Tag Archives: Shudder premiere

Under the Influencer

Sissy

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.

24 Hour Party People

Who Invited Them

by Hope Madden

Perhaps the most terrifying horror born of neighborly manners is Michael Haneke’s unnerving Funny Games (either his 1997 German-language original or his 2007 English-language remake). Writer/director Duncan Birmingham doesn’t go that far. What he does is walk a tightrope that’s a little goofier, a little less horrifying, but effective nonetheless.

Margo (Melissa Tang) and Adam (Ryan Hansen) throw a housewarming party. Well, Adam throws it. Margo endures it. She doesn’t honestly know what was wrong with their old neighborhood. It doesn’t help that their 5-year-old has had nightmares every night since they arrived.

Adam invites all his colleagues and bosses, hoping to impress without coming off as douchey. He’s upwardly mobile, although the house —which he got at a steal because of that nasty double homicide—might make them look a little higher up than they really are.

Not that Margo and Adam are the only partiers who aren’t what they seem. That really good-looking couple—the two who look like they just came from a really hip funeral—does anyone know who they are?

Maybe Sasha (Perry Mattfeld) and Tom (Timothy Granaderos) are the neighbors, as they say.

But probably not.

What we can say for sure is that they do not want to leave.

What transpires after all the other guests have gone would be a comedy of manners except that it feels pretty clear that something awful lurks underneath the handsome couple’s evasion and gaslighting.

Birmingham’s film is a mystery of sorts, although you’ll have most of that intrigue figured out pretty early. There is also a subplot about Margo’s friends who are babysitting. This goes essentially nowhere. Worse still, Birmingham rushes Act 3 and leaves you feeling short-changed.

However, that 30 minutes or so that Margo and Adam and Sasha and Tom have on their own gets pretty uncomfortable.

Hansen unveils surprising warmth within the needy, insecure Adam. He and Tang take the married couple in surprising and welcome directions. Mattfeld and Granaderos are drolly perfect as the home invaders masquerading as partygoers who just can’t tell it’s time to go.

A tight script wastes little time and manages to surprise even if you figure out the main mysteries early. Who Invited Them isn’t flawless, but it is an anxious bit of fun.

Father Knows Best

What Josiah Saw

by Hope Madden

Just when you think you know where director Vincent Grashaw’s Southern Gothic What Josiah Saw is going, you meet Eli.

One at a time, Grashaw introduces us to the Graham children. At first, it’s poor Tommy (Scott Haze), a simple fella living at home with Graham patriarch, Josiah (Robert Patrick). Josiah doesn’t think much of Tommy. He doesn’t think much of God, either, but he’s having a change of heart.

Then Grashaw switches gears and introduces us to Tommy’s brother Eli (Nick Stahl), who lives hard. He’s run afoul of some bad people (including Jake Weber in a welcome cameo) and is in some pretty desperate straits. Finally, we meet sister Mary (Kelli Garner), whose trauma sits far nearer the surface and strengthens our unease about the inevitable family reunion.

The Grahams reunite, drawn by the lure of oil money: the Devlin corporation hopes to drill on their land. The money could mean a fresh start for everyone. But some details need to be handled first.

Moving from story to story, What Josiah Saw keeps you on your toes. Grashaw glides easily from one style to the next, although Eli’s gritty thriller storyline is the most intriguing. It feels more complete, less bait and switch, and benefits from Stahl’s naturalistic, resigned performance.

Not every episode works as well. The stones left unturned and strings left untied from one tale to the next, though, give the film a rich, dark present-day. From the outset it’s clear there’s a traumatic backstory waiting to be revealed, so it’s to Grashaw and writer Robert Alan Dilts’s credit that the messy present keeps pulling our interest.

Patrick delivers a strong turn, mean-spirited and commanding. He’s at the center of the mystery, the center of everybody’s trauma in a film mainly concerned with how you live with the marks left by your childhood.

Ambiguity in the third act is becoming a theme in horror this year. Alex Garland’s Men, the recent stalker horror Resurrection, and now, What Josiah Saw. Sometimes it’s brave to let the audience own the experience and make the call. More often, it feels indecisive or muddy. I’m not sure all the clues are here to help make the determination for What Josiah Saw, but even without proper closure, Grashaw paints a creepy picture.

Rattlin’ Bog

Moloch

by Hope Madden

A bog is a nice spot for horror, eh? You think you’re walking along a lovely field when suddenly, you’re sucked in. Like quicksand, only mossier.

Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) and her daughter Hanna (Noor van der Velden) live with Hanna’s grandparents on the edge of one such Dutch mire in Nico van den Brink’s Moloch. A body just turned up out there, perfectly preserved for maybe hundreds of years.

And then another appears. And another. And another—each a female from a different era. The discoveries trigger other unusual behaviors, all of it corresponding with the town’s celebration of an unsavory history.

It sounds a little contrived, a little familiar, but van den Brink’s naturalistic approach to the story offsets any hokeyness. Harmsen’s spooked but reasonable lead makes for a clear-eyed hero, one who rails against her lot in life quietly but surely. Her choices sometimes feel erratic but never unnatural, and the cast around her shares a lovely and reasonably strained chemistry.

All performances are more raw than polished, which amplifies an authenticity struggling to anchor the supernatural elements.

Because scary stories are scarier if you believe them.

Not that the film ignores its spectral side. Ringing bells, musical interludes, moments in an aquarium and other highlights of the film’s sound design lend Moloch a supernatural eeriness that deepens its dread.

Van der Velden shows keen instincts for allowing his tale to unravel in its own time. Close attention to detail allows a rich understanding of the story Moloch tells. Whether you devote that kind of attention to the film or not, Moloch gets its point across.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Good Madam

by Hope Madden

There are so many things about Celine Sciamma’s masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire that stay with me. For example, the way men haunt the film without ever really being onscreen.

Director Jenna Cato Bass employs a similar strategy in her psychological thriller Good Madam, a film where white people are all but absent yet still suffocatingly present.

The South African film catches up with Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) on their way to see Tsidi’s mother (Nosipho Mtebe). Tsidi is not entirely welcome, not happy to be there, but here they are: mother, daughter and granddaughter sharing servants quarters in the home of a wealthy, dying white woman.

The film’s story has an unstructured authenticity about it, likely stemming from its improvisational storytelling (essentially everyone in the cast is credited for writing the film). Conversations ring true in ways that are sometimes touching, sometimes startling. Scenes rarely feel like breadcrumbs leading through the mystery inside this house, and yet, that’s what they are.

The film walks the line between political allegory and supernatural horror with ease, conjuring dread from the opening moments. Cato Bass twists that knife as Tsidi rails against her mother’s slavish devotion to the catatonic homeowner. Present meets recent past, all of it overshadowed by a long, horrifying South African history.

Cato Bass and her cast confront colonialism, both present and past, through the eyes of three generations. The film repurposes familiar images, often effectively, sometimes calling to mind Jordan Peele’s Get Out, among other genre fare.

Cosa’s performance is especially strong and unpredictable and she seems to transform physically from scene to scene to suit the character’s mood.

The ambiguities of the storyline can be as frustrating as they are refreshing, but Good Madam doesn’t waste your time. It’s a savvy, satisfying subversion of history and horror.

Scream Queen

All About Evil

by Hope Madden

Creepy twins! Librarians! Drag queens! These are a few of my favorite things…

The long-lost 2010 cult-film-in-the-making All About Evil brings all this and more to its Shudder debut this week. What’s it about?

The business of show!

Natasha Lyonne is Deborah Tennis, anxious librarian. Deb inherits her dad’s beloved single-screen San Francisco theater and vows to keep it afloat, no matter how. Her plan of action: make grisly, hyper-realistic horror shorts with literary puns for titles.

You’d be surprised how well it works.

Writer/director Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ, who co-stars) surrounds Lyonne with some underground heavy-hitters including Mink Stole and Cassandra Peterson. Between that and the Herschel Gordon Lewis love, All About Evil is a mash note to camp.

Performances and writing fall right in line. It’s community theater bad, but in the best way. Lyonne is in her element, hamming her arc from mousy literary type to vampy directress with Gloria Swanson skill. She’s even more fun when she’s directing her fine crew (Jack Donner, Noah Segan, and Nikita and Jade Ramsey – all so fun).

The underlying story that we need to stop assuming every troubled, white high school boy is a danger to society has not aged well. But Grannell also hits on timeless lessons about cell phone use during a movie (never OK!) and Elvira’s hotness (eternal!).

All About Evil offers clever midnight-movie fun from start to finish. The filmmaker is clearly a devotee of cult and kitsch, a love that brightens every frame of the film. Plus, the film memorabilia! Come for the movie posters, stay for more movie posters, enjoy some madcap campy mayhem in between.

Brotherly Love

Slapface

by Hope Madden

Abuse is easy to confuse with a complicated form of love, especially if you’re a child. For the feature length expansion of his 2018 short Slapface, writer/director Jeremiah Kipp complicates his tale of grief and rage with these confusing notions of abuse.

He relies mainly on the unexpected bond between Lucas (August Maturo, exceptional) and a monster sometimes called the Virago Witch (Lukas Hassel, reprising his role from the short). Lucas lost his parents in a car accident and grieves deeply for his mother. He lives just off the woods with his older brother Tom (Mike Manning, who also produces).

Tom’s new girlfriend Anna (Libe Barer) is concerned about the way the siblings live. The only other companionship Lucas has is a trio of bullies. One of those bullies, Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) is willing to be Lucas’s girlfriend as long as he keeps it secret.

In this way, Kipp layers his original tale of grief with conflicting emotional baggage. It’s to his credit, and the endless benefit of his film, that the filmmaker never tidies up these emotional storylines. In fact, it is Lucas’s confusion over the characters who seem to both love and harm him that creates his greatest turmoil.

The monster becomes a remedy of sorts to this internal conflict. The larger-than-life, terrifying presence works much the way that the monster in J.A. Bayona’s 2016 treasure A Monster Calls works. The beast allows Lucas to process the complicated reasons for his pain.

Kipp’s film trades in Bayona’s melancholy magic for something more brutal. But Hassel and Maturo find sincere tenderness in their time together onscreen, which makes the horror even more heartbreaking.

Not every performance is as strong, but Kipp’s ensemble finds nuance in characters that help the film compel more than just terror.

Devil In the Details

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

by George Wolf

Most of the time, limiting a documentary to only one point of view is not a winning strategy. You want balance, with a scope wide enough to deliver more than just an agenda-laden screed.

Leap of Faith doesn’t worry about all that. If your aim is to take a deep dive into the filming of The Exorcist, and director William Friedkin agrees to a lengthy interview, well, that’s that.

Sure, you could probably find someone to argue Friedkin didn’t craft one of the greatest horror films in history, but do we really need to give idiots any more screen time this year?

In just the last three years, director Alexandre O. Phillippe has deconstructed horror classics Alien (Memory: The Origins of Alien) and Psycho (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) to fascinating effect. Leap of Faith makes it a trifecta of terror, thanks to a film icon who also proves himself an endlessly engaging storyteller in front of the camera.

If it’s true every interview needs at least one good story to be worth the time, Phillippe’s visit with Friedkin is a pound for pound champ. The stories here – from Jason Miller taking the Father Karras role away from Stacy Keach to Friedkin’s battle with legendary composer Bernard Herrman over the score – keep you hanging on every word.

Strangely, though, the conversation never does get around to Linda Blair at all – not her casting, her performance, or the complexities of directing a teenage actress in such extreme subject matter. Even with all the compelling content here, it’s a noticeable omission.

But more than an indispensable guide through the making of a classic, Leap of Faith shines a wonderfully illuminating light on Friedkin’s creative process. Yes, Billy clearly likes him some Billy, but at 85 years old now, it’s hard to blame him.

Whether or not Phillippe knew what he was getting when first he sat down with Friedkin, the game plan no doubt materialized pretty quickly. Keep him talking, trim the fat, and then splice in the appropriate clips at the perfect time.

Leap of Faith might be a one man show, but when the show is The Exorcist and the man is William Friedkin, it feels like enough.

Skin Trade

Impetigore

by George Wolf

In a remote Indonesian village, a garden of small headstones marks the effectiveness of a Shaman’s curse. Newborn after newborn dies, the one survivor growing to endure a mysterious, painful existence.

Creepy, right?

Shudder’s Impetigore scores some definite points there, which help to offset a narrative often hampered by convenience and confusion.

Maya (Tara Basro) and Dini (Marissa Anita) are best friends trying to make a go of it in the city. With no family to speak of, they scrape by with menial jobs while dreaming of a better future.

Though raised by her aunt, Maya learns of a spacious home left behind by her wealthy parents. Maya could very well lay claim to this valuable property through inheritance, so she and Dini make their way to the remote village, unaware of the curse and their place in it.

Writer/director Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves), an Indonesian genre veteran, seems to know he’s got some solid benchmarks here while not worrying too much about the strength of what binds them together.

Dialogue can range from awkward to WTF-worthy, amid a few convenient plot turns and one humdinger of extended curse explanation that strains coherence.

But when Anwar hits his creepy marks, Impetigore can leave one. The atmospheric isolation in the village feels authentic, and once blood begins letting, the tension is well-paced, bolstered with some satisfying visual payoffs.

There will be eyerolls, but if you’re keeping score, also enough frightful eyebrow-raising to make Impetigore a winning dive into twisted family values.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RfEwT2LI2M

Muted Fury

The Furies

by Brandon Thomas

Horror and social commentary are synonymous with one another. Fifty years ago, Night of the Living Dead tapped into America’s anxiety about the Vietnam War. 1978’s Dawn of the Dead used the zombie apocalypse to attack consumerism. More recently, Jordan Peele’s Get Out looked to horror to comment on race in America. These are all top-shelf examples of horror tackling social issues. 

Of course, not everyone can be George Romero or Jordan Peele. The new Shudder exclusive, The Furies—screening as part of Australia’s Monster Fest in October before its release in Australian cinemas from November 7—is a stark example of that.

After being kidnapped right off the street, Kayla wakes up in a coffin-sized box somewhere in the Australian outback. Before she can get her bearings, she finds herself hunted by someone wearing a horrific mask. As Kayla makes her way through this hellscape of murder to find a friend, she and the other hunted girls start to succumb to their form of savagery.

The Furies starts strong with a visually impressive prologue. Director Tony D’Aquino gets everything on the screen – from production design to some top-notch gore effects. Visually, the movie is a feast. 

Content-wise?

It’s a tonally confused mess.

There’s a weak attempt at commenting on women’s treatment in horror. When these characters aren’t being hunted down by armed slashers, they’re assigned another one of these ghouls as a protector. On paper this sounds like a novel idea: “Women are either fodder or in need of protection in these movies!” Unfortunately, D’Aquino never does anything more than set those ideas up.

Complicating things more is the way these women are written as merely paper-thin caricatures. They run, scream and die. Rinse, repeat. Kayla’s journey of “discovery” has the depth of a red Solo cup. Instead of looking inward at her own darkness and allowing that to come through in the performance, the movie settles for wearing a dark hoodie and saying tough things while handling a taser.

The messy ideas continue into the movie’s overall tone. The horror elements are strong, but there are also some half-realized sci-fi threads peppered about. Instead of exploring these nuggets in any meaningful way, D’Aquino treats them like the first episode of a network series to be explored later.

Despite some impressive visual sleight of hand with excellent cinematography and practical gore effects, The Furies can’t overcome the inherent shallowness of its story and execution.