Pearl (2022) Review

Quick synopsis: Trapped on an isolated farm, Pearl must tend to her ailing father under the watch of her mother. Lusting for the glamorous life she’s seen in movies, Pearl’s temptations and repressions collide and she starts killing people, one of which she leaves near the entrance of her house, literally sending her to the Pearl-ey gates.

I actually wasn’t a fan of X, it just didn’t vibe with me. So I went into this with slight apprehension, worried that I might end up being bored very early on. The good news is, I didn’t dislike it for a long time of it. The downside, the longer Pearl went on, the less love I had for it. I loved the stylistic choices, and the performances are incredible. I just, I dunno, at some point I just stopped caring. Once I got past the Wizard Of Oz feel, I wasn’t that engrossed by it. It’s not helped that I didn’t like any of the characters. The titular Pearl is a sociopath, her mother is unbearably cruel, and the projectionist seems a little too date-rapey. Also, they’re not quite despicable enough to be villains. Pearl is driven mainly by her ambition and desires to leave her farm (which anybody who has seen X will know she never does), Pearls’ mother recognises that Pearl is capable of great evil, so she is trying to protect the world from her. So you can’t really truly despise them either. In a film full of colours, all the characters are too morally grey to feel too strongly about.

I think I need to watch more Ti West, as it is possible I just don’t like his writing style. Others do, and I can see why. He writes like a 70s horror writer, so you know that no matter what, it won’t be stupid, and it will take its time. His stuff mainly seems to be very slow burns, which normally I like, but I feel it didn’t really lead to much this time. It’s like watching a car slowly roll down a hill, you expect it to crash at the end, but instead, it just slows down gradually and comes to a stop.

Everybody involved is obviously talented, Mia Goth gives an incredible performance, one scene, in particular, is a master class in acting where she just gives an unbroken monologue to her friend. Tandi Wright is also great as the mother of Pearl, I wouldn’t trade her for another girl. That’s a reference to this song btw, I haven’t just decided on a really weird sentence structure.

Matthew Sunderland gives a weirdly good performance considering his character can’t move, but his eye work is tremendous. There is a definite love for the art here, the fact that Ti West, when he needed an illicit film, didn’t just invent one, or find a random one, he actually showed A Free Ride, which is seen as the earliest American porn movie that is still available for viewing today. It’s obvious he knows his shit, it’s just not for me.

If this was a short film, I’d have loved it. If it actually did more with the concept than the “we have an idea”, I’d have liked it. But as a feature? For a film which features genuine pornography, there’s surprisingly little meat. Also, it’s weird this received a US cinema release in September last year, and a Blu-ray/DVD release in November, yet didn’t come out here until March. Wtf is up with that?

Scream VI (2023) Review

Quick synopsis: People from Woodsboro get stabbed, this time in New York

I am a massive fan of the Scream franchise (despite only managing to catch one of them at the cinema), so a new one is always welcome. They don’t just work as slasher horrors, but also as murder mysteries, you watch them and look for clues to work out who the killers is, and why. The duel genre nature of the franchise is one I’ve always been a fan of, so I was looking forward to this. Scream movies have always started well, and have always been unexpected. The first one killed off Drew Barrymore, the third one killed off returning character Cotton Weary, the fourth was….well it was very weird, the fifth one started with the person who was attacked surviving, and this? This started with someone being brutally murdered, and the killer unmasking himself. It’s a shockingly different way to start the film off, and I love it. I’ll say this now, it’s genius. It subverts expectations twice, and both times it blew my mind and got me very excited.

The ending? Not so much. Scream 3 gets a lot of shit for the killer reveal, but it was still a lot better than this. In the third one, there was still some ambiguity about who the killer could be and what their motives were, we were presented with numerous possibilities, but enough clues so that we could possibly figure it out (but maybe not the “why”). Scream VI does the opposite, it’s blindingly obvious who the killers are. When you have a character say they “had” a son, and also have them talk about swearing revenge on those who hurt his family, it’s not difficult to figure out that they’re the killer, and the motive. Related to this, if a character in a slasher movie dies off-screen and you don’t see the body properly, they didn’t die. This is incredibly obvious to everybody who has seen a movie before. It’s an incredibly disappointing reveal, even more so because it starts wonderfully.

The rest of Scream VI is fun to watch, well, as fun as watching people get brutally murdered can be. The kills are disgustingly brutal, it gets really specific with where the knife goes. Someone being stabbed directly in the throat will always be a manner of murder that stands out more than just stabs in the back or chest. That being said, there is a scene where someone gets stabbed in the chest repeatedly and the sheer violence of it is shocking, so there is a way to do something as simple as that in a way that makes it stand out.

Usually, “[killer name] in Big City” is a sign a horror franchise has gone off the rails, second only to “in space” as a sign that the movie is going to be shit. I actually like the way they use the location here. New York is loud, so it is conceivable that somebody can be stabbed in an alleyway and nobody will notice. I will respect this for not doing the obvious scenes in Times Square etc. It is in New York, but it’s not a tour of the landmarks. Instead, it is a way to introduce different horror set pieces, the scene on the subway system is incredible, although it was ruined in the previews (as was the scene in the bodega). There are moments where it does get a bit too “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” Spider-Man-like.

The big story leading up to the release was the absence of Neve Campbell, who refused to make an appearance due to Paramount deciding not to pay her enough because they’re bastards. I have to be honest though, I’m not sure what she would have done in this. There’s not really a Sidney Prescott-shaped hole in this story. If there’s a sequel then there will have to be a discussion about bringing her back, but the story they’re telling here? She would have seemed superfluous. They do explain her absence, and it’s a way that makes sense. Without Neve, Scream VI focuses more on the characters introduced in last year’s Scream. The only legacy character to return is Gale Weathers, but Courtney Cox only appears in roughly 4 scenes. Her character seems to have reverted to her Scream 1 persona, in a character development that doesn’t make much sense. Her scenes do feature a nice reference to how she and Ghostface have never really spoken much, but aside from that, Gale’s scenes seem a bit superfluous.

Not quite established enough to be a legacy character, but also returning from this is Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby Reed, who was last seen (and introduced) in Scream 4,or to give it proper (a.k.a, stupid) title: Scre4m (pronounced Screfourm, obviously). It is nice to see her back, not just in this franchise, but in Hollywood in general, with this being Hayden’s first film appearance since Custody in 2016. Kirby’s character arc is a great examination of how characters react to events like this, although I would like to see her explored more in the future.

The rest of the cast is great too, Melissa Barrera keeps her upward trajectory, but I feel this does slightly stall the momentum Jenna Ortega is on from Wednesday. Not due to the quality of the script, but there are moments near the start where her performance seems a little bit weak. Not “OMG this is terrible” level, but it feels like she’s operating at a slightly lower level than everybody else. In a film full of Lennon and McCartney, she’s a George Harrison; still very good, but overshadowed.

So in summary; go see this. It’s very good, although you may get a headache from how many times the “How did they survive that?” alarm in your head goes off.

M3gan (2022)

Quick Synopsis: Remember the 2019 Child’s Play? It’s that. Only with a younger child, less snark, and more orphans.

I’ll get the obvious out of the way, you don’t need to have seen M1gan, or M2gan for this film to make sense, mainly because those films don’t exist on account of M1gan sounding less like a horror film, and more like a documentary about the motorway connecting London and Leeds. I would not have made them the first movies I see in 2023, that would be weird.

This was actually the first film I saw in cinemas this year, and I don’t regret that choice at all. It’s a fun watch. It’s not likely to end up among the best films seen this year, but it is likely to be among the ones I had the most fun watching. This is my type of horror film; funny, violent, and well-made. That’s not to say it’s disposable, I think the idea of a horror film coasting by just on the kills are long-gone, they need to justify themselves to still work. This does that, it’s made with a lot of care and really feels like a passion project.

Some people may find it a bit too reminiscent of the last Child’s Play film, but I actually enjoyed that so it’s not exactly a downside, after all, even if you eat chocolate ice cream on a Monday, you’re not going to say no to chocolate ice cream on a Tuesday. Sometimes it’s okay to do the expected. There’s not much about this that’s necessarily groundbreaking or new, it’s not reinventing the wheel. It knows you know what’s going to happen, but it’s done so skillfully that that actually works in the movie’s favour. A good example of this is a scene where a technician is attempting to fix M3gan. Everybody in the audience knows that she’s going to reboot and attack him. But the key is when is it going to happen? It’s like watching someone play Jenga, every block removed causing a sigh of relief when the tower doesn’t fall, and the longer it doesn’t fall the tenser it gets as you know it’s building to the inevitable conclusion. Only, Jenga doesn’t cause as much blood usually (I’m aware there are exceptions).

So that’s the film itself, now onto the pieces that make it up. This is only the second feature directed by Gerard Johnstone, and that’s baffling. It feels like the work of an experienced hand, the way he balances horror and humour is a good sign for his future prospects. If he sticks with M3gan, he could helm a killer franchise, which the genre surely needs as there doesn’t seem to have been many in the last few years.

Oh, to answer the question; Get Out. That’s where you know lead actress Allison Williams from. Or possibly HBO’s Girls. I was trying to figure out where I knew her from the whole time. She’s well-cast in this, her slightly detached closeness makes sense. There are a few scenes where you feel she could do more, but there’s never a scene where it feels like she needs to. Violet McGraw does a pretty damn good job as Cady (the young child that befriends M3gan). I wouldn’t be surprised if she grows into a great talent over the next few decades. She has a really difficult role in this actually, a child who has lost her parents and is searching for emotional reassurance without being able to say that out loud because she’s too young to fully understand that’s what she needs. The worry when she approaches the android is understandable, as is the joy when they start emotionally connecting.

Now, M3gan herself. Usually, a character like that is either CGI or puppetry/robotics. Here she’s played by Amie Donald, a child actress from New Zealand. Her physical commitment to the role is impressive, moving in a way that even the silhouette provides an uncanny valley experience. If she moved naturally the character would be laughable, it’s the strange stiffness that reminds you that the character isn’t human, and then she rips a kid’s ear off easily and that confirms it.

That scene is very disturbing by the way, and if it wasn’t for the strange dance M3gan does that’s gone viral, I feel the child murder would be the iconic scene. It’s a good murder, and the motives for it make sense. Not only was the child threatening Cady, but he also pretty much tried to rape M3gan. I mean, he removes some of her clothing, strikes her in the face, and straddles her. He had no idea she was a sentient robot, he just thought he was fucking a toy. That’s still not great, is it?

Sadly, like all movies of this ilk, there is the inevitable sequel hook. It’s not as egregious as they usually are though, so that’s a plus. There is a self-contained story here, so any sequels will be nice addendums, rather than necessities. Plus, I wouldn’t actually mind seeing a sequel, if it was done right. If it’s just another “oh no, killer toy robot” then I wouldn’t be too excited. But a sequel that examined the effect these murders had on the survivors, the town, and the toy company itself trying to handle a PR nightmare that can’t be ignored? I’m down for that.

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair (2021)

Quick synopsis: Alone in her bedroom, Casey (Anna Cobb) takes part in an online horror challenge, one which affects her sanity in this coming-of-age horror from Jane Schoenbrun.

This is weird. I’m still not entirely sure if I liked it or not. I am very glad I’ve seen it, and it is one that I would recommend, but my personal thoughts on it are still going through my head. I’ll admit, I tend to avoid a lot of films like this because they all run together in my mind. The “teen challenge horror” has seen a resurgence lately, and a lot of them have been cheap and kind of shit. I was ready to put this on the file of “nah, won’t bother watching” alongside Slenderman (and where Truth Or Dare should have been). I then realised Anna Cobb was in it. I thought she was the best part of How To Deter A Robber last year so I thought would be interesting. She seemed really different in this though, there was none of the Anna Kendrick-ness to her this time round, which surprised me. It was like she was a completely different person. There’s a reason for that, this was Anna Cobb, that was Abbi Cobb, a completely different actress. I feel that that paragraph may be a disservice to Anna as she is really good in this. She has incredibly expressive eyes. This is her feature debut, and she nails it. I’m really looking forward to what she does next. She’s one of the best things about this film. Although that’s easy to say, as she’s one of the only things about this film. It’s incredibly minimalist, most of the film is her on her own, talking to a camera. I don’t recall a moment of her sharing the screen with anybody at any time. There are moments where she’s talking to someone offscreen, or via webchat, but most of it is just her. Weirdly, it doesn’t end with her. The ending is a guy talking, a guy who is possibly being an unreliable narrator. The film is at its weakest when it’s not on Casey, so it’s frustrating when the film closes not on a different character. The closing is just too long and too much nothing. Much like the opening.

The opening could, and should have been shorter, it’s about 8 minutes of her sitting in front of the camera doing the challenge (saying a phrase three times, smearing blood on the computer, then sitting in front of strobe lights). Could have been done in about 3 minutes and achieved the same. The film itself is only 85 minutes, so that’s almost a 10th of the film doing nothing. It also sets up the film as being something different from what it is, since the whole intro is from the POV of her webcam, it makes you think the whole film will be like that, certainly the minimalist cast would lead you to believe that. It’s not, it mostly is, but the moments where it’s not that don’t add to it. It is kind of a wasted opportunity, the nature of the story would lend itself to her being viewed on a camera or computer screen at all times. Cobb is such a good performer, and has such brilliant facial expressions that it kind of feels like a waste when the film has moments of scenery with her talking over them. As beautiful as the scenes look, you want to see her. This film is at its best when it doesn’t feel like a film. When it feels like home recordings that you’re weirdly intruding on. If the film was entirely recordings from a camera, then the ending of the male character would have a bigger impact. It would put us in his shoes as a voyeur, watching this character on a screen and becoming obsessed with her.

It’s a shame as the writing and directing has potential. It’s strangely hypnotic. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a lava lamp. You don’t watch and think about character and plot, you’re just entranced by everything and lose track of time while observing. The whole thing feels very personal, but also like it should have been a short. It shows promise, it shows potential, but it also shows limitations and inexperience. I expect both Cobb and Schoenbrun (the writer/director) to do great things in the future. Schoenbrun has a great sense of how to make things creepy. But only in short bursts, it struggles to keep that momentum throughout. The scenes themselves are super strange and well done; one in particular where someone seems to be digging into their own arm and pulling out a reel of tickets. It’s moments like that which make you wonder about what the film could have been. Personally, I think this should have been a series of shorts. So we get to see the effects the game has on different people. Would allow the film to maintain momentum and showcase what Shoenbrun is best at: weird shit.

So yeah, see this. Turn the lights off, shut the curtains, turn your phone off, and just be enraptured by what you’re watching. It’s not for everybody, but you won’t see anything else like this. For some reason, it reminded me of the indie game Gone Home (which if you haven’t played, I highly recommend), no idea why. It also has an absolute killer soundtrack which I’ve already purchased.

She Will (2021)

Quick Synopsis: An ageing film star (Veronica, played by Alice Krige) retreats to the Scottish countryside with her nurse to recover from surgery. While there, mysterious forces of revenge emerge from the land where witches were burned.

I am aware I have huge gaps in my pop culture knowledge, so forgive my ignorance when I ask this question: is Alice Krige a big deal? Because after watching this, it feels like she should be. She carries herself brilliantly in this. If anyone is looking to remake Sunset Boulevard, you’d be hard-pushed to find someone to step into Gloria Swanson’s shoes than Krige. But also, don’t remake Sunset Boulevard you dicks. Her performance is a real highlight in this, it feels slightly exaggerated, but only because the character is a fading actress, so her whole personality is exaggerated. If she was too “real” and grounded you wouldn’t have that “she used to be a star” feeling, and if she was TOO exaggerated she wouldn’t feel real, and some of the moments would come off more comedic than creepy.

The supporting cast all have their chance to shine, although you sometimes wish some of them were in it a bit more. It’s only 95 minutes long and I feel another 10 minutes or so might have helped it. There are glimpses that Malcolm McDowell’s character is highly regarded, but if the film had more time then we would have had a better glimpse of how famous he is in this universe. Is he a “known in Britain” actor, is he a “known by film buffs” actor, or is he a “respected and known by the world” actor? If we knew more about that, we would know more about the influence he had on Veronica’s life and it would help to flesh out the story. He is on verge of knighthood, but is it a “and now you’re put out to pasture” one?

I feel like “Post #metoo horror” is now a genre. In the last few years, there has been a definite increase in female-created horror films about women fighting back against male oppression and patriarchal power structures. I don’t know enough to judge whether there’s been an increase in those stories being made, or whether the ones being made now have more eyes on them, either way, stuff like this is very important to see. But since it is a delicate subject, it can be tricky to pull off well without seeming like it’s retreading old ground. There are moments where this does dip into the cliche, particularly with some of the visuals, and “this area is where witches were punished” is used a lot, to the point where it feels like it’s replaced “ancient Indian burial ground” as a horror trope. It does take it into an interesting direction though. It’s not enough that “bad shit went down here”, it’s not a therapy retreat where the people there praise the earth as being good for your health “because of all the ashes from women who were burnt as witches”, so its not enough that bad stuff happened, it’s the commercialisation of those awful events. Burning women wasn’t enough, they’re now exploiting their memories and deaths. It would be like if Dachau sold foundation powder mixed in with ashes from the rooms. It’s dark, horrific when you think about it, yet not entirely surprising. It does feel like that moment is there to influence the character, it doesn’t seem to go as deep into the notion of systematic oppression as it should.

This is the feature directorial debut of Charlotte Colbert, who also wrote it. She has a bright future in horror. Her main background is in photography and multi-media sculptures, and her knowledge of photography comes through in some of the ways the film is shot. She approaches them in a way that tells you the story with the way everything is framed, you could watch this with the sound off and still get a pretty solid idea of what is happening, based solely on the choices of shots used. Of particular note is when Veronica arrives at the lodge. Before that, you think it’s going to be a film about isolation and her losing her mind with nobody near her. So when she opens the door and is met with a room full of people you’re just as shocked as she is. Then there are a lot of really claustrophobic shots of everybody approaching her, it does a great job of putting you in her shoes.

Just because you can watch it in silence, doesn’t mean you should. Clint Mansell does a fantastic score, as he normally does. And the sound design is pretty fun throughout, there’s a moment where someone’s hand starts burning, and the sound is weirdly wonderful, it’s almost crackling, as if the world itself is coming apart.

That leads to the downside though, the film is very stop-start, it doesn’t keep momentum well at all. The fire incident, for example, doesn’t really have a narrative follow-up. The narrative is where Colbert’s inexperience as a writer shows. It tries to do much, and sometimes feels like it lacks identity. It has a lot to say, and I feel that if it tried to say less, it could end up saying more. There’s enough material here for three films, but now Colbert has put them all in the same film, it will make it harder for her to explore those themes again without it feeling like she’s retreading old ground.

In summary: a noble effort, and one with a lot to say. It’s definitely worth watching if you can, but you do feel it’s slightly on the cusp of something much better than it is.

You Are Not My Mother (2021)

Quick synopsis: In a North Dublin housing estate, Char’s mother goes missing. When she returns, there’s something “different” about her.

I will always be a sucker for a slow-burn horror film. Don’t get me wrong, I adore a fast-paced slasher with blood from the outset. But there’s a weird sense of satisfaction I get from watching the closing section of a slow-burner, when everything comes together and the tension starts ramping up. This is one of those, it’s not the quickest film, not going to be one where you’re sitting there thrilled throughout. But it is one where you’ll be watching and enjoying. It’s the cinematic equivalent of when you read a book by the fire, and you’re so hooked that you finish the whole book in one night. It’s genuinely a compelling watch. It’s set in Ireland, the quiet modern world providing a lovingly simple backdrop to the haunting narrative. That’s the best location for this story, I feel if it was in a large city it wouldn’t have the cosy familiarity that it needs to work. It would also require a different type of audio, you’d need the sound of the hustle and bustle of city life, so you couldn’t get the silence and the darkness that this needs for the narrative to breathe.

That’s the best way to talk about one of the possible downsides of this film, it is slow, and that won’t be for everyone. There are also some plot points which are started, but not really closed. I know that closure is unrealistic, but there are some things which feel like they’re forgotten. Trouble is, I’m not entirely sure how you could have closed them without disrupting the narrative. It’s really tricky, and really picky of me to point out. You also get the feeling that this might work better as a short, it does struggle to fill the length sometimes. There are also moments where characters don’t question things which they probably should, it feels like this is just because if they asked questions and investigated, the film would be over quicker.

This is Kate Dolan’s debut feature as both a writer and a director. She’s found success in her shorts, creating the award-winning Catcalls back in 2017. There’s been a lot of promising debuts over the last few years, particularly in horror, especially from female creators. Some have shown promise (Umma), some have shown potential but aren’t quite there yet (How To Deter A Robber), and some instantly get you into the creator (Censor). This is up there towards the higher quality, I won’t exactly rush out and have a NEED to watch everything she has done, but if I’m watching a trailer and I see the words “By Kate Dolan”, it will be the deciding factor about the film. She has a great talent at narrative misdirection, but then making it seem like the ending was the only possible way, almost like it’s mocking you for thinking one thing was true. Her directing is pretty much spot on too. She knows when to inject suspense into a scene, and when to have it play like a drama. The biggest compliment I can give her as a director is it’s a horror movie that doesn’t feel like a horror movie. That’s a weird point I know, so I’ll just explain it. Often things in horror movies only happen because they’re horror movies: there are people just walking around a house while creepy music plays and they’re terrified. But if you think of it from their reality, they don’t hear the music, so what are they scared of? It makes you very aware you’re watching a movie. This plays out like a drama, so when the horror moments happen, the grounding in reality that the film has established means the horror feels real. These aren’t characters in a horror movie, these are real characters who are living, and are having a horror movie happen to them.

Her work is aided by the performances, the central 3 (Ingrid Craigle, Hazel Doupe, and Carolyn Bracken) work so well together that I could watch a film that’s just the three of them in a room talking for 90 minutes. Carolyn deserves special mention purely because of how physically demanding her role as the mother (and “mother”) is. She technically plays two roles and carries herself differently in both. There’s one scene in particular where she shines and is a great example of her talent. She’s dancing around the room, very graceful and elegant. But then it gets weird, and the dancing has a strange, almost violent energy to it. It is still elegant, but it’s a violent elegance that is beautiful to watch but also terrifying.

That’s how I sum up this film: terrifying elegance. The biggest disappointment is that it’s on Netflix and I didn’t get to see it at the cinema.

All My Friends Hate Me (2021)

Quick synopsis: Pete is cautiously excited about reuniting with his college crew for a birthday weekend. But, one by one, his friends slowly turn against him.

People decry trigger warnings, but sometimes they’re useful, you can argue “they ruin the surprise” or “if you’re that bad then just don’t go to the cinema” but both of those ignore one simple thing:

You’re actually supposed to enjoy things sometimes. Even things it seems like you’re not supposed to. Horror books are supposed to use a font that’s actually legible so it’s not a struggle to read it, roller coaster seats are not supposed to be painful to sit in. It’s the same with films, it’s supposed to be something you actively want to do, and if trigger warnings will let you know that this film is not for you then that can only be a good thing. I’ve avoided certain films purely because I knew I wouldn’t be able to objectively watch them. As much as I might have enjoyed, for example, Another Round, the subject matter meant that there was a large chance I wouldn’t, so I avoided it.

So what does all that have to do with this film? Well if I knew going into this film how I’d feel going out, I might have avoided it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very well made. It’s very funny at times, the performances are pretty much perfect, and it looks fine. It’s just…….it feels too real. It starts with the main character (who we’ve seen to be awkward) described as “funny” and how he now worries he has that to live up to. It’s so difficult to watch his anxiety beat the crap out of him, especially as you can kind of see why he’s so anxious. It feels sometimes like his friends are trying to gaslight him. They take him shooting and then berate him for not being able to shoot anything, saying it was disrespectful of him. They then hire an impressionist who just insults him the entire time.

And then to top it off, they say “it’s you. You’re why this weekend has gone wrong” is horrific. His anxiety drives all his friends away in a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s not something you want to hear if you have anxiety, that you have to hide all your worries or everybody you love will leave you. It’s a lot to take in, maybe it would have been better if it was a short series so you had a break every half hour as opposed to taking it all in in one sitting.

So in summary, maybe you should see this. But there is a chance this film will lead you into a deep depression and do for friendship what Psycho did for showers, makes you wary and slightly frightened of them. If you have any insecurities, this film will play upon them, it will gnaw into your brain and reside there, making you think over your friendships and wonder if they are actually your friends or whether they hate you too. It’s a psychological horror for your mental health. Utterly fascinating, and you probably should watch it, but…..prepare something nice for after. I may have said that before in reviews, but I have never meant it as much as I do for this. No film has damaged my brain as much as this did, and that’s a huge compliment to just how spot-on they got everything.

Men (2022)

Quick synopsis: Harper Marlowe is a recently widowed woman who wants to escape for a short holiday in the country. Folk horror misogyny happens.

I went into this expecting to be creeped out, but to still enjoy it. Out the gate I’m going to say that I love the performances, Rory Kinnear has a difficult job playing so many characters, but giving them all a distinct personality. Jessie Buckley continues to be one of the best hidden talents of the UK acting scene. It’s also directed beautifully, with some stunning shots. I was just let down by the narrative, which is a big deal because to me, narrative is king. I’m more likely to forgive a badly made film with a great story, than a wonderfully made film with a bad story.

I get what the director was going for. The “women are surrounded by toxic masculinity” is a valid theme for a horror movie, but this somehow manages to be both too obvious, and too confusing. The behaviour by all of Kinnear’s characters is shocking, but the reason for it is not. The fact that every male in the village is played by the same actor is never referenced. I’m guessing it’s to do with the impersonality of the attacks. But at one point Buckley’s character asks “who are you?”, this was when I gave up with the film. If they were going to make the film make sense, this is when it would have happened, but it didn’t. They ignored the question and then carried on being possibly metaphorical, possibly real. I’m still not sure what it actually was that was attacking her. Was it a shapeshifter that couldn’t change his face? Something that can teleport? Her psychosis? It’s very surreal, and not very satisfying as a viewer. The whole thing reminded me of Lucky, that had similar issues. It’s a story worth telling, and it sets up a compelling mystery, it just has no idea how to solve it so dissolves into batshit insanity.

The ending of this is true insanity. It’s a LOOOOONG sequence of the male characters giving birth to each other, finally ending with the abusive husband. It’s horrific (but beautifully made), and goes on longer than necessary and doesn’t really explain it. Really it sums up the film in general; too focused on the themes and the shock, rather than a compelling story.

I’m disappointed to have to rate this so low, as it does have a lot of really cool ideas. Her defending herself against the attackers causing them to have the exact same injuries her ex husband did, is REALLY smart writing. Plus the use of echoes and ripples is very smart and themetically perfect. The idea that the past actions echo back to us in a different form is one that’s prevalent throughout the film, and is a neat idea.

Outside of those themes, and outside of the technical brilliance, there’s really nothing to it. And that’s a shame.

Still, great music.

Umma (2022)

Synopsis: A woman’s quiet life on an American farm takes a terrifying turn when the remains of her estranged mother arrive from Korea.

It’s been a few days since I’ve seen this film, and it now annoys me that I saw it. Not because it’s bad, or offensive etc. It annoys me because this is the directorial debut of Iris K.Shim (at least in terms of feature lengths). Such a shame because I wanted to delve into her back catalogue, where I’d be sure to find a hidden gem. It is only 83 minutes long, once you take out credits you’re looking at about 75 I’d guess. So it’s not much to base it on, but she does enough in that short time to show just what she’s capable of.

She gets what makes a horror movie work. It’s not enough to have bad things happen to the characters. We need to actually give a shit about the people. That’s often where long-running horror franchises go wrong, they focus more on the villain (Freddy, Michael Myers etc) and leave everybody else underdeveloped, so we end up cheering the killer, because they’re the only defined character in it. Compare that to the first Nightmare movie, where Nancy was a bigger part of it, we supported her, we wanted her to survive and when she panicked, we were scared. It’s amazing how likeable characters make a horror movie actually scary. This does a good job of making us care about everyone. Key to this is that they don’t feel like characters in a horror movie, they feel like characters who a horror movie happens to. So it all feels more real. We don’t judge them based on “but you’re in a horror movie, why would you do that?”, we judge them based on reality.

It also does a good job of setting the character dynamics. Sandra Oh’s character (Amanda) feels her mother was overbearing and she wants to get free of her, meanwhile she’s annoyed her daughter wants to live her own life, and she’s fully unaware of the irony of those two conflicting beliefs. That’s what drives this movie, it’s not “spooky spooky ghost ghost”, it’s “character realises they’re turning into what they hate, and they need to stop repeating the cycles of abuse and neglect”. She is slightly like her mother too, just in different ways. Her mother was an abusive asshole, whereas she’s more ignorant of how the choices she makes effects her daughter, who doesn’t really have any friends, and is guilt-tripped into staying and helping the business. You feel the daughters isolation, and the pain it causes her. But you also understand Amanda doing what she does. It’s a film that inspires conversation about what should be done.

The relationship between Amanda and her deceased mother is key to the film working too. Even though there’s a history of abuse, you can still feel the connection between the two, the warmth in her eyes when Amanda talks of the stuff handed down to her is genuine and shows that even though she was abused by her mother, and has escaped, she still feels a blood connection to her which makes it hard for her to completely escape from under her shadow and influence. This is backed up by when a relative tells her “The doctors say it was a heart attack, but I know it was your fault that she died” The speech that follows about how she’s useless and a disgrace for leaving her mother is astounding in a “okay and see why she’s the way she is”, it completely explains her motivations and personality. So well done, in a kind of horrifying if you think about it way.

Now onto the negative. Some of the jump scares are a bit too corny to work. It’s weird to have a really dramatic, well-written character exploration in a story of inherited trauma and abuse, and then have the line “I’ll show you a burial” and someone being dragged by a piece of clothing. Weirdly enough, the moments which are explicitly horror are the weakest parts. But part of that might be because of how expertly done the other parts were. In a lesser movie, they’d be the highlight. But that’s not the point, it’s not a “oh no jump out seat” horror, it’s a slowburner of a story, one that you can almost imagine being told by a campfire late at night, or as a morality tale to kids.

This has got some very negative reviews, and I feel that’s unfair. It’s a solid 6.9/10. Not great, but a good time-passer and not something I’d actively avoid if I was in the room while it was on TV. There will be better horror films this year, but it’s going to be difficult to have one with characters as well-written as they are in this.

Antlers (2021)

Quick Synopsis: A small-town Oregon teacher and her brother, the local sheriff, discover that a young student is harbouring a dangerous secret with frightening consequences.

I did not enjoy this film. Normally I like to build up to a natural conclusion before arriving at sentences like that. But I don’t want to lure you into a false sense of security with this review for this. It was an incredibly frustrating experience. Part of that is that it felt like it was doing too much, well attempting to anyway. Horror films are best when the core message is simple: Don’t have sex, he’ll break your necks. Give a hoot, don’t pollute or else you’ll be shoot. You know, simple stuff. This? Is it like a rural zombie movie? Is it an environmental film? The fact the film makes a point to have a radio news broadcaster point out local environmental issues would lead you to think that. Maybe it’s about First Nation myths and legends? Or is it even about family abuse? The truth is it’s about all of them, but because it’s only 99 minutes that means it’s also about none of them as nothing has time to develop itself. It stretches itself way too thin.

It feels mostly it’s trying to be a film about a Wendigo, a legendary figure in Algonquin culture. In the myths and legends it’s a spirit that possesses humans and gives them an incredible thirst for human flesh and murder. We’re told this in passing by a “local Native American”, who turns up, tells this story, and then is never really heard from again. His entire character is to pass on information, be the “magical native” teaching them. So they’re using First Nation mythology, and have a First Nation character as an exposition dump because the film feels it’s more important to focus on the white people in the film. On the plus side, they did actually case a First Nations actor to play the part, but the fact he’s just there to give on information feels a little weak.

Going to go into the lore of the Wendigo now, this really has nothing to do with the film itself and won’t change your mind about it, but I feel it’s something that is useful to know about. Now there are slight variations among the different myths. For Naskapi people, for example, it’s a giant that grows in proportion to whatever it just ate, so it can never be full, whereas in some it takes over a human and provides urges in them. But there are two main differences in the original lore, and how it’s presented in this film, one of which is more a thematic or visual choice, and one which is the entire visual aesthetics of the movie. The first one: it has a heart of ice. Now in this film the final battle ends when the main character cuts out the beasts heart, where it’s glowing orange and burns to the touch. Which is basically the opposite. For Western comparison it would be like if someone did a film about Jesus and they had him drown by walking into water. The second one is one you can’t ignore, antlers. Yup, the films title is based on an aspect of the myth that does not appear at all in the original indigenous stories. It’s weird as there other aspects of the legend that it gets spot on: the drapings of skin and bone in the final form, the original form being an almost transparent white with the bones visible under the skin. It is mainly the heart being fire not ice, and the antlers, which are the modern parts. But the film isn’t called “Long claws” is it? It’s Antlers. It’s focused on a part not in the original.

So yeah it uses First Nation stories but rewrites them for their own purposes, it’s quite weird. And it doesn’t even work to make the film good as it’s still a bad watch. But it is indicative of the lack of care and thought that’s gone into it. Scott Cooper directed this and he’s normally done crime dramas (Black Mass, Hostiles etc) so this is new ground for him. He actually did a good job though. The use of shadow and scale is great to watch and provided the main highlights of this film. His talent shows that there is a way to film someone just walking through a tunnel, and have it be visually impressive and use the difference in size of him and the impending shadows to tell us details about the character. The script is the main part that lets it down. It’s incredibly on the nose at points, but then also weirdly lacking in others. Do you ever watch a film adaptation of a book and feel lost because something important has been lost in the translation from book to screen? Like they missed out a plot point that actually explains the whole thing? That’s what this feels like. Like I napped at some points and wondered why certain people were doing certain things and not taking the obvious steps.

I should commend the performances I suppose. Keri Russell does what she needs to, never really astounds you but never makes you cringe. Jeremy T.Thomas is probably the best performer, providing a haunting energy to his performance. I feel mean picking on child actors but the kid who plays Clint is just annoying. In wrestling parlance, there are two types of hatred or “heat” a character can have with an audience. There’s standard heat, where the audience thinks “I dislike this character and hope they get their comeuppance”. That’s normal, that’s what you should have. And then there’s “go-away heat” (also known as X-Pac heat after a particularly disliked wrestler from the late 90’s). This is the worst. It’s something that can best be summed up with this:

Basically, it’s where the audience doesn’t hate you in a way that they will pay to see you be defeated, they hate you in a way that they turn off the channel. That’s how annoying this kids performance is. It’s not helped by how 2-dimensional his character is.

So, in summary, I would not recommend this film. It had to be legally shown in cinema due to contractual obligations stopping it from being allowed to be premiered on screening services. I wish I knew that before, I would have waited, or avoided it.