BARBARIAN (2022) – Horror Movie Dragged Down by Strange Plot Structure, Far-Fetched Menace

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Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to think otherwise, a movie is just plain stupid.

This is one of those times.

BARBARIAN (2022), a new horror movie by first time director/writer Zach Cregger, who’s known mostly as an actor, is getting lots of buzz and love from fans and critics alike, and I have to admit, I’m scratching my head over all the excitement.

BARBARIAN opens well with a promising premise when Tess (Georgina Campbell) who is in Detroit for a job interview arrives at the Airbnb house she’s renting to find out that someone else is already there, and that someone is Keith (Bill Skarsgard), and he’s there because the rental was accidentally double-booked. Not knowing what else to do, Keith tries to be the gentleman and invites Tess to spend the night, promising to sleep on the couch, and that she can have the bedroom. Tess hesitates at first but eventually agrees, which sets up some nice early tension as Keith while certainly doing his best to seem friendly, does have that Norman Bates vibe about him, and so, the audience, like Tess, isn’t exactly sure what to make of him.

Later, things grow creepier when Tess discovers a hidden room in the basement as well as a series of very scary looking underground tunnels. When she tells Keith, he wants to investigate for himself, and when he doesn’t come back upstairs, Tess decides to go looking for him. When she hears him crying out for help….

…the film makes a dramatic shift from dark underground tunnels in a rundown neighborhood of Detroit to sunny California where we meet an actor named AJ (Justin Long) who’s flying high until he learns that his co-star on a new TV show that is about to launch has just accused him of sexual assault and rape. His life is suddenly turned upside down, and his assets are about to be liquidated as he will be spending lots of money on legal fees, and his job options in light of the accusations against him come to a screeching halt. He decides to sell some of his properties, some of which are located in Detroit, and he goes there to check them out before he sells them.

Yup, it turns out that AJ owns the house in which Tess and Keith were staying. When he gets there, he finds their stuff, but the house is empty, and so he believes he has squatters, but then, he hears noises coming from the basement…

There’s more, which I won’t go into here.

BARBARIAN has a strange story structure, and even stranger characters, which all add up to a mess of a movie that I’m guessing is receiving praise for its combination of violent scenes and some semblance of social commentary. But none of it worked for me.

The first third of the movie did work. I really enjoyed Georgina Campbell’s performance as Tess, and I bought into her plight of being stuck in a crappy situation, having to stay in a house with a man she didn’t know at all. Likewise, I enjoyed Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Keith. He possessed just the right balance of nice guy vs. too nice to keep the audience guessing as to which one he really was. And of course, his recent performance as Pennywise in the two IT movies tilted opinion towards the latter, that maybe there was something secretly sinister about him.

All of this worked well, and both Campbell and Skarsgard shared good chemistry together, so the start of this one was firing on all cylinders, and once Tess discovers the shadowy underground rooms and tunnels, the film really does enter some frightening territory.

But then just when the story is about to go to some very dark places, the action cuts away to the sunny west coast and the character of AJ, who at first seems to be providing comedic relief, and Justin Long is more than up to the task of generating some laughs. The scene where he takes a tape measure to the underground tunnels, trying to measure the square footage for financial purposes, had some folks in the theater laughing out loud. But the more we learn about AJ, the more we realize he’s an arrogant creep, most likely guilty of the rape he’s been accused of.

And he becomes a central character.

Now, and this is where the social commentary comes in, the film makes it known that he is a creep, and the commentary seems to be that this kind of person doesn’t even seem to realize the harm they are doing. Somehow, I didn’t really find this point all that interesting. I mean, so what, and who cares?

Then there’s more back story, as there’s a flashback to the 1980s where we learn about the original owner of the home, and we see how all this stuff started, as the guy is a genuine monster.

And lastly, there’s the main threat in this film, which is a being that seems to be there only as reason to give the story a menace. I thought this whole story and explanation was ludicrous, ridiculous, and without merit. The point seems to be there are some men who are monsters. True. And the “creature” here is the result of these male monsters’ actions. It’s a simple point, dragged out to create a supposed novel menace which in reality is a far-fetched plot point.

I also found the violent scenes of murder in this one to be all rather disappointing. They’re way over the top— arms being torn off, for instance— and they are not scary. In fact, other than a creepy first third, the rest of the movie in terms of scares falls way flat.

The scariest part of BARBARIAN is its setting. The underground room and tunnels are disturbing. What happens inside them is not.

And while critics and some fans are loving it, I know I’m not alone in my opinion that this one just didn’t work, as I saw it in a fairly crowded theater, and most of the folks on their way out were either shaking their heads or saying out loud, “That was stupid!”

The film’s title is most likely a play on words, as the house in the film is located on Barbary Street, while several characters in this movie act like barbarians.

Some are calling BARBARIAN one of the best horror movies of the year.

I completely disagree. For me, BARBARIAN is one of the worst horror movies of the year.

Conan the Barbarian would not approve.

I give it one star.

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THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020) – Strong Cast Lifts Bleak Drama

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If you like your movies dark and dreary, then THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (202), a new flick on Netflix about some very unsavory people, is the film for you!

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME tells the sprawling tale of various characters and how their lives connect between two states, Ohio and West Virginia, over the course of three decades, from the 1940s through the 1960s. With its near perfect narrative style, the film jumps back and forth through time as it tells its story of mostly awful people whose acts directly impact those who aren’t so awful. It provides a bleak portrait of humanity, especially in the context of the dangers of extreme religious beliefs, and with a running time of two hours and eighteen minutes, it can be difficult to sit through.

But it does have a first-rate cast which certainly helps.

Willard (Bill Skarsgard) returns home from World War II a scarred man. On his way to his West Virginia home, he stops at a diner in Ohio where he meets a waitress, Charlotte (Haley Bennett). The two fall in love and eventually get married and have a son, Arvin. When Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) is nine years-old, tragedy strikes as his mom Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer. Willard takes his religious beliefs to the extreme in an effort to save his wife, and when she still dies, he’s makes yet another tragic decision, scarring his son Arvin’s life in the process.

The bulk of the story takes place several years later, with Arvin (Tom Holland) now a young adult looking after his step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) who has a tragic back story of her own. And the tragedies don’t stop there, as a sinister preacher Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) arrives in town and sets his unsavory sights on the young and impressionable Lenora.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough) are a pair of serial killers who have been at it and getting away with their crimes for twenty years, crimes that have directly impacted the lives of Arvin and Lenora, even though they don’t know it. Sandy’s brother Deputy Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) while he tries to look after his sister, more often than not, simply looks the other way.

So, you have serial killers, murder, sexual abuse, rape— you get the idea. It all makes for a long two and a half hours. That being said, for the most part, I liked THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. I can’t say I enjoyed a story like this, but it still works. Its title says it all. Most of these folks are trying to be religious, but looking at things from their perspective, God is nowhere. Instead, the devil is everywhere, all the time. Looking at it from a nonreligious persepective, it’s simply this: bad things happen to everyone, and if you’re going to rely solely on faith in God you’re barking up the wrong tree. More often than not, you need to take action on your own.

It’s a compelling if not overly bleak screenplay by director Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos, based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who also provides the effective voice-over narration. The characters are all fleshed out nicely, the story laid out in an understandable fashion even as it jumps around in time, and the conflicts are all rather horrifying and tragic. The dialogue is first-rate as well. The only problem is it is dark, and as such, difficult to get through.

Antonio Campos does well with the directing duties. He captures the look and feel of all three decades successfully. The photography is on par with a major theatrical release. The one issue is pacing, as it is slow and deliberate throughout, and even though some truly horrible things happen throughout the story, it doesn’t necessarily translate into rising suspense or a major climax. The plot does come to a head by film’s end, but even as it does so, the emotion remains the same: bleak, bleak, and more bleak.

The cast is this film’s main asset.

Tom Holland, although he doesn’t appear until nearly an hour into the movie, is superb as Arvin, and easily becomes the main protagonist in the movie. It’s good to see Holland play a more nuanced role instead of Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

Bill Skarsgard is also exceptional as Willard, and even though his screen time is limited, appearing mostly in the film’s first forty five minutes, he delivers one of the film’s best performances. Skarsgard, of course, just finished playing Pennywise in the recent IT movies.

Eliza Scanlen, who played Beth March in LITTLE WOMEN (2019), makes for a tragic Lenora, and Robert Pattinson is one creepy preacher. Likewise, Haley Bennett is excellent as Charlotte in limited screen time. Bennet played Emma Cullen in the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), and she also starred in the disturbing thriller SWALLOW (2020).

Jason Clarke and Riley Keough make for an unsavory pair of serial killers, even though Keough’s character tries her best to break from this partnership. Keough, who also was memorable in the horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter.

And Sebastian Stan is also very good as the conflicted Deputy Bodecker.

In smaller roles, Harry Melling stands out as another demented preacher, Roy, and young Michael Banks Repeta makes his mark as Arvin at nine years-old.

This is an outstanding cast, and they are a major reason why I was able to make it all the way through this gloomy period piece and depressing commentary on human nature.

At the end of the day, in spite of its bleak outlook, I liked THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. You’d be hard-pressed to find another cast as competent as the one here, and its story as dark as it is, is based on truth. People are this misguided, are this dangerous, and in the case of someone like Arvin, are this relentless in their pursuit of justice.

While the devil may be present all the time, so are the Arvins of the world.

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IT CHAPTER TWO (2019) – Horror Sequel Long, Laborious, and Dull

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IT CHAPTER TWO (2019) clocks in at a sprawling 2 hours and 45 minutes. That’s an awful long time for a movie not to be good.

The film starts well with a strong opening sequence, followed by a generally captivating first act, but then like the Energizer Bunny, it just keeps going and going and going. By the time the end credits roll, the whole thing had become a colossal bore.

IT CHAPTER TWO is the sequel to IT (2017), a film I liked well enough but didn’t love. Both movies are based on Stephen King’s epic novel of the same name, so epic it took two movies to cover all the material. IT was also filmed before as TV-movie back in 1990, also a two-parter, and that one was also well-received.

Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of the Stephen King novel. Like this movie, it tends to go on forever, and the story it tells could have been just as effective if not more so at a much shorter length.

The story told in IT CHAPTER TWO picks up twenty-seven years after the events of the first movie, which ended when the group of middle school friends, known as “the Losers,” defeat the monster known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) which had been terrorizing their town of Derry.

It’s now present day, and it turns out that Pennywise wasn’t really killed (surprise, surprise!) and so the “Losers,” now adults, return to Derry to finish the job. And that in a nutshell is the film’s plot. So why on earth does this one have to go on for nearly three hours? The answer is simple. It doesn’t have to! If the story warranted a three-hour running time, there wouldn’t be an ounce of fat on it. This one is full of blubber.

And that’s because the screenplay by Gary Dauberman remains superficial throughout, touching upon various elements of the story but never really getting down and deep with any of them. In short, it never seems to get to the point! As a result, in this movie, I didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them.

As I said, the film gets off to a good start with a powerful opening sequence, and it does a generally good job with its introductions of the now adult “Losers.” And the scene where they all reunite for the first time at a Chinese restaurant is one of the best scenes in the film. But it’s largely downhill after that.

Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) explains that the way to kill Pennywise is by using a Native American ritual, and for that they have to offer a sacrifice, which means each of them has to find some artifact from their past to offer. So, the middle of the film follows each character as they seek out their own particular artifact, while Pennywise shows up to simply be a nuisance rather than to kill them outright. And then, when they finally do have their artifacts, it’s showtime! The big battle to take down Pennywise, which means lots of gory CGI effects. ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Wake me up when someone says something interesting.

I’m also not a big fan of stories where characters find themselves in impossible situations, and then they can get out of them by saying, “It’s not real! None of this is really happening!” And then like poof! Everything is all better. This happens a lot in this movie. And for me, that’s just too easy.

In the first IT, I enjoyed Bill Skarsgard a lot as Pennywise. He was so good I didn’t find myself missing Tim Curry, who played the monstrous clown in the 1990 movie. But here, Skarsgard is way less effective. Part of it is minimal screen time. Part of it is inferior dialogue, but mostly it’s because rather than see Skarsgard as Pennywise, we see a whole lot of CGI Pennywise. Pennywise in this movie reminded me an awful lot of the way Freddy Krueger was portrayed in the later NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, and in fact, at one point in this movie, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5 is listed as playing at the Derry movie theater. And if you don’t remember, those latter NIGHTMARE movies weren’t very good. Neither is IT CHAPTER TWO.

The rest of the cast is generally okay, but they’re simply playing characters who were much more interesting as kids in the first movie.

I mean, I like Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, and they’re both fine in their roles as Beverly Marsh and Bill Denbrough, respectively, but there’s not a lot of meat on these roles and they generally just go through the motions.

Bill Hader probably fares the best as Richie Tozier, as he gives the liveliest performance and gets the film’s best lines. Isaiah Mustafa as Mike makes for a lackluster narrator, while Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom and James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak are both serviceable.

No one in the film rises above the material. What they all have in common is that even as adults they are terrified of Pennywise, and they do fear well, but the problem is the film doesn’t instill this fear into its audience. And that’s because in this movie Pennywise simply isn’t all that scary.

Director Andy Muschietti, who also directed the first IT and the horror movie MAMA (2013) which I remember liking a lot, puts all his chips on the CGI side of the table. This one is full of special effects, and as is so often the case, these effects do very little in carrying this movie.

In fact, while it started off as a film I was generally into, by the time it reached its two-hour mark, with still nearly an hour left to go, I was ready for this one to be over.

There’s also a strange homage to John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) which comes out of nowhere. It’s the scene where the severed head sprouts legs, and here Bill Hader even delivers the now famous line originally uttered by David Clennon. Since this sequence was so out-of-place, it felt less like an homage to me and more like a rip-off.

I didn’t like IT CHAPTER TWO at all. It’s an exercise in overblown and over-indulgent horror. It’s based on a gargantuan novel and so there is a lot of source material to choose from, and I’m sure the notion of adapting it to film is no easy task. But that’s also not an excuse for making a film that simply doesn’t work.

IT CHAPTER TWO goes on for nearly three hours without offering any satisfying tidbits, surprises, or character nuances to keep its audience riveted. It’s a laborious horror movie, and as such, it’s one of my least favorite films of the year so far.

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