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Films I Neglected To Review: Horrors!

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/06/20 09:44:22

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Dark and the Wicked," "Kindred," "Smooth Talk" and "Triggered."

Not being much of a fan of his debut film, the nasty and painfully derivative "The Strangers" (though I did like his much-less-heralded followup "The Monster"), I probably did not go into my view of filmmaker Bryan Bertino's latest horror effort, "The Dark and the Wicked," with much in the way of enthusiasm. As a result, I was more than a little surprised to discover that I liked it as much as I did. Granted, the story--two adult siblings (Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr.) return to the remote farm where they grew up to help their aging mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) care for their dying father (Michael Zagst) in his final days and events begin to take a mysterious and increasingly horrifying turn with the arrival of a strange force that seems determined to destroy them all--is not exactly blazingly original to the point where genre buffs could challenge themselves to try to name all of the films from which he has clearly borrowed bits and pieces. At the same time, while the elements on hand may be familiar, Bertino deploys them in an undeniably stylish and occasionally creepy manner that does a very good job of establishing a quietly menacing atmosphere and creating both extended scenes of slow-burn suspense and out-of-nowhere jump scares. The strong and focused performances from Ireland and Abbott Jr. go a long way towards helping to sell the material as well--between this and her impressive turn in the low-fi ghost story "Light from Light," Ireland is fast becoming the thinking person's scream queen (which I mean as a compliment, needless to say). It is too bad that viewers, at least for the time being, will be unable to see "The Dark and the Wicked" in a big theatre with a large audience because I can imagine it going over like gangbusters under those circumstances. However, even viewed from the comfort of your own living room, it packs enough of a punch to leave you feeling nervous and edgy afterwards despite the familiar surroundings.

"Kindred," on the other hand, tells another story that will no doubt seem familiar to genre buffs but inexplicably takes its seemingly sure-fire thriller concept and renders all of its dramatic elements virtually inert. As the film opens, Charlotte (Tamara Lawrence) is preparing to move to Australia with her boyfriend, Ben (Edward Holcroft), a bit of news that is not taken well by his mother, Margaret (Fiona Shaw) and "brother," Thomas (Jack Lowden), who want him to stay and help keep up the estate that has been in the family for generations. Things become complicated when Charlotte discovers that she is pregnant--news that she is deeply ambivalent about for very good reasons--and then become even more so when Ben is killed in a horse accident. The once-hostile Margaret and more acquiescent Thomas insist that she stay with them to recuperate from the shock but as time passes and she gets better, despite a constant feel of grogginess, Charlotte slowly begins to realize that her hosts have no intention of letting her go and have their own plans for the baby.

It is clear from early on that debuting director/co-writer Joe Marcantonio is striving to create a modern-day version of one of those old Gothic horror pieces with helpless damsels trapped against their will, rambling old mansions, haunting visions, obsession over prestige and bloodlines and a domineering woman determined to make the heroine's life a living hell. While the end result may be a better film than, say, the disastrous recent version of "Rebecca," It starts off on an intriguing note, the performances from Shaw and Lawrence are decent and the fact that Charlotte is black adds an intriguing spin to the otherwise familiar material. At a certain point, however, the slow burn approach that Marcantonio employs fizzles out and even though the film as a whole is relatively short, it feels a lot longer thanks to the somnambulistic pacing. There is also a weird development towards the end that is clearly meant to be a final gut-punch but the way that the screenplay contrives to get to it is so odd that it just does not work. As a first feature, "Kindred" shows some degree of promise but its mostly too dull and repetitive for its own good and eventually becomes more annoying that creepy.

As this topsy-turvy year began with the ascension of Laura Dern to the full status of American Treasure following her Oscar-winning performance in "Marriage Story," it is perhaps fitting that it comes to a close with the return of the film that first hinted at the depths of her talent and no, I am not referring to that "Grizzly II" nonsense. The film in question is "Smooth Talk," Joyce Chopra’s electrifying 1985 adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" that remains one of the most insightful and harrowing examinations of American adolescence ever put on film. Dern plays Connie, a 15-year-old girl from the Northern California suburbs living the life of a perfectly ordinary teenager--she is in constant conflict with her strict mother (Mary Kay Place) and spends most of her time hanging out with her friends at the mall hitting the stores, giggling over boys and generally goofing off. However, she is at just the stage where her innocent flirtations begin to catch the attention of the wrong type of person and this leads up to the extraordinary second half of the film, when Connie, who has been left home alone while the rest of her family is off at a barbecue, is visited by Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), who is clearly nowhere near as young as he claims to be and whose stated desire to be her "friend" inspires more of a genuine sense of terror and dread than most conventional horror films. Although the film as a whole is fairly brilliant--Chopra does an excellent job of negotiating the tricky shift in tone from the documentary-like approach of the first half to the darker and more twisted feel of the second--but it is Dern who makes the film into something truly memorable in a performance that asks her to hit any number of complex emotional beats with subtlety and nuance and she nails ever single one of them. (It also serves as an interesting companion piece to her next film, "'Blue Velvet," in which she played another innocent teenager who comes face to face with the corruption of the world.) Watching her, you don't get the sense of a great actress in the making--you get to see one who arrived fully-formed at an astonishingly young age and who would more than go on to live up to the promise of her incredible work here.

I must confess that upon hearing the basic premise of the grisly horror-comedy hybrid "Triggered," I had no burning desire to sit through any of it. A few years removed from their high school days, a group of former friends reunite to spend a night camping in the woods while rehashing old stories, flirtations and rivalries. For most people, this would be terrifying enough but the film quickly ratchets things up as the gang is gassed in their sleep and wake up to discover that they have each been strapped into explosive vests. This is the nefarious handiwork of Mr. Peterson (Sean Cameron Michael), their former science teacher and the father of a classmate who died at a party from a drug overdose years earlier for which he blames all of them. Having triggered the countdown timers on the vests, Mr. Peterson takes himself permanently out of the equation and the others make the grim discovery that they can extend their countdowns by killing the others and stealing their time until there is only one survivor left. Considering that the only real connection uniting them all was the long-dead kid, it doesn't take very long for most of them to start attempting to bump each other off in increasingly gory ways while the smart one of the group (Reine Swart) tries to figure out a solution to the problem at hand before being reduced to a pile of goo.

Although I will admit that the resulting film is slightly better than the hellish "Saw" variant that the premise suggested, that doesn't mean that I necessarily feel kindly enough towards it to recommend it. On the one hand, director Alastair Orr handles the blood-soaked material with a certain degree of style, David D. Jones's screenplay demonstrates occasional flashes of inspired dark wit and I liked the performances from Swart as the smart one and Liesl Ahlers as the group wallflower who gradually learns to assert herself under the extreme circumstances. The problem is that all the inventiveness appears to have gone into setting up the premise, leaving little else for the duration than the sight of a bunch of friends being increasingly bitchy while trying to slaughter each other, a joke that is amusing at first but which grows repetitive after a while. The other big problem is that while it is understandable that most of the characters would have to be somewhat unlikable if the film's premise is to work in a satisfying manner, several of them are so loathsome that even before the mayhem begins, you will be fervently hoping for most of them to die deaths even more horrible and painful than the ones they have been granted here. The screenplay is also a bit of a mess at times--it seems to be aiming to make some kind of satirical comment but it is unclear as to what the ultimate target is supposed to be. For those who only want to see lots of blood and guts strewn about, "Triggered" should prove to be sticky/icky enough to satisfy on some basic level. However, those who would prefer a little more wit, drama and insight along with the exploding bodies are hereby advised to pass this one up and stick with the infinitely better "Spontaneous" instead.

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