Tag Archives: Craig Zobel

Hard Luck Woman

The Hunt

by Hope Madden

About a year ago, Universal Studios pulled the release of The Hunt because of the amount of gun violence. Commendable.

Later that year, other studios released Ready or Not—critical darling, but didn’t do great box office. Then Knives Out, which was both a critical darling and box office giant. And, of course, Parasite would go on to win all the Oscars. Even documentary short.

While The Hunt does contain a goodly amount of violence—guns, knives, hand grenades, pens, stilettos, kitchen appliances—it also boasts the one thing that appears to be the universal key to entertainment. It hates rich people.

Who doesn’t?!

Director Craig Zobel (Compliance), along with writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (both of TV’s Watchmen and The Leftovers), takes no prisoners as characters take a bunch of prisoners, drop them in a field somewhere and, you know, hunt them down for sport. The film gleefully skewers both the left and the right, often in ways you wouldn’t expect but should.

This is a meticulously structured horror film, the tidy beats allowing the writers to insert surprises that play on your preconceived notions in clever ways. Like Jordan Peele, Zobel proves a nimble manipulator of both horror tropes and social commentary.

And casting.

I have to think Betty Gilpin was the most disappointed when this film was shelved last year because it is her break out. No more support work as the hot mean chick, Gilpin’s Crystal is the wrong badass to underestimate. The performance is never showy but quirky and genuine, which goes a long way toward increasing believability.

Zobel populates the herd with familiar faces (Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz, Hilary Swank, Amy Madigan), mainly for sleight of hand. Though most get little screen time, and each is handed a fairly one-dimensional character, both the writing and the performances mine that gimmick for a lot.

Positioned to infuriate everyone in one scene or another, the film is brash and bracingly level headed. It’s violent AF, no doubt, but what it reflects back at us is far smarter than what you  might expect. The Hunt is a darkly comedic, socially savvy, equal opportunity skewering and it is a blast.

Fright Club: Captivity Horror

Why captivity horror? Because we want to talk about Lucky McKee’s amazing The Woman, and this seemed like a good excuse. McKee’s must-see horror joins a host of incredible films that explore our fears of being held against our wills as they look at the ugliest side of human nature. Plus, cookies. Fun!

5. Cube (1997)

Making his feature directing debut in 1997, Vincenzo Natali, working from a screenplay he co-wrote, shadows 7 involuntary inmates of a seemingly inescapable, booby-trapped mazelike structure. Those crazy Canucks!

Cube is the film Saw wanted to be. These people were chosen, and they must own up to their own weaknesses and work together as a team to survive and escape. It is a visually awe inspiring, perversely fascinating tale of claustrophobic menace. It owes Kafka a nod, but honestly, stealing from the likes of Kafka is a crime we can get behind.

There is a level of nerdiness to the trap that makes it scary, in that you know you wouldn’t make it. You would die. We would certainly die. In fact, the minute they started talking about Prime Numbers, we knew we were screwed.

What Natali was able to accomplish within the limitations he has – startlingly few sets, a very small cast, a 20 day shoot schedule – is astounding. An effective use of FX, true visual panache, and a handful of well-conceived death sequences elevate this far above Saw and many other films with ten times the budget.


4. Compliance (2012)

Compliance is an unsettling, frustrating and upsetting film about misdirected and misused obedience. It’s also one of the most impeccably made and provocative films of 2012 – a cautionary tale that’s so unnerving it’s easier just to disbelieve. But don’t.

Writter/director Craig Zobel – who began his career as co-creator of the brilliant comic website Homestar Runner (so good!) – takes a decidedly dark turn with this “based-on-true-events” tale. It’s a busy Friday night at a fast food joint and they’re short-staffed. Then the police call and say a cashier has stolen some money from a customer’s purse.

A Milgram experiment come to life, the film spirals into nightmare as the alleged thief’s colleagues agree to commit increasingly horrific deeds in the name of complying with authority.

Zobel remains unapologetically but respectfully truthful in his self-assured telling. He doesn’t just replay a tragic story, he expertly crafts a tense and terrifying movie. With the help of an anxious score, confident camera work, and a superb cast, Zobel masterfully recreates a scene that’s not as hard to believe as it is to accept.

3. Green Room (2015)

Young punk band the Ain’t Rights is in desperate need of a paying gig, even if it is at a rough private club for the “boots and braces” crowd (i.e. white power skinheads). But when bass guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin) accidentally witnesses a murder in the club’s makeshift green room, band and concertgoer Amber (a terrific Imogen Poots) find trouble. They’re held at gunpoint while the club manager (Macon Blair from Blue Ruin) fetches the mysterious Darcy (Patrick Stewart, gloriously grim) to sort things out. Though Darcy is full of calm reassurances, it quickly becomes clear the captives will have to fight for their lives.

As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff.  It’s a path worn by Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and plenty more, but Saulnier again shows a knack for establishing his own thoughtful thumbprint.

And yet, Saulnier manages to let some mischievous humor seep out, mainly by playing on generational stereotypes. Poots, barely recognizable under an extreme haircut and trucker outfit, has the most fun, never letting bloody murder alter Amber’s commitment to bored condescension. Love it.

It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.

2. The Woman

There’s something not quite right about Chris Cleek (an unsettlingly cherubic Sean Bridgers), and his family’s uber-wholesomeness is clearly suspect. This becomes evident once Chris hunts down a feral woman (an awesome Pollyanna McIntosh), chains her, and invites the family to help him “civilize” her.

The film rethinks family – well, patriarchy, anyway. Notorious horror novelist and co-scriptor Jack Ketchum may say things you don’t want to hear, but he says them well. And director Lucky McKee – in his most surefooted film to date – has no qualms about showing you things you don’t want to see. Like most of Ketchum’s work, The Woman is lurid and more than a bit disturbing.

Aside from an epically awful performance by Carlee Baker as the nosey teacher, the performances are not just good for the genre, but disturbingly solid. McIntosh never veers from being intimidating, terrifying even when she’s chained. Bridgers has a weird way of taking a Will Ferrell character and imbibing him with the darkest hidden nature. Even young Zach Rand, as the sadist-in-training teen Brian, nails the role perfectly.

Nothing happens in this film by accident – not even the innocent seeming baking of cookies – nor does it ever happen solely to titillate. It’s a dark and disturbing adventure that finds something unsavory in our primal nature and even worse in our quest to civilize. Don’t even ask about what it finds in the dog pen.

1. Oldboy

So a guy passes out after a hard night of drinking. It’s his daughter’s birthday, and that helps us see that the guy is a dick. He wakes up a prisoner in a weird, apartment-like cell. Here he stays for years and years.

The guy is Min-sik Choi. The film is Oldboy, director Chan-wook Park’s masterpiece of subversive brutality and serious wrongdoing.

This is not a horror film in any traditional sense – not even in South Korean cinema’s extreme sense. Though it was embraced – and rightly so – by horror circles, this is a refreshing and compelling take on the revenge fantasy that takes you places you do not expect to go. But that’s the magnificence of Chan-wook Park, and if you have the stomach, you should follow where he leads.

Choi takes you with him through a brutal, original, startling and difficult to watch mystery. You will want to look away, but don’t do it! What you witness will no doubt shake and disturb you, but missing it would be the bigger mistake.

Join us for a live Fright Club podcast taping and screening the second Wednesday of every month at Gateway Film Center!

Three’s a Crowd

Z for Zachariah

by Hope Madden

If you are unfamiliar with Craig Zobel, google him immediately. Hopefully you’ll discover Homestar Runner, which will clue you into Zobel’s particular mad genius. Go ahead and spend some time. Take in the glory that is Teen Girl Squad. Then prepare yourself for an amazingly different experience and watch the filmmaker’s third feature, Z for Zachariah.

Based loosely on Robert O’Brien’s award winning adolescent novel, the film is a meticulous examination of human behavior masquerading as a SciFi flick. Sometime after an undisclosed apocalypse (radioactivity suggests a nuclear war), Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) tends her farm alone, her valley somehow spared of the radiation. She believes she may be the last living soul until scientist John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) appears in the distance in his radiation suit.

What evolves is a fascinating character study blessed with two excellent performances.

Ejiofor is incapable of a weak turn, and as is always the case, he manages to wear the character’s entire backstory in his countenance, posture, wordless reactions, and eyes. He’s almost capable of presenting a fully realized character without a word of dialog, and his Loomis is a mysterious, weary guest whose undisclosed, recent experiences have made him a little distant, even as Ann has to contain her joy at finding a companion.

Robbie has never been better in a role that is sometimes almost aggravatingly naïve, and yet this is a character with the grit to survive on her own, to plow a field – to create the film’s Eden.

Nissar Modi’s screenplay sometimes treads too heavily with the biblical metaphors, but Zobel never does. While the film explores ideas of science versus religion, male versus female, intellect versus emotion, white versus black, Zobel’s real interest – as he showed with brilliantly frustrating results in his previous effort, Compliance – is to examine human foibles, resilience, and self-destructive tendencies.

Z examines the nervous but sweet blossoming of a relationship, then upends the comforting narrative with the arrival of a third survivor – handsome Caleb (Chris Pine).

Pine’s third wheel is a less developed character, but the actor manages to convey the right amount of manipulative aw-shucks and just the hint of menace the film needs to generate tension.

The film’s minimalism is both welcome and problematic, as it seems to work against much of the built-in tensions and drama that could enliven the running time.

Fans of the novel will be irritated by the many liberties taken, but Zobel’s film stands firmly on its own. Told with realism and simplicity, and boasting an intriguing amount of ambiguity – especially at the climax – Z abandons the traditions of the post-apocalyptic film in favor of something modest and moving.