KNOCK AT THE CABIN (2023) – M. Night Shyamalan’s Latest Intriguing but Not Intense

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Acclaimed writer/director M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the scene with his super successful debut film THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), and in the years since has enjoyed an up and down career with a variety of hits and misses.

For me, most of Shyamalan’s movies have been misses, but when he’s on his game, and the story is as strong as his direction, and the film isn’t done in by a superficial plot twist, the results are pretty darn good.

KNOCK AT THE CABIN (2023), Shyamalan’s latest, fall into this latter category. It’s pretty darn good! And he’s helped here by superior source material, as the screenplay by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman is based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. Those of us from the New England horror community know Paul very well and are overjoyed that his writing is being adapted by Hollywood and turned into movies. Way to go, Paul!

So, KNOCK AT THE CABIN has a strong story, and M. Night Shyamalan does right by it.

KNOCK AT THE CABIN opens with a little girl Wen (Kristen Cui) playing alone in the woods catching grasshoppers, when she is approached by a very large yet softspoken stranger who introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista). Although Wen tells Leonard she doesn’t talk to strangers, he has a gentle way about him, and soon they are talking. The conversation begins innocently enough, but when three other strangers arrive, Leonard tells Wen that they are there to talk to her and her parents and they are going to have to make a difficult choice, words that frighten Wen and cause her to run back to her cabin where she finds her two “dads,” Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and warns them that four strangers are on their way to the cabin.

Andrew and Eric immediately become alarmed when they see these four people at the door holding various sharp tools and weapons. Leonard asks to be let in, but Andrew and Eric refuse. Eventually, the four strangers force their way in, and after a scuffle, Andrew and Eric are tied to chairs and find themselves at the mercy of these four people. The two men immediately believe that they have been targeted because they are gay, but the softspoken Leonard assures them that is not the case, that they didn’t even know they were a same sex couple until they arrived at the cabin.

When Leonard starts speaking of shared visions that the four have had, and of the oncoming apocalypse which will wipe out all humanity, Andrew and Eric then believe that they have been overpowered by a group of religious fanatics. Things get worse when Leonard explains that the only way the apocalypse can be avoided is if there is a sacrifice, and that sacrifice will have to be made by Andrew, Eric, or Wen.

One life to save humanity.

While the story told in KNOCK AT THE CABIN is refreshing, in that it’s not about attacking a same sex couple because of extreme homophobia, and early on the audience is thinking the same thing that both Andrew and Eric are thinking, that they have been targeted because they are gay, it’s not without flaws. For starters, strangely, considering the premise, this movie is nowhere near as intensely disturbing as expected. Part of it is the plot itself. When Leonard goes on and on about the apocalypse, Andrew and Eric both think he and the others are simply crazy, and rightly so! I’m right there with them, as most others would be. Leonard and the three others are trying to convince Andrew and Eric to make an impossible sacrificial choice, but really, it’s not so impossible, because Andrew and Eric don’t believe it.

Unless you do this, the world will end!

Okay, I don’t believe you. So, we’re not doing it! End of story.

Also, the idea that Andrew and Eric have control over the decision is much less intense than if they had zero control, where the four strangers were going to do something horrible to them, but that’s not case. The point, of course, is the question, would you make that sacrifice for your fellow humans? The problem is there is no way that most folks here in 2023 are going to buy this premise. The apocalypse? I’ll wait till God shows up in person, thank you very much!

And neither Andrew or Eric ever ask the question, who is asking them to make this choice? God? Really? It makes no sense religiously. Sure, there are sacrifices throughout the Bible, but for Christians, at least, those sacrificial days are over, because of Jesus.

Also, as the movie goes on, Andrew begins to poke holes in their story and makes a strong and convincing argument that the four themselves are being manipulated by a group delusion and are experiencing a shared psychotic disorder, but the story doesn’t go there, and so at the end of the day, things are a bit murky, because what Andrew said made sense, and he even offers proof, but nothing comes of it.

Still, KNOCK AT THE CABIN is intriguing and enjoyable. It also features some solid acting performances.

Dave Bautista is perfect as Leonard, the gentle giant, who explains that he is an elementary school teacher and that one reason he is doing this is he doesn’t want his young students to die. Bautista has been fun as Drax in both the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and THE AVENGERS movies, and he’s been memorable in a bunch of other movies as well, but his performance here in KNOCK AT THE CABIN is one of his best. The only knock against him… heh, heh!… is his consistent calm demeanor and the fact that he promises not to harm the family removes a heck of a lot of tension in this movie.

Ben Aldridge as Andrew, the more hot-headed of the two parents, and Jonathan Groff as Eric are also superb. They really make you care for these two guys, and that’s one of the more emotional parts of this movie. The audience really feels their love for each other and doesn’t want to see anything happen to either one of them. Groff of course is known for his work in HAMILTON (2020) and FROZEN (2013), but my favorite Jonathan Groff role remains his FBI character Holden Ford on the short-lived yet superior Netflix TV series, MINDHUNTER (2017-2019).

Rupert Grint, known to Harry Potter fans as Ron in the HARRY POTTER movies, is really good here as Redmond, the least balanced of the four strangers, and the one who makes the family the most uncomfortable. Nikki Amuka-Bird as Sabrina and Abby Quinn as Adriane round out the four strangers and do decent jobs in the roles.

The other phenomenal performance in this movie belongs to young Kristen Cui as Wen. Her expressions throughout this movie are perfect. One of the more intense scenes in the film is when the four strangers are intially at the door trying to get in, and the main reason for this intensity is Cui’s panicked cries for her parents to make these people go away.

On the other hand, another reason this film isn’t as disturbing as expected, is little Wen is largely shielded from all the horrors here. The film doesn’t go there, but if it had, it would have been really frightening.

M. Night Shyamalan keeps the camera tight on Dave Bautista, making him seem immense throughout. Bautista is gigantic in real life, so he doesn’t need much help to look bigger, but Shyamalan’s camerawork does just that. The most riveting scene in the movie and the one Shyamalan does his best work on is the sequence where Andrew makes a break for it and desperately tries to get his gun from the back of his car. Other than this sequence, the intensity is all rather low key.

That being said, I really enjoyed KNOCK AT THE CABIN. I wish it had been more frightening, and I wish there was more to its premise other than the derailing of the apocalypse, but the story was refreshing enough to hold my interest throughout.

I give it three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

10 Worst Movies of 2022

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It’s time now for a look back at the 10 worst movies I saw in 2022.

Here we go:

10. ORPHAN: FIRST KILL – this prequel to ORPHAN (2009), a horror movie I liked a lot, really isn’t all that bad; it’s just not all that good. It was fun to see Isabelle Fuhrman reprising the role of the dangerous “little girl” Esther, especially since Fuhrman’s no longer a “little girl” in real life, which meant the use of some forced perspective and a body double. This one has a brand-new plot twist, but overall, simply doesn’t work all that well. Two stars.

9. MONSTROUS – tepid horror movie starring Christina Ricci as a mom who flees with her seven-year-old son from an abusive husband. She moves into a new house and unfortunately, she has to deal with a supernatural presence there. Not awful by any means, but also simply not a lot going on here. Twist at end is predictable. Two stars.

8. THE BUBBLE – This comedy by writer/director Judd Apatow takes a fun concept— a group of actors stuck together at a hotel when their movie production shuts down because of a pandemic— and does little with it. More silly than funny, with just a few good laughs here and there. Two stars.

7. BLONDE – for me, the most disappointing movie from 2022. This Netflix film features an Oscar-nominated performance by one of my favorite actors, Ana de Armas, as Marilyn Monroe. Ana de Armas is indeed terrific, but the story is based on “imaginings” of Monroe’s life, as the screenplay is based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, and so events unfold here in Monroe’s life that simply didn’t happen. There’s a brutal scene, for example, showing JFK treating her horribly, yet it didn’t happen. I just found the story elements here head-scratchers. Andrew Dominik’s direction doesn’t help, as this nearly three-hour movie is clunky and uneven. Onr and a half stars.

6. WHITE NOISE – Weird, confusing movie with a script in which nobody seems to make sense when they talk. Funny premise and interesting cast led by Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig are wasted in this unfunny story about a family who for one third of the movie are faced with a seemingly apocalyptic event, but this “event” wraps up neat and tidy long before this one ends. And then the film goes on about something else. One and a half stars.

5. DAY SHIFT – pretty awful horror comedy starring Jamie Foxx as a modern day vampire hunter. Not funny, not scary, and action scenes don’t wow. Dave Franco plays one of the more pathetic characters I’ve seen in a movie in years. Pretty forgettable stuff. One and a half stars.

4.CHOOSE OR DIE – horror movie starring Asa Butterfield about an evil video game from the 1980s which can alter reality, and it uses this power to force its player to make horrific choices, to harm people around them or die themselves, hence the title, Choose or die. Sounds better than it is. Very little of what happens makes sense, and the horror scenes aren’t as scary as they should be. Most inspiring bit in the movie is the casting of Robert Englund as himself, as he provides the voice on the promos for the video game. Sadly, Englund doesn’t actually appear in the movie. One star.

3. VIOLENT NIGHT -David Harbour playing Santa Claus in a Santa Claus action/comedy. What’s not to like? Actually, a lot of things, mostly a story that features some of the most unlikable characters in a movie I’ve seen in years, and we’re supposed to care about these people when they find themselves held hostage by a baddie who goes by the name of Scrooge? A disgruntled Santa decides to save the day. While Harbour is very good, and John Leguizamo is even better as the villain, mostly because he plays things straight, the film ends up being a cross between HOME ALONE and DIE HARD, with very unfavorable results. One star.

2.BARBARIAN – some folks really liked this horror movie. I wasn’t one of them. It’s not an anthology film, but its one plot is divided into three segments. The first one starring Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgard is by far the best, and so the film gets off to a very scary start, but things change in the second segment starring Justin Long, as the entire tone of the film shifts to something much lighter and offbeat, and then for the third and final segment, which wraps everything up, things fall completely apart. You really have to suspend disbelief to buy into some of the plot points here. One star.

1. UNCHARTED – My pick for the worst movie of the year is the film I enjoyed the least. This silly action-adventure comedy pairs Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg as fellow treasure hunters seeking treasure. The script is ludicrous, the inane banter nonstop, and the plot, well everything these two knuckleheads do works, and so there’s no adversity or conflict, just banter, banter, and more banter. Have I said there was banter in this movie? One long snooze of a movie. Unless, of course, you like… banter. One star.

There you have it. My list of the 10 Worst Films from 2022. Overall, 2022 wasn’t really a bad year for movies. There were far more movies that I liked than I disliked this year,

Okay, let’s get back to 2023! See you at the movies!

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CHANGELING (1980)

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Here’s a reprint of a column I wrote back in 2016:

I first saw THE CHANGELING way back when I was in high school.  It was a late night showing on HBO, and I gotta tell you, it creeped me out.  At the time, other than THE EXORCIST (1973), no other horror movie had gotten under my skin like this one.

So, I was very excited the other day to finally see THE CHANGELING again  on DVD, since I hadn’t seen it in years.  And while I have to admit that it didn’t scare me like it did back in the early 80s when I first saw it, it remains a first-rate horror movie.

It’s the type of horror movie that I love:  an A-list cast, talented director, and a sense of seriousness that lifts it above standard horror fare.  In short, it’s a high-quality movie.

THE CHANGELING opens with a tragedy:  composer John Russell (George C. Scott) watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are killed in a freak car accident.  In an effort to rebuild his life, Russell moves across the country, from New York City to the suburbs of Seattle.  He moves into a mansion, a quiet home where he hopes to be able to work on his music in solitude.

He soon begins hearing strange noises at night, noises that lead him to discover a secret room, and inside this room he finds a tiny wheelchair and other items belonging to a child.  Russell soon realizes that there is a ghost in his house, a ghost of a child, and this ghost isn’t trying to frighten him away but on the contrary is trying to communicate with him.  Russell wonders if perhaps the reason this spirit is seeking him might be connected to the fact that he lost his daughter at a young age.

Russell begins to investigate the history of the house, and what he learns leads him to the wealthy U.S. Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) who once lived in Russell’s house as a child.  Russell finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict, with supernatural forces on one side, and the power of a U.S. Senator on the other.

THE CHANGELING is a well-made, creepy and haunting horror movie that certainly belongs in the conversation when discussing the best haunted house/ghost story movies ever made.

Director Peter Medak does a wonderful job here.  The scenes in the house are creepy and atmospheric, and he makes full use of some truly memorable images.  A simple child’s wheelchair has never been so eerie.  Likewise, he uses the child’s voice to full effect and there are some shocking scenes as well, like one involving a bathtub.  The film also looks great.  It looks like something Hammer would have done had they still been in business in 1980 and had moved on to contemporary tales.

Peter Medak has a ton of credits, most of them TV credits, including episodes of SPACE 1999 (1976-77), HOUSE (2004), BREAKING BAD (2009), and HANNIBAL (2013-14), among many, many others.

THE CHANGELING boasts an A-List cast, led by the great George C. Scott, who does a bang-up job here as a man still in grief over the loss of his wife and daughter.  He makes John Russell believable as he channels his grief into helping the child ghost.  You understand why Russell becomes so committed to the ghost’s plight, as he sees it as his job as a parent— especially a parent whose daughter was taken from him at a young age— to help this child who when alive had no one to help him.

And while George C. Scott is remembered as a star actor who worked on such powerful films as PATTON (1970), he was actually no stranger to genre films as he made several in his career, including the science fiction thriller THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973), Stephen King’s FIRESTARTER (1984), the TV movie THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1986), and the third EXORCIST movie, THE EXORCIST III (1990).

Likewise, veteran actor Melvyn Douglas adds class to the proceedings as Senator Carmichael.  THE CHANGELING was the first of back-to-back ghost story movies which Douglas made just before his death in 1981, as he also starred in Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY (1981), his final screen credit.

And while Douglas enjoyed a long and varied film career spanning five decades, he began and ended his career with horror films, as he also starred in THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, and Gloria Stuart, and in THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Dwight Frye.

Scott’s real-life wife and frequent co-star Trish Van Devere appears as real estate agent Claire Norman who helps John with his investigation.  She’s very good in the role.  THE CHANGELING was the eighth time Van Devere and George C. Scott starred in a movie together. Trish Van Devere is still with us, as at present, she is 75.

And in another SPACE 1999 connection, Barry Morse appears briefly as a psychologist.  Morse is probably most famous for his role as Lieutenant Philip Gerard on the TV show THE FUGITIVE (1963-1967) but genre fans remember him fondly as Professor Victor Bergman on the science fiction show SPACE 1999 (1975-76).  Morse also appeared in the Amicus anthology horror movie ASYLUM (1972) starring Peter Cushing.

William Gray and Diana Maddox wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Russell Hunter.  Gray also wrote the screenplay for the original PROM NIGHT (1980) starring Jamie Lee Curtis. The screenplay here for THE CHANGELING is far superior to the silly slasher story of PROM NIGHT.

THE CHANGELING will creep you out in the same way that the modern-day PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies do but with the added bonus of also delivering a solid story, something the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies have never done.  And that’s what sets THE CHANGELING apart from a lot of other horror movies.  It does something that most horror films do not do, and that is it generates scares and creates a sense of eeriness without skimping on its story.  In fact, the story just might be the strongest part of this film.

THE CHANGELING is one of the best movies of its type.  And while I didn’t find it quite as scary as I did way back in the early 80s, it still holds up very well today. In fact, if you’ve never seen it and you’re watching it for the first time, you might not want to watch it alone.  Just sayin’.

—END—

M3GAN (2022) – Evil Toy Doll Horror Movie Has Its Moments But Doesn’t Wow

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Do we really need another horror movie about an evil doll?

Of course, we do!

They’re friggin’ creepy!

Plus, truth be told, we really haven’t had a whole lot of evil doll movies which have saturated the horror market and made us sick of them. In recent years we’ve had the ANNABELLE series, which have pretty much been underwhelming, and we’ve had THE BOY (2016) and its silly sequel. M3GAN actually reminded me more of the CHILD’S PLAY (2019) reimagining, with its inclusion of present-day computer technology as a plot device for making the doll act the way it does.

In M3GAN, robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams) is desperately trying to create the world’s next best toy, a doll that is so life-like in the way it can think and learn, that it not only can be a perfect playmate, but also a babysitter, as it can remind children to brush their teeth or flush the toilet, but obviously such a project is incredibly expensive, and so her boss David (Ronny Chieng) isn’t interested and tells her to shut the project down.

But when Gemma’s sister and husband are killed in a car crash, leaving their nine-year-old orphaned daughter Cady (Violet McGraw) in Gemma’s custody, her life changes. She is not equipped to be a parent, and during her struggles to find time off work and connect with Cady, she introduces Cady to a prototype robot toy she once built, which Cady thinks is amazing, and which inspires Gemma to ignore her boss and go all in with her latest project. The result is M3gan, a doll that can think, learn, and seemingly care about the child it is joined with, and in this case that child is Cady.

It doesn’t take long for Cady to absolutely love M3gan, and at a demonstration for David, he is blown away by the way M3gan and Cady interact, and so he greenlights the project to move forward, which means one more demonstration in front of the people in the company with the money. To better ensure a successful second demonstration, he encourages Gemma to have Cady and M3gan spend as much time together as possible, even though Cady’s therapist warns Gemma against doing so, that Cady may be developing unhealthy bonds with the toy and may not be able to let it go later, and which may get in the way of the child’s grieving process.

Gemma ignores the advice, and all is well, until it becomes apparent that M3gan sees it as her mission to protect Cady at all costs and in every way possible, meaning that the doll won’t stop short of murder or of seeing Gemma as a threat as well.

I liked M3GAN well enough and had no major issues with it, other than taken as a whole, it’s all rather slight. It doesn’t really go to any thought provoking places, nor is it much of a scary horror movie. It’s entertaining, and it does have a devilish sense of humor, which for me, was the best part of this one.

Allison Williams makes for a decent lead as Gemma. She is the single professional who has no idea what it takes to raise a child, nor is she really interested, except she does want to be there for her niece, and so it makes for a legitimate conflict. And she’s quite tough later when she realizes what M3gan is up to, and fights hard for Cady. Williams was similarly effective in a darker role as Rose Armitage in GET OUT (2017)

Young Violet McGraw gives the best performance in the movie as Cady. She is perfect as the confused and conflicted child, grieving over the death of her parents, needing someone in her life, and finding that someone in M3gan. Her facial expressions alone capture so much in this movie. It’s a great performance by a young actor. And we’ve seen her before, as McGraw has appeared in BLACK WIDOW (2021), DOCTOR SLEEP (2019), and where she was most memorable, as young Nell in the Netflix horror series THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018).

Ronny Chieng is also memorable as David, Gemma’s opportunistic boss, and Chieng’s comedic timing here comes into play as he gets some laugh-out-loud lines.

M3gan is played by two different actors. Amie Donald provided the movements, and Jenna Davis provided the voice.

Akela Cooper wrote the screenplay based on a story by James Wan. It’s a pretty straightforward story. It has a decent premise but doesn’t really go anywhere beyond typical horror movie fare. The dialogue is the best part, which is tight and oftentimes humorous, and also tells a tender story from Cady’s perspective.

Gerard Johnstone directed this one, and like the screenplay, the film as a whole remains a standard horror movie trope. The murders are all rather predictable and not overly exciting or frightening. Interestingly, M3GAN was originally intended to be an R rated movie, but the decision was made to go with a PG-13 rating to attract more teenagers, so evidently the murder scenes were watered down for this version. Not sure if more gratuitous violence would have made things better (probably not) but as the film stands now, it’s not very scary.

All this being said, I still had fun watching M3GAN, but I wasn’t blown away by any means.

I give M3GAN two and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) – Haunting Period Piece Thriller Mesmerizes from Start to Finish

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THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) is a beautifully shot period piece thriller by writer/director Scott Cooper that tells the haunting story of a killer on the loose at West Point Academy, a killer who likes to slice out the heart of their victims.

But it’s more than just a serial killer story. It’s also a detective story, as the unconventional Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is hired to solve the case, and he drafts as his assistant a young cadet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). It has as its prevalent theme the attachments we keep with our deceased loved ones, as most of the characters are influenced and oftentimes haunted by memories, spirits, what have you, of those loved ones who have gone before them. And it all takes place on the snowy West Point campus in 1830. It’s both a feast for the eyes and for the senses, as this atmospheric thriller now streaming on Netflix is definitely worth a look.

Christian Bale plays Augustus Landor, a man whose wife died after a long illness, and whose daughter ran away and never returned. He is a somber man who lives alone, yet each night when he’s on the case he has conversations with his deceased wife, who helps him with his deductions. He is hired by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to find out who is killing their cadets and cutting their hearts out. Landor doesn’t like the Academy, as he believes it robs men of their humanity, but he agrees to take the case.

He is soon approached by a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe who offers his opinions as to who he thinks the murderer is and tells Landor he should be looking for a poet. Landor likes Poe and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open around the campus. The two detectives are both drawn to Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his family, which includes his wife, his son, who is also a cadet there, and their daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton). There is something about them that troubles Landor, and he can’t put his finger on it. Further complicating matters is when Poe befriends Lea, he finds himself falling in love with her, eventually writing his poem “Lenore” for her.

Tensions rise as the murders continue, and Landor and Poe are no closer to finding the killer, but eventually their painstaking detective work pays off, and they begin to formulate answers.

I absolutely loved THE PALE BLUE EYE, but admittedly, I’m a sucker for period piece thrillers, and even though THE PALE BLUE EYE isn’t really a horror movie, although the argument can be made that it is, it did remind me enough of the classic Hammer Films horror movies of yesteryear that I enjoyed this one from start to finish.

Does it have one plot twist too many? Perhaps. Just when you think the film is over, it adds another element, another twist, that I don’t think the story needed, but when all was said and done, it still worked for me. I bought it. And I bought the characters’ reactions to it.

I really enjoy the work of Scott Cooper. His previous films include OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), an unheralded crime drama that was my favorite movie that year, and HOSTILES (2017), a hard hitting western. Both movies also starred Christian Bale.

Cooper is a terrific writer. Here, he adapted his screenplay from the book by Louis Bayard, and he includes riveting, realistic dialogue throughout. The characters here are all fleshed out, and the plot hooks you in immediately and never lets go. Regarding the characters, it helps that Cooper also has a fantastic cast here, but his writing is still superior.

He scores just as highly as a director. The opening shot of the movie, a hanged body of man dangling strangely, as if he is sitting, starts the film with a haunting image and honestly never lets up. If you like visual thrillers, with creative direction and eerie photography, you’ll love Cooper’s work here with THE PALE BLUE EYE.

Christian Bale is always a pleasure to watch. He fully becomes the characters he plays, which enables him to portray so many different kinds of characters, a trait that makes him such an exceptional actor. We just saw him in AMSTERDAM (2022) as a World War I veteran and doctor in David O. Russell’s quirky comedy drama. He was the best part of the inferior Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) as its main villain, Gorr. He was just as memorable in his previous four movies, FORD V FERRARI (2019), VICE (2018) where he played Dick Cheney and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work, HOSTILES (2017), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), where he was also nominated for an Oscar. He won an Oscar for his supporting role in THE FIGHTER (2010), he played Batman in the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT trilogy, and on and on we could go. Bale is one of the best movie actors working today.

Here, he plays Augustus Landor as a man haunted by his past, by his deceased wife, and missing daughter. He’s also an effective detective, but he is going about solving the case with an obvious heavy weight on his chest from things we don’t know fully about, other than the loss he feels and the hurt that goes along with it. As you would expect, Bale nails this role, and is captivating to watch throughout this movie.

And if that’s not enough, Harry Melling is just as captivating as Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, as much as I like Bale, I enjoyed Melling more here, because I enjoyed watching his take on Poe as a character and bringing the poet/author to life. He’s wonderful. Melling is also a terrific actor. He’s known to Harry Potter fans as the irritating Dudley Dursley, but years later as an adult, he has really stood out in a host of supporting roles. Melling has been memorable in the Netflix TV series THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2022) and in the Netflix movie THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020). He’s also appeared in THE OLD GUARD (2020), THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT (2017) and THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016). Here, Melling is phenomenal as Edgar Allan Poe.

Interestingly, Melling is the grandson of actor Patrick Troughton, who is famous for playing Doctor Who in the 1960s. Troughton also appeared in Hammer Films, such as SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) with Christopher Lee, and in the Ray Harryhausen classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

And in another Hammer Films connection, Toby Jones, who plays Dr. Daniel Marquis, and who’s one of my favorite character actors working today, is the son of actor Freddie Jones, who made his debut as the tormented creation of Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). No wonder this one has such a strong Hammer Films vibe! As he always is, Toby Jones is excellent here as Dr. Marquis, playing a man, like Landor, haunted by a family secret.

Simon McBurney as Captain Hitchcock and Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer both stand out as cranky and crotchety officers. Lucy Boynton makes for a lovely yet troubled love interest for Poe as Lea, and as the story progresses, she becomes a much more integral character.

There are also a couple of major acting veterans in the cast. Gillian Anderson, known to X-FILES fans as Dana Scully, is fantastic here as Mrs. Julia Marquis. She gets some of the best scenes in the movie, especially the ones she shares with Christian Bale. The acting here, especially with Anderson and Bale, is so precise the characters almost leap off the screen. They are created with such precision.

And Robert Duvall also has a small role as Jean Pepe, a man who helps provide some historical information for Landor when he needs it.

I found THE PALE BLUE EYE to be an absolutely mesmerizing movie. I loved its story, its characters, and its overall mystery. I also enjoyed its theme of communication with the dead. As Poe explains in one scene, where he’s talking about his communications with his deceased mother, as he feels a connection with her and hears her voice often, in general he says, people forget their loved ones who have passed on before them, and these deceased spirits miss being remembered and reach out to the living in angst. But for those like himself who listen to the voices, much wisdom and caring is shared.

I love the work of Scott Cooper. His writing here, with the plot, the characters, and the dialogue, is superior, and his direction nearly flawless as he creates an eerie visual gem. And the cast, led by Christian Bale and Harry Melling, is a joy to watch.

THE PALE BLUE EYE is a masterful period piece thriller that will keep you glued to the screen, especially during a cold, winter evening.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

NANNY (2022) – Story of Undocumented Immigrant Nanny Better Drama than Horror Movie

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NANNY (2022), now streaming on Prime Video, is marketed as a drama/horror movie, which it is, but it’s a much better drama than it is a horror movie, and as such, I almost wish it had skipped its supernatural elements.

Written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu with a serious command of storytelling, NANNY tells the story of undocumented immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop) living in New York City and getting her first real big job, working as a nanny for a wealthy couple, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), watching their five-year-old daughter Rose (Rose Decker) since they both work long hours. Aisha and Rose hit it off big, and Amy and Adam love the way their new nanny cares for their daughter.

All is well, except that Amy begins to be negligent in paying Aisha for all the overtime hours she puts in when she is asked to stay overnight when neither Amy nor Adam can be there. At first, Aisha hardly notices, as she is preoccupied with her own son who is back in Africa, and she misses him dearly. She is saving up to bring him to America, and so when Amy continues to not pay her, this grates on her even more. But she needs the job.

Things grow more complex when Aisha begins having weird experiences which seem like supernatural encounters with some unknown entity. Then Adam makes a pass at her. But still, she needs that job. She eventually starts dating a man from her apartment building, Malik (Sinqua Walls) who has a son of his own, around the same age as Aisha’s son. She also meets Malik’s grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), who is a seer with experience with the supernatural, and she begins to school Aisha concerning her own experiences.

All of this is well-acted, well-written, and well-directed, and so I was all in, along for the ride, but where this story ultimately goes is a disappointment, mostly because it goes nowhere. The revelation at the end is surprisingly for a movie that up until that point got all the storytelling parts right, sloppily done in a very unrealistic sequence. Plus, the revelation itself, while tragic, is handled so quicky, it doesn’t pack much of a punch.

And it also doesn’t truly impact the main story in this movie, which is about Aisha’s strained relationship with Rose’s parents, but by film’s end, they’re nowhere to be found, and the story of Aisha’s dealings with them is mostly forgotten.

The supernatural elements are subtle and refreshingly realistic, and I appreciated that. The horror elements here are not dumb. They are smartly handled. They just don’t have much of an impact. NANNY plays like a Hallmark movie that forgot what it was for a little while, took a detour into the supernatural for a brief bit, then went back to being a Hallmark movie.

That really isn’t a fair assessment. I don’t like Hallmark movies, and I definitely was enjoying NANNY, but while it attempts to be something of a horror movie, ultimately, it’s a love story, and while the whole thing doesn’t play like a Hallmark movie, it certainly ends that way.

I enjoyed the work of writer/director Nikyatu Jusu here. She is in command of the storytelling process from beginning to end. I enjoyed the characters, especially Aisha, and I wanted to see what was going to happen to her. Unfortunately, while she suffers a life altering incident, that’s the one part of the story that isn’t expertly handled, and as a result, combined with the very subtle supernatural elements, prevents this from being much of a horror movie.

Anna Diop is excellent as Aisha. She’s in most of the movie, and she delivers. She makes Aisha a very strong character, one you can build a story around. I really cared for her and wanted to learn more about the supernatural episodes which haunted her throughout the second half of the movie.

Michelle Monaghan as Amy and Morgan Spector as Adam were also both very good as the parents who become increasingly annoying as the movie goes on. One can argue that the most horror in this movie comes from Aisha’s dealings with them. Yet, they are both portrayed as real people, which makes them all the more difficult to like.

Sinqua Walls makes for a dashing love interest, and the talented Leslie Uggams shines in the pivotal role as Grandmother Kathleen who shares her supernatural insights with Aisha in scenes which manage to keep all the dialogue real and authentic.

I would have enjoyed NANNY more had it been a straight drama about a young undocumented immigrant nanny and the challenges she faces working for a difficult couple. This part of the movie is spot-on throughout.

The supernatural elements are less compelling, mostly because they are so understated and of less consequence.

NANNY is worth a look, but only with the understanding that this example of quiet horror is so quiet it’s pretty much inconsequential.

I give it two stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)

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I’ve always had a soft spot for THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958), a low-budget black and white Dracula movie starring the unheralded Francis Lederer as the Count.

There’s a lot that’s significant about this no frills black and white Dracula movie from the 1950s.

First of all, it was the first standalone Dracula movie to hit theaters in nearly fifteen years, as the last time Dracula appeared alone in a horror movie was in Universal’s SON OF DRACULA (1943), in which the Count was portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr., and he was called Count Alucard in the film, which never really came out and said if the character Chaney was portraying was Dracula’s son or Dracula himself. It was left open to interpretation. The film implied it was the original Dracula, but its title was SON OF DRACULA.

After SON OF DRACULA, John Carradine took over the role, but he was sharing screen time with the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). Bela Lugosi returned to play the Count three years later in the horror comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

So, when Francis Lederer played Count Dracula in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, it had been a while since audiences had seen a movie about Dracula, especially a serious one where Dracula was the only monster in the film, and those movies had all been made by Universal and had followed the same formula. So, there’s a lot that was fresh about THE RETURN OF DRACULA. And Francis Lederer, a well-known Czechoslovakian actor who never became a major star but still made a lot of movies over the decades and who wasn’t known for making horror movies, actually makes a very successful and rather frightening Dracula, albeit all in the most subtle of ways. In fact, I actually prefer Lederer’s performance as Dracula in this movie over John Carradine’s performances in the two aforementioned Universal Dracula movies above.

Lederer with his accent and cold, calculating, and dominating personality, makes for a commanding king of the undead.

And while part of THE RETURN OF DRACULA was refreshing, since it was not part of the Universal monster universe, another part was very familiar, because the plot of THE RETURN OF DRACULA borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943). In that film, a teenage girl begins to suspect that her favorite uncle, played by Joseph Cotten, is really a murderer wanted by the police. Here in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, the teenage girl learns that her favorite cousin is really Count Dracula!

THE RETURN OF DRACULA, which takes place in the 1950s and so it was a contemporary setting for its time, opens with an atmospheric scene where vampire hunter John Merriman (John Wengraf) leads a group of vampire hunters into a crypt in Transylvania where they plan to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart. When they open his coffin, they discover his body is no longer there.

The action then switches to a train where we see Dracula (Francis Lederer) murder a passenger, and then he assumes his identity. He makes his way to the United States, to California, and there he pretends to be cousin Bellac, the eccentric artist who likes to sleep all day and go out at night at odd hours. Fortunately for Dracula, no one in Bellac’s California family knows what he looks like, since it’s his first time travelling to the United States. He’s welcomed into the family, and the teenage daughter, Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) takes a particular interest in her cousin, since she also wants to be an artist.

All is well, until people start dying. Well, Dracula has to eat, after all! These deaths attract the attention of our hero John Merriman from the opening sequence, and he makes his way to California in pursuit of the undead Count.

While there is nothing spectacular about THE RETURN OF DRACULA, the film does have some notable scenes, including a decent stake-in the heart scene, and as I said, Francis Lederer makes for a really effective Count Dracula.

This movie may have gone on to become something more than just a refreshing low budget Dracula movie, if not for another Dracula movie which was released just one month after this one, a “little” movie by Hammer Films, called HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Of course, HORROR OF DRACULA, the first Dracula movie in color, took the world by storm, and made international stars out of Christopher Lee, playing an athletic and violent Dracula, and Peter Cushing, playing an equally athletic and heroic Van Helsing. The film revolutionized the horror movie industry, and made a movie like THE RETURN OF DRACULA, seem pale and lethargic by comparison. Hammer went on to make seven more Dracula movies, six with Christopher Lee, and a multitude of vampire movies. THE RETURN OF DRACULA was largely forgotten.

Which is too bad since it really is a decent Dracula movie.

It’s also interesting to note that THE RETURN OF DRACULA contains a somewhat violent staking scene, much more explicit than anything Universal ever showed, and that it pre-dated HORROR OF DRACULA, which is the movie that is credited with adding more violence to horror movies. Of course, the blood and gore in HORROR OF DRACULA is much more explicit than anything shown in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, and all of it was in color! Also, the film’s hero, John Merriman, played by German actor John Wengraf, is much younger than the older “professors” who were the heroes in the Universal Dracula movies. Merriman is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s younger interpretation of Van Helsing in HORROR OF DRACULA.

THE RETURN OF DRACULA was directed by Paul Landres, who also directed another interesting black and white vampire movie from the 1950s, THE VAMPIRE (1957), a film which had more of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plot, with the scientist in that movie turning into a vampire. Landres does a nice job with THE RETURN OF DRACULA. For a low budget black and white movie, the scare scenes work rather well.

Pat Fielder wrote the effective screenplay, and she also penned Landre’s THE VAMPIRE, as well as another 1950s horror classic, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957). She does a great job with the characterizations here in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, and the scenes between Dracula and Rachel are among the best in the movie.

Francis Lederer, who in a very subtle and understated way is quite scary as Dracula, would reprise the role in an episode of NIGHT GALLERY, “A Question of Fear/The Devil is not Mocked” (1971).

Forever overshadowed by Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA, and rightly so, because HORROR is clearly the superior film, nonetheless THE RETURN OF DRACULA is a Dracula movie that is well worth a look and certainly should not be forgotten.

This holiday season, return to a time just before the Hammer Dracula explosion, when an unassuming Dracula puts the bite on 1950s small town America, but instead of indulging in mom’s apple pie, he’s taking a nibble on young teenage throats.

A RETURN TO MAYBERRY, this ain’t!

—END—

TROLL (2022) – New Netflix Giant Monster Movie Monstrously Good

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My favorite part about TROLL (2022), a new giant monster movie from Norway now streaming on Netflix, is that it pays homage to the monster movies of yesteryear and gets nearly everything right about the subgenre, even as it tells a story about a giant troll.

It gets that right too, since trolls are a part of Norwegian folklore, and so the fantasy here is grounded in mythology.

TROLL also has a fabulous script by Espen Aukan, based on a story by director Roar Uthaug. It takes its monster plot seriously, while keeping the script lively and at times light, and includes references to Godzilla and King Kong. It also didn’t hurt to have a couple of characters be STAR TREK fans, and so some of the conversations are peppered with STAR TREK references that actually have bearing on the plot. So, for this STAR TREK fan, that was a lot of fun.

In short, I enjoyed TROLL more than some of the recent bigger budget GODZILLA and KING KONG movies of late.

TROLL tells the story of scientist Nora Tidemann (Ine Marie Wilmann) who is called in as a government advisor when there is an “incident” following a construction crew’s blasting of a major tunnel and there are what appear to be giant footprints in the ground leading away from the area. She is quick to point out the obvious, that they are looking at footprints, and while she can’t say what made them, she does tell the skeptical government officials that they should be looking for a creature of considerable size.

It turns out that what made them is a troll, and to help her with this situation, Nora turns to her estranged father Tobias (Gard B. Eidsvold) who is an expert on the subject but because of his intense belief in trolls has been labeled as somewhat of a crackpot. Tobias is only too happy to learn that proof of what he has been saying all his life has finally materialized, and while the government is only interested in destroying the troll, Nora and Tobias would prefer to learn more about it.

Nora gains more credence when traditional weapons fail against the troll, and her and Tobias’ expertise are again requested. Nora also gains two allies, government advisor and self-described STAR TREK geek Andreas (Kim Falck) and military captain Kris (Mads Sjogard Pettersen) both of whom come to respect Nora and value her insight on the threat.

The script nails all these characters, and everyone in this movie acts like real people, including the government officials. TROLL is not a giant monster movie where the characters are all cardboard and boring. They’re three dimensional and interesting.

And the actors all do standup jobs with their roles.

The special effects are excellent. The troll looks authentic and frightening. Director Roar Uthaug crafts some impressive giant monster scenes, some intense, some frightening, and others flat out exciting.

The back story for the troll also gives the creature plenty of sympathy. An intriguing subtext is the troll’s disdain for Christians, and the film almost takes a daring step to frame Christianity as a villain here, which would have been a gutsy and refreshing call, but the film stops short of completely developing this theme. There’s one scene in particular where a soldier is praying, and the troll can smell his blood, and that’s the soldier he targets and kills, but other than this, the topic is muted.

TROLL is available on Netflix in an English language version or in its original Norwegian language with English subtitles, which is how I saw it. Always go with the original language. As good as dubbing can sometimes be, the acting is always more natural in the original language.

If you like giant monster movies, especially those that take their subject matter seriously and know their cinematic history, you’ll love TROLL.

It’s a monstrously good time.

I give it three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SHADOWS: ELISHA COOK, JR.

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today, it’s Elisha Cook, Jr., one of the most recognizable character actors of all time. Small in stature, he often portrayed intense oftentimes frightened characters, especially in his horror movies. One of my favorite Cook performances in a genre film was in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), in which he co-starred with Vincent Price as the terrified Watson Pritchard, the one man in the movie who believed ghosts were haunting the house. Cook also enjoyed a memorable moment in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) when he falls asleep in the back of Kolchak’s car, scaring the living daylight out of the reporter (Darren McGavin) when he bolts upright in the back seat!

Here now is a partial look at some of Elisha Cook, Jr.’s impressive 220 screen credits:

HER UNBORN CHILD (1930)- Stewart Kennedy – Cook’s first screen credit is in this 1930 love story drama.

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) – Joe Briggs – co-stars in this film noir with Peter Lorre. Often cited as the first film noir movie ever.

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) – Wilmer Cook – one of my favorite Elisha Cook Jr. roles is in this classic film noir by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Cook plays the enforcer for Mr. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who Bogart’s Sam Spade torments throughout, at one point slapping him around and eventually turning Gutman against him. Cook is wound up and intense throughout. Also starring Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. One of my favorite movies of all time.

A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942) – Frank Lucas- supporting role in this Laurel and Hardy spooky comedy.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) – Harry Jones – reunited with Humphrey Bogart, with Bogart this time playing Philip Marlowe. Directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, this one is so complex that even after subsequent viewings it’s still difficult to figure out who did what to whom, and why! Bogart famously married co-star Lauren Bacall shortly after this movie.

SHANE (1953) – Stonewall Torrey – supporting role in this classic Alan Ladd western. His character is dramatically slain by the villainous gunslinger played by Jack Palance.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1954)- “Semi-Private Eye” – Homer Garrity – plays private detective Homer Garrity hired by Lois Lane to prove that Clark Kent is really Superman in this episode of the George Reeves Superman TV series.

THE KILLING (1956)- George Peatty – supporting role in this film noir thriller directed by a young Stanley Kubrick.

VOODOO ISLAND (1957) – Martin Schuyler – zombie horror movie starring Boris Karloff, notable for featuring the screen debut of Adam West. Holy horror movie, Batman!

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) – Watson Pritchard – one of my favorite Elisha Cook, Jr. roles is in this William Castle horror movie starring Vincent Price as a cold, calculating husband who along with his equally manipulative wife plan a party in a haunted house where the guests are each paid a large sum of money if they remain in the house all night. And they have no choice once they agree, because they are all locked inside until dawn. Cook plays the one man there who believes in ghosts, and spends most of his time drinking and warning the others that they are all doomed. One of the earlier horror movies to employ jump scares, and the scene with the old woman who appears out of nowhere in the basement is a classic.

BLACK ZOO (1963) – Joe – horror movie starring the Hammer ham himself, Michael Gough, playing a character who uses his zoo animals to kill his enemies. Of course!

THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963) – Peter Smith – reunited with Vincent Price in this horror movie directed by Roger Corman based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. Cook plays a frightened townsperson who is a yes-man to a tougher townsperson played by Leo Gordon, and they lead the villagers in attempts to oust Vincent Price’s Charles Dexter Ward from their community fearing that he is a menace to their community. And they’re right! Also stars Lon Chaney Jr., in a rare paring with Vincent Price. One of my favorite Roger Corman/Vincent Price movies.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Mr. Nicklas – part of the terrific cast in Roman Polanski’s classic horror movie which also stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, and Ralph Bellamy.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) – Mickey Crawford – plays an informant for Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak in this groundbreaking vampire movie written by Richard Matheson. Cook provides one of the better jump scares in the movie as noted above.

BLACULA (1972) – Sam – Cook appears in back-to-back vampire movies, this one featuring a commanding performance by William Marshall in the lead role in this underrated horror movie which is actually very good.

THE BLACK BIRD (1975) – Wilmer Cook – Cook reprises his role from THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) in this comedy about the son of Sam Spade, played by George Segal.

SALEM’S LOT (1979) – Gordon ‘Weasel’ Phillips – this TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel starring David Soul and James Mason is considered by many fans and critics as one of the two greatest vampire TV movies ever made, along with THE NIGHT STALKER. Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in both these movies!

MAGNUM, P.I. (1980-1988) – Francis “Ice Pick” Hofstetler – Cook’s final screen appearances were on the popular TV series, MAGNUM, P.I., in which he appeared in 13 episodes.

Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in tons of TV shows over the years, including GUNSMOKE, THE WILD WILD WEST, STAR TREK, BATMAN, THE ODD COUPLE, and STARSKY AND HUTCH, to name just a few.

I hope you enjoyed this partial list of Elisha Cook Jr.’s career. He was a character actor who starred in many genre films, some, like ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE NIGHT STALKER, are some of the more important ones ever made.

Join me again next time for another edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at the careers of character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael


THE MENU (2022) – Thought-Provoking Social Satire Won’t Spoil Your Appetite

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So, what’s on the menu?

Exquisite food from one of the world’s top chefs, tension, plenty of tension, a little violence, a little horror, and to top it all off, satire. Lots of satire.

THE MENU (2022) is an odd movie, as many satires are, but at the end of the day, if nothing else, it’s thought-provoking. It’s the type of movie that will have you thinking, and that’s a good thing.

THE MENU opens like an episode of the old TV show FANTASY ISLAND (1977-1984) where a group of strangers are about to travel to a remote island, but rather than taking a plane (“da plane! da plane!”) they take a boat, and rather than meeting Mr. Roarke and Tatoo, they meet one of the greatest chefs in the world, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and he’s their host. They have all paid exorbitant amounts of money to be treated to a private dinner by one of the world’s most renowned chefs.

The characters we meet first are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who is so enamored with the Chef that he practically has an orgasm every time he talks about him, and Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes the central character and the person who the audience most identifies with, because as we soon learn, she wasn’t supposed to be there, as Tyler’s girlfriend broke up with him, and so she was a last minute second choice.

All the guests are wealthy, and all of them have their reasons for coming to this dinner, but with the exception of Tyler, none of them are really there purely for Chef’s food. Things start out well enough, as if it’s going to be an evening of fine food and performance dining, but then in what once more feels like an episode of FANTASY ISLAND, things begin to grow weird and unsettling. Tortillas are served with personal images on them, and so secrets are suddenly revealed. And later when one guest has a finger chopped off, and a cook shoots himself in the head as part of a dish, the guests realize they may not get off the island alive.

That being said, THE MENU is not a straight thriller or horror movie. While those elements are there, the main focus of this movie is undoubtedly satire, and there are various levels to it.

There’s the social status satire. These folks are all there because they have tons of money and can afford to be there, but Chef makes it clear that they’re not really there for his food. He talks about the art of food preparation and consumption, and tells them not to eat, but to taste. His passion for the symbiotic relationship between food and nature reaches almost religious proportions. And it’s also clear that he is insulted that they are there only because they can afford to be, and his passion for cooking is totally lost on them. At one point, he reminds a guest that he has been to multiple dinners on the island, and he asks the man to name at least one dish he’s eaten while there, and the man can’t even do that.

But the sharp screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy doesn’t stop there. There’s a food critic on the guest list, a washed-up actor, and three arrogant moneymakers who work for the company which sponsors these dinners, and so they feel entitled to threaten the Chef when he doesn’t please them. Each of these characters have back stories, all of which add to the social commentary.

As such, one of the film’s most significant moments comes when Tyler becomes increasingly frustrated by Margot’s complaints about what is going on, and he snaps his fingers at her before becoming flat out rude and insulting, prompting her to get up and leave. It’s a moment where we see his complete lack of acknowledgement of Margot as a person, and that the only reason he is there is because of his blind passion for the Chef, something that the Chef later shows him to be a waste of his time. It’s a moment in the movie that speaks to the way men sometimes treat women, and while that theme is not the main one of the film, it works all the same.

When Chef speaks to Margot privately, he laments that she wasn’t supposed to be there, and he needs to know her story for the dinner to work, because he needs to know who she is. Is she a server, and thus belongs in the kitchen, or is she like the other guests, a taker, and belongs out with the guests in the dining room?

In another biting moment, Chef reveals that he told Tyler ahead of time that everyone was going to die that night, and yet not only did Tyler still agree to come, he also still invited Margot, knowing that she too would die. And when Chef asks Tyler why he invited Margot, Tyler answers that guests were not allowed to come solo. They had to have a guest. Which speaks to the shallowness of our society and the total disregard people have to their fellow humans.

Similarly, the Chef mocks his guests later in the movie, telling them that if they really wanted to escape, why didn’t they make a stronger effort to do so? Would it really have been that difficult to overpower him and the other chefs? He asks them to think about that, and the audience does as well. Why didn’t these people try harder to escape? Is it because they are all too lethargic and passive? Because they wanted to remain to get what they paid for? Or did they on some level enjoy what was going on? Or perhaps they all believed it was just an act, and a safe answer would be revealed in the end?

Again, it’s a thought-provoking script, and it will have you thinking.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a terrific actress who continues to deliver in her movies, often giving the best performance in the film. She’s best known for her work in the Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020) and in the horror movie THE WITCH (2015). But we just saw her deliver back-to-back excellent performances in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021) and AMSTERDAM (2022). She’s at it again here in THE MENU. Margot is the most dynamic and interesting character in the movie, and the more we learn about her, the more we like her. Anya Taylor-Joy brings this character to life, creating a fiery yet sympathetic person who we feel comfortable rooting for.

Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Chef, a culinary version of Mr. Roarke. While he has his own agenda, his own final masterpiece, he also sheds light on the make-up of each and every one of his guests. It’s yet another masterful performance by Fiennes, and while he doesn’t exactly make Chef a sympathetic character, he does make him understandable. We get where he’s coming from, and why he is doing the things he does. While he has countless movie credits, this performance follows upon the heels of two other equally impressive ones, in THE DIG (2021) and THE FORGIVEN (2021).

The supporting cast is terrific.

Janet McTeer is cold and biting as food critic Lillian, and Paul Adelstein is agreeable as her yes-man magazine sponsor Ted. John Leguizamo is the washed-up actor who is looking to make a comeback. He’s also the butt of one of the better jokes in the film, when Chef pretty much tells him he’s there to die because Chef hated his last movie, which was a complete waste of his time, and he doesn’t like wasting time.

And Hong Chau nearly steals the show as the tight-lipped yet brutally honest right-hand person to Chef, Elsa, in effect playing Tatoo to Ralph Fiennes’ Mr. Roarke.

Director Mark Mylod keeps things tight, and the pacing here is brisk, and the suspense builds. I was unsettled throughout, and really didn’t know where this one was going. The photography is brilliant, the island locales beautiful, with my favorite part being the connection shown throughout the movie between people and the ocean. The dining area and kitchen also share special significance, as at times it feels like a fortress in a James Bond movie, only much smaller.

Not everything works. Like most satires, the humor is there, but often you have to work hard to find it, and much of the laughter is of the under your breath variety. And while the plot of this movie is built around food and food preparation, don’t expect the kind of movie, a la CHEF (2014) and THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) where all the mouthwatering meals cooked in the film make you want to buy a second popcorn and then go out to dinner afterwards, because as this one goes on, the food becomes less appetizing, and in general there’s less of it, rather than more.

While things grow dark, the film never becomes an all-out horror movie or gross fest. For the most part, I liked this, but it could have gone further in the disturbing department, because there were moments where I felt things didn’t go far enough.

Speaking of horror movies, with a little imagination, it wasn’t difficult to imagine this one being made in the 1970s with Vincent Price playing Chef. Now that would have been a black comedy/horror movie to be sure!

But overall, I really liked THE MENU. It makes its points about what money has done to our society, and it presents its satire like a five-course meal, spreading out over the evening in a movie that will have you on the edge of laughter and of your seat from beginning to end.

Waiter? I’ll take mine to go, thank you very much!

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful