horror

Alien: Covenant

I was on the fence about this one, but in the end I decided to catch it before it disappeared from the cinemas. I can’t say I regret the decision and I’m glad I’ve watched the film, because no one shoots sci-fi like Ridley Scott, but the most damning thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s the first entry in the series that doesn’t offer anything new, and instead plays like the Alien: Greatest Hits. Even the runts of the franchise had some individuality about them, whether it was the director’s unique visual style or some new ideas, and even when these ideas were terrible, *cough* human/alien hybrid from Alien: Resurrection *cough*, at least they were still memorable. My biggest complaint about Alien: Covenant is how little of this adequate movie was truly memorable.

I liked the divisive Prometheus way more than many people did, and the ending of that film teased some intriguing possibilities, as its heroine Elizabeth Shaw packed the head of David the android in a duffel bag and set off towards the home planet of Engineers. While Covenant still acts as a direct sequel to Prometheus, it jumps ten years ahead and opens with the scenes aboard Covenant, a colony ship with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep, plus preserved embryos. When the ship is hit by a massive solar flare and suffers casualties, the crew pick up a strange transmission, human in origin, while doing repairs. The signal comes from a planet that’s much closer than their original destination and appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization. Ignoring the lessons of dozens of sci-fi movies where veering off course spells certain doom and death, the crew decide to stop by and investigate. If you thought that the scientists in Prometheus made some inexplicably dumb choices, this lot decide to explore an alien planet while not wearing any protective helmets whatsoever, presumably because they decided that hey, since this place looks a lot like Norway, it must be safe.

Visually, Covenant may not be as beautiful and striking as Prometheus, but it still delivers, with the majestic landscape shots and lived-in sets typical of Scott movies. It’s a pity then that the human characters don’t receive anywhere as much love and attention: this bunch is as nondescript and generic as they come, including the new Ripley-esque heroine Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other characters’ personalities, when they do have hints of any, can be summed up in a couple of words – this guy is quirky and wears a cowboy hat! This guy believes in God! The only two interesting characters are synthetic: David (Michael Fassbender), the inquisitive and amoral android who was the highlight of Prometheus, returns here as the sole inhabitant of the planet, and is rather more unhinged than the last time we’ve seen him. Then there’s Walter, the android crew member of Covenant, also played by Fassbender. Unlike the creative David, Walter’s generation of androids were made to be more machine-like and less creepily human, an upgrade David finds disappointing. The interactions between the two, with David teaching Walter to play the flute among other things, are weird, funny, philosophical, and make for the film’s best scenes.

Rather than answering the question posed by Prometheus – why did the Engineers wish to destroy the humankind? – Covenant instead chooses to focus on edging closer to the original Alien film and exploring the origins of the xenomorph. Which means that, at some point in the movie, it’s time for the usual: running down corridors, dark and drippy interiors, eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. While Covenant ramps up the gore and body horror, the problem is that a) it can’t muster the same level of tension as Alien, or the breakneck excitement of Aliens, and b) I can’t say I ever wondered about where the xenomorph came from. There’s no real point explaining something that was always effective simply as a horrifying, mysterious thing from outer space. So while Covenant is by no means a disaster and makes for a watchable, well-shot sci-fi thriller/horror, it’s short on new ideas and, unlike Prometheus, does nothing to stoke my excitement for a hinted-on sequel. Maybe it’s finally time to blow this franchise out of the airlock.

The Mist

Written and directed by Frank Darabont, The Mist is a third story by Stephen King that Darabont adapted for the screen after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It would have been a pretty solid if unremarkable horror movie except for two things: a truly awe-inspiring monster sequence near the end, and the ending itself, which I suspect left many people feeling angry, depressed or both (I’m in the “depressed, but wow what a bold ending” camp, myself).

As far as horror film settings go, a supermarket probably wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind, but this is in fact where most of the movie takes place. The Mist doesn’t waste much time on the setup: when a bad storm leaves their house without power, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son drive into town for some emergency supplies. Everyone else in their small Maine town had the same idea, and so the store is full of locals, weekenders and a few soldiers from the nearby military base. Soon, all hell breaks loose: a bloodied and distressed man runs into the store, air raid sirens begin screeching, and in a blink of an eye the supermarket is enveloped in an unnatural mist.

It’s not a spoiler to say that there are Terrible Things lurking in the mist that will attack and devour anyone attempting to leave. It begins with a pretty humdrum tentacle creature, but through the course of the film the monsters get more and more fantastical and unnerving, particularly if you’re not a big fan of insects and spiders. The actual explanation for the mist and the creepy-crawlies is not particularly interesting, but they’re mostly there to examine the dynamics within the group of terrified survivors, and what ordinary people will be driven to do when their ordinary world collapses. It doesn’t take long for the various tensions to arise, initially between the locals and out-of-towners. A far greater source of friction however is the local religious nut, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who sees the events as God’s divine punishment for the sins of mankind. At first her doomsday mongering goes ignored by the rest, but as the situation gets more desperate and the body count increases, more and more people join her congregation, and start thinking that maybe a human sacrifice to the monsters outside is not such a bad idea.

I was about halfway into the film before I realised that there was barely any music in it, a decision which is quite effective and complements the documentary feel. Thomas Jane (who reminded me a bit of Christopher Lambert, of all people) is solid as the lead, but a bit too bland and lacking in charisma, as far as “everyman” actors go he’s no Tom Hanks. The rest of the cast do their best to breathe in some individuality into their stock characters, and I was amused to see the lady who played Charlotte’s snobby mother-in-law on Sex and the City pop up here. Overall, it’s a well-executed horror film which probably wouldn’t be that memorable if it wasn’t for its ending; hate it or love it, it does stick in the memory.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It’s been forever since I read Bram Stoker’s classic gothic horror novel, but I can’t really remember Dracula giving the female heroine her sexual awakening. Nevermind, I do have a soft spot for the Beauty and the Beast trope and Gary Oldman as the monstrous yet tragic Dracula is captivating and sensual… well at least when he’s in his young human Gary Oldman form with the fabulous long hair. Not so much when he’s hanging from a ceiling as a hideous human-sized bat.

In this version, Vlad the Impaler turns to vampirism after the tragic death of his wife, who hurls herself off a parapet at the false news of his death. The priests tell him that a suicide will never enter heaven, which enrages Vlad; he renounces God and embraces the immortal life of a blood-sucking monster. Fast forward 400 years to the end of the 19th century, and Dracula sees a spitting image of his wife staring at him from a photograph belonging to a young attorney (Keanu Reeves, a.k.a. What the Heck Am I Doing In A Period Piece) who visits Dracula in his picturesquely sinister castle.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this adaptation is by no means perfect, but it’s a gloriously decadent feast for the eyes. I first watched this movie almost twenty years ago and its opulent imagery imprinted on my brain just from that one viewing. The imaginative production design, the sumptuous costumes, the unrestrained romanticism, the fantastic horror score are all a thing of beauty. There are billowing Victorian dresses, creepy shadows, long red cloaks, rooms full of candles, evil vampire succubi, bleeding crosses, and many many transitions between various circular shapes (like the eye of a peacock feather transforming into a railroad tunnel at the start of the film). The special effects and make-up still look good, other than a few decidedly cheesy shots of Dracula in his animal shapes. At the very least, even when the practical effects look dated and clunky you know that what you see onscreen is actually there.

The original novel was written as a series of documents, and the film largely preserves this episodic structure, switching between several protagonists and multiple narrators. This is somewhat to the detriment of the film, which feels like a succession of set pieces rather than a story with a real drive. The performances are a mixed bag; as mentioned before Gary Oldman is utterly magnetic and his line readings in the first half of the film as the bouffanted old Dracula (Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!) are just delicious. I couldn’t decide whether Winona Ryder is actually good as Mina, or whether it’s just that she has such a perfect look for the film with her huge dark eyes and her angelic beauty. Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top turn as the vampire hunter Van Helsing is hit-and-miss, sometimes it works and other times his wacky ways fall flat. Tom Waits is heaps of fun as the deranged bug-eating Renfield.

Keanu Reeves… ooh dear. I confess, I can never really hate Keanu Reeves even when his performance is like a walking wooden plank, but god he’s terrible here. Jonathan Harker is a pretty dull character to start with, and Reeves almost made me wish for Mina to dump her boring husband and go for the depraved immortality. Despite these shortcomings, there’s still plenty to love about the movie, especially from the visual standpoint, and it’s a fantastic take on the classic monster.

Get Out

My only regret with this film is that I already knew the big reveal beforehand from watching a spoiler-filled review. I’ve no idea why I did this to myself, I can’t even blame the reviewer who was thoughtful enough to include a spoiler warning – but I just kept on watching. The movie was still hugely enjoyable and suspenseful, and had other twists and surprises up its sleeve, I just wish I came into it knowing as little as possible.

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, in an instantly sympathetic turn), a young black man who is about to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time in their affluent rural home. Rose never told her parents that her boyfriend is black, and Chris worries about their reception despite Rose’s assurances that her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could. A different, simpler movie might have played it so that Rose’s parents are awful in an obvious racist way, but in Get Out Chris’s visit turns into a nightmare because Rose’s liberal neurosurgeon father and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist mother are just so hellbent on broadcasting how totally fine they are with Chris. But this awkwardness might be the least of his problems, as he gets increasingly creeped out by the very odd behaviour of the other two black people in the house, a groundsman and a housekeeper. They move around the place in a ghostly, silent manner, and when Chris tries to be friendly with them they’re cold and just plain unnerving.

If you briefly summarised the main mystery to someone who hasn’t watched the film it would sound incredibly silly, but it totally works in the context of the film, much like the potentially silly reveal of The Stepford Wives works in Ira Levin’s classic satirical thriller (Ira Levin I think would have enjoyed Get Out a lot). It takes care to lay the foundations for the reveal, so that when it happens it’s genuinely horrifying rather than inviting ridicule. There are certainly implausibilities, but you’re generally too busy being carried away by the film and its suburban-Gothic vibe to stop for nitpicking. It’s a superbly made thriller that juggles horror and humour, most of the latter coming from Chris’s lovable best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), TSA Officer whose natural inclinations to conspiracy theories come in handy.

One unexpected delight of the film for me was its score, which often sounds like it was lifted from the old-school horror movies with their shrieking violins, an interesting juxtaposition with the modern-day setting. My Mum who watched the film with me remarked that, just when you think that nothing new can be done anymore, a film like this comes along, and yes Get Out is the sort of fresh take on the genre you cherish.

P.S. The actor who plays Rose’s douchy brother looked naggingly familiar to me, and I only realised later that the same guy played the sweet-natured Banshee in X-Men: First Class. He’s certainly no sweetikins here!

The Witch

A very effective and disturbing exercise in slowly escalating dread, The Witch is the sort of movie where you sit on the edge expecting something really bad to happen any minute now. It doesn’t have many big jump scares but the claustrophobic setting, moody and muted visuals (the film is shot in natural light, with only candles providing the artificial one), spooky music and the unsettling implications of horrible things happening offscreen all work together to create a superb atmosphere of unease.

The setting is the 1630s New England, and in the opening scene a devout family of seven leaves their Puritan settlement over religious differences to reside on a farm by the edge of a forest, far away from human contact. I was glad to have subtitles while watching the movie, because everyone in it speaks in the archaic English based on the written records of the time, with thee and thou and dost and so on. It has a certain poetry to it and adds a lot to the authentic feel, but man would it have obscured the dialogue for me. One day, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy of the eerie wide-set eyes, seen most recently in Split and giving another strong performance here), the eldest child of the clan, takes her baby brother outside, where he vanishes into the thin air. I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say that, contrary to my expectations, the movie actually doesn’t toy with the audience regarding the existence of the titular witch – it shows upfront that yes she’s real, and what she does with the baby is not pleasant.

Thomasin and her family live in a world governed by faith and superstition where God, Devil and sin are a daily pre-occupation and the idea that the Devil might take on an animal shape is nothing out of the ordinary. It sure made me happy to live in the present day where I don’t have to think of myself as a born sinner and worry about hellfires all day long. When other strange and inexplicable things begin to happen, the family is slowly consumed with fear and paranoia that leads them to turn on each other with accusations of devilry. I thought that The Witch worked best as a quiet psychological thriller about the breakdown of the family – when it did attempt a few deliberately scary moments they mostly made me titter. They’re just too over-the-top compared to the overall subtle approach of the film.

Taylor-Joy is the standout in the cast, as The Witch is also an unconventional coming-of-age story of a young girl in the Puritan age, but Ralph Ineson and Katie Dickie (both seen on Game of Thrones), are also solid as the father who is sympathetic but too weak and prideful to admit he’s taken his family to ruin, and the brittle, emotionally damaged matriarch with a shade of Lysa Arryn. Without spoiling twists and turns, looking back it’s satisfying to spot all the clues the movie plants early on that hint on where the story will eventually go. It certainly has one of the most memorable endings in a film I can think of.

As a random aside, I wish I could think of ways to incorporate the line “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” into my daily conversations somehow.

Split

split-imageWith all the prestigious Oscar-season films out, I wanted to take a break and see something different. To my surprise, a film I felt like seeing was M. Night Shyamalan’s latest. Like most people, I loved The Sixth Sense, but I haven’t watched a Shyamalan film at the cinema since Signs in 2002, a movie so offensively stupid it would have put me off his stuff even without the critical bashing his next few films received. The reviews for this one however were quite decent, hailing it a comeback even, and James McAvoy starring did a lot to sway me, since I’m a big fan.

McAvoy has a kind of sweet face that could easily have doomed him to an endless string of lightweight cutie-patootie roles (Amy Adams had a similar problem before David O. Russell cast her in The Fighter), a fate he’s obviously determined to duck. There was his stellar turn as a vile foul-mouthed cop in Filth, and in Split he’s once again playing a shady individual, with spectacular results. His character, Kevin, has a Dissociative Identity Disorder, and shares his mind with twenty-two other personalities, though we only see a handful of them. McAvoy, always a vibrant screen presence, has tremendous fun with his scenery-chewing performance and manages to successfully distinguish his “characters” through body language, ticks and vocal inflections, going from almost endearing to scary-as-hell in a fraction of a second. There’s a rather fascinating (and most likely wildly unrealistic) system to the way the personalities “come to the light”, wrestle for control and arrange alliances between themselves.

The story has Kevin kidnap three teenage girls, including an introverted school outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is offered a ride home by chance. The girls are kept in an unidentifiable place somewhere underground, and though Kevin and his other personalities don’t intend any immediate physical harm they keep on making creepy comments about sacrifice that can’t possibly come to any good. Casey, a haunted soul with a tragic personal history told in flashbacks over the course of the film, does the most trying to engage their captor and trick him into letting them escape. The other two girls are less developed and feel like traditional horror archetypes.

Most of the explanation and world-building in the movie comes courtesy of Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s therapist who is intensely sympathetic to him and other DID patients. Through their conversations, we learn of an enigmatic twenty-third personality in Kevin’s mind called The Beast, whose existence Dr. Fletcher doubts and who doesn’t sound like anyone you’d like to run into in a dark alley at night.

Split still has some of the usual annoying Shyamalanisms like stilted dialogue and a pointless cameo from the director, but it’s easily one of his better films. It’s fun, trashy and full of weird interesting camera angles, it excels at generating Hitchcockian tension and suspense, and it’s anchored by McAvoy’s freewheeling, entertaining performance. I wish though I didn’t read so much hype about the Big Twist this movie was supposed to have, because a part of my brain spent the entire movie trying to figure out the twist and anticipating the surprise. The revelation however failed to rock my world – it has little to do with the story itself and its effectiveness depends solely on how much you know or care about the thing it refers to.

Let the Right One In

let-the-right-one-inExcellent Swedish adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist‘s macabre novel, which is one of the more original takes on the well-trodden vampire genre and is as far from the romantic and glamorous depictions of vampires in popular culture as you can imagine. It’s also a movie about children that is in no way meant for children.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a 12-year-old boy living with his mother in a faceless suburb somewhere in Sweden, and his life sucks. His parents are largely absent, he has no friends and he’s mercilessly bullied at school. Pale-skinned with white-blond hair, he looks like a ghostly creature not quite of this world, and in his misery he indulges in fantasies where he takes violent revenge against his bullies. One snowy night, he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), his new next-door neighbour, a strange dark-haired girl about his age who doesn’t seem to notice the biting cold while hanging around the playground in a thin dress. That’s because Eli is a vampire, and the older man she lives with, named Håkan, is a killer who goes out at night, overcomes his victims with a home-made anaesthesia kit, and drains their blood, taking it home for Eli. He’s not altogether competent and is soon caught in the act, leaving Eli to become a predator by herself. In the meantime, Oskar and Eli’s friendship slowly develops and deepens, even as Oskar realises that Eli might not be human… or a girl.

If this sounds like a recipe for one grim downer, that’s because it is, drenched in wintry Scandinavian bleakness and with a deadly serious approach to the whole vampire thing. There’s a subplot about one of Eli’s victims who survives the attack only to become afflicted with blood lust and intolerance to sun light; it’s a shame it feels truncated compared to the book because I felt it was a strikingly realistic portrait of what becoming a vampire would really be like. It’s also when the movie does its only misstep with a scene involving fake-looking CGI cats – again a shame because it’s one of the most memorably grotesque scenes in the novel. Much of the violence in the movie is implied, or shown from a distance, rather than made explicit, which is used most effectively in the climatic scene taking place at the pool.

The two young actors playing Oskar and Eli are exceptional and the movie does a great job messing around with your moral compass with this story of loneliness and connection. It makes you feel sympathy for a character who is, when you get down to it, a monster killing innocent people for food, and you cheer when these two lonely souls find each other, even though realistically you can’t see a happy ending in their future. In the book, Eli’s relationship with Håkan is explained for what it is – he’s a pedophile and while he provides Eli with protection and food she’s a mean to satisfy his urges in what he sees is a guilt-free way, since she’s not really a child. In the movie, the nature of their relationship and their past history remains mysterious, and it’s easier to draw some depressing parallels and wonder if Håkan foreshadows Oskar’s ultimate fate. Which is… dark. For the length of the film though, this unconventional love story is a very moving one.