Outer Range: A Sci-Fi Western That Doesn’t Shy Away From Being WEIRD

Outer Range is truly a curious concoction of vibes, and intentions. Josh Brolin is as disconnected as I have seen him, giving us a fully-charged and gutted performance. In just the first episode alone there’s a murder, a curious arrival of a stranger, battling ranches, and of course, a random black hole that has appeared on The Abbott Family ranch.

And, bonus, I have to say there is a very inquisitive Buffalo.

But let’s rewind back through the mysterious universe of this strangely fascinating, slow burn, familial drama- sci-fi.

On a big ranch in beautiful, sprawling Montana, Royal Abbott (Josh Brolin) his wife Cecilia (Lili Taylor), sons Rhett (Lewis Pullman), and Perry (Tom Pelphrey) along with Perry’s daughter Amy (Olive Elise Abercrombie) reside. Before the arrival of said murky, mysterious hole, the family already has their struggles. Perry’s wife Rebecca went missing, and no one knows where she is. Rhett wants to be a bull rider, but can’t seem to leave the family and its ranch behind. Then there’s Royal, who has a mysterious past that had him finding his way to the ranch as a child, his memory gone, and his family with it. Not to mention, the wealthy Tillerson’s, who want part of their land, specifically, the one that has a potential time-traveling yawn at the center.

source: Amazon Studios

Autumn (Imogen Poots) arrives in a seemingly innocent fashion: she’s just looking for a place to stay, to put up her tent and not be a bother, specifically a place ripe with natural beauty. It doesn’t take long for Royal to become skeptical of her intentions, and for the two to become borderline adversaries. Their connection and disconnect are one of the most intriguing of the series.

Over the course of season one of Outer Range, a lot happens. There are many subplots and moving parts, and not all of them get their full due. Every member of the Abbott family is dealing with new strifes, and then there are the others in this smaller community, who have their own hardships and motives.

Will Patton is Wayne Tillerson, patriarch of the family, and someone who has a unknown tie to this discovery. Not in the best health, his children, Billy (Noah Reid), Luke (Shaun Sipos), and Trevor (Matt Lauria) seem to be running things themselves. These two families are clearly rivals from the onset of the first episode, but there are also tattered threads within the Abbott family threatening to rip them apart. These two families have more in common than they realize, which makes for an interesting dynamic.

When Royal finds this unbelievable discovery he keeps it to himself, and he puts the burden on himself, therefore, pushing away his family. This, and the accidental death, create a fissure within their home that continues to grow, thicker and more aggressive with time. Time, as it is, is incredibly important to the mythos of Outer Range, especially as the season continues. It’s this secret that manages to set each of the Abbotts on their own, unique, collision, course.

Some of what intrigues me most about Outer Range is its unpretentious use of random plot devices. There are some scenes (for example one with Lili Taylor) that make no reasonable purpose, at least not yet, and despite this, I was intrigued. I even relished those oddities.

This is a series of mysteries, first and foremost. Some are revealed by the finale, and some are still throbbing and pressuring as the expectation (and hope, here) for a second season mounts.

Let’s Talk About Poots

source: Amazon Studios

I’ve been a fan of Imogen Poots for a while. Whenever I see her listed in the cast I’m elated. She’s one of those actresses that really aces every assignment she is given. In Outer Range her character is enigmatic, completely imperceptible, but also incredibly curious. Why is she so interested in this ranch? Who is she really, and what are her intentions? That investment and uncertainty makes for a plot line, in itself, that’s very riveting. I have my theories, but we will see what comes to fruition.

There are some killer supporting characters as well. Deputy Sheriff Joy (Tamara Podemski) as the local police who wants to win her quest for sheriff, but also needs to be under the thumb of the community’s elite to do so, specifically the Tillerson family. There is also Rhett’s childhood love who has come back into his life, Maria Olivares (Isabel Arraiza) which provides a sweet romance in the corner of Outer Range, further capitalizing on its intricate paths. Each of these characters has a vital role in what is to come. Even if the expectation is uncertain.

Outer Range proves to be quite the rabbit hole. There are so many threads to follow, some more compelling than others, but they are all equally pointed. What is the significance of this find? Can Royal save his family? Who is Autumn, really?

source: Amazon Studios

The finale of Season One gives us tidbits of an explanation but mostly proves to encourage more questions than it does answers. With a story like this, I’m not surprised. While this series definitely takes its time, sometimes questioning your dedication, it ultimately made me engaged to a point where I was genuinely disappointed that I could not see where its narrative was headed. There are some gorgeous shots, wonderful sound design, and truly incredible acting performances. If not for anything else (and there is plenty) it should be viewed for its technological achievements.

Narratively the show takes a concept that is a collaboration of ideas, making it one that stands out even when it is muddled. There were no episodes I saw where I wasn’t immediately invested in its next adventure.

Outer Range proves to be unique, alluring, and infinitely odd. This isn’t a negative. If anything, I applaud its approach to the unknown with a distinctive, massive anomaly that still takes a personal approach. This is human meets the mysterious in ample scope.

Outer Range season one is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

Cinematic Nightmare Candy: X & Midnight

Welcome to Cinematic Nightmare Candy. Providing your horror sweet tooth its (hopefully) terrifying fix.

This time around I ventured into two very different horror films. I had heard previous praise for one and had nearly seen it at a festival, while the other was a completely new and exciting, surprise.

source: A24

X (Ti West)

As a fan of Ti West‘sThe House of the Devil, I was really looking forward to seeing what his newest venture would bring. For the most part, I had avoided spoilers, so I went into X with nothing more than a logline. Believe me when I say that this film will flourish in that sweet spot; between your presumptions and what X really is.

This allowed me to experience the film without knowing how weird or unexpected it would be and that unknown kept me immensely invested even when I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening.

X starts with a group of filmmakers headed out to a guest house in rural Texas to shoot an adult film. Maxine (Mia Goth), Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), Wayne (Martin Henderson) Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), RJ (Owen Campbell), and Jack (Kid Cudi) arrive expecting to make the next adult sensation, but instead find themselves in a uniquely disturbing, nightmare circumstance.

It is the 70s and writer/director Ti West does an amazing job of capturing the era, both stylistically, and how the camera draws us in. It’s an alluring place, a piece of history that is often brought to the screen with a beautiful (and menacing) appeal. At times this felt like a mix between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, though, the former, was much closer in tone. The camerawork is by far one of the standouts, creating perceptible tension, especially in the first half when X is really at its best.

The young stars show up to be greeted by an elderly man, who is hesitant to rent despite a previous promise. Howard and his wife Pearl live on the premises and it doesn’t take long to realize there is something off about their situation, especially that of Pearl who takes to late-night strolls, peeping in on our group, and crossing many, many, boundaries.

source: A24

X is a throwback in all of its aesthetics, reaching for inspiration in the grindhouse features that once populated this space. It can be a bit gratuitous with its gore, but that doesn’t bother me as much (especially if you’ve seen the new Texas Chainsaw) as much as its lack of exploration within its characters. While this is obviously a slasher in all of the typical ways, X’s insistence on the repelling of the aged form, call it ageism or just the horror of the reality of getting older, is the real root of terror.

I’d also check the credits when it’s finished if you didn’t figure out a detail yourself about Pearl.

The female performances are really the stand-outs of the group, especially Mia Goth. Among the camerawork, I have to give kudos to the editing done by West and David Kashevaroff, and a haunting score that adds to the excellently captured aesthetic. Overall, X is an entertaining and vivid throwback horror, with a mesmerizing performance from Goth, even if it doesn’t slash quite as deep as it intends.

X is available on VOD

source: Dread

Midnight (Kwon Oh-seung)

Kwon Oh-Seung‘s Midnight brings us a bleak setting from its start, a place dominated by fear as young women seem to fall victim to an unknown assailant. The concept is a fairly simple one, and yet somehow Midnight doesn’t seem to play that way at all.

After a long day at work, Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo) meets up with her mother (Gil Hae-yeon). Unbeknownst to her, a serial killer is lurking in the shadows. He stalks women and murders them, on the scarce streets of South Korea. Do-sik (Wi ha-joon) had just preyed on his newest victim, a young woman walking home, and while still in the middle of the assault is seen. A mask obscures his identity, but his imperatives quickly shift as he realizes that Kyung-mi has not only seen what he’s done but has gotten away. He also assumes her deafness as an indication she’ll be a simple target.

This is where this mystery/thriller dials up to 10 and becomes a hunt, an escape, and a stirring fight for survival.

As clever as he is chilling, Do-sik finds ways to talk himself out of suspicion, even among his potential victims. The story mostly focuses on these three, but also Jong-tak (Park Hoon), the brother of the recent victim, who is still alive -albeit barely- as the film also turns into a desperate mission to find and save his sister.

Kwon Oh-seung also wrote the script, and it is an intriguing, biting, and ultimately suspenseful story that doesn’t stop for breath (and I mean that literally, they run so much, that I felt winded). It’s got its finger on your pulse and it doesn’t let up. There’s always some new turn that you aren’t expecting which makes the lean 103 minutes all efficiently used.

There were times when I’d see how much I had watched and I was shocked there was so much left because I assumed things were nearing their end. And yet, something new would occur creating added tension and bringing in new characters or circumstances, and it’s like the board reset. Suddenly, you have no idea what would happen as you watch this character try to survive the night.

Kwon Oh-seung brings in a noir vibe, not sitting on social commentary and giving us a lot to think about. That is if you can find a beat between the kinetic energy. Jin Ki-joo is compelling and extremely genuine, making it easy to follow her struggles with empathy and hope. I can see this being one of those films with people yelling at the screen; not because she’s making poor choices, but because Wi ha-joon is so darn effective.

Midnight allows us to be immersed in the action, and the thrills, as we root for our heroine and curse this killer, who seems to charm the guard down on everyone he meets. In fact, Wi ha-joon, is superb. His truly menacing and chilling demeanor permeates through the film, often finding ways to remind us how he revels in this, smirking at the camera, or laughing to himself as he gets away with another vicious feat.

There are times when the film begins to get lost but quickly finds its footing, allowing some plot holes to form but not without forgiveness. Overall, Midnight prevails to satisfy fans of thrillers and horror alike, keeping you on your toes, and genuinely on the edge of your seat.

The performances by everyone are exceptional. In some scenes, occasionally consisting of long shots of running through the streets, you can feel the character’s air as harsh and splintered as it must be, until the victim and the aggressor collide. It makes for quite the visceral chase.

Midnight enthralls in its thills, excels in its execution, and allows a talented cast to bring this repeatedly anxiety-inducing stunner to life.

Midnight is available on VOD

Until next time, ghouls and goblins!

Slapface (2021)

A child’s emotions can be confusing. So many can arrive at once in confounding and unsettling ways. Especially when you’re dealing with a lot at once: fear, grief, abuse, and it can almost feel… monstrous.

Jeremiah Kipp‘s film Slapface was a truly welcome addition to the genre in the sense that it tackled these themes from a child’s perspective without feeling overtly young or obvious. In fact, by its end, Slapface may leave things a little ambiguous, but it doesn’t take away from its significance or the parallels to real life, as fantastical/fairy tale-esque it may be, even in its final moments.

source: Shudder

Kipp, who wrote and directed, drafts a tale that feels somewhat familial to A Monster Calls, but it’s like the disconnected cousin, where Slapface meanders more into the dramatic and the horrific but doesn’t slack on the emotional current that channels this entire tale.

Brothers Lucas (August Maturo) and Tom (Mike C. Manning) have been dealing with the loss of their parents. Of the siblings, Tom has been struggling with alcoholism and guilt. Lucas has as well, along with the usual uncertainties of youth and identity. Tom also has a new girlfriend, Anna (Libe Barer) who is especially cautious about their lifestyle. Lucas has started a new relationship with conflicted Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) who often feigns her feelings when in the midst of her friends: the twin girls who bully Lucas.

When Lucas can’t seem to stay out of trouble, a very limited cameo from Dan Hedaya as the local sheriff gives Tom a talk about how he is raising him. Is the behavior because of his personal afflictions or normal childhood angst? Meanwhile, Tom, who is still a kid himself, is more likely at a bar than paying attention to his brother. It’s a situation that no one should ever have to be put in, and one that exists without a directional roadmap.

After Lucas is bullied, he gives in to a dare and ventures into a boarded-up building, despite having read about some sightings of a monster. He does then encounter it; however, in time, he befriends this entity. Whether it is a formation of his fears, his inner uncertainties, or a real-life abnormal creature, is yet to be seen. Regardless, this creation is intimidating and yet soothing to Lucas in a way much like previous monsters of horrific lore have been. Most of them just want some semblance of understanding and connection. With Slapface the bond takes its time, and you see the relationship serving both healing and destructive purposes.

source: Shudder

Sometimes, when in peril, you need a bit of both.

This “monster” is kind to him, but vicious to anyone who he feels threatens Lucas or anyone it is uncertain about. This makes the horror psychological in nature because we all have our demons, but how we rationalize them varies. When a child is at the center, it’s especially hard to do.

Jeremiah Kipp doesn’t do a courtesy to the audience; you know how challenging of a situation it is from the start with the brother’s “Slapface” practice, slapping one another to basically rid themselves of feeling or reliving their pain. These brothers exist amongst the wilderness, detached in many ways, and Slapface utilizes this to an especially stark degree. This is a bleak film. Don’t expect any joy, but definitely anticipate a level of empathy, regardless of the connotations. It’s important to note that the monster effects are low-key, but yet actively effective.

Slapface is a bit of a slow burn, with some tedious moments that don’t always add up. Some viewers may give up early, but hear my rally: it’s worth it. I think this is an independent horror that earns its viewership.

For the most part, the film capitalizes on its voice, which is that of a youth struggling with things most should never have to. No matter how you perceive Slapface, one thing is for sure: you will feel it. It’s gonna burn a hole in you, harsh but perpetually distinct. Its performances and writing are effectually inherent.

We all have our monsters. And, sometimes, we need the monsters to show us the truth, as ugly as they may be.

Slapface is currently streaming on Shudder.

Cinematic Nightmare Candy: Benny Loves You, New Year, New You, & Barbarians

Welcome to Cinematic Nightmare Candy. Providing your horror sweet tooth its (hopefully) terrifying fix.

I watch a lot of horrors. What’s new this past week for me? Stick with me and we’ll see what awaits.

This time I was welcomed to some bizarre offbeat horrors that meandered more comedic, but at least two kept a steady hand at being exactly what they intended. A breath of fresh (or is it disturbing?) air. *wink* Overall, not the most effective in everything, yet still this version of the column finds the highlights even when they are streaming, bloody, red.

source: Dread

Benny Loves You (Karl Holt)

This British comedy-horror is exactly what you’d expect from a film with a premise about a doll that comes to life with murderous results. This concept is not quite Chucky but not entirely without its inspiration. Instead, Benny looks to protect his beloved bestie, whether from friend or foe, often confusing those with good intentions and mirroring jealousy and obsession with love. It’s a strange comedy horror, that manages to hit all of the right notes.

Written, directed, and starring Karl Holt, Benny Loves You is one of those rare achievements where ridiculousness isn’t synonymous with “bad.” Instead, it is just plain fun. Holt also manages to make our lead character incredibly sympathetic. And, I’ll be honest, even the doll, as psychotic as it was, imbued some sympathy too.

Jack (Karl Holt) is a production designer at a toy company. He lives with his parents until his unfortunate 35th birthday when they unexpectedly perish under strange circumstances. Magically, his childhood toy, Benny, gets empowered with vicious and supernatural abilities, all aimed at protecting his best friend, at any costs. Even, if it means murder.

This is a self-aware comedy that makes the most of its limited budget and hilarious output. There were so many times I laughed at Benny’s positions and decisions as maniacal as they were because the actions and visuals warranted it so. Sometimes, even something as simple as Benny on top of a car, wielding a knife, as the unsuspected victim cranks rock music, is quite memorable. Or, when he slices up an unexpected office break room. It’s all on par with a jolt of comedic timing and the perpetual massacre to come.

It’s partly a love for the past, the power where our childhood lingers on, and where our adulthood wonders when we have to let go. But when it is safe to do that? This is especially pertinent when our childhood buddy is a psychotic murderer. Luckily, most don’t have to consider such an idea.

Yet. *Smirk*.

There are a lot of scenes in Benny Loves You that feel borderline cheesy, but often, they settle in the terrain of lovingly horrific. It’s that strange place between what we want, what we need, and what we are terrified of having. We all want success, but at what cost? How much can we let go of our childish inclinations?

Benny Loves You is a blast; it’s funny and it’s disgustingly gory. A horror-comedy treasure with just enough heart, that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

source: Hulu

New Year, New You (Sophia Takal)

This venture in Into the Dark was quite different than the first, and a much more entertaining bit. Who doesn’t like a group of young women ruminating on past teenagers’ pain with “friends” who they haven’t connected with in a while? Sounds like a mouthful, but it’s a very straightforward conceit.

I’m sure many of us have had bad exchanges or confrontations because of things that happened in our past, but New Year, New You takes this to a treacherous degree.

Let’s set the stage.

The players: it is New Year’s Eve, and what better way to celebrate when your family home is being sold than to invite your high school besties over? For some, it has been a while, especially one in particular, who has grown to massive social media success. Alexis (Suki Waterhouse) invites friends Kaela (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) Chloe (Melissa Bergland) and long distanced friend, Danielle (Carly Chaikin) whose clear stardom has made her detached from the onset.

Unbeknownst to Danielle, there’s a setup involved. Something less celebratory is afoot, and these girls have an idea of how to ring in the new year: by acknowledging a past sin. Vengeance for her behavior and stored resentment are bubbling over the glasses of champagne but, who will ring honest and victorious?

While this is a step-up from a previous Into the Dark, there are still moments that don’t feel as potent as others. Still, New Year, New You, emphasizes its lean runtime with adequate tension, and plenty of build-ups that makes viewers wonder, are they are being fooled. Who is the bully, and who is the victim? Ironically, this was also a theme in the previous column.

New Year, New You takes a crumb and turns it into a nasty, suspenseful holiday cake. One which they will all undoubtedly choke on. All these girls are on edge, many with their own regrets and insecurities, making for a perceptible suspense amid the festivities. In the end, we see the “truth” and it is ugly. But, it’s also relative to our current obsession with social media, online personalities, and perceptions (and misconceptions). It starts and ends with a similar shot, but with very different, satirical, and interesting, meanings. We all want to be heard, yeah? But what is truth?

By no means does this film breakthrough where its predecessors were at a standstill, but it does provide an engaging enough premise to satisfy most who are looking for this sort of revenge-fueled-small set narrative.

Despite its downfalls, Sophia Takal brings us New Year, New You, which is simultaneously emotionally erratic and smartly snide with its perception of relationships, vengeance, and the horror of piecing truths together.

New Year, New You is currently available on Hulu

Barbarians (Charles Dorfman)

I can’t deny that when you see a character portrayed as effectively as someone like Ramsey Snow/Bolton in an epic like Game of Thrones, it can be hard to see them differently. And honestly, it’s a compliment, because it means they nailed it; they have convinced you. I have seen many of the show’s cast members in other roles, but this is the first for me with Iwan Rheon and he (and the rest of the cast) does this film justice. Where is it lacking? Patience and practice. And believe me, you’ll need an appreciation of both to get through the experience of Barbarians.

There is a lot under the surface in this film that isn’t fully explored, it’s like we get the lean cut instead of the meaty one, one which would have fulfilled much more had it been served. I’d also say there’s a lot of misdirection as much as there are obvious nods to what will come. It becomes a bit confusing, but early on there is an indication of areas that don’t ever fully get explored.

But let’s back up.

It’s a new home; a dinner party and friends unite for a meal and a (purposed) good catch-up sesh. The table is set: Adam (Rheon) and Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno) are the first tenants in a new development. They decide to have over Lucas (Tom Cullen) who is the proprietor of the property, and his girlfriend Chloe (Inès Spiridonov) on Adam’s birthday, but also to celebrate their new digs.

From the onset of Barbarians, there’s a sense of dread, an inescapable lingering sign of what will undoubtedly be an awkward and unfulfilling meal. There are secrets and uncertainties lingering under the surface, some brimming from how Lucas acquired this land, and others related to what he intends to do with it.

Purposefully frustrating, the characters are a bit sniveling, lost in their own greed or self-service to really ever give us a basis to connect to. The satire ends up being tiresome, and the positives (the original setup, the central locale, and the cast) become lost in what equals to a mismatched narrative.

It doesn’t elevate to its full potential by the time it reaches its home invasion phase, which makes the trite bickering seem rather futile, and makes what could have been some of the more intriguing aspects of the film come too late (or too early?) I’m not really sure.

Barbarians constructs a level of keen curiosity but eventually fades into the familiar. And, unfortunately, an unimpressive final showdown. I wanted to like this much more than I did, and I believe the bones for success were there, if not for a miscalibration of (skeletal) pieces. I was still hungry for more.

Barbarians is currently available to rent.

Until next time beasties!

Cinematic Nightmare Candy: Coming Home in the Dark, They Come Knocking, All My Friends Hate Me & Sweetheart

Welcome to Cinematic Nightmare Candy. Providing your horror sweet tooth its (hopefully) terrifying fix.

I watch an ample amount of horror, sometimes more often than others, so why not recollect my recent foray into the genre? In the last week or so, I’ve seen 4 different kinds of the genre, and some were unexpectedly great, and others disappointedly so. Some were very different than what I expected, and while sometimes the surprise is wonderful, sometimes…not. Let’s recount, shall we?

Coming Home in the Dark (James Ashcroft)

source: Dark Sky Films

This was a film I had looked forward to since missing it at Sundance last year. With some recent horror bangers at recent film festivals, I was excited to see this available on streaming (Netflix) and finally able to dive into this blindspot.

What came of my movie-going experience was mixed, to say the least. What starts off as a lovely picnic among family Hank, AKA Hoaggie (Erik Thomson), Jill (Miriama McDowell), and their two sons rapidly turns into a tale of some of the family being captive, and then… a turn into vengeance. While it begins in the countryside, a lot takes place within a vehicle, mulling through overextended conversation. These are bad guys that are in no hurry to dismiss any little detail, and then it becomes wider in scope, more advanced, reaching back to a place of childhood agony, that then spawns the rest of the film.

What is their motive?

I will say that Coming Home in the Dark doesn’t pull its punches early, with an opening act that feels genuinely terrifying. I had an “oh shit!” moment of surprise that made me instantly curious about where this was going. It was quite the bold position to levy so early on, but I admired the choice because it had me visibly shocked for a while after.

As the plot continued, it wavered between intrigue and tedium. There was a sense of continual tension that had this peculiar story ensuring I was wondering what would happen next. However, I was also wondering if I’d be fulfilled by its final stance. It’s a dichotomy that I wasn’t quite hoping for because it made the overall experience latent with ups and downs.

I will say that I respect the direction that our creators went in, and the cast was all for it, making this uncomfortable, drawn our affair, always uneasy. By its end, I still had questions, and I had my own contemplations of victim versus captor. It reflects on morality, coming head-to-head with your mistakes, and overcoming past trauma. In that way, Coming Home in the Dark hits its mark. The execution has some flaws, but overall nothing that will be too much for many viewers to overcome. In a way, it’s like the film lights a match, but holds it too long until it burns your fingers. Yeah, it was fire, but it also burnt out.

James Ashcroft‘s film has some interesting “bad guys” in the especially menacing Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and more stoic Tubs (Matthias Luafutu). Gillies does a terrific job of keeping the narrative stretched out, and taut, conveying the feeling that at any moment, things are going to snap.

In the end, Coming Home in the Dark provides enough intellectual stimuli with adequate gritty, tension to chew on, even if it isn’t entirely persuasive in its intent.

Currently streaming on Netflix

They Come Knocking (Adam Mason)

source: Hulu

They Come Knocking is part of the “In the Dark” anthology series on Hulu, something I can assure you, I will be exploring more. As my first, it didn’t necessarily strike the loudest chord, but it had its moments.

This movie plays with limited surroundings (reminding me of the Hill Has Eyes at times) with a family in an RV in the middle of nowhere. However, this film dives deep into grief, having our father and daughters reaching this point of a meaningful location, to discard of the matriarch Jill’s ashes. This, unfortunately, played out a bit like a TV movie, in a way that the acting waned sentimentally, with the scares secondary. Grief has long been known to take a lot of forms within this genre, often being a catalyst for our character’s eventual nightmare.

Haven’t they suffered enough?

The two sisters argue frequently and don’t make it easy on their father who is just trying to keep things together. Before they are able to lay their loved one’s ashes to rest, what seems to be young children appear outside, knocking and pleading for them to come out. When it doesn’t work they mess up their vehicle, making the family unable to leave, and also (dumb, dumb, dumb) split up.

Adam Mason‘s film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It sometimes engages us with a setup for what could be a well-executed thriller, but it also hands out doses of supernatural and psychological elements, making it a mixed bag of intentions.

There are some creepy-looking “kids” outside, with valid intrigue at large, making this family’s conundrum feel genuinely eerie. However, the stakes, aren’t as high. Also, there are a lot of those moments where you wonder…”why?” The whole idea of yelling at the TV screen while watching horror isn’t new; it’s basically embedded in its history, as poor decisions and a lack of awareness often spell death. They Come Knocking tests this tradition out.

The familial elements hit an emotional point, but also lean into melodramatic at times, which can cause a hiccup in connection. I had empathy for these characters, but I also wondered what was the inevitable outcome. Was this horror going to conclude in a way that made these details worth it?

Well, the ending was both somehow, unsuccessful and successful that couldn’t really please all of the varied horror audiences. Now, of course, no movie is probably aiming to do all of that, but as someone who is a fan of all the subgenres, I couldn’t find myself really feeling satiated in any department.

I liked the message, but the not the telling. With some creepy moments and some reasonably apt images of horror, They Come Knocking just struck short of being entirely compelling.

I assure you, I was as disappointed as the rest.

Currently streaming on Hulu

All My Friends Hate Me (Andrew Gaynord)

source: Super LTD

All My Friends Hate Me plays pretty fast and loose with its portrayal of what we generally refer to horror as, making the discomfort evident, even if it’s not quite what you think going in.

It’s Pete’s (Tom Stourton) birthday, and to celebrate, he’s meeting up with a group of college friends that he hasn’t seen in a while. Right from his initial drive in to the countryside, things don’t go as planned. He has to get directions, arrives alone to an empty house, and when everyone finally comes back, there’s the first inkling of this film’s thorny presence. Pete is proud of where he is in life, and often feels as if he’s trying to share that with his posh group of friends, but is being overshadowed in some capacity.

Archie (Graham Dickson), George (Joshua McGuire) Fig (Georgina Campbell), and Claire (Antonia Clarke) come back from the pub with a new addition, Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns) whose demeanor and intentions are so aloof, while his personality is so brash, that it is hard to get a read on what he’s doing. This spikes paranoia in Pete as well, making this a complicated cocktail of agonizing mixers.

It isn’t a normal horror by any means, but who wants to be in this kind of situation? Social anxiety becomes the monster here, creeping slowly into each exchange and permeating every scene until its firecracker end. The film purposely unnerves and doesn’t make any of the characters, including our protagonist, particularly likeable.

The overall snicker in All My Friends Hate Me is maintained, wedging the audience somewhere in between hilarity and stress. You know that sensation when you’re watching a character and somehow you feel embarrassment for them, as if you’re transported into that very situation yourself? This is a movie that does it masterfully through its direction and the entirely-up-for-anything cast. As a film that’s reliant on the dialogue snapping, and the camera on its stars with each reaction to a shift in energy, it achieves its satiric ability at full force. As the story unfolds, you start to really believe that everyone is out to get Pete, and Tom Stourton (who co-wrote with Tom Palmer) sells Pete’s behavior and perceptible unease aptly.

While this isn’t your average horror, it transcends that title by feeding into the potential fear and worst-case social situations that can arise daily. It gives us that discomforting moment of realization that maybe you aren’t who you thought you were, or maybe, your friends aren’t. But who has truly changed? This story dissects so many of the general awkward moments, making each scream to a degree that can challenge the viewer. In this way, All My Friends Hate Me is quite fluid and successful, giving a new (and yet familiar) perspective on what it means to be situationally horrified.

Currently available on VOD

Sweetheart (J.D. Dillard)

source: Netflix

This sci-fi horror was one of the most positive surprises as of late. Sometimes, less is more. This is one of those cases. It’s a limited setting, with a lead that’s courageous and sympathetic, even if you don’t know the backstory. She’s alone, and she’s trying. That’s all that matters.

Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) washes up on an isolated island. She’s one of the survivors of a shipwreck (a story not shown or talked about) with a fellow friend/crewmember fatally injured on the shore. Clemons is magnetic, portraying a strong female character that jumps into action as soon as she acknowledges what exactly has happened. We see her explore the island for other survivors and any supplies (some leftover from a previous inhabitant) and food, as well as build a fire. It’s terrifying enough being isolated, the loneliness and pressure of survival building, but she’s not alone. At night, there’s a creature that comes ashore, and after it digs up her friend’s perished corpse, she knows she’s in serious danger.

Clemons holds the film into a place of reality even when the science-fiction element of the story soars. Her fight and her fear are in equal parts present, making her performance and this limited locale all that was really needed for such a lean film. The creature design is terrific, especially its slow reveal, in carefully curated doses. There are often just glimpses or disturbing sounds, expertly giving us just enough, as we’re hiding in a log with Jenn, closing our eyes tightly in fear as we hear it approach, not sure what’s going to happen, or what is truly lurking in the night.

A couple of others eventually come on a lifeboat, but at this point they’re starving, exhausted, and Jenn’s account of the events seems more like the rant of someone who was pushed too far in a horrifying situation. If most people spoke of a monster from the sea, and a black hole residing in the ocean, what would be your response?

While some eventual aspects may be predictable, it finds new ways to craft an inventive spin on the mixed genres, and with an excellent central performance, it is easy to be caught up in its mystery. And, bonus, it’s also hella fun! JD Dillard takes his mostly solo star and finds ways to make this lost island seem large and inescapable, and yet somehow also growing smaller by the minute. Limited on dialogue, but heavy on suspense and expanse: does it flaunt stylistically? No. Does it need to? Absolutely not. Sometimes the adventure and terror are perceived most vividly by what the audience isn’t shown. Sweetheart also shows that even the most beautiful of locales can have an underlying terror.

In many ways, Sweetheart is a very simple but effective story; a gorgeously shot creature-feature-survival-horror that does a lot with a little, elevates the genre, while also building sustainable tension. The little thriller that could.

And man, was I rooting for Jenn to kick this sea-monster’s ass.

Currently streaming on Netflix

Until next time my lovelies…

SXSW Film Festival 2022: The Cellar

When it comes to horror, I’m always rooting for a win. As with any film, of any genre, I go into it hoping to be elated, engaged, and by its end, proud.

With The Cellar, the film started by intriguing me right away. A family moves into a new, obviously creepy house, and there are haunted vibes that are hard to ignore. Yet, somehow, they do. Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and her husband and co-worker Brian (Eoin Macken), daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz), and son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady), check out the strange home, including the ominous cellar. Ellie seems to be the only one noticing the glaringly obvious TURN BACK signs, including strange mathematical symbols above the doors.

For me, the beginning and the end are really what works (with a middle section that tries way too hard to be a combination of horror tropes). There is a very creepy scene with Elisha Cuthbert on the phone with her daughter who is terrified as she has to go to the cellar when the power goes out. As she steps down she counts (which is her mom’s suggestion to combat fear, but it also ironically ties into the narrative too? HMM…). It’s a suspenseful sequence as her voice changes, almost stilled, soulless, eerie. I felt like this was going somewhere intriguing. Then it halted that impulse with a regression that reminded me of more successful, past horrors.

When her daughter then disappears, it’s clear that this new home the family got at a steal (shocker) isn’t so inviting. At first, everyone seems to think she’s run away, but her mother knows something more sinister is at play. Their relationship is clearly fractured early on (partly because of her parent’s job with social media and influencers, and her own struggles there) but it’s something that isn’t fully developed.

In fact, there are several moments that invoke a sense of a chilled, endless space, with visuals that stick with you. There’s a scene where the stairs to the cellar seem to go on forever, and you’re left wondering… where does it go? What kind of hellish arrival will await this family? If only they had leaned into that creepy impulse, this film may have gone another way.

Brendan Muldowney writes and directs, and while The Cellar was disappointing to me, and I truly wanted to love it, I’m still curious to see what he does next because there is some value to take away. One of the other biggest gripes with the film was the lighting, at times it was like we were completely in the dark, and it didn’t infer fear, just frustration.

source: SXSW Film Festival

Then the film pivots, leaning into its slow-burn too much. The insistence on horror tropes makes the movie fumble in its middle section, and even the last stretch, which shows some great promise, doesn’t make up for its downfalls. There are some interesting elements involving math (personally scary to me- HA) and folklore, but it doesn’t feel fully delivered. In some ways, its choice to go into “other dimensions” feels underdeveloped, and out there just for the sake of being “out there.”

Cuthbert is terrific, empowering as a mother trusting her maternal instincts that something is wrong and not giving up on her daughter. It was great to see her return to horror, but the movie doesn’t fully capitalize on an interesting idea. Instead, it lingers too much on its weak points, and refurbished brands, while losing the overall scope of what made it fascinating, to begin with. I can’t help but wonder what it could have been. This is what makes the film so disappointing to me: a premise that doesn’t take.

The Cellar premiered at SXSW Film Festival 2022

SXSW Film Festival 2022: Jethica

When originality seems so rare these days, it’s refreshing to feel inspired after seeing a film, especially when it’s a strange, surprisingly standout ghost story.

Elena (Callie Hernandez) runs into a friend she hasn’t seen for some time, Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson), while looking after her grandmother’s home. The two head back to catch up, and she finds out that Jessica is trying to get away from her very insistent, relentless stalker Kevin (Will Madden). Elena, sharing some details with a person we only hear, after an intimate encounter, tells the story. A lot of what really happens is shrouded in mystery for a while, but it is clear both of these women are running from their own sort of demons.

There is an abundance of black humor worked within that makes this 70 minutes soar by. There are times when I was laughing out loud, and by its end, I was audibly saying, “aww.” I don’t want to give away too much, but within this property, there’s an underlying (and not fully explained) magical presence that traps ghosts in its midst. So, basically, if your body is brought to the property, you’ll be stuck there (though there are three ways to get rid of ghosts, as we soon learn).

Pete Ohs directs and also co-writes with Andy Faulkner, Callie Hernandez, Will Madden and Ashley Denise Robinson (talk about a collaboration). It’s a character-driven take on ghost stories, giving us a personal and yet entertaining foray. At times chilling, at times ethereal, Jethica hits some key, ghoulish notes.

source: SXSW Film Festival

The environment of New Mexico is not only utilized but also used to enhance the sensation of these characters’ isolation. It’s beautifully filmed, with some terrific long shots.

There’s a lot to unpack with Jethica, more than you may even realize until the credits roll. It wields its humor with a sharpness that never feels forced but still manages to make you feel.

It simultaneously seems ominous and yet hopeful. It mixes genres, and with strong lead performances, the film keeps us wondering what exactly will happen. Even as the movie came towards its close I wasn’t sure, and I was worried it would be anti-climatic. But, by its finish, I was happy with its decisions and it felt warranted. I can imagine others handling this differently, but its sensitive end felt more in tandem with the story being told.

This shows how a low-budget, minimalist approach can be effective, especially when the characters and themes loom so large. The supernatural, the dangers of stalkers, and the sense of connection and contentment all play a role in this intriguing mix. There’s clearly love put into this picture. It portrays stalking in a real way, while also expressing vast amounts of humanity and charm.

Quirky, hilarious, and somehow cathartic, this movie perfects just the right amount of earnest charm. It maximizes on its dry humor while honing it’s bittersweet mentality and terrific performances, all residing within an unique ghost story. Ultimately compelling and wholly original, I loved Jethica. So far, this festival’s standout!

Sundance Film Festival 2022: Resurrection

Resurrection had me scratching my head in ponderous turmoil more than any other film at this year’s fest. On one hand, I was applauding Rebecca Hall’s spectacular performance (when doesn’t she though, really?) On the opposite side of things, I found that the film struggles with the fatigue it puts on the characters, and subsequently the audience, by credits end.

And its ending goes really hard, kind of emulating Titane but without the tenderness. The final scenes feel harsh and shocking, heavy on ambivalence. That’s not to say this doesn’t have it, it certainly does. I’m actually grateful for its final shots because it seemed like the director made a choice and decided to just go there. Not to mention that it is worth it alone to see Rebecca Hall give such a tour de force.

Margaret (Rebecca Hall) and her daughter seem to live a fairly safe, fruitful life, but as we often see when her daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman) – who is on the cusp of leaving for college – leaves or does anything reckless, she is very worried. It’s normal for mothers to be concerned, but as Resurrection gives us tidbits of explanations for what happened to Margaret in the past it becomes painfully clear that it was something very bad. Not just bad, but bizarre, horrifying. Some of the storytelling is aimed unevenly, making aspects harder to take in.

source: Sundance Film Festival

Enter the menacing Tim Roth as David. The first time she sees him she has a panic attack and that fear and hold he has over her is only magnified as we scrape away the armor she’s built up to protect herself from this, well…monster. I won’t go into the details, but he’s quite creepy, and incredibly manipulative. It is one of the most effective portrayals of emotional manipulation I have seen, and it’s truly terrifying to see the grip he exhibits over her, even now, and when she finally gives us the excruciatingly disturbing monologue (to a coworker not quite equipped for it) of their past, it shakes you.

Andrew Semans writes and directs this feature that shows trauma astutely, emphasizing psychological horror in an intriguing way, that borders on incredulous. Even in its extremes though, it ultimately is conveyed believably due to his lead star.

We all have our pushing points, and Margaret begins to unravel; a complete opposite of what we see in the beginning of the film: disciplined, put together. Her past comes back to unnerve her, but she’s strong and won’t give up without a fight.

Resurrection isn’t perfectly done but it brings such an intensity that it’s difficult to ignore. The performances alone are electric. It’s outrageousness will either impress or disgust (maybe both) but you won’t forget it. It bewildered me some.

Sundance Film Festival 2022: Dual

When Sarah (Karen Gillan) finds out she has an incurable disease that will take her life, her next step, obviously – is to choose whether or not she wants to get a clone of herself made. Because, of course, in Dual‘s reality, that’s not only an option, but it is encouraged. It allows you to prepare your loved ones for your demise, and make it easier when you’re gone, because, well, a version of you will remain.

There isn’t a whole lot of consideration, but an hour later and we’ve got two Sarahs.

When she receives the good news that she is no longer dying, she is told her clone is set to be recommissioned. Unless, the double wants a life for herself, then she can request a duel to the death. For there can only be one Sarah.

Not only that, but after some time, the loves ones in her life seem to prefer the replacement. Overall, Dual‘s future and Sarah’s apathy towards existence is pretty damn bleak. By its close, I can’t say that aspect has changed much, but it’ll leave you thinking, and hopefully laughing along the way.

In one of her best performances, Karen Gillan nails the dry deadpan, bouncing between intentionally stoic and yet infallibly human. Before this happened she was in an unhappy relationship, brimming with loneliness and complacency for life. When she finds out she’s sick it strikes as more inconvenient than tragic, but by the film’s end, she displays a ferocity that makes her rootable.

This isn’t a film teaming with likable characters, and everything is given to us in a matter-of-fact way that’s both awkward and strange, yet delivered in a way that makes the audience feel like the odd ones. It pulls some inspiration from Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster.

That’s also part of the charm. Stearns’ subverts expectations throughout the movie, making it hard to know exactly where things will go next. It’s tragic, and it is cynical so it’s bound to be divisive among viewers. The purposely stiff performances and mashup of tones and genres may make some woozy.

I like my science fiction film to have an element of the strange with a clever bite. Dual most certainly has that and there is more to appreciate than snicker at. Its bold ideas kept me intrigued, and was not at all what I was expecting, proving that Riley Stearns has a signature style that can really entertain. Aaron Paul plays Trent her trainer for the dual, and he is also hilarious. Some of their scenes are my favorite within the film, including an unexpected dance lesson and a slow-motion fight training session. For the most part though, this is Gillan’s film, and she manages to hold it the whole way through.

source: Sundance Film Festival

I found myself consistently engaged, curious where things would end up. But we didn’t need a dog to die, (just saying) and preparing anyone who needs to know it prior to going in.

Little flourishes, especially when it comes to the comedy, really sold me on the film. The narrative leans on humor more than the intellectual, which doesn’t always pay off. Did it astound? No. But, it took its swings, and finished with a bold finale.

With absurdity in troves, Dual takes an introspective approach and consideration for the will to live and claim your life. The dark comedy sci-fi has a lot to appreciate, especially the deadpan delivery and quirky storytelling choices (love the dialogue). Karen Gillan & Aaron Paul are pitch-perfect.

Bottom line: Don’t get a clone.

Sundance Film Festival 2022: Speak No Evil

The effects of this movie, and its final scenes still cling to my bones. Speak No Evil winded down with a quick and punching descent into significant darkness, and it left me pondering the details I had consumed in the previous 70+ minutes of watching. Shook.

This is how horror is meant to be. The foreboding, the casual (but not really casual) cues that something is amiss. For most of Speak No Evil it feels like -to an extent- an awkward social exchange that most of us have dealt with. Especially with someone you hardly know, but are too polite to point out. You tuck away your discomfort and do the strange dance around the issue until it’s time to leave. Or is it?

Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) meet Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) and their son while on vacation. What a wonderful surprise! Right? They instantly hit it off, so when they’re invited to visit them in their home in Holland for a long weekend, they say yes. Even when they aren’t sure if it’s a good idea. You can feel their uncertainty, sense their apprehension, but, especially if you’re someone who hates to displease, the glass half full ideal makes you wonder… is it okay?

source: Sundance Film Festival

Christian Tafdrup co-writes and directs with a script that really hits. The tension builds to a point that’s unavoidable. Our leads are terrific, making this situation feel grounded even in its most exaggerated moments. The direction captures this too, making each leer of the camera or close up of precariousness, apt.

I love the progression of Speak No Evil. As you’d expect the tension grows and that pit in your stomach gnaws. This family is kind, and they genuinely want to give this new couple the benefit of the doubt. However, if there’s a film that proves listening to your gut is crucial, this is it. Folks, trust that, please. Things move from odd, to off, to completely unnatural, taking our emotions for a ride. I was perceptibly uneasy for most, remembering my own experiences of awkward first-ish encounters. This plays like a dry comedy that could be laughed off later to a worst case, horrifying scenario.

What transgresses is the worst of situations, with so many cringe moments where you want to simultaneously hug and yell at the cast. Our couple is smart, they know something is wrong, but they are also passive, which, is exactly why they are in this conundrum. The writing emphasizes this, balancing between sympathy and frustration. I reflected a lot on this film after seeing it, and I’m certain every detail was intentional.

With a no holds barred ending that is shocking, even if it is to a degree expected (though who knew it would look like this), Speak No Evil plays with our fears, and tickles our curiosity, ultimately delivering on the things we don’t want to face: people can be terrifying.

Speak No Evil premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd.