Monday, April 24, 2023

It's Barbaric

I wasn't intending to write about Barbarian. I knew it had plenty of attention when it came out, and didn't think I had much to add to a conversation that seemed played out. But a day or two went by after I finished the movie where I found myself so frustrated that it seemed like I should hit the laptop to figure out why.

Quick Plot: Tess arrives at her Detroit suburb Airbnb in the middle of a rainy night to a surprise: it's already been occupied by Keith, an awkward but pleasant tall drink of water. With a convention in town and big job interview the next day, Tess's limited options overpower her logical intuition that this could be a very dangerous situation.

I'm going to go into full spoilery detail on Barbarian so stop now if you're planning to watch the movie fresh (in the States, it's currently available on HBO Max). I ultimately have a lot of mixed feelings for the film, but it does enough new things that I'd say any horror fan should check it out.

Onward we go.

The easy part: the first thirty or so minutes of Barbarian are a worthy horror movie on their own. Georgina Campbell does tremendous work showing us how Tess is thinking through every decision in a tense situation, and Bill Skarsgard toes the perfect line between handsome stranger and potential murderer. We simply don't know what kind of movie we're in.

When Tess (and we) see this neighborhood in daylight, it's a new reveal, and one that makes a great contrast with the next one: the house's subterranean torture chamber. 

And here's where I roll my eyes for the first time.

A soiled mattress and a video camera. Gee, I wonder what went on there. Briefly, my hopes get raised as Tess goes deeper and writer/director Zach Cregger demonstrates some more fundamental horror filmmaking skills: the jump scare. It's a great one! I'm in!

Now Barbarian takes its biggest swing, changing our point of view to Justin Long's AJ, a disgraced, insufferable actor who just so happens to own the property where Tess went missing some weeks earlier. Cregger leans into the tonal shift and Long is certainly up for the task. He's positively odious, but also incredibly watchable, even when making absolutely terrible decisions. 

So far, so good. Where Barbarian lost me was the reveals of its two sources of horror: a typical horror movie rapist with incredible engineering skills, and a monstrous feminine creature played by someone who maybe doesn't belong in the suit. 

I'll address the second point first, as it’s more a recent pet peeve. Male actors have portrayed female monsters for decades, and from a certain filmmaking standpoint, I'm sure it makes perfect sense. Maybe it's because it's the one aspect of Ti West's X that really left me feeling off as well (having young and beautiful Mia Goth play the old Pearl, a character whose homicidal motivation springs from the fact that she's absolutely NOT young and beautiful). But yes, to have yet another extremely cisgender heterosexual male director create a grotesque female horror villain out of a performer who doesn't fit that just leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Like X, I could have looked past this decision and still felt good about Barbarian's strong points. But then the film had to do that THING.

You know the THING. You're a horror fan! You've been seeing it your whole life, but over the last fifteen years or so, it somehow feels like it's gotten more ubiquitous. Specifically, the new trend of "when in doubt, it's a dude who's elaborately imprisoning women in his basement." 

You could probably draw a timeline to the Josef Fritzl case, which became public in 2008 (the same year Pascal Laugier's Martyrs took French extremity into similar territory). Since then, it feels like horror movies that use sexual violence in their plotting have SPECIFICALLY decided the easiest way to work it in is to have the rapist be the kind of architectural genius who can build a functional torture chamber on his own. 

To what end? Barbarian is such an interesting film for so much of its running time that to rely on this tired trope of a serial rapist feels like such a ridiculously lazy decision. What do we get out of the character of Frank, an incredibly vile man who’s committed atrocious acts only to die on his own terms, while his “daughter” is a pained creature taking on the Frankenstein’s monster role? 

I’m a lifelong horror fan, which means I’ve spent decades with stories that rely on men doing terrible things to women. I’ve marathoned so many episodes of Law & Order: SVU that I can identify the season by Olivia Benson’s haircut. I GET that these kinds of storylines work, but there’s something about Barbarian’s use of it that feels so carelessly gratuitous. I had similar feelings with Slasher’s first season dungeon reveal and how Don’t Breathe handled its insemination. 

There are so many stories to tell, and Barbarian has a new one! And yet, for some reason, Cregger felt like he had to a rely on this to serve as the underlying basis for what otherwise would be a fresh and exciting tale. 

It’s a disappointment.

High Points

I’m sure many viewers found themselves screaming at Tess’s poor decision making, but I actually really appreciate the idea of showing us what a genuinely good person might do when faced with the choice of saving their own life or fighting for a stranger. It’s believable (at least to me) and makes the flip flopping of AJ that much more interesting

Low Points

Aforementioned major issues

Lessons Learned

Hell hath no fury like just outside the city of Detroit

For the sake of nice people like Tess and Keith, please leave brutally honest reviews on vacation rental sites

Dungeons do not officially count towards the square footage of a home on a standard real estate listing


Well, here I said I wasn’t going to write about Barbarian only to crank out more words on this one than several write-ups combined. Make of that what you will. This is a well-made genre film, with plenty of tension and humor that works REALLY well. I can’t not recommend it, but maybe the fact that it comes so close to being so good is what makes its faults that much worse. 

Monday, April 17, 2023

The AMAIZE-Ing Race

God bless North America, not because we deserve it (or there is a god?) but because we have so much (god)damn CORN, and you know what's great about corn? It makes a damn great set for a cheap horror movie. 

Quick Plot: Seven strangers awaken in a cornfield, each with nothing but the clothes on their helpfully fit backs and a mystery object that might be useful: a compass, box of matches, knife, gun, and so on. Like any Cube-Meets-Saw-By-Way-of-He-Who-Walks-Behind-the-Rows scenario, interpersonal tensions threaten to destroy them just as much as whatever monster is lurking just off camera. 

For the most part, the group works together better than you'd expect. Doctor Sam is able to help address wounds, while veteran Ryan serves as the muscle. The wild card is programmer Cameron, a British woman who seems intent on disagreeing with everyone on everything. 

As you might have guessed by now, there's very little new ground explored in Emerson Moore's Escape the Field. The herd gets thinned, twists are revealed, and those who remain learn the value of teamwork (whether in time or not). There's a reason this particular subgenre works, and for the most part, Escape the Field understands that. We need a character or two to care about, another one to fear, maybe one to hate, and ultimately, just enough time to watch them suffer before we get bored.

At barely 90 minutes, Escape the Field does understand that it needs to keep moving. That works, though the muddy overall look of the film almost stretches the film in less pleasant ways. It's a cornfield! Give me a scorching sun that sets into a black star-filled sky. Instead, everything feels gray. It's a strange choice. 

So...that's pretty much what you get. Ugly corn, attractive victims, a fun mystery, and unsatisfying conclusion. In the scheme of this kind of genre, it's probably just slightly on the positive side of the median. 

High Points
We're so used to these kinds of film setups starting with moody characters who immediately clash and scream at each other, but surprisingly, Escape the Field's batch are refreshingly level-headed...mostly

Low Points
While I enjoyed how the clues added up, the ending (no spoilers here) is both familiar and unsatisfying

Lessons Learned
Nothing is less pleasant than an obsessive coder

Scarecrows are incredibly valuable natural resources

Eh, Escape of the Field pretty much gave me what I expected and since that's why I watched it in the first place, it certainly satisfied (without dazzling) me. If cornfield-set strangers-in-a-sadistic-game is also your jam, have at it on Peacock. 

Monday, April 10, 2023

Once Bit...

New vampire stories come with the same rules as those about zombies: if you're going to use a monster we've seen thousands of times, bring something new to it, whether that's fresh style or a deeply personal motivation. Thankfully Brad Michael Elmore's Bit does both.

Quick Plot: Loner Laurel (Nicole Maines) graduates her Oregon high school without much aim, deciding to spend her summer visiting big brother Mark in LA. On her first night out, she happily hooks up with Izzy, who ends the evening tearing out Laurel's throat. 

First dates are weird, ESPECIALLY in LA.

As you probably suspect, Izzy is a vampire. More importantly, Izzy is part of Duke's v-squad (name pending), a quintet of undead bloodsuckers whose primary rule is simple: never turn a man. You don't have to study much history to know what happens when the lesser sex gets more power. These girls are simply being responsible.

Laurel makes her vampiric transition official, saving Duke and the girls from a wannabe Van Helsing (with hints of Joe Rogan). Once she tastes human blood, she's converted, though she remains extremely uncomfortable with actual human murder. It doesn't prevent her from drifting away from the small core of people in her previous life: brother Mark, best friend Andy, and supportive, if overbearing parents. 

Naturally, Duke's grand intentions prove to be a little less pure than initially stated. There's a history, you see, with the former head vamp now separated from his own beating heart. As Laurel's two lives begin to mix, she finds herself making some pretty big decisions with bad consequences for both worlds.

Bit made some waves a few years ago when it debuted but somehow flew right over my head (like a....vampire floating over the city lights). It was well-reviewed, especially if you're considering the fact that it's a low budget lesbian vampire movie. But what apparently caught more attention was that it wasn't just a low budget lesbian vampire movie: it's a low budget vampire trans girl lesbian vampire movie.

I was unfamiliar with the wonderful Nicole Maines, but I guess many people who spend more time on the Gen-Z internet than I do would recognize her as an incredibly prolific trans rights activist who also has the distinction of playing the first (official?) transgender superhero via TV's Supergirl. 

We all experience stories on a very personal level, often looking to find that specific thing that speaks to us directly whether intended or not by the makers. As a cisgender heterosexual woman, I'll confess that I didn't see the trans element in Bit until it popped up in the IMDB description (I was about halfway through the film at that point). Before that, I was loving Bit as a fun and fresh young-feeling vampire story. And after, it just grew a little richer once I realized it had this whole extra level.

It's a fascinating watch experience, and for me, a reminder at just how many more stories there are to tell. 

High Points
There's a balancing act when crafting a protagonist who's kind of a jerk. We're fully rooting for Laurel, but Bit doesn't hide the fact that she also turns into a pretty crappy friend and sister when her vampirism starts redirecting her priorities. She's not a perfect heroine, but she's incredibly understandable, and more importantly, Laurel reluctantly sees exactly what she's doing. It's not the easiest journey to take a character in a horror movie on but Maines and Elmore do it wisely

Low Points
It's the teeniest of complaints, but at a certain point, the budgetary restrictions show themselves a bit in the fairly lackluster visuals and limited production design. Again, I'd far prefer the story and character development to cool vampire effects, but if I HAD to pull out a negative (and for now good reason but that I started using this format 13 years ago and don't like to break my own rules), here we are

Lessons Learned
People in LA are far less patronizing than those in Oregon

When driving to LA, always keep an eye on your levels

Remember: just because they're vampires doesn't mean they don't also have weapons

I was so thoroughly entertained and impressed by Bit. It's certainly exploring some interesting things (even if it took me a bit to catch on), but more importantly, it's FUN. Give it a go via Amazon Prime. 

Monday, April 3, 2023

They Might Be Werewolves

Amazon Prime time! Which usually means a horror movie that no one has ever heard of and never will again.

My favorites. 

Quick Plot: Rich girl Sarah and her friends are partying at her dad's secluded home on a Chumash reservation. 

Yes, they're white.

Ex-boyfriend Alex brings along a card game variation on Werewolf, the perfect campfire-and-hot-sauce-spiked-tequila activity. Also on board are Sarah's older half-siblings Jacey and Tala (thankfully not white), party girls Connie and Liz, and the band "Potheads" (no, really) who respectfully do not subject us to their music. 

A few hours later, everyone wakes up with massive hangovers and lost time. 

Also, lost people. Band member Nick's little Instagram-obsessed sister Julie is missing, most likely from their trip into town for drinks and bars (and no, I don't mean "drinks at a bar"; it's 2023, OBVIOUSLY I'm talking about cell phone reception). Is it a coincidence that she was also the first victim during the gang's game? What can we make out of the pair of glowing eyes just over her shoulder spotted in that fateful last selfie? 

It doesn't take long for a few players to disappear, though it takes a whole lot longer for those remaining to stop drinking (these kids are VERY SMART). Eventually, they piece together some messy facts: the game is real, which means Nick and Connie might be morphing into their werewolf card counterparts when no one is looking.

Written by Chloe Bellande and directed by Terry Spears, As the Village Sleeps has an interesting idea at its core, and calls to mind a few other similarly low budget parlor game-based horrors, including Dead Body and Witch-Hunt (a movie I'm still begging SOMEONE else to see that wasn't me or the director's immediate family). It's a good idea for a horror film, especially when resources are clearly strained. Spears keeps virtually all of the violence offscreen, building the entire threat through situation and dialogue alone. It's admirable.

I just wish it were also entertaining. 

My biggest problem with As the Village Sleeps is that it's centered on aggressively dull to awful people. Nobody seems to actually like each other, let alone care much when they vanish. There's a kernel of an interesting relationship between Sarah and Tala, but it ends as quickly as it's introduced. It also took me a good half hour to figure out whether Tala and Jacey were siblings or lovers. I know I've read my share of VC Andrews and am therefore always looking for both, but still.

High Points
I almost didn't realize just how little action is actually onscreen until I started to think back to the film's details. It takes a bit of a leap of faith to make a horror movie knowing you can't really show any of it, and it's a credit to the filmmakers that it the concept works

Low Points
When your apparent heroine is introduced as the kind of spoiled rich girl who calls her best friend a whore (who of course responds with "bitch!"), it's an uphill battle to ever get us on her side (or any of the fairly unpleasant characters here)

Lessons Learned
The only strangers you'll encounter on a dark road in the middle of the night will be hot chicks or old dudes

You won't find street names on a tribal reservation

Pushing a fully clothed woman into a hot tub is only acceptable if rain is in the forecast

Chekov's Bear Trap

Thank goodness this sign comes into play. As I've said time and time again, if you introduce a bear trap at any point in your film, you damn well better have it go off

As the Village Sleeps is interesting in how it manages to give a fairly creative twist to the standard slasher setup. I just wish it was also interesting to watch. I think some horror fans with an appreciation for low budget potential will get something out of this. I don't regret watching it, but I just have a hard time telling anyone else to.