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.
The iconic xenomorph from the Alien franchise returns in Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, the eighth film featuring the xenomorph and the third with Scott at the helm. Covenant finds the franchise in an odd place. Prometheus, while a joy to look at, was a grandiose jumble of plot holes and mischaracterization, a descent for a franchise that experienced its greatest success in competent people experiencing primal, visceral horror. Covenant continues in both trends, finding biblical parables where none are necessary and grafting didactic motivations onto characters in pursuit of a muddled theme. It's a modest step up from Prometheus, but with so much proven potential for greatness around Alien, anything less than a hit is a disappointment.
Jordan Peele made his name as part of a comedy team known for sending up the interactions between black and white people, for finding the absurdities and inanities in what the latter expects from the former. Code-switching seemed to factor into every episode of Key and Peele, something the biracial Peele surely had to contend with as a child and as an adult. Peele brings that sensibility to Get Out, a Polanski-esque instant horror classic. The best horror films often contend with social commentary, and Get Out is no exception, taking the implicit envy white people have for black culture to an extreme conclusion. That the breakout critical and commercial hit of 2017 is also scathing and intelligent makes for a hopeful statement on the potentially increasing sophistication of the movie-going public.
Raw is one of those films that engenders visceral reactions in its viewers. Its showings have apparently resulted in the paramedics being called in after audience members have fainted. Even the trailer dares the viewer to look away. As the latest entry into the company of the French Extremity genre, along with gorefests like Martyrs and Gaspar Noe's nightmare landscapes, Raw deserves its grotesque reputation, but it is not solely going for cheap thrills. Julia Ducournau's intense but heady film is a feast for the eyes, as oddly beautiful and entrancing as a story about a sheltered veterinary student's cannibalistic awakening could possibly be. Ducournau throws down a challenge to stomach her work and an invitation to experience it. Both are worth accepting.
Some movies you watch knowing you aren’t going to enjoy but you just can’t help it. I remember first seeing a trailer for The Neon Demon and thinking it looked really interesting. I googled and saw it was from Nicholas Winding Refn who we at the MMC remember from Only God Forgives and it’s 1.1 group GPA (despite the B+ Joe gave it) and the famously overrated Drive. NWR serves as writer/director on The Neon Demon just as in Only God Forgives while only directing Drive and the similar not so subtleties of sexual predation are evident.
The plague of the Middle Ages is the setting of Christopher Smith's Black Death, and the film doesn't shy away from the despair of the time. Bodies in various stages of decay line streets and roads, and those still living all know someone who died an agonizing death. The religious fervor and shame inflicted on the populace by the Catholic Church is no spiritual balm, as this is all surely happening because of something the sufferer did and not because of the rats skittering through the opening frames of the film. There's little to grab onto in this world as constructed by Smith, with varying degrees of less-wrong all that separates many of the characters. It's easy to see why so few films tackle this bleak period, a fact that also makes Black Death's existence exceptional all the way through to its bitter end.
Robin Hardy's British horror classic The Wicker Man is well-known for its iconic imagery, particularly involving an ending that's got way too much cultural penetration to be able to be spoiled. While the ending doesn't surprise, what does is how much the grandiosity of the titular structure comes as less of a sharp left turn and more as a culmination of all the weird, out-of-place customs that Hardy has spent the previous 75 minutes exhibiting. From the minute the protagonist's seaplane has touched down in the village of Summerisle, the eye painted on the dinghy that will bring him the rest of the way to land indicates how off these people are. Nude dances of an evening only put the dot on the exclamation point. The Wicker Man immediately creates a sense of dread and keeps it thrumming through the film before erupting in its timeless conflagration.
One of the worst scoring 2016 films on the exit-polling site CinemaScore, Robert Eggers' The Witch deserves far better than that ignominious footnote. The usually-schlocky horror genre spits out a lot of duds, but there's always a handful each year that break out, shedding the tenuous compliment of being a good horror movie and simply being a great film. The Witch joins compatriots like The Babadook, Goodnight, Mommy, and It Follows as another horror entry that is far more than jump scares and musical stings but gets at a primal fear in a dramatically compelling way. Why that so agitated those who graded The Witch for CinemaScore is a complete mystery.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.