Something to See

2018 was a good year for the horror genre as filmmakers returned to thrilling moviegoers rather than simply grossing them out. The Halloween franchise essentially wiped away forty years of bad sequels and attempted reboots to remake the original John Carpenter thriller. The return-to-form racked up $250 million at the box office. John Krasinski made A Quiet Place, where making a simple sound was enough to set hearts beating loudly. It did even better at the box office, braking through $300 million worldwide. Then late in the year Netflix released Bird Box. While it has had a theatrical run, its main platform is the streaming service, where it has been viewed 45 million times. If that many viewings were translated into tickets sold, its gross would be around $400 million.

While Bird Box seems to have at least a spiritual thread with A Quiet Place – sight rather than sound – it’s actually based on a 2014 novel. The adaptation was done by Eric Heisserer, who’d cut his teeth on horror genre films when he started out before doing the screenplay for Arrival, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Susanne Bier took on the directing duties; she did the outstanding miniseries adaptation of John LeCarre’s “The Night Manager” two years ago.

Set in the Pacific Northwest, the movie pursues two story tracks 5 years apart. It begins in the later time, with a voice speaking over a radio: “We have a place, a compound. We have a community. It’s safe here. How many of you are there? Are any of them children? Because, the fastest way to get here is by the river, and I don’t think you could make it with kids.” But the warning about the river is ignored, underlining the desperate conditions facing Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and two young children, known only as Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair). As she prepares them for a rowboat trip down the river, she harshly tells them that they can’t remove their blindfolds.

The story then jumps back five years as the pregnant Malorie, who works as an artist, prepares for a prenatal appointment, accompanied by her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson). On the television is a report of strange outbreaks of mass suicide in Siberia, moving towards Europe, but they mute the sound before seeing that the happenings have also jumped to North America. As they enter the hospital, they see a young woman talking on her cell phone in a glassed-in walkway. When they exit, the woman is beating her face against the glass. Everything rapidly goes crazy, with people seeing “something” so shocking they’re compelled to immediately commit suicide. Jessica sees it and crashes the car. Malorie manages to make it into a nearby house that becomes a refuge for the home owner (John Malkovich), a veteran (Trevante Rhodes), an architect (BD Wong), and several others, including another pregnant woman.

The action flips back and forth between the house, with the disparate group fighting for survival, and the trip down the river five years later. As if whatever is causing people to commit suicide isn’t frightening enough, not everyone reacts that way. Some become proselytizers, forcing those who have survived to look and die. The audience, however, never gets to see what’s causing the mass hysteria. Bier and Heisserer know that the unknown and unseen is much more frightening. All we get to see are the reactions of those who do see, who go into a sort of trance as their eyes change color, and then they find someway to kill themselves.

Bullock’s Malorie is another sharp characterization added to her resumé of fine performances. She has the grit to do whatever is necessary to survive, but as she travels downstream with the children, she morphs into being their mother. A mother bear, to be sure, ready to fight for her children’s survival, but a mother none the less.

Bier’s direction is tightly focused so the film’s two-hour run time flies by. One set piece in particular has had unintended consequences. The group in the house has few supplies, but one of them worked as a security guard at a grocery store a few blocks away. When things went crazy, he’d locked the store and left. The group paints over the windows of an SUV in the garage then uses the vehicle’s GPS and proximity warning feature to slowly make their way to the store. Now some reality-challenged people have tried to redo the trick, driving blind. You’d think by now filmmakers wouldn’t have to slap a “Don’t Try This at Home” warning at the beginning of the film to prevent such stupidity.

Or maybe the warning should be, “You only get to drive like this during an actual apocalypse.”

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The Ultimate Haunted House Story

A classic subgenre of horror is the haunted house, where people are caught in a building with an evil force of some kind that means them harm. A classic novel of this genre would be Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s even more popular for horror movies, with a great example being Robert Wise’s adaptation of Jackson’s story, 1963’s The Haunting. (The remake in 1999 is an example of the worse of the genre.) Other good examples include two adaptations of Stephen King stories, The Shining and 1408, and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, based on a Richard Matheson novel adapted by the author. In 1979, Ridley Scott blended the conventions of the haunted house with science fiction for the original Alien. Now there’s a new sci-fi/horror hybrid: Life.

In the near future, six astronauts on the International Space Station prepare to capture a probe returning from Mars with samples from the planet’s surface. The ISS astronauts are themselves an international group, with a Russian commanding officer, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). British containment specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) must ensure the station isn’t contaminated by the samples, while another Brit, botanist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), will examine what the soil contains. The weightlessness of space is especially good for Derry, who is a paraplegic. The crew is rounded out by Japanese systems specialist Sho Murikami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and two Yanks, pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and senior medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Adams manages to trap the probe, and the samples are transferred to a lab on the station and placed in an isolation box. Derry introduces other factors to the samples including atmosphere and water, and is rewarded by the growth of a tiny organism. Children at a school in the United States are given the honor of naming the first example of life outside our world, and they call it “Calvin.” Derry’s fascinated by Calvin, whose individual cells are capable of multiple functions. At first Calvin looks like a delicate flower, but as it grows it shows it will do anything to survive.

Director Daniel Espinosa had worked with Ryan Reynolds before, on the hit thriller Safe House in 2012. Espinosa’s follow-up, Child 44 (based on Tom Rob Smith’s acclaimed novel), died at the box office in spite of the presence of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, and several other distinguished actors. It only managed a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes. He’s recovered his mojo with Life, certified fresh on RT. The action moves smoothly from twist to twist as the suspense is ratcheted up with each scene.

Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have often blended comedy with thrills, having done 2009’s Zombieland and then last year’s mega-hit Deadpool. With Life they play it straight, and they also play it realistic. In a way they’ve taken their cue from The Martian. The space station has limited resources for the astronauts that can’t simply be replaced by the writer playing God. It’s not like the westerns where a gunfighter might shoot off twenty rounds without reloading his six-shooter.

Another point of realism is with the interaction of the cast. While Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, and Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) are established stars – and get their pictures on the poster – they blend into a unit with Dihovichnaya, Bakare, and Sanada.

Life definitely owes a debt to Alien, though the overall feel of the movies is different. One interesting connection is that Ridley Scott produced Espinosa’s Child 44. While they stand separate, Life does remind you of the power and effectiveness of Alien before it got diluted by Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Prometheus. Perhaps Alien: Covenant later this year will recapture some of the original’s Life.

Hollywood Carrie’s On

There have always been remakes in Hollywood. Sometimes they work well – the John Houston version of The Maltese Falcon was a remake of an earlier film, and more recently Steven Soderbergh took the Rat Pack’s Ocean’s Eleven and turned it into one of the best heist flicks ever made. Other times the remakes beg the question, “What were they thinking?” Probably the worst is the 1998 remake of Psycho, which not only retold the story but matched the original shot for shot. If they had to put Psycho back in the theaters, they would have been better off simply colorizing the original and releasing that. Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates? That is scary, but for all the wrong reasons.

The newest remake is definitely in the “What were they thinking?” category. The original 1976 Carrie was a milestone in horror movies, which along with The Exorcist moved them from the B-movie category up to the A-list, and garnered Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. It was blessed with an excellent supporting cast including Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, and John Travolta in his second movie role. (His first movie role was in a Grade Z movie, “The Devil’s Rain,” which encapsulated in one film all that was wrong with the horror genre at that time.) Carrie was the high-water mark in director Brian DePalma’s career, which turned increasingly self-indulgent and hackneyed afterward (with the exception of The Untouchables). The movie also created a huge buzz about the original novel’s author, Stephen King. Publishing has not been the same since.

I had hopes when I saw the cast that the remake could capture the power of the original. Sissy Spacek was in her mid-twenties when she filmed the original Carrie. For the new movie, one of the hottest teen-aged actresses in the business, Chloe Grace Moretz, was cast as Carrie. Moretz had done horror before as the pre-teen vampire in Let Me In (which was a remake of the Swedish film Let The Right One In, and was just as good as the original), though she showed even better acting chops recently as Isabelle in Hugo. Substituting for Piper Laurie’s Margaret White was Julianne Moore, another excellent actress. Replacing DePalma for the remake was Kimberly Pierce, who guided Hilary Swank to her first Oscar win in Boys Don’t Cry. The remake kept the original screenplay writer, Lawrence D. Cohen, with additions by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who prior to this had mostly done work on television shows such as “Glee” which may have given him bona fides for a movie about high schoolers.

Even with that going for it, it doesn’t work. The original had a lyrical quality in the face of the horror elements. It was also, in its own way, one of the first girl empowerment movies. Carrie blossomed as she realized her power. It gave her the strength to fight back against her psychologically-abusive mother. Sissy Spacek had strong support thanks to Piper Laurie’s flinty religious fanatic. In the remake, Moore is more of a mouse than a monster, without the fanaticism to sharpen the action. For Moretz, Carrie’s powers come across as more of a parlor trick than an empowerment.

The supporting cast is bland. Portia Doubleday’s performance as Chris Hargensen has none of the fire that Nancy Allen brought to the role, and Gabriella Wilde doesn’t communicate the inner decency that Amy Irving did as Sue Snell. About the only upgrade is Ansel Elgort as Tommy. You can see why someone would fall for him much more than William Katt.

Of course, the special effects this time around are far and away better than in the original, thanks to the evolution in the art over the past 40 years. Still, the original was much more effective when it came to the mayhem, which happened with explosive fervor. The split screen process DePalma used worked beautifully to highlight Carrie’s actions. In the new one, Moretz looks like she’s listening to some odd piece of music on her Ipad ear buds rather than consciously murdering the senior class.

While they don’t try to recreate the original’s final “gotcha,” which has now become cliché in horror films, the substitution makes little sense and only serves to underline that this is a lesser version of the story.

Who Are The Dead People In Your Neighborhood?

The original Fright Night (1985) was a puff pastry: a John-Hughes-meets-John-Carpenter concoction that was pretty tasty even if it was basically filled with air.  William Ragsdale played Charley Brewster, a teen who’s convinced his new next door neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire.  (Ragsdale has continued to act, most recently as a regular on the FX series Justified.)  For help, he turns to the host of a late night horror movie program, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), who styles himself a vampire hunter.  Sarandon was campy cool as Jerry, while McDowall played Vincent as an anemic poser when faced with a real vampire.  But he discovers a bit of Peter Cushing mojo and helps Charley defeat Jerry.  All is well, until the sequel.

Along with other movies and TV series such as Footloose and The A-Team, Fright Night has been remade.  Unfortunately, it’s been lost amid Hollywood’s display of unoriginality.  This new Fright Night, though, isn’t just a remake; it’s a full upgrade for the post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer world.   In fact, the new screenplay was written by Marti Noxon, who was a writer and producer on both Buffy and Angel, and has also worked on Grey’s Anatomy and Mad Men.

The action has been moved to Las Vegas, which is an inspired choice with its 24 hour lifestyle.  Sleeping all day and being active at night doesn’t stand out.  Charley (Anton Yelchin) and his mother, Jane (Toni Collette), live on the outskirts of the city in a planned development of cookie-cutter homes.  Jane’s a realtor, an exceptionally frustrating job in Las Vegas these days, though a new resident, Jerry, has moved in next door to them.  Charley is a recovering geek who is now dating one of the hottest girls in his high school, Amy (Imogen Poots).  His still-geeky former friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) corners Charley and tells him Jerry is a vampire who’s begun picking off people, including another of their friends.  Charley responds, “That’s a terrible vampire name.  Jerry?”  He blows off Ed, but when the home room teacher takes roll call the next morning, Ed is missing.

Once again Charley turns to Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help.  In this incarnation he’s a Las Vegas magician who does a vampire-themed show.  He looks like a cross between Chris Angel and Russell Brand (though he sounds more like Brand).  Vincent’s website proclaims him a vampire hunter, and his apartment is filled with arcane superstition memorabilia.  Vincent throws Charley out, refusing to help.  Then he takes a closer look at photographs Charley took during a sneak inspection of Jerry’s house.  He sees something he hasn’t seen since he was a child.

The script for Fright Night blends and balances the humor and horror perfectly.  Who would believe that reading a class roll could be an exercise in suspense?  Noxon takes a number of the vampire genre rules and turns them on their ears, especially that a vampire can only enter a house when invited.

The director, Craig Gillespie, worked in commercials for years before doing his first movie, Lars and the Real Girl, a couple of years ago.  He’d also worked with Collette on The United States of Tara for Showtime.  Gillespie handles the action with a sure hand, setting a ferocious pace.  There is an extended scene of Charley, Jane and Amy trying to escape from Jerry in a minivan that plays like a single uncut shot with the camera rotating through a full 360 degrees as well as up and down.  The only awkwardness is that the movie was shot to be released in 3D.  Some of the action appears stage just to look cool in that medium.  It’s like watching the paddle ball in House of Wax – nice effect, but can we get back to the movie?  Other effects are amped up beyond the norm for a vampire flick.  In this film, when a vamp gets caught full by the sun, they don’t just catch fire, they explode.

Yelchin doesn’t have an easy role, since he’s in effect the straight man of the production, but he pulls it off with charm and confidence.  Imogen Poots will be a breakout star soon, even with a name that sounds like she’s a discarded character from the Harry Potter books.  You’ll see Chris Sarandon, the original Jerry, in a small role in the movie as well.

The film, though, is stolen by Colin Farrell and David Tennant.  Farrell handles the over-the-top violence with casual grace, yet he can also give you a chill simply by sniffing the air.  It’s good to have an intelligent villain as well.  At times the action follows the standard scenes we’ve seen in movies forever, such as when Charley breaks into Jerry’s house.  Jerry comes home but Charley manages to get out without being seen – the standard movie action – and then Farrell reveals with the smallest of smiles that he was toying with Charley.

Tennant leaves his days playing on Doctor Who mashed up and stuck in the waste basket.  His Vincent is completely profane and raunchy, wearing hip-hugging leather trousers.  “They don’t breath,” he complains to Charley while pulling at the crotch.  “You wouldn’t believe the rash I get.”  He’s helped in embodying the role by Sandra Vergara, who plays Ginger, his assistant and lover who gives right back the attitude he gives her.

There are only a handful of remakes that totally eclipse the original.  The TV version of Buffy made you forget the Kristy Swanson movie (which, if you saw it, is a merciful act).  The Harrison Ford/Tommy Lee Jones version of The Fugitive took a classic television show and raised it to a whole new level.  This version of Fright Night joins that pantheon.