The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.
Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.
There William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) will raise their five children: the infant Samuel, young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), nearly adolescent Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the eldest, Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), nearly a woman now.
Each performance is remarkable. The twins are enormously creepy and both parents are flawed in the most necessary and compelling ways. Young Scrimshaw offers layers and tenderness galore, leading to an astonishing scene it’s hard to imagine a child managing.
Still, it’s Taylor-Joy who not only anchors the film but gives it its vulnerable, burgeoning, ripening soul. She is flawless.
As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.
Every opportunity writer/director Robert Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.
Though The Witch is Eggers’s first feature as filmmaker, his long career in art direction, production and costume design are evident in this flawlessly imagined and recreated period piece.
Equally important is the work of Eggers’s collaborators Mark Kovan, whose haunting score keeps you unnerved throughout, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. From frigid exteriors to candle-lit interiors, the debilitating isolation and oppressive intimacy created by Blaschke’s camera feed an atmosphere ripe for tragedy and for horror.
As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.
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Man, those cenobites were scary cool, weren’t they?
Hellraiser, Clive Barker’s feature directing debut, worked not only as a grisly splatterfest, but also as a welcome shift from the rash of teen slasher movies that followed the success of Halloween. Barker was exploring more adult, decidedly kinkier fare, and Hellraiser is steeped in themes of S&M and the relationship between pleasure and pain.
Hedonist Frank Cotton solves an ancient puzzle box, which summons the fearsome Cenobites, who literally tear Frank apart and leave his remains rotting in the floorboards of an old house. Years later, Frank’s brother Larry moves into that house with his teenage daughter Kirsty and his new wife Julia (who, oh yeah, also happens to be Frank’s ex-lover).
A gash on Larry’s leg spills blood on the floor, which awakens the remains of Frank, who then requires more blood to complete his escape from the underworld. Julia, both repulsed and aroused by her old flame’s half-alive form, agrees to make sure more blood is soon spilled.
Meanwhile, young Kirsty accidentally opens the puzzle box, and when the Cenobites come for her, she offers a deal: let me go, and I’ll lead you to Uncle Frank.
What? A teenager in a horror flick doing some cool headed problem solving?
It was another way that Hellraiser rose above some weak production elements to stand out, and hail the arrival of Clive Barker as an important new name in horror.
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How is it we haven’t done this one yet? So many to choose from – most of them bad. Grizzly? Or Grizzly 2: The Concert? You know how we feel about Monkey Shines.
But, an animal attack has to be the human’s most primal fear, and it is sometimes mined for real terror when the story is in the right hands. Though there are a handful that fell just off the list – Burning Bright, Black Water, Lake Placid, The Shallows – these made the most lasting impression. They left bite marks.
5. Cujo (1983)
A New England couple, struggling to stay afloat as a family, has some car trouble. This naturally leads to a rabid St. Bernard adventure.
But before we get into all that, we’re privy to the infidelities that undermine the marriage of Donna (Dee Wallace) and Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly). Remarkably, it’s Donna who’s boning elsewhere. You might expect such behavior from her perennially shirtless husband, but no. Apparently dressing like Ma Engle is a real draw for New England boys.
This film is easy to write off. It dates terribly, from the heavy handed set up to the weak exposition to the inescapably Eighties score to Daniel Hugh Kelly’s ridiculous hair. Let’s not even get into this big, friendly St. Bernard covered in Caro Syrup pretending to be a menace, or the hillbilly family running the garage. (Stephen King will be damned if the South gets to corner the market on scary rural folk!)
Still, with all its many, many faults, once Donna and her asthmatic son (pre-Who’s the Boss Danny Pintauro) find themselves trapped in their broken down Pinto (What? Those seem like such reliable cars!) with a rabid dog (bigger than the car) attacking, the film ratchets up the tensions and rewards you for your patience.
Profoundly claustrophobic and surprisingly tense, benefitting immeasurably by Wallace’s full commitment to the role, the third of the film where we’re trapped in the heat inside that Pinto just about makes up for the entire rest of the picture.
4. Rogue (2007)
In 2007, Wolf Creek writer/director Greg McLean returned, again with the intention of scaring tourists out of Australia.
Australia – if I remember my Crocodile Hunter program, you know, before the deadly beasts of Australia finally killed him – is home to more man eating sharks, poisonous snakes, poisonous spiders, crocodiles and alligators than anywhere else on earth. It’s also the spot right under the hole in the ozone. I swear. The thing that seems to fuel McLean’s work is a bone-deep puzzlement over Australia’s tourism draw.
He’s not all anti-Oz, though. The aerial shots of his native nation’s North Territory inspire awe, and much of the film makes the rugged landscape a major character as riverboat tour guide Kate (Radha Mitchell) veers her group off course to answer another craft’s distress signal. Her boat’s quickly grounded when something bumps it, and she and her crew of tourists find themselves banked on a tiny mud island as daylight diminishes. Eventually they realize that inside that murky river is one mammoth crocodile.
One reason this film works as well as it does is that the croc looks cool. Another is that the performances are rock solid – Mitchell and Wolf Creek co-star John Jarratt, in particular, but look out for Sam Worthington in a small role. But the real star is McLean, who can ratchet up tension like nobody’s business. You know what’s coming, and yet still you jump. Every time.
3. Open Water (2003)
Jaws wasn’t cinema’s only powerful shark horror. In 2003, young filmmaker Chris Kentis’s first foray into terror is unerringly realistic and, therefore, deeply disturbing.
From the true events that inspired it to one unreasonably recognizable married couple, from superbly accurate dialog to actual sharks, Open Water’s greatest strength is its unsettling authenticity. Every element benefits from Chris Kentis’s control of the project. Writer, director, cinematographer and editor, Kentis clarifies his conception for this relentless film, and it is devastating.
A couple on vacation (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) books a trip on a crowded, touristy scuba boat. Once in the water, they swim off on their own – they’re really a little too accomplished to hang with the tourists. And then, when they emerge from the depths, they realize the boat is gone. It’s just empty water in every direction.
Now, sharks aren’t an immediate threat, right? I mean, tourist scuba boats don’t just drop you off in shark infested waters. But the longer you drift, the later it gets, who knows what will happen?
2. The Birds (1963)
As The Birds opens, wealthy socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) has followed hottie bachelor lawyer Mitch (Rod Taylor) to little Bodega Bay, his hometown, to play a flirtatious practical joke of cat and mouse. But you know what will eat both cats and mice? Birds.
Hitchcock introduces a number of provocative characters, including Hedren’s not-that-likeable heroine. Suzanne Pleshette’s lovelorn schoolteacher’s a favorite. But whatever the character, the dread is building, so they need to work together to outwit these goddamn birds.
The film is basically an intelligent zombie film, although it predates our traditional zombie by a good many years, so maybe, like every other dark film genre, the zombie film owes its history to Hitchcock. The reason the birds behave so badly is never explained, they grow in number, and they wait en masse for you to come outside. No one’s off limits – a fact Hitch announces at the children’s party. Nice!
Though the FX were astonishing for 1963, the whole episode feels a bit campy today. But if you’re in the mood for a nostalgic, clean cut and yet somehow subversive foray into fairly bloodless horror, or if, like one of us, you’re just afraid of birds, this one’s a classic.
1. Jaws (1975)
What else – honestly?
Twentysomething Steven Spielberg’s game-changer boasts many things, among them one of the greatest threesomes in cinematic history. The interplay among the grizzled and possibly insane sea captain Quint (Robert Shaw), the wealthy young upstart marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the decent lawman/endearing everyman Brody (Roy Scheider) helps the film transcend horror to become simply a great movie.
Perhaps the first summer blockbuster, Jaws inspired the desire to be scared silly. And in doing so it outgrossed all other movies of its time. You couldn’t deny you were seeing something amazing – no clichés, all adventure and thrills and shocking confidence from a young director announcing himself as a presence.
Spielberg achieved one of those rare cinematic feats: he bettered the source material. Though Peter Benchley’s nautical novel attracted droves of fans, Spielberg streamlined the text and surpassed its climax to craft a sleek terror tale.
It’s John Williams’s iconic score; it’s Bill Butler’s camera, capturing all the majesty and the terror, but never too much of the shark; it’s Spielberg’s cinematic eye. The film’s second pivotal threesome works, together with very fine performances, to mine for a primal terror of the unknown, of the natural order of predator and prey.
Jaws is the high water mark for animal terror. Likely it always will be.
Best vampire ever. Not the seductive, European aristocrat, cloaked and mysterious, oh no. With Count Orlock, filmmaker F. W. Murnau explores something more repellant, casting an actor who resembles an albino naked mole rat.
Given that Murnau equates the film’s vampire-related deaths with the plague, this vermin-like image fits well. But more than that, thanks to a peculiarly perfect performance by Max Schreck, Murnau mines the carnality of the vampire myth for revulsion and fear rather than eroticism.
Famously, the film was meant to be the first Dracula movie, but Murnau could not work out an agreement with Bram Stoker’s estate (who later sued, and all copies of the film were nearly lost). He changed a handful of things in an attempt to avoid the eventual lawsuit and filmed anyway. Names are changed (Harker is now Hutter, Dracula is Orlock, etc.), and details are altered, but the story remains largely – well, criminally – the same.
The genius move is the spindly, bald hunchback for a vampire – why, he’s almost a European Monty Burns! Murnau’s mastery behind the camera – particularly his ability to capture the vampire’s shadow – made the film a breathtaking horror show at the time. But don’t discount this as dusty history.
Sure, the silent film style of acting appears nothing short of quaint today, and the Dracula tale has been told too, too often at this point. But Max Schreck is a freak, and in his bony, clawlike hands, Count Orlock remains the greatest vampire ever undone by a sinless maiden.
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Zombieland is quite possibly the perfect movie. Just when Shaun of the Dead convinced me that those Limey Brits had create the best-ever zombie romantic comedy, it turns out they’d only created the most British zombie romantic comedy. The Yank counterpart is even better, and with this amount of artillery, it’s certainly a more American vision.
Let’s start with the effervescently clever writing. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take the tried-and-true zombiepocalypse premise and sprint with it in totally new and awesome directions.
And the cameo. I cannot imagine a better one. I mean that. I’m not sure a walk on by Jesus himself could have brought me more joy.
That’s not true. Plus, in zombie movie?! How awesome would that have been?!
The performances kick ass, also. Thank you Rubin Fleischer for respecting each character enough to allow them a good balance of stupid mistakes, solid decisions and laughs.
Jesse Eisenberg anchors the film with an inspired narration and an endearing dork characterization. Yes, we’ve seen him dork before. One dork nearly won him an Oscar. Still, this is one of his finer dorks.
But Woody Harrelson owns this film. His gun toting, Twinkie loving, Willie Nelson singing, Dale Earnhart number wearing redneck ranks among the greatest horror heroes ever.
I give you, a trip to a loud and well-lit amusement park is not a recommendation Max Brooks would make during the zombiepocalypse. Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a gloriously filmed piece of action horror cinema.
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Good versus evil. Heaven versus hell. The first 15 minutes of Inferno versus the last 105 minutes…
Director Ron Howard’s latest Dan Brown adaptation reprises Tom Hanks as the clearly tenured Professor Robert Langdon, once again caught up in a global conspiracy that will require his knowledge of symbols, art and religious icons to solve a series of puzzles.
And this time, it’s not just Catholicism that hangs in the balance—Langdon soon learns he’s tracking a deadly virus that, if released, would wipe out much of the world’s population.
Langdon spends the first 15 minutes of the film recovering from a bullet wound and massive head trauma, with no memory of the last few days. He hears voices and suffers violent hallucinations plagued with visions of medieval horror. The quick cuts are unsettling, as if Jason Bourne dropped acid while watching The Omen.
The Dantean grotesques invading Langdon’s head and complete lack of plot coherence also hinted at the chance that maybe, just maybe, Howard would pull off the greatest conspiracy of all and turn a lavish studio tentpole into an unhinged Italian horror send-up.
And then Langdon’s memory starts to come back. That’s when the rest of the film segues from Dario Argento to standard thriller. (You can reliably track the dullness of the movie with the sharpness of Langdon’s puzzle skills.)
It’s not that the thriller portion of Inferno is bad, although it is equal parts frenetic and nonsensical. Based on the source material, though, the relentless pacing is probably for the best, or else you’ll start to wonder when the World Health Organization started building up lethal military commandos without the United Nations getting concerned. Or why nobody is too bothered by the existence of a secret multinational security company that almost destroyed the world. (Or why the movie wastes the electric Irrfan Khan as the group’s leader.) Go in with the right expectations, though, and Inferno won’t disappoint.
Where Inferno really misses the mark isn’t so much its tiredness as a thriller but its complete lack of relevance. Paranoid classics like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men oozed 1970s zeitgeist like blood on bitumen.
But in 2016, at the climax of the United States election—of this election, in these times—Inferno opts to menace us with an asocial Silicon Valley businessman (played by Ben Foster) whose views on humans are just a hair to the right of some actual Silicon Valley CEOs and venture capitalists.
Forgive the plot. Forgive Robert Langdon’s haircuts. Forgive Foster, whose face earns infinite goodwill by reminding you that he also spent 2016 onscreen in Hell or High Water.
But in a movie that, including the end credits, makes rational sense for maybe 20 minutes, the biggest unsolved mystery is how little feels at stake—and how unimaginative the film thinks about what the end of the world as we know it might look like.
Writer/director Kelly Reichardt sees something extraordinary in the simple daily struggle of ordinary people. Her latest film, Certain Women, again observes with genuine interest the (mostly) routine choices and sacrifices that quietly shape lives.
Weaving together three separate tales, each with just a whisper of a connection to the next, she tells of the isolation and disappointments coloring the lives of certain small town women.
Laura Dern stands out, exasperated but compassionate, as a rural Montana lawyer contending with a confused and obstinate client (Jared Harris, wonderful). Their story crescendos with uncharacteristic (for Reichardt) drama, but even here, the intimacy and understatement highlight something far more human than the tale itself predicts.
Reichardt regular Michelle Williams leads the second story, one full of understated moments echoing with regret and longing. The third, starring Kristen Stewart as a new lawyer teaching a class and Lily Gladstone as the desperately lonely ranch hand she befriends, is the most hushed and heartbreaking.
Stewart, who’s been so strong in recent roles (Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, Equals), falls back a bit on her trademark angst, but Gladstone’s aching loneliness balances it out.
It isn’t simply the characters, beautifully wrought as they are, that carry these loosely braided tales. Reichardt’s eloquently captured Montana landscape, lovely but hard, both informs and reflects each of the leads.
She’s working again with regular collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, and together they let the rugged landscape speak as loudly, or as quietly, as the cast.
Few filmmakers – if any – can create such texture in a film. Reichardt rushes nothing, letting every scene breathe, every performance matter. There’s no shorthand here, and viewers thirsting for clear-cut drama and momentum may be uncomfortable with her choices. But those familiar with her work – Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), in particular – will embrace the quiet intimacy of the portraits.
Writer/director Till Kleinert’s atmospheric Der Samurai blends Grimm Brother ideas with Samurai legend to tell a story that borders on the familiar but manages always to surprise.
Jakob, an entirely unintimidating police officer in a remote German berg, has been charged with eliminating the wolf that’s frightening villagers. Moved by compassion or longing, Jakob can’t quite make himself accomplish his task – a fact that villagers and his commanding officer find predictably soft. But a chance encounter with a wild-eyed stranger wearing a dress and carrying a samurai sword clarifies that the wolf is probably not the villagers’ – or Jakob’s – biggest problem.
Pit Bukowski cuts a peculiar but creepy figure as the Samurai – kind of a cross between Iggy Pop and Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs’s Buffalo Bill). His raw sexuality offers the perfect counterpoint to the repressed Jakob (Michel Diercks). As their cat and mouse game gains momentum, it appears the Samurai is here to upend all of Jakob’s inhibitions by eliminating anyone keeping him from embracing to his primal urges – getting “rid of the blockage once and for all.”
That’s what the sword is for.
Kleinert’s sneaky camera builds tension in every scene, and the film’s magnificent sound design echoes with Jakob’s isolation as well as that of the village itself. And though much of the imagery is connected in a way to familiar fairy tales or horror movies, the understated approach gives it all a naturalism that is unsettling.
Not that Kleinert’s content to take a naturalistic path all the way through. His tale has roots in old Germanic folklore, so the director peppers the film with enough magical realism to evoke that dreamy – in this case, nightmarish – childhood logic.
It’s a beautiful film about embracing or forever suppressing your inner monster, but this is no ordinary Jekyll and Hyde retread. Kleinert’s vision is steeped in sexuality and sexual identity, giving it a fascinating relevance often missing in this style of horror film.
The film pulls you along with a “Will he or won’t he? Is he or isn’t he?” kind of tension, and at times you’ll fear that you’ve figured out a plot twist in advance, but Kleinert is never that obvious. Though the resolution is not as surefooted as the rest of his film, the overall effort is a uniquely memorable affair.
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For any aspiring musician, it all starts with a dream.
“I want the severed head of Phil Collins in my ‘fridge by the end of the decade, or it will all be a failure.”
Liam Gallagher may have swung and missed on that declaration (Phil’s okay, right?), but merely two and a half years after forming Oasis in the early 1990s, Liam and his older brother Noel led one of the most popular bands on the planet.
How’d that happen?
The Gallaghers admit that’s “a big question that deserves a big answer,” and director Mat Whitecross provides it with the wildly entertaining Oasis: Supersonic.
Whitecross, along with the producers behind the academy award-winning doc Amy, is blessed with an illuminating stash of archival footage that stretches back before the band’s first official gig at King Tut’s Wha Wha Hut in Glasgow (try the Haggis!). Whitecross often combines that footage with graphics and animation to keep the pace lively and somewhat on par with the Gallagher boys’ spontaneous outbursts of attitude.
Both Liam and Noel earn a producing credit on the film, but you never get the feeling they’re trying to craft perceptions or avoid messy details. In fact some moments, such as the playback of a phone call where they physically threaten their estranged father, can get awkwardly intimate.
And mom Peggie is a hoot.
While the film admits that “Noel has a lot of buttons, and Liam has a lot of fingers,” the brothers’ contentious relationship seems less of a stumbling block to the band’s existence than the stifling effects of surprisingly massive success.
Whitecross avoids any Behind the Music-style ruminations on the fall from grace, and his film is better for it. Music fan or not, Oasis: Supersonic stands as a fascinating and satisfying journey.
It’s isolated, it’s haunted, you’re trapped, but somehow nothing feels derivative and you’re never able to predict what happens next. It’s Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece rendition of Stephen King’s The Shining.
Though critics were mixed at the time of the film’s release, and both Kubrick and co-star Shelley Duvall were nominated for Razzies, much of the world’s negative response had to do with a needless affection for the source material. Kubrick and co-scriptor Diane Johnson use King’s novel as little more than an outline, and the film is better for it.
A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrance’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.
The hypnotic, innocent sound of Danny Torrance’s Big Wheel against the weirdly phallic patterns of the hotel carpet tells so much – about the size of the place, about the monotony of the existence, about hidden perversity. The sound is so lulling that its abrupt ceasing becomes a signal of spookiness afoot.
Duvall terrifies in that she is so visibly terrified. She may be “somewhat more resourceful” than Mr. Grady and his cohorts imagined, but she is a bit of a simpleton. Her gangly, Joey Ramone looks – so boney and homely – are shot to elongate what’s already too long, making her seem like a vision of death.
Let’s not forget Jack.
Nicholson outdoes himself. His early, veiled contempt blossoms into pure homicidal mania, and there’s something so wonderful about watching Nicholson slowly lose his mind. Between writer’s block, isolation, ghosts, alcohol withdrawal, midlife crisis, and “a momentary loss of muscular coordination,” the playfully sadistic creature lurking inside this husband and father emerges.
What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That freaky guy in the bear suit? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.
And, if you’re in the mood for a double feature, check out last year’s Room 237. As it explores various interpretations of Kubrick’s vision that vary in wackiness, it cements the effect The Shining still has on pop culture.
Speaking of.. if you’ve never seen The Simpsons take on it, The Shinning, you gotta remedy that.