Monthly Archives: December 2020

Quick Picks 2020

Back again for a very tricky third instalment of my annual awards show. Why tricky? Well, as you know, the rules are that I can only give out prizes to movies released in the past year that I saw in the past year. And guess what happened? There was a pandemic. A lot of movies ended up being released directly to streaming platforms, and I don’t subscribe to any of those. Which means that I really had my work cut out for me. In 2018 I only had a slate of 13 movies to choose from. Last year I upped that to 20 titles. But this year I dropped down to 10. That doesn’t give me a lot of wiggle room. But in some cases that only made the competition more intense!

Here is the list of movies that qualified in 2020:

Bad Boys for Life
Bill & Ted Face the Music
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Brahms: The Boy II
Fantasy Island
The Grudge
The Invisible Man
The Social Dilemma

Whew! Not very pretty, is it? Well, let’s get started.

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Jigsaw (2017)

*. I took a break from the Saw franchise (as in fact the series itself did) before Jigsaw. I think this helped, though I’d grown fuzzy on the details of the Saw mythology, and had forgotten a lot of key plot points. Was it possible John Kramer was still alive? What about the last inheritor of his grisly mantle? Was s/he still around? Whatever the answers to these questions, the formula was like an old sweater, and I was sure everything was going to play out in a way that would bring it all back.
*. It does. Though billed as a reboot of the franchise, Jigsaw (originally titled Saw: Legacy) plays more like a direct sequel. That is, a direct sequel to Saw: The Final Chapter (a joke we’ve all heard before). As many critics observed, it’s yet another attempt to write an origin story for John Kramer, even though there have already been a couple of these and, as I’ve previously remarked, Kramer isn’t that interesting a guy to get to know in the first place.
*. The formula, however, has proven to be a winner. Much like the Final Destination movies (which, on the whole, I prefer) there’s that old sweater of essential elements that get repeated. The rules for these movies are as strict as those for Jigsaw’s puzzles.
*. So there’s the forbidding invitation — a bogus “choice” that cannot be refused — to play a game. This is followed by more of the same tired traps: chains, collars, needles, and (naturally) saws. More narrative trickery playing with our sense of time, and more red herrings. But by this point we’ve been trained to expect the unexpected, so the herrings scarcely even register. We know exactly who the killer isn’t, and we can be damn sure that Jigsaw is about a hundred steps (or half-a-dozen movies) ahead of everyone else.

*. I’m not sure there’s much that sets Jigsaw apart. Matthew Lucas: “The Saw movies were never a great franchise (although the series did have its highlights), and Jigsaw neither pushes the series in any new direction nor does it do a disservice to what came before. It’s simply another Saw movie.” The victims seem a bit duller on the uptake, no good at solving puzzles and slow to take instructions or hints. And for some reason Jigsaw has developed even more of a spiritual bent. As the movie begins he’s lecturing the bucketheads on atonement, confession, salvation, and how the truth will set them free. As if. Is this meant as mockery? I recall the earlier films being more existential in their morality.
*. There was some hope among critics that directors Michael and Peter Spierig (credited as The Spierig Brothers), who had enjoyed some success with Predestination, would inject some new blood (as opposed to just more blood) into the franchise. This didn’t happen. I think Jesse Hassenger nicely captures all they brought to the table: “They favor blues, grays, and, at one point, the oddly warm lighting of a grain silo over the sludge tones and frantic shot-stuttering of the earlier films (originated by a still-learning James Wan, and passed along to the first film’s art director and editor). It mostly looks slickly professional, as opposed to slick with liquefied grime.”
*. On the DVD commentary the producers give their own take on what sets this film apart but I found it a lot less convincing than Hassenger’s. They do, however, address what has to be the key dilemma in any franchise entry: “one of our goals was to make it a Saw movie and not a Saw movie at the same time.” And later: “we wanted to make a Saw movie but not just Saw 8.” But the differences they point to are mainly cosmetic. There are more exteriors, but still not a lot. The “Hello Zepp” theme is tweaked. The Billy puppet has glowing eyes. They also mention how they wanted to go back to the original Saw with more puzzle-solving and less gore, but I didn’t see this at all.
*. Not the best movie in the franchise, and not the worst. I thought the gore quite well handled, climaxing in a wonderful slice-and-dice shot at the end. The traps are unimaginative though, and the twist predictable. If you’re feeling despair or disgust at the human race and just want to turn your brain off for 90 minutes it will do the trick. It does seem though that it’s become a franchise in a box.

Your Friends & Neighbors (1998)

*. At the end of Neil LaBute’s first film a man is shouting at a woman but she (and we) can’t hear anything because she’s deaf and the soundtrack has gone blank. At the beginning of Your Friends & Neighbors, LaBute’s next movie, this is reversed: we hear a man’s voice talking (we think) to a woman but we can’t see anything because there’s just a black screen.
*. As it turns out, the dirty talk we’re hearing is a man talking to himself. This nicely introduces one of the themes that dominates Your Friends & Neighbours: verbose isolation.
*. We’re used to this going the other way. A strong relationship, the cliché goes, is built on good communication. And on balance I think that’s true. But LaBute puts forward a contrary position. People, especially people in relationships, shouldn’t talk so much, and they should probably avoid being too truthful. Openness and communication really aren’t in anyone’s best interest.
*. And this isn’t just the usual case of men not understanding women, and vice versa. LaBute’s reputation as a misogynist is overblown. His male characters are his most loathsome, as Cary (Jason Patric) demonstrates for us here. But even Terri and Cherri (Catherine Keener and Nastassja Kinski) fall into a silence that, while unhappy, is possibly sustaining. I like the touch of Terri’s mask at the end. She’s blocked out everything.
*. LaBute began as a playwright, something you’d know just a few minutes into Your Friends & Neighbours. It has that sort of shape and talkiness to it. The same sets are returned to again and again and none of the characters seem to do any kind of work (the two female leads are both writers . . . of something). What people do when they get together is have scenes.
*. A sort of Carnal Knowledge 2.0, except I doubt it will age as well. Or perhaps, now that it’s just over twenty years old, we can say that it hasn’t aged as well. I still find something interesting in Carnal Knowledge while much of this movie seems entirely outside my experience and understanding.
*. But I don’t know if it’s the talk itself that has dated as much as the tone. Take Ben Stiller playing Jerry (all the names rhyme, but they’re never used in the film itself so that’s just a joke for the end credits). This was before Stiller was well known as a comic and watching the movie today you expect him to start playing it up. But even without hindsight, and despite being marketed as a comedy, it feels strange that there’s nothing very funny going on, even when Jerry gets dressed up in Restoration fashion.
*. It’s a very quiet movie. I had to turn the volume up just to realize that people were talking . . .  and I was watching with subtitles! The only character who loses his shit and starts to yell is Patric’s Cary, and he’s a psychopath. When Jerry asks Terri to “please be quiet” in the restaurant she’s hardly raised her voice.
*. It’s a hard movie to enjoy, being about a bunch of unlikeable people engaging in various forms of self-destructive behaviour. In so far as there is a message it may be that nice guys finish last. Poor Barry (Aaron Eckhart) is left masturbating, unsuccessfully, after his wife leaves him for Cary. Though in this she is the even bigger loser. Terri is the only character I found all that interesting, though not sympathetic.
*. Well, no one said you have to like the characters in a movie. But Your Friends & Neighbors, being so script-driven, needed to be livelier in this department, and/or go somewhere unexpected. I didn’t think it was either, and since it’s too long for a sketch it ends up as a big shrug.

The Silent (2015)

*. Vague. Suggestive. A mood piece that’s only seven minutes long with no dialogue, which may have some relation to the title. A title that I can’t explain otherwise.
*. But as with any movie like this you can only attempt partial explanations. As writer-director Toni Tikkanen puts it: “The main goal was not to make a mystery which needs to be solved but just to take the viewer into this nightmarish world which is kind of being like inside the sleep paralysis or night terror episode and experience it through the child’s perspective. There is a story underneath but I don’t think it’s relevant to understand it.”
*. Well, I’d say it’s relevant, if not necessary. As I see it, and I think this appears to be the general consensus, the little girl has just died. This makes the question of “her perspective” a bit challenging. Does she know she’s dead? Is she upset? The Sixth Sense had something to say about this but I don’t know how much of it applies here.
*. And what about the adults? The movie seems structured around three reaction shots. First the mother seems to see the girl enter a room and is happy, then fearful. Which seems the right sort of response to seeing your daughter’s ghost (I’m assuming here that the woman is the girl’s mother). Then another man gives the girl a look of surprise, made all the more surprising by being rendered in a jump cut so we don’t see his head turning toward her. She is as startled as we are and runs away. Which is actually very nice, because it seems clear that it is the man who is startled by her. But does he see her, or only sense her presence?
*. Finally there’s a man, perhaps the girl’s father. He looks at her (us, the camera, this is “her perspective”) and seems to acknowledge her presence. But he may just be thinking of something else entirely. In the progression of these three reaction shots: from the first where it seems clear the mother sees the girl, to the last where it’s not clear the man sees anything at all, we can see the girl starting to fade even from memory. I think most people who have experienced the death of someone close to them know the feeling of still sensing their presence in the accustomed places. But these feelings fade.
*. Tikkanen: “So I wouldn’t worry too much about the ‘answers,’ because the film is more about the tone and emotions and trying to affect the viewer’s subconscious mind.” Fair enough. But I felt my own worrying about answers to be the most intriguing way into the film. The more purely surreal stuff, like the people appearing with drawings over their faces or the nods to Don’t Look Now didn’t mean as much to me. I’m not sure trying to be creepy here helped. And I don’t think the creepiness is all projection. Those faces are creepy, and the music nudges us in the same direction. But is this a horror story? Or a story of loss?

The Wages of Fear (1953)

*. I thought it a bit sad to go back and read Pauline Kael’s review of The Wages of Fear, where she describes the film as “an existential thriller.” How long has it been since “existential” has had that meaning? Over the course of the last ten years (I think I’m right on the timeframe) it has come, exclusively and quite reductively, to only mean a threat to one’s existence. Kael’s readers, however, would have been thrown back on their readings of Sartre and Camus.
*. Is this a (properly) existential film? My own definition of existentialism — eschewing such stuff as existence preceding essence, whatever that means — is that it’s a vision of life that sees the individual as utterly alone. Which, in turn, leads to the freedom to take ultimate responsibility for your life. The four men transporting the nitro have made their choice and have no one to blame but themselves for the situation they are in.
*. Or is money the new God in this world? It is what makes the world go ’round, the unmoved mover of this ruthless capitalist universe. The men are trapped because of lack of money; with money they would have freedom. That seems a point worth entertaining too. Money precedes essence. Life is cheap.
*. You could even push such conjectures further back in trying to understand just what the hell these scourings of postwar Europe are doing in this town anyway. Dennis Lehane speculates: “While we’ll never discover what has driven them there [the town of Las Piedras], we know it must have been sins of a particularly unforgivable nature, because no one opts to live in hell unless the alternative is demonstrably worse.” I don’t agree. One assumes they came, like one of Joseph Conrad’s European losers holding down some forlorn outpost of “progress,” to get rich, or to at least lord it over the natives. Then they found themselves at the end of the line. I’ve heard such things still happen today in some parts of the world.

*. It’s not often you find yourself wondering about such things in an action or suspense thriller. But they order these things differently, or at least they used to, in France. But I wouldn’t want to go all the way and call this a philosophical film. It takes a long time to get going, but the opening scenes of life in the village seem kind of pointless to me. Roger Ebert thought they were only meant to evoke a sense of “aimless ennui.” Which sounds French, but isn’t deep.
*. Then (and we’re an hour into the picture) the trucks roll out of the yard and we’re into the good stuff. This is where critics usually go into raptures over how Henri-George Clouzot provides a master class in suspense. Which I think he does. The problem watching The Wages of Fear today though is that it’s a class that subsequent generations of filmmakers took and learned only too well. Put another way, I think the best directors make this kind of movie just as well today.
*. Now that’s a long way from saying that today’s filmmakers always do this stuff better. William Friedkin even remade The Wages of Fear as Sorcerer, to mixed results. But in general I think audiences are more familiar with how a good suspense sequence is created, and it’s a process that has tightened up over the years. To the point where I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by The Wages of Fear the first time I saw it. I’d been expecting something more of a revelation. I appreciate it more today, but it doesn’t thrill me as I’m sure it thrilled audiences at the time.

*. Another point relating to this is the unsympathetic protagonists. Do we really care all that much if Mario and Jo make it? They aren’t very likeable people. Credit to Clouzot for that, but I wonder what his point was, or if he had one. That they aren’t worthy of redemption? That no one can achieve redemption? That in taking the job they were putting a price on their lives anyway and once you’ve done that there’s nothing else left that defines you? What would Mario do if he got back to Paris? Just hang out at a different café or bistro, with another pretty girl hanging off him.
*. I do like the way the lead truck with Luigi and Bimba makes an offscreen exit in a flash of light and puff of smoke like a magic trick. Now you see them, now you don’t. They’ve been vaporized. And for what sin, or mistake? Who knows? They probably didn’t.
*. There are other things I don’t like. I’ve mentioned the scene-setting at the beginning, which seems to me to go on far too long. Then there is the ending, which strikes me as false and silly. Silly because I don’t believe for a moment that Mario would be careening down that mountain road like a total idiot. False because his crash is intercut with shots of Linda at the café, and what is she to him? Little more than a dog. Ebert found her character “inexplicable” with “no apparent purpose” and I’m afraid he’s right. Mario isn’t going back to be with her. Clouzot should have made a movie of men without women. Linda is an unnecessary romantic foil.
*. In short, this is a good movie but not (or no longer) exceptional. Important, but not one I enjoy all that much. I think Clouzot was trying to make an American-style blockbuster, and mostly succeeded. But America took umbrage, cutting from its release version what it took to be anti-American slurs. And even in France, while successful, it wasn’t a huge hit. The fourth highest earning film of the year in that country doesn’t strike me as being wildly successful. The top three, in case you’re interested, were The Greatest Show on Earth, The Return of Don Camillo, and Peter Pan.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

*. In my write-up on Suicide Squad I made note of the fantabulous debut of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. As did pretty much everyone else. Studio heads knew they had a hot property (something the DC Universe was in dire need of), and Robbie herself wanted to do the project so much that she would even serve as producer. And so . . . here’s more Harley Quinn.
*. But did I want this much more Harley Quinn? I thought her Fran Drescher-Nanny voice got irritating even before the pre-credit story about her breaking up with Pudding (the Joker) was finished. I get that the whole message here, in so far as Birds of Prey has a message, is about female empowerment, but I’m not sure Harley Quinn is much more than a sidekick. At least given this script.
*. As Mick LaSalle put it in his scathing review: “The character makes no sense — but no, even that makes things sound better than they are. There’s no character there at all. There’s a look. There’s an attitude, and there’s an assemblage of mannerisms, but these are all veneers surrounding a vacuum. Screenwriter Christina Hodson found no character to write, and so Robbie had absolutely nothing to act — but she keeps trying.”
*. Is this fair? You might say this is a comic book movie, and all you came in for was the action, the one-liners, the stunts, and the effects. And I’ll grant that Robbie and director Cathy Yan do their best. The fights are well choreographed and the whole thing has a bright and glittery quality that looks like . . . well, like most other movies of this kind. But the script . . .
*. The obvious comparison is to Marvel’s Deadpool, another comic book movie that upped the violence and potty-mouth trash-talking. But the Deadpool movies were funny. The only laugh I got out of Birds of Prey was Montoya’s t-shirt. I can’t remember the last time I saw a young cast this talented — Robbie, Rosie Perez as Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina as the heavies — so totally wasted. They could have got their stunt doubles to do all the work and stayed home.
*. So there’s fight scene after fight scene after fight scene. As I’ve said, they’re well done, if repetitive after a while. But at least they try to keep that part of things fresh. There’s lots of music. So much that the whole things starts to seem like the a playlist. There’s a CGI hyena that looks pretty good. There are comic text overlays that made me wonder if they were intended to be funny or more to explain things that really dull viewers may have missed. But a plot?
*. Well, there’s a diamond MacGuffin that ends up being even less than that. There are some dull bad guys (McGregor and Messina) who are just nasty without being scary or threatening (one rape scene in particular is just gratuitously unpleasant). In the end girl power triumphs over the patriarchy. The Birds of Prey are assembled, giving hope for another DC franchise. But I think this is where I’ll be checking out.

Black Christmas (2019)

*. First thing to say is that this isn’t a remake of the pioneering slasher flick Black Christmas (1974). Yes, if you stand a few steps back and tilt your head on an angle and squint a bit you can see some similarities. There’s a sorority being terrorized by a serial killer over the Christmas holidays. Some of the kills follow in the same sort of order, and the obscene phone calls have been replaced by less obscene text messages. But the plot is totally different and it takes a very contemporary slant.
*. It was not well received by critics and audiences, though it still made a bit of money (I think Blumhouse movies are designed to always turn a profit). The reasons for this negative reaction I’ve already adverted to. Horror fans looking for a remake or homage to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas were disappointed (or outraged), while people not wanting to be served a political message with their popcorn entertainment were put off (or offended).
*. I didn’t take exception to either of these directions the movie takes. I don’t see the point of overly faithful remakes (Psycho, The Omen) and think that any way you can change things up is usually for the better just to keep the audience guessing. I also don’t mind filmmakers adding a political message, especially in genres where you’re not really expecting it. Having said that . . .
*. The new direction taken here makes the plot of this Black Christmas even less interesting than the original, which I scarcely thought possible (which is not to knock Clark’s film, only its storyline). I guess you can see the cult of demonically-possessed frat boys as sort of like a male version of the coven of witches in Suspiria, but, that point made, it doesn’t get you very far.
*. What’s worse is that director Sophia Takal doesn’t seem to be that interested in scaring us. Some of this may be the effect of making a PG-13 horror film — just think of the godawful Prom Night remake — but I don’t think the absence of gore (there’s no blood but only a black ichor being spilled) and bad language (no fucks to give, and even the word “clit” in the line “suck my clit” was deleted) necessarily hamstrings a horror film. There are plenty of ways to be scary and smart without resorting to extreme violence. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Takal knows any of them.
*. Suspense, like comedy, is all a matter of timing. You can’t let the audience get too far out ahead of you. But two scenes stuck out for me here for how telegraphed they were. The first is a kill that is an homage (or steal) from the famous nurse scene in The Exorcist III. I guessed this was coming as soon as the initial shot was framed. Then there’s another scene in the attic as one of the girls tries to find a set of working Christmas lights. You’d be a dull viewer indeed if you didn’t guess the punchline for that one.
*. Actually there are no surprises, or even jump scares, anywhere here. When it came out there were complaints that the trailer gave too much away, but I think it was so obvious what was going on from the beginning there was no need to worry about spoilers.
*. So as horror this Black Christmas is kind of slack. But then there’s the message. Again, I had nothing against this. Takal wanted to make as feminist a film as possible, and had apparently even expressed interest in yet another entry in the I Spit on Your Grave franchise (a series that had already, with whatever degree of sincerity, been marketed as feminist manifestoes). And when it comes to the slasher genre, the resourceful last girl who triumphs at the end is another trope that has always been seen as scoring at least some points for female empowerment. So was this approach new?
*. Not new, and cruder. This is a #MeToo film that’s all about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and rape culture and cancel culture and toxic masculinity (symbolized by the black goo that turns clean-cut kids into alpha male monsters). I don’t think this was a bad idea, but it just gets laid on so thick that you start to feel that it’s the movie’s whole reason for being. Apparently the Cary Elwes character was supposedly modeled off of Jordan Peterson. “You’re all insane,” Poots says to him at the end. “No, no, not insane Ms. Stone,” he replies. “Simply men.” Meanwhile there’s one decent guy thrown into the mix (he just “wants to help”) who’s only there to show that not all men are shit. Which is something.
*. Here’s an example of how the feminist angle is worked into the film in a way that adds absolutely nothing. The masks worn by the Cult of Toxic Bros are apparently based on some version of the medieval or early modern scold’s bridle. I’d heard about these, but didn’t recognize them here. I don’t think many people would, without listening to the commentary. So it’s a point that probably went over everyone’s head. But there are two further problems with it. In the first place, it’s not a very distinguished or iconic look. It just looks like a generic black mask. So it doesn’t add anything to the story. Second: why would the men be wearing bridles? Because, according to Takal, they are instruments of control as well. I guess, but it still doesn’t seem right. They’re supposed to be the kings of the new world order. They shouldn’t be wearing the facial equivalent of chastity belts.
*. Something good still might have come of this. I remember thinking I’d probably seen the last of Imogen Poots in 28 Weeks Later, but she’s really very good here. I look forward to seeing more of her. And Aleyse Shannon is also great. She has a fierceness in her eyes in the second half of the movie that made me think of Samuel L. Jackson getting ready to open a can of whoop-ass.
*. But I guess the whole project was somewhat rushed, and launched (not for the first time for a Blumhouse production) without a script in hand. The story really breaks down in the second half and I had no idea what the frat’s endgame was. Also, the snow may be the worst fake snow I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. It looks like sand.
*. So not as bad as I had been led to expect by the reviews. But at the same time nothing special. I don’t see where it really does anything new or interesting with the genre, aside from including the timely references of the kind I’ve mentioned. But as is the case with most timely films I don’t suspect it will last. Those scarves are already looking a bit expired. Like the 2006 edition of Black Christmas, this one will soon be forgotten. Leaving us with a movie from 1974 that has now outlived two remakes.
*. It’s fine for a remake to take an old story and make it more up-to-date, but it would be nice if they’d put as much effort into trying to make the old movie better, at least in some way. Otherwise I’m for leaving well enough alone.

Black Christmas (1974)

*. Without giving it credit for launching the slasher genre I think it’s still fair to say that Black Christmas was the first of its kind. The reason it’s less well known is that it was the unbelievable box office success of Halloween that really launched the genre properly. It is profitability that leads to imitation in the film business, and Black Christmas (released in the U.S. as Silent Night, Evil Night, which I’m sure didn’t help) pretty much sank without a trace when it was released (they had trouble getting the title right: on television it premiered as Stranger in the House). It did turn a profit on its modest budget, but not enough for anyone to notice. Halloween would break the bank four years later. Then we were off to the races.
*. An aside: Director Bob Clark always said that he’d been friends with John Carpenter and had told him about his thoughts for a sequel to Black Christmas, which he didn’t want to do. It was to be called Halloween. He also said that Carpenter was a fan of the movie and had been influenced by it. I understand that Carpenter has said that he hadn’t seen it before making Halloween. Go figure.
*. Many of the separate ingredients we get here had been tasted before, most notably in the Italian gialli, but Black Christmas gave us the whole package of what would become a formula: the POV shots (perhaps first done in The Spiral Staircase), the calls coming from inside the house (actually done a year earlier in The Severed Arm), the threatened young people, the killer with one name (Billy) who strikes on a holiday, the scene where the last girl runs around discovering all the bodies at the end, even the business where she finds out that the front door is locked from the outside! How does that keep happening?
*. There are some variations on what would become the standard script. The last girl is no virgin but is actually thinking of getting an abortion. And in fact the women in this particular sorority-house massacre aren’t sexualized at all. We’re also in a transition zone from the mystery plot of the giallo, with various suspicious types and red herrings thrown in to the mix, to the lone psycho slayer who is basically a killing machine and, what’s more, is still alive at the end. (Kim Newman makes an interesting point: “The most heavily criticized aspect of Black Christmas — the transformation of the unknown psycho villain into a quasi-supernatural presence — would be seen as Halloween‘s strongest suit.”) But I think these just go to show how the genre hadn’t reached its final form yet.
*. Its claim to be the first slasher movie is what most people know about Black Christmas. But I don’t think that would be enough to have kept interest in it going, and even growing, for nearly fifty years. The fact is, this is a pretty good little horror movie. Halloween is scarier, but after that and maybe Nightmare on Elm Street I’d rate Black Christmas ahead of almost any other early slasher I can think of.
*. I realize that such comparisons aren’t saying much, so I’ll drop them now. What else is to like here?

*. Quite a lot. Bob Clark’s direction is solid if not overly stylish. He goes to the well maybe a bit too often in making jarring cutaways from violent action to something else going on at the same time, but not so much as to be annoying. I think what impresses me the most though is the treatment of space, meaning the wonderful interior of the house. The layout, and especially that old horror stand-by the staircase, are put to very good use. Moving up and down, and through the different floors and rooms, is quite effectively handled.
*. The cast is great, belying the low budget. Olivia Hussey is a cool and credible scream queen. Keir Dullea looks properly unbalanced. Maybe it’s his hair. John Saxon is typecast in a role he’d reprise in Nightmare on Elm Street. Andrea Martin, a comedian, is entirely believable in her second Canadian horror vehicle (after Cannibal Girls). But best of all is Margot Kidder. She’s playing an original character and pulls it off. Here’s a talent we never really saw enough of, for different reasons.
*. The script, which spent a lot of time in development, is both very simple (a killer, who remains unseen, is hiding in the attic of a sorority house), and quite complex in the manner of one of those later Hammer psychothrillers. I think this latter point is what Newman is adverting to when he calls the film “over-plotted.” But these two tendencies don’t work against each other.
*. Another disjunction is the absence of gore, while creating shock value out of some very explicit telephone calls. Those are really quite daring by the standards of 1974. As is the matter-of-fact way Jess’s decision to have an abortion is handled. Clark wanted realistic college students and I think he got them. These aren’t stereotypes of nerds or bimbos but seem like real people.
*. Sticking with the telephone messages, they did a lot of work on them, but it results in an odd mix that doesn’t sound like anything a single person’s voice (because it wasn’t).
*. The ending. Yes. Well. No, I don’t know what to make of it. It seems odd to say the least that Jess is left to recover from these traumatic events alone in the house. And did Jess kill Peter? Why was she screaming? Did she just faint? As for who Billy and Agnes are, I have no idea. The 2006 remake presents a grotesque backstory, which I think is irrelevant for appreciating this film. Billy is meant to be an enigma. That’s one reason we never see his face. If you find that frustrating, I understand. But this isn’t a movie that was ever going to tie things up neatly.
*. “If it doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight!” One of the great thriller ad lines of the time. Up there with The Last House on the Left (1972): To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie . . .” and Phantasm (1979) “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” Are there any great taglines anymore? I can’t think of many.
*. This is one of those rare movies where I can identify with many of the locations. It was shot in Toronto and there’s one scene shot at the foot of Soldiers’ Tower at Hart House. I walked underneath that every day for years. It’s a different kind of movie nostalgia.
*. Not a bad movie at all in absolute terms, and a very good one given the genre it did a lot to define. Why wasn’t it successful at the time? The American marketing didn’t help (it did very well under its original title in Canada). The lack of gore and general sense of restraint probably held it back. Carpenter just needed to tweak things a bit. A catchy jingle. Girls in underwear. And a killer that would be a physical presence (credited as “The Shape”) while at the same time less of this world. A hero, in other words. Not a Billy.

Office Christmas Party (2016)

*. Not a movie that critics or audiences fell in love with, but I managed to stay with it. It’s a bit of a three-ring circus, but there are a lot of stars and they all do their thing reasonably well, without much aid from the script.
*. It’s a movie of role players. Jason Bateman has the part of the straight man he’s been playing since Arrested Development and Horrible Bosses down pat. To the point where he only seems half-awake here. Yes, his job is to try to remain steady as everything around him descends into chaos, but he really fades into the background in this movie. Meanwhile Jennifer Aniston is back as the bitch, or Grinch, T. J. Miller steals the show as the decent-but-dopey office manager. These are all square pegs going into square holes.
*. Some of the other typecasting may come across as racialized. Randall Park is the Asian man who can’t get a date because he has issues with being submissive. Karan Soni is the Indian guy who can’t get a date and so has to hire a prostitute to take to the party, where she intimidates him. There’s a black guy (Sam Richardson) who transforms into a hip-hop DJ. There’s a large black woman (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who is the building’s security guard and won’t take no messin’ around.
*. I don’t know if I’d call this racist so much as lazy. And I’d say the same for the plot. Yes, this is the old story where everything is going to hell so the best idea anyone has is to throw a party. Somehow that’s going to impress an angel investor to save Miller’s company. That’s a stretch, but it actually makes more sense than the turn things take in the final act, which is a literal deus ex cloud as one of the employees at the soon-to-be-terminated Chicago branch reinvents the Internet on the fly. Which saves everyone’s job, and every Jack has his Jill and we all go home together. Just as soon as we finish watching some below-grade outtakes through the credits. And yes, I’m rating outtakes now. I have to, because they’re in the movie.
*. I watched this movie right around the same time I watched Zombieland: Double Tap and I thought it interesting that both films end with the same message about how real family are a trial (and perhaps a curse) but one’s friends are a better surrogate anyway. This struck me as a familiar sentiment, as it had also been played up in The LEGO Batman Movie (2017). This is an old bit of folk wisdom (“God chooses your relatives; thank God you can choose your friends”) but it seems to have been gaining a lot more traction lately. A growing sense of social dislocation and anxiety? A wistful response to the fraying of family ties?
*. At least this movie has energy, if not a lot of laughs. As light and forgettable as most comedies of this period, which might not even be a criticism. This is what we want comedies to be: reassuring, as the world spirals into cruelty and chaos. Immanuel!