The Blackcoat’s Daughter

Kat and Rose are stranded at a boarding school for girls over a snowy weekend in Canada, meanwhile the disturbed Joan has escaped from an asylum, and is offered a lift by a strange couple. These three perspectives intersect, wind back and circle around until they meet at one point. This atmospheric horror has divided audiences – there are some who relish it’s slow build, brooding menace while others find it slow, and derivative and want to yell “Get on with the demonic possession!” I’m in the former group, the spiralling eddies of the plot line add to the disjuncture of the characters and the audience. All three leads are played superbly, with Kiernan Shipka’s Kat a central ball of creepiness and dissolution. But it is the soundtrack, ominous and daunting, straight from the Berberian Sound Studio that is the real star.

There is one major structural flaw, that I can’t really state without giving away the entire ending. But you’ll feel it too when you see it. But that is a small complaint against a horror that brings real menace, several “what the fuck is going on” scenes and an occasional “oh my God” moment. It has a lot in common in tone with the Witch, (as well as obvious nods to The Exorcist and Session 9), but adds in real fear also. The best horror of the year – there I said it.

The Monster

This is a lean, uncomplicated creature feature, sort of Cujo in the rain. It centres on the relationship between alcoholic, neglectful mother Kathy and her tired, disappointed teenager daughter, Lizzy. Through flashbacks we see the poor state of this relationship, which has led to the current, rainy night car journey for Lizzy to be deposited with her father. On the way there they hit a wolf. But, you know, it’s not a wolf.

This is not a masterpiece of film-making, but it does the little things right. The central relationship between Kathy and Lizzy is played with the right level of fear, anger and despair without horror film histrionics. The flashbacks create characters we care about sufficiently. The plot isn’t greedy, in fact it’s been on a strict diet – there is no conspiracy theory to explain the Monster, no big discovery, it just is. The events offer the chance for redemption. It can be read as an allegory about emerging from the confusion of adolescence, but it never forgets it’s a horror film.

I watched Refn’s The Neon Demon in the same sitting. I should like that film more, it is more beautifully crafted and cinematic, but I would opt for Bryan Bertino’s simple creature horror over Refn’s glossy fashion horror. Why do we like films? Partly they resonate with memories of the formative movies that shaped our tastes. While The Monster doesn’t deliberately reference to 70s/80s horror the way Stranger Things does, it has some of that VHS charm of films like Q: the Winged Serpent, or The Howling. Neon Demon may be better cinema, but The Monster is better me cinema.

Purge: Election Year

The Purge series has become quite interesting as it has developed. It started with a fairly ludicrous idea, as the frame for some straightforward violence and redemption. In the second, and arguably best, instalment, it developed its own aesthetic. The idea of the Purge as a Holiday, with all the attendant outfits, language, customs and paraphernalia developed. We got a Purge look – macabre masks and make-up with a dose of creepy violence.

Rather than retread the same night of survival and personal discovery theme, Election Year takes a bold step to up the allegory and make it full on commentary on American gun fetishism, treatment of the poor, white privilege, and role of religion in politics. Elizabeth Mitchell’s Presidential hopeful is making the removal of The Purge the central theme in her campaign, and the heavily religious NFFA portray it as central to American identity. I mean, it’s no Animal Farm, but you’ll get the message here.

Such political allegory in horror used to be quite commonplace (all hail They Live!). But reading the comments on IMDB one is struck by how unaccustomed to it people are, and also how worthwhile it is. The complaints are all of “white stereotyping”. No, I’m serious, people think this is a thing to be upset about, eg:

“It would be okay if the director were able to make it more subtle, but since the movie is dumb proof, the persistent displays of “LOOK HOW WHITE PEOPLE ARE CORRUPT AND BAAAAD! LOOK HOW GOOOOOOD THESE POOR IMMIGRANTS AND DARK-SKINEED PEOPLE AAAAARE! LOOK HOW EVERYONE WHO COMMITS MURDER IS CRAZY – EXCEPT THE ONLY SANE, GOOD GUYS WHO KILL THEM.”

“White men are stereotyped to a new level. The hero is a white blonde who cares about “poor people” and uses terms like “over represented”. More poor people are heroes talk. A room full of rich people say that they need to stop the poor from destroying them- all white men, no one Jewish, no one black, no one middle eastern- just those evil white men”

“Too much of a social message in The Purge 3. I would have liked to see more of the actual purge/sci-fi itself. The film could be interpreted as a G O P vs Dem social messages.”

You get the idea. This is probably the same people who complained that casting women as Ghostbusters in the remake “ruined my childhood”. While Purge: Election Year is very far from a great film, (it is cliched, not that well acted and in the end doesn’t ask complicated questions), the absence of other popular films taking on a similar role in the current situation in the US makes it worthwhile.

Don’t Breathe

[Probably a bit SPOILERy but not too much]

This horror/thriller from the director, Fede Alverez, who did the remake of the Evil Dead (yes, I don’t know why either) uses post-recession Detroit as the backdrop for a home invasion gone wrong thriller. Three young thieves, seeking to escape Detroit, are using security keys to target houses. There is the lure of a big score at the home of a blind, ex war vet. Like last days for a police officer, we all know the ‘just one last job’ never ends well. Of course it goes wrong, and the vet isn’t quite as incapable as they’d anticipated. But neither is he as innocent and the house harbours a secret.

In this respect Don’t Breathe is very similar to 2015’s less well known Intruders. That featured someone a home invasion, someone house bound (through agoraphobia), the tables turned on the three burglars, and a secret in the basement (do all American houses have something dodgy in the basement??). Indeed, it’s not just similar but aside from a few twists, almost identical.

But it’s well shot and the tension is almost maintained at the sort of pace that makes you realise you’re hunching you shoulders in an uncomfortable manner. There’s one unpleasant, and probably unnecessary scene that seems more akin to the horror side of Alvarez’s canon. It works best instead as tightly focused thriller, and although it gets a bit laboured towards the end with one too many false endings, it’s effective and relentless.

Lights Out

For each of us, not all genres are created equal. Horror is one of my preferred genres, so I’ll happily watch a formulaic horror with a 5.1 IMDB rating, whereas I’ll criticise a rom com with the same score for being cliched. And a musical had better be brining 8.5 to the table before I’ll even consider it. So when I say Lights Out is a good film, it’s with this bias.

It isn’t particularly original – it tells of a family haunted by a malevolent spirit. As the title suggests, the spirit – Diana – can only exist in the dark. This gives plenty of room for creepy scenes, jump shocks, tense search scenes. The jump shock is a hackneyed technique, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still effective. It is over-used, and films without much else going for them rely on it. Lights Out is neatly done, tightly scripted – it has a lot of resemblance to 2013’s Oculus (although that featured haunted mirrors, so wins).

As with The Babadook, it could be read as an allegory for depression, but it doesn’t forget it’s a horror film first. It doesn’t have any of the atmosphere, or originality of The Witch, say, but it’s a scary 90 minutes, and yeah, maybe I left the landing light on that night.

Green Room

I watched a couple of Eli Roth films the other day (Green Inferno and Aftershock). They were unsatisfying and I found myself comparing them unfavourably to Jeremy Saulnier’s tight, believable thriller. Green Room follows a hardcore punk band who after scratching a tour get offered a gig at a neo-nazi club in the middle of a forest. They stumble across a crime scene in the eponymous Green Room, and from there both sides are locked into an escalating series of confrontations.

Where this works over Roth’s films is that the latter are situated firmly in the horror genre, while Green Room is really a thriller. A second reason is that although Roth has grown more courageous in his set up – we get an hour or so of getting to know the characters – these are people we don’t want to spend time with. They are usually rich, spoilt white kids who are being brave travelling outside of America (which they will really come to regret). Green Room has a decent level of introduction, but crucially the characters are grounded and interesting. You believe this is a punk group, their terms of reference are knowing and their music is not the embarrassing pastiche of punk that would be created by a 45 year old Hollywood scriptwriter.

The film has it flaws, there are only so many times they can escape from the green room and return to it. And one of the likeable aspects of the film is its refusal to escalate to high levels of gore, conspiracy or horror. This is how this situation might well develop, and it has the confidence not to layer levels of excess upon it. But this is also one of its weaknesses, once the audience knows the set up, we are waiting then for it to follow its path, and there is little deviation from this.

But there’s a lot to like in this film, and a good way to appreciate its qualities is to imagine how it would have turned out under Roth’s hand.

The Invitation

Difficult to say anything about this film without big SPOILER, and it’s better to see it without any prior knowledge. So don’t read on if you think you might go and see it.

This film has Will (Logan Marshall-Green) going back to the house where his son died, for a dinner party reunion with his ex wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new partner. Old friends are there plus some new acquaintances who we learn are part of some life-affirming cult Eden and her new man have joined while in Mexico. We know it’s not going to be a party where they break out Twister when the guests are shown a recruitment video of a woman dying, surrounded by the cult members.

I don’t like dinner parties, I really wouldn’t like a dinner party full of Hollywood, middle class types. If you added in to that new age culty dippy stuff, I would have made my excuses and left early. They didn’t even have a Wii for chrissakes. But for some reason the guests stay. There is some doubt cast as to whether Will’s suspicions are just his paranoia, or if there is something more sinister circling around. The film itself circles around, at times it feels like one of those talky, middle class angst films, or a dinner party play. In that sense, the action, when it comes, is a relief. Thank God it’s not just going to be Hollywood types being self-indulgent you think.

It is a film that has a lot of confidence. There are lots of close up shots of Marshall-Green’s face, looking confused and sad. It dips towards the horror genre a couple of times and then pulls away again. It is only in the last 15 minutes or so that it becomes the home invasion (well, home lock-in) thriller you suspected it was. I admire this, so it’s worth seeing for this alone. But I didn’t enjoy it as much as others have suggested. It didn’t quite do enough to subvert the genre and for this horror fan didn’t then do enough to fulfill it. As well as all those crazy gore-fest French home invasion movies (with Ils, Inside, and High Tension the French have pretty much cornered the gory home-invasion market as if there were European subsidies on the genre), I preferred You’re Next, which is a much less classy film, but gets on with the horror early. Maybe what this film is telling us is that a dinner party is the real horror.

10 Cloverfield Lane

The law of sequels states they will always be inferior to the original, and as films such as Scream 2 and 22 Jump St have spelled out for us, they need to be bigger, but with exactly the same plot. 10 Cloverfield Lane ignores all of these demands. In making a sequel to the enjoyable POV movie Cloverfield, the easy option would be to make Battle for Cloverfield, an all out action, muscular, Independence Day, kick alien ass type movie. But Cloverfield Lane isn’t really a sequel at all, it’s more a tangential film. What is happening elsewhere in the same universe that Cloverfield is occurring? I’ve often been frustrated at the manner in which sequels follow not only the same story but the same tone. I want more tangential films – a romantic drama set when a couple meet in the aftermath of a James Bond car chase through a city, an offbeat comedy about what happens in Stormtrooper training camp, etc.

I remember seeing this discussion programme with Clive Barker, John Carpenter and Roger Corman in the 90s. They knocked around ideas for the perfect horror movie and discussed the idea where the last person left alive is not a hero but evil, and has a body hiding in the bedroom. This is the type of conflict that Cloverfield Lane sets up. The main character, Michelle, is rescued by survivalist nut, Howard. He tells her that there has been an attack, and they must stay in his bunker. We know this (from the title) and gradually Michelle appreciates it too. But that Howard is not a good guy is also quickly evident.

The film is superbly scripted, Goodman’s survivalist is sincere and menacing, and as the audience we are caught in the same dilemma as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle – is captivity or escape the better choice. The suspense is kept up at just the right pace, and there is one moment that made my mouth genuinely drop open in shock. Having written a very good escape movie, it is brave enough to give us 15 minutes of high impact sci-fi. A movie doesn’t have to be one thing, although too often that is exactly what we expect from them. Cloverfield Lane reminds us that films can be more than one thing: it is simultaneously a psychological thriller and a creature movie, a low budget and then in the last 15 minutes goes big budget, a sequel and a wholly original film.

The Witch

I’d been anticipating this film from the trailer for months. It wasn’t quite the Conjuring-esque horror film the trailer promised, but it was something altogether more brooding and menacing. It follows a pilgrim family in New England, all resplendent with Olde English Yorkshire dialect. Within the opening scene, when the family are banished from the community, I was already thinking ‘why don’t they make more films about Pilgrims?’ It’s fertile ground: the iconic clothing, rich scenery, as much suppressed desire as you can handle and, of course, witches. We should have a Pilgrim film every year.
The actual witch is shown fairly early on, but then the film avoids plunging towards an inevitable horror film showdown and instead plays with our interpretations, focusing on the family’s obsession with sin. In his best role since The Office’s Finchy, Ralph Ineson dominates the family, but it is Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin who is the focus of the film. All relationships in the family swirl around her, and we are never sure how much she is the director or victim of these.
There is hardly any colour in The Witch, it is all shades of brown and that is true of the horror element also. It does not go for vibrant splashes of gore, nor does it attempt the pitch black. Instead we have sombre, restrained suggestions, building towards final scenes of dread.
I’m not sure it’s a horror film, but it has some of the key ingredients that I like about good horror: the real story is about the conflict within families, there is slow build, we get to care about characters, the element of suggestion is more powerful than any CGI. After that possessed goats is just a bonus. The Witch is a film that people can have theories about, maybe not on the scale of The Shining, but theories nonetheless.