by actors performing in their native languages – English, Italian, and German – and later adding English lines in additional dialogue recording sessions. During filming, they had to understand each other’s performances without always understanding each others’ lines with precision. This melding of languages added to the dreamlike quality of many of Argento’s films, in particular through broader performances in “Suspiria” and shifting language use in later edits of “Deep Red.”)

I have hope there’s a way to achieve this bridge between hard anchor and untethered space that doesn’t just move past, but addresses giallo’s past sins. Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) is a director who may be able to tell a story on both sides of that coin. I don’t think you can find better opposing leads for a remake than Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton – who has a long history of projects that have their cake, eat it too, duplicate the cake into an alternate dimension, share the recipe with David Bowie….

My main hope is that this isn’t just a film that’s true to what giallo once was, because there’s a reason the genre is antiquated and more or less evaporated from production. My hope is that the “Suspiria” remake is a film that can finally drag giallo into modern times and give it a new, updated importance. The building blocks are there, often maintained and updated by films in other genres that border on the territory giallo calls its home, from the stylistic rearrangement of “Lost River” to the metaphorical bridging in “Mirrormask”…from the more mature contemplation on eroticism in “It Follows” to the horror of where Freudian sensibilities take us in “Ex Machina”…from the internal, personal psychologies in Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” to Darren Aronofsky’s overt “Black Swan.”

There’s ample room and need for giallo not just to resurrect, but to catch up, to learn, to join the 40 years of sensibility it’s yet to figure out. We often think of giallo as needing to be anchored to the past because of the role women are made to play in it. That hasn’t been true of any other genre.

Given a trailer like the one above, I’m going to start hoping those involved understand giallo rests in its themes, performances, and storytelling, that its strength is in the connection between the immediate reaction in the pit of the stomach and the lingering anticipation creeping up the spine, and not just in a pursuit of visuals, victimization, and 40 year-old cliches.

The feature image of Dakota Johnson at a dinner that’s totally not creepy at all is from Scroll here.

“It Follows” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I called “It Follows” the best American horror film in decades. I stand by that. I also said it’s what Franz Kafka would write if he were into sex horror.

The set-up’s simple: Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her boyfriend. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair. He has something and now it’s passed onto her. Instead of a disease, we’re talking about a slowly stalking, horror-movie monster that will one day catch up with her. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on by sleeping with someone else. The monster always stalks the most recent victim, and works its way down the line, from most recent to originator.

It’s a horror villain passed along as an STD, and a metaphor for…what, exactly? On the broadest level, it’s an STD public service announcement, but it also speaks to how we deal with sexual assault as a society. It addresses the roles of women within the horror genre. It confronts the voyeurism with which society often responds to incidents of sexual violence.

In fact, in the way it goes about this last detail, I slightly prefer it to a film I’ll write about tomorrow – “Ex Machina.” Both films deal with sexual violence, trauma, and seek to confront male viewers in ways we usually aren’t, but where “Ex Machina” recreates a version of total possession in excruciating detail, “It Follows” manages to speak to this while giving its characters a little more power to fight back against these concepts.

(In fact, the films came out within a month of each other and will forever be fused in my mind because of how they invert and confront a genre that’s often used sexual assault as a set piece. They make challenging yet complementary companion pieces, though together that’s some harrowing viewing.)

“It Follows” can be tough to pin down because the details in its world intentionally disagree. While the plot’s tight, the world around the characters doesn’t seem to belong to any particular time. The movies they watch are from the 1950s, the cars they drive are from the 70s, and technology veers from the 80s to current. Different characters feel plucked from different eras, and even dress and subtly act like it. Jay is the heroine from 70s horror films, while her sister Kelly arrives from the 90s and their friend Yara would feel perfectly at home in today’s movies. Meanwhile, the musical score recalls the soundtracks Goblin once wrote for Dario Argento in the 70s.

This intentional confusion of details means that everything begins to feel fuzzy, as in trying to recall a dream. In fact, in my review, I said the film is like “watching a dream with all the fingerprints that make it yours removed. You don’t feel like you belong in it, and so you become a voyeur of all that happens.”

I still can’t think of a better way to describe “It Follows,” except to say that as a horror film, it delivers. Rather than the trend of being scary in outright ways, of making you jump or recoil, “It Follows” relies on anticipation. It’s a film about dread, not about jumping out of your seat, and it builds its tension to an incredible degree. It’s a throwback of a horror film fused with modern intentions, and it’s the best of both worlds.

It Follows poster

Images are from It Follows and Da Font.

Without a Scare in the World — “The Gallows”

The Gallows Reese looks up at noose
A metaphor for the film.

Minions is completely critic-proof – you know exactly what you’re going to get going in, so we’ll counter-program with a new horror movie this week: The Gallows. Found footage horror (or point-of-view horror) sometimes hides gems like The Last Exorcism, As Above, So Below or this year’s Unfriended. Unfortunately, The Gallows is not one of these.

The Gallows follows four Nebraskan high-school students the night before putting on a play. The play is infamous because it resulted in a student named Charlie getting hanged 22 years before. The Gallows is interesting for a little while because of its weakest element – the character holding the camera most of the time, Ryan, is a complete sociopath. Ryan’s best friend is Reese, who’s only slightly sociopathic. Ryan convinces Reese to break into the school and destroy the play the night before it opens so that the the lead actress, Pfeifer, will be so sad that she’ll turn to Reese for consolation. Yes, that really is the plot.

When they break into the school with Ryan’s even more sociopathic girlfriend Cassidy, it turns out the place is haunted by the ghost of Charlie. Big shock, I know. Unlike the drip-feed of information present in other horror movies, only one detail of consequence is discovered as the characters run from one side of the high school to the other and back again. It’s as if they’re caught in an endless Breakfast Club montage. The school itself is filled with hidden basements, towering rafters, and some sort of nonsensical back alley. Nobody ever questions these things, they just trip into them, realize it’s the wrong completely inexplicable back alley, film a wall for 20 seconds, and then turn around.

What’s most frustrating about The Gallows isn’t its plot or setting, though. Nearly everyone with access to a good camera makes some version of this movie in high school. There’s something appealing about kids running around a high school at night, facing down their fears. The plot doesn’t get old. We just came to see models in their 20s pretending to be high schoolers who meet with bad ends – it’s really not a high bar to pass.

The Gallows kids watch TV
Hey, this looks like a good program!

The frustration is all in the shoddy filmmaking. You want 30-second shots of a wooden floor while people argue in a much more interesting shot the audience doesn’t get to see? You got it. You want 30 seconds of staring at a dark screen with a red streak of light reflecting down a hallway while nothing at all happens? You’ve got that, too. In fact, if you love shaky shots of nothing while characters argue some place the camera isn’t pointing, this is your Citizen Kane. Walls, floors, walls that meet floors – The Gallows truly has it all.

It’s not helped by the editing. The four high schoolers seem to have special powers of growing more cameras at will. They start with two, but expand that number to four or five halfway through the film. There’s even a moment where the cell phone a character’s fixing is in the shot that’s being recorded by the cell phone that he’s supposed to be fixing. Figure that one out.

If you look at a successful POV horror film like As Above, So Below, what makes found footage effective is the staging and choreography that’s hidden within each scene. When characters themselves are holding the cameras, a single character taking a few steps can change the relation of every potential shot in the room. In a horror movie where everyone’s running around the whole time, the characters and their cameras change relation every second. When we switch between cameras, especially in darkly lit movies, we need to understand whose camera we’ve switched to and where everyone is in relation to her.

The audience can’t be struggling with whose perspective we’re witnessing. The editing needs to clearly imply whose view we’ve switched to and which characters are still in the scene. Without these two foundations, an audience is left shrugging at how certain characters come to be in certain sequences. “Wasn’t she just over there with her friend? Why’s she all alone now?” If you’re constantly asking these questions, something’s gone pretty wrong. As Above, So Below managed this expertly with eight characters in a crumbling ruin. The Gallows can’t manage it with only four in a pretty stationary high school.

Why chase and strangle them with a noose when you can magically throw them across a room when you're not even there-- oh, forget it!
Why chase and strangle them with a noose when you can magically throw them across a room when you’re not even there– oh, forget it!

What you’re left with as a viewer is the experience of shrugging your shoulders for 81 minutes. The characters run to and fro without a destination or a goal in mind. They’re never rewarded by the story for surviving long enough to discover something new. They’re never punished in a way that seems appropriate or deliciously ironic. There are long hallway shots that don’t even take advantage of having such a deep background for something to catch our eye. You can break any rule in horror you want, but you’ve got to understand the rules you’re breaking first. The Gallows has zero grasp on those rules. Even its supernatural beastie doesn’t seem to follow any particular logic outside of “Hey, I saw this in a scary movie once.”

The Gallows is a treasure trove of missed opportunities. The overall concept is decent. The ending is even smart, but it’s atrociously handled – no foreshadowing, no clues to excite or lead us to a moment, nothing to make the twist seem like it’s been earned. You can’t appreciate what little intelligence is in the film because it feels tacked on at the last second from some other movie, and then it’s filmed so badly that you start to miss those 30-second shots of floors.

My hope for a very long time was that the sociopaths in the group would stop screaming and start being sociopaths again. That would make an interesting movie: sociopaths trying to out-evil a supernatural horror that just isn’t prepared for how truly sociopathic these awful, awful kids are.

The Gallows also uses a prank war in its opening 20 minutes to pad out its brief, 81-minute length. It’s a useless B-plot, but for a long time, I also hoped that everything would be a giant prank – walls would pull back and reveal the entire cast, who were really teaching Ryan and Reese a lesson about the dangers of pranking. Everyone would freeze frame in a smile at the end as if they were in a Saved by the Bell episode.

Seriously, if it had all turned out to be a prank war, this would be the most glowing review you've ever read.
Seriously, if it had all turned out to be a prank war, this would be the most glowing review you’ve ever read.

Heck, I even hoped at the end that they’d just hire Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles to pop into the school with shotguns blazing. They could all pretend this was a subpar episode of Supernatural the whole time. I kept hoping for something, anything beyond what I was actually watching because the horror movie I saw felt like it was pulling my leg. Something in it had to be a joke. The punch line never came.

I’ll say two things in its favor. The whole movie was made for $100,000, and it’s hard to make anything that hits theater screens for that little. A $10 million opening may not seem like much, but it’s already made 100 times its budget.

The second thing? The actors do a job. They’re not great, but they’re not bad. The roles are thankless and the filmmakers aren’t giving them much to work with. Pfeifer Brown, who plays Pfeifer, is particularly solid and helps carry the film during stretches when it’s otherwise collapsing in on itself.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

1. Does The Gallows have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Pfeifer Brown plays Pfeifer. Cassidy Gifford plays Cassidy.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Mostly, Pfeifer and Cassidy scream about how sociopathic the other one is, but that’s OK. That’s mostly what the men scream at each other, too. When men and women scream between the sexes, it’s equal opportunity sociopathy all around.

In fact, the ghost strangling people doesn’t get much mention. Mostly, these sociopaths really just want the other sociopaths to know how sociopathic they are before they get strangled.

It’s like watching four teenage Daniel Plainviews each drinking the others’ milkshakes and shouting, “I drink your milkshake!” For an hour and a half. Except half the time we’re staring at the floor.

Right, Bechdel Test. The Gallows does fine along these lines. Women are represented as well as the men here. No particular gender issues are reinforced, and none are undermined.

Please never make me watch this again.

Over on AC: “It Follows” Is the Most Important Horror Film in Decades

Originally, that was supposed to read: the most important “American horror film,” but the more I think about It Follows, the more I’m convinced it stands up to anything in the past two decades. It’s a movie you feel to the bone for days on end. It’s a deep cut or black bruise of a horror movie. Read my review here:

“It Follows Is the Most Important Horror Film in Decades”

– Gabe

Science, Religion, and Horror — “The Lazarus Effect”

Lazarus Effect 1

by Gabriel Valdez

Horror movies are a little weird. We don’t always watch horror looking for good cinema, we watch it for effective scares. Some truly bad movies still have the ability to scare us.

The Lazarus Effect is very effective some of the time, but it’s interrupted by ferocious bouts of quirkiness. And not the good kind. Scientists are playing god by attempting to bring dead animals back to life. Inevitably, there’s an accidental death that forces our heroes to bring a human (Olivia Wilde) back to life instead. The only problem is that a few minutes of death here equals years and years in Hell. Also, Hell lends you superpowers for reasons nobody ever figures out.

There are some major issues in the shot choices and editing, which are both crucial in creating mood and rhythm for your scares to inhabit. Lazarus relies almost entirely on jump scares, where something jumps at a character from off-screen accompanied by a loud noise.

This means we can’t anticipate the scares, but we can predict them. Anticipation means we know they’re coming, we just can’t be sure of when. There’s a nervousness to anticipation. Often it happens when the audience sees something the characters can’t. Lazarus has no anticipation.

Prediction means we could time every scare’s arrival on a stopwatch. Predictable scares can still be frightening, but they don’t hold the same power in our psyche. They can make us jump, but they can’t lurk in the back of our minds and send chills up our spines. Lazarus can scare you, sure, but it won’t get inside your head.

Lazarus Effect 2

Wilde does make up for a lot of this. She is extraordinarily good in a role that requires her to play across the board – she can recite the technical babble behind her experiment like she’s on another episode of House, but there’s a later sequence in which she changes personalities depending on who’s in the room with her. She shines in these moments and gives us the only character who really feels like she belongs in that lab.

Unfortunately, and I hate to drag an actor out like this, Mark Duplass is awful. He plays the experiment’s co-leader and Wilde’s boyfriend. He’s been good in a lot of indie comedies, especially Safety Not Guaranteed, but he makes some very bad choices here. The interplay between Wilde and Duplass should create the dynamic of two scientists jousting over ideas (she believes in an afterlife, he doesn’t) and uncomfortably struggling to fit their philosophical disagreements into their more intimate relationship. Instead, it comes across as two actors hauling the quality of the movie in two very different directions. The rest of the cast – including comedian/rap artist Donald Glover – is charming, but isn’t the best fit for this film.

Lazarus is PG-13, rare for horror. There’s a hint of body horror and some trickles of blood but Lazarus uses some visual shortcuts to imply what you’ve seen in gorier horror movies. Honestly, I hardly noticed the absence – the best horror is built on psychology, not blood. It means that Lazarus relies more on its ideas, and these do become more frightening as we grasp the broader religious and scientific ideas at play.

Lazarus Effect glide

This creates a vicious cycle: a great horror idea gets you excited, but you’re disappointed by its failed execution. Wilde saves the moment through sheer acting willpower, and Duplass sabotages it by making all the wrong choices. This is saved by another great horror idea, but it’s executed badly and so on and so on.

It’s like a football game where whoever gets the ball last wins. Thankfully, we see Wilde more than Duplass, and the movie’s final twist adds a terrific motive to violence that earlier seemed a bit senseless. Home team wins.

Lazarus is a combination of great ideas, predictable yet effective jump scares, and a very out-of-place cast relying on Wilde as the only glue that holds it all together. We invented an award here recently called Most Thankless Role – it’s for actors who do great work in B-movies. I have a feeling Wilde’s going to contend this year.

The Lazarus Effect might only be a pond in the desert that is horror filmmaking right now, but that still makes it feel like an oasis worth visiting. It didn’t scare me as much as I would have liked, but its story felt rewarding.

If you’re looking for a better version of Lazarus, consider Flatliners, an often forgotten horror gem from 1990 that brought together Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Lazarus Effect have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Olivia Wilde plays the lead researcher Zoe and Sarah Bolger plays videographer Eva. There’s also a university president played by Amy Aquino and a little girl played by Emily Kelavos.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a woman?

Yes. Horror is one of the only genres to regularly pass the Bechdel Test with ease. Zoe and Eva talk to each other as often as any of the men do, and it’s always about science, religion, or the crazy horror shenanigans going on around them. They’re also the two most proactive characters in the whole movie.

There’s actually not a whole lot to say about it beyond this. Lazarus is cut to the bone as a movie – it’s only 83 minutes long – so there’s not a whole lot to analyze here. In terms of capability and agency, it presents a positive portrayal of women.

The Best Original Score of 2014

by Gabriel Valdez

Like industrial machinery puncturing the dead of night, like the oddity of hearing a baby cry in the house where you have none, like being sure of the rats in the walls, Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin evokes our most primal reactions. That the film itself seems to trap those reactions under glass only to run tests on them makes the effect all the more disturbing.

Call it industrial, call it art house or avant garde, call it horror, I don’t much care.

I also know that no climax turns on a musical cue quite like that of Under the Skin, throwing the entire meaning of the film for a loop, inverting the roles of victimizer and victim by suddenly assigning the musical theme of our alien sexual predator to another: the more familiar sexual predator of our own world. And when our alien’s true identity is finally revealed, it changes motivations, but does it change any outcomes?

No musical cue on film has sparked so much discussion in my filmgoing life…well, ever.

Yet even without that twist, Levi would win this. Her score is one of the most challenging, surreal, otherworldly, and creepy I’ve ever heard. It marries methodical pulses and bump-in-the-night knocks to teeming infestations of strings and background noise, yet manages to find beautiful soundscapes hidden in these combinations. As a reflection of the film’s hideous, largely unfeeling yet very natural beauty, it does as much for Under the Skin as any design or technical element does for any film this year.

(Read the review)

(Read my interview with author Michel Faber)