From September 15th until October 30th, I’ll be watching at least one new to me horror film every day, and providing collections of capsule reviews week by week. On Halloween itself, as ever, I’m planning an all day marathon of some of my favourite horror films.
I hope you’ll find it interesting following as I dig further into a genre I’ve always loved, and maybe find some hidden gems along the way yourselves. Week 1’s film can be found right here.
You Might Be The Killer (2018)
Dir: Brett Simmons
Sam (Fran Kranz), a camp counsellor running from a masked killer, calls his horror nerd friend Chuck (Alyson Hannigan) for help. Together they figure out that he is in fact the killer, and try to find a way for him to live through the night and, hopefully, stop murdering people.
Meta horror has, for the past decade or so, often focused on the role of the would-be victims in a horror movie. Last Girl Standing, Final Girl and The Final Girls all took a look at the genre’s traditional survivors taking their power back and being more than just a cliché device. You Might Be The Killer has similar aspirations for the masked murderer. This isn’t the first meta-horror to take this approach, Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon affectionately satirised the genre to brilliant effect, but this film introduces a supernatural element, in the form of a possessed mask that compels the wearer to kill, that separates the killer from his actions.
Brett Simons and co-writers Thomas P. Vitale and Covis Berzoyne have a lot of fun nodding to the cliches of the summer camp slasher. It would be nice if they developed the characters further, because the character moments we do get, like one counsellor who Sam calls ‘The Kayak King’ talking to the kids before starting a lesson, are a lot of fun. One odd detail, as well as the horror references, the film features two pairs of counsellors named Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, which is a weird film to reference in a slasher comedy.
Alyson Hannigan and Fran Kranz are clearly both having fun with their dialogue. Hannigan, sadly, is always stuck behind the counter at the comic book store Chuck owns (sign outside reading ‘We like big books and we cannot lie’), but her comic timing is sharp as ever. Kranz gets the comedy, but neither he nor the screenplay ever quite find the emotional beats the film is reaching for, both Sam and Chuck are for the most part oddly sanguine about his inevitable death.
The twists and turns are seldom unexpected, but there are some enjoyably brutal kills (a head split in half with a knife is a highlight) and it’s never less than fun. The sequel the film suggests hasn’t been made, but I’d happily see it.
Jack & Diane (2012)
Dir: Bradley Rust-Gray
It is perhaps a stretch to call Jack & Diane a horror film. For the most part, this is a realistic portrayal of two teenage girls (Riley Keough as Jack and Juno Temple as Diane) who meet and quickly fall for each other, though their relationship is tentative. Jack learns that Diane is moving away, and as the day comes closer Diane’s dreams begin to turn violent, sometimes depicting her as a werewolf devouring Jack.
The werewolf elements of the film are kept very much in the background, and always within what can be seen as a dream context—this isn’t Ginger Snaps. Almost no monster movie is literally about the monster. There are probably many credible readings of what lycanthropy stands for here, but the most surface reading (and the one I came away with on this first watch) is that it serves as a stand in for the intensity of restrained teenage desire. Throughout, we see brief stop motion sequences: hair winding its way through what appear to be the internal structures of the body. This could be taken as the wolf slowly taking over Diane, but it could also be Jack’s presence and the desire for her taking root.
Temple and Keough are two of the best actresses of their age group, and both are excellent here, but it’s Temple who runs away with the film for me, creating another in a long line of intricately drawn anxious teens repressing their desires, without feeling like she’s repeating herself from other roles. Her held in body language, and the way she makes small changes to it as the film goes on, is great work, culminating in a lovely, silent reaction shot in the film’s last moments.
I can see my grade for this film going up, as further viewings allow me to look at it more closely and unfold the further layers of metaphor I am sure are present. On a first viewing though; an excellent queer coming of ager with strong performances, beautiful visuals, and a few jolting shocks.
Goodnight Mommy (2022)
Dir: Matt Sobel
I’m not usually much for remakes, and especially of those that feel like they exist largely because a certain segment of an English speaking audience can’t bear to read subtitles. However, there were a few reasons I elected to make an exception here. First of all, while I’d enjoyed Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s original film, it wasn’t one that had stuck with me in great detail in the years since I’d seen it. Secondly, Naomi Watts, while she’s had a fairly rough track record of projects lately, is a great actress, and this felt like a project that could give her another role worthy of her estimable talents. Finally, I was one of the few UK viewers who saw director Matt Sobel’s first film, Take Me To The River, and I was struck by how good a directorial fit he could be here, given the young cast and constantly uneasy tone of that film.
Watts plays an unnamed woman who has been a successful actress, but now appears to be off the grid, having just had some form of plastic surgery, which means she needs to wear a mesh mask at all times while she heals. Following a divorce, her sons Elias and Lukas (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) come to stay with her. Soon, though, the twins are unsettled by their mother’s odd behaviour, and Lukas especially begins to suspect that this is not actually their mother.
Unease is certainly what this version of Goodnight Mommy instils. When the final revelations come, they’re not especially surprising, but the journey in getting to them is well done. Watts is excellent, and she, Sobel and the Crovetti twins do a good job of first generating and then switching the polarity of that unease. Taking the twins’ eye view of events for the first two acts makes their mother’s behaviour, whether it’s tearing up a picture Elias made and signed from both of them, slapping Elias, or dancing-masked and in her underwear-in front of a mirror, all the more unsettling. This tactic especially pays off during the scene in which sheriffs deputies bring the runaway boys back home. The scene will tense for entirely opposite reasons on first and subsequent viewings. The third act switch works well, with all three central performances recalibrating to it effectively, and it too should play interestingly in rewatches.
I don’t remember the original version of Goodnight Mommy well enough to draw direct comparisons here, but on its own merits this is the best thing Naomi Watts has done in some time, and stands on its own as a solid, if by the end predictable, thriller. It’s a decent directorial job from Sobel too, and odd that both of his films should have unseen things that happen in a barn as a major plot point. If nothing else I hope it encourages people to seek out Take Me To The River.
The McPherson Tape (1989)
Dir: Dean Alioto
The found footage film has, to my mind, a lot to answer for. For every good one, there are potentially hundreds that seem to me more like cover for a fundamental inability to shoot a film in any form that looks traditionally good.
The McPherson Tape deserves a certain level of credit for being groundbreaking, almost a decade before they came along it founds almost all the stylistic tics of the subgenre for which credit (or blame) would later be assigned to The Blair Witch Project or The Last Broadcast. The film takes place at a birthday party for the cameraman’s 5 year old niece, which devolves into chaos when he and his brothers discover that UFO has landed near the house.
Again, some credit has to be given for a naturalistic setup. The birthday party stuff of the beginning is very typical, and the unpolished aesthetic adds to the verisimilitude. However, that believability goes out of the window in the same way as in most found footage films, with characters finding tenuous excuses to stay where they are and to keep filming long after that seems wise.
The performances aren’t bad so much as they are authentically annoying. The clearly improvised dialogue is repetitive, and shrieked in unison so that all we ever end up hearing is a constant back and forth of yelled nothing. This is also reflected in the visuals. The film was shot on a VHS camcorder, so it was never going to look good, but about a third of it is, functionally, a black screen and in the entire rest of the running time, the camera stands still only in the very last shot. Nothing appears to be filmed with any thought other than ‘must disguise cheapness’ (this fails). The sole exception is the last shot, which anticipates the closing moments of another much later film, and might be haunting were it not marred by (probably literal) dollar store effects.
Even if you’re a fan of the found footage style, I can’t recommend this 1 hour headache of a movie. What can be said, except that beginnings aren’t always pretty?
Deep Rising (1998)
Dir: Stephen Sommers
Fingers crossed for next year’s fifth film, but so far the best Indiana Jones movie since Last Crusade is, by some distance, the Brendan Fraser starring The Mummy. Given that I’m such a fan of it, you’d think that I’d have seen director Stephen Sommers’ previous film, Deep Rising, before now.
The Mummy was a big tentpole blockbuster, but Deep Rising is proudly a B-Movie. Treat Williams’ mercenary captain is transporting a group of hijackers (including Wes Studi, Jason Flemyng, Djimon Hounsou and Cliff Curtis) who are planning to loot a luxury liner. However, when they get there it has already been attacked by sea-dwelling monsters and they must escape the ship along with another thief (Famke Janssen) and its multi-millionaire owner (Anthony Heald)
The script keeps things simple: broad characters, contained tension waiting for the monsters to appear, and stunt (and ropey CGI) driven mayhem when they do. It’s a ride movie, and tremendous fun for that. Williams and Janssen (who is somehow even better looking than you remember) are solid anchors. Though their chemistry isn’t entirely convincing, they both have the charisma to carry the leading roles their characters adopt in trying to get off the ship. The rest of the cast don’t have a huge amount to do, but they all seem to relish the broad strokes they get to paint in, particularly as the mercenary crew hang out before getting to the ship.
There’s no depth here, but I honestly don’t mind that. Deep Rising is a movie that clearly finds everyone on the same page, embracing the big dumb monster movie they’re all having a ball making. That makes it great fun to watch, no more or less.
The Good Son (1993)
Dir: Joseph Ruben
After the slasher boom played itself out in the mid ’80s, Joseph Ruben and writer Donald E. Westlake delivered The Stepfather, which hybridised a great slasher and a paranoid familial thriller to great effect, thanks to Ruben’s tense direction and strong performances from Terry O’Quinn and the underrated Jill Schoelen. Ruben’s return to familial horror was one of the things that had, for many years, interested me in The Good Son.
The other thing that had kept this on my watchlist was the controversy it caused in the UK, being a film about a murderous child (Macaulay Culkin) who first draws in and then tries to kill his cousin (Elijah Wood) that was originally due to open around the same time as the murder of James Bulger. It became one of several films to have its release delayed in the wake of the crime. Honestly, the context is probably more interesting than the film.
When Mark’s (Wood) mother dies, his father (David Morse) has to go to Tokyo to close a business deal that will allow him to stay home thereafter. For two weeks, Mark goes to stay with his aunt (Wendy Crewson), uncle (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and cousins Henry (Culkin) and Connie (Quinn Culkin).
The idea of casting Macaulay Culkin in a dark role as a kid with psychotic tendencies probably seemed like an interesting one, on the surface a wild contrast with his kid-friendly roles. There are two problems with that: first, Home Alone’s Kevin McAllister is every bit the psychopath Henry is, and second, the writing just isn’t there. Henry is, from the outset, just a psycho. There’s no insight here, no layers, no subtlety. It’s hard to say if Culkin could have played this role well, because there’s barely a role here as the script is.
Elijah Wood has a slightly more nuanced part, wanting initially to go along with his cousin and be friends, but growing increasingly wary and eventually afraid of him. Again, the writing lets him down in the third act, but he’s pretty good here.
The script is the problem. At every turn, especially the ending, it finds ways to be less interesting, less nuanced and less creepy, instead going for maximum cheese, but rather than embrace that cheese the way the similarly themed Mikey did, The Good Son pines to be taken seriously and, for all Ruben’s and the cast’s effort, that was never going to happen.