Tag Archives: Review

All Quiet on the Western Front: The Wind (2018) Review

The horror-western sub-genre has generally been a male dominated one with films like Bone Tomahawk (2015), Ravenous (1999), and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Emma Tammi’s new film The Wind reorients the narratives of the unknown American frontier in the 1800s and focuses on Lizzie (Caitlin Gerard) and her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) as their very small, isolated world is interrupted by a new couple, Emma (Julia Goldani Tells) and Gideon (Dylan McTee) who move into the cabin a mile away from them and the strange occurrences which escalate as their relationship develops.

In her intro to its TIFF screening Tammi referenced how she and her team were inspired by tales of women in the American frontier who were driven made by the endless, burrowing sound of the wind across the prairies. This phenomenon also known as Prairie Madness or Prairie Fever occurred when families moved from bustling urban centres to the deafening quiet of the relatively uninhabited prairies. In The Wind, the film supposes that this madness is brought about by something real, or real in the minds of those affected. An interesting companion piece to Robert Eggers The Witch (2016), The Wind circles the notion of female isolation and expectations as only the women are affected while the men go about their business. The husbands are side characters who appear to cause concern or instability for Lizzie and Emma. As the women form a rather competitive relationship, their isolation becomes clearer and their harsh reality more tactile.

The film flips back and forth between timelines establishing and subverting expectations on the narrative sometimes to great effectiveness, sometimes to an odd amount of obviousness. Gerard is tasked with carrying the film and she, like the film, succeeds in carrying a vast amount of plot and emotion while at other times giving a forced, staid performance. The frustrating thing about The Wind is that all the elements present for a great film are there – a creepy mythology, some truly beautiful cinematography and solid (if uneven) performances but it can’t seem to stick a landing. It knows it wants to say something but can’t detach itself from rudimentary plot points to say something truly exciting, unexpected or new.

The film offers stepping stones into a fascinating view into the Western genre by focusing on the women left behind while the men go off to hunt, tend to the land, or gather supplies giving the female characters the full weight of the story. The Wind apes on elements from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper more than anything else as Lizzie’s (and the audience’s) view of events is further cast into suspicion but The Wind never wants to dig deeper than introducing curious elements and then focusing on the plot. The sound design and mix which one would imagine to be at the forefront of the horror and psychological horror of a film called The Wind is barely noticeable and sounds like the white noise app I have on my phone. The Wind struggles to find its footing and decide on whether it wants to tell a rather straight-forward story or descend into the untold emotional trauma of women who endured this harsh and unforgiving way of life.

Where The Wind succeeds is in some truly great scares and world building with a minimal budget. Unfortunately, at the end of it all, The Wind has some sound and fury but ultimately it signifies nothing.

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Wave of Mutilation: Assassination Nation (2018) Review

New England is often considered the birth place of modern America. When the Puritans founded Plymouth Colony in 1620 they couldn’t have known it would become the bedrock for many of the issues Americans still face today. Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, uses its Salem, Massachusetts setting to highlight how little has changed from the uptight, morally corrupt commune that began America (even though it began with the best of intentions). Assassination Nation’s lineage lies in the works of American literature such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) updating it to contemporary times and with just a smidge more violence.

After working through the New French Extremity in my spare time, I often wondered if we’d ever get a New American Extremity because while America has never been a peaceful country, it certainly likes to pretend it is and any violence is the product of defending its civil liberties.  The Purge franchise is probably the closest we got until this past year. Since 2017 we’ve seen Tragedy Girls, Revenge (made by a French director), MFA and now Assassination Nation all bloody, funny, tragic and deeply indebted to the female experience, confronting the gender’s treatment in the films of yesteryear and re-appropriating said treatment for a modern film-savvy audience. As we still grapple with all the #HotTakes on the #MeToo movement, the bulk of the work still falls on the survivors while the majority of public figures pay lip service to the movement but are unwilling and/or unable to take a meaningful stand. This duality is at the core of a national and international dialogue, where do our moral boundaries lie and how do we defend them?

Assassination Nation tells the story of Lily (Odessa Young) and her BFFs Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) as they navigate the politics of high school and sexuality in a modern age of having multiple identities through multiple lenses. While these young women are living within the confines of society, the film articulates in a variety of ways that social media plays into it allowing for a variety of truths and posturing. As the private information of the town is hacked, the residents become more desperate for answers as the dark secrets and shitty assumptions of the town are brought to light while Lily and her friends become the primary target for the town’s unfiltered anger.

With only one previous film directing credit to his name (Another Happy Day, 2011), Sam Levinson proves himself to be a filmmaker who can create controlled chaos in the midst of a searing line of focus through a rambling narrative which feels fresh, if not a bit preaching-to-the-choir. The first third of the film establishes the frenetic and frenzied feeling of creating and maintaining a variety of lived realities in ways that feel completely, overwhelmingly and almost joyously cinematic. By establishing this mise-en-scene early on – we are given short-hand with which to understand some of the characters and some establishing narrative threads. From there the film updates the ideation that Hawthorne and Miller warned us about, that prejudice and high-minded morality around the notion of sin are performative rather than malleable. The third act, which has lost some people, descends into a violent female film fantasy. After decades of consuming violent cinematic male fantasies, Assassination Nation utilizes its protagonists and antagonists pushing them to the extremes to tell a story about our base impulses through, once again, a highly cinematic lens. By pushing its visual styles to the extreme, Assassination Nation puts some (semi) diverse female traumas and truths on screen by allowing characters who usually have no access to participation in this kind of genre ending to take up space within it with agency allowing them to reach a fantastical catharsis.

Is Assassination Nation the most perfect film ever made? No. However, its sheer ambition and willingness to take risks keeps it relevant. When unspoken truths are blasted through a movie screen it doesn’t make them easier to swallow, it makes them harder to ignore.

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From My Cold Dead Hands: Halloween (2018)

It’s a funny thing seeing a film at TIFF’s Midnight Madness (the horror/genre programming section of TIFF). The audience is bananas. The energy is palpable and the audience participation is through the roof. At last night’s world premiere of David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), the audience was primed, Jamie Lee Curtis was in the house and various Michael Myers were stalking the Elgin Winter Garden venue. I’ve spoken about my love of slashers on this podcast multiple times and I’ve been on other podcasts speaking about my love for Halloween: H20 (1998) and why I think that film is a successful end to Laurie Strode’s story. I was trepidatious going in to the screening last night because I wanted to love the film, but I wasn’t convinced that Danny McBride and David Gordon Green were the team to bring something new to the franchise. I’m generally wary when a new team is brought in and says, essentially, “fuck the original franchise, we know better.” Gordon Green and McBride have made arguments in the press that the notion that Michael is Laurie’s brother isn’t as scary as some random guy killing people, to which I would like to say: fear is AHEM relative. BUT the mood was right last night and without further ado – let’s dive in to Halloween “2”018.

Set 40 years after the events of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and ignoring all subsequent sequels and remakes the film begins on the eve of Michael Myer’s ill-advised October 30th transport from a psychiatric hospital to a supposedly Orwellian nightmare jail. Meanwhile, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been waiting for Michael’s escape and living in fear as a survivalist putting a strain on her relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). Of course, the transport carrying Michael goes awry and he’s on the loose once again. Without the guiding principal of Laurie being Michael’s sister, hence his intent on killing her and anyone related to them, the film can’t decide on Michael’s MO – does he kill indiscriminately or like to wait for elaborate set ups to strike certain victims? Is his murderous rage triggered by the holiday itself, his mask, his older sister Judith or Laurie herself? Who knows? Certainly not the film. Halloween skirts the edges of saying something but then backs down in favour of comedy, creating a frustrating 90 minutes where characters speak in exactly their motivations and intents with no subtext but when the film could say something about trauma or lived experience it cuts to a goofy non-sequitur.

“I don’t remember these things being so goofy.” – Martin Crane

McBride and Gordon Green seem hell-bent on telling their audience that they have seen the original film but only through visual cues and mentions of the “Boogeyman” without context for what the “Boogeyman” means to the film, and I struggled to take away any meaning from it other than a celebration of nostalgia. I would be interested to know what someone who hasn’t seen the original film could take away from it as the film swings from one callback to another.  As the filmmakers behind efforts like Pineapple Express (2008), Your Highness (2011) and Vice Principals (2017) Gordon Green and McBride can’t get out of their own way, insisting on injecting talky comedy every few minutes causing the film to flounder in its pacing and creating one of the most tonally inconsistently films I have ever seen. The film feels so indebted to these factors that it feels less like a film and more like an exercise. Filmed in mostly close-ups and medium shots I could never establish a sense of space to this new Haddonfield. One of the elements I appreciate most about Carpenter’s original is the emptiness of his new American small town, the notion that the place that was supposed to be the safest in America was also its most sinister.

 

On film Twitter, I’ve seen near universal praise for the film and its female led ending, and while I didn’t hate it, the film doesn’t earn it. There will never NOT be a day where I don’t want to see Jamie Lee Curtis be a badass and other women be badasses with her, but because the film spends so much time keeping these characters apart and deviating into subplots that go nowhere, the ending feels rushed and confused but hey, I got to see JLC cock a gun a few times.

 

I think nostalgia is a tricky thing, this film, which I’m sure will do very, VERY well and based on the reactions of those in the theatre around me and on Twitter, will be almost universally beloved, to me doesn’t understand what a threat like Michael Myers means today. There is talk about the original events but the filmmakers can’t quite bring themselves to take it into the realm of the violence, deadly tragedies (particularly from gun violence) that occur on a regular basis in America. McBride and Gordon Green seem to want to say that America’s violence hang-over causes people to become desensitized to lived violence until they themselves are faced with it. I’ve been watching the Netflix series Follow This about Buzzfeed journalist deep-diving into a variety of subject matters and one of the best episodes is about Black Survivalists, black folks who have taken it upon themselves to learn how to survive in unthinkable circumstances. The episode clearly lays out that for these groups they are not only marginalized but the government doesn’t care about their safety forcing them to take it into their own hands. Halloween once again skirts this issue with Laurie. What does Laurie’s self-imposed/forced survalist lifestyle say about our society? The film certainly doesn’t know or doesn’t want to say.

 

Prior to last night’s screening, there was a brief intro from the creative team then the lights went down and the audience cheered in anticipation of the film. The screen remained dark and the Halloween theme music began to play. From the side of the stage someone dressed in a Michael Myers costume walked on and stood there staring at the audience while a thousand or so phone cameras flashed. Then the music stopped and “Michael” unceremoniously wandered off stage. To me this “nod” to the audience indicated that the visual checklist of a Halloween film was more important than any illuminating thematic weight. Looking at this moment in retrospect, it felt like an arbiter of what was to come.  Halloween 2018 believes in the iconography of Michael Meyers but doesn’t want to understand why he became and has remained a horror icon.

 

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REVIEW: Habit Forming – The Nun (2018)

Corbin Hardy’s The Nun begins with a recap of where we’ve seen The Nun (aka the demon Valak) before, most notably in Ed Warren’s (Patrick Wilson) painting in The Conjuring 2 (2016) firmly entrenching the film as another spin off in The Conjuring universe or Waniverse. In the footsteps of the franchise’s other spin offs, Annabelle (2014) and Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun is the newest entry based on the totally real (but not really) case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Back when The Conjuring 2 came out the Nun figure caused quite a stir as its striking and eerie appearance felt right at home in the James Wan Rogues Gallery of Ghastly Ghouls but the Nun also felt slightly out of place. For a film series so indebted to the power of the Christian faith you’d think more would be made of a demonic Nun stalking the Warrens at every turn, but alas it remained a looming figure with little MO except kill the Warrens because of their innate goodness. After the film came out, Valak was a fan favourite and i09 spoke with the series director James Wan about the figure and he illuminated some of the … inconsistencies:

I had a strong outlook on the whole movie, but the one thing I wasn’t quite sure of [was the design of the demon character]. I felt like I was still discovering it. And believe it or not, I always knew that I was going to do additional photography. So I was saving it because I was hoping I’d discover what that thing would look like as I was putting the movie together in post-production.

The Nun takes place bit over two decades before the events of The Conjuring 2 and sees a young would-be-except-she-hasn’t-taken-her-final-vows nun Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) accompany a priest with a past Father Burke (Demián Bichir) to a remote monastery in Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun at the behest of the Vatican. Along the way they enlist a local, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) who discovered the Sister’s body. Once they enter the monastery all is not what it seems as Irene and Burke are tormented by visions and terrorized by the titular Nun.

Let’s just get this out of the way; (ahem) NUN of it makes sense. From the complete lack of sense of space and time in the monastery to the clunky dialogue which is only text with absolutely no subtext, there is no understanding of what the evil wants only that it is EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL and that EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL is spreading. Due to this lack of understanding the film can’t seem to establish any stakes because it can’t decide what the cause and effect of this EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL is. Any film which deals with elements outside of our known world (i.e the supernatural, science-fiction, Nicolas Cage etc) has to establish rules to create an internal logic an audience can follow, for instance: mysterious video + seven days later = you die. The Nun can’t settle down long enough to tell a coherent narrative because it is so intent on culling storylines from other films – Sister Irene seems to be plucked from the Maria Nunnery found in Sound of Music (1965) while Father Burke is determined to show the audience that the filmmakers have seen The Exorcist (1973).

The thing about The Nun is – it’s a drag. Outside of a couple absurdly stupid beats it’s a paint-by-numbers film that serves the most basic assumptions of what horror fans want. The capitalistic cruelness of the film stems from the fact that it will almost certainly make its money back and more at the box office and more half-hearted, warmed over jump scares will be trotted out for the sake of turning more profit from this fictional Warrens universe that began with The Conjuring. It’s notable how empty and unrefined The Nun feels since Hardy’s previous directorial effort The Hallow (2015) was a nimble, odd-ball curiosity if not totally successful. The Nun feels like it was made by a committee who didn’t even bother to show up for the first meeting.

I’d say we deserve more from this film but from the way the figure/character of the Nun was shoehorned into The Conjuring 2, it fits. The Nun was an afterthought as a character and its film companion falls prey to the same trappings.

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Alex’s 31 Days of Halloween Horror

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Hi gang! I’ll be kicking off the list taking the first 16 days of October with a curated day-by-day breakdown and Andrea will follow up with her list for the second half of the month shortly.

My list is focused on horror films that veer more towards fun and that evoke an autumnal sense of terror in me (hence films like Black Christmas, The Thing and Inside are saved for winter). I hope you enjoy this list, I can’t wait to read Andrea’s and please comment with what your favourite Halloween movies are. Enjoy… if you DARE!

October 1: Prom Night (1980), starting things off nice and breezy with this early slasher featuring Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis. Prom Night takes a lot of now infamous slasher tropes and blends them nicely together for an entertaining thriller-chiller that takes itself about as seriously as that dance sequence.

October 2: Wake Wood (2009), slightly off the beaten track of contemporary horror films, Wake Wood provides an interesting analogue to the classic Pet Sematary while adding another film to the list of great British folk horror.

October 3: The Dead Zone (1983), terrified of the upcoming American presidential election? So are we! Now is the time to revisit Cronenberg’s under-appreciated classic meditation on life, love and liberty.

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October 4: The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a rare horror classic that swept the Oscars! Sit back, relax and remember a time when Anthony Hopkins tried to act in films rather than just show up in them.

October 5: Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), I know I may be as alone on this one as Paul Rudd is in the actual film, but I love the silliness of it. It exemplifies everything horror audiences were getting tired of before Scream re-leveled the playing field rendering H6 a wacky, borderline parody.

October 6: Mr. Jones (2013), an underappreciated gem of a horror film which develops a really great mythology. And, if we’re being honest, it’s what I wish Blair Witch would have been like.

October 7: Ginger Snaps (2000), Ginger’s first period coincides with a werewolf attack – womanhood ensues.

October 8: Pontypool (2008), Canadians win at horror again with Bruce MacDonald’s nervy, claustrophobic and fresh take on the zombie apocalypse.

October 9: House of the Devil (2009), Ti West’s debut and best to date in my opinion. The film offers the slowest of burns that leaves you with an unsettled feeling that lasts for days.

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October 10: Pet Sematary II (1992), I went from saying this was my guilty pleasure to out and out loving it to the point where I currently wave my PS2 flag loud and proud. It’s a terrific sequel that incorporates the original without becoming subservient to it.

October 11: Candyman (1992), adult and supernatural all at the same time. One of the best films about urban legends that manages to be academic and supernatural without losing elements of either.

October 12: Creep (2014), another underrated found footage gem, but this one situates the horror firmly in the real world.

October 13: Eyes Without a Face (1960), lyrical, beautiful and a great grandparent to the New French Extremity movement.

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October 14: Blair Witch Project (1999), if there’s something more autumnal than getting lost in the woods and being terrorized by a witch, I don’t want to know about it.

October 15: The Loved Ones (2009), a near perfect balance of humour, terror and a pop song.

October 16: Trick ‘r Treat (2007), I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to not watch this movie in October.

**Bonus round: I add a sprinkling of all the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episodes throughout the month**

HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYBODY!

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Review: The Final Girls (2015)

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When director Todd Strauss-Schulson introduced his newest film The Final Girls on the final day of the Toronto International Film Festival, he promised a love letter not only to horror, but to the slasher genre specifically. Strauss-Schulson, whose previous credits include A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, spoke about the impact the Friday the 13th series and The Burning in particular had on the film. He also spoke of the film’s emotional resonance, how it dealt with love and loss which were important elements to him after the passing of his own father. All things considered, it’s an interesting mix of thematic elements, especially when most of the film plays like a send-up of a forgotten ’80s slasher. When the lights came up after the screening, the film had crashed in at a lean 88 minutes and while it soared in some of those minutes, it came to a grinding halt in others.

The film begins with a trailer for the fictional slasher film, Camp Bloodbath setting up the campy (ahem) quality of the film-within-a-film that the rest of The Finals Girls revolves around. Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) had several brushes with success but never achieved the big-time and is now raising her teenage daughter Max (Tessa Farmiga) alone. When Amanda is killed in a car crash, the film picks up a few years later when Max is coerced into attending a double-feature of Camp Bloodbath (where Amanda played the role of a doomed counsellor Nancy) and its sequel. During the screening, a fire breaks out in the theatre, leading Max and her friends to escape through the screen which transports them into the film, ergo into the sinister Camp Bloodbath. They are forced to live out the events of the film alongside the characters; most of whom develop into more fully formed characters as a result of the interlopers. Max, in particular, develops a bond with Nancy, the character portrayed by her mother, and attempts to save her from her fictional fate in the film. When the original Final Girl in the film is killed in an accident, it is up to Max and her friends to take up the mantle of Final Girl and save the day.

The Final Girl trope was named by film scholar Carol Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws in 1992, which we’ve talked about multiple times on our podcast. For me, the Final Girl was a big hook that led me down my path to horror lovin’: when I was younger, slasher films interested me because I got to see strong, kind, independent, “normal” women fighting back. Many people have sought to tackle and re-imagine the Final Girl in multiple ways, some more successfully than others (for my money, my favourite Final Girl is Sidney Prescott from Scream) and these re-imaginings even resulted in a similarly titled but much worse film, Final Girl (2015) starring Abigail Breslin. The problem with Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls is that it never seeks to understand what truly makes a Final Girl, other than an intact hymen. It never bothers to explore the idea of multiple Final Girls (as the title implies) and winds up standing around making fun of ’80s-style films and tropes. In the film-within-the-film, the characters deduce that there are a series of boxes that must be ticked off in order for Max to enter battle with the Jason Voorhees-like killer, Billy Murphy. The problem is, those boxes – which can be boiled down to the new Final Girl – must be a virgin and must kill the Killer with his own weapon, are some hella cherry-picked emblems of what makes a Final Girl. Yes, the Final Girl is chaste and possibly a virgin, but the film puts so much emphasis on virginity and the exposure of breasts and sex as an alert to the Killer to kill that it becomes a stretch to believe that these slasher films are about anything else, making it less a love letter to the genre and more of a kiss-off. The Final Girls of note are not always chaste and virginal, but they are almost always strong, compassionate and intelligent. Oddly enough, The Final Girls spends time revealing these traits in multiple characters in the film but never values them.

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The film boasts a uniformly strong cast which unfortunately slow it down as they are all allowed to vamp and improv on screen – resulting in some truly funny moments but none that really add to the themes and plot of the film. The Final Girls does manage to earn some genuinely emotional moments between Max and Nancy as well as Vicki (Nina Dobrev) and Gertie (Alia Shawkat) which helps elevate parts of the film outside of the male gaze of the slasher narrative, which is heavily reliant on boobs and the showing of them. These emotional moments are what render The Final Girls tragically flawed. They suggest that the filmmakers know that the emotional bonds between the female characters are perhaps the strongest areas in the film but weren’t able to fully integrate them into the plot of the story which stems from a purposefully dated slasher. The characters don’t get to subvert or change their fates, they only succumb to them.

The Final Girls is an inoffensive semi-tribute to the slasher genre but rarely demonstrates any true understanding of it. It attempts too many things to be good at any one of them; it’s a coming of age story, a love story, a love lost story and a goofy horror film all in one. To truly get at the heart of what slashers and horror films have to offer, filmmakers have to be able to pull the intangible elements that have made these kind of films an industry all their own and explore what makes them tick – not just follow in their footsteps.

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