Bleak but Decent Chillers
by Kristin Battestella
Though less than perfect, this recent movie trio provides bitter frights, unexplained angst, and heaps of despair to match the contemporary plagues, Victorian black widows, and Lovecraftian gore.
It Comes at Night – Gas masks, bodies in the wheel barrow, and backyard executions open this 2017 thriller as rough and bearded Joel Edgerton (Loving) does what he has to do for his wife and son. It's excellent to see an interracial family front and center – horror needs to stop being blonde babes all the time – but we know things won't bode well for the family dog! The lone lantern light and shadows traveling through the expansive but boarded up log cabin add a certain sadness to match the sans electricity, long dark hallways, plastic sheeting, and one red door to enter or exit. Pictures of good times line the walls – the days before this unexplained plague necessitated rifles, the defending of one's castle, and shoot first ask questions later mentalities. What do you do when another family of three is in need of food and shelter? Flashlights, outdoor sweeps, and night time blues aide the tense family protection amid gory dream scares, body horror, and tied up intruders. Interrogations provide talk of precious water, sickness in the city, going off the grid, and trading for supplies. Men can understand these desperate measures when seeing to their families, but can they trust each other? A family conference votes to welcome the new trio in their secure homestead, yet the skeptical, suspicious, on guard feelings remain thanks to the desolate roads, car crashes, and gunshots outside. There are rules to the home, too: they eat together, always travel in pairs, and never go out at night. The families bond over chores and even laugh when reminiscing about desserts or liquor, but barking, noises in the woods, and sleepwalking encounters keep everyone on edge. Testy accusations lead to separations and putting others at risk to save one's own family. No one here is a bad person, but such extreme situations make good people do terrible things. This claustrophobic parable remains tense and doesn't overstay its welcome – but it didn't need the extra horrors or double dream fake outs as the social examination scares and siege stress are enough. Although the unexplained elements continue the debate after the picture ends, it also seems like important staples go unclarified. Were they sick all along? Is there something supernatural at work or not? Some audiences may find the lack of answers a waste, but the subdued chills and bleak statements remain intriguing.
My Cousin Rachel – Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener), Holliday Grainger (The Borgias), Ian Glen (Game of Thrones), and Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown) begin this 2017 Daphne du Maurier mystery with happy strolls on the beach and fun bachelor times be it lovely greenery, carriages in the snow, or reading by the fire. The epistle narration gives a hear tell on the titular marriage via secret letters recounting illness and a wife forbidding correspondence before final, unfortunate news leaves the estates to heir Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games) on his next birthday – not the unseen widow said to be so strong and passionate. She's a suspicious enigma for the first twenty minutes before a cross cut conversation introduces the charismatic storyteller, where the audience isn't sure who is more uncomfortable or telling the truth despite the captivation. Divine mourning gowns, black satin, and lace veils add to the half-Italian allure amid more period accessories, libraries, old fashioned farming, candles, and top hats. Between would be scandalous horseback rides, church whispers, and awkward tea times, our once vengeful youth is smitten by Rachel's progressive charm. Interesting conversations on femininity break Victorian taboos, for childbirth is the only thing a man knows about a woman and if she has a foreign remedy she must be a witch. Is Rachel wrapping her wealthy cousin around her finger? Can she when he is forbidding her work giving Italian lessons? Rachel is dependent on his allowance, and at times they both seem to be recreating the late benefactor and husband between them – the awkward new master wearing the dead man's clothes and she the woman he didn’t think he needed. Such romance and heirloom Christmas gifts could be healing for them both, but viewers except the other gothic shoe to drop amid holiday generosity, seasonal feasts, and group songs. Overdrafts at the bank, raised allowances, a history of previous lovers and duels – Rachel puts on her finest grieving widow pity with a child lost and an unsigned will that would leave her everything. Is she orchestrating a careful seduction or is he a foolishly infatuated puppy despite clauses about remarriage or who predeceases whom? The ominous nib etching on the parchment leads to cliffside shocks, birthday saucy, blundered engagements, drunken visions, and poisonous plants. The suspicions turn with new illnesses and financial dependence, as Rachel goes out on the town and says what she does is nobody's business. After all, why can’t she have a life of her own if the estate is now hers? Why should her independence be defined by a man’s piece of paper? We relate to Rachel, but she can only cry wolf and fall back on her sob story so many times... While this isn't as creepy as it could be – audiences expecting horror will find the pace slow – the drama and mood are well done amid the wrong conclusions and written revelations. Were the suspicions warranted? The finale may not be satisfactory to some, but the unanswered questions and ultimate doubt remain fitting.
The Void – Orange fire light, blue police sirens, and yellow hospital patinas accent the screams, gunshots, and fiery executions in this 2016 gruesome – in spite of the opening credits interrupting the radio chatter, hooded figures, and bodies in the road. The cop with daddy issues, his ex the nurse – split over losing a baby, of course – the complaining intern, and the pregnant girl in the waiting room are also cliché, cranky, and too sardonic, which unevenly balances the scares and the snark. Loud music notes are unnecessary thanks to a unique enough setting with an increasingly bleak mood as a nurses stab patients in the eye or peel off their flesh. Fainting, vomiting, handcuffed patients, and state patrolmen create shrewd exposition as questions on what's happening or how many people and where they are set the scene as landlines go down and dispatch remains unresponsive. Cult figures surround the hospital, power's out, and there's blood everywhere. Who's in charge? Where can they go when a hospital should be the safest place to be? The tense is good, but the go for supplies attempt, runs to a car, creepy hospital basement, and cryptic phone calls that don't explain anything become typical. Jerks withhold information because they can, it takes far too long to ask the obvious questions, and the mute character is useless while cult leaders waste time talking vague on fetus swaps and life beyond death trades. Though the esoteric goes on a bit much with outer space, pyramid subtext, and triangle symbolism as it tries to be something deeper, the tropes tossed at the screen become more Aliens meets Silent Hill instead of truly fresh Lovecraft spins. It's easy to forget about several characters amid the confusing slasher and siege splices, and the repeatedly reiterated medical meets undead cult muddles the otherwise fine and entertaining blood, body horror, tentacle monstrosities and creepy crawlies transformations.