Category Archives: Horror

Let Me In (2010, Matt Reeves)

Let Me In is ponderously stylized. Director (and screenwriter) Reeves approaches the film–about a twelve year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who befriends the new girl in his apartment complex, also ostensibly twelve years old. Chloë Grace Moretz is the girl. She’s not just a girl, she’s a vampire. Reeves shoots it kind of like “She’s a Vampire, Charlie Brown,” with Smit-McPhee’s always present mom never actually seen (in focus) on screen. It’s similar with the other adults, except Moretz’s keeper (Richard Jenkins in a glorified cameo) and an investigating cop (Elias Koteas). The rest of the adults are mostly shown in long shot; they’re residents in the same apartment complex and Smit-McPhee is a bit of a peeper.

Yes, the distance does help make the audience understand Smit-McPhee’s isolation, but Reeves keeps a big stretch of narrative distance to Smit-McPhee too. Reeves has a distinct angle to Let Me In; look at these things, don’t look at these things. Within those constraints, the film’s an easy success. But those constraints are… really constrained. It’s like a fairytale… but not. It really is like a twisted Charlie Brown TV special. A beautifully made one, with an excellent performance from Moretz. Just no one else. School bully Dylan Minnette is really good. Smit-McPhee is fine. But he’s just got to be slightly creepy and very moody, which makes complete sense since his mom is a pass-out drunk. Not just a pass-out drunk, but also a Jesus freak.

Let Me In is based on a novel (and a Swedish film adaptation of that novel), so who knows how far Reeves wants to stray. But he sets it in 1983 New Mexico, with lots of pop culture references; so he’s definitely willing to stray. Whatever.

Jenkins, in that glorified cameo, might be fine. It’s very hard to say given he doesn’t have many onscreen lines; his most important ones are muffled through the wall, while Smit-McPhee is eavesdropping on his new neighbors. Similarly Koteas might be fine, but he never gets enough of a reaction to what’s going on around him. Person bursts into flames in front of Koteas? He’s great at acting in the crisis of the moment, but there’s no reaction from him.

So I guess the most impressive thing about the film is how Reeves basically has a bunch of caricatures but is able to make it not matter, not the way he’s telling this story.

Good, occasionally over-stylized photography from Greig Fraser. Decent cutting from Stan Salfas. Excellent score from Michael Giacchino. Reeves heavily relies on the photography, editing, and music to get Let Me In done. In almost every scene. Unless it’s with Moretz opposite Smit-McPhee. Those scenes Reeves handles differently, like he trusts the material more. Or he just trusts Moretz more, which is weird since Smit-McPhee’s the protagonist.

He’s just a very distant protagonist.

The movie’s exceptionally well-paced too. The first ninety minutes sail by. There’s a flash forward with Koteas opening the film (and kind of suggesting he might have a real part in the narrative as opposed to being a moveable piece in the plot), then backtracking to introduce Smit-McPhee and his situation. The present but out of focus mom (Cara Buono, who truly shouldn’t have been credited). Then in come Jenkins and Moretz. It all moves real smooth; it helps it’s not clear the opening flash forward isn’t just cutting to the end of the movie too (Koteas showing up in the flashback kind of gives that development away).

Reeves pretends Let Me In can make it just on being some kind of a tone poem and you can sort of pretend along with him (until the third act anyway).

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Matt Reeves; screenplay by Reeves, based on a novel and screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist; director of photography, Greig Fraser; edited by Stan Salfas; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Ford Wheeler; produced by Tobin Armbrust, Alexander Yves Brunner, Guy East, Donna Gigliotti, Carl Molinder, John Nordling, and Simon Oakes; released by Overture Films.

Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee (Owen), Chloë Grace Moretz (Abby), Elias Koteas (detective), Dylan Minnette (Kenny), and Richard Jenkins (guardian).


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A Quiet Place (2018, John Krasinski)

It’d be nice if A Quiet Place were exasperating. If, after seventy or eighty minutes of building tension, the finale somehow disappointed. It doesn’t. It’s not exactly predictable, but by the time it arrives, it’s been obvious for a while the movie’s not really going anywhere. The film’s split into three days. The first day is the prologue, about four months into some kind of invasion of Earth by giant monsters. Not like Godzilla giant monsters, but like fifteen foot tall giant monsters. Who apparently eat people? Doesn’t matter. They can’t see. They hunt by hearing. They kind of look like giant walking bats but without wings and Alien heads. The prologue introduces the film’s big device–no talking, no noise. The cast moves through the world, desperately trying not to make any noise. They’ve got to get some medicine for a sick child.

There’s dad John Krasinski, mom Emily Blunt, daughter Millicent Simmonds (who’s deaf), older son (Noah Jupe)–he’s the sick one, and younger son Cade Woodward. The prologue serves to showcase how important it is the be quiet and to give the characters some angst for later.

Fast forward sixteen months and the family is living in a farmhouse. There’s a new baby on the way, because even though Krasinski is dutifully trying to communicate via shortwave and he’s got the farm wired with closed circuit monitors and he’s working on a hearing device for Simmonds (teaching himself engineering), it apparently never occurred to him to rubberband his gonads. No worries though, because while Krasinski is working on his electronics stuff, Blunt’s making a covered baby crib complete with an oxygen tank for when the little tyke arrives, which is weeks off.

After that catchup with the family, the film cuts to another day. The cuts to days all have title cards giving the day. Except it’s just the next day. Most of the movie takes place on this third day, the day after the second day, when it becomes clear most of the time since the prologue hasn’t been making sure they’re prepared. Not for the baby, not for the monsters. As the film progresses, it just becomes more and more obvious–even though Krasinski is supposedly super-prepared, he’s really not. Sure, Woodward’s like three or something, but Jupe and Simmonds are tweens. And Krasinski has never come up with a plan for if they’re separated on the property?

The film gets away with not having much exposition–the family talks, with rare exception, entirely in American Sign Language (presumably they know it because of Simmonds) and rarely does it give the actors much emoting to do while signing. Outside Simmonds. It’s unfortunate because when Krasinski and Blunt have their first talk, it’s some really trite parenting responsibility nonsense. A Quiet Place has all the depth of a Disney TV movie as far as adult characterization, but without any of the charm. Oddly, the kids are fantastic. Simmonds has to do a bunch on her own, she’s great. Jupe’s the oldest male so he’s got to learn how to be a man in this new world and he’s terrified. He’s great. Simmonds and Jupe together (when they’re in trouble because Krasinski never came up with a plan for them getting across their farm to their house) are truly amazing. And a lot of it is how Krasinski, as director, works with the actors.

It’s kind of inexplicable why he doesn’t apply the same rigor to he and Blunt’s performances.

The script wants to get away with not having any exposition, which is fine. It kind of makes things more horrifying, but not really. The quiet device is about all A Quiet Place has got going for it; the monsters are nowhere near as terrifying as when the family gets into trouble because, usually, they’re exceptionally careless and unprepared for any common life occurrences. Contrivances are forecast–Krasinski’s not a subtle director, which is fine, he’s not trying to be subtle (Quiet Place is most effective in how it works as visual exposition, since no one’s talking the audience has to be able to understand what they’re seeing)–but also cheap. Lots of cheap contrivance. A Quiet Place is a comedy of errors; or a tragedy of them.

Good photography from Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Not bad but not special editing from Christopher Tellefsen. Marco Beltrami’s score is spare and only used–albeit effectively–for the film’s cheapest emotional moments.

Acting wise… Simmonds and Jupe impress. No one else does. Krasinski’s good with the kids. Blunt’s not bad with them but she’s not good with them either. Because of the short present action, she barely gets anything to do with Simmonds and her one big scene with Jupe is overcooked. Not even trying to establish the adults until an hour into the movie hurts; for some reason Krasinski thinks he can get away with them sharing headphones and slow dancing but… no. Especially not since their sole motivation is protecting their kids.

A Quiet Place is strongest in the first act. It declines from there. The film’s at its weakest point as it goes into the third act (at least its weakest point so far). It’s completely lost momentum, splitting between Blunt home alone and the rest of the family off in the world. And then it just keeps slipping.

By the end, A Quiet Place isn’t disappointing, just annoying. The quiet thing works in a horror movie. Who knew. Outside Simmonds and Jupe, there’s nothing to it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Krasinskip; written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and Krasinski; based on a story by Woods and Beck; director of photography, Charlotte Bruus Christensen; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Michael Bay, Andrew Form, and Brad Fuller; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Emily Blunt (Mother), John Krasinski (Father), Millicent Simmonds (Daughter), Noah Jupe (Older son), and Cade Woodward (Younger son).


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The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent)

So much of The Babadook is so good, it almost doesn’t matter the film’s third act is a series of little disasters. Director (and writer) Kent does such an exquisite job with the film until then, she can basically coast to the end credits. The Babadook is a spectacularly made film; Kent’s direction, Simon Njoo’s editing, Radek Ladczuk’s photography, Jed Kurzel’s music, and Alex Holmes’s production design are all phenomenal. Most of the leads Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman’s performances are great. For most of the film, Kent finds a perfect balance between being creepy and defining that creepiness. In the end, the creepiness is symbolic, which is it’s own problem, somewhat separate from the other third act issues. Except intricately tied to them because Kent’s finish for the film means there’s only so much she can do in the third act. Given the wobbly ending, it’s even more impressive how much of Babadook is good. Kent really does delay having to give into the finale building until the last possible moment.

Davis and Wiseman are almost always onscreen. Davis is a single mom, Wiseman is her somewhat strange six year-old (he’s about to turn seven, cue plot point); his father (Davis’s husband, Benjamin Winspear in flashbacks) died driving Davis to the hospital to give birth. She’s haunted by it. Wiseman’s haunted by it. It’s all very heavy. And kind of shocking it wasn’t a problem for Davis until Wiseman’s seventh birthday. She really delayed her breakdown.

The inciting action for the film is Davis reading Wiseman a story about The Babadook from a mysterious pop-up book Wiseman finds on the shelf. It’s a majorly disturbing book, even for a regular child and Wiseman’s extra sensitive. As the film starts, pre-Babadook read, Davis (and Wiseman) haven’t been getting good sleep. He’s scared of monsters and makes sure Davis knows it. Wiseman’s even building monster-fighting weapons; Rube Goldberg style. They’re important for the plot–and the character development (the friction between Wiseman and Davis). It’s a great detail. Babadook is full of great details. Kent’s writing of the first seventy minutes (the film runs just around ninety total) is fabulous.

For most of the film–even when it’s not–the film’s from Davis’s perspective. She’s trying to deal with the social awkwardness of Wiseman (he’s obsessed with monsters, which is kind of underdeveloped as it turns out; monsters under the bed or in the closets, monsters). Once they read the story, his awkwardness and behaviors escalate. He gets kicked out of school, he gets into it with his cousin and loses his aunt as a babysitter (the relationship between Davis and sister Hayley McElhinney is strangely more for comedic stress relief than character development). So by the second half of The Babadook, it’s just Davis and Wiseman alone together in their scary house where scary things are starting to happen.

Of course, there’s also the chronic lack of sleep thing, which is also an underdeveloped part of the ground situation. Kent avoids excessive exposition… but she also excessively avoids exposition. That approach lets her get symbolic with things, sure, but it leaves the film without much else, at least symbolically.

One of the most nightmarishly successful things Kent does in the film comes in that problematic third act, as Davis starts to entirely breakdown, becoming verbally abusive towards Wiseman (and threatening physical abuse, though only the audience knows its because she’s read more of the Babadook book). Most of the action takes place over one night. Kent doesn’t track time, instead following Davis’s extremely sleep deprived perception of the night. Kent keeps the same style devices the film’s had until this point, making The Babadook all of a sudden feel like this endless, horrible, threatening night. It’s fantastic filmmaking.

It just doesn’t add up narratively.

The acting is good. It’s all on Davis and Wiseman. She’s fantastic until the denouement; it’s not Davis’s fault. Kent just doesn’t figure out a way to bring the character back from the brink. From over the brink. Davis is fine in those scenes. Effective. She’s just no longer building this complex character, she’s doing muted pantomime. Even when the film’s outlandish, it’s never outlandish. Kent keeps it in check.

Wiseman goes from having incredibly loud, with concerning behaviors (again, one of Babadook’s stumbling blocks is how he and Davis never had to serious address them before the film’s present action) to being quietly terrified. It’s a strange character shift, like he forgets how to express himself. Some of it is a plot point–sedatives–but some of the shift is just so Davis’s own concerning behaviors can take centerstage.

The film’s a technical marvel. Kent, editor Njoo, and cinematographer Ladczuk do true wonders with the digital video. They make Babadook expressionistic while never breaking with the reality constraints of the setting. Sometimes it’s how the scene’s lighted, sometimes it’s how it’s cut. Kent directs the hell out of this picture. The script has nowhere near as much ambition, which doesn’t matter for most of the film. Between the acting and the filmmaking, the script not having the same intensity or energy doesn’t hamper The Babadook. The rest makes up for it.

Until the finale. And then there’s only so much the acting can do before the script trips it up. And then the script takes down the filmmaking too. Not entirely, of course, but sadly, just enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent; director of photography, Radek Ladczuk; edited by Simon Njoo; music by Jed Kurzel; production designer, Alex Holmes; produced by Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere; released by Umbrella Entertainment.

Starring Essie Davis (Amelia), Noah Wiseman (Samuel), Barbara West (Mrs. Roach), Hayley McElhinney (Claire), Daniel Henshall (Robbie), Chloe Hurn (Ruby), and Benjamin Winspear (Oskar).


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Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)

What’s particularly stunning about Get Out is how nimble director (and writer) Peele gets with the protagonist, Daniel Kaluuya, and the narrative distance to him. Peele’s very patient with his cuts. Lots of long shots, establishing what Kaluuya is seeing (as well as the audience); the audience has no point of view outside Kaluuya. Then the film gets to the third act and Peele completely changes up the point of view. He sort of changes protagonists for ten minutes or so, long enough to ratch up some more suspense; it also serves to open up Get Out. Peele doesn’t save the reveal for the last moments, he lets poor Kaluuya live through it, because–while the film’s suspense horror and Kaluuya sort of a damoiseau at times, he’s still the protagonist. And it’s kind of an action movie. Kind of.

It’s also a terrifying social commentary comedy.

Kaluuya and girlfriend Allison Williams are in the country visiting her family. He’s meeting them for the first time. He’s Black, she’s white. She assures him it won’t be an issue with her progressive family; Obama-loving dad Bradley Whitford, psychiatrist mom Catherine Keener, and creep brother Caleb Landry Jones. Whitford bonds with Kaluuya thanks to his social awareness, Keener’s accepting but doesn’t like Kaluuya smoking and wants to hypnotize it out of him, Jones wants to fight him. Oh, and then it turns out the family has some extremely docile and socially awkward Black servants, who (rightfully) weird out Kaluuya.

But he’s got Williams and she’s on his side and, as things get weirder and weirder, even she starts to think maybe they ought to head home. Of course, they’re her family so she’s not on Kaluuya’s side when he’s just been hypnotized against his will by mom Keener or fondled by party guests (turns out Williams forget she was bringing him home on a big party weekend), it takes until the only other black guy (Lakeith Stanfield) at the party–not a servant, anyway–kind of flips out and attacks Kaluuya.

The film runs an hour and forty-five minutes. The party probably doesn’t finish up until seventy minutes in, with Kaluuya unintentionally discovering the secrets of his visit after it’s over. Get Out takes place over five days at most, with most of the runtime dedicated to the first two days, which is Kaluuya and Williams’s arrival and then the party the next day. Those first two days of present action are creepy, disturbing–the movie opens with a Black man, lost in suburbia, attacked so Peele gets the audience on edge before his leading man even appears on screen–and they’re also funny, they’re also (socially) gross. Kaluuya gives a fantastic performance; he holds it all together.

And then, all of a sudden, the movie shifts entirely over to his best friend and dog sitter, TSA agent extraordinaire Lil Rel Howery, trying to figure out what’s going on with Kaluuya’s weird weekend.

Taking the film away from Kaluuya and letting Howery do a bunch of exposition does a few things. Like I said before, it ratchets up the tension. It also has some humorous relief valves, because even though the audience knows some of what’s going on, Howery’s investigation doesn’t have any of those details. It just perturbs on Howery’s–sometimes hilarious–concern. Including a fun cameo from Erika Alexander as a missing persons detective.

The conclusion mixes suspense, horror, sci-fi, action, and comedy. Peele knows how to pace all the different genres. Get Out’s not a kitchen sink, all those different genre approaches work in conjunction. He and editor Gregory Plotkin do a magnificent job with the film’s cutting; Peele and cinematographer Toby Oliver always have these precise shots and Plotkin cuts them just right. Michael Abels’s score is fantastic (and essential) too.

All of the acting is good. Even Keener, who’s the least effective in the film–she’s always something of a creep. Whitford can be terrifying, but he also can be really funny. Peele’s direction of the supporting cast is phenomenal; he can follow them around for five minutes, with them running the scenes (giving Kaluuya a tour, for example), but then it turns out he’s just been showcasing Kaluuya’s perception of them. Get Out’s exceptionally well-made.

Besides Kaluuya, Williams and Howery give the best performances. Once the party hits and there are all sorts of new people coming on screen, getting introduced, Whitford, Keener, and (thankfully because he’s such an unpleasant character) Jones become background. It’s just Kaluuya, experiencing all these weird, indescribably suspicious white people, and then checking in with Williams about it.

Peele’s ambitions with the film are matter-of-fact. He’s making a suspense thriller with some humor and some social commentary. The social commentary he does make is more potentially disturbing than anything the film actually discusses. There’s no obvious, “aha they’re racist” moment. It’s far more disturbing, even at the connotation level where Peele keeps it throughout. It’s unspoken observations, sometimes passed between Kaluuya and Williams–which makes the unspoken observations passed between Kaluuya and Whitford even crazier after the reveal. It’s delicate. Get Out is a very, very delicate and precise film.

Even in its action movie conclusion, where Peele decides to reward the audience since it turns out he doesn’t have a particularly deep message with the narrative. Get Out is, while disturbing and scary and grody, entertainment. It’s superior entertainment, masterfully produced, and often exquisitely acted.

Even if Keener and Jones do utterly lack subtext; they’re not bad, their characters aren’t thin, their performances are just obvious. Kaluuya, Williams, and Howery easily make up for them.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jordan Peele; director of photography, Toby Oliver; edited by Gregory Plotkin; music by Michael Abels; production designer, Rusty Smith; produced by Jason Blum, Sean McKittrick, and Peele; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Daniel Kaluuya (Chris), Allison Williams (Rose), Lil Rel Howery (Rod), Bradley Whitford (Dean), Catherine Keener (Missy), Caleb Landry Jones (Jeremy), Betty Gabriel (Georgina), Marcus Henderson (Walter), Lakeith Stanfield (Logan), Stephen Root (Jim Hudson), and Erika Alexander (Detective Latoya).


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