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.
Darren Aronofsky has put some bonkers imagery onscreen over the course of his career, but it’s never weird for the sake of weird. Every refrigerator monster is on purpose and in service of the hapless characters running through Aronofsky’s wringer. His seventh film, mother! (hereafter referred to as Mother for the sake of simplicity), is the first where that might not be the case. A naked allegory for biblical history, Mother doesn’t have characters so much as it has symbols. Even Aronofsky’s tackling of the story of the flood in Noah was still grounded in the titular patriarch and his family. Mother is no less powerful and memorable than a film like The Fountain or Black Swan, but it’s the most elemental in the unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings it dredges up. However, what it lacks in characters who exist as individuals, it more than compensates in its level of bonkers, as this is the closest to a filmed nightmare that I’ve ever seen. Mother is so visceral and so potent that its allowed some amount of shirking in the character department.
The wave of 80’s nostalgia reaches its height with It, an adaptation of Stephen King’s famous clown-phobic novel. Written in 1986 and originally set in the equally nostalgia-laden 50’s, It gets brought into the rosy decade currently obsessing modern audiences. The 50’s and the 80’s, marked by domestic calm in the aftermath of disruptive grand events, are perfect representations of ugliness hiding beneath the surface, an ugliness made manifest by King’s iconic Pennywise the Dancing Clown, brought to campy life by Tim Curry in the 1990 TV miniseries and now by an eccentric and disconcerting Bill Skarsgard. In director Andy Muschietti’s vision, It becomes a distillation of horror filmmaking intruding onto a sun-dappled summer. He captures the gauzy childhood adventures of bikes and swimming holes and bully evasion alongside a judicious use of jump scares/edits, musical stings, sped-up motion, and other tried-and-true techniques guaranteed to get the heart racing. The tremendously-successful film is a true crowd-pleaser, earning scares as well as laughs even as it seriously endangers the future earnings of clown college graduates.
Kathryn Bigelow’s partnership with writer Mark Boal hits a bump with Detroit. The two have produced exceptional work with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but Detroit lacks the former’s psychological specificity and the latter’s ability to coherently adapt an unfolding story. Detroit certainly contains Bigelow’s flair for generating unbearable levels of tension. However, in choosing to focus on what it focuses on, it becomes didactic in a way that her and Boal’s recent works studiously avoid. It also is a story of racism and police abuse that feels unnecessary when the contemporary equivalent can be easily found fifty years after the events of the film. Zero Dark Thirty contained scenes of actual torture, but it was impossible to call it torture porn. Detroit, as well made as it is, has a hard time shaking that label.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.