Friday, October 28, 2016

The Halloween List: We Are Still Here

After I finished The Guest, I got on the elliptical and loaded up Netflix. By pure coincidence, We Are Still Here was next in my queue, and opened… on a couple coming home after the death of their son.

We Are Still Here is still a very different movie – the couple begin experiencing strange phenomena around their house, like pictures their son hated falling over and cracking, or voices in the basement. It turns out this is a new house they’ve just moved to, hoping to get away from some of the grief, but they suspect something has followed them here. But the locals explain that horrible things once happened in this house, and they’ve always found it eerie. We begin to question what is watching them.

What unfolds is one of the finest recent haunting movies outside James Wan’s The Conjuring series and The Wailing. While this is also a period piece, set in the 1970s, We Are Still Here uses the visual style of film rather than digital, and has best-in-class costume design and make-up. Characters often felt familiar to me because I knew adults like them in the early 1980s when I was a child.

There’s a great charm, too, to casting so many actors with fading looks, receding hairlines, and other touches of age that the crew don’t cover up. They feel aging in a way that Hollywood tends to hide. It nails its period better than any other Horror movie I’ve seen since House of the Devil.

The house they’ve bought also lacks glamour. The ground and upper floors are both worn, not in need of repair, but with the scuffs and chips of time. It brought me back to times spent in old Maine houses. Only the basement seems odd, with its hole in the wall that might as well lead directly to Hell.

Especially if you have Netflix and are craving a haunting for Halloween, this is a great pick. Indie Horror seems to be grasping period pieces better than ever before.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Halloween List: The Green Room (AKA Patrick Stewart?!)

Patrick Stewart plays the leader of a ground of backwoods skinheads trying to kill a Punk band.

Patrick Freaking Stewart. Captain Picard. Professor X. On his evilest day he was Captain Ahab, which was fine because that guy came out of a classic novel. The moment that Stewart walks into The Green Room and casually asks for the situation before instructing his fellow skinheads on the best way to break into a locked room and kill off the rest of the witnesses, it is jarring. This is Stewart barely changing his accent, just dropping a little of his warmth to fit in with the other drug runners.

The simple plot follows a never-gonna-be Punk band playing in the least popular venues. After doing an afternoon show at a taco hut, they drive into the woods for a rural bar. In a movie with several awkwardly funny moments, they open their set with a song deriding Nazis, while skinheads in the crowd check their swastika shirts and SS tattoos. I don’t believe in blaming victims, but at a certain point you might be asking to be the victims in a Horror movie.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Under the Skin Vs. It Follows (Vs. Sexuality)

Today's is going to be a long post. Instead of just writing independent reviews of the two hot-topic films, I want to talk about them in relation to each other. If you haven’t gotten to them yet, I won’t spoil the third act of either. But Under the Skin and It Follows are very interesting Horror movies to have come out so close to each other – they’re both films about victimization, but from opposite sides of it. They’re both about predators hijacking sexuality for their own unknowable ends.

But most people I know like one and loathe the other. When they condemn whichever of the two they dislike, they label it sex-negative. I disagree with that reading for either film. Rather, both feel rooted in Horror’s history of finding something desirable and finding a way to make it terrifying. Friday the 13th did that with cabin vacations; Jaws did it for swimming; and it’s easy to forget, having grown up with John Carpenter’s Halloween, that the holiday wasn’t always so blood-soaked, but rather that movie helmed a change in cultural attitudes around the holiday.

Unfortunately Halloween also helped cement tropes about sexuality in Horror. The tropes are unhealthy, and even baffling when you find the liberal attitudes of their screen writers and directors. John Carpenter and Wes Craven were startled when people confronted them about things latent in their work. It's why Craven went out of his way to subvert some of those tropes in Scream.

So when Horror turns sex into an actual theme, it has to be mindful. Slasher Movies didn’t originally intend to punish teen sexuality, but it became a tradition, and one that It Follows deliberately fights back against. Under the Skin goes for something weirder.

Let’s look.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Halloween List: The Guest

The Guest s another of those movies I watched knowing nothing about. It's such a pleasure to take recommendations from friends and find out the premise of a movie as it unfolds. This is a particularly nimble film with a very sticky opening, and if you want to just dive into a Thriller this weekend, The Guest is a good shot.

My vague first paragraph out of the way: The Guest is about a family mourning the death of their oldest son, and are interrupted by a mysterious stranger who says he deserved in the military with him. He quickly ingratiates himself with stories and awkward politeness, and whenever their other children get in trouble, he's there to help. Except in breaking up a fight, he's surprisingly vicious. Often we catch him watching the family with dead eyes, like everything he's doing is an act. But if it is, then why is he here?
It feels like a piece of 80's B-cinema, a worthy successor to The Stepfather, except the dangerous man is this time filling the empty role of a brother. It's greatly helped by a synth-heavy soundtrack that tickles at the Stranger Things part of your brain.
He's not just a stalker - he intervenes with a school principle, local drug dealers, and a misbehaving boyfriend as though he really has the family's best interests in mind. But he'll kill to preserve those best interests. You're waiting for either a secret malice or his overprotectiveness to boil over when the family's daughter calls the military. Just one phone call scrambles people through the chain of command, until Fringe's own Lance Reddick shows up to rein the mystery man in. It's a lot of fun pretending the movie is a secret episode of Fringe.
You can go back and forth over whether this is Horror - it's more of a cheesy Thriller with moments of high intensity, and that happens to take place on Halloween. But by the end, it completely validates itself as an October watch. We have to hunt a bad guy through the school's freaking Haunted House display!
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