The Empty Man

The “creepy cult” subgenre of horror movies has been having a renaissance lately.  Films like  Hereditary (2018) and Midsommer (2019), both directed by Ari Aster, have breathed new life into a very familiar template.  David Prior’s The Empty Man isn’t in the same league as those films, but is a very effective horror movie nonetheless.

The movie begins in 1995 with a group of clueless and entitled Americans hiking through Bhutan, where they stumble upon an ancient evil.  Flash-forward to Missouri in 2018, where James (James Badge Dale), a former detective, looks into the disappearance of his young neighbor Amanda (Sasha Frolova).  After her high school friends commit suicide, James visits an organization Amanda was familiar with, a Scientology stand-in named the Pontifex Institute.  The more James learns about the Institute, the more nefarious the organization appears to be.  Even more troubling is that the group appears to know all about him.

Writer-director Prior expertly combines the story’s many locations and disturbing visuals to build an overwhelming sense of dread.  The acting is mainly serviceable, the exception being the wonderfully loopy Stephen Root (Barry) as a Pontifex lecturer.  The Empty Man incorporates many horror movie themes, but is a creepy cult movie at its core.  It doesn’t tie things together as perfectly as the aforementioned films, but it’s a good creepy cult movie regardless.  Recommended.

Continue reading “The Empty Man”

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is director Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to his Academy Award winning film The Shape of Water.  That movie, a love letter to the monster movies of the fifties (particularly 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) was infused with modern themes of inclusion and acceptance, took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.  Del Toro’s latest is a remake of the 1947 film directed by Edmung Goulding and starring Tyrone Power.  If you’re seen it before, this version will feel very familiar.  (If you haven’t, I recommend watching it either before or after you see the current version as a fun film study exercise. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!)

The movie is a mildly entertaining diversion, made with the care, craftsmanship and weird sensibility typical of del Toro’s films (Hellraiser, Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos).  Unlike his best work, the movie curiously fails to engage either the heart or the imagination.  Some of the blame can be leveled at Cooper’s lead performance as Stan, a drifter who latches onto a carnival and becomes a mentalist.  Fortunately, the movie has style to spare and several of the supporting performances (Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn) are very good.  Ultimately, Nightmare Alley is still little more than an eye-catching curiosity of minor consequence.  But nobody does eye-catching curiosities like del Toro.  Mildly recommended.

Continue reading “Nightmare Alley”

Halloween Kills

Halloween Kills is the second entry in a trilogy of Halloween that takes the 1978 movie as their starting point and pretends that all previous sequels don’t exist.  That bit of artistic amnesia is certainly warranted, as pretty much every sequel that followed the original movie only served to cheapen what is generally considered a horror classic.  Halloween (2018), the first movie in the trilogy, was definitely guilty of raided the closest of the original.  There’s a tense opening credit sequence featuring a pumpkin, John Carpenter’s iconic film score, copious throwback scenes and a convincing performance by Jamie Lee Curtis.  Most importantly, that movie had an interesting story to tell.  Specifically, what impact did Michael have on Laurie Strode’s life from that point on, and how did Laurie’s reaction to that trauma affect her family?

Picking up immediately after the action of the previous movie, Halloween Kills shows Laurie heading to the hospital while firetrucks head in the opposite direction.  Twelve movies into the Halloween franchise, we all know that Michael will survive certain death yet again.  What we don’t expect is for this sequel to squander all of the goodwill earned from the previous movie.  Since Laurie is confined to a hospital for the entire run length of the movie, filmmakers David Gordon Green and Danny McBride fill out the story with a collection of flashbacks and various residents of Haddonfield, Illinois.  The flashbacks don’t add anything to the story except to turn the younger version of Officer Hawkins into The Shakiest Gun in Haddonfield.  The townies are an interesting bunch, curiously well drawn for a slasher movie.  Frustratingly, all of them eventually become cannon fodder for Michael Myers and his endless supply of kitchen knives.

The last movie in the trilogy, Halloween Ends, is due to arrive next year.  That movie will undoubtedly feature the last confrontation between Laurie and Michael.  Until then, Halloween Kills passes the time, existing only as the equivalent of cinematic padding between episode one and episode three.  Aside from one surprising death at the very end of the movie, Halloween Kills is inconsequential, irrelevant and completely superfluous.  If you wish to save yourself 1:45, scroll down past the included YouTube video where I reveal the name of the character who dies.  You can make use of the time you’ve saved by rewatching the original.  Not Recommended.

Continue reading “Halloween Kills”

Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan, the creative force behind The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, returns with Midnight Mass, a new limited series on Netflix.  Similar to his two previous series, Midnight Mass is a combination of earnest performances, thoughtful, introspective dialog and stealth horror elements.  This time around, Flanagan has decided to de-emphasize the scary stuff, and the result is incredibly underwhelming, to the point where the series should have been titled Tedium.

Unlike his previous two series, Flanagan declines to scare us and instead spends nearly all of its run time on a) dialog that would feel right at home in a Philosophy 101 class and b) Catholic religious practices.  I think it is the first horror series that feels like it was written for NPR.  While the acting is fine, and there are a few disturbing scenes here and there, the overall effect I got from watching it was an overwhelming urge to check how much time was left.  The only thing scary about Midnight Mass is how boring and self-satisfied it is.  Not recommended.

Continue reading “Midnight Mass”

Malignant (long take)

Malignant is a combination of horror movie references, James Wan’s usual bag of tricks and other things that he likes thrown into a blender and pureed together.  The resulting mixture is slick and very entertaining, but not as engrossing as Wan’s previous horror movies.  The movie is a creepy funhouse, relying on paper-thin characters to drive the plot.  The movie works, and horror movie nerds will find it’s fanboy signalling endlessly entertaining, but the movie lacks the emotional connection that elevated The Conjuring to more than your average horror movie.  Recommended.

A detailed summary and analysis follow.  Spoilers abound.  You have been warned.

Continue reading “Malignant (long take)”

Candyman (2021)

Candyman ignores the inferior sequels that preceded it and instead acts as a direct sequel to the 1992 movie of the same name.  As in the original, Candyman features a hook-wielding ghost who is brought to life by saying his name five times in a mirror. Director Nia DaCosta and producer Jordan Peele have upgraded the Candyman legend deftly for modern times, contextualizing his gruesome origin story as the starting point of decades of systemic racism and violence.  And instead of having the requisite white woman be the audience surrogate, two African American men take center stage.  The first is a young artist (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) seeking inspiration from the notorious history of the now-gentrified Cabrini-Green projects.  The second is a middle-aged man (Colman Domingo) who never left, still seething from an unjust killing he witnessed as a child.  The end result is riveting, scary, insightful and moving.  The (white) victims are written a bit thinly, but turnabout is fair play, as they say.  Candyman is a horror movie by definition, but it has much more up its sleeve than shocks and gore.  Mind that ending–it’s not the triumph it appears to be.  Highly recommended.

Continue reading “Candyman (2021)”