Pandemic Horror Pros and Cons
by Kristin Battestella
Being at home during the Coronavirus outbreak has led to new viewing opportunities and plenty of time to watch them. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that these recent famous monsters, demon films, supernatural tales, and ghostly terrors are going to be all quality.
These were Good...
Frankenstein – Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) alternate as the Doctor and His Monster for director Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave) in these two, two hour performances presented by National Theatre Live. Tolling bells, heartbeats, billowing backdrops, red lighting, and shadows invoke membranes and tissue for the monstrous birth while circular staging, mechanical floor changes, and electricity crackle with smoke and sound effects. Sweeping camerawork and overhead views add a surreal, looking down on high symbolism as locomotives, goggles, and top hats create an industrial, steampunk mood. Well done scarring, stitching, and bald, pasty looks match the pulsing nerves and body contortions which, though melodramatic for the back row to some, are realistic discoveries. This performance requires a certain agility and flexibility – Cumberbatch shows range in the ugly, yet his portrayal is more childlike or simpleton compared to Miller's guttural cries and visceral physicality. Our Creature begins helpless, unable to control his limbs amid confusion, laughter, and pain. With no dialogue in the first ten minutes, the audience is expected to be familiar with the story, leaving the doctor's abandonment, sing song rowdy, and horrified crowds to speak for themselves alongside young innocence and an emotional score. Some viewers may find the interpretive almost performance art bemusing at first, however the beatings on the street lead to a humble homestead and a blind man unafraid of kindness, and the drama gets better as it goes on with lessons on God, sin, tenderness, and paradise. Men are hungry, thirsty for food and knowledge – asking big questions on existence, friendship, and philosophy while conflict and tragedy mount. Dreams of a female creature come to life are an unexpected but welcome ballet before fire, screams, fear, and revenge. Fiancee Naomi Harris (Skyfall) is sublime in modern regency looks, but her grace and compassion aren't what Victor wants thanks to fatal lakeside encounters and vengeful confrontations. He despises his Creation but is proud of him because The Monster proves Victor could, and superb intellectual debates on who's the hardened murderer or justified and wronged lonely are really about conquering death rather than scientific experimentation. Reasoning like men falls prey to grave robbing and aggression, and though appalled at a second, surely wicked creation, Victor delights in the female challenge. Cumberbatch is more in his element reveling in the mad science as nightmares and ghosts create a sounding board in lieu of showing laboratory wonders. This perfect woman, however, needs a man not a monster, and the conflict doesn't shy away from the marital bed. Our impotent, stitching perfection together doctor won't procreate with his wife, but the females here are objects of desire solely for the violence of men, never appreciated for their goodness and unnecessarily assaulted as father doctor and creation son each learn to lie and best each other for their own gain. Although unnecessary extras and a slow, uneven start may feel off putting or overlong to some, the action and dramatic pace increase in the second half. I personally preferred the Miller as the Creature version, but thanks to National Theatre At Home Options, this dual told story remains entertaining with some great one on one segments for an interactive classroom reading and viewing comparison.
The Heretics – Kidnappings, ritual symbols, altars, torches, and cults lead to freaky masks, chanting, demons, and sacrifices in this 2017 Canadian indie. The nightmares continue five years later despite group therapy, volunteer work, and an overprotective mother who won't let her daughter walk home alone. Assaulted and abused women are meek and apologetic, comforted by time heals all wounds hopeful, but others don't want to be touched, refusing to be victims and tired of lies that don't make it better. Would they go back and change their experience or seek revenge? Our female couple supports each other with realistic conversations and maturity – not horror's typical angry lez be friends titillation solely for the viewer gaze. Unfortunately, creepy campers, chains, and a scarred abductor ruin necklaces and birthday plans, leading to skull entrance markers, an isolated cabin, and flashbacks of the original attack with hooded dead, white robes, and flowery dresses marred in blood. Sunrise deadlines, whispers of angels, fitting Gloria names, and religious subtext balance faith, doubts, God, biblical aversions, and horns. What's a delusion and who's delusional? Who's right or wrong about what they believe? The multi-layered us versus them, who's really involved in what sinister, and what is truth or lies aren't clear amid threats, stabbings, whips, and history repeating itself. Men versus women innuendo and who needs saving attempts add to the less than forthcoming police, lack of answers, and obsessive searches. Who is trying to protect whom? Violence begets violence thanks to fanatical beliefs in the ritual and long awaited ceremonies. This demon is deceptive, growing stronger and more tantalizing despite a gross, uncomfortable sex scene. Occasionally the boo monster in your face jumps are forced, but the fine body horror, creaking wings breaking out the back, squishing sounds, and black sinews make up the differences. Fevers, convulsions, hairy clumps, and visions increase along with the realizations of what is happening before candles, pentagrams, burns, and one more final sacrifice. Viewers know where it all has to go, yet this remains entertaining getting there via escalating horror invasive, ritual complications, and one ready and waiting demon.
But Jinkies These were Stinky
Annabelle Comes Home – A middle of nowhere cemetery, foggy crossroads, engine trouble, and ghosts in the backseat open this 2019 entry in The Conjuring universe with creepy atmosphere and familiar faces as Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) bless and encase the titular doll in their demonic collection. Despite warnings on possession, crosses, and phantoms knocking at the door, the nowhere left to go timeline is backed into a confusing corner – we're after the prologue but before the main events of the First Film in an unseen in between home alone with The Warrens' daughter and her babysitter. Newspaper articles about The Warrens allow for mean jokes, bullies, and nasty neighbors, however it's tough to feel anything ominous when pesky folks deliberately go into the spooky vault and get what they deserve. Sixties music cues, record players, and period patterns are just window dressing as the teen sitter and her sassy BFF look too young and modern, and our charge also seems too old to be so childish. Thanks to contrived psychic encounters, terrible serenades, convenience, and more boy trouble, they all make stupid decisions just because the plot says so. Messing with the cursed items is merely an excuse for a variety of evil games, pointless evil wolf apparitions, and pianos playing by themselves. The random ghosts unnoticed in the background as if they are always among us are chilling and the rocking chair creaking by itself accents evil brides and decent individual scare vignettes. Unfortunately, the deflated Halloween horror feels tacked on in a bad coming of age movie sleepover complete with the cliché inhaler, and we never care about the people because viewers know nothing of consequence is going to happen to upset the canon. It turns out exploring The Warrens house while they are away for most of the film is derivative and boring, and this is more like a Conjuring for kids who shouldn't be watching the R rated flagship films. I zoned out after the first hour, only to be alerted by all the obnoxious phones ringing and incessant door bells – for the most frightening thing here is trite jump scare noise.
Demonic – Maria Bello (The Dark) and Frank Grillo (The Gates) lead this 2015 ghost hunters picture within a picture from producer James Wan (Insidious). Though brief, the opening credits are typical news reports and hyperbolic headlines of satanic rituals and brutal murders. Cell phone calls fill in exposition on the crime house, the sheriff's interrupted love life, and country town first name basis. Creepy dolls, fresh blood, and new bodies are at the scene of the original crime, but then we go back to the sunny one week earlier as our paranormal, passive aggressive yuppies have ominous chats about visions, dead mothers, and pregnancy giveaways in a weak connection to the past horrors. Via interrogations and corrupted cameras, the current investigation and the precipitating paranormal house attack unfold side by side. We just saw these people's dead bodies in the house, so it's not so much confusing as it is pointless and irritating to go back and forth. Viewers aren't seeing anything in the proper time solely to delay and distort the narrative with amateur intercuts and handy cams. For seemingly sophisticated equipment, all the innate herky jerky is cheap with off camera screams and attacks unseen not because that's scary, but because it was easier not to show what matters. We don't get to follow the police discovery trying to piece together the footage from their view because we're being subjected to in your face found footage fake outs that toy with what's in camera and out of the point of view. People are missing but apparently finding them isn't as important as perusing the lame footage complete with driving to the horror, useless store stops, trite introductions, and exposition not conversations. The present adults and whiny coeds going where they shouldn't are terribly disjointed, padding the two movies in one feeling with interrogation voiceovers such as “Let me get this straight....” Critical information is deliberately withheld until contrived car chases, convenient confrontations, easily deduced laptop clues, and occult research reiterate the absolutely not surprising possessions. Cliché ghosts, black ooze, and hackneyed open mouth roars can't disguise the jumbled mess, and it all insults the wise horror viewer – treating us as if we're as stupid as the people in the movie.
Malevolent – Scamming medium Florence Pugh (The Falling) sees real ghosts in this 2018 British/Netflix original set in 1986 as indicated with old televisions, large equipment, tape decks, and microfilm. The neon discotheques, however, are unnecessary, and the trench coats, high ponytails, and stacked bangles look more like costumes than clothes. If one misses the onscreen date, you might not even notice this is meant to be a period piece especially thanks to modern dialogue and today's terribly young looking twenty-somethings who don't seem old enough to drive much less orchestrate eighties supernatural con jobs. Grandpa James Cosmo (Game of Thrones) provides classy poise, but he's embarrassingly only used in one scene loaded with family history before spooky phone calls and bizarre self help tape voiceovers. Maybe the smoking, drug references, and warped positivity are meant to be character layers – we can understand the stress her big brother has in taking on all the family responsibilities – but his shady dealings make him a real jerk and he bullies his sister and girlfriend into the haunt hoax before blaming them for thinking the scheme's gone too far when he's at fault. Schoolgirls were murdered at the eerie manor in their latest investigation, but the maze like rooms and falling through the floor injuries feel hollow because our jerk demands they continue the faux exorcising despite the risks so he can get paid. Nosebleeds to indicate when one really has a ghostly encounter become trite when they happen every time. Once is enough, but the audience is beat over the head with this minute detail rather than seeing more about the old lady who calls their showmanship bluff. There's no sense of scale or consequences when something we already know is revealed to a character just to move the plot elsewhere. Viewers are over the footage within footage camerawork, as if we don't look at devices enough and need any type of screen to look through rather than just see for ourselves. Sideways video from a dropped camera, creepy dolls, and sing song music are getting old, too when following a silent ghost is all we need. It's tough to appreciate sinister villains cutting people's tongues out when we don't care about the victim by time we get to the haunted house meets contemporary chop shop torture in the final act. Whether it's by human or supernatural means, there's never any doubt where the cliches are going.