Sunday, October 23, 2016

30 Days of Nightmares #23: THE GUEST (2014)

The Story: A war vet shows up to help the family of his fallen brother-in-arms.  But he has some peculiar ideas about how to “help” them.

Expectations: When I sat down to start watching THE GUEST, all I knew was that it was a well-reviewed film by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the team behind A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE and YOU’RE NEXT.  I had also heard that it was something of a genre hybrid.  Everything else was a surprise. 

Reaction: Earlier this month, I reviewed THE GIFT in the context of the “Interloper” / “yuppie horror movie” subgenre.  Right off the bat, THE GUEST reminded me that I had overlooked one very important part of that formula: Interlopers are cool.  For a while, their victims really like them—because they are charming, they are seductive, and they don’t follow the rules.  Everybody wants a friend (or a lover) like that, right?  Remember SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, POISON IVY (the “lethal Lolita” one with Drew Barrymore), FEAR (the one with Marky Mark Wahlberg), PACIFIC HEIGHTS, etc. These are all tales of seduction, in one way or another.

In THE GUEST, Dan Stevens is undeniably cool and unquestionably dangerous.  That much is clear from the very first time he flashes his smarmy-ass smile.  You wouldn’t trust this guy.  At least, you shouldn't trust this guy.  But the family in the film does.  Because they want to.  I wasn't surprised when he turned out to be a bit of a sociopath.  The other characters in the film seem to be genuinely surprised, but they don’t care… because, well, he’s cool.  And he’s “helping” them—with bullies, with ex-boyfriends, with career goals. you name it.  And then.


The Interloper turns out to be Jason Bourne.  I didn’t see this coming, and it was a welcome surprise.  At this point, I’m thinking: This is a very different kind of Interloper story.  Maybe the Interloper is as much hero as villain?  Yeah sure, he’s a stone-cold killer, but now that we know a secret government agency is trying to eliminate him, maybe he’s really the lesser of two evils??  Maybe it's okay for us to like this guy.

And then. 

More stuff happens.  I don’t want to be a jerk and give it away.  But I will say that I was impressed—no, downright giddy—at the way this film fuses Jason Bourne and Halloween, while at the same time paying homage to DRIVE.  The soundtrack (not to mention the poster art) is an indicator of this film’s 80s action / horror movie DNA: this is DRIVE meets THE NEW KIDS.  And if that doesn’t appeal to you…. well, then we can’t be friends anymore.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Only good dreams here.  

Saturday, October 22, 2016

30 Days of Nightmares #22: COHERENCE (2014)

The Story: A dinner party is interrupted by a rip in the fabric of space and time, pitting a group of L.A. eccentrics against their doppelgangers.

Expectations: Two-thirds of the way through my month-long marathon, I’m obviously trying to pick some films that are a little different from the usual horror yarn.  This one has been touted as more of a sci-fi picture, but I thought it sounded like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode—and I tend to think of TWILIGHT ZONE as horror, because the most memorable episodes are pretty ominous.  So I was expecting something along the lines of TRIANGLE, THE CALLER, and YELLOWBRICKROAD Or, if I was wrong and it turned out to be more of a sci-fi film, something along the lines of PRIMER, MOON and SOURCE CODE.  Either way, I had high hopes.

Reaction: This is a film that hinges on an understanding of quantum physics, so in a way it reminded me more of DONNIE DARKO.   Now I love DONNIE DARKO (especially the theatrical cut), because although it’s completely baffling at first, it is overwhelmingly heartfelt.  I love the characters. 

I wasn’t as attached to the characters in COHERENCE, which was a problem.  When they descend into backbiting and pseudo-intellectual explanations, I cared for them even less—and so I wasn’t working as hard to figure out what was going on.   Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for this movie (I’ll admit I was tired when I started watching it), but I feel like many of the a-ha moments were delivered so casually and subtly that their significance got lost in the shuffle. 

I seem to be in the minority here.  Reviews show that most people—at least, most critics—really liked this movie.  On paper, I can understand why.  It’s definitely not the usual genre film.  It’s rich with ideas, the acting is mostly solid, and it looks pretty good for a microbudget production.  But somehow the story felt dry to me.  Too much like a stage play.

After doing some digging, I learned that this film was made the way I assumed CREEP was made.  Only the writer/director knew the full story.  Each night (for five nights of shooting), he gave the actors a list of beats they had to hit.  The rest was improvisation.   Which leads me to wonder: Am I so accustomed to the big emotional reactions of most horror films that genuine in-the-moment reactions failed to register with me?  As an idea-driven film (there’s even a long monologue about Schrodinger’s Cat, for crying out loud), did this film really need a greater emphasis on emotional / character moments in order to make the ideas seem less abstract?  Or do I just need to watch this movie a few more times in order to fully appreciate it?  Maybe.  But I’m not going to—because, as a horror film, it just didn’t resonate with me. 

Then again, my wife really liked it.  Maybe I'm just being difficult.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment:  Some scenes are effective in their simplicity.  There a scene where a group of people meet their twinners—their differences apparent only because of the fact that they’re carrying different-colored glowsticks—on a dark street where we can't see anyone's face.  Later, a married couple realizes, mid-conversation, that they are each interacting with an alternate version of their spouse.  The silence in these moments speaks volumes.

Friday, October 21, 2016

30 Days of Nightmares #21: BACKCOUNTRY (2014)

The Story: A young couple goes hiking in a national park, and runs afoul of a creepy Irishman and a really hungry bear.

Expectations: JAWS with a bear?  Good luck topping THE REVENANT.

Reaction: This is another one of those movies that doesn’t quite seem like a horror movie to me.  Not that there aren’t horrific things in it.  Not that there isn’t plenty of suspense throughout.  Not that the story isn’t set up in exactly the same way that all indie horror movies are set up these days… with a few obligatory minutes of witty character banter, followed by a sudden change of scenery that spells certain doom for our hapless heroes.  But BACKCOUNTRY reminded me more of survival films like 127 HOURS or TOUCHING THE VOID—even GRAVITY—than my favorite horror movies.

So maybe it’s not really “seasonally appropriate" for a Halloween horror movie marathon.  But it was still a compelling story that delivered exactly what it promised: JAWS with a bear.  

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The bear attack.  Duh.  Although one should never underestimate the horror of removing a dead toenail...