Horror. Worldview. Faith.

The Monster – Review

The Monster – Review

Jan 31, 2017

reviewed by Scott
directed by Bryan Bertino, 2016
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The Monster is a 2016 creature feature written and directed by Bryan Bertino, starring Zoe Kazan as Kathy and Ella Ballentine as Lizzy.

Kathy is the alcoholic single mother of Lizzie, a girl who is about ten years old. Kathy looks so young that she could not have been too much older than that when she had Lizzie. As is often the case in such scenarios, Lizzie is like the real parent in the family. We are introduced to them with scenes of Lizzie cleaning up the house trashed from her mother’s partying. Lizzie has to get her mom out of bed so they can make a trip after packing for the two of them. Though in some ways, she is the caregiver, she is also emotionally stunted by their domestic trauma and clings throughout to a stuffed bear that sings nursery rhymes. The opening sequences are effective and prepare us for what is best about this movie.

After the first act, the troubled relationship between Kathy and Lizzie is further related in flashbacks. The mother/daughter tension is the heart of this film. In fact, I want to see the movie of them without the creature. But we are not so lucky. The bulk of the action takes place while they are on their way to take Lizzie to her dad’s place, perhaps for good when they hit a wolf and the car is disabled. In the woods. At night. During a storm. The rest of the picture is them being stalked by a snarling thing and their fight to survive. Rescue almost comes a couple of times but, in the end, the women must try to save themselves.

I had hoped we were in for a complex multi-layered personal drama which happened to coincide with a monstrous encounter that typified the relationship between the main characters. The good news is that is we do get glimpses of such a story. But the bad news is that so many other things are executed poorly. The creature plot is predictable and boring. The music is noticeably underwhelming. For a film entitled The Monster, the actual titular beast was fairly unscary. The image in the movie poster is more chilling than its – at times – laughable appearance in the film. Initially, I was reminded of the introduction of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. A rainy night with two hapless victims trapped in their car being terrorized by a razor-fanged uber-lizard. But instead of a realistic dinosaur, we get a man in a rubber suit. 1950s Japan is calling. They want their Godzilla costume back.

The high points, on the other hand, are the performances. Both actresses are clearly talented but Zoe Kazan was pretty brilliant, especially in the flashback scenes. The most suspenseful scene was her trying to talk herself out of taking a drink. And the most shocking scene was how she treats her daughter when her good-for-nothing boyfriend storms out of the house. The most beautiful scene, and heart-wrenching, was the flashback at the end. As I said, this is the movie I would rather have seen. High fives to Bryan Bertino for showing that addiction is truly monstrous. Too bad about the guy in the rubber suit though.

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The Invitation – Review

The Invitation – Review

Jul 26, 2016

reviewed by Scott
directed by Karyn Kusama, 2015
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You are invited to witness this angsty psychological thriller that’ll rip your heart out.  The Invitation is directed by Karyn Kusama who also helmed Girlfight and the horror comedy, Jennifer’s Body.  Brilliantly written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, The Invitation premiered at the 2015 SXSW film festival.

Most of us have been to parties where we felt out-of-place.  And some of us have been in social settings where things are going fine until the train stops unexpectedly at crazy town.  If you can relate and even if you can’t, The Invitation will put you there.

Will, the lead character, is played by Logan Marshall-Green.  It’s an emotionally complex role that he pulls off expertly.  He is summoned with his new girlfriend, Kira, to the home of his ex-wife, Eden, who is hosting a dinner party with her new husband.  Right off the bat, Will and Kira experience a disturbing mishap on the way which is the first indication that this picture is about some seriously damaged people.  Once there, they are met by a group of Will and Eden’s old friends whom they haven’t seen in ages, along with some mysterious new faces.  The film unsettles us with clues and misdirections, which it neutralizes with intermittent normalness.  Every dire signal has a sensible explanation.  When you hear hoofbeats, don’t immediately think of zebras.  Think of horses.  Yeah, but…

Will is in no mood for a party at the house he used to share with his ex and their son.  Will and Eden, we learn, divorced in the aftermath of their young son’s tragic death and both of them have had trouble moving on.  Eden claims to have found a way to be free from all negative emotions, but Will is skeptical . . . about everything.  Why is Eden acting so spacey?  Where is their missing friend?  Why is the door locked?  Who are these new people?  As Will’s paranoia grows to epic proportions, certain things fail to add up for the viewer too.  Someone at this party is clearly bonkers; it’s just not clear who.

The dinner-party-from-hell micro-subgenre is only as good as the supporting cast.  In this case, The Invitation is pure perfection.  Everyone seems so normal except for the little things.  Like a slightly tilted painting over the fireplace, there is just something off.  Like Hitchcock’s Rope, this creepy delight would work well as a stage play too.  Avoid the trailer.  The less you know, the better.

Some critics of the film will say that it just moves too slowly, but the pace is perfect in my estimation.  It is a slow burn but with just enough suppressed violence and emotion to keep you on edge.  Be assured there is plenty of pay off before it’s done.  Fans of unexpected chills and bizarreness will be rewarded.  If you need wall-to-wall action, you’ll probably find your mind wandering until, well, just until.  But if you like your chillers marinated slowly and packing a hidden punch to the gut, this is one film not to miss.

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Sick Girl (Masters of Horror) – Review

Sick Girl (Masters of Horror) – Review

Oct 8, 2012

reviewed by Skot
directed by Lucky McKee, 2006
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Sick Girl is the name of an episode of the generally strong Masters of Horror television series from the Showtime cable network.  It aired originally on January 13, 2006. Sick Girl is another bizarre contribution from the creative teamwork of Lucky McKee and Angela Bettis.  Bettis is the star.  McKee is the writer and director.  Their previous two projects, the feature films May and Roman, are twisted stories of loneliness and alienation, themes found here as well.  Roman is extremely brutal emotionally with very little lightness to it, but May reveals their capacity for dark humor as well.  Sick Girl definitely plays for the humor.

Bettis plays Ida Teeter, an entomologist who has a habit of taking her work home with her.  Having an apartment filled with six-legged zoological specimens has a dampening effect on her love life.  Max Grubb, her fellow scientist, tells her that her job is the reason that she keep faltering romantically.  Ida likes girls and she has trouble because the dates she brings home are creeped out by the “bug thing.”  She has to choose between the babes or the bugs according to Max.

Another source of tension in the story is Ida’s boarding house landlady, Lana Beasley, who objects to Ida keeping live specimens in the house.  She’s afraid for the health and safety of her granddaughter, Betty, who continuously wears a ladybug costume.  Ida tries to assuage Lana’s fears.  “I promise you,” she says.  “My pets will never cause any trouble.”  Famous last words.

One day, Ida receives a mysterious package in the mail from Brazil that contains a huge unidentified insect. Shortly after its arrival, the mystery bug manages to escape from its container.  Later, Ida receives an anonymous letter warning her that the insect she received is dangerous, presumably from the same person who sent the critter in the first place.  The claims the letter makes about the insect’s habits are most extraordinary.  Max just laughs it off.

Meanwhile, lovelorn Ida is attracted to a hippie girl whom she sees drawing pictures of fairies on a sketchpad in the lobby of the building where she works.  After building up the courage to talk to the hippie girl, Ida learns that her name is Misty Falls.  Ida is instantly smitten.  “She’s the bee’s knees,” she tells Max.

When Ida brings Misty home for an evening of amore’, she hides all her pets in her bedroom because she’s worried about how Misty will react.  After an awkward evening, the two begin to become intimate on the living room couch, during which time the escaped exotic bug bites Misty in the ear.  As we know, this critter has unusual properties.  Misty starts immediately to feel unwell, a fact she tries to keep from Ida.  Misty begins to experience some kind of transformation.  You’ll have to see what happens for yourself.

The Masters of Horror episodes are hit-or-miss.  Most of them are pretty strong, just as you’d expect given the talented directors they draw from.  McKee and Bettis have a knack for bringing out the humor in horror without forgetting that the point of a horror picture is to scare and repulse.  This short film is a nice relief from the weightier works we’ve seen from them before, while incorporating the familiar themes of solitude and lovesickness they handle so well.  McKee, as a writer, definitely likes to explore boundary transgressions of the human body in his artwork.  The monstrous reveal at the end has hints of Cronenberg’s The Fly. Angela Bettis has the weird lonely girl role down pat.  I’m not usually a big fan of horror humor but this piece has enough weirdness to keep my interest.

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May – Review

May – Review

Oct 3, 2012

reviewed by Skot
directed by Lucky McKee, 2002
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“If your eye offends you, pluck it out!” – Jesus

The horror industry has generated a zillion different incarnations of vampires, zombies and ghosts.  What you see much less often are reiterations of the Frankenstein myth.  Lucky McKee wrote and directed this 2002 cult favorite.  It’s a body horror gem that verges on black comedy at times.

When the title character was a little girl, she was afflicted with a lazy eye and made to wear a patch to school.  “Are you a pirate?” one little boy taunted.  She was isolated by the experience of having an imperfect physical trait.  Most of us do not grasp the effect which extreme solitude can have upon a sensitive child, especially when it pertains to a bodily feature.  What little bit we see of May’s parents suggests they too could’ve used a few hours upon a therapist’s couch.  May’s only friend was a doll.  And such a doll.  Some people find dolls kind of creepy.  But this doll is creepy with the volume set to eleven, let me tell you.

Later, grown-up May works at a veterinarian clinic.  We quickly learn that she has become infatuated with Adam, a mechanic and aspiring filmmaker played by Jeremy Sisto.  Her awkward attempts to make him notice her are humorous and endearing.  Angela Bettis combines the right proportions of allure and cluelessness.

In one of her first conversations with Adam, May asks, “Don’t you think I’m weird?”  “I like weird,” he says.  They both seem to really be surprised by each other.  Eating sandwiches in the park, she tells him that she works at an animal hospital doing tasks that a lot of people consider gross.  He seizes the challenge saying, “Go ahead.  Disgust me.”  She proceeds to relate a truly repulsive episode that appears to sour even Adam’s appetite.  When he shows her his apartment, he’s impressed that she doesn’t recoil at his macabre collection of horror movie related artifacts.  Later, Adam presents May a private screening of his film about two lovers who become so carried away with their lovemaking that they literally cannibalize each other.  It’s played for whimsy as well as shock.  He’s anxious about what she’ll think, worried that she’ll be turned off by the dark side of his personality that he’s usually so reticent to share.  Her response to his movie was not quite what he expected.  “I think it’s sweet,” she says, and moves in for a snuggle.  It seems he’s met his match and then some.  But there’s weird and then there’s weird.  May is weird.

With each person May meets, she fixates on a particular part of that person’s body.  For instance, she loves Adam’s hands.  Anna Farris plays May’s flirtatious lesbian coworker.  May loves her neck.  Another girl is prized for her beautiful “gams.”  And a boy for his arms.  There are so many beautiful parts.  It’s just hard to find someone who has the whole package.

McKee’s writing and direction are critical for the success of this picture.  But it all hinges on Angela Bettis as May.  This is an extremely challenging role.  One could play the lunatic-slasher-serial-killer or the sympathetic-cute-nerdy-girl looking for her prince charming or the damaged-stalker a’ la Fatal Attraction relatively easily, but it takes a true dramatic maestro to pull all three together into one.

While I think it’s a good movie, it’s not without flaws.  The part about the blind children is not as exploitative as you might expect, but I found it hard to understand how it adds anything important to the story.

I’ve seen May twice.  Once in 2003 and once last weekend (2012).  It wasn’t as good for me the second time round as I remembered from the first time.  I think it’s too polished and would play better with a lower budget feel.

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Roman – Review

Roman – Review

Oct 1, 2012

reviewed by Skot
directed by Angela Bettis, 2006
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In 2002, Lucky McKee directed Angela Bettis in May about a troubled young woman who is excruciatingly lonely and obsessed with finding true love.  In 2006, McKee and Bettis traded roles for the unsettling picture, Roman.  McKee wrote the screenplays for both films.

Roman (Lucky McKee) has a mind-numbing job with mind-numbed coworkers.  He doesn’t usually say much but listening to the drivel of his coworkers, it’s not hard to understand why someone once quipped that silence is golden.  Each monotonous day after the next, he returns to his Spartan apartment and stares at the wall.  One day, to mix things up, he uses cigarette ash to draw the outline of a television on the wall to pretend to watch it.  Every day, at the same time, his cute neighbor (Kristen Bell) walks past his apartment and lovesick Roman makes a point of watching her collect her mail.  Only she can make him smile.  Consumed with romantic sexual fantasies, Roman’s day revolves around those five minutes when he can catch a glimpse of dream girl walking past.  It’s a fine line between infatuation and creepy obsession.  This story of a social misfit almost becomes a sweet romance when things take a turn for the worse, and then a turn for the macabre.  Guilt, obsession and brutal isolation drive him straight downtown to crazy town.

In his fantastical imaginings of dream girl, he gives her the name Isis which is fitting both since Isis is the Egyptian goddess who represented the ideal wife and mother but also because of the how the name sounds like the word “ice.”  You’ll see what I mean.  The myth of Isis also includes the topic of dismemberment.

Pulling him back from the brink of complete lunacy is his encounter with another pretty girl in his apartment complex.  Eva, played by Nectar Rose (her real name) is an artistic Mother Nature sprite of a girl whose enchanting free spirit gives Roman another shot at sanity and happiness.  On the outside, Eva is a walking personification of a literal garden of delights, but there’s a serpent in her tree.  Roman finds that Eva harbors secret shadows of her own.  On their first date, they catch a performance of Hedda Gabler, a play about suicide.  “Isn’t it beautiful?” Eva moons.  Oh yes, the girl has issues.

The first dream girl, “Isis,” was never really a true person for Roman.  She was nothing more than a collection of pretty parts he desired to possess.  With Eva, things are different.  She breaks the spell of Isis and makes him fall in love with her as a person, complexities and all.

Roman is a romantic, obsessed with his own twisted version of romance.  Lucky McKee plays the lead perfectly.  Even though he’s completely bonkers, I couldn’t help but sympathize with him.  There are moments of sweetness in the story, moments when you root for Roman to find true love with one of his dream girls.  Just when you think he’s emerging from madness to a real normal life, everything gets flushed down the toilet.  Roman is a strange love story populated with badly damaged, though not unrecognizable, people.  It’s a heartbreaking little movie that I appreciate more every time I watch it.  (There’s a really bizarre little music video that exemplifies the off-beat scary sadness of the film that I couldn’t erase from my brain.  Just look up Burro Boy on Google.  You can thank me later.)

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Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Aug 4, 2011

reviewed by Skot
directed by Jon Favreau, 2011
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Several years ago, I started reading a novel about an extraterrestrial craft that crashed in Portugal in the Middle Ages.  The townspeople had no frame of reference to interpret their visitors as beings from another planet.  The benighted humans thought the advanced technologies of the spacemen must either be the results of sorcery or divine mediation.  For one reason or another, I never had the chance to finish that book before I had to return it to the library.  I can no longer remember what it was called or who wrote it and haven’t been able to track it down to complete it.

I’m not sure if the book was any good or not, but the premise was very sticky.  The concept of space aliens visiting earth in a time other than the modern one has a lot of untapped potential.  I’m sure there were some episodes of Twilight Zone or Star Trek that explored this thought.  It’s an underlying concept for Battlestar Gallactica. And who hasn’t heard about the theories of Erich von Daniken in Chariots of the Gods?  But I can’t recall a major motion picture that has dwelt on it.

How would people from times past react to advanced technology?  Though realism is not the first word that comes to mind with this film, it does strike me as genuine that the townspeople initially plug the aliens into their worldview.  They used the only vocabulary they had, wondering if their extraordinary assailants were demons.

Cowboys and Aliens stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde and Keith Carradine.  You can see that the cast is something special.  It even has Sam Rockwell in an all too bland supporting role.  If they could have thrown in Samuel L. Jackson or Robert Downey Jr., it would have been perfect!

Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan (“Loner” – gan) who wakes up at the beginning of the movie lying in the desert, shoeless, wounded, with a strange metal contraption on his wrist, and no memory.  He quickly establishes himself as a man not to be messed with.  Having made his way to town, he finds himself at odds both with the sheriff, played by Keith Carradine and the big-shot rancher tycoon played by Harrison Ford.  This is the best role I’ve seen Ford play in years.

When the town is attacked by flying machines which rope random residents and rustle them away, the guys in the black hats and the guys in the white hats determine to work together, form a posse, and to try to rescue their kinfolk.  Other directors might have utilized energy beams to zap their captives up, but the use of the lasso was a nice western touch.

The men are helped by the always strikingly beautiful Olivia Wilde in the role of Ella Swenson.  As a side note, Olivia Wilde may be the new go-to action movie chic.  Consider Tron and now this.  She doesn’t yet have the fighting cred of Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Salt).  But she’s a step above the token eye-candy girlfriend who is otherwise pointless to the plot (ie. Megan Fox in Transformers).  Jennifer Garner hasn’t done action in years, so maybe Wilde is the up-and-comer.  Have you started taking Karate lessons yet Liv?

Craig and Ford are the narrative focal points, and Wilde to a lesser extent.  All three of them are more than they first appear.  Wilde is in a category all her own, about which I’ll say no more.  Neither of the fellas is exactly admirable.  The preacher could have been talking about either one when he uttered this astute observation: “I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things.”  Are our heroes bad or good?  Both of them experience a change by the end of the picture.  Their sufferings and their losses are redemptive.

Most of the jabbering in the press is about the genre-bending mashup of the western and science fiction.  There’s at least one other genre that should get factored into the equation: horror.  If you think a move called Cowboys and Aliens sounds like kid’s stuff, be careful.  This is not a movie for little children.  The monsters are genuinely frightening at times and truly revolting all the time.  There are several jump scares and there are scenes of torture and grisly violence.  Alien abductions constitute a spooky sub-genre of horror and this movie goes there (cf. Fire in the Sky (1993) and The Fourth Kind (2009) et al.).

One moment struck me as particularly poignant.  When Craig finds the pile of gold watches and other personal items of abductees, it resembled a scene from the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.  The nazis collected the valuables of the concentration camp prisoners into piles.  This hints at the possibility of genocide or human extinction.  It also suggests that otherworldly monsters are not the only ones we need to worry about.  I realize I’m reading between the lines, but I don’t think I’m pressing the imagery too far.

In earlier decades, filmmakers faced what they called the “monster problem.”  That is to say, you had to have a creature that looked real enough to produce the intended effect.  You didn’t want to get everyone all geared up to see a nasty beastie, only to reveal a man in a rubber suit.  Having people laugh at your monster is not desirable.  Personally, I prefer old-school physical special effects whenever possible, but there are limits to what you can do without CGI.  C&A utilized both to the optimum effect.

There were many moments that called to mind sci-fi films that preceded it.  The abductees returning, for instance, reminded me of a similar moment in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.  A hat tip to Steven Spielberg, one of the several top shelf executive produces of C&A?

Cowboys and Aliens is a fun adventure.  So many things about it make it cooler than other blockbusters this summer, not the least of which is the cast.  Jon Favreau, the director, is not known for helming subtle thinky pictures, but he does know how to punch you the face with a good time.

What we have here is primarily a blistering fun time, not a message movie.  But if you will indulge this reviewer, one moral of this story seems to be that people can change.  It might just be that we need an impending global catastrophe to get us to wake up.  When the threat is great enough, even cowboys and indians will put aside their differences and work together.  Don’t waste your days on things that don’t matter.  Chasing gold is futile.  Family counts.  Community counts.  Even religious faith is given a nod.  And learn to give your brother a chance.  The town is named Absolution after all.

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