Cinematic Nightmare Candy, True Crime Trifecta: The Staircase, Candy & Under The Banner Of Heaven

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

For me, as a lover of various genres, some of the most terrifying viewings are the ones that are based on true crimes. There are many real-life situations that have made me cringe, and curious and exploratory. Mostly, it’s the psychologically fascinated part of me that wonders, why? What happened? What caused this? Well, there are three recent cases to hit streaming for me to evaluate. Each of these had a lot of attention, and some tales were relatively unknown. Until now.

One I was very familiar with (The Staircase) but in the other cases, I was unaware. With all, I was able to scratch that itch for truth, and I was digging. Mostly. All three proved that true horror exists in the depiction of real-life monsters. For all three, go in blindfolded and wait until after if you’re someone who likes to do research, make your own assessment. Truth can be in the eye of the beholder. Yeah, it’s scary.

source: Hulu

Candy (Nick Antosca, Robin Veith)

While, personally, the most disappointing of the three series I’m about to cover, Candy, I’ll admit, has its disarming charm. I say this with a definitive level of ickiness because it leaves the ultimate bad taste, but the performances keep it engaging, and the fact that the main character is named Candy is very ironic. This is not the kind you want to try. This limited series has the makings of a shocking, strange real-life story, but ends up losing some of its flavors as it goes.

Sweet than Sour

Candy (Jessica Biel) seems like the perfect housewife, mother, and community member. She’s attentive to her children, and active in her local church all with a pleasantly deceiving demeanor. She and her husband Pat (Timothy Simons) embody the perfect 80s household.

Meanwhile, on the other side of things, Betty (Melanie Lynskey) is having a harder time. Her husband, Alan (Pablo Schreiber), is away a lot on business and her career has taken a sideline as she raises her kids. Betty seems like she is just trying to get through each day, even as she feels unseen, and the always fabulous Lynskey captures her pain with sincerity; the idea that Betty could just disappear at any time.

These two women seem extremely different but remain on a similar trajectory as they are both mothers and their paths are inevitably crossed as their daughters are close friends. What occurs on this particular day though, is one of speculation, and one that even by its end, never fully feels answered.

Each feels isolated in their own ways, but Betty’s character, doesn’t get as much exploration, but still feels more understood (mostly because of the talent at hand), By the end, I didn’t really feel I knew Candy or what exactly was going on inside her brain. It does feel like these are real women and not parodies, and that sensitivity helps ground this series. I just wish I knew them both more.

This five-part series starts with a bang when a visit to Betty’s for a simple and innocent purpose: to get a bathing suit for her daughter who stayed the night at Candy’s house, ends in a bloody and confusing event. We don’t know quite what has happened yet, but give it time. The series calculates its reveal purposely, shifting from the before, to the future, and even the eventual trial, as a way of illuminating what exactly happened. Turns out, this suburban housewife has her secrets.

Candy has a very exaggerated feel, especially in its waning final two episodes, but it doesn’t fully deliver on the real psychological element at the center. What makes someone who seems relatively level suddenly snap?

Something I loved about the series, besides the performances, was the 80s vibe. This includes the perms, home decor, and costumes. Undoubtedly conventional, Candy is a true-crime series that doesn’t break the mold. It’s a gruesome event that becomes an unspooling of “truths” as it turns into a courtroom procedural.

source: Hulu

Biel shines as the oppressed housewife, that we watch slowly become the opposite of what we and her small community know her to be. It’s a nearly unbelievable case, and the series handles this story with respect and care, which can be a slippery slope for many trying to recreate events as horrifying as this. Candy tells the story of two housewives, seething internally amid their unhappiness until one of them bubbles over. Is what really happened what is displayed in the trial?

Who can say?

Narratively the writers were able to give us sizeable portions to keep us sustained, and while the performances were terrific, I still remained hungry for more. I wanted to know what happened and what became of Candy enough to follow the breadcrumbs to its finale. But, overall it’s an intriguing project that doesn’t totally stick the landing. As always, it seems like things come in pairs (sometimes more) as it looks as though another series on HBO will follow this story as well. It’ll be interesting to see how that one goes.

Candy is currently streaming on Hulu

source: Hulu

Under the Banner of Heaven (Dustin Lance Black)

All of these series are packed full of star power, so it’s rightfully mentioned that the acting is never the issue.

Religion extremists can be some of the most terrifying portrayals of abuse of power, and a misconstruing of faith as a right to do horrific things. Much like within a true crime story, anyone who is an extremist, of any sort, is truly creepy.

When Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar Jones) and her child are brutally murdered, the community is at a loss. The series starts with Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) a fellow Mormon who is investigating the heinous murder of a woman and her infant child. This happens in a generally Mormon community and its trajectory leads to an intro into some unfortunate and outlandish perspectives of the religion.

His partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), doesn’t share his beliefs, and the two work concurrently to discover, the who, the why, and what has occurred. The biggest suspect? The husband Allen (Billy Howle), whose story seems plausible, and whose own family may be at the crux of the crime.

Under the Banner of Heaven is what a true-crime series should be (another from Hulu too) that’s not to say it didn’t have its faults, but it is aware of its own nature. I was intrigued and visibly disturbed from the opening murder to its ultimate truth. The show often traversed time and perspective giving us varying points of view ranging from early Mormon history to recent extremism and implied righteousness.

The story focuses on the Lafferty family, primarily: Ron (Sam Worthington), his wife Dianna (Denise Gough), Dan (Wyatt Russell), and his wife Matilda (Chloe Pirrie), Robin (Seth Numrich), Samuel (Rory Culkin), and many others. It focuses on this family in Utah, and the behavior and belief that separates many despite blood relations.

I am not to say what is true (I’m not knowledgeable enough in this religion, so I stake no claim) but I am coming from what is portrayed in this series. The truth is that people were murdered, and regardless of the reasonings, it’s a fact. Life was taken, and that’s a hard pill to swallow.

source: Hulu

Andrew Garfield is excellent in his performance as the lead, often facing scrutiny from his community for his involvement, but ultimately, always, heartfelt in his endeavor for justice.

The performances are truly spectacular, some of the cast were next to unrecognizable which made this series simultaneously easy to breathe in but excruciating to exhale. Not only does the show tackle the murder, and the ideals of some members of the Lafferty’s, but also the undeniable and discomforting imbalance within marriage and home (specifically the lack of voice a woman has).

There are some stretches when the show gets tangled up too much in its backstory and history. However, it is able to recover with a vast amount of in-depth characterization, and a focus on the struggle with faith, and the laws of man. It’s unique, even if it is something too detailed for its own good.

Under the Banner of Heaven is a riveting series, with an ambiance of a character-driven narrative, and a realistically horrifying tale, that makes this series ultimately hard to take. This is a tough watch, but it’s important. It’s done with deft hands and a creative perspective that makes you realize the dangers of fundamentalism.

Under the Banner of the Heaven is currently available on Hulu

source: HBO

The Staircase (Antonio Campos)

This is one of those cases that is quite well known and having seen the documentary, I was unsure if this would bring much more to the table. With a combination of stellar performances and intricately discerned dramatic retellings, The Staircase is another HBO hit. If there’s already been a documentary, what else can be said? Well, let’s see.

Author Michael Peterson’s (played here by Colin Firth) wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) died at the bottom of the staircase in their luxurious South Carolina home. There are a lot of potential motives for murder, many odd coincidences with his past, as well as some curious answers that seem like a freak occurrence. The fact that this series acts out all three, portrayed in painful realization from Collette, makes for a visceral experience. All of these seem reasonable in how the creators master it, and the performances included.

But, I Regress

What really happened? What’s interesting is the dive into all of the possibilities, regardless of how obtuse or unbelievable they are. To this day this hasn’t been a case truly tested. Much like the Paradise Lost series, another I’d suggest to anyone interested in true crime or a look at the justice, and injustice system, this is a perspective that varies. What really happened? Do we know? That particular case is one I’ve studied a lot, and while I have my hypothesis, you don’t really know. It’s one of the struggles. It is also one of the intrigues.

In this series the star power is palpable. The family is portrayed by a variety of talents including Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner) and sister Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young), Dane Dehaan as Clayton Peterson, and brother Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger). Rosemarie DeWitt as Candace Zamperini sister of Kathleen, as well as Juliette Binoche as Sophie Broussard, and Parker Posey as Freda Black. It’s a powerful group of talent that makes the storytelling and direction influences that much more impactful.

With The Staircase, this is a dramatized version of a story that has already had hot headlines and a full documentary devoted to it. What’s intriguing here is that it capitalizes on terrific portrayals, and the differentiating “possibilities” and also includes the documentary with an almost meta feel.

source: HBO

The series takes place from the initial tragedy and then 15 years later as the case and family deal with this circumstance that most should never have to navigate. It’s at times a family drama, a courtroom experience, and a retelling of potential scenarios. In all ways, the show goes the distance. What I appreciated and also felt most empathetic for was the extended family and how they dealt with this trauma. This is a truly untenable event, and those involved dealt with it as best they could. Everybody involved gives it their all, and it dismisses any hesitancy that I had when I first heard that they were making this series.

I was waiting with bated breath for the finale, and while I enjoyed it, it made me realize that some of the episodes did sag a bit, and the momentum had faded. That’s not to say it takes away from the performances or the immense dedication a show based on a true story and a documentary while remaining unbias requires, I just felt it lingered longer than needed.

Something that The Staircase is terrific at is the real emotion and empathy displayed. This family goes through so much, and the death of Kathleen Peterson is one of those mysteries that so many feel unable to move on from. This doesn’t necessarily give any indication or insight, it merely paints a few of the scratched-away corners in color, allowing us to see more of what may have been. Truth or not? Who knows.

Kudos to the final shot, it was chilling.

The Staircase is available to stream on HBO

All three of these have their highs and lows, but none of them are without their curiosity. Isn’t that why many watch things such as this? Sometimes the most unbelievable is reality. Regardless, even with the amassed amount of talent through these three, Under the Banner of Heaven definitely felt the most comfortable in its shoes. And let’s be fair, none of these was anything more than adequately discomforting. This is reality dissected, diluted, and ugly.

Have you seen any of these? What are your thoughts? Let me know!

Shining Girls S1: A Dark, Loopy Sci-fi Mystery

Created by Silka Luisa Shining Girls (based on the book by Lauren Beukes) follows the mind-bending reality of Kirby (Elisabeth Moss) as she tries to navigate life after a devastating near-death attack. This series, which may very well only be one season (or at least I hope) can be head-scratching, nearly anxiety-inducing at times, but remains an intriguing, immaculately performed story that interweaves sci-fi elements with real character-driven drama.

source: AppleTV+

In part, this series focuses on Kirby and her frequently changing reality. She takes notes each day reminding her of her place and where she is within this world as it shifts unexpectedly. One day her desk is moved; another it’s her apartment, her lifestyle, her hair, her pet – you name it. After surviving a nearly fatal attack, she becomes aware of a recent murder that may be connected to her assault. This starts her on an investigative hunt for the truth, and for the assailant, played with expertly portrayed malice, by Jamie Bell as the elusive Harper.

The show takes place in Chicago in the 90s and while there is an element of time travel, it also believably lives in the world of journalism at the Chicago Sun-Times. As someone who wanted to be a reporter, but after her attack worked in the archives, Kirby is a character that embodies a woman you root for. Moss, who has proved she can really portray any role, does it again with a performance that doesn’t leave anything behind.

The case grabs the attention of struggling writer, Dan (Wagner Moura) whose career has taken some hits after dealing with addiction. The two form a unique team, discovering many grisly murders that point to a serial killer. Shifting realities often derail Kirby, and she is an unreliable narrator at times, but one who is also committed to figuring out the connections with these deaths. There are a lot of plotlines at work here, one of which is a very enthralling murder mystery and a psychological thriller. Even though we know the who, early on, the why and the telling of the events takes time to be discovered.

Harper’s character is really, truly despicable. He doesn’t generate much empathy; a clear villain. Yet, and kudos to the writers and Bell’s performance, he’s quite curious. What are his motives? Even if we don’t get all of the answers, like the novel delivers more of, we can’t help but wonder about all of the questions.

source: AppleTV+

What’s ultimately frustrating but somehow simultaneously stimulating is the constant differing realities. This is where the science fiction aspect becomes especially prevalent. You feel as if you are with Kirby, understanding her confusion and her relentless perceptions of what her life is. She has all of her memories, but her surroundings and the people involved, including her mother Rachel (Amy Brenneman) and her sometimes husband Marcus (Chris Chalk) make for an overly sympathetic protagonist that truly captures the damage and struggle of someone dealing with a traumatic event. The supporting characters are as equally important as they present a level of both sustainable empathy and disconnect. Shining Girls is nothing if not a vestibule for contemplation. At times, you may feel on par with Kirby, unsure of what you are seeing.

A Mysterious Take On A Serial Killer

While most of the victims are already gone, there is one that can potentially be saved, with a riveting performance by Phillipa Soo as Jin-Sook. The relationship with her and Kirby is one I could have used more of, but it provides a sense (much like her and Dan, but varied) of recluse from her loneliness. The pain and healing of such an event can make someone feel like they are on an island, and we get to see Kirby’s resurgence which is (by its end) is as satisfying as you could hope for.

Shining Girls may not be for everyone. It is an acquired taste because, much like the lead, you’re traversing a difficult situation. The fact that this series personified this so definitively is admirable. Personally, it took me a couple of episodes, but then I was hooked.

There is a lot to potentially spoil, and I won’t. Much like many of this genre, the value is in the experience. It also is a series that earns your approval, your investment, and in its end, proves to be worthy of it. AppleTV+, I feel, has been a streaming service that has very rarely let me down. I’ve had several I’ve written about admirably here and on my other site (filminquiry.com) and some I haven’t but appreciated all the same.

source: AppleTV+

Shining Girls mixes investigative mystery with science fiction in a way that never feels exploitative and it gives a voice to trauma and an inventive story to boot; an avenue for imaginative storytelling that still somehow feels grounded. Come for the intrigue, stay for the performances; everyone is at the top of their game, and Elisabeth Moss, again, proves she is one of the best actresses on television.

A perplexing series with no shortage of hard-to-watch moments, Shining Girls is an enthralling, bold tale.

I dug it.

Shining Girls Season One is available to stream on AppleTV+.

The Innocents: Unflinching In Its Creepiness

Shockingly disturbing, discomforting, and entirely evocative; there are scenes from The Innocents that have still not left me, weeks later, and there are feelings trapped, wound with celluloid in their pristine heritage that makes me confirm a truth despite any negative reactions: this is talent.

The fact that Eskil Vogt co-wrote my favorite film of last year (The Worst Person in the World) hasn’t escaped me. This script is sharp, all edges and angles, aimed at disarming even the most impenetrable of us.

Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her older autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) have moved with their family to a new apartment complex. As Anna struggles to speak, Ida seems frustrated by her sister and overwhelmed by the circumstances of her family. When they arrive at their new home, she quickly meets Ben (Sam Ashraf) who shows that he exhibits strange abilities. Meanwhile, Anna befriends Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) who also has a secret, as she is one of the only people who are able to successfully communicate with Anna. Why are there multiple children with gifts in such a limited area? It is intriguing, and a detail that is never truly explained.

source: Camera Film

Written and directed by Norway’s Eskil Vogt, The Innocents is about a group of children who become unlikely friends and who also have to learn to cope with their newfound supernatural abilities at an age that is already challenging enough. But, when you dive deeper, it’s a look at the innate ability humans have to hurt, the cruelty in power, and what we do when given the arrogance of a toxic ability.

In some ways, it reminded me of Chronicle (without of course the obviously handheld camera element) but also in the fact that it is a group of teenagers who had to navigate unforeseen powers. With The Innocents, this is a much younger group, and it makes this film doubly horrific, but also tentatively sympathetic. That consistent contrast is what makes this one of the best genre films of 2022 so far.

Something that I really appreciate about this film, aside from the terrific child acting (which truly steals the show), is the fact that there are characters you root for and against, and there are those who are misguided. They are children who are working things out amid a situation that is barely understandable for an adult, let alone a child. It’s a thinly laid tight-walk, one that Vogt manages, even when it’s apparent that a fall is imminent.

source: Camera Film

There is a level of slow-burn agony that permeates throughout the entire film. From its opening scene until its last, even if your reasoning changes- the sensation doesn’t. The dread is decidedly apparent even when you want to look away; you have to see the gut-wrenching finale.

What is Evil?

Within its hour and 58-minute runtime, there are very few scenes that don’t feel creepy. Even when these kids seem to be getting along, there’s an undercurrent of waiting; waiting for the next bad thing to occur, or for reasoning to prevail. In other words: prepare to be discomforted. There is one scene that actually had me looking away, but the sound effects were vivid enough.

It’s an atmospheric blend of psychological terror and the eeriness that comes from our expectations for what will come next. We can see some of these children’s motives turning dark, and its idea is quite sinister. The cinematography and sound effects/design are truly impeccable.

Its final scene is delivered within a chilling near-silence, giving us the perspective, again, that the adults nearby are truly unaware and unable to change what is happening. The Innocents really buries deep, digging under the skin, ensuring your inability to escape.

The Innocents allows us to feel empathy, but also to genuinely judge the actions of its characters. Eskil Vogt definitely does not hold back from diving into the psyche of these troubled, emerging minds, allowing many conflicting emotions to arise. It’s an experience, to say the least, one that doesn’t bear repeating but remains resonant regardless.

For anyone considering this watch, definitely tread lightly as there are a lot of triggering, frightening scenes throughout.

The Innocents is currently available on VOD

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 aspects 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, creates 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 serve 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, Maria Olivares (Isabel Arraiza), that has come back into his life. This 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

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

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: Fresh

As the credits rolled for Fresh, the feature directorial debut of Mimi Cave (Yesss female horror directors), had me in between a holler and a cheer. In many ways, this disturbing, twisted take had me quite uncomfortable, but much like other satirical horrors, it also had me laughing and enthralled.

At first, Fresh shows us the unfortunate sides of dating, especially when you don’t fully know who it is you’re running into at the grocery store. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) admits early on that she is tired of the scene and from her opening disaster of a date, it’s easy to know why. When she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan) it almost seems too good to be true. And, well, it most certainly is. It takes its time coming to the opening credits as our lovely opening meet-cute is cut drastically, direly short. Reality hits, well – slaps, swings, hard, and Steve is not who Noa thought he was. In fact, his intentions are quite nefarious, and their long romantic weekend becomes a nightmare. It doesn’t take long for her best friend Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs) to grow concerned, and she begins her own quest to find Noa.

There are a lot of truly grotesque and discomforting moments in the movie. As with most of the like, I think it is best if you don’t know a lot going in, but if you’re faint at heart, know your stomach will be turned. The style and storytelling prowess make even the harsher moments easier to digest (couldn’t help myself there).

source: Sundance Film Festival

Sebastian Stan as Steve is just fantastic, both creepy and charming, with biting moments of humor. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) as our lead is courageous, intelligent, and also hilarious. The chemistry between these two, including the angry static that grows between, is part of why this film really pops. As the film moves and things become dire and tension is at the max, Noa proves to be a real beguiling match for Steve. Aesthetically, Fresh keeps its bite, and with the screenplay by Mimi Cave and Lauryn Kahn, it utilizes what it has in plenty. In the third act the story goes a bit as expected, but not without its own details that make it simmer, and ultimately satisfying.

It moves from a rom-com gone wrong to a tense fight for survival that will ultimately make you squirm as much as chuckle. There’s a fluency to the genre shifts that never feels artificial. The dark humor cuts when it hits. The film mostly takes place in a single location heightening the tension and stakes as we witness the women at the throes of Steve and his plans. Our leads truly commit to the roles, giving us an enthralling thriller that doesn’t skimp on waste. Stan seems to really have fun with the performance which translates to the audience. There’s a scene where he’s dancing as he “works” (terrific soundtrack) that harks back to the Huey Lewis one in American Psycho.

Fresh works best when it marries the grossness factor with slick black humor, percolating to a place of truly provocative horror. The film really shows promise for Mimi Cave and I can’t wait to see what other delicacies she has in her freezer. Sorry, not sorry for the quips.

Fresh had it’s premiere at Sundance Film Festival on January 21st and will be hitting Hulu on March 4th.

Top Ten Horrors of 2021

Hello fellow ghouls, goblins, beasties, and overall badass film lovers. It’s that lovely reflective time as we begin anew. Why not take a look at my favorite ten horror films of 2021? And maybe touch on some others. Who said there were no good horrors this year? (Yes, I have actually seen this floating around the interwebs). Strictly speaking, for the big names in horror that in the last decade have been vital to its resurgence, this wasn’t their year, but, indie horror, you made your mark.

I’ve always said that one of the things I love about genre films is the ability to transcend the usual “off” or “odd factor” and curate something specifically unique. Horror touches on fears and human emotions, and it can be rewarding and still, cut deep. I’ve always admired the part of horror that strives to say something true and personal. For that point, I want to highlight that two of my favorites of the year are not, by any means, what you’d consider obvious horrors. There’s a lot embedded within them, from loss to yearning, and how we find love and ourselves, in the strangest of ways, and of course, some dark imagery and violence.

source: Neon

1.) Titane (Julia Ducournau)

My first two choices required their own more in-depth write up here because I loved them. Titane was one that has stuck with me every moment since I saw it, often recalling the emotions and the odd and unexpected heartstrings that it pulled on. Yes, she kills people with a hairpin and has an “appreciation” for fine vehicles, but there’s also something lurking beneath that encompasses most of the movie, whose search makes this genre-blasted, unique and provocative follow up by Julia Ducournau a masterclass in the unexpected. It’s as brutal at times as Raw, and it will undoubtedly lose some of its viewers, but I was enchanted throughout. Both top performances by Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon. A haywire but intimate tale, that is one of the year’s best if not the best horror. Kudos to the scene, for horror-loving-sake, where she keeps having to hairpin new inhabitants she was unaware of. Whoops! Know your surroundings!

Available on VOD

source: A24

2.) Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson)

Lamb was another that truly struck me as soon as I saw it. As a feature directorial debut, it’s such a curious thing when one decides to make a film such as this. I don’t want to give away all of the details that make this strange movie tick, but I’ll say that it’s ultimately visually beautiful (and disturbing) at times, with part-folk-lore, part dramatic resonance as a couple deals with the effects of grief and a second chance, albeit in the oddest of circumstances. Noomi Rapace is terrific, and Lamb is a must-see.

Available on VOD

source: A24

3.) Saint Maud (Rose Glass)

Another truly impressive feature debut by Rose Glass, Saint Maud is a chilling psychological horror, one that (literally) twists and turns as our lead, Maud (Morfydd Clark) ventures deeper into herself and into madness. Mental health, obsession: Saint Maud is a bleak, slow burn, yet confident debut that will stun. The whole film has a buildup of tense, discomforting proportions with an uncertainty as to how it’ll eventually explode. Well, the ending certainly does, and it was one of the most shocking and searing images left with me this last year. Don’t sleep on this one! Let’s be honest – you wouldn’t be able to anyway after this.

Available on Hulu

source: Arrow Video

4.) The Stylist (Jill Gevargizian)

The Stylist is yet, another, feature directorial debut, by Jill Gevargizian. During the day she’s a hairstylist, and a damn good one, but at night she gives into her other predilections, which include, well, – killing. Where she also excels. This female-driven serial killer story is heavy on the style but also with an emphasis on heart, even when our lead is committing the most heinous of acts we can’t help but feel for her. Or maybe that’s me, but either way, excellently conveyed, unhinged performance by Najarra Townsend. Check it out!

Available on Shudder

source: Dark Sky Films

5.) My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To (Jonathan Cuartas)

As with many of my other choices, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, is a film that resides in horror but feeds on drama, in this case specifically, it is familial relationships and the pressures that come from being responsible for a member of the family, and your willingness to do anything for their survival. In his first directorial feature debut, Jonathan Cuartas creates a compelling portrayal of the lengths siblings will go for their own, even when it means… killing and retaining blood to keep their youngest brother alive. A stimulating design that leans on the performances of its leads, and a genuine nurturing of its central thesis. You’ll undoubtedly ruminate on it for a while.

Available on VOD

source: Vertigo Releasing

6.) Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond)

After missing this during its Sundance stretch I was quite excited to discover the throwback dizzying debut of Prano Bailey-Bond. Am I catching a theme here that I didn’t intend with first time efforts? Why yes I am! And I love it.

Censor is a film that took a few days of sitting on to know how I felt about it (not unlike some of the others; Lamb for one) where it kind of hit me like bricks all at once, but yet it was something I was also appreciative and engaged with as it went on. Visually, I really adored the aesthetic quality, it was unlike many horrors that I had seen. While some of the narrative elements became mixed in the middle, I was still fond of Censor. Quite the clever debut.

Available on Hulu

source: IFC Films

7.) Werewolves Within (Josh Ruben)

My first (and only) horror-comedy of the batch (well – an entirely intended one) Werewolves Within might be the best video-game adaptation we have seen yet. While I am still hoping others will prove more impressive in that realm, this is a light-hearted, fun-loving jaunt that doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. It does what is intended while still keeping the lycanthropy love alive. A bit silly, but a delightful Sam Richardson keeps it afloat.

Also, see Eight for Silver if you’re in for some more wolfy delights of 2021.

Available on VOD

source: Netflix

8.) Oxygen (Alexandre Aja)

Criminally underseen on Netflix during a time where the streaming service should have leaned on gems like this, Oxygen is basically an hour and forty-one minute depiction of Mélanie Laurent in psychological agony as she wrestles with a variety of fear-inducing moments of confusion, terror, perseverance, and eventually, acceptance. As the main focal point of the film, she’s truly amazing, and this movie made me squirm and breathe heavily in tandem, which proves that a one-scene, pandemic-timely thriller, can do its work. Some issues may arrive storytelling-wise, but overall it’s an exercise in containment and distress.

source: IFC Films

9.) We Need to Do Something (Sean King O’Grady)

I’m not sure if it is because this is an indie or just slid under the radar, but We Need to Do Something definitely stuck with me after viewing. As primarily a documentary director it was intriguing to see Sean King O’Grady venture not only into fictional storytelling, but head-on genre-infused craziness, that includes a one-room set of four family members stuck in a bathroom during a storm. Their frustrations, exhaustion and eventual terror win out in the end, but the ticking of the clock as you wonder what exactly is happening is quite interesting. Filing in at an hour and 37 minutes, it’s a lean game too. You might not have your answers in the end (which may be to the dislike of some) you’ll ve curious with your questions, I assure.

source: Warner Medi

10.) Malignant (James Wan)

This is another that you’ll find a full review on here, and while Malignant caught me off guard (seriously, even if you are unsure, finish this puppy) its audaciousness had me unexpectedly, wonderfully confused, nearly jaw-droppingly so, as I laughed, and jumped up wondering what had just happened. In a lot of ways, James Wan really settles for shock more than endurance, but it’s still one worthy of a nod from this last year. I know you’re curious now ;).

Available on HBO Max

Also worthy…

Honorable Mentions: The Night House, Saloum, Fear Street: 1978, Antlers, Last Night in Soho, Hellbender, What Josiah Saw, In the Earth, You’re Not My Mother, Lucky

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the most memorable TV Shows/Miniseries in the last year for me. There’s the shock and awe, thrilling dramatic: Squid Game (Netflix), the sermon/invocation of Salem’s Lot small town misdirection Midnight Mass (Netflix), the was a lot more fun than it ought to be Chucky (syfy network), The revamped, newly inviting Dexter: New Blood (Showtime), the lord of the flies meets delightful female teenage angst (meets supernatural etc.) in Yellowjackets (Showtime) and finally, King’s it isn’t really horror but you are expecting it yet this is a romance – Lisey’s Story (Apple tv).

source: Showtime

Happy Watching! May 2022 delight and frighten you! (In a healthy, responsible way).

Spooktober Day 27: The Haunting of Bly Manor

For most of us cinephiles, we remember the first time we saw a movie, whether it be in the theater, or at home. If the film shakes you, positively or negatively, there’s a residue left that seeps into your memory and makes it challenging to let go. Well, I don’t want to- so I’m going to highlight some Kristy horror history for this wonderful, special, month of October.

Disclaimer: These are late, but still necessary, because it’s important to highlight horror:

When I first saw Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House I immediately fell in love. In my rewatches, including a lovely recent one, that affinity has remained.

While it is tempting to draw comparisons, The Haunting of Bly Manor shouldn’t be. If you are watching this with expectations in mind, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. I’d give the advice that this should be consumed, as much as you can, without Hill House on the brain. If you are able to do so, you will find that this is more of a gothic love story than it is a horror, that’s more heart over scares, with plenty to appreciate in the details.

source: Netflix

This 9 episode series follows Dani (Victoria Pedretti)- yes, many familiar faces- becoming au pair to young orphaned Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith). With quite the nefarious history, and the kids acting a bit off… it doesn’t take long for Dani to feel like something might be odd at Bly Manor, even as she seeks to escape her past, herself. There’s a lot of supporting characters, each with their own backgrounds and intertwining relationships. In many ways, this series is about the dynamics between people. The very human, flawed, and sometimes- unexpectedly lovely- matchings in life.

I can definitely see this being not everyone’s cup of “tea.” For more than one reason. Especially if you go into this thinking you’ll be delighted by the likes of ghosts galore. This is a much subtler take, and there’s more purpose in the “hauntings” than in the predecessor. It takes its time, languishes in making you wonder what’s happening. Plus creepy and cute kids! These child actors do such a terrific job, it reminds you how important it is to cast well in a genre like this, if they didn’t sell it- we’d be lost.

Perfectly Splendid

Are there issues? Absolutely. Some narrative areas are delved into that aren’t necessary, as well as some poor British accents, but for the most part, I can shrug those off. What’s more important to me was what it imparted, and how I felt as I let it slowly, leave me. The finale was quite beautiful, and it had me choked up. Even now, when I hear the Sheryl Crow song at the end, it makes my heart and stomach do a somber dance. There’s a lot to love in Bly Manor, and I think the most important takeaway is exactly that, the moments to appreciate, (much like life). I’d like to think as we leave existence, we don’t linger on the sadness.

Wow, I’m waning poetic. What’s happening? This is spooktober!

source: Netflix

There’s nothing conventional about this ghost story. It’s a haunting, of another type, of the sort that lingers on forever, the most potent of sources: love. As someone in the series so poignantly says, this “isn’t a ghost story, but a love story.” Indeed. The two very well may shake hands. This isn’t a frightening series, not in the usual sense, but there’s still the seed of loss, much like the first series, but experienced in a very different way. While it has its problems, I admire the choice. I feel like it breathed purpose into a dusty corner of horror, that very rarely sees the light of day. In some ways, it reminds me of why I love this genre. Some of it might be dirty, it may not be flawless (what is?) but there’s so much to explore.

I went through phases of uncertainty, rode waves of emotions and disappointments with this series, but ultimately, by its end, I felt haunted, in a way I didn’t expect. A unique, imperfect look at life, death and love, The Haunting of Bly Manor is another strong entry from Mike Flanagan.

Spooktober Day 25: A Dose of The Twilight Zone

For most of us cinephiles, we remember the first time we saw a movie, whether it be in the theater, or at home. If the film shakes you, positively or negatively, there’s a residue left that seeps into your memory and makes it challenging to let go. Well, I don’t want to- so I’m going to highlight some Kristy horror history for this wonderful, special, month of October.

Okay, so this isn’t film, it’s TV, but it’s damn good TV. Especially when it comes to early inspirations for horror. The Twilight Zone had some of the most creative uses of the genre that I had seen. It was intelligent, innovative, and damn creepy. Growing up, my family had the ritual of watching marathons that aired on the sci-fi channel on New Year and the 4th of July. No matter how many times I’ve seen these, they never lose their appeal, and often, as I get older, I find even more to appreciate. If my roots are horror, The Twilight Zone was a very influential seedling.

I was flying recently, looking out on the wing from my window, and like I have every time I’ve been in this position, a tiny part expects some beast to make an appearance. Am I disappointed when there isn’t? Perhaps.

There are so many that I can’t possibly begin to concentrate on them all, and while they aren’t all as good (how can there be when there are so many) it’s clear from any viewing how much of a genius Rod Serling and the creatives were, so here are just some of the ones that left the biggest impact. This was a show, that -for its time- pushed the envelope, questioned things many often ignored, and peered into the great expanse of fearful possibilities. It stared into the abyss, it got weird, and thus, has left quite the impression on us all.

I believe that when it comes to The Twilight Zone one should go in without knowing very much, so I’m going to leave this list as a jump start to your Zone-time, and hopefully, you’ll be creepily delighted, as you experience something integral to my weirdness.

A Stop at Willoughby” (Season 1, Episode 30)

“The After Hours” (Season 1, Episode 34)

“The Howling Man” (Season 2 Episode 5)

“Eye of the Beholder” (Season 2, Episode 6)

“Nick of Time” (Season 2, Episode 7)

It’s a Good Life” (Season 3, Episode 8)

The Dummy” (Season 3, Episode 33)

Stopover in a Quiet Town” (Season 5, Episode 30)

Do you have any favorites yourself? I’d love to know!