Friday, August 30, 2019

When a Time-Traveler Calls: "Don't Let Go" hinges on affecting performances rather than its rickety logic

Don’t Let Go (2019)
107 min.
Release Date: August 30, 2019 (Wide)

Part time-travel thriller and part whodunit crime procedural, “Don’t Let Go” (formerly titled “Relive” at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival) is quite involving for a long time, as long as one can fully buy into the premise at face value and just go with the less-than-airtight, admittedly confusing logic. Writer-director Jacob Estes (he of 2004’s excellent “Mean Creek”) has a lot to juggle here, driving his story forward with the relationship at its core but also hoping viewers will take a leap of faith with the time-travel plot device. “Don’t Let Go” is the kind of film with enough ambition for itself that it almost works. 

LAPD detective Jack Radcliff (David Oyelowo) has a closer relationship with his teenage niece, Ashley (Storm Reid), than he does with his own brother, Garrett (Brian Tyree Henry), who may or may not have fallen back into selling drugs. One day when Jack is busy with desk work, he receives a call from a distressed Ashley that gets cut short. Next thing he knows, Ashley, her parents, and even the family dog have been murdered in their home, and it’s been ruled a murder-suicide. After two weeks pass and Jack has hit rock bottom, he receives a call from Ashley’s cell phone. It is Ashley on the other end, but she is still alive in the past before her murder. In a race against time, Jack must discover who is behind the murder of his family with help from Ashley so he can prevent it from becoming a reality. 

2000’s “Frequency” with a hint of 2018’s “Searching,” “Don’t Let Go” is best when hinging on its two characters’ connection and not really the murder whodunit aspect of the plot. From the start, David Oyelowo and Storm Reid (2018’s “A Wrinkle in Time”) have a wonderfully warm and authentic uncle-niece dynamic that gets efficiently conveyed through only a couple of scenes of Jack picking her up from the movies and then taking her to their favorite diner spot. They are each other’s support system. Then, as the film toggles back and forth between the two different planes of the time-space continuum with Jack and Ashley, one searches for answers as to why this is all happening, and yet, that seems to be beside the point. Instead, it’s the logic of the plotting that feels a bit rickety (how Jack gets a do-over at one point doesn’t make the most sense). 

If “Don’t Let Go” doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny on a narrative structural level, the lead performances are still affecting and hold one’s attention over the plot mechanics. Alfred Molina and Mykelti Williamson, as Jack’s superior and his longtime colleague, also lend reliable support, while Brian Tyree Henry is squandered as Ashley’s father with a shady past, and her mother isn’t really a character at all. The unique music score by Ethan Gold is also worth a mention. While the film has a lot going for it, it’s hard letting go of what might have been a better film with another pass at the script.

Grade: C +

Monday, August 26, 2019

Number One Stalker: "The Fanatic" a low-rent stalker thriller with an embarrassing, tic-laden performance from John Travolta

The Fanatic (2019)
88 min.
Release Date: August 30, 2019 (Limited); September 6, 2019 (VOD)

Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst (2008’s “The Longshots”) makes his third feature-directing swing with “The Fanatic,” a lower-rent rehash of 1996’s Robert De Niro-Wesley Snipes thriller “The Fan,” 2004's ridiculous "Paparazzi," and, apparently, Durst's personal experience with a stalker. John Travolta playing the titular fanatic might be the film’s one selling point, but the idea of the casting is more intriguing than the actual execution. It wants to be a serious psychological thriller about obsession and how celebrities wouldn’t exist without their fans, but fails miserably on that level, and even if it wanted to just settle for cheap thrills, there are none. “The Fanatic” is a bust, even as trash cinema. 

Moonlighting as a failed street act that of a London bobby on Hollywood Boulevard, stuttering, socially inept Moose (John Travolta) is a diehard—nay, unhealthy—fan of horror-action movie star Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa), collecting paraphernalia from every one of Hunter's movies. When he stands in line to get an autograph from the celebrity, Moose is intensely disappointed to see Hunter leave the signing table before his turn is up, so he confronts Hunter outside with no luck. Immediately, Moose enlists the help of his paparazzo friend, Leah (Ana Golja), to find out where Hunter lives. When Moose shows up at Hunter’s private residence to find him and his son outside, the superstar not-so-politely tells him to leave and to never show his face again. Moose doesn’t stop there.

Though the actor has not been discriminating with his recent on-screen roles—sure, “Gotti” was memorable for the wrong reasons, but did anyone see, let alone hear of, “I Am Wrath,” “Speed Kills,” or “Trading Paint”?—John Travolta is begging to be seen, as he tries his hardest as Hawaiian shirt-donning stalker Moose, who sports a bowl-cut mullet and never leaves home without his backpack. Travolta dials his intensely broad, mannered, tic-laden performance up to eleven and fully commits to his acting choices (even that awful London bobby act), but unfortunately, his efforts are often more embarrassing and meme-ready than menacing or frightening. As Hunter Dunbar, Devon Sawa comes off arrogant and even more threatening and volatile than Moose that one wonders what film might have been if the lead actors switched roles, and yet the world will never know. Ana Golja is intended to be the heart of the film as Moose’s only friend Leah, but their friendship is severely undernourished, and yet she gives a soft-spoken voice-over narration that adds nothing.

How the viewer is supposed to feel about Moose becomes severely muddled throughout "The Fanatic." Aside from a perfunctory flashback of a young Moose sitting in front of the TV, obsessed with "Night of the Living Dead," while his mother entertains a suitor, the script by Fred Durst and tyro writer Dave Bekerman is generic and by-the-numbers, never exploring Moose on a deeper level or even addressing if he is, indeed, on the spectrum. If Moose does have a form of autism, Durst packs his film with an exploitative smugness, vilifying someone with autism as an unhinged and violent predator if not watched closely. The film is also technically flat and bereft of suspense, no matter how much electronic music Fred Durst employs when things heat up. And, speaking of music, “Limp Bizkit” gets name-dropped when Hunter introduces his son to one of the band’s songs, and it’s a shameless, self-serving groaner. If there’s anything to remotely recommend about “The Fanatic,” it is watching John Travolta go all in as The Fan From Hell as if his life depended on it. With him, this is still one of the dullest and most anticlimactic stalker thrillers in recent memory.


Thursday, August 22, 2019

Burning Love: Tilda Cobham-Hervey captivates but "Burn" goes nowhere special

Burn (2019)
88 min.
Release Date: August 23, 2019 (Limited & VOD)

“Burn” is a weirdo heist-gone-wrong thriller set entirely at a gas station that almost works more effectively as a character study. When first-time writer-director Mike Gan stops short of living up to the complexities of his mousy, psychologically unhinged protagonist-cum-antagonist, the film itself ends up going nowhere special or surprising in terms of either plot or character. Without much to cling to or get excited about, there just isn’t much here.

Working the graveyard shift at 24-hour gas station/quickie mart Paradise Pumps, lonely, unstable attendant Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) isn’t quite right. She is so desperate for a connection with someone that she will snap pictures of local cop Officer Liu (Harry Shum Jr.) when he comes by or burn herself with a  fresh pot of coffee just to feel anything. Not far into their shift, Melinda and her snarky co-worker, Sheila (Suki Waterhouse), are held at gunpoint by Billy (Josh Hutcherson), who’s desperate for cash to pay off a biker gang. As Billy’s robbery doesn’t go according to plan, Melinda tries to keep the mess under wraps, even as she unravels.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey (2018's "Hotel Mumbai") makes Melinda a fascinating, vaguely sympathetic character who’s ready to crack, and she probably finds more nuance than what was given to her on the page. If the viewer doesn’t exactly have rooting interest in wanting her to succeed, she is at least captivating to watch for the entirety. The other performances are more than capable if mostly one-note, although Josh Hutcherson gets to play against-type as Billy, who may or may not be interested in making Melinda the Bonnie to his Clyde. Writer-director Mike Gan trusts his material enough to keep all the minimal action in one location, but he just doesn’t tighten the screws enough or take anything further to turn “Burn” into more than a tepid thriller.

Grade: C

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Hide and Kill: "Ready or Not" a tonally confident, dementedly funny, blood-soaked hoot that proves Samara Weaving a star

Ready or Not (2019)
95 min.
Release Date: August 21, 2019 (Wide)

Marrying the love of your life and not being able to choose your in-laws is the jumping-off point in “Ready or Not,” a frequently surprising, dementedly funny, ruthlessly paced hoot of a horror-comedy thriller. Stylishly directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (2014’s “Devil’s Due”), the collective known as Radio Silence, from a script by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy (not that one) with little fat on its bones, the film draws from Richard Connell's short story "The Most Dangerous Game," 1985's farcical "Clue," and 2013's ingeniously deceptive dysfunctional-family slasher “You’re Next," making for one of the most pleasurable late-summer surprises, pleasant or unpleasant depending on who you are. Tonally confident and giddily satisfying, “Ready or Not” is a total gas laced with a gallows sense of humor and a healthy helping of dead rich folks.

About to tie the knot with sweet husband-to-be Alex (Mark O’Brien) at his family’s extravagant estate, Grace (Samara Weaving) is intimidated to be marrying into the Le Domas dynasty, a board game empire. Raised in foster homes, she already fears they don’t like her, and Alex even offers her an out to just leave after the wedding. Alex’s mother, Becky (Andie MacDowell), thanks Grace for bringing her estranged son back into the fold, while father Tony (Henry Czerny) thinks his son could have done better. If Alex’s family didn’t already seem eccentric, hoity-toity, and deeply dysfunctional, they are also very strict about sticking to their unconventional traditions. At the stroke of midnight, Grace is asked to partake in a game like an initiation; once she blindly draws a card for Hide and Seek, Grace plays along and hides. The Le Domas family, meanwhile, collect antique guns, cross bows, and battle axes and count before seeking the hunted bride, while Alex sits the game out. If Grace can fight back better than she can hide, she must try to stay alive until dawn. 

Running a svelte 95 minutes, “Ready or Not” doesn’t waste a single moment, beginning as a slightly off-kilter wedding comedy before transforming into a thrilling, darkly hilarious cat-and-mouse chase of a crowd-pleaser. From the start, the newly married Grace is a vulnerable, strong-willed, funny, resourceful heroine whom we can easily get behind, and don’t underestimate her revenge even when a young boy shoots her. The Le Domas family itself is an array of colorful characters, not all of them entirely heartless at first but all of them out for the literal kill in the name of family tradition and wealth. While the reason the Le Domas clan initiates the game for their own benefit will be kept under lock and key and left to the viewer to see how it unfolds, there is stealthy commentary on class warfare and how far the 1% will go to sell their souls in order to keep their fortune and privilege. Aside from the fact that one wonders how the others who married into the family got away scot-free in just playing Old Maid or a more innocent game, it’s a mere nitpick in an otherwise pretty airtight script entirely set inside and on the grounds of the estate.

Stealing the show in previous horror-comedies (2017’s “The Babysitter” and “Mayhem”) that should have already made her star, Samara Weaving is spectacular in what should be a breakout role as Grace. Even as she gets put through the wringer in a tattered wedding dress that she later modifies, Weaving is a badass with dead-on comic timing, never playing Grace as a damsel in distress but thankfully not turning her into an invincible superwoman, not unlike Sharni Vinson’s Erin in “You’re Next.” By the time Grace is royally pissed-off and has had enough, her primal war cry is absolutely cathartic. 

The ensemble gets more than enough to dig their teeth into as well. Mark O’Brien, as Grace’s new hubby, has a tough role to navigate, as both Grace and the audience are never sure if we should trust him or not, but he pulls it off with aplomb. Smoking from an elegant cigarette case and given harsh make-up, Andie MacDowell is game to play the In-Law From Hell, who shows a sweet and nasty side, and Henry Czerny seizes every scene with a wicked glint in his eye as the patriarch Tony. Nicky Guadagni is a darkly comic secret weapon with merely a dagger-sharp scowl as the disapproving Aunt Helene, who might be the most tied to following her family’s rituals but also shows open disdain for her niece, whom she calls “Brown-Haired Niece” rather than by name. Adam Brody, as Alex’s perpetually drunken brother Daniel, is snarkily amusing with a layer of vulnerability and inner conflict, while Elyse Levesque is iciness incarnate as Daniel’s gold-digging wife Charity. Melanie Scrofano and Kristian Bruun are also quite funny in their own right, respectively, as the manic, bumbling Emily Le Domas and Fitch Bradley, her dolt of a husband who could be related to Milton.

If the accidental deaths of expendable, scantily clad housemaids don’t get a sick laugh every time, particularly because the family members are horrible shots at their actual target, then “Ready or Not” probably won’t be an easily offended viewer’s idea of a good time (but it should be). Radio Silence directs the hell out of their biting script, opening with a gothic credit sequence that displays the geography of the Le Domas manse and bringing a lot of visual style through lighting and production design as the film contrasts a sunny wedding day with a foreboding manor of secret passageways and strange family heirlooms. As the chase itself is suspenseful and excitingly staged, Grace holding her own against the Le Domas’ loyal butler Stevens (John Ralston) in a kitchen and fighting her way out of a pit, the film would seem to not know how to stick the landing, but oh boy, does it. “Ready or Not” ends with such a wildly unexpected, cheerfully blood-soaked punchline that one would be hard-pressed to find a more brazenly unforgettable sequence this year. Ready or not, here comes the most purely entertaining horror-comedy of 2019.

Grade: B +

Clash of the Millennial and Baby Boomer: "Tone-Deaf" sometimes acerbic, sometimes creepy, but too heavy-handed

Tone-Deaf (2019)
87 min.
Release Date: August 23, 2019 (Limited & VOD)

“Tone-Deaf” reaffirms that writer-director Richard Bates Jr. (2016’s “Trash Fire”) is not a filmmaker for all tastes. His pitch-black sense of humor and criss-crossing of different tones have worked mostly in the three other films to his name, dodging easy categorization, but here, the blend of social commentary, horror, and comedy is never as smooth as one would like it to be. While “Tone-Deaf” wavers tonally between arch, off-kilter humor and violence as if two different movies are getting in the way of each other, there’s still some twisted fun to be had in this angry, equal-opportunity diatribe about the tumultuous chasm between two generations — liberal Millennials and stodgy Baby Boomers. 

Los Angeles twentysomething Olive Smith (Amanda Crew) is having a frustrating week, what with breaking up with her boyfriend she doesn’t even like and then shortly after losing her job days before Free Lunch Friday. To get out of the city and decompress for the weekend, she rents out a five-bedroom country manor owned by a widower, Harvey (Robert Patrick). As Olive takes time to herself and gets bored pretty quickly, the dementia-stricken Harvey is finally ready to scratch an itch: tap into his sociopathic tendencies and take out a generation of spoiled brats, starting with Olive, who isn’t entirely the snowflake Harvey assumes.

“Tone-Deaf” is sometimes amusingly acerbic and sometimes creepy, but it’s almost always hammering home its on-the-nose points about generational differences in ways that are more heavy-handed than sharply satirical. The crotchety Harvey breaks the fourth wall on numerous accounts to condemn and rant about the younger generation that’s supposedly sending the country down the tubes, and in the climactic moments, Olive gets to call out Baby Boomers. In breaks from reality that still aren’t subtle but visually interesting, Harvey has surreal nightmares of himself clad in red long johns and encountering people (sometimes two men with anatomically gender-bending parts) in blue body paint as if he’s trapped in an art installation. Red and blue, get it?

Conceptually, the film is quite ambitious and attempts to bring humanity to both Olive and Harvey with their shared losses, although time is split between both of them so much that it’s hard to get a complete grasp on both the protagonist and antagonist. The game performances at least carry the proceedings, from Amanda Crew having a snarky, feisty charm about her as the eye-rolling Olive, despite her self-absorption and lack of job prospects, and Robert Patrick giving a dedicated, uninhibited, “get off my lawn”-type turn as the Millennial-hating Harvey. Kim Delaney also lends warmth and more levity as Crystal, Olive’s hippie mother who has lived on a commune since her husband (Ray Wise) committed suicide when young Olive was performing at her piano recital. The director’s usual suspects, like AnnaLynne McCord, Ray Santiago, and Ronnie Gene Blevins, have bit roles for additional color, and Keisha Castle-Hughes (a long way from 2002’s “Whale Rider”) is a hoot in one scene as a drug dealer-cum-car wash attendant.

One of the apt running jokes in “Tone-Deaf” is that Olive doesn’t know how bad of a piano player she really is, filling her head with the notion that it was always her dream to play, but no one tells her the truth that she can’t play a lick until the climax with Harvey. The horror side of things in terms of acid-trip hallucinations and Harvey’s grisly murders is effective, but pretty standard just the same; contact lens wearers will certainly cringe when the blind-as-a-bat Olive can’t find her glasses, though. All in all, the film’s title is anything but a misnomer, as “Tone-Deaf” has a point-of-view but isn’t quite sure how to go about saying it without addressing the audience directly.

Grade: C +

Friday, August 16, 2019

Shark Bait in Bikinis: "47 Meters Down: Uncaged" tense and ridiculous in equal measure

47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019)
89 min.
Release Date: August 16, 2019 (Wide)

2017’s sleeper hit “47 Meters Down” about two sisters (Mandy Moore, Claire Holt) trapped in a cage on the ocean floor was an immensely effective cinematic panic attack that exploited every aqua-related phobia. Without much surprise when box-office receipts can talk, writer-director Johannes Roberts (2018’s “The Strangers: Prey at Night”) and co-writer Ernest Riera are back for “47 Meters Down: Uncaged,” an in-name-only sequel that has no cages or a hyperventilating Mandy Moore, but it certainly has sharks, two (step)sisters, and a nod to Matthew Modine (who played the boat captain in the first film), with the characters attending Modine International School for Girls, to fall under the same brand. Like a “Friday the 13th” sequel with a sprinkle of 2006’s superior spelunking nightmare “The Descent,” “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” is ridiculously tense and just plain ridiculous in equal measure, and shark-movie fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bullied teenager Mia (Sophia Nélisse) and her popular stepsister, Sasha (Corinne Foxx, daughter of Jamie), have moved with their parents, Grant (John Corbett) and Jennifer (a sadly underused Nia Long), to the Yucatán Peninsula, where Dad, an underwater architect, leads an archaeological expedition into the Mayan caves. For some much-needed bonding time, their parents buy the girls a glass-bottom boat ride in shark-infested waters. At the tourist attraction, Sasha gets scooped up by her best friends, Alexa (Brianne Tju) and Nicole (Sistine Stallone, daughter of Sylvester), and they drag Mia along for once. Off a cliff and into a lagoon with a raft that has four scuba tanks waiting for them, the sisters are swayed by Nicole and Alexa to swim down to the underwater Mayan ruins, a labyrinthine submerged city of narrow tunnels. Though the girls plan to only take one lap around the catacombs and then swim back to the surface, they knock over an underwater column that collapses and seals off their exit. Instead, their damage unleashes evolved creatures of the deep. Will they run out of oxygen first or get taken out by the blind albino sharks?

Before filmmaker Johannes Roberts feels the need to employ so many increasingly laughable slow-motion flourishes, he decidedly knows how to keep piling on the peril for its characters in this extreme Murphy’s Law scenario. A foolish/selfish act involving an ascender is nerve-racking; one character’s grim final moment, being faced with a deadly current, grabbed by a shark, and then taking off their scuba gear to escape the jaws and drown instead, is rawly terrifying; and there is one jump-worthy demise of an optimistic leader that apes the way Samuel L. Jackson went in 1999’s “Deep Blue Sea.” And, if Johannes Roberts paired Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" with a murder sequence in and around a swimming pool to inspired effect in “The Strangers: Prey at Night,” he has his way with The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun” as an ill-fated supporting male character is being stalked in the underwater shadows. Then there's the finale, which is as absurd as it is wildly entertaining when the survivors think their nightmare is over.

While not as intensely claustrophobic as its tenuous predecessor, “48 Meters Down: Uncaged” doesn’t even start with much reassurance. “Cave diving is dangerous,” the meek Mia says in earnest, at which point Nicole mockingly repeats her. Giving the actors the benefit of the doubt since a lot of the dialogue is like that—stiff and on-the-nose—the performances are charismatic and competent at best, as they sell their fear and panic and make us care just enough that nothing bad will happen to them. A jump scare with a screaming fish (who knew?) causes a bad laugh rather than the startle as intended, and though logic isn’t exactly the film’s strong suit, these nubile amateur divers are somehow able to hear and talk to each other via radios, even though their masks don’t cover their ears. 

When the characters shut up, there is a skilled amount of hold-your-breath, cover-your-eyes tension and a number of jolts as the sneaky sharks make themselves known with a “boo!” Composers tomandandy, once again, effectively fuel the dread with their droning, moaning score, but at the same time, returning cinematographer Mark Silk’s underwater photography is sometimes too obscure to make out who is who, silt getting kicked up into the frame notwithstanding. Once the film finally gets going and sticks to the stressful dead-end situations that keep stacking the cards against these four girls in their fight for survival, “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” delivers enough morsels of fun to make when-nature-attacks cinephiles bite before another fish in the sea arrives.

Grade: C +

R-rated Tweens: “Good Boys” raunchy but funny and just as sweet

Good Boys (2019)
89 min.
Release Date: August 16, 2019 (Wide)

Good clean fun, “Good Boys” is not, but for a raunchy tween comedy in the “Superbad” mold, there is a lot more heart underneath than just jokes revolving about sixth graders dropping the F-bomb, looking at porn for kissing tips, sipping beer, and mistaking anal beads for a necklace with a certain stench. That kind of vulgarity is certainly on display, and yet somehow, none of it feels lazy, charmless, or entirely out of this world. What debuting writer-director Gene Stupnitsky and co-writer Lee Eisenberg (who both wrote 2009’s “Year One” and 2011’s “Bad Teacher”) do with a seemingly one-joke premise and an “all involving tweens” R-rating to match is find an endearing tone with their trio of 12-year-old boys who are surprisingly more respectful of women than most adult men. It’s too bad actual sixth graders won’t be able to see “Good Boys” because they will be able to relate to it the most. 

12-year-olds Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) have been best friends since kindergarten—they even call themselves the “Beanbag Boys”—but entering the sixth grade is a big change for all of them. Max crushes on a girl; Thor just wants to showcase his angelic singing voice in the middle school production of “Rock of Ages”; and Lucas has just learned that his parents (Lil Rel Howery, Retta) are getting a divorce. When one of the cool kids invites Max to a “kissing party,” where his crush will be, he plans to bring his pals along. All three of them learning how to kiss gets them into big trouble when they decide to use a drone, which Max’s father (Will Forte) forbids him to use while out of town on business, to spy on his teenage neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), and her boyfriend. Things don’t go as planned when Hannah and her best friend, Lily (Midori Francis), destroy the drone and the boys come into possession of the girls’ childproof-capped vitamin bottle of ecstasy, leading to a series of misadventures.

Like most Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg comedies (they both produced the film), “Good Boys” manages to find a sweet spot between dirty-mindedness and heartfelt, having it both ways without canceling each other out. While the “Beanbag Boys” practice kissing on a bodacious "CPR doll" (with her consent, of course), run across a multiple-lane highway, and get mixed up in a drug deal at a frat house, they are still kids. There is actual relatability and insight into growing up, as Max, Thor, and Lucas come to learn that friendships can change and make them question if their friendship will actually last or just coast along because their parents are friends before taking different paths. It might seem like a facile notion in an R-rated comedy about sixth graders misbehaving, but considering it is quite rare to remain tight with your friend since kindergarten, at least the filmmakers acknowledge the truth in it.

Clocking in at a just-right 89 minutes and not wearing out its welcome, “Good Boys” definitely runs with the ribald material, even if some comedic situations are funnier than others, but it’s all held together by the naturally winning chemistry of its three young actors, who all earn big laughs with their own line deliveries. If 2015’s “Room” was his breakout dramatic role, Jacob Tremblay proves his coming timing as the endearing Max; his naiveté on what a sex swing is or the definition of a “nymphomaniac” (“someone who has sex on land and sea”) come off more adorably clueless than immature. He’s just one member of the squad that includes co-stars Brady Noon, as rebel Thor, and major standout Keith L. Williams, as cautious, truth-telling Lucas (whose tendency to scream never gets old with repetition, just funnier). With “Good Boys,” come for the middle-school boys using a dildo as nunchucks and stay for the bittersweet twilight of innocent childhood.

Grade: B -

Friday, August 9, 2019

Starter Horror: "Scary Stories" ghoulishly fun gateway horror

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
111 min.
Release Date: August 9, 2019 (Wide)

Any child from the 1980s and ‘90s will remember reading—and being terrified by—Alvin Schwartz’s 1981 book “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” the first of three collections of short stories drawn from urban legends. Though naysayers tried banning the books, producer Guillermo del Toro has finally brought the stories and Stephen Gammell’s nightmarish illustrations to the screen. As written by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman with a screenplay credit by del Toro himself and directed by André Øvredal (2016’s tightly controlled and hair-raisingly scary “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”), “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” has not been turned into a horror anthology for teenagers but more of a horror mystery that uses a similar framework to 2015’s “Goosebumps,” where the literary monsters jump off the page. It may not be fun for the characters, but it’s fun for the audience.

1968 in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley is the last autumn of childhood for horror-loving outcast Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her two best friends, Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). On Halloween night, she gets dragged out for some trick-or-treating, but once the trio pranks letterman jacket-wearing bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), they duck into the car of Ramon (Michael Garza), a new face in town, in a drive-in playing “Night of the Living Dead.” Later that night, Stella takes the four boys to a local haunted house, where legend has it that the ghost of Sarah Bellows tells children scary stories that are usually their last before they go missing. In a secret passageway, Bella finds Sarah’s book of scary stories, and once she takes it home, the stories begin writing themselves and taking out the group of friends. As Stella realizes, “You don’t read the book, the book reads you!”

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is not only faithful to the creepy imagery of the source material, but it also gets the spirit just right — nightmare fuel that makes being scared more enjoyable than traumatic. Director André Øvredal decidedly knows his way around a horrific set-piece; one set in a cornfield with a scarecrow named Harold is spooky and surprisingly intense for a PG-13 rated film; certain tales, like “The Big Toe” and “The Red Spot,” deliver two of the film’s most memorable gross-outs when it comes to a corpse's toe found in Auggie’s stew and a growing pimple on the face of Chuck’s older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) before her school musical; and a sequence in a red-tinted hospital hallway where one of the characters feels trapped by a pale, blobby woman is executed with an eerie sense of inescapable danger. CGI aside, particularly with the Jangly Man from the “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” yarn, the practical effects of the grotesque creatures are excellent, and Guillermo del Toro’s fingerprints are all over their design. 

The performances are a little green, even flat (or perhaps it’s a case of occasionally clunky dialogue) but wholly convincing by the young actors. Leading the boys, Zoe Margaret Colletti is earnest and appealing as Stella, a root-worthy heroine who also happens to be an aspiring writer. Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, and Lorraine Toussaint co-star, too, as Stella’s father Roy, Chief Turner, and Sarah Bellows’ former servant Lou Lou, respectively, but this is mainly a showcase for the younger set. 

The 1968 period details loom in the background, from Richard Nixon’s re-election and news of the Vietnam War—“Say ‘No’ to Vietnam!”—seen on television sets, and themes of racism percolate with the addition of Ramon. The early use of the 1966 Donovan song “Season of the Witch” is also used well to set up the seasonal vibe. If there is any downside to the story, it is that the film gets slightly bogged down in too much mythologizing with the legend of Sarah Bellows and Nancy Drew-ing for Stella and her friends, as well as an open ending that promises “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Ghoulish and, above all, fun, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is gateway horror done right without watering down the fear and the healing power of scary stories.

Grade: B