Spirits in the Material World

A Haunting in Venice

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

If we’re going to congratulate Rian Johnson for reviving the murder mystery, save a backslap for Kenneth Branagh. His Murder on the Orient Express came two years before 2019’s Knives Out, and though Branagh may be adapting decades-old Agatha Christie classics, he’s proven adept at giving them a stylish and star-studded new sheen.

Branagh also stars again as Hercule Poirot, the legendary Belgian detective who showed a friskier side (probably thanks to Johnson’s sublime Benoit Blanc character) in last year’s Death on the Nile. Now for the third in their mystery series, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green embrace the season with a gorgeous and frequently engaging update of Christie’s 1969 novel “Halloween Party.”

It is 1947, when the now-retired and war weary Poirot meets up with his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) in Venice. Oliver is a famous writer who considers herself quite the smarty, but she needs Poirot’s help to debunk the work of Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium whose talks with the dead are pretty damn convincing.

The setting is a Gothic manor with a disturbing past, where Poirot agrees to attend a seance on Halloween night. There, after a children’s party, Mrs. Reynolds will attempt to give Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) the answers she seeks about the murder of her daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson).

But another murder soon steals the show, with even Poirot himself questioning his own eyes as things in the night go plenty bumpy.

Branagh again teams with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Belfast, Death on the Nile), enveloping the film in a haunted house vibe that is wonderfully foreboding. The camera explores the confines of the manor via angles that are often extreme and disorienting, while lingering on cloaks, masks and other various other articles of creep.

Poirot is a changed man since last we met. He’s seen too much evil, and believes in “no God, no ghosts,” as a cloud of trauma and grief that fits the film’s mood hangs over him. Branagh and his stellar ensemble (including Jamie Dornan, Camille Cottin and Belfast‘s Jude Hill) work their character edges well, making sure no one is ever quite above suspicion.

And those suspicions are easier to play with when the source material isn’t as well known. But while revamping a deeper cut is welcome, the chance for creepy surprise does come at a price.

The core mystery just isn’t as compelling. Branagh and Green make alterations that prolong the chill factor, but result in moments that seem more like a Christie disguise than the face of the master herself.

A Haunting in Venice‘s lingering impression is as a slice of well-dressed fun. It’s a Spooky Season movie for those who don’t like things too scary, and an Agatha Christie tale for those who’d rather not think so hard.

Ave Satán

Satanic Hispanics

by Hope Madden

For genre fans, a well-made anthology can be a delight. Sometimes, like Michael Dougherty’s classic Trick ‘r Treat, one filmmaker pieces together a set of related short works. More often, though, a framing story connects the tales of many different filmmakers. The Mortuary Collection is an example of a recent gem.

Satanic Hispanics falls into the second category. It’s a collection of shorts made by Latinx filmmakers. Like, really good filmmakers. Eduardo Sánchez instigated the entire found footage phenomenon with his genre classic The Blair Witch Project. Gigi Saul Guerrero delivered geriatric fun in her 2021 film Bingo Hell. Demián Rugna’s Terrified is a haunting and effective flick, and Alejandro Brugués’s Juan of the Dead is the most underseen and brilliant film of the lot.

There’s good reason to be excited about the potential of the shorts assembled for Satanic Hispanics. And, on the whole, these filmmakers deliver on that promise.

Mike Mendez (Gravedancers) starts us out with the framing story, “The Traveler.” It introduces the titular character (Efren Ramirez, Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro), the last man standing at a crime scene where 27 are dead. As he’s interrogated by two well-meaning detectives, he shares tales meant to persuade them that a great evil is coming.

Those stories range from Rugna’s creepy and trippy “También Lo Vi” to Sánchez’s comedic “El Vampiro” to Guerrero’s creature feature, “Nahuales”, to the Brugués insanity, “Hammer of Zanzibar.” Each has its charms, and every genre fan will find at least one or two films to take their fancy.

Rugna’s mindbender about light refraction, algorithms and inadvertently opening a portal to something sinister is the standout. Brugués delivers a stylized comedic adventure – part Tarantino, part Evil Dead. And if you can get past the troubling fact that a jilted boyfriend beats his ex-girlfriend with a giant penis for laughs, you might like it. 

But the collection absolutely boasts some inspired talent having a blast, and when is that ever a bad thing to witness?

Doing His Research


by George Wolf

“Science can only advance when you do things that other people say can’t be done.”

So says climate scientist Lonnie Thompson, PhD, and he should know. He’s been walking the walk for decades, and Canary finds him finally ready to start talking the talk.

And yes, the title does refer to the “canary in a coal mine” metaphor, but directors Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest wisely spend half of the film’s running time on an extended introduction to a man who’s been described as “the closest living thing to Indiana Jones.”

Growing up poor in West Virginia mining county, Lonnie took his scientific mind to Ohio State University to explore coal geology. But a research job studying glaciers changed the course of his life, and ultimately, the very nature of climate research.

Since 1989, Lonnie and his wife Ellen Mosely-Thompson, PhD, have run OSU’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, spearheading groundbreaking work that earned Lonnie a National Medal of Science.

Lonnie’s background and achievements are extraordinary, as O’Malley and Rivest show us a man that none but the most rabid ideologue could ever accuse of grandstanding. His only agenda is scientific fact. But after decades of climbing mountains, drilling into previously unexplored ice caps and collecting indispensable data on the effects of climate change, Lonnie had to face some colder, harder facts.

“What do you not see? Why the disbelief?”

Though he long believed his work would speak for itself, and that the different sides of the political spectrum could “debate solutions, but accept the facts,” Lonnie saw things begin to change in the early 2000s. Canary connects some dots of the misinformation campaign that turned the tide, with evidence of some high-profile politicians quickly shifting their stances.

Lonnie came to accept how hard people will fight back against a forced change in lifestyle, and we see that play out with irony in his own home. Lonnie himself ignored the science of his doctor’s advice and kept climbing until it nearly killed him.

And now, as he sees global CO2 levels still rising, Lonnie realizes his time may best be spent not by collecting another ice core, but by spreading the word of what a lifetime of “doing his research” has revealed.

The film is an awe-inspiring and important step on that journey. Lonnie still believes that if humans can cause a problem, then humans can also solve that problem. And Canary‘s biggest success comes from giving you no reason to doubt the man, even if you want to.

Fright Club: The Baby Made Me Do It

Pregnancy changes you. Your body betrays you, your personality takes of fin wild directions, and it can feel like there’s a little monster growing inside you. And maybe there is!

Quick shout out to the trashy options that we never seem to be able to fit in: Baby Blood and Inseminoid.

5. Antibirth (2016)

This one is nuts. Chaos reigns some blighted wasteland where Lou (Natasha Lyonne) squats in an abandoned trailer, picks up shifts as necessary cleaning a motel, and abuses her body so relentlessly that it becomes the perfect breeding ground for…something.

There’s a lot going on in this movie, most of it unrelated to the plot but aesthetically in line. Writer/director Danny Perez basically creates a fairly realistic town just this side of Street Trash.

Lyonne is unhinged, unperturbable genius in this piece of insanity.

4. Honeymoon (2014)

How well do you really know the person you marry? Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon taps into that anxiety and blends it a bit with pregnancy horror to basically make everything about that new, conjoined life feel alien and weird and murdery.

Rose Leslie is particularly effective as a woman in transition. Her performance is simultaneously tender and sinister.

Janiak nails the smalltown horror, conjuring a kind of sci-fi Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.

3. Huesera: The Bone Woman (2022)

Michelle Garza Cervera’s maternal nightmare is bright and decisive, pulling in common genre tropes only long enough to grant entrance to the territory of a central metaphor before casting them aside for something sinister, honest and honestly terrifying.

While it toes certain familiar ground – the gaslighting of Rosemary’s Baby, for instance – what sets Huesera apart from other maternal horror is its deliberate untidiness. Cervera refuses to embrace the good mother/bad mother dichotomy and disregards the common cinematic journey of convincing a woman that all she really wants is to be a mom. 

Huesera’s metaphor is brave and timely. Brave not only because of its LGBTQ themes but because of its motherhood themes. It’s a melancholy and necessary look at what you give up, what you kill.

2. Prevenge (2016)

Anybody with any sense at all is afraid of pregnant women. With unassuming mastery, Alice Lowe pushes that concept to its breaking point with her wickedly funny directorial debut, Prevenge.

Lowe plays Ruth. Grieving, single and pregnant, Ruth believes her unborn daughter rather insists that she kill a bunch of people.

Why such bloodlust from Ruth’s baby? Lowe, who also wrote the script, divulges just as much as you need to know when the opportunity arises. At first, there’s just the macabre fun of watching the seemingly ordinary mum pick off an unsuspecting exotic pet salesman.

1. Swallow

Putting a relevant twist on the classic “horrific mother” trope, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis uses the rare eating disorder pica to anchor his exploration of gender dynamics and, in particular, control.

Where Mirabella-Davis’s talent for building tension and framing scenes drive the narrative, it’s Bennett’s performance that elevates the film. Serving as executive producer as well as star, Haley Bennett transforms over the course of the film.

When things finally burst, director and star shake off the traditional storytelling, the Yellow Wallpaper or Awakening or even Safe. The filmmaker’s vision and imagery come full circle with a bold conclusion worthy of Bennett’s performance.


A Time to Kill


by Brandon Thomas

Most time travel movies don’t get into ethical dilemmas that going into the past – or future – might cause. The plot is usually too confusing anyway so adding moral problems to the mix might send audiences screaming from the theaters. With Aporia, director Jared Moshe makes the ethics of time travel the centerpiece of the movie and to riveting results. 

It’s been 8 months since Sophie (Judy Greer of 13 Going on 30, Ant-Man, and 2018’s Halloween) lost her husband, Mal (Edi Gathegi of X-Men: First Class and Gone Baby Gone) to a drunk driver. Mal’s loss has had a devastating impact on Sophie and her daughter Riley (Faithe Herman). As the two try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, Mal’s close friend Jabir (Payman Maadi) confides in Sophie that he has been working on a device that could potentially bring Mal back but that it would involve killing someone else in the past. 

Aporia slowly reveals its cards, or genre trappings, if you will. Stylistically the film skews closer to an indie drama than it does sci-fi. This is also the film’s greatest strength. As Sophie and Jabir’s changes to the past take form in the present, it’s not through fancy CGI set-pieces. Clever changes in production design or the cast’s appearance are utilized to showcase the ripple effect in time. These easy gags help keep the film grounded. Moshe refuses to get lost in the complex mechanics of the story, instead leaning into the characters and the roller coaster of emotions they ride through the film. 

The deeper Aporia questions the ethics of changing time, the more interesting the film becomes. Using these characters to ask complex questions about grief and responsibility was clearly where Moshe felt most inspired when making the film. Movies use the scenario of going back in time to kill baby Hitler as the ultimate moral time travel question. Aporia theorizes that this question – and many like it – doesn’t always have simple answers or solutions.

Greer continues to show that she deserves to be seen as more than “Hey, that girl!” Her relatability and charm help keep the character lighter than the subject matter might have allowed. Like the character of Sophie herself, Greer delicately dances between emotions – sometimes in the same scene. Given the small size of the cast, the chemistry between the core three is important and both Gathegi and Maadi also bring a natural gravitas to the film. 

Aporia asks a lot of interesting and important questions but it’s the kind of film that isn’t necessarily interested in following through with answers. Here that isn’t a detriment as the journey through asking those questions makes for one of the smartest time travel films in recent memory.

On a Journey of Self-Discovery with a Dead Mouse

Little Jar

by Christie Robb

Cast your mind back to the lockdown phase of the COVID pandemic. Spring of 2020. When office folks were sent home to hastily assemble a workspace in some relatively unused area of the house. When you figured you might as well open a bottle of wine at two in the afternoon on a Wednesday. When you weren’t entirely sure if you were living in the apocalypse or not.

If you were an introvert, like Ainsley the main character of the movie Little Jar, you may have initially been pleased, especially if you, like her, lived alone. At first, Ainsley is elated to escape her boundary averse co-workers and even rebuffs the offer of a weekly Facetime hang with her brother. She wants to do this two week quarantine thing entirely on her own. Then, the internet goes down, she drops her phone in the bathtub, and the silence thickens.

She’s on her own. In the woods.

What could go wrong?

As the pandemic drags out into months, Ainsley gets creative in her attempts to find companionship and has to confront that sometimes basking in a little well-earned solitude can mutate over time into society forgetting you ever existed and your  being left for dead.

First time feature director Dominic Lopez, in collaboration with his co-writer and star Kelsey Gunn, create a dramatic and whimsical story that is completely absurd yet totally relatable. Primarily shot in one location with one actor and a taxidermy mouse in a beret as the leads, Little Jar really illustrates what independent filmmakers can accomplish with a limited budget (and that we’ve all probably still got a lot of pandemic stuff to deal with).

Sister Sleuth

The Nun II

by Hope Madden

The Nun II has at least one thing going for it. If someone could figure out what to do with her, that villain is creepy as hell.

Why? Partly because no one cuts a terrifying figure quite like Bonnie Aarons. And partly because, let’s be honest, nuns are scary. Like clowns. It’s just true.

We first ran into this Bad Habit in James Wan’s adequate 2016 sequel The Conjuring 2, but the film divided its villains up: old coot in a rocking chair (“I’m Bill Wilkins!”), the Crooked Man and – well, best not to say her name. But her screentime was very limited.

Then there was the tease in another middling sequel, Annabelle: Creation (a mediocre film, but miles better than the first in that particular franchise). She finally got her own story in 2018, with Corin Hardy’s wildly mediocre The Nun.

Can this excellent idea for a villain be put to good use, finally, with Michael Chaves’s sequel, The Nun II?


It’s fine. It’s rated R, so that’s a start, although I’m not certain how it was deemed so problematic as to deserve the “keep the kids away” rating. There are a few creative deaths, almost elegantly macabre.

Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) is back on the trail of the demon nun after a series of disturbing deaths. Most of our time is spent in a monastery-turned-winery-turned-boarding school where Sister’s Irene’s old friend Maurice (Jonas Bloquet) has a job as a handyman and a crush on a teacher.

And, if memory serves, an inverted cross seared into the back of his neck. That smells like trouble (and burnt skin).

The setting is spooky, stagey and often quite atmospheric. Several of the set pieces are designed gorgeously. Bloquet continues to charm, and we not only get a nun this time but a very alarming goat-man. Nice!

The perversion of religious imagery continues to be the downfall of the series. It’s hard to take seriously, of course, because the Catholic church has a history of doing that itself. (The diocese of Syracuse claimed bankruptcy this summer due to the $100 million it owes to victims of sexual abuse.) This series would be more effective if the evil nun represented the decay within the church rather than a rogue demon weakened by an emissary of the Vatican.

Alas, Chaves settles for a bit of theoretical silliness bolstered by a nice touch of feminism, which feels delightfully heretical. So at least there’s that.

Method Acting

8 Found Dead

by Hope Madden

There are a lot of important elements that come together to make a good horror movie: tension, dread, atmosphere, maybe blood and gore. But nothing is more vital than the villain.

8 Found Dead, the Airbnb etiquette horror from Travis Greene, brings the goods when it comes to villains.

It seems Liz (Rosanne Limeres, splendid) and her husband Richard (real life husband Tim Simek) don’t have much to do now that their little hometown theater closed. But they can still put on a performance. Like pretending the Airbnb is double booked. Without Wi-Fi, how can anyone prove who’s really supposed to be there? Guess they’ll all just have to make the best of it.

8 Found Dead picks the same etiquette horror scabs as Speak No Evil or Funny Games – not quite as effectively, but with a macabre sense of humor that thoroughly entertains.

Rather than taking a chronological approach, Jonathan Buchanan’s script uses nonlinear storylines to allow each set of victims its own performance. Why should anyone have to share Liz and Richard?

Influencer Sam (Alisha Sope) and boyfriend Dwayne (William Gabriel Grier) head to an isolated Airbnb to make an announcement to Sam’s many followers. Carrie (Aly Trasher) and Ricky (Eddy Acosta) expect to join them, but they run late. Meanwhile, a 911 call brings two officers – an estranged married couple – out to investigate.

Each pair could learn a thing or two about commitment from Liz and Richard. These two are in it to win it.

8 Found Dead dances around some of the obvious questions that films like Barbarian and Funny Games address head on. But it also gets points for homaging the greatest lodging horror film of all time.

The opening falls to purposeless ogling – Jenny Tran’s performance deserved better – which the film struggles to overcome. But impressive editing and that shifting storyline keep Found Dead from ever getting stale.

Plus, there’s the promise that we could get to know Liz and Richard even better.

Remembrance of Things Past

Our Father, the Devil

by Matt Weiner

Much of contemporary horror and thrillers have found chilling but abstract ways to exorcise trauma. Ellie Foumbi’s feature debut Our Father, the Devil is a haunting and welcome twist on the formula, with its all-too-human demons and a direct confrontation of the horrors of the past.

Marie (Babetida Sadjo) enjoys her work as a chef for a retirement home in southern France. She treats the elderly residents humanely, to the extent that she is gifted a family cottage from the kindly Jeanne (Marine Amisse), a former chef who also happened to get Marie the job as her star pupil.

It’s a slow burn in the bucolic countryside until the arrival of Father Patrick (Souléymane Sy Savané). The mere sound of the priest’s voice causes Marie to panic, a feeling that is later confirmed during a taut exchange alone between the two that triggers a distinct memory for Marie.

This tension is broken with a fateful outburst from Marie, who knocks the priest out and ties him up at her new cabin. She suspects that Father Patrick is actually Sogo, a supposedly dead warlord who murdered Marie’s family in Guinea and abducted her into his army of child soldiers.

The rest of the film is a tense, unblinking interrogation of what this reality means for Marie and the life she has left behind. The escaped war criminal hiding in plain sight has been fodder for plenty of films and procedurals, but Foumbi’s humane script and deft direction quickly elevate the uncertainty from material to spiritual doubt.

The horror of what Marie—and perhaps Father Patrick—have witnessed and done to others points to a deep, existential rot. Foumbi does not shy away from the moral complexity of Marie’s pursuit of vengeance.

And while the “Is he / isn’t he” part of the suspense is cleared up surprisingly early, electric performances from Sadjo and Savané and their interplay together keep the tension at almost unbearable levels for most of the film. Foumbi’s script eschews condemnation and easy answers in equal measure, and it wouldn’t work without the nuanced turns from the leads. Our Father, the Devil throws up a lot of weighty questions around forgiveness and salvation. The film is less concerned with answering those questions, but then that’s also the point. Escaping a cycle of trauma and abuse is hard. But not as hard as forgiveness.