Fright Club: It Follows and Anticipated Horror of 2015

David Robert Mitchell invites you to the best American horror film in years.

It Follows is a coming of age tale that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed. He has passed on some kind of entity – a demonic menace that will follow her until it either kills her or she passes it on to someone else the same way she got it.

Yes, it’s the STD or horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted yet another cautionary tale about premarital sex.

Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.

Mitchell’s provocatively murky subtext is rich with symbolism but never overwhelmed by it. His capacity to draw an audience into this environment, this horror, is impeccable and the result is a lingering sense of unease that will have you checking the perimeter for a while to come.

What else are we looking forward to this year? Here’s a quick list:

Poltergeist

Crimson Peak

Final Girl

Let Us Prey

Goodnight Mommy

It Has Sprung

Spring

by Hope Madden

In 2012, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead made their filmmaking debut with the smashing Resolution – an intriguing rewrite of familiar “cabin in the woods” genre tropes. Surprising the audience even inside a well-worn genre by weaving into the story equal amounts of humdrum realism and bizarreness, the directorial duo offered a fresh and provocative flick. They took those same skills and showed off some new ones with their next effort, Spring.

Like Resolution, Spring looks and feels familiar but the filmmakers’ approach is anything but straightforward.

Evan (a spot-on Lou Taylor Pucci) has hit a rough patch. After nursing his ailing mother for two years, Evan finds himself in a bar fight just hours after her funeral. With grief dogging him and the cops looking to bring him in, he grabs his passport and heads to the first international location available: Italy.

It’s a wise set up, and an earnest Pucci delivers the tender, open performance the film requires. He’s matched by the mysterious Nadia Hilker as Louise, the beautiful stranger who captivates Evan.

The less said about the plot the better. Like Resolution, this film walks between two different genres, blending the two masterfully with a result that is not exactly horror. At its core, Spring is a love story that animates the fear of commitment in a way few others do.

On display here is a prowess behind the camera that Resolution did not predict. The look of the Mediterranean seaside is imposingly beautiful – appropriately enough. The film’s entire aesthetic animates the idea of the natural world’s overwhelming beauty and danger. It’s a vision that’s equally suited to a sweeping romance or a monster movie, and since you’ll have a hard time determining which of those labels best fits Spring, it’s a good look.

There are some missteps – a vulgar American tourist side plot rings very false after the authenticity of the balance of characters. Louise’s backstory sometimes feels slightly forced, and the film takes on an unusual comic flavor toward the end that doesn’t quite fit. But there is something so lovely about the way the filmmakers approach the dangerous but compelling glory of love and nature that sets this apart from other genre efforts and keeps you thinking.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcDMTbn_VeU

Hard to Take

Get Hard

by George Wolf

A lump of coal on Christmas Day. Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife. The movie Get Hard.

What are huge disappointments, Alex?

Correct.

Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart are two of the funniest people around, and it’s easy to see the potential in an onscreen teamup. The problem is the project that brought them together should have died in the idea phase.

Ferrell is James King, a high-rolling hedge fund manager who lives in luxury but still can’t please his trophy girlfriend (Alison Brie). At their lavish engagement party, right in the middle of jamming on guitar with John Mayer, James is hauled away by the Feds and charged with securities fraud.

Ignoring his lawyers advice to take a plea deal, James is found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin. Given 30 days to report, James turns to Darnell (Hart), the guy who details his car, to teach him how to survive inside.

See, Darnell is black, so James just assumes he’s been in prison, and that’s just one of the stereotypes the film tries, and fails, to have fun with. In the right hands, race, class and sexuality can be fertile ground for sharp comedy. Those hands never touch Get Hard.

Ferrell and creative partner Adam McKay (who gets a story credit) have been on target before, even managing to work some scattered moments of social commentary into their hilarious lunacy. The mistake may have been relying too much on director/co-writer Etan Cohen, who shows no instinct for restraint. The film is overplayed on all fronts, giving it a crass, borderline nasty and often humorless air.

With the “revenge of the common man” storyline you get the feeling the intention here may have been an updated Trading Places. It isn’t long, though, before you wished they’d have just done a straight-up remake, and spared us the buzzkill that is Get Hard.

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

Scared Single

It Follows

by Hope Madden

David Robert Mitchell invites you to the best American horror film in more than a decade.

It Follows is a coming of age tale that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed. He has passed on some kind of entity – a demonic menace that will follow her until it either kills her or she passes it on to someone else the same way she got it.

Yes, it’s the STD or horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted yet another cautionary tale about premarital sex.

Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.

And though the entire effort boasts the naturalism of an indie drama, this is a horror film and Mitchell’s influences are on display. From the autumnal suburban loveliness of the opening sequence to the constantly slinking camera, the film bears an unabashed resemblance to John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Mitchell borrows from a number of coming of age horror shows, but his film is confident enough to pull it off without feeling derivative in any way. The writer/director takes familiar tropes and uses them with skill to lull you with familiarity, and then terrify you with it.

Maika Monroe – hot off an excellent turn in The Guest – anchors a cast of believable teens, absent mindedly bored with their adolescence. The performances across the board are fresh and realistic. The gang of buddies movies languidly toward adulthood in a time outside time – their lives speckled with TV antennas and wall phones but also e-readers. This inconcrete time period allows the film a nostalgic quality that any audience can tap into.

The shape shifting entity itself appears in a variety of forms, each a more lurid image direct from some nightmare.

Mitchell’s provocatively murky subtext is rich with symbolism but never overwhelmed by it. His capacity to draw an audience into this environment, this horror, is impeccable and the result is a lingering sense of unease that will have you checking the perimeter for a while to come.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Kinder, Gentler Alien Invasion

Home

by Hope Madden

Home – DreamWorks’ latest animated adventure – is the genuinely sweet tale of an alien invasion of earth. Little bubble-driving cowards called Boovs, fleeing their arch enemies the Gorgs, take over Earth, moving the entire human population to Australia. Boovs are a proud collection of conformists, which is why lonesome and blunder-prone Oh (Jim Parsons) is an outcast and, eventually, a fugitive.

He and New York’s last Earthling Tip (Rhianna) reluctantly team up to evade the Boov military and find Tip’s mom (Jennifer Lopez). (This is particularly funny because, in the Adam Rex book on which the film is based, the character Oh is goes instead by the name J.Lo.)

It’s a fish out of water buddy comedy brimming with lessons on bravery and letting your freak flag fly (or not being afraid to be you), which means it resembles about 45% of our current animated output. Still, director Tim Johnson’s the animator behind the nonconformity classic Antz as well as the genius Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode Homer Cubed. Does that mean we can at least hope for some inspired comedy?

Inspired is a strong word.

Like his inescapable TV persona, Parsons is adorably geeky, and Rhianna delivers the required goods as the spunky tween protagonist. Steve Martin also hams it up enjoyably as the Boov’s inept leader Captain Smek.

There are more than a few laughs, and though most of the sight gags are aimed at parents, the entire film is tender and wholesome enough for the very young. And though the 3D is often superfluous, the animation is really gorgeous. Still, there’s nothing new to see here.

If you’re in the market for a film that offers your wee ones positive examples aplenty – girl power, anti-colonialism, nonconformist messages among many, many others – this movie hits every mark, although it does so in a way that won’t leave a big impression. Even if you’re looking for an inoffensive time waster, Home fits that bill. Think of it as a colorful, sweet, blandly likeable 94 minutes worth of teachable moments.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Fright Club: Best Horror of the Seventies

The Seventies is when horror really took off. Blockbuster masterpieces like Alien and Jaws affected countless viewers and at least as many future filmmakers. Maverick young directors like Brian De Palma, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Dario Argento developed into the cinematic voices of a generation. Major studio efforts with A-list casts like The Omen kept the genre on the front burner for all movie goers, and Blaxploitation reached into the genre with the Blacula series.

We had to leave a lot off this list. In what may be the most crowded field of any decade, here we boil down the five best horror films (strictly horror – sorry Jaws & Alien!) of the 1970s.

5. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
In 1922, F.W. Murnau directed maybe the best vampire film we’ll ever see: Nosferatu. In 1979, Werner Herzog lovingly remade it. Both films are obviously based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, but where Stoker saw romance, these German filmmakers saw pestilence.

The effortlessly weird Klaus Kinski may play Dracula, but his look is 100% Orlock from Murnau’s film. Pasty and bald with hollowed eyes, pointy ears and rat teeth, this vampire relates far more to the vermin spreading the Black Plague across Europe than to the sultry beast luring women and men to an erotic end.

Herzog’s images are dreamy and wonderful, and the twists he gives the fairly tired storyline are genius. Isabel Adjani’s Lucy gets to be the hero, and the alteration to her beloved Jonathan Harker’s character is the work of dark genius.

4. Halloween (1978)

No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.

Sure, you’ve seen it, but from the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Carpenter impeccably develops anxiety, breaking tradition by planting it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.

Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is terrifying. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. Just add John Carpenter’s spare score to ratchet up the terror. Nice.

3. Carrie (1976)

The seminal film about teen angst and high school carnage has to be Brian De Palma’s 1976 landmark adaptation of King’s first full length novel, the tale of an unpopular teenager who marks the arrival of her period by suddenly embracing her psychic powers.

Sissy Spacek is the perfect balance of freckle-faced vulnerability and awed vengeance, but she may be overshadowed by Piper Laurie’s glorious evil zeal as her religious nutjob mother. (Both were Oscar nominated.) We feel proud and cautiously optimistic when Carrie finally stands up to her mother, but Senior Prom, or “Love Among the Stars,” doesn’t go as well as it might have for poor Carrie White or her classmates. One ugly trick involving a bucket of cow’s blood, and Carrie’s psycho switch is flipped. Spacek’s blood drenched Gloria Swanson on the stage conducting the carnage is perfectly over-the-top. And after all the mean kids get their comeuppance, Carrie returns home to the real horror show.

De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen wisely streamline King’s meandering finale. From the prom sequence onward, De Palma commits to the genre, giving us teen carnage followed by the profoundly upsetting family horror, finished with one of cinema’s best “gotcha” moments.

The prom scene inspired a Halloween costume for us a couple years ago – we won best costume and a free round!

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2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Not everyone considers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid. It is classic because Hooper masterfully enlisted a low rent verite for this bizarre story to do something utterly new. The camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.

Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming.

Poor, doomed, unlikeable Franklin Hardesty, his pretty sister Sally, and a few other friends head out to Grampa Hardesty’s final resting place after hearing the news of some Texas cemeteries being grave robbed. They just want to make sure Grampy’s still resting in peace – an adventure which eventually leads to most of them making a second trip to a cemetery. Well, what’s left of them.

We got to meet Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface) and Marilyn Burns (Sally) a couple years ago. We were pretty geeked!

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1. The Exorcist (1973)

Slow moving, richly textured, gorgeously and thoughtfully framed, The Exorcist follows a very black and white, good versus evil conflict: Father Merrin V Satan for the soul of an innocent child. But thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this situation. And thanks to Friedkin’s immaculate filming, we are entranced by early wide shots of a golden Middle East, then brought in a little closer to watch people running here and there on the campus at Georgetown or on the streets of NYC.

Then we pull in a bit closer: interiors of Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) place on location, the hospital where Fr. Karras’s mother is surrounded by loons, the labs and conference rooms where an impotent medical community fails to cure poor Regan (Linda Blair).

Then closer, in the bedroom, where you can see Regan’s breath in the chilly air, examine the flesh rotting off her young face. Here, in the intimacy, there’s no escaping that voice, toying with everyone with such vulgarity.
The voice belongs to Mercedes McCambridge, and she may have been the casting director’s greatest triumph. Of course, Jason Miller as poor, wounded Fr. Damien Karras could not have been better. Indeed, he, Burstyn and young Linda Blair were all nominated for Oscars.

So was Friedkin, the director who balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre.

So that’s it! We hope you agree, but let us know if you don’t, and be sure to listen to the entire podcast on Fright Club!

Paging Mr. Neeson

The Gunman

by Hope Madden

Taken director Pierre Morel helms a film where a middle aged man with a particular set of skills finds himself marked for death and must shoot/stab/explode/punch his way out of it to redeem himself and save the one he loves. At first blush, The Gunman just looks like a Liam Neeson movie with a better cast, right? Not quite.

Sean Penn (2-time Oscar winner and 5-time nominee) goes beefcake as Terrier, the retired and oft shirtless gun-for-hire who gets pulled back in. Terrier was once a triggerman for a Democratic Republic of Congo assassination, but he’s carried that guilt and the remorse over a bad breakup for 8 years. Now, with a plot against his life (the contrivance that gets him into and out of hot water is beyond ludicrous), he sets out to make amends.

Penn cannot find his footing as an action hero. Yes, he now has the build for it, but his performance is laborious. Whether he’s smooshy and romantic or single mindedly ripping through foes, nothing has the honesty of his dramatic work or the exciting edge of an action flick.

Flanking Penn are Oscar winner and 3-time nominee Javier Bardem (arguably the best actor of his generation) and the endlessly underrated character actor Ray Winstone. Both men are worth watching, each chewing scenery just enough to keep their screen time vibrant and intriguing. Neither actor has ever turned in a lackluster performance, and this film needs that level of generosity and skill.

Unfortunately for us, the great Idris Alba is woefully underused and Terrier’s love interest Annie (Jasmine Trinca) is both predictably bland and, at twenty-plus years Penn’s junior, embarrassingly young for the effort.

Morel cannot find a usable path through the convoluted story and the only tensions that feel real at all are those in fleeting scenes between Penn and Bardem. There’s a murkiness to the script that requires more skill than Morel has ever shown, and the final product suffers from misplaced drama, uneven tensions, badly tacked on symbolism and misspent artistic capital.

At least with Neeson’s current catalog you know what you’re in for. The Gunman doesn’t know what it is. Too plodding to be an action movie, too obvious to be a thriller, too needlessly bloody to be a drama, The Gunman is a man without a country.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Band on the Run

The Wrecking Crew

by George Wolf

Giving credit where it’s due is a fine idea – no matter how long it takes. After years of legal delays, The Wrecking Crew arrives as the latest documentary to give unsung musicians a well deserved spotlight.

The film premiered on the festival circuit in 2008, but a wider release became hostage to publishing disputes over the music, which amounts to a non-stop hit parade from the 60s and 70s. During that time, a group of select L.A. session musicians played on countless songs -often uncredited. The record may have said Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, the Righteous Brothers, or even the Beach Boys, but the session band behind them all was unknown except to music biz insiders, which dubbed the group the “Wrecking Crew.”

The Crew’s lead guitarist was Tommy Tedesco, and the film is directed by his son Denny as a bonafide labor of love. What 2002’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown did for the Funk Brothers – namely, pull the curtain back on their immense contributions- Denny Tedesco wants to do for his father’s band.

We not only come to appreciate the group’s technical abilities, but glimpse the stylish additions they contributed during the record sessions -such as the bass line to “I Got You Babe” or the opening notes of “Wichita Lineman” – that often turned average into unforgettable.

Despite some uneven production values, Tedesco shows fine instincts for showcasing both musicianship and biography. We get to know his father, and several other members of the Crew, including bassist Carol Kaye. A trailblazer with immense talent and a winning personality, Kaye herself would be a fine choice for Tedesco’s next documentary.

There are also some great anecdotes from an array of famous faces…with a twist. The interviews are mostly years old, and seeing a vibrant Dick Clark, or Cher from three faces ago sometimes gives the film a musty air. But then, when a much younger Glen Campbell (himself a Wrecking Crew member before going solo) laughingly admits he can’t remember certain details of a story, there’s some unexpected poignancy to the foreshadowing of his current battle with Alzheimer’s.

Beyond all the feels, The Wrecking Crew comes off as a fun day at school, While not as polished or as universally entertaining as Standing in the Shadows of Motown or Twenty Feet from Stardom, it is just as much of a must see for fans of music history.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

 

Come Fly with Me

Above and Beyond

by Hope Madden

Roberta Grossman’s documentary Above and Beyond is full of surprises, but perhaps the most shocking thing of all is that it took almost 70 years for a filmmaker to decide to tell this story.

In 1948, a number of American pilots fresh from their WWII duties were courted for a new war effort. They were asked to fight in Israel’s war for independence, becoming the burgeoning nations first ever air force.

Grossman’s tale brims with excitement, derring-do, intrigue and impossible odds – not to mention all the hoo-rah you can squeeze into 90 minutes. Her film benefits from a truly unbelievable story that Grossman wisely mines for more than just sky high heroics.

The American pilots were all Jews who’d fought in WWII only to return home to the same anti-Semitism they’d faced as kids. While they saw the effort to aid the struggling new nation as their chance to subvert yet another Holocaust, for most of these men the fight became one of a personal and cultural relevance they could not have imagined.

Archival footage, reenactments and interviews with surviving pilots and their families are rarely balanced so well or to such entertaining effect. Where so many historical documentaries sink under reverential solemnity or textbook-like staleness, Grossman’s whips past with a combination of surprised laughter and amazed silence.

It’s impossible not to be charmed by these sweet old men and their war stories, but my favorite part was listening to comic genius Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) recount the stories of his father’s participation in the effort. Nutty!

While there are dry spots and flat moments, Above and Beyond boasts a giddy excitement about the whole effort, which is held aloft by the fascinating historical material and anchored with the moving spiritual realizations the battle brought to the pilots.

The film’s most painful flaw is Grossman’s myopic view of the struggle. Above and Beyond aches for some perspective concerning the Palestinian refugees and the lasting struggle facing the region since Israel’s established statehood. It’s an unfortunate oversight because without it the otherwise fascinating, informative and entertaining film feels incomplete.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Stand Still, Look Evil

Insurgent

by George Wolf

Just last year, Divergent glimpsed a dystopian future where destinies rose and fell with the company you kept, and social cliques were used to enforce a merciless pecking order. In short, high school all over again.

Insurgent, part two in the latest “three books as four movies” franchise, ups the ante on action, but delivers little more than some flashy CGI amid a formula growing increasingly tiresome.

Tris Pryor (Shailene Woodley) and her boyfriend Four (Theo James) are on the run from henchmen sent by Council leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Seems Jeanine has uncovered a strange, Hellraiser-looking puzzle box containing a message that could end the civil strife among her subjects. But this box can only be opened by a “divergent” with enough specialness to pass a variety of deadly tests…so Jeanine is hunting them all down to find the one.

Whoops, I mentioned “the one,” so I’ll pause now while director Robert Schwentke swoops in for a quick tight shot of Tris looking pensive. Get used to it.

There are some nifty visual sequences, but the core of Insurgent remains overly familiar young adult elements and overly bland presentation. The special girl burdened with a uniqueness she didn’t ask for, angst, melodrama, parental issues, walking among the rubble…all the basics are here. Ironic, then, that Schwentke (R.I.P.D., Red) doesn’t seem interested in moving his film beyond the ordinary.

The dream/virtual reality red herrings are as numerous as they are obvious, and those high drama arm -grab turnarounds are better left to the daytime soaps. Woodley is one of the best young actresses working, and she is plenty spunky during Insurgent‘s action scenes, but she’s saddled with dialogue and direction that is difficult to elevate. Even the great Winslet is reduced to standing still and looking villainous.

Attempts at social commentary are clunky at best, while contrivance in the script finally gives way to outright laziness, as when the common folk are enslaved by a behavior modifying implant which can’t be removed – until it is.

Tris is told, “We finally found a way to remove it.” Okay, then.

Two more Divergent films may be coming, but Insurgent will only leave you eager for the next round of Hunger Games.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars