Midsommar: A Stylish, Hellish Folk Horror Gem

Ari Aster’s Hereditary was the breakout horror film of 2018, bolstered by the stellar performance of Toni Collette as Annie, a grief-stricken parent dealing with the unraveling of her family as tragedy after tragedy unfolds. With Hereditary, Aster flirted with some elements of folk horror, namely occultism and the use of landscape. Midsommar, however, showcases the folk horror influences far more directly, namely the original Wicker Man and the extensive research on midsummer traditions that Aster did.  In some ways, Aster’s second film is more ambitious and unrestrained, especially in its cinematography. For months, the film has been hyped, to the point that director/writer Jordan Peele called it “atrociously disturbing” and a “masterpiece” in a conversation with Aster for Fangoria magazine. So, the question is, does Midsommar live up to the hype? The short answer is yes and no. At 2.5 hours long, Midsommar is a lot to unpack. It is a film that warrants repeat viewings for those who have the patience, and, like Hereditary, it is a film rooted in female trauma.

Aster has described Midsommar as a break-up movie that unravels into a folk horror nightmare. When trying to assess the film, that’s a good starting point. We’re essentially aligned with psychology grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) from the get-go, as she frantically emails her bi-polar sister and begs her to respond, fearing the worst. Early on, we’re also introduced to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), whose friends encourage him to break up with Dani and accuse her of “abusing” him by demanding so much of his time. Not long after, Dani is orphaned in a visually jarring and disturbing scene that is one of many throughout the film. This narrative serves as the core plot line. Essentially, this is Dani’s story, and though there are other narrative threads and many pagans in white robes, the protagonist’s trauma is the real anchor. We’re with her each and every time she’s about to have a panic attack, be it in a cramped restroom on a plane or when she and Christian’s friends take mushrooms shortly after they arrive at a Swedish commune for midsummer celebrations.

In commenting on the relationship between Dani and Christian, Aster told The Hollywood Reporter that he aimed to “present a dynamic in which neither party is awful to the other one, but they’re absolutely wrong for each other. By virtue of the fact that we’re aligned very clearly with one character in the film, the other is immediately reduced to an antagonist.” It is true that Christian never specifically does anything horrible to Dani. He is callous and often distant, but he can’t really be accused of ill-intent. They are simply wrong for each and floundering in a stagnant relationship.

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Dani (Florence Pugh)

It’s unclear why Dani stays with Christian, but after losing her family, he’s all that she has left. The pagans sense this, specifically fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who leads the graduate students to the rural Swedish town where the nightmare unfolds. Pelle sees the pagans as a real family. He tells Dani that no one takes anything for themselves and they share everything.  In this context, he specifically is talking about Dani, especially since he’s sitting with her on a bed while his hand moves to her thigh. He tries to disrupt the monogamous relationship that she has with Christian and offers an alternative lifestyle.

In that sense, the film presents two very different lifestyles that are destined to clash. There is the lifestyle of Pelle’s ancestral cult the Hårga and the lifestyle of the Americans. One of the white-robed Hårga tells the grad students that what matters most is being in harmony with nature. The Hårga also do everything together, from raising babies to eating. In fact, some of the eeriest scenes involve everyone seated at long wooden tables, staring at each other, waiting and watching for one of the elders to unfold their napkin before everyone else does the same in harmony. The penetrating gazes of the Hårga are unnerving.

On the other hand, there is the lifestyle of the Americans, best exemplified by Mark (Will Poulter), who serves as comic relief but also exemplifies the worst aspects of western culture. He is rude and dismissive of the Hårga’s ancient traditions. At one point, he relieves himself on a massive tree viewed by the Hårga as  physical manifestation of their deceased ancestors. Additionally, the other friends, even Josh (William Harper Jackson), a grad student writing a thesis on midsummer traditions and history, are constantly pulling out their phones to snap photos.  Eventually, Christian, whose graduate work is rudderless, decides he too is going to write on the Hårga. However, he does this for his own benefit and doesn’t have the deep respect for the traditions that Josh has. That said, even Josh can’t put his phone away  and takes photos of sacred books, despite being told no by the elders. This conflict between modernity/western sensibilities and ancient ritual is one of the undercurrents of the film and folk horror in general.

Midsommar also contains interesting commentary on suicide and death. In one of the most gut-punching scenes, the friends witness the suicides of two elders, but the Hårga explain that it’s better to give back to the life cycle and not allow both the spirit and body to break down in old age. To the westerners, however, this concept is unfathomable. Suicide is always bad.

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The Hårga

Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserves major props for bringing Aster’s nightmare vision to life. Simply put, the visual are stunning, be it the sprawling mountainside or the blinding brightness of the constant daylight. At times, the film is disorienting to the viewer, especially in the way that it bends time, specifically when the friends are tripping and images blur together. Grass grows on Dani’s feet and hands, for instance. The film is worth seeing for the visuals alone, especially on the big screen.

It’s too soon yet to declare Midsommar a masterpiece of the genre, as Peele has already done. There needs to be some time and distance before any work of art can and should be given such a title. Aster’s sophomore release is wildly ambitious, and at times, as existential as Hereditary, while including a nice dash of dark humor.  At its core, though, it’s a film about two people who simply shouldn’t be together. This, coupled with Dani’s trauma and her desire to find a family, are what really drive the film. The visuals are a memorizing and fairy tale-like addition to the narrative.

Some resources on folk horror:

Mark Gatis’ History of Horror

Folkhorror.com

Hereditary as Folk Horror by Alexandra Hauke, published by Horror Homeroom

 

NEPA Horror Film Festival Needs Your Help

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Typically, I don’t post any type of call for money on my blog, but in the spirit of this horror blog, community, and independent film making, I want to note that the NEPA Horror Film Festival needs to raise the necessary funds to make the event possible this October.

There are a few different ways that you can help. You can make a donation here, buy tickets here, or purchase a sponsorship package here. The festival will be held at the Circle Drive-in Theater on Sunday Oct. 13 at 7 pm. Along with showcasing short films from national and international filmmakers, the event will feature vendors and special guests, including Felissa Rose (Angela from Sleepaway Camp), Kevin Van Hentenryck (Kevin from Basket Case), and Frank Henenlotter (director/writer of Basket Case).

For a closer look at the festival, check out this NEPA Scene podcast from last year featuring the event’s organizer/founder Bobby Keller.

Please consider supporting this event!

Review: Child’s Play (2019)

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As hard as it may be, it’s best to view the new Child’s Play without any expectation that the film relates at all to the long-running franchise. Other than the doll’s red hair, infamous striped shirt, and fondness for a kitchen knife, the remake has little to do with Don Mancini’s original creation and its many sequels. There are some nods to the first film, but other than that, Child’s Play stands on its own and is a surprisingly decent remake, one that  revamps the killer doll story and makes it relevant  for 2019 by focusing on AI.

Director Lars Klevberg’s film features an especially strong performance by Gabriel Bateman as Andy Barclay, an angst-ridden teen who scoffs when his mom (Aubrey Plaza) brings home the Buddi doll as a gag gift after someone returns it to Zed Mart where she slaves away, working doubles as a single mom. When the trailer first dropped, I kept wondering why a teen would want anything to do with a doll and why they made Andy so much older than the original version of the character. Yet, as an outcast, Andy eventually bonds with the doll, whose AI capabilities make it a better-suited companion for a lonely teen than the original incarnation of Chucky.  That said, there are some initial plot points that are a stretch. When Andy fires up the doll and it asks to be named, he says Han Solo, but the doll repeats Chucky, which sounds nothing like what Andy said. Perhaps the point here is to illustrate that the AI is going to make its own decisions, but more likely, this scene shows how the remake is beholden to the Child’s Play name and because of that, it has to reach at times to stay within the lines.

Andy’s loneliness, meanwhile, is compounded by the fact he has a hearing disability and has to wear an outdated hearing aid. He spends his time hanging out by himself, slumped in the hallway, playing games on his phone, too timid to chat with other kids in the apartment building. It’s hard not to feel bad for Andy and his mom, who essentially begs him to make friends while she works at a retail job she despises just to pay the bills. Because of this core plot line, Mark Hamill’s version of Chucky is a totally different take compared to Brad Dourif’s voice work. Hamill’s version adds pathos to the character, who just wants to be Andy’s friend to the point that he’s eventually willing to kill anyone who harms Andy or threatens their friendship. To a lonely kid, having a doll who listens and doesn’t judge him is initially positive, until, of course, the doll starts murdering people in creative fashion, first with a kitchen knife and then by unleashing its full AI capabilities. By the end of the film, Hamill rages and grows closer to the foul-mouthed Chucky that Dourif made famous.

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Gabriel Bateman as Andy and Chucky, voiced by Mark Hamill

At first, the Buddi doll is a blank slate, but ultimately it misconstrues human emotions, which leads to a killing spree.  In one of the best scenes, the doll watches Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 with Andy and a few friends from down the hall. As Chucky watches the splatters of blood on TV and observes the friends reacting with laughter, he assumes that pain and bloodshed bring them pleasure. In another scene, when Andy says he wishes his mother’s boyfriend would go away, Chucky takes the words literally. Generally, the film is heavy in its messaging regarding the dangers of AI, especially the point that AI will never be able to fully comprehend the complexities and nuances of human emotions. This take on a well-known character is a solid upgrade.

As for the kills, the film features a few gory scenes, including one early butchering that involves a lawnmower and Christmas lights.  Overall, though, there is some general restraint, moments when the camera pulls away just as Chucky raises his knife in the air and plunges it into a victim multiple times. The gore is certainly not excessive, no where near Texas Chainsaw 2 levels, especially for a slasher flick. The AI capabilities of the doll make for some unique kills, however.

Regarding tone, the film is much brighter than the initial 1988 film, which is awash in gray colors. Both films are set in Chicago, and the 2019 version features Andy and friends walking through seedy neighborhoods, but it doesn’t have the same bleakness. Even the doll, which is fairly CGI heavy and features an altered face with a bigger head and wider eyes, always looks new and clean, despite coming home to Andy in a battered box after a customer return. The brightness, however, fits the film, which stresses the point that we always desire the latest technology. Heck, before Andy even unwraps the Buddi doll from its package, Zed Mart is on the verge of stocking the shelves with newer and better Buddi 2 dolls, and in one of the first scenes featuring Andy and his mom on screen together, he complains that he needs a new phone.

Child’s Play is a surprisingly good mainstream horror film, bolstered by strong performances by Plaza, Hamill, and Bateman, despite all of the drama surrounding the remake and the fact that Mancini and Dourif plan to continue the original franchise as a TV show for the Syfy network. Maybe the 2019 film should have had a different title, but now that it’s out, perhaps both versions of Chucky can exist.  The 2019 film is an entertaining and updated take on a familiar story, one that’s funny at times and relevant for our Alexa, smart phone-obsessed culture.

Overall Score: B Plus

 

 

 

Revisting the Smurl Story and The Haunted (1991)

Every neighborhood has a spook house. Maybe it’s that corner property with an overgrown lawn, flaked paint, and boarded-up windows. Maybe it’s a Boo Radley-type house where neighborhood kids dare each other to entice the hermit to come out. For me, growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and having a love of all things spooky and horror-related, I heard about the Smurl house in West Pittston. The family’s claims that they were terrorized by unfriendly spirits became so famous in 1986 that it created a media sensation. People lined up and down the block on Chase Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of the paranormal. The Smurl family’s story even garnered the attention of renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who, unlike others, believed that something abnormal occurred in that home. The Smurls never quite garnered the long-standing attention of some of the Warrens’ other cases, namely Amityville, and their story has yet to be the subject of a Conjuring film (here’s hoping!), but thanks to Shudder obtaining the rights to the 1991 made-for-tv movie The Haunted, the Smurl story can find a new audience in the 21st Century.

The general story of the Smurls is a familiar one about parents trying to find stability and do what’s best for their family. After they were displaced by Hurricane Agnes in 1972,  Janet and Jack Smurl moved their family to the West Pittston home, and not long after, they claimed to have experienced uncanny incidents. Items would disappear. Doors would open and close. Toilets would flush. They’d lose sleep over growling noises and putrid stenches. Over the years, the Smurls said that the paranormal attacks worsened. Jack claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a spirit. The entities attacked the children and even the family dog. Eventually, after the Catholic Church slow-walked an investigation, the Smurls decided to go to the press, which created a media frenzy. Writing about the sensation for a 2016 Halloween story in Pittston Progress, reporter Jack Smiles summarized the immense media attention. “After the Smurls went public with their descriptions of what was happening in their modest, half-double home on Chase Street in West Pittston, their story became a media phenomena going ‘viral’ the old-fashioned way — through print and television. Local and out-of-town stations and papers covered it. Wire services stories ran in major dailies from New York to California.”

The article also quotes neighbor Bill Watson, who had to deal with the intense glare of media spotlight and the circus-like atmosphere outside of his house. “Everything got out of control,” Watson said. “CNN was here on my porch. There was a camera crew from Germany in my driveway. There were so many people I could hardly get my car out to go to work.”

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Onlookers of the Smurl House on Chast St. in West Pittston. Photo courtesy of Bill Waston and reprinted in Pittston Progress

In an article from the Citizen’s Voice from June 2017, daughter Carin Smurl, now a social worker and sometimes paranormal investigator, recalls that people knocked on their windows and doors and even threw bricks at their house. She said that people terrorized the family. Some reporters also claimed that the family was just looking to make a quick buck with their story, but Carin denies that. She told the Pittston Progress, “We never made money from the book or movie. Who would want to go through all that media and public bashing? To the naysayers, I hope it doesn’t take something as extreme as what we went through to make them believers. We wouldn’t wish our experiences on anyone.”

Their story, however, was dismissed not only by local newspaper columnists, but also by Paul Kurtz, then chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigations of Claims of the Paranormal  at the State University of New York Buffalo. Kurtz attributed the strange odors to scientific explanations and said the overall story was flawed because it was based solely on accounts of the Smurls and Warrens, not any independent observers.

Though the Smurls had their skeptics, they had true believers in Ed and Lorraine Warren. Ed specifically believed that the Smurls were haunted. He told The Times-Leader in 1986 that “the ghost, devil- or whatever you call it- is in that home.” He also claimed to have audiotapes of rapping, knocked, and dark shadows that he attributed to a demonic entity, and he said during the first night at the home, he felt the temperature drop and saw a dark mass form in front of him after he used the name of Jesus Christ, a crucifix, holy water, and holy oil.

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Ed and Lorraine Warren

The Smurl story gained more and more attention, to the point that Scranton native/actor/writer Jason Miller, best known as Father Karras in The Exorcist, visited the home. Miller didn’t necessarily believe that the source of the family’s turmoil was a demonic presence, but he did believe something was going on in their home. He told The Scranton Times that the Smurls feared the “infestation” would eventually get to the family.

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Jason Miller:  Photo courtesy of Bill Watson/reprinted in Pittston Progress

In May of 1991, the made-for-tv movie The Haunted debuted. The movie, based on the book The Haunted: One Family’s nightmare, co-written by Robert Curran, a then reporter for The Scrantonian Tribune, the Smurls, and the Warrens, is a trip to watch all of these years later. Directed by Robert Mandel, it stars Sally Kirkland as Janet and Jeffrey DeMunn as Jack. As a local, I can’t help but laugh every time Kirkland pronounces Wilkes-Barre, tripping over the double r. Many of the effects don’t hold up, especially the moment when Jack is attacked by a succubus, who seemingly alternates between a woman with rotting teeth and a large dude in drag. That said, there are still plenty of scares in the film, especially early on when Janet is the basement and hears her name repeated. (Janet!) The shadows and blobs that float in and out of the room are generally eerie, especially when the entities follow the family on a camping trip, while neighbors spot flashing lights and hear strange noises in the empty house.

When re-watching the film, though, I was reminded of a familiar trope in haunted house movies, one that comes up in The Amityville Horror and The Conjuring. The Smurls economic anxiety is front and center in the first half of the film. Early on, Janet mentions that after a short period of bliss following the move, the family suffered one setback after another, from the boiler breaking to a pipe leaking. As the haunting persists and she pleads with Jack to leave, he tells her over and over again that everything they have is tied up into the house. They can’t just leave. These scenes centered around strained finances reminded me so much of the Lutz family in 1979’s The Amityville Horror, especially when the patriarch, George (James Brolin), complains about the house “nickel and diming him.” As soon as the Smurls move into the house, most of the family spends their time painting the duplex, while Jack crawls under a sink to fix a leaky pipe. The house has as many flaws as the Amityville house with its goo-spewing toilets and failed windows. Like other films in the haunted house sub-genre, The Haunted and Amityville can be looked at as statements about the American dream and the immense anxiety that comes with home ownership.

As the film progresses, Janet becomes more and more frazzled. She smokes. Her hair is disheveled, and at one point, when Jack comes home late, she questions if he’s been with another woman. Clearly, the house strains their relationship, and she, being a stay-at-home mom, has to confront the conflict the majority of the time. She even says at one point that the entities attack when he’s not there because she’s more vulnerable.

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Sally Kirkland playing Janet

In June 2017, Jack Smurl passed away. His family’s history and story earned him rather lengthy obits in the local papers. Looking back on the period of their lives that earned them international attention, Carin Smurl said of her father in The Citizen’s Voice, “We had such a hard time and nobody to turn to. He was happy I was a voice out there for people who need help.”

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Jack Smurl from the Times-Tribune archives

As a kid, I was always fascinated by the Smurl story, that a town as small as West Pittston could have a ghost story that gained the world’s attention for a few years. Who knows what really occurred to that family. My fiancé claims that she knew a family who moved into the house years later and nothing eerie ever occurred. Still, I like knowing that everyone from Jason Miller to Ed and Lorraine Warren descended upon that sleepy neighborhood to investigate. The Smurl house was our spook house, a local phenomenon, and thanks to Shudder acquiring the rights to The Haunted, its story can live on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time to Talk about Ma

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I have no doubt that Ma is going to be a polarizing film. When the trailer dropped a few months ago, Film School Rejects, The Hollywood Reporter, and other entertainment sites pointed out that though the film stars Octavia Spencer, the rest of the production, from the director, to the screenwriter, to the cast, are all white. So the question was posed how can Ma possibly be some type of biting racial commentary when it doesn’t feature people of color, other than its lead? It’s a fair question, especially when you consider that Blumhouse, one of the  biggest production companies in horror, has been criticized for having white men direct all of their movies. (To be fair, Blumhouse has promised to remedy this in the new future).

The trailer, however, doesn’t reveal very much about the film. It does provide the basic premise: Ma, aka Sue Ann (Spencer), befriends a group of teens, buys them booze, and invites them over to party. When they eventually find something off about her, she starts stalking them. The only one of the teens who really stands out is doe-eyed Maggie (Diana Silvers), a new girl in town who relocated after her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), divorced her father. It turns out that Erica relocated to her hometown from San Diego and faces humiliation when her former high school classmates catch her slinging cocktails at a casino in a skimpy outfit, but, as she tells Maggie, she has to pay the bills somehow.

The film at least touches upon class. Erica is a single mom doing what she has to do to get by, and Ma, who was bullied as a teen, hence her thirst for revenge,  relates to Erica and generally sympathizes with her, especially since she went from being popular in high school to an outcast when she found herself back in her rural hometown. Both single women have something in common, though this could have been explored more. The trailer also avoided revealing the torment that Ma faced as a teen, which triggers the revenge she enacts in the closing 20 minutes. Whether or not Ma’s backstory suffices is another question.

Perhaps more importantly, Ma confronts the mammy stereotype, which is fitting since the film is directed by Tate Taylor, director of The Help, the wildly successful film that made Spencer a household name but faced blow back because of its white savior trope and the way it depicted black women in subservient roles. Here, Spencer blazes her own trail, and damn, is she good. This is HER film. She does whatever she wants. At her job, she refuses to answer the phones. When Maggie’s friend Haley (McKaley Miller), tells her that she needs a man in her life, she just glares at her and plots revenge for that comment. Ma generally has her own agency, and if there are moments when she falls into the mammy stereotype, it’s simply as a means to achieve her goals. She plays the role at times only to get what she wants.

Ma is by no means a perfect film, but Spencer’s performance alone makes it worth viewing. It’s a film very much aware of the roles women are supposed to fit into, especially black women, and to its credit, it tries to challenge that.  There’s no doubt that the film will be polarizing, but, at the very least, it’s already starting a conversation, and it’s one of the horror genre’s most interesting mainstream offerings this year.

There are two commentaries on the film worth reading, both written by people of color.  The first review was published over at Graveyard Shift Sisters, and it goes into more detail about how Ma confronts and subverts the mammy stereotypes. The second article, written by black horror scholar Robin R. Means Coleman, makes an argument that we’re currently living through a black horror renaissance. Coleman writes, “The horror genre is maturing and becoming more imaginative and inclusive – in who can play hero and antihero, and who gets to be the monster and savior. The emergence of black horror films is just one chapter in a story that includes women taking on more prominent roles in horror films, too.”

That, at the very least, is worth celebrating.

 

Review: Brightburn (2019), A Dark and Gory Retelling of Superman

Imagine if Superman was a sexually-frustrated, 12-year-old boy who, instead of using his powers for good, uses them to stalk a classmate he has a crush on, slaughter farm animals, and terrorize anyone who gets in his way. That is essentially the plot of the new James Gunn-produced film Brighburn, a gory retelling of the Superman story that is a blend of the comic book and horror genres. It’s nice to see Gunn return to his horror roots, if only as a producer. Director David Yarovesky, meanwhile, kicks off the summer in style with a decent addition to the creepy kid sub-genre of horror.

So much of the story functions as an inversion of the Superman narrative. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), a loving husband and wife who can’t conceive a child on their own. After we witness them about to try again, BOOM!, a red, glowing meteorite crashes on their farm in rural Kansas. Of course, they decide to adopt the boy inside the spacecraft and don’t tell him his true story until about halfway through the film, which only exacerbates their problem and sends him into another fit of rage.

The film’s first 20 minutes or so spend time establishing Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) as a likable boy. He has a good relationship with his parents, shown, in part, through photo albums. We see him as a smiling toddler, and, for a moment at least, wonder how he could possibly kill anyone. He excels in school, to the point that he can rattle of random facts in class about the differences between bees and wasps, and he draws the affection and attention of fellow classmate Caityln (Emmie Hunter). The film would have been better served spending a little more time showing the innocent side of Brandon, before he starts butchering poor chickens and murdering people. He becomes a terrifying villain rather early in the movie, shortly after his 12th birthday, triggered by nightmares, weird chants, and visions of his spacecraft that crash-landed on Earth and that his parents keep hidden under a trap door in their barn.

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Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn)

The kills in the film are quite bloody and gruesome and may turn off comic book fans that aren’t used to a regular diet of horror films. One prolonged death scene features a shard of glass falling into the victim’s eye. The way she slowly pulls it out is reminiscent of something you’d see in a Lucio  Fulci or Dario Argento film. In another scene, one poor victim tries to escape in his pick-up truck, until the evil boy wonder raises it in mid air and drops it on the road, leaving the victim’s face split in half, with his jaw hanging loose. Brandon is rather sadistic, if nothing else.

That said, the first few kills in the film are generally characters we’re not that invested in, and many of the characters, other than Brandon and his parents, are fairly one-dimensional, mere fodder to be brutalized on screen. The deaths would have been more effective if the characters had added depth. Additionally, there’s just something uncomfortable about seeing a 12-year-old frequently invade Caitlyn’s bedroom.

The parents, however, are the best part of the film. Both Banks and Deman give solid performances. Having wanted a child for so long, Tori is the last to believe that her baby boy could be capable of evil, even when his powers ram his father against a kitchen wall. Kyle, though, is more suspecting of his son, especially once he starts disappearing late at night and lying about where he’s been. At one point, Kyle even says, “He’s not our son. He’s a thing we found in the woods.” Earlier in the film, there are a few scenes of genuine tenderness between Kyle and Brandon, before he starts killing people, of course. The film’s real strength is found not only in its special effects, but also in the dynamic between Brandon and his parents, especially Tori’s reluctance to blame him for anything because she’s always wanted a child, and she certainly doesn’t want to believe that her sweet, innocent baby boy could possibly crush a girl’s hand at school because she refused to return his affection.

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Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks)

Comic books have always had dark twists and turns, and they’ve certainly dabbled in the horror genre. However, no Marvel or DC movie has offered anything like Brightburn or really hit upon twisted story arcs. After years away from the genre, it’s nice to see Gunn return to horror. Brightburn is one of the more decent genre films this year, but with some heavy horror hitters on the near horizon, including a revamped Child’s Play and It: Chapter 2, as well as soon-to-be released features  by some of the genre’s most talented younger directors, including Ari Aster (Midsomar),  Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), and  Alexandre Aja (Crawl), it has yet to be seen if Brightburn will be that memorable in the long run. For the time being, though, it’s a fun popcorn film to kick off summer, especially while awaiting some of the bigger horror hits dropping later this summer and heading into fall. It makes you wish that Gunn was still directing films like Slither and Dawn of the Dead (2004).

Oh, and for the true blue horror fans, make sure to stay as the credits start rolling for a really cool scene featuring horror icon Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Slither, “The Walking Dead”).

Final Grade: B

 

 

 

 

 

Retro Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2

Although A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 initially faced mixed reviews and a backlash from some fans, due to  major shifts it made from Wes Craven’s original film, over the years, it’s earned a cult following because of its queerness and metaphor about repressed sexuality. With the release of last month’s documentary Scream, Queen!: My Nightmare on Elm Street, focusing on the film’s troubled production and homophobia in Hollywood, now is a good time to revisit Freddy’s Revenge, aka “the gayest slasher film of all time.”

Released in 1985, the film grossed $30 million at the box office, so it drew in some big bucks. The story picks up about a year after the original film when outsider Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) moves into a large white house on Elm Street, which turns out to be Nancy Thompson’s (Heather Langencamp) former home, the final girl from the original film. The opening scene is a dream sequence, featuring a quiet, pale, and gaunt-faced Jesse sitting on the back of a school bus, while his classmates chuckle at him.  Soon after his classmates mock him, Jesse encounters Freddy for the first time, when the bus driver morphs into him, and he drives the bus towards hell. Jesse wakes up screaming in a cold sweat. These opening shots of Jesse not only establish him as an outsider, but they can also be read as a metaphor for the AIDs crisis.  During the dream sequences/encounter with Freddy, Jesse is always depicted as pale and sickly. When he wakes up, his body is drenched in sweat.

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Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) in the opening scene

The second encounter between Jesse and Freddy is much more sexual in nature, though apparently toned down from what it could have been. Unlike the original film, Freddy’s not out to kill the protagonist because his parents burned him alive. Rather, he wants to own Jesse’s body and use him to commit murders. Jesse encounters him after sleepwalking through his house, and apparently, Robert Englund wanted the scene to be even more sexual in nature, telling Patton, at one point, to suck on one of Freddy’s blades. That part of the scene never happened, but the intimacy between Freddy and Jesse, and Jesse trying to suppress “the monster,” drives the rest of the narrative.

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Jesse and Freddy (Robert Englund)

The film’s not-so-subtle subtext adds another layer when Jesse meets the jock Ron Grady (Robert Rusler) at school. Grady spends most scenes with his shirt off, and there’s more sexual tension and connection between he and Jesse than between Jesse and his girlfriend, Lisa (Kim Myers). Add to that the fact that their gym teacher, Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell), gets off on telling Ron and Jesse to “assume the position” when they act up in class, and then orders them to do push-ups. About halfway through the film, Jesse walks through pouring rain and ends up at an S & M club where he encounters the coach wearing a leather daddy outfit. Talk about a bold scene for the mid-1980s! Schneider’s murder is rooted in kink and sex. He’s tied up with jump ropes, stripped in a shower, whipped with towels, and slashed.

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Coach Schnieder (Marshall Bell) and Jesse

The rest of the film centers around Jesse’s struggle to fight off Freddy, as he screams,  “He’s inside me, and he wants to take me again!” This line is about as subtle as the homoerotic images in Jesse’s bedroom, including a sign on his door that says “No Chicks Allowed” and a board game called Probe. When Freddy is about to take over Jesse’s body at the beginning of the final act, Jesse rejects a heterosexual relationship with Lisa and instead runs to Grady’s house/bedroom and begs him to help him stay awake. What transpires during this scene, namely the moment Freddy slices through Jesse’s chest, is one of the best transformation/effects scenes in modern horror cinema. It’s also one of the strongest metaphors in the film. Commenting on this scene for the three-hour documentary Never Sleep Again, Englund said there are several ways to read this scene. Freddy/the monster can represent the self-hate that Jesse feels, or he can represent homophobia that others inflict upon the gay community, what Englund calls “the taunt.” This scene  is the strongest in the film, layered and nuanced, with killer special effects.

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Jesse and Grady (Rober Rusler)

Several other scenes  don’t quite work as well, especially when Freddy enters reality and runs around at a pool party at Lisa’s house. This scene is just silly and ineffective.  In commenting on the film for Never Sleep Again, Craven said that much of the film feels like a series of scenes instead of a cohesive story, a problem, he said, that dogged some of the other sequels. It’s also campy to that point that most of the teenagers are taller than Freddy, so how much of a menace can he really be outside of the dream world?

The film opened to mixed reviews, and even today, it only has a 41 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. It also nearly ruined Patton’s career, who was typically type-cast in gay roles following Freddy’s Revenge. Additionally, for years, screenwriter David Chaskin insisted he didn’t write the sequel as a gay film, but it was only because of Patton’s acting that it turned out that way. At the time of filming, Patton was still in the closet, and he’s stated in many interviews that the filming process was difficult. Only within the last few years has Chaskin admitted that there was supposed to be a gay subtext to the film. Director Jack Sholder, meanwhile, still insists that wasn’t the intent. Really?

Freddy’s Revenge is not the best sequel in the franchise. That title goes to Dream Warriors or perhaps New Nightmare. Yet, the film deserves major props for what it did in the mid-1980s, for all of the subtle and not-so-subtle gay overtones. Unlike the other sequels, it also did something different and rewrote some of the rules. Instead of a final girl, there was a final boy, and instead off remaining in the dream world, Freddy broke through reality quite frequently, which he wouldn’t do again until Craven returned to the director’s chair for New Nightmare. It took a while, but the film has found its audience.

For an interesting and in-depth read on the film, check out Buzzfeed’s long-form article from 2016 here.