Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Asphalt Jungle

There's no honor among thieves and the only luck is bad in director John Huston's heist picture The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Huston, who helped launched the film noir genre with The Maltese Falcon, strips away the glamor and heroism that even a Sam Spade would have provided, leaving behind a bunch of desperate, unlikeable, and irredeemable lowlifes. 

The title proves appropriate. In this unnamed city (apparently within driving distance of Cleveland), as members of the criminal underground plot a jewelry heist with the efficiency and acumen of businessmen, the streets resemble nothing if not an urban wasteland, the strong prey on the weak, corruption runs rampant, and good remains all but helpless in the face of overwhelming evil.

The men responsible for the robbery are easy to describe. Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is the mastermind with the plan, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) is the lawyer who invests in the scheme, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is the "hooligan" needed for muscle, Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is the safecracker, Gus (James Whitmore) is the getaway driver, and Cobby (Marc Lawrence) is the bookie who links them all up.

The plan proves simple to execute. It's the aftermath that proves difficult as the group encounters double crosses, a police manhunt, unexpected developments, paranoia, and just plain bad luck.

The hallmarks of film noir are here: the shadows, the fedoras, the trench coats, the cynicism, the bleakness, the seedy underbelly locations, the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, and an ending that feels less like the triumph of justice and more like the inevitability of fate. No one - good or bad - gets away from destiny.

While we watch the heist play out in more or less real time and it is a splendid sequence, The Asphalt Jungle devotes more time before and afterward, establishing the characters, illustrating their motives, and depicting their home lives. There's no femme fatale leading them on, but we meet a few wives and girlfriends.

Ciavelli is married and has an infant son, Dix has a girl (Jean Hagen) who would do anything for him, and Emmerich has an infirm wife (Dorothy Tree) and a mistress who calls him uncle (Marilyn Monroe).

There's little excitement but a lot of tension. The movie lacks shootouts and chases, focusing more on the waiting game. The heist plays not as a thrilling caper but a nerve-wracking job where every step has to go right. It's a process, step-by-step.

The Asphalt Jungle explores the criminal underground, how it comes together and operates, including some of its more mundane aspects. It is populated with all sorts of creeps and thugs, but the movie does not present them as larger-than-life characters. They are all fairly ordinary people who make their living in crime, trying to survive one way or another in this uncivilized, cruel world.

Just like animals.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Kiss Me Deadly

Oh my god. Oh my god. I can't believe it. It's so shocking. Beyond comprehension. Impossible.

Cloris Leachman was once young. I just assumed she sprouted out of the ground as Frau Blücher and ran with it. Seeing her playing a terrified, vulnerable young woman is jarring.

Say what you will about Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but they are sweethearts next to Mike Hammer, at least how he's presented in Kiss Me Deadly (1955). All three are hard-boiled private eyes of film noir, but while Marlowe and Spade possess inner moral codes, Hammer is a thug, a jerk with a heart of gold, minus the heart of gold.

As played by Ralph Meeker in director Robert Aldrich's adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel, Hammer is an especially sleazy detective. Plenty of these private dicks work divorce cases, but Hammer sends his "secretary" Velda (Maxine Cooper) to seduce the husbands. Meanwhile, he works over the wives, so he can get paid twice for the same job.

Hammer is also brutal, beating people up and charging his way through the movie like a rampaging bull. Cops warn him away, but naturally, he refuses to listen. His vanity and narcissism not only put friends in danger, they threatens the world.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Kiss Me Deadly opens with Hammer nearly running over Christina (Leachman) one night on a lonely stretch of highway. She's desperate, scared, and wearing only a trench coat. She just broke out of a psychiatric institution, but at a key moment, Hammer shields her from the police.

Soon after, the two are run off the road by another car. Christina is tortured to death while Hammer barely survives, and he becomes obsessed with digging up the truth about who killed her and why. Christina apparently had knowledge of something dangerous, and soon, another potential victim, Christina's roommate Lilly (Gaby Rodgers), is threatened for what she may know. The results are... nuclear.

Kiss Me Deadly matches the brutality of its detective. When goons torture Christina, we don't see what they do (we never see more than her bare feet), but we hear her blood-curling screams. Whatever they did, it was not pretty. Later, Nick (Nick Dennis), a jovial, fast-talking Greek mechanic who helps Hammer,  ends up crushed under a car for his trouble.

Hammer makes a point of being angry that they killed Nick, but when he finds Nick's brother clutching the dead man's hand, the only part of him not trapped under the vehicle, Hammer coldly offers no condolences or emotion. He seems more angry that the villains killed his friend than he is sorry over losing him.

Hammer conducts his fair share of torture, both physical and emotional, and he seems to enjoy it. He beats up a coroner for a piece of evidence, he smashes a prized vinyl record belonging to a witness, and he takes advantage of Velda. She loves him; he uses her, and she knows it. When her comes to her, she knows it's because he's in trouble, but she's happy because he needs her. The more you think about it, the more you realize it's a twisted, almost sadomasochistic relationship.

Kiss Me Deadly, in a way, deconstructs the film noir detective. Not only is Hammer a brute, he's also not especially bright. His actions lead the villains right to the last thing we want them to get their hands on. If he had just listened, if he had just stayed out of the way...

Several common aspects of film noir nestle their way into Kiss Me Deadly. Obviously, the protagonist's sins get him into trouble, but there's also the cruel hand of fate. It's dumb luck that Hammer was driving along the road when he ran into Christina, setting into motion his entire involvement in the plot. His flawed, hard-boiled nature keeps him going, though, and nearly destroys everything.

The nuclear MacGuffin reflects the anxiety of the day. As the Cold War dawned, the world became a dark, scary place, full of doom and despair, and now, we hold in our hand the instrument of our demise, engineered by own hand.

And of course, there's plenty of shadows, dark corners, and slanted camera angles that reflect how warped and threatening this world has become.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Murder, My Sweet

Film noir's most iconic detective makes his debut in Murder, My Sweet (1944), one of the first great entries in the genre.

There had been previous Raymond Chandler adaptations, but Murder, My Sweet (1944) marks the first appearance of Phillip Marlowe, Chandler's most famous character and the archetype for the hard-boiled detective of film noir. A tough private eye with a penchant for hard-drinking and wisecracks, Marlowe frequently gets in over his head and threatened by the scumbags he associates with, but he's no dope and he possesses an inner moral code.

Those traits are celebrated at length in Murder, My Sweet, which is based off Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. The film opens in a dark interrogation room where under a hot light the police grill a blindfolded Marlowe (Dick Powell) about a couple of murders.

This sets up the bulk of the movie as Marlowe explains, via flashback, how hulking Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hired him to locate his girl Velma, whom he has not seen in eight years after a stint in the joint. Marlowe also gets involved with some business involving a stolen jade necklace and other assorted characters: Marriott (Douglas Walton), who hires Marlowe to accompany him to a payoff; Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), the owner of the missing necklace; Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander), Helen's much older, wealthy husband; and Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), much concerned about her father and resentful toward his young wife.

The plot's complicated and sometimes hard to keep track of. I've seen the movie a few times and read the book, and I confess I can't always keep track of the various comings and goings. But the plot ain't important in film noir; it's secondary to the tone, style, and dialogue, and it's in those elements, Murder, My Sweet soars with flying colors.

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, Murder, My Sweet is a gorgeously shot film filled with the kind of style that makes film noir so deliciously cool. The shadows are deep and many, cigarette smokes wisps around imposing and seductive faces, and the contrast between light and dark is fully accentuated. At times, the interplay between lights and shadows is almost a conflict itself.

Dmytryk also throws in him some surreal touches that suggest unworldly danger, such as Malloy's first appearance in which he appears like a ghost reflected in a window by the flashing lights from outside. Later, a drugged and beaten Marlowe hallucinates and has horrific visions, including one in which he flees a man with a large syringe through a series of hard-to-open doors.

In the face of threatening conspiracies, double crosses, and constant danger, Marlow retains his sardonic demeanor. He's never at a loss for words. Asked by the police how he feels, he responds, "Like a duck in a shooting gallery." His voiceover narration, another genre hallmark, is filled with wry observations ("She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.") and hardboiled descriptions:

"I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good - like an amputated leg." I can't recall if that's prose straight from Chandler, but it sounds like it, feels like it.

And that's what it's all about. Murder, My Sweet looks and feels film noir down to its core. It's got everything that makes the genre irresistible. Essential viewing.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Old Soldiers Never Die

Since I'm in a reminiscent mood, I decided to share this short story I wrote in high school. It ran in Janus, the school literary magazine. Click the title below to read it if you're interested.

"Old Soldiers Never Die"

I like the story and how it plays out, but I confess I can't bring myself to read it all the way through without cringing at a lot of it. I think I've improved a lot as a writer since then.

The story began as an English class project. We read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I had the idea of a prisoner held in captivity during some unnamed country's civil war. Every time he was scheduled to be executed, the other side captured the prison, decided our protagonist wasn't loyal enough, and started the whole process to kill him over again. Back and forth, back and forth without end. I meant it as a satirical, absurdist anti-war piece.

Obviously, that's not how the final story turned out. The final story incorporates an element of magical realism, which tied it in better with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, and is a more somber, haunting piece. Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory also inspired me some, especially with the execution scene.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tinker Lab: Paper Circuits

Here's another video I made for the library. I'm trying to be Igor.

Bookmark Bonanza

This is the most recent video announcement I made to promote an upcoming program at the library I work at.

For all the years I've been writing this blog and taking shots at other movies, the shoe's on the other foot now.

Detour

Detour (1945) gives us a narrator who is either the biggest sap in the world or a liar trying to rationalize every crime he's committed. Take your pick.

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Detour is a crude, pulpy piece of film noir about a man who compounds one mistake after another and makes it worse by getting involved with the genre's most iconic archetype, the femme fatale, and this one is especially heartless, if we take our narrator's word for it.

The sap is Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a New York piano player whose girl leaves for Hollywood. He hitchhikes to join her, and he's picked up by a bookie named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who soon after dies on a lonely stretch of Arizona highway one night during the middle of a rainstorm.  How does he die? Roberts, driving while Haskell sleeps, pulls over to pull the top on the convertible. When Roberts opens the passenger door, Haskell slumps out of the car, smashing his head on a rock.

The cops would never believe Roberts didn't kill Haskell, he tells us. I can accept that reasoning. After all, I don't believe Roberts didn't kill Haskell, and I watched the death scene. I especially don't believe it when Roberts decides not only to hide the body but to take Haskell's money, identification, and car. Convenient for a broke, hungry hitchhiker, wouldn't you say?

Is the movie cheating, showing us something that didn't happen the way it tells us it happen? Not necessarily. Film noir brought a psychological element to the B-move crime picture; warped psyches and distorted points of view reflected in the environment. The world of film noir is a dark one, a nightmarish realm of despair and shadows, and so it is in Detour.

Everything we see that happens in Detour occurs from Roberts' perspective. His words are so full of woe-is-me, blaming fate and luck of the draw on his predicament. He doesn't sound like a man trying to convince others; he sounds like he's trying to convince himself.

That would explain Vera (Ann Savage), the femme fatale. Before he died, Haskell told of a woman he picked up who clawed his hand, and we see the scratches. After he takes Haskell's identity, Roberts picks up a hitchhiker, who lo and behold, is the same woman Haskell warned about, and she knows Roberts ain't Haskell.

Vera betrays no vulnerability or tenderness, unlike some other dames of the genre. She is ruthless and cutting. She blackmails Roberts, keeping him close like a "Siamese twin" and reminding him she's the boss. She initiates everything once she enters the pictures, constantly insults and belittles Roberts, and he meekly, weakly, pathetically goes along with everything she says. I swear, officer. It wasn't my fault. It was all her idea!

Detour was a so-called "Poverty Row" picture, one of those cheaply made B-movies studios churned out in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Detour certainly looks the part: it's not even 70 minutes long, limited locations, lots of closeups, shadows and fogs to hide sparse city streets, hamfisted narrations to cover plot details, and cars with the driver on the wrong side (Ulmer reportedly flipped the negative of the film in those places, so they aren't meant to be English automobiles).

But the movie doesn't feel cheap. It's about people down in the skids, and it hunkers down there with them. It's not glamorous, and it ain't pretty, but Detour gets the job done.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Pitfall

When a married man strays on a film, you know there will be Hell to pay. (I wish I could say the same held true in real life, but in real life, it seems philandering men only end up as elected officials.)

Dealing in adultery and blackmail, Pitfall (1948) follows John Forbes (Dick Powell), an insurance executive with a loving wife, Sue (Jane Wyatt), and young son, Tommy (Jimmy Hunt), who begins an affair with Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a model he meets investigating a case.

Convenient for Forbes: Mona's boyfriend Smiley (Byron Barr) is in prison. Not so convenient: the P.I. he worked with on the case, MacDonald (Raymond Burr), has the hots for Mona, too. MacDonald is also a bit deranged, and Smiley might be released soon.

Pitfall plays less like a thriller and more as a character-driven melodrama with two sets of love triangles (but since two of the figures appear in both sets, maybe it's a love rhombus). It has the visual and story hallmarks of film noir: the dark shadows, the Venetian blinds, the troubled protagonist in over his head, the femme fatale, the sleazy detective, the snappy and cynical dialogue, and the world view shaken to its core by immorality and corruption.

Film noir often deals with the scummy, underbelly of high society, but Pitfall gives us a lead with a seemingly happy if banal middle-class home life that becomes threatened through his actions. As the film opens, Forbes is admittedly bored; he feels confined, stuck with the same old routine. When he meets Mona, showing up at her apartment to retrieve items purchased with embezzled money, he ends up spending the day with her: going out for a drink and riding her prized speedboat.

Forbes finds his affair with Mona liberating, but since this is film noir, we know it will eventually go south for him. As he struggles to keep his affair secret from his family, Forbes descends into shame and guilt. His home, so brightly lit and cozy at the start, becomes a literal den of shadows when a certain cuckold turns up to looking to confront him. He thought he could keep these aspects of his life separate, but they come crashing together.

Plot-wise, Pitfall moves straightforward. There aren't really unexpected twists and turns and no last-minute revelation that pulls the rug out from under us; the suspense stems from how these characters will react when they confront the truth. We the audience know the dirty secret early on, and we wonder what the likes of Smiley and MacDonald will do with the knowledge of Forbes and Mona. We also wonder how Sue will react if and when she finds out.

Director Andre DeToth directs in an efficient, workman manner; he keeps things moving without having to pump in artificial action or chases, trusting his actors to get the points across. The nominal climax, a burst violence at the Forbes home, is merely a prelude to the real fireworks: Forbes, seemingly in the clear, finally breaks down and confesses to Sue. As he walks the streets in shame that night, Forbes' whole world has come crashing down.

That sets up a scene at the district attorney's office, ending on a final, sad irony. One person is dead, another may also die, which will determine the fate of a third, and the D.A. notes the wrong person is behind bars.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ash vs Evil Dead

We've come a long way from a small cabin in the woods, but now, we're going home. Come get some.

The Evil Dead, made in 1981 on a shoestring budget by a bunch of kids, blossomed from its origins as a grueling exercise in gory, claustrophobic terror to the splatter comedy of Evil Dead 2 to the rousing slapstick adventure of Army of Darkness. Sam Raimi became one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, making Oscar-caliber movies such as A Simple Plan and some superhero thing (That was kind of successful, wasn't it?).

But an unseen force called him back.

Rumors of another Evil Dead directed by Raimi with the immortal Bruce Campbell starring as series hero Ash circulated for years. We got a few video games and a couple of comic books over the years but no movie. In 2013, Raimi and company produced a fairly well-received remake of Evil Dead, minus Ash, and it appeared any further exploits of our beloved chainsaw-toting, one-liner-spouting hero were off the table.

Say hello to the twenty-first century.

Twenty-three years after the character's last cinematic outing, Bruce Campbell returns as Ash Williams, the man who when his hand became possessed by demons, chopped it off and affixed a chainsaw over the bloody stump. Ash is back and in a television series for Starz. Campbell and Raimi (who directs the opening episode) serve as executive producers with their longtime partner Rob Tapert and Craig DiGregorio.

Season 1, which ran 2015-2016, picks up thirty-years after Ash first battled the Deadites, and he hasn't done much since, slumming in a trailer park and picking up random bar floozies. Then, weird stuff starts happening. Demonic phantoms appear, and folks become possessed. The evil presence Ash encountered long ago in the cabin has returned and found him. How?

Well, Ash brought a prostitute home, and under the influence of marijuana, he read from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, the Book of the Dead. Hey, he may be the hero, but Ash isn't always bright, OK.

And just say no to drugs. You never know when you might accidentally call forth evil spirits.

The Deadites have been summoned, hungry for fresh souls to devour, and all Hell breaks loose as they possess people, transforming them into hideous, blood-thirsty zombies. Teaming up with his fellow Value Stop department store employees Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), Ash must confront the demons of his past (both figurative and literal) and find a way to stop this unholy apocalypse from spreading.

The first two Evil Dead movies take place in one setting, a small cabin in the woods. Army of Darkness expanded the scope to that of a Ray Haryhausen epic, with armies clashing, stop-motion skeletons filling the screen, and an epic quest across the land.

By contrast, Ash vs Evil Dead becomes a road trip, complete with classic rock songs on the soundtrack, including Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, The Stooges, and The Allman Brothers. Ash and company hit the road, and each episode has its own little adventure: a trip to an occult book dealer to translate the Necronomicon, a stop at Kelly's parents' house after her supposedly dead mother (Mimi Rogers) turns up alive, a visit to Pablo's shaman uncle (Hemky Madera), an encounter with the Michigan Militia, and a few other pit stops that don't end well.

Others pursue them. State trooper Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), who shot her undead partner, wants to find Ash, convinced he's responsible for all the atrocities she's witnessed (she's not entirely wrong).

Amanda is assisted by Ruby (Lucy Lawless). Her motives are hidden, but Ruby has knowledge of both Ash and the Deadites. In fact, she has a useful tool to track our hero: his own severed hand, which points in his direction.

Ash vs Evil Dead crosses the splatter comedy of Evil Dead 2 with the mythologizing of Army of Darkness. Blood, slime, drool, and other unnameable fluids fly across the screen and drench our characters. Limbs are lopped, guts are spilled, flesh is flayed, and it's so over-the-top, it becomes funny. Yeah, it's plenty disgusting, but you'll giggle before you barf. When Ash leaps through his trailer, his trusty chainsaw landing in place for him to carve up a monster, you'll cheer.

Pablo, raised by his uncle to accept the supernatural, believes Ash to be "El Jefe," the savior who will save the world from great evil. Ash, ever so reluctantly, takes on the mantle, even as he continues to look for opportunities to shirk the responsibility. He also tries to get Pablo and Kelly to leave him, convinced anyone he cares about ends up dead. The expanded TV format gives the series more than plot development and characterization than we've seen in any of the movies.

Ash is no longer in his prime. He's older, out of shape, and still doesn't think things through. Still, he's the Ash we know and love: a coward and a jerk able to kick ass and offer a cool quip while doing it. Campbell slides back into the role perfectly, and it's fun to see him reprise it.

The new characters are a mixed bag. Ruby is appropriately mysterious, and Kelly keeps things relatively grounded as the most normal person present. Pablo has his moments, but he's a little too dopey. Amanda has the thankless task of being behind everyone else and always playing catch up; the story works better in its own self-contained world, and elements like police just take away from the stuff we want to see.

The series draws heavily on nostalgia. There a few callbacks to the original movies but never to the point they become distracting. The show also takes advantages of all the advances in special effects technology (and presumably a higher budget) to give us some out-there sequences and scenes.

We get new scenarios with the Deadites, including a beast in the flesh (summoned by the gang so they can question him), exorcisms, and possessed people pretending to be normal. Deadites fly around and climb walls, and even the Necronomicon shows off new tricks. And yes, the unseen force, the series' trademark, chasing after people, hurtling after them, returns. The camera swoops, dives, and spins as expected.

I had given up Raimi and Campbell returning to Evil Dead in such a capacity, and in fact, I had decided I didn't want any more Ash adventures, convinced any return would be a cheap, cynical cash-in unable to capture the magic of the original run.

I'm glad to say I was wrong. The franchise is alive, strong as ever, and packed with everything that makes Evil Dead, well, groovy.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Doppelganger

There are notable exceptions, but American films tend to be pretty rigid in terms of genre. You generally know what to expect based on what kind of movie you're watching.

By contrast, many Asian imports I've seen mix and match elements and tropes from several different genres, and it can make for some unpredictable viewing because the movies keep you off balance. You don't know where they're going. In that vein, I present Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Doppelganger (2003).

I thought I knew where the film would go. Our protagonist Hayasaki (Kôji Yakusho) discovers an exact duplicate of himself has infiltrated his life, bringing chaos and disorder to his ordered existence. I thought for sure the plot would involve the doppelganger getting Hayasaki into trouble while Hayasaki tries desperately to convince a skeptical world of an imposter. It could have been dark and paranoid in a Kafka-esque fashion.

Well, Doppelganger has plenty of dark, weird moments. The movie begins on an ominous note as we learn the fate of another person who encountered their double, and Hayasaki, fearing catching sight of his double will cause him to die, tries to avoid looking at his.

But for a while, the movie feels like a Japanese take on the Michael Keaton movie Multiplicity. Hayasaki is an inventor whose latest project, an artificial body, is faltering, he's stressed out, and his boss (Akira Emoto) tries to get him to take a management position, indicating he'll be fired otherwise. While Hayasaki is stern and humorless, his double acts as his unrepressed id, trying to get him to loosen up.

There is no explanation for this double. No mention of where he came from or how he got there. The other characters interact with both Hayasakis simultaneously, so there's no last-minute twist revealing the double was imaginary. And, he's not an imposter, not some obsessive stalker. Just one day, the double showed up.

These early sequences have a certain wicked glee as the doppelganger indulges in all the behavior Hayasaki secretly wishes he could do such as getting him fired from his suffocating job, seducing the attractive research assistant, and enjoying smokes and drinks. Occasionally, the other characters mix the two up, leading to some funny and awkward misunderstandings.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. At some point, the insidious nature of the doppelganger would emerge, right? He or it wants to take over Hayasaki's life and replace him. Right?

Not quite. I don't want to spoil anything, but I'll just say the movie does not become a surreal identity thriller. The movie is less about what the double does and more how Hayasaki changes and grows from interacting with him. The movie veers off course and turns into a black, almost madcap comedy that has its share of blood and violence. When all was said and done, I said to myself, "This was the strangest screwball comedy ever."

Kurosawa uses a lot of long, unbroken, static shots early on. Hayasaki is such a rigid, closed-off character, he has essentially walled off and trapped himself with his nature. Later, as the doppelganger exerts more influence, we get more camera movement and cutting between multiple camera setups as his liberating nature takes hold.

Kurosawa also films the two Hayasakis together in an interesting way: split screen. And that's not as restrictive as it sounds. The screen is divided into thirds, and we not only see both their faces but other parts of the setting as well. One is often motionless; the other is often in action. It creates a fragmented, jarring feeling and is very kinetic, fitting the movie's themes nicely.

The last third of the movie is kind of a letdown. The doppelganger business is all but wrapped up, and the movie becomes a strange, truncated road movie. It even has room for a Raiders of the Lost Ark reference, and a side character suddenly becomes a villain. Maybe I was just thrown off because I anticipated something darker and the resolution is rather light and feels like a completely different film.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Tale of Two Sisters

If A Tale of Two Sisters (2004) had been American instead of South Korean, I might have accused it of trying to have its cake and eat it too.

It's filled with twists, surprises, and unexpected revelations as it walks a fine line between a haunted house movie and a descent into madness, and instead of being one or the other, it's ultimately a mix of both. While it left me baffled and confused in places, it does a better job of threading those sub-genres than a more commercial Hollywood film might have (this was remade as The Uninvited, which I have not seen).

A Tale of Sisters works not because it's gimmicky or reliant cheap scares but because it's built on emotions. Yes, it has jump scares and creepy moments, but it's a heartfelt and heartbreaking look at a traumatized family. The spooky bits work as well as they do because I could believe these characters, which is ironic consider what we learn about them, and the movie explores real feelings of grief, jealousy, loss, mistrust, guilt, and love.

The movie has a plot that sounds like a fairy tale. After being away for a while, sisters Soo-mi (Soo-jung Lim) and Soo-yeon (Geun-young Moon) return home to their widowed father Moo-hyeon (Kap-su Kim) and his new wife Eun-joo (Jung-ah Yum). The girls do not get along with their stepmother, who is both cold and cruel toward them. But stranger things are going on; is the ghost of their mother lingering around?

The bond between sisters is strong. Soo-mi is older and very protective of Soo-yeon, who is meeker and less likely to stand up to the abuse they receive from Eun-joo. The tension between the girls and their stepmother builds and build until...

A Tale of Two Sisters takes its time, accumulating a spooky atmosphere and a fair amount of mystery. Is the Eun-joo up to something sinister? Are the girls going crazy? Is there a ghostly presence reeking havoc? Why doesn't Moo-hyeon step in and defend his daughters from this monstrous woman? The house is an appropriate dark and gloomy place, doors locked, windows shuttered; no one wonder no one is happy there.

I won't spoil the reveal except to say the movie cheats some. Certain things we see happen wouldn't have happened the way they're shown if that is indeed the explanation. To be fair, the movie doesn't rest on its twists. Instead, it builds on the emotional fallout from those revelations, and that's what saves the movie for me.

Ghosts are often used to stand in for some buried truth, and that's true in A Tale of Two Sisters. What the movie understands is that the truth can be not only frightening but heartbreaking.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Creepy

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) intrigued me when I learned he's a huge Tobe Hooper fan. In fact, he reportedly cites Spontaneous Combustion as one of his favorite movies. Eh, maybe it plays better dubbed in Japanese? Regardless, he loves Tobe Hooper, and I'm happy to finally check out one of his movies.

Creepy (2016) certainly lives up to its name. It is a creepy effort, a slow-burn, character-driven piece that delves into some seriously disturbed minds, is heavy on eerie atmosphere, but sadly strains credibility by the end and confused me quite a bit by the time we got there.

It's a shame because up until the last act, I was fully involved and curious about where the movie was going. Then, I was asking questions that began with phrases like "Why didn't he..." or "How come..."

Following an incident in which a serial killer stabs him, detective Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) resigns from the police force to become a professor of criminal psychology. He and his wife Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi) move into a new home, next door to the odd, antisocial Mr. Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), his teen daughter Mio (Ryôko Fujino), and his never-seen wife.

While Yasuko tries to become friendly with the neighbors, Takakura gets drawn into an old case by his former partner Nogami (Masahiro Higashide). Years ago, three members of a family vanished without a trace, leaving behind only a young daughter Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi). As Takakura becomes obsessed with the case, he receives a strange piece of information from the reserved Mio: Nishino is not her father but a complete stranger.

Creepy takes its time setting up all these plot and character dynamics, and it's fascinating to watch unfold. Kurosawa creates a lot of uncertainty and unease around Nishino. Is Mio telling the truth? Is Nishino hiding something? What is he hiding? Why is he telling Takakura one thing and Yasuko another?

The explanation pushes the movie closer to horror territory, and (I'm trying not to give too much away) the weird, disturbing family element with the skewed sense of morality reflects Kurosawa's appreciation for Tobe Hooper (whose work often dealt with dysfunctional and depraved family units).

And there is certainly some disturbing and intense imagery in these sequences, with touches of black humor (another Hooper earmark). Even as the plausibility flies out the window, the movie generates first-rate suspense and tension. There were times I was on the edge of my seat. Kurosawa is a master with the camera.

But the movie has too much nonsense and too many frustrations. Characters, aware of possible danger, go into dark places alone without backup or telling anyone what they're doing, and they regularly fail to say things they should say when they have the chance (the use of mind-altering drugs explains some but not all of this). Even the chain of events required for the setup of the movie to occur seem incredibly unlikely.

But I can't deny as an experience, Creepy is unsettling and effective. The movie dwells heavily on facades and appearances. In fact, as demonstrated in the opening scene, Takakura's inability to see a psychotic criminal beyond the textbook definitions and images gets him into trouble and comes back to bite him, and the film touches on a modern fear marvelously.

How well do you know the person who lives next door to you? What are they hiding?

Friday, October 27, 2017

Blacula

In addition to being a blood-drinking monster, plunderer of lands, defiler of humanity, and ravisher of virgins, Dracula is also a slave monger, a condescending racist, and a poor dinner host. 

When African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife arrive at his Transylvanian castle to discuss a trade deal with the count that will help end the slavery, Dracula not only refuses to help eliminate the slave trade, but he also bites Mamuwalde, transforms him into a vampire, and entombs him in a coffin for two hundred years. He even dubs him, "Blacula." 

That is the prologue and backstory for our eponymous anti-hero in Blacula (1972). It's hard to say that name with a straight face. Blacula sounds like something we would see in a Saturday Night Live or In Living Color sketch, and when the rest of the movie involves the African vampire waking up in the 1970s and being out of place in then-modern America, Blacula is easy to dismiss as a time capsule of the disco decade, a joke.

To be fair, what other time in 20th century America could a vampire in a black cape and frilly shirt walk around a major city and be unnoticed? Among all the pimp suits, leisure suits, Afros, platform shoes, miniskirts, gold chains, and bell bottoms, Mamuwalde not only fits in, he looks downright dignified.

And that is the strength of Blacula. Marshall, who has a bad-ass baritone equal to Christopher Lee, plays Mamuwalde with a tremendous amount of cultured dignity and poise. When he's on screen, everyone else is invisible. He doesn't camp it up or play it for laughs; his vampire is a tragic, tortured figure, one capable of unleashing the monster within but also filled with genuine passion for his lost love. His final actions stir genuine pathos.

His beloved wife is seemingly reincarnated as Tina (Vonetta McGee), who is charmed by Mamuwalde and falls in love with him over the course of the movie. Meanwhile, Gordon (Thalmus Rasulala), a medical examiner for the police who is also the beau of Tina's sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas), investigates the trail of corpses and missing bodies Mamuwalde leaves in his wake.

And that's where Blacula falters. Instead of concentrating on Mamuwalde and his plight - his coming to terms with his vampirism and waking up in a world he no longer recognizes - the movie spends way too much time on Gordon's investigation (not to mention, horror of horrors, a musical interlude). Meanwhile, the audience already knows the score and is waiting for him to catch up. So much of what Gordon learns falls in line with the established vampire cliches and conventions.

Also, Blacula misses a huge opportunity. Why does Dracula vanish after the prologue? Would it not have been compelling to see Mamuwalde driven to avenge himself against the being who cursed him with undeath and tore him away from his beloved?

No matter. Marshall's performance makes this worth checking out. It's a shame the movie around him isn't better, but he gives us one of the most imposing vampires of the silver screen and the right amount of gravitas.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

V/H/S

Now here's a horror movie with more feminist subtext than The Slumber Party Massacre.

V/H/S (2012) combines two sub-genres of horror - the anthology and found footage. Comprised of several short stories instead of one over-arching narrative, the film is presented as material ostensibly shot on camera by the characters we're watching.

The real filmmakers behind the project include Ti West, director of The House of the Devil; Adam Wingard, director of You're Next; David Bruckner, co-director of The Signal; Glenn McQuaid, director of I Sell the Dead; Joe Swanberg, a major figure in the "mumblecore" movement; and Radio Silence Productions, the filmmaking collective behind Devil's Due. Each segment of V/H/S has a different filmmaker behind it.

The wraparound material, "Tape 56" directed by Wingard, concerns a group of burglars who break into an old man's house looking for a special VHS tape. They find the old man dead and several tapes, which they watch, setting up the rest of the stories. This has some creepy moments, but strangely, it wraps up before the final segment, and we never find out why one tape is so important.

"Amateur Night" directed by Bruckner: Three guys hit the town and to pick up women. One wears a special pair of glasses that videotapes everything he sees. They take a couple of women to a motel room, only discover too late one of them is not what she seems. This gets the stories off to a strong start: some nice gore, good use of shadows, cool ways of showing the monster without giving away too much, and an ironic just desserts plot that feels right at home.

"Second Honeymoon" directed by West: Husband Steve and wife Stephanie hit the road for a vacation in the American Southwest, videotaping the whole trip. Things get weird after a strange encounter with a mysterious girl. West is probably not the director for this. He's more comfortable with slow-burn narratives, and he tries to do that here but doesn't have time to pull it off. The twist is disappointingly mundane and ends the story right when I thought it was about to develop an interesting supernatural angle. Still, the shots of the sleeping couple are suitably paranoid.

"Thursday the 17th" directed by McQuaid. Wendy leads three of her friends to a lake in the woods. The group videotapes the hike. On the way, she says they're all going to die. This feels like The Blair Witch Project as a slasher movie with a touch of Predator. Not bad but it needed more time to develop Wendy's plan. It feels rushed.

"The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She was Younger" directed by Swanberg. A college student becomes convinced her new apartment is haunted, a fact she tries to convince her long-distance boyfriend of through video chat. This starts off very creepy, and the use of video chat is effective, but the twist manages to be both outrageous and completely out of left field, needlessly complicating the plot and creating confusion.

"10/31/90" by Radio Silence. Four friends head to a Halloween party but find the house deserted and a cult about to sacrifice a young woman. This is the most fantastical of the bunch, with some cool effects, like ghostly hands coming out of the walls and spooky images in reflections.

Presumably, having different directors handle different segments was intended to give each part its own flavor and to showcase the filmmakers' different styles, but the found footage format defeats that purpose. Found footage is a self-limiting format. There's only so many different ways to feature shaky cam, jump cuts, blurry vision, pixelated images, and video glitches, and with each segment only about twenty minutes long, it's hard for these guys to showcase their individual touch.

I'm not saying found footage isn't an effective technique. It is. There's a reason it's popular. When it works, it gives a movie a raw, reality-based feeling, a suggestion you're smack dab in the middle of the action, and in a horror film, it often limits sight of the monster to brief glimpses, which can up the fear factor.

However, at nearly two hours in length with several stories of varying quality, V/H/S feels like overkill. After a while, the technique becomes tiring and little more than a gimmick. One found footage story in an anthology could be the highlight, but when all the stories are found footage, the freshness wears off.

Apart from the technique, these stories all have something else in common: violence against women. Many horror movies have been accused of misogyny, some rightly, some wrongly, but I'd argue V/H/S is about misogyny. These tales feature women taking revenge, via supernatural and other means, against men or male figures who have wronged them.

Lily, the strange girl in "Amateur Night," lashes out against the boys who try to take advantage of her. They prey on her, not realizing she's the real predator. In "Second Honeymoon," Steve is a controlling jerk; he tries to videotape Stephanie doing something sexual, even though it makes her uncomfortable, and later accuses her of taking money from his wallet.

In "Thursday the 17th," Wendy acts like a rape victim whom nobody believed. She survived a previous massacre but notes bitterly the killer was never caught. She uses the camera to capture footage of the assailant and tries to stop him, although the experience warped her to the point she's willing to sacrifice her friends to accomplish this. It just so happens her violator happens to be a featureless, literal phantom.

Meanwhile, the eponymous Emily is tricked into thinking she has some form of schizophrenia, that she's troubled, disturbed, emotionally unstable. That's just cover. The truth is more frightening, and it covers up years of abuse and exploitation committed against her.

Lastly, the costumed Halloween partiers think they're playing hero, and the cult members think they are righteous. None of these men have any idea that this young woman can take care of herself and doesn't need a man for protection and is not afraid of any man who would threaten her.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Slumber Party Massacre

With a title like that, The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) sounds like it will skewer the then-burgeoning slasher sub-genre that even then was rapidly hardening into formula, and occasionally, there are moments and lines of dialogue hinting at how a parody could have worked.

After the pizza delivery guy is found murdered, one of the partying girls notes he's "gone cold;" another asks whether the pizza has too before taking a slice. Later, the girls suspect a classmate they were mean to earlier might be helping the killer and note that would be a bit of an overreaction for not being invited to the party.

Alas, these are teases. The Slumber Party Massacre functions mostly as a by-the-numbers slasher, no better, no worse. It packs in many of the cliches (along with a lot of nudity) but doesn't do much to make them funny.

Psycho killer escapes custody and targets a bunch of high school girls throwing a slumber party. A few other characters turn up, including a neighbor, a basketball coach, two boys from school who want to crash the party, the new girl, and the new girl's kid sister.

The Slumber Party Massacre was directed by Amy Jones and written by Rita Mae Brown. The strong creative presence of women separates the film from its contemporaries, almost all of which were made primarily by men, and other reviews have identified a feminist bend to the movie, but honestly, I'm not seeing it. True, the film comes down to a tough action girl standing up to and fighting off the killer, a man, when the only other men in the movie prove to be wimpy, sleazy, and easily disposable, but most slashers come down to a final girl. The presence of a kid sister is only a slight variation.

The killer himself is probably the strongest evidence for a feminist reading of the movie. He uses a power drill as his weapon, which he often holds suggestively between his legs. It's his dick. The drill is his dick. He can't relate to these girls, he can't have them sexually, and so he kills them with a phallic symbol. Significantly, his drill is chopped off just before he is disposed of.

But other parts of the film are just exploitative and titillating as any slasher made by a man. These girls undress quite a bit, and the camera is not shy about showing their bodies. If there's supposed to be a commentary on how easily women in slashers will disrobe and be featured only to provide nudity, I'm missing it. If it's satire, it's indistinguishable from what it's satirizing.

At times, Jones shows a good eye for compositions. An early victim pounds on the window of a van in the background of the shot while two other characters walk way oblivious. Later, a dead body turns up in the fridge, and one girl keeps missing the chance to see it and be alerted to the impending danger. The fridge's ghastly content is right there in the foreground, but she fails to check it.

The Slumber Party Massacre feels like a missed opportunity to really go after slashers. The cliches and stereotypes are assembled, sitting ducks waiting to be knocked down, but the movie merely presents them and rarely gives them a satiric edge. The characters are just too bland to be funny and too clueless to be sympathetic.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Halloween

To me, Halloween (1978) is like the big hit song by your favorite band. Sure, you're happy it was a success and helped launch their career, but you'd rather listen to one of their deep cuts.

Halloween established director John Carpenter as a force to be reckoned with and helped launch the slasher boom of the late 70/early 80s. The music is iconic, Michael Myers proved to be one of the great boogeymen of the silver screen, but honestly, I'd rather watch just about any other Carpenter movie ahead of it, not because it's bad but because it's been played to death and ripped off endlessly.

Halloween is a masterpiece of elegant, simple suspense. Fifteen years after he murdered his sister, Michael Myers escapes the sanitarium where he's been locked up and returns to his hometown to stalk and kill again on Halloween night. He zeroes in on a group of babysitters, including Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Meanwhile, his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) follows in pursuit.

That's the entire plot, and almost every element about it has been pilfered, sequelized, remade, redone, and used a hundred times in a hundred different movies: the masked, silent killer; the suggestion of the supernatural; the virginal heroine; the holiday setting; the ineffectual authority figure; and the sex, drugs, beer drinking, and partying teens being "punished" for their sins.

Even the technical aspects of the film became commonplace in the genre, especially the long, unbroken takes from the point-of-the-view of the villain, letting us see through his eyes, and the use of deep, dark shadows that allow Michael Myers to fade in and out like some kind of phantom (credit to cinematographer Dean Cundey, a frequent Carpenter collaborator).

Surprisingly, in retrospect considering where the slasher genre went, there is little on-screen blood in Halloween. I think the most we see is some on a knife and on a shirt. Most of the violence occurs off-screen. Michael Myers picks up a victim, pins him to the wall with his hand, and stabs him. We don't see the knife penetrate flesh. We see the flash of the blade, hear the sound of the stab, watch the victim's face go slack, and see his body slump lifelessly.

Before the sequels felt the need to add backstory, Michael Myers has no motivation, no character, no rational explanation for his crimes. He kills because he must (though, it must be admitted, he does have some kind of hangup on sex but this is never explained). He is an omnipresent shape, a presence more felt and suggested than shown. He is the boogeyman. He's alway present, always watching, waiting for the right opportunity to strike.

Do I like Halloween? Absolutely. It's a classic, a splendid example of style and efficiency, but I do find it hard to work up much enthusiasm to watch it again.

Monday, October 23, 2017

DEATHGASM

The following exchange between two teenage metalheads occurs after they kill one's father, who was possessed by a demon.

"Y'know, it's weird, but I think he would have wanted to go out like this."
"His eyes ripped out, face grinded off, and then head mounted under a car engine?"
"Totally. For whom the bell tolls, old man."

These metalheads - Brody (Milo Cawthorne) and Zakk (James Blake) - later fight off Brody's aunt and uncle, who are also possessed. They need weapons, and in the bedroom of the holier-than-thou Christian aunt and uncle, who think heavy metal is an abomination, Brody and Zakk find some sex toys. 

You know, every movie should strive to show you something you've never seen before. I have never in my life seen a couple of headbangers use dildos to fight off demons. Now I have. On that front, DEATHGASM (2015) must be considered a success.

DEATHGASM ("All spelt in capitals. Lower case is for pussies.") is Evil Dead 2 for the kids who grew up on Beavis and Butthead, loved Metalocalypse, and played Brutal Legend until their fingers bled. It's a balls-to-the-wall splatter comedy celebrating heavy metal, dismemberment, mutilation, the spilling of all sorts of bodily fluids not meant to be spilled, teen angst, and dick jokes. Lots and lots of dick jokes.

Do I really need to say anymore? Between the dialogue I've included and the content I described, you're either already giggling yourself silly or shaking your head and wondering why I can't review something normal and more in line with your tastes, like a Hugh Grant movie (then again, have you seen Cloud Atlas?).

Brody is the new kid in a small New Zealand town. He's a metalhead, and soon, he and Zakk have formed a band with a couple of nerdy friends (one loves Dungeons & Dragons, the other was once suspended for violating the school CPR dummy). Through a series of circumstances, they come into possession of some music that once played summons bloodthirsty demons that possess almost everyone around them, and it looks like this could be the end of the world. Brutal.

There's also a budding romance with Medina (Kimberley Crossman), a nice girl who begins the movie dating Brody's cousin but drops him when she sees what a jerk he is. She sees Brody's sweet nature underneath all that corpse paint. Brody loans her some heavy metal albums, to show her why he gravitates to the genre (on a side note, Anal Cunt has to be the last band I would use to try to impress a pretty girl, but that's me).

DEATHGASM plants its flag more in the black and hardcore realm of heavy metal. Keep your ears peeled for the likes of Emperor, Elm Street, Axeslasher, and Bulletbelt on the soundtrack, although there are shoutouts to Judas Priest, King Diamond, and Metallica. Zakk shoves a chainsaw through the.. posterior of a bad guy and follows up by quipping, "Metal up your ass!" which was the original title of Metallica's debut album before record company pressure forced them to change it.

Will non-metalheads enjoy it? Only if they enjoy blood and gore, and based on my experience, there is plenty of overlap between the two audiences.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Return of the Living Dead postulated that Night of the Living Dead, the movie to which it is an unofficial sequel, was based on a true case. The characters reference the movie and discover, to their misfortune, not everything in it was accurate.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) does something similar. It opens with a narrator explaining a series of murders by a serial killer known as the "Phantom Killer" in the 1940s inspired a 1974 movie called The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Every year, on Halloween, the town of Texarkana, where the killings took place, holds a screening of the film at the local drive-in.

Point of fact, there is a real movie from 1974 called The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the cast includes Ben Johnson and Dawn Wells, and we see clips of it throughout this new version. In this movie, the Texas Ranger (Anthony Anderson) called in to investigate the new batch of murders occurring in the present-day watches the original to gain insight on the killer and where or how he might strike next.  

Later, our heroine, Jami (Addison Timlin) visits the (fictional) son of the original's director. The son claims he knows who the killer is based on his father's research, but he lives on a houseboat in the middle of farmland nowhere near any body of water (He also claims his father could have been the next Orson Welles if he had gone to California). 

I'm not sure if this is meta, post-modern, a sequel, or what, but it's an interesting take instead of a straight redux. I have not seen the original, and in fact, I did not even know it existed before watching this version. As a standalone movie, the new Town That Dread Sundown offers a lot of nice touches that shake up the slasher formula, a good cast, and an intriguing mystery for a while, but it doesn't emerge as strongly as it could have.

The Phantom Killer is striking again, some 60 years or so after his original reign of terror. Jami can only stand by helplessly as the killer murders her date Corey (Spencer Treat Clark), but for some reason, he spares her, telling her she must make the town "remember Mary." Jami, traumatized, digs into the history of the original killings with help from Nick (Travis Tope).

Meanwhile, there's no shortage of suspects to keep the viewer guessing. Is it one of the local deputies (Gary Cole and Ed Lauter)? Maybe it's the evangelist preacher Rev. Cartwright (Edward Hermann), who might be a holier-than-thou Bible thumper but is not wrong when he states a movie about the town's tragedy is in poor taste.

The Phantom Killer wears a pillow case over his head, not unlike Jason Voorhies in Friday the 13th Part 2, but he carries himself differently than other slashers. For one, he talks, not the strong silent type of Michael Myers, and he talks in a direct way, not like the jokester Freddy Krueger. He also doesn't have qualms about using firearms and bows and arrows. At one point, he even takes up a sniper's position to pick off targets.

The explanation at the end for why the killings have resumed and what the phantom's motivations are is a letdown to say the least. Throughout the movie, there is an attempt to ascribe the supernatural to him, that he is a force of reckoning to punish Texarkana for its sins, but the reality is disappointingly mundane.

The movie doesn't do as much as it could have with some of its ideas, such as the notion that Texarkana straddles the Texas-Arkansas border, resulting in two sheriffs, two mayors, etc. Meanwhile, "Lone Wolf" Morales, the Texas Ranger, ultimately plays next to no part in the movie, and his watching the original to find out what will happen next amounts to little.

Still, I'm grateful for the small touches that make this a better than average slasher. The town is actually shown grieving for the victims, including at a funeral for one, and there's a commemoration at the school for others. The law enforcement officers don't have their heads completely up their asses as they usually do in these movies, and there are some nice characterizations (the first doomed couple includes a marine returning from deployment and his girlfriend was planning to propose to him). And I did wince when one victim, trying to get away, leaps down from a second-floor window and snaps her ankle, the bone going through the skin.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a solid effort. I watched it through, curious about where it was going and how the mystery would be solved. It's a modern-day slasher made with some effort and care, even if the payoff leaves something to be desired.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Them

Them (2006), a French-Romanian horror thriller, opens with the claim that it's based on a true story, but then again, aren't they all?

For the past three Octobers, I've planned to review Them as part of my 31 days of horror, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it before now. I first saw it while I was in college and liked it, even mentioning it in my review of The Strangers, which features a similar plot but I said "feels safer and more polished [than Them]." 

So why did I keep putting off revisiting Them? I want to say it's because I found Them so frightening and disturbing that I couldn't bear the thought of watching it again. However, it's more accurate to say it didn't leave as much of an impression on me as I thought it did. Every time I had the opportunity to watch it again, another movie sounded more appealing.

Which is not to say Them is a bad movie. It's a lean, mean thrill machine, but maybe it's too lean?

Clementine (Olivia Bonamy), a French school teacher in Romania, lives in a country house with her lover Lucas, a writer (Michael Cohen). One night, a group of hooded intruders invade their home and terrorize them. That's the entire plot.

Except for a brief prologue involving a doomed mother and her teenaged daughter and an early scene involving another teacher, there are no other characters, no motivations, no backstories, no developments, no twists, etc. Only 76 minutes long, Them carves itself down to the bone.

Generally, I prefer my villains, especially in horror thrillers, to have some mystery and ambiguity. I prefer Freddy Krueger in the shadows than out in the open making puns, or at least find him scarier that way, when he is suggested instead of shown.

But Them, I feel, goes too far in the other direction. It feels less like a bare-boned story than a barely sketched out scenario. There's tension but no drama, if that makes sense. All action, no character. Some reviews have compared Them to the likes of Deliverance or Straw Dogs, movies about "civilized" characters descending into savagery as they struggled to survive. But those movies had characters undergoing physical and emotional change, shocked at what they discover about themselves; Clementine and Lucas only react to danger.

The Strangers is a more polished and slick example of this material from the Hollywood machine, but I will say it has one advantage over Them: the look of its villains. Those masks are really creepy, they stand out, and we never see their faces.

The villains of Them don't have as distinct of a look, and while we do see one's face near the end, they otherwise don't appear as anything other than vague, half-glimpsed shadows. The revelation of who are they are and why they're doing this, for me anyway, undercuts their threat upon second viewing (though admittedly it leads to a chilling final image). I didn't buy them as dangerous anymore, even though they kill people, and their reaction (or lack thereof) to when some of their own die raises all sorts of questions the movie refuses to answer about who they are.

Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud shoot the movie digitally and employ a lot of handheld camera takes, giving the movie an unsteady and uneasy feeling. As Clem and Lucas run for their lives, the camera follows after them, and we're right along with them. Despite the lack of characterization, they are a likable enough pair we don't anything bad to happen to.

In the moment, Them is an effective exercise in fear. Afterward, when I try to think about it, I'm no longer haunted.