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

Mob Wives: "The Kitchen" boasts dynamite performances but feels choppy and underwritten

The Kitchen (2019)
102 min.
Release Date: August 9, 2019 (Wide)

“The Kitchen,” based on the Vertigo graphic novel series, is a hard-edged crime drama set in a traditionally male-dominated world where those married to the mob become the mob. Making her directorial debut, screenwriter Andrea Berloff (2015’s “Straight Outta Compton”) unfortunately runs into challenges of making a gritty story like this work with shifts in tone that don’t always sit well, rushed story beats, and characters that aren’t drawn as vividly as they should be. On paper, the mere conceit of Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss as mob wives is the major draw here, and for the most part, that idea goes a long way toward smoothing over an underwritten script and haphazard editing. “The Kitchen” is entertaining nonetheless, with three dynamite performances, that the finished product might look a little better than it ought to be, and yet, it's simultaneously never as good as it could have been.

It is 1978 in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) are the three wives to men in the Irish mob. Once their respective husbands, the loving Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), the cheating Kevin (James Badge Dale), and the abusive Rob (Jeremy Bobb), are busted by FBI Agent Gary Silvers (Common) during a liquor store robbery, the women are left worried about their financial lives as their men get sentenced to prison for three years and they themselves cannot get jobs. Even though Kathy, Ruby, and Claire are promised to be taken care of by the mob, under the thumb of Little Jackie (Myk Watford) and Ruby’s mother-in-law Helen (Margo Martindale), the allowance they’re given to tide themselves over isn’t even enough to cover the rent. These three realize pretty quickly that they will have to take care of themselves by carrying on their husbands’ racketeering, ensuring protection and security within their neighborhood and having everyone in their pocket, and they’re damn good at it. 

In the vein of 2018’s superior “Widows” but nowhere near as elegantly constructed, “The Kitchen” feels half-formed and choppy through the writing and editing processes when it might have benefited from more breathing room. The women’s rise to power happens so fast, as if a string of montages with a rock-ballad needle drop (Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” Etta James’ “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”) can cover up the gaps. Scenes are either missing, go on too long, or are so truncated as if they were whittled down to nothing. Supporting characters that the viewer has yet to meet are spoken about and then pop up conveniently out of nowhere. More importantly, the lead characters aren’t all that fleshed out. They all start out as women who are undervalued, but Kathy becomes the brains of the operation, while still having to take care of her two children; Ruby is the ball-buster; and Claire is no longer going to take being knocked around when she learns how to dismember a body, which is played for sick laughs.

Melissa McCarthy is terrific, dominating in another role that utilizes both her dramatic and comedic talents as Kathy, the housewife in charge. Tiffany Haddish is fierce and formidable in a rare straight role as Ruby, who’s been marginalized for not only being a woman but for being a person of color. Elisabeth Moss brings her all to the put-upon Claire, who uses her new knack for bloodlust to take her power back, but her compelling transformative arc from battered wife to cold-blooded killer has little “there” there, with an awkwardly handled romance between Claire and sociopathic enforcer Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson) that feels undercooked, and how the script treats her later does not feel earned. The great Margo Martindale is delightfully withering as Helen O’Carroll, the Mother-in-Law From Hell; Bill Camp is another standout as Italian mob boss Alfonso Coretti; and Annabella Sciorra has two scenes as Coretti’s wife.

Writer-director Andrea Berloff never revels in the violence but doesn’t shy away from the viciousness of it, either. Enough care and effort have been put forth to turn the clock back forty-some years, the grungy ‘70s sense of place in Hell's Kitchen looking lived-in and the costume design authentic, even if the film’s overall style is no more than point-and-shoot competence. In the end, “The Kitchen” is not as great as the juicy performances supporting it. Having women instead of men take care of the streets and having someone whacked should have made for an even more affecting and nuanced film than the one this empowerment fantasy is content to be.

Grade: C +

Friday, July 19, 2019

Not Quite Feeling the Love Tonight: "The Lion King" technically impressive but a slavishly faithful facsimile without as much feeling

The Lion King (2019)
110 min.
Release Date: July 19, 2019 (Wide)

When childhood nostalgia is involved and a beloved animated feature already exists, it’s easy to be cynical and instantly write off another “live-action” Disney remake. While there’s no getting around that all movie studios are motivated by making money, any great story deserves to be told in a different form on the big screen and for a different generation when there’s cutting-edge technology to showcase. With that said, in this unnecessary trend, 2019’s “The Lion King” is just the exact same Shakespearean story from the 1994 hand-drawn animated film, only with a pretty, polished coat of CG paint and a more padded running time. After bringing something special to 2016’s “The Jungle Book,” director Jon Favreau’s latest photorealistic recreation is more of a slavishly faithful, scene-for-scene facsimile this time. Vastly impressive from a technical standpoint, but save for a few exceptions, this remake is inferior to its 25-year-old predecessor and only works sporadically on an emotional level.

The story of 2019’s “The Lion King” is the same as it was in, you guessed it, 1994’s “The Lion King.” Born to be the heir to the African animal kingdom, young cub Simba (voice of JD McCrary) learns about his place in the circle of life from father and current king Mufasa (the magisterial James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original), while making friends with Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and being watched by majordomo Zazu (John Oliver). Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) soon plots against his brother to overturn the throne with the help from some hyenas by killing Mufasa and blaming Simba for his father’s death. Filled with guilt, Simba runs away and meets a carefree duo in the form of meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), who show him the ropes in how to eat grubs. All grown up, Simba (Donald Glover) reunites with his dear friend Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), remembering who he is, and stands up to his uncle to take back what is rightfully his.

Playing out as a Disneynature documentary with lifelike animals who also happen to be anthropomorphic characters in a version of “Hamlet,” “The Lion King” starts off on a high note before going a bit slack and lifeless in the proceedings when Timon and Pumbaa aren't around. The opening scene with “The Circle of Life” is majestic and generates the kind of goosebumps it aims for, as the entire animal kingdom gathers below Pride Rock to witness the unveiling of future leader Simba as an adorable cub with tactile fur. The wildebeest stampede that imperils Simba while practicing his roar in a gorge is intensely staged, the tragic fall of Mufasa is affecting, and there is also a beautifully conceived new sequence that tracks a tuft of Simba’s fur through its own circle of life until it makes its way to baboon Rafiki (John Kani). After that, the script by screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (2017’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) doesn’t make many alterations to the story, not that there needed to be, besides giving Simba’s mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) more of a voice and more agency to adult Nala who defies Scar. 

All of the vocal talent from the all-star cast is fine—and appreciably, the majority of them are performers of color, considering the story is set in Africa—although the casting of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as wisecracking meerkat Timon and flatulent warthog Pumbaa, ends up being the most inspired. It helps that Timon and Pumbaa are the most welcome source of energy and comic relief, but Eichner and Rogen steal the show anyway as the most vocally expressive, making their banter feel fresh and funny every time (including a clever “Beauty and the Beast” gag worked in). Also, it’s a tall order to drip with menacing villainy like Jeremy Irons, but Chiwetel Ejiofor is effective as Scar. 

As spectacular as the animation looks, though, the hyperrealism of the talking-and-singing animals doesn’t always positively serve the story or engender the feeling that it probably should have. Hans Zimmer’s score is still intact, as are Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs (with the addition of a new song, “Spirit,” by Beyoncé), but seeing as how the hyperrealistic animal characters are not animated and can’t really do much besides scamper forward while singing, the musical numbers are not as show-stopping as they were the first time around. That goes for Timon and Pumbaa’s anthem “Hakuna Matata”—it means “no worries”—and even the bouncy “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” with young Simba, Nala, and Zazu. Even if the technical wizardry bringing the animals to life is nothing to scoff at, “The Lion King” isn’t much more than a spectacle achievement when there isn't as much of the joy or heart to match.

Grade: C +

Friday, July 12, 2019

Gators in a House: "Crawl" a lean, mean thrill machine that does what it should

Crawl (2019)
87 min.
Release Date: July 12, 2019 (Wide)

Being trapped in a crawlspace during a Category 5 hurricane with water flooding in and several alligators is the stuff of nightmares and the simple premise behind “Crawl.” Directed by Alexandre Aja (2016’s “The 9th Life of Louis Drax”) and penned by brothers Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen (2011’s “The Ward”), the film is lean and mean with no time for a climate-change metaphor. With basic character development quickly dealt with, it’s one hairy, white-knuckle situation after another, and what “Crawl” does, it does quite efficiently and then keeps upping the ante. A creature feature released during the summer is like a Christmas in July present for genre fans.

University of Florida competitive swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodalario) comes in second place at a swim meet just as a hurricane is brewing outside and everyone in town is evacuating. When her equally stubborn and divorced father, Dave (Barry Pepper), won’t answer her calls, she drives a couple hours to their in-escrow family home in Coral Lake to check on him and finds his truck in the driveway. Hearing a radio in the crawlspace under the house, Haley soon finds her dad unconscious and wounded behind all the pipes. As it turns out, one alligator (as far as they know) has crawled through the storm drain and ruined their only chance of easily escaping the crawlspace. Using her swimming speed and endurance and overall know-how, Haley will have to fend her and her dad off from many more gators that enter the space as the storm intensifies and the water fills up.

“Crawl” is a nonstop blast, a prime summer movie that will satisfy moviegoers who paid to see some expertly staged gator shenanigans. As a thriller, it is tight, straightforward, and more than capable of delivering all the stress-laden terror and giddy excitement that typify this kind of picture; it’s even respectably gory, however, more of a crowd-pleaser that’s never on the nastier level of Aja’s oeuvre (like 2005’s “High Tension,” 2006’s “The Hills Have Eyes” and 2010’s “Piranha 3D”). There are also carefully chosen shots, like the camera picking up a doorway with Haley’s progressive height throughout her childhood that will eventually show the depth of the water inside the home, and devious use of space and background (in one case for the latter, an attack on one member of an unlucky trio of thieves looting a whole ATM machine on to a fishing boat is glimpsed through a convenience store mirror).  

The cast primarily consists of Kaya Scodelario (2018’s “The Death Cure”) and Barry Pepper, who are easy to buy as a daughter and father cut from the same cloth. Scodelario is the focal point of the film, giving one hell of a physical and emotional performance as Haley, and the viewer vicariously experiences what she goes through in testing her bravery to save both her, her father, and family dog Sugar. And, as for the alligators and the storm, the effects are as convincing as they need to be to elicit genuine danger. Earnest scenes of father and daughter hashing out their troubled history, accompanied by music-swelling flashbacks to Dave coaching Haley, sometimes slow down the pace at times when the characters already have our investment, but that’s a mere nitpick for a film that is relentless, harrowing, and without any pretenses. The tautly paced and technically accomplished “Crawl” is a genre treat that actually warrants the tired “edge-of-your-seat” expression.

Grade: B

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Don't Let Them In: "Trespassers" often tense and stylish but mainly just nasty, and not in a fun way

Trespassers (2019)
88 min.
Release Date: July 12, 2019 (Limited & VOD)

There’s a certain line a horror film has to walk in order to be a merciless, gripping experience rather than cruel and unpleasant, but “Trespassers” (originally titled “Hell Is Where the Home Is”) ultimately crosses the line, doing its characters dirty and never earning the viciousness. Credit director Orson Oblowitz and writer Corey Deshon for bringing a prickliness to the character relationships and initially defying expectations before the actual home-invasion plot gets underway, but when one begins to root for three out of the four protagonists to just be put out of their misery, it’s a tell-tale sign that there’s not much to “Trespassers” besides being a purely nasty contained thriller.

Married couple Sarah (Angela Trimbur) and Joseph (Zach Avery) rent out a house from a couple of photojournalists in the Mojave Desert for the weekend in hopes of an escape from the tragic loss of their unborn child that has strained their relationship. Much to Joseph’s chagrin, Sarah has also invited her somewhat estranged high school friend Estelle (Janel Parrish) and Estelle’s boyfriend Victor (Jonathan Howard), who bring out the booze and coke. As the night presses on, both couples’ relationship troubles bubble to the surface but have to be tabled once a woman (Fairuza Balk) claiming to be a neighbor whose car has broken down knocks on the door. Sarah lets her in to use the landline since there's no cell service in the area, but the woman outstays her welcome. Everything goes to hell before a Mexican gang of masked, machete-packing intruders even pose a threat.

“Trespassers” is crafted with some pleasing tension and neon-infused style, complemented by Noah Rosenthal's cinematography and Jonathan Snipes’ propulsive, synth-heavy music score, once the intensity gets ratcheted up. There is a gasp-worthy moment involving a carafe and a “what-would-you-do?” sense of terror to the predicament Sarah, Joseph, Estelle, and Victor finds themselves in, and then there’s fifty-five minutes remaining. Angela Trimbur (2016’s “Trash Fire”) has the most sympathetic character to play and goes through the wringer as the final girl that Sarah so clearly is, even if the film doesn’t really deserve her commitment. It’s not that Zach Avery, Janel Parrish, and Jonathan Howard aren’t competent in their roles, but their characters aren’t given enough redeeming qualities to feel like well-rounded people, particularly toxic, thoroughly unlikable Victor, who might be the “smartest” in being against opening the door to a stranger but is so exempt of any sympathy. Although billed only as The Visitor and not clearly tied into the goings-on, Fairuza Balk adds a watchable, unpredictable weirdness for the short time she’s on screen, and whether or not it’s a nod to her character Nancy in 1996’s “The Craft,” Balk gets to say, “I am not the Wicked Witch of the West, honey.”

A lot of crawling around on the floor, fending off the intruders, and intruder-to-victim torture ensues, all of it bloody and brutal, but there’s no real draw to watching any of it go down. The stereotypical intruders’ motivation is pretty standard—they need a McGuffin from inside the house—and the weekend renters are just at the wrong place at the wrong time, natch. “Trespassers” delivers nothing particularly new, even if it's effective in spurts (a fight-to-the-finish brawl next to a pool is well-staged), but while the script gives its characters plenty of interpersonal drama to work with before their life-or-death struggle, there is precious little to care about. 


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Breakup Festival: “Midsommar” an unsettling yet perversely cathartic and darkly funny daytime nightmare

Midsommar (2019)
147 min.
Release Date: July 3, 2019 (Wide)

Ari Aster greatly impressed—and divided audiences—with his core-shaking feature debut, 2018’s “Hereditary,” but no matter what, everyone could agree that he proved himself to be a daring, thoughtful filmmaker and artist as if he has been working in the business for decades next to any of the greats. While Aster carries over similar themes of paganism and loss with his follow-up film, “Midsommar,” he explores a different kind of toxic and disintegrating relationship between a couple who should have already called it quits long before one of them experiences a major loss. Deeply unsettling as it is strange and perverse, the film is a darkly funny breakup drama framed through 1973’s “The Wicker Man,” where the viewer is, by design, rooting for them to not stay together. Even if some of the breadcrumbs may take another viewing to click into place, unlike the meticulous construction of "Hereditary," "Midsommar" still mounts like a cinematic panic attack and then lands with a disturbingly satisfying catharsis.

After receiving a startling email from her bipolar sister, psychology grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) tries to get in touch with her and her parents, but it’s too late when a sudden tragedy strikes. She turns to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for comfort, but he has been trying to end their four-year relationship (he thinks they have been together for three and a half) and now feels obligated to stay with her as she grieves. When Dani learns that Christian and his two college friends, fellow sociology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and group boor Mark (Will Poutler), have planned an overseas trip for a nine-day solstice festival with Swedish roommate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to the insular commune where he grew up, she gets a pity invite and tags along in hopes of exorcising her crushing grief. They arrive to the sunny, bucolic, ultra-inviting community with a warm welcome by Pelle’s friendly family and friends, all dressed in white frocks and tunics and ready to celebrate with games, dancing, and food. As the consuming of psychedelic properties get to be too much and the pageantry of the culturally unorthodox ceremony rituals prove to be too disturbing for these interlopers, particularly Dani, their fates might already be sealed.

From frame one, where a Nordic winter tableau with a woman chanting off-screen smash cuts to a ringing phone in suburban America, “Midsommar” immediately percolates dread and sustains it for the next 147 minutes through an unhurried yet hypnotic tempo and elegant craftsmanship. Then, like many a horror film about interlopers entering an unfamiliar place and ignoring the warning signs, the film presents the Swedish commune as a deceptively idyllic community, aided by exquisite production design, from intricate tapestries and wall decorations to elaborate dinner setups where the head of the table leads and a domino effect follows. Not only does the film fall into a vacation romp turned upside down into folk horror, it is a meditation on interpersonal communication in decline. Dani and Christian represent very different levels of gender communication in their relationship that is so dysfunctional it could be seen from space. They can’t even agree on how long they have been together, and Dani will apologize, even if Christian is the one who says something hurtful. Even as this would-be paradise full of wide open space seems like the right escape for Danny, there is no escape.

Much like the performance Ari Aster got out of Toni Collette in “Hereditary,” Florence Pugh (2019’s “Fighting with My Family”) is extraordinary, traversing a raw, overwhelmingly emotional  and always empathetic journey from fragility, neediness and fear to catharsis that demands her entire being. What’s more, Pugh is a dead ringer for a younger Kate Winslet. Jack Reynor (2016's "Sing Street") slides between playing Christian as charming and infuriatingly selfish and unsupportive, and while Will Poutler (2017's "Detroit") has a less complicated role to play, he is rather effective at playing a complete prick.

In stark contrast with its floral countryside setting where the sun eternally shines, “Midsommar” is a daytime nightmare of insidious portent and encroaching doom. This time, though, Ari Aster filters an unexpected sense of humor through the disorientation of foreign, allegedly too-good-to-be-true circumstances, from one of the character’s observations of a bear casually caged in the field and Mark’s crass, disrespectful American attitude. Even then, these seemingly incongruous flashes of comedy still feel like harbingers of doom, along with Bobby Krlic’s increasingly sinister music score, and how Aster handles bursts of violence are unflinching and visceral. Pawel Pogorzelski’s tour-de-force cinematography and Jennifer Lame and Lucia Johnston’s seamless editing find a quixotic alchemy, like in an overhead shot of Dani running into Christian’s apartment bathroom that then becomes an airplane bathroom. The camera tends to put the viewer at a distance from certain characters in wide shots, but there is always an intimacy when Dani is on screen.

There is a cruel inevitability to where “Midsommar” is headed, like watching a train wreck in slow motion, and while the payoff is not quite as gutting, how it gets there is no less chilling and operatic, akin to “The Wicker Man, with a tinge of twisted hope. Watching a decaying relationship be tested in a communal camp of questionable traditions, “Midsommar” isn’t an easy two-and-a-half-hour trip to take, but the experience is an unforgettably disquieting one that crawls under the skin and will dash any plans of making a bucket-list trip to Sweden.

Grade: B +

Monday, June 24, 2019

Nightmares in Babysitting: "Annabelle Comes Home" a blast of funhouse scares, heart, and likable characters

Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
106 min.
Release Date: June 26, 2019 (Wide)

Upping the ante as the third installment in the “Annabelle” series, “Annabelle Comes Home” delivers on the can’t-miss conceptual promise of a “Night at the Museum”-type spookshow with the titular pigtailed nightmare and other relics from the Warrens’ haunted artifact room. Also considered the seventh entry in “The Conjuring Universe,” the film might be the most satisfying film since we last saw the Warren family directly involved. Gary Dauberman (writer of 2014’s “Annabelle,” 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation,” and 2018’s “The Nun”) makes his directorial bow and works from his own screenplay, concocting a blast of an up-all-night babysitting adventure that blends funhouse scares and thrilling tension with a comparatively lighter tone, as well as the most heart this series has offered. “Annabelle Comes Home” not only cares about engineering hair-raising doozies, but it goes one step further by respecting the likable characters whom the viewer can easily care about. 

After a recent case involving the cuddly, sweet-faced doll Annabelle that acts as a conduit for an inhuman spirit, paranormal investigators-cum-demonologists-cum-husband-and-wife Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) have the doll blessed by a priest and then lock her away in a glass cabinet within their artifact room of other haunted objects in their suburban Connecticut home. A year later after the evil has seemingly been contained, the Warrens leave town to investigate another case while responsible teen Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) babysits their 10-year-old daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace). What could go wrong? Mary Ellen’s friend, Daniella (Katie Sarife), stops over uninvited, bringing over a pair of roller skates to Judy as a birthday present. While Daniella encourages Mary Ellen to take Judy out to test them out, she promises to watch the birthday cake in the oven but also hurries to go snooping for the key to open the door to the Warrens’ forbidden artifact room. Daniella eventually finds the key, and once curiously wandering through and touching every cursed artifact, she opens Annabelle’s cabinet marked “Warning! Positively Do Not Open” that unleashes all of the other spirits from their tchotchke vessels. The three girls are in for a long, ghoulish night.

An ideal option to watch at a sleepover or in a theater inside of a sleeping bag, “Annabelle Comes Home” plays out like a fun haunted-house ride that might not be deeply horrifying but dishes out the creeps and levity in equal measure. Save for the attention-grabbing opening sequence that introduces how Ed and Lorraine get their hands on the trouble-making doll, the film is a spine-tingler in the most classical mode by taking its time working up to the tense set-pieces and giving optimal breathing room to the characters who are just carrying on with their day before Annabelle and friends come out to play. First-time director Gary Dauberman makes confident use of the camera for maximum mood and suspense, mischievously setting up would-be jump scares with anticipation and then twisting expectations of such predictable rhythms. Outside of milking the inanimate, yet still creepy, Raggedy Ann stand-in for all she’s worth, Dauberman unleashes a whole bag of tricks, including a killer wedding dress, Milton Bradley board game Feeley Meeley, a future-telling television set, and a coin-eyed soul collector called The Ferryman. While several jolts are of the jumpy variety and still effective, some of the more restrained chills include a dead priest following Judy around, calling to mind 2015’s “It Follows"; Daniela spotting her deceased father staring back at her from the Warrens' back door; and the striking use of Judy’s bedroom spinning lamp to illuminate a certain someone’s shadow. 

Recast as Judy Warren, Mckenna Grace (2017’s “I, Tonya”) is preternaturally assured, carrying herself with such a maturity and thoughtfulness that bely her young age. Like her mother, Judy has been gifted—nay, cursed—with a sixth sense, and what Judy’s parents do for a living has an effect on her life at school, particularly with her birthday party coming up and all of her classmates declining their invitation. Madison Iseman (2018’s “Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween”) is warm and likable as Mary Ellen, and Katie Sarife brings much more personality and unexpectedly moving layers to Daniela, whose desperate curiosity to enter the Warrens’ Artifact Room extends to her grief and desire to contact her late father since she has lived with guilt for his death. Together, Grace, Iseman, and Sarife all share a nice chemistry together that it’s easy to invest in them, and though Daniela is the one to open Pandora’s box, there is enough sympathy and traceable thought to her that she becomes more than just a dumb horror-movie stereotype. Newcomer Michael Cimino also makes a sweet impression as Bob, a wholesome grocery clerk with a mutual crush on Mary Ellen, even if his participation in the story suddenly stops until the end. Last but not least, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson may only appear in the bookending scenes, but they should be commended for portraying Lorraine and Ed Warren as figures whom we trust and feel safe with, and their love and support for one another, as well as their daughter, still rings true.

As any well-crafted horror film does, “Annabelle Comes Home” begins and ends with the lives of its closely observed characters. Gary Dauberman makes the wise choice to not end on a cheap stinger but to close on how the supernatural goings-on have impacted the Warren family, as well as Mary Ellen and Daniella, and where they all go from there. Another bonus is that the early-‘70s production design is so lived-in and fastidiously detailed, from the shag carpeting of the Warrens’ homey split-level house, to Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” playing on the car radio and Badfinger’s “Day After Day” on vinyl, and that dreaded artifact room. R-rated more for terror than explicit violence, “Annabelle Comes Home” makes one realize that they actually missed the porcelain beacon of evil after all, achieving the mission statement of the “Conjuring” canon by knowing how to rattle audiences with a welcome sense of macabre fun.

Grade: B +

Friday, June 21, 2019

Chatty Chucky: "Child's Play" a clever, playfully malevolent update that justifies its existence

Child’s Play (2019)
90 min.
Release Date: June 21, 2019 (Wide)

It might never be necessary to re-imagine a highly regarded horror film, particularly one that has spawned six sequels and still continues to thrive by its original creator with a TV series on the way, but 2019’s “Child’s Play” figures out a way to be fresh. One can keep their fondness for 1988’s Tom Holland-directed, Don Mancini-written “Child’s Play”—and its sequels—and not dismiss this clever update on its own merits. Dropping the voodoo angle of the original mythos, where the soul of serial strangler Charles Lee Ray (Brad Douriff) was transferred into a Good Guy doll, director Lars Klevberg and first-time screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith take a more current, high-tech approach that’s not far off from a “Black Mirror” episode about artificial intelligence run amok. As such, “Child’s Play” is refreshingly playful with a demented glee.

The Kaslan Corporation specializes in making life a whole lot easier with its innovative technology, pushing out a line of toy products, particularly a popular “Buddi” doll that can control and connect to other smart household devices. After a disgruntled sweatshop worker in Vietnam disables all of the safety firewalls on one of the dolls and then kills himself, the defective animatronic toy gets dumped into U.S. department store Zed Mart and falls into the hands of customer service employee and single mom Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza). Her 13-year-old son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman), is having a tough time acclimating to their fresh start and making new friends. Even though the “Buddi 2” model is fast approaching, Karen wraps up the doll as an early birthday gift and gives it to Andy. Not too impressed at first, Andy then imprints himself on the doll and makes buddies with his new pal who calls himself Chucky. All is going well, until the computer inside Chucky becomes too self-aware and starts to take out those who hurt Andy, like Karen’s jerk of a boyfriend (David Lewis). As Chucky leaves a trail of bodies, Detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry) investigates. 

Besides carrying over the title, the names of the main characters, and the overall premise of a murderous doll named Chucky, 2019’s “Child’s Play” goes its own way instead of being a note-for-note retread, thus making a case for its own existence. The film has the decency to be aware of its own silliness and how creepy the doll looks even before it goes violent. When Andy makes friends with a pair of siblings, Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio), who live in his apartment building, they sit around and watch “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” laughing at the over-the-top carnage on TV. Chucky, meanwhile, mistakes the violence for being hilarious and grabs a knife, as if his behavior is learned through his environment. Thankfully, “Child’s Play” does not go soft on its targeted new generation by being as gory and gnarly as it wants to be, even if children are involved. Chucky is still up to his stab-a-thon, but he also makes use of a rototiller, a self-driving smart car, and a thermostat paired with a circular saw. The film is never particularly scary, although a quick game of peekaboo in a car is tense and creepy, and a piece of murder evidence attached to a watermelon is one of the film’s most morbidly amusing gags. The climax, set at Zed Mart’s “Buddi 2.0” doll unveiling, does crank the carnage up to eleven, but it’s almost as hurried as it is ultimately satisfying.

Aubrey Plaza playing a cool single mom is certainly out-of-the-box casting, and while she does convince and gets a few chances to enliven the role with snarky wit, it approaches thankless status by giving her far less to do than Catherine Hicks’ Karen Barclay in the original film. Brian Tyree Henry is likable as Detective Mike, whose mom Doreen (Carlease Burke) lives down the hall from the Barclays, but he is fairly underutilized as well. Gabriel Bateman (2016’s “Lights Out”), on the other hand, is terrific as Andy and carries most of the film on his shoulders. And how is Chucky? Brad Douriff is so synonymous with Chucky, having voiced the one-liner-spewing killer doll for all seven films in Don Mancini’s series, and while he cannot be matched, it is a rather inspired choice to cast Mark Hamill (whom one might forget has done lot of voice work over the course of his career) as the sweetly menacing voice of this newly designed Chucky. 

Director Lars Klevberg’s direction is surprisingly stylish, coupled by cinematographer Brendan Uegama bringing a colorful slickness and Bear McCreary’s perfect score of malevolent whimsy, and there are a couple of sly visual nods to “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” as well as an overt reference to “Han Solo” (“Luke Skywalker” would have been too obvious). This 2019 redux will divide the most protective Chucky fans, but it does dare to separate itself enough from original “Child’s Play” creator Don Mancini’s still-active series that audiences should be pretty entertained and pleased with an alternative version of their favorite ginger-haired, denim overall-wearing bad guy. It’s okay to like both.

Grade: B -