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)
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)
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)
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)
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…