{Film Review} The Hunt

TheHunt

 

In a way, you have to feel bad for Universal/Blumhouse’s The Hunt. First, after two mass shootings in 2019, the film was yanked from Blumhouse’s schedule due to its supposed plot about liberal elites gunning down right-wing Americans. The right-wing stratosphere reacted to the term”deplorables” in the script, seemingly used to refer to a murdered American. Of course, the president tweeted, pointing a finger at “racist Hollywood.”  The movie finally had a theatrical release on March 13, amid the Coronavirus outbreak and the likelihood that people will avoid movie theaters. At this point, Blumhouse/Universal has decided to release the film, along with The Invisible Man, on VOD starting this Friday. At long last, more people can see the movie.

The truth is that The Hunt is not a right-wing hit piece. For the most part, it’s a bloody,  B-movie romp that skewers both sides. From the outset, it’s clear that the film is never going to take itself too seriously. In the opening minutes, a victim wakes up on an airplane, occupied by the “liberal elites.” The airplane is flying to “The Manor,” where the games are set to begin. Of course, he realizes what’s going on and tries to stop it, but he’s killed by Hilary Swank’s icy Athena, who shoves her heel into his eyeball.

From there, the narrative shifts to The Manor, where the captives are released in a field with gags locked to their mouths. They flee for safety amid a shower of bullets. Heads literally explode. Captives step on landmines. One young woman falls on a spike…twice. Just as the camera focuses on one character,  for oh, two or three minutes, making you think they’re going to be the protagonist, they’re then taken out with a grenade or bullet. Eventually, the audience is introduced to the actual protagonist Crystal (Betty Gilpin), a tough veteran who takes out the “elites” one by one, be it with bullets or some seriously impressive kickboxing movies. Crystal is the only character given any semblance of  a story, other than maybe Athena, but even so, their stories are light. In fact, that’s one of the film’s real flaws. It’s hard to relate to any of these characters. Athena and Crystal kick ass, but we hardly know anything about them. The rest of the characters are mostly fodder with some funny one-liners about gun control, climate change, and “snowflakes.”

Crystal

Crystal played by Betty Gilpin/Photo Courtesy of Universal/Blumhouse

There are plenty of movies that do political satire better. John Carpenter’s They Live is the most obvious example. That said, there is one scene in particular between Crystal and Athena that gets into a heavy debate about internet conspiracy theories and truth. It’s an impressive bit of acting and script writing that makes for a poignant scene. Additionally, the film makes it clear that we should be careful about judging others before we hear and understand their whole story. In fact, the film illustrates well just how much Americans with opposing views distrust each other.

All of that said, The Hunt is fairly hollow but fun movie that isn’t afraid to be absurd. There’s a t-shirt-wearing pig named Orwell (after Animal Farm), for heaven’s sake.The film is probably not going to change anyone’s thinking, but those who assume that they know what the movie is about should actually see it. Americans on both sides of the political aisle will find something to laugh about. The Hunt is certainly a violent movie, but there is such an over-the-top, Eli Roth-style factor to the gore that it’s outlandish. As Americans hoard TP and worry about loved ones, rightfully so, we need to laugh. A little satire is healthy.

A Rebirth of the Classic Universal Monsters?

invisible-man-1

(Photo Courtesy of Blumhouse/Universal)

Now that Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (Read my review at Signal Horizon) grossed nearly $50 million at the box office this weekend, it seems likely Universal will green-light other reboots/remakes of their classic monsters. Unlike 2017’s The Mummy, Whannell’s film was a huge success, especially when you factor in that it had a budget of only $7 million. There are several reasons why I think this project worked.

  • It was a single, self-contained story. Unlike The Mummy, The Invisible Man didn’t try to launch an entire Dark Universe. It simply focused on one main character, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), and her abusive ex, aka The Invisible Man.
  • It updated the story. The movie resonates because it feels timely in the age of the MeToo movement and powerful men going to jail or abusing women.
  • It was actually…. scary and suspenseful. What’s more terrifying than an unrelenting ex who you can’t see? The score helped, too.
  • Moss’ performance was stellar. Enough said.

Whannell just signed a first-look deal with Universal/Blumhouse, meaning they’ll most likely have him direct other projects, which could mean other reiterations of the classic monsters. The Invisible Man contains a formula for successful reboots of other classic monsters, namely, keep the story simple. Don’t try to build some grandiose universe. Give us a monster. Give us victims.

Which monsters would you like to see hit the big screen next?

Willful Monstrosity

Willful

Women in Horror Month is winding down, but it’s not quite over yet. Before the month passes, I want to recommend Natalie Wilson’s new book Willful Monstrosity: Race and Gender in 21st Century Horror (McFarland). It’s one of the best academic books on the genre that I’ve read within the last few years. Split into four sections, zombies, vampires, witches, and women, Wilson’s text is a fine addition to contemporary horror scholarship and an analysis of how the monster has evolved into a “willful subject,” one that refuses to stay in its place and abide by society’s standards. Wilson gives a close analysis to film, television, and literature, with close readings of genre favorites like Get Out, Let the Right One In, Netflix’s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “The Walking Dead,” and so much more. Though Wilson’s focus is on 21st Century horror, the entirety of her project is in conversation with horror history and the evolution of the monster.

For more info about the book, check out my reviewfor Signal Horizon.

Happy reading!

In Honor of Women in Horror Month

Girl

Did you know that February is Women in Horror Month? 

This international, grassroots initiative was started within the last few years as a means to support and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries.

In honor of that, I put together a list of 10 films directed by women to watch through the month of February.  You can read the list over at HorrOrigins.

Most of my films are from the 2000s, but it should be noted that women-directed horror films go all the way back to 1953 and The Hitch-Hiker, directed by Ida Lupino.

 

Are there any films that you’d add to the list?

Gretel and Hansel: A Mesmerizing Take on the Classic Fairy Tale

Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures

Most horror fans know Oz Perkins by this point. As a director, the son of Anthony Perkins made a name for himself in 2015 with The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a bleak take on the typical exorcism story, complete with moody visuals that often surpassed narrative and story. The same is true of his follow-up, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, a brooding ghost story. Perkins’ latest feature, Gretel and Hansel, retells the classic Grimm’s  Fairy Tale, and like his previous features, it’s more concerned with establishing a haunting world and showcasing the visual over the narrative. The result is a film that feels like something A24 would have released, an art house horror flick that may not find a broad audience because of its emphasis on imagery and a slow burn. That said, there are enough horror fans tired of the formulaic jump scares that may find something to like in Perkins’ dark fairy tale.

Generally, Gretel and Hansel is the story we all know. It features three main characters, Gretel (Sophia Lillis), Hansel (Samuel Leakey), and the witch/Holda (Alice Krige). Yet, it’s clear from the outset that Perkins and writer Rob Hayes chose to emphasize Gretel’s story above all else. In this retelling, she’s older than her brother, and in the opening minutes, we see her attend a job interview for a man who insists that she call him “my lord” and then implies that she could be of use to him only in a sexual context. She refuses, and soon enough, Gretel and Hansel’s mom toss them out when they don’t bring home income. The siblings are then left to find their way in the meandering, dark woods and ultimately stumble upon the witch’s house. Instead of a gingerbread house, Perkins created a triangle-shaped dwelling that has a peephole near the front door, where the siblings see a scrumptious feast that’s more than enough to satiate their grumbling tummies.

Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures

From there, the story takes a slightly different turn. The witch is interested in mentoring Gretel and unleashing her feminine power. However, one main plot hole involves the witch’s intentions. It’s rather unclear if she truly wants to guide the young woman or has more nefarious plans in mind, like shoving her into an oven. The plot is not meaty enough to really offer an answer, and due to the narrative ambiguity, it’s left for the viewer to decide. Regardless, witches have often been associated with feminine power throughout folklore and horror history, so it’s nice to see Perkins align his film with said history.

The rest of the film is a visual feast. Inside the house, there are shots of gleaming serving trays that hold plump turkey legs and fat pastries, while the exterior shots feature shadowy, leaf-strewn paths and gnarled tree branches that go a long way in establishing both the mood and the world. The imagery of red smoke billowing from the chimney is also  quite effective. Additionally, the hellish dreams that Gretel has once she accepts the witch’s lodging add to the grim tale. However, the most arresting visuals  occur whenever the younger version of Holda (Jessica De Gouw) appears. The raven-haired, pale-skinned character is simply spellbinding, especially during the climax.

Perkins succeeded in creating a captivating world in Gretel and Hansel, and the fact he emphasized Gretel’s story offers a new take on a well-known fairy tale. It’s hard to say, however, if this film will find a large audience, despite its wide release. It’s very much an art house horror film that isn’t for everyone, but if you like slow burn horror that’s emphasizes the visual, sometimes more than than the narrative, then Gretel and Hansel is worth the price of admission.

 

 

A Little Poem about My Favorite Slasher

JasonLives

Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

About 10 years ago, Boston Literary Magazine was one of the first magazines to publish any of my work.  Prior to the acceptance, I had a few rejections  but remained persistent and kept writing and  revising, spurred on by editor Robin Stratton’s encouragement. Over the last few years, the magazine was on hiatus, but recently, it returned with a lengthy comeback issue. I’m deeply appreciative that my poem “The First Time I Watched a Friday the 13th” was included. I’ll forever be grateful to BLM for taking a chance on my work years ago, and I’m thrilled to have a new piece in the comeback issue. You can read it here or read it below.

 

The First Time I Watched a Friday the 13th

My mom kept watch on the sunflower recliner,

her brown eyes peering over pages of a paperback,

while I leaned towards the TV, inserted a VHS—

Friday the 13th Pt. 4.

 

I ran my hands over the sleeve—

the black holes of Jason’s hockey mask,

the silver knife that gleamed like moonlight

over Camp Crystal Lake.

 

I clapped at the first appearance of hulking Jason

power walking through the woods, stalking

first victims, camp counselors that guzzled beers,

traded joints back and forth like secret notes.

 

My mother said nothing about first kills—

a machete to the head, an arrow between the eyes,

the gasps of victims before the camera pulled away

and Jason dragged their bodies to the woods.

 

It wasn’t until two counselors disrobed,

reached for the buttons of each other’s shorts

that mom rose from her chair, stormed towards the TV,

seized the tape, clicked her tongue in disgust.

 

For months I searched for the VHS, like goods

thieved from me I wanted to reclaim. I never finished

that scene, the kill that always follows sex in slasher flicks.

 

My mother, too,was a moral judge,

wanting to shield my eyes from the female form,

from the mysteries of sex a 10-year-old wanted to ask.

[Movie Review] Underwater: An Underwhelming Creature Feature

Typically, January is the month when a lot of big studios dump projects into theaters and don’t expect a big return. In other words, it’s the doldrums. For the last few years, the deep sea creature feature Underwater has languished on the shelf, but finally, 20th Century Fox, which recently merged with Disney, has released the film. Director William Eubank’s aquatic horror movie is generally flat on character development, but it does have some high tension scares that make it a fun popcorn flick if you’re looking for a way to pass a cold January day.

Underwater1.jpg

Kristen Stewart as Norah/Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The film stars Kristen Stewart as Norah, who is part of an aquatic research crew who must get to safety after an earthquake devastates their subterranean laboratory. Throughout the film, a short, blonde-haired Stewart channels Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien franchise, including adapting some of her high-action type sequences and masculine characteristics, to the point that one crew member calls her flat-chested.  In fact, Stewart is the only semi-memorable character in the film, probably because she’s given the most screen time. Her crew members have little to no character development, and when they’re offed by slimy, prickly deep sea monsters, it’s hard to care about their demise. None of them have much to do, and even Norah is given no backstory. At the beginning of the film, she comments how time becomes meaningless when submerged nearly seven miles undersea, but at no point is it clear how long the crew have been underwater or what their lives were like prior. One of them comments about a dog, but that’s about it.

That said, the film does have a few high-tension moments, including the earthquake and the crew’s struggle for oxygen at various points.  Underwater’s other positive factor is the monsters, especially the massive, Cthulu-like creature who is surrounded by deep sea blackness and is generally terrifying. The other monsters are much smaller, but still squirmy, slimy, and creepy. They slap upon the windows of various labs and thump upon the ceilings. One resembles the face sucker in Alien.

Underwater2.jpg

Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Underwater is a film that wears its influences on its sleeves, from the Alien-like shots of the laboratory’s long hallways to the Lovecraftian monsters that feel ancient and show just how indifferent the deep sea is towards human life. In one bit of cliched dialogue, a crew member comments that humans have mined the ocean and taken more than they needed, so now it’s the ocean’s turn to take back. Believe it or not, that’s one of the only memorable lines of dialogue throughout the film, as corny as it is.

After spending an hour and a half with the crew in dark, deep waters, it’s hard not to leave the theater feeling a general sense of dread, which is similar to the feeling a reader has at the end of a Lovecraft story. The depths of the ocean are an unforgiving place, best left unexplored. The monsters don’t care who they kill, since the crew is essentially impinging upon their territory. The crew stares into the abyss, and the abyss bites back.

As the year progresses, it’s most likely that Underwater will be forgotten. It’s difficult to even recall the names of the crew members. The monsters are the real stars of this film, and they’re the only aspect that make it worth watching. Final verdict: if you’re looking for something to do to pass a cold January day, then purchase a matinee ticket; otherwise, wait for this to arrive on VOD.

 

 

 

 

BBC/Netlix’s Dracula: A Mixed Adaptation of Stoker’s Classic Novel

drac1.jpg

Photo Courtesy of the BBC

How do you make Bram Stoker’s 19th Century Dracula relevant for the 21st Century? How do you tell a vampire story post-Twilight and make the classic monster threatening? The three-part BBC/Netflix adaptation tries to do both with mixed results. Its first episode is reminiscent of early Dracula Hammer films, while drawing fairly heavily from the source material. The second two episodes take bold risks with Stoker’s novel, while trying to maintain the general story-line and characterization. At certain points, the series succeeds in making the vampire relevant in 2020, while at other times, namely in the third episode, there are too many poorly executed leaps.

In terms of the building slow dread and genuine scares, the first episode is the most effective, and it generally follows the beginning of the novel when lawyer Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) treks to the Count’s Gothic estate to complete a real estate transaction, only to fall prey to the monster, while  his fiance Mina (Morfydd Clark)  frets over his whereabouts. The challenge of adapting Stoker’s novel is the epistolary form. To handle this, show creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Mofatt still give Harker’s account of his time under the Count’s spell, but they do so by having nuns/vampire hunters (yes, you read that correctly) interview him. Oddly enough, it works. We’re introduced to a pale, badly scarred Harker, and in one of the most effective scares, a fly crawls along and under his eyeball. The presence and stench of death is a reoccurring motif in the novel, and the first episode uses the constant image of flies to reinforce this. It is unnerving and haunting, underscoring the power that the monster still has over Harker. His wounds are both physical and mental.

drac2.jpg

(Photo Courtesy of the BBC)

Claes Bang is generally a captivating Dracula as his power grows over the young Harker. He is suave and handsome once he feeds. His hair darkens. His wrinkles disappear, but the fact his first appearance depicts him as a scraggly-haired, sharp-toothed fiend compounds the point Stoker emphasizes in the novel that no matter how alluring, Count Dracula is a monster who only unleashes death. Throughout the rest of the series, however, Dracula resembles a caped Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi more than he does Max Schreck/Noseratu. Additionally, the influence of the Lee-era Hammer Films  is apparent in the first episode, with several close-up shots of the castle and fog rolling beneath looming spires. The episode leans heavily into the Gothic elements and creates a mesmerizing atmosphere.

Sister Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) also elevates the first episode, specifically when she encounters the Count for the first time and taunts him, calling him nothing but a beast who driven by sheer hunger at the sight of blood. Some  may gripe that Van Helsing was changed to a woman for this series, but in the first episode, she gives one of the strongest performances. Her intellect and confidence match Dracula’s.

The second episode takes place on the Demeter, a ship set for the New World/England,  as the Count stalks victim after victim and hides the bodies. The gore here is as effective as the use of flies in episode one, but after spending an hour and a half on a ship, you just want the Count to reach London already. Additionally, too many of the characters in the second chapter are too hollow and serve as little more than vampire bait. The third episode is the shakiest in the series and has drawn the most complaints from viewers. There are great leaps in the narrative and major characters from the novel, namely Lucy (Lydia West) and Renfield (Gattis), who feel shoehorned into the final chapter. The most brazen move entails setting Dracula in the present day. How he ended up in the present is absurd and laughable from a narrative standpoint and comes across as lazy writing. There are plot points regarding the Van Helsing family that also don’t quite stick. Yet, I couldn’t stop laughing (in a good way) each time Dracula checked email and Skyped.

Overall, the series is uneven. Its first episode is the strongest. Its visuals, story line, and acting all cohere to create an engaging first chapter that stays true to the source material while making changes that make sense for the TV format. The third episode is by far the riskiest and has drawn the most ire from fans. Too many major characters from the novel are stuffed into the conclusion and not given enough time to breathe. All of that said, at least  the vampire doesn’t sparkle. On the one hand, he’s attractive and intellectual, and on the other hand, when his mouth is covered with blood, or when he visits Jonathan’s dreams as an aged demonic figure, he’s quite terrifying. Final verdict: watch the series with an open mind and enjoy it for what it is.

 

 

Looking Forward to 2020’s Horror Films

 

With 2019 officially in the rear-view (check out my best-of list), it’s time to start focusing on the new year. Below, I’ve included a list of some horror films I’m looking forward to, and as you can see, the trend of remakes and “smart horror” that dominated the first two decades of the 2000s doesn’t appear to be slowing down as we start the 2020s.

1. The Grudge January 3/Directed by  Nicolas Pesce

I’ve made it known before that I’m not a big fan of remakes, and there’s been an onslaught of them over the last 10-15 years. I’m including this one on this list, however, because Pesce’s other movies, Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother are interesting, so I’m cautiously optimistic about this.

2. Underwater January 10/Directed by William Eubank

I don’t know much about this one, other than the fact that it’s a deep-sea horror flick about a research crew who struggles to get to safety after an earthquake destroys their underwater station. Something monstrous lurks on the ocean floor. I’m intrigued.

3. Color Out of Space January 24/Directed by Richard Stanley

This is an adaptation of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most popular stories, and it stars Nicolas Cage, fresh off his performance in Mandy. Need I say more about this one?

4. Gretel & Hansel January 31/Directed by Oz Perkins

I have to confess that when I first saw the trailer for this, I wasn’t that interested. However, when I learned that Oz Perkins was behind the camera on this one, my interest was peaked. If I made a list of my favorite horror films of the last decade, Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter would be on it. Now, I’m curious as to what he’ll do with this classic tale.

5. The Lodge February 7/Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

This is one of the film’s I’m most excited to see, especially after it generated buzz on the festival circuit and earned the cover of the most recent issue of Rue Morgue. It also seems like the perfect mid-winter horror film, based on the synopsis: during a family retreat to a remote winter cabin over the holidays, the father is forced to abruptly depart for work, leaving his two children in the care of his new girlfriend, Grace. Isolated and alone, a blizzard traps them inside the lodge as terrifying events summon specters from Grace’s dark past.

 

6. The Invisible Man February 28/Directed by Leigh Whannell

This is Universal’s attempt to yet again reboot/revamp their classic monsters. Based on the trailer, however, this looks like an interesting take on the classic H.G. Wells’ story, one that focuses on abuse and trauma. It appears that Elisabeth Moss may give one barn-burning performance in this.

 

7. A Quiet Place II March 20/ Directed by John Krasinski

A Quiet Place was one of the biggest surprises of 2018 and a box office hit, so, of course there had to be a sequel. Based on the trailer, which dropped on New Years Day, it looks like the second chapter expands upon the world established in the first film.

8. Antlers April 17/Directed by Scott Cooper

I don’t know much about this one, but ever since I saw the trailer, and after I found out this one is being produced by Guillermo del Toro, I’ve been intrigued.

 

9. Candyman June 12/ directed by Nia Dacosta

There is no trailer for this one yet, and yes, it’s another reboot/remake, but it was written by Jordan Peele, who also produced it. It will also be interesting to have a woman behind the camera for this one. Additionally, this one, like the original, was filmed at Chicago’s Cabrini-Heights neighborhood, which has since been gentrified. Oh, and Tony Todd is returning! Whether or not he’ll play Candyman, that has yet to be seen. This should be a big one.

10. Halloween Kills October 16/Directed by David Gordon Green

HalloweenKills.jpg

You can’t kill the Boogeyman, and you can’t kill Laurie Strode, either! Get ready for more and more Michael, with another sequel set to be released in 2021.

I will note that most of these films are pretty mainstream, and in past years, my favorite movies of the year slipped under the radar until they streamed on places like Hulu or Shudder or were lucky enough to find larger distribution after building buzz. Expect some sleeper hits as we head into the new year. How many people were talking about Hereditary at this point in 2018 or The Witch months before its release? That said, 2020 looks to be a good year for horror with some well-known entities making a return to the big screen alongside some innovative stories that are lucky enough to get wider distribution.

Are there any films you’re most looking forward to this year? Feel free to comment below.