The Perfection (2019)

The Perfection (2019)

Directed by: Richard Shepard. Starring: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber. Runtime: 1h 30 min. Released: May 24, 2019.

Some spoilers follow.

When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Logan Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences. Y’know, I absolutely love movies with a twist.

But with The Perfection, there are about four or five twists sprinkled throughout the film. These are not small twists, either; they are twists that subvert expectations at every turn. I could barely figure out what film it’s trying to be, and when I thought I had figured it out, director Richard Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder say “Psych!” and change the direction of the film. The changes feel organic to the story, however, and they are rarely frustrating.

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Allison Williams in The Perfection. (IMDb)

That’s what makes The Perfection one of the most unique horror films I’ve seen in awhile as it blends romance, a stalker movie, a virus film, as well as another genre which would border on spoiler. I’ll just say that some characters get their comeuppance and that aspect doesn’t work as well as the others. The third act twists are intriguing, but one aspect is a disturbing pillow to swallow. It’s the only direction of the film I don’t completely love as it becomes slightly too dark for even my tastes, and I think if it was handled in a different this would be in my Top 10 of 2019. (For reference point, this would probably still make my Top 30 out of 200 films.)

Allison Williams and Logan Brown are both great here. Williams plays so many layers convincingly that I swear after this and Get Out, I could never trust her. Steven Weber also turns in a memorable performance as the music teacher who thrives on perfection. It’s a film that is separated into distinct chapters and tones and they are balanced well. The Perfection is a wild, wild ride and it takes so many risks, even if they don’t all pay off. It also never feels like a gimmick where it’s only about its twists, because it gives thought to its characters. It has backbone and for a film that could be very standard, it takes an utterly crazy path, the road less traveled. It’s audacious to its last shot. Truly, the last note I wrote for this film in my notebook was: “Honestly, what the fuck?”

Score: 75/100

The Hunt (2020)

The Hunt (2020)

The Hunt posterDirected by: Craig Zobel. Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz. Runtime: 1h 30 min. Released: March 13, 2020.

This review contains spoilers.

I was really looking forward to The Hunt when it was to be released last August before it was delayed because due to mass shootings. Now, when there’s reason to delay movies, the film sneaked into theatres for a week before the close of many all over because of COVID-19, and the film will be released On Demand tomorrow.

The reason it was delayed last August was because of its content. 12 Americans are kidnapped from all over and brought to a mansion in what appears to be rural Arkansas, as they wake up in a clearing and are hunted for sport by liberal elitists in The Hunt, also known as #ManorGate.

It’s called #ManorGate because there were rumours that wealthy liberals, who really appear to be social justice warriors who wouldn’t allow people of colour to be hunted because that’s too far, were hunting people for sport. The reasoning behind the Hunt is kind-of disappointing as it works into its commentary and satire.

I get the commentary and satire, though some of the political aspects would surely go over my head, but it’s not super effective. It’s written by Nick Cuse (TV’s Watchmen and TV’s The Leftovers) and Damon Lindelof (show runner for Watchmen and The Leftovers). Craig Zobel also directs it well (and he’s known for some directing work on Watchmen and The Leftovers so it’s a real reunion), and I am a fan of his film Compliance, one of those disturbing films that’s great but you never want to watch again. Zobel’s film here has more rewatchability.

The Hunt’s commentary doesn’t always work, much of it includes characters walking on eggshells afraid to offend anyone, but there are some strong moments. A great visual gag includes a tense moment of opening a crate, and a pig fitted with Shakespeare clothes jumps out. The film is usually more action than horror, but it’s solid. As for its commentary, I’m not sure what the film is exactly trying to say, other than that the jackrabbit always wins as Crystal (Betty Gilpin) tells in a dark story.

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Betty Gilpin in The Hunt (IMDb).

It is Gilpin’s performance that makes this fun, and some well-timed jokes, too. Gilpin embraces her character and shows she is completely within her element, and we learn throughout that Athena (Hilary Swank) has picked the wrong person to include in this Hunt. Without Gilpin, this wouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is. Most of the characters don’t pack much of a punch, but she does.

My main complaint is some of the Hunt participants that seem like they could be key players get killed off quickly and one is particularly disappointing, because I think seeing the character interact with Crystal would have been fun. It subverts expectations and establishes that there’s no central character, at least for the first 20 minutes. The first 20 minutes are fun, but it becomes a real blast when Gilpin comes into play, especially in the action scenes. I think this film works better as just a regular action movie than a commentary.

It’s also really entertaining seeing Ethan Suplee (I’m a fan since his Boy Meets World days) and he plays racist bigot very well (as he shows in his best known role in American History X). The film feels like Game of Thrones in how anyone could be killed at any moment in this kind-of film – so don’t get attached to your favourites (Crystal is the exception).

I enjoy these Battle Royale sort-of films with a high body count (WWE Studios’ The Condemned is a guilty pleasure for that reason), but keep in mind that, while this film manages to be memorable, there’s nothing new in this action thriller. As I’ve said before, Gilpin and the action make it worth the watch, but if you just wanted to watch (or re-watch) Battle Royale or even The Hunger Games again, I wouldn’t blame you. Still, if you want a good R-rated version of The Hunger Games, The Hunt entertains for 90 minutes.

Score: 70/100

Haunt (2019)

Haunt (2019)

Haunt posterDirected by: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods. Starring: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Andrew Caldwell. Released: September 13, 2019. Runtime: 1h 32 min.

In Haunt, a group of friends on Halloween night stumble upon an “extreme” haunted house that promises to feed into their darkest fears. The horror in Haunt is memorable as there are great scenes of tension and the set design is creative throughout the haunted house. There’s nothing quite as scary as a character looking down a hall with a series of mannequins covered with blankets and not knowing if one of those is a real person. Characters crawling through a claustrophobic tunnel and hearing noises is also intense.

Admittedly, the characters are cookie cutter but the main character Harper (Katie Stevens) has a strong backstory and we cheer for her. Stevens’ acting is also strong in a horror film I was surprised by. Nathan (Will Birttain) is fine as the main guy, but I truly couldn’t tell you anything about his character. Evan (Andrew Caldwell) brings the comedic relief. Otherwise, they’re disposable and the film knows it and takes advantage of that. The horror is well-executed throughout and well-written by writing team Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place). They also direct.

The pacing is strong as after the characters find out that the haunted house is a little too real, the film is consistently action-packed and has a strong atmosphere and doesn’t have to lean on too many jump scares. There are jump scares, because it’s a film with a haunted house, but it never feels gimmicky. The film gives the immersive haunted house experience in the form of a horror film and it works. I liked it because I’m too much of a scaredy cat to enjoy haunted houses. My anxiety couldn’t take it, so it’s nice to visit a haunted house through this from the comfort of my own home where no one can jump out at me or hold me hostage.

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Terry Partyka in Haunt. (IMDb)

2018’s Hell Fest has a similar effect in providing a haunted house experience in a film, but its execution is weak. Haunt’s execution works very well, also utilizing a fear of the unknown. This unknown is the motives of those running the haunted house. We see their faces – and it’s quite intense when they unmask – but we never know their motives. That’s one complaint of mine, but it’s also understandable why it’s not explained.

There’s some fear in the fact that these are just people being so brutal to others for the sake of it, but I think for a film that doesn’t thrive on storyline or characters (besides the one strong central story of trauma), some motive would be nice here just for the sake of story. It’s realistic there’s no motive, however, because these maniacs aren’t the type to monologue of why they’re doing this or give tragic backstories.

That’s mostly because the pacing is so quick so there’s literally no time. They just kill remorselessly and go onto the next one. By the way, this is an Eli Roth film so of course it’s brutal. I do think not explaining the motives works for the film, as trying to develop its story more might have bogged it down. It’s a Halloween movie that thrives on its horror scenarios and just like haunted houses, it doesn’t need a story to scare the shit out of you.

Score: 75/100

Not a sponsor, but Haunt is available to watch on the streaming service Shudder.

Quick review: Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

Quick review: Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
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Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife and Mckenna Grace in Annabelle Comes Home. (IMDb)

Directed by: Gary Dauberman. Starring: Vera Farmiga, Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman. Runtime: 1h 46 min. Released: June 26, 2019.

Annabelle Comes Home is a solid film that in terms of quality is much better than 2014’s Annabelle but not as consistently good as Annabelle: Creation. That’s mostly because of a first hour that is just dull. It opens with Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren picking up the titular Annabelle doll, stopping in a graveyard (in the single best scene of the first hour) and then bringing it back home. Soon, they go on vacation for most of the film and leave their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) with her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) comes over soon and she causes the conflict of the film.

Daniela’s not the smartest character in the world as she has heard what the Warren’s do for a living. In fact, everyone at school has heard what Judy’s parents do for a living so she becomes a social pariah. Anyway, Daniela explores the Warren’s “museum” where they store their cursed objects and Daniela takes Annabelle out of her box, puts her back and forgets to lock the door. Then, all hell breaks loose. It’s a horror movie decision if I’ve ever seen one, but Gary Dauberman writes it in such a way where her motives are understandable as she wants to contact her dead father.

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Katie Sarife in Annabelle Comes Home (IMDb).

Madison Iseman is fine as Mary Ellen, though she doesn’t have that much to do. Mckenna Grace is strong as Judy and I like the idea that she has some of Lorraine’s medium skillset. The cast is charming, but not a lot happens in the first hour, as the film sets everything up and throws in a couple tense scenes. It’s mostly Annabelle taunting them but around the one-hour mark, she makes Hell break loose.

When Daniela goes back into the Lorraine’s museum to return the key, the horror becomes relentless and it’s a really fun final 40 minutes. The double-whammy of Mary Ellen’s scene with the ferryman (a memorable side character akin to The Crooked Man in The Conjuring 2) that transitions directly into a light carousel scene in Judy’s room is a great stretch of horror. The different spirits and creatures that haunt them are creative and them trying to get Annabelle back in her glass case is exciting, and it’s a second half that saves that truly saves the film.

Score: 63/100

In The Tall Grass (2019)

In The Tall Grass (2019)
In the Tall Grass poster
IMDb

Directed by: Vincenzo Natali. Starting: Laysla de Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Harrison Gilbertson. Runtime: 1h, 41 min. Released: October 4, 2019.

Based on the novella by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill, In the Tall Grass does not overcome a complicated story. The set-up is simple enough. A pregnant Becky (Laysla de Oliveira) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) are on their way to San Diego. When they pass through an anonymous rural area in Kansas (actually filmed in Toronto), a little boy named Tobin (Will Bouie Jr.) calls for help from a tall field of grass.

Like many horror stories, this is born from a “What if?” What if a kid shouts for help from the depths of some very tall grass and claims he can’t get out? Unfortunately for Becky and Cal, they decide to help and soon find there’s no way out.

The film’s similar to The Blair Witch Project in the way that characters lose all sense of direction. Characters could hear someone else right next to them, and then all of the sudden it sounds like they’re on the other side of the field. Coming with losing sense of direction, also comes the sense of time being lost. There’s a sense of it being a time loop occasionally, but it’s more-so blurring past and present while in the field. This is really what allows the film to be confusing.

The only rule the grass has is that if something dies, the grass doesn’t move it around. Otherwise, it has no rules. It throws the timeline of events out of whack constantly, so it’s tough to follow. The film starts with Tobin calling Becky and Cal into the field. They try to find him and get lost, and the initial exploration of the grass has fine tension. Things get interesting when ex-boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) comes looking for Becky.

He finds their car beside a Church across the street from the grass and goes into the grass looking for them. I thought Travis would get lost and someone would look for him, and then someone would come looking for that person… It would be like a chain of people looking for people in this field. What happens in the film is more creative, surely, but also more confusing.

This film has the weirdest patch of grass in the world, though. In the centre of it, there’s a large rock that Ross Humboldt (Patrick Wilson), Tobin’s father, claims that if you touch it, you’ll know everything the tall grass knows. Since this field is across the street from that Church, it’s really like a worship rock. The film has religious undercurrents through it, where some aspects feel inspired by the Bible.

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Laysla de Oliveira and Avery Whitted in In the Tall Grass (IMDb).

Compared to Stephen King’s other works, this feels like Children of the Corn and Pet Sematary in the way that there is sacred ground and everything seems to be reborn here when it becomes part of the Earth, which is an intriguing idea.

The characters themselves aren’t intriguing. Becky is fine and I like her character growth. Cal can be annoying. Tobin is just a kid trying to get out of the tall grass. There’s some okay character tension between Cal and Travis but it’s rather weak drama. Travis tries to make up for past mistakes with Becky, which is noble, I suppose.

The film’s horror is very much about the unknown, and the grass makes me think twice about going into random fields or corn mazes, or anywhere I can’t see five feet in front of me. The film has a cabin fever vibe as the characters start to get stressed out by their surroundings. The giant worship rock also brings an “absolute power corrupts absolutely” theme.

There are some strong horror scenes, like one 10-second part I played back a couple times because the visual is just gnarly, but the film is hurt by nonsensical storytelling. I got antsy for them to escape the grass. Not because I cared, because I wanted this to be over. I will say, though, that the production value is strong and the settings of the film are nice, and Craig Wrobleski’s cinematography makes the grass a character in its own right.

Some of the horror is the grass slowly, menacingly billowing in the wind. We got enough of that in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. Yet, In the Tall Grass does not have nearly the same amount of entertainment value, and feels a lot of its pacing feels like watching grass grow.

Score: 50/100

Fantasy Island (2020)

Fantasy Island (2020)

Fantasy Island posterDirected by: Jeff Wadlow. Starring: Michael Peña, Maggie Q, Lucy Hale. Runtime: 1h 49 min. Released: February 14, 2020.

This review contains spoilers.

Fantasy Island’s the most frustrating kind-of film, one that has such an intriguing concept but no idea what to do with it. Based on the TV show Fantasy Island, this is a horror riff taken to the extreme: What if your deepest fantasies come true, but they play out to their conclusion with deadly consequences?

That sounds interesting, an idea for a horror film that could either be great in execution or dead on arrival. As for this film, da plane da plane crashes before it even gets settled in. That’s not a hint at this film’s twist, but the twists and turns border on ridiculous and the big twist is hysterical. It’s a shame it’s silly, because this is the only point of the film where it feels cohesive.

The characters on the island, winners of a contest I wish were never held, aren’t interesting. Melanie Cole (Lucy Hale) just hits on the hot guys on the island right away, and we learn she was bullied daily by someone named Sloane Maddison (Portia Doubleday). Melanie’s fantasy is revenge on Sloane; and they bring Sloane to the island so Melanie can exact her fantasy.

That’s what makes me question the rules of the island. Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña) explains to Gwen Olsen (Maggie Q), whose fantasy is undoing one of her biggest mistakes, that this is her life now because she’s fixed the mistake. Now she’s married to the man she rejected and has five years of memories of a child she never had.

She’s only married and only has a child on the island, and when she leaves, isn’t she on her own again? That sounds like a nightmare – seeing you could have had a happy life and a daughter but none of it ever exists. That’s just psychologically twisted.

Also, if the husband and daughter are only creations of the island, why did they need to kidnap Sloane? They could have just let Melanie let her frustrations out on an imaginary Sloane without real-world implications. The island’s mythos is explored, but it still never makes sense.

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Maggie Q in Fantasy Island. (IMDb)

Meanwhile, Randy (Austin Stowell) wants to be in the Army and is now gets his chance. It’s the portion of the film that brings this into the adventure genre and shows the beauty of the Fiji island. Stepbrothers Bradley (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) are also present, contest winners just here to party in a mansion. They high-five obnoxiously and are the film’s attempt at comedy.

There’s so much going on here and that’s why it’s 109 minutes, a crazy amount of time to invest in a film so messy. The tone is handled poorly because every fantasy is a different genre: The stepbrothers’ fantasy is a bad college movie; Randy’s sub-plot is a war adventure with a weird time thing; Gwen’s is romance; and Melanie and Sloane are the only ones in a horror fantasy, as they try to figure out the island. The film also needs to tell us why Roarke is responsible for it all.

Balancing these genres and tones isn’t a task Jeff Wadlow is up for. He doesn’t direct the horror well, there’s just misplaced eerie scores when nothing creepy is happening and no tension built while a random burnt man haunts the island. Fantasy Island should be very simple on paper, but it’s all a lot to take in and follow. There’s also the cardinal sin of being damn boring for much of it.

When it comes to the conventional horror in the third act once everyone’s individual fantasies have concluded, there is some cohesion. It’s the first time it doesn’t feel convoluted, but it also becomes truly ridiculous with its twists. I could see this developing a cult following because the last 30 minutes are just so insane.

As for the acting, I wasn’t offended by any of and it’s passable. It would be nice if they tried harder, but this is just a vacation movie where everyone just enjoys Fiji, while also making a terrible horror film. I think Fiji is why everyone stayed on this project, because I can’t imagine anyone reading the script and thinking, “That was good.”

The screenplay (by Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach and Jeff Wadlow) is just awful. Half of this is simply bonkers and none of it works in the same film. I reckon the writers watched Fantasy Island in a hotel room one night, went down to the bar, got blackout drunk, wrote the outline for this film on a bar napkin and woke up in the morning and tried to make sense of it. This is the result: A fever dream that’s a train wreck you can’t look away from.

Score: 40/100

The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man posterDirected by: Leigh Whannell. Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge. Runtime: 2h 4 min. Released: February 28, 2020. Seen in IMAX.

I could be cheeky, say this is an amazing film, and say I wrote the rest of this review in invisible ink and just skip to the perfect score. But I won’t be that guy because I want to tell you how great this film is.

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) escapes an abusive relationship with her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and learns that Adrian has killed himself. He’s left her $5 million, but she soon believes this is a hoax when she is hunted by someone no one else can see.

The Invisible Man hooks from its opening frame, not because of tension, but because of creativity. Waves splash over rocks to reveal the title of the film, invisible titles shown only because the water reveals them. Then, the film does hook because of tension.

Cecilia is sneaking out of Adrian’s home in the middle of the night, and there is fear in every step that he might wake up. It’s edge-of-your-seat suspense from the get-go because what it would mean for Cecilia if he wakes. The stakes are set from the start – and I felt immediately sympathetic of Cecilia.

The paranoia that comes in the coming days is pristine, too, and writer/director Leigh Whannell portrays that so well. Whannell has been a voice in horror since 2004, working with James Wan on Saw and Insidious (he wrote all four Insidious films and directed Insidious: Chapter 3). James Wan is arguably a household name, and I think The Invisible Man will bring Whannell household name recognition because it is a masterful film.

It’s an important film, too, especially for the #MeToo Movement as it depicts how much abusive relationships stay with women for the rest of their lives. Even when the hauntings aren’t present, Cecilia’s on edge. She’s scared of Adrian finding her. Adrian needs to die for her to feel somewhat calm – but we soon see she doesn’t even trust that. The film’s a metaphor for that abuse following her. There’s an anxiety that makes this film very real and the characters very real, as well.

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Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man. (IMDb)

Whannell’s writing also portrays victims being isolated from loved ones and gaslighting. Cecilia questions her own sanity throughout and at times we do, too, but it’s hard to doubt this when we see what we see. Could her stalker really be invisible? Of course, the characters won’t believe someone who says she’s being stalked by her dead ex-boyfriend who is invisible, who she’s convinced he could do it because he is brilliant. Some scenes where characters try to convince her that there’s nothing there or nothing to worry about capture gaslighting perfectly.

Elisabeth Moss is a force as this character. I sympathized with her from the beginning as she quietly escapes, especially because of the fear in her eyes. She captures the paranoia and anxiety so well, and the best stretch of her performance is when she’s trying to figure out if she’s crazy or sane. The desperation feels real when she pleads the people around her to believe her, and the lengths she goes to maintain that last bit of sanity is a compelling balancing act. She is compelling to watch, playing the emotional scenes well, too, and this performance will stick with me.

As for horror, The Invisible Man is edge-of-your-seat horror at its finest. It relies on the atmosphere and paranoia of the situation, filled with voyeuristic camera angles of the characters where the invisible perpetrator could be watching from. I found myself studying the frames of the film, trying to see if I can see anything moving around. The film is a lot about looking for things that just aren’t there.

Whannell’s an expert at building the tension, and his jump scares have merit and never feel lazy. That’s what I’m always paying attention to in horror, scares that feel appropriate for the pacing and story, and not just scares for the sake of it. Every scare is deserved, and none are wasted. As far as the remake part of this goes, I haven’t seen the 1933 The Invisible Man. I’d have a hard time imagining myself enjoy it more than Whannell’s vision of this because the level of tension here is exactly why I love horror.

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Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man. (IMDb)

The effects in the film also look very realistic, and they’re better knowing this film is made for $7 million. The angles and choreography for how the characters interact with the Invisible Man look convincing on-screen. Whannell’s unique style in 2018’s Upgrade appears present here in those invisible scenes, especially with Stefan Duscio as cinematographer. The way they show a person’s head being smashed into a window and the camera following the action feels very much like Upgrade. The cinematography is excellent here, and so is the score by Benjamin Wallfisch.

I knew going into this film I’d enjoy it, but it’s surprising how truly great it is. 2020 would have to be a good year for movies for this to fall out of my top 10. It has the psychological horror that I just love, with a great story and great performance to boot (as well as good supporting performances by Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid and Harriet Dyer).

I was on the edge of my seat throughout, especially during a sequence that begins in an attic. It’s perfectly paced and an excellent film that will make me paranoid while I’m trying to sleep. This is the type of film that keeps me up. This time, I’ll just hear a noise and look around, but of course no one’s there, because they’re invisible. I don’t mind that paranoia for a film this great.

Score: 100/100