Kyle’s Top Ten Films of 2020

Hello again, everyone!

Well, I’m glad that is over. 2020 has come to an end, and with it, we see a very unusual year with a very unusual effect on the film industry. I can’t remember the last time I went this long without setting foot in a theater. The last movie I saw at the cinema was The Invisible Man back in early March. That was before my birthday so I can officially say that I haven’t been to the movie theater at all in my 30s. Geez, this year could not end fast enough. And no, we won’t see theaters immediately come back to the way they were in 2021, but there’s hope. There’s been some serious vaccine development happening. My wife is expecting her second dose of the vaccine next week, and hopefully I’ll be in line soon enough.

One of the biggest differences between our current situation and pandemics and illnesses past, though, is that we have the luxury of many at-home devices and personal entertainment options. In 2020, I watched a ton of movies that I’ve owned for years and haven’t seen yet. I’ve read books and played video games that were on my list. I listened to new music and explored new genres. Money was also tight, though, as many people went without their normal income for months on end. My family unit was pretty concerned about this, so we canceled many of our unneeded services, and I went to watching older movies, classic movies, that I haven’t seen before as opposed to whatever was being dumped on Netflix. All this is a roundabout way of saying that I didn’t see a lot of newer movies this year, so my list won’t be as eclectic as it has in previous seasons, but I’m going to move through it the best I can and give you my thoughts on the best movies I saw last year. Really, though, I missed a lot of films I desperately wanted to see, so you could call this a list of 10 solid movies from last year. When it all shakes out, there may be a completely different set of films that would have made my Top Ten if this year had gone normally.

So, let’s do this the same way we’ve done it before, with a few obligatory stipulations and notes:

-As stated above, I did not see every film that was released in 2020. That would have been an impossibility, even in 2020. I saw as many as I could. Of course, as always, life happens and some films were missed. So if you don’t see something on this list, it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t belong. I may just not have see it…yet. That, or it doesn’t belong.

-These are MY personal picks from the options available this year. These are not predictions for the Best Picture nominees of the Academy Awards nor are they undeniably the best films of the year where there is no cause for discussion. In fact, I pray for challenge and discussion. Some films have different placement at the end of the year than they would have based on their initial scoring, and some may have major flaws. Like I’ve said before, enjoyment goes a long way…

Alright, no more fluff, let’s do this thing.

  1. The Way Back

-This is a hard movie to watch, but I think we knew that going in. Ben Affleck, a recovering addict, in a movie, playing an addict. It was a recipe for a rough viewing, but the film comes off tremendously cathartic. It’s hard to call it a sports film because so much of the narrative seems to be focused on Affleck’s performance, but his work is so strong and painful that it stays with you long after the movie ends. My only problem is that the film seems to veer away from his alcoholism in order to give a classic sports film finale that seemed to reckon with his character arc, but other than that, this was an unforgiving character study.

  1. Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge

-I told you there might be some odd surprises here, and I wasn’t lying. Scorpion’s Revenge is probably the best Mortal Kombat film yet, an animated telling of the original mythology seen from the eyes of one of its most popular characters. The film is simple, and it’s purpose is only to entertain, but it does that and more with its stylish, hard-hitting action and an unforgiving and almost cruel fight sequences. I grew up playing the Mortal Kombat games and watching the (original!) movie, so it was great to see the WB Animation team (known for such tremendous work on the DC Animated films) to take a stab at this mythology, and it paid off.

  1. Gretel & Hansel

-I put off on watching this one back when theaters were still open. I really didn’t like Oz Perkins’s previous work on I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (in fact, it was my least favorite film of the year back when it came out), so seeing his take on the classic fairy tale Hansel & Gretel just didn’t seem to win me over. Even with the solid posters and trailers for the film, I felt like I was being set up for disappointment. Finally, I was swayed late in the year to check this one out and I’m so happy I did. There’s style and tone unique to this film that makes the classic story all anew once again. Sophia Lillis was tremendous in the lead role (a fitting choice to invert the names as such, as she owns the narrative), and I was impressed with Alice Krige’s take on the witch. This film oozes atmosphere and doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you slept on this horror tale like I did, seek it out as soon as you can.

  1. Da 5 Bloods

-I was on the opposite side of things for Spike Lee’s newest film. BlacKkKlansman was my favorite movie the year of its release, and the idea that Lee’s next film would be a Vietnam War film with a touch of the search for buries treasure was just bonkers enough to get my full attention. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I made sure to give the film the proper attention on the soonest night that I could sit back for the 150-minutes it required. Da 5 Bloods is not as polished as BlacKkKlansman, but it is nonetheless a staggering movie that attempts to reach a whole lot of different subjects, from war to friendship to aging to race and of course politics in our current state of the nation. Lee jumps from one unusual and captivating sequence to the next, all the while remembering to keep the film entertaining beyond anything else. I just had loads of fun with the movie’s action while also a quiet contemplation for some of its most serious and heartbreaking beats as well. This is another win for the exciting filmmaker.

  1. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

-It’s tough to make a sequel. It’s even tougher to make a comedy sequel. Even more so when it is a long-gestating comedy sequel of a pop cultural icon like Borat. Back in 2006, it was a huge success, so why did Sasha Baron Cohen return to make a sequel 14 years later? Trump, and the current political state. I was initially worried, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a largely successful comedy sequel that tells a very simple story, mostly to get back into the undercover interview-style that Cohen’s comedy is usually mined from. I don’t think the movie 100% works as well as its predecessor, but it is a scathing view of American politics through an outside lens, one that asks more questions about the state of the nation while it also tackles a very human story of Borat connecting with his daughter. It also has one of the most shocking and talked about endings of any film from last year. I very much enjoyed Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and I hope we see him again some day for a trilogy capper.

  1. The Invisible Man

-Man, I was so excited for the Dark Universe. Finally, a return to Universal’s monsters in a way that felt fresh and exciting in the wake of the successful MCU and cinematic universe model. Damn, I was disappointed when the entirety of the plan fell apart due to the poor quality and reception of The Mummy, so when I heard that Leigh Whannell would be helming another stab at the Universal Monsters with a simplistic and new take on The Invisible Man, I was excited with a hint of trepidation. I mean, The Invisible Man is not the most popular of these characters, he never interacted with the other monster in the way that Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, of The Wolf Man had. Still, he is an exciting filmmaker who has never steered me wrong, ever since his breakout writing work on the Saw films. Thankfully, The Invisible Man is an exciting and terrifying update on the mythos of the character (that has absolutely nothing to do with the H.G. Wells novel) and changes the central players to fit a more 2020 theme. It’s scary, exciting, and bold while all maintaining a $7 million budget. How Whannell was able to pull all that off with such a small budget is incredible, and outside a little bit of a uninspired ending, the film is a constantly galloping bit of excitement and shocks, with a phenomenal performance from Elisabeth Moss.

  1. Soul

-It’s nice to see a company like Pixar really flex their creativity with films like Soul. I’ve often recalled Pixar’s promise that they do not make animated movies strictly for children, and Soul is a movie that I can see not many children loving in the way they enjoy Toy Story. Soul is very much an adult animated movie that has a lot to say. I wasn’t really sure where it was going with its message (it seemed early on to shun those who chase their dreams) but when the film arrived at the destination, I found myself overwhelmed with the ideas at play and the gorgeous animation on display. The voice cast is terrific, the world-building is stunning, and the film’s themes are universal. It’s a heady movie, closer to a mix between Inside Out and Coco, that begs for multiple viewings. It’s just a shame it wasn’t a theatrical release because it would have been an incredible audience experience.

  1. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

-I had forgotten this one was based on a play when I started it, and I recall reading the play years ago, but a play like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is impossible to enjoy from reading in the same way as it is viewed and performed. This is an excellent cast, including a potential career best from the late and great Chadwick Boseman, but make no mistake. There isn’t a single bad performance in this movie. It’s a bluesy and heartbreaking viewpoint into a world that I know little about. Boseman’s playing off of the other performers, specifically Viola Davis, is wonderful, but I have to sing the praises of Colman Domingo, who is an unsung hero in this movie. Domingo consistently puts out great work and never gets the credit I feel he is deserving of, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is just another one of those incredible performances from the character actor. The run time is tight, the ending is impactful, and the staying power is strong. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an incredible movie experience that adapts its source material better than even Fences a few years before (not to knock that film, but Fences felt like it was a filmed version of the play, whereas Ma Rainey felt more like an adaptation to film).

  1. The Trial of the Chicago 7

-I may be biased in selecting this for my #2 (either way, it belongs in the Top Ten), but I love a courtroom drama, and Aaron Sorkin’s newest film captures the excitement and tension of a great courtroom drama expertly here. Yes, you can throw all of your complaints about its accuracy, but this list is not the Top Ten Most Accurate Films of 2020 (that list would be boring). Sorkin’s fire-spitting dialogue makes for an excellent screenplay and his cast executes it perfectly. I never felt bored, I never checked my watch, and the film’s timeliness was oh-so-strong that it feels all the more present in 2020. Perhaps Sorkin’s directing has not reached the levels of the many filmmakers who have directed his previous screenplay’s, but it’s capable filmmaking with no flair but no flaws either, and his story and performers more than make up for it.

  1. Uncle Frank

-The strongest films of the year in 2020 seem to be the ones most excellently written. Look at the top five here. So many incredible stories that were written with precision and all meat, no fat. Uncle Frank is no exception. I honestly hadn’t heard of this film before getting a screener from Amazon. I didn’t even know that Alan Ball had written anything new recently. His direction is maybe a little more fine-tuned than Sorkin’s, having trained so much on his television work in Six Feet Under and True Blood, but again, the screenplay is what makes this film. That, and the excellent work from Paul Bettany in a restrained and honest performance. Sophia Lillis (she had a damn good year between this and Gretel & Hansel) keeps up nicely, as does Peter Macdissi, an actor that I’ve never seen so joyful and liberating as he is here. Even the supporting cast, from Steve Zahn to Margo Martindale, everyone is playing to their strengths. The story is simple, it’s one we’ve heard before, but its “truth” in realistic portrayals and difficult emotional character beats make Uncle Frank my favorite film of 2020.

There you have it. My Top Ten films of 2020. It was a tough year, and many of my most anticipated films from the beginning of the year were pushed off to this year, but what I did see was a big mix of films both good and bad. Here’s hoping 2021 gets us back to normal.

But hey, I want to see your Top Ten films of 2020. Leave them below and let me know what you thought of the films on my list! Happy New Year!

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Songbird (2020)

Director: Adam Mason
Cast: KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser, Demi Moore
Screenplay: Adam Mason, Simon Boyes
90 mins. Rated PG-13.

Songbird is a film I didn’t know anything about before I started my screening. All I really had going for me was a very Quiet Place-y looking poster and the notion that it was written, filmed, and edited during the 2020 pandemic. I didn’t know what the plot was but the cast list was pretty respectable. Also, Michael Bay produced it, so I wasn’t sure how he could put explosions into a movie that was made during a pandemic, but I was curious to find out. I always have a laugh when Michael Bay produces a movie that uses his name in the marketing because he isn’t a great director, so the name doesn’t help, but Songbird is a film that couldn’t be any worse than if Bay himself had helmed. I can make it pretty clear for you: this movie sucks.

Set in 2024, Songbird tells the story of the world of COVID-23, a much more deadly version of the coronavirus that has a higher mortality rate, as it ravages the world. We are given several interconnected stories mostly set in the LA area, mostly centered around Nico (KJ Apa, I Still Believe, TV’s Riverdale), an immune delivery boy who wishes to get an illegal immunity bracelet for his girlfriend in order to free her from lockdown in her apartment. We also get a look at a budding friendship between artist and streamer May (Alexandra Daddario, Baywatch, 1 Night in San Diego) and one of her followers, Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya, Da 5 Bloods), as she struggles with a relationship with someone who promises to help her career but seems to only want one thing from her.

I’m not sure if there’s a message to Songbird. In fact, I hope there isn’t one, because this movie is riddled with issues, most notably the main character, someone we should want to root for, is breaking the law to free his girlfriend, a potential carrier of a deadly virus. Why should we feel for them? Why should we want them to win? Then, there’s the narrative that people go to the “Q Zone” when quarantined but they don’t come back. Now, I get that the virus of the film is not COVID-19, but naming your virus COVID-23 creates the sense you are trying to connect the two. It’s clear that director Adam Mason (Blood River, Alice in Chains: Black Antenna) doesn’t understand how COVID-19 works, and he just decided to make COVID-23 do whatever is interesting for his narrative, unaware of the perception he is creating for viewers.

None of the stories in the film are entertaining, and none of the characters ever get out of a place of stock character tropes and plot points seen before in more interesting stories. The screenplay, co-written by Mason, just kind of has a lot of things happening, none of the very interesting. The idea, from the very beginning, that anyone would want to watch a pandemic horror movie about COVID is fundamentally flawed, and his storytelling showcases a lack of respect for the current situation of the country, where we are right now, where we were just months ago, and where we may be in a year. I’m not sure what the plan was for this narrative, for these characters, and for this movie, but it feels like this respectable cast owed a favor to a member of the production staff.

Even from a technical perspective, nothing in the film is very engaging. The cinematography is simple (the production crew needs a lesson in lighting), the editing boring, and the sound design rather dull. I could get past all of this in the grand scheme of things (filmmaking with a small crew and social distance guidelines) if the story wasn’t just so dull. As it comes down to it, the technical aspects of the film are the least of their problems. Hell, I’m not even sure what Songbird means as a title. Did I miss something?

Songbird is a bad movie on every level. There’s nothing that works here, from the inception of the story to the completion of the final product. Beyond that, this is just a tone-deaf piece of cinema that is clearly missing the mark in every way. This is a pandemic horror-thriller that should stay quarantined from viewers. I wouldn’t be so mad if this film didn’t try to make a mockery of the pandemic we’re currently in, but that’s exactly what it does. Seriously, this is one of the worst movies ever made. Ever.

1/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Oscar Madness Monday] A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin

Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick

136 mins. Rated R.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Picture
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Director
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Film Editing

IMDb Top 250: #103 (as of 9/30/2020)

 

I remember where I was when I first watched A Clockwork Orange. I was a teenager, jammed into my bedroom back home with two buddies. We had rented the DVD (my local video store had a 5-5-5 deal, 5 Movies, 5 Days, 5 Bucks) along with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and we planned for a midnight double-feature. I was eating a 3-foot gummy snake that would give me a rough stomach ache the next morning. As we settled in for A Clockwork Orange (my memory is a little hazy on this, but I believe we chose Clockwork first), I didn’t know what to expect. Both films were ones I knew little to nothing about, and that’s usually the way I like it. No research, just experience. I recently looked back on A Clockwork Orange, it being a film I haven’t watched in years, and I elected to dive back in, see if my initial thoughts on the film have changed and what, if anything, I was able to pull from it this time around.

A Clockwork Orange is the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell, Star Trek: Generations, Bombshell), a deviant youth who spends his nights robbing, assaulting, harassing, and of course, drinking some delicious milk at the milk bars. Alex and his droogs are fans of all sorts of malicious mayhem, and Alex being the leader, he gets to have the most fun with displaying the “artistry” of his violent psyche. When he is caught by police, though, Alex is sent to prison for one of his more horrific deeds. There, he is given the opportunity for a strange and unorthodox method of treatment, said to fix his criminal ways, called the Ludovico technique. This possible treatment method could get Alex out of prison years ahead of schedule, so he elects to try it. Now, Alex has become a pawn in the rehabilitation process, one that may fundamentally alter his perception forever.

I still remember watching this film for the first time. I was in awe. As I took the occasional bite of the 3-foot gummy snake, I was entrance with what I was seeing. Certainly, at this point of my youth, I’d never seen anything like A Clockwork Orange. Even now, years later, I’m still not sure I’ve seen anything similar. After that viewing, it had become clear that this was my favorite Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon) film, as it was the only one I didn’t initially hate (I had this rhythm with Kubrick where I hated his films on first watch only to rediscover them later and love them). Looking back on it now, I cannot say that it is still my favorite Kubrick film, but it feels the most unhinged and wild of his pictures, one that imprints itself onto the mind and stays there.

Malcolm McDowell’s take on Alex is so memorably menacing. It’s neither the way he speaks nor the horrible deeds he commits. Instead, it’s the way he derives joy from these acts, the way he views them. He is our narrator so we spend the film in his head, and we see that this violence, this debauchery, is merely his art, much in the way that music was Ludwig van Beethoven’s. He gets glee from the pain and mistreatment of others, singing Gene Kelly musical numbers while he inflicts physical harm on his victims. He’s the kind of young man who would enjoy kicking a puppy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s not a likable protagonist, but he is an interesting one, and I was fascinated in what would happen to him, how he would be changed by his arrest, incarceration, and “treatment.”

The film has a perfect three-act structure, one aided by intelligent and thoughtful filming techniques. Each of the three acts is easily separated from the others by unique choices in framing, lighting, and sound. Early on, there’s a menace to the filming techniques, but when we arrive in the prison with Alex, we get a colder, less-colorful world, and then there’s what comes after, something I’ll avoid getting into as you’ll want to see it for yourself.

There are themes abound in Clockwork, and so many of them resonated with me back then, in the basement, on a cheap projector, with two late-night friends, and they resonate all the more with me now. The way Kubrick showcases behavior conditioning and criminal reform is disturbing, and I think it’s great that Kubrick never feels like he is shoving his opinions down our throats here. In fact, he sort of feels like a curious child asking questions and letting us formulate our answers. I also really like the priest questioning Alex’s choice and free will in choosing to do good. He asks whether we’re really good if we’re conditioned to be afraid of being bad and how that loss of free will loses humanity as well. This question has been asked many times before, but not in this way, and rarely this effectively.

One wonders how A Clockwork Orange would have looked if made with Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones as the droogs (which is how it originally would have been when Jagger owned the rights to the novel), but what we have is astounding nonetheless. It’s neither an easy film to watch but it is a wholly effective experience unlike any other. That’s what many of us search for in film, the unique experience, and Clockwork gives that in abundance. If you’re looking for a messed-up movie for your messed-up mind, give A Clockwork Orange a try.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

  • For my review of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, click here.

[Early Review] Uncle Frank (2020)

Director: Alan Ball
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root
Screenplay: Alan Ball
95 mins. Rated R for language, some sexual references and drug use.

On first look, the poster for Uncle Frank didn’t really win me over. It wasn’t until I saw the cast list and realized that it was written and directed by Alan Ball (Towelhead). Now, that got me interested. I’ve been a big fan of Ball’s work in the television field with shows like Six Feet Under and True Blood, and I really enjoyed his screenplay for American Beauty, but I hadn’t heard of Uncle Frank at all until seeing this poster, usually a bad sign. I was hesitant but intrigued as I prepared for this screening (thank you to Amazon for letting me stream the film in advance from my home), but I’m pleased to say that Uncle Frank is one of the best movies of the year.

Told from the perspective of young college-bound Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis, It, TV’s I Am Not Okay with This), the film is a recounting of the events of 1973, in which she traveled back home to attend her grandfather’s funeral with her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Solo: A Star Wars Story). Frank is heading toward the reunion with trepidation. He’s a homosexual, and he’s been keeping his secret for years. His family doesn’t know, and his deceased father hated him. Frank’s journey is further complicated when he is join by his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi, The Losers, TV’s Six Feet Under). As Beth attempts to understand her uncle in this new way, she sees him heading for a confrontation with his past.

I love a good family drama with enough dry wit to keep the tone bubbling, and that’s something that Alan Ball excels with. Uncle Frank is like the best of the family dinner episodes of Six Feet Under, where awkwardness and drama hold hands at the table and force everyone to air their dirty laundry. His writing is witty, his emotional beats pack a punch, and his direction is very character-focused. Ball’s camera is laser-focused on the character interactions and he lets them drive his story, and while that story has been told before, it’s done so here with a sense of joy that these types of stories don’t often get. You can critique the occasional schmaltz of the narrative, but I really needed that, and the catharsis is both interesting and relatable, proving that it isn’t the story you tell, but how you tell it, that matters.

Paul Bettany has always had the ability to disappear in the role by mixing elements of the written character with his own natural charisma, but as Frank, he plays it so well that you forget he’s even acting. It’s hard to even call his work a performance because it’s so real that I couldn’t find the theatricality behind it. Perhaps that’s because he is so well-paired with the overly-theatrical Peter Macdissi as Wally, Frank’s secret partner. The two have such tremendous chemistry, and Macdissi is much less hard-edged than I’ve seen him in other work, that the dramedy mined from their relationship just feels lived-in.

I was also impressed with Sophia Lillis, who burst onto the scene back in 2017 with It and the 2019 sequel. Oftentimes, you wonder if these younger actors have the experience to flourish as they select new projects, but Lillis proved to be capable in commanding the screen with more well-known performers. The rest of the supporting cast is filled with veteran performers all giving solid supporting work, from the always underrated Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Tall Girl), as Frank’s brother Mike, to the sharp-tongued Margo Martindale (August: Osage County, The Kitchen) as Frank’s mother.

Uncle Frank does not reinvent the wheel. This story has been told many times, and yet, under the strong screenwriting hand of Alan Ball, and with his keen attention to character, this story is a lovely and sometimes joyful but always poignant story that deserves being told again. While I wished we got to see more of the journey to the funeral (it sells itself as a road movie but spends a lot less time in transit), I was still entranced from beginning to end. See this movie. It just might be one of my favorites of the year.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Sound of Metal (2019)

Director: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric
Screenplay: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder
130 mins. Rated R.

Sound of Metal has had a long road on the way to being completed. Initially Derek Cianfrance had been working on a film called Metalhead, described as a docufiction, which has languished in post-production since 2009. That film will likely not see the light of day anytime soon, so one of the writers of that film, Darius Marder (Loot), has instead stepped into the director’s chair with a complete reworking of that film’s story from the ground up, crafting a new movie from the bones of Metalhead, with Cianfrance’s blessing. There was also a previous attempt at making this film in 2015 with a completely different cast, and now, after premiering in the film festival circuit last year, Sound of Metal is finally dropping on Amazon Prime in December. It’s been a long road, so is the movie any good?

The film stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Weathering With You) as Ruben, a drummer touring the nation with girlfriend and band mate Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One, Life Itself). Through several nightly concerts, Ruben begins experiencing sudden spurts of hearing loss. Ruben also learns that the cost of implants to save some of his hearing is going to run tens of thousands of dollars, money he doesn’t have. The stress of losing his most important sense has Ruben contemplating drug use again, so his sponsor sets him up at a rehab clinic for the deaf, where he begins a journey of discovery in a world without sound.

Sound of Metal is a character piece, through and through, and it doesn’t work if its central character doesn’t work. After many notable supporting roles, Riz Ahmed kills it as Ruben. There are a lot of emotional beats in this performance, from Ruben’s anxiety and stress to his emotional loneliness while at the rehab home, and in his frustrations in trying to communicate in a world without sound. Not to mention Ruben’s contemplation over drug use after years of being clean. There’s a lot happening in Ruben’s head, and then taking away the character’s ability to hear and interpret conversation in the way he is used to needs to come across realistically. Ahmed is able to handle all of these factors in a performance that is equal parts bombastic and subtle, creating a well-rounded character that isn’t always likable but always captivating.

The rest of the supporting cast is quite strong as well, most of it made up of a largely deaf group of actors. They add layers of realism to the world and help to elevate Ahmed’s performance. I was quite fond of Olivia Cooke’s work as Lou. She disappeared into the role so seamlessly that I didn’t even realize it was her, thanks to a strong level of makeup and costuming with her character. Then there’s Paul Raci (No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie, She Wants Me) as Joe. I don’t think I’ve seen Paul Raci in a performance before, but he was wholly captivating, and his chemistry with Ahmed was incredibly strong. Their scenes ranged from emotional to heated and sometimes both at the same time, and I was taken in by it all. All of these players just added to the sense of realism at play here.

Marder’s film does not try to dazzle with unique cinematography, it isn’t showy in its execution, but where it does stand out, from a technical perspective, is in its exemplary sound design. The way in which the sound is given to us as viewers and then taken away to put us in Ruben’s headspace is some truly powerful work in forcing us to confront the problems he is encountering with him. This element, combined with the choice not to utilize subtitles for the ASL scenes until Ruben begins to understand them help to put us in the character’s shoes in a way that left me in awe.

Sound of Metal is a hard watch, I’m not aching to see it again, but Darius Marder’s film really drives home life’s way of surprising us. It’s a story about coming to terms with unpredictability on our individual journeys, and for me, it broke my heart to see Ruben consistently struggle throughout the film. It’s an introspective movie, one that I very much recommend.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 31 – Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)

Director: Steve Miner

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Adam Arkin, Michelle Williams, Adam Hann-Byrd, Jodi Lynn O’Keefe, John Hartnett, L.L. Cool J, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Janet Leigh

Screenplay: Robert Zappia, Matt Greenberg

86 mins. Rated R for terror violence/gore and language.

 

I grew up on Halloween. To this day, it’s still my favorite horror film of all time. There’s a lot of emotional connection for me, as Halloween is also one of my mother’s favorite scary movies and we would jump in and watch it every time we’d come across it on TV. It was a staple in our home year round, but most specifically during October. We also were fans of the rest of the sequels as well, but there was something special about the 1998 film Halloween H20. We were finally going to see a return to the franchise for Jamie Lee Curtis (True Lies, Knives Out) as Laurie Strode, something that we didn’t expect to see every again after the character was unceremoniously killed offscreen between Halloween 2 and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. All of a sudden, there was an excited fervor for me and my mother as we patiently awaited the new film. I think she deemed me too young to see it in the theater, but we caught it as soon as we could on home video, with our excitement at a fever pitch. The only question at that point would be whether or not the film would be worth the wait.

It’s been 20 years since Laurie Strode (Curtis) faced off against her brother Michael Myers on that fateful Halloween night. In that time, Strode has tried to move on with her life. She’s gone into hiding, adopted a new name and job (Keri Tate, the headmistress of Hillcrest Academy, a private boarding school), and aims to raise her son John (Josh Hartnett, Lucky Number Slevin, TV’s Die Hart) to be ready for the dangers of the world. John sees it a different way. He sees an overbearing mother living in the past unable to cope with the real world. John wants a normal life, and when he sees an opportunity to celebrate Halloween for the first time with his friends, he takes it. What neither Laurie nor John know is that Michael is still out there, and he’s finally found his sister. This Halloween night, he and Laurie are headed for a reunion and a confrontation that will test Strode to her very core.

There was and still is a lot of confusion surrounding the Halloween franchise, starting with the return of Laurie Strode in this film. Within the story of the franchise to this point, Laurie Strode died in a car crash sometime before the The Return of Michael Myers in 1988, and that story surrounded her daughter Jamie Lloyd. When we meet Laurie Strode in this film, there’s no mention of that daughter and we are instead introduced a son. Apparently, the reaction to The Curse of Michael Myers (the sixth film) and the introduction of a supernatural cult as a backstory for Michael Myers didn’t go over so well, and the idea of doing a straight sequel was trashed in favor of ignoring it altogether and refocusing on Laurie’s return to the franchise. An early draft of this film gave a secondary plot to Sarah (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe, She’s All That, TV’s Hit the Floor) who is fascinated by Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, digging into the history, learning of Jamie Lloyd and the previous events of the franchise, unaware that her school headmistress is Strode. This idea was deemed too convoluted and, I feel, also painted Laurie in a bad light considering the events that take place surrounding her daughter in the previous three films. We ended up with a film that neither retcons the previous entries nor references them outright, serving as a direct sequel to Halloween II. This would happen again to a larger degree with Halloween 2018.

H20 was definitely influenced by Scream and Dimension wanted to play off the success of a new franchise with Michael Myers, going so far as to throw out John Ottman’s score for the film and use chunks of Marco Beltrami’s Scream and Scream 2 score in H20. The result does lose a little bit of the tone that the Halloween franchise had cultivated to that point, but the direction from Steve Miner (Warlock, Private Valentine: Blonde & Dangerous), who at that point had already helmed two installments of the Friday the 13th franchise, and the story shepherding by Kevin Williamson help to bring Halloween into the modern realm of horror. The film feels fresh, biting, and dark without losing any steam, and the tight run time (the shortest of any Halloween film in the franchise) keeps the adrenaline pumping while covering a lot of ground. H20 also contains one of the most shocking finales of the franchise.

I also want to make a point of applauding Jamie Lee Curtis on her performance. Curtis created this character back in 1978, made it her own, and yet, she feels right at home slipping back into the role of Laurie. You can say that the character is essentially just Jamie because of how early in her career she first played the teenage babysitter, and you wouldn’t be wrong in that way. I see a lot of Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa as well. Jamie Lee Curtis and Laurie Strode are synonymous with each other in the same way that Harrison Ford is with both Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Still, there’s something really feral about the way Curtis plays Strode here, a woman who has been living in fear up to this point who elects not to take it anymore. She’s decides to stop running, stop hiding, and face her enemy on her own terms. It’s an excellent performance.

The rest of the cast does quite nicely here as well. I really like Adam Arkin (A Serious Man, TV’s Chicago Hope) as Will Brennan, Laurie’s love interest. Hartnett holds his own here as well in an early role, playing nicely off of Curtis. We also get early work from Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, TV’s Fosse/Verdon) and a nice cameo appearance from Curtis’s mother, Janet Leigh (Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate). Hell, even L.L. Cool J (Deep Blue Sea, TV’s NCIS: Los Angeles) isn’t terrible as Ronny, the school’s security guard with a dream of being a writer.

Yeah, that’s great and everything, but is the film scary? Is it entertaining? Is it fun? I would say absolutely. Not to appear like I’m trying to be macho, I’m not usually scared much in movies anymore, but I find this installment of the Halloween franchise to be thrilling, exciting, unnerving (I specifically remember being terrified as child by something in the first ten minutes of the movie), and entertaining. That’s all this movie is aiming for, and I feel it succeeds.

I wish movies would stop ignoring their mythology. I hate seeing retcons and requels and all that, but when it is done well, I can certainly appreciate it. I don’t like that Halloween H20 decided to ignore several sequels, but hands down the film is entertaining, aided by the triumphant return of Jamie Lee Curtis to the role she made famous 20 years earlier, and directed finely by Steve Miner, who just doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a filmmaker (though he did make Soul Man, so maybe that’s on him). H20 was, simply put, the best film in the franchise since the original, and though I’m not sure it still is, I can commend it on being a thoroughly enjoyable little horror movie. This one is still worth your time.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

  • For my review of John Carpenter’s Halloween, click here.
  • For my review of Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II, click here.
  • For my review of Tommy Lee Wallace’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, click here.
  • For my review of Dwight H. Little’s Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, click here.
  • For my review of Dominique Othenin-Girard’s Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, click here.
  • For my review of Joe Chappelle’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, click here.
  • For my review of Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th Part 2, click here.
  • For my review of Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th Part III, click here.
  • For my review of Steve Miner’s House, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 30 – Demons 2 (1986)

Director: Lamberto Bava
Cast: David Knight, Nancy Brilli, Coralina Cataldi Tassoni, Bobby Rhodes, Asia Argento, Virginia Bryant
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, Franco Ferrini, Dardano Sacchetti
92 mins. Rated R.

I’ve unintentionally picked several movies this month that are set in high-rises. There was Shivers, Poltergeist III, and the film we’ll be talking about tonight, Demons 2. I have nothing against high-rises, nor do I harbor any ill will to their occupants, but the pattern has been noted.

Demons 2 picks up some time after the first film, and we discover that the events of the original film did indeed happen, and the world knows of the existence of demons. The demons were defeated, and life has seemingly returned to normal. On this night, a fictionalized film is being shown on the television depicting young people who returned to the quarantine zone that the demons had been, and just as before, the demons attack, moving through the screen and back into our world, this time targeting an apartment complex and its inhabitants. The odds are against them, but the ones that group together to fight back may just have a shot.

Demons 2 is indeed a sequel tot he original, which I liked. True sequels were still a bit of a rarity for foreign-produced horror films during his time; there was a favorability toward slapping a sequel title on a random similar film and marketing it as a sequel. I just figured this was the same thing, but there’s no way of avoiding it. Demons 2 is very much a sequel. In fact, it’s pretty much the same movie as the first one, just set in a different location.

In that way, Demons 2 is a little too much of the same thing. It reminded me of Evil Dead II, which just spent a lot of time re-enacting the events of the original, effectively remaking it (in fact, it is more similar to Return of the Living Dead II, as it actually has some of the actors from the first film returning to play new characters).

This sequel is truly winning when director Lamberto Bava (Body Puzzle, Devil Fish) tries new things. Even when his attempts don’t work, there is a charm to the effects work, dated as it is. I particularly liked the enhanced creature design, which looks slightly different than the original film’s effects, while still similar enough to fit in this world. I also liked the different demon types explored in the film. Demons 2 feels like an expansion of this story and mythology in a really exciting way.

Demons 2 flounders a bit in its overly-similar plotting, its poor acting, and its unearned finale, but that’s not why I watched this movie. I understood what I was getting, and that’s what I got. The acting is as good as I expected, but the film was a visual and tonal treat. It was just damn fun to watch, even with its flaws (and there are flaws). I still recommend this film to the fans of the original, but it is a step down.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Lamberto Bava’s Demons, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 29 – Creepshow (1982)

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Fritz Weaver, Leslie Nielsen, Carrie Nye, E.G. Marshall, Viveca Lindfors
Screenplay: Stephen King
120 mins. Rated R.

We talk a lot about anthologies, especially during the month of October because they predominantly lend themselves to the horror genre. The issue, and I’ve said it time and time again, is that anthologies are incredibly difficult to really pull off because you aren’t just making one solid horror movie. In some cases, its as many as six or more (don’t even get me started on the ABCs of Death) individual horror tales, and they each have to be great, or hopefully good at the very least. While one fowl segment doesn’t tank an entire anthology, it definitely sours it a bit. On the flipside, one great segment is not enough to save a poor anthology (we’re looking at you, VHS: Viral). It’s a very tough formula to work out, and even then, the order of the segments can have an effect on the overall strength of the film. The ordering of anthology segments requires a steady hand, much like Alfred Molina’s character in Boogie Nights waxing on the importance of the order of his musical playlists. With all that, anthologies are just plain tricky, so perhaps it was fate that brought together director George A. Romero (Land of the Dead, The Amusement Park) and novelist Stephen King (Maximum Overdrive, Cell) to put their love of EC horror comics on full display with the stylistic Creepshow. A successful film with two sequels and now a television adaptation on Shudder, let’s talk about the unique and dazzling Creepshow and see if it was able to avoid the pitfalls of so many anthologies.

Creepshow is an anthology homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Our framing wraparound consists of a boy caught reading one of these mind-numbing books full of gore and violence and a darkly comic view of it all. His father throws the comic book out, and then we get a chance to view the many stories within. In “Father’s Day,” a family’s yearly get-together is soured with the memories of their unbeloved patriarch come back to haunt them. In “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” King himself appears as the titular character, a doltish man who comes across a space meteor and fills his head with ideas of fame and fortune, but the meteor may prove to be more menacing than he imagined. In “Something to Tide You Over,” Leslie Neilsen (Airplane!, The Naked Gun) plays a ruthlessly conniving man out for vengeance against his wife and her lover. In “The Crate,” a college professor discovers a storage crate from an arctic expedition with a rather nasty surprise hidden inside. Finally, “They’re Creeping Up on You” is about a mysophobic businessman obsessed with ridding his home of cockroaches and other nasty bugs.

Including its wraparound framing device, Creepshow is an absolute blast from start to finish. This is a rare anthology where all five of the segments work well on their own and together, each one seemingly covering a different area of pulpy gruesome horror fun. What’s so great about this movie is that the wraparound makes the segments actually fit within the film. We see that each of these stories is a comic book tale of horror, and since they have a singular director with a singular vision, each piece fits nicely enough within the framework that this could conceivably be a living comic book, and that bleeds through the tone and style of each of the stories (in fact, as a promotion for this film, there does exist a single book of Creepshow in comic book, or graphic novel, form). Romero used filters and comic book-y borders to create the feeling that we’re peering into a single panel of a page. The words jump out, and there’s almost a freeze-frame moment just on the cusp of the action, reminding us that we’re merely the audience, and nothing can hurt us here.

The benefit of having one director and one writer when the idea is to create a living comic book is that the tone is pretty much the same throughout. That’s not to say that an anthology with a more mixed tone cannot work, but I do believe it helps to have a cohesive tone running through the narratives. That allows for a bit more collaboration with King on the stories (hell, King was the lead of one of them!), and that means hitting all the tonal beats without issue. It’s a more tonally complex movie than most would give it because you would need to understand when you are aiming for horror and when you are aiming for comedy. If you don’t think that the balance between the two is important, then I would direct you to John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man or Wes Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn.

Let’s break down a few of these stories, shall we? First off, we get “Father’s Day.” This one feels like it came directly out of Tales from the Crypt, and it very easily could have fit into the popular HBO series as a standalone episode. We get some strong performances from Viveca Lindfors (The Exorcist III, Stargate) as Aunt Bedelia, a woman with a very curious familial secret, as well as Ed Harris (with Hair-is!) as the new member of the family, Hank. He’s our straight man in this segment, the one asking the questions we all want answers to. This story is pretty straightforward, but its simplicity offers an appetizer to whet our horror appetite.

“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is a pretty enjoyable segment that leans more into the comedy than the horror with a nice tinge at the end, which is fine since we all know Stephen King is not a good actor. That’s not his fault, he just hasn’t been trained nor has he practiced. He actually holds his own enough here to make Jordy Verrill likable and dumb enough to keep to the sillier tone of this one. It’s weird and goofy and a whole lot of fun, probably the funniest of the segments, and it belongs right here.

Definitely vying for the best segment, “Something to Tide You Over” is a terrific little piece that combines a classic horror revenge story with a gross and mucky ending that seemingly aims for the comic codes of the 1950s or The Twilight Zone with its brilliant inversions. Nielsen is wonderfully wicked here as the jealous victim of marital cheating on the part of his wife (Gaylen Ross of Dawn of the Dead fame) and her lover (Ted Danson). The way he pulls all the strings here with his revenge plot is great, and watching his plan either come together or fall apart left me guessing.

The granddaddy of them all (and my personal favorite) is most likely “The Crate,” which utilizes great practical effects from Tom Savini (his first animatronic work is on display here). We get to seeing acting heavyweight Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild, Planes: Fire and Rescue) as the shy and underwhelming Henry Northrup, a man who is embarrassed by his loud and volatile wife Wilma (Adrienne Barbeau, Escape from New York, Exorcism at 60,000 Feet). The practical effects are terrific here, and the performances cater to those more highbrow stories from EC (I never understood the amount of rich socialites featured in their stories, but I guess a great number of them don’t fare too well, and maybe that’s the middle- or lower-class of us getting our rocks off enjoying it all). The horror is bloody and the humor is a bit more restrained here, and its placement as the fourth story is great because it’s a bit of a downer at times, but this is a clear front-runner of the pack.

The final segment, “They’re Creeping Up on You,” is most likely the weakest of the stories, but that’s because it’s just so small compared to the others. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but if we’re ranking, it would be fifth best, but I enjoy it still. In fact, it’s kind of like dessert. We pretty much know where the story is going. Our only character, Upson Pratt (E.G. Marshall, 12 Angry Men, Christmas Vacation) is very unlikable and we want to see bad things happen to him. Then, there’s the element of horror that is so overdone that even many who do not fear bugs will likely find something unnerving about it. It’s a simple story, but it still works, and it leaves us in a solid place to end the film. Worked for me.

Creepshow is wholly enjoyable from beginning to end, and it’s a perfect movie for me. The Creep is a chilling character (that I wish we got more of), and the stories he gives us are exciting, funny, strange, and just plain entertaining. It’s full of actors who know what movie they are in, and they play to their strengths. George A. Romero and Stephen King crafted a perfect tone for this ghoulish jaunt through a hallowed ground of the horror world, and this movie just works every time I watch it.

5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, click here.
  • For my review of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, click here.
  • For my review of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, click here.
  • For my review of George A. Romero’s Monkey Shines, click here.
  • For my review of George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead, click here.
  • For my review of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 28 – [Happy 15th Birthday!] Saw II (2005)

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Cast: Donnie Wahlberg, Franky G, Glenn Plummer, Beverley Mitchell, Dina Meyer, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Erik Knudsen, Shawnee Smith, Tobin Bell
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell, Darren Lynn Bousman
93 mins. Rated R.

Saw was a horror phenomenon when it released in 2004. It surprised the hell out of me, as I didn’t expect to love it so much, to be rewatching it so regularly, trying to scope out clues and things I had missed before. It wasn’t for everyone, especially those unable to handle gore (even though the first actually didn’t contain as much as the franchise would be known for later on), but for me, there was another element that kept me entranced, and that was the story. I loved the mystery of the film, the clues, the references. I studied that film, and when the sequel came out, it didn’t arrive at my local theater and I was too young to drive to another town to see it, so I waited until the inevitable January DVD release, and I caught it. Now, looking back, let’s see how the first sequel to Saw holds up, and its influence on the direction of the series.

Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg, Ransom, Dreamcatcher) is a bad cop and a worse father. His life isn’t what he thought it was, and now he’s become the target of the villainous Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, Mississippi Burning, The Firm), a killer who likes to play games, set traps, and let his victims kill themselves in their struggle to survive. Eric and his former partner Kerry (Dina Meyer, Starship Troopers, Johnny Mnemonic) have discovered Jigsaw’s hideout, but they soon learn that catching Jigsaw will be tougher than they expected when Eric learns that his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Scream 4) is also a part of Jigsaw’s next game. Now, Eric and Daniel are both playing for survival, and Jigsaw has a few surprises in store for both of them.

Saw II actually started as a completely different movie. Writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo! The Genetic Opera, Abattoir) had shopped around his script for a film called The Desperate and kept getting turned down, with most telling him that his movie was too similar to Saw. Eventually, the script found its way into the hands of Saw producers, who were looking to get a follow-up to the 2004 smash hit put together. Leigh Whannell, who scripted the original film, came in and adjusted the script into a Saw sequel, and the rest is horror history. In that way, Saw II is a bit of a unique flavor of the Saw films. It has most of Bousman’s writing stamps on it, and it has a look more in line with Bousman’s non-Saw films while still not straying away from the feel of the original. The screenplay, now adjusted to being a Saw sequel, is full of more of those clues and references to the connection with the original, and the way it ends up connecting is bonkers good. In fact, not even the cast was aware of the film’s ending and how it would play into the first film. Although, there are a few times when Jigsaw flat out lies to Eric, something he isn’t known for doing (he stretches the truth and leaves information out, but he never full-on lies to his victims and pawns), and that disappointed me a little.

Donnie Wahlberg is a standout here. His scenes with Tobin Bell as Jigsaw are amazing. The two have such different energies on display, and watching them collide is exhilarating while also highlighting their differences as characters and gives a lot of development to both. Remember, this film does a lot more heavy lifting of the Jigsaw mythos than the first film, in which [SPOILER ALERT!] Jigsaw spends most of the film lying in a bathroom covered in makeup and fake blood. Jigsaw gets to really flex his creed here and the reaction he gets from Eric works so well. Wahlberg’s work as Eric only highlights his own shortcomings as a cop, husband, and father.

Shawnee Smith (The Blob, Believe) also returns from the first film as Amanda, a character with limited but impactful screen time in the original (in fact, her scenes in the original were basically what the short film that inspired Saw were all about). Seeing her as someone who has survived Jigsaw’s game only to find herself back in it is horrifying, and we feel for her, but we also find a level of trust in her as she understands the game better than the others, and we cling to her for support. She also ends up in a fairly uncomfortable trap fighting for survival with the needle pit.

I also want to discuss the house trap, as it’s where most of the action of the film is. It’s a cool house with a lot of history and character to it, and seeing all these people trapped inside with slow-acting poison, looking for antidotes, it creates a larger set piece than the bathroom but doesn’t feel like it betrays the first film. It just has its own flavor, much like the rest of Saw II, probably carried over from Bousman’s earlier script. What I love about the way Bousman directs is that he tries to create a sense that the story never slows down by creating in-camera tricks in filming and editing that make scenes flow from one to the another without actually cutting. Look at the way Eric leaves his apartment early on and ends up at a crime scene. It’s a fascinating shot that emphasizes the best of Bousman’s ability to work low-budget and still create interesting and compelling cinema.

Saw II is still a step down from the first film, but it continues the story, elevates the characters, and develops the world-building of this franchise quite nicely while feeling like its own contained story. Yes, there are a few screenplay faults, there are more unlikable characters than likable ones, and the film maybe feels a bit too big at times, not allowing us to spend time with the cattle on their way to slaughter, but at least it highlights its most interesting characters like Jigsaw, Eric, Kerry, and Amanda, the ones who are developed enough to interest. I enjoyed the film immensely when I first saw it, and I still do, even if I’ve seen some of its faults on repeat viewings. I would still encourage fans of the original to see this one, and those who haven’t seen it in a while to consider revisiting it.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of James Wan’s Saw, click here.
  • For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo! The Genetic Opera, click here.
  • For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Devil’s Carnival, click here.
  • For my review of the anthology film Tales of Halloween, click here.
  • For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 27 – [Happy 20th Birthday!] Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristine Skyler, Stephen Barker Turner
Screenplay: Dick Beebe, Joe Berlinger
90 mins. Rated R for violence, language, sexuality and drug use.

Following up a cultural phenomenon like The Blair Witch Project would be pretty tough. Just a short time after the found-footage film found an audience, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 came about. The film is a drastically different take on the mythology, taking on a traditional horror movie vibe and losing the found-footage marker, Book of Shadows elected to acknowledge the first film as a film that may or may not be real, and the effect it had on the residents of Burkittsville, Maryland. A lofty goal, one that almost shouldn’t work on principle, and in fact, the film faltered at the box office and critical stage, so let’s visit this sequel as I finally take a stab at Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.

In the short time since the release of the hit “documentary” The Blair Witch Project, the town of Burkittsville has been overrun with tourists and fans of the movie all wanting to be a part of the hype. Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan, Sicario, Hitch), a local fanboy, has started offering “tours” of the locations from the film. Jeff takes four young people on a trip into the woods, but they find that this venture carries some dire consequences, ones with the power to unravel the very fabric of their psyches.

It is ironic that a director who primarily works on documentaries chose to make a straightforward sequel instead of a faux doc, but that’s exactly what Joe Berlinger (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) did just that, and his heart is in the right place. He had an ambitious take on the material, choosing to critique the faux documentary style of the original as well as fanaticism concerning death and dread. He’s asking questions about why we follow the darkness, why we find ourselves drawn to real horror, which is interesting considering he’s dealt with real horror as a director in a lot of his projects. The problem is that he wasn’t seemingly on the same page as the studio, and interference from the higher-ups was its downfall, choosing to add more gore, violence, and jump scares to a more thoughtful and mood-based horror film. Whether or not Berlinger’s original cut would be any better remains to be seen, but sure, I’d be all for #ReleaseTheBerlingerCut if the movement so chooses.

That’s not to say that this film is awful like most reviewers upon release. It’s just not very good either. The film is at its strongest when it dives into the mythology of the Blair Witch. I feel like Book of Shadows did a lot of mythology heavy-lifting here, really adding a lot more to the Blair Witch mythos (it’s also very important to point out Thorn Celtic symbol that appears in the film, perhaps as a nod to Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers). The concept works better than it should, and the story has enough meat on it to become interesting if executed properly. That just didn’t really happen.

Even with the studio interference, there’s no excusing some of the choppy and dull dialogue at play here. The characters are pretty stock, not contributing anything of complete value, and the jumping around in the narrative is an interesting frame (one that was done by the studio), but it never really amounts to anything that makes its existence meaningful.

Book of Shadows is actually a pretty admirable effort, but its many problems do outweigh the wins. The movie is not awful, but it is far from good. There are elements of Book of Shadows that work quite well. There are just far more that don’t. In that way, it’s very similar to its predecessor. They both have strengths and flaws, but flaws are stronger. Fans of The Blair Witch Project should really give this one a try, but I’m doubtful that it can sway anyone else.

2/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project, click here.
  • For my review of Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, click here.

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