Category Archives: 2010s

Head Count (2018)

*. Good stuff! And a real surprise. My expectations were low, and very wide of the mark. From the DVD box cover and blurb on the back I was anticipating something along the lines of The Hills Have Eyes. A dead teenager movie (the kids are all drunk and stoned and having sex) where the monster of the week collects heads and goes bowling with them.
*. It’s not like that at all. Instead it’s a restrained and for the most part very effective low-budget thriller that has a bunch of kids vacationing in the Joshua Tree National Park, where they awaken some kind of Native American spirit (called a Hisji) by way of a campfire reading from an Internet site (making the Hisji an odd mix of old and new).
*. That set-up is nothing special, but the idea here is quite interesting. The Hisji is a shapeshifter, and can take the form of any of the friends. This reminded me a lot of It Follows, and it’s an idea that works here almost as well. It also recalls The Thing, and it’s no surprise co-writer and director Elle Callahan says The Thing and It Follows were inspirations (she also mentions The Witch, but I didn’t see any connection there at all).
*. So there’s no gore (indeed we don’t see anyone being killed, or even any bodies) but just a general sense of creepiness as we’re left to wonder who is real and who may be a deadly doppelgänger. Callahan, whose feature debut I believe this was, also shows real promise in her creation of suspense. Not much in the effects department, no jump scares, but a nice evocation of low-burning dread through lighting, camera movement, and a creative use of sound.
*. A somewhat fresh and interesting idea, capably rendered. I can’t say that about many new horror flicks. But I do think it has problems. The kids never clue in as a group to what is going on, so paranoia never gets developed like it does in The Thing and It Follows. Also the idea that the Hisji only kills people by having them commit suicide struck me as weak. The movie needed something like the human pretzel shot at the beginning of It Follows to shock the audience and let them know what’s at stake. Here, the sight at the end of the possessed kids drinking bleach and wrapping their heads in plastic is unintentionally comic. And why would Evan be lured by the Hisji/Zoe telling him that he could be with all the others if he killed himself? He hardly knows those guys!
*. So I thought Callahan could have done more with the premise, but it’s still a good little movie. Not a horror classic or game-changer, but definitely worth a look.

The Decent One (2014)

*. I think we’re all familiar with the stories about the psychopathic serial killer who lives next door. The neighbours, when interviewed will say he always seemed like a nice guy, perhaps not perfectly normal but just a bit odd in some ways. You would have never guessed . . .
*. The Decent One (Der Anständige) is basically a historical variation on this theme, being an epistolary biography of SS commander Heinrich Himmler and his family. It consists entirely of passages from a recently discovered trove of letters and diaries written by Himmler and his wife and daughter. They depict a thoroughly conventional bourgeois marriage (complete with mistress on the side). Himmler even insisted the letters be numbered. He was that kind of person.
*. The juxtaposition being made is between the private and the public Himmler, and you’re left to decide for yourself what the connection is between the two. A few years earler Peter Longerich had published a massive biography of Himmler whose basic conclusion was that the man had been absorbed into the uniform, suggesting an erasure of the line between public and private life. So that’s one way to go.
*. I don’t think Longerich had seen the letters used here but I don’t think it would have made much difference. Himmler doesn’t seem to have been that hard to figure out. In most ways he was a conventional prig. Even his affair is dull, expressed in the conventional language of romance. Meanwhile, I find men (and I know several) who call their wives “mother” or “mummy” to be, if I may be judgmental, weird.
*. What I came away with was a portrayal not so much of the banality of evil but the banality of the kind of life that provided the soil for that evil. Himmler the monster wasn’t the product of poverty or abuse, but of a solid middle-class upbringing. “Decency” was part of the class code. What it meant was keeping up appearances. So having a mistress, or running a death camp, was fine as long as you didn’t talk about it.
*. Apparently director Vanessa Lapa’s addition of sound effects to go with the silent film footage upset some people. It’s a subject that comes up in a lot of reviews. I didn’t know this had become such a bugbear for people who watch documentaries. I’d thought such a universal practice was pretty much taken for granted these days. Peter Jackson, for example, does it in They Shall Not Grow Old. What I find even more surprising in this is that I actually consider myself to be a purist in these matters and none of it bothers me.
*. Well, if such liberties upset you then consider yourself warned. I didn’t mind the sound, or anything much about the production. I didn’t, however, find The Decent One to be a revelation of anything, if there was anything much there to be revealed.

Critters Attack! (2019)

*. I suppose it might have worked. The original Critters tetralogy had wound up in 1992. So nearly thirty years later you could say it was time for a reset. At least they’d had lots of time to think of what to do next.
*. I call it a reset but more accurately I believe it’s a sequel. I say so because of the presence of Dee Wallace, missing since the first movie but here apparently playing the same character with a different name (she’s just called Aunt Dee) because of some legal issues. I don’t know what those issues might have been, since the Syfy channel had bought the rights to the franchise for what I’m guessing was the price of a bag of footballs in order to see if they could make anything out of it. On the strength of this film I think the answer is that they couldn’t. But knowing the Syfy channel I’m not sure that will stop them from making more anyway.
*. The story is formulaic — the Critters land and terrorize a town, with a sister and brother among those fighting to survive — but it’s also filled with strange notes of sadness. The main character, Drea (Tashiana Washington, escaping from this mess with her pride remarkably intact) is a sushi delivery driver who keeps failing to get into the college her mother went to but had to drop out of to have her. And her mom later died in a car accident. And now Drea’s friend, who did get into college, can only arrange to get Drea a humiliating job babysitting for a professor as a way to get an “in” to the school. You see? That’s just sad.
*. Also sad is the sushi shop’s owner, whose nephew is killed at the beginning. He really seems to miss him. That’s actually sadder than when Drea’s uncle dies. It’s all a bit of a downer.
*. The rest of the movie is more of the same for this franchise. I like the fact that the Critters are still just puppets and there’s no CGI, but on the other hand they don’t look any better than they did thirty years ago. Critter behaviour is further muddled. Now they apparently breed by laying eggs in people’s bodies that burst open Alien-style like popping popcorn. Also, high-pitched sounds like police sirens and air horns cause them to spontaneously explode. Finally, there’s a Queen Critter who is cute and cuddly and who the kids name Bianca. There’s always been a connection made between Critters and the Gremlins franchise, and while the former may not have been a rip off there’s no denying Bianca resemblance to a mogwai. She’s so darn cute! That is, until she gets angry.
*. This is as movie that’s not funny or scary or even interesting. Characters just go from place to place and do whatever they have to do to set up the next scene. Does a park ranger get a bit of bird poop on his cheek? That means he has to take a shower because now he smells bad! Are we escaping from the Critters in a club car? Why run when we can stop into a (conveniently unlocked) storage shed and grab . . . some landscaping tools . . . and kick some Critter ass!
*. Well, the giant Critterball is back from Critters 2 and it gives the movie its one decent (not good) kill. Dee shows up at the end with her great big gun and blows some Critters away. People get splashed with green slime like they’re the cast of some Nickelodeon special. In sum: enjoy that exclamation mark in the title because it’s the only excitement on tap in this total dud.

The Neighbors’ Window (2019)

*. Being a short film, just over 20 minutes, you can cut it some slack for having a very simple message. Which is that the grass is always greener on the other side. Meaning it really isn’t. It’s just a trick of perspective.
*. So the young couple with kids have new neighbors who are even younger but have no kids and (thus?) enjoy fantastic sex in full view of everyone wanting to look in their window. Apparently they don’t approve of drapes. The couple with kids feel a twinge — I don’t think it’s really more than a twinge — of envy. They’re getting old, not having sex (or at least very much), and the kids are a drag. And now they have their very own live porn channel across the way.
*. As things turn out, however, the younger couple are not as carefree as they seem. In fact, they have reason to envy the couple with kids. You see? Be thankful for what you have in life and don’t go comparing yourself to others.
*. You can see what I mean by a very simple message. Trite even. But The Neighbors’ Window still effectively strikes the right note of sadness.
*. I lift an eyebrow at it winning an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, but writer director Marshall Curry (who had previously only worked in documentaries) introduces a couple of nice touches. I like how the window watching is seen (by the wife) as a metaphor for a porn habit, and how this is subtly underlined by her coming home to find her husband on his laptop alone. Then there’s also the Halloween decoration of a skeleton taped to the window that foreshadows the next turn in the story.
*. That said, this just doesn’t strike me as that accomplished or profound a short. There were angles that might have been introduced, like the pairing of voyeurism and guilt, that don’t get any play. Even at 20 minutes it seems a bit slow, especially with a median musical interlude that I didn’t see as having any real purpose. Well before it was over I got the point, and that’s all that I got.

Leprechaun Returns (2018)

*. I (foolishly) went into Leprechaun: Origins with high hopes. After having them shattered by what was probably the worst Leprechaun movie to date (you might want to write it off as LINO, or Leprechaun In Name Only) I adjusted my expectations accordingly for Leprechaun Returns. Sure this wasn’t a WWE Studios production, but Syfy? Was that any better?
*. Well, maybe it’s because my expectations were so low but I really enjoyed Leprechaun Returns. It’s not exactly a sequel or a reboot, as it dismisses all of the previous Leprechaun movies except the first, which it follows up on directly, albeit twenty-five years later.
*. So now we have Lila Redding (Taylor Spreitler) the daughter of Tory Redding, returning to the house the Leprechaun had attacked in the original. As you will have guessed, he’s still down the well he had been sent into at the end of that movie. Just waiting to be revived.
*. Tory Redding had been played by Jennifer Aniston in the first movie. The producers tried to get Aniston to come back for at least a cameo here, but no dice. Warwick Davis also bowed out as the Leprechaun. Instead all they got was Mark Holton to return as Ozzie. Who comes to a messy end but at least has his moments of heroism.
*. Everything here works well enough. Linden Porco does a perfectly adequate job filling in for Davis as the Leprechaun. The comic bits, mostly revolving around Rip Van Winkle-style jokes about waking up twenty-five years later, are funnier than anything in the other movies. There are some good bits about the kids using cell phones to take selfies of themselves with the little guy. The Leprechaun marvels at their phones being both a camera and a Walkman, which leads to one of the kids asking “What’s a Walkman?” Also, as a connoisseur of fine footwear he tosses a pair of Crocs in the garbage, figuring it’s time to kill that fashion trend.
*. So there are some decent jokes. Not belly laughs, but as I’ve said before the series has never been as funny as I think it should have been and here it’s at least amusing. Also an improvement is the gore, including two really enjoyable kills (a postman having his head crushed in a mailbox and a doofus being sliced in two by a solar panel). There’s some stuff making use of a drone that doesn’t work that well, but those scenes are among the few misfires. And by the standards of most of what you see on the Syfy channel (just think of all those ghastly Sharknado movies) it all looks pretty darn good.
*. Even the basic plot is actually OK. A gang of young women are turning the old Redding place into an eco-friendly (and way, way off-campus) sorority house. They are described at one point as the nerdiest sorority ever but quite surprisingly they don’t all play as clichés and their defeat of the Leprechaun doesn’t turn into a tired statement of female empowerment. It’s just fun. In the words of director Steven Kostanski, “a goofy, ridiculous horror romp.”
*. So full credit to Kostanski (who also did The Void), writer Suzanne Keilly, and all the rest of the cast and crew. Sure we’re judging by really low standards, but this is one of the best Leprechaun movies, and one of the best Syfy channel movies I’ve seen. Colour me green, surprised, and entertained.

Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

*. Go ahead and call me an idiot, but I was actually looking forward to this one. I thought there was potential in the original Leprechaun franchise that went untapped, and in its final instalment, Leprechaun 6: Back 2 Tha Hood, even Warwick Davis seemed tired of it. Time for some fresh blood then!
*. I went in cold, not having read any of the reviews. My first tip off that things weren’t going well came with the credits. WWE Studios? Had they ever produced a good movie? And who the hell was Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl? Apparently a wrestler. Hornswoggle was his ring name. Why he wanted it included in the credits here, or if it was his decision, I don’t know.
*. I don’t know if Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl is a good actor. Despite the fact that he has star billing playing the Leprechaun he doesn’t actually do much. To be honest, aside from his fascination with gold I don’t think he’s much of a leprechaun. In appearance he’s sort of like a skinned chimp, or one of the troglodytes in The Descent. Instead of busting rhymes he only growls. And he doesn’t wear any clothes, so no top hat and buckled shoes.
*. In other words, he’s a kind of wild, flesh-eating animal — not a character at all much less a witty leprechaun. He also has no magic powers and it’s actually kind of hard to figure out why the villagers haven’t been able to kill him yet.
*. Gone are the fun-loving days of horror comedy. This Leprechaun movie wants us to take it straight. Which would have been fine if it were well done. Unfortunately they gave up what at least aspired to a kind of goofy charm for something ugly, dark, and stupid.
*. The set-up plugs into what had become common contemporary horror tropes. Chief among these is tourist terror. American backpackers in trouble while on vacation. I don’t know where this got started (maybe An American Werewolf in London?) but around this time such films were thick on the ground (think Hostel, Turistas, The Ruins, and Midsommar). Connected to this is the idea of visiting a village with an evil secret, in this case a place in Ireland that stole a leprechaun’s gold some years back and now has to offer up tourists as sacrifices to keep the little beast placated. At least I think that’s the back story. It wasn’t all that clear.
*. Again, the conventionality of this needn’t have been the kiss of death. They still could have made it work. But they didn’t. The script is junk, with the characters behaving, and sounding, like idiots throughout. They are also clichés. The hero boy is going into med school and the last girl (his girlfriend) is going to do a Master’s in history. That sort of thing.
*. Even where clichés are avoided the script runs into problems. Why do none of these kids have a cell phone? This gets around the usual business about not being able to get a signal, but it’s not easy to understand.
*. Then there’s the look of the movie. As I’ve said, it’s ugly and dark. Good luck seeing anything, especially with the picture constantly being jerked out of focus. Then there’s the very strange decision to shoot things from the Leprechaun’s point of view, which reveals that he has some kind of Wolfen/Predator style vision. Why? I’ve no idea. It doesn’t even look good.
*. I guess you can say there’s one decent kill, also harkening back to Predator. But otherwise even the gore goes missing. It’s hard to overstate how disappointing all this is. I was thinking that at least the Leprechaun would look good, but he’s just a troll. Not scary and no fun at all. I would have never believed that I’d miss the original run of movies so much. I have no idea what the title Origins was referring to. Perhaps a hope that this movie might reboot the franchise? At least we can be thankful that didn’t happen. The next Leprechaun up would instead pitch itself as a sequel to the original. Bless us and preserve us!

Elysium (2013)

*. I don’t think I need to spend too much time on this one. Let’s just listen to writer-director Neill Blomkamp telling us how he felt about it: “It’s not bad, but it’s pretty much a run-of-the-mill dystopian SF film, with a tired political premise, poor effects, humdrum action sequences, unremarkable design elements, and a clumsy, somewhat ridiculous story.”
*. Clumsy, ridiculous, and old. The “tired political premise” was said to have been borrowed from an old Star Trek episode (“The Cloud Minders”) but it’s been around even longer than that in SF circles. I usually refer to it as the myth of the Morlocks, borrowing from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. In the future there’s a wealthy uberclass of supercitizens who live in some technoparadise floating above the sweltering proles in their crowded favelas (Mexico City here). Rebellion threatens.
*. Needless to say, this is a social vision that’s been getting a lot of play recently. Snowpiercer, another big-budget dystopic SF film, came out the same year as Elysium and was nearly identical in this regard. And indeed it’s not so different from Blomkamp’s previous film, the superior District 9.
*. The myth is dressed up here to address more topical concerns. There are, for example, refugee boat people risking their lives to make it to Elysium. I’m not sure why, as there’s clearly no work for them to do there. Robots have completely taken over so it’s not like they’re going to make better lives for themselves. The only real plus is the advanced health care, which can fix everything (and I mean everything) that’s wrong with you just by lying down in a tube and being painlessly scanned for a few seconds.
*. I don’t think it’s all that well thought out. The Elysians are the usual villainous types, but one still doesn’t feel optimistic when the Earthers take over. The tragedy of the commons is coming, we can be sure.
*. I wonder what attracted Jodie Foster to such a role. The politics? The chance to speak a bit of French? The paycheque? It’s certainly not a very demanding or original part. Defense Secretary Delacourt is just a stereotypical authoritarian CEO (and the part was originally written for a man). Even Blomkamp seems uncertain what he wanted from her, as she makes a hasty exit so that a semi-articulate beast man (Sharlto Copley) can take over sole duties as the heavy. I was expecting something a little more interesting.
*. But then Blomkamp doesn’t appear to be much interested in anything other than blowing things up. It’s very much a Michael Bay aesthetic, with lots of fancy machinery and explosions. Our hero Max (Matt Damon) is even turned into a battlebot courtesy of an exoskelton that’s surgically attached to his body. Man and machine are one. Get a load of your rapture.
*. Rapture isn’t a word I use loosely either. Max is a Christ figure, sacrificing himself so that the poor can enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, this is nothing new. In fact, it’s a cliché.
*. Because what is Christ in the twenty-first century but a semi-mechanical superhero? Elysium is basically another instalment of MarvelCrap. The story arc is exactly the same: lowly Everyman figure gets a dose of radiation and is transformed into a superhuman fighter for justice. Meanwhile he has a girlfriend he has to win over while saving the world along the way. Etc. Rinse and repeat.
*. Well, I suppose I could go through it, picking apart inconsistencies and improbabilities in the plot, but there’s not much point. I mean, I didn’t even grasp the basics of exactly what all information Max had in his head, or what Delacourt wants to do with it. In the end, I suspect it was just a throwaway plot device.
*. I’ve already said more here than I wanted to. What makes Elysium so typical of the productions of this period isn’t the stale and half-baked politics or its superhero plot so much as the basic fact that this is a movie that looks great but doesn’t have a brain in its metal head.

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.

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?

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.