Freaky: The Horror-Comedy We Need

Photo Courtesy of Blumhouse/Universal

When I think about my favorite horror films of 2020, I think about how heavy they are. These include Relic, a film about dementia, The Invisible Man, a metaphor for domestic abuse, and His House, a haunted house story about the refugee crisis. Sure, 2020 had some lighter horror cinema, like The Wretched and The Vast of Night, but the heavyweights were a tough watch mentally. Thank god for Freaky, directed and co-written by Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U). Landon is quickly becoming the new king of horror-comedies. Freaky is a clever film that has plenty of nods to iconic slashers, but it’s also a fun romp that borrows the premise of Freaky Friday and turns it on its head, making for a bloody good time.

The film stars Millie (Kathryn Newton), a shy teen bullied by her peers. The hideous sweaters that her mom buys for her with an employee discount don’t help. Millie isn’t rich or popular. She lost her dad about a year ago, and fearing more loss, her mom doesn’t want her to attend college out of the area. Millie is a relatable character, an outcast trying to navigate high school. Before we meet her, though, we’re introduced to the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). Freaky’s first 15 minutes play out like the opening of a Friday the 13th. Kids sit around a bonfire, recounting stories about the killer. Of course, he shows up minutes later, donning what looks like a Jason Voorhees knock-off mask. He slashes and dices victims one by one. He even tilts his head to the side like Michael Myers to study his work. The film’s opening 15 minutes are some of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in the genre all year. The gore is as outlandish as the teens’ reactions once the Butcher shows up.

After a football game, Millie encounters the Butcher as she waits for someone to pick her up. He stabs her with an ancient dagger that he stole. Cue the storm clouds, ancient cruse, and Freaky Friday-like body swap.

From there, the film grows more entertaining. Seeing Vaughn act like a teenage girl, including trying to make out with Millie’s crush in the backseat of a car, is a hoot. Further, post-body swap, Millie/the Butcher grows a sense of agency. She wears a striking leather coat, pulls her hair back in a blond pony tail, and even tells a jock that his touch makes her sex dry up like sandpaper. Newton’s performance, much like Vaughn’s, deserves a lot of credit. Watching her take what she wants with the spirit of the Butcher inside her is a lot of fun. She gets back at everyone who bullied her. Besides, how often do we see a female teenager as the killer in a slasher film? It’s a great reversal.

Photo Courtesy of Blumhouse/Universal

The supporting cast deserves accolades, too. Landon’s characters are diverse and well-developed. Nyla (Celeste O’Connor), Millie’s best friend, doesn’t exist in the story to just serve the white protagonist. She has her own sense of agency and puts up several road blocks to thwart the Butcher’s plans. Millie’s other best friend, Josh (Misha Osherovich), is an assertive and funny gay character. He steals the show in several scenes. Even Millie’s mom, Coral (Katie Finneran), grows more sympathetic the more that you learn about her and why she turns to the bottle. She’s grieving, and her children are all she has left. There is some family drama in the film, but it never bogs down the general levity.

Further, the film’s cinematography and colors are bright and match the film’s humor. Freaky generally forgoes the usual shadowy frames of horror film. It’s a nice contrast from other slashers, and like Happy Death Day, it’s another way that Landon toys with and reverses some of our expectations.

Freaky is the horror-comedy that we need after such a tough year. It’s a great reversal of the slasher tropes that also shows Landon’s love for the genre. It’ll make you laugh and give you a protagonist that you can root for. Both Vaughn and Newton excel in their respective roles, especially once the body swap happens.

Freaky drops this weekend On Demand.

{Film Review} The Hunt

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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?

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(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?

Cue the Remakes

I desperately wanted Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Doctor Sleep to do well, not only because it’s a good movie, it is (read my review of it over at Signal Horizon), but because its box office success could have meant that big studios like Warner Brothers would take a chance on fresh, character-driven horror films. Its opening weekend earlier this month grossed about $14 million dollars, which is not terrible, but certainly below expectations when you consider all of the marketing that was pumped into the film. On the other hand, when you compare Doctor Sleep’s opening to that of Halloween 2018, which grossed about $78 billion during its opening weekend, it’s likely that big studios are going to support more remakes and reboots of well-known franchises. Recent news stories over the last few weeks confirm this.

I can only speculate why Doctor Sleep is not drawing more people to the theater. It has a stellar performance by Ewan McGregor as a grown-up Danny Torrance, battling demons and struggling to not repeat the sins of his alcoholic, abusive father. Rebecca Ferguson commands every scene she’s in as the terrifying vampire Rose the Hat. Still, even though it’s a sequel to The Shining, and even though Stephen King is undergoing yet another renaissance right now, Doctor Sleep doesn’t have a franchise icon associated with it as recognizable as Michael Myers. The Overlook Hotel is in the film but only in the final act. Maybe Warner Brothers should have released the film during October or even late September, instead of waiting until Nov. 8.

One thing is certain, though, we vote with our dollars, and as Halloween 2018 has proved, if a studio realizes a reboot or sequel makes money, they will continue making more of them. Halloween 2018 is getting two more sequels, Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends, to be released in October 2020 and October 2021.

Meanwhile, a slasher film that heavily influenced John Carpenter’s Halloween, 1974’s Black Christmas, is getting a reboot set to open on Friday, Dec. 13. I assume that its studio, Blumhouse, which helped produce Halloween 2018 in partnership with Universal, suspects there are dollars to be made rehashing some of these well-known slasher films. Judging from a recent TV spot (see below), this very much looks like a film for the “woke” era.

In the TV spot, you see a group of sorority women fending off a black-robed, masked killer, and in one scene, a character who appears to be the head of a fraternity questions one of the women about power. My real question about this film is why now? The film was already remade in 2006 and was panned, especially by the horror community. There are several more interesting films that have come out in the last few years that deal with female power, be it The Witch, The Nightingale, or Revenge. Why doesn’t Blumhouse and Universal invest their dollars into an original script? Furthermore, for its time, Black Christmas was innovative. It featured a killer inside of the house, which was one of the most terrifying twists in horror history. It established the killer’s POV shot, which was used by Carpenter and others, and it generally had strong, forceful women who drank, smoke, cursed, and generally held their own. What new is a remake going to add?

Shortly after the release of Black Christmas, Universal/Blumhouse is set to relaunch the classic Universal Monsters in hopes of establishing a Dark Universe (yet again). The remake of The Invisible Man is set to drop in February. See below.

Now, I will admit this remake looks much more interesting than Black Christmas, especially because of Elisabeth Moss’performance and the theme of abuse that is so evident in the trailer,especially when Moss’ character says, “He said that wherever I went, he would find me.”  That said, this film looks like it has little in common with H.G. Wells’ novel and James Whale’s classic 1934 adaptation. The Invisible Man looks like a totally different character in this, not a mad scientist. The name was kept, most likely, in hopes that it will attract viewers and make money, thus creating a Dark Universe that Universal has wanted and has so far failed to launch after the remake of The Mummy totally bombed.

These remakes/reboots by Universal/Blumhouse aren’t the only ones on the horizon. It was reported recently that there is going to be another Scream movie that operates within the universe Wes Craven established. Speaking of Wes Craven, his estate is apparently listening to pitches for a new Nightmare on Elm Street. You can’t blame these studios for moving forward with these projects after they saw the immense amount of money that Halloween 2018 grossed. With all of that said, there are plenty of young, innovative directors out there doing great things, like Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Kent, and Coralie Fargeat, and thanks to streaming services like Shudder, horror is now an international market.

Still, though, I’m upset that Doctor Sleep isn’t making more money at the box office. It’s poor showing is going to encourage studios to keep making remake after remake. Meanwhile, unique stories won’t be seen by as wide of an audience and a good script may get passed over. We vote with our dollars, and when an interesting horror movie comes along, we need to support it, see it, and talk about it.

 

 

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.