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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.

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imageA taut and frightening blend of Misery, Room and War of the Worlds, this is great fun, made even more memorable by John Goodman’s “is he crazy or is the most sane man in the world?” performance. A plot synopsis would drain too much fun from the whole endeavor. Enjoy.

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.

Inventive, scrupulous and at times, bone chilling, It Follows is yet another nail in the coffin of gore porn and a heck of a scary move to boot. The set-up is simple (stop reading if you don’t want to know even this much): a “thing” that can take many forms follows its target, and you become a target through having sex with someone the thing is following. If you have sex with someone else, it throws the follower off, until it gets that someone, and then it is back on your trail.  No one can see the thing except its targets.

It Follows adroitly handles the revelation of the curse, and what ensues is a terrifying spook story in which Kelly (Lili Sepe) must run from what follows, with the assistance of her sister, friends and neighbor. while weighing the moral implications of buying herself more time.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell knows his stuff; the film is a near homage to John Carpenter’s Halloween, with its dreamy sense of suburbia and techno-synthesized score.  His actors approach the material in a studied, restrained manner, further emphasizing the hazy unreality of the entire endeavor. He also incorporates Detroit and its desolate environs, as near an urban haunted ruin as this country has.  Finally, the film trusts your intelligence rather than being explicit, no mean feat in this genre.  It gets a tad ragged in the end, but closes smart.

One of the charms of The Blair Witch Project was a nostalgic authenticity, which transported you back to a younger time and made the actions of the hikers seem like exactly the kind of hubristic, stupid thing you would do at that age. It Follows has the same trait: this feels like your childhood neighborhood, and evokes the times you looked out the window and saw something that seemed off, or something you were not supposed to see, or even something your fevered mind conjured after watching too many Kolchak The Night Stalkers.

I watched this flick with my son and 5 of his high school friends; they all agreed it would be significantly more effective as a sex-ed tool than what they were currently enduring.

Never let your child select his own book to read at bedtime, for he might select “Mr. Babadook.” This is a terrifically scary psychological thriller/haunted house yarn from Australia about a single mother (Essie Davis) pushed to the breaking point. She was widowed seven years prior when a car accident took her husband’s life en route to the hospital to deliver her son. The boy (Noah Wiseman) is uncontrollable during the day and plagued by monsters underneath his bed at night. He is, in short, a spoiled handful and a weird one at that. His peculiarity is driving his mother to the brink, and in the midst of this turmoil comes Mr. Babadook, a terrifying bogeyman.

Davis is compelling as she tries to resist the evil force that has taken advantage of her torment, and as has been proven time and again in scary films from The Shining to The Sixth Sense to The Devil’s Backbone, the contribution of a gifted child actor greatly enhances the terror, as you see what unfolds through the child’s eyes. Wiseman is a brilliant mix of charming and brutally annoying, and he evokes both compassion and some of the same frustration instrumental in unleashing Mr. Babadook.

This is writer/director Jennifer Kent’s first feature and it is assured and often iconic. There are images that stick hard with you, they are not solely the scary ones, and she doesn’t resort to gore (late night Australian television, which is playing a good portion of the film, is quite horrifying enough). While Kent owes a little to James Wan’s Insidious, she avoids his slickness and has a way of capturing what frightens even in the most mundane of settings. She merits a Hollywood project.

The Babadook was lauded at Sundance and is currently charting at 96% on Rottentomatoes. If it is released for Halloween in your neck of the woods, go see it.