Fright Club: Skeletons in the Closet, 2021

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The Oscars are coming and we get to spend some time celebrating the worst of the horror movies made by nominees. Have they made great horror? Well, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) are nominees, so yes. In fact, there are a whole slew of horror films made by this year’s batch of nominees, most of them far too good to qualify for this list.

No, we want the skeletons. And every single year, nominees have them. Here are this year’s contenders.

5. Daniel Kaluuya: Chatroom (2010) 

What is the matter with this movie? Writer Edna Walsh, who’d go on to pen the excellent films Disco Pigs and Hunger, adapted her own stage play. Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water) directed. The cast is exceptional: Daniel Kaluuya, Imogen Poots, Aaron Taylor-Johnson all play Chelsea teens who hang out in a new chatroom.

How did this to so terribly wrong? As five kids get to know each other online, it turns out that one is a predator looking for a very specific weakness and playing the others against each other. Not a terrible premise, and the overall design is surreal enough to avoid individuals at their laptops. Performances are solid as well.

But, ideas come and go, conflicts arise and disappear, characters appear without warning or introduction and vanish, and storylines fail to make any real sense.

4. Amanda Seyfried & Gary Oldman: Red Riding Hood (2011)

A two-fer! Truth be told, there were plenty of two-fer opportunities with Oldman on this list (he also co-starred with fellow nominee Anthony Hopkins in both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hannibal).

But this is the one, because it lets us talk about another time he co-starred with Amanda Seyfried. Both are nominated for their work together in 2020’s Mank. Neither were nominated for this.

Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke helms this fractured fairy tale, and it looks gorgeous. The story is overly complicated and stupid, but it hits all the important marks: Valerie (Seyfried) is loved by two potentially dangerous boys whose passion might actually kill her. Oh, it’s such an angsty YA dream!

Seyfried is fine. Oldman is a ham, and he’s such a joy when he’s a ham. There’s a fun cameo from Julie Christie as well. But the weak writing and utterly laughable performances by the two suitors (Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez) are enough to sink this one deep.

3. Anthony Hopkins: The Wolfman (2010)

Hopkins has a lot of horror in his closet, much of it bad. The Rite is the least watchable, but this is the one that’s the most fun to lambast. What a ludicrous waste of talent!

Sir Anthony bites through scenery (among other things) as Sir John Talbot, father of Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro). Their background is murky, their property is foggy, their accents are jarringly different.

Director Joe Johnson likes stuff big and hokey. You’ll find that here. The film won an Oscar for its make up, which we cannot get behind. The final battle looks like two rhoided-up Pomeranians duking it out.

Still, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving are good, and even though the great Del Toro sleepwalks through this embarrassment, Hopkins is always a bit of fun when he camps it up in a bad movie.

2. Gary Oldman: The Unborn (2009)

Oh, Gary Oldman, why do you so rarely say no?

He’s just in so, so, so many movies – mathematically speaking, it only makes sense that a lot of them will be terrible. Like this one, a film that feels less like a single cohesive unit and more like a string of individual scenes filmed as examples of cliches and non sequiturs.

Oldman plays a rabbi who works with a Christian minister played by Idris Elba to help an incredibly entitled young woman who looks like a blander version of Megan Fox (Odette Annable) exorcise a Jewish demon who likes twins.

Cam Gigandet, Meagan Good, James Remar and Carla Gugino also co-star for no logical reason. Well, writer/director David S. Goyer is also writer David S. Goyer (Blade trilogy & Nolan’s Batman trilogy). This movie came immediately on the heels of 2008’s The Dark Knight, which explains Oldman as well as some unmet expectations.

1. Youn Yuh-jung: Insect Woman (1972)

Youn Yuh-jung is a treasure. Her fifty years in movies boasts dozens of remarkable performances usually marked by quirky humor that never feels gimmicky. She’s had a hell of a 2020, with pivotal supporting roles in Beasts Clawing at Straws and the Oscar-nominated Minari.

She does what she can in writer/director Kim Ki-young’s inexplicably titled Insect Woman.

Oh my God, what a trainwreck! What is going on here? Youn plays a teen with nowhere to turn once her father returns to his wife. Now her mother, older brother and she must fend for themselves. But how? Well, maybe she can be mistress to an impotent (or is he?!) high school teacher.

The film swings back and forth between highly irrational melodrama to profoundly unsexy eroticism to unconvincing gritty street indie. An hour or more into this, they introduce a vampire baby.

I swear!

Then it’s on. Who knows what the hell is happening or is going to happen or why it’s happening or what the film is trying to say. If it were a better movie I’d think Insect Woman was trying to make a point about misogyny and classism in South Korea.

It’s not a better movie, though. It’s very bad.

Avenging Fred Hampton

Judas and the Black Messiah

by Hope Madden

Daniel Kaluuya’s range is simply unreal. From the vulnerable hero of Get Out to the chilling sociopath of Widows, he’s prepared us for quite a gamut of characters. I’m not sure he’s prepared us for his Chairman, though.

Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party circa 1969, in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. A feeling of mortality permeates his performance, and with it a melancholy sense of urgency. His quiet moments swell with tenderness and turmoil, and his speeches burn through the screen. We’ve seen some great performances this year, but we’d give Kaluuya the Oscar right now.

That’s a lot to live up to, but the balance of King’s cast meets the task. LaKeith Stanfield, as police informant Bill O’Neal, strikes the right balance between cowardice and regret. He doesn’t try to make us pity O’Neal and the deal he’s struck with the devil, but he gives the character an energy that suggests more emotional and psychological layers than what’s found on the page.

As FBI Agent Roy Mitchell, Jesse Plemons is as solid as ever, delivering lines with enough genuineness that Mitchell doesn’t become an outright villain until he, along with O’Neal, have gone too far to pretend they’re anything else.

Their performances draw support from an understated Dominique Fishback as a firmly but not blindly committed comrade—Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson. Meanwhile, Dominique Thorne has badassedness to burn as part of a deep ensemble that impresses in most every turn.  

The film never feels like a biopic. The rendering is far more crime thriller, and had this been a simple fictional account of a mole in a political organization, King’s film would have been riveting. Performances alone would have elevated the genre beats.

The real star may be King’s script, co-written with Will Berson and Keith and Kenneth Lucas. There’s no placating. There’s no playing to the masses. King doesn’t water down Hampton’s message of unifying the poor or throwing off the oppression of a police state. In fact, this is a film that means to show the difference between revolution and the “candy coated façade of gradual reform.”

Freedom Riders

Queen & Slim

by George Wolf

“I’m not a criminal.”

“You are now!”

A white cop lies dead on a Cleveland roadside, while a young black couple is processing how a traffic stop escalated to the point of tragedy, and realizing they have a choice to make.

“Slim” (Daniel Kaluuya) is confident his actions were self-defense, but “Queen” (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a lawyer who knows what they’re up against.

They must run. Now.

The feature debut for both director Melina Matsoukas (TV’s Master of None, Insecure) and screenwriter Lena Waithe (Master of None, The Chi) has a righteous outrage that nearly burns through the screen. Working in beautiful tandem, they create a mix of gripping character study and urgent fable that speaks with brutal honesty about being black in America.

In Slim, we see the situation personally, while Queen is always there to remind him, and us, of the big picture, and why from now on, they can only go forward.

And from the moment we meet them – in the opening scene, out on their first date – Queen and Slim are real people we’re drawn to. Through wonderfully authentic dialog, they get to know each other (Who eats too loud? Who prefers “fat Luther?”) and we get to know them, all while they are running for their lives.

But honestly, it might still work if the two just worked in silence, as the chemistry between Kaluuya and Turner-Smith is a natural wonder. Her Queen is a smart, no nonsense woman who admits Slim wasn’t going to get a second date. But Turner-Smith allows Queen’s vulnerability to surface gradually, making her admission that she wants a man who will “cherish her bruises” all the more sympathetic.

Slim’s arc is equally valid with Kaluuya, who shot to Oscar-nominated stardom in Get Out, again flashing an admirable depth. As Slim softens Queen, he in turn absorbs her defiance, ultimately accepting their roles as cultural freedom fighters traveling a modern day underground railroad.

The effective contrasts aren’t limited to the main characters, as Matsoukas and Waithe populate their film with consistently resonant pushes and pulls, from romantic risk to shrinking options in wide open spaces.

A stop or two – such as Slim’s unlikely encounter with a gas station attendant – break the spell, but only for a moment. This is an unapologetic and purposeful first feature, as much a complex story of joy and love as incendiary protest parable.

And like Queen & Slim themselves, it matters.

Oceans Apart

Widows

by Hope Madden

There are few films I have been more geeked to see than Widows.

Co-writer/director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) update a British miniseries from the ‘80s about a heist.

Wait, Steve McQueen made a heist movie? A filmmaker so punishing you watch a little Lars von Trier to lighten the mood?

He totally made a heist movie. It is a layered, deeply cynical, wildly faceted take on politics, organized crime, familial grief and the plight of a powerless woman. So, OK, maybe not your run-of-the-mill Liam Neeson flick. But Liam Neeson is in it.

Neeson is Harry Rawlings, top man in a group of criminals who hit vaults around Chicago. This last hit went south, though, and the bad men he fleeced need that cash back. Poor Mrs. Rawlings (Viola Davis, glorious as is her way), is handed the bill.

McQueen has not made an Oceans 11. Widows is not fun. It is smart, riveting entertainment, though.

McQueen’s Chicago landscape is peopled mainly with folks desperately in need of a change: the criminal trying to get into politics (Brian Tyree Henry), the career politician with daddy issues (Colin Farrell), but mostly the widows of Harry’s crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki), all left as cash-strapped as Mrs. Rawlings.

It does not pay to marry a criminal.

Every member of the enormous ensemble runs with the opportunities this script allows, no matter how much or how little their screen time. Daniel Kaluuya relishes every sadistic moment he has as an enforcer, while Jacki Weaver establishes one character’s entire history with her two fascinating minutes onscreen.

But it’s Viola Davis who anchors the film. She is the grieving heart and the survivor’s mind that gives Widows its center and its momentum. She wastes nothing, never forgetting or allowing us to forget the grim reality of her situation.

There is a heist, don’t get me wrong. There are double crosses, flying bullets, car chases, explosions—genre prerequisites that feel like new toys for the super-serious director. McQueen proves a versatile a filmmaker, though he has certainly left his own distinctive mark on the action flick.