What Might Have Been

The Forever Purge

by Hope Madden

Now, I’m not suggesting any of the Purge films were subtle. Creator James DeMonaco wielded a blunt political instrument from the start.

Quick recap: In the near future, a far-right government, the New Founding Fathers, establishes a single night of lawlessness to encourage Americans to purge themselves of all their hate and anger. And, you know, take their frustrations out on the homeless, the poor, and the otherwise generally oppressed.

So, a pretty easy metaphor to figure out, although most installments contained an interesting idea here, some memorable imagery there. Gerard McMurray’s 2018 The First Purge was impressively topical and prescient, and genuinely angry. In it, the filmmakers essentially looked at Trump’s America and asked: How did we get here?

In a way, all of these films have led organically to The Forever Purge, a film with a premonition of what would have happened if Trump’s America had been allowed to – or would ever again – continue on its natural course.

It’s hard to blame filmmakers for losing optimism in the face of the national shame of January 6. In this installment, entitled, angry white people have decided that one night is not enough, so they organize online and just take over the country.

DaMonaco returns as writer, while Everardo Gout directs. Gout’s sensibilities lean heavily toward action. The Forever Purge is essentially an action thriller with a social conscience (and about as much subtlety as you’ve come to expect from the franchise).

There is no forgiveness in this installment, and maybe there shouldn’t be. But The Forever Purge loses the humanity of the better episodes in the series. At its worst, it’s a political outcry by way of a predictable horror film that’s pretty light on horror. At its best, it’s a poignant upending of this country’s fundamental, foundational racism.  

Mr. Nice Guy

Vicious Fun

by Hope Madden

Even serial killers need someone to talk to. Just hope it’s not you.

That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Cody Callahan’s latest, Vicious Fun.

In this 80s-era horror-comedy, sad sack Joel (Evan Marsh in kind of a Jon Cryer role) is a nice guy. He’s just kind of an idiot who can’t take a hint.

One evening he drowns his sorrows, passes out, and sobers up to find himself in a late-night support group for serial killers. He’s not a member—a fact the others sniff out pretty quickly—and shit goes south post haste.

Callahan’s script winks with a kind of embarrassed affection toward the horror nerd. Joel’s a screenwriter wannabe and is perhaps too proud of his position as horror journalist for a fan magazine.

The serial killers here are not so much your garden variety psychos as they are typical horror movie monsters. Vicious Fun shows no end of self-deprecating charm, and Callahan’s solid cast is in on the joke.

Earlier this year, Callahan impressed with the boozy Canadian hillbilly noir The Oak Room, where he took advantage of Ari Millen’s versatility and peculiarity. Here Millen dives more fully into his peculiar side, throwing shades of McConaughey at his most unhinged for a character who’s never quite what he seems but is always attention-getting.

The enormous Robert Maillet (Becky) fits his character, physically and emotionally, to a tee, while Julian Richings (Anything for Jackson) surprises in a dual role. Amber Goldfarb cuts an impressive presence as the film’s badass, and David Koechner is David Koechner, but when isn’t that fun?

There aren’t enough nice guys in horror movies. Hats off to Callahan for not only finding a unique and fun premise in an overcrowded genre but for appreciating the precious jewel that is the nice guy.

Florida Project


by George Wolf

Is it surprising that movies are now born from Twitter threads? Maybe, for a minute. But you’ll find good stories on Twitter, and Zola tells a ferociously good story, even if some of it may not be exactly true.

In 2015, A’Ziah “Zola” King took to her Twitter account, and in 148 tweets told a jaw-dropping yarn about meeting Stefanie, traveling south with her to dance in Tampa strip clubs, and quickly regretting it all.

Director/co-writer Janicza Bravo adapts David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article with an undeniable vision. She brings a vital, in-your-face aesthetic that succeeds in putting the tale’s social media roots right up on the screen without a hint of pandering or desperation hipness.

Anyone who’s seen Taylor Paige in strong supporting roles (Boogie, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) knew her breakout was coming soon, and now here it is. She owns every frame as Zola, guiding us through this mashup of hilarity and horror show with captivating bursts of sass, shade and poignant vulnerability.

Riley Keough has a tough job finding the soft spots in the outlandish Stefani, but she lands them repeatedly. Is the offensive Stefani we’re seeing just a cartoon villain from Zola’s memory, or is she also a victim? Keough give us important glimpses that make us care enough to wonder.

Bravo, Paige and Keough (with solid support from Colman Domingo, Nick Braun and Jason Mitchell) each brings indelible talent to Zola, and the sheer buzz of this wild ride becomes irresistible.

Is it truth? Fiction? A bit of both?

It matters only in that it doesn’t matter at all. Because whatever truth still exists in the digital age, Zola speaks it.

Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

I Like Tomorrow

by Hope Madden

Need one more reason to be thrilled that the Wexner Center for the Arts is reopening to the public? A new collaboration between filmmakers Jennifer Reeder and Nancy Andrews—the delightfully spacy I Like Tomorrow—plays through July and August in The Box.

The 11-minute short showcases Andrews’s animation prowess, as well as the versatility of performer Michole Briana White, who delivers three roles in one.

White plays Captain Regina Lamb, a lone astronaut who’s been in orbit a while. Maybe a really long while. And at the moment, she’s working through some relationship issues. With herself. Specifically, she’s navigating her commitments to her past self (White again, as Reggie) and her future self (White as Rae).

The I Like Tomorrow aesthetic is MST3K meets Bowie, and who wouldn’t be wild about that? White’s performance is lonesome, slyly insightful and very funny. She makes excellent use of Reeder and Andrews’s nimble dialog, using space exploration to mirror relationship communication, then focusing everything inward.

Captain Lamb’s journey toward appreciating who she is today, this moment, is as charming as it can be. White gives each of the three versions of Lamb age-appropriate personalities and the interplay among the three is priceless.

As layered and insightful as the film is, Andrews and Reeder never abandon their playful attitude. In fact, the comic in this cosmic episode only increases as Captain Lamb’s journey wears on.

Musical interludes and animation, set design and costumes all work together to create a mood that’s simultaneously lonely, hopeful, and weirdly funny.

Best Horror Movies of the First Half of 2021

Wait, 2021 is half over already? But I think it started in March this year, right? Well, math be damned, here—in alphabetical order— is our list of the best horror films to reach us so far in 2021.

A Quiet Place Part II

For a few well-placed and important seconds, there it is: the much-discussed nail from A Quiet Place. And like most everything else in writer/director John Krasinki’s thrilling sequel, the nail’s return carries weight, speaking visually and deepening our investment in these characters’ terrifying journey.

There is no shortage of exhilarating, squirm-inducing and downright scary moments, but Krasinski instills it all with an impressive level of humanity. He gives the enterprise a welcome retro feel and his flair for visual storytelling has only strengthened since the last film.Paragraph

AQPII is lean, moves at a quick clip, thrills with impressive outdoor carnage sequences and yet commands that same level of tension in its nerve- janglingly quiet moments. Krasinski had a tough task trying to follow his 2018 blockbuster, one made even tougher now having to prove the sequel was worth saving for a theaters-only release. On both counts, we’d say he nailed it.


The room is dark, decrepit. A wild-eyed woman with a bloody nose holds a toy out in front of her like a demon slayer holds a crucifix. The toy – what is it, a rabbit? A jackalope? – beats a creepy little drum. Faster. Slower. Hotter. Colder.

This is how writer/director Damian Mc Carthy opens Caveat and I am in. An expertly woven tapestry of ambiguity, lies and misunderstanding sink the story into a fog of mystery that never lets up. McCarthy unveils a real knack for nightmarish visuals, images that effortlessly conjure primal fears and subconscious revulsion.

Mc Carthy does a lot with very little, as there are very few locations and a total of three cast members—all stellar. You won’t miss the budget. Mc Carthy casts a spook house spell, rattling chains and all, and tells a pithy little survival story while he’s at it.  


It’s 1985, Thatcher’s England: an era when controversial films hoping to make their way to screens big and small found themselves more butchered than their characters. Writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher evoke such a timestamp with this film, not just in the look and style, but with the social preoccupation.

Censor is a descent into madness film, but its deep love and understanding of the genre play a central role in this madness. Niamh Algar’s performance as the video nasty censor in question is prim and sympathetic, deliberate and brittle. It’s clear from the opening frame that Enid will break. But between Algar’s skill and Bailey-Bond’s cinematic vision, the journey toward that break is a wild ride.

Fried Barry

Writer/director Ryan Kruger maintains an experimental feel throughout Fried Barry, although his feature does take on somewhat traditional cinematic structure. This primarily consists of Gary Green—looking disheveled, lean and imposing—wandering wide-eyed and silent through Cape Town. Oh, the adventures he finds!

The film offers insanity to spare. Kruger’s episodic fever dream blends frenetic editing and a charged soundtrack into something harsher and harder than a psychedelic trip, but the film lives and dies with Green.

It isn’t as if the actor performs alone. He stumbles into and upon a slew of wild, weird and sometimes insane (literally) characters. But it’s Green you cannot take your eyes off of.

Dude is fried.

Jakob’s Wife

Director/co-writer Travis Stevens (Girl on the Third Floor) wraps this bloodlusty tale of the pastor’s wife (Barbara Crampton) and the vampire in a fun, retro vibe of ’80s low-budget, practical, blood-spurting gore.

To see a female character of this age experiencing a spiritual, philosophical and sexual awakening is alone refreshing, and Crampton (looking fantastic, by the way) makes the character’s cautious embrace of her new ageless wonder an empowering – and even touching – journey.

With Crampton so completely in her element, Jakob’s Wife is an irresistibly fun take on the bite of eternity. Here, it’s not about taking souls, it’s about empowering them. And once this lady is a vamp, we’re the lucky ones.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

Making an unnervingly assured feature film debut, writer/director Jonathan Cuartas commingles The Transfiguration’s image of lonely, awkward adolescence with Relic’s horror of familial obligation to create a heartbreaking new vampire tale.

Many things are left unsaid (including the word “vampire’), and My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To confines itself to the daily drudgery of three siblings. Dwight (Patrick Fugit) longs to break these family chains, but sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) holds him tight with shame, love, and obligation to little brother, the afflicted Thomas (Owen Campbell).

What could easily have become its own figurative image of the masculine longing for freedom mines far deeper concerns. Cuartas weaves loneliness into that freedom, tainting the concept of independence with a terrifying, even dangerous isolation that leaves you with no one to talk to and no way to get away from yourself.

Psycho Goreman

Endlessly quotable and boasting inspired creature design and a twisted Saturday Morning Kidventure tone, Psycho Goreman is a blast

Fans of writer/director Steven Kostanski’s 2016 breakout The Void (a perfect blend of Lovecraft and Halloween 2) might not expect the childlike lunacy and gleeful brutality of Psycho Goreman (PG for short), but they should. His 2012 gem Father’s Day (not for the easily offended) and his 2011 Manborg define not only his tendencies but his commitment to tone and mastery of his material.

His ensemble here works wonders together, each hitting the comedic beats in Kostanski’s script hard enough that the goretastic conclusion feels downright cheery. This movie could not be more fun.

Saint Maud

Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma.

Ehle’s performance strikes a perfect image of casual cruelty, her scenes with the clearly delicate Maud a dance of curiosity and unkindness. Clark’s searching, desperate performance is chilling. Writer/director Rose Glass routinely frames her in ways to evoke the images of saints and martyrs, giving the film an eerie beauty, one that haunts rather than comforts.

Glass’s film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.

The Retreat

The Retreat shows how satisfying it can be when cabin-in-the-woods horror is done well.

Director Pat Mills builds an air of dread and tension minus the usual gimmickry. Writer Alyson Richards pens a lean, mean, bloody survival thriller that boasts some welcome surprises and a smart social conscience. Realized via strong performances from Tommie-Amber Pirie and Sarah Allen, heroes Renee and Val’s relationship feels perfectly authentic, with a sexuality that’s never exploited by a leering camera. And while you may be reminded of 2018’s What Keeps You Alive, there is a critical difference.

The couple in that film could have been heterosexual, and it still would have worked. But here, the fact that it is a same sex couple being hunted matters very much to the story at work. It enables Richards and Mills to anchor a revenge horror show with a satisfying metaphor for the violent threats LGBTQ folks continue to face every day.

Werewolves Within

The nice guy is almost never a horror film’s hero, and this is where Werewolves Within really does depart from standard fare. Director Josh Ruben—fresh off the clever horror-comedy Scare Me—delivers a forgiving, even sweet tone.

Sam Richardson makes an ideal Mr. Rogers-esque central figure, his new hometown populated by a talented comedy ensemble: Michaela Watkins, Michael Chernus, Wayne Duvall, Harvey Guillen (TV’s What We Do In the Shadows), and fan-favorite, Milana Vayntrub. (You know, Lily from the AT&T ads.)

Mishna Wolff displays a flair for whodunnit fun that elevates the film high above 90% of the video game movies that have been made. A lot of that success lies in Wolff and Ruben’s investment in the nice guy.

Fright Club: Nice Guys in Horror

The best horror movies balance the darkness with light, the evil with goodness. Often enough they only do that so it can hurt you all the more when the nice guys finish dead last. Here are our favorite nice guys in horror. Be warned, a couple of these include spoilers that will break your heart.

5. Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), The Shining (1980)

Thank god for Dick Hallorann, the one person poor little Danny could trust to make sense of a senseless situation and do the right thing in a pinch. Scatman Crothers played such an amiable character, the kind of grown man who’s good to children. He was a good dude.

Kubrick was not as good to Scatman, though. The director famously put the then-70-year-old actor through 60 takes of his wordless death scene. He knew it was the one death that would break our hearts, though, so it had to be perfect.

4. Finn (Sam Richardson), Werewolves Within (2021)

The brand new video game adaptation opens with, of all things, a quote from Mr. Fred Rogers.

I am in.

Sam Richardson plays Finn, the new park ranger in an isolated mountain town divided along political lines. All he wants, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that there is a werewolf afoot, is for everyone just to try to be a good neighbor.

One of the reasons this film is as fun and satisfying as it is (no, not because the cute AT&T girl Lily [Milana Vayntrub] is in it) is because this film doesn’t punish Finn for being a good guy. It celebrates it. Finally!

3. Lee (Jon Krasinski), A Quiet Place (2019) SPOILER

Don’t watch the clip if you haven’t seen the movie. Or if you weep easily. Or if you weep less easily. What a gut punch this one is!

Sure, Lee’s fathering is marred by anger and frustration, but his tenderness – especially at the end – and his consistent desire to protect, encourage and support his family earns him a spot here.

2. Michael (Jake Weber), Dawn of the Dead (2004)

You just want to hug him. A cooler head, a humble voice, a supportive voice of reason, Mark is perhaps the most important person in that mall hunkered down away from the fast-moving zombie horde.

No matter what happens, Mark never loses his humanity. Hell, he never even loses his temper.

We bet he was a great dad.

1. Frank (Brendan Gleeson), 28 Days Later 

This movie – a genre masterpiece – finally gave us a break, a breather, a respite from the rage and fear and terror when it introduced us to Frank.

Brendan Gleeson, a masterpiece himself, is ever chuckling, good-natured, protective but kind dad. He wants to keep his daughter safe. He wants to ensure her safety. But he also wants to carve out some kind of normalcy, happiness, even.

He is huggable, dependable, and exactly what Jim and Selena need, too.

John Cena’s In This One

F9: The Fast Saga

by George Wolf

So if this is the ninth installment, that means all laws of physics went out the window 7.5 Fast films ago. Just remember that when there’s a Plymouth Fiero in space for reelz.

Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have been trying to live a quiet life in the country with little Brian, but they’re going to need a sitter.

Seems Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) sent the gang an S.O.S. not long after he captured Cipher (Charlize Theron). Now Mr. N. is missing, Cipher’s on the loose, and everybody’s trying to get their hands on both halves of a device that, when made whole, will take control of every weapons system in the world.

And you know who already has one half? Dom’s bigger little brother Jacob (John Cena). We haven’t heard about Jacob until now because the boys have serious beef about who was to blame for their father’s death in a 1989 stock car race.

So Dom’s ad nauseam mantra of “family” has its limits.

Lighten up, right? Don’t take it so seriously, this franchise is about the action! I get it, and when the tone is right (like it was with director James Wan in Furious 7) I’m right there with you.

But this film takes itself waaay too seriously. Director/co-writer Justin Lin is back for his fifth go ’round, and after an opening filled with the usual auto gymnastics, settles into a story surprisingly heavy on the spy game.

Cena gets no chance to flash his charismatic mischievous side, as he and Diesel seem intent on making steely stares and jaw clenching an Olympic sport. Roman and Tej (Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) try to fill the playful void left by Hobbs and Shaw, but their hi-jinx seldom rise above silly wise cracking.

Plenty of familiar franchise faces return (Lucas Black, Shad Moss, Helen Mirren, Jordana Brewster and Sung Kang), often bringing with them a good amount of exposition explaining what their characters have been doing or why they aren’t really dead.

There’s so much nostalgia, you’d think they were actually trying to put a bow on this whole thing if the film wasn’t simultaneously inventing new threads. And as the running time keeps running, it all starts to feel pretty tedious.

But if you want your flying cars and electro-magnet explosions on the biggest screen possible, F9 will eventually give that to you (even in IMAX where available). Just don’t expect the self-awareness to realize how close they are to self-parody.

Also, hang through the credits and you’ll get a stinger with a big clue about what’s coming in the tenth round: a Prius on top of Mt. Everest.

Not really. But at this point, why not?

Pregnant Pause

False Positive

by Hope Madden

You’ll find real horror in False Positive. There’s the plot, sure—a woman desperate to conceive, in the hands of a nefarious physician with a God complex—and all the body horror and helplessness that go along with it. But that’s not the scary part.

Indeed, co-writer/director John Lee levels a more comedic tone to the by-the-numbers premise. Where he and co-writer/star Ilana Glazer mine unnerving dread is in their observational honesty.

Glazer is Lucy, and she and her husband Adrian (Justin Theroux, slyly wonderful) have been trying to get pregnant for two years. As much as she wants to do this naturally, she finally caves in to Adrian’s suggestion that they visit his med school mentor, Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan – perfection).

Lee’s intention is not to make you wonder whether something sinister is afoot. The Stepford-esque nursing staff and eerily meticulous clinic proclaim it. The sheer number and variety of phallic instruments to be inserted, and the volume of lubricant so very lovingly applied, plays like SNL by way of Cronenberg.

If you’ve ever seen Broad City, Glazer’s groundbreaking Comedy Central sit-com, you may not recognize the performer’s dramatic skills, but you will recognize the writer’s keen eye for everyday absurdities.

Here’s where False Positive’s horror kicks in. It’s the authenticity, the banal realism of Lucy’s daily condescending, dismissive, patronizing, smothering, gaslighting humiliations that really eat at you. The low-key accuracy of it all—from the male colleagues who swear you are glowing as they leave their lunch orders next to your laptop, to your nurse’s reassuring caresses and terms of endearment, to your husband’s reminder whenever you’re feeling down that we’ve been through a lot with this pregnancy.

Tensions escalate as the storyline itself dictates, although the film is far more surefooted in its observational horror than it is in its plot. Lucy’s pre-pregnancy character is ill-defined, which makes her descent less satisfying. The climax is played for comedic value and the final act’s weirdness, though welcome, holds no real meaning.

Worse of all is the under-developed character of a midwife played imposingly by Zainab Jah. Lee clearly hoped to use this character as a statement on the genre itself but the whole affair feels wrong-headed.

Those are some serious misgivings, I grant you, but there really is something subversive, honest, and horrifying worth witnessing in this movie.

On the Record


by Rachel Willis

You might not be familiar with the name Meyer Lansky, but chances are you’re familiar with some of his known associates: Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Writer/director Etyan Rockaway decided the time was right to focus on one of the Mafia’s most infamous but un-famous gangsters.

There are quite a few gangster movies, both good (Goodfellas, The Godfather) and bad (Gotti, The Family). Lansky falls somewhere in the center. Never overly imaginative, Rockaway plays it safe with a middling film about a narcissistic mob figure who wants to control the narrative. To do this, an aging Lansky (Harvey Keitel) hires a broke writer, David Stone (Sam Worthington), to pen his tale.

Told in flashbacks within a 1980s framing story, Lansky regales Stone with stories from his childhood, learning to hustle on the streets of – where else? – New York City. However, as Lansky enters adulthood, the tales become violent.

Portraying the Lansky of the past is John Magaro, who makes the character his own while still embracing the inflections and mannerisms of Keitel’s older wise guy. Magaro brings a sinister element, while Keitel embraces the role of a man mellowed by age. It’s a dynamic casting job, and the film’s standout element.

Rockaway’s script glosses over much of Lansky’s past, with large jumps in time, allowing the film to devote equal time to the framing story. Here is where the film tries to carve some new ground. Stone’s story is, in some ways, the more interesting of the two. There’s a moral line Stone must cross to listen to the brutalities in Lansky’s past – especially as he’s bound to secrecy until Lansky has died.

Unfortunately, rather than centering the focus on the ambiguous morality of Stone’s situation, Rockaway’s film instead tries to convince you Lansky is an ‘angel with a dirty face.’

It’s not unheard of to root for the bad guy – Scarface is one of the ultimate examples of this in the genre – but Lansky is not a fictional character. His history is bloody, and his few good deeds hardly outweigh the bad. It’s an odd choice when the true moral crux lies with Stone.

Lansky runs itself ragged trying to cover as many bases as possible, and we’re left with a messy film about one of the most notorious men in Mafia history.