Home Invasions and Family Horrors
by Kristin Battestella
It's time for another round of contemporary family dramas mixing home invasion horrors, haunted houses, and supernatural intruders – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Us – Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave) and Winston Duke (Black Panther) star in Jordan Peele's (Get Out) 2019 doppleganger chiller. Warnings of underground unknowns, VHS, retro boob tubes, and ye olde 1986 commercials for Hands Across America set the scene before Santa Cruz carnivals, Thriller t-shirts, dark beaches, thunderstorms, and fun house horrors. Her parents' banter was already strained before the trauma, and the now adult Addy hasn't told her husband of the experience, either. They return to her family home, but their daughter's too busy with her phone, the son's really too old to be playing with toys, and her oblivious to her discomfort husband wants to keep up with the Joneses with a cool boat. The spooky basement, cabinets big enough to hide in, and mirrors with reflections that seem to look back at you lead to the same eerie fun house, crazy beach folk, repeated twin moments, elevens, jinx, and double jinx. Peering through dark windows and talking with your back to a person layer visuals and dual suggestions while our husband jokes about what was in the hall of mirrors coming to get Addy and their rich white friends remain out of touch snobs more interested in alcohol and plastic surgery. Our Mr. thinks he can handle trespassers with threats and a baseball bat, but power outages and unresponsive lookalikes banging at the door make for a fearful home invasion. This unarmed, mid century beach house and its many windows aren't exactly secure, and the entire break in happens in real time without frenetic cameras and zorp boom music. Croaking, unaccustomed to speaking accounts tell tales of the tethered and shadowed receiving pain below while we have light and warmth above, and each of the underground confronts their compatriots with disturbing torments, freaky pursuits, and mimicking pantomime. Ironic Beach Boys cues and sardonic smart home devices are no help at all! Addy starts timid, but this threatened mother turns bad ass, angry, and desperate to save her son as the bizarre deaths and replacement reveals escalate with distorted reversals, fractured experiences, and not quite right through the looking glass. The timely titular we and the American initialization mirror the united privileged for some but underbelly torment for many. We kind of know what's what going in here and the wither tos and why fors aren't as important as the underlying social statements. However, drawn out, unnecessary moments and repeated, uneven showdowns make this a little long. Chases, defeats, and hard violence are easy or contrived depending on if the tethered is conveniently primitive and animalistic or agile and adept as needed. Elaborate underground talk and random fights don't explain how big this takeover is. Police are called but never arrive, both a horror trope as well as a commentary on the system, but the supposedly self aware genre send ups make characters stupid or erroneously humorous. Homages don't upend but play into the horror cliches as car keys are forgotten, no one worries about food or weapons bigger than a fireplace poker, and they get out of the car in the middle of the woods. And how did they get so many pristine, matching underground supplies? The final act explanations and intercut dance parallels descend into stereotypical horror with quick editing and that obnoxious zorp boom music, but with so many great things here, there's no need for generic horror designs. There are flaws, the audience must take a lot of leaps, and final twists should have been told in the big reveal rather than montaged at the end. Our writer/director/producer needed a tighter edit in the last act, but the excellent foreshadowing, dual visuals, and social commentary make for repeat viewings and scary entertainment.
An Unfortunate Skip
Marrowbone – An ill mother on the run with her children moves back to her dilapidated Maine home in this 2017 Spanish production co-starring Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch). Old toys, vintage fashions, and retro cameras set the sixties scene as the family reverts to the titular house's maiden name, starting over with forest explorations, beach side fun with the pretty girl next door, and a summer to remember. Their dying mom insists they bury her in the garden and hide her death until the soon to be twenty-one oldest can legally keep the children together. Unfortunately, the terrible father they're fleeing arrives, and six months later the isolated children live in fear of ghosts, cracked and covered mirrors, stained ceilings, and a bricked up attic. A visit from the family lawyer needing house funds and paperwork signed provides forgery suspense and close calls on the ruse amid pesky raccoons, creaking sounds, and something moving upstairs. A lot of what's seen and heard is the kids scaring themselves, but they hide in a blanket fort and play The Beach Boys' “Wouldn't It Be Nice,” which are always good choices. The middle siblings, however, are unhappy at the oldest having all the fun while they're trapped at home, and they wonder if his girlfriend would be interested if she knew the truth. Newspaper clippings fill in the details, but the point of view should never leave the house. Contrived, jealous lawyer out to get them love triangles and blackmail are unnecessary, padding an already long run time with too many deflections. The nonsensical, non-linear revelations have both little foreshadowing yet obvious blackouts and head injuries cast doubt. What is real, supernatural, or unreliable? Within, within, around and around, leap after leap deaths, ghosts, delusions, truths, and twists descend into some kind of knock down, drag out fight yet the romance survives it all as the scares fall apart. If they never really happened, what is the point? This very thin concept would have been over fast if we saw each trope and twist in real time, and once again, maybe an outside eye should have told writer and director Sergio G. Sanchez (The Orphanage) enough is enough.
This Should Not Have Been A Horror Movie
The Darkness – Orange deserts, blue skies, Bear Grylls quips, and ancient evil stones ruin the sunny Grand Canyon vacation for Kevin Bacon (X-Men:First Class) and Radha Mitchell (Silent Hill) in this 2016 Blumhouse misstep from director Greg McLean (Rogue). Their son wanders away, falling into an underground cave and taking its ominous rune stones home. Mom works at home amid the hectic appliances and electronics but we don't know what she does beside grocery shop for liquor and let her son pick out any balloons or toys he wants while dad's at the office with a hot young thing. Creaking attic scenes and teen girl in the shower scares are unnecessary because not only are they never referred to again, but mom also has bathroom and swimming pool moments that amount to nothing. Most of the scares are fake – a startling reflection, loud television, dreams, the boy being weird, or the daughter screaming at her parents when they finally notice she's bulimic. The family doesn't discuss their issues, just sends the boy to grandma's house for snakes and cat shocks that the parents refuse to believe. Mom continually defends her son even after he sets his room on fire, wondering if this is karma for something they did but her husband thinks they shouldn't blame themselves for their children's behaviors because his autism is at fault. o_O The product placement for everything from Absolut Vodka to Diamond dollar store matches is bemusing and the photoshopped spirit in the family portrait is lolz, however the mystical Asian friend, making autism itself part of the scares, and blaming evil Native Americans are so, so not cool. But hey, an internet research montage explains that bad smells are demonic manifestations and there's even a grainy online video! A video which our wife sends to her husband's work email so he can look up supernatural autism abilities at the office! They head to the presidential hotel suite and make Gideon Bible jokes while admonished Spanish speaking healers wear turquoise to prove they can handle these bad Anasazi, and the research montage is shown again because nobody bothered to watch the end of video explaining about the stones. This playing at Poltergeist is a chore to finish, and the horror of a bad family would have been better as a straight drama with no supernatural try hard. If these parents had been paying attention before everything hit the fan, there wouldn't have been a problem. And who pays the price? The neighbor's dog dagnabbit.