2020 Reviews 2020s

The Hill and the Hole Runs Itself into the Ground

The Hill and the Hole is one of the most frustrating films I’ve watched in a while. This film had so much potential, but falls flat, straight down a hole into a cold abyss. We almost got two great 60-70s-esque science fiction films in the first half of the year. A film that came out this year that I find myself often thinking back on fondly is The Vast of Night. With The Vast of Night, director Andrew Patterson did nearly everything right. He perfectly captured the feel of old-school sci-fi and crafted a low-stakes film that was mesmerizing. He also found a way to make it feel unique, despite the fact him and co-writer Craig Sanger were clearly paying homage to an era of science fiction.

Directors Bill Darmon and Christopher Ernst begin The Hill and the Hole in a similar fashion. They have a stylized filmic look, the something-is-wrong-here premise, and the camp and quirk to amuse fans of science fiction. Despite having these things going for it, The Hill and the Hole greatly disappoints. I honestly wouldn’t be as upset if it didn’t have those things because then my hopes wouldn’t have been as high.

I’m not sure if it was due to sheer laziness, a busy and overrun shooting schedule that resulted in a rushed finish, or if it always planned to be the way it is, but the film gets worse as it goes on. I cannot assume, nor do I know whether or not it was shot in order, but it certainly feels like it might have been. About three quarters into the film everything becomes nonsensical. Rather than having this be a quirk, it feels more like a cruel joke played on the audience expecting them to find explanations. Mostly, it feels like a cop-out for Darmon as a writer.

I could have been a decent film, but The Hill and the Hole features poor direction that leads to even worse performances and a lousy screenplay that greatly drags it down.


2020 Reviews 2020s

Porno (2020)

I got so much joy out of watching this movie. It reminded me of the 80s horror films I discovered in my teen years. If you’re a fan of those kind of movies you’ll probably have great fun with Porno. A simplistic way to look at Porno is that it’s The Evil Dead if it took place in a movie theater with Christian teens.

Porno is funny and has a nice dash of spookiness. One of its greatest strengths is the performances. The actors do a great job in their charming roles. They are far better than the actors you particularly see in these kind of films. The performers bring out more from their characters than you’d traditionally see, avoiding tired archetypes.

The screenplay from Matt Black and Laurence Vannicelli is particularly strong as well. This film is more than a violent and sexy horror film. They’re also interested in commenting on the hypocrisy within religious communities and the effect God-fearing ideals have on teenagers who aspire to be good. Director Keola Racela, the writers, and actors are very respectful of the characters and Christian communities. They could have gone for cheap shots, but they never go for them. 

I think Porno’s only heavy flaw is its third act. Porno goes a little off the rails near the end. The plot becomes overly silly and the resolution comes too easily. Porno would have been a much stronger film if it wrapped up more nicely.


1950s Oldies

Terror is a Man (1959)

I don’t remember how exactly how I stumbled upon Terror is a Man, but I do recall how the story behind the making of it intrigued me. Filipino directors Gerardo de León and Eddie Romero teamed up with American producer Kane Lynn to create one of the first Filipino horror movies: Terror is a Man. This movie was a success and gave birth to the Blood Islandseries and changed the Filipino film industry forever. I’ve loved horror films for a long time, so when I caught wind of a 50s horror like this, I knew I had to check it out. Unfortunately, the background of Terror is a Man is the only interesting part of it.

Maybe I expected too much going into it. I thought that Terror is a Man was going to be a bold horror with plenty of gore, but ultimately it’s derivative of the other campy monster films that were coming out around the 50s and 60s. It’s not as good as The Fly (1958) or Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). It’s fairly generic and the only part that is remotely exciting happens during the final act. However, I was so bored by the rest of the movie that the ending of the film made virtually no impact on me.

This apathy could be attributed to the fact that you can see what’s going to happen from a mile away. A soldier, William Fitzgerald (Richard Derr), washes upon the shore of a small island. He is discovered by Dr. Charles Girard (Francis Lederer), who conducts experiments that many people would not agree with. Obviously, Mr. Fitzgerald is going to be one of those people and spends the whole movie trying to find out more about Dr. Girard’s experiments. It felt like every scene between Fitzgerald and Dr. Girard was the same. They talked about Dr. Girard’s experiments and Dr. Girard danced around specific questions we already knew the answers to in order to extend the film’s runtime. The only difference is that sometimes the filmmakers might change the location of the conversation and the phrasing of the questions

The logistics of Dr. Girard’s experiments aren’t as sophisticated as Fitzgerald makes them out to be. William Fitzgerald is a very frustrating character. He seems to want every minute detail of what’s going on before he makes a move. Even when it seems like Fitzgerald knows everything he keeps prying Dr. Girard for answers, all while trying to steal his wife. Fitzgerald is the type of bland leading man you might expect from a monster movie from the 50s. It doesn’t help that the rest of the characters are about as exciting as a slice of rye bread. Gerardo de León and Eddie Romero could have reduced the damage of their uninteresting characters with a more engaging story, but they are two peas in a pod.

Terror is a Man is a movie with a plot so thin and blandly executed that it probably shouldn’t have been more than 70 minutes.

2020 Reviews

Fantasy Island Isn’t Actually That Bad

During its opening weekend I caught Fantasy Island, or rather, Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island, just in case you somehow get it confused with the 1970s-80s television show. After seeing it I was honestly a little surprised by the incredibly low score on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Is it shallow? Yeah. Was it supposed to be? Possibly. Does it sometimes appear to lack focus? Yes. Does that sometimes make it more interesting? Also yes.

I’ve noticed a trend over the years that when a movie is hated or highly disliked, critics will take it and run with it (think Cats). There’s also a good chance they’ll pretend to hate it more than they probably do. Hate generates clicks. Passionate love, casual admiration, or even indifference does not. It’s probably why “cancel culture” has become a thing. You gotta love film journalism these days.

Is Fantasy Island one of the worst movies ever? No. I don’t understand critics’ fascination with movies being the worst movie they’ve ever seen beyond the fact it gets more clicks. I’ve seen far worse movies than Fantasy Island. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in the theater is Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) and it certainly isn’t close to being that bad.

There are a few issues with Fantasy Island that I’ve seen consistently pop up with reviews. Its tone is one of them. Like I addressed at the start of the review, it does seem to lack focus. It’s hard to figure out what kind of movie it wants to be and it seems to want to be everything. For example, it wants to be a comedy, a romance, and a horror. The tone does shift often, but I never found it too jarring.

The movie shifts tones when it switches between each character’s fantasy, which makes sense. Maggie Q’s character Gwen wants a second chance with a former boyfriend so her fantasy is romantic. Randall, played by Austin Stowell, wants to play soldier so his fantasy is Predator-esque. When you have each character have a different fantasy it’s not an outlandish approach to have them dictate the tone of the scene and have that tone change from scene to scene based off of the fantasy. I think that from a viewing standpoint the movie is more interesting because of that because it’s an approach that we don’t see often. With that being said, I don’t think it works well in terms of the movie flowing effortlessly.

Yeah, there are some lame jokes in there (i.e. holograms), but they aren’t any dumber than other PG-13 jokes from horror movies. I fail to see anything here that Fantasy Island does worse than other movies from its genre that warrants it being hated as much as it was. One thing they actually do better is I think the backstories for the characters’ fantasies are slightly more complex than I expected from a PG-13 horror. Besides that, most of the other aspects of the film vary from mediocre to slightly below mediocre. I thought the ending was lame, therefore bad, but that’s the only thing that comes to mind right now with anything being outright bad. Fantasy Island‘s foremost problem is that it’s shallow and forgettable like many PG-13 horrors these days.

I started writing this review two weeks ago for my initial thoughts of the film. At that time critics were talking about how this was one of the worst movies they had ever seen and everyone was hating on it for fun. Now, a week later, no one cares anymore. I don’t know if this says more about people’s love to hate on things they don’t truly hate for impressions or if it shows how fast the news cycle is. Or maybe it’s a result of how forgettable Fantasy Island actually is.

If everyone has already stopped talking about it more than a week after its release, was it really that bad?


2020 Reviews

The Immersive Gretel & Hansel

Gretel & Hansel is a confident and determined Grimm fairy tale that succeeds on most fronts.

Every year I seem to say to myself: That was the most indie movie I’ve ever seen with a wide release. The first time I remember thinking this was when You’re Next (2011) graced the screen several years ago. With You’re Next, this thought could probably be attributed to both its content and much lower budget. Ultimately, it’s something I’m definitely not used to seeing on a Regal Cinemas screen. When talking about Gretel & Hansel my thoughts are related to its content being for a very small audience. This film will not be widely liked.

Osgood Perkins goes against the commercial style with this one. He wants to build atmosphere and put you in the film’s world instead of spending time on cheap scares. I acknowledge that I have talked about atmosphere in two of my other reviews this year, but to be fair, Gretel & Hansel was the fourth horror film to open to a wide release this year. In terms of creating an immersive atmosphere, Perkins succeeds greatly. Gretel & Hansel and Underwater are the only horror films to open this year that have completely pulled this off. When I watched them, I truly felt immersed in each film’s world.

There are times where the film does feel a little choppy, cutting from one scene to the next without a smooth transition. I don’t think the fault lies in the editing, but more in how the film may have been structured in the screenplay. I think this choppiness and its lack of a comprehensive plot may result in why it beings to feel repetitive near the end. This repetitive nature makes Gretel & Hansel feel like it may extend its runtime a little longer than it should. Nevertheless, Perkins’s atmosphere and brooding, but beautiful cinematography, save it from mediocrity.

Perkins wants the audience to feel uneasy and disoriented for the entire duration of the film. By using shallow depth of field and ultra-wide angle lenses he creates a 87-minute nightmare. I say that in the most flattering way possible. Perkins never lets you feel comfortable, not even at the start. He implements a shaky cam effect on a tracking two shot on Gretel and Hansel in the early minutes of the film, preventing you from easing into the film’s atmosphere.

You can tell from the very beginning that Perkins is fully committed to Gretel & Hansel and it’s not some project he agreed to for a nice paycheck. There is a clear European influence, with its dark material and stylistic technical choices, but it feels very much like his own style. Unlike the horror movies I’ve reviewed this year, Perkins appeared to be given full creative control on this. Thank you United Artists! I really hope that we see more studios giving more directors full control in the future.

Gretel & Hansel is one of the darkest PG-13 films I’ve ever seen and worth checking out.



2020 Reviews

The Turning Disappoints with its Ending

The Turning is the equivalent of tripping and falling on the 1-yard line with zero time on the clock.

I know The Turning had a history of pushing back its release date and I’m not sure why that was. If it was related to its ending I can almost guarantee that the original ending was probably better than the one we got. With its delayed release date and presuming its long time in the editing room, my takeaway is that the studio was really overthinking the ending. It goes back to the theory that the more you work on a finished product and “try to make it better” you just end up making it worse.

Presumably, the people behind The Turning believed that two endings were better than one. Instead of ending it five minutes earlier, which would have given us an arguably too good to be true ending, they decided to tack on an additional ending. For those who haven’t seen the movie, the first ending could best be described as a ‘fakeout’ ending. The filmmakers give you what you think is the ending, but then they pull the rug out from under you. It was all a dream. I admit that the initial ending wouldn’t have been satisfying, but giving us an ending that goes against the rest of the movie and its themes makes the movie worse. You leave the theater with a bad taste in your mouth.

You could interpret The Turning as a feminist movie until the ending. You have a female protagonist, played by a very good Mackenzie Davis, and a plot that centers on her being haunted by the ghost of the former governess and the riding instructor who sexually assaulted and killed her. This taps into the idea that even after death, sexual predators will still haunt survivors and their legacy can live on. The Turning explores the idea that this behavior can be passed on to young boys, which is shown by the character of Miles (Finn Wolfhard).

Finn Wolfhard is creepy and plays a rapist in the making, but it does feel like they lean into it a little too much. It’s not bad that they do this, they get across the constant harassment some women receive from men, but when you have 4-5 scenes in a row with him doing something psychotic and/or inappropriate. The Turning begins to feel too much like a court case presenting evidence rather than a film that flows freely.

Director Floria Sigismondi successfully accomplishes an atmosphere that drapes over the movie like a sheer white curtain. It’s nice to see filmmakers and studios realizing the success of horror movies more than often relies on the eerie atmosphere you create, think The House of the Devil (2009) and Hereditary (2018) (to name a few). Jump scares are so short and fleeting that you’re not going to be think about them later that night (take note The Grudge (2020)).  There is so much Sigismondi does well here that it’s incredibly disappointing she doesn’t stick the landing. I’ve already talked about producers taking too much control over projects (my review on The Grudge) and I think the Universal producers may have been micromanaging Sigismondi, but once again there’s no way to confirm that.

The Turning feels like a movie with a unique perspective, so with that in mind I believe Sigismondi was given a good amount of control over it, which is great. Nevertheless, the ending completely dismantles her feminist angle. I’ve never seen a movie go from feminist to anti-feminist over the course of a few minutes. Kate (Mackenzie Davis) goes from a character who stands up to a sadistic man and tries to save the children, to being a woman who is crazy, seeing ghosts that are not actually there. An ending like this is the equivalent of the ‘she’s crazy, that never happened’ argument that you’d hear from Harvey Weinstein. Due to the shift in its message, I find it hard to believe that Sigismondi chose this ending herself. It’s even possible we never saw her actual ending. Maybe the “fakeout” ending was a backup ending and her actual ending was completely cut out of the movie. I’m afraid we may never know.

TL;DR I enjoyed the ride of The Turning until the ending. If I could have had it my way, I would have ended it five minutes earlier.


2020 Reviews

The Grudge (2020) is the Worst Reboot of Recent Memory

I have to admit, when I first saw that there was going to be a reboot of The Grudge, I was instantly annoyed. Why were they going to reboot one of the scariest movies from my childhood? The Grudge (2004) is was one of the few movies from my early teenage years I can remember freaking me out for more than one night. I was too afraid to look under my covers for quite some time. Thanks a lot Takashi Shimizu.

Once I started looking into the reboot more, I actually became quite interested in it knowing that Nicolas Pesce was directing. I became a fan of his after seeing The Eyes of My Mother (2016) years ago. Additionally, a week before the release of The Grudge (2020), I watched his film Piercing (2018) and despite not enjoying it as much as Eyes, it was clear to me that Pesce was a director with a strong vision. With that in mind, I thought that if Pesce was directing Grudge, he would give us something worth watching.

When you are going to reboot a film like The Grudge, you should have a new twist to the franchise or a story worth telling. Rebooting a franchise doesn’t bother me if it is already accustomed to having “episodes” or one-offs to its franchise (think Halloween or Friday the 13th), but The Grudge is not like that and honestly its background doesn’t provide material that can sustain multiple movies without feeling stale. David Gordon Green and Danny McBride did a great job of rebooting a franchise (Halloween) and going in a slightly different direction while still remaining faithful to the original franchise we grew to love. This is not to say all reboots have to be faithful to its original source material. Hell, even though I enjoyed Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) I still wish we had gotten a Phil Lord and Christopher Miller Star Wars movie.

Pesce is credited not only as the lone screenplay writer, but he is also credited with writing the initial story for The Grudge (2020) with fellow horror writer Jeff Buhler. With that in mind, I want to give Pesce the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t take this project only because the money from Sony Pictures was too good to pass up. I don’t see Pesce’s screenplay as the main problem with the movie. I think telling three different stories and having them come together in the end was an interesting touch and something different from the prior Grudge movies. The Grudge‘s story structure is probably one of the only strong components of it. It’s not perfect or great, but it would have been sufficient enough. The film’s greatest strength is Andrea Riseborough’s performance, one WAY better than it ever deserved. You could tell she was incredibly committed and I was really impressed by her.

The major problem with The Grudge, is you can see its filmmakers conflicting back and forth throughout the movie. You have Nicolas Pesce in one corner and the producers from Sony Pictures in the other. If I’ve learned anything from watching Pesce’s other movies, it’s that he wants to focus on building atmosphere and tension. He doesn’t want to provide jump scares, he wants to make you feel uneasy. Sony Pictures wanted to follow the formula of commercial horror. They felt they needed to provide those jump scares that teenagers expect and supposedly crave.

There are moments that you can tell Pesce is trying to build tension. For example, there’s someone or something creepy standing in the background that the movie doesn’t draw obvious attention to through framing and obnoxious organ noises. But there are other moments where it feels like the movie is doing things because ‘that’s how you’re supposed to do it.’ If someone had a playbook of modern horror from major studios it would look like The Grudge (2020). Hit this beat here, then this one, and the main character should do this here… This could be due to Sony Pictures telling Pesce how to direct a horror movie. They may have even given him a playbook of sorts and he tried hard to satisfy them while still trying to make the movie he wanted to make. I also believe that Sony Pictures saw Pesce’s initial cut of the movie, panicked and tried really hard to change the edit into something “friendly” for casual horror movie goers. I think the main giveaway is its lousy jump scares.

The Grudge practically creates jump scares out of thin air sometimes. The editors, Ken Blackwell and Gardner Gould, must have been working overtime trying to create jump scares that were never created during the filmmaking process. I appreciate their effort, especially since they probably didn’t have a choice, but you can’t create a jump scare that were never really there to begin with. You can add as many loud noises and speed up the clip as much as you want, but it will never work the way it should. Pesce’s vision is there, but it’s overpowered by Sony Pictures and its need to appeal to everyone.

I of course have to acknowledge that all of this business with Nicolas Pesce vs. Sony Pictures is all speculation and I am not presenting any undeniable proof. However, considering studios micromanaging and cutting up small indie directors’ first studio project is not unheard of, it’s worth considering here in the case of The Grudge (2020).

Skip this reboot.



2016 Reviews

The Invitation (2016)

The Invitation is a well-crafted thriller that is let down by its script. The film has a running time of 100 minutes and spends a great amount of it creating suspense. During the film, you question why everyone received an invitation to the dinner party and what is going to happen. Along the way, the film gets weird and offbeat, keeping the story interesting. The film disappoints when it’s done building suspense.

Based on its prior content, I was hoping that after the climax began and everything was revealed there would be more of an off-the-wall reason as to why everyone was invited. However, the reason and events that follow are too conventional. As a result, I found myself frustrated with the 80 minutes of build-up, waiting for an original reveal, only to get something I’ve seen in other movies. When The Invitation hits its dry spots, Logan Marshall-Green holds the movie together.

Also, it’s definitely worth mentioning that the film has an incredibly chilling ending!

The Invitation is full of great suspense, but lacks any real surprises.


2016 Reviews

The Boy (2016)

The Boy is a huge mess.  The film has no thrills and no scares.  Just when you think The Boy is about to hit its horror stride, it makes a left and turns into a fantasy film.  Greta (Lauren Cohan) isn’t scared by what she is experiencing.  Instead she appears rather fascinated, which as an audience member I didn’t quite understand.  Also, for a character that was portrayed as being pretty smart, Greta makes some very dumb choices.  It’s also worth mentioning that its climax comes seemingly out of nowhere.

Avoid The Boy.



2015 Reviews

Crimson Peak (2015)

Crimson Peak is a visually stunning gothic tale.  The film feels like a throwback to classic gothic movies and its aesthetic reminded me a lot of Robert Stevenson’s Jane Eyre (1943).  Although it has its scary moments, Crimson Peak isn’t trying to make you jump out of your seat.  In terms of horror, it cares more about creating a mood through its sound design and visuals to make you feel uneasy.  Crimson Peak is a great movie that interestingly crosses several genres.  The production design is fantastic and deserves recognition.