Horror maestro Mike Flanagan finds himself caught between two cultural titans in Doctor Sleep. Stephen King wrote the book as a sequel to The Shining, the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of which King famously hated. Flanagan uses the book material and the movie aesthetic to bridge the gap between the two, making a film with plenty of King’s habits while paying homage to Kubrick. The latter works because Kubrick was a singular genius and even the slightest of visual nods to his films give considerable oomph. The former works… less well. The second slavish recreation of The Shining in as many years after Ready Player One, Doctor Sleep provides an imperfect follow-up that doesn’t sell its necessity as a sequel, though it has plenty of its own joys and thrills.
Stephen King adaptation and horror blockbuster It came out right in the thick of a nostalgic Spielbergian trend towards kids having an adventure, preferably sometime in the past. The conclusion to It has the difficult task of aging its tween protagonists into theoretically more emotionally mature and physically capable adults. It’s not difficult for Pennywise the Dancing Clown to loom over a whimpering child. The same effect might not be achieved when it’s Bill Hader on the receiving end. It: Chapter Two reunites much of the creative cast in director Andy Muschietti and writer Gary Dauberman, but after the considerable appeal of the original, the sequel cannot replicate whatever magic existed back in the Derry, Maine of the 80’s, much like all those Spielberg ripoff artists can’t make their own ET.
Jennifer Kent moves from the psychological/supernatural horror of The Babadook to the horror of historical atrocity in The Nightingale. While the monster of her debut was somehow turned into a camp icon, one doubts there will be similar exaltation of her follow-up. The Nightingale is an unrecommendable film, not in the sense that it’s poorly made, but in the sense that one can’t tell another person to watch it and experience its depths of human cruelty and misery in good conscience. Within those constraints, Kent makes common cause with films like Son of Saul, Come and See, or Lilya-4-Ever, all good-to-great entries in a category that find the bottoms of what people are capable of doing to each other. The Nightingale sings a song of abuse and violence and genocide, but for those with the stomach for it, there’s grace and resilience here, too. How much brutality one is willing to sit through to get there, however, is up to the viewer.
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out places the buzzed-about director in a difficult place. The critical and commercial dominance of his debut feature contained novel social commentary atop its horror bone fides, while also having a comedic subplot that connected Peele to his sketch background and spread out the film’s tension. Get Out’s success sets up Us for huge expectations, not just for an excellent film but one that has something important to say. Us, however, is hampered by an impenetrable mythology and a comedic tone that worked better in Get Out because it was separated from the high stakes events of the main plot. There’s a great deal to appreciate here in Peele’s second film, but if his two directing gigs were doppelgangers, Us is the one relegated to the underground.
Trey Edward Shults’ micro-budget debut Krisha initially seems like it’s going to be some slasher horror flick, what with the sharp strings that accompany a nude unblinking woman coming into frame. Instead, this is only a representation of the woman’s worst impulses, fated to emerge at a Thanksgiving dinner. Filmed at his parents’ home and cast with several family members who happen to be professional actors, Krisha could still be categorized as horror but of the psychological, melodramatic variety. It doesn’t get any less uncomfortable or stressful just because there isn’t a knife-wielding maniac stalking the family.
Remakes of European horror films in English often reveal what the adapter thinks of their audience. Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In left much of its plot hidden in subtext while its violent eruptions were alluded to off-camera, but the American version, Let Me In, made relationships as clear as possible and upped the budget for action sequences. That I prefer the latter to the former might say something about my cinematic tastes, and this pattern has repeated itself with the remake of Suspiria. Dario Argento’s staple of Italian giallo horror makes little sense plot-wise, instead relying on a timeless score and stunning cinematography to create an unnerving mood and an unpredictability that fans would call a feature instead of a bug. Luca Guadagnino’s version puts the plot in the forefront while holding onto the mood and the grand setpieces, draining the film of mystery but compensating with jaw-dropping sequences of body horror, historical relevance, and incredible performances. Film isn’t only about story-telling, sure, but once again, the version of a classic horror tale that doesn’t obfuscate is my preferred flavor. I guess I prefer an explanatory, though naturalistic, conversation to baffling images of vampire genitals or mangy humanoids on assassination missions.
Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy functions as my first rock opera. It’s also a drug-fueled nightmare, an earnest romance, a Nicolas Cage freakout, and a wholly unique piece of art, arguably the first time that classification could be applied to a film that also features a chain saw duel. Destined for midnight showings at the planetarium, or the modern equivalent of it, Mandy is a must, a cinematic experience that, though imperfect, feels like the kind of film that will persist long past its release date. This homage to 80’s back-bin intensity works for trashy genres in the same way that Tarantino can update chop-socky and grungy noir. I remember scoffing at the ‘visionary’ honorific attached to Cosmatos in the trailer. I’m not scoffing anymore.
There are chilling, nigh-unspeakable horror films like Rosemary’s Baby or Raw or Hereditary that worm into one’s psyche and push the limits of being able to sit in a seat, while there are others that bolt the viewer to the chair in perfectly-calibrated suspense i.e. Alien and The Thing. A Quiet Place is more indebted to the latter example, a helluva thrill ride that doesn’t linger as long as the former type. John Krasinski’s surprise hit dedicates itself to building the most crowd-pleasing film possible within the confines of its genre and its high-concept premise. It efficiently gets in and gets out, barely leaving a mark, but that ephemerality doesn’t prevent A Quiet Place from being tremendously entertaining.
The best kind of horror movies are about some kind of unspeakable impulse or thought embodied by demons or monsters. So much of David Cronenberg’s work is about a body revolting against its owner. The slasher movies of the 80’s enact some form of retributive morality on sexual freedom. Familial bonds aren’t spared from interrogation, whether in a classic like The Shining or the more contemporary Babadook. Ari Aster’s disconcerting debut Hereditary is in this last vein, stuffed with corrupted relationships to the point of bursting. It gives explicit voice to taboo feelings, especially about motherhood, as it moves between subgenres of horror in its different acts. Some of these transitions are more successful than others, but the total package is masterful in its evocation of earlier horror staples while also making its own contribution to the genre.
South Korean jack-of-all-trades Bong Joon-ho puts his unique stamp on a genre and then moves on to a new one. Memories of Murder is one of the definitive serial killer hunts, while Snowpiercer is a singular dystopian action film. Bong’s attempt at a monster movie, The Host, is a small-scale homage to Japanese kaiju films, where environmental degradation and national humiliation creates a rampaging fiend. However, while The Host fits neatly into Bong’s filmography, it’s easily his worst effort to date. Effects that would later wow in Okja are not up to par in the mid-2000’s, and his topsy-turvy use of tone furrows brows instead of bringing the viewer in. Immersiveness is not a problem for Bong, having created multiple lived-in environments, but The Host is an outlier for a director who’s other work always strikes center mass.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.