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!

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…