Fright Club: Disabilities in Horror

From the earliest horror films, physical disabilities have plagued characters. It’s the inherent vulnerability that makes the topic such a draw for the genre, but some films – like these five – defy your expectations.

5. Planet Terror

Losing a leg – in most horror movies, this would spell doom for a character. Not in Robert Rodriguez’s half of Grindhouse, though. Indeed, for Rose McGowan’s Cherry Baby, an amputated limb turns her to the film’s most daring badass.

A machine gun for a leg! How awesome is that?! McGowan strikes the right blend of hard knock and vulnerability to keep the character interesting – beyond the whole leg of death thing. I mean, you’d hardly call her boring.

The entire film is a whole lot of throw-back fun – gory, fun, lewd, funny, gross (so, so gross). It’s so much fun that even a lengthy Tarantino cameo doesn’t spoil things. And it makes the point that people who’ve been struck by physical disabilities can still be total badasses – not to mention hot as F.

4. Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates had been knocking around Hollywood for decades, but no one really knew who she was until she landed Misery. Her sadistic nurturer Annie Wilkes – rabid romance novel fan, part time nurse, full time wacko – ranks among the most memorable crazy ladies of modern cinema.

James Caan plays novelist Paul Sheldon, who kills off popular character Misery Chastain, then celebrates with a road trip that goes awry when he crashes his car, only to be saved by his brawniest and most fervent fan, Annie. Well, she’s more a fan of Misery Chastain’s than she is Paul Sheldon’s, and once she realizes what he’s done, she refuses to allow him out of her house until she brings Misery back to literary life.

Caan seethes, and you know there’s an ass kicking somewhere deep in his mangled body just waiting to get out. The film’s tension is generated by way of his utter helplessness as he’s trapped in that bed – on the road to recovery until…. Well, we assume you know the scene.

There is so much to be said for the sharp writing, the outstanding performances, and the way the film subverts your expectations of villains, women, men, and disability.

And mallets.

3. Don’t Breathe (2016)

Young thugs systematically robbing the few remaining upscale Detroit homeowners follow their alpha into a surefire hit: a blind man (Stephen Lang) sitting on $300k.

Unfortunately for our trio – Rocky (Evil Dead’s Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) – this blind man is not the easy mark they’d predicted.

The always effective Lang cuts an impressive figure as the blind veteran with mad skills and crazy secrets. Wisely, director Fede Alvarez sidesteps easy categories. Though you may think you recognize each character as they first appear, no one is as easy to pigeonhole as you may think.

There are surprises enough to confound and amaze. You may think you have the old man’s secret figured out, but so do our hapless felons. Things get a little nuts as the tale rolls on, but thanks to the film’s breakneck pace and relentless tension, you’ll barely have time to breathe, let alone think.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

With this horror masterpiece, director Tobe 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.

Hooper also cast aside any concerns for dignity or fair play, a theme best personified by wheelchair-bound Franklin. Franklin is supremely unlikeable – whiney and selfish – ending horror’s long history of using personal vulnerability to make a character more sympathetic. Films such as Wait Until Dark and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Rear Window – excellent films, all – ratcheted up tension through the sympathy they could generate toward the helpless character. These films’ anxiety and payoff both owe everything to watching the vulnerable protagonist in danger, and waiting for them to overcome the odds.

But Hooper is after an entirely different kind of tension. He dashes your expectations, making you uncomfortable, as if you have no idea what you could be in for. As if, in watching this film, you yourself are in more danger than you’d predicted.

But not more danger than Franklin is in, because Franklin is not in for a good time.

1. Freaks (1932)

Short and sweet, like most of its performers, Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks is one of those movies you will never forget. Populated almost entirely by unusual actors – midgets, amputees, the physically deformed, and an honest to god set of conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) – Freaks makes you wonder whether you should be watching it at all.

This, of course, is an underlying tension in most horror films, but with Freaks, it’s right up front. Is what Browning does with the film empathetic or exploitative, or both? And, of course, am I a bad person for watching this film?

Well, that’s not for us to say. We suspect you may be a bad person, perhaps even a serial killer. Or maybe that’s us. What we can tell you for sure is that the film is unsettling, and the final, rainy act of vengeance is truly creepy to watch.

Dream Dates

Southside With You

by George Wolf

Even if you knew nothing about the characters involved, Southside With You would be a sweet, smart, refreshingly grown up romance. It does nothing more than follow two people over the course of their first date.

But these people are Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama during a very hot Chicago day in 1989, and writer/director Richard Tanne, in a confident feature debut, finds plenty of resonance in an otherwise uneventful afternoon that changed the course of history.

As Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) visit a museum, attend a community event, see a movie and get ice cream, Tanne’s dialogue lets us glimpse not only the beginning of one particularly important love story, but also more universal themes of identity, racism, sexism, political compromise and social justice.

Both leads are exceptional. We know these people, but not like this and not back then, and the actors are able to find that delicate balance between conveying first date curiosity and foreshadowing future achievements.

Sumpter (also one of the film’s producers) brings grace and measured defiance to the future First Lady while Sawyers nails Mr. Obama’s gait and speech pattern without the slightest hint of caricature or impersonation. As the couple flirts, argues and engages in a wonderfully free flowing conversation, the actors’ chemistry is irresistible.

Thought-provoking, slyly aware and unabashedly romantic, Southside With You could be the start of an exciting relationship with a talented new filmmaker.



Do You Smell That?

Mechanic: Resurrection

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Who smells hot trash? Is it a dumpster fire?

No, it’s just the latest Jason Statham movie.

Mechanic: Resurrection revisits the by-the-numbers Statham character Arthur Bishop. Back in 2011, Statham reprised the role first held by Charles Bronson in a middling-to-fair remake of The Mechanic. That film inexplicably merited a sequel that was not direct-to-home-viewing. Why that is confounds us.

Get nervous Gods of Egypt and London has FallenMechanic: Resurrection wants that “worst film of the year” award, and it is not above soiling itself with incompetence to get it.


Bishop faked his own death years back so he could escape his pointless existence as an assassin, but an old enemy has tracked him down. And brought henchmen! And kidnapped master thespian Jessica Alba! Damn this confining shirt!


Statham removes his shirt no fewer than 8 times in the film’s 99-minute running time. That’s almost once every ten minutes. The man is 49, so good for him, and for that core audience he’s built over a career of shirtless man-on-man action.


Alba’s character development is more nuanced. She keeps her shirt on, but it’s always clingy and sometimes…even wet.

Remember how great Statham was in last year’s Spy? His turn as Rick Ford, uber-macho super agent, was hilarious specifically because it was sending up ludicrous movies just like Mechanic: Resurrection.

Bishop criss-crosses the globe with nary a toothbrush, yet at a moment’s notice he has access to countless bomb-making chemicals, ammunition, kick ass scuba equipment and multiple expensive watches. Then, before Bishop has to dive into shark-infested waters, the film is careful to show him applying a shark repellent lotion (patent pending), just to keep it real. Come on, by that point we’re expecting any sharks to have lasers on their heads on a direct order from Dr. Evil.

The sad thing is, this movie could have been saved. Make a few edits, give it a new score, call it Spy 2: Ford Gets His Own Movie, and you’ve got comedy gold. As is, this film is so bad John Travolta is jealous.


Yes, and…

Don’t Think Twice

by Cat McAlpine

The three rules of improv are as follows:

1. Say yes
2. It’s all about the group
3. Don’t think

The six members of improv troupe The Commune live, bend, and break these rules on stage and in the green room in Don’t Think Twice. The ensemble dramedy pits the dreams of your 20s against the hard realities of your 30s and asks: When is it okay to be about me?

With the self-awareness of an improv performance, Don’t Think Twice keeps it real and stays grounded. The most recognizable face in the cast, Keegan-Michael Key (Key and Peele), plays Jack, the guy with a real shot at stardom. Samantha (Community’s Gillian Jacobs), has the skill but not the desire while Miles (Mike Birbiglia, who also wrote and directed) refuses to accept that he just doesn’t have what it takes.

Don’t Think Twice is intentional in its choices that way, inviting the audience to arrive with whatever context they can. Birbiglia never lets the drama spiral too low, either, immediately scooping you up again with jokes and laughter. The Commune develops several inside jokes throughout the course of the film, meaning you’re not only in on it, you understand how this sort of family keeps laughing even when life stops being funny.

At the beginning of each Commune show, Samantha asks “Did anyone have a particularly difficult day?” The ironic part, as most actors and improvisers will tell you, is that the best place to work through your own intimate problems is on stage in front of an audience.

We see this mechanism in action quite beautifully throughout this film, as Birbiglia uses the show-inside-a-show format to explore many themes.

His most powerful visual element, for instance, is the staging of chairs. Before each performance starts, the cast chairs are arranged onstage. In prepping for the performance, all the chairs are lined up neatly in a row, and if a performer is missing their chair is removed. The improvisers drag these chairs across the stage as needed throughout their performance, with the point being there is a chair for each of them. This literal setting of the stage underscores the narrative’s emotional current, and becomes a strong indicator of mood. “Hey, we’re about to work through some shit, and here’s exactly what we’re working with.”

Don’t Think Twice is a film that takes an honest look at “making it” from all sides. It challenges the notions of success and fame, and suggests that it’s okay to love doing something even if you never want to be famous for it.

If you’re invited to go see Don’t Think Twice this weekend, reply “Yes, and…”


Split Decision

Hands of Stone

by George Wolf

Early in Hands of Stone, legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro) is schooling future legendary boxer Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) on technique versus strategy. The film tells us there are vital differences, then shows us these differences aren’t just in the ring.

Like a fighter too caught up in the moment to remember the plan, the film boasts solid fundamentals but employs a tired strategy while exploring more openings than it can safely land.

Duran was born in Panama, rising to stardom against a backdrop of poverty and political unrest in his homeland. So of course his story is told from the old white guy’s point of view. Trainers are a natural element in boxing movies, true, but anchoring this one with Arcel is just bad strategy. I mean, Mickey was great at telling us that women weaken legs, but he never altered the long game: telling Rocky’s story.

Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s respect for Duran is evident, and sincere enough to not shy away from some of the unflattering aspects of Duran’s past. Equal confidence that his story could be told on its own terms would have been welcome. Ramirez rises above it with a terrific performance, capturing the early hunger and eventual crash of a gifted champion who often seemed plagued by contradictions.

DeNiro brings a nicely underplayed grace to the wise narrator’s role while Ana de Armas is dynamic as Duran’s wife Felicidad, showing her recent one-note role in War Dogs was a complete waste of both time and talent.

The fine performances do much to keep the film grounded as it struggles to find a consistent voice. Jakubowicz wants us to understand the social, political and familial forces that nagged Duran, but also lament how great boxing used to be and appreciate Duran’s rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard (nicely done Usher Raymond).

It’s a crowded narrative, even before Arcel’s own family dramas and mob connections come to call.

Hands of Stone shows admirable heart and strong technique, but is often derailed by scattershot focus and a questionable strategy. Call it a split decision.


Waiting to Exhale

Don’t Breathe

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Fede Alvarez announced his presence on the horror film scene with authority. His 2013 Evil Dead reboot was not only critically and commercially successful, it was also the bloodiest movie ever made. Nice.

For his sophomore effort Don’t Breathe, the director dials down the blood and gore in favor of almost unbearable tension generated through masterful deployment of set design, sound design, cinematography and one sparse but effective premise.

Young thugs systematically robbing the few remaining upscale Detroit homeowners follow their alpha into a surefire hit: a blind man (Stephen Lang) sitting on $300k.

The depleted urban landscape makes for an eerie reminder of the state of the once proud Motor City, but it’s also the perfect locale for a B&E – there are no neighbors left to call 911.

Unfortunately for our trio – Rocky (Evil Dead’s Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) – this blind man is not the easy mark they’d predicted.

This is a scrappy film that gives you very little in the way of character development, backstory or scope. Instead, Alvarez focuses so intently on what’s in front of you that you cannot escape – a tension particularly well suited to this claustrophobic nightmare.

A masterwork in efficiency, Don’t Breathe wastes barely a frame. So few elements are telegraphed that the rare overplaying of a hand – a camera holds too long on a mallet or lingers on a framed photo sitting upside down on a mantle – feels like a real disappointment.

Rodo Sayagues’s taut screenplay wastes little time, relying instead on Pedro Luque’s panicked camera to convey as much as we need to know about the predicament these three friends have gotten us all into.

The always effective Lang cuts an impressive figure as the blind veteran with mad skills and crazy secrets. Wisely, Alvarez sidesteps easy categories. Though you may think you recognize each character as they first appear, no one is as easy to pigeonhole as you may think.

As he does with so much of the rest of the film, Alvarez makes excellent use of what little we know about the characters to keep us anxious.

But that’s not all – there are surprises enough to confound and amaze. You may think you have the old man’s secret figured out, but so do our hapless felons. Things get a little nuts as the tale rolls on, but thanks to the film’s breakneck pace and relentless tension, you’ll barely have time to breathe, let alone think.




Thy Chariot Awaits


by George Wolf

It might be unfair to judge the latest version of Ben-Hur strictly by how well it handles the iconic chariot race, so let’s not. But bottom line: it’s not the most thrilling sequence in a film that too often feels more fitting for cable TV.

This time out, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Roman tribune Messala Severus (Toby Kebbel) are adoptive brothers torn apart by a false charge of sedition. After years as a prisoner and galley slave, Judah makes his way back to Rome to find his family and take revenge on his brother in the epic chariot battle.

Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) pops some eyes with a thrilling sequence depicting Judah’s escape from slavery during a shipwreck, while the chariot duel itself becomes a CGI-fest of choppy editing and hurried frames.

The screenplay, adapted from Lew Wallace’s novel by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, is more streamlined and faith-based, with the new thread in the rival’s relationship adding a soap opera quality of entangled family allegiances.

But after all these years (the first filmed adaptation was in 1907), the story still has power, enough to give the new Ben-Hur small moments of effective nuance amid the parade of empty spectacle.



Wolf of War Street

War Dogs

by George Wolf

War Dogs starts with a guy in the trunk of a car and works backward, ending two hours later over the sound of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” Though both devices are tactical errors, what’s between them is a fairly effective take on true, undeniably American events.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) was a struggling twenty-something massage therapist in Miami when he re-connected with childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Together, they grew Diveroli’s modest gun selling business into a 300 million dollar contract with the Pentagon to arm our allies in Afghanistan.

As Diveroli is quick to point out, “It’s not about being pro-war, it’s about being pro-money.”

Director/co-writer Todd Phillips, expanding a resume built on comedies such as The Hangover trilogy and Old School, brings a suitable zest to the insanity of this guns-to-riches tale, but falters when the time comes to move beyond his filmmaking comfort zone.

With The Big Short just last year, Adam McKay brought comedic sensibilities to the complexities behind financial corruption, dissecting a scandal with humor, insight, and most importantly, a constant undercurrent of outrage that War Dogs is missing.

It does feature a fantastic performance from Hill, and if you still doubt his acting chops after two Oscar nominations, that’s a YP. Hill is magnetic, making Diveroli a darkly charming sociopath who effortlessly becomes whomever his latest mark wants him to be. Don’t be surprised if nomination number three comes calling in a few months.

Teller is fine, if a bit underwhelming next to Hill, while Ana de Armas is asked to do little more than hold a baby in the embarrassingly cliched role of Packouz’s wife.

Phillips does serve up some hearty laughs and effective set pieces while telling this incredible tale, but too much of the journey feels like a testosterone-fueled romp that’s more about respect for the boys’ brazen ambition than the sad truths it revealed. It’s not that Phillips doesn’t want to dig deeper, he’s just not sure how to do it on his own terms.

More than anything, War Dogs is a film that constantly reminds you of other films. The Hangover vibe is rampant, from the guy in the trunk to the effective cameo by Bradley Cooper, but there are also shots lifted right from Scarface and Rain Man, plus stylistic nods to multiple Scorsese titles, especially Wolf of Wall Street.

That film, like The Big Short, carried a healthy dose of cynicism to dig at the wages of excess. War Dogs doesn’t, and closing with one of the most brilliantly cynical songs ever written only makes that fact more obvious.

It’s clear Phillips knows how to make us laugh. War Dogs is his uncertain step toward making us think, too.



Call Me Kubo

Kubo and the Two Strings

by Matt Weiner

Describing the story of Kubo and the Two Strings feels deeply wrong for a film that takes great pains to remind us of the raw power of storytelling—that our lives come and go, and all we can hold onto is the story of ourselves.

But here goes anyway: Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones‘ Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy who spends his days entertaining his village in a magical, ancient Japan. His nights are a lot less fun, thanks to dire if not particularly lucid warnings from his mother about returning home before dark.

As young heroes in mythical tales are wont to do, Kubo eventually stays out past sundown, invoking the wrath of familial specters (twin sisters, voiced by Rooney Mara) who doggedly pursue him through the village, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

Kubo’s mother saves the day, but at great cost, and Kubo soon finds himself on the run with little besides his stringed instrument known as a samisen, a talking monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and magical powers that grow stronger by the day.

First-time director Travis Knight makes an impressive debut after years of animation experience. Knight, also the president and CEO of Laika Studios, has given his group another modern stop-motion classic. Laika has never been a studio to tread lightly around adult themes in their animated films—but while Coraline and ParaNorman aren’t short on death, Kubo cuts to the emotional core with a story so saturated with loss that it becomes its own texture, something as visceral as the sumptuously animated hair or backgrounds.

Kubo follows the typical hero’s journey: suffer adversity, embark on a quest, encounter friends and foes, suffer more adversity, conquer evil. (None of this should come as a spoiler for the adults watching who have seen or read… well, pretty much any story before.)

But beneath the surface, Kubo and the Two Strings quietly but persistently makes us confront what it means to be alive, and just how tenuous the bonds we share are with the ones we love in this world. And the script deftly handles this emotional gut punch without getting sentimental.

All the way up to the end, the film continues to ask questions without easy answers. What’s the difference between a story, a memory and a lie? Are we more than that?

Maybe not. But it’s all we have, and if Kubo doesn’t inspire you to seek out new stories of your own, you might as well be dead already.


Texas Two Step

Hell or High Water

by Hope Madden

Two brothers in West Texas go on a bank robbing spree. Marshalls with cowboy hats pursue. It’s a familiar idea, certainly, and Hell or High Water uses that familiarity to its advantage. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) embraces the considerable talent at his disposal to create a lyrical goodbye to a long gone, romantic notion of manhood.

Two pairs of men participate in this moseying road chase. Brothers Toby and Tanner – Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively – are as seemingly different as the officers trying to find them. Those Texas Marshalls, played with the ease that comes from uncommon talent, are Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

Though both pairs feel like opposites at first blush, their relationships are more complicated than you might imagine. Foster, a magnificent character actor regardless of the film, is a playful menace. Though Pine’s Toby spends the majority of the film quietly observing, his bursts of energy highlight the kinship. Their often strained banter furthers the story, but moments of humor – many landing thanks to Foster’s wicked comic sensibility – do more to authenticate the relationship.

Likewise, Bridges – wearing the familiar skin of a grizzled old cowboy – makes every line, every breath, ever racist barb feel comfortably his own. Birmingham impresses as well, quietly articulating a relationship far muddier than the dialog alone suggests.

These four know what to do with Taylor Sheridan’s words.

Sheridan more than impressed with his screenwriting debut, last year’s blistering Sicario. Among other gifts, the writer remembers that every character is a character and his script offers something of merit to every body on the screen – a gift this cast does not disregard.

The supporting actors populating a dusty, dying landscape make their presence felt, whether Dale Dickey’s wizened bank teller, Katy Mixon’s spunky diner waitress, or a hilarious Margaret Bowman as another waitress you do not want to cross.

Even with the film’s unhurried narrative, not a moment of screen time is wasted. You see it in the investment in minor characters and in the utter, desolate gorgeousness of Giles Nuttgen’s photography. Every image Mackenzie shares adds to the air of melancholy and inevitability as our heroes, if that’s what you’d call any of these characters, fight the painful, oppressive, emasculating tide of change.

A film as well written, well acted, well photographed and well directed as Hell or High Water is rare. Do not miss it.