The Spierig Brothers (Predestination, Undead) follow up their disastrous entry into the Saw franchise – Jigsaw – with a recovery of sorts by the way of Winchester, a handsome-looking film that carries on the traditional haunted-house formula in the vein of The Woman in Black and The Changeling (among others). Exploiting the more scandalous elements of Sarah Winchester’s story, the film presents a straightforward narrative, borrowing heavily from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We follow Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who has been sent by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to conduct a psychological evaluation of the reclusive widow (Helen Mirren). Upon his arrival he is faced with characters and circumstances that suggest a case of psychosis, but, of course, before long he is head-deep in an epic ghost story, of which only absolute belief of the paranormal will help him survive.
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Speaking of superlatives, THE MONSTER features my new favourite Zoe Kazan performance. Despite choosing some great projects over the years (Ruby Sparks and The Big Sick, to name a few), I’ve always felt that Kazan was capable of more than her roles required. As such, it’s vindicating to see her thrive here as Kathy, a troubled woman whose struggles with alcoholism exacerbate her struggles to be a good mother. Through devastating flashbacks, we see that Kathy has been at her nadir for some time, and Bertino’s script wisely leaves the exact chronological order of these events ambiguous. For instance, while Kathy seems deeply flawed and intensely human when her failed attempts to quit drinking are shown, it’s revealed that these flaws lead to pent up anger and resentment, and even verbal and physical abuse towards her young daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). This complex blend of loathing for oneself and others is the most frightening monster looming over the film, and Kazan proves to be the perfect choice for conveying it.
Meanwhile, Ballentine is also exceptional as Lizzy, a role which allows her to subvert the expectations of a mother-daughter story by displaying maturity beyond her years. Indeed, in retrospect with the current Oscar buzz, and Kathy’s dyed red hair, it would be easy to dismiss the relationship at the centre of THE MONSTER as an inverted Lady Bird. However, the flashbacks mentioned above provide some fascinating and unexpected nuances to Lizzy’s feelings for her mother, ranging from pity to an unsettling reciprocation of Kathy’s resentment. It must be said that Kazan appears younger than her age, and both actresses use the subtext that Lizzy was an unexpected pregnancy for a young, unprepared mother to poignant effect. Although later scenes unfortunately diminish her required range to largely reacting, the role of Lizzy overall suggests that Ballentine has a promising career ahead of her even beyond horror, and I’ll be interested to see the types of projects she chooses in the future.
Nevertheless, THE MONSTER is emphatically a horror film, with the bulk of its runtime centred on its leads trapped in a forest with a mysterious beast. It’s a testament to Bertino’s direction that this simple setting is just as successful at engaging the viewer as the core relationship; I found that the almost pitch-black forest road setting and anxious, lingering shots made my mind race with suspense and speculation. This adherence to crafting atmosphere is too often neglected in modern horror, and it was refreshing for me to be given room to be curious as to what would happen next. Similarly, I had resigned myself to the likelihood that THE MONSTER would eventually feature a ‘twist’, forcibly removing ambiguities and ruining my theories. Yet in perhaps the film’s most subversive act, Bertino keeps things simple: there is indeed a monster in the forest, and that’s all we need to know.
As mentioned above, by instead choosing to elaborate on Kathy and Lizzy's characters, their relationship becomes far more integral and engrossing than viewers would likely have expected. Ultimately, THE MONSTER is an early contender for my favourite indie horror film of 2018. Its masterful execution of fundamental genre concepts will satisfy viewerslooking for tension and scares, while a surprisingly thoughtful examination of family should please anyone else with an open mind.
THE MONSTER IS AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE AT EAGLE ENTERTAINMENT.
MCU's 18th instalment turns its attention to BLACK PANTHER, a character who first appeared on paper in the mid-60s and was previously featured in Captain America: Civil War. Following his brush with The Avengers, T'Challa – the new king of Wakanda - returns to Africa where he is officially anointed. Upon ceremony he inherits the power of the Black Panther and grapples with the responsibility of protecting his kingdom, his people and their place in the world. Wakanda is a secret kingdom, hidden in the middle of Africa and cloaked. Their wealth is immense and their technology is highly advanced, and while they reside in their metropolis, I should note that the greater continent of Africa lives in poverty (yes, Wakanda is a selfish kingdom). When two ruthless criminal figures (Andy Serkis and Michael B Jordan) conspire to bring down Wakanda, T'Challa and his all-female special force team join with a CIA agent (Martin Freeman) and fight to protect their homeland from being exposed to the outside world.
BLACK PANTHER obviously works on paper, and having endured 50-years of comic book issues he is clearly a beloved character. On screen, however, his story leaves a lot to be desired. It's an absurd notion to suggest suspending disbelief when venturing into a superhero movie, because it goes without saying that the very nature of such fiction is already far-fetched. And yet for total engagement within the Marvel Cinematic Universe there needs to be a level-acceptance of the truth presented on screen. For instance, characters like Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Ant-Man are all the product of scientific misadventure, and so they occupy the same world comfortably. Yet characters like Thor, Doctor Strange and Black Panther are either mystic or otherworldly, and – for me – bring convolution to the narrative. Of course I must concede to MCU's ongoing evolution, and accept the cross-pollination (as frustrating as it is). For the record I felt the same about Thor as I do Black Panther until Ragnarok came along and Guardian'd things up a little.
BLACK PANTHER has been highly anticipated and various circles have touted it as an important milestone within the genre. This campaign of hype has reflected both a strong social movement and a fair amount of virtue signalling, and while its cast of predominantly black players is cause for celebration in itself, too much emphasis has been placed upon the fact, and less towards whether or not the movie is actually good!? It's not.
In fact Marvel's latest investment is an incessant mess. There's too much happening with little emphasis put into character-building or story-development. Once we accept the fact that such an isolated and technologically advanced culture exists behind a cloak of invisibility, we must then contend with an onslaught of silly rituals, faux accents and a clusterfuck of digital effects. Digital city scapes, digital waterfalls and digital animals populate an all digital universe... and when we are treated to some practical effects, they are digitally augmented to staggering digital depths.
I guess there's some worth to be found in the cast and their performances. Chadwick Boseman makes for a charismatic lead, whose on-screen presence is surprisingly sincere. Michael B Jordan makes for an equally charismatic villain, although his role is archetypal and riddled with cliché. Andy Serkis is fantastic on screen, if only less time was spent on close ups of his facial expressions (yes, we get it... he's Gollum). Martin Freeman offers a token “white boy” turn as a dumbed-down CIA agent with mad pilot skills. His role isn't necessary and the story would have benefited from his absence. Lupita Nyong'o and Danai Gurira give strong warrior-type performances and balance the film's masculinity with a welcome amount of female empowerment. Daniel Kaluuya offers little as T'Challa's best friend whose view on Wakanda's sanctity holds a blatant mirror to the real world's current political climate. BLACK PANTHER may be a huge step up – financially speaking - from his incredible turn in Get Out, but it's a disappointing backwards step in terms of showcasing his talent. And of course Angela Bassett and Forest Whittaker contribute that “old school” flavour and do very little with their screen time.
BLACK PANTHER is not the bottom of the barrel for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (that honour goes to Thor: The Dark World) but it is definitely a close second. It is an overlong, over-hyped mess of digital saturation, embarrassing accents, and hilarious armoured rhinos. Put this quote on the poster “Dumb!”.
Following the unexpected success of the second instalment, 10 Cloverfield Lane, producer JJ Abrams and director Julius Onah (The Girl is in Trouble) have taken their new film to Netflix, where it was dropped without warning. Aside from a brief media release confirming that it would be set in space and a surprise Super Bowl trailer, there was no advertising campaign to build momentum. It was a flash release, which will no doubt help solidify the series as a unique and sustainable property.
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Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003) followed shortly after and offered a more generic – yet still somewhat effective – slasher movie. Salva's original concept has been stripped back, simplified and presented in a one-location narrative, set almost entirely in and around a big yellow school bus. It was not the sequel fans had wanted, and it failed elaborate on the established mythology, yet over the years the appreciation for it has grown substantially.
JEEPERS CREEPERS 3 comes to us 15-years later and finds its story wedged between the two previous instalments, and rather than pushing the series forward Salva returns to his franchise with an attempt to bridge his previous narrative with the subtext that was lacking from part 2. This new addition to the legacy is a curious chapter, to be sure, and one that will inevitably frustrate a lot of viewers. It is a flawed movie within the context of the franchise, and yet it holds enough appeal to appease the more dedicated fans.
Picking up immediately after the events of the first film, JEEPERS CREEPERS 3 (subtitled 'Ravenous' for Australian release) begins with the capture of the creature's truck. A group of Monster Hunters arrive on the scene and join the police in their operation to track and capture the Creeper. We discover that these men have a history with the creature, dating back to its previous harvest 23-years prior, and will stop and nothing to kill it before they're too old to face it again. Throw in a few subplots, and characters with varying degrees of relevance, and the scene is set for a more detailed chapter that attempts to explain the Creeper's origin without actually explaining it at all.
Cue instant frustration... some will react to the storyline as unnecessarily convoluted, while others will welcome its attempt to dig a little deeper into the mythos. Those – like myself – who appreciated the complexities might be more forgiving of the film's additional shortcomings, such as poorly conceived CGI violence and the perplexing use of green screen. Some things are unexpected, such as the Creeper's truck being heavily booby-trapped with the ability to defend itself. I certainly don't recall this level of ingenuity in the previous films, and while the concept is pretty cool (in a means to be gory way) it isn't compatible with the other instalments. The creature itself is different, with its features being simpler and less organic, and pitting him in a day-lit environment exposes the synthetic nature of his creation. Where he once resided in the shadows as a monstrous lurking predator, he is now a fully exposed humanoid whose demonic attributes are counterbalanced with sword-play and action sequences.
Director Victor Salva has a dark and troubled past and many people believe that there is no place for him in the film industry. And while his crimes were committed 30-years ago, and he paid his due in the eyes of the law, there is that ever-lingering moral question of whether we should support his creative efforts at all. It's an emotional and impassioned conversation, which for my part I am able to seperate the man from the art. He accepted his accountability and paid his debt to society. He returned to society as a free man, and regardless of people's moral assertions of him, he has every right to pursue his craft (just as everyone else has every right to avoid his art).
Of course I mention his criminal history as to add context to the production of JEEPERS CREEPERS 3. Salva's crimes follow him wherever he goes, and making high-profile films is problematic. This film saw him run out of Canada when the casting agents drew attention to his presence, and no doubt he faces countless obstacles when mounting productions. Perhaps these barriers restrict his ambitions and contribute to the quality of JEEPERS CREEPERS 3. Maybe such disadvantages are the residual karma for the behaviour of his past. Whatever the case, his third Jeepers film is fraught with affliction and there's a sense that he is exhausted.
With that said, there is no denying his eye for horror. His propensity for crafting visceral, nightmarish landscapes is undeniable, and for all of his missteps in JC3 it remains a visual feast to behold. From nicely orchestrated slow motion, to gracefully captured wide-shots, Salva has delivered a serviceable interjection to his previous two instalments, with the promise of another. It ties those movies together nicely and leaves the door open for further exploration.
JEEPERS CREEPERS 3 IS AVAILABLE ON DVD THROUGH EAGLE ENTERTAINMENT ON 18/04/2018.