Lady Horrors and Thrillers
by Kristin Battestella
Moms, cops, daughters, or scientists – our latest round of contemporary horror ladies must battle family terrors, tigers on the loose, cult ghosts, and bad aliens. Oh, my!
Burning Bright – Suspicious animal sales and “Never touch the cage” warnings make for a shady Gulf Coast mood as a young woman is trapped in a boarded up house during a storm with her autistic little brother and a hungry tiger who has an evil streak and a taste for pretty things. The family argues over their overdosed mother's will, our step-dad is silencing everybody with his Benjamins, and there's a life insurance policy afoot, wink. Big sis does care – the smothering dream is unnecessary – but deferring her scholarship to raise her frustrating brother is not what she had in mind. Fortunately, blue shadows and the tiger silhouette on the wall accent the animal perspectives and predatory camera panning. Sinister growls, attack sounds, and banging on the door frights pepper the little dialogue in tense solo scenes while cat zooms, giant paws, and a bone crunching teeth create fear. He's a beautiful orange, electric predator, but it's downright terrifying when he looks up and you’ve caught his eye. How do you defend against a tiger roaming your household? Where can you go with an unaware autistic child that a tiger can’t? At times, obvious horror clichés and plot contrivances detract from the unique animal siege. Padding opening credits waste time on whirlwind effects when the hurricane a'comin news on the radio would suffice. The drinking step-dad and college bound daughter in her wet white tank top and tiny shorts also don’t look that far apart in age – or we're annoyingly accustom to seeing older leading men romancing ladies decades younger – and “No inmigración!” is the bare minimum diversity in a sea of white people. We know the internet is down without seeing outdated computers and under the bed is not the place to hide despite a tiger that is apparently unable to smell sweating humans. Baiting the tiger with hamburger laced with mom's old pills or spreading perfume to deflect scents are underutilized while the kid is left roaming alone. Nobody searches for tools or household weapons, a late revolver with precious few bullets does diddly, and hello flammable alcohol and you know, fire. We can't really see any way out of this, and viewers shout at the TV recoil despite apparent composite trickery and forgivable CGI tweaks for the intimate tiger scenes. Mirrors and glass doors add to the tiger leaps and desperate chases, but our still child not reacting keeps himself off the tiger’s radar. One older autistic protagonist using a hidden wit to survive might have been intriguing, as the heroine's family doubts feel hollow. They nor the tiger get realistically beat up in the battle, there's hardly any blood or gore, and lengthy end credits skimp more time off the so-called eighty-six minute duration. Our desperate dad could have been more sadistic with a generator and surveillance cameras to watch the pussyfoot – seeing him damage the tiger cage or rehearse his animal alibi might have clarified some of the thin veneer. This isn't trying to be deep, but it could have something more, perhaps with a trio of soul searching adults drawing straws or aligning to sacrifice one, and opening evil talk or any potential paranormal autistic connection between boy and beast remains unexplored. Thankfully, the well filmed trapped animal intensity carries the weaker moments, and the twists don't overstay the welcome. That tiger however certainly has enough personality to be a franchise star – a ne'er do well tomcat roaming the coast in search of supple ladies. I can dig it.
Last Shift – A phone call gets the viewer up to speed for this 2015 rookie lady cop on the night shift. Dad was killed in the line of duty and mom's worried her baby's alone in her closing precinct, but the incoming calls are rerouted to the new station a block away and cleaners are coming to discard leftover hazardous material. What could possibly go wrong? The rules and uniforms add formality but there's also hardened language and attitude resisting the ticking clock and boring desk – not to mention icky food, gross bathrooms, creaking pipes, a nasty vagrant, and a prostitute with tales of a Manson-style cult family hung in this very lock up. Buzzing lights, strange voices, banging doors, and mysterious calls disrupt the quiet while blackout scenes force the viewer to pay attention to how many people may or may not be present amid radio static, sirens, and fallen flashlights. The camera moves with officer Juliana Harkavy (Arrow), letting the unexpected simmer build with long hallway tracking and slow zooms. Internal televisions and cameras likewise create spooky eye witnesses and ghostly interrogations. References to pigs the animal, the nasty female nickname, and cop slang pepper unhelpful conversations with male colleagues on the other end of the line. Our new gal is alone, but equipped and capable despite eerie spins on night sticks, tasers, and handcuffs – the usual occupational hazards. She's scared but calm, reciting police codes to combat phantom sing songs when most of us would get the heck out of there. Is this a haunting, imagined hysteria, an occult set up, or a rookie prank? Every person is suspect amid men versus women toughness, flirtatious fellow officers, and layered female roles – good girl daughter, mother, whores, victims, and willing cult women. Ties to a previous police raid and anniversary clues help us piece together what is fact or paranormal, yet meta within meta supernatural redials keep one and all questioning what is really happening, including an apparent acknowledgment that suspicious activity may be the reason for the station house move. Gruesome photos, gunshots, bodies, and choice horror visuals don't over rely on fake boo jumps, allowing the poltergeists, hangings, and shootouts to escalate the entire ninety minutes as the confined location becomes a disturbing house of horrors with twisted revenge and room for post-viewing discussion. Of course, the spinning chairs are a bit silly and the haunting versus prank or dozing unreliability herrings are obvious, however the well filmed suspense avoids mainstream horror cliches and found footage gimmicks by using very little for a fine sense of unease and edge of your seat atmosphere.
Orphan – Grieving couple Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) and Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan) adopt the precocious Isabelle Fuhrman (The Hunger Games) in this 2009 thriller with bloody pregnancy gone wrong dreams, snowy landscapes, a frozen lake, isolated woods, tree house perils, and mod cabin architecture. These yuppies eat off square plates, but nun C.C.H. Pounder (The Shield) is stereotypically reduced with the same old black person in horror sage and sacrifice treatment. Other trite genre elements such as evil foreigners, the internet research montage, useless police, and false jumps complete with the cliché medicine cabinet mirror ruse are lame and unnecessary – as are the dated Guitar Hero moments and a jealous son with a porn magazine stash like it is 1999. The twisted horror suspense builds just fine with realistic threats and mature family drama amid the escalating child shocks. The Sign Language and silent subtitles create a sense of calm and innocence for the youngest deaf daughter, contrasting her mother's drinking temptations as the old fashioned dressing Esther says everything their parents want to hear. She wants to sleep next to her new daddy, and the couple is intimately interrupted with who's watching photography and peering perspectives – not to mention that is some luxury playground equipment with crazy bone-cracking injuries! There's Russian roulette, razor blades, vice grips, vehicular close calls, and fiery accidents. The adoption history doesn't add up and the children are clearly terrified by their titular sister, but of course dad doesn't believe his wife's theory that Esther is at fault. Do you confront your new daughter or take her to a therapist? At times, the adults act stupid just to put the kids in peril, and these two hours feel a little long – how many disasters are going to happen before someone gets a clue? This isn't as psychological as it could be, dropping its uniqueness for a standard house siege and apparently leaving more pushing the envelope elements on the page to play it safe. However, the female familial roles are an interesting study with surprises and an unexpected reveal. Choice gunshots and broken glass accent the silence and maze interiors, using the home, weapons, and weather for full effect. Though partly typical and not scary, the dramatic interplay, thriller tension, and wild performances give the audience a yell at television good time.
Don't Waste Your Time!
Moontrap: Target Earth – This 2017 unrelated science fiction sequel to the 1989 Moontrap doesn't have its own Wikipedia page – the first indication of its college film project quality before a terrible opening dream sequence, embarrassing special effects, and shitty intergalactic props. Poor acting, dumb pillow talk, and obnoxious phone calls make it tough to hang on in the first five minutes. People keep talking about presenting alien relics newly discovered in Navajo country, but what could be interesting SF ends up late on its pseudo science capitalizing with bad dialogue actually quoting Ancient Aliens, Chariots of the Gods, and “Fake News.” The attempted science is ridiculously unrealistic with no archaeology teams, digging equipment, or research documentation yet killer shadow government agents know all the details thanks to easily read love letter hieroglyphics that keep promising “But wait, there's more!” hyperbole combining Stargate and Prometheus. Nineties music video visions allow our lady scientist aptly nicknamed “Scout” to magically contrive answers – she's not strong or intelligent, just bossy with an obnoxious attitude joking that this was so easy Ray Charles could translate it without needing a Rosetta Stone. The messy plot and fast moving editing are ridiculously presumptuous with its science on top of some sort of esoteric statements, and the bottom of the barrel performances and fly by night production look like a soft core movie without the actual porn – but there's nudity of course. This is the absolutely wrong way to make a shoestring picture; proof that not everything with crowd source funding is going to be good or even watchable. After skipping ahead, I ultimately quit before she even got to the damn moon.