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Reviews

Posted on October 18, 2017

Happy Death Day and Life’s Trauma

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With Happy Death Day, Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions continue their string of innovative and high-quality horror films (The Purge, The Gift, Split, The Visit, Unfriended, Get Out). Directed by Christopher B. Landon and written by Scott Lobdell Jr., Happy Death Day is, of course, not completely original (what is?). Its premise echoes the 2017 teen drama, Before I Fall (Ry Russo-Young), which is based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Lauren Oliver. And it is deeply and self-consciously indebted to the brilliant Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993). That said, though, while Happy Death Day isn’t groundbreaking, it is a fresh approach to the slasher film. Its success is due not least to the fabulous performances of its two leads—Jessica Rothe who plays Tree and Israel Broussard as Carter. The supporting cast is also great, including Rachel Matthews as uber-bitch sorority queen, Danielle.

The film follows college student Tree after she wakes up on her birthday in a relative stranger’s (Carter’s) dorm room after a night of hard drinking. She cavalierly goes through her post-debauch day, revealing how fundamentally unpleasant she is to everyone around her. On her way to a party that night, she’s murdered by a masked figure—only to wake up in Carter’s room on her birthday again. The day keeps repeating and, as you might imagine, Tree experiences a variety of shocked and panicked emotions before she starts trying to take control of her experience, figure out what’s going on, and stop the cycle.

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Posted on September 25, 2017

Fantastic Fest: Maus and the Horror of War

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Get Out’s Jordan Peele and Blumhouse Productions’ Jason Blum are not alone in arguing that politics are crucial to the horror film.[i]  Spanish director Yayo Herrero’s film Maus had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 22, 2017, and it is a deep dive into the politics of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992 to 1995), its lingering aftermath, and the current tensions in Europe surrounding immigration and terrorism. Both in his introduction to Maus at Fantastic Fest, and in the Q&A afterwards, Herrero insisted that politics are crucial to horror, that horror is good because of its politics. He also made the point that what is important about Maus is not any particular message, which he resisted stating directly, but the debate that it will stir up. And, indeed it will stir up debate.

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Posted on September 23, 2017

Fantastic Fest: Thoroughbreds

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Thoroughbreds (USA; 2017) is written and directed by Cory Finley, his first feature film. It began life as a play, but, as Finley was writing it, he told the audience at Fantastic Fest, he realized that he was seeing parts of his story cinematically. So Thoroughbreds became a film starring Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Lily, and Olivia Cooke, who plays Amanda.

Lily and Amanda are two wealthy former friends (sort of) finishing up high school in Connecticut. They are thrust together when Amanda’s mother pays Lily to tutor her. From beginning to end, the film is about the two girls’ relationship, which flourishes under Amanda’s relentless unconventionality and honesty, as she pushes Lily to be more honest about herself. It doesn’t take long for Amanda to learn that Lily hates her stepfather (Paul Sparks). Does she have reason to hate him as much as she does? Maybe. The film goes to the brink of portraying him as abusive, possibly to Lily, possibly to Lily’s mother, but it stops short and we wonder if maybe he’s just a rather run-of-the-mill jerk. Either way, the amoral Amanda suggests an unthinkable plan to Lily, and the plot then takes a dark turn, wending its way into increasingly unexpected terrain.

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Posted on September 17, 2017

Aronofsky’s Mother! Unabashed Misogyny

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This post contains spoilers; I thought about it long and hard but was unable to write about Mother! without discussing the ending.

Darren Aronofsky’s most recent film was preceded by a suitably vague trailer that quite effectively, as it turned out, disguises what his film is actually about.

And much of the film, like the trailer, is intriguing because it doesn’t give away what’s going on, what kind of film Mother! is. It trades in many horror film conventions, raising all kinds of expectations: there’s a couple isolated in a house, each with a mysterious past; there’s a house that seems itself to be sentient, alive; there are uninvited guests who quickly turn hostile (is this a home invasion film?); and there’s an uncanny pregnancy (Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is one of the principal cinematic touchstones of Mother!). Jennifer Lawrence does a great job of playing the standard “haunted house” protagonist, especially after she becomes pregnant, a woman who may or may not be seeing what’s actually there, may or may not be experiencing hallucinations. Indeed, for much of its run-time, Mother! seems like a gothic horror film, a subgenre that is notable for featuring strong women and feminist themes.

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Posted on July 24, 2017

The Disappointments Room Does Horror (Badly) by the Numbers

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2016                R                     USA                D. J. Caruso             85 mins.

The Disappointments Room has all the ingredients of a good horror film, which is perhaps part of the problem. The film seems content to fill in the colors of lines that have already been well drawn. It has no imagination, adds nothing new, and simply plods through the motions.

Married couple Dana (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Mel Raido), along with their young son Lucas (Duncan Joiner), move to an isolated old house in the country. Not surprisingly, we soon discover two things: 1. Dana and David have recently experienced a traumatic event, and Dana is not dealing with it very well; 2. The house they are moving to has its own traumatic past, one that soon makes its uncanny appearance to the more vulnerable Dana. She starts seeing things and soon the line between hallucination (or supernatural occurrence) and reality starts wavering.

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