THE GOOD NURSE (2022) – Netflix Drama is a Really Good Movie

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Netflix has been able to attract A-list actors in many of their original movies. The results are fifty-fifty. Sometimes the films are disappointing, but other times they really work and make for solid movie viewing, all in the comfort of your own home.

THE GOOD NURSE (2022), based on the true story of serial killer Charles Cullen, a male nurse, who murdered dozens possibly hundreds of people while working at various hospitals, before he was finally stopped by a co-worker, the “good nurse” in the title of the movie, falls into the latter category. It’s really well done, and the two A-list actors in this one, Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, both deliver compelling performances which carry the movie from beginning to end.

I was surprised how effortlessly THE GOOD NURSE plays out, and a lot of the credit here has to go to director Tobias Lindholm, who directs this one with a straightforward style that tells its story starting with the first frame of the movie, where we see a patient dying, doctors asking questions, and male nurse Charles Cullen in the room feigning innocence, and then moves forward without any diversions or wasted scenes.

Equal credit goes to screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who wrote the screenplay based on the book by Charles Graeber, as she outlines the story perfectly and includes superior dialogue throughout, which comes as no surprise, since Wilson-Cairns was nominated for an Academy Award for her co-written screenplay to 1917 (2019).

And then you have Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, who both play their roles at the top of their games, and the result is THE GOOD NURSE is a really good movie, much better than I expected it to be.

Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) is a single mom struggling to raise her two young daughters. She works long hours as a hospital nurse, and she also suffers from a heart ailment which could prove fatal, but she can’t stop working because she needs to work for at least six months longer in order to qualify for health insurance. Her supervisor can’t cut her hours, but she does hire an extra nurse to help out, and that nurse is Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne).

Amy and Charlie hit it off immediately. They are both single parents with young children, and once Charlie learns of Amy’s condition, he promises to help her, and he assures her that with his help she’ll make it through the six months to get her health insurance. When one of their patients dies unexpectedly, Amy is surprised, but hardly takes notice, and when several months later, the police are alerted, the two homicide detectives Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich) shrug their shoulders and wonder why they are even being called in. But after meeting with icy cold hospital administrator Linda Garran (Kim Dickens) and the hospital attorney, and having their questions go unanswered, Baldwin and Braun feel that something is not right. And when Garran refuses to hand over the internal investigative report, citing one delay tactic after another, the officers’ suspicions are heightened.

They do a random background check on the hospital staff who dealt with the deceased, and they find that male nurse Charlie Cullen has a record for assault. When they attempt to follow-up, they find resistance from every hospital where Cullen ever worked. And when during follow-up questioning with Amy, she tells them that another patient has died, they see a blazing red flag. Amy of course, since Charlie has been such a good friend to her, can’t believe he would be involved in the killing of a patient, but then she begins looking into the matter on her own. What she finds surprises her. She then risks her career and possibly her life as she agrees to work with Baldwin and Braun to finally put an end to what Charlie has been doing.

The story is told through Amy’s perspective, and the events in the movie are framed around her. Jessica Chastain is in top form as the nurse who legally is not allowed to talk about any of the hospital deaths, as her contract explicitly prevents this, and so by helping the police she is risking losing her job. Chastain captures Amy’s exhaustion, from her strenuous nursing position, in a hospital that isn’t funded enough or prepared to properly take care of its staff, to her heart condition, to dealing with difficult children at home. Chastain makes the weary Amy sympathetic and later heroic.

I like Jessica Chastain a lot. She’s been enjoyable in so many movies, from THE HELP (2011) to ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) to THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017), to name just a few. We just saw her in THE FORGIVEN (2021), where she co-starred with Ralph Fiennes, and she’s even better here in THE GOOD NURSE. And of course, she won the Oscar for Best Actress this past year for her performance in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021)

Eddie Redmayne kills it as Charlie Cullen. While he is soft-spoken, gentle, and polite, the way Redmayne plays him, there is something off about him, as if he is covering a deep wound, or harboring a sinister secret, which he is. He gets one of the best lines in the movie, when asked by the police why he did it, he answers simply, because they let me.

And that’s a huge part of the story told in THE GOOD NURSE. Hospital after hospital where Charlie worked knew what he was doing, but none of them sought the authorities to go after him, because as explained in the movie, that would make them vulnerable to expensive lawsuits. THE GOOD NURSE does a nice job painting a troubling portrait of the health care system and of hospitals in general, and this is before COVID!

Redmayne won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014), so I won’t claim that his work here in THE GOOD NURSE is his best yet, but it’s pretty darn good! He’s really convincing as a man who would be capable of killing that many people for no other reason other than he could.

I also enjoyed both Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich as the two homicide detectives who go from initially feeling like the hospital is wasting their time, to hmm, that seemed like a cover-up, but we doubt it, but we’ll check it out anyway, to full blown holy sh*t! this guy’s been killing people for years and no one has brought charges against him!

I didn’t really expect much from THE GOOD NURSE, but it exceeded my expectations. Driven by two exceptional performances by Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne, THE GOOD NURSE tells a riveting story that is about more than just a serial killer, as it also makes clear that the hospitals which knew of his crimes did nothing about them. And it tells this story through the eyes of one very hard-working nurse, Amy Loughren, who’s struggling to get through her life with a job that doesn’t give her health insurance— and she’s a health-care worker! —and as a single mom with two children. She’s in jeopardy long before she meets Charlie Cullen, and once she does meet him and learns what he’s been doing, she puts her friendship aside and her job on the line, in order to finally put an end to his killing spree.

Just before the end credits roll, the movie reveals what Amy is doing in the here and now, and after some family updates, concludes that she is still “a good nurse.”

I give THE GOOD NURSE a solid three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE BLACK PHONE (2022) – Horror Movie Based on Joe Hill’s Short Story Among Best Horror of the Year

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I’m ba–ack!

Yes, I’m happy to say that for the first time since pre-Covid days, since April 2020, I finally returned to the movie theater! While I continued to review movies at home over the various streaming services, it just wasn’t the same. I can’t tell you how good it felt to watch a movie on the big screen again! Actually, I can tell you: it felt friggin good!

And I chose a pretty good movie to see as well, because THE BLACK PHONE (2022) is one of the best horror movies I’ve seen this year.

Mind you, I haven’t seen a whole lot of horror movies this year. But still!

THE BLACK PHONE takes place in 1978 and is the story of a serial killer known as The Grabber who drives a black van and snatches children off the streets. Finney (Mason Thames) and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) go about their business as best they can, dealing with school and bullies and their alcoholic single dad who can’t get over the death of their mom, and they try not to think much about The Grabber, but things change when one of Finney’s best friends becomes the killer’s latest victim.

Gwen, who like her mother before her, has dreams which sometimes are vision of real things, sees black balloons in one of her dreams about one of the missing children, and when the police catch wind of this, they are intrigued because it’s a detail from the abductions that was never leaked to the public, and so they want to know who told her that. In one of the movie’s livelier scenes, Gwen tells the police it was only a dream and pushes back against their suspicions that she, a young girl, may have inside information about the abductions. She does tell them that she sometimes sees things in her dreams that prove to be real.

And when Finney becomes the next victim of The Grabber, Gwen tries to force herself to dream about him, but that’s not how things work. Finney, now a prisoner, finds himself locked in a basement room with only a mattress and a disconnected black phone, with little hope of escaping the weird Grabber (Ethan Hawke) who speaks to him from behind various eerie and chilling masks. But when the disconnected phone rings, and Finney answers it, he hears the voice of one of the Grabber’s victims. Through the black phone, Finney hears from all of the Grabber’s victims, each with veiled advice on how he can possibly escape.

THE BLACK PHONE was directed by Scott Derrickson, a talented director whose previous horror movies include THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), SINISTER (2012), and DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). These are all pretty decent horror movies, with SINISTER probably being his best-known horror flick, but his work here on THE BLACK PHONE is by far his best.

First off, he captures the look and feel of 1978 perfectly, and I should know, as in 1978 I was about the same age as main character Finney. There’s even a scene where Finney and Gwen are home watching the TV show EMERGENCY!, which was the show back then for kids and teens of a certain age. But Derrickson does more than just capture the period. He’s made a movie that is actually scary, which is a rare thing these days. It’s scary because he does a great job with the characters, making Finney and Gwen two young characters you really care about. He does it without jump scares or gratuitous violence and gore. And he does it through compelling storytelling.

Of course, he’s working with superior source material, as the screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill was based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill, who’s a terrific writer. Cargill also wrote SINISTER, as well as the first DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) movie, which Derrickson also directed.

The story here combines the lurid tale of a creepy serial killer of children, with the supernatural goings-on of both Gwen’s dreams and the black phone itself, along with the raw unpleasantness of life for these kids even without The Grabber in their neighborhood, as Finney’s and Gwen’s dad is not only drinking all the time but he’s also abusive. And the story takes the time to even explain their dad’s abusiveness— not to excuse it away— but to show why, that is he is stuck in grief over his wife’s suicide, who took her own life when the voices inside her head became uncontrollable, which is why he is merciless towards Gwen when she speaks of her dreams because he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to his daughter. It’s all superior storytelling.

The casting is also a strength.

The two child leads are fantastic. Mason Thames is perfect as Finney, the kid who can’t stand up for himself yet possesses strength he didn’t know he had, strength he will need when he fights for his life against The Grabber. And Madeleine McGraw is equally as good as Gwen. She has some of the best scenes in the movie, when she shows off her fiery personality, like when she comes to the rescue of her brother when he’s being beat up by bullies. But her best moment is one of the most emotional moments of the entire movie, the scene where her dad uses a whip on her in retaliation for the police having visited him at work with questions about her dreams. The emotions she brings out in this scene are way above what you would expect in a horror movie.

And Ethan Hawke is completely creepy and sinister as The Grabber. And he performs without really showing his face, not until the end, and that’s because he’s always wearing a mask, or a variation of the same mask.

Actually, the argument can be made that the true star of this movie is the mask created by horror icon Tom Savini. It is creepy!!!

Getting back to Ethan Hawke for a moment, what makes his performance so unsettling is he doesn’t play The Grabber like some ultimate evil monster or some vicious mindless killer, but instead he plays him with a sense of comical absurdity. With the mask and make-up, he’s almost Joker-like. There was also something in Hawke’s cadence and delivery that made me think of Michael McKean.

Scott Derrickson also frames several scenes to perfection. The scene where Finney is warned not to take the bait and exit through the unlocked door because it’s a trap set by The Grabber, and in the next shot we see the shirtless masked Grabber sitting with a whip in hand just waiting for Finney to walk by him is shiver-inducing. There are several scenes like this.

I also enjoyed THE BLACK PHONE more than HORNS (2013), the film version of Joe Hill’s novel. While I liked that movie, it didn’t completely work for me. But THE BLACK PHONE does. It’s my favorite film version so far of a Joe Hill story, who as I said is an exceptional horror writer. And for those of you who don’t know, not that it matters, but he’s also the son of Stephen King.

THE BLACK PHONE is on par with my other favorite horror movie so far this year, X (2022), but I think I was even more impressed with THE BLACK PHONE because it’s scarier, and it scares without using as much blood and gore as was found in X.

If you like to be scared, you’ll love THE BLACK PHONE. Not only is it frightening, but it scares on multiple levels: serial killer, supernatural, and real-life.

I’d say more, but… there’s a phone ringing on the wall behind me that I have to answer.

Hey, there wasn’t a phone there, before.

—END—

THE LITTLE THINGS (2021) – Denzel Washington Thriller In Need of Some Big Things

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THE LITTLE THINGS (2021), a new serial killer thriller by writer/director John Lee Hancock, and starring the impressive trio of Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto, stresses that it’s the little things that matter, the small details that even the most careful killers will miss. It’s those things that investigators have to find in order to nab their guy. In short, you gotta pay attention to the little things.

Too bad the movie didn’t take its own advice.

THE LITTLE THINGS takes place in California in 1990 and follows the story of former homicide detective Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington). Deke worked so hard on his last case, trying to track down a serial killer, that it nearly killed him, and he was forced to move on to another position as a sheriff’s deputy. But when current homicide detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is at his wit’s end trying to track down a serial killer of his own, he turns to Deke for help, and since Deke notices similarities between this case and the one he had been working on, he is only too happy to oblige. Deke is known for being able to find the “little things” which killers miss.

Deke and Baxter settle upon a person of interest, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), and when Sparma doesn’t disappoint, the game of cat and mouse begins.

THE LITTLE THINGS takes place in 1990, pretty much for no other reason than that’s when John Lee Hancock first wrote the screenplay. Neither the year nor the decade adds anything of relevance to the story. And while you can tell it’s the 1990s by the cars being driven and the fact that no one has a wireless device of any kind, the movie isn’t exactly steeped in 1990s atmosphere.

The other noticeable thing about this having been written in 1990, which is especially noticeable here in 2021, is that there isn’t any major female characters in this story. None whatsoever. All the women here have smaller supporting roles. The fact that this is so noticeable in the here and now is a good thing. Let’s not return to the days of yesteryear, thank you very much!

It’s kind of strange script by Hancock. For starters, the time in the story just seems off. At first, it appears as if Deke has been off the job as a homicide detective for a long time, but as the story goes along, it’s revealed that it wasn’t that long at all. Which is weird because it plays better had Deke been off the force for years.

I enjoyed the story early on. The serial killer plot was interesting, as was Deke’s character, and the way he worked the case. But once prime suspect Albert Sparma shows up, things change, and it has little to do with Sparma, who is a creepy character and interesting to watch. No, it’s the characters of Deke and Baxter who become head scratchers, especially Baxter. He is supposed to be this hotshot police detective, but time and time again, the decisions he makes are rather stupid, especially towards the end. Speaking of which, the ending to this film is a huge letdown. The story doesn’t really build to a climax, and the ending is very flat.

This one also has a rather strange subtext. It stresses that the little things are important, but we barely see Deke take advantage of that, at least in the solving of a case. Instead, the message seems to be what the little things are important for are so that you can cover your tracks when you mess up, as these guys continually do in this movie. Ultimately, the story didn’t work at all for me.

John Lee Hancock also wrote and directed THE BLIND SIDE (2009) and directed SAVING MR. BANKS (2013). Prior to THE LITTLE THINGS, Hancock directed the Netflix movie THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019), starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the men who successfully hunted down Bonnie and Clyde. It was a film I was only lukewarm to. One of my favorite Hancock-directed movies is THE FOUNDER (2016), a film in which Michael Keaton delivered a knockout performance as the controversial McDonalds “founder” Ray Kroc, and Hancock brilliantly captured the look and feel of the time period. So Hancock is a talented director, but his work here as both a director and writer on THE LITTLE THINGS isn’t his best.

The best thing about THE LITTLE THINGS is its cast. I can watch Denzel Washington all day, and as you would expect, he is excellent once again in the role of Deke, the homicide detective with the knack for finding the little things. The only problem is we don’t see this knack on display all that much.

Rami Malek is good as Detective Baxter, althought ultimately he proves to be a rather dumb character. He’s certainly not a worthy enough character for an actor like Malek, who won an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2019).

I really enjoyed Jared Leto as creepy suspect Albert Sparma. Leto’s performance is every bit as good as Denzel Washington’s. He makes Sparma one very unsettling dude.

There are some fine supporting performances as well, especially Michael Hyatt as coroner Flo Dunigan. She has a special connection to Deke.

Ultimately, THE LITTLE THINGS is a mediocre thriller. It enjoys a stronger first half than its second, which strangely fails to generate much suspense or excitement. It does have strong acting, with Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto leading the way, but when all was said and done, it just wasn’t a film that I was all that excited about.

While it may be all about the little things, in this movie the little things hardly seemed to matter at all.

Perhaps what it really should have been focusing on were some big things.

—END—

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

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the devil all the time

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.

—END—

UNKNOWN ORIGINS (2020) – Strange Hybrid of Superhero/Serial Killer Movie Doesn’t Really Work

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Before I get to the review, a bit of reality: Christopher Nolan, one of my favorite filmmakers working today, released his latest movie this weekend to theaters, TENET (2020). I really want to see it. However, here in the United States, things are still so bad with COVID-19, that to go to a movie theater now would be a very risky endeavor. And so, I passed and will continue to pass until things improve. Sadly, this may be a while yet. Most medical experts agree that things will get worse before they get better, due largely to the poor choices being made regarding masks and social distancing by so many in the country, thanks in large part to the completely incompetent and reckless leadership— lack of leadership really— of the Trump administration. And so, for the foreseeable future, I will continue to review movies accessed at home, rather than at the theater.

And now on to our review:

A couple of weeks back, I reviewed PROJECT POWER (2020), a superhero movie about a pill that gives people superpowers, a different and not overly successful tweak to the superhero genre. Up today it’s UNKNOWN ORIGINS (2020), which adds a tweak of its own: a serial killer who bases his murders on superhero origin stories. Yup, a superhero serial killer movie. A strange hybrid indeed.

UNKNOWN ORIGINS, which hails from Spain, and is now available on Netflix, tells the story of police detective David Valentin (Javier Rey) working his first case, and it’s a doozy: a serial killer who displays his victims in elaborate situations which seem to have no connection, that is until retired detective Cosme (Antonio Resines) notices a superhero connection while looking at some of the evidence upon David’s request. And Cosme is familiar with superheroes because his son Jorge (Brays Efe) who runs a comic book store is a complete geek on the subject and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things superheroes.

Norma (Veronica Echegui), the idiosyncratic head of homicide, decides to hire Jorge as a consultant and immediately makes him David’s partner on the case. Jorge’s first contribution is that he informs them that the murders are all based on superhero origin stories. As the murders continue, it’s up to this oddball duo to find and stop the mysterious serial killer.

As I said, UNKNOWN ORIGINS is a weird hybrid of superhero and serial killer. The trailer on Netflix definitely highlighted the comedic aspects of the movie, and so when I sat down to watch this one, I expected it to be a lighthearted farce, perhaps even a spoof, but that’s not how this one plays out at all.

It begins all rather dark, as the serial killer aspects are lurid and disturbing. The opening segments have R-rated serial killer movie written all over them. But then things take a comedic turn once Jorge and David are paired together, a strange juxtaposition after the serious opening. But the film never becomes a full-fledged comedy either. Instead, it gravitates towards the straight superhero tale, and this is where the film falters the most, with an almost ridiculous plot point of David becoming less a cop and more a superhero.

At the end of the day, even though this one is full of potential, the story just didn’t work for me, and as such, I didn’t enjoy the screenplay by director David Galan Galindo and Fernando Navarro as much as I thought I would. The comedy is way too subdued, and the same can be said for the darker serial killer parts. The film starts off creepily enough but then pulls back. For a while, it looked like this one would have a WATCHMEN (2009) or KICK-ASS (2010) feel, but UNKNOWN ORIGINS is never as tight or as consistent as those movies.

And I thought the supehero stuff towards the end didn’t work at all. It’s supposed to be a homage to superheroes, particularly Batman, but it just didn’t work. The number one reason is I didn’t believe any of it, which goes back to the writing. Jorge is a believable character, and his character remains consistent. However, David hates superheroes, and so to believe he undergoes a transformation where he actually agrees to become a supehero, that just didn’t work for me.

And sadly, the poorest written character is the female lead, Norma. She’s the least believable character in the movie, and her romance with David is one of the most forced and least believable screen romances I’ve seen in a while.

Also, the twist here, where we learn the killer’s secret identity, is the same exact one I saw last week in the serial killer film THE SILENCING (2020).

Director David Galan Galindo scores highest when working darkest, but unfortunately, this only occurs in the film’s early moments which are actually quite creepy. The bulk of the movie is about superheroes and their need to exist, and that part to me never won me over.

And the comedy never really takes off either, which is too bad because the two main characters do share some chemistry. David has a Clint Eastwood vibe about him, and there’s a lot of Zach Galifianakis in Brays Efe’s portrayal of Jorge. So, imagine a buddy cop movie starring a young Clint Eastwood and Zach Galifianakis and you get the idea, and for parts of this movie, this chemistry really works, but it never becomes a dominant part of the tale.

I enjoyed both Bray Efe’s and Javier Rey’s performances, Efe in particular. And while I said Rey’s performance reminded me of a young Clint Eastwood, he’s also dressed like Chris Noth used to be on the classic TV show LAW AND ORDER. In fact, there’s a line in the film where Norma chastizes him for dressing like a 90s TV cop.

Speaking of Norma, while Veronica Echegui delivers a spirited performance, the role was my least favorite in the film, mostly because she was the least believable.

And Antonio Resines adds fine support as the not-so-retired cop Cosme.

UNKNOWN ORIGINS also suffers from two other major problems. It doesn’t have a strong hero, nor does it have a strong villain. Technically, David and Jorge are the heroes, but in the framework of the story, the hero is supposed to be the superhero which David becomes, and this doesn’t happen until the end of the movie. And by the way his superhero costume is rather lame. Likewise, the identity of the killer is not revealed until the end either, and so for the majority of the film he operates in the shadows.

If you’re in the right frame of mind, you might enjoy UNKNOWN ORIGINS. Its heart is in the right place, as it gets all the geeky references right and tries really hard to be a love letter to superheroes, but I found the tone and feel of this one to be all over the place and never consistent or believable enough to really win me over.

It tries hard, but at the end of the day, it’s just too superficial to become a major part of superhero movie lore.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

Dark Corners cover (1)

Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print cover

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Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SILENCING (2020) – Serial Killer Thriller Almost Very Good

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Annabelle Wallis in THE SILENCING (2020)

I’m a fan of Annabelle Wallis, and so when I saw she was starring in THE SILENCING (2020), a serial killer thriller which takes places in the Canadian wilderness, I definitely wanted to check it out.

Gustafson (Annabelle Wallis) is the new sheriff in town, and when she’s not on the job she’s dealing with her troubled younger brother Brooks (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) who’s constantly running afoul of the law, and with good reason, as he was abused for years by his stepparents.

When Gustafson and her officers discover the dead body of a teenage girl in the woods, it appears as if she had been hunted before she had been killed.

At the morgue, one of the locals, Rayburn (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) whose daughter has been missing for five years, asks to see the body, and it turns out that the deceased is not his daughter. Rayburn is now an alcoholic, and because his daughter hated hunting so much, he now operates a wildlife sanctuary where he works to protect animals from hunters, complete with cameras set up all through the woods, in memory of his daughter.

One night, Rayburn sees on his cameras a young woman fleeing through the woods, being pursued by a stalker dressed in animal fur. Rayburn races into the woods, confronts the assailant, and manages to rescue the girl, who he brings back to his home.

But the killer has not given up and follows them back there, around the same time that Sheriff Gustafson arrives for a different matter. What follows next is a brutal game of cat and mouse as the hunt for the killer intensifies.

At the outset, THE SILENCING possessed the look and feel of a couple of other teenage girl murder stories which take place in the wildnerness, Christopher Nolan’s INSOMNIA (2002) and Taylor Sheridan’s WIND RIVER (2017). Now, INSOMNIA and WIND RIVER are both much better movies than THE SILENCING, but this film has its moments.

There’s a twist midway through that I didn’t see coming that I really liked. In fact, it almost gave new meaning to the film’s title, but alas, this doesn’t happen, as it’s followed by a couple of more twists, and unfortunately, there is just one twist too many. I didn’t like the final one, which led to a very standard and disappointing conclusion.

The screenplay by Micah Ranum is bursting with potential but just never really gets there. It’s as if it needed one more rewrite. The pervading feel of gloom is there throughout, seen mostly through Rayburn’s brooding over the unknown fate of his daughter, but also through the lives of everyone living in the area, and it’s here where the script doesn’t finish the job. Other than Rayburn and Sheriff Gustafson, we know very little about the other characters in this one. Had we gotten a real sense about the problems of these people, it would have gone a long way in making this a deeper story.

The dialogue is also nothing to write home about, and as I said, the film’s final twist doesn’t really add anything to the movie. In fact, it makes it worse.

The pacing is also very slow. The film only runs for 93 minutes but at times seemed longer, and this is because there are a lot of scenes where characters are having conversations which seem peripheral to the story rather than getting right down to the very intriguing murder investigation. Director Robin Pront captures the mood of the piece with dreary photography, and the suspense builds early on leading up to the first twist, but later, the intensity dwindles. The ending is predictable, and as such, a letdown.

I definitely enjoyed Annabelle Wallis as Sheriff Gustafson, a flawed and very interesting character who would have been even more so had the writing held up. Wallis of course starred in the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-1019), and she also starred in ANNABELLE (2014).

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is also excellent as Rayburn, who ends up pretty much being the main character in this one.

The rest of the cast is also very good, including Hero Fiennes Tiffin as Gustafson’s brother Brooks, Melanie Scrofano as Rayburn’s ex-wife Debbie, Zahn McClarnon as officer Blackhawk, who also happens to be Debbie’s current husband, and Charlotte Lindsay Marron as Molly, the teen who Rayburn attempts to rescue.

THE SILENCING is almost a very good movie. Its story just needed a bit more fleshing out. As it stands, it’s a decent thriller with some good acting performances, but at the end of the day, even with a neat twist in the middle, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

As such, I won’t be shouting from the rooftops praising THE SILENCING. No, I’ll be somewhat….. silent.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE POSTCARD KILLINGS (2020) – Average Thriller Nothing To Write Home About

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THE POSTCARD KILLINGS (2020) was released on March 13, 2020, right at the onset of the social distancing policies here in the U.S as a result of COVID-19, and so I didn’t get to see this one at the time. It’s now available on Xfinity On Demand and other online movie services.

The main reason I wanted to see THE POSTCARD KILLINGS was because of its star, Jeffrey Dean Morgan— yep, Neegan himself from TV’s THE WALKING DEAD (2010—) who plays a New York City police detective on the trail of a serial killer in Europe.

THE POSTCARD KILLINGS opens with New York police detective Jacob Kanon (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being shown the bodies of his daughter and her husband on slabs in a morgue, both brutally murdered, their bodies mutilated. Haunted by this reality, Kanon decides he’s staying in Europe to help solve the case, and he learns that before the murder the killer sent a postcard to a London reporter. Soon, these murders start happening in other European cities, the victims always a young married couple, and a postcard always sent first to a reporter announcing the killer’s arrival in that city. The victims’ bodies are displayed in such ways to mimic famous artworks.

Kanon travels throughout Europe hot on the killer’s trail, trying to get a step ahead of the murderer, sometimes working with local officials, sometimes not, as many of the officials don’t agree with what they see as his aggressive American methods. Kanon does befriend one of the reporters who received a postcard, Dessie Lombard (Cush Jumbo), and the two work together to uncover clues to the killer’s whereabouts and next move.

I liked THE POSTCARD KILLINGS well enough, but I didn’t love it. The number one reason it didn’t completely wow me is its story doesn’t hold up for the entire movie. The first half is very good, but there’s a twist midway through that didn’t completely work for me. I mean, it’s okay, it’s not a game changer, but the story definitely goes in a direction that is less interesting.

Hence the screenplay by Ellen Furman and Andrew Stern is not a strength.

I enjoyed Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the lead role as detective Jacob Kanon, but the material here is just average, and what he’s asked to do in the role hardly means pushing the envelope. He’s a grieving father who wants to make the person who murdered his daughter pay, but don’t expect the kind of passion Liam Neeson used to bring to these kinds of roles.

Cush Jumbo is fine as reporter Dessie Lombard who helps Jacob solve the case, but making a bigger splash in a smaller role is Famke Janssen as Jacob’s ex-wife Valerie, who while at odds with Jacob, eventually is able to help with the investigation herself. Janssen, as you might remember, played Jean Grey/Phoenix in the X-MEN movies.

Joachim Krol is also memorable in a supporting role as Inspector Bublitz, one of the few European police detectives who feels empathy for Jacob and is supportive of his efforts. And Naomi Battrick is excellent as one of the characters involved in the plot twist. She’s really good.

Director Danis Tanovic avoids getting all that gruesome, even though this one is unrated. Likewise, even though the majority of the story takes place all over Europe, he doesn’t take full advantage of these European settings, so the film doesn’t have the same kind of feel you get from say a Bond or Jason Bourne movie. There are quick establishing shots and then we switch to interiors, where most of the action takes place.

THE POSTCARD KILLINGS has its moments, mostly during the first half of the movie, but its short on thrills and not really a deep enough drama to get under your skin or make much of an impact. As serial killer thrillers go, it’s pretty average.

It’s nothing to write home about.

–END—

LOST GIRLS (2020) – Story of Serial Killer Victims Not As Powerful As Book On Which It Is Based

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Amy Ryan and Thomasin McKenzie in LOST GIRLS (2020).

LOST GIRLS (2020) is a Netflix-original movie based on the nonfiction book Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, which chronicled the still unsolved murders committed by the Long Island Serial Killer. I read this book when it first came out, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read this past decade.

Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery is a meticulously researched and compelling read that tells the story of the victims and their families, a fascinating narrative made more so by the fact that the killer remains at large.

Now comes the movie LOST GIRLS, and since I had been so impressed with the book, I was eager to see this one.

In LOST GIRLS (2020) it’s 2010, and Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a single mom who works two jobs to support her two daughters, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) a senior in high school who is hoping to be able to afford community college, and Sarra (Oona Lawrence) who’s in middle school and struggling with mental health issues. When Mari’s oldest daughter Shannan, who doesn’t live with them but does send money to them regularly, fails to show up for a promised dinner date with the family, Mari shrugs it off, but when Shannan’s boyfriend calls Sherre, something he has never done before, looking for her, and when she doesn’t respond to her messages on her phone, Mari begins to worry.

Getting no help from the police, Mari investigates on her own and learns the shocking truth that Shannan worked as a prostitute and was last seen in Oak Beach, New York, a private community on Long Island. She also learns some very disturbing facts, like her daughter made a 911 call screaming for help, and the police didn’t arrive on the scene until nearly an hour later. Shannan reportedly ran screaming down the streets of Oak Beach, and no one claimed to have seen or heard anything. Also, the security camera footage on those very streets from that night was erased, a camera controlled by the man who would later become a person of interest.

Mari makes her presence known to the local police and eventually is able to engage in face to face dialogue with Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) who pleads with her to remain patient, but she has no intention of doing so. Eventually, the remains of several bodies are found in the woods around Oak Beach, and it’s determined that a serial killer has been at work.

The victims’ families get together and form a support group and eventually hold a vigil on the streets of Oak Beach, all in an effort to memorialize their daughters’ lives. Mari makes the point that she wants them remembered as daughters, sisters, and women, not as prostitutes.

While the police do step up their investigation, Mari is there every step of the way, prodding them, and pointing out their shortcomings, like calling them out for refusing to search the densely wooded swamp area behind the main suspect’s house.

I wish I could say LOST GIRLS the movie was as hard-hitting and as moving as the book, but it’s not. It makes its points, but it does so briefly and without much depth. The film is short, clocking in at 95 minutes, and as such never really gives the subject its due.

I was able to fill in the blanks because I had read the book, but I wonder if folks who haven’t read the book would be able to do the same. The book was exhaustively researched. The reader really felt the scope and magnitude of what these families were going through, what it must have felt like to have daughters murdered and the police doing little about it. The book also chronicled in detail the police investigation and the problems it faced, mostly due to ineptitude. The movie focuses more on Mari and her one on one meetings with Commissioner Dormer. The scope just isn’t the same.

The book was haunting. For the longest time afterwards, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The movie is much more superficial. It has its moments, but there are far too few of them.

Amy Ryan is excellent as Mari Gilbert. She gives a powerful performance, and as we learn that Mari is driven by the guilt of her past, how she couldn’t handle Shannan as a child and gave her up to a foster family, Ryan shows us the scars of the character and how she uses them to find the strength to be the mother she wanted to be when her daughter was still alive. When Dormer says that Shannan’s fate is not on her, she replies tellingly “I’m her mother. It’s all on me.” It’s one of the film’s more powerful moments. I wish there had been more of these.

This is one of Ryan’s strongest performances to date, adding to the quality work she has already done in such films as THE INFILTRATOR (2016) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015).

Thomasin McKenzie is one of my favorite young actresses working today, as she has delivered some powerhouse performances in films like JOJO RABBIT (2019) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). Her role here as middle daughter Sherre is much more limited than her roles in the aforementioned movies, and as such she doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this movie, which is too bad, because she’s a great talent.

Gabriel Byrne is perfect as the tired and weary Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. While he wishes Mari would just go away, he never really tells her to do so, and in the movie anyway, seems sympathetic to her requests. We also learn immediately what kind of predicament he’s in, because at the outset, we are privy to a phone conversation in which he’s told point-blank that if he doesn’t downplay the serial killer angle he will lose his job.

I enjoyed Lola Kirke’s performance as Kim, a sister to one of the victims and a fellow prostitute. Her conversations with Mari are some of the better ones in the movie, and you almost get the sense that Mari feels like she’s talking to Shannan when she’s giving advice to Kim.

Dean Winters plays a smug and uncaring police detective and sort of stands in as the face of police incompetence here. And Reed Birney does a wonderfully creepy job as the outwardly “oh so helpful” Dr. Peter Hackett who for a long time was a major person of interest and suspect in the case. The scene where he puts his hands on Mari’s shoulders will give you chills. We just saw Birney in THE HUNT (2020), and he’s been in a ton of movies and TV shows.

The screenplay by Michael Werwie based on Robert Kolker’s book is not really a strength of this movie. It tells the story it has to tell, in that it gets in and gets out without any fluff, but it also doesn’t dig deep. It’s all very superficial, and without having read the book, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another serial killer story, albeit one based on true events. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of the victims and their families, and while the movie goes through the motions to say as much, there are few moments where it really tugs at your heart and makes you feel their plight and pain.

In the book these families go through hell. In the movie, scenes cut away and finish long before they should. Sharper dialogue would have gone a long way towards bringing these families’ stories to life.

Liz Garbus directed LOST GIRLS, and the result is an efficient production, and it’s all competently handled. I didn’t, however, get a strong sense of place. Oak Beach should have been a setting so disturbing I could smell the death there, but the camera never gets anywhere that close to make me feel that way.

And there simply are not a lot of heightened emotional moments here, which is surprising considering the subject matter.

Still, I recommend LOST GIRLS. It tells a disturbing story, one that needs to be told, but it does it in a way that may leave you with more questions than answers. As such, if you see this movie and feel you want to learn more, I highly recommend the book  Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

Unlike the movie, the book is thoroughly comprehensive and as such is an incredibly moving and tragic read.

—END—

THE PRODIGY (2019) – Passable Horror Movie Not Overly Smart

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THE PRODIGY (2019) is a horror movie that has its moments, times when it delivers some decent thrills and chills, but sadly for horror fans it’s ultimately done in by a script that suffers from a serious case of the stupids.

THE PRODIGY opens in chilling enough fashion as a young girl escapes from a serial killer named Edward Scarka (Paul Fauteux). As the police gun Scarka down, the action switches to proud parents Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John (Peter Mooney) welcoming their new son into the world, born at the exact moment of Scarka’s death.

It doesn’t take long for Sarah and John to realize that their son is special, a genius, a prodigy, and they enroll him into a special school at a young age. Time passes and the story settles on young Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) at the age of eight. It’s at this time that Sarah and John begin to notice troubling changes in Miles. It starts one night when he’s with his babysitter, and in a creepy game of hide and seek, he leads her barefoot down a set of dark basement stairs, and if you’ve seen A QUIET PLACE (2018) you know you shouldn’t walk barefoot down a set of sketchy stairs. Yup, a similar fate awaits the babysitter here, in a scene that is blatantly derivative from A QUIET PLACE. Of course, Miles blacks out and says he remembers none of what happened.

More weird things ensue, including a grisly end to the family dog. Miles’ doctor recommends that Sarah bring him to see a specialist in reincarnation. Jeesh! A guy who specializes in reincarnation? Who knew!

Anyway, this specialist, Arthur Jacobson (Colm Feore) is convinced that Miles’ body is being invaded by another human soul. He tells Sarah that he intends to hypnotize Miles, speak to this soul, find out what it wants, and then help it, because in past cases, as soon as the human soul got what it came back for, the human host became free. Blah, blah, blah.

Of course, there are some complications here. One, the soul inside Miles belongs to a serial killer. You can bet that whatever it is he wants is not very pleasant. And two, he’s a pretty smart serial killer, and he turns the tables on Mr. Jacobson, making him flee with his tail between his legs, a better fate than he gave the family dog.

Eventually, things get so bad that Sarah and John decide Miles should live in an institution, but John stupidly tells Miles about this decision before they do it, and faster than you can say THE OMEN John is fighting for his life. Finally, Sarah decides to take an extreme measure to help her son, which proves to be the most ridiculous plot point of the entire movie.

In terms of scares, THE PRODIGY isn’t bad. Director Nicholas McCarthy sets up his share of creepy scenes which for the most part work. There were a couple of times where I actually jumped, which doesn’t happen very often, and some scenes score very high on the creep-out meter, like when Miles asks to sleep in the same bed with his mom, and we see his tiny hand clasp her shoulder, and she squirms. You can almost see her skin crawl at his touch. Another plus is we’re not subjected to long drawn out scenes of people walking through dark corridors where nothing happens. The pace is tight throughout.

On the other hand, some of the scenes are derivative of other horror movies, like the aforementioned A QUIET PLACE. The ending also borrows heavily— too heavily— from THE OMEN (1976).

The best thing I can say about the screenplay by Jeff Buhler is that I liked the fact that this wasn’t a demonic possession story but a human possession story, which was a fresh take. It wasn’t any more believable, but it was different. I can’t say I bought into the whole reincarnation angle, though, and the script didn’t really offer any answers other than to say that’s what happened. We never learn how Scarka’s soul enters Miles’ body. It just does.

The worst thing about the screenplay is that sadly for a movie that has some good scares it’s not all that smart. Let’s start with the parents. Now, there’s a scene midway through where John and Sarah are on their date night, drinking beer in their car, which is a stupid thing to do, but that’s not what I’m talking about. In this scene, they reminisce about the days before they were parents when they were young and had fun.  They seem like real people here. I can’t say the same holds true later on.

Their reactions to their son Miles seem a bit off throughout. Sarah’s behavior is oftentimes inconsistent. At times, she’s worried about her son, even afraid of him, but at others she’s fiercely protective of him, almost in denial of his issues. You expect her at some point to just up and realize her son is dangerous. It takes her far too long to make this realization.

John could have been a really interesting character. He had an abusive father, and once Miles learns this, he uses the information to get inside John’s head, trying to goad John into hurting him in order to use his actions against him. The few times this issue comes up are very interesting, but the screenplay doesn’t take full advantage.

This story would have been so much better had it worked harder at being realistic. I wanted to see John and Sarah take Miles to see as many experts as possible. I wanted to see the school’s reaction to Miles attacking another student. I wanted somebody to call the police!

The ending also didn’t really work for me. First, Sarah makes an extreme decision to save her son, which just didn’t ring true, and then the film goes right into OMEN territory for its finale, which was far too predictable.

Jeff Buhler also wrote the screenplay to THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (2008), in which he adapted a Clive Barker short story. That movie, which starred Bradley Cooper, was a much more ambitious one than THE PRODIGY.

Taylor Schilling, from Netflix’ ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013-2019) is decent enough as Sarah, although she’s playing a character who I ultimately didn’t like all that much. Likewise, Peter Mooney is fine as daddy John.

Jackson Robert Scott gives his fellow cast plenty of evil eye stares as the possessed Miles, but compared to other evil children in the movies he’s rather tame. Colm Feore is adequate as the ineffective reincarnation specialist Arthur Jacobson, and while Paul Fauteux looks plenty scary as serial killer Edward Scarka, he doesn’t really do much of anything.

THE PRODIGY is a passable horror movie. It provides a few scares here and there, tells a somewhat interesting story, but presents characters who don’t always seem that real and who make decisions that really can’t be described as anything other than stupid.

Not exactly prodigy material.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

HELL FEST (2018) – Horror Movie Gets Better As It Goes Along

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Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James, Reign Edwards, and Amy Forsyth in HELL FEST (2018).

HELL FEST (2018) is one of those rare horror movies that actually gets better as it goes along.

And that’s a good thing, because it didn’t get off to such a hot start. In fact, after a lackluster opening sequence which could have appeared in countless other slasher films, I thought that this was going to be a pretty bad horror movie.

I was wrong.

HELL FEST opens at a Halloween attraction where a young woman is murdered by a man in a mask who’s obviously taking his job of scaring people a little too seriously. Of course, he’s not working there at all.  He just snuck in, and no one notices him because it’s a Halloween attraction and all the employees are wearing masks. As opening sequences go, this one is as derivative as they get.

The action switches to a couple of years later where we meet a group of college students on their way for some Halloween fun at Hell Fest, a horror-themed amusement park. Of course, our masked friend from the movie’s first scene is also planning to be there.

The characters here include Natalie (Amy Forsyth), Brooke (Reign Edwards), Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), Quinn (Christian James), Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Gavin (Roby Attal). Natalie and Brooke are best friends, and Brooke is trying to set Natalie up with Gavin, but she doesn’t have to work too hard because they hit it off immediately.

Too bad for them they choose Hell Fest for their first date.

After its initial ho-hum opening, HELL FEST continues its sloppy start with the introduction of its main characters. All of these folks seemed like they had ten cups of coffee each, and there’s so much excitement about going to Hell Fest, these college kids act like toddlers on Christmas morning. It just didn’t seem all that real to me.

The dialogue didn’t help either. There was just something off about the film’s early scenes. The script gave us lines that didn’t seem real, the way people today talk, and the direction was choppy.

I also had an issue with the look of the film. I’m guessing this was done on purpose, but HELL FEST looked like a 1980s slasher pic, in particular Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE (1981). But this movie isn’t taking place in the 1980s. It’s taking place in the here and now.

Moreover, the characters didn’t exactly look like college students here in 2018. They looked like 1980s college students. I found this to be rather distracting early on.

Now, the actual amusement park, Hell Fest, was pretty cool.  I’ve never been to a Halloween attraction as elaborate as this one, but I thought, well, if this film remains bad, then at least I can enjoy all the horror elements from the amusement park. And this really is a plus for this movie. It doesn’t take place in a house, haunted or not, and we don’t have to suffer through long boring scenes where characters walk alone in dark corridors looking for trouble. The Hell Fest setting really helps.

But then a funny thing happened. The movie actually gets better and becomes a decent horror flick.

The moment this occurs is when Natalie meets the masked killer in one of the haunted attractions, and he’s got a victim pinned to the floor, and of course Natalie and her friends all believe this is just part of the show. Natalie, who’s into this less than her friends, has been trying to make herself more resilient and less scared, and so when her friends exit the room, she remains to watch. The killer has the knife pointed at his victim, and finally Natalie says “Just do it, already. You’re here to scare me.” And he does. He stabs her to death in front of Natalie.

The expression on Natalie’s face when she realizes that what she has just seen looks real is one of the best moments in the movie. Amy Forsyth who plays Natalie doesn’t play this scene in a clichéd manner, where she suddenly screams outright. No. The camera lingers on her face, and it’s one of those moments where she’s so good an actress that the audience knows exactly what she’s thinking and feeling.  She goes from confidence to suspicion to anger to uncertainty to fear. It’s a great moment. And the movie never looks back. It takes off from that scene and keeps on going.

There are plenty of well-done horror scenes. Gavin’s encounter with the killer is a good one, as is a memorable sequence involving a guillotine. There’s also a very suspenseful scene in which Natalie wears a mask to hide, and another bit where she’s trapped in the rest room by the killer.  The ending is not half bad either.

The film also put a nice spin on the jump scare trope. Pretty much all the jump scares in this one are from the masked employees at the amusement park, and so they all work. The filmmakers use them here very effectively, as they are caused by people who are supposed to be causing them. The real horror here, the killer, operates outside the jump scare scope.

And the very ending of this one is a welcomed improvement over “the killer is dead but then leaps back up at the camera” routine. I liked how this one ended. It achieves the same result, setting up possible sequels, without the traditional way of doing it.

I thought Amy Forsyth was superb as Natalie. The best part of her performance is she makes the character her own. She’s not a traditional “scream queen” constantly running away screaming, nor is she the traditional “bad ass heroine.” She’s someone in between.  She plays it as the thinking person’s heroine. A lot of thought goes into her actions, and she’s one of the smarter characters to take on a masked serial killer.

Likewise, Reign Edwards is excellent as her best friend Brooke, who early on acts all bad ass, but later becomes so incapacitated by fear it’s up to Natalie to save the day.  Bex Taylor-Klaus is fun as Taylor, the quirky loud and abrasive friend. Both Christian James and Matt Mercurio as Quinn and Asher make for stand-up boyfriends, and Roby Attal as Gavin shares a natural chemistry with Amy Forsyth’s Natalie and so their romance came off as likable and real.

Michael Tourek is believable in a brief role as a security guard, and has one of the more memorable lines in the movie, when he tells the girls he can’t help them since they weren’t harmed, and that it’s just the employees doing their job. He says rather dismissively,  “You’re scared? Welcome to Hell Fest.”

And Tony Todd plays the masked killer. Todd has some experience in this department, years ago having played  The Candyman in CANDYMAN (1992). He really doesn’t have to do all that much here other than walk around and look scary.

The actual mask used in this movie is indeed rather creepy, and I certainly liked the look.

Director Gregory Plotkin stumbles to get out of the gate with some unconvincing and awkward early scenes, but he more than makes up for it with some effective horror scenes in the film’s second half.

The screenplay by Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper also struggles early on. The initial dialogue between the main characters came off as forced and phony, but once the horror elements settle in, the script, like the direction, improves.

I also really enjoyed the music score by Bear McCreary, who also does the music for TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

HELL FEST certainly hearkens back to the slasher films of yesteryear, especially from the 1980s. In fact, this one looks a lot like a 1980s slasher flick, which at times distracted me because it looked more like the 80s than 2018.

Which also got me to thinking. Forty years ago, when I first saw the slasher film that really got these films started, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), I was 14, and subsequent films continued to be from my generation. But now here we are in 2018, and the main college age characters in this film are actually from my sons’ generation.

And so I got to thinking, and this is one of the things that rubbed me the wrong way early on with HELL FEST, that forty years have passed, and characters from 2018 shouldn’t be acting the way characters acted in 1978, which in effect, was the way they were acting in this film. I remember clearly as a teenager watching films on TV like THE BLOB (1958) which had teens from my parents’ generation, and teens from the 1950s definitely were different from teens from the 1970s.

Forty years is a long time to be dealing with movie serial killers without bringing anything new to the table. Horror films like HELL FEST need to do a better job of bringing their characters into the here and now.

Which brings me to the worst part of HELL FEST: it’s a slasher movie. There’s only so much one can do with this trope.

But the best part of HELL FEST is that in spite of this, it has a talented group of young actors, led by Amy Forsyth in the lead role, and it does make full use of its horror elements, and so once this one gets started, about midway through, it really becomes a decent horror movie. Sure, we’ve seen all this before, and we’ve seen it done better, but we’ve also seen it done a lot worse.

Is HELL FEST as ambitious as GET OUT (2017) or A QUIET PLACE (2018)? No. But it’s certainly a fun horror movie, and with Halloween on its way, you can’t ask for much more than that.

—END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.