Waiting On a Friend

Come Play

by George Wolf

In a vacuum, Come Play is a fairly smart and mildly jump-scary slice of PG-13 horror for your Halloween weekend. It even finds an unexpected and satisfying way out of the monstrous concept that it fosters.

But the feature debut for writer/director Jacob Chase has trouble escaping the shadow of two other films. One is Larry, Chase’s own short from 2017, and the other is the modern horror classic that clearly inspired him.

Larry is the star of Misunderstood Monsters, a story app that Oliver, a non-verbal autistic boy (Azhy Robertson from Marriage Story), has stumbled onto. Larry says he just wants a friend, but he’s too scary, and Oliver resists.

But Larry just won’t be denied. And it isn’t long before Oliver’s estranged parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher, Jr.) have to admit they really are being terrorized by an entity let in through the screens on their many devices.

A monster from a troubled child’s story manifests itself in a home unsettled by emotional turmoil. Though the metaphors in Come Play are geared more toward multiplex than art house, the blueprint is plenty familiar.

Chase does prove himself to be an able technician, exhibiting some nifty camerawork and a fine sense of visual creepiness. But the road to his effective finale drags from a lack of solid scares and the feeling of filler that can plague a short film stepping up in class.

There are some valid ideas at work here. They’re not terribly urgent or original, but Come Play isn’t pretending they are. It’s a film with little interest in overthinking, for horror fans not interested in films that do.

Witchy Women

The Craft: Legacy

by Hope Madden

Does The Craft: Legacy miss the Goth Goddess vibe that only Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk) can bring to a teen horror about high school witchcraft?

Of course it does. All movies do. I can name very few films that would not benefit from at least a touch of Nancy Downs’s magic, although this one does seem to ache for it. Still, writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones does an admirable job of updating the angst, limiting the cattiness, and creating a coven worthy of the best weirdos.

The sequel of the 1996 cult classic drops into modern day suburbia with adorable little outcast Lily (Cailee Spaeny) and her mom (Michelle Monaghan). Mom is moving in with beau Adam (David Duchovny) and his three teenage sons, so Lily is trying to be supportive.

And then, it’s the first day of high school in a brand new school, which is, itself, the worst day of anyone’s life, right? No. This really becomes the worst day—THE WORST—until Lily is rescued by three new friends.

They like her even before they realize that she’s the witch they’ve been waiting for to fill out their coven. Yay!

Lister-Jones creates an atmosphere far more fun and accepting than the one you’ll find in the ’96 original. Written and directed by men (Peter Filardi and Andrew Fleming), The Craft created a sisterhood only to have it destroy itself from within.

In the sequel, girls are told that their difference makes them powerful and only villains seek to control a girl’s power for her.

The result is a lot of fun, although it’s also a film that loses track of its purpose pretty quickly. The stakes never feel especially high, and most of the real drama and peril aren’t introduced until halfway through the film, giving them a tacked on quality. It’s as if Lister-Jones really loved hanging out with these kids and then realized at the last minute she was going to have to give them something to do.

So it’s uneven. Characters are fun and performances are strong. Nicholas Galitzine is especially delightful in what amounts to a dual role. He’s equally convincing in each. Lovie Simone, Zoey Luna and Gideon Adlon round out the coven, and they are as adorable as Lily.

They just really need more to do.

Because You’re Mine

Spell

by Hope Madden

Spell is here to let you know that fear of backwoods folk is not for white people only.

Omari Hardwick is Marquis, an enormously successful corporate lawyer who is not above defending clients against class action lawsuits that would primarily benefit people of color like himself. Why does he do it? Because that’s his job, he’s good at his job, he makes a lot of money, and he worked very hard to get where he is.

How do we know that last bit? Well, nightmares about abuse wake him in the morning, plus he knows how to pick a lock when his wife somehow locks herself in her own bedroom. Marquis came from somewhere he’s not proud of, and now he has to pilot his own airplane with his wife and two teens back to Appalachia to go to his father’s funeral.

Spell is a by-the-numbers backwoods thriller. Our hero has forgotten where he comes from. This film plans to scare him into remembering.

Marquis wakes up all James Caan style in the bedroom of some helpful but controlling woman who wants him just to rest. He does not not want to rest, though. Quite reasonably, he wants to know where his family is, what happened to him, and why Miss Eloise (Loretta Devine) keeps the door to his room locked.

Deep in Appalachia, it seems, you will always find a creepy granny type who conjures a bit, an amiable grampa type who’s not as nice as he seems, and an extra-large, extra quiet Jethro kind of guy in bib overalls.

Screenwriter Kurt Wimmer doesn’t drum up too many surprises there. His screenplay borrows heavily from about a dozen films from Misery to The Skeleton Key to Green Inferno, not to mention every flick where a group stops off at a creepy gas station only to realize they’ve gone too far off the map for their own safety.

Wimmer is white, though, which makes this particular story an unusual one for him. Director Mark Tonderai does not get a screenwriting credit, so I guess we assume that this vernacular sprung from the head of Wimmer. I really hope not. It would be problematic enough coming from a Black writer.

Marquis’s foot, though. For gore hounds and the squeamish looking for a nasty thrill, that foot alone is almost worth it.

Until the third act. I am not one to suggest that ambiguity equals plot holes. I like movies that leave questions unanswered. Unless those questions are: Where did the entire cast of villains go off to, leaving the hero all the time in the world to travel wherever he needs to go in these woods? And why isn’t he even limping?

Teen Wolves

The True Adventures of Wolfboy

by George Wolf (no relation)

Have many Young Adult films carry a theme of self-acceptance? Plenty, but that’s not a problem.

It’s delivering that message via the same tired playbook that gets old, which is just one of the reasons The True Adventures of Wolfboy lands as a charming and completely captivating tale of a truly special teen.

And director Martin Krejci makes sure it feels like a tale in so many magical ways, starting with the beautifully ornate title cards separating each chapter in the journey of a lonely and self-loathing boy on his thirteenth birthday.

Paul (Jaeden Martell) suffers from hypertrichosis – an extremely rare affliction causing abnormal hair growth all over his face and body. He covers his face with a ski mask most of the time, but his father (Chris Messina) gently urges him to put the mask aside and accept the taunts of “dogboy!” with dignity.

Paul’s mother has been gone since he was born, but when a strange birthday gift delivers a map and a promise of explanations, Paul runs away to answer the invitation and get some answers from Mom (Chloe Sevigny).

Krejci crafts Paul’s journey from dog to wolf as an epic odyssey of self-discovery. From Pinnochio-like exploitation in a sideshow run by Mr. Silk (John Turturro, also a producer), to joining the eyepatch-wearing Rose (Eve Hewson) for a string of petty holdups, Paul’s world – and his world view – expands quickly.

But it is the effervescent teen Aristiana (transgender actress Sophie Giannamore) that most triggers Paul’s awakening. She hates the short “boy” haircut her mother insists on, while Paul is ashamed of how much hair he has. Her mother calls her Kevin, his mother doesn’t call at all.

Similarly, Martell delivers true tenderness and longing behind Mark Garbarino’s impressive makeup, while Giannamore is a heartwarming example of defiant positivity. Both actors and their characters bond quickly, and screenwriter Olivia Dufault (also transgender) finds a power that eludes so many YA dramas via the subtle genius of writing Aristiana as a secondary catalyst.

We already feel for Paul, so Aristiana’s effect on his self image is something we feel without being told. The point is made organically, with wit and wisdom, and much more resonance. What Paul finds at the end of his journey is sweet, but just gravy.

Wolfboy is the rare teen drama that speaks without condescension, and entertains without calculation.

That’s welcome, special even.

The Beast in Me

May the Devil Take You Too

by Hope Madden

Alfie (Chelsea Islan) is a badass survivor. You can tell because she’s really mean to everyone and she and others repeatedly mention the ordeal she’s already survived.

One problem: if you haven’t seen writer/director Timo Tjahjanto’s 2018 film May the Devil Take You—and you probably haven’t—you’ll need to take this film at its word. May the Devil Take You Too (also called May the Devil Take You: Chapter Two) revisits the hero of that little known Indonesian film two years after the incidents you likely don’t know about.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you totally know all about Alfie, young Nara (Hadijah Shahab) and some kind of demonic parenting issues. If you haven’t seen the original—and I haven’t, by the way—you should probably still be able to make heads or tails of this sequel’s story. More or less. Kind of.

So here’s the skinny. Meanie-pants Alfie, badass survivor, and young Nara find themselves the involuntary guests of seven foster siblings. Like Alfie, the group has some diabolical paternal concerns. It’s never at all clear why they think Alfie could help them, why Nara had to come, or why the whole thing is staged as a kidnapping.

The point is, best not to look closely at the details.

The filmmaker has his own take on religious ritual, possession and afterlife horror, although he is unafraid to wear his American influences on his sleeve. Evil Dead references are a lot less fun when delivered so humorlessly, though. (You may also detect several Nightmare on Elm Street references, and just a touch of Constantine.)

Chapter Two does a lot with a limited budget, relying mainly on old fashioned practical effects and makeup for scares—with frequently decent outcomes. There is some grisly fun to be had in Tjahjanto’s nightmare funhouse.

The filmmaker’s strength is certainly more in staging and effects than it is in writing, however. Contrived and often counter intuitive, the plot is little more than an opportunity to string together kills and the dialog is weak. Not one character makes natural decisions— mainly they stand around in a group looking shocked and screaming each other’s names while something happens.

But once it gets going, Chapter Two is pretty relentless with the bloody action. That’s probably not reason enough to see it, unless you’re a huge fan of the original. Maybe that one was good.

Fright Club: Making Your First Feature

Thrilled to be asked by Nightmares Film Festival to interview filmmaker Natalie James. The Relic director talks about the transition from shorts—like her NFF winning Creswick—to features.

Screening Room: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, The Witches, Rebecca, Empty Man & More

Bottle Feeding

The Empty Man

by George Wolf

Okay, so here’s the story: if you’re on a bridge at night and blow into an empty bottle, you’ll conjure the Empty Man. And in three days, he’ll find you.

Right, so it’s a bit of Candyman, some of The Ring, lots of jump scares and kills for Halloween, got it.

I don’t think you do…unless you’ve read Cullen Bunn’s graphic novels.

Writer/director David Prior adapts the series with James Badge Dale in the lead as James, an ex-cop still grieving from the loss of his wife and son. When the daughter of his good friend Nora (Marin Ireland) goes missing, James sidesteps the local Missouri cops for a rogue investigation of his own.

Prior, a video vet making his feature debut, lays down an atmosphere that gets plenty creepy, but seldom horrific. As James digs in, the film becomes a dark mystery, one full of freaky cult members with aspirations of total consciousness and malevolent chaos.

Dale keeps your interest with a terrific performance full of wounded determination, getting solid support from Ireland (plus Stephen Root in a memorable cameo).

But at nearly two hours and twenty minutes, it’s a bit too much of wandering slog in need of a leaner path.

Come in looking for a tidy little slasher, and you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re down for a dark and moody rumination on grief, metaphysics and itchy brains, you could conjure up worse than The Empty Man.

Paradise Found

Beasts Clawing at Straws

by Hope Madden

Who doesn’t enjoy a good bag o’cash flick?

Whether it’s the darkly humorous Lucky Grandma or lyrically tragic A Simple Plan, the terrifying innocence of Millions, or the violent masterpiece that is No Country for Old Men modern cinema has proven that you can do a lot with the combination of thrill, hijinks and dread that come along with an unexpected satchel full of bills.

Writer/director Kim Yong-Hoon pieces together just such emotions with his first feature. A nice guy, a missing person, that bag of cash, a mean tattoo, a lucky pack of cigarettes, a cool title—Beasts Clawing at Straws looks like it has it all.

Telling his tale in chapters that disjoint the narrative into a series of six interconnected plotlines, the filmmaker borrows the cinematic language of Tarantino and the Coens. If you’re going to steal from somewhere, you could do worse.

His pacing, framing, use of color and light all give the film its own swagger, though, and whether you guess where it’s all headed or you don’t, you’re bound to remain interested.

Where the filmmaker really strikes it rich is with this cast. Every actor adds a little exaggerated pathos to the mix as we ascend the ranks of smalltime crooks, each looking to score off another, all of them somehow connected to this stuffed Luis Vuitton bag.

Woebegone and hard working, Sung-Woo Bae offers the picture an emotional center. But the mid-film entrance of Do-yeon Jeon—glorious as ever—gives Beasts new life. She offers the chapters a sleek, devious tone the film had been missing.

Beasts Clawing at Straws offers mainly visceral if superficial thrills, but periodically it does ask us why it is we find ourselves rooting for the baddie. In the world created in this film, good and bad are separated by shades of grey and blood stains and no matter how you define yourself, you’re only one big, fat bag of cash away from finding out the truth.