Horror Film Review: Split (dir by M. Night Shyamalan)


There are a lot of negative things that you can say about 2017.  In the future, when historians look back of the second decade of the 21st century, I imagine that they will point to 2017 as being one of the worst years in American history.  The country is divided.  The world seems like a scary and dangerous place.  The outlook for the future feels bleak.  It’s not so much that people are angry.  Instead, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for all the anger.  It’s difficult to imagine that the differences that currently divide the world are ever going to be resolved.

However, there is one thing that can be said about 2017.  It’s been a very good year for horror cinema.

Sure, there have been a few less-than-perfect films.  Rings left most people disappointed.  Does anyone remember The Bye Bye Man or have we said farewell to the memories of that unfortunate film?  While The Dark Tower was never specifically a horror movie, it’s still not easy to think of any other Stephen King adaptation that has been greeted with such indifference.  The less said about Tom Cruise’s The Mummy, the better.

But even with all that in mind, there have been some truly outstanding horror movies released this year.  Movies like Get Out, It, and The Belko Experiment will be well-remembered long after the more “traditional” films of 2017 have faded from the collective memory.  I would go as far as to argue that David Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks should itself be considered an 18-hour horror movie.  Maybe it is because the world seems like such a dark place right now.  Maybe, at this point, horror movies are the only movies that accurately reflect the way many people are feeling about the present and the future.  For whatever reason, 2017 has been a great year for horror.

Really, we wouldn’t be surprised.  Way back in January, things got off to a good start with the release of Split.  Split was a film that not many people were expecting to be impressive.  Just consider: the film was coming out in January, which is when the worst films are usually released.  (The theory is that everyone’s too busy with the Oscars to notice that studios are desperately trying to write off all of the losers that they misguidedly greenlit for production the previous year.)  Split was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a formerly respected director whose last few films had been disappointing.  Finally, the film’s plot just didn’t sound that good: James McAvoy plays a man with multiple personalities who kidnaps three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) and holds them captive.  Throughout the film, McAvoy cycles through his different personalities and the girls try to find a way to escape before McAvoy turns into the Beast.

And yet somehow, Split works.  It’s a genuinely scary and unsettling film, one that left me feeling paranoid for days after I watched it.  From the minute that the film started, it grabbed hold of me and it did not let go for two hours.  I watched the movie and I wondered what would happen if I ever found myself in the same situation as the kidnapped girls.  Would I be able to survive?  Would I be able to escape?  Or would I just be another victim of the Beast?  It’s a deeply frightening film, one that feels like a waking nightmare at its most intense.

Obviously, a lot of credit has to go to James McAvoy, who is brilliant in a role that would have brought out the worst instincts in a lesser actor.  It’s a showy role and there had to be considerable temptation to go overboard.  And there are a few times when McAvoy embraces the more theatrical possibilities of the role.  However, in his best scenes, McAvoy is surprisingly subtle.  Yes, he does a lot of different voices.  Yes, his body language alters from personality to personality.  But McAvoy is at his best when he just allows his facial expression to subtly suggest that he has turned into someone else.  McAvoy is frightening but, at times, he’s also rather pathetic.  Whenever McAvoy shows up, you never know what he’s going to do.  He keeps you off-balance.

As good as McAvoy is, M. Night Shyamalan also deserves a lot of credit for Split.  For a film about a man with 23 warring personalities, Split is refreshingly direct and straight forward.  There’s none of the cloying cleverness that cheapened some of Shyamalan’s other films.  Instead, Split is simply a good, scary film for a really scary world.

Playing Catch-Up: Spotlight (dir by Tom McCarthy)


Spotlight

Earlier today, I finally got to see Spotlight, the film that is currently the front-runner to win the Oscar for best picture.  Spotlight tells the story of how the Spotlight team, a group of journalists working for the Boston Globe, investigated the shameful history of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.  Starting with charges against one priest, the Spotlight team eventually uncovered sexual abuse by at least 70 priests and also revealed that the revered Cardinal Law was involved in covering up the crimes.

Having now seen Spotlight, I can say it’s a good film.  It’s well-made.  It’s well-acted.  The script contains some memorable lines.  I’ve talked to a few friends of mine who have actually worked as journalists and they have all assured me that Spotlight gets the details of their profession correct and that it’s pretty much an authentic look at what it’s like to be a reporter at a major newspaper.  There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Spotlight.

And yet, I’m not particularly enthusiastic about it.  I think my main issue with the film is that it’s just such an old-fashioned and rather conventional film.  It’s a throw back of sorts, an earnest exploration of a real-life outrage.  (Even the fact that the heroes are journalists makes the film feel as if it was made a decade or two in the past.)  On the one hand, you have to respect that director Tom McCarthy had the guts to tell his story in the least flashy way possible.  But, occasionally, his by-the-book approach is not as compelling as you want or need it to be.  Spotlight is a good film but it’s not a particularly challenging film and it’s the films that challenge us that truly stay with us after the final credits conclude.

Yes, it’s a good film but some are declaring that Spotlight is the best film of the year and I’m afraid that I just don’t see it.  There are a lot of 2015 films that will probably still be fondly remembered 5 years from now: Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Sicario, and others.  When compared to those films, Spotlight feels more like an admirable made-for-TV movie.  It feels more like something that should sweep the Emmys than the Oscars.

That said, Spotlight does feature some excellent performances.  In fact, the entire cast does such a good job that it’s difficult to really single anyone out.  They come together as a nearly perfect ensemble.  (That said, I’m a bit torn on whether Mark Ruffalo came across as being passionate or merely mannered.)  Michael Keaton, especially, does a good job, embodying everyone’s ideal image of a journalist with integrity.

Spotlight‘s a good film but my favorite Tom McCarthy movie remains Win Win.

Review: Vanishing On 7th Street (dir. by Brad Anderson)


In the genre world of horror and thrillers there’s been one name who always seem to be on the verge of breaking out. He has done some exceptionally well-crafted horror and thrillers which never could get a mainstream audience to commit to but always gathering a cult-following upon their release. He has done some wonderful work as a TV director for such acclaimed shows as Fringe, Treme, Boardwalk Empire and The Wire. His best known work was a thriller collaboration with Christian Bale in The Machinist. While it’s a film more well-known for the extremes an actor was willing to go for to make their performance as authentic as possible it was also a film which showed style and talent in it’s filmmaker. The person I speak of is Canadian filmmaker Brad Anderson whose latest film was another low-budget horror-thriller which looks to be gaining a cult-following once again despite not being well-received by the mainstream critics. Vanishing On 7th Street was a film using the screenplay of Anthony Jaswinski which puts an interesting, claustrophobic and, at times, entertaining twist on the oft-used and well-ridden post-apocalyptic genre.

The film begins with film projectionist Paul in his projection booth reading up on the lost colony of Roanoke and the mysterious word left behind: CROATOAN. It’s through his point of view that we first see the beginning of what could be the end of the world as lights begin to flicker then go out throughout the theater and the mall it’s located in. Paul investigates this event only to discover sets of clothing and accessories where theater patrons and employees used to be in. With each passing moment the darkness — punctuated by just the flashlights of Paul and a lone mall security guard — becomes to take on an ominous tone before the film sudden moves ahead three days into what would become the major setting for the film: a lit bar on a deserted and darkened stretch of 7th Street in Detroit, Michigan.

We meet the rest of the main cast in this bar. There’s Luke who used to be a TV anchorman who discovers to his horror just what might have been the cause of the disappearance of most everyone in the world as he tries to find his girlfriend at the TV station they both worked at. It’s in these flashbacks to Luke’s early experience with the dark apocalypse that we see some of the most perfectly shot scenes of a major city devoid of life. An urban setting where the sudden disappearance of people during the power outage the night before has caused an eerie detritus of crashed vehicles, empty clothing and, in a sudden and violent sequence, a lone airline crashing in the background. It’s through Luke and the lone survivor in the bar, a 12-year old boy named James (Jacob Latimore), that we begin to try and piece together just what might have caused the event which continues to plague those left behind for the last three days.

The film posits the basic concept that darkness itself was the culprit for the disappearance of everyone and what continues to stalk those still left behind, alive and desperate for answers. While the film never really give definite answers as to the cause the two other characters in the back outside of Luke and James bring their own theories. There’s Rosemary (Thandie Newton), the distraught mother searching for her infant son, who thinks what’s going on around them is the the prophecized Rapture and those left behind were those who have sinned and were now being tormented for whatever sins they might have committed. On the other side is Paul from the beginning of the film who Luke rescues from an illuminated bus stop shelter who believes the very thing which caused the disappearance of the Roanoke colony during the 16th-century has now returned on a global-scale. His reasonings run the gamut of scientific causes from wormholes, black holes, gamma ray burst, nanotech gone amok and even an accident from a particle collider.

The audience are left to decide amongst themselves which explanation holds merit since neither one has enough backing to be the true answer. Vanishing On 7th Street leaves much of the questions raised by the dark apocalypse around these surviving characters to be left ambiguous and unanswered which at times becomes a detriment to the narrative as a whole. It’s a testament to Brad Anderson’s direction that the film was able to move past the apparent weaknesses in Anthony Jaswinski’s script and deliver a taut thriller (the film never truly gets to the level of horror) that just builds and builds with tension from beginning to an end that seemed almost too rushed.

With a low-budget and minimal cast the film tries to create some of the tension in the film be a construction of the differences between the four main characters. The actors were pretty game to try and make their characters more complex than what the script have provided, but in the end they still seem too basic for anyone of them to become sympathetic for the audience to truly care for their well-being. The film has to finally rely on just them as the last people on the planet as the main crux for the audience to latch onto. All the actors involved never become too cartoonish or stereotypical in their performance, but some of their decision-making in the middle and latter section of the film were too horror-typical, but they do add to the film’s many scenes of mounting terror as characters drop flashlights, lose light sources and other such problems with the living shadows in the darkness creeping up to try and take those still left. These scenes do look to be too stereotypical of other horror films but under Anderson’s direction there’s a palpable sense of claustrophobia and menace in these shadows.

What truly sells the film despite these flaws outside of Anderson’s direction would be the minimalist score by first-time film composer Lucas Vidal. His composition for the film were at once ominous and haunting. At times his score shows off hints of influences from the more doom-laden scores of Philip Glass. The other component of the film which definitely added to the atmosphere of inevitable doom to the film was Uta Briesewitz cinematography which made great use of darkness and solitary light sources to create islands of safety in a sea of encroaching terror we never truly comprehend. It’s the trifecta of Anderson’s directing, Vidal’s minimalist doom orchestration of a score and Briesewitz’s cinematography which gives Vanishing On 7th Street enough reasons to be a film which stands out as a fine piece of genre filmmaking despite weaknesses in the script.

Brad Anderson truly seem to be a filmmaker destined to remain in the fringes of mainstream cinema. His Vanishing On 7th Street continues to be another example of his great work in the horror-thriller genre. Despite same flaws which could turn off some of those who see this film it doesn’t diminish the fact that even at it’s worst this film was still an entertaining piece of post-apocalyptic work which brings some new ideas into the genre. Maybe a stronger treatment of the script would’ve made for a near-perfect thriller and one which could’ve had more horror to it, but Anderson was able to make a good enough film with an average script that I think deserves for this film to be seen by more people. For every horror remakes we get from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes to the latest in the Saw-like torture porn horror it’s good to see that such films as Vanishing On 7th Street exist to be the solitary beacon of light in a sea of cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers horror films that seem to dominate each film year after the other.