Climate of the Hunter (2021)

The great thing about the vampire mythos is that it’s malleable and as such we get to have numerous artistic interpretations of it. As one of the most popular mythic creatures, vampires have been represented in a wide variety of ways from a subtle and abstract metaphor for addiction in Ganja & Hess to the bloodthirsty monsters in 30 Days of Night and countless other creative iterations. Because of this there really is no wrong way to represent a vampire (except when they sparkle in the fucking sunlight) so director Mickey Reece’s highly unconventional take on the classic bloodsuckers is just as valid as any other interpretation, even if the end result is a bit of a mixed bag.

Climate of the Hunter tells the story of Wesley (Ben Hall), a writer who returns to the states after a 20 year absence abroad due to a significant deterioration in his wife’s mental health that requires her to be institutionalized. While staying in the nearby vacation town in the quiet off season he reconnects with a pair of sisters Alma (Ginger Gilmartin) and Elizabeth (Mary Buss) whom he had known years earlier. As Wesley’s wife sits catatonic in a mental hospital he spends a significant amount of his time flirting with both sisters, causing tension and jealousies to rise between the ladies. Alma’s own mental health also comes into question, especially as her suspicions mount that not only is Wesley no longer the man she once knew but has in fact turned into a malevolent supernatural creature.

Once you start this film it doesn’t take long to realize that the story Reece is telling is far from a conventional vampire tale. Instead CotH is a slow-burn and increasingly surreal journey that is intended to make the audience question the reality of what they see unfolding. The aesthetic here plays a big part in that and the authentically degraded footage makes it feel like a found relic that was actually filmed in 1977 rather than just taking place during that time. The surreal tone is further bolstered by the fact that the numerous vintage meals that are featured in the film always start with an insert shot of the food and an unknown female narrator’s introduction.

From start to finish the film feels strange, off kilter (and dare I say, even Lynchian) with the subtly surreal world that is brought to life by the exceptional performances of the cast. This aspect works incredibly well and made me want to spend more time in the weird world Reece created. The fundamental problem here is that the world isn’t quite weird enough and I was quite disappointed to see that so much of the beautifully strange footage from the trailer was relegated to dream sequences rather than being incorporated into the story in a more meaningful way.

Since Alma’s sanity is in question from the start, Reece’s intention is clearly to create an ambiguous reality that will keep the audience guessing whether what they are seeing is real or simply part of her delusions. If he had more successfully blurred the lines of reality and incorporated a more palpable sense of menace and dread the end result would have been something truly exquisite. As it is, the series of odd meals the characters share start to feel stagnant and repetitive as Wesley once again waxes poetic while the women cut each other down with barbs and snide comments. Ultimately this results in an interesting and unusual film that’s good but remains frustratingly close to actually being great.

Short Film Review: The Tell Tale Heart (2020) Duration 22 min

It’s always a bold move to try adapting a piece of classic literature, especially one that has been done numerous times before. A director has to be very confident that their particular take on the subject matter has the chops to stand out from the other iterations and prove that there’s a reason for the story to be told yet again. Even though Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story has already been adapted to film over a dozen times, director McClain Lindquist still felt that there was something unique that his take could offer and frankly, I’m damn glad he did.

The story of a caretaker (Sonny Grimsley, credited here as “The Narrator”) who is driven to murder because of his hatred for his elderly employer’s one blind eye is told within a modern setting but with some novel tweaks. The Narrator himself seems to be a man out of time (the cops themselves note that he “talks like he’s in an old movie”) but this eccentricity works wonderfully well and justifies the preservation of much of the original language from the story. Despite its modern setting Lindquist adheres to the soul of the source material and although the violence is significantly more graphic than what is merely hinted at in the original text, it perfectly fits within the style of this adaptation.

The film is exquisitely executed with incredible camera work and special effects that visually guide The Narrator’s rapid descent into madness. There is also some excellent practical effects work and the judicious use of occasional graphic violence further enhances the horror elements of the story. Speaking of effects, I did find Lindquist’s choice to use prosthetics to age-up the actor playing the old man by about fifty years rather than hiring someone age appropriate a bit confusing but this may have simply been an issue of actor availability. Don’t get me wrong, the prosthetics themselves are excellent and very convincing but like pretty much every aged-up actor they end up ultimately residing in the uncanny valley.

Of course effects are only one ingredient here and it’s Grimsley’s mesmerizing performance that really steals the show. Although the performances of the officers opposite him fall a bit flat by comparison, they are still serviceable and Grimsley’s bombastic character is sure to draw the viewers’ attention regardless. Minor issues aside, this is an excellent adaptation that really leans into the horror and creates a unique experience that fully justifies the retelling of this classic tale. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this should be considered the definitive take on the material and certainly the first place any fan of the story should look.

Blind (2020)

Horror films like to play with our sense of vulnerability by showing characters in a weakened or disadvantaged state, whether it’s due to being trapped somewhere out of their element, trying to fight off supernaturally strong enemies, etc. When a character has a disability that already puts them at a physical disadvantage, it can be an opportunity to crank the tension up even further as their fight for survival becomes even more difficult. We saw this concept play out to great effect in 2016’s Hush, so I was curious if this version of the single-disabled-woman-being-terrorized-in-her-own-home-by-a-sadistic-killer story would work as well in Blind.

At the start of the film we see Faye (Sarah French), a Hollywood actress still trying to adjust to her new life a year after a botched Lasik procedure caused her to lose her sight and her career along with it. As difficult as her life has become, things get considerably worse for her when a deranged killer in a Ken doll mask begins terrorizing her and murdering her friends.

First of all, I’d like to point out that to date there has never been a reported case of a patient losing their sight as a direct result of a Lasik procedure, so that pretty much deflates the central concept right from the start. Regardless, I was more than willing to move past that as I watched the beautifully shot scenes unfold and waited for the horror to kick in. Turns out I would be waiting for what felt like an eternity as the first third of this film is almost entirely devoted to watching Faye wallow in depression, attend group therapy, and start up an awkward will-they-won’t-they relationship with her mute friend Luke (Tyler Gallant).

Any well-made film should be able to establish an empathetic protagonist in a short amount of time and if you need to spend thirty minutes just trying to make the audience care about your characters while the central conflict remains jammed in neutral, then you’ve already lost them. There are some decent kills to be had once things get rolling but the film lacks any kind of real tension which makes the majority of it feel boring rather than engaging.

Part of the issue may be that Faye spends so much time being completely oblivious to the killer lurking around her house that he no longer feels threatening. It just kept bringing Hush to mind for me since that film had such a similar concept yet was able to keep things tense and exciting the whole time. I also cared a lot more about those characters with far less time devoted to trying to force me to do so and none of the melodramatic love story crammed in.

The strangest thing about Blind is that it has all the ingredients of a film that should work, they just fail to come together. The acting is solid all around, there’s great sound design, and there is no question that the film is beautifully shot. I like the look of the killer “Pretty Boy” and there is one scene in particular where he is sitting there in his doll mask and blood-soaked white tux that is truly iconic. Director Marcel Walz is clearing aping Nicolas Winding Refn’s style a bit with his use of red and blue saturation and dreamy 80s style synth but has nevertheless created a piece that is very visually appealing. I’m sure that with a tighter, more horror focused script he could create something that is truly great.

XXX: Dark Web (2019)

When you’ve seen as many extremely fucked up films as I have, you start to feel like you’ve seen it all. After watching A Serbian Film, Atroz, Cannibal Holocaust, all the Guinea Pig films, and countless others, what can an extreme film bring to the table that I truly haven’t seen? Well, that’s where XXX: Dark Web comes in and with a name like that, it’s already setting the expectations quite high. No, Vin Diesel isn’t taking his impotent, PG-13 action franchise in a bold new direction; what we have here is far more interesting (although I am now more than a little curious about what that would look like). Rest assured fellow sick fucks, this is a legitimate underground film and the very definition of a piece of truly Extreme Cinema. There’s even a scene toward the end that blew my mind and showed me something shocking that I’d definitely never seen in a film before, but more on that in a minute.

The film utilizes a standard anthology format with five separate segments, each by a different director, plus a wrap-around story to tie it together. The framing device here is a nameless young man (Franz Dicarolo) who is searching the Dark Web for twisted shit to jerk off to and each segment is a different video he clicks on. It’s a clever format for a film like this and pays homage to the inherently voyeuristic role the audience itself is playing as we wait for the next shocking segment to come on and try and outdo the depraved insanity we just witnessed. This also adds an ingenious layer of discomfort for the viewer as we see the audience surrogate eventually taking on a more interactive role in the twisted entertainment he is consuming.

There isn’t a lot of “story” to speak of within this film as each segment plays out with little to no narrative in service of moving along the gruesome visuals as quickly as possible. That’s not a knock against it though because by its very nature, the Torture Porn subgenre tends to be pretty light on story and at no point did I really feel like I needed more character development to keep my eyes glued to the screen in rapt anticipation of what would happen next. In fact, even for seasoned veterans of Extreme Cinema, this is perhaps the most squirm-inducing film I’ve ever had the twisted pleasure of sitting through.

Graphic, unsimulated sex and gruesome Guinea Pig-style evisceration is just where the depravity starts and before you know it you’re seeing dicks being bitten off and sewn back on, vomit blowjobs, knives in bloody assholes, nutsacks full of needles, people jerking off to pics of (probably) real mutilated corpses and so much more. Obviously the bulk of the film is made up of well constructed and convincing special effects (otherwise you’d have to find it on the real Dark Web) but the final segment brings it in a whole other direction with a bit of gruesome reality.

In it we see a real video of musician Daniel Valient (of the band White Gardenia, who also do the music for the scene) and a young woman with black lipstick (Allison Simon) engaging in actual cutting and drinking of each other’s blood. From there we see Daniel turn it up to 11 in a scene that I don’t want to spoil but suffice to say it blew my fucking mind! It would be disturbing either way but the fact that it is 100% real (trust me, I looked into it) officially makes it one of the craziest things I have ever seen in a feature film.

Clearly, this movie has a lot going for it in terms of being an effectively shocking piece of underground cinema. Still, there were a couple of minor tweaks that I wish had been made to really bring it home. There are a few instances where characters speak in another language or text appears on screen but there is no subtitle translation option, which is unfortunate because I was really curious about what was being said. Also, the actual title of Daniel’s blood drinking segment is “Allison’s Mouth fills up with Blood and Semen” and despite seeing his blood-soaked boner, the actual blowjob is more implied than explicit. Not a big deal but given the segment title and the precedent already set of explicit sex, it felt like a situation where edgy material should have been leaned into rather than shied away from if it was to be presented at all.

Regardless, this is an incredible piece of dark art with brilliant, realistic performances and special effects punctuated by moments of visceral reality. It really is some of the most brutal and disturbing footage you’re going to see outside of a real world shockumentary like Traces of Death and frankly, real death compilations are nothing but cheap, artless, shock-value trash anyway. I’d take the brilliant special effects work and hardcore performance art of XXX: Dark Web any day!

A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio (2019)

Nightmare RadioI love horror anthology films and while we may not be getting as many these days as we did during the resurgence of their popularity in the early to mid 2010s, it’s good to see that they are still popping up occasionally. Typically these films will feature the collaboration of multiple directors and are a great way to showcase various talents within a single project. The structure allows the audience to be a little more forgiving of the overall film as stronger entries can sometimes redeem the goodwill lost by weaker ones. Ultimately though, the finished film is still a sum of its parts and today we’ll see if A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio serves as a suitable distraction during these troubled times.

Every good anthology film needs a solid framing device to tie things together and in this case it comes in the form of a radio DJ named Rod (James Wright) telling scary stories during his show. There’s a good variety within the stories themselves as Rod spins tales of murder, revenge, and the supernatural. The cold open of the film shows a story of a vengeful ghost while the next deals with the very real and very creepy Victorian era practice of photographing the dead. Subsequent stories involve a sinister stylist, cruel and unusual prison punishment, a Spanish dancer with strange stomach pains, and a child who makes a frightening discovery in the kitchen. The final two stories involve a hunter with very unusual prey and a woman hearing odd noises while she is home alone. Rod’s story also follows its own arc and builds towards a satisfying and interesting twist that nicely caps off the preceding tales.

Nightmare Radio Pic

Fortunately there aren’t any entries that are simply bad but there are definitely some that are more successful than others. One of the standouts was the entry about the prisoner which managed to be morally complex and the degree to which viewers find it cathartic or disturbing is sure to vary depending on the person. Another highlight was the postmortem photography entry which had excellent structure and pacing, delivering a very complete, concise, and chilling story in just a few short minutes. I also want to give credit to the final story (and arguably scariest entry in the anthology) which does an incredible job expanding upon the unnerving sense of foreboding one can get while alone in their own house at night.

The only parts that don’t work here are a couple of times where the story didn’t quite come together as well as it should have. Unfortunately, the opening vignette suffers from this the most as the engaging visuals are undercut by a muddled story that fails to make any fucking sense whatsoever and seems more like a disparate collection of ideas than an actual narrative. Similarly, the hunter segment works well on its own but its introduction throws an unnecessary layer of confusion into the character motivations and inherent logic within the story itself.

These are ultimately minor quibbles though, because as a whole, Nightmare Radio is incredibly successful and every segment is exquisitely shot, well acted, and showcases brilliant special effects. This is definitely one to keep an eye out for and something that fans of horror anthologies will certainly want to tune into.

4-stars-red

Short Film Review: Friend of the World (2020) Duration 50 min 30 sec

FOTW_PosterFriend of the World exists in a very strange space. Originally penned in 2016, writer/director Brian Patrick Butler conceived of the story as a reflection of the political anxieties of the time. Now that it’s finally ready for release in 2020, this post-apocalyptic film about racial/cultural disparity, isolation, and paranoia feels almost painfully prescient. Some films are able to be an effective reflection of their time but the degree to which this one was able to accurately predict what 2020 would feel like is just plain unnerving.

The main story begins with a young black woman named Diane Keaton (Alexandra Slade) waking up in an underground bunker in a room full of corpses. After making her way out of the room and deeper into the bunker itself, she soon encounters a middle-aged white man named General Gore (Nick Young) who lives down there and seems to know more about the apocalyptic event that occurred on the surface world than he is letting on.

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Given the short runtime it’s hard to say too much about the plot without getting into spoilers but suffice to say this is a strange film that gets more surreal by the minute. Much like the Lynch films that this is clearly drawing influence from not everything you see will have an immediate and obvious explanation but there is a lot beneath the surface waiting to be brought to light by further analysis and discussion. That being said, the narrative never feels lost or nonsensical and Butler effectively uses his unique visual style to communicate a feeling of accepted reality giving way to a nightmarish world of body horror and insanity.

A stylistic example of this is the choice to have most of the film in black and white while idyllic memories of the world before play out jarringly in full color set to a background score of an almost unrecognizably discordant version of ‘Ode to Joy’. There are also a lot of impressive visual techniques at work here that create an uncanny and menacing effect. From simple sped up visuals that give an eerie and unnatural sense of movement to full on face melding that looks straight out of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, there is a lot to love here visually.

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It’s not just visuals at play here though as the conversations between the cigarette chomping alpha male Gore and the young, gay, activist artist Keaton are very engaging and packed with commentary and subtext. The small cast all do an excellent job but Young especially shines with his portrayal of the patriarchal Gore whose bravado and subtle menace make for a mesmerizing on-screen presence.

This is a piece of art that is very much of this moment and really taps into the surreal horror that we are experiencing in the world at large right now. When we look back on the quarantine days it will be films like this and Host that will stand as an artistic representation of the anxieties of the time. Hopefully we won’t be watching them from a bunker.

 

4-5-stars-red

Begotten (1989)

Begotten PosterI’m no stranger to abstract filmmaking. From Jodorowsky to Lynch and many others I have certainly seen my fair share of films that eschew standard narrative conventions. Often times these films are so laden with symbolism and metaphor that the story itself can be incomprehensible upon initial viewing. The best of these have meaning behind each image and in-depth examination can peel back the layers to uncover the profound truths that the artist has hidden within. The worst of these are simply a nonsensical series of images that are nothing more than weird for the sake of weird, occasionally containing meaning that has been so obscured by the filmmaker that it is utterly indecipherable. Begotten is definitely abstract, so the question now is where along this spectrum it falls.

There isn’t much to go on as far as a standard plot, but I’ll do my best to summarize it in broad strokes. The credits alone give you a pretty good idea of the kind of film this is and the entire credited cast is as follows: God Killing Himself (Brian Salzberg), Mother Earth (Donna Dempsey) and Son Of Earth-Flesh On Bone (Stephen Charles Barry). The grainy, high contrast, black and white film starts with God Killing Himself living up to his namesake via a brutal disembowelment with a knife. Mother Earth emerges from under his corpse and after some postmortem masturbating of his erection is able to graphically inseminate herself with his cum. She becomes pregnant and before long Son of Earth is born fully grown and spends most of the remaining runtime being tortured by mysterious people in long, hooded robes.

It’s best to think of Begotten not so much as a movie but as a visual experience. There isn’t any dialogue or a linear plot to follow and the various gruesome scenes are accompanied only by ominous music or sound effects, such as the droning buzz of flies. To really get an understanding of what is going on (and what any of it truly means) would require a great amount of rewatching and dissection, for anyone who would be so inclined to do so. What I was able to deduce is that the piece seems to be a representation of the creation of humanity and our inherently violent, destructive nature with a heavy dose of religious allegory thrown in.Begotten Son3

More important than what it all means is what the viewing experience itself is like and in that regard it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There are some very interesting visuals here, the suicidal god being the most recognizable and iconic image from the film, and the gore and suffering on display is well-crafted and convincing. From the grainy black and white footage, to the atonal music and disturbing imagery, everything about Begotten feels like it was carefully engineered to try and set a record for creating the most uncomfortable and upsetting viewing experience possible. Watching the film start to finish is somewhat of an endurance test of nightmarish imagery and that is what I liked most about it. This isn’t a movie to be passively watched but rather an art piece of unconventional expression to be studiously observed.

Not every art piece has something profound to say however and while the lack of dialogue and conventional plot help to successfully create the immersive, nightmarish atmosphere, it is also the film’s weak point. Absent a compelling narrative you are left with only the visual experience which starts out bold, shocking, and intriguing but soon gives way to long scenes that feel repetitive and dare I say, boring. I enjoyed the moments of harsh, upsetting imagery found occasionally within this film and while the surreal journey is a unique one that’s worth taking, it ultimately felt too meandering to be fulfilling.Writer/director E. Elias Merhige has an interesting and provocative short film here, it’s just unfortunately buried within a feature-length runtime that doesn’t sustain it.

3-stars-red

The Fog (1980) vs The Fog (2005)

The Fog

When comparing remakes to originals the remake is typically at an inherent disadvantage. We want the original to be better. And why wouldn’t we? It certainly deserves credit for creating an entire cinematic experience that didn’t even exist before, frequently the result of a single artist’s passion project. Additionally, so many of the original films ended up being incredibly significant works that had a major impact on the genre as a whole. Not only is the remake merely a copy of the original but it can feel like a usurper trying to cynically mine our nostalgia to make a quick buck.

Keeping all that in mind, I believe every remake deserves a fair shot because if done right it is also an opportunity to upgrade the experience with higher production values and patch up some of the shortcomings that the original production couldn’t avoid having. Of course this only works if the spirit of the original remains intact and today we’ll see if that’s the case for The Fog or if it ended up just being another soulless cash grab.

The original John Carpenter film tells the story of a small seaside town that is plagued by the supernatural creatures accompanying a mysterious fog that rolls in on the 100th anniversary of the town’s founding. Once the shit hits the fan it’s up to a small group of survivors to try and stop them or at the very least, survive the invasion. This includes the radio station owner, Stevie (Adrienne Barbeau), Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), a hitchhiking drifter just trying to pass through town, and Nick (Tom Atkins) a local who picks her up.

While the remake does follow the same basic story there are some notable changes to key parts of the plot. For one, the catalyst for the attack involves a small fishing boat catching its anchor on some buried items lost in a shipwreck rather than the 100th anniversary of the town’s founding. Probably a wise choice since clipper ships were a lot more common in 1880 than they were in 1905. Nick (Tom Welling) still picks Elizabeth (Maggie Grace) up hitchhiking, but in this case she is his ex who has unexpectedly returned to town. While these were pretty minor changes, the ending of the remake is where the biggest diversion is seen but more on that later.

Of course these weren’t the only changes made and the remake tries hard to jazz things up a bit by shoehorning in exactly the kinds of antics you would expect from a Hollywood production. For instance, the first victims are still aboard a small fishing boat named ‘The Seabreeze’ but the grizzled fishermen have been replaced by a couple of bros and some scantily clad girls who just want to party, man. In fact, all of the surprisingly beautiful residents of this small town look (and act) like they just walked off the set of a CW show. Speaking of the CW, it’s utterly impossible to take pretty-boy Tom Welling seriously as a small town local, even if we set aside his incredibly stiff acting.

This was the first time I had seen the remake and despite the obvious shortcomings, I was actually pleasantly surprised throughout most of it. I was expecting a lot of shitty CGI fog faces replacing Carpenter’s effectively menacing silhouetted figures from the original but instead the film focused more on unseen horror and some very well done practical effects work. Well, at least the first half did because once it starts ramping up towards the climax, say goodbye to cool melting skeletons and stunt work and say hello to god awful cartoon ghosts. This all culminates in an ending that tries to throw a clever twist on the original but instead makes for an eye rolling scene that isn’t at all supported by the story that preceded it.

To be fair, the original did leave some big shoes to fill as improving on one of John Carpenter’s minor masterpieces is a tall order to begin with. But classics are classics for a reason and even though the remake tries to build fear through music cues and tense scenes every few minutes it never captures that organic sense of dread that the original was able to produce. It is also missing Carpenter’s excellent film score from the 1980 version and is instead crammed with derivative pop/rock from the early 2000s.

One of the scenes that best highlights the difference between the versions is the one where Elizabeth and Nick get their truck stuck in the mud after rescuing Stevie’s son. It’s a genuinely tense scene in the original as the creatures close in on the truck brandishing weapons until Elizabeth is able to finally gain traction and speed away. Contrast this with the remake where the same scene plays out in a far more anemic fashion only to end with Nick shoving Elizabeth out of the way so he can mansplain driving to her and save the day.

Despite all its flaws, the remake is actually better than I expected and does manage to be a light, entertaining film in its own right that at least starts out on the right foot. However, if you want any chance of unseating a Carpenter classic, you need to bring a hell of a lot more to the table than CGI jump scares and a half-assed attempt at a twist ending.

Winner The Fog 1980

The Dinner Party (2020)

unnamed (3)Sometimes just the fact that a film is in the horror genre tips you off that the plot is going to go in a certain direction. I mean, if a movie called The Dinner Party had everything go completely well for the characters the entire time you’d probably end up with a drama (and a damn boring one at that). So, while there is a certain amount of predictability and expectation within the basic structure itself, the real test of artistry is found in how well the filmmakers can finesse the details and create something original. Sometimes this means artists will take big swings with unusual concepts and plot twists, the end result of which is invariably a brilliant hit….or a spectacular miss.

Small-time playwright Jeff (Mike Mayhall) seems to have gotten the opportunity of a lifetime when he is invited to a secret dinner party by a group of wealthy elites with enough pull to get his work onto Broadway. His wife Haley (Alli Hart) gets dragged along for the ride and before long the couple is bearing witness to the increasingly strange behavior of their wealthy hosts.

I always appreciate it when independent filmmakers are able to work well within their financial limitations and play to their strengths. Co-writer/director Miles Doleac (who also plays Vincent in the film) clearly understands this concept as he wisely keeps the action limited to one central location and utilizes a talented cast to bring life to the characters. Sawandi Wilson especially deserves to be recognized for his portrayal of the flamboyant and unhinged Sebastian which he imbues with a significant amount of subtly and depth.R4_1.61.1

The most welcome surprise for me however was just how depraved the film got at times, diving headlong into dark territory with cannibalism, necrophilia, and some scenes of gruesome violence. Doleac does an excellent job lulling the viewer into a false sense of security with warm, comfortable lighting and high-brow conversation right before violently yanking the rug out from under them. It’s a clever and subtle touch that mirrors the experience the characters are having and the solid acting across the board sells it perfectly.

A less successful gamble comes in the form of a third act twist (the details of which I won’t spoil) that severely erodes much of the good will the film had earned up until that point. It’s really unfortunate too because up until then I had really been enjoying the film. I mean sure there were lengthy discussions about opera that were as gratuitous as they were pretentious but this was still right on track for a four star rating. Not so once the “big revelation” slaps the audience across the face with a ridiculous concept that would be utterly eye-rolling in any film and feels exceptionally out of place here. You won’t have much time to dwell on it though because after that the film barrels toward the end credits, leaving in its wake a series of carelessly unanswered questions that put a nonsensical bow on an otherwise well made film.

Had this film simply carried along on the track it was already on for most of the runtime it would have ended up being a very solid horror experience punctuated with some great details and wry social commentary. Unfortunately, in its attempt to be entirely too clever for its own good, a mostly satisfying experience ultimately left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

3-stars-red

M.O.M. Mother of Monsters (2020)

M.O.MEver since The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the horror scene in 1999 and crushed the box office to the tune of a quarter billion dollars, countless filmmakers have tried their hand at tapping into that low cost Cinéma vérité style magic. Now that it’s 21 years later any filmmaker looking to utilize that format needs to bring something more to the table than abandoned footage found in the woods. Fortunately, M.O.M (Mother of Monsters) does bring an innovative twist to the standard formula as all the footage comes directly from cameras that characters use within the world of the film.

This approach alone isn’t unique but the justification and execution make it work better than most. Old home movie footage is spliced with straight to camera testimonials and consumer grade home surveillance as Abbey (Melinda Page Hamilton) obsessively documents the actions of her teenage son Jacob (Bailey Edwards). The more we see, the more it seems that this strung out single mother has good cause to worry as Jacob kills animals, has violent outbursts, and makes troubling maps of his school. Is Abbey uncovering the genesis of a dangerous criminal in the making…or is something else entirely going on?

Since the film devotes so much run-time to trying to make the viewer wonder about Jacob’s true motivations, it’s unfortunate that an early scene on an overpass heavily tips the scales, clearly showing which character is capable of committing unrepentant acts of violence. While the scene itself is well done, the film would be far stronger without it and would allow for some actual ambiguity throughout the story. It’s a shame too since the novel approach actually does effectively make use of the found footage conceit in a way that is modern, innovative and justified (mostly) within the world of the film. It also maintains a storyline that does drag a bit in places but overall manages to be engaging and at times all too real.

M.O.M’s true strength however is with its actors, which is fortunate as this is pretty much a two-hander between mother and son. The acting (and I cannot overstate this) is fucking incredible! Hamilton and Edwards truly live inside their characters and their pitch-perfect depiction is what makes the film work. The nuance and subtlety that they bring to their roles make this prescient story about a young man potentially going down a violent path feel even more dangerous and real. In a world where senseless acts of violence are commonplace, a film that reflects the anxiety that the true monsters can be found within the people we are closest to is a very scary concept indeed.

3-5-stars-red