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Fright Club: Malls in Horror Movies

Once upon a time, there was nothing cooler than a mall. There was no place you would rather be. It was an oasis, a microcosm, and an excellent location for horror. In honor of the 45th anniversary of George Romero’s pinnacle of consumerist horror, we decided to pull together a list of the five most effective shopping mall horrors.

5. Chopping Mall (1986)

In 1984, Kelli Maroney found mall side horror in Night of the Comet. Like Halley’s Comet, shopping center disaster returned to Maroney just two years later.

She and some pals are planning a wild party inside Park Plaza Mall after closing. But their state-of-the-art security robots go all Robo Cop on them. Boasting a supremely 80s vibe, plus the great Barbara Crampton and a Mary Woronov/Paul Bartel sighting! Jim Wynorski’s time capsule of 80s horror might be more fun to watch now than when it was released.

4. Slaxx (2020)

Absurdism meets consumerism in co-writer/director Elza Kephart’s bloody comedy, Slaxx. CCC Clothing’s new line of denim adjusts to your body and makes you look even more glorious than you already do. And these jeans fit every single figure, from 5 pounds underweight to 5 pounds overweight. It’s a dream come true.

Sehar Bhojani steals every scene as the cynical Shruti, but the jeans are the real stars here. Kephart finds endlessly entertaining ways to sic them on unsuspecting wearers.

Where Romero mainly pointed fingers at the hordes mindlessly drawn to stores like CCC, Kephart sees the villains as those perpetuating clean corporate hypocrisy. Still, it’s their customers and workers she murders—by the pantload.

3. Fear Street: Part One – 1994 (2021)

The first episode in Leigh Janiak’s trilogy takes us to Shadyville, site of misery, trauma and unpleasantness nigh on 300 years. Not that Deena (Kiana Madeira) is buying all this “witch’s curse” BS.

Janiak’s 90s vibe is strong and her soundtrack is tight. Performances—Madeiera as well as Benjamin Flores Jr., Maya Hawke, Fred Hechinger and Gillian Jacobs—far exceed expectations for an R. L. Stine adaptation.

Part One is the best in the trilogy, but all three of Janiak’s Fear Street installments deliver fear and fun in equal portions.

2. Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Zack Snyder would go on to success with vastly overrated movies, but his one truly fine piece of filmmaking updated Romero’s Dead sequel with the high octane horror. The result may be less cerebral and political than Romero’s original, but it is a thrill ride through hell and it is not to be missed.

The flick begins strong with one of the best “things seem fine but then they don’t” openings in film. And finally! A strong female lead (Sarah Polley). Polley’s beleaguered nurse Ana leads us through the aftermath of the dawn of the dead, fleeing her rabid husband and neighbors and winding up with a rag tag team of survivors hunkered down inside a mall.

In Romero’s version, themes of capitalism, greed, and mindless consumerism run through the narrative. Snyder, though affectionate to the source material, focuses more on survival, humanity, and thrills. (He also has a wickedly clever soundtrack.) It’s more visceral and more fun. His feature is gripping, breathlessly paced, well developed and genuinely terrifying.

1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Romero returned to the land of the undead in ’78 with a full-color sequel to Night. Set in Philadelphia, at a news broadcast gone crazy, the film follows a news producer, her chopper pilot boyfriend, and two Philly SWAT cops ready to abandon the organized zombie fight and find peace elsewhere. The four board a helicopter, eventually landing on the roof of a mall, which they turn into their private hideaway.

Romero, make-up legend Tom Savini, and Italian horror director Dario Argento teamed up for the sequel. You feel Argento’s presence in the score and the vivid red of the gore.

Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger as the buddies from SWAT create the most effective moments, whether character-driven tension or zombie-driven action. Romero’s politics are on his sleeve with this one, and he seems to be working to build on successes of his original. He uses the “z” word, digs at Eighties consumerism, shows full-color entrails, and reminds us again that the undead may not be our biggest enemy once the zombie-tastrophe falls.

Is This Your Homework, LaRoy?

LaRoy, Texas

by Christie Robb

When small-town pushover Ray (John Magaro, Past Lives) finds himself caught up in a blackmail/murder-for-hire scheme, he teams up with high school-acquaintance/bumbling private investigator Skip (Steve Zahn) to get to the bottom of things.

This neo-noir crime-comedy is writer/director Shane Atkinson’s first feature (he wrote the screenplay for the 2019 Diane Keaton vehicle Poms). It feels like a streamlined take on the Big Lebowski—mistaken identity gets loser in over his head in a world full of morally ambiguous/dangerous characters. An overly-invested partner invites himself along and makes the situation worse. A somewhat complex mystery is unraveled. There are funny interactions with various weirdos.

Zahn (White Lotus) is a highlight. His cowboy-at-prom ensemble. His golden retriever vibe. His enthusiasm for detection. It’s all glorious. 

Dylan Baker’s (Selma) Harry the Hitman is unsettling in the manner of that unassuming neighbor who keeps to himself but then gets caught doing something unspeakable, like using a stray cat as a fleshlight. He shifts from disarming charm to efficient malevolence like a finely-tuned racecar.

However, while LaRoy, Texas is funny, it’s missing the quirk of the Cohen brothers cult classic. The lead, Ray, lands as a too bland everyman—a boring sad-sack point of stability around which the plot turns. The dialogue could be snappier. The women could have more to do. And it definitely deserved a better soundtrack.

But if you are looking to program a night of neo-noir, you could totally play LaRoy, Texas as an opening act as long as you save the superstars like Fargo and the Big Lebowski for later in the evening.

Night Crawlers

Arcadian

by George Wolf

Nicolas Cage has become such a mythic figure in film culture that each new outing tends to bring questions.

Is this the unhinged “rage in the Cage?” Arthouse Cage? Mass appeal or self effacing Cage?

You can file Arcadian under “understated Cage leading a YA leaning creature feature.”

He stars as Paul, who’s living in a remote farmhouse with his twin teenage sons in a dystopian future. By day, the men follow a careful routine of security and sustenance. Because at night, there are visitors that really want to come in.

The exact details of the invasion are a little sketchy, but never elusive enough to derail our interest in the family’s survival.

Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins) is the impulsive, romantic brother, and his visits with Charlotte (Sadie Soverall) at the farm down the road have been keeping Thomas out dangerously late. His twin Joseph (Jaeden Martell) is the introspective thinker. Joseph has been studying patterns of the nightly attacks and believes the creatures have been testing, and planning.

He’s right.

Director Benjamin Brewer isn’t trying to reinvent anything here. He teams with producer-turned-screenwriter Michael Nilon for an unassuming horror thriller than benefits greatly from an impressive cast and a frightening creature design.

I don’t want to give anything away, but these bad boys have one specific trait that will get your attention right quick.

These themes aren’t new. There will be peril, bloodshed, and sacrifice as the creatures get smarter and the young begin to take on responsibilities of adulthood and cherish the things that matter. But thankfully, that familiarity doesn’t breed pandering. Brewer is also able to land some solid thrills, while the three younger co-stars provide impressive support for Cage’s elder statesman grace.

Ultimately, Arcadian doesn’t feel that much like a stereotypical “Nicolas Cage movie.” And the film is better for it.

Divisible

Civil War

by George Wolf

Writer/director Alex Garland gets to the point quickly in Civil War, via battle-weary photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst).

“Every time I’ve survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this.”

“But here we are.”

Smith and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) are preparing for the 857-mile drive from New York to D.C. during a very active civil war in near-future America. Their press credentials may bring sympathy from some they encounter, and deadly aggression from others. The danger only intensifies when they agree to bring along elderly reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and the aspiring young photojournalist Jessie (Priscilla‘s Cailee Spaeny).

The goal? A face-to-face interview with a President (Nick Offerman) who has disbanded the FBI, ordered air strikes against American citizens, and has not taken questions for over a year.

Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men) is careful not to tip his political hand. Though a couple lines of dialog give you a vague glimpse about what type of policies the President favors, we’re repeatedly told resistance is coming from the “Western Forces” led by California and Texas. The nicely subtle mix of red and blue state rebellion makes it clear the point here is not purely idealogical.

“Don’t do this.”

And though many a road movie has leaned on that narrative device for a flimsy connection of random ideas, Garland uses the trip to D.C. to bolster his very ambitious idea with tension-filled looks at the heartland. Through an uneasy stop for gas, the visit to a town the war forgot, a marksman’s simple rules of engagement, and a brutal citizenship test from an unforgettable Jesse Plemons, we’re immersed in a war-torn America that seems authentically terrifying.

But it’s all just a prelude to the carnage ahead.

Because once it settles in D.C., the film becomes a war movie that will batter your senses with a barrage of breathless execution.

Dunst has never been better, particularly in the moments when Lee’s stoic rationalizing can no longer come to her rescue, or ours. Garland gives us the vulnerable Jessie as a logical entry point in the early going, but as she joins Joel in feeding off the war zone rush, moralities become more complicated.

As draining as it often is, Civil War is also an exhilarating, sobering and necessary experience. Smartly written and expertly crafted, the film manages to honor the work of wartime photojournalists as it delivers a chilling vision. It’s one beyond left or right, where the slippery slope of dehumanization breeds a willingly and violently divisible America we always professed to be beneath us.

Back for Seconds

Food Inc. 2

by Rachel Willis

I’ll admit I didn’t watch 2008’s Food, Inc., but the first film is not a prerequisite for watching Food, Inc. 2—an updated, critical look at the system that feeds us.

What director Robert Kenner addressed in the first film is, in part, revisited—this time with co-director Melissa Robledo. Has much changed since Food, Inc. was released 15 years ago? What role did the COVID-19 pandemic play in exposing the weaknesses in our food system? And what is ultra-processed food doing to our health?

Producers Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser once again join Kenner in tackling the issues that come with food consumption in America. While farmer’s markets are now a staple in many American cities, and organic and free-range food is readily available in big chain grocery stores, much of what we eat is still controlled by only a handful of companies.

The point is made early that what was started with the original Food, Inc. wasn’t enough.

The filmmakers make a strong case for the fragile nature of our food supply. The COVID pandemic brought into sharp relief the problems with having so few suppliers for our food. Footage shows milk being dumped, pigs euthanized, and produce wasted while store shelves stand depleted. It’s a harsh fact brought to light: the food industry is based on predictability. When something unpredictable happens, people go hungry.

One issue highlighted is that 80% of the infant formula market is controlled by only two companies. When one of those companies had to shut down one of their factories in 2022, parents were left desperate to find the food necessary to feed their babies—just one of many examples that demonstrate the fragility of our most important system.

Several interviews focus on the exploitation of workers harvesting and producing crops for pityingly low wages in inhumane conditions. One man makes the point that “the work is essential, but we’re treated as disposable.” In the 100+ years since The Jungle was published, it seems little has changed.

Michael Pollan is quick to highlight the war between Big Ag and nature. Moving dairy farms to the desert is unsustainable, yet regulations are few and land is cheap. When cows need water from aquifers to produce milk, people go without water.

Food, Inc. 2 raises urgent issues. It’s essential that we listen.

No Place Like Home

Invader

by Hope Madden

Lean, mean and affecting, Mickey Keating’s take on the home invasion film wastes no time. In a wordless—though not soundless—opening, the filmmaker introduces an unhinged presence.

Cut to Ana (Vero Maynez). She’s sleepy, it’s late, the bus is empty except for the driver hustling her off, his voice constant, annoyed, and on repeat: Come on. Get off the bus. Last stop. You gotta go.

It’s 4:30 am. The bus was late, the station is deserted, and Carmilla—Ana’s cousin—is not answering.

Immediately Keating sets our eyes and ears against us. His soundtrack frequently blares death metal, a tactic that emphasizes a chaotic, menacing mood the film never shakes. Using primarily handheld cameras from the unnerving opening throughout the entire film, the filmmaker maintains an anarchic energy, a sense of the characters’ frenzy and the endless possibility of violence.

Keating strings together a handful of believably tumultuous moments early in the film—particularly a couple of run-ins with a horn-blaring cabbie—to work the nerves and leave you feeling as raw and vulnerable as Ana. Rather than dip and settle, Invader delivers relentlessly on that early sense of harried terror.

Scenes possess an improvisational quality that coincides with the rawness of the overall effort. Keating is spare with exposition—if you can’t figure out what’s going on without having it explained to you, you are clearly not paying attention. The verité style accomplishes what it’s mean to, lending Invader an authenticity that amplifies the horror.

Maynez carries that authenticity. Ana never feels written, she feels alive. Her confusion, anger, fear—all of it runs together in a way that reflects what the audience is experiencing in each moment. Her limited screentime with Colin Huerta introduces enough tenderness to give the sense of terror real depth.

Joe Swanberg, with limited screentime and even more limited dialog, crafts a terrifying image of havoc. His presence is perversely menacing, an explosion of rage and horror.

Invader delivers a spare, nasty, memorable piece of horror in just over an hour. It will stick with you a while longer. 

Queen of Pain

Sting

by Hope Madden

Is there a more reliable source of terror than the spider?

Well, maybe clowns, but spiders are a close second. Australian filmmaker Kiah Roache-Turner is giddy to elicit shivers and gasps with his delightfully horrifying arachnid adventure, Sting.

Roache-Turner’s love for sci-fi horror bursts gleefully from the dollhouse-set opening credits, a scene that efficiently outlines our backstory. This snapshot playfully predicts the film, even as it homages genre classics.

The Wyrmwood director goes on to use the air ducts of an old Bronx apartment building to lay out the land, introduce us to tenants and their habits, and show our hero shimmying and crawling, all spider-like, through the building.

Who is our hero? Malcontent 12-year-old Charlotte (Alyla Browne). Her baby brother is loathsome, her parents are tedious, no one pays attention to her, her old witch of a great-aunt/land lady blames her for everything. Ugh!

But then Charlotte comes across a very cool little spider. And with so many cockroaches in Charlotte’s building, surely the newly monikered Sting will never need to look elsewhere for food!

Boy, that is lucky.

Browne channels Lulu Wilson’s Becky (maybe a little less angry). Her performance easily withstands the demands of a lead, but she does receive nice support from a variety of personalities living in the building: Nona Hazelhurt, Robyn Nevin, Danny Kim, Silvia Colloca and Jermaine Fowler.

Fiona Donovan’s production design stands out, emphasizing the film’s distinctly Joe Dante vibe. Although instead of perverting some idyllic burb, Sting ravages a storybook version of the Bronx.

But make no mistake, this movie gets nasty. The creature design and CGI are a bit campy, but the damage Sting does is convincing and pitiless. (Pet lovers be warned.)

If you missed Roache-Turner’s 2014 post-apocalyptic thrill ride Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, definitely check it out. With that film, his fondness for Mad Max flavored a delightful riff on the zombie movie. Here he channels affection for a wide range of creature features (he really loves Alien) but still manages to create something decidedly his own.

One Small Ember

Monkey Man

by George Wolf

A new hero has arrived. And with him, an exciting new filmmaker.

After directing just two short films, Dev Patel moves to features with Monkey Man, an assured and thrillingly violent story of heritage and revenge.

Patel (who also gets a story credit) is charismatic and commanding as “Bobby,” an underground fighter in India who takes dives for “Tiger” (Sharlto Copley) and cons his way into a job washing dishes at an exclusive club run by Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar).

But Bobby has a plan to get promoted to serving in the VIP room. Once in, he’ll get close enough to police chief Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher) to make him pay for crimes committed against Bobby’s mother (Adithi Kalkunte) years before.

Complications arise, leaving Bobby a very wounded and hunted man, until some mystical assistance from Alpha (Vipin Sharma) turns Bobby into a lethal leader for the common people.

Patel doesn’t run from his inspirations, even name-dropping John Wick early in the film. You’ll also see shades of martial arts masters, Winding Refn, Tarantino and more, but Patel is always ready to put his own stamp on a familiar march to a showdown. He favors quick cuts and close ups with scattershot POV shots to enhance the impressive fight choreography and striking color palettes at work.

Similarly, Patel teams with screenwriters John Colle and Paul Angunawela—plus producer Jordan Peele—to take some well known themes and move them progressively forward. Rebelling against the totalitarian tactics of Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpandi) and the Sovereign Party, a forgotten and oppressed population turns to the Monkey Man for deliverance.

And as much as this feels like an origin story, it is a dark one. Patel has indeed delivered a statement, as much about his filmmaking prowess as it is about his worldview. But the statement is grim and bloody, so leave the little ones at home and strap in for the thrilling, visceral rise of Patel and the Monkey Man.