In 1944, a team of five allied soldiers are assigned to protect a French mansion that the Nazis recently vacated. They are late arriving to relieve the current watch, who are suspiciously eager to leave. Almost immediately after they do, weird things begin happening to each of the five as they split up and check out the mansion. Clearly, this house is haunted, and it’s no surprise since the Nazis seem to have ritual-killed the family who once lived there (the pentagram in the attic is not just decorative, it’s fully operational).
From the moment Billy Zane appears on screen, it is clear that Ghosts of War is not going to be a good movie, and is not even trying to be one. Its goal appears to be to make you jump in terror, with it settling for mild twitches of surprise. Which kind of works, in its way. The house is mysterious enough to keep your attention, and the weird things happening within are clearly not random. These patterns hint that there is a solution to be found somewhere in the house, and our five soldiers are focused on figuring it out.
But then, things go sideways in a hurry, and that is because Ghosts of War has one other secret goal, ripped directly from M. Night Shyamalan’s playbook. Namely, to blow your mind when the truth behind these strange events is revealed. And as in most Shyamalan films, Ghosts of War’s twist feels like a cheap gimmick. Not only does his particular twist make no sense, the movie would have been better if it had just been left out.
That ill-conceived twist turns this uniquely-set haunted house movie into something we have seen done many times before, and seen done better just as many times. Especially because Ghosts of War’s ending seems to have been misplaced, or else it disappeared into thin air. Where did it go? Perhaps Billy Zane can track it down, but until he does, what’s left is a movie that is both a half hour too long and 20 minutes too short.
Spontaneous combustion is a cool concept unless you’re the one suffering from it. Unfortunately, the reality is pretty disappointing – it’s probably mostly obese, alcoholic women who fall asleep while smoking. Not exactly “spontaneous” but between the fat and the alcohol in their blood, they go up like wicks.
Spontaneous is not about spontaneous combustion, it’s about spontaneous explosion, which is even more dramatic. Mara (Katherine Langford), a senior in high school, is just minding her own business in class one day when the student sitting in front of her goes boom. She just…pops, like a water balloon full of blood. So that’s weird. And it gets weirder; the next time it happens, and it does happen again, and again, it attracts the attention of the media and the government, and Mara’s whole graduating class gets quarantined while the CDC tries to work out a cure.
Of course, teenagers + mortality + hormones = hella humping. Living each day like it could be their last (because it really could), Dylan (Charlie Plummer) gets the courage up to tell Mara how he feels – how he’s been feeling for the last two years. Crush reciprocated, Mara and Dylan are instantly an item, but their hot and heavy romance is constantly interrupted by another teenage eruption. Er, I regret that turn of phrase. But the kids just keep detonating like flesh bombs, painting the walls (and the bystanders) red.
The movie is cheekier than I’d expected, funny in a dark way, with a clever script adapted by director Brian Duffield from Aaron Starmer’s novel. It’s a horror movie – teenage romance – satirical comedy hybrid that just kind of works in a weird and refreshingly unique way with a pretty sick twist.
Langford is magnetically pretty of course, but away from 13 Reasons Why, she proves herself talented, delivering a surprisingly and appropriately low-key performance, the anchor in a pretty tumultuous storm. Duffield is a first time director but a serious talent. Spontaneous isn’t a perfect movie but it takes risks that pay off. It’s absurd, it’s electric, and if you feel something wet at your eye, it’s just as likely to be blood spatter as tears. Not all of these kids are going to make it to the end. Some will get to grow up, others will simply blow up, but either way, you’ll be sickly and slickly entertained.
Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight is a Polish horror film with a modern setting. Teens addicted to the screen are sent by their parents to detox in the woods in a kind of rehab camp. Julek (Michal Lupa) is a gamer whose parents don’t seem to appreciate the competition or the money making potential, Aniela (Wiktoria Gasiewska) is selfie-obsessed, and the others are also there so presumably over-consuming some kind of tech, including jock Daniel (Sebastian Dela), homophobic homosexual Bartek (Stanislaw Cywka), and our main protagonist, loner Zosia (Julia Wieniawa-Narkiewicz), though their particulars are apparently unimportant. Suffice to say: they’re addicted, and they’re being marched more or less against their will into the woods by Iza (Gabriela Muskala), a woman who probably wears camo in her off-time too. And this is precisely where the modern stops and this horror becomes a throwback to creature features of yore.
Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight isn’t content with your standard slasher bad guy; they’ve got something truly grotesque tromping through their forest and director Bartosz M. Kowalski capitalizes on the gruesome mystique.
Though Zosia is haunted by her past almost as much as by the monster, it’s Julek who is our true hero, even if he cuts an unlikely figure. He, at least, is bright enough to play by the horror rules, even stating them for everyone’s benefit, especially ours, we the audience who are yelling at least as loud as he is about not splitting up. Not under any circumstances.
This is by no means a classic among the genre, it’s not even a particular stand-out. But if you’re a fan of vintage slasher flicks, you’ll find this full of gore and guts, with an entertaining sprinkling of meta in-jokes. It’s a little familiar in places, a little surprising in others, and altogether not a terrible scary movie. It’s not rich in backstory or concerned with an overarching message, it’s just brutal and bloody and unforgiving.
Odd is his actual name, and according to townspeople, he lives up to it each and every day. If they knew he had powers that justified what they called him, they’d REALLY be upset. Odd (Anton Yelchin) is a short-order cook who can see the dead. They can’t speak but they are often frantic to impart a last message, sometimes about how they died, and who might be responsible. Thank goodness for Chief Porter (Willem Dafoe), who pursues Odd’s leads and doesn’t ask too many questions that can’t be comfortably answered.
But there’s something more sinister than usual hanging around this California desert town. Dark and threatening forces (seen only by Odd of course) are clustering around a mysterious man, and Odd has a very bad feeling that something very serious and very deadly is about to go down.
The movie is pretty wobbly as far as tone goes: romance, tragedy, comedy, supernatural thriller. It’s scary, witty, goofy, silly, and yes – odd. And while some may find it tough to breach the ever-changing landscape, Anton Yelchin is just the man to incorporate all of these facets into something that makes sense. While Yelchin’s loss is still keenly felt, it’s a little more palpable when he’s addressing a child’s ghost and offering condolences for a life cut short.
Odd Thomas is a quirky comedy-horror if ever there was one, but I couldn’t help but like it. It is oddly entertaining; Odd has the makings of a paranormal investigator that I could watch again and again – I kind of wish it was a series and not a film so that I could. Writer-director Stephen Sommers adapts from a Dean Koontz novel which I have not read but imagine the film manages to capture a good bit of the source material’s spirit. It’s an engaging deviance from the usual approach, a more whimsical, almost quaint approach to horror, quite a feat for something involving satanic cults and mass murder.
You remember Danny Torrence, right? Loved to ride his Big Wheel down quiet, carpeted hallways. Called his index finger Tony and spoke for him in a creepy voice? Avoided being chopped up into tiny pieces by his father by outsmarting him in a hedge maze?
Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining you didn’t know you’d been waiting 40 years to see, starring survivor Danny Torrence, now all grown up and going by Dan (Ewan McGregor). Dan is an alcoholic, struggling to beat the disease that claimed his father. He’s alone in the world, nothing but a string of bad decisions behind him, not to mention some haunting memories which he tries to repress. He’s trying for a peaceful life these days but when teenager Abra (Kyliegh Curran) reaches out to him via their mutual power (we’re still calling it the shining), he can hardly ignore her, especially because she’s in danger. Her powers are pretty significant and she can feel other kids like her getting brutally murdered. A mysterious cult known as The True Knot, led by Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), preys on children with powers, drinking their pain and eating their fear to remain immortal.
Of course this struggle will ultimately end up at the Overlook Hotel, where the final showdown takes place. It’s been abandoned literally since the last time Danny was there, and it’s got plenty of trauma triggers just waiting to trip him up. The hotel itself is not unlike the True Knot, sucking at whatever shining powers it can get, and Dan’s presence certainly revives this.
The film has a great supporting cast including Emily Alyn Lind, Zackary Momoh, Alex Essoe, Henry Thomas, and especially Carl Lumbly, Jacob Tremblay, and Cliff Curtis. Director Mike Flanagan knows how powerful it is to situate us back into the setting of one of the most famous and successful modern horror movies ever, but he wisely uses it sparingly, creating his own almost separate story that merely feels adjacent to the great Stanley Kubrick oeuvre. Likewise, he doesn’t seek to recreate Kubrick’s style, though the temptation must be great. Doctor Sleep takes a more brooding, almost meditative approach, which might be a nice way of saying slow. It is a bit slow because we take the time to get reacquainted with Dan Torrence and incorporating his infamous past with what we know of him today, because those events have certainly shaped him. There has always been a reason to revisit The Shining; in the first film, Danny’s special powers are relegated to subplot and never get fully addressed. The Shining seems like it’s named after Danny but it’s his father’s story; Jack’s writer’s block and cabin fever and alcoholism and isolation culminate in a rather explosive way. The fact that his son is ‘weird’ is a relatively minor factor in his downward spiral. Finally with Doctor Sleep we get some answers – what is it more than why is it, but it’s still satisfying to tie up some long-nagging loose ends. Of course, it also opens up its own universe of terror and intrigue.
Mike Flanagan’s film hits different notes than Kubrick’s did, though, apart from the synth ones in the score that inspire instant dread. It’s respectful of Kubrick’s masterpiece, but draws a lot on the book by Stephen King, and winds up forging its own identity. To be honest, I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. Flanagan is smart to build his sequel on familiar bones but not to make the film in Kubrick’s image. It helps that they’re very different stories about very different family members. Rebecca Ferguson is a lot of fun as Rose The Hat, and Kyliegh Curran is clearly going to be a huge star. It takes a while to get them together but not only is it worth the wait, it doesn’t feel like a wait, it’s a genuine pleasure to have this creep up on you on all sides until you’re surrounded and the only thing to do is to surrender.
Leonora’s family is starving. In the wake of a nuclear event, everyone is starving. Leonora (Gitte Witt) and husband Jacob (Thomas Gullestad) are doing their best to keep their young daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) safe in an increasingly violent and unsettled world, but they cannot put enough food in her belly. Leonora was an actress in the time before the apocalypse so she may not have needed much convincing to take in the new play being mounted in an abandoned hotel, but considering the pay-what-you-can tickets include dinner, it’s a done deal.
The dinner is real enough, but the play turns out to be more like interactive theatre, which is enough to spoil even a starved belly’s appetite. Mathias’ (Thorbjørn Harr) particular brand of dinner theatre requires patrons to wear masks as they discover the actors in different scenarios, macabre or shocking or enticing. But the show blurs the line between performance and reality; the masked guests grow increasingly weary as they pass from one dreadful scene to another. But when Alice goes missing, Leonora’s frantic search turns up some uncomfortable truths and the guests, transforming from spectators to spectacle, must confront the true cost of an evening’s entertainment.
Cadaver has an interesting premise and a disappointing follow-through. It cultivates an atmosphere of dread and tension capably but resolves them predictably. Writer-director Jarand Herdal sets his horror in a world I’d like to know more about but then all but shuts it out, locking down his subjects in an old hotel, the likes of which we’ve seen before, and seen better.
The guests’ desperation and Mathias’ instinct for survival are the most banal and expected conditions in this post-apocalyptic world. I suspect the more interesting stories were taking place out in the streets, just beyond the hotel’s doors.
Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) is a young nurse working in a hospital. She befriends a teenage patient who was injured in a car accident and awaiting surgery. Evan (Dillon Lane) is very nervous about the surgery, and Quinn’s reassurance doesn’t help – he has an app on his phone that predicts the exact moment of his death, and guess when his time’s up? That’s right, the very next day, scheduled mid-surgery. Quinn is dismissive on the app but Evan explains his certainty; at a recent party, his girlfriend and a bunch of friends had used the app as a drinking game. Everyone had downloaded it, and the person nearest to his or her death had to take a shot. Evan’s girlfriend drank the shot – her countdown to death was just 3 hours away. She wisely turned down a ride from drunken Evan but wound up dead anyway, and Evan crashed his car, a tree limb stabbing through the passenger seat where his girlfriend would have been sitting. At shift exchange, Quinn relays this conversation with her peers, and all are excited to download it themselves. Most have countdowns decades away, meaning long lives ahead, but Quinn’s clock is counting down from just 3 days from now.
Quinn’s little sister Jordan (Talitha Bateman) is scheduled to die right around the same time, so they team up with fellow near-deather Matt (Jordan Calloway) to seek out any possibility of extending their lives, including the help of a priest and some salt. The thing about death, though, is that it comes for everyone.
This movie isn’t exactly going to uplift the genre or defy expectations or win awards, but for what it is, it’s pretty decent. The countdown clock is an effective if often-used tool. Elizabeth Lail isn’t exactly given first-rate material to work with, but she’s a good actor and the character’s not a ditz, and those things alone put Countdown in the top half of all horror movies. The story’s generic and predictable but the jump scares still work enough to get your heart pumping, and that’s always worth something in the horror genre. If you’re up for a little fate-dodging, and are prepared to meet Death himself, choose Countdown, but leave your phone in another room.
Nolan (Black Box) just suffered a devastating car accident that took his memory and his wife’s life. Trying to piece his life back together after the trauma, Nolan’s amnesia would seem particularly problematic since he is now a single father to Ava (Amanda Christine), is far too little to have such an unreliable caregiver, never mind doing most of the caring herself.
Nolan is desperate, so he agrees to undergo an experimental treatment, the eponymous black box, which wears and looks like a VR helmet and seems to almost hypnotize patients back into their subconscious minds where Dr. Lillian (Phylicia Rashad) attempts to guide them into recovering their inaccessible memories. The process is agonizing, and while some progress is being made, it’s also further confusing Nolan, who finds that his memories aren’t quite matching up to what he’s come to expect. Thank goodness for Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) who not only provides priceless babysitting duty, but also serves as a touchstone, the only one who can confirm or deny the memories that Nolan seems to be recovering.
While I wouldn’t classify the film as a horror movie (though Amazon Prime sure does, including it in its “Welcome to the Blumhouse series), it is creepy in a way that’s hard to shake. Nolan’s memories remind me a bit of Inception in that sometimes they are hostile toward him, which doesn’t exactly do any favours to his healing. I’ve been a fan of Athie for many years now, and it’s always exciting to see Rashad pop up in things; the two together make for a well-acted and interesting film. I enjoyed the story, and the frantic search for identity, and I’ve appreciated how many of these Blumhouse films have considered parenthood from different aspects. Black Box doesn’t deliver my scares, but it’s chilling like an extended episode of Black Mirror, slightly sci-fi-ish, exploring the unintended consequences of new technologies.
Pallavi’s mother is a little overbearing. Or a lot overbearing, depending on your perspective. As far as Indian parents go, Pallavi’s aren’t so bad, maybe. They love her a lot. Mom Usha (Sarita Choudhury) calls every day, with good intentions and motherly concern. Pallavi (Sunita Mani) is nearly 29 and still single, a matter of daily discussion. There’s an ocean between them but no shortage of meddling, even if, as Usha points out, there aren’t a lot of Indian men in New Orleans. Pallavi is unconcerned with her marital status but she’s a smart woman and quickly judges that it’s easier to agree to yet another of her mother’s fix-ups than to argue uselessly. Fortunately or unfortunately, Pallavi’s date stands her up, but she ends up meeting someone else that day, and Sandeep (Omar Maskati) is everything both Pallavi and her mother have been looking for in a man.
I know what you’re thinking: Pallavi’s going to fuck things up. But not if Usha beats her to it! Yes, it IS ironic that the very mother who has preached marriage and family above all, stability over romantic love, partnership rather than independence, that same Usha who made her daughter feel like as long as she’s single, she’s a disappointment, that very Usha – well, now she’s trying to hit the brakes all the way from India. Usha’s astrologer assures her it’s a very auspicious match, and her husband Krishnan (Bernard White) does his best to soothe her, but Usha cannot be dissuaded. Her reasoning, unfortunately, is unconvincing: she’s pretty sure that Sandeep is the reincarnation of her abusive boyfriend come back to finish the job. Whether or not Usha’s tendency toward superstition is playing a part, or her PTSD is being triggered, Usha’s panic is as real as her desperation.
This is not your typical “horror” movie even if it is a Welcome To The Blumhouse member. It’s a mother-daughter drama with some seriously sinister supernatural overtones to it. Also, the fact that it’s set in both America and India gives it a unique structure. As much as Usha fears for her daughter, you bet Pallavi is also afraid her mother’s mental health is crumbling, and the distance only makes them both all the more distraught.
Choudhury and Mani both give compelling performances but directors Elan and Rajeev Dassani are less confident, and less inspired. Evil Eye doesn’t quite reach its true potential, but its strong sense of identity goes a long way in making this worthwhile.
Juliet and Vivian are twin sisters studying at an elite academy of the arts. They both study piano, they both hope to be classical musicians, and they both want to go to Julliard. It is widely thought that Vivian (Madison Iseman) is the more talented twin, and Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) the less successful. It is tough having such fierce competition and such a direct comparison; Vivian isn’t just the better musician, but the better student, the better daughter, the better friend, the better girlfriend. Oh, and she just got in to Julliard. Juliet did not.
It would seem Juliet it is in for a lifetime of second place, but a suicide at her school opens her up to the possibility of a Faustian bargain – is she desperate enough to sell out her own sister, or, just maybe, is getting to sell out her sister the whole point? Nocturne unravels sibling rivalry on a whole new level, and in a way that keeps you guessing as to how much this “deal with the devil” is a literal event, and how much is perhaps just the very idea of it empowering Juliet to come out of her sister’s shadown and challenge her for supremacy. Oh boy.
Director Zu Quirke sidesteps easy chills and obvious gore in favour of something that is more subtle, and far more unsettling. With teenage protagonists you expect something flashy and slashy, blow out parties and surrendered virginities, but this horror is of a more creeping variety, eerie and unknown.
The cast is uniformly solid, but Iseman and Sweeney deliver spell-binding performances that make the tragic relationship between sisters so difficult to crack but so interesting to watch and interpret. Your sympathies may switch teams several times before the last act, which is predictable, yes, but dizzying and vital. The horror bits are actually Quirke’s most conventional beats; her strength is in story-telling. The academic setting is both cutthroat and ripe for predation and exploitation. The interesting is figuring out who, or what, is behind it all.
Nocturne is one of four “Welcome to the Blumhouse” horror offered in a bundle on Amazon Prime. Stay tuned for more reviews, and be sure to let us know if you’ve taken the plunge.