31 Days of Halloween, Alleluia, cinema, djinn, Feed the Gods, Felt, film reviews, films, Gravy, Halloween, Halloween traditions, Lost After Dark, Love in the Time of Monsters, mini-reviews, Movies, October, Teeth, The Boxtrolls, The Diabolical
Our recap continues with the first few days of the fourth week of October, Monday through Wednesday (10/19-10/21). As with the others, it was necessary to break this up since 24 films were screened that week. We’ll have the second half of the week a little later: stay tuned for my run-through of the Nightmare on Elm Street series (including the remake) along with another of my picks for film of the year, Bone Tomahawk.
Alleluia — If French auteur Fabrice Du Welz has an agenda, I’m more than willing to bet that it’s making audiences extremely uncomfortable. With his stunning debut, Calvaire, Du Welz put his own unforgettable spin on one of the moldiest horror tropes out there (dangerous, inbred backwoods folks), turning it into a thoroughly unpleasant, if bleakly powerful, examination of obsession, insanity, gender assignment and creepy yokels. Du Welz would follow this up with Vinyan, an equally unpleasant if slightly less successful look at parent-child relationships and the bottomless hole that is loss.
For his third feature, Du Welz turns his attention to the oft-filmed, true life crime story of the Honeymoon Killers: a charming con artist woos and swindles women until he ends up in the orbit of an obsessive lover, at which point his chicanery combines with her insanity to produce an increasing pile of murdered women. While this features plenty of Du Welz’s trademark visual flair (a blue-lit journey through a sex club is particularly impressive), it also becomes unfortunately repetitive by the third act, as we settle into an increasingly predictable “wash, lather, rinse” cycle of Gloria getting jealous, Gloria getting seriously violent and Michael staring in shock at the aftermath. If the film, itself, is Du Welz’s most straight-forward and least surprising yet, then the searing performance by Lola Duenas as Gloria stands as one of the very best performances I saw this year. With her big, soulful eyes, goofy, glazed grin and propensity to turn into a Tazmanian Devil when angered, Duenas’ Gloria is, perhaps, one of the single most terrifying characters ever brought to the screen. Too bad Alleluia isn’t as feral as its lead.
Gravy — This one’s a bit tricky, folks. On the one hand, writer-director James Roday’s feature debut is astoundingly funny, full of brilliant dialogue, some awe-inspiring performances (they don’t normally offer Oscars for splatterific horror-comedies but, if they did, both Jimmi Simpson and Michael Weston would receive an equal half, split down the middle like Solomon’s infamous baby), brilliant setpieces and some genuinely amazing gore/effects work. It’s no hyperbole to say that, come the end of this year, Gravy will absolutely end up in my Top 5: it’s all but guaranteed a spot, given that the damn film is pretty much flawless, as streamlined of purpose as a shark.
So what’s in that other hand, gentle readers? Well, in this case, it would be the twin qualifiers of societal taboo (cannibalism) and extreme, unabashed and outrageous bad taste. While most folks will probably find themselves turned off by the actual story (a trio of nutty cannibals takes the employees of a Mexican restaurant hostage on All Hallows’ Eve and proceeds to butcher and eat them, all while playing a series of silly games), I’ll wager that the tone will tick just as many off. Thanks to the astounding performances, cannibals Simpson and Weston become the de facto, ultra-charismatic leads, even as they’re sawing people in half or biting their voiceboxes out through their throats. To put it bluntly, our cannibals are so damn lovable and quirky that it puts the audience in a weird situation: we want to root for the employees (who are also such a lovable, cool bunch that it’s never a chore) but then Simpson, Weston or Molly Ephraim (whose female cannibal easily holds her own in the boys’ club) will do or say something so gut-bustingly rad that it’s hard not to cheer ’em on.
Make no mistake about it, however: if you can stomach the intense bloodshed and far less than PC humor, you’ll find that Gravy is one of the funniest, most original and most ingenious films to emerge in the last decade or so. With its phenomenal score (“La Bamba,” “Sowing the Seeds of Love” and “Walking on Sunshine” are all used to turn already epic setpieces into the kind of water-cooler talk that make legends) and razor-sharp dialogue (the scene where Simpson and Weston discuss how Jenny Agutter going “full frontal” in Equus was the source of Simpson’s love of British accents is so perfectly timed that it’s like a comedy workshop), this thing is a crowd-pleaser dressed in lunatic garb. Final word: any film that makes me laugh this often and pump my fist this high gets only one real descriptor, in my book…classic.
The Boxtrolls — Despite a slightly off-putting visual style (sort of like drastically over-lit Claymation) and a slightly too long running time, I rather enjoyed this quirky little story about finding your own family in the world, regardless of whether they look like you or not. With some nice voice-acting, heartfelt themes and fun setpieces, The Boxtrolls doesn’t reinvent the wheel (or even spiff it up, to be honest) but it’s a pleasant enough way to pass the time.
Djinn — Of all the ’70s horror masters who’ve gradually lost their edge, few have fallen further and harder than the once unstoppable Tobe Hooper. While everything between his iconic 1974 debut, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and its direct 1986 sequel are varying degrees of awesome (the worst thing you can say about any of the eight films in his “classic” period is that they might be a tad bit over-the-top), he’s been unable to create anything worthwhile in the nearly 30 years since.
His newest film, the UAE-funded Djinn, fits nicely into the pattern of latter-day Hooper: clichéd scenarios, iffy acting, and an overall workmanlike quality that’s the polar opposite of essential films like TCM, Fun House or Life Force. There’s no point in the film’s 80 minutes where it ever exceeds expectations, surprises or produces anything like the glory of his mid-’70s to mid-’80s output. In fact, if you didn’t catch his name in the credits, I’m willing to wager there would be no way whatsoever to discern this as a Tobe Hooper film any more than an Alan Smithee joint. Save one really smart scene involving a pair of oblivious cops and several coolly atmospheric moments, this tired story of a husband and wife finding ancient evil when they return to their homeland is just about as D.O.A. as it gets. Hard to call this a disappointment, really, since ol’ Hoop’s been driving this awful back road for almost three decades now.
Lost After Dark — Nowadays, with nearly as many retro-’80s-themed genre films floating around as there were actual films back in the 1980s, it’s a little harder for any one to make a genuine impact. Enter writer-director Ian Kessner’s full-length debut, Lost After Dark, which utilizes a surprisingly smart and simple way to stand out from the pack: by playing the film mostly straight, the whole thing ends up feeling like a long-lost slasher curio rather than a calculated homage to an era. Sure, there are meta moments like the obligatory “missing reel” gag (albeit used in a pretty fresh way, here) and the fact that every character in the film is named after either a famous horror director, performer or character (most head-slapping bit being the point where Heather proclaims “I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again” because, ya know, the actress who played Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street was Heather Langenkamp. Get it? Huh? Huh?).
For the most part, however, we get a pretty well-made old school slasher film filled with unique kills (the giant corkscrew to the back was certainly original), fun characters and a pretty neat performance from Robert Patrick as a tough-as-nails high school principal (“I’m no teenager: I was in the ‘Nam and I’ve got chunks of guys like you in my stool!”). If the film occasionally comes across as slightly generic, well, that may just be the most authentic bit of verisimilitude yet.
Love in the Time of Monsters — In the past, I always held fast to the notion that horror-comedies were, quite possibly, the hardest films to really knock out of the park. Judging by the amount of amazing ones I saw this year, however, it looks like filmmakers may have finally cracked the code. Next exhibit? Matt Jackson’s thoroughly endearing Love in the Time of Monsters.
All of the necessary aspects are present and accounted for: funny, unique angle (the various guys who play Bigfoot at the Sasquatch-themed Uncle Slavko’s All-American Family Lodge become infected by toxic waste and turn into rampaging Bigfoot-costumed zombies who chow down on the guests and other employees); well-done gore effects; fun, likable characters (Doug Jones gets a marvelous bit as an Abe Lincoln-costumed doctor, while every employee of the lodge has their own personalities and quirks, ala Gravy); great setpieces (the scene where the Big Kahuna and Brandi have to “dance like lives depend on it” is fantastic but the scene where our survivors get a full view of the contaminant’s effect on the local wildlife is a showstopper); great acting; smart, fast and funny dialogue (writer Michael Skvarla’s script rarely comes up for air, preferring to batter the viewer with one hilarious line after another, again, ala Gravy)…if it’s possible to create quality film with a checklist, this is the one to use.
While Love in the Time of Monsters isn’t quite as flawless as either Gravy or Cooties (the film sometimes devolves into silly chaos and there’s a really ill-advised and, frankly, awful electrical charge effect that’s used way too often and never failed to make me groan), if you’re a fan of horror-comedies, this should be just what you’re looking for.
Feed the Gods — Needlessly confusing, drastically under-lit and genuinely odd, Feed the Gods is one of those horror film collages (creepy backwoods locals, Bigfoot, sins of the parents, humans in thrall to monsters, yadda yadda ya) that seems to have a lot on its mind, yet doesn’t end up saying a whole lot. There’s lots of interesting stuff in this film about brothers who travel to a virtual ghost town in search of their birth parents and run afoul of the Bigfoot-worshipping locals but the plot takes so many sudden zigzags that it becomes tiring trying to keep up. It was never a terrible film, mind you, but by the time the film chugged into the finish line, it had become a somewhat silly film, which rather belies its serious-as-a-heart-attack tone. Extra points for finding a way to channel Shirley Jackson’s immortal The Lottery, even if it ends up being just another hanging thread in a pretty shaggy tapestry.
The Diabolical — There’s nothing worse than a lazy, middle-of-the-road film that takes zero chances and does it’s damnedest to blend into the pack: Alistair Legrand’s The Diabolical is probably the furthest thing from that. On the other hand, however, films (and filmmakers) that bite off way more than they can chew can be just as bad, albeit in a different way. The Diabolical, without a doubt, falls under that category.
Ostensibly one of the ubiquitous “troubled family moves into a new home and experiences strange occurrences” family of films, Legrand throws in diabolical scientific experiments, time travel, typical haunted house stuff (skinless apparitions are plentiful here) and convoluted familial drama until the whole thing begins to resemble a Whitman’s Sampler of Horror. There are moments of genuine power here (the bit where a skinless creature crawls out of a clothes dryer is the genuine stuff of nightmares) but the ultimate resolution makes imperfect sense (at best) and the whole thing becomes almost unbearably cluttered and confusing by the “twist” ending. Nothing wrong with a little ambition, mind you: complete lack of focus, however, is something else entirely.
Teeth — Pitched somewhere between a particularly grim fairy tale and a tongue-in-cheek reproachment of misogyny, Teeth details the adventures of Dawn, a goody-two-shoes high school student who’s a little different from her peers. For one thing, she’s a highly aggressive proponent for abstinence and wholesome entertainment (PG-13 movies have too much “making out,” so cartoons are safest), which makes her the object of ridicule for her “cooler” peers. For another thing, she has vagina dentata, a fact which she discovers when the supposedly nice guy that she has a crush on tries to rape her and gets his manhood forcibly removed.
Held aloft by Jess Weixler’s positively effervescent performance as Dawn, Teeth is always lighter than its subject matter might indicate but never sells the very serious core themes short. There’s lots of thought-provoking discussion about gender norms, the stereotype of the “good girl,” the fallacy of the “white knight” and the notion of justice versus vengeance. That’s not to say, of course, that the film is all dour philosophizing: thanks to the quick, smart dialogue, Weixler’s constantly engaging performance and some genuinely impressive setpieces, Teeth ends up being a whole lot of fun, a smart teen comedy with a significant edge and plenty on its mind.
Felt — It’s quite possible to love the message, yet dislike the messenger: Jason’s Banker’s follow-up to Toad Road, Felt, is proof positive of just that. Despite being 100% on board for this searing indictment of misogyny and rape culture (with a little Repulsion thrown in, for good measure), I was left cold and, to be honest, a little irritated. Chalk it up to co-writer/lead Amy Everson’s thoroughly off-putting performance as a traumatized artist who gradually loses her grasp on reality amid a seemingly unending array of piggish, assholish masculinity, the best of which can said to be liars, the worst of which are no less than dangerous predators. Even though I agreed with everything Amy was saying and (for the most part) doing, I just couldn’t stand her character, finding her to be obnoxious and rather tedious.
It’s a shame because there’s so much potential that feels squandered here, so much more that could have been done with this set-up. After loving Banker’s previous film, Felt was just about as highly anticipated for me as anything this year: that makes my general dislike of this one of my biggest disappointments of the year. Aside from a few unnerving setpieces and some genuinely beautiful cinematography (Banker continues to be a real wizard with the camera, just as in Toad Road), the film is just sunk by Everson’s unlikable performance. I wanted to love this, trust me: it hurts me deeply to say that I didn’t even like it.