[Review] THE FOREVER PURGE (2021)

@craiggors

All empires end, even The Purge. As one of the most financially reliable horror franchises of the last decade, writer James DeMonaco’s The Purge series has spawned five films and a two-season television show that have dominated political horror discussions among genre enthusiasts. The topical themes of the films–race, class, a divided America plagued by prejudice and violence–make this the most overtly political franchise in horror, but the series has often been accused of being too heavy-handed in its critique of American patriotism. The Forever Purge, the supposed final entry in the saga, is not a subtle film by any means, but its pointed observations on the state of our nation still ring frighteningly true.

Eight years after the Purge was stopped at the end of The Purge: Election Year (2016), the New Founding Fathers have resumed office and immediately reinstated Purge Night, their annual “holiday” wherein all crime, including murder, is legal for twelve hours. The reinstitution of the Purge comes in the wake of a national crisis surrounding immigration, as depicted in the opening sequence where married couple Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta) pay a coyote to smuggle them across the border from Mexico to Texas. Ten months later, on the eve of the first new Purge, Juan and his friend T.T. (Alejandro Edda) are working as ranch hands for the wealthy Caleb Tucker (Will Patton) and his son Dylan (Josh Lucas). There is tension between Dylan and Juan, as the former is wary of Mexican laborers, a prejudice not shared by his pregnant wife Cassie (Cassidy Freeman) or his cowgirl sister Harper (Leven Rambin). Nevertheless, everyone involved despises the Purge and is able to survive the night unharmed. But the Purge is not over. After the siren signaling the end of the Purge, an armed group of “Ever After Purgers” attack the ranch, sending our core characters fleeing, only for them to realize that nowhere is safe. The Forever Purge has begun and anyone deemed to be “un-American” isn’t safe.

What’s more American than bondage, amirite?

What follows in writer DeMonaco and director Everardo Valerio Gout’s film is an interesting twist on the basic plotline of all the prior films. Whereas our heroes in the prior Purge movies had to survive the night, now they must survive after the night. 7 a.m. cannot save them. It’s an intriguing flip and one that the series has been building to for some time: what happens when enough people take the Purge too far? A background subplot makes it clear that The New Founding Fathers have lit a fire that not even they can control, calling to mind the January 6 insurrectionists indirectly empowered to attempt their coup thanks to hateful rhetoric spewed from official political channels. It’s all the more prescient when one considers this movie was filmed before the events at the Capitol.

Like its predecessors, The Forever Purge is not a nuanced film by any means, and it paints in broad strokes for both narrative and character. Juan and Dylan are archetypes that must not only overcome the external threat of the Forever Purge to survive, but their own internal biases towards one another in order to work together. While there are touches of who these characters are as people, there’s never enough to justify our investment in them as the viewer. Instead, we are left uninterested in their relationship and its symbolic undertones and instead focused on Adela, easily the most interesting character with the most intriguing background. de la Reguera steals every scene she’s in, a charismatic and talented performer acting as the emotional anchor of the film, but not given nearly enough to do on screen.

Do you think we can Ubereats tonight?

That said, there’s still a lot to like about The Forever Purge. Cinematographer Luis David Sansans shoots and frames the Texas countryside beautifully, almost making the film feel like a traditional Western. There’s also a great long-take that follows the characters as they move through the war torn streets of El Paso seeking shelter before their final push to flee to Mexico, a clever if on-the-nose inversion of current global affairs. As always, there are some hella creepy masks, though for the most part the true terror of this film is the bland, mask-less Ever After Purgers and the very idea that this horrific night has now escaped beyond its bounds.

Honestly, I’m impressed that a franchise can produce a film this serviceable for its fifth entry, and if this truly is the end of the Purge story as we know it, I think it’s a fine conclusion. The film closes on a note that doesn’t shy away from how dire things have gotten for the United States, but that also doesn’t completely doom the country entirely. Hope remains. The battle to keep hate at bay and challenge systemic wrongs is neither easy nor clear at times. As Chiago (Gregory Zaragoza), the indigenous coyote guiding our heroes to safety in Mexico, says, this fight is forever.

The Forever Purge

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy

3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (2021)

@craiggors

There’s no doubt that James Wan’s 2013 haunted house/possession chiller The Conjuring is one of the most important horror films in the last decade, and certainly a key moment in the history of the genre as a whole. Its 2016 sequel, The Conjuring 2, also directed by Wan, is a masterclass in how to follow-up a lauded frightfest with an equally terrifying outing. While the other films in the so-called Conjuring Universe have their own charms and quirks, none have quite matched the brilliance of their namesake films. As such, there was a lot for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the first film in the main franchise without Wan at the reins, to live up to; and while it’s a serviceable enough film, Wan’s absence is noticeable and rather than a horror hat trick, we’re left with a bit of a turkey.

Based on the real life murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, Devil once again reunites us with demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren as they exorcise a vicious demon from eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) in the summer of 1981. During the chaos of the rite, Ed notices the demon switch hosts to David’s sister’s (Sarah Catherine Hook) boyfriend, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), but before he can warn anyone he has a heart attack. By the time he wakes in the hospital, Arne has murdered his landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins). The Warrens, feeling responsible, take on the monumental task of attempting to prove to the court that demonic possession is real and that Arne was not responsible for the killing. Their quest for evidence will lead them back into a dangerous world of witches, curses, and twisted supernatural entities.

There was a lot of speculation during production that the film would feature heavy courtroom scenes interlaced with horror, much like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), but screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and director Michael Chaves largely eschew the legal angle in favor of the “psychic medium aiding cops” trope as Ed and Lorraine use their gifts and expertise to uncover that there is a curse at work here, a curse placed by a witch that must be found and stopped before it can be completed. It’s all very Satanic Panic, which would have exploded onto the public consciousness a year prior, so in that sense it feels historically appropriate, and witchcraft/deals with the devil were a plot point in the original film so its not entirely uncharted territory for the Conjuring Universe, but does lend to this film feeling very different from its predecessors in more ways than one.

As in the first two films, Devil opens with the Warrens in the midst of a case, the exorcism of David Glatzel. Unlike those cases from the earlier movies, however (Annabelle and the Amityville Horror), the Glatzel case is the throughline of the film, as its characters (human and demonic) stick with us throughout the story, the curse transferring from David to Arne and setting in motion the main plot of the film. There’s some really effective, frightening moments during the opening, but it almost feels like the film throwing its best stuff out first to hook the audience, as the rest of the scares are somewhat tame compared to what we see in the first ten minutes. Beginning the story at the climax of Glatzel possession also renders the audience unable to know the characters outside of their demon-harangued lives. What were they like before this dark thing descended onto their lives? Were they quick to accept that something otherworld was tormenting them? We don’t know, because the characters are already so attuned to the mechanics of possession, so when it emerges that Arne is now host to the malevolent spirit, the fear of his loved ones is too familiar. They’ve been there, they know what to expect. We don’t see dawning terror overtake them, and as such, its hard to relate and or fear with them.

This lack of emotional investment is meant to be picked up by the Warrens, who become the central focus for the first time in the franchise. While Ed and Lorraine were always the charm and heart of the first two Conjuring films, their story was second to the respective haunting/possession. In this third film, they are the driving force, with Arne’s story meant to provide jump scares here and there to break up the Warrens’ investigation. Luckily, Wilson and Farmiga once more bring their A game and it’s thanks to their stellar chemistry that the film stays afloat amidst its weaker story moments. O’Connor (The Spanish Princess, Handsome Devil) is also great, conveying the immense psychological burden Arne carries as he wrestles with the dark force inside of him, and Hilliard (The Haunting of Hill House, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) once more shines as an adorable little boy beset by paranormal predators.

As for those evil forces, they’re largely forgettable, and don’t deliver that thick sense of dread so memorable from the first two Conjuring films. The Devil Made Me Do It has no clapping game or Valak painting to hang its hat on as its “Iconic Scare.” The waterbed scene so heavily featured in promotional materials is decent, but the overexposure eliminates any sense of suspense or surprise. The continuous story also means there’s no secondary demonic figure lurking about, a la Annabelle or the Crooked Man. The human nature of the villain isn’t a bad route to take, as a Satanic witch is always inherently scary, but she’s not all that difficult to take down in the end, nor does she leave much of an impression. You’re more likely to remember the plethora of homages to past horror films that Chaves inserts far too often, The Exorcist and The Shining being the most noticeable. It’s fine to borrow imagery and pay tribute, but if what sticks in your audiences mind the most from your film are nods to other, better movies…that’s a problem.

Chaves was faced with a difficult task, and should be applauded for stepping into Wan’s shoes to follow-up two of the most well-received horror films in recent years. He’s a fine director, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It isn’t bad by any means. There are solid performances, some great shots, and a decent score from series veteran Joseph Bishara. Put in context with the other spin-offs in the Conjuring Universe, it’s a respectable middle of the pack entry, but it’s nowhere near the edge-of-your-seat nightmare machines that Wan directed. Terrible? No. Average? Frustratingly so. It’s certainly not a death-knell for the franchise, but you do have to wonder if it’s worth further films if this is what they’ll look like. I guess when the devil makes you do something, it should be no surprise if it ends up damned.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] A QUIET PLACE PART II (2021)

@craiggors

Last year, the world went quiet. A strange menace we had to learn about as we fought it took hold of the globe and forced us all to question what was truly worth living for. It’s fitting then that one of the first movies to screen exclusively in newly reopened theaters is A Quiet Place Part II, which explore both the origins and aftermath of the events in the original film. It’s a film that was one of the first to be delayed last year and hits all the more harder now that we have some context as to what it means when a foreign entity forces you to retreat to your home and stay there in order to survive.

Written and directed by John Krasinski, who also helmed and starred in the first installment, Part II opens on the day that the sound-sensitive creatures were first unleashed upon the world, presumably from a flaming mass of space debris that collides with Earth. After we see the initial moments of the invasion, the film jumps ahead to pick up immediately after the end of the first film. With Lee (Krasinski) dead and their home destroyed, the remaining Abbotts flee their broken homestead in the hopes of finding shelter with other survivors. Mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is grief-stricken and exhausted, fearful for her newborn baby’s survival as well as her deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and traumatized son Marcus (Noah Jupe). When they stumble upon family friend Emmett (Cillian Murphy), someone they knew in the “before times,” the Abbotts learn that there may be a haven for what remains of humanity nearby, but with the monsters still ravaging anything that makes even the slightest noise, it will be almost impossible to get there…

Into the uknownnnnn

With A Quiet Place (2018), Krasinski proved himself a master of tension, and he reminds just how good he is at threading that needle in the film’s prologue, a deliciously nail-biting sequence that sees Lee going about town in what we know will be the last few normal moments of his, and the world’s, existence. Krasinski knows just what to do in order to make the audience almost sick with anticipation and then masterfully, when the invasion finally begins, shifts into a different kind of tension as all hell breaks loose and society as we know it crumbles. It’s tight, focused, directing and an excellent exercise in how to induce terror, establish pace, and set tone within the first few minutes of a film. It’s all the more palpable given how quickly we saw the real world shut down in the wake of real world emergency last spring.

That thrilling yet awful sense of dread continues throughout the film, proving both Krasinski’s growth as a director and knowledge of the genre. For a big studio film, there’s a number of unexpected scares that will catch even the most hardened horror fans out, myself included. Damn, there’s nothing like that feeling when you realize you can still be surprised, still jump in your seat, and still involuntarily suck in your breath out of fear. This is edge-of-your-seat film-making at its finest.

Daddy Murphy over here

Blunt once again delivers a performance of grace and strength in the face of unimaginable tragedy, this time with a subdued sense of desperation at how dire the circumstances have gotten. Murphy is a fantastic addition, playing vulnerable and defeated in deft equal measure. He’s particularly good in his scenes with Simmonds, who is once again the standout performer for her captivating portrayal of Regan. She is the heart of the film, much as she was in the first entry, and that essential emotional core never gets lost amidst the carnage and drama. If A Quiet Place was essentially about grief and wounds that refuse to heal, Part II is about facing that trauma head on and learning to move on and live with hurt in a world that will never be the same again.

Perhaps the one foible I had with the film was that this movement, both physical and psychological, feels a bit forced at times. The story forces the characters into consistent trouble in a way that feels heavy-handed at times. I’m also not a fan of when characters are split up in order to increase tension, though I understand this is often necessary in order to move a narrative into its conclusion. At least when the characters do split here, everyone’s motivation makes sense, even if the choices they make don’t always add up. This is probably the most predictable part of the film overall, though in retrospect there’s not much new added to this world that we couldn’t have already assumed from the first film. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a Part III in a few years, especially given the somewhat banal ending.

I don’t think that’s a log…or a fish…

So while it doesn’t break explosive new ground in the genre or reinvent the wheel, A Quiet Place Part II does everything it’s supposed to do, and it does it right. It’s an excellent reminder of just how fun it is to be scared in a big, dark room with strangers and the joy of communal movie-going. If you haven’t been back to a theater yet and want something that will keep you engaged and alert throughout, look no further than this film. Just make sure you keep all those screams locked in your throat…you never know what might hear you…

A Quiet Place Part II

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy

3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021)

@craiggors

I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but like any conscious American I know that it’s a city with a reputation for being both a glittery, glitzy haven of overindulgence and pleasure-seeking and a sleezy, scuzzy monument to mindlessness and braindead, gluttonous consumerism. Zack Snyder‘s Army of the Dead takes that braindead moniker quite literally, producing an epic zombie film that bites off a bit more than it can chew while still being an enjoyable enough ride through post-apocalyptic desert mayhem.

Co-written by Snyder (Justice League, Dawn of the Dead ’04), Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3), and Joby Harold (Awake), and directed by Snyder, Army of the Dead explores what happens when an undead infection takes hold over Las Vegas and decimates those that live there. After a rapid spread, the City of Sin is quarantined to prevent further contamination. Cutting their losses, the U.S. government prepares to annihilate the city and its entire walking dead population with a nuclear bomb set to drop on the Fourth of July. Thirty-six hours before detonation, casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuka Sanada) recruits ex-mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a ragtag team of misfits to infiltrate the barricaded city and retrieve five hundred million dollars from the vault in Tanaka’s casino. Tempted by the thrill of one last job, Ward and his rough-and-tough cronies drop into Vegas, unaware of the true danger that lies ahead of them…

Heat stroke, obviously

Snyder, who directed the well-received remake of Dawn of the Dead, is no stranger to both zombie movies and big, flashy, look-at-this-cool-shit films, so you’d think this would make for a pleasing combo, but the magic of his earlier entry into the genre is missing here, and though the colors and the gore pop, the rest of the movie is dull and uninspired.

It’s a shame, as the movie starts strong with a gorgeous opening sequence depicting how the outbreak happens (road head is involved, so it’s automatically an A+ origin story) that segues into a credit sequence montage of Vegas getting overrun and falling into glorious zombie chaos. Oh and there’s zombie strippers in the montage at one point because Vegas. Also because Zack Snyder. I don’t know, it works. It’s a high energy, balls-to-the-walls type of opening, and it sets the stage for what should be a thrilling heist story set against the brain-eating background but instead becomes a string of quasi-decent action sequences broken up by scenes full of halfhearted dialogue exchanged between uninteresting cardboard characters.

Honestly the money has more personality than like six of these characters

Arguably, Snyder has always been a director that favors style over substance, and that’s certainly the case with this film. The neon-infused aesthetics of the posters and promo materials carries over into the film, but isn’t pushed nearly as much as it could have been. In that same vein, there’s a few choice set pieces, but the desolated Vegas wasteland remains underused. We see almost nothing of the plethora of iconic Vegas landmarks and locations, the film containing itself to bland hallways and unremarkable hotel lobbies. It’s an odd production decision, especially because when we do get the occasional well-crafted set, often between action sequences.

As to the action, there’s certainly some blood-pumping chases, fights, and explosions. Snyder has always been adept at delivering on Big Movie Action. The trouble here is there’s too much downtime between each throwdown. The film pushes 160 minutes and its characters just aren’t interesting enough to justify that runtime. The “getting the band back together” sequence takes almost an hour, and by the time they’re finally equipped and ready, you’ve forgotten half their names. Tig Notaro’s helicopter pilot Peters and Matthias Schweighofer’s safecracker Dieter do stand out, but as is the running theme of this film, they’re underused.

Break me open, Daddy

No one seems to know quite what to do with the zombie genre these days, and I do applaud the film for experimenting with some different narrative approaches, namely the idea that some of the undead are intelligent and that the Alphas like Zeus (Richard Cetrone) can somehow “make” other smart zombies who are capable of communication and strategic thinking. As many horror fans know, grandfather of the modern zombie George Romero originally intended to have semi-intelligent zombies wielding weapons in Day of the Dead (1985) and the fast-moving, quick-thinking zombies of Snyder’s film feel like a fruition of that discarded story idea.

All in all, Army of the Dead delivers enough hyper-stylized action, gore, and grit to please the average zombie lover. It’s overlong and carries no emotional weight, but it’s entertaining enough if you’re having a lazy afternoon that could use a shot or two of undead adrenaline. While the overall gamble doesn’t pay off, there’s not a whole lot to lose, so you might as well play.

Army of the Dead

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW (2021)

@craiggors

Where do you go with the ninth entry in a franchise? Change directions? Stay the course? Perhaps a little of both? It’s a question that’s plagued the Saw franchise before, when the series took a hiatus after the dismal reception of Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) and again after the lukewarm Jigsaw (2017). The series has never been shy about evolving its storyline and taking the narrative down new paths, but Spiral: From the Book of Saw may be the biggest departure yet, while also borrowing the most from the original 2004 film that started it all.

Twelve years after turning in a crooked cop, detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) is a pariah at his precinct. Hounded for being a rat, a snitch, and a traitor, Zeke has hardened into a lone-ranger-type trying to get out from under the shadow of his hero dad, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), the former police chief. When he’s paired up with eager rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke expects to wear him down with the drudgeries of being a homicide detective. But then the mutilated body of a Jigsaw copycat victim is discovered–a fellow detective–and it becomes a race against time to stop a psychopath using John Kramer’s legacy to target cops and wipe out corruption in law enforcement.

Oraetta, is that you?

Directed by franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III, & IV) and written by Josh Stolberg & Peter Goldfinger (Jigsaw), Spiral starts strong then gets tangled up in its own web during the third act. As per tradition, the film opens with a gruesome, bloody kill in one of the most squirm-in-your-seat traps of the franchise. It’s a great setpiece, but it’s not quite classic Jigsaw. Then again, it’s made clear from this prologue that we’re not dealing with Jigsaw as we know him anymore. Despite executing games from beyond the grave for four or five films, John Kramer is well and truly gone in this film and what we’re dealing with now is a certified copycat. Unfortunately, this means that the gravelly, chill-inducing voice of Tobin Bell is gone as well, replaced with a warped, high-pitched warble that’s anything but intimidating. Also nowhere to be found? Billy, the iconic rosy-cheeked puppet. In his place is a pig puppet that, while creepy, isn’t nearly as unique as little Bill on his trike.

These changes take some getting used to, but they’re not detrimental to the film as a whole. The pig puppet becomes a symbol of the film’s primary theme: corrupt cops. Law enforcement has always been central to the through-line of the Saw series, but Spiral truly puts “the force” under the microscope, and the blade, for the first time. Dirty cops get their comeuppance in this film, a wish fulfillment for so many in our society fed up with the abuse of police power and subsequent lack of consequences. It’s not a subtle critique by any means, but nuance isn’t exactly what we sign up for with these movies anyway, right?

Congratulations trainer! Jigsaw has awarded you the PIGGY BADGE!

Narratively, Spiral eschews the standard formula of a main game A plot alongside an investigative B plot and instead has the traps play out in “real time” as cops disappear and are tested one by one, the killer taunting Zeke all the while. It’s an odd choice, giving the film the feel of a standard police procedural as opposed to the gritty, grimy cat-and-mouse chase of the original film, which it’s clear the filmmakers were trying to emulate here. Zeke and William also don’t do a lot of actual investigating. It’s mostly waiting around for the next detective to disappear and creepy package to show up at the station leading to the next murder site. When the traps do appear, they deliver on gore, as a good Saw trap should, but not as much on tension. They don’t quite feel like “games” even if they are some of the more memorable torture scenes in the franchise (one in particular will have you curling your fingers in phantom pain).

Happily, Rock is a standout and carries the film through its foibles. He expertly flips between biting, comedic monologues and weary, rage-fueled outbursts. His best scenes are with Jackson, who is severely underused, unfortunately, and there’s a great dynamic there between the respected hero chief and his estrange son, forever an outsider for doing the right thing. Both men believe in justice, both men know the system is failing, but tension arises over their perspectives on how to fix that failing and wipe away the grime, symbolized by the film’s nauseous yellow and green hues, a return to the color schemes and dirty, sweaty looks of the original films.

Surprise, motherfucker

Spiral certainly gets points for attempting to resurrect the mystery components of Saw and for cracking open an entirely new storyline, but it plays it safe just as it should go big, and any Saw fan worth their salt can spot the twist from a mile away. Taking into account the missing iconography and uneven pacing, the film fails to make an impression. Were it not “from the Book of Saw” it may have been a better film, but as is stands it’s just missing too much to be a solid Saw film. There’s some hard and fast rules to this franchise, and if Jigsaw’s taught us anything, it’s that the rules should never be broken.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

Top 20 of ’20 – Miss Mel

@melmoy

Read on for Miss Mel’s favorite 20 films of 2020, and here to take a look at Mr. Craiggors’.

Don’t forget to share your top films of the year with us in the comments, or on Twitter! Lots of overlap? Things we missed? Let’s chat!

20. Underwater

A group of researchers in the Mariana Trench are hunted by an unknown creature. I love me some alien creature feature even if this was an average entry into the canon.

19. The Rental

A pair of couples rent a home for a few days and feel something is watching them. This was a pretty confused tone and genre and ultimately fell a little flat but was interesting along the way.

18. Amulet

A homeless veteran is welcomed into a decrepit mansion by a woman and her aging mother. This one gets wild and a little weird but was fun with a fair bit of lingering dread.

17. The Lodge

A woman becomes snowbound in a mountain lodge with her husband’s children. This is some good atmospheric horror with some great actors and I love some isolation horror.

16. Blood Quantum

A group of First Nations people are immune to a zombie apocalypse. I enjoyed the concept but ultimately I don’t think zombie films, even socially conscious zombie films, are really my thing.

15. The Babysitter: Killer Queen

Two years after the first movie, Cole goes on a weekend vacation where the bloodbath starts again. This was fan service and much less charming and surprising than the original but it was fun to be back.

14. The Dark and the Wicked

A pair of siblings visit their childhood home to visit their ailing father. This feels like a couple other films I’ve seen before but it was a genuinely creepy ride through domestic hauntings.

13. Black Box

A single dad undergoes an experimental cognitive treatment for memory loss and finds himself questioning his identity and reality. Flatliners meets Jacob’s Ladder meets Get Out that’s a bit overstuffed and emotionally confusing at times but its characters really bring home the humanity of a fantastical story.

12. Relic

A woman suffering from dementia is taken care of by her daughter and granddaughter. This functioned both as a spooky psych thriller and creepy house story as well as a tale of the existential dread we have of losing our parents and our own eventual deaths.

11. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

A woman on the brink of breaking up with her boyfriend goes on a road trip to meet his parents. This is trippy and confusing as shit but is engaging and entertaining and makes me wish I had read the book first to experience it fully.

10. Vampires vs. the Bronx

A group of teenagers must protect their Bronx neighborhood from a gang of vampires. I love teen stories and I love vampires. This was a fun comedy horror film with a bit of commentary on gentrification.

9. The Invisible Man

A woman believes she is being stalked by her abusive ex-boyfriend who faked his suicide. An uncomfortable ride through the horrors of an abusive and toxic relationship that does a great job updating its premise.

8. Impetigore

A pair of woman travel to a rural village where one of them may have a dark past. International films have been killing it this year. This is creepy, shocking and unique and who doesn’t love skin puppets?

7. His House

Sudanese refugees believe something may be lurking in their new home. I was excited for this since I first saw trailers for it. This was a great combination of haunted house horror and real life tragedy.

6. Color Out of Space

An asteroid disturbs an otherwise peaceful New England farm and brings with it an alien terror. This is a wild ride of a classic Lovecraft that manages to hit on all cylinders when it comes to psychological horror, body horror, and Annihilation levels of alien-based science fiction.

5. The Platform

 A man wakes up in a social experiment known as “the hole,” where food distribution is heavily stratified. This dystopian, social horror film feels like something out of a Saramago novel and is at times hard to watch for its gore and brutality but it makes interesting political statements–if confusing ones–and manages an incredibly depressing tone.

4. Possessor

A corporate assassin infiltrates bodies to carry out hits and finds herself in a combative host. This concept might have made for a C grade thriller film in other hands, but Cronenberg delivers a psychedelic trip through the psychology of the body, identity, and how they interact to rival the works of his father.

3. Sputnik

A cosmonaut, who returned from a mission with a alien parasite, is held prisoner by the Soviet military. This film doesn’t do anything new in the genre or make any larger social or historical statements about its Cold War setting, but it’s an incredibly entertaining sci-fi horror film with charismatic humans at its core.

2. La Llorona

A genocidal former dictator is haunted by the ghosts of the Ixil people he murdered while confined to his house. Foreign language films are the future of horror. While domestic art house horror tells gripping social stories, this film–reminiscent of Beloved in the best ways–uses the tension of human tragedy to propel its horror forward.

  1. Host

A group of friends host a seance over Zoom during the pandemic and things take a turn. This was a delightful little project that utilized its context without relying or milking it. It’s not unique in either plot or medium conceit, but it was incredibly fresh and effectively entertaining.

Top 20 of ’20 – Mr. Craiggors

@craiggors

No question that 2020 will be remembered as being absolutely horrifying. It deserves nothing less than an excruciating, fiery death while the rest of us dance on its corpse in post-traumatic delirium/glee/drunken abandon. But the year will also, hopefully, be remembered as being horror-ful.

Sure, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed a number of major studio sequels like Candyman, Halloween Kills, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, as well as bumping back a number of highly anticipated original fare such as Saint Maud, Antlers, Last Night in Soho, and Malignant; but horror as a genre was far from deterred. Debut directors dropped movies that blew our minds and broke our hearts, streaming services filled the theatrical release gap in spades, and film festivals opened their doors to at-home audiences in hitherto unknown fashion. The result was that, against all odds, 2020 was one of the strongest years for horror in recent memory.

As such, narrowing this year’s offerings down to a best-of list proved extra difficult for both myself and Miss Mel. As such, we’ve forgone the traditional top 10 in favor of a Top 20…each! I suppose we could have been more savage and cut the lower ten, but come on, hasn’t this year been brutal enough?

Read on for my Top 20 Horror Films of 2020, and find Miss Mel’s list here.

20. Spiral

A somewhat familiar narrative that’s well acted, nicely shot, and offers a satisfying conclusion for those who are patient with it, Spiral was a commendable treat. I also loved seeing a same-sex male couple as the central characters, and even though I wish Malik’s backstory had been more fleshed out, it still resonated with me.

19. Freaky

Fun and flighty with plenty of giggly moments and a few that actually made me guffaw, but not quite as much substance as in Christopher Landon’s other playful slasher send-up Happy Death Day. The “clam jam” line makes up for absolutely everything, though.

18. The Hunt

An ultra-violent satire with an over-the-top premise that puts an interesting twist on The Most Dangerous Game. By casting “redneck deplorables” fighting for their lives against vegan NPR neoliberals, the film challenges and holds a mirror to us-vs.-them mentality. Thought-provoking if not always profound, and Betty Gilpin is absolutely delicious in the lead.

17. VFW

A futuristic dystopian low-budget siege film that features Stephen Lang kicking ass in a neon-soaked, grindhouse hellscape all set to a score that would make Carpenter jealous. Come ON, in what world would I not love this?

16. The Cleansing Hour

A chilling update to the possession sub-genre that plays out on the set of a vlogger-exorcist’s fake YouTube show. Cynical, creative, and quite shocking at parts, plus the much underused Kyle Gallner make this a win for me.

15. The Mortuary Collection

2020 was the Year of the Horror Anthology. Two of the three major ones are on this list (Scare Package just missed the cut). The Mortuary Collection is a creepy, atmospheric, gory blast. I was completely in love with the production design, and I firmly believe Clancy Brown needs to play The Tall Man in a Phantasm reboot.

14. Sea Fever

Great films are often those that understand exactly what they are and don’t try to be anything more, they just focus at excelling as themselves. Sea Fever is one such film. It’s icky and disturbing and doesn’t hold back. Alien meets The Thing meets Cabin Fever set on an Irish trawler. I mean, YO!

13. The Wolf of Snow Hollow

A darkly amusing genre mashup exploring toxic masculinity, fatherhood, and internal demons. I’m an admitted sucker for werewolf stories and this movie reminds me why. There’s some great comedic and horror beats, and the camera work is bursting with style and personality. It’s no Thunder Road, but Jim Cummings proves he’s still one fearless fucking filmmaker.

12. The Lodge

Paralyzing, agonizing, and very mean-spirited yet full of gorgeous cinematography and outstanding performances. Probably the most nightmarish film of the year as you really, really, really don’t want to see what happens next, but you can’t find a way out. Also? Fuck dem kids.

11. La Llorona

A quiet and tantalizing film that has less to do with the Latin American legend of the Weeping Woman and more to do with the inherited cultural trauma of the Guatemalan Civil War, La Llorona has stuck in my mind for months, and will continue to do so for many more.

10. Gretel & Hansel

An impressive update of the age-old Grimm fairy tale. It’s moody and heavy and packed to the gills with dread. It’s also aesthetically stunning and gorgeous and one of my new favorite Films-That-Use-Color-Expertly. Patient, meditative, and rich from start to finish.

9. Hunter Hunter

On the surface, the film appears to be any other run-of-the-mill survival story of a scrappy family living in the remote wilderness facing a roaming wolf on their land. But slowly it becomes clear that this film is…so much more. Horrifying, gripping, and unforgettable. And that ending is BRUTAL.

8. Relic

Haunting and heart-wrenching, this very slow burn mounts to a truly terrifying third act. Dynamite performances from Emily Mortimer and Robyn Nevin elevate a metaphorical story that mediates on grief and parental loss. Debut director Natalie Erika James doesn’t hold back or hold hands, and I’m very curious to see what she does next.

7. Anything for Jackson

Has there ever been a more sympathetic or likable pair of villains than the elderly couple at the center of Anything for Jackson? The answer is no, so props must be given not only to Julian Richings and Sheila McCarthy but also director Justin G. Dyck for bringing to life one of the unnerving, dark, and strangely humorous films of the year.

6. His House

Another outstanding 2020 debut feature. Director Remi Weekes effortlessly blends existential terror with the supernatural to craft a new sort of haunted house film that sticks in the mind and soul thanks to twisty, striking visuals and bravura performances.

5. Scare Me

Delightful. So freaking delightful. Easily the film that most surprised me this year, and one that genuinely stands out in a crowd. It’s minimalism done to a T, relying on sound, dialogue, and performance to frighten and entertain–and it works! Cozy, witty, and razor-sharp on its dissection of writing culture, an A+ for debut director/writer/star Josh Ruben and co-star Aya Cash.

4. The Invisible Man

A relentlessly uncomfortable viewing experience in the best possible way, Leigh Whannell updates the time-tested tale into a suspenseful exploration of domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, and resilience. A gut-punch of a film that weaponizes space and pushes psychological terror to the max to profound effect.

3. Host

Unquestionably the hottest horror film of 2020, Host will also be a perfect time capsule of its time. Made entirely in quarantine, it’s a brief, nail-biting little film-that-could that had everyone, myself included, jumping at shadows and small noises in the night. Not only will this be the film we all remember as the pinnacle of what it meant to live the horror of 2020, but its techniques will be imitated by filmmakers for years to come.

2. The Dark and the Wicked

Easily the most terrifying film of the year. A perfectly executed masterpiece of insidious sound design, shadow play, and suffocating dread all wrapped around some supremely disturbing visuals. It’s incredibly bleak, a different yet equally unsettling sort of nihilism perfected in director Bryan Bertino’s earlier creep-fest The Strangers.

  1. Possessor

Mind-bending, unflinching, and bizarre. Brandon Cronenberg follows up Antiviral with a film that is both homage to his father’s work and a showcase of his own sensibilities as a filmmaker. Everything about the film is slick and sleek, from the gory violence to the glorious aesthetic to the spellbinding performances. Cerebral and evocative and stunning, it takes the top spot for me this year for how unique and (you guessed it) possessive the viewing experience was.

Well, that does it for 2020–a truly solid slate of horror. Here’s to keeping up the creep in 2021! See you there, Chatterers!

[Review] THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

@craiggors

As we all know, these days every half-decent movie studio is all but required to create a shared universe between films that are show even a modicum of success at the box office. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the pinnacle of this modern blending of franchises, but the idea isn’t limited to superhero films. Warner Bros. Conjuring Universe spans seven films with an eighth on the way this year and now foreseeable end in sight. In 2014, Universal Studios attempted to reboot their classic 1930’s monster movies with Dracula Untold. It was to be the beginning of wha they termed their Dark Universe, but the film bombed. They went back to the drawing board and tried again with The Mummy (2017), only to be met with more disappointment. Like in baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out with this kind of stuff, but with Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, it appears this game is still on.

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is trapped an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with husband Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a billionaire scientist specializing in optics. After executing a carefully plotted plan to escape his home, his grasp, and their marriage, Cecilia is free but traumatized. Living in hiding with cop friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), she’s always looking over her shoulder, waiting for Adrian to find her. The comes the news via Cecilia’s sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), that Adrian has committed suicide and that, per Adrian’s final wishes as explained by his brother/lawyer Tom (Michael Dorman), Cecilia is to inherit five million dollars on condition of her sanity. Slowly, Cecilia begins putting the pieces of her shattered life back together. But then strange things start happening around her, and Cecilia can’t shake the feeling that’s become so familiar to her over the last few years of her life: the feeling of being watched. It’s not long before Cecilia is convinced that Adrian isn’t gone, and that he’s closer to her now than ever before.

The Invisible Man, also written by Whannell (Saw, Insidious), is a tight, small-scale film that focuses on mood, tension, and atmosphere as opposed to the big budget foolery of The Mummy and Dracula Untold. Shifting the focus from the title character, as was the case in the original novel by H.G. Wells and the 1933 film, Whannell positions the viewer to experience the story from the point of view of the person being tormented. In this case, it is a timely commentary on patriarchal domination, abuse, and victim belief. The opening sequence, covering Cecilia’s masterful escape from Adrian, is a nail-biting introduction to this world, these characters, and this tense situation achieved with minimal dialogue and well-timed sound effects. This moment is a literal jailbreak for Cecilia–she’s disabling cameras, deactivating alarms, and scaling walls–and the audience every heart-pounding second of Cecilia’s desperate hope and escalating dread.

The timeliness of Whannell’s updated spin on the story makes The Invisible Man the perfect movie for our present culture, but what will make it stand firm amongst the upper tier of horror films is that it is, well, horrifying; it’s not just a movie ideally situated to remark upon the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, but a film that digs at the true horror of abusive relationships. Like many people, primarily women, who have been trapped in dangerous marriages, Cecilia struggles to get others to believe her plight. Having been so emotionally beat down by Adrian, her cries for help come off as exaggerated paranoia to those around her. Whannell even makes the brilliant choice to keep the audience dangling for a good while, refusing to confirm if Cecilia’s suspicions about Adrian are correct, forcing us to become doubters as well. After all, we see photos of the body. The police report. The news. How could Adrian still be alive?

Moss (Us, The Handmaid’s Tale) delivers one of her best performances, a battered and lonely woman with a burning will to survive. In her eyes alone, we can track Cecilia’s journey from primal fear to cautionary optimism to overwhelming joy to creeping doubt to sheer terror. It’s masterful work. The supporting cast also do an excellent job of crafting earnest, believable characters whose love for Cecilia feels genuine and wholesome, thus making it all the more devastating when Cecilia is blamed for the actions of the invisible being and starts to lose her circle of support. Like any abusive relationship, things start small–sheets tugged off the bed, food burnt on the stove–but then escalate, all with the goal of isolating the victim and making them feel crazy, alone, and dependent on the whims of another.

When the big hits do come, they come hard, and it’s impossible not to wrench at the unseen blows. Clever camerawork and dance-like choreography, combined with spine-crunching sounds, imbue these moments with a disgusting beauty impossible to turn away from. Several major touch points get spoiled in the trailer, but there are still enough hidden surprises to keep things spicy. There are a few plot points that require the audience to suspend their disbelief in a way that grazes incredulity, but it’s all in service of the story and it’s themes. With The Invisible Man, Whannell has updated the classic Universal monster to tell a frighteningly real tale that explores unseen trauma, twisted narrative, and the confrontation of past tragedies. It’s a reinvention worthy of establishing a cinematic universe, yet can easily stand alone as its own masterwork. In short, Chatterers, you’ve just got to see this one.

The Invisible Man

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

@craiggors

Don’t go into the woods. It’s a moniker so deeply imbedded in the human psyche it’s almost primordial. As Miss @melmoy has explained on the podcast, these words of caution harken back to a time when danger, specifically supernatural danger, was thought to be more prevalent the further one journeyed from the home, and this often manifested in journeys into the woods. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Dark canopies, flitting shapes, mysterious sights and sounds–who knows what hides behind the trees, under the rocks, in the underbrush? The forest as threat is an old storytelling element, often used as the setting for folk and fairy tales where strange, magical events took place. Almost every Brothers Grimm story involves the mysterious wood, and Hansel and Gretel is no exception. In Osgood Perkins‘s take on the German classic, the fairytale gets a vibrant update and the woods become more deliciously sinister than they’ve ever been before…

Sixteen year old Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is turned out of her mother’s home when she is unable to secure a job as housekeeper to a local creep. She takes her eight year old brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) with her, planning to fend for herself by finding other work or throwing themselves at the mercy of a nearby convent. After heading off into the woods and receiving some helpful advice from a kindly Hunter (Charles Babalola), the siblings find themselves drawn off the path to the home of an elderly woman named Holda (Alice Krige), whose table is full and whose beds are warm. But something is wrong in Holda’s house, and Gretel begins to suspect that these sweet gifts are not given freely.

It’s always tricky taking established stories, particularly fairy tales, and giving them a fresh spin, and there’s numerous methods employed to make them longer, more surprising, or more enticing for a modern audience. Rather than padding the Grimm story with additional fluff, Perkins (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) and co-screenwriter Rob Hayes keep the bones and add depth to the themes and character motives suggested by the original story. The result is a sleek 87-minute feature that tackles a well-trod tale through a contemporary lens that engages notions of female empowerment and the agency of children in a world where social constructs allow adults the unchecked ability to severely diminish that agency. Despite the brief, and appreciated, runtime, the film can feel a bit slow at times. It’s far from plodding, but Gretel & Hansel is nonetheless a restrained film that invites you to soak in the atmosphere being unspooled on screen.

And, to be fair, it is a sumptuous atmosphere. Gorgeous, lingering shots and gauzy reds and yellows make the film feel like some sort of cross between ghostly tableau and Argento dreampiece. Much credit is due to cinematographer Galo Olivares (Roma) and production designer Jeremy Reed (Hard Candy) for their seamless blending of beautifully unsettling camerawork and anachronistic sets to conjure sensations of unease and enchantment in the viewer, often within the same frame.

Lillis carries the film well, bringing equal parts warmth and weary determination to Gretel in a vein subtle though perhaps more subtle than her turn as Beverly Marsh in It (2017). Newcomer Leakey is a bit awkward with his delivery most times, but he and Perkins are careful never to let Hansel slip into the realm of supremely annoying child characters in horror, and for that I’m grateful. Krige delivers the most tasty performance as Holda, being fantastically creepy and hissing out the film’s best lines like some sort of bewitched serpent. Given that the film is rated PG-13 and is clearly meant to function as gateway/intermediate horror for a younger audience, it’s impossible to think that Krige’s Holda won’t leave a memorable impression on the minds of any youth in attendance.

While the ending might feel a bit rushed or anticlimactic for some, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of last weekend’s The Turning (2020), and it provides room for a satisfying denouement that should sweeten any bitterness left by the relatively mundane final confrontation. While it won’t be to everyone’s taste, Gretel & Hansel is doubtless a beautiful film with a striking mood that doles out its pleasurable imagery and wicked sense of framework slowly and effectively. Though it does not shatter expectations when it comes to fairytale horror, it more than meets them, offering up a buffet of mesmerizing cinematography and spellbinding colors. Come and feast.

Gretel & Hansel

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] THE TURNING (2020)

@craiggors

While I think the horror industry is slowly but surely re-marketing January releases from “dumping ground” to “decent films,” there’s still a long road ahead before that shift in public perception can take a justifiable hold, and The Turning (2020) is a certainly a stumbling block on the path of this noble quest. It’s a shame because the film keeps ahold of itself for the majority of its runtime and only truly drops the ball in the final act; but it’s a fumble so disastrous there’s absolutely no way to save the game afterwards.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) from a screenplay by Chad and Carey W. Hayes (The Conjuring, House of Wax) and based off the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), the film follows Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) as she accepts the post of live-in nanny to Miles (Finn Wolfhard) and Flora (Brooklyn Prince) Fairchild in their sprawling, palatial estate in upstate Maine. Kate is excited at the chance to help two orphaned youngsters flourish and grow despite their hardships, but she soon discovers that neither of the children is as innocent as they appear and that they, and their dark, foreboding home, are sheltering dark secrets.

Negative reception of the film aside, no one can fault the acting. Wolfhard is solid if a bit strange channeling his creepy, pervy side as Miles, and Prince is an energetic scene-stealer who can hold her own against Davis, who delivers a convincing, relatable performance of a woman with all the best intentions going up against a dangerous situation she can’t fully comprehend. Davis is one of those actresses who knows her craft and what she needs to do in order to amp up subpar material, yet still can’t seem to get a foothold in Hollywood proper. I fear this movie may not do her any favors, though from a technical standpoint it’s far from abysmal.

There’s some good work going on in The Turning outside of the performances, as well. Cinematographer David Ungaro frames some interesting, well-constructed shots throughout, and the production design of the house and the spirits make for some cool, spooky imagery. Sure the movie is chock full of tropes, and the majority of the scares are easy-to-predict jump ones, but at least it’s fun to look at. As others have pointed out, the true fault of the film is the screenplay, though I think it may be more accurate to pinpoint the ridiculous ending. It’s honestly not an awful film for the first two acts to the point where I caught myself in the theater wondering why the early reviews were so dismal and then the “ending” hit and I chided myself for being too trusting.

I use quotation marks not out of a sense of snobbish disdain, but because the closing moments of The Turning are some of the worst excuses for an ending I’ve ever seen. I can see what Sigismondi and the writers were going for–attempting to put a twist on the ambiguity so essential and infamous from James’s original novella–but they fail spectacularly. Instead, we’re left with an illogical and inane closing that feels like a poorly timed joke your least favorite uncle tells over Thanksgiving dinner. It’s so nonsensical and just plain dumb that it brings what would have otherwise been an average if watchable movie down into the depths of horror’s “worst of” category. The only thing I’ll give it is that it elicited physical reactions from almost everyone in my theater, though it was mainly groaning and exclamations of phrases one shouldn’t use in polite blogging.

The Turning is a movie with a good cast and a strong foundation ruined by an ending so baffling it leaves one irritated and wondering what could have been if original producer Steven Spielberg had stayed attached and brought forth a proper adaptation of one of the greatest psychological horror stories of all time. Instead, we’re left with a tropey showpiece that wasted time and talent, not to mention money. Mike Flanagan’s upcoming The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix lessens the sting somewhat, but it’s still best to turn away from this one and pretend you didn’t see a thing.

The Turning

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror