Tag Archives: Shudder premiere

Two Minute Warning

Baghead

by Hope Madden

Back in 2013’s Texas Chainsaw, a young woman receives word that she’s inherited a building from a mysterious relative. She ignores the notes explaining her duties until it’s too late and she’s already stumbled into what lives in her basement.

Laberto Corredor’s Baghead—an expansion of his 2017 short of the same name—treads similar real estate. Iris (Freya Allan) gets word that her estranged dad (Peter Mullan) has passed and she’s inherited his dilapidated Berlin pub. Currently penniless, jobless and homeless in England, Iris signs the deed and takes over the old place.

She doesn’t watch the video explaining the current basement tenant until it’s too late. But it’s not Leatherface down in Iris’s cellar. It’s Baghead, a centuries old witch condemned to freakshow status. For a fee, she’ll swallow a relic of a deceased loved one and turn into said loved one for two minutes.

But—as was the case with last year’s similarly themed Talk to Me—the conversation comes with more baggage than you might expect.

There are some exceptional shots in this film and solid performances. The small ensemble boasts memorable support work from Mullan, Ned Dennehy and Svenja Jung, as well as strong lead performances.

Ruby Barker elevates the thankless best friend role, while Jeremy Irvine smartly inhabits the character of a grieving husband.

Iris makes a lot of inexcusably dumb choices, but because Allan crafts her as angry and short sighted, this feels less like a misstep than it could have.

The plot—co-written by Christina Pamies, Bryce McGuire and the short film’s writer, Lorcan Reilly—becomes needlessly complicated. Worse, Corredor undermines the excellent production value of his locations with gimmicky and weak VFX.

Irvine and Allan nearly save the film, though. The result is a modestly entertaining mixed bag.

Would You Be Mine? Could You Be Mine?

Destroy All Neighbors

by Hope Madden

A film for anyone who squeezes creative passions into the hours outside other responsibilities, refuses the label “hobby” and still never manages to complete anything, Destroy All Neighbors lives that nightmare.

William (Jonah Ray) has been working and reworking the final song on his prog-rock album for ages. Years. He’s so close, but then the loudest, most aggressively weird neighbor moves in next door. Vlad (Alex Winter, who also produces) may have charmed William’s longsuffering girlfriend (Kiran Deol), but he’s pushing William to the brink of insanity. Who can get anything done with all that noise?!

William is that nonconfrontational nice guy who’s always being taken advantage of. But Vlad has pushed him too far. Which is why it will be so difficult to convince anyone that Vlad accidentally killed and dismembered his own self. But he did! Really!

Destroy All Neighbors delivers silly, sloppy horror comedy with the highly relevant message: maybe this is all your own fault. Ray (MST3K) drives the lunacy with an earnest performance. You kind of already know this guy. Hell, he could be you.

And that’s the real charm of Destroy All Neighbors. Director Josh Forbes, working from a script by Mike Benner, Jared Logan and Charles A. Pieper, isn’t wagging a finger of judgment. The finger is gently pointed inward.

The writing team comes from animation and comedy rather than horror, which may be why the film is so gleefully gory, no meanness in it. Whenever William does find his inner badass, the film makes sure he immediately regrets it.

A cameo from Kumail Nanjiani and the supporting goofiness from Lennon and Ryan Kattner as rock and roll has been Caleb Bang Jansen (say the whole name!) keep the tone silly.

Destroy All Neighbors is not a great movie. It’s definitely not a great horror movie. But it’s a light, weird, gentle reminder that you may be all that’s holding you back. (And also, loud neighbors kind of suck.)

Away from Home for the Holidays

The Sacrifice Game

by Hope Madden

The Holdovers by way of Blackcoat’s Daughter, Jenn Wexler’s latest mines the Manson-esque horror of the American Seventies for a new holiday favorite.

The Sacrifice Game opens on December 22, 1971. A homey suburban couple has just wished its last Christmas party guests a good night when the band of four who’ve been watching from the  yard come a knocking.

And that’s the thing about the Seventies. People still answered the door to strangers.

Not every scene in Wexler’s era-appropriate gem sings quite like the opener, but genre fans will be hooked, and rightly so.

Nearby, in the Blackvale School for Girls, news of the murder spree has kids happier than ever to go home for holiday break. Except poor Samantha (Madison Baines) and weird Clara (Georgia Acken). Which means their teacher, Rose (Wexler favorite Chloë Levine) has to stay behind, too.

Just as they sit down for Christmas Eve dinner, a knock at the door.

Naturally, Rose answers.

Part of the reason The Sacrifice Game works as well as it does is the casting of the cultish murderers, each with a fully formed character and each somehow reminiscent of the kind of Satanic hippie villains that once gloriously populated trash horror.

Olivia Scott Welch convinces as former Blackvale girl turned bad while Derek Johns delivers a sympathetic turn as the misguided veteran. Laurent Pitre’s self-pity is spot on, but Mena Massoud’s narcissistic charm outshines them all.

There’s enough grisly material for the true horror moniker, but nothing feels gratuitous. Each scene serves a purpose, and all dialog allows characters to unveil something of themselves. The youngers in the cast are not quite as strong as the rest of the ensemble, but their relative weakness is not crippling.

The film looks fantastic, and though the storyline itself is clearly familiar, Wexler’s script, co-written with Sean Redlitz, feels consistently clever.

It’s a rare year to be gifted with multiple enjoyable holiday horrors, but 2023 already boasts Thanksgiving and It’s a Wonderful Knife. The Sacrifice Game more than merits a seat at the same table.

Mama Mia

Nightmare

by Hope Madden

What happens if a woman reconsiders Rosemary’s Baby?

This is not to say that writer/director Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s Nightmare is the masterpiece of Polanski’s 1968 Oscar winner. It is not. But this Norwegian horror delivers an intriguing pregnancy nightmare, one that benefits from a somewhat merciless female perspective.

Eili Harboe (Thelma) is Mona. She and boyfriend Robby (Herman Tømmeraas, Leave) just bought an apartment. It needs a lot of work, but it’s all theirs and now they can be grown-ups. Mona isn’t sure she and Robby have the same definition of grown up, though, and here’s where things begin to break down.

Mona begins having nightmares that escalate into sleepwalking, sleep paralysis and hallucinations. Could it be stress over abandoning a burgeoning career to focus on renovations and – if Robby has a say in things ­– starting a family? Or maybe it’s the creepy neighbors and their screeching infant?

Whatever the case, Robby’s sexy, shirtless doppelganger comes to Mona every night. The relentlessness of it all has Mona questioning reality.

So do we. Rasmussen rarely clarifies what is really happening and what is nightmare. She mines the dreamy fact that what we see in our sleep is often an image of our waking troubles, particularly those we hide from ourselves. Mona wants to please, as so many women do, and the men around her take casual advantage of this. One scene in a doctor’s office pinpoints the moment Mona finally is moved to begin to act on her own.

Microagressions blend into bigger dangers as Mona’s life blurs with her nightmares. Rasmussen fills the reality with details and beautifully executed moments that fully outline Mona’s struggle. The darker fantasy world of the nightmares is given far less attention, and the medical world that bridges the two feels slapped together.

But Harboe’s understated turn, particularly in a handful of breathtaking scenes, helps Rasmussen blisteringly articulate an everyday horror women face.

Teenage Dream

Perpetrator

by Hope Madden

Jennifer Reeder is preoccupied with missing girls. Her 2019 gem Knives and Skin watched a town fall to pieces around one such absence. Where that film was full of melancholy absurdities, Reeder’s latest, Perpetrator, is a little bolder, a little angrier. 

As Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) approaches her 18th birthday she goes a tad out of control. Her dad (also in some kind of crisis) doesn’t know what to do with her, but an out-of-town aunt (Alicia Silverstone, a sinister delight) offers to take her in. So, Jonny goes from a fairly anonymous, if reckless, urban life to something far more noticeable in her aunt’s small town.

And there is something deeply amiss in Jonny’s new hometown. Girls just go missing. All the time.

McKirnan’s fish out of water performance is so much fun here because Reeder forces the audience to identify with this feral creature. The rest of the town is so odd, almost willing victims after a lifetime of systemic herding. Jonny’s humor, cynicism and enjoyable streak of opportunism give the film a constant sense of forward momentum, though the just-this-side-of-surreal atmosphere has a dreamlike quality.

Silverstone’s prickly, unpredictable performance is nothing but twisted fun, and all the supporting turns contribute something simultaneously authentic and bizarre to the recipe. (That’s a cooking metaphor because of Aunt Hildie’s birthday cake, an ingenious and foul plot kink worth acknowledging.)

Reeder’s work routinely circles back to peculiar notions of coming of age, but John Hughes she ain’t. Goofiness and seriousness, the eerie and the grim, the surreal and familiar all swim the same bloody hallways, practice the same open shooter drills, and speak up at the same assemblies honoring the latest missing girl.

Reeder’s interested in the way women are raised to disregard one another, to compete with each other, to be adored and consumed, sexualized, victimized and vilified. Her reaction to this environment amounts to a reclamation of blood. Perpetrator swims in blood and gore and humor and terror and feminism galore.

Sick Thinking

Nocebo

by Hope Madden

There’s a lot to recommend in Lorcan Finnegan’s new film, Nocebo. It depicts the horror of corporate and personal greed, which is not only currently popular but horrifyingly timeless.

It boasts four admirable performances. Eva Green is Christine. Christine designs clothing for children, and right as she’s launching a new line, she gets some kind of terrible news. Simultaneously, she runs afoul of something seriously foul and finds herself, some months later, debilitated by a mysterious illness.

Her husband Felix (Mark Strong, always welcome) and daughter Bobs (Billie Gadsdon, terrific) are surprised to come home and find Diana (Chai Fonacier) has been hired as live-in help. Honestly, Christine is surprised, too, but she just can’t trust her memory anymore.

It’s a solid setup. Fonacier and Finnegan, whose Without Name (2016) offered excellent and underseen “into the woods” horror, keep you guessing as to Diana’s motives. Fonacier grounds her character, finding a balance between a number of rote horror options, which invites constant curiosity.

Still, without giving away any major plot points, it’s the character of Diana that makes the film so problematic. Writer Garret Shanley, who collaborated with Finnegan on both Without Name and the 2019 sci-fi horror Vivarium, leans into stereotypes and dated tropes to tell his tale.

That’s unfortunate because it’s a big problem for the film.

Finnegan does what he can by investing in both Christine and Diana’s points of view, which also keeps viewers off balance in terms of the likely outcome of the story. Strong injects the proceedings with a genuinely sympathetic perspective in a role that rarely benefits from such a thing. And Gadsdon is more than just adorable, although adorable she is.

But Nocebo doesn’t pack the punch it intends to, the point-of-view sleight of hand limiting the impact. It’s not the body horror promised by the catalyst, either. Instead, it’s a muddled if well-performed tale that leans heavily on an idea that needs to die.

Cabin of Curiosities

A Wounded Fawn

by Hope Madden

In 2019, Travis Stevens directed his first feature, Girl on the Third Floor, a haunted house film in which the house is the protagonist. It not only looked amazing, but the unusual POV shots did more than break up the monotony of a film set almost exclusively inside one building. Those peculiar shots gave the impression of the house’s own point of view – a fresh and beguiling choice.

Stevens’s 2021 film Jakob’s Wife waded more successfully into feminist territory, benefitted from brilliant, veteran performances, and turned out to be one of the best horror shows of the year. In many ways, the filmmaker’s latest, A Wounded Fawn, picks up where those left off – which does not mean you’ll see where it’s heading.

Josh Ruben is Bruce. Marshall Taylor Thurman is the giant Red Owl Bruce sees, a manifestation of that part of Bruce that compels him to murder women. The next in line seems to be Meredith (Sarah Lind). After finally getting past the trauma of a long-term abusive relationship, Meredith is taking a leap with a nice new guy, heading for an intimate weekend at his cabin.

This sort of sounds like Donnie Darko meets about 100 movies you’ve seen, but it is not. Not at all. Bruce bids on high-end art at auctions, Meredith curates a museum, and Stevens’s film is awash in the most gorgeous, surreal imagery – odes to Leonora Carrington, among others. And, like the POV shots from Girl on the Third Floor, these visual choices do more than give the movie its peculiar and effective look.

At the center of Bruce’s personal journey is a sculpture he stole from his last victim, a piece depicting the Furies attacking Orestes, who was driven mad by their torture for his crimes against his mother. It’s a great visual, an excellent metaphor for a serial killer comeuppance movie. It’s also an excellent reminder that art has a millennia-long history of depicting women’s vengeance upon toxic men – in case anyone is tired of this “woke” trend.

Lind more than convinces in the character’s tricky spot of being open to new romance and guarding against red flags. We’ve seen Ruben play the nice guy who’s not really as nice as he thinks, but his sinister streak and sincere narcissism here are startling.

The film does an about-face at nearly its halfway mark, not only changing from Bruce’s perspective to Meredith’s, but evolving from straightforward narrative to something hallucinatory and fascinating.

The final image – unblinking, lengthy, horrible and fantastic – cements A Wounded Fawn as an audacious success.

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.