Resting Witch Face

Hocus Pocus 2

by Hope Madden

Thirty years ago (more or less), Disney released a family friendly seasonal comedy that underperformed and was forgotten. Forgotten, except by every 8-year-old who watched Hocus Pocus then or would go on to rewatch it annually during spooky season.

The entertainment behemoth finally realized what it had and commissioned a sequel. Hocus Pocus 2 reunites willful witches Winnifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) with Salem, the town that hates them.

What is it that reawakens the evil Sanderson sisters? A somewhat convoluted storyline, actually, but it involves female empowerment and community and it’s charmingly, inoffensively told.

Halloween’s here, and with it, Becca’s (Whitney Peak) 16th birthday. She’ll celebrate this year as every year by sharing a little spookiness in the woods with her bestie, Izzy (Belissa Escobedo). It’ll be the first year that the third in their trio, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), doesn’t join because she’s hanging out with her boyfriend. Meh!

Anyhoo, the Sandersons are accidentally conjured. Somehow the local crystals and essential oils purveyor (Sam Richardson, likable as ever) is mixed up in things. And Cassie’s dad – kindly Mayor Traske (Tony Hale) – is in mortal danger!

Director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) hits enough nostalgic notes that adult fans of the original will feel seen. Its contemporary story allows for brand new witch-out-of-water scenarios to explore, and, of course, the sisters are always up for a musical number. But this is definitely a kids’ film.

The original was a kind of sibling to Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s 1987 family film Monster Squad. Both showed poorly at the box office and went on to become beloved seasonal fixtures. Hocus Pocus brought the sensibilities into the nineties by, for one thing, recognizing that boys can also be virgins. HP2 modernizes further.

To begin with, not every citizen of Salem is white. And though it’s impossible to entirely redeem three characters looking to eat children, at least the sequel skims the ideas of systemic misogyny. But mainly it offers campy, scrappy, bland but amiable fun.

Midler, Najimy and Parker reinhabit the old trio well enough to remind us why so many kids loved the original. Whether HP2 can strike the same chord with today’s youth is tough to tell, but at least there’s a Halloween flick everyone can watch together.

Why So Serious?


by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Man, It Follows was a great movie. It was a film that saw coming-of-age as its own type of horror, a loss of innocence that you either pass on or let kill you.

It’s a conceit that will never feel as fresh as it did then, but writer/director Parker Finn has a go with Smile.

Sosie Bacon is Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist working in an emergency trauma unit. A woman is brought in, lashed to a gurney and screaming. Rose evaluates her in a safe space where Laura (Caitlin Stasey) can be comfortable, free. Rose listens to her paranoid, anxious story of a smiling, malevolent presence and tells Laura, as calmly as she can, that as scary as these ideas may feel, they can’t harm her.

Rose is wrong. And so begins a very borrowed and yet often powerful meditation on the nature of trauma and the state of mental health stigma.

Bacon delivers a believably brittle performance as the character who knows she’s right, even if everyone believes she’s crazy. But there’s more to this genre trope, given that Finn’s entire theme is an exploration of mental health. As a therapist and also a woman suffering from trauma, Rose can see her current situation more clearly than most.

There’s honesty, depth and empathy at work here, a 360-degree look at mental health and the systems and norms that affect people. Smile is also a clear metaphor for trauma and its insidious ripple effect.

It’s also a showcase for a fine supporting cast, and a few good, if borrowed, jump scares and freaky images. Kyle Gallner is particularly solid, and both Robin Weigert and Rob Morgan deliver traumatizing performances in small roles.

Turning something as inherently harmless as a smile into a threatening gesture carries a primal creepiness that Finn exploits pretty effectively throughout the film. Even so, the nearly two-hour running time feels bloated as Rose’s search for the origins of her curse begins to drag.

Her detective work – plus one very familiar shot – make Smile an easily recognizable marriage of It Follows and The Ring. Credit Finn for not hiding his intentions, and crafting some thought-provoking frights in the process.

If You Build It, They Will Come

What We Leave Behind

by Daniel Baldwin

When What We Leave Behind opens, we witness star Julian Moreno making a trip he has made countless times. For 15 years, he has taken a bus from his home in Mexico to visit his family in the United States. Every single month. He only stays for a few days at a time, but he’s been there like clockwork for a decade and a half. Now that he’s 89, however, he’s making his final trip, as he no longer has the stamina for it.

With his monthly visits ending, he instead turns his attention toward building a new house on a plot of land that he has purchased beside his current abode. This new home is not meant for him, but instead for whatever family member will want it once it’s finished. Iliana Sosa’s What We Leave Behind might be showcasing a family separated by a border, but it doesn’t have macro socio-political issues on its mind. What worries the film is simply what worries the aging Julian: Will his family be all right once he is gone? Will they remain close and get along?

This is all Julian wants. He brings up his age and mortality often, but never in a negative light. He’s not searching for sympathy or wishing for more time but is instead deeply pragmatic about it all. His time on this world is shortening and he wishes to spend it building a place where his family can live and congregate together long after he passes away.

We follow Julian from the moment the foundation is being laid up until his death, when all that’s left to accomplish are some finishing touches on the inside of the completed home. We also get to know his family along the way, spending many a quiet moment with them, in addition to quite a few long conversations. If you’re in the mood for drone shots and sweeping looks at the countryside, you’ll find none of that here. This is a deeply personal documentary about an aging family; one that focuses on small and intimate moments, as well as day-to-day struggles and events.

It’s an achingly beautiful piece of work that will hit home for anyone who has watched their older loved ones near their end, as well as worried about what might happen to their younger loved ones when they themselves pass on. What do we leave behind? The people that we love, be they friends or family. Julian Moreno would have told you they are what’s best in life and he’s right.

Mommy Dearest

After She Died

by Rachel Willis

I always expect a certain level of weird when watching an Australian horror film, and writer/director Jack Dignan’s After She Died doesn’t disappoint in that regard. 

When Jen’s (Liliana de la Rosa) Mom, Isabel (Vanessa Madrid), dies, it’s not very long before Dad (Paul Talbot) is introducing his new girlfriend, Florence. As if it’s not bad enough that dad’s moved on so quickly, Flo turns out to be the mirror image of Isabel.

Finding out your dad is dating your dead mom’s look-alike would be disturbing enough, but the film adds extra levels of horror: bleeding eyes, a landscape ravaged by fire, a man (possibly demon) in an animal mask. Dignan keeps you off-balance with these layers of mystery.

The problem is the level of confusion that comes with each new piece of this puzzle. It keeps you from sinking into the story. Any tension that could be built through Jen’s reaction to Dad’s disturbing choice of girlfriend is erased as more alarming images haunt the screen. Confusion can be scary, but only if done right. Otherwise, it becomes frustrating.

Thankfully, there’s little time to wonder too long about too much.

However, additional problems crop up with the introduction of too many characters and too many threads. Some characters serve little to no purpose. Storylines are introduced but unconvincingly explored. It all serves to further distract and frustrate.

Visual horror is the film’s strongest feature. The fires that burn off and on in the background add extra unease, and a few scenes send shivers down the spine. Dignan’s understated enough with gore to keep you from looking away. His approach is effective, never overboard.

Unfortunately, he can’t match imagery with an equally unsettling story. It’s clear Dignan wanted to tell a broader tale, one with far-reaching repercussions, but the elements don’t add up to a satisfying whole.

It’s disappointing because After She Died had the makings of an intriguing tale about the price to be paid when a loved one is buried in ground that’s gone sour.

The Power of Boy George Compels You

My Best Friend’s Exorcism

by George Wolf

It’s the late 1980s in South Carolina, where Abby (Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller, War for the Planet of the Apes) are BFFs. Even though Abby’s family is a bit more hardscrabble while Gretchen’s “hamburgers don’t need help,” the girls have been inseparable since waaay back in the early 80s.

Now they’re sophomores at a Catholic high school, facing a bummer of an upcoming summer. Gretchen and her family will be moving away.

But there’s lots of fun to be had before that day, and it starts with joining their other friends Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) and Glee (Cathy Ang) for a girl’s getaway at a secluded cabin by the lake.

Oh, great, Margaret’s boyfriend Wallace (Clayton Royal Johnson) shows up, too, which means plenty of PDA and sex talk. But scary talk soon takes over, as the gang heads off to investigate a creepy old building where a girl was supposedly sacrificed in a satanic ritual.

Once inside, Gretchen gets separated from the group, and by the time she catches back up, Abby’s best friend has changed.

Director Damon Thomas and writer Jenna Lamia adapt Grady Hendrix’s novel with charm and zest, bringing together a variety of tropes for a mashup just out for some fun.

And they have it. From 80s music to religion to possession movie staples, the barbs keep coming, delivered with an alternating mix of sarcasm, satire, raunch and projectile vomiting.

Fisher and Miller are wonderful together, cementing the film in a friendship that rings with the authenticity needed to effectively raise the stakes of survival. The insecurities about zits, weight, sex and peer pressure are sweetly heartfelt, and Abby’s uncertainty about the best way to help her friend brings a nice balance of humanity to the inhuman.

And for awhile, it does seem Thomas and Lamia are on the way to making a big metaphorical statement about leaving childhood behind, repression, and chasing imagined demons while evil is right in front of you.

But by the time Christopher Lowell is stealing scenes as one third of a hilariously lame “faith and fitness show” who also fancies himself a demonologist, the nuttiness has won out for good.

And that’s okay. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is the teenage sex comedy religious satire devil flick we didn’t expect. No need to aim higher when it pretty much nails the bullseye.

Drone On


by Rachel Willis

Imagine a world in which most of the plant and animal life has been obliterated, and what’s left is deadly and inedible. In this world, Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper have crafted Vesper. The filmmakers share writing credits with Brian Clark, and together, they plunge us into an unforgiving dystopia.

Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) is an adolescent girl who primarily fends for herself while also caring for her invalid father (Richard Brake). Her father, however, has placed his consciousness inside a volleyball-shaped drone. The drone’s sloppily painted face and dialogue ensure that Vesper never truly seems alone. She doesn’t always get along with her drone father, but as the story unfolds, we get a sense of their strong connection.

Saying too much more would take away from the discovery that comes as each moment unfolds on screen. A lot of this world is left to the imagination and flashes hint at sinister elements in every nook and cranny. Though Vesper and her father live alone, there are others who inhabit this world, and their motives and actions vary from deadly to seemingly benign.  

The world-building in the film is mostly solid, just a few things requiring a strong suspension of disbelief. Allow yourself to be sucked in and the minor inconsistencies are easily overlooked. The science fiction elements bend closer to fiction than science, but it will only annoy the very skeptical.

This is because it’s hard to see past the powerful performances, particularly from Chapman. Though she shares the screen with numerous dynamic actors – and her very pessimistic drone – she commands every scene she’s in, which is nearly every one. She’s capable of carrying the film on her shoulders, and the movie is better for it.

Though sometimes reminiscent of films like Annihilation, Vesper manages to offer up a new vision of the future – one that’s terrifying, bleak, but sometimes hopeful. It’s a strong film with solid performances and a uniquely prescient take on our current reality.

Dangerous Method

Devil’s Workshop

by Hope Madden

I hate to admit this, but my first thought upon screening Devil’s Workshop was that we don’t need another low budget exorcism movie – or worse yet, another ghost hunter demonologist movie. I am pleased to report that writer/director Chris von Hoffmann’s latest horror offering is not “just another” anything.

The premise seems garden variety enough. Struggling actor Clayton (Timothy Granaderos, Who Invited Them) auditions for the part of a demonologist in a new low-budget indie. His competition, Donald (Emile Hirsch), is a social climbing douche who gets whatever he wants. To sharpen his edge for the callback, Clayton hires a real demonologist to train him for the performance.

That demonologist is played by Radha Mitchell, who’s both wonderful and evidence that von Hoffman has something unusual up his sleeve.

The filmmaker cuts between earnest, insecure Clayton undertaking his eerily authentic preparation, and narcissist Donald, preparing in his own way. As von Hoffman does this, he comments on the main theme of his film: a knowing, sly analogy of the process of acting, from ridiculous to pretentious to dangerous.

What emerges is a cheeky, cynical but not hateful application of the mantras and exercises meant to break an actor down and open them up to the demons that will create a better performance.

Two things are necessary for Devil’s Workshop to pull this off: stellar acting (or the metaphor falls apart) and genuine horror (or the metaphor overwhelms the story).

The acting is stellar, beginning with Mitchell. Her giggles and offhanded terms of endearment, hand gestures and facial expressions create an elusive character. Granaderos, so impressive as the sinister partygoer in Who Invited Them, adopts a wide-eyed insecurity that suits von Hoffman’s style.

Rather than drawing our eye to the speaker, von Hoffman’s camera lingers on the listener. The choice captures Clayton’s discomfort, sometimes for a troubling length of time, creating unease.

The horror does well enough for nearly long enough. A couple of times it’s effective, but it never rises to true scares. Worse still, the payoff doesn’t land. In the end, von Hoffman’s insiders-view of the dangers in submitting entirely to a part falls just short of success.

Girl Walks NOLA Alone at Night

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

by Hope Madden

In 2014, filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour made her magnificence known with the lonesome, hip, bloody black and white treasure A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. She followed that up in 2016 with the heady dystopian nightmare The Bad Batch.

Both films busy themselves with the survival and camaraderie of outcasts. They have this in common with Amirpour’s latest, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon.

On the surface, it may appear that the vampire fable, post-apocalyptic yarn and Big Easy thriller lack any other unifying thread. Untrue. Each is about a singular female making surprising choices across an imaginative – if sometimes bloody – adventure.

Though eventually awash in NOLA neon, Blood Moon’s opening glides hypnotically through bayou waters, the night sky reflected so perfectly in the water you can’t tell up from down.

Jeon Jong-seo (Burning) is Mona Lisa Lee. For at least a decade she’s been nonresponsive in a facility for adolescents. (Is that so? Why the straight jacket, then?) But on this very night, as the moon rises red and round over the bayou, Mona taps into a strange power and the first of many flavors emerge in this strange gumbo. It appears we’ve stumbled into the origin story of some superhero – or super villain?

Whichever, don’t get too comfortable because soon enough Amirpour’s aesthetic weaves together influences and notions from a broad and colorful menu. The next thing you know, you’re witnessing a side of Kate Hudson you wish more filmmakers had unveiled.

Mona stumbles upon the Bourbon Street stripper in a late-night hamburger joint. One quick look at Mona’s talent and Bonnie Belle has dollar signs in her eyes. It’s a performance so brash and human that it grounds an otherwise fantasy tale in the stinky glitter of New Orleans.

A welcome Craig Robinson gives the film the feel of a noir-ish mystery, while the delightful Ed Skrein steals scenes and hearts as dealer/dj Fuzz.

Once Mona befriends Bonnie’s latchkey son (Evan Whitten), sentimentality becomes a worry. No need! Amirpour offsets every sweet moment with a surprise of brutality, every bloodletting with a bit of tenderness, all of it bathed in neon and EDM. It’s a dizzying mix, but that makes three for three for this filmmaker.

Endurance Test


by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Andrew Dominik felt like an odd choice to bring Joyce Carol Oates’s epic fictionalization of Marilyn Monroe’s life to the screen. His films up to now, though excellent, wouldn’t necessarily suggest an aptitude for a female focused biopic.

Most recently, the filmmaker’s crafted two magnificent documentaries on singer/songwriter Nick Cave. Prior to that, he made two woefully underseen Brad Pitt dramas (Killing Them Softly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) after his Aussie breakthrough, Chopper. Each of these films is excellent, and each of them is broodingly, tenderly, decidedly masculine.

If Dominik was an unconventional pick, Cuban performer Ana de Armas seemed a downright peculiar choice for the lead role. She’s no doubt beautiful enough to play the legendary stunner, and her work in Knives Out and Hands of Stone have shown her versatility as an actor.

And why not get a little nutty? Monroe’s story has been told more times than Dracula’s – at least seven features and TV movies have been made about Marilyn, and she’s figured prominently in countless other flicks. Can they give us something we haven’t seen?

Yep. They give us nearly 3 hours of NC-17 wallowing.

Dominik’s film, which he adapted himself from the source novel, does little more than fetishize Monroe’s suffering.

De Armas fills the role well enough. Yes, her accent takes you out of scenes from time to time, but that’s not really the trouble with the character. Monroe gets a single opportunity to stand up for herself in two hours and 46 minutes. It’s fun. It’s great to watch the character who’s been abused and misused the entire film finally feel a quick surge of pride.

This one sequence – the one moment of agency given Monroe in the film’s entire running time ­– becomes the catalyst of her downfall, of course. Prior to this moment, de Armas is asked only to hover on the verge of tears. Nearly every instant after is degradation for a character rendered nearly inhuman by broadly brushed daddy issues and mental instabilities.

While the film’s visual style is often intriguing, Dominik’s aggressive approach feels borrowed. He channels Lars von Trier with wave upon wave of punishment, then recalls Gaspar Noe through extended takes featuring shock-value POVs. And the irony of that NC-17 rating is that it’s not earned the old-fashioned way. The scene that almost certainly drew the most ire from the ratings board does not feature one second of nudity, yet lands as excess most wretched. If it all doesn’t add up to an abuse of de Armas, then it amounts to abuse of an audience.

The point of Blonde seems to be that the almost global objectification of Marilyn Monroe meant an unendurably tragic life and death. To prove the point, Dominik objectifies Marilyn Monroe to a point that is nearly unendurable.

Under the Influencer


by Hope Madden

Horror is especially preoccupied with the doppelganger nature of social media – how you can lose yourself in the make-believe world of the “you” you present online. Co-writers/co-directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes dig into that duality with their Aussie horror, Sissy.

Sissy – or as she’d rather be called now that she’s a grown up, Cecilia (Aishe Dee) – feels blessed. Thanks to her 200k followers and the products she gets paid to work into her videos, she has a fulfilling life. She is loved. She is enough. She is doing her best.

Maybe she’s not really doing that well, actually. She even hides when she spies her childhood BFF at the grocery store, but Emma (Barlow, who also stars) sees her anyway. She even invites Cecilia to tonight’s big bachelorette party, and tomorrow’s drive out to the country for a weekend-long celebration!

If you’ve seen Bodies Bodies Bodies or, indeed, any horror movie, you know that second part is not going to go well for everyone. Like Halina Reijn’s gruesome comedy, Sissy plays around with genre expectations and spotlights the ins and outs of Gen Z.

Dee works wonders as a woman trying to practice what she preaches, earn from what she practices, and find fulfillment in online followers when friends IRL are less welcoming. The cast that surrounds her is universally strong, each one manipulating the sly, darkly funny script to shock and delight.

Barlow and Senes never entirely abandon the old-fashioned slasher, either. Sissy delivers starling gore FX that feel simultaneously in keeping with the black comedy and somehow too disturbing to fit. Well done!

The filmmakers tease the new terrain of a world populated with virtual personalities. Who’s the good guy? Who isn’t? Is anybody? Sissy doesn’t break new ground here, but thanks to a knowing script and a lead performance that sells itself, you’ll enjoy the show.