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One of the stand-bys for black comics is scary movies and the idiocy of white people who insist on staying in a haunted house that says “Get out!” so it is a clever reverse when our black protagonist (Daniel Kaluuya) stays on at the weekend house of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) when every white person there is race inquisitive, if not obsessed beyond any concept of reason, as well as Stepford creepy, and every black person there is, well, a Stepford wife.

Writer director Jordan Peele makes a significant mistake, however, with an opening scene that reveals the ultimate danger. All that is left is the how, and it’s a credit to his script and his taut direction that the film remains interesting.

Also, why blacks? The perfect sexpot obedient wife makes sense in the 70s, as the feminist movement threatened patriarchal hegemony. Here, the question is asked directly and the answer is not only insufficient, it’s bewilderingly casual.

Still, the film is very clever in parts and the broad comic relief (best pal Lil Rev Howrey) is hilarious.

Linking two famous hauntings, Amityville and Enfield (both almost certainly hoaxes, which, I suppose outs me as someone who accepts the possibility of “authentic” paranormal phenomena), director James Wan sends his un-dynamic duo (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) from Long Island to London, where they lend their assistance to a beleaguered family of five whose council house appears to be spooked by its former occupant.  There are a few frights, but not much beyond that, the failures attributable to a number of factors.  First, Wilson and Farmiga are boring, just dull as dishwater.  I get it.  They are religious.  But religious people need not be saltines.

Second, big houses with sprawling grounds are scary; crappy British public housing, not so much.

Third, Wan over-relies on the same gimmick – camera pans away, nothing there, then back, all is well, then back, okay, then . . .

Whammo!  Look who’s in the mirror.  It gets old.

Finally, the whole story is the fact that the creepy nun wants to get Farmiga, much like the demon wanted to get Father Merrin in The Exorcist.  Only, Merrin v. Satan was a mere subplot of what was an otherwise compelling, intricate and literate horror film, which The Conjuring 2 is decidedly not.

 

One of my favorite films from a few years back was Blue Ruin, writer director Jeremy Saulnier’s moody, crisp, and realistic revenge-gone-wrong drama. That film was completed with a budget of $500,000. I was happy to see Saulnier get a bigger budget follow-up film, Green Room, which was produced for $5 million. Unfortunately, it has only made half of its budget back, a shame, because the picture further demonstrates Saulnier’s obvious talent and ingenuity (don’t just take it from me – it rates at 91% on rottentomatoes.com).

The story is simple: we meet an East coast punk band in the Northwest “on tour”, having just played a Portland gig where they made a whopping $6. To make up for the paltry cut, the quartet is recommended to a club located out in the woods. The pal putting them on to the gig is quick to note that while they may not like the politics of the place, the money is good and assured – $350.   Mind you, the band has been subsisting on junk food and making its way across the country by siphoning gas from other vehicles. They take the gig..

When they arrive, they immediately get a good sense of the politics of the place, what with the odd Confederate flag and Nazi graffiti about in an otherwise survivalist-meets-skinhead environment. It is, however, a pretty professional survivalist/skinhead environment. The club acts like any other club. The band is admonished not to clutter the hallway and to keep their set to time. They do, and all is well.  Until other things go wrong. Terribly wrong.

What ensues is a gripping, occasionally funny, but mainly cold-sweat inducing fight for survival. Saulnier continues to impress with his ability to convey the gritty realities of every day violence.  It almost always goes wrong, it is messy and it is rarely cinematic. He also does a few other things very well. First, his dialogue is grounded and mature. The characters say things to one another you would expect people to say in such a fucked up, dangerous and confusing situation. There are no schmaltzy foxhole confessions or dramatic readings of the riot act. These people are regular folk and they are at the point of a knife. There is no time to whinge on about extraneous bullshit.

Second, Saulnier avoids stereotype without being showy. The band members are as civilian as you can get, but they are not ineffectual. And while the skinheads are terrifying, they are not caricatures nor are they of one stripe.  I was happy to see Saulnier’s lead in Blue Ruin, Macon Blair, cast as a bad guy.  Saulnier manages to subtly convey equivocacy within the ranks of the villains like Blair, which has greater implications as the plot develops.

Look, this is a genre film along the lines of The Purge or the flicks where white kids (and Cuba Gooding) take the wrong turn in LA after a Lakers game and become prey to rappers and cholos, but as it goes, it is at the top of that heap.

This is a consistently disturbing and terrifying film, one that explores myth, religion, and the dread of isolation in the cruel and unforgiving setting of pre-colonial America.  Writer-director Robert Eggers is a master of the creepy visual as he tracks a Puritan family, cast out from their community and into the wilderness on the strength of religious conviction. It is there, alone, that the bonds of their faith and family and the limits of their sanity are tested by the supernatural.

This film has a lot in common with The Babadook, invoking both curse, madness and the susceptibility of children, and like that film, there are moments of absolute horror that do not rely on a drop of shed blood.  If there is a weakness (and it is by no means universal, just one of personal taste), it is the simplicity of the threat. In The Witch, the threat is omnipotent and unexplained. It has no backstory, no articulated lore, and no vulnerability. As such, as assured as it presents, there is a decided lack of drama. We quickly learn these folks don’t stand a chance, and while their fate and story is loads more interesting than standard meat grinder fare, I just don’t have much of an interest when the deck is so stacked, no matter how skilled the effort.  Nonetheless, this movie has one of the spookiest feels of any I’ve seen.

A psychological thriller from Austria that pits two young boys against their mother, who has been in a car accident, undergone facial reconstruction surgery and who, as time passes and the bandages come off, they suspect is not their mother. The critics hailed this (82% on rottentomatoes.com) as rising above genre, both terrifying and revolutionary, but the audience, who scored it at 67%, is closer to the mark.  The film starts intriguing (if a bit obvious in it’s The Sixth Sense twist), but soon becomes monotonous, artily sterile, and then simply cruel. I turned it off.

Richard Donner’s devil picture was a big hit in 1976, and 40 years later, it’s easy to see why. Rejecting the dour, sinister tone of The Exorcist, The Omen also lacks that film’s intelligence and gravitas. In its stead, however, is schlock elevated by top-notch performances (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and David Warner play it straight and true, and Billie Whitelaw is chilling as a modern Mrs. Danvers) and some truly terrifying scenes. A suicide by hanging at a child’s birthday party, an impalement of a priest, and poor Remick’s two falls are memorable, as is the demon child’s first visit to church (he is not happy) and his drive through a wild animal park (they are also not happy).  But it also follows the rules of a mystery.  Clues are given, investigation follows, and then, terrible dawning.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning original score rejects subtlety, and even as over-the-top as it is, heightens dread.

Best, any film that ends with Peck about to stab a child with ceremonial knives and an unmitigated win for the devil has a place in my heart.