Tag Archives: Horror

Raw (2017)

The first thing to know about Raw is that it’s not for the squeamish. Its early screenings have caused audience walkouts, vomiting, and even fainting in festivals from Gothenburg to Toronto. Even knowing that you’re about to see a difficult film is not enough preparation, so consider yourself warned. The story follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman raised vegetarian, who begins her first year of veterinary school. This is the same school her parents went to and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a senior student there. During a hazing ritual in her first week, Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. From there, her taste for meat grows and can only be satisfied by human flesh.

The body horror is disgusting. And by that I mean it is incredibly realistic. The film is filled with blood and lacerated flesh. The practical effects capture the repulsive sheen of blood coated surfaces. Justine’s mouth, dripping with the thick crimson fluid, is a disturbing sight to behold. The movie also features some vomit-inducing scenes involving human hair shot in extreme closeup to prevent the viewer from any chance of relief. The effects, and their staging, make viewing a harrowing experience.

Justine is always at the mercy of those around her.

Despite being her first theatrical feature, director Julia Ducournau is remarkably adept at tackling complex topics. She uses long takes during Justine’s first party experience to convey the mass hysteria of young people raging with drugs and alcohol. She is even able to examine the subtleties of sibling relationships within the context of Justine’s nascent cannibalism. When Justine is forced to betray her personal beliefs by eating meat, she takes out her anger on Alexia for not supporting her. The two argue, slam doors, and even fight, but their love for each other comes through when they are at their worst. As their primal appetites surface, they reach an understanding with each other. Ducournau is able to capture the clashes that underscore the love between siblings.

Marillier’s performance prevents the movie from devolving into schlock material. Her genuine confusion as she deals with the changes in and around her is in stark contrast to her peers. Even as her lips are stained red with blood, her face exudes innocence, not malice. Her bloodlust appears like an uncontrollable urge hard-wired into her. She tries to stop her habit from growing, but it is a part of her being. The compassion her acting elicits makes her a sympathetic character, even when her actions are aberrant.

Raw might be best described as a cannibal coming of age movie. As violent as Justine’s habits become, they are symptomatic of her sheltered life. She is shown as the well-behaved, hard-working child that hasn’t experienced the world. Whether it’s cannibalism, sexual awakening, or independence from her family, she hasn’t had the chance to define herself and the changes are just another part of her self-discovery. Ducournau grounds the explicit narrative and transgressive behavior with the symbolism of a young woman finding herself and directs the gore with unsettling skill.

4/5 stars.

Get Out (2017)

Making a 180-degree switch, Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) directs and writes Get Out, his first feature. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya; Sicario), a black man, has been dating Rose (Allison Williams; Girls), a white woman, for some time. They decide to spend the weekend at her parent’s house so Chris can finally meet her family. Chris is uneasy about what her parent’s reaction might be and his initial concern turns into suspicion after meeting the two family servants, both black, who seem to be too polite and too satisfied with their current situation.

Despite the genre, Peele remains true to his comedy roots. Comedian Lil Rel Howery costars as the TSA agent best friend. Normally this type of role could conflict with the film’s intent, but Peele is able to use this character to prevent the film from becoming too serious. Howery becomes the viewer surrogate. He says all the things that audience members normally shout at the screen during a horror movie and is able to be consistently funny without ever becoming obnoxious or distracting.

Get Out’s strengths in confronting racism come out in the little details. Rose’s family aren’t overtly racist, cross-burning, KKK members, but their prejudices comes out in subtle ways. It’s the way Rose’s dad keeps calling Chris “my man” and the way an older female relative feels his muscles as if he is an animal. It’s not that these people think less of him because of his race, it’s the assumptions they make about him. All of these behaviors, while satirical in nature, ring true. Any minority can attest to being in similar situations. Peele deserves enormous credit for accurately highlighting these forms of ingrained prejudice.

Rose’s family’s interactions with Chris capture the minute changes they make because of his race.

Where the film stumbles is with its narrative turns. The setup is nothing new and was mostly shown in its trailers. It’s basically The Stepford Wives with race instead of gender and the film doesn’t ever build past that starting point. The exact details of the situation might be a slight surprise to some, but the direction the film is headed is clear from the beginning. The underlying cause of this failure is Peele’s inability to produce sustained tension. For the audience to be invested in Chris’s situation, there needed to be a possibility that everything was normal and that Chris was just being paranoid. By not keeping the alternatives plausible, Peele effectively saps the film of the suspense it needed to be successful.

It also features some incredibly contrived plotting. In order to push the story to a climax, many films have forced reveals that are caused by actions that don’t make sense for the characters to do. For example, the villain might just happen to leave out a notebook that contains their plans. Get Out unfortunately uses a similar plot device to progress the film. It breaks the immersion and feels entirely artificial. Get Out is an encouraging debut for Jordan Peele, but it’s well-balanced humor and look at the subtle details of race relations are held back by a borrowed, predictable, and often forced narrative.

3/5 stars.

Under the Shadow (2016)

In Tehran, after the revolution but still in the middle of conflict, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) pleads with the director of her medical school. She left to be an activist during the revolution and now wants to return to her studies, but because she chose the wrong side is not allowed to re-enroll. Heartbroken, she goes home only to find out her husband, also a doctor, is being drafted to help the military. Tehran is a major target for bombings, so he advises that Shideh take their daughter Dorsa and go to his parents in the north where they will be safe. Upset and stubborn, Shideh says she will stay. She soon learns that there is more to be afraid of than the bombings.

Under the Shadow is a multilayered film and builds fear with each additional wrinkle. There is the physical threat of bombings that constantly looms over the characters, but Shideh is also dealing with her own failure and is questioning her ability to protect Dorsa by herself. On top of this, there are the supernatural elements. Why is Dorsa’s doll missing? Why won’t her fever break? What are the things she and Dorsa keep seeing? As Shideh tries to deal with these fears, she begins to crack under the pressure. Everyone in her building starts leaving the city so she has the additional fear of being alone in the building. Each of these aspects increases the baseline level of fear. Even if they are safe in one respect, there are still several other dangers to be afraid of.

Shideh and Dorsa are under constant stress.
Shideh and Dorsa are under constant stress.

Director Babak Anvari adjusts the camerawork to match the emotion of the film. Rather than maintain the same shooting style throughout the movie, he shifts his approach as needed. In pivotal sequences when a character is exploring the source of a noise, he uses perfectly fluid movements to indicate the danger lurking around the corner. When characters are scrambling in fear, the camera shakes softly reflecting their unstable state of mind. Anvari also deserves praise for creative framing. He films common scenes in portrait rather than landscape, allowing a character’s posture, and the sentiment it communicates, to dominate the screen. His expertly controlled cinematography precisely manipulates the audience’s emotions.

The sound design is also a major factor in the film’s success. Horror, more than any other genre, is reliant on audio cues to maintain tension. Normally this is limited to the interplay of quiet and loud that forms a jump scare but Anvari uses background noise to make the audience constantly uncomfortable. There is always rumbling, like the sound of heavy winds or the shaking of an earthquake, and it subtly increases as the film progresses. Low frequency noise like this creates a physiological response of unease. Gaspar Noé used this to great effect in Irreversible and Anvari is able to even eclipse that. The noise, like a tightening in the chest, gently suffocates any hope of relief.

The true nature of Under the Shadow sneaks up on you. It initially seems like a family drama about separation caused by war, but soon reveals its horror roots. The strength of the film is how it successfully combines disparate types of fear. As Shideh’s situation spirals out of control, she is not only sympathetic, but clearly unreliable. In most films, this would be counterproductive, but because of the very real threat of bombings, it only adds to the suspense. The physical dangers become interwoven with the psychological and even though we suspect she may be misinterpreting her surroundings, we can’t relax because there are other risks around her. The lack of release is almost unbearable and the tension escalates to the point of asphyxiation. Under the Shadow melds internal, external, and supernatural fears into a terrifying whole.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Home invasion films are a well-worn genre, but Don’t Breathe makes  a smart twist on the formula. Imagine Home Alone from the perspective of the robbers, only instead of Macaulay Culkin setting traps it was an old, murderous man.

Alex (Dylan Minnette; Prisoners), Rocky (Jane Levy; Evil Dead), and Money (Daniel Zovatto; It Follows) are three 20-somethings making their living robbing homes and selling the goods on the black market. Alex’s dad runs a home security firm, so they are able to get passcodes and keys to enter and exit houses unnoticed. Rocky and Money have the intention of leaving town if they can get the funds, but they aren’t making enough off each house. Fortunately, they get a tip about an old man (Stephen Lang; Avatar) who won a six figure cash settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident by a wealthy teenager. He lives by himself in a mostly empty part of town and supposedly has the settlement money inside. The best part is the man is blind, so it’s an easy job…or is it?

Like the recent horror hit It FollowsDon’t Breathe uses modern day Detroit as its setting. Maybe it says more about the economic situation of the city than anything else, but the graffiti covered facades and overgrown lawns of the long abandoned neighboring properties hint at the situation to come. Why would someone, especially someone with a large sum of money, still live in a place like that?

As the team breaks into the house, director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) establishes the setting. It would be easy for the movie to feel like a bottle film, restricted to one main location because of financial reasons not creative ones, but that is not the case. The home has a maze-like architecture and Alvarez uses impressive cinematography early on to explore it. The camera weaves in and out of rooms, rarely cutting, and lingers on objects bound to be of importance later. These shots lay the foundation for the film and inform the audience of the possibilities that exist. In less skilled filmmaking, plot twists feel cheap and convenient, but here each twist is subtly foreshadowed early on. You may have an idea that something will be important, but chances are you won’t be able to guess how.

Lang animal-like behavior is always frightening.
Lang’s bestial behavior is always frightening.

The blind man is not what he seems and the team of robbers soon find themselves in trouble. Lang dominates the screen with his intensity. He becomes animal-like. Lang rarely speaks and relies on his other senses to find the robbers. He sticks his nose in the air and sniffs like a feral wolf searching for prey. Unlike the intruders, he knows his house intimately and takes full advantage of this as he walks through the halls feeling his way across the house.

His blindness makes for incredibly tense encounters. In most home invasion films, the characters are only worried that they will be spotted, but here they have to be wary of a tiny creak of the wood floors setting off Lang’s hypersensitive hearing. It also makes for near misses that come uncomfortably close to confrontations. Lang can’t see his uninvited guests and often moves within inches of them.

Lang’s sheer physicality makes him a terrifying threat. He is revealed to be a veteran whose sinewy arms and fast, focused movements show his prowess. At one point during my screening a woman shouted “He’s worse than the Terminator!” and she was right. Lang’s efforts are unrelenting and the justice he delivers is unforgiving.

In the last act, the film layers on multiple twists that will divide audiences. Some may view them as unrealistic while others will see them as depraved and unnecessary. Each additional wrinkle pulls the story further away from believable and turns Lang from a man to a monster, reducing the credibility the film had established. Yet, Lang is able to overcome these missteps. Even as the third act falters,  the strong setup, creative encounters, and Lang’s presence make Don’t Breathe a film of often unbearable tension.

4/5 stars.

The Neon Demon (2016)

Coming off the less than stellar reaction to Only God Forgives, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) returns with The Neon Demon, a film about a young woman, Jesse (Elle Fanning; Super 8), who moves to Los Angeles to become a model. She says she isn’t smart, has no real skills, but knows she’s pretty and she can make money off of pretty. The topic makes an interesting change of pace for Refn who has centered most of his films around hard men and criminal underworlds. What is fascinating is how little his portrayal of these seemingly disparate settings varies. He shoots the hyper-competitive field of modeling in the same way he normally frames opposing gangsters. The players are as vicious as they are unscrupulous and when Jesse quickly becomes the “it” girl leaping over established models who have been working towards the same goals for years, we see that these two environments are more similar than we had imagined.

Regular composer, Cliff Martinez, returns with another stellar soundtrack. He again uses a variety of electronic music to set the tone of the film. His pulsing beats provide an effective contrast to Refn’s slow camera movements. They add much needed energy and tension to what could otherwise become a lethargic film. Martinez has also expanded the emotional range of his music. His rhythms immediately create atmospheres of dread, adrenaline, or heightened reality, depending on the scene. Tracks like “Are We Having A Party” quickly set the tone of events to come. His score combined with Refn’s images make the film an audiovisual treat.

The setting is ripe for Refn's stunning imagery.
The setting is ripe for Refn’s stunning imagery.

Refn exploits the world of high fashion for his own visual sensibilities. The signature cinematography from Only God Forgives is further intensified here. The images look ripped out of an avant-garde art gallery with stark backgrounds and characters drenched in high contrast lighting. He adds depth to these images by examining the potentially abusive nature of their creation. These young women, Jesse is underage but is told by her agent to say she is older, are at the whim of older men who Refn rightfully indicts as predatory. Other models repeat that the quickest way to get ahead is often to give in to the sexual desires of these gatekeepers. The only flaw to the director’s analysis of these men is that he doesn’t acknowledge that he too may be in a similar relationship with his actresses. Fortunately, none of the sumptuous imagery, even when it becomes explicit, feels like it is shot with a leery eye.

The threat of violence and its attachment to beauty is present throughout the film. The opening shot tracks in slowly on a motionless Jesse, made-up and wearing a shining dress, with a stream of blood dripping from her neck setting an ominous tone for the story that follows. Characters rarely use dialogue with a natural back and forth. Instead, they spout sentences with long pauses between responses, creating a dream-like quality. This serves to make otherwise standard interactions appear foreign and forces critical analysis of what we accept as normal and why, similar to the way David Lynch often directs his actors.

The unintended effect of this delayed cadence is that it also distances the viewer from the story. While the plot is much simpler than his previous film, the characters again aren’t empathetic because they don’t seem human. Jesse begins the film with some understandable naivete but then quickly assumes the same cold demeanor of her peers, making even the audience vessel unrelatable. This reduces the impact of the film’s climax. While the images are still unsettling, it’s the literal actions that shock more than their implications. Without developing strong investment in the characters, The Neon Demon is a series of visually arresting, but emotionally lacking, images with a superb electronic score.

3/5 stars.

The Fits (2016)

Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, The Fits, is a look into a young girl entering a new social group. Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11 year old girl who trains with her older brother’s boxing team at the local community center. In another wing of the building, there is a successful dance team filled with girls her age. To Toni, the dance team occupies a different world and she is curious. After some coaxing from her brother, she tries out and joins the group. The film explores her gradual assimilation in the face of a sickness that begins soon after she joins.

Holmer does a great job of portraying Toni’s outsider status. Even as the other girls are fairly welcoming, the distancing effect created by repeated shots with only Toni in focus show how foreign this new world is to her. She has only experienced the social dynamics of her brother’s friends and doesn’t know what to do when faced with the gossip, nail painting, and ear piercing of the girls dance team. Hightower’s stoic but wide-eyed stare convey her genuine confusion at the accepted customs of her team members. Her performance successfully balances her unfamiliarity while still charming through flashes of her youthful naivete.

The natural performances ground the film's plot.
The natural performances ground the film’s plot.

The film attempts to create tension using techniques most commonly seen in the horror genre. Holmer dials into the slow tracking shots, the muffled chatter, and the high pitched audio feedback found in a James Wan film. While these techniques establish a creepy atmosphere, the film isn’t able to build tension over time because of how the fits are depicted. Despite being the supposed center of the story, the fits themselves feel like background events. Toni’s detachment from the other girls prevents these episodes from feeling like credible dangers. Even as other characters begin to fear for their safety, Toni is never worried and this complacence extends to the audience. We too have little interest in the symptoms, effectively preventing any true fear from being created because we can’t be afraid of something that isn’t important.

Toni’s alienation and desire for acceptance into this new group mirrors the spread of the fits. The leaders of the dance team are the first to contract the issue and it slowly works its way down the food chain. The fits become an initiation rite as the kids start to divide themselves based on whether or not they have experienced them. The metaphorical implications of the fits during an exploration of gender roles alone would have made a compelling narrative, but the adherence to horror trappings without being able to produce the desired dread create a promising film with divergent goals that never reach fruition.

3/5 stars.

Green Room (2016)

A lot of bands spend time living out of a van and traveling from gig to gig. For hardcore bands, the venues can range from heavy to dangerous. Green Room, the third film from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, follows a little known heavy metal band as they tour. Struggling to make ends meet after a canceled concert, a journalist friend gets them the chance to headline at a place his cousin knows. What he doesn’t tell the band is that this show is in the middle of nowhere at a bar filled with white supremacists. A normal person would immediately turn around and get the hell out of there, but this is an metal band. So what they do? They get on stage and open with a new song whose only lines are “Nazi Punks! Nazi Punks! FUCK OFF!!!”.

The bulk of the movie is about the aftermath of their concert. Surprisingly, it’s not the lyrics that get them in trouble but rather an event they mistakenly witness in the titular green room. Now a liability to the owner of the venue, the band is stuck in the middle of the woods locked in the green room unable to get help. What happens next? That is where Green Room separates itself from Saulnier’s previous film, Blue Ruin.

This band is hard, man.

Green Room has noticeably lesser ambitions than its predecessor. Blue Ruin was a taut deconstruction of its genre. The hero wasn’t a John Wayne-like badass. He was a regular person, unskilled in violence. It was the rare revenge movie where violence had consequences for everyone involved. While Green Room retains the high level of suspense, it chooses to stay within the confines of its genre – a slasher movie with a metal band and white supremacists instead of teenagers and a serial killer. The limited nature of the film does however lessen the overall impact when compared to Blue Ruin.

Saulnier again shows off his skills as a director. His visuals (he was also the cinematographer on Blue Ruin) continue to excel, using the serene forests to contrast with the dingy, propaganda-laden interiors. The film is well paced with tension built and released on point. The moments of violence, of which there are many, are visceral and significantly more explicit than most R-rated features. From hacked but not severed limbs to bullet-ridden heads, the gruesome details are happily displayed. Macon Blair (Blue Ruin) plays the role of the club manager and is again immediately sympathetic as the slightly incompetent everyman put in a difficult situation. Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) is the pragmatic owner who has to clean up the mess. Stewart’s performance is adequate, but he is perhaps miscast as he isn’t able to exhibit the degree of villainy needed for the role to be believable. Green Room has modest goals, but its creators have more than enough skill to achieve them. It won’t be acclaimed for its scope, but as a slasher film, it thrills and shocks with ruthless precision.

4/5 stars.

The Witch (2016)

The Witch, or The V V itch as the opening title reads, starts with a family on trial in front of their fellow plantation workers. They are banished from their home for incorrectly preaching God’s word. Headstrong, the father moves his family away and starts farming to survive on their own. They seem to be successful until something goes wrong. The infant goes missing and the family is wrecked with grief when they are unable to explain their loss. They can’t reconcile their misfortune with their religious beliefs and the loss creates cracks in the foundation of their lives.

The strength and originality of the film comes from its focus on relationships and beliefs rather than the supernatural. Living in the 1600s in a puritan, extremely orthodox family, the characters have deeply held beliefs about God, Original Sin, and the Devil. To them, Witches are as real as droughts and famine so when bad things start happening, they look for someone, or something, to blame. The Witch uses this finger pointing to create an atmosphere of distrust. Much like the horror classic The Thing, the question isn’t “who’s going to die next?” but rather “who will they believe?”. This adds a moral complexity to the storyline that elevates it well above other similar movies.

4/5 Stars.