The Wind (Film Review)

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Budgetary constraints in a film can be a difficult work-around, but they can also lead to some fantastic innovations. Although I find the deliberately small-budget-for-big-earnings method of a studio like Blumhouse to be a little tedious in its repetition, there’s no denying that this approach can work very well with genre films, and especially with horror. But there’s a difference between a film that simply didn’t cost much to make, and something that takes advantage of its limitations with a minimalistic or restrained approach.

Thankfully, horror/western gem The Wind is a fantastic example of the latter. This is the first major feature-length project for both director Emma Tammi and writer Teresa Sutherland – not that you’d know it from watching the film, which comes across as an accomplished and meticulous piece of work that’s as layered as it is genuinely disturbing.

Caitlin Gerard is Lizzy Macklin who, with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) is attempting to carve out a life on the often unforgiving and isolated Western frontier in the late 1800s. The only other people for miles around are the Macklins’ new neighbours, Emma and Gideon Harper, played by Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee, respectively. The only other character of note is a reverend played – briefly but brilliantly – by Miles Anderson, bringing the cast to a total of five.

It’s a lean film in many respects, including its 86-minute runtime, but The Wind never feels lacking, and it certainly doesn’t starve its audience, opting for a slow meal rather than a cheap calorie-dump. From the very first shot, bone-chilling and completely devoid of dialogue, we know The Wind is going to take its time. After seeing so many messy, rushed horror films lately (recent Stephen King adaptation Pet Sematary springs immediately to mind), it’s such a pleasure to sit down to one that’s both confident in what it’s trying to say, and how exactly it says it.

The Wind is a film told by women, about women, which not only makes a pleasant change from the usual stories told in this particular combination of setting, period and genre, but also allows the narrative to explore some interesting angles. At the story’s core is the relationship between the pragmatic Lizzy and the more mischievous, mercurial Emma, whose interest in Gothic literature and growing obsession with something she thinks is stalking the desolate plains at night cultivates both the film’s horror element and its thematic bent. It’s a film about paranoia and distrust, perhaps sown by the characters’ isolation, or perhaps something more sinister. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that we never get all the answers we want by the end, but The Wind’s ambiguity really works in its favour, because at times we’re left as confused – and terrified – as the protagonist. Speaking of terror, this film has a couple of genuinely scary scenes that eschew jump-scares for moments that unsettle on a much deeper level. In several instances the source of the terror switches in unexpected ways, the nature of whatever haunts both women evolving as the story progresses.

But whatever monsters may or may not be out there, it’s the human characters in The Wind, and the cast’s incredible, physical performances, that dominate. So much of the mood and tactility of the narrative is laid on their shoulders, Tammi’s direction really focussing in on the character dynamics, often born of insecurities and shortcomings, descending into unspoken conflict or outright hostility. Shots often linger to near breaking point on the characters’ physical or emotional trauma, with little or no dialogue needed to convey the tone of a scene. Lizzy and Isaac’s relationship, for example, has a tangible sense of history and intimacy as played by the superb Gerard and Zukerman, which makes their conflict all the more believable when it bubbles up.

The world built around the characters is impeccable, too, every object and situation inferring history and story. The frontier setting, by turns awe-inspiring in its beauty and terrifying in its naked hostility, is a character in itself, and shot with the same lingering determination as the rest of the film by cinematographer Lyn Moncrief. Both homesteads have a deliberately handmade, lived-in feel that lends itself to the film’s bloody physicality. Ben Lovett’s score accentuates the characters’ spiralling madness with its discordant strings; after his evocative work both here and on 2017’s The Ritual, he’s a composer to get excited about. Special effects are few and far between, but when Tammi does use them, it’s sparingly, lingering in the viewer’s memory with greater impact.

The Wind is a fantastic piece of horror in both its evocation of the weird and the subversive exploration of its two complex and tangible female characters, both caught in the teeth of a world otherwise dominated by men and defined by its harshness.

It’s like the filmmakers are actually using the medium they’re working in to tell their story with tools that are often overlooked or underutilised in favour of an easier approach. In other words, it’s a relief not having to listen to characters explain the story or their motivations to me. I said before that The Wind is a lean film, but it’s also rich with detail, the land and characters’ history lying just beneath the surface, every aspect evoked in a way that only film can. Everything works together here beautifully, and from script to screen there’s a sense of rhythm that’s rare in some of the most experienced filmmakers’ work. I can’t wait to see what Tammi, and everyone else involved in The Wind, does next.

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Hellboy (Film Review)

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I’m a huge fan of both Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics and the two mesmerising films based on them, directed by renowned Mexican monster man Guillermo del Toro. Starring Ron Perlman as the titular anti-hero in a couple of career-best performances, del Toro’s films capture the otherworldly feel of Mignola’s iconic artwork, distilled through the director’s particular vision. While Hellboy II: The Golden Army saw del Toro diverge significantly from the source material, and let rip with his love for bizarre fairy-tale creatures and misunderstood monsters, it’s still a truly magical film, both in itself and as part of Big Red’s impressive canon.

Like any fan of that series, I’d been waiting for a greenlight on the third film of the intended trilogy. But after apparently heading in a direction that del Toro and Perlman weren’t happy with, the studio announced a reboot of the series in 2017, helmed by Brit horror director Neil Marshall and starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour in the title role. The script originally saw several drafts by Mignola himself, Christopher Golden, Aaron Eli Coliete, and Andrew Cosby, but apparently Golden and Coliete’s contributions barely made it into the final film, with Cosby now listed as the sole writer.

As much I’m enamoured with del Toro’s films, I didn’t bear a grudge against this new version. On paper, this seemed like it might be an interesting take on the character at the very least, with the calibre of the people involved and its talk of a distinctively bloodier, darker direction that still remained faithful to some of Mignola’s best story arcs, particularly The Wild Hunt, Darkness Calls, and The Storm and the Fury. I love Marshall’s work, which can best be described as grungy and hyper-violent, and his use of practical effects is admirable, from the taut black humour of Dog Soldiers, one of the best werewolf films I’ve seen, to the squirm-inducing claustrophobia of The Descent, and the more streamlined thrills of Ancient Roman chase film, Centurion. His most recent work has been largely in television, namely two excellent Game of Thrones episodes that combine a sense of bloody scale with Marshall’s signature style. David Harbour is also an interesting choice for the lead, one of those character actors who seems to crop up in so many cool supporting roles (his turn as a psychopath in A Walk Among the Tombstones springs immediately to mind), and one of the highlights of a certain 80s-saturated Netflix series.

Given the talent involved and my love of the source material, I went into this new Hellboy film with genuinely high hopes and little trepidation. There was no reason this should’ve turned out the way it did.

The film opens with a tepid exposition-dump of a prologue that tries to go all Sin City with its colour-punctuated black-and-white visuals, brimming with hellish dialogue and clunky narration from Ian McShane. The delivery of lines here manages the seemingly impossible task of making the already awful writing sound even worse. Immortal, evil, and motivationally-bereft witch, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), is dismembered by a King Arthur so wooden he makes Guy Ritchie’s 2017 film look like a subtle and evocative masterpiece. Her divorced body parts are subsequently hidden in separate locations around the world, and to the present we cut.

Surely, surely the rest of the film can’t be this bad, right?

Not exactly. While the rest of Hellboy’s seemingly eternal two hours don’t quite reach the depths of that opening’s singularly abysmal bar, it doesn’t climb much higher. What we can glimpse of the plot beneath the bulge of baffling tangents and endless character backstories involves a resurrected Nimue intent on seducing Hellboy into triggering the apocalypse, destroying humanity, and ushering in a new world for the downtrodden monsters and fairy-tale creatures that follow her. It’s a story we’ve not only seen a hundred times before, but one that was done so much better in both of del Toro’s previous Hellboy films.

Even the actual apocalypse Hellboy’s so instrumental to only lasts about two minutes, those world-crushing, people-mushing monstrosities barely taking up more screen-time than they did in the trailer, which is a waste of some of their genuinely original designs even if they don’t match the rest of the film’s aesthetics by a long shot. There’s simply no threat here, and you can’t have narrative tension without any discernible narrative.

This might be a bad film, but it isn’t David Harbour’s fault, who’s one of the few things that come close to actually working. His Hellboy is uglier and grumpier and less nuanced than Ron Perlman’s magnificent performance (and involves a lot more yelling), but he’s trying something different with the role, bringing his own sense of the demonic anti-hero, and that’s to be commended, even if the film he’s wading through feels as phoney as the mountains of viscera it keeps throwing up onscreen.

On paper at least the rest of the cast is impressive, with sweary British thesp Ian McShane seemingly perfect as Hellboy’s adoptive dad, Professor Broom. But even this usually dynamite actor phones in his performance, shouting his way through every scene as if he’s addressing a crowd of hearing-impaired senior citizens at a midday bingo session. Shasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim, usually great additions to any cast, can’t seem to get past the sound of their frankly awful British accents or their wasted characters, as both written and cut.

Jovovich’s Nimue is a cardboard villain with little to no motivation for her formulaically world-ending scheme, and she rounds out the holy trinity of grating British accents that inexplicably populate the film. She comes across as a D-grade version of The Golden Army’s Prince Nuada – both nonhuman monsters bent on humanity’s destruction, but only the latter is written and portrayed with nuance and empathy.

And yeah, I know, constant comparison to the character’s previous cinematic incarnation – however superior – doesn’t exactly scream fair, but the truth is that even on its own merits, this Hellboy is a disaster. What makes things worse is that, occasionally, there are glimpses of what this could have been. There’s faint whiff of an interesting dynamic between Hellboy and his adopted dad, a much more calculating version of Broom than previously seen. It’s honestly great, too, to see aspects of the Mignola comics brought to life, like Hellboy’s flashback encounter with changeling fairy Gruagach, now a demented cockney pig-man bent on vengeance. The mostly practical effects used to bring him to life are impressive, but the execution renders everything around him both flat and garish at the same time. What makes this worse is that no single moment lingers long enough to have any kind of impact, one monster or action scene piled relentlessly on top of the other, any redeeming qualities drowned out by the sheer volume of blood and noise. Speaking of noise, every boring, gore-drenched action sequence is exacerbated by terrible song choices and Benjamin Wallfisch’s discordant deal-breaker of a “score”, which just adds to the genuine headache I ended up with by the time the credits started rolling.

But the blame for this garbage-fire might not lie solely on the shoulders of Marshall. The director was noticeably absent from the film’s publicity tour, and reportedly didn’t even attend Hellboy’s premier, due to apparent dissatisfaction over final cut and clashes with producers, who, among other instances of interference, apparently fired Marshall’s regular cinematographer, Sam McCurdy. Even without this knowledge, though, it’s clear that Hellboy is the unfortunate victim of the kind of studio-mandated hatchet job I haven’t seen since Suicide Squad or The Snowman, its narrative jumping from scene to backstory to bloodbath with barely a thread of coherence between them. Characters come and go, explaining more of the insensible plot before disappearing without notice or dying in a mist of poorly-rendered digital blood.

It feels like the studio executive in charge of this production was some mean-spirited, dead-eyed and deeply ordinary teenage boy who read the comics and saw the original films and thought they needed to be edgier, but wouldn’t know the meaning of the word edgy if it lobotomised him. You can just see him, sitting in his too-big high-rise office surrounded by cheap artwork and replica weapons, changing this plot point and smushing these action scenes together, masturbating furiously over every unnecessary splash of blood or ill-placed profanity. But running after Deadpool’s success screaming “fuck” and waving some severed limbs doesn’t make for a gritty or interesting or even fun film.

Ultimately, this is the studio’s fault. It’s bad enough that they didn’t let del Toro finish his trilogy because of financial cold feet. But then they orchestrate a pointless reboot that might actually turn out all right, hire a great bunch of people to make it, and then hogtie them right in the middle of proceedings. Neil Marshall clearly wasn’t given creative freedom to make the film he wanted or was even capable of, and the result is a tragic mess the filmmakers didn’t want and the audience didn’t enjoy. The only consolation is that this probably won’t make enough money to warrant the sequel they so clumsily try to bait in an epilogue as boring and unnecessary as every minute that came before.

So in the end, no one wins.

Pet Sematary (Film Review)

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Stephen King adaptations have been coming thick and fast over the last few years, and show no sign of slowing down in the near future, with at least several films due for release in 2019 alone, including Mike Flanagan’s Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, It: Chapter Two, and Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass (based on a novella co-written by King and his son, Joe Hill). Even better is that most of the recent films and TV series have actually been very good, compared to the much higher ratio of bad King adaptations we were gifted in the 80s and 90s.

Often, the quality of these works is dependent on the quality of the filmmakers adapting King’s writing. Mike Flanagan made a wonderfully visceral and nasty film from one of the author’s more visceral and nasty books with Gerald’s Game; Andy Muschietti’s It was a great surprise, especially considering its troubled production (although I’d still kill to see Cary Fukunaga’s original vision for his intended epic two-parter, but that’s a whole other rant); and Aussie Zak Hilditch worked wonders with the more stripped-down thriller 1922, featuring an amazing, literally scene-chewing turn from Thomas Jane.

So when I learnt that Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer were attached to direct a remake/adaptation of King’s bleakest of books, Pet Sematary, I rushed to heap a hefty weight of expectation onto the film. The duo’s previous horror, Starry Eyes, is a nightmare in the best possible way, a slow-burn about a woman’s transformative quest for fame in a twisted, occult Hollywood. Some of the violence in Starry Eyes is truly toe-curling, and the whole thing is steeped in a nauseating sense of unease; it’s a film whose imagery still creeps back into my head from time to time, even after only one viewing.

Like Jordan Peele’s Us, released only the week before this, Pet Sematary’s focus is on family. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), move down from Boston to a quiet rural town in Maine. Their new property encompasses a vast stretch of woods, within which is the town’s cutely misspelled “Pet Sematary”, the further reaches of wilderness beyond it blocked in by a towering deadfall of felled trees and branches. The road just in front of their house is also busy with speeding trucks. Both of these elements will come to tear the family apart, and also point to the fact that they must have had the worst real estate agent in the world.

When Church, the family’s cat, is killed by one of the aforementioned speeding trucks, crusty but kindly old neighbour Jud (a reliably superb John Lithgow) tells Louis about the resurrective properties of the “sour” land that lies beyond the pet cemetery’s deadfall. After burying the cat in this bleak and ancient place, Church comes back, but he’s not the same cat Ellie loved; he’s mangy and feral in both looks and temperament, scratching anyone who gets too close and ruining Louis and Rachel’s sex life with bloodied, half-dead birds.

Most of us know how this story escalates from pets to people, either from the book, the original 1989 film, or literally any trailer for this 2019 version. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that the land beyond the pet cemetery is inadvisably utilised after a tragic (human) death, which precipitates further violence and mayhem.

It’s a well-made and well-acted film, efficient in its evocation of the Creeds’ spiralling predicament. But Jeff Buhler’s screenplay is a little too efficient, and the film is frantically paced, excising character development in favour of the mounting scares which, despite looking fine, fail to actually induce terror. Where King’s book felt unrelentingly bleak (the author himself cites it as his darkest work), for all its supposedly grim subject matter, the film largely failed to rend my soul or raise my heartbeat. Scenes that should feel grand or awe-inspiring are brief, small and forgettable, and anything that does succeed just comes across as very bread-and-butter horror; good, but not much more.

I’m by no means a book-to-film hardliner, raging at changes made in the adaptation to the screen, and the different tact the directors have taken here in several key elements actually works to the film’s advantage in some ways, but one of the joys of King’s book, and arguably its thematic spine, is the surrogate father/son relationship between Jud and Louis, a bond we see barely fleshed out in the film – again, because it feels like it’s in too much of a rush to get to the nasty bits. But without significant investment in the characters, that horror’s bound to fall flat. I watched these people suffer trauma and heartache and eventually terrible fates, but I wasn’t scared and I wasn’t all that troubled, except by my glaring lack of reaction.

Other aspects seem shoehorned in just to give the audience a creepy vibe rather than because they actually fit into the story. There’s a cool Wicker Man vibe at the beginning, with a procession of kids heading down to the pet cemetery in creepy animal masks, but this local ritual is never further explored, and the sense of something larger going on – which is a staple of the novel, for me – fails to ignite. This is a shame, because given the quality of the directors’ previous Starry Eyes, Pet Sematary represents a step down for Kölsch and Widmyer.

Given the close release dates, I can’t help but compare Pet Sematary to Jordan Peele’s Us, which for me was a far superior horror film with not only a lot more to say, but, crucially, characters I cared a more about than I did the Creed family. Where Peele’s film was a fully realised work with many layers to unpack and an astonishing attention to detail, there’s so much in Pet Sematary that falls short, despite the great source material and the opportunities for some genuinely terrifying moments.

Where the family in Us had distinct personalities and interior lives, depicted through dialogue and body language, Pet Sematary’s characters seem flat and underdeveloped, coming across as cut-outs designed simply to put them through the wringer of this horror film’s trope-filled obstacle course. This is no fault of the performances, though. Jason Clarke does the best he can with the relatively bland Louis. Amy Seimetz is terrific as Rachel, whose traumatic childhood is touched on with some effective body horror, accentuated by her layered performance. John Lithgow is also great as Jud, even if his character is relegated to the role of Wise Old Exposition Man. Jeté Laurence does a lot of heavy lifting as Ellie, tackling one of the film’s more realised characters with her complex performance.

Like the characters, the world they inhabit feels a little off, and not necessarily in the right way. Months pass in the blink of an eye, but there’s no sense of a lived-in environment, which is partly the fault of the rushed story and the failure of the film to take its time with the characters. The barren landscape beyond the cemetery’s deadfall is also just too alien for somewhere on the other side of a big bundle of sticks, with its skeletal trees, swampy ground and a horizon constantly flickering with lightning. It all spells out its evil a little too loudly, and just doesn’t gel with the real-world setting of the rest of the film.

I haven’t seen the 1989 original so I can’t compare this version to that. My memory of the book is hazy at best, but certain scenes and emotions have stuck with me, distilled over the years into an impression that not only feels much more emotionally harrowing, but, through its dark and intimate character work, gives us a glimpse into a universe much more vast and alien and hostile than we can imagine. When King’s at his best this works beautifully, and Pet Sematary – the book – is a fantastic example of this. But this claustrophobic, character-centric horror that briefly flares into something more complex and incomprehensible isn’t remotely captured in Kölsch and Widmyer’s film, which is a huge shame and a missed opportunity. Pet Sematary isn’t a bad film by any means, and though it does try to impress with some interesting changes to the source material, its lack of guts is glaring, especially relative to other King adaptations and other recent horror films in general. As Jud tells Louis at one point in the film, sometimes dead is better.

Us (Film Review)

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Jordan Peele was always going to face a steep climb if he wanted to top his incredible out-of-left-field directorial debut. Get Out’s teeth-clenching intensity and biting social commentary made it one of 2017’s most delicious horror films, even snagging several Oscar nominations and a Best Original Screenplay win.

No pressure for his next film, then.

In many ways, Us is the perfect follow-up, another magnificent horror film with another whopper of a premise and more deftly handled social commentary. Refreshingly, it’s also a showcase of Peele’s desire to do something different, to take more risks, and while certain aspects of the narrative have alienated some critics, I adored it. It’s such a pleasure to see a film not only so competently, passionately made, but one in which you can see the director flexing his muscles, reaching for something more. It’s an ambitious film, but for my money it works.

It also continues Peele’s penchant for casting predominantly black actors in major roles, and Peele himself has said that he doesn’t see himself ever casting a white lead, much to the displeasure of cry-babies everywhere, and my own unrestrained joy.

The less you know about Us going in, the better, but the basic plot follows the Wilson family: parents Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Abe (Winston Duke), and their two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). While holidaying in Santa Cruz, the Wilsons encounter a murderous, scissor-wielding doppelganger family – referred to as the Tethered – who seem intent on wiping out their better, saner halves. What begins as a home invasion movie soon spirals into something much more complex and layered, and Peele is a master at juggling each element without any one of them hogging the limelight.

As with Get Out, Us maintains a razor’s edge balance between horror and humour, often the most intense or violent scenes perfectly punctuated with a moment of levity that arises organically out of the situation. The horror precipitates the humour rather than the humour being something shoehorned in – it feels natural rather than written, the characters well aware of the absurdity of their situation.

The film also looks and sounds wonderful, with a luscious colour scheme, beautiful use of light and shadow, and a score by Get Out’s Michael Abels that crystallises the terror with its eerie vocals and pounding strings. Us is only Abels’ second film score, but this guy is a genius.

My investment in a horror film is predominantly dependent on my investment in its characters, and Us has some of the best. Some of the early scenes establish family dynamics in a way that, again, doesn’t feel written or performed, four characters bouncing off each other at the same time, critical aspects of their personalities conveyed as much through dialogue as action and body language. In fact, the performances here are all so good that you almost forget you’re watching a fictional construction. Obviously we know that Nyong’o and Duke have no need to prove their acting chops, but Shadidi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex (who I’ve not seen in a film before) are both amazing as the two kids, their performances dimensional and nuanced, the way they adapt to their horrific circumstances particularly endearing. It’s also just great to see a black family kicking arse like this. The supporting cast is excellent too, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as Adelaide and Abe’s rich white friends. Moss in particular seems to be having a lot of fun with a role that’s much more snarky and vacuous than her usual (excellent) work.

But the focus here is on the Wilson family, and particularly Nyong’o’s Adelaide. What’s more impressive is that the cast play both roles, each murderous double not just a copy of the other character but imbued with their own terrifying personality. The physicality of each of the Tethered here is impressive, exacerbating their monstrousness and giving us some truly unique horror icons. If Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t win a flurry of awards for her role(s) here, I’ll burn down a building.

There’s a depth to the film’s construction that begs multiple viewings. Images and symbols recur with a deliberate rhythm throughout, and the sense of duality is far from limited to the central characters. Peele lays down a visual groundwork that hints at what we’ll bear witness to later in the story, whether we pick up those details or not. Little tics and twitches throughout the film telegraph story beats, character choices and thematic arcs in ways that delighted me. These don’t make the plot predictable or the scares generic, though. Instead they elevate the material because they’re deliberately placed breadcrumbs that highlight Us’s themes, while leading up to a final “twist” that doesn’t feel it’s trying to surprise us so much as confirming what we long-suspected, and serves as a rich patch of metaphorical soil audiences will be digging down into for years to come.

I’ve seen many reviewers complain that the film’s final act explains too much, but then the same was said of Ari Aster’s Hereditary: I didn’t agree then and I don’t agree now. The explanation here isn’t ham-fisted at all, and hardly goes into the kind of detail that would render the horrors toothless – it has the opposite effect, if anything. Besides, as with nearly every other aspect of the film, the nature of the Tethered is foreshadowed in earlier scenes. Revealing some of the why of these murderous doubles’ motives isn’t a slip-up but a deep and deliberate part of the story. I’d argue that it makes Us more effective, and much scarier. Without spoiling anything, it takes the film into unexpected territory, tapping into the darker aspects of modern – and particularly American – society.

If this all sounds like I’m heading towards puerile notions like “elevated horror” to Us, please wash your ears out. The last few years of excellent horror films enjoyed by a wider audience than just genre fans have led the more snooty, snotty critics to scrabble for justification as to how a lowly horror film can also be a good one. And so we get terms like “elevated”, because genre films, as we all know, don’t actually have anything to say; they need to be more than just a good example of the genre, they need to transcend the common muck in order to be worthy of critical acclaim and serious discourse. The idea that recent knockouts like Us, Hereditary and The Witch are somehow the exception rather than the rule does a disservice to the potential of a damn good genre film, and particularly horror in this case. These films are the embodiment of horror, good horror, sure, but horror doing exactly what it does best: scaring the shit out of you and saying something interesting in the process.

Us does all of these things, and it does them beautifully. It’s also subversive and original, and it’s setting a great example for the longevity of the genre, and not just in terms of quality. Financially, it had the highest grossing opening ever for an original horror film, at US$71 million. For studios whose only language is money, this is great news for the genre. On top of which it’s simply a joy to see such a brilliant film get the attention it absolutely deserves. Excuse me while I go watch it several more times.

Destroyer (Film Review)

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Some directors have a distinctive visual, tonal or thematic style that makes their work easily recognisable; you can usually spot a David Fincher or Wes Anderson film from a single scene. Best case scenario, this familiarity can be comforting without getting tedious. After all, if we enjoy something, we want more like it. Other filmmakers have a less obvious signature, but once you get into their work there’s a certain indefinable feel, a sense of cohesion, the way Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and You Were Never Really Here share something that goes beyond their challenging, unsettling subject matter.

Others yet are more eclectic, surprising and delighting us with their output every time. You wouldn’t necessarily recognise two of their films back to back without prior knowledge, but there’s a joy in the level of variety on display, across genre and tone and subject. One of those directors is Karyn Kusama. Each film she makes is more different and thrilling than the last, and I always look forward to what she does next: Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body are both severely underrated; and 2015’s The Invitation is one of my all-time favourites and an absolute knockout, a paranoid, claustrophobic film about old friends reuniting for a dinner party that goes horribly, violently wrong. From science fiction to horror-comedy to horror-thriller, Kusama’s latest film is a grimy noir set in the wasteland of California, and just like her previous work, this one does the opposite of disappoint.

Destroyer follows Nicole Kidman’s detective Erin Bell, mentally and physically decrepit, as she embarks on a hunt for the leader of a criminal gang in which she was placed undercover as a young cop several years earlier. The plot here is lean, as emaciated and single-minded as its protagonist. Nobody sits around explaining plot points in dialogue meant more for the audience than the characters, and exposition is thin on the ground in the best possible way. We switch between Bell’s dogged investigation in the present, and flashbacks of her time undercover with fellow cop Chris (Sebastian Stan) as they insinuate themselves within the criminal gang led by the emotionally volatile Silas (a magnetic Toby Kebbell).

As a singular character piece, Destroyer’s focus is firmly, claustrophically stuck on Kidman as Detective Bell. Much has been made of her performance and her physical appearance in the film, both of which are as gruelling as they are captivating. Kidman lets the character swallow her up, and her performance is nothing short of astounding. It’s not just the makeup here but the way she moves, physically inhabiting the pain of every punch and kick and hangover. Over the course of the film she accrues these injuries with a mounting sense of exhaustion, but Bell powers through. Part of the joy of this film is the inability to look away from her as she shuffles and snarls and scraps her way through the film, heading towards what we can’t imagine will be a particularly happy ending for anyone involved.

She’s broken and miserable and nasty, all but estranged from anyone who ever cared about her. Often either drunk or hungover, she tries to solve most of her problems with violence, but her seemingly no-fucks-given approach is undercut with a tragic desperation. The actions of the past weigh heavily on her: shining through the violence and Bell’s drive for vengeance is her fear of handing her mistakes down to her rebellious teenaged daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), whose presence serves as an emotional anchor for the film, Bell’s one tiny hope amid all the rot.

The rest of the cast is phenomenal too, even in peripheral roles. Some pack enough punch to make the most of their limited screen time, like Bradley Whitford’s scumbag lawyer, Tatiana Maslany grunging it up as Silas’ lapdog, or James Jordan as a washed-up member of the gang; an early scene with Jordan’s character was enough to make me physically recoil from the screen. Jade Pettyjohn balances adolescent rebellion and emotional turmoil as Bell’s daughter, while Beau Knapp is deliciously slimy as her thuggish boyfriend. Sebastian Stan is solid, but his character could have been a little more fleshed out, and Scoot McNairy doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Bell’s estranged partner. In fact, if I had one small criticism of the film, it’s that the supporting cast aren’t quite as interesting as the lead, but then this is a story with a tight focus, everyone caught in the vortex of Bell’s catastrophic choices.

Destroyer looks and plays like one of those grimy, violent thrillers from the seventies, its California a place you probably wouldn’t want to live if someone paid you, a place where youth is fleeting and violence just around the corner. Bodies decay and shrivel, but everybody keeps on shuffling through this brilliantly shot hell. Theodore Shapiro’s score is mesmerising, too, accompanying the action with industrial growls and fervent strings, as much evocative of the film’s violence as its quieter, more heartbreaking moments.

Critics have been raving about Kidman’s performance in Destroyer, and she deserves all the praise for her role here, but without a great script (by regular Kusama collaborators, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who also penned The Invitation), and such strong direction from Kusama, the film wouldn’t be half as good as it is. Every element here comes together beautifully, cast and crew delivering a film so gritty you can feel it under your fingernails and at the back of your throat. Destroyer is violent and grimy and tense, but it’s also steeped in sadness, a film about the choices and mistakes we make that change our lives for the worse, and set us on a collision course with tragedy. There’s a sense of the inescapable to this tragedy, a circularity that infuses the film without overdoing it. As Bell tells her daughter in her hoarse, unpunctuated drawl: “I’m mad I’m still mad it’s burnt a circuit in my brain.” Destroyer will burn a circuit in your brain, too.

Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley (Review)

Devil's Day

I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of Andrew Michael Hurley’s second novel, Devil’s Day, his follow up to the beautiful and quietly menacing debut that was The Loney. Like that first book, Devil’s Day is ensconced in the English countryside, in this case an isolated farming community in Lancashire that clings to ritual and tradition.

Narrator John Pentecost is returning to his family farm in the Briardale Valley, pregnant wife Kat in tow. His return is precipitated by both the death of his grandfather, the Gaffer, and the yearly titular ritual of Devil’s Day, where the villagers sing songs and tell stories about the time the Devil came down to the valley to make mischief.

This is a book that, like The Loney, is in no hurry, and has little concern for the machinations of a flashy or action-packed plot. That kind of story can be hard to pull off, but Hurley is adept at keeping the reader’s attention. I was rapt with Devil’s Day from the opening line to the last. I enjoyed The Loney, but this felt like a much more accomplished novel, and the folk horror element is what really did it for me. Hurley’s restraint and subtlety is still as applaudable as ever, but the feel in Devil’s Day, of stories and folktales creeping across the landscape into reality – or rather, as in a lot of cases, already an ingrained part of that landscape – is palpable and sets a shiver crawling across your skin.

Although a slow-burn, this is a very precise and well-crafted book. There isn’t an ounce of spare flesh to be found. The prose is neither indulgent nor workmanlike. It has that evocative, tactile tone of a masterful storyteller, to the point that you forget you’re reading a book. Take this passage, where a young John is out amongst nature; Hurley gives us all these wonderful bright details, lending his own style of imagery to the scene:

“Things fled as I slithered down through the dry mud. Birds dissolved into the undergrowth and the eel that lay curled up like a question mark just under the surface of the water shivered aware in a ring of ripples. Nothing wanted to stay, not the damselflies or the dippers, or the kingfisher that unearthed itself from the dark, rooty banks on the other side and skimmed away with the current, burning a blue stripe in the air.”

I could read that over and over, and still find something new to smile about every time.

It’s almost a cliché at this point, but the setting here is as much a character as the people inhabiting it. The terrain and the weather shape the characters’ lives in ways both mundane and profound.

Just as the landscape shapes the characters, so does the past. It’s always needling into the present, informing and shaping it, pricking it with unease. The Gaffer’s aphorisms or lessons punctuate the story so that even in death we’re not without him. His presence underpins John’s narration, as well as his thoughts and feelings about the farm and his obligations to it.

The characters – even the fleeting, incidental ones – are never anything less than startlingly real; crafted with a crispness that puts Hurley’s skills as a writer on full display. The characters here are very traditional, which can really grate sometimes with their staunch religious beliefs, and their “he’s a pouf” and “don’t be a sissy” attitudes. They’re hardscrabble people with proudly calloused hands and a get-shit-done attitude. On the farm, work trumps everything, overcomes everything. Loss, disaster, even the Devil comes second to the necessities of farm life. Everything carries on, through death, weather, hardship, and the Devil’s sneaking tricks.

As we meander through this glacial story of rural family history and ritual set against the rugged English countryside, something a little insidious starts to creep into John’s tone. In his head, this is not just a visit but the start of something more permanent. Despite Kat’s objections, it’s his firm belief that they’ll soon settle down on the farm, that they’ll abandon their urban lives and jobs for this far simpler and harsher one maintaining the family farm.

John’s quiet but unwavering insistence that this is less a choice than a familial obligation is unsettling, but given the retrospective nature of the narrative, also sadly inevitable. This obsession with the legacy of obligation Kat inherits by dint of starting a family with John really alienates him from the reader – or this reader, anyway. As Kat becomes increasingly unsettled – and, to be honest, me with her – John’s lack of sympathy is stark in its absence. Everything’s a “useful lesson” for Kat or something that she’ll become accustomed to and appreciate, no matter how uncomfortable or out of place she feels. That we know she does come around and that they raise their first child on the farm doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable and somewhat heartbreaking, this woman caught in the web of a family’s hardscrabble (although not unhappy) way of life.

Kat’s the outsider here, and the reader’s way in to the story. She’s uncomfortable as I was with some of the family’s odd traditions and practices, as well as their occasional bluntness towards her. And when the horror element does edge its fingers around the doorframe, it’s Kat who reacts the most to it, her burgeoning sense of dislocation one that I vehemently shared.

As with The Loney, I did find myself wishing for a little more of the horror, or some culmination of the supernatural, but Hurley doesn’t work that way whether I like it or not. Devil’s Day is more about the people and the place, their past and present and inevitable future, than it is the overtly supernatural. It’s ultimately about the lengths people will go to protect not just their traditions but their family livelihood, their way of life.

Nothing here, from the characters to the harsh terrain to the ambiguity of certain events, is meant to be any shade of comfortable; this is a challenging book, but a riveting, beautifully crafted one. It reinforces what The Loney first showed us: that Andrew Michael Hurley is a unique and gifted writer, whose work I will continue to eagerly devour.

 

“Some people change the world.” – The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson (REVIEW)

Vellitt-Boe

Disclaimer: prepare yourself for some heart-on-the-sleeve gushing.

HP Lovecraft, arguable big daddy of one vein of weird fiction, is known for a lot of things – unfettered racism and a discernible lack of female characters among them – but sheer breathtaking magic that warms the heart and gets it racing at the same time isn’t exactly one of them. With The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson takes Lovecraft’s Dreamland setting and reinvents it with so much skill that I could genuinely, and without a sliver of hyperbole, cry.

Especially in light of recent dramas directed at the weird fiction community, there’s a certain amount of baggage that comes with expanding – and especially subverting – Lovecraft’s universe. Personally, I’m all for it. First, old HP’s flaws and prejudices can’t just be ignored, and they can still be addressed while appreciating the more positive elements of his work. And second, the very act of recalibrating Lovecraft’s seminal universe with a more diverse and inclusive world in mind has given us some absolute gems over the past few years, including but not limited to Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I reviewed here), and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. What Ruff and LaValle’s works did for African American characters in a Lovecraftian universe, Johnson’s does for strong female characters.

Set in the Dreamlands introduced in Lovecraft’s short story, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Johnson’s busy novella follows Professor Vellitt Boe, who teaches at the Ulthar Women’s College. After Clarie Jurat, a student and the daughter of one of the university’s trustees, runs away with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt is tasked with retrieving her, on a journey that will span the depths and heights of the Dreamlands in all their magical and treacherous variety.

To be honest, it’s been a while since I read Kadath, or any of Lovecraft’s other Dreamlands-set stories, so my memory of such wasn’t exactly fresh when I dove into Johnson’s novella. Thankfully, prior knowledge or context is far from necessary; there are some fun references to Lovecraft’s original stories here, but both die-hard fans and those to whom names like Randolph Carter and the Plateau of Leng are utterly unfamiliar will enjoy this story just as much.

Setting the bulk of the novella in the Dreamlands themselves allows Johnson to give it a fresh flavour while maintaining most of Lovecraft’s established geography and mythos. But these never impinge on or shape the story Johnson is trying to tell. The narrative’s borders do expand as we follow Vellitt Boe’s perilous journey, but despite the sense of growing danger and the bitter scheming of elder gods, her quest keeps all those unspeakable, madness-inducing elements in the peripheries.

Vellitt Boe’s 55-year-old female protagonist provides a unique and utterly engaging perspective; in her younger days she was a fervent adventurer, trekking across most of the Dreamlands, coming face to face with danger and wonder both. As an older woman engaged with retrieving one of her students, she might be a little less physically up to scratch, but she’s just as capable and much wiser than her more free-wheeling younger self as she retraces some of her earlier footsteps. Her age works on both a practical level and a philosophical one, giving her the tools and agency to navigate the dangers, monstrous or human, that she encounters on her journey.

To say this is a book about female empowerment is too reductive. It absolutely is a book about female empowerment, and Johnson addresses the failings of Lovecraft’s original Dream-Quest in ways both direct and subtle, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of it.

There’s a freshness to Vellitt Boe’s journey, a kind of fragrance that places it somewhere between a fairy tale and a fantasy adventure. It moves at a wonderful pace and fits in a lot for its short length. It’s also a fun, and – unlike old HP’s work – heart-warming story. All of this sets Johnson’s book apart from Lovecraft’s work, despite the shared setting and mythology. There’s a distinct lack of horror or sense of cosmic indifference – at least in the usual Lovecraftian sense – and as much as I enjoy those things in a lot of fiction, Johnson’s choice to remove her work from that was an inspired decision. It stills thrills and terrifies often, but without the sense of inescapable doom that hounds Lovecraft’s thinly-drawn characters.

Instead we get a book that celebrates the depth of human perseverance, wit, and experience, and the things we carry with us as we age.

Ultimately, there aren’t enough adjectives in the world to properly encapsulate how I feel about this book. It’s one of my favourite books of the year, if not decade, and it has one of the most resonant and beautiful and thrilling endings to a story I think I’ve ever read. What it ends up being about is something so far removed from Lovecraft’s original stories that it renders its inspiration almost unrecognisable, because for all its magic and wonder, for all its deft fantastical elements and beautiful dream-logic, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is about people, in all their fallible and unique incarnations.

As one character says to the protagonist: “Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world, and that’s you.” Vellitt Boe might be the latter, but with her writing, Kij Johnson is undoubtedly the former.