Two Contemporary Chillers versus Two Cold Ducks
by Kristin Battestella
While some of these recent releases can leave audiences cold, other contemporary pieces provide just the right amount of seafaring suspense and psychological chills.
The Reef – Sunrises and sunsets, stunning blue water panoramas, and lovely reef life create coastal bliss for this 2010 Australian fright loosely based on a true story. Shark teeth foreshadowing, statistics about the likelihood of shark attacks, and an inexperienced crewman aboard invoke the ominous to come alongside natural water fears, racing to beat the tide, trouble raising the anchor, and leaky rafts. Capsizing thuds, flooding, and underwater hectic don't need any herky jerky action cam as the innate water movement makes the audience feel like we are there amid the missing keel, sinking hull, no supplies, and outdated distress beacon. It's frightening when viewers can just make out the shark silhouette beneath the surface for themselves, but headless turtle shocks and false suspense moments go for cheap thrills. Instead of keeping us on edge with every chop in the water, over the top music tells the audience when something bad is happening. Unlikable characters inspire little conflict amid a lot of childhood friends and lookalike blonde cliches – they are completely unprepared for any aquatic disaster and there's no sense of ocean vast, the slow passage of time on the water, sunstroke, or thirst. These helpless followers holidaying on this deliver the yacht job are also over reliant on their macho, supposedly world water traveling leader who messes up tide times, can't find north, and thinks they can maybe swim to an island perhaps twelve miles away. Wishy washy, don't know they are in a horror movie stupidity compounds the uneven pacing as the strong girl suddenly in tears stays behind while others risk this uncertain swim before she changes her mind thirty seconds later so they wait in the possibly shark infested seas. The women rightfully call out the guy who orchestrated the trip under false pretenses before apologizing that its not his fault but yes it is. Weak men say they are tired and laugh over sex stories, breaking the swimming scenes to stop and stand on reef rocks rather than shape any kind of epic endurance risk. Fortunately, seeing the nonchalant great white cruising past the hysterical people as they flounder and panic both justifies the yell at the television aspects and makes the viewer recoil. Mirage visions of land and thought they saw something paranoia frays the group as one by one they must leave the dead behind in the ocean. The fatal attacks are well done, and eventually – disturbingly – those remaining can see land but can't get to it. Despite loose characterizations and an uneven narrative in need of taut focus – again all the negatives in low budget horror appear due to one writer/director wearing too many hats – overall this is well filmed with several quality sequences featuring fine scenery and practical shark work perfect for a late night scarefest.
Split – Suspicious rear view mirrors and distorted camera angles turn pity party invites into parking lot abductions for this 2016 multi personality thriller from director M. Night Shyamalan starring James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch). Subtle dolly zooms and sideways panning emphasize the bolted doors, dark basement, and huddled girls amid their captor's sinister calculations and ominous childhood flashbacks. Can three girls defend themselves against one violent man? Two gang up on the third, pressuring her to take action as scary switches from one personality to the next are subtle and well done amid local CBS Philly news reports, King of Prussia Mall insults, and distinct city skylines. However it's a mistake to cut away from the dungeon suspense so soon – especially for a foolish psychologist falling for the abductor personality's pretending to be his calm fashion designer persona. Product placement Skype conferences debate multiple personality disorders as a trauma in need versus a new brain chemistry gift, interfering with the tense internal layers we're already seeing. Rather than the Hooters eating Security Guard M. Night's exposition, the reveal should be with the audience as the girls peer through the keyhole and hear both male and female voices. Styling, accent changes, and stuttering show the killer versus child personalities, and the captives speculate on what is crazy or ruse though details from each persona. Location hints, hidden ducts, and underground tunnels lead to possible escapes as the victims are separated thanks to foolhardy attacks and mean girls still being selfish – expanding the cat and mouse between the abductees and a captor who is a prisoner himself. Once the warped situation is established, then the audience can appreciate when he departs for a psychologist session stroking the current dominant, gloating personality's vanity. He deflects on the history of abuse and the cause for this latest psychotic break, resenting his weak host as the kinder personalities blur our sympathies. The female personality of our male abductor, disturbingly enough, may be the most unstable, yet these rogue personas insist another “Beast” alter is coming. One persona needs glasses, another is diabetic – can multiple personalities create mind over matter physiological traits? Videos of all the personalities become an inner monologue paralleling the eerie train station wait for this new evil to manifest its super human abilities and sub human behaviors. Past and present revelations double the uncomfortably frightening suggestion that purity breaking pain awakens the strength and instinct needed to achieve greatness, and certain disturbing subject matter will be tough for some audiences. Though mostly realistic horror and psychological drama, there's a reason things progress into the fantastic with an overlong, somewhat flat ending. Such surprise Shyamalan connections both need viewers to go in cold and appreciate the payoff being held back for sequel winks, perhaps leaving this with reduced repeat value unless you marathon it with Unbreakable. Fortunately, the nuanced performances and no twist just twisted horror meets fantastic does make for some entertaining psychoanalysis.
Two to Skip
A Cure for Wellness – A corner office climber must retrieve his unstable boss from a spa in Switzerland so the company crimes can be pinned on him in this overlong two and a half hour 2017 twister starring Jason Isaacs (Awake) and Harry Groener (Buffy). The bitter work obsessed opening, haunting skyscrapers, and ominous hand written letter describing the darkness of superiority and sickness of men with wealthy people and their wealthy problems are ruined early by tiring product placement and laughable horror clichés. Our unlikable lead is also a wannabe edgy, Shutter Island DiCaprio interfering with the on location castles, mountain vistas, and ruthless baron history complete with blasphemy, incest, and townsfolk with torches. Distorted angles, askew pans, assorted reflections, and upside down inside out views add to the unnatural greenery of this apparent oasis in the middle of a dark cloud. White robes, bright rooms, aqua aerobics, and happy rich people throwing their money at the latest health fad contrast the dark tunnels, taxidermy, and well filmed car accidents despite momentarily confusing flashes amid the forward moving violence. Incidental old folks nudity at the spa increases the discomfort of the eerie steam, maze like hallways, and hazy series of doors, creating ambiguous atmosphere that may be surreal mind, warped structure, or Hotel California influence. Creepy girls by the fountain, bathhouse altars, and whispers of special case patients build to specimens in jars, skin graphs, and creepy urine samples. Body shocks, elevators, dehydrated corpses, and hydraulic assembly lines stir viewer suspense while shadows of what else may be in the tank loom and the smiling staff enjoy a little suspect saucy. Exam chairs, buzzing dental drills, vintage file folders, period lockets, relics of the baron's obsession to cure his sickly family – there are a lot of cool spooky things happening here. Unfortunately, unnecessary flashbacks, Robocop dolls, ridiculous animal gore, and the repeated insistence that something's in the water like it's all just a bad joke take the audience out of the dark atmosphere. Giant eels in the toilet frights are lost in scenes that serve no purpose, and the so-called mystery being given away all along contributes to the increasingly downhill lag. German speakers having cryptic conversations – in English for the underestimated, uninvested viewer's benefit – break the protagonist's point of view as more tunnels, hidden chambers, and early medical equipment expedite the watching fatigue well before the two hour mark or the coincidental timing in the final act. Public declarations, shoving the breakables off the desk, research montage reveals, menstruation and red lipstick a la Little Red Riding Hood, shovels to the face, fiery knockouts, nonsensical villain tell alls, and a Phantom of the Opera-esque lair borrow much too much before yet more tacked on candle light cults and child bride nasty. I hung on for this? o_O
Red Lights – This 2012 tale stars Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), Sigourney Weaver (Aliens), Robert De Niro (Goodfellas), Toby Jones (Berberian Sound Studio), Joely Richardson (Lady Chatterley), and Elizabeth Olsen (I Saw the Light). However, the drive to the horrors, rattling séance, family in fear screams, and early jump shocks are just a lengthy opening before longer credits, jet setting introductions, and debunking seminar restarts. These physicists don't think all paranormal cases are frauds, but they haven't witnessed any miraculous proof against logical controls. Cute coeds, slight of hand platitudes, Occam's Razor – each scene repeats who they are and what they do without saying what university they represent or why authorities call them to expose these supernatural frauds. Editing creates suspense rather than letting the viewer catch the hidden earpiece or audience plant as news reports recount the fire and brimstone psychic selling comeback tour tickets and newspaper clippings on the laptop become the research montage. Weaver's doctor is brash, admonishing a telepathy card test due to the reflections in a doctor's glasses, but we never see her confront a real psychic challenge. The talk show debate better explains the parapsychology fails, seminar versus performance, and religion versus science while the behind the scenes meta television filming makes nicer statements than the shaky cams or booming music. Weaver and De Niro's rivals have personal history – he used the limbo of her vegetative son, adding doubt and emotional pain to her debunking crusade against his dramatic on stage healings. Unfortunately, this intriguing one on one of facts against faith and catching those who think they can get away with it is not the point of this picture, and the focus veers to Murphy's amateur exposé attempts and angry manpain complete with bizarre visions, unexplained electrical explosions, and characters who even say conversations with him are a waste of time. Although academic trials trying to set controls while testing paranormal phenomena, university video reels showing the experiments, and no scientific explanation for the bending spoons provide study for the viewer, there's no chill up the spine scary or awe inspiring wonder at the unexplained because the story completely changes what it started out as. Obnoxious final speeches waxing on man versus monsters, lines of salt, magnetism, and levitation are all over the place. Any commentary on the media, spectator sales, and money made off people who want to believe is lost thanks to the in the in your face protagonist, uneven plot focus, and the movie's failure to heed its own advice with falling flat deflections. If the simplest answer is the correct one, then why does it take an hour and a half to ask why the blind guy wears a watch?