Pins and Needles

Hellraiser

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Did you know that this is the 11th film in the Hellraiser franchise? There are 10 others, most of them terrible, a couple unwatchable. Why? How could it be so hard to create fresh horror from Clive Barker’s kinky treasure trove?

It appears David Bruckner (The Ritual, The Night House) wonders the same thing. He and screenwriters Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski and David S. Goyer had no trouble peeling the flesh from this franchise and exposing something raw and pulsing.

Oh yes, and gay, but if you didn’t pick up on any of the gay themes in out-and-proud Barker’s series before they cast a trans woman to play The Priest aka “Pinhead,” you missed a lot.

Jamie Clayton, with a massive thanks to makeup and costume, offers a glorious new image of pain. In fact, the creature design in this film surpasses anything we’ve seen in the previous ten installments, including Barker’s original. Each is a malevolent vision of elegance, gore and suffering, their attire seemingly made of their own flayed flesh.

There’s also a story, and a decent one at that. Bruckner’s core themes replace the S&M leanings with trauma and addiction, following a young addict named Riley (Odessa A’zion) as she ruins everyone and everything she touches.

Riley’s boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) has some inside info on where rich people stash their valuables, but when the two break open a safe… there’s only that strange puzzle box inside. 

And what a magnificent puzzler it is.

Like everything about the film’s visual design, there’s new richness and lethal detail to the box. It hides complicated new configurations, and Bruckner – whose horror cred is now firmly established – reveals them in intriguing tandem with the slippery rewards offered by the Cenobites.

Fans of the original classic may have been understandably wary of a rebranding, but this new vision overcomes a slightly bloated buildup for a more than satisfying crescendo. The kinks may be gone, but the chains are still chilling, in a darkly beautiful world full of sensual, bloody delights to show you.

Drunk History

Amsterdam

by George Wolf

Holy Schnikes, look at this cast. From the leads to small supporting roles, Amsterdam is loaded with Oscar winners, Oscar nominees, living legends, critical darlings and even one of biggest pop stars in the world.

And while Taylor Swift equates herself just fine, it’s the endless stream of veteran screen talent that keeps David O. Russell’s historical dramedy from collapsing much earlier than it actually does.

In the 1930s, Doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and attorney Harold Woodman (John David Washington) are sad to hear of the passing of their former Army CO, General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley, Jr.). But Liz Meekins (Swift) is suspicious of her father’s death, and she pleads with Burt for the quick, secretive autopsy that ends up suggesting murder.

And that leads to an actual murder, with Burt and Harold on the run as the prime suspects, until Burt’s voiceover narration takes us back to 1918, when the two friends first met in the war that was supposed to end all wars. Both men suffered disfiguring injuries, and treatment from feisty nurse Valerie (Margot Robbie) spawns a deep friendship that fate rekindles in the 30s.

While Burt and Harold try to stay one step ahead of two detectives on their case (Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola), Valerie helps them try to connect the many dots that point to a shocking and dangerous conspiracy,

This is writer/director Russel’s first feature since 2015’s Joy, and it’s pretty clear the in last 7 years he’s developed a healthy respect for both Wes Anderson and Rian Johnson. Russell builds the whodunnit with criss-crossing layers of intrigue that recall Knives Out, and populates it with a sea of characters sporting detailed, Anderson-esque eccentricities.

And from Bale, Robbie and Washington, to Michael Shannon, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Andrea Riseborough, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldana and more, the sheer fun of watching these marvelous actors dig in keeps you invested until you realize this should all be headed somewhere, shouldn’t it?

It should, and it eventually does, as Robert DeNiro’s General Gil Dillenbeck pulls the film into a retelling of the “Business Plot” conspiracy of 1933. And that’s when the levee of heavy-handedness breaks.

Russell impressed with a series of tonally assured films (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) before the gimmickry of Joy. While the narration here is less distracting, once Russell pairs it with DeNiro’s speechifying, the lack of restraint is disappointing. There are valid points to be made about history repeating itself, but Russell doesn’t trust us to figure them out for ourselves.

Regardless of how much you already know about the Business Plot conspiracy, Amsterdam will give you an interesting history lesson. And if you laugh at the way your drunk uncle fills a straightforward story with rambling anecdotes after Thanksgiving dinner, then it will be an entertaining one, too.

In the Sky with Diamonds

Acid Test

by Rachel WIllis

Though at the time I was a bit younger than Acid Test’s main character, Jenny (Juliana Destefano), I still remember 1992 and 1993 quite well. So, it’s with some authority that I can attest that writer/director Jennifer Waldo’s coming-of-age film feels straight out of the early 90s. I even had the same haircut.

As Jenny turns 18, on the eve of the Clinton/Bush/Perot presidential election, she begins to question her goals and direction in life. Everything has been ironed out for her by her domineering father (Brian Thornton) and acquiescent mother (Mia Ruiz). The film begins with her college interview at Harvard, an ambition she’s carried for many years.

But after a few Riot Grrrl concerts that she attends with best friend Drea (Mai Le), Jenny starts to wonder: who exactly is in charge of her future? Is the dream of Harvard hers, or her father’s?

It’s not uncommon for adolescents to start seeing their parents with new eyes as they grow older. Jenny especially views her father in a harsher light, questioning his role in the family’s life. Were the choices her mother made of her own volition or because that’s what was chosen for her?

Destefano plays the rebellious teenager well. She convincingly skirts the line between obedient, loving daughter and a young woman trying to figure out her path in life. As her parents, Thornton and Ruiz play well against her.

Adolescence is often a time when parents and children start to clash, and Waldo navigates these waters with ease. This is a family with love for each other, but once you start to see your parents for who they really are, it’s impossible to go back.

As Jenny spins farther out of her parents’ orbit, she experiences many of the things that other young people do – falling in love (or possibly just lust), experimenting with drugs, choosing a path forward from childhood to adulthood. A particularly memorable scene lets us know that along with her father’s forceful nature, Mom isn’t shy about laying on the guilt.

It’s a tough situation for any teenager, but Jenny does it with insight and a great soundtrack backing her up. Though she doesn’t have all the answers, what she does have is knowledge. Her future is her own – and we get to watch her wake up. 

Chicas Malas

Piggy (Cerdita)

by Hope Madden

Mean girls are a fixture in cinema, from Mean Girls to Carrie, Heathers to Jawbreaker to Napoleon Dynamite and countless others. Why is that? It’s because we like to see mean girls taken down.

Writer/director Carlota Pereda wants to challenge that base instinct. But first, she is going to make you hate Maca (Claudia Salas), Roci (Camille Aguilar) and Claudia (Irene Ferreiro). In one tiny Spanish town, the three girls make Sara’s (Laura Galán, remarkable) life utterly miserable. Like worse than Carrie White’s.

And though Sarah’s relationship with her mother (Carmen Machi) is a rose garden compared to the one Carrie shares with her wacko mom, things could be better. Sarah’s mom veers from unobservant to dismissive to defensive. Even when she’s trying to be helpful, that aid comes with a heaping dose of insensitivity.   

But it’s those pretty, skinny high school girls whose contempt nearly kills Sarah. In a scene that’s difficult to forget, cruelty blossoms into something brutal and horrifying as Sarah tries to take advantage of a nearly empty swimming pool.

Traumatized by the afternoon, a dazed Sara makes a choice that she will wrestle with for the balance of the film. Pereda doesn’t present a simple, single reason for what Sarah does. Or, more to the point, does not do.

In this scene and all others, the filmmaker complicates every trope, all the one-dimensional victim/hero/villain ideas this genre and others feast on. Redemption doesn’t come easily to anyone. Pereda also seamlessly blends themes and ideas from across the genre, upending expectations but never skimping on brutal, visceral horror.

Much of that horror would feel unearned were it not for substantial performances from every member of the cast. But Sarah is the most complicated character by far, and Galán performance is a reckoning. She’s utterly silent for long stretches, Sarah trying to make herself invisible. It’s in those still moments that Galán shines most fiercely.

Piggy is a tough watch, there’s no doubt. It’s also a ferocious and stunning piece of horror cinema.

Finding Pieces

Missing (Sagasu)

by Hope Madden

Shinzô Katayama learned from the best, filling the role of Second Unit Director on Bong Joon Ho’s startling Mother. He applies much of that film’s family drama/murder mystery theme for his own thriller, Missing.

Kaede (Aoi Itô) is a little fed up looking after her father, Harada (Jirô Satô). His depression and debt have only worsened since her mother’s suicide. She’s tired of being the grown-up. So tired of it that she dismisses his plot to track down the serial killer “No Name” for the reward money. When he disappears, she wishes she’d taken him more seriously.

Missing plays in parts, and Part 1 takes on the frustration and fear of Kaede’s story. Itô convinces as the child maneuvering in an adult world, complete with the frustrations, condescension and outbursts that involves. The performance never leans toward sentiment, never asks for our sympathy, and is the more fascinating for it.

Veteran Satô has no trouble finding an empathetic approach to a character in over his head. Satô complicates this questionable but lovable father figure. Harada is never an outright simpleton, always a loving family man. But he’s very, very flawed.

We get Harada’s side of the story, too, but between the two we see a bit from the perspective of No Name (Hiroya Shimizu). After establishing a layered, tense drama, Katayama, who co-writes with Kazuhisa Kotera and Ryô Takada, pulls the tale back toward horror.

Shimizu’s oily performance glides from apathy to curiosity to insincerity to sadism with unsettling ease. You root for the separated daughter and father, clearly out of their depth, but Katayama’s vision is more complicated than that.

Katayama allows moral ambiguity to enrich the film, knocking you off balance and unsure of your alliances. Three strong performances keep you intrigued and guessing, but the filmmaker surrounds them with an assortment of oddities. No character in the film is truly flat, everyone is a surprise.

Buried in this heady mystery is a thread about justice in the face of self-interest and the surprising joy of ping pong. It’s an engrossing feature debut from a director who knows how to play you.

Monster House

Deadstream

by George Wolf

If you’re old enough to remember Al Franken’s “one man news gathering unit” bits on SNL, you’ll get an extra few kicks out of Deadstream, a Shudder original that packs smart, sarcastic, silly and scary into a fun 87 minutes.

Joseph and Vanessa Winter share writing and directing duties, with Joseph also starring as Shawn Ruddy, a disgraced internet personality. After seven years hosting his “Wrath of Shawn” livestream stunt show, Shawn’s trying to win back the followers lost through a series of ill-fated hijinks (such as paying a homeless guy to fight him).

So Shawn figures there’s only way to pull off “the biggest comeback event since the first Easter.” He will confront his greatest fear live on camera.

Ghosts.

Strapping on a Franken-worthy solo streaming outfit, Ruddy begins a live broadcast from inside Death Manor, “the most haunted house in the United States.” Of course, the one man nature of Ruddy’s show means Joseph is the only actor in the early going, and he proves to be a naturally engaging and amusing guide through the possibly supernatural.

Even as the film’s pace moves from calm to chaotic, Joseph gives Ruddy some sharp comic timing, reacting to viewer comments with deadpan asides and his own accidental expletives with pleas of “don’t demonetize me!” Joseph is able to find that middle ground between clueless douchebag and lovable goofball, enough to make gags like Shawn’s cringe-worthy apology for a racist stunt land with a satirical LOL.

And just when you think this premise might be treading water, a Ruddy superfan (Melanie Stone) crashes the live stream to take the fear factor up more than a few notches.

The Winters also handled the film editing, which may be the real MVP. The multiple cuts between Ruddy’s camera, his computer screen, and security cameras in the house often come in a fast, furious nature, but the technical craftsmanship and narrative integrity never waver.

Deadstream is a slick piece of work. It lands solid wink-wink zingers at the expense of both horror tropes and internet culture, while earning the “horror” in horror comedy with some serious haunts in the house.

Log in, and smash that “like” button.

Which Witch

Two Witches

by Tori Hanes

From first-time feature director Pierre Tsigaridis, Two Witches follows the familial inheritance of witch powers from grandmother to granddaughter, sparing no gory detail while examining the pair’s reign of terror. From eating babies to sexual satanism, Two Witches straps horror fans in and puts a cement block on the gas.

The first of two chapters starts without a bang- in fact, it fully embraces the mundane horror tropes of the past: haunted, creepy entity only visible to the hauntee, overly skeptical boyfriend, goofy nonbeliever friends. It dutifully, albeit spookily, hits the key beats of any witchy tale. If the film had stayed on this trajectory, the review would likely end here. 

Thankfully, Tsigaridis veered off course. The second chapter highlights the newly christened witch granddaughter (Rebekah Kennedy) and spins into a freshly horrifying tale, chalk to the brim with overt and delicious camp. Whether the film took the first chapter to find its footing or whether the sharp turn into camp was purposeful by Tsigaridis is unclear, but one thing is obvious: the first and second chapter feel almost like entirely different films.

Is the presence of two tonally different chapters in one movie jarring? Yes, a bit. Is it the best choice to create a continuous flowing narrative and feel? No, probably not. Is it interesting and largely unseen in the horror genre? Definitely. 

A struggle unique to this dramatic shift of tone is performance evaluation. Due to their largely different styles, holding performances to a consistent level is nearly impossible. While pregnant Sarah (Belle Adams) of the first chapter plays the disturbed victim well, witch Masha (Kennedy) delivers her newfound inheritance with intriguing camp in the second chapter. The two performances could not feel further from each other, though they both hold the title of protagonist for their respective stories. This confusion in differing performances inherently elicits an opinion of uncertainty from audiences. Unfortunately, ambivalence and uncertainty are perhaps the worst reactions a film’s protagonists could garner. 

For the most adrenaline-seeking among us, Two Witches has enough genuine scares to smooth over the narrative bumps. For the rest, the winding story may lead you off course. If audiences can embrace the uniqueness of the camp, however, it may be a welcomed detour.

Resting Witch Face

Hocus Pocus 2

by Hope Madden

Thirty years ago (more or less), Disney released a family friendly seasonal comedy that underperformed and was forgotten. Forgotten, except by every 8-year-old who watched Hocus Pocus then or would go on to rewatch it annually during spooky season.

The entertainment behemoth finally realized what it had and commissioned a sequel. Hocus Pocus 2 reunites willful witches Winnifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) with Salem, the town that hates them.

What is it that reawakens the evil Sanderson sisters? A somewhat convoluted storyline, actually, but it involves female empowerment and community and it’s charmingly, inoffensively told.

Halloween’s here, and with it, Becca’s (Whitney Peak) 16th birthday. She’ll celebrate this year as every year by sharing a little spookiness in the woods with her bestie, Izzy (Belissa Escobedo). It’ll be the first year that the third in their trio, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), doesn’t join because she’s hanging out with her boyfriend. Meh!

Anyhoo, the Sandersons are accidentally conjured. Somehow the local crystals and essential oils purveyor (Sam Richardson, likable as ever) is mixed up in things. And Cassie’s dad – kindly Mayor Traske (Tony Hale) – is in mortal danger!

Director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) hits enough nostalgic notes that adult fans of the original will feel seen. Its contemporary story allows for brand new witch-out-of-water scenarios to explore, and, of course, the sisters are always up for a musical number. But this is definitely a kids’ film.

The original was a kind of sibling to Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s 1987 family film Monster Squad. Both showed poorly at the box office and went on to become beloved seasonal fixtures. Hocus Pocus brought the sensibilities into the nineties by, for one thing, recognizing that boys can also be virgins. HP2 modernizes further.

To begin with, not every citizen of Salem is white. And though it’s impossible to entirely redeem three characters looking to eat children, at least the sequel skims the ideas of systemic misogyny. But mainly it offers campy, scrappy, bland but amiable fun.

Midler, Najimy and Parker reinhabit the old trio well enough to remind us why so many kids loved the original. Whether HP2 can strike the same chord with today’s youth is tough to tell, but at least there’s a Halloween flick everyone can watch together.

Why So Serious?

Smile

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Man, It Follows was a great movie. It was a film that saw coming-of-age as its own type of horror, a loss of innocence that you either pass on or let kill you.

It’s a conceit that will never feel as fresh as it did then, but writer/director Parker Finn has a go with Smile.

Sosie Bacon is Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist working in an emergency trauma unit. A woman is brought in, lashed to a gurney and screaming. Rose evaluates her in a safe space where Laura (Caitlin Stasey) can be comfortable, free. Rose listens to her paranoid, anxious story of a smiling, malevolent presence and tells Laura, as calmly as she can, that as scary as these ideas may feel, they can’t harm her.

Rose is wrong. And so begins a very borrowed and yet often powerful meditation on the nature of trauma and the state of mental health stigma.

Bacon delivers a believably brittle performance as the character who knows she’s right, even if everyone believes she’s crazy. But there’s more to this genre trope, given that Finn’s entire theme is an exploration of mental health. As a therapist and also a woman suffering from trauma, Rose can see her current situation more clearly than most.

There’s honesty, depth and empathy at work here, a 360-degree look at mental health and the systems and norms that affect people. Smile is also a clear metaphor for trauma and its insidious ripple effect.

It’s also a showcase for a fine supporting cast, and a few good, if borrowed, jump scares and freaky images. Kyle Gallner is particularly solid, and both Robin Weigert and Rob Morgan deliver traumatizing performances in small roles.

Turning something as inherently harmless as a smile into a threatening gesture carries a primal creepiness that Finn exploits pretty effectively throughout the film. Even so, the nearly two-hour running time feels bloated as Rose’s search for the origins of her curse begins to drag.

Her detective work – plus one very familiar shot – make Smile an easily recognizable marriage of It Follows and The Ring. Credit Finn for not hiding his intentions, and crafting some thought-provoking frights in the process.

If You Build It, They Will Come

What We Leave Behind

by Daniel Baldwin

When What We Leave Behind opens, we witness star Julian Moreno making a trip he has made countless times. For 15 years, he has taken a bus from his home in Mexico to visit his family in the United States. Every single month. He only stays for a few days at a time, but he’s been there like clockwork for a decade and a half. Now that he’s 89, however, he’s making his final trip, as he no longer has the stamina for it.

With his monthly visits ending, he instead turns his attention toward building a new house on a plot of land that he has purchased beside his current abode. This new home is not meant for him, but instead for whatever family member will want it once it’s finished. Iliana Sosa’s What We Leave Behind might be showcasing a family separated by a border, but it doesn’t have macro socio-political issues on its mind. What worries the film is simply what worries the aging Julian: Will his family be all right once he is gone? Will they remain close and get along?

This is all Julian wants. He brings up his age and mortality often, but never in a negative light. He’s not searching for sympathy or wishing for more time but is instead deeply pragmatic about it all. His time on this world is shortening and he wishes to spend it building a place where his family can live and congregate together long after he passes away.

We follow Julian from the moment the foundation is being laid up until his death, when all that’s left to accomplish are some finishing touches on the inside of the completed home. We also get to know his family along the way, spending many a quiet moment with them, in addition to quite a few long conversations. If you’re in the mood for drone shots and sweeping looks at the countryside, you’ll find none of that here. This is a deeply personal documentary about an aging family; one that focuses on small and intimate moments, as well as day-to-day struggles and events.

It’s an achingly beautiful piece of work that will hit home for anyone who has watched their older loved ones near their end, as well as worried about what might happen to their younger loved ones when they themselves pass on. What do we leave behind? The people that we love, be they friends or family. Julian Moreno would have told you they are what’s best in life and he’s right.

Hope Madden and George Wolf … get it?