Giving Themselves Away Horror
by Kristin Battestella
What's one to do with recent horror releases that go beyond foreshadowing or mere suggestion and flat out give away their secrets too early in the picture? Read on for several such predictable, conflicted conundrums. What could have made these movies better? Had they not shoehorned in the obvious horror at the expense of fine drama and performances. Spoiler Alert!
Delirium – Distorted home movie flashbacks, daddy issues, family suicides, and therapy sessions open this mental illness or haunted mansion 2018 Blumhouse Production starring newly released Topher Grace (That '70s Show) and parole officer Patricia Clarkson (Six Feet Under). Suggestions about not putting a dad who was eaten by his dog on a pedestal and jailbird brother history are dismissed in favor of heavy breathing phone calls, ridiculously on the nose “Prisoner of Love” music, and distracting product placements. Though meant to add nostalgia, a try hard box of mementos including cassettes, Kathy Ireland posters, an old computer, CDs for the boom box, and Gin Blossoms t-shirts doesn't develop the time warp characterization so much as it makes this film feel two decades too late as our dude bro skateboards through his mansion while under house arrest. The babe delivering groceries is conveniently retro cool and awkward conversations are awkward, so he sketches her and she gives him a mixed CD. (Yuppies today thinking that is so edgy can't comprehend the struggle that was making mixed cassettes!) Ripped wallpaper with 1994 writing underneath, creaking walls, and rattling furniture make for a very slow build before hidden doors, secret passages, and peepholes. Footsteps when one is supposed to be alone, tongues in a jar, saucy cameras, and videos of women chained in iron masks seem like we're getting somewhere, but the zorp crescendos, loud effects, talking out loud, and scares over the shoulder are for viewers not the protagonist experiencing the chills. The eyes ripped out of his stuffed animal would be suspicious if said eyes didn't laughably end up stuck on dad's ominous portrait amid tiring pool scares and crazed versus supernatural old hat obvious. Telling someone about the family crimes becomes the new research montage complete with more unnecessary the victim worked at Wendy's name dropping as convenient pharmacy connections, substitute medicines, relatives who may or may not really be there, and people said to be dead blur together. Fainting and time distortions don't forgive in plain sight clues that were previously ignored once they are thrown at the screen alongside more nonsensical red herrings. This should have been a straight family drama – a taut, isolated investigation rather than contrived horror and audience guessing games without mystery or scares. The mansion is never fully explored right from the start, and it's frustrating when the viewer sees everything here coming. I correctly called at the twenty-two minute mark what's revealed in the last twelve minutes before fist fights, gun shots, and pool waterworks that get all the money in the safe wet. Oh well. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The Invisible Man – Writer Leigh Whannell (Insidious) directs this 2020 Blumhouse and Universal Australian co-production starring Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid's Tale). In this contemporary H.G. Wells spin, the picturesque mod home is eerie and isolated with sophisticated security, tip toeing fear, hidden preparations, and desperate escapes. Even after her optics entrepreneur boyfriend is found dead, Cecilia is afraid to go to the mailbox and jumps at every doorbell. Eventually she begins to come out of her shell to friends, but innocuous camera pans in the unattended kitchen, creaking floorboards, flickering lights, and construction tarps suggest something sinister. Big baggy clothes and body discomfort are better than the usual titillation, yet there are still shower scares and wrapped in a towel moments. Despite sheets, coffee grounds, paint splatter revelations, photos, and attic evidence, Cecilia holds on to his phone to call a ride share, going all the way back to the compound she escaped without stopping to pick up some spray paint or downloading an infrared app. While the technical plausible rather a serum of old is fine, the boom boom crescendo zorp music and shock and awe overkill are too much when it's not as if the invisible optics were unexpected. Cecilia insists he is not dead just invisible, but such accusations only make her seem crazy and no one believes her once CCTV is used against her when convenient for the horrors. Though a fine performance from Moss provides broken desperation, mentioning the word “architect” at a job interview and having everyone turn on her is not character development. Making a woman go through real terror only for it to escalate into science fiction horror also feels too cruel. If he orchestrated her pregnancy behind her back, why does he fling her across the room and drag her across the floor like any other whooshing horror entity? How does an institution not have cameras to capture this? By the ninety minute mark, the contrivances become too ridiculous, and it's tough to maintain interest when we need to act like modern technological help and logic don't exist. Where are all the security cameras that can definitively prove the violence is not her doing? Fire extinguishers likewise should have been used much sooner. Invisible boo shocks are weak next to threats to kill family and friends, for this is not a scary hi-tech monster but a monster person who can't be escaped unless she too commits a deadly crime. Just because abusive men are horrible, this didn't have to be a horror movie. Although this feels like a separate script that tacked on invisible elements, in the end this becomes one overlong origin for an Invisible Woman in a Universal Dark Monsterverse. If someone asks how she got the suit, she can say she took it from an abusive jerk. Were we not supposed to see that coming when she found the second suit?
We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Boarded windows, cluttered antiques, dilapidated splendor, and black cats open this 2018 Shirley Jackson adaptation from director Stacie Passon (Little Birds) starring Taissa Farmiga (The Nun), Alexandra Daddario (We Summon the Darkness), and Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Greenery and quaint outside the window lead to “Last Tuesday” title cards, record players, colorful wallpaper, mid century flair, vintage homemaker style, deadly herbs expertise, arsenic in the sugar bowl, and newspaper headlines of dead parents and orphaned daughters. Younger sister Merricat is afraid to go for groceries in town because the villagers hate them – and gossip about the elder Constance being acquitted of the family murders. Merricat reads spell books and buries tokens, but her charms don't actually protect them and her narration dumps a lot of backstory early when the visual cues, quirky behavior, and family bizarre are enough to digest. Brief scenes of household calm, cleaning, dinner, and sisterly devotion lead to odd snow globes, skeleton keys, candles, and whispers of poisoned mushrooms. Lady friends of their late mother in pearls, gloves, and pillbox hats visit for tea, trying to get Constance out again, but when their cousin arrives, Constance becomes infatuated with him. Charles looks like their father, stays in his room, sits at the head of the table, and suggests Merricat should be punished for trying to drive him away. Despite her bratty spying and behaving much younger than her supposed eighteen, the narration intrudes upon scenes outside of her point of view as tensions escalate. Constance defends Merricat, but eventually she admits how her sister makes everything worse. Merricat resents their opportunistic, fortune hunting cousin taking her place because she is in love with her sister and wants everything to her advantage. Deluded visions of their dead parents saying she should never be punished excuse fiery actions as firefighters debate about saving the manor and the looting townsfolk chant to let it burn. This is not as spooky or weird as it could be thanks to the unreliable narrator obviousness given away at the beginning. Who's responsible is no surprise, and fatal revelations about who did what are dismissed in favor of blaming the cruel neighbors when their hatred is just a consequence of the sisters' freaky behaviors. When they bring goods to the door and apologize, any attempt at healing is ignored. Despite implications their father was abusive, Merricat told on her sister's boyfriend so their father would get rid of him – keeping her sister in a destructive environment just because she was jealous and wants to be with her sister forever. Not unlike an abuser herself, Merricat's glad when people call her a witch, has convinced herself she is one, insists she has done no wrong, lets her sister be admonished if it means she gets to keep her caged in their ruined home, and only smiles when she achieves her goals through poison, death, and fire. Why do so many movies start with an ending scene and then go back to tell how it got that way? It really ruins the character study here rather than deepening the demented angst.
Didn't Finish It
Nightflyers – Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire), Eoin Mackin (Merlin), and Miranda Raison (MI-5) lead this 2018 SyFy ten episode series based upon the George R.R. Martin story as alarms, red lights, weightless debris, radio warnings, and a grizzly shipmate with an ax lead to airlocks, medical saws, and bloody splatter. After the opening horror, we go back to the beginning of the mission with crew introductions, confusing for the cool technical slang, little world building, and exposition that doesn't tell the viewer very much. Pretty ship views, celestial visuals, and outer space special effects meant to be awe inspiring don't work once we've started with dark, congested ominous and realistic, tunnel-like submarine interiors. Horror and science fiction perils are not the same thing, and droning, distracting, pulsing music doesn't invoke either one. Dangerous telepaths are needed to save earth by attempting communication with a mysterious alien artifact, but psychic feedback, bloody noses, a supernatural saboteur, and communication problems leave others in fear questioning whether they are doing the right thing. Suggestions to turn back are dismissed, but this mission is off to a terrible start with too much contrived suspense and conflict. The audience has no time to make sense of everything thrown at the screen amid lame shocks like pumping hearts, people set on fire, and chopped heads. Basic sci-fi telepaths, gene therapy, and jacking into the system plots are derivative amid stereotypical Black characterizations and cliché family angst complete with a little girl in a red raincoat and falling flat menace. The pace changes as much as the distrust, altered mission objectives, and personal motivations. Everybody has their secrets – one minute they doubt one person then defend them the next, no one shares all they know, and information is deliberately withheld from the viewer. Life on earth is at stake and alien contact is in sight yet nobody's on the same page despite in world telepathic revelations and memory machines that bend to suit the moment. Laughable guards constantly screw up, acerbating every situation while the captain refuses to share the details on the ship's malfunctions. Are we not supposed to know his angry mother is the literal ghost in the machine? Obvious contrivances leave episodes ending on down notes, and this should have been another movie adaption or a three hour event. it's easy to skip around after the first few overlong entries despite some being as short as thirty-nine minutes. Cool credits blending space, mind, vessels, and galaxies promise this will be something more than suspicious delays and unlikable people in an all over the place presentation, but I completely forgot I was watching it and never went back.