Monday, April 29, 2019

A Quiet Silence

The phrase "timing is everything" is hardly radical, but in the world of concept horror, it can truly make all the difference. Take, for example, Tim Lebbon's novel The Silence. Published in 2015, it tells the story of an average nuclear family in England trying to survive a plague of otherworldly monsters who hunt by sound. Since one of the children is deaf, their fluency in sign language serves as a helpful tool in outlasting the enemy. They hole up in an empty farmhouse and do their best to not make a sound.

Yes, I essentially just described the plot of John Krasinski's 2018 sleeper hit A Quiet Place. Much like how Suzanne Collins allegedly knew nothing about Battle Royale when penning The Hunger Games, A Quiet Place was also seemingly developed without any knowledge of Lebbon's book. It also had the good fortune to get its cinematic release well before director John R. Leonetti's adaptation of The Silence, which dropped on Netflix with the ill luck of being seen as a cash-in of both Krasinski's film and the similarly premised Bird Box.

All this is to say that The Silence has a lot agains it from any casual viewer's perspective. Having enjoyed the novel and Leonetti's Wish Upon, I was rooting for it.

Quick Plot: When a pair of researching spelunkers head deep into a Pennsylvanian cave, an undiscovered species of bat-like creatures emerge, blindly chewing their way through the entire Western Hemisphere. Stuck in the middle is a typical American family headed by dad Hugh (top ten crush list Stanley Tucci), mom Kelly, kid brother Jude, and key to their survival, 16-year-old Ally (Kiernan Shipka). Just three years earlier, a car accident robbed Ally of her hearing, meaning she's now used to living in the titular silence with her ASL-fluent family.

This is a huge convenience, as vesps (as the creatures are dubbed) hunt purely by sound. Joined by Kelly's cancer-ridden mom, Hugh's BFF Glenn, and a lovable but barking Rotweiler, the Andrews hitch up their vehicles and head to more rural roads, signing and whispering (even though, you know, they're signing) along the way. 

Naturally, this being of 2019's societal collapse subgenre, human-eating CGI bat things aren't the only enemy on the hunt. With less than thirty minutes left to spare, The Silence tosses in a creepy cult led by a tongue-less reverend with his eye on the apparently fertile Ally.

Let me get this out of the way: as you might have deduced by my intro, I feel a little sorry for The Silence. Director Leonetti has proven to be pretty hit-or-miss in the horror genre. For as much as I despised everything about his Butterfly Effect 2, I've been a genuine fan of his more recent output (Annabelle, Wish Upon). Throw in a cast that includes Stanley Tucci's hairy arms and Sally Draper and what's not to love?

Well, unfortunately for me, this movie.

Lebbon's book is told from the alternate points of view of Hugh and Ally (younger in the novel than Shipka in the film), providing a solid foundation of the Andrews. Ally in particular is a smart, resourceful girl, having transformed her deafness into the very key to her family's survival. A Quiet Place has its flaws (WHY DOESN'T ANYONE WEAR SOCKS GODDAMNIT?) but one of its greatest strengths is young actress Millicent Simmonds, hearing-impaired herself and playing a character with the same condition. Aside from the right politics of such a casting choice, Simmonds is wonderful, and you completely buy the struggles and strengths she deals with.

I ADORE Kiernan Shipka and continue to see great things for her future. That being said, she is not the right choice for this role.

Shipka can hear just fine, and the movie just never comes close to making us believe otherwise. Characters use sign language while whispering loudly, rendering it rather useless in the scheme of things. Then again, when the final act introduces us to a cult who has to demonstrate their menace with a sharpie and legal pad, you might be more forgiving.

The Silence boasts a ridiculously impressive cast and not a terrible creature design (although as someone partial to the cuteness of bats, the vesps to be are less scary and more like Pee-Wee's Playhouse's Pteri recovering form a meth addiction). Had Bird Box and A Quiet Place not come out mere months before, it would probably still be disappointing to me but more a "meh" rating from the masses. Instead, most audiences will see it a ripoff, and an incredibly mediocre one at that.

High Points
Pat Kiernan alert! Anyone who enjoys morning news on New York 1 knows how comforting the sight of the cheerful Canadian can be. So The Silence has that going for it

Low Points
I could harp on the fact that you can barely see what happens in any of the night scenes, but let me take this space to instead complain about the lack of any real development of time. We have absolutely no idea how many days/weeks/hours it is between the vesps' arrival and the Andrews' flight, nor does the film give us any kind of overview of how far they've driven or where they're even going. Is it weird that a small cult has developed and is already looking to repopulate the earth? WHO KNOWS?

Lessons Learned
Rattlesnakes know their way around upstate NY farmhouse sewers

iPads offer plenty of post-apocalyptic functions, but being used a map is not one of them

Really talented deaf teenagers don't even need to face you to read your lips

Curious Credits
Most films based on novels include that note in the opening credits, yet The Silence completely omits Lebbon and goes straight to screenwriters Carey and Shane Van Dyke (the latter the director of the surprisingly decent Paranormal Entity and the less so A Haunting In Salem). I don't know what Hollywood politics were involved with such a choice, but in the wake of most viewers watching this thinking "here's the Asylum adaptation of A Quiet Place", it seems like a strange missed opportunity of defense

Tim Lebbon's The Silence is an enjoyable horror novel with sympathetic characters and some strong monster passages. John Leonetti's The Silence is a messy genre film that doesn't capture its heart. Read the book, and if you need a Stanley Tucci fix, do what I do every other weekend and rewatch Burlesque.

Monday, April 22, 2019

HGTV Horrors

One of my favorite surprise watches of the last decade of straight-to-wherever-but-not-the-theaters horror is YellowBrickRoad, a film that crashes its landing but serves as a strange, creepy treat up to its last few minutes. One half of that directing team went on to make today’s feature. My expectations were high. 

Quick Plot: Simon (YBR's Richard Dreyfuss stand-in Alex Draper) is a chronic house flipper separated from his city-dwelling, anxiety-ridden wife and their slightly mischievous but good-hearted 12-year-old son Finn. After Finn does some unsupervised cell phone digging, Mom sends him out with Simon to a newly acquired Vermont country cottage for the summer. 

Hoping to renovate the long-empty house into a three-person family home, Simon delves into his project and bonding with Finn. The pair grows closer as they learn some of the odd tics of the house, and even more so once a nervous alcoholic electrician neighbor briefs them on its strange history.

It seems the last occupant was a lonely woman named Lydia who may have been responsible for shoving her husband and son into a deadly piece of farm equipment, Fargo-style. For the rest of her life, Lydia sat in the upstairs window, motionlessly watching neighborhood children...who eventually discovered the reason for her inaction was because she'd been dead for years. 

Happy housewarming!

While spunky Finn is initially thrilled at the possibility that his new home is haunted, the excitement wears off quickly when father and son meet the titular ghost. There's no denying that something is very, very wrong, and Simon wastes no time or dad points in sending Finn on the next bus home, vowing to somehow overcome Lydia's spirit while also doing some serious fixer upping.

Running at just 77 minutes, The Witch In the Window is kind of what I wanted Ti West's disappointing The Innkeepers to be: an eerie, entertaining ghost story that does a lot with a little. Draper and young actor Charlie Tacker are a warm, likable father-son pair, and it's easy to become invested in the fate not just of their lives, but of their relationship. 

Written, directed, edited, scored, and probably catered by Andy Mitton, The Witch In the Window is an intimate film that wisely zooms in on just one set of characters and the horrors they face. I'm not always the biggest fan of restrained ghost stories, often because tension can turn to tedium. The Witch In the Window avoids this fate, possibly because it wastes none of its brief running time. This isn't the scariest movie of its ilk, but it's involving, creepy, and immensely satisfying.

High Points
Simon isn't really winning any father of the year trophies, but he makes all the right decisions when confronted with danger, something incredibly refreshing in a genre that often fails this type of challenge

The Haunting of Hill House has made me look for hidden ghosts in every corner of any TV screen, and The Witch In the Window gives you plenty of eye candy in that regard

Low Points
Honestly, there’s nothing this movie lacks. Sure, I could have used more of Lydia’s history, but at its breezy under-80-minute length, anything more might have robbed the film of its perfectly sized punch

Lessons Learned
People don't go to Vermont for the oysters

Banishment means you have to go somewhere with nothing

Never double down on a good burn

The Witch In the Window is a perfect justification for an on-sale Shudder subscription. It's a small, strong little thriller that you won't find on the other services, and its unassuming packaging would have made it easy to look past in a vast video catalog. It won’t sit with me with quite the same heft as YellowBrickRoad, but it’s well above average for a straight-to-streaming genre film you’ve probably never heard of. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Best Served Desert Hot

Slowly but surely, the last few years have opened up some much-needed discussion on giving more women opportunity behind the camera. Perhaps nowhere does that matter more than horror, where females are so often mishandled, even by well-meaning male writers and directors who simply don't get it. Perhaps that's why Coralie Fargeat has received so much attention for her brutal entry in the rape-revenge genre. 

Quick Plot: Jen is spending a weekend in her married rich boyfriend Richard's isolated home, conveniently located in the middle of the desert. When his hunting buddies show up a day early, things get awkward, but one evening of sexy dancing seems to cool things down.

The next day, Richard leaves Jen alone with the lecherous Stan and cowardly Dimitri. It doesn't take the afternoon sun for Stan to rape Jen, with Dimitri choosing to let it happen while he takes a dip in the lap pool. Richard returns annoyed but pragmatic, trying to buy Jen's silence with a bank deposit and ticket to Canada. 

She's not into it. Jen tries to seize some control by threatening to call Richard's wife, prompting a heavy slap. In shock, Jen takes off barefoot, sprinting through the canyons until Richard pushes her off a cliff and stomach-first onto a sharp branch. Left for dead, Jen rouses herself up with some ingenuity involving a handy cigarette lighter. 

These dudes have no idea what they're in for. 

Written and directed by Coralie Fargeat, Revenge is a pretty straightforward thriller that lives up to its simple title. The hunted becomes the hunter, and a creative, smart, and incredibly resourceful one at that. Rape/revenge is a story we've seen told hundreds of times, but Revenge has some subtle tricks that make it worth discussing.

Yes, the first is that we have a female behind the camera, telling a story typically doused in a sleazy male gaze. I'll defend the original I Spit On Your Grave from its claims of misogyny (it's much more feminist than its very nature suggests) but yes, a woman telling this story makes a difference. 

Actress Matilda Anne Ingrid Lutz is model-beautiful, and the camera certainly loves her perfect, scantily clad body. But consider how this rape is handled: unlike many a male-directed scene, there's no closeup of a breast or lingering on Lutz's body being violated. While there are certainly cinematic rapes that fully capture the horror of the crime, there are unfortunately even more that manage to (deliberately or not) to turn such a moment into something stimulating. Fargeat's decision is to simply not show it. We get the point, and the opening of the act is enough to fuel everything that happens thereafter. 

I don't know that Revenge is a great or even overly revolutionary film, but the more I consider some of its decisions, the more I see why it's become such a big conversation piece over the last few years. In an era where even a seemingly open-minded indie-promoting studio like Blumhouse makes insanely stupid blunders about discussing women behind the camera, Revenge demonstrates how it makes such a difference. Put this exact script in a man's hands and you'd likely end up with small choices that put a very different spin on the action. 

Richard, as detestable a character as the rapist Stan, is buck naked in his final showdown with Jen. It's a very deliberate choice on Fargeat's end, and while it might seem heavy-handed to some, as a female genre-lover who's spent 37 years watching female bodies abused in ways clearly meant to turn on a specific male audience, I say bring it on.

High Points
I'm a sucker for good nature photography, so the way cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert toys with ants and other desert insects just feels darn cool

Low Points
I can forgive Jen not tying her hair back (I don't think she packed a scrunchie in her underwear) but the idea that she'd keep her oversized dangling earrings on throughout this ordeal just feels a step too far

Lessons Learned
The rules of being lost in a forest and a desert are not the same

Nothing stops blood flow with the efficiency of Saran Wrap, though its thinness might open you up to other dangerous points

Smart women sleep in their sports bras

Revenge is currently available through Shudder, and it's certainly a high recommend. Sure, it treads no real new ground, but it's a fascinating case of how perspective matters. 

Monday, April 8, 2019

Lights Out

On the pages of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, Margaery Tyrell isn't much of a presence. She never gets a point of view chapter, and therefore remains a passive pawn in other characters' games. One of the highlights of HBO's hugely successful adaptation has been (especially for readers of the books) how certain actors took lesser characters to new heights. 

As the ambitious, often-married lady of Highgarden, Natalie Dormer brought layers of intrigue to what could have been a mere body to move about Westeros. She showed even more skill in the uneven Picnic At Hanging Rock miniseries, overcoming some age miscasting to remain a fascinating presence. 

All this is to say that I'm rooting hard for Dormer's career. In Darkness marks her debut as a screenwriter, and while it's not quite the genre pic its marketing suggested, it showed up on Netflix and hence, this here blog. 

Quick Plot: Sofia is a blind pianist living one floor below Veronique, the flighty daughter of an infamous Serbian war criminal named Zoran Radic. When Veronique mysteriously tumbles out her third floor window, Sofia becomes a person of interest to everyone, from a friendly detective to Joely Richardson's icy brunette business manager and her puppy-eyed hunk of a brother (Daario Naharis Beta Tested Ed Skrein).

Between coded USB drives, poisoned champagne, and incredibly polished eye makeup applied without sight, In Darkness is an ambitious thriller that wants to do a LOT in its 100 minute run time. Written by Dormer and director Anthony Byrne, it piles mystery upon red herring upon mystery, with at least two major twists and very little room to breathe. 

It's far too much plot, and many of the details pile up in a way that adds to the ridiculousness of the story. Take, for example, the violinist busker who Sofia sees (well, not SEES, but you know) ever day on her afternoon coffee runs. At one point, she asks him to warn her if he sees a certain suspect by playing a lesser known composer. He does...sometime in the middle of the night. Does this accomplished, very clean-cut street musician LIVE outside this suburban coffee shop? Does he actually make cash at all hours? IS HE A ROBOT? 

You get the point. 

I almost wish In Darkness had leaned in harder to some its sillier elements. At times, there's a sense of campiness bubbling right under the super serious veneer, from Veronique's leopard print fashion to Detective Mills' inability to ever not eat. Maybe next time, Dormer and Byrne can embrace the fun. It would be better for all of us. 

High Points
Sofia has a little too much skill at everything to be a believable woman (and the less said about the final twist, the better) but as expected, Dormer remains an engaging presence onscreen who's impossible not to care about

Low Points
There is so much wrong with the final reveal that puts every action before it in question that I won't waste my time here listing it all. Just know that the ending is stupid and kind of makes the whole movie even stupider, despite it trying so hard not to be

Lessons Leaned
Nothing makes a dieting detective hungrier than a visit to the morgue

Grieving lets people see that you have feelings

45-year-old British size 10s don't do dairy

It pains me to say In Darkness is a deeply flawed film, but at the same time, I can fully admit that I didn't hate watching it. It's loaded with beautiful, well-dressed British people being mysteriously sexy amidst classical music, and that in itself has its charms. I wish the script had a little more finessing, but hey: I'd rather a film try too hard than phone it in. Even if I wish it had hung up the phone two minutes earlier.