Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016, Directed by Mike Flanagan) English 6

Starring Elizabeth Reaser, Henry Thomas, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso

(6-Good Film)

Solid. Bleak. Well-acted.

Horror sequels don’t have a good track record. If a horror film is even remotely successful, studios feel the need to milk the formula dry. The reason is clear. Horror pictures are inexpensive and generally yield high returns, regardless of quality. The first Ouija film earned over 100 million dollars on a five mil budget, despite having a 7% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A sequel was expected. The surprise is how good this sequel is.

Set in 1960s L.A as opposed to its predecessor’s modern-day setting, the film kicks off with a séance performed by the Zander family comprised of the widowed mother (Alice), and two daughters-17 (Lina) and 8 (Doris). The séance is a somewhat elaborate scam that the mother rationalizes as a way to bring comfort to those who’ve lost loved ones. More accurately though, it’s a desperate means of supporting her two daughters as a single mom. After the older daughter, Lina discovers the new Hasbro board game, Ouija, at a friend’s party, and suggests adding it to their business, the fake communication with spirits becomes a genuine communication at the Zander home, and Doris begins demonstrating a clear knack at the process. While the mother believes Doris’ newfound skills to be a blessing from God, Lina grows concerned and seeks help from the school priest. A lot of what ensues is standard spook house tactics: jump scares, sordid backstories, possessed children. It’s a fifty-year-old formula.

What works for this film, and elevates it beyond its familiar trappings is the commitment to character development and the resulting performances. The cast of unknowns-Elizabeth Reaser as the mom, Annalise Basso as Lina, and especially Lulu Wilson as Doris- are excellent. The latter is equally convincing as her character shifts from the endearingly strange little girl to her terrifyingly sinister possessed substitute. Her bright eyes can be adorable or malevolent.

The pace of the film is confident, but largely indebted to better movies before it, and the climax manages to surprise without all-out shocking. If I wanted to find a flaw, I might say the depiction of demons and possession is made too explicit at times, missing out on an aura of mystery that is potentially scarier. The ending is gruesome, made even more startling when seen in contrast to that other big horror sequel of the year, The Conjuring 2. Where that film offered solace and refuge in faith, this film provides no salvation; just horror. How you feel about that will go a long way in how much you enjoy this movie. I consider it an above average horror film and a welcome Halloween excursion.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Phantom of the Paradise (1974, Directed by Brian De Palma) English 8

Starring Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper, Archie Hahn, Gerrit Graham

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Outrageous. Insane. Dazzling.

A nobody composer, Winslow Leach (Williams), has his work, what was to be his magnum opus, stolen by a ruthless record producer who runs a night club called the Paradise. A heinous plot against Winslow leads to disfigurement, and so he stalks The Paradise looking to exact his revenge. There are touches of Faustus and The Picture of Dorian Gray in addition to the obvious Phantom of the Opera inspiration in this movie, and what a trip it all is. The Phantom of the Paradise is completely nuts. The eye-popping colors, Brian De Palma’s technical wizardry, the excess. It’s incredibly silly at times, but often clever and satirical. “Beef” will forever live on in my mind, but you’d have to see the film to know what I mean. Hilarious and the music is fantastic. Easily my favorite adaptation of Phantom of the Opera.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Troll 2 (1990, Directed by Claudio Fragasso) English 1

Starring Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, Connie McFarland, Margo Prey

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(1-All-Time Bad Film)

Hilarious. Inept. Talentless.

A young boy tries to convince his family that the town they’re vacationing in is overrun with goblins. It’s important to note that there are no actual trolls in this picture (just one of its quirks). Well known as perhaps the worst film ever made, this “horror movie,” whose revelations include a character realizing that the town he’s in-Nilbog- is goblin spelled backward, is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Its inanity in every aspect reaches legendary lows. As of today, I will crown this catastrophe the worst film of all-time.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Us (2019, Directed by Jordan Peele) English 7

Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Tim Heidecker, Elizabeth Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Evan Alex

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(7-Very Good Film)

Illusive. Adept. Messy.

A group of doppelgangers terrorizes an affluent African-American family. Expecting a horror film that reflected ideas of the duality of man, Us is instead about privilege and classism. There’s the Wilson family-mom (Nyong’o), dad (Duke), daughter (Joseph), son (Alex)-vacationing in beautiful Santa Cruz, the perfect nuclear family, and there’s “the tethered,” doppelgangers dwelling in tunnels below society, voiceless and inconsequential. This is, at least, how I came to understand red-hot filmmaker, Jordan Peele’s, latest, a film abundant in metaphors, foreshadowing, and red herrings. It’s difficult to put your finger on what exactly it all means. Especially with the amount of questions I still have. What’s clear for me is that I will be revisiting this film at some point. Us failed to satisfy me viscerally or cathartically. It becomes obvious all too soon, who would live and who would die, diluting some of the suspense. Us appeals more to the intellect, and as a result, time and repeated viewings will tell how good it actually is.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


It (2017, Directed by Andy Muschietti) English 8

Starring Jaeden Leiberher, Bill Skarsgård, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Adventurous. Dark. Poignant.

Big budgets don’t usually equal big scares for me. The most horrifying films, I mean the ones that truly frightened me, have largely been the low-budget, gritty, raw, thrillers set in the mold of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Unnerving, punishing, with gory payoffs around the corner of every suspense scene, these kind of thrills aren’t for everybody. But It follows a different model. More Poltergeist than slasher pick, and it’s really more Goonies than anything else. It’s scary, but it’s more than that. It’s funny, nostalgic, and imaginative. It’s also a creditable big-budget spectacle.

Set in a town where children disappear at a rate well beyond the national average, we know, thanks to a vicious opening scene, that some sort of monster clown calling himself Pennywise (Skarsgård) is to blame. The film follows seven members of the “loser club,” a group of bullied junior high kids, at a time when kids are going missing left and right. Their leader, Bill, has a younger brother missing but hasn’t given up finding him. Beverley, the only girl in the group, is abused at home and deemed a slut at school. Mike is an orphaned black kid forced to work in a slaughterhouse. Ben is an overweight, sensitive new kid. Eddie’s a hypochondriac. Stan’s a nervous Jewish boy on the cusp of his bar mitzvah. And Richie’s a big-mouth incapable of taking anything very seriously. Together they try to solve the mystery of the missing children, with the majority of the film’s thrills coming from visions Pennywise visits upon the protagonists.

It, with its elusive title, and alternately nightmarish and illusory qualities, speaks on the nature of children’s imaginations. Pennywise is malleable and enigmatic, which is what the title suggests. “It” is whatever scares you. “It” is what haunts you in your sleep carrying over to your waking life. Like countless children’s adventures and Disney classics, the adults in this film are either M.I.A, completely useless, or worse, something sinister. It takes that dynamic to the extreme. The children are left completely on their own to triumph against evil. Adults can’t see Pennywise or his dark illusions. At no point do any adults do anything to aid the young heroes. This is a standard nightmare scenario.

But the film isn’t simply a dark drag as its predecessor (in the form of a miniseries) was. Set in the ’80s, the film mines a number of pop-culture references and clever banter between the leads to great effect. We grow to care about the characters, which makes the impending horror scenes that much more scary. The soundtrack is fantastic (adding more to the coming of age feel). The young cast is impressive, with the characters Richie and Eddie providing much of the laughs. It easily could have been the equivalent of a one-joke comedy. You have a nightmarish clown which is scary, but not in itself interesting.  When weaved into a story about friendship and fighting back against bullies, you have the excellent movie that is It.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-



Jurassic Park (1993, Directed by Steven Spielberg) English 9

Starring Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough, Wayne Knight, Samuel L. Jackson

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(9-Great Film)

Wondrous. Exciting. Spectacular.

Once or twice a decade, a blockbuster will come out that blows everybody away. Spielberg made a handful of them. Jurassic Park, a film deeply entrenched in my childhood memories, remains for me, as an adult, a spectacular piece of entertainment. John Hammond (Attenborough), rivaling the notorious Dr. Frankenstein in audacity, defies nature and brings dinosaurs back from extinction. The purpose? Hammond, an entertainer, envisions a theme park based around these titanic, mysterious creatures. Investors, however, question the park’s practicality. They ask that Hammond get the endorsement of experts. Drs. Alan Grant (Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Dern), along with mathematician Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) are brought in to give their opinions.  Spielberg masterfully takes his time building up the suspense before delivering the thrills. Jurassic Park showcases his amazing abilities in complicated action sequences. It’s never just one thing. It’s not just the heroes and a T-rex. It’s the heroes, a T-rex, the rain, a car slipping in the mud, etc.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Mummy (2017 Directed by Alex Kurtzman) English 4

Starring Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe

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(4-Bad Film)

Dull. Ill-conceived. Inferior.

Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999) knew what it wanted to be and delivered. Starring the largely forgotten Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, that blockbuster horror film which launched a trilogy was an unabashed knock-off of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series. Period setting, heroic male, a beautiful but capable leading lady, mysterious loot. All hallmarks of the Indiana Jones franchise. But because it had no pretensions about being a great film, and thus embraced its B movie status so confidently, The Mummy was a terrific success, and still holds up as a tremendously entertaining 2 hours. Now, 18 years later, we come to yet another iteration of The Mummy story (remember that there were about a dozen or so versions well before Brendan Fraser had his turn). The new Mummy. The Mummy 2017.  This is the second worst Mummy film I’ve seen.

Starring Tom Cruise as Nick Morton, in another dedicated, seemingly effortless performance in an action picture, the film picks up with our hero and his reluctant partner fortune hunting in the Middle East. The two are Army officers who’ve stumbled on the tomb of Ahmanet while disobeying practically every order given to them by their superior officers. Jennifer Halsey, an archaeologist played Annabelle Wallis, joins forces with the men, and together they unleash an ancient curse of unspeakable evil, in truly inept fashion. Rather than wasting time creating suspense, the film steamrolls past any possible build-up and unleashes the Mummy first thing. The remainder of the movie deals with Morton and Halsey working together to eliminate the catastrophic power before she… I don’t remember her plot; probably some kind of an end of the world scenario. The Mummy, Princess Ahmanet, was second best in her Fathers eye, dwarfed by the existence of her brother, and so she murders her whole family. Making your monster even the slightest bit sympathetic is problematic in a blockbuster. The best example of a movie monster for me is Jaws, and what was his backstory? Filmmaker Alex Kurtzman would have been wise to follow that example. No sympathetic backstory, please. A large dose of the plot concerns the secret organization known as Prodigium, an excuse for Universal to contrive their “cinematic universe.” Russel Crowe plays Dr. Jekyll setting himself up for a follow-up solo effort (although it seems pointless after this movie’s lack of success). Dr. Jekyll runs Prodigium, giving very long expositions, and teasing us with the inevitable Mr. Hyde appearance.

None of the film is done particularly well. Director Alex Kurtzman has absolutely no track record that would suggest he should have been given this job. He wrote the screenplay for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? You’re hoping to rival Marvel with their proven cinematic universe, and you debut with this dud. To be clear, and anybody who knows me understands that I pretty much enjoy just about any movie watched at the theater. If I’m eating popcorn and sour patch kids while watching you, you’d have to be unwatchable for me not to have a good time. So this wasn’t the worst time in the world, but there’s nothing to endorse about The Mummy. There is almost no supporting cast to speak of which is incredibly odd and ill-conceived for a horror film. You need characters we can anticipate dying in horrific fashion. There’s no one in this movie longer than five minutes for us to have any rooting interest in beside the stars and we know they aren’t going to die, which means there is zero suspense. Badly mediocre monster movie. Poor, probably death sentence start to Universal’s Cinematic universe.

For the record, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the only worse film in The Mummy franchise.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-