New Horrors

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Brad Weismann reviews horror films that have come out since the release of Lost in the Dark – through 2023 and beyond.

M3gan

Dir: Gerard Johnstone

Scr: Akela Cooper, James Wan

Pho: Peter McCaffrey, Simon Raby

Ed: Jeff McEvoy

Premiere: Jan. 6, 2023

102 min.

In the movies, dolls are inherently creepy, and robots are usually threatening. How much fun it is to slap the two film memes together and see what happens!

In this “post-horror” age, when the genre is plagued with slow places and myriad ambiguities, it’s refreshing to find a good old-fashioned horror movie that’s brisk, focused, and to the point, with a relishable villain. M3gan is a darkly comic disquisition on the dangers of technology that’s immensely entertaining.

The story: little Cady (Violet McGraw) loses both her parents in an auto accident, and goes to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), an eccentric inventor. Gemma creates interactive, robotic toys, and is tasked by her abusive, pushy boss to create the Next Big Thing. The result is M3gan, a robotic doll that is self-aware and can evolve on its own.

She is created as a companion for Cady, and tasked with protecting her from physical and emotional harm. Gemma is pretty hopeless as a parent, and M3gan fills in as a companion and support system. Unfortunately for everyone, M3gan takes her duties very seriously. She has the mind of a supercomputer, and very little tolerance for moral parameters.

To tell more is to spoil the fun, but be assured that M3gan’s responses to threat rachet slowly higher and higher to and past the point of absurdity. The film’s premise comes in part from horror maven James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), and his sure horror hand is in evidence here. Director Johnstone tells the story with a minimum of fuss, and keeps the humor understated and steady throughout. The action is toned down, with no graphic shocks and only the occasional jump scare.

The real appeal is watching M3gan become self-aware, and the bad choices that follow. In moviedom, M3gan has laready become an icon of sorts, perfect on the outside and completely messed up within. She’s not only a killer, she’s a killer app.

Horror at the drive-in!

Halloween Ends

Dir: David Gordon Green

Scr: Paul Brad Logan, Chris Bernier, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green

Phot: Michael Simmonds

Ed: Timothy Alverson

Premiere: Oct. 14, 2022

111 min.

Smile

Dir: Parker Finn

Scr: Parker Finn

Phot: Charlie Sarroff

Ed: Elliot Greenberg

Premiere: Sept. 20, 2022

115 min.

Who doesn’t love the drive-in? What say? You’ve haven’t been lately? Well, you don’t know what you’re missing.

We set out for our at-least-once-annual drive-in expedition in mid-October – and found a worthy double feature to chow down on, in a new venue – Fort Collins’ Holiday Twin Drive-In. Nothing makes for a more fun double feature than a brace of horror movies.

As the name of the theater implies, there are not one but two screens, set, oddly, perpendicularly to each other, so that you can watch the other two features if you don’t like the ones you’re faced with. It seems an unsound economic model, but it persists. I caught glimpses of Black Adam out of the corner of my eye throughout the evening. It seemed incoherent and gaudy.

No more audio squawk boxes to perch in the driver’s side window. Now you simply turn your car radio to a certain frequency and listen in that way, while your battery runs down. (Helpfully, the staff is happy to jump your car afterward, if need be.)

We settled in with our illicit snacks. (Bringing in food from the outside is frowned on. In fact, it is prohibited.) To their merit, they have an excellent and eclectic assortment of treats at the snack bar, including a twin burger, a beyond meat burger, bratwurst, cheese fries, popcorn, candy, drinks, and even beer.

Now! We were ready, creeping into our designated space just as the movie began unspooling.

Now, you must understand, although this is the fifteenth iteration of the Halloween movie franchise, it really represents a complete reboot executed by David Gordon Green. He did so with Halloween in 2018, which is meant to be a sequel to the original 1978 film, disregarding all the Halloween films intervening. Green followed this with Halloween Kills in 2021, and wraps it all up with this one. Got it?

And for those of you not from Planet Earth, know that Michael Myers is a deranged derail killer, possibly the manifestation of evil on Earth, who strikes again and again at the unsuspecting in a typical American town through no less than 15 iterations of the story. Michael has been killing people since 1978, and has even gone into outer space (Jason X, 2001).

The question is: why do another Halloween movie? The answer is: $$. The first two films in this alternative trilogy did quite well. The project was endorsed by progenitor John Carpenter, who also acted as a producer and provided his patented scores for the three films. In place as the traumatized Laurie Strode, Jamie Lee Curtis gets to play the classic Final Girl character one last time, and he performs like real trouper.

Unfortunately, the material she has to serve is unfresh and convoluted. There is a huge factor in popular filmmaking termed “fan service,” in which certain actions and points are covered purely to satisfy the fan base that congeals around a certain franchise or character. Most often, this need distorts the shape of the film, making little sense to the casual viewer. There is fan service aplenty in Halloween Ends.

The filmmakers needed to spread the killing out into the local population, in order to stage a number of grisly murders. So they contrived a subsidiary character, based on the malevolent outcast character from Christine, and made him a catalyst for Michael’s evil. This doesn’t work. The narrative doesn’t hang together, and the only imaginative parts of the film are those that deal with bumping people off.

The centerpiece of the film, is the final showdown between Laurie and Michael, and it stretches out to operatic proportions. It’s one last match between familiar enemies, and the sequence doesn’t disappoint.

Is it really the end of Michael Myers? It’s difficult to say. As the most stubbornly undying monster in horror film history, I wouldn’t count him out. Not at all.

Smile, pun intended, is a happier event. Its horror is based on a solid gimmick, the deadly and inescapable curse, used to such great effect in films such as Ringu and It Follows. If you’ve seen this kind of movie before, you will be quite familiar with the twists and turns this story takes. Still, it is efficiently made and is quite good for a first feature film from writer and director Parker Finn.

People are grinning frantically, then killing themselves. Those who witness said suicides are themselves compelled to do likewise. (If a bunch of people witness a suicide, do they all have to kill themselves?) Our protagonist, psychiatrist Rose (Sosie Bacon), identifies and tries to outrun her fate. Replete with many “Boo!” moments, Smile is amusing enough to provide a few chills on a dreary autumn night at the drive-in.

The Black Phone

Dir: Scott Derrickson

Scr: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill

Phot: Brett Jutkiewicz

Ed: Frederic Thoraval

Premiere: June 24, 2022

103 min.

There’s a lot going on in “The Black Phone.” It’s a serial-killer story. It’s a ghost story. It’s a psychic-child story. It’s even a coming-of-age story. All these stories chug alongside each other, straining credulity in an uneven film that stands out primarily for the work of Ethan Hawke in his first role as a villain.

The film is adapted from a short story by Joe Hill, the horror-writing son of Stephen King, and the original material bears a strong family resemblance – strong character development, a welcome sense of humor. Director and co-writer sets the tale in late-‘70s Denver, focusing on the work of a serial killer known as the Grabber. Like John Wayne Gacy, the Grabber abducts, tortures, and kills his victims, young boys.

13-year-old Finn (Mason Thames) is an ill-at-ease middle schooler, whose younger sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) is feisty . . . and psychic. She can see details about the Grabber’s crimes that no one else can. It’s a skill she leans further into as the story progresses.

Eventually Finn is captured by the Grabber as well, and the rest of the film is concerned with Finn’s incarceration and his struggle to break free. He is trapped in a soundproofed basement, with minimal resources at his disposal. A disconnected black telephone begins ringing, as Finn starts to get calls from beyond, from the Grabber’s previous victims.

The highlight of the film is Ethan Hawke’s performance as the Grabber. His character constantly wears a mask, one with detachable sections (designed by horror SFX great Tom Savini). Acting masked is a particular challenge, one that Hawke overcomes with elegant use of his voice, posture, and movements. It’s easy to see why the role appealed to him.

“The Black Phone” manages to intrigue but not to terrify. The plot’s turns are pretty predictable; still, this is an enjoyable entertainment, especially for those who want to see Hawke take on a dark character.

A Quiet Place Part II

Dir: John Krasinski

Scr: John Krasinski

Phot: Polly Morgan

Ed: Michael P. Shawver

Premiere: May 28, 2021

97 min.

The perils of sequels are well known. The initial success of actor/director John Krasinski’s post-apocalyptic horror film “A Quiet Place” in 2018 meant that a follow-up was promptly slated. But there are many pitfalls to be avoided in continuing a film story. It can be just more of the same, a boring variation on the original premise.

Krasinki avoids mistakes in this worthy continuation. The surviving members of the Abbott family are still trapped in a world where blind aliens with extraordinary senses of hearing prey on hat is left of the human race. The resourceful mother (Emily Blunt) and her three children, one of them an infant, must travel to safety after the death of the family’s father (Krasinski, seen in flashback).

The monsters are the usual bugaboos, well-conceived and executed with typical CGI grace. But the nut of the story is not about them; it’s about restructuring human society after devastation. The movie captures the paranoia and hostility provoked by the precarious circumstances, and pushes its way through a set of scenarios that test our protagonists to the utmost.

Horror at the drive-in

Halloween Ends Dir: David Gordon Green Scr: Paul Brad Logan, Chris Bernier, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green Phot: Michael Simmonds Ed: Timothy Alverson Premiere: Oct. 14, 2022 111 min. Smile Dir: Parker Finn Scr: Parker Finn Phot: Charlie Sarroff Ed: Elliot Greenberg Premiere: Sept. 20, 2022 115 min. Who doesn’t love the drive-in? What say?…

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The Black Phone

The Black Phone Dir: Scott Derrickson Scr: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill Phot: Brett Jutkiewicz Ed: Frederic Thoraval Premiere: June 24, 2022 103 min. There’s a lot going on in “The Black Phone.” It’s a serial-killer story. It’s a ghost story. It’s a psychic-child story. It’s even a coming-of-age story. All these stories chug alongside…

Keep reading

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