Much like his first effort, Hereditary, director Ari Aster’s follow up, Midsommar, is an exercise in exacting detail. From the meticulous set design, to the beautiful execution of each camera movement, to the painterly quality of almost every shot composition, Aster is an uncompromising film artist. That he uses his skills in order to shock and disgust his audiences (as well as make them laugh) is part of what makes him such a unique filmmaker. Midsommar is Stanley Kubrick meets Dario Argento. At the same time, you won’t see anything like its sui generis sensibility on screen this year.
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Us is an example of the most thematically and intellectually satisfying kind of horror movie. There is a razor-sharp critique of our society running right underneath – and often on the surface of – what is otherwise an unsettling, scary film in its own right. Just like his previous effort, Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele has something more on his mind with Us than scenes of blood-curdling horror, although he proves himself capable of delivering those as well.
Provocateur director Gaspar Noé has put a waking nightmare on screen with his newest movie Climax. The film is unsettling, nauseating, confusing, and, in the end, a singular viewing experience that only Noé could unleash upon the world. The director responsible for the equally singular Enter the Void – which I revisited as the second part of a double feature with Climax, a night I won’t soon forget – uses nihilism the way Bob Ross used happy little trees, often and with great satisfaction. There is no lesson to be learned here. Climax isn’t exploring any deeper truths about the human condition. Noé’s only goal seems to be to shock and disorient his audience. In that way, Climax is a complete success.
I’m blaming screenwriter David Kajganich for Suspiria’s biggest failures as a remake of a cult classic. I caught up with the original – Dario Argento’s bonkers Italian giallo horror film from 1977 – almost a year ago. That film overwhelmed my senses in the best possible way. The hallucinatory color palette, grand guignol-style gore, and seminal score from prog-rock band Goblin collaborated to give me an unforgettable experience.
Director Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake is too concerned with making the movie about something.
In his first feature film, Hereditary, director Ari Aster sets the disorienting tone of the entire movie in the very first shot. It’s a glacial pan around a room full of what appear to be dollhouses. We soon find out the protagonist, Annie Graham, is a miniaturist artist, and these tiny re-creations are her work. As Aster’s camera performs a delicate dolly, getting ever closer to one of the miniatures, we see sudden motion. A man walks through a dollhouse door. This space – at first a dollhouse representation of a bedroom – now fills the frame, and it inexplicably transforms into a new, full-sized setting. The man who walks through the door is Steve, Annie’s husband, and he’s waking their son, Peter, so that the family won’t be late for a funeral. Annie’s mother, Ellen, has died after suffering from a long period of dementia.
Aster’s perplexing and clever visual introduction tries to prepare us for the story that is about to unfold. Nothing in Hereditary is what it seems. One of the most exciting things about the movie is how many surprises it contains. Every time I thought I had a handle on where it was going, Aster peels back another layer. He keeps the unexpected revelations coming at a feverish pace right up until the final, terrifying last scene. What at the beginning promises to be a film about loss, grief, and family dysfunction – although Hereditary is about all that, too – by the last act becomes a fever dream of a horror film, and easily the scariest movie of the year.
I don’t have kids, and I plan on never having them. As actor Sam Rockwell once said in an interview, “I definitely don't want to become a parent. It's not my bag.” Same here. So, I’ll never understand that special bond that a parent has with a child. I’ll never have that feeling that I would do anything, including sacrificing my own life, for the well-being of my children. John Krasinski, the director, co-writer, and star of the new horror film A Quiet Place does have kids. He wanted to explore the qualities of the parent/child bond when he did a rewrite on Bryan Woods and Scott Beck’s original screenplay after he signed on to direct the film.
I can’t say from personal experience if Krasinski got it right. You’ll have to ask a parent. As someone who is in a committed romantic partnership, though, and has bonds with friends and family, I can say he nailed this story of protecting your loved ones. A Quiet Place is absorbing, gripping, and terrifying.
With his new film Annihilation, director Alex Garland is attempting bold, exhilarating science fiction that is on par with a master of the genre, the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. The science fiction films that Tarkovsky made used fantastic settings and circumstances to explore the human condition. His film Solaris is a meditation on grief and acceptance that takes place on a fictional planet with mysterious powers. Stalker involves characters who wish to travel to “The Zone,” a place that contains a room that can fulfill a person’s innermost desires. Annihilation also uses a cosmic, head-trip scenario to examine human fears, mostly our collective fear of being wiped out of existence. Garland is masterful at creating a mood of existential dread and using a sci-fi backdrop to employ glorious, overwhelming imagery, but his movie never really gets below the surface of its premise.
At about 30 minutes into The Cloverfield Paradox, I had one of those moments that often comes along when I’m watching an entertaining bit of genre filmmaking. I took a moment to appreciate how much I was enjoying the experience by mentally telling myself, “I am really into this.” Then, as is often the case with most storytelling, the plot of the movie had to kick in, and things started to go a little haywire. By the end, it was clear just how much of a disaster this movie was. Its plot is nonsensical to the point of being moronic. At least some of Paradox’s coherence problem was made worse because the producers – most notably J.J. Abrams – decided to tie this stand-alone sci-fi movie into the Cloverfield series during filming. This led to the film’s writer, Oren Uziel, penning new scenes and rewriting others, and the director, Julius Onah, shooting those changes in order to make Paradox – originally titled God Particle – fit into the Cloverfield universe. The result is an utter mess of a movie.
If you want to find the most polarizing film of 2017, look no further than Darren Aronofsky’s baroque experiment in psychological horror, mother! (which after this point, I’ll refer to simply as Mother). This is a movie that’s impact I suspect will diminish on a second viewing. Unlocking the secret at Mother’s core, which will probably come at a slightly different point for just about everyone seeing it, robs it of some of its power. Aronofsky has made pure allegory here, using an extreme dream-logic aesthetic that is nothing if not simultaneously hypnotic and terrifying.
If Stranger Things is an original story that taps into every sci-fi/horror touchstone from the youth of people my age (mid-to-late 30s), then It is one of those touchstones remade with the same sensibility. This is the hard R version of Stranger Things; the one you don’t take the kids to see to get them into what you loved when you were a kid. Maybe you do, though, if you’re the kind of awesome parents mine were, parents who let your kids watch pretty much whatever they want. Thanks, mom and dad.
It is based on Stephen King’s popular – and gargantuan – 1986 novel. The book, and the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation, both play on baby boomer nostalgia. The story is split between two different time frames, following seven people as kids in the late 1950s, and 30 years later as adults. This new version has been updated for the Gen X/Millennial set. The part of the story that follows the characters as kids, which the movie focuses on exclusively, is set in 1989. Thus, we see a Gremlins poster featured prominently on one character’s bedroom wall.
When the lights came up at my screening of It Comes at Night, director Trey Edward Shults’ second feature film, I was stuck to my seat. I was emotionally pulverized not only by the very last shot, but almost everything that came before it. This is a movie that gives no quarter. Do not look for solace here. The film is bleak and grim, and it will test your resolve. If you’re willing to take the journey, It Comes at Night will also reward you with ruminations on a variety of themes, including trust, paranoia, and the idea of community. Be warned, though, you might not like its conclusions about any of them.
The movie is set after some sort of plague has befallen the earth. We meet a family: Paul, Sarah, their teenage son Travis, and the family dog, Stanley. There is one other member of the family, Sarah’s father, Bud, but when we meet him he is already sick from whatever disease has ravaged the outside world. What Paul is forced to do in the first five minutes of the movie to end Bud’s suffering expertly establishes the tone of what’s to follow in the next 85 minutes.
A great thing about the early entries in the Alien franchise is that they are exciting and scary good fun. Alien: Covenant is too obsessed with its own mythology to be much of either. Director Ridley Scott had the perfect opportunity to pull a George Miller. That filmmaker revived his Mad Max series with the fresh and inventive Fury Road. Miller wasn’t concerned with what he did in the past. With Fury Road, he gleefully started from scratch, and as a result produced a rip-roaring action film, one of the best of the decade. Alien: Covenant is the first true Alien movie in 20 years. Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus was a sort of spiritual sequel to the franchise, taking place in the same universe, but centered on its distant origins. Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus. Instead of surprising us with the possibilities of a clean start, Scott and his writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, give us that sinking feeling with Covenant that this is someplace we’ve already been.
There is a long history in horror movies of incorporating social commentary into the thrills and chills of the plot. The genre has had a renaissance in the last four or five years, both in terms of quality and box-office success. Movies like Don’t Breathe and It Follows caught on with critics and audiences alike, a difficult feat. Comedian Jordan Peele – best known as one-half of the sketch comedy show Key & Peele – wrote and directed Get Out, a horror movie that takes racism as its central plot element. Get Out is a complex and thought-provoking picture, sure to start some awkward, important conversations. Peele has proven himself an immensely talented writer and director. He made a horror movie that is genuinely creepy, while also providing pointed observations on what being black in a white world is like.
I live in a one-hundred-year-old house, and there is nothing more frustrating than the hardwood loudly creaking under even the softest steps when you’re trying not to wake someone. When staying completely silent becomes a matter of life and death, like it is in the horror movie Don’t Breathe, every footfall becomes agonizing. Director Fede Alvarez and his writing partner Rodo Sayagues earn both agony and ecstasy with their twisted story. It is nothing short of splendid.
Horror movies have never held my imagination in particular, but I can appreciate finely crafted tales of terror. There is no finer movie-going experience than being reduced to repeating Dr. Ian Malcolm’s survivalist mantra – must go faster, must go faster! – during a horror movie as you watch the characters frantically attempt to escape their fate. The intense panic and dread Alvarez’s movie conjures throughout more than makes up for its generic shortcomings. Don’t Breathe leans too heavily on archetypes in the first act, some basic plot points don’t hold up to close scrutiny, and the climax briefly delves into the realm of torture porn that is out of step with the rest of the picture. Those are small problems, though, considering the psychological punch the movie delivers.
The Neon Demon is an odious and hateful movie. It traffics in a base misogyny that masquerades as high art. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has tried to complicate the issue of that misogyny by populating his movie with an almost exclusively female cast. The fact that the women who are punished and degraded in The Neon Demon suffer their fate mostly at the hands of other women doesn’t make it any less troubling.
To counter this baseness, Refn collaborated with two women on the script, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. In an interview with The Evening Standard, Refn intimates that he wanted to work with a woman on this new script because of his perceived issues with writing female characters. “I always set out wanting to make films about women but it always ends up being about men. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to write them.”
In the same interview, Stenham acknowledges Refn’s reputation for treating the women in his movies poorly. “He’s got a lot of stick for doing films some people think are violently misogynistic. So he approached me with the idea of doing something different.” His choice of collaborators on this project doesn’t give the impression that he’s trying to grow as an artist when it comes to his female characters, though, which I think was the intended effect. Instead, it feels like cover for Refn to indulge in an even more extreme misogyny than what’s been found in his previous work.
Do you know someone who insists that there’s no such thing as an original idea in movies anymore? It’s just the same six or so stories that they tell over and over, they say. If you do, look that person straight in the eye and tell them that they are dead wrong. Because The Lobster exists. This is a movie that almost defies explanation. The way it improbably blends romance, the blackest of comedy, and existential horror is spectacularly original. The Lobster is as haunting as it is unique, and it’s a film that won’t be easy for me to shake any time soon.
Set in either a dystopian future or simply a world wholly different from our own, the society in this story finds loneliness abhorrent. Anyone not in a committed relationship must check into a resort where they have 45 days to either find a partner or be turned into the animal of their choosing. It’s a delightfully absurd premise, which writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos sadistically uses to lull his audience into a false sense of security during the first act of the picture.
“Who would have a box full of clowns?” That’s the question young Griffin Bowen (Kyle Catlett) asks his father, Eric (Sam Rockwell), upon discovering said box while exploring his new attic bedroom. That question begs infinitely more while watching Poltergeist, the remake of the classic 1982 horror film of the same name. By the end, only one question ultimately mattered: Why re-do such a popular and well-regarded movie if you’re going to do it with absolutely no style? I’m relatively sure no filmmaker goes into a project with that intention, but that’s the end result with this version of Poltergeist. The movie is as bland as baby food.