31 Days of Horror 2016: Day #6 THE INVITATION
“There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
There was once a group of friends. They had love and then they had tragedy. The married couple that united them all ended their union with a divorce and the friends fell out of contact with one another. Now, the ex-wife of that couple has returned from nearly two years of being off the grid, and she’s invited all her friends to a dinner party in the house her husband and her used to share. The ex-husband, Logan Marshall-Green (the dude who really shouldn’t have accepted a drink from Michael Fassbender in Prometheus), arrives with his new girlfriend not knowing what to expect. He walks through the house’s memories – some good, some bad – and tries to settle in for an uncomfortable evening.
Things get progressively weirder, however, when certain guests fail to arrive and other strangers to the group show up instead. Seems that, in order to deal with her depression, the ex-wife has turned to a strange… cult? Is it cool if we use that word? They’re a cult, guys. And at least part of the mass invite to old friends was to introduce them to the cult’s teachings in an attempt at allowing others to find happiness.
The Invitation is one of the smartest suspense films I have seen in a long time. It’s never clear if this is a horror movie or if the horror movie is happening inside of the overly anxious and socially awkward main character’s head.
Hey, I have high anxiety. I overanalyze things and it’s been said that I have a paranoid mind. I’m awkward in certain social situations. I’m getting better at all of these things, but some part of me will always feel like a goldfish that’s hopped out of his bowl and is trying to figure out how to breathe in an environment that’s totally unsuitable for him.
And so, I get this movie. The “normal” characters are invited to a friend’s house, only to find that the friend has changed dramatically and she’s trying to introduce them to some strange new ideas. When one character gets up and leaves early because she feels uncomfortable, I was like, yeah, you go girl, flee and never return. The others stay and work through it. Most even settle into the flow of the evening, accept the oddities, and enjoy togetherness. But not the ex-husband. He sees shadows, he detects patterns in behavior, and he’s suspicious of everything. He thinks he’s just walked onto a Hitchcock set and he’s pissed off that everybody else is acting calm and polite instead of freaking out about it. But the film is so clever, it lets you wonder if he’s just wound too tight or if there really is something very wrong about this gathering. Disturbing things are explained away reasonably enough, the main character’s damaged psyche obviously makes him an unreliable narrator, but even so… there’s an overwhelming sense of unease.
The Invitation is one of the best films of 2016. Super smart, suspenseful, and unpredictable. Highly recommended.
Tomorrow’s film: David Cronenberg’s The Fly. You can check up on my 31 Days of Horror schedule at: http://letterboxd.com/warner/list/31-days-of-horror-2016/
"You cannot punch ectoplasm!"
I love discovering a new favorite film on Netflix. In fact, I think that’s what the service is made for. 31 Days of Horror brings me to Housebound, a New Zealand horror comedy I’ve never heard of before, starring no one I recognize… And I had an absolute blast.
Kylie is a young woman who’s constantly screwing up and landing on the wrong side of the law. After various rehabilitation facilities fail her, the judge sentences Kylie to 8 months house arrest at her family home with her weird mom. Kylie would rather be elsewhere… and the angry spirit that resides in the house also wants her gone. It seems the family home has a dark past, and as much as she’d like to ignore the strange happenings since she’s returned, Kylie must face the thing that hides in the dark and save her family.
Housebound is totally unpredictable. I shall not spoil any of it beyond the basic setup I’ve just given. You think it’s one thing, and then it’s something else, then it’s something else again, and somehow it’s all very tightly plotted and connected. It’s actually rather fascinating how the film plays with genre expectations and formulas. As Kylie, Morgana O'Reilly tests the very limits of how unlikable a main character can be before we start rooting against her. It’s a great performance, all dark glares and snark, and I’d like to see more of the actress’ work in the future. Writer/director Gerard Johnstone also makes a strong impression in this, his feature directorial debut.
Both creepy and hilarious, Housebound plays like a cult classic that’s just waiting for the right audience to spread the word. Check it out.
Tomorrow: The Invitation
"Believe nothing that you hear… and only one-half of what you see."
I think Brad Anderson is one of the most underrated directors working today. Session 9 is a modern horror masterpiece. The Machinist, though best remembered for the weight Christian Bale lost for his role, is a creepy, clever thriller. Transsiberian is a pretty excellent thriller with great acting and definitely deserves a much larger audience. Even Anderson at his most mainstream with the Halle Berry 911 thriller The Call was pretty suspenseful and effective. (Admittedly Vanishing on 7th Street wasn’t that great.) Plus, Anderson’s directed so much TV that I’m sure he’s worked on at least one of your favorite shows (Fringe, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, The Man in the High Castle, and so on). So it’s interesting to me that Stonehearst Asylum, a film which gave Anderson his best cast and impressive production values, came and went without registering with audiences.
The movie starts out rather ominously as the title reads Eliza Graves instead of Stonehearst Asylum in the opening credits… In my experience, it’s never a good thing when the title in the credits doesn’t match the movie’s poster.
Based on an Edgar Allen Poe story, Stonehearst Asylum follows a young Oxford gradate (Jim Sturgess) to an insane asylum in England, 1899. The asylum is run by the unorthodox Dr. Lamb (Ben Kingsley), who lets the inmates (many of them dangerous) freely intermingle with the staff. The young doc is a little confused by all of this, but he’s mostly just in love with the pretty lady at the piano (Kate Beckinsale). But a noise in the night leads the doc to the basement where he discovers men and women locked in cages. The gruff Michael Caine comes up to the bars, announces himself as the true master of the asylum, and accuses Dr. Lamb of overthrowing the staff.
The lunatics are running the asylum!
Stonehearst Asylum is pretty good. It’s never great but there’s too much skill in front and behind the camera for this to ever drop anywhere below a 3 out of 5 star rating for me. Ben Kingsley seems to be enjoying the role of a madman in control. Kate Beckinsale remains an underrated dramatic talent and one wishes that she’d stop playing with vampires and werewolves to do more interesting characters like Mrs. Eliza Graves (also, check out her work in the recent Austen adaptation Love & Friendship). David Thewlis is almost unrecognizable as the murderer who is now posing as Lamb’s second in command. And the dude who thought he was a horse was good. I found Jim Sturgess to be rather dull but then I often do, so maybe that’s just me.
I liked the film’s attempts to talk about medicine and treatments for the insane a century ago. As the inmates tell it, the real doctors often preferred harsher treatments than the mad Dr. Lamb, and in some cases a patient’s condition actually improved under Lamb’s care. There was a great deal of barbarity in our techniques back then and I am left to wonder if we will one day look back on some of our modern medicine in much the same way…
I believe Stonehearst Asylum to be a gothic romance, personally. It’s not a horror film, not really. There’s darkness, madness, and a good deal of mystery, but Anderson is more interested in history and romance than scaring his audience.
Tomorrow’s planned movie: Housebound.
31 Days of Horror 2016: Day #3 ZOMBIE FIGHT CLUB
“Who needs birthday party when the world is ending?”
Well, that sucked.
Zombie Fight Club tries to mix The Raid with The Walking Dead. It’s a combo that should work, but the movie fails quite spectacularly. This is a poorly plotted, cheap, tone deaf movie that’s dead on arrival. Just amateurish the whole way through.
A cop kill squad led by corrupt Michael Wong raids an apartment building looking to steal drug money. One of Wong’s men, Andy On, doesn’t like the whole deal and wants to step in and stop things. But then the zombie apocalypse happens thanks to a bad batch of ecstasy, and so begins a fight for survival as the cops, the drug dealers, and other tenants of the building must try to escape.
An hour into this scenario, the film decides it’s bored playing The Raid and decides to jump ahead a year to a post-apocalypse future featuring slavery, people living underground, water shortages, and gladiator fights against the undead. It’s like an entirely different movie, man. I don’t know which part worked better, the Raid section or the Thunderdome final act – probably neither, but I would’ve preferred they had just picked one, not both.
In addition to mixing action with zombie horror, Zombie Fight Club features a whole bunch of beautiful women wearing as little as possible. I seriously doubt that all the women of Taipei are dressed only in short shorts and a sports bra, but who knows. On the one side: yay, pretty ladies. On the other side: this is fairly disgusting, degrading entertainment. Indeed, I don’t know that it can be called ‘sexy’ at all. What’s interesting is that the American Blu-ray cover for Zombie Fight Club features a woman in leather with two swords strapped to her back. This woman does not exist inside the movie. Every woman in the movie is a sex object, someone to be protected by the men and ogled at by the audience.
Jessica Cambensy, the leading lady who must’ve been cold the entire movie, could be a star in Hollywood if she improves her acting skills a bit. The leading man, Andy On, is a likable action star. He improves many movies in supporting roles, but his starring roles don’t seem to come in the best films. And Michael Wong here plays a horrible human being – it might be the perfect part for him – but he leaves the film too soon.
Zombie Fight Club also tries to give us some (frankly unwelcome) heavy drama but it doesn’t work because A) the characters make dumb decisions and B) who are these people, really? Instead of bothering to build character, they throw the dramatic revelations in right before people die and the survivors must tearfully bemoan their passing. It doesn’t work. And I hardly remember any of their names, either. Andy On plays a dude named Andy, so that was easy, but otherwise this is some poorly conceived storytelling.
And I haven’t even started on the CGI blood that looked like it belonged in an arcade game back in the 90’s… and perhaps I won’t. I’ve said enough. It’s a bad movie. End of story.
Tomorrow: Stonehearst Asylum.
So, it’s only the second night of my Halloween horror watchathon and I’ve already screwed up. I’d planned to watch Joy Ride for the first time, but apparently it’s expired from the service I’d planned to stream it from. Very frustrating! It sucks that things have already gone wrong on night 2 but I had a Plan B.
Larry Cohen’s 1985 horror movie The Stuff is that weird film that reminds you of so many other movies and yet still feels like a breath of fresh air. There’s ingredients taken from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Halloween 3, The Blob, and Soylent Green. It’s a nasty, weird horror satire about commercialism and corporate greed in America.
Some white goo comes bubbling out of the ground and a company decides to sell it as a dessert because it tastes good. The Stuff, as it’s called, actually alters your mind and turns you into a hallowed out junkie, or a “Stuffy.” Instead of Pod People representing the spread of Communism, The Stuff represents the morally bankrupt fast food chains who try to package a product as fun and delicious regardless of whether it’s safe to eat or not.
The Stuff is a whole lot of fun. And it’s nasty fun, too. This was the first time I’ve seen it but I know it won’t be the last. On top of a weird concept, the film has a collection of strange characters to tell the story. Michael Moriarty plays a cowboy boot wearing industrial spy who’s put on the case by Big Ice Cream and ends up finding much more than he’d bargained for. Moriarty’s performance is big and hammy but it’s also very funny. Paul Sorvino has a small part as an ultra-right wing militia man. Garrett Morris plays Chocolate Chip Charlie, a man who’s fists are registered as deadly weapons. Andrea Marcovicci plays a Madison Ave ad lady who’s partially responsible for creating Stuff fever and regrets her role in the whole thing. Danny Aiello has a cameo as a man who’s terrified of his own dog. And there’s a little kid who’s a radical revolutionary that’s trying to destroy The Stuff at his local supermarket and family home.
With so much character and wild ideas, it’s a wonder the film holds together. And truth be told, some of it does feel a little cheap and sloppy. But I enjoyed the hell out of The Stuff overall. Funny, clever, and ooey, gooey gross.
Tomorrow: Zombie Fight Club. I promise.
We begin this October’s horror season with Bigfoot. Because, why not? BIGFOOT IS REAL, YA’LL. I mean maybe. I guess? Well, it could be… maybe.
There have always been lame, TV-movie quality Bigfoot movies. And we must never forget Boggy Creek 2: The Legend Continues, because wow. But as far as quality Sasquatch cinema, we don’t really have much to speak of.
In 2014, two interesting filmmakers tried their own approach to the Bigfoot myth, and curiously both decided to go the found footage route. Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek took campers in search of Bigfoot, getting lost in the woods, and eventually getting terrorized by the monster. It’s a slow burn thriller that takes a long damn time to get going but when it gets to the goods it’s surprisingly unsettling. Released in most places that same year, Eduardo Sanchez brought us Exists, a film with much in common with Willow Creek but a decidedly different approach to how it goes about achieving its thrills. Whereas Willow Creek is a creeping terror, Exists is visceral, fast-paced, and action packed, mixing elements of the adventure genre into its horror story.
Sanchez started his career as the co-director of The Blair Witch Project along with Daniel Myrick, a film which it’s safe to say changed horror cinema forever with the advent of the found footage sub-genre. Whether you like The Blair Witch Project or not – I love it – you can’t deny its place in horror history as one of the most influential films of the genre. Since Blair, both Sanchez and Myrick (working separately now) have struggled to find that next film to put them back on the map. Beyond The Blair Witch Project, I quite like Myrick’s ambitious war horror film The Objective. And as for Sanchez, I think Exists is his most polished solo directorial effort. It’s nothing fancy but it’s effective and surprisingly fun. Sometimes I don’t think the found footage approach helps the film, but one sequence involving a camper trailer that’s tossed down a hill is very cool. The legendary monster is well done, too. It’s not as scary as Goldthwait’s Willow Creek Bigfoot, but Sanchez’s big hairy guy is still pretty cool, chasing people and breaking skulls in a fit of rage.
It’d make for the scariest Jack Link’s Messin’ with Sasquatch commercial ever.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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