The Unearthly (1957, Directed by Boris Petroff) English 4

Starring John Carradine, Myron Healey, Allison Hayes, Tor Johnson, Sally Todd

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(4-Bad Film)

Schlock. Flat. Doltish.

The Unearthly may be the best film featured on the cult t.v series, Mystery Science Theater, but that’s hardly a recommendation. It actually means that, while still not being good, it also lacks the requisite trash value to be so bad it’s good. It’s not entertaining. The premise is promising. A mad scientist played by Carradine tests out his theories on his distressed patients searching for immortality. A fugitive, Mark Houston (Healey), wanders into this house of horrors and unearths its secrets. Wittier dialogue, more colorful characters, and a director with any talent for suspense could make The Unearthly a worthwhile B movie. Instead, it’s ample fodder for the crew on MST3 to lampoon. “My Dinner with Andre had more locations.”

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(658)

Midsommar (2019, Directed by Ari Aster) English 9

Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren

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(9-Great Film)

Beautiful. Disquieting. Distinctive.

     I’m not going to take sides-though it’s largely the male characters who suffer in this film, you could counter that it’s a consequence of their mistakes-but it’s established from the beginning of this two-and-a-half-hour descent that its protagonists, Dani Ardor (Pugh) and Christian Hughes (Reynor), are in a bad relationship, growing more and more toxic, and it’s from this relationship that the rest of the film spews. They’re a ticking time bomb; the kind of couple that ruins parties and makes everyone around them feel awkward. They made me feel awkward sitting in the theater eating Sour Patch Kids. We learn in the opening scene that Christian’s ready to break up with her. His friends, most forcibly Mark, a loudmouth played by Will Poulter, urge him to end things. They have a trip to idyllic Sweden approaching and Mark points out the potential barrage of foreign beauties waiting for them, Christian included if he can simply rip the band-aid off. Dani senses the truth. She has a troubled sister and leans on Christian too much. Instead of breaking up, however, Dani receives a phone call that leaves her shattered, Christian incapable of being honest with her, and the film, Midsommar, off to a gruesome start. And so, instead of a guy’s romp in Sweden for the Summer, Christian brings Dani along, as they visit Hårga, a commune, and home of Pelle, one member of their group. What follows makes Midsommar the wildest film I’ve seen in a long time, a great one and a first-rate horror flick.

    Writer-director, Ari Aster, referred to Midsommar as a ” breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film.” Many classic horror flicks build from realistic, fundamental fears. Rosemary’s Baby deals with anxiety about childbirth. The Exorcist features a mother helplessly watching her daughter go through an illness of sorts, but the immediate comparison or influence here is The Wicker Man. Not Nicholas Cage’s hilarious remake but the unforgettable original starring Christopher Lee. You can’t make a film about a sex cult and not be influenced by The Wicker Man. Midsommar even ends with a sinister image of a pyre burning as we process what’s led to this point, but Midsommar is otherwise a very different film. The more apt comparison for me is Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You have a group of outsiders-Christian, Dani, Josh (Harper), and Mark later joined by Brits, Simon and Connie-who are invited into a secluded, idyllic space and who are slowly excluded one by one after revealing their character. While the temptations in Willy Wonka’s factory were candy and chocolate, the commune in Midsommar seduces with flirtatious red-heads and ancient secrets. It’s emotionally scarred Dani who emerges, like Charlie, victorious in the end. What makes her so worthy? Like with Charlie, I’d say it’s humility. Christian and his group of college graduate students seem awfully entitled; entitled to privileged information, entitled to pissing on trees at random. It’s at the end when Dani wears the crown that Midsommar feels like a sordid fairy tale. To go from albatross around her boyfriend’s neck to become a queen is the stuff of fantasy and works in making Midsommar dreamlike but also touches seriously on how cults operate. They make her feel special, call her queen, and offer an escape from difficulties in reality.

There’s been much said about the look of Midsommar. From the moment the trailer dropped, we’ve known that Aster has fashioned a nightmare in the midst of broad daylight. More than that though, he’s made a film that’s gorgeous; a film that grows in visual splendor as its story becomes increasingly hellish. It’s clear that he’s an exciting new filmmaker with a grim eye for family drama and in his lead, Florence Pugh (previously unfamiliar to me), he’s found an actress of unique, innocent features to carry the weight of all the ugliness of Midsommar. She’s terrific.

If I were pressed to question logic, I would ask the protagonists what they are doing visiting a pagan cult and what did they expect? Unlike the characters in Scream, these guys haven’t seen enough horror flicks apparently, because Midsommar unfolds precisely how you’d expect it to aside from precise, disgusting detail (now I know what the blood eagle is, thank you Ari Aster). That I can know what’s going to happen and still be shocked and floored by how it happens is a sign of tremendous skill and talent by those who made this film.

     -Walter Tyrone Howard-

(649)

Suspiria (2018, Directed by Luca Guadagnino) English 5

Starring Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Grace Moretz, Angela Winkler, Elena Fokina, Jessica Harper

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(5-Okay Film)

Opaque. Pretentious. Meandering.

I generally take my time evaluating something like 2018’s Suspiria. Nobody wants to admit that they didn’t get a film; myself included. It polarized critics. Visually striking, baffling, and running nearly 2 1/2 hours, it’s the kind of film I like to get behind. There’s a feeling among cinephiles that the greater the length, the greater the film, but we all know that’s not always true and for all of Suspiria’s subtext, it’s not a work of genuine depth.  Dakota Johnson stars as Susie, a sweet, wide-eyed newcomer to a ballet school secretly run by a coven of witches, led by Madame Blanc (Swinton), in 1970s Germany. The setting is Suspiria’s first clue that it’s going in some unnecessary directions. Meanwhile, don’t be fooled by the intriguing premise (taken from Dario Argento’s classic original) or the flood of academic essays that are sure to be written about this film. It’s not that interesting. Like an essay with no outline, Suspiria wanders through a collection of ideas that occasionally hit paydirt. The climax (what should have been the film’s end) is mesmerizing but I didn’t enjoy the journey.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(647)

 

Hereditary (2018, Directed by Ari Aster) English 8

Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Surprising. Haunting. Riveting.

Guilt. Resentment. Strife. Cursed bloodlines. A dysfunctional family. Tragedy. Alas, a nightmare. Hereditary takes its time before becoming a horror flick, and until that point, until its diabolical bloom, I was at a loss as to what the film really was and where it was going. Is it a ghost story? A haunted house movie? The only thing I could firmly grasp was the tangible dread the filmmakers and actors build up so well. A feeling that something horrific was coming, and when it does, Hereditary achieves the status of great modern horror film.

If you’re like me, you’ve noticed the overwhelming praise given to the film by critics across Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. If you’re like me, you’ll go into Hereditary skeptical since critics rarely know what they’re talking about when it comes to the Horror genre. The majority of critics don’t like the genre, which is fine, but then what is their review of a horror film worth? To me, this explains why films like The Quiet Place and It Comes at Night do very well critically (fine films but without any actual bite), and legitimately scary genre pieces like Sinister get middling reviews. Thankfully, Hereditary delivers. Not just as a well-made film (a remarkable debut from writer/director Ari Aster), but as a superb, bloodcurdling horror story.

Opening at the funeral of the family matriarch, Ellen, her daughter, Annie Graham (Collette) gives a rather stiff eulogy revealing a strained relationship with her mother, and setting up the rest of the film which, as evidenced by its title, has much to do with family legacy and “visiting the sins of the father on the children,” or, in this case, the sins of the mother. Annie, a successful miniaturist artist has a patient husband, Steve (Byrne) and two children: a distant son, Peter (Wolff) and a daughter, Charlie (Shapiro). After a shocking incident, and I don’t want to say too much since I went in blind and was blown away by this particular scene, the Graham family is forced to live past a tragedy that lays a pall over their lives. Annie reluctantly seeks comfort in group meetings, but quickly gives up on the venture before meeting Joan (Dowd), an older woman grieving over a lost son. Joan turns Annie on to séances, and, naturally, this opens the door for evil and the ensuing horror show. It’s at this stage of the film, actually pretty late in the proceedings, that Hereditary becomes less surprising. The last act is an effective but conventional piece of storytelling. What still separates Hereditary from the rest of its kind, even in the end, is director, Aster’s entirely assured pacing which never settles for cheap scares but takes each moment to its peak horror and then wades on to the next set piece. He gives his actors long takes to work with, and they reward him with likely the best performances of the year. The story belongs to Toni Collette’s Annie, and Collette getting a rare starring role, is outstanding. She’s made a career out of playing mothers across a number of genres, but that hasn’t kept her from proving to be an incredible chameleon-like actor at times. Consider, this is the Australian actress who played the caring, American mother in The Sixth Sense, the kooky British mother in About a Boy, and the frayed matriarch of the hilariously dysfunctional family in Little Miss Sunshine. Consider too, her ultra-creepy performance in the underrated Night Listener starring Robin Williams. I’m simply a fan. Relatively new to me is Alex Wolff who plays the troubled son. I’ve seen him recently in the Jumanji reboot, but nothing to prepare me for the depth he gives to this role. He’s largely the character we’re most often asked to identify with, and it’s through his eyes, we see much of the tragedy and the horror. The ending works for me, but at the same time, is derivative of past classics like Rosemary’s Baby and the recent triumph, The Witch.

Finally, I’m still unsure as to what really went on in this film. I have more questions than answers.  I recognize the themes of persistent discord. Generations of parents and children at odds. I see the toll of tragedy on a family. How much of the blame seems to fall back on the mother? But what’s clearest of all is the talent of the young filmmaker, the impressive cast (I hadn’t mentioned Ann Dowd yet whose sensational in a performance likely inspired by Ruth Gordon in, again, Rosemary’s Baby), and the haunting account of evil that lasts beyond the closing credits.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(598)

Tremors (1990, Directed by Ron Underwood) English 6

Starring Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Victor Wong, Michael Gross, Finn Carter, Reba McEntire, Bobby Jacoby

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(6-Good Film)

Fun. Well-paced. Tense.

In the dusty old town of Perfection, Nevada, two handymen, Val (Bacon) and Earl (Ward), vow to move on from the familiar and chase their fortunes elsewhere. Just as they set out to leave, a couple of strange deaths pull them back as they and the rest of the town’s citizens work out the cause: three giant worms with teeth. Unable to escape or call for help, they ‘ll have to fight the monsters themselves or die trying. Tremors is a surprisingly well-written movie with a bevy of strong characters. Bacon and Ward make the lead characters’ camaraderie and chemistry feel natural, and the monsters are still effective almost thirty years after the film’s release. My one problem with Tremors is the setting, which is simply unattractive. It works for the film’s story, but as for the aesthetics, it’s unappealing and grungy.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(596)

 

The Sixth Sense (1999, Directed by M. Night Shyamalan) English 10

Starring Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Donnie Wahlberg, Olivia Williams

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(10-Masterpiece)

Fresh. Engrossing. Unforgettable.

After a horrific episode with a former patient, child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe (Willis) seeks redemption in helping a young boy, Cole (Joel Osment) with dark secrets. Meanwhile, his work takes its toll on his marriage as he grows distant from his wife (Williams). Everything about this ghost story is perfectly calculated. The performances, from Willis to Collette to Joel Osment and down to Wahlberg are essential for this film to work. The twist ending, which you probably know by now, or should, works because it’s not necessary. The film would have been good without it, the final meeting between Malcolm and Cole supplied enough closure to leave the audience satisfied, so when the real ending hits, we’re shocked, and the movie becomes great.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(574)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (2012, Directed by Timur Bekmambetov) English 6

Starring Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie, Rufus Sewell

(6-Good Film)

Entertaining. Ludicrous. Exciting.

Did you know that while our sixteenth president was working on restoring the union and ending slavery, he was also battling an immortal enemy? According to this film, Abraham Lincoln’s mother was raped and murdered by a vampire, his son was murdered by a vampire, and the South employed vampires in their army. The premise of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer is ridiculous bordering on offensive. That being said, I found the over the top action scenes and gothic comic book style exciting. It’s all fairly well-done and appealing for those who appreciate camp.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(562)