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Films I Neglected To Review: House Hunted
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Abattoir," "The Eyes of My Mother" and "Things to Come"

Possibly the first horror film aimed at both gorehounds and devotees of HGTV, "Abattoir" takes an initially intriguing, if batshit crazy, premise and then fails to do a single thing about it. As the film opens, tough-talking real-estate reporter Julia (Jessica Lowndes in full Lois Lane mode) is reeling from the brutal and seemingly inexplicable slaughter of her sister and her entire family in their home when she returns to the scene of the crime and discovers that not only has the entire house been sold to a mysterious buyer, the room in which everyone was killed has somehow been broken down and removed from the structure. Thanks to her particular field of knowledge (cue lots of talk about the intricacies of escrow), she and her cop ex-boyfriend (Joe Anderson) discover a bunch of other murder scenes in which the room where the actual crime was committed has vanished. This leads them eventually to New English, a strange town in the middle of nowhere under the thrall of Jebediah Crone (Dayton Callie), a mysterious man who seems determined to use those errant rooms to construct his own literal rehab from hell--a house in which every room has a dark and evil secret. With time running out, Julia tries to get to the bottom of the question of why he would want to do such a thing and, more importantly, whether he plans to love it or list it.

Considering all the horror favorites that it borrows from wholesale, I suppose it makes sense that "Abattoir" would be about a house constructed from elements taken from other scenes of mayhem. The conceit has a certain wacko charm to it, I suppose, but director Darren Lynn Bousman, the auteur of such deathless classics as the camp horror musical "Repo: The Genetic Opera," the lame remake of "Mother's Day" and more "Saw" sequels than any one person should have attached to their name, cannot figure out anything to do with it. Outside of a slightly stylized look in the opening scenes that serves as a reminder of this story's graphic novel origins, the whole thing unfolds in the most predictable manner imaginable (right down to trucking in Lin Shaye to play the half sweet/half crazy old woman who explains most of the convoluted backstory--in other words, the typical Lin Shaye part) leading up to a "shocking" ending that proves to be anything but that. Throw in some genuinely awful performances from the three leads and a complete lack of the kind of suspense, atmosphere or creative gore that one normally associates with a successful horror movie and you have a film that deserves to be stuck up in a dusty corner of a rarely visited attic where it can be quickly and decisively forgotten.

Somewhat more successful as a horror exercise, though not without its own problems, is "The Eyes of My Mother," a dark and occasionally deeply disturbing work from debuting writer-director Nicolas Pesce. In a long prologue, we are introduced to Francesca (Olivia Bond), a young girl living on a remote farmhouse with her equally remote father and beloved mother, a former eye surgeon from Portugal who teaches her how to dissect cow heads (especially the peepers) as a way of teaching her about anatomy. This bucolic, if occasionally icky, existence is irrevocably shattered when a stranger (Will Brill) happens along one day and beats Mom to death while Francesca sits in the next room. What happens from this point on is best not revealed here but suffice it to say, young Francesca does grow up (and is now played by Kika Magalhaes) and the combination of the horrible experience of her childhood, her innate curiosity about the workings of the body and her deep-seated desire to finally connect with someone causes her to act out in mysterious and frequently gruesome ways.

Like "Abattoir," "The Eyes of My Mother" is a film that has clearly been inspired by any number of earlier horror titles--the cult classic "May" will immediately spring to mind--but unlike "Abattoir," Pesce uses those inspirations as a jumping-off point for what proves to be his own decidedly singular vision. Instead, he gives viewers a smart and spare narrative that slowly and inexorably builds a sense of tension and dread throughout, a striking visual style (including beautiful black & white cinematography by ) that adds to the mood and an alternately frightening and moving central performance by Magalhaes as the older Francesca. In her hands, Francesca is a deeply deranged and disturbed woman but thanks to her nuanced performance, we also feel a certain degree of sympathy for the character and a sadness over how events out of her hands transformed her from the sweet girl from the opening scenes to the figure of quiet and implacable terror in the later ones. "The Eyes of My Mother" will almost certainly prove to be the most divisive film of its type to come around since "The Witch"--gorehounds may find it to be too slow and moody for their tastes while art house buffs may be put off by the moments of extreme violence and bloodshed (which are only partially muted by the b&w cinematography) but those who find themselves in between those two extremes are likely to find it to be a genuinely striking genre exercise that they won't be able to shake for quite some time after watching it.

For fans of the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, this season is proving to be an embarrassment of riches. A couple of weeks ago saw the release of Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," a brilliant, disturbing and darkly funny thriller in which she delivered the performance of her career as a hard-driven businesswoman whose reaction to her brutal sexual assault is decidedly unexpected. Now comes Mia Hansen-Love's "Things to Come," a less provocative but equally compelling drama in which she plays another cool career woman who responds to major upheavals in her life in unexpected ways. In this one, she plays Nathalie, a Parisian philosophy professor and author whose life revolves around her job, her husband (Andre Marcon) and children and caring for her increasingly unstable mother (Edith Scob). Practically one on top of the other, these are all taken away from her when she loses her book contract, is forced to finally put her mother in a home and learns that her husband is moving out to be with another woman and wants a divorce. Rather than feel a sense of anguish or loss at these events, Nathalie observes them with a certain philosophical detachment and while she does fully feel the various losses, she also comes to realize that for the first time in ages, she has been granted the freedom to do whatever she wants.

At first glance, "Things to Come" may sound pretty familiar--the kind of storyline that Hollywood trots out once in a while when they feel pressured to make a movie starring a woman over 40--but as it proceeds, it soon becomes obvious that Hansen-Love has given viewers something far smarter and probing than the usual melodrama. As Nathalie undergoes her various trials as her circumstances change, Hansen-Love observes the proceedings in a quiet and formally restrained manner that never tries to push the buttons of audiences in order to get an easy reaction from them. Likewise, Huppert plays her character in a calm and cool manner that allows her to register all the ups and downs and emotional extremes that she goes through without ever going over the top into mere histrionics--if there is a shock to be had in her performance, it is in the fact that, after devoting a large part of her career to playing highly dysfunctional people, she is just as capable of playing a perfectly normal person and making them just as fascinating as her more celebrated creations. It is just too bad that "Things to Come" is coming out so soon after the release of "Elle" because it is almost certainly doomed to be lost in the wake of that career-topping turn--if that movie doesn't exist, Huppert's performance here is the one that people would be talking about as being worthy of an Oscar nomination.

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originally posted: 12/03/16 04:16:55
last updated: 12/03/16 05:04:55
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