Ladies, Demons, and Blindfolds
by Kristin Battestella
This trio of recent chillers features outdoor scares and forest frights as well as bedroom turmoil and sight unseen terrors for these tough damsels in demonic distress. Whew!
Bird Box – Foreboding radio reports, risky rapids, blindfolds, and children not allowed to talk belie the lovely rivers and still forests of this 2018 Netflix thriller directed by Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) starring Sandra Bullock (Practical Magic), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), John Malkovich (Shadow of the Vampire), and B.D. Wong (Awake). Nothingness point of views from behind the blindfold accent the backpacks, lead lines, titular pets, riverside boats, and rowing toward the dangers unknown. If you look you will die, and mom means business as fog and water perils add to the lack of sight unease. Five years before, our mom-to-be is arguing with her sister and painting art full of disconnected, lonely people. These women have realistic conversations with layered dialogue and familial quips, but the relatable doubts about motherhood and everyday big decisions degrade into mass crowds, suicide reports, sudden hysteria, and panic as something seen by some but not others results in slow motion car accidents, road rage, and shocking deaths. Unlikely strangers fearing demons or religious judgment and arming themselves are thrust together amid busy signals, screaming cell phone calls, no media, and no military help. Is this some new biological warfare making people see something that kills themselves? Birds sense the danger and faint growling, but cameras are to no avail and our family on the river will only remove their blindfolds when huddled under blankets as the story goes back and forth between their journey with static on the radio and our previously housebound survivors concerned with rationing and the pregnant women among them. It's tough to think about baby names when electricity, supplies, and shotgun shells won't last. No one was prepared for the apocalypse to happen that day. Do they let others inside their abode or listen to voices on the riverbank saying it is okay to take off the blindfolds? Desperate runs to the nearby supermarket for essentials such as canned goods, toilet paper, diapers, booze, and electronics use GSP only with windows blacked out, tape over the cameras, and proximity sensors to warn when something comes near. The slow burn suspense allows time for these disparate strangers to forge late friendships amid fears they are all going to die and debates about living versus surviving in these topsy-turvy circumstances. Some briefly consider staying in the supermarket – leaving others behind while they maintain all they need despite the escalating violence outside. Whiskey talking admits how bleak the situation is while others hope things may get better. However, five years later our mother is still rowing toward the unknown possibility of safety as the family dangers on the boat increase. Of course, a few people do some foolish things, and there may have been other options than taking the most dangerous course of action. The supposedly helpful birds are useful or forgotten as needed alongside somewhat obvious metaphors about the people being who's actually box-bound and resorting to new, heightened senses. Understandably, the tension escalates when outside influences are let in – one by one people are lost as suspicious newcomers knock and hopeful possibilities end with appropriately blunt gunfire and shootouts. Training to survive without sight becomes paramount while terror in the home, outdoor separations, and family sacrifices test the temptation to look. Thanks to the courage and horror drama here with frights real and fantastic, there's no need for any spoon fed twist, toppers, scary movie cliches, or bombastic in your face. The multi-layered studies and suspense are well-interwoven, progressing naturally as the isolated settings allow the performances and storytelling to carry the must see intensity.
Pyewacket – Daughter Nicole Munoz (Defiance) invokes the eponymous evil to kill mom Laurie Holden (The Walking Dead) in this 2017 Canadian parable featuring creaking forests, goth rebels, and can't take it back terrors. Our widowed mother is doing her best to keep it together and wants a fresh start, but moving is the worst thing for a teen with awkward crushes and an inseparable BFF. Relatable conversations on support versus instability, transferring schools, driving, and bad influences endear both ladies to the audience – even her friends insist parents are just as screwed up as teenagers are. Likewise the music is in the background rather than overwhelming viewers, a realistic rather than Hollywood choice as the camera follows this goth gang through the school hallways. We're the fifth member of the group and caught in the middle from the backseat as the vengeful spell casting looms. Pizza, a relatively small cabin, mom needing a weekend job, and say hey, a Latina lead, yes please – it's as if writer and director Adam MacDonald (Backcountry) had a list of horror cliches and insists on how not to incorporate them. Although it's not expressly said to be Halloween, fallen leaves, pumpkins, cawing crows, and owl motifs accent the occult primer, sage, chants, binding rituals, and blood bowls. Despite the careful preparation and craft materials, there's an underlying sense of a not listening teen doing something she shouldn't – especially when mom apologizes and the gals bond over memories of the deceased. Her friends think this is all just acting out for attention, but soon enough indeed our daughter regrets the ritual. Unfortunately, a locked door can't keep out Pyewacket. Ominous knocks and creepy attic access escalate to vehicular frights, and innocuous shots – shadows about the house, rustling in the woods – become suspect while we wait for the subtly disturbing entity. Overhead slow spins and gradual zooms build unease as friends disappear before the camera shakes with unreliable delirium thanks to unfinished rituals, unexplained appearances, and darkness. Is this evil trickery mounting or is a scared teen roaming in the disorienting woods? Are forgiveness and reverse spells enough to put everything right when this festering horror was summoned in spite of be careful what you wish for warnings? Visions of the dead, distorted vocal inflections, rattling doorknobs, and pleas to be let in provide terror as this freaky manifestation is revealed. Some may not like the quick finale, but knives, gasoline, fiery mistakes, and a bitter comeuppance create a creepy atmosphere that does what it is says on the tin. Those skinny pants, however, are not going to look good in a few years.
For a Drinking Game Maybe?
Mara – Sleep paralysis statistics and fears of demonic possession open this 2018 thriller starring Olga Kurylenko (Centurion) amid children's bedroom terrors and behind closed door screams. Ticking clocks and blue lighting set off the creepy drawings, mental evaluations, and witnesses recounting their sleep demon experience – weighed down on the mattress and unable to breath. Unfortunately, there are too many of those Horror Movie Cliches I'm Tired of Seeing contrivances interfering with what should be an interesting story. Character sympathies and our strong woman psychologist in a tough policeman's world jar against the forced scary elements, making the titular ominous as laughable as the overly dramatic slow motion, arias, and ripped teddy bear on the floor. At times this wants to be a standard procedural using jump drives, CCTV, crime scene notes, and tablet technology, but then our gal goes off to a mysterious address without notifying police and listens to sleep deprived crackpot theories to learn about the sleep demon rather than just, you know, Googling it. The detective is right to remind her she's out of bounds, for this psychologist is easily bothered by what seems like a routine case. After hearing sufferers admit this sleep demon sounds like crazy talk, we're not surprised when the trapped sleep and stilted breathing happens to her – there's never any doubt this is a monster not delusion or delirium thanks to early reveals and unnecessarily spooky compromising any innate suspense. From a divorcing couple and their child to prayer freaks, disturbed veterans, and our psychologist with a crazy mom past, everyone who sees Mara has other issues yet nobody wonders what's really causing their sleepless nights. Hypnotic ceiling fans, fiery deaths, and gasping paralysis build scares, but bemusing bloodshot eye markings and demon mythology deflate the terror. Mara doesn't kill you right away, but comes in four assault stages that can't happen if you only sleep in twenty minute shifts. Predictable encounters and dream jump shocks tread tires while our agitated sleepless victims are more annoying than believable. With today's technology no one sets up a camera for proof? The notion to involve more science and sleep monitoring comes too late, and the doctors blame The X-Files and pop culture for scaring people anyway. Weak paranoia and guilt metaphors provide no payoff to the psychologist's suicidal schizophrenic mother backstory, but Olga's look becomes increasingly frazzled – physically changing her appearance rather than addressing her turmoil. Car accidents and fighting to stay awake chases in the finale could have been the entire strung out focus, but time is wasted on the demon doing both in your face screams and taking its sweet, creaking time to inch toward the victim. When we finally get to the desperate cutting off of the eye lids, it's just gore and a thin idea run out of steam. Although this could have been much better and seems content to be repetitive and Elm Street derivative, it can be a mildly entertaining late night watch or bemusing drinking game if you aren't looking for something really scary or expect any real sense of dread.