Host (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): An online horror film set in the ongoing pandemic era

During last two years, our world has been changed a lot due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and this unfortunate global change certainly has influenced my routine visits to local movie theaters a lot. As I am constantly reminded of wearing mask in public space just like others, the worlds of movie characters feel and look different to me at times because of the glaring absence of masks in their worlds, so I frequently cannot help but a bit distant to whatever is being shown on the screen – especially when I watch movies set in supposedly contemporary backgrounds.

In case of a little British horror film “Host”, that did not happen at all because its background is quite realistic and contemporary to say the least. While this is another usual genre exercise unfolded entirely inside small computer screens, it distinguishes itself a bit as being set in the ongoing pandemic era, and its cast and crew members actually faced a number of limitations as shooting their film in the middle of the lockdown period in UK during last year.

The movie simply presents its story as an extended online video group chat among a young woman named Haley (Haley Bishop) and her several friends during one seemingly “ordinary” evening. As respectively struggling through the ongoing lockdown period in UK, they have been pretty bored without many things to do, and that is why Haley suggested that they should hold an online séance together with some assistance from a middle-aged lady who seems to be an expert of spiritual world.

At first, nothing seems to be wrong as Haley and her friends follow the instructions from that middle-aged lady. Although they are not physically together, they still can hold a séance as long as they all can be serious enough about summoning any soul out there, and they are all ready to be surprised even though they are still not as serious as their invited expert. Anyway, they all light a candle as instructed, and, as they try to gather their will power or whatever, the mood among them becomes a bit solemn for a while.

After a few expected moments of false alarms, Haley and her friends become more relaxed and playful than before, but we already noticed ominous things even before the séance was started. For example, Haley was disturbed for a while as hearing a suspicious sound from somewhere inside her flat, and you surely know too well that this is not a good sign at all, if you are a seasoned moviegoer like me. In case of a certain creepy object brought by one of the characters in the film, it instantly took me back to what Anton Chekhov once said about what will inevitably happen if there is a loaded gun in the first act, and I was not disappointed at all later.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Haley and her friends belatedly come to realize that they inadvertently get themselves thrown into a grim situation which may be way over their heads, but it is still entertaining to watch how the screenplay by director Rob Savage and his co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, which was developed from a short film made by Savage early in last year, gradually develops tension on the screen. Although it is occasionally limited by its stuffy setting, the movie steadily draws more of our attention as diligently delivering one disturbing moment after another along its narrative, and we come to brace ourselves more as wondering more about what may come upon its main characters at any point.

Wisely choosing to show that mysterious source of menace as little as possible till its very last shot, Savage and his crew members skillfully utilize a number of simple but effective special effects during several key moments in the film. For example, I liked an unnerving scene where one of the main characters nervously looks around the dark attic of her residence with her laptop camera, and I also enjoyed one particularly terrifying moment based on a certain visual effect familiar to many of you.

As the movie rolls faster toward its inevitable arrival point, the mood becomes more intense and disturbing with more shock and awe for us, and Haley Bishop and several main cast members deserve to be commended for their believable presentation of accumulating panic and dread. Although their characters are more or less than cardboard figures to be eliminated one by one along the plot, Bishop and her fellow cast members imbue their respective roles with enough life and personality to engage us, and that is the main reason why the movie can still hold our attention even during its very predictable finale.

On the whole, “Host” does not bring anything particularly new to its genre territory, but it is fairly efficient in developing and then maintaining mood and tension during its relatively short running time (57 minutes), and it is surely one of better horror films I saw during this year in addition to being worthwhile to be remembered as one of the first notable COVID-19 pandemic era movies. While I might not be scared a lot during my viewing, I was at least entertained enough by how the movie deftly and economically handles its very simple idea under its very limited environment, and I appreciate that to some degree. Yes, as your average agnostic atheist, I have had lots of skepticism on those so-called spiritual stuffs, but I have learned well from many horror movies that you must not meddle with what you do not know well about, and the movie did a nice job of reminding me of that important lesson again.

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Action Hero (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little goofy college action comedy

South Korean independent film “Action Hero” is a little goofy mix of action and comedy which turns out to be more likable than I expected. While I often shook up my head as observing all those silly moments generated among its mostly broad main characters, I came to care a bit about some of them at least as getting occasional good laughs during my viewing, and it did not disappoint me when it finally delivered its modest but effective action-packed climax as required.

After the deliberately ridiculous opening scene which will bring some smile to anyone familiar with those old Hong Kong martial arts action flicks, the movie moves onto its first chapter cheerfully establishing its hero’s current hopeless status. Since he became a big fan of those Hong Kong martial arts action films, Joo-seong (Lee Suk-hyung) has aspired to be an action movie performer someday, but, to his disappointment, this earnest college lad has been stuck in preparing for the civil official application examination just like many other students in his university. Besides his little martial art club where he is incidentally its only member, the only consolation in his campus life comes from a movie acting class which he always attends despite not officially being one of its students, but neither the professor nor many of other class students is not particularly impressed by his enthusiastic presentation.

At least, there is Chan-yeol (Lee Se-joon), a senior class student who is genuinely interested in making something awesome with Joo-seong. Although he does not seem that talented in my humble opinion, Chan-yeol gladly supports Joo-seong’s aspiration as showing Joo-seong a little corny old student film. Needless to say, Joo-seong wants to look as impressive as its lead actress, but, so far, Chan-yeol and Joo-seong do not have any story idea to be developed into their little future project, and we accordingly get a little wacky moment as they try to shoot their first film only with a vaguely concocted idea.

And that is when they come across a blackmail letter to be sent to the professor of their movie class. While the letter suggests that the professor has been involved with a very serious case of administration corruption, Joo-seong and Chan-yeol see a seemingly wonderful idea for their nascent movie project. They are going to investigate onto the mysterious identity of the person behind this letter, and they will certainly capture everything on their camera with Joo-seong as the righteous hero to save the day in the end.

Meanwhile, the movie also pays attention to what is going on around that professor in question, who, not so surprisingly, turns out to be as corrupt as the letter suggests. While trying to handle this unexpected emergency for herself, the professor naturally comes to suspect one of her two assistants who have actually handled all those dirty deeds on her behalf, and that leads to a hilariously serious moment between her and that assistant.

As that assistant, a senior student named Seon-ah (Lee Ju-young), tries to figure out how to solve the situation for herself as well as her boss, we get to know a bit about how things have been desperate and frustrating for her during recent years. Constantly struggling to pay off her college tuition loan, she also has to work at a campus college coffee shop, but it looks like she will be stuck in her miserable status of life forever, and her fellow assistant Jae-woo (Jang In-sub) is not much of help or consolation to her although he turns out to be as desperate as Seon-ah later in the story.

Once all of its main characters are established, the screenplay by director/writer Lee Jin-ho, who makes a feature film debut here after making a couple of short films, throws more turns and twists into its narrative, and the main source of our laughs comes from how each of its main characters struggles to figure out what the hell is going on while mired more in their increasingly complicated circumstance. In case of Joo-seong and Chan-yeol, they belatedly come to realize how serious the situation really is, but they continue to make more misjudgments and errors just like others involved in the circumstance, and that only leads to more chaos and confusion for everyone.

Rather than laughing at their misadventures, the movie regards Joo-seong and Chan-yeol with some care and affection, and the same thing can be said about Seon-ah, who comes to find that she is still as lively and feisty as she once was many years ago. Although stumbling a bit during the final act, the movie eventually delivers a climactic action sequence which turns out to be more skillful and exciting than it seemed at first, and I also like how the following ending is balanced well between hard reality and tentative optimism.

The main cast members act as straight as possible while willingly throwing themselves into lots of silliness on the screen. While Lee Suk-hyeong deserves to be commended for looking both absurd and believable during many of his action scenes in the film, Lee Ju-young provides some necessary gravitas to the story as demanded, and Kim Jae-hwa, Jang In-sub, and Lee Se-joon are also fun to watch in their respective supporting parts.

In conclusion, “Action Hero” is rather modest on the whole, but it is funny and engaging enough to be compared with “The Paper Tigers” (2020), another recent martial arts comedy action film which is also silly but entertaining in its own way. To be frank with you, I wish it went further with more action and satire, but that weakness is understandable considering its small production budget, and it is certainly another notable debut feature film of this year in South Korea.

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Fear Street Part Three: 1666 (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): … and now it faces the origin of evil

I must confess that I had some skepticism when I came across the trailer of the Fear Street trilogy a few weeks ago. Based on the popular book series of the same name by R.L. Stine, it just looked like your average Netflix event to be watched and then forgotten, but, what do you know, its first two films turned out to be more interesting and entertaining than expected, and now here comes “Fear Street Part Three: 1666”, which works well as the satisfying conclusion to what has been built up so well in its two predecessors.

First, let me give you a bit of summary on what happened in “Fear Street Part One: 1994” (2021) and “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” (2021), respectively. Around the end of the first film, its two main characters, Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her nerdy younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) managed to survive along with Deena’s girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), but, alas, they are still menaced by that old curse put upon their town many decades ago, and Sam is subsequently possessed by some evil power behind it. In the second film, Deena and Josh come to the lone survivor of one of many serial killing incidents in their town, and the traumatic survival story of this lone survivor in question eventually gives them a possible solution for getting rid of that old curse from not only Sam but also their town once for all.

It seems that all Deena and Josh will have to do is taking the skeletal hand of a young woman supposedly behind that old curse and then bringing it back to where this young woman was buried, so, along with that skeletal hand obtained from the lone survivor, they quickly go to that burial site, which Deena and Sam accidentally came across in the first film. When Deena finally brings the skeletal hand back to its owner, she instantly experiences the old memories of its owner, and the movie accordingly moves back to 1666, when the town was modestly being established by a bunch of settlers from England.

Through the viewpoint of the owner of the skeletal hand, the movie gradually reveals to us what exactly happened at that old time while having some little fun from having many of the main cast members playing the other characters in this new period background. Although this looks rather awkward at first, we get slowly accustomed to this rather amusing casting choice, and we soon become more emotionally involved in what is going on around the young woman and several others including the local preacher’s daughter, to whom she becomes quite attracted just like Deena is helplessly drawn to Sam.

Quite well aware of the danger of their forbidden romance, these two young ladies try to be careful about their emotional matter as much as possible, but they cannot completely hide it from others, and they are soon thrown into a bigger problem as the town and its residents begin to be disturbed by a series of ominous incidents. Especially after one shocking happening which was incidentally the first serial killing incident in the town history, the town residents are thrown into more panic and fear, and, not so surprisingly, many of them start to suggest the presence of witchcraft around the town.

While we surely get several tense dramatic scenes as the town residents embark on their frantic witch hunt later in the story, the screenplay by director Leigh Janiak and her co-writers Phil Graziadei and Kate Trefry takes several neat plot turns for springing some surprises for us, and that makes the first half of the movie more poignant and harrowing than expected. Although the ending is already predetermined from the start, the movie keeps engaging and chilling us as usual, and then we come to see more of what is actually being at stake in the ongoing circumstance surrounding Deena and the other main characters in 1994.

I will not go into what will happen next during the second half of the film, but I can tell you instead that the movie did a good job of presenting a smart variation of what we got from the climax parts of its two predecessors. While we are not so surprised as Deena and several other main characters find themselves cornered by a bunch of lethal menaces at a certain familiar spot in their town, we are still amused and thrilled as before thanks to Janiak’s competent direction, and we come to pay more attention to whether they will eventually survive their increasingly perilous night.

The main cast members of the movie dutifully fill their respective spots as usual. While Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch are believable with the considerable chemistry between them, Ashley Zukerman, Gillian Jacobs, Benjamin Flores Jr., and Darrell Britt-Gibson also give solid supporting performances around Madeira and Welch, and you may be often delighted to see several other notable supporting performers in the series popping here and there along the story.

On the whole, “Fear Street Part Three: 1666” is as fun and thrilling as its two predecessors, and I really enjoyed how it skillfully completes its whole big picture in the end. Besides scaring us as much as it can, this wonderful trilogy is also willing to amuse and tickle us while bringing some refreshing modern perspective and element to its familiar genre territory, and I think it will be fondly remembered for a long time just like “Scream” (1996) and other smart and witty horror films in the past. In short, it is one of the more entertaining stuffs during this summer season, and, to be frank with you, I am willing to give it another round someday for appreciating its many commendable aspects more.

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Gunpodwer Milkshake (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): It could have more spunk and substance

Netflix film “Gunpowder Milkshake” is drenched in style and mood, but it seriously deficient in terms of spunk and substance to distinguish itself from other similar genre flicks such as “John Wick” (2014) and its recent sequels. While there are some entertaining moments mainly thanks to the game efforts from its main cast members, the movie will not surprise or impress you much as plodding from one expected moment to another, and you will soon forget it once it is over.

Karen Gillan, who has been mainly known for her notable supporting turn in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) and its subsequent 2017 sequel, plays Sam, a female professional assassin working for a criminal organization which is simply called “The Firm”. At the beginning, we see Sam handling her latest job with swift and ruthless proficiency, and the following flashback scene shows her painful separation from her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), who was also a professional assassin working for the Firm. As settling her old score, Scarlet consequently caused a big problem for not only her daughter but also the Firm, and she had no choice but to go into hiding alone while her daughter was left to her former handler Nathan (Paul Giamatti).

So far, Sam has been a fairly good employee under Nathan’s guidance and protection, but, unfortunately, she happens to cause a big problem just like her mother did a long time ago. When her latest mission turns out to be messier than expected, she has to eliminate a bunch of guys besides her main targets, and one of them happens to be someone quite dear to the leader of a rival criminal organization in the city. Once Nathan comes to learn of this serious mishap, he and other senior members of the organization quickly gather for an emergency meeting, and it goes without saying that they eventually decide to give away Sam for avoiding any more trouble.

Meanwhile, Sam is assigned to another job to be handled as soon as possible. Some plain accountant indirectly associated with the Firm ran away with lots of money, and it does not take much time for her to track down this person in question, but, of course, the situation turns out to be more complicated than expected. The money was stolen because this person has to pay the ransom for this person’s little daughter within a short time, and Sam decides to help getting the daughter back for this person, though she happens to injure this person quite seriously before making that decision.

As you have probably expected in advance, things really get messier for Sam once she tries to rescue that young girl from her kidnappers, who turn out to be quite sloppy in many aspects. Thanks to these clumsy and ineffectual criminals, Sam eventually finds herself facing more troubles, and she also has to decide what she should do about Emily (Chloe Coleman), that young girl who is fortunately rescued by her in the end.

As Sam and her unexpected young partner move from one spot another spot, the screenplay by director Navot Papushado and his co-writer Ehud Lavski attempts to build up a heavily stylized world around Sam and Emily. There is a small diner which is a sort of neutral zone for all the criminal figures in the city, and there is also a neat exclusive hospital not so far from the main background of “Hotel Artemis” (2018), another recent movie which also tried to emulate what was so amusingly established in “John Wick” and its recent sequels.

The most entertaining part in the film comes from a very special library run by a trio of ladies, each of whom turns out to have each own particular set of skills behind their unflappable appearance. While their main job is providing or disposing various weapons, these ladies are also capable of quick and brutal actions just like Sam (Is this a spoiler?), and they and a certain other character in the story surely stick together for Sam and Emily later in the story, even though they could simply choose to do nothing at all.

During the second half, the movie throws lots of physical actions into the screen as required, but the overall result is not accompanied with much dramatic impact because of many deficient aspects of the film. Although Gillan tries really hard to sell her character in addition to throwing herself willingly into a number of intense action scenes, her character is mostly devoid of life and personality to engage us, and her character’s personal drama along the story is bland and predictable to the core. At least, she and her young co-star Chloe Coleman click well together in several key scenes of theirs, but the movie does not handle their characters’ developing relationship that well, and that is another disappointment in the film.

In case of the other main cast members in the film, some of them have juicier moments in comparison. While Michael Smiley, Ralph Ineson, and Paul Giamatti are regrettably under-utilized on the whole, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Angela Bassett effortlessly steal the show right from their first appearance via their sheer charisma, and now I am seriously wondering whether the movie could be more interesting if it were mainly about their characters.

In conclusion, “Gunpowder Milkshake” is not as bad as I heard from other critics, but I observed its story, characters, and action scenes without much care while a bit amused from time to time, and I eventually became more frustrated with its evident paucity in case of personality and spirit. No, I do not mind the movie being another John Wick wannabe, but, folks, this disposable product only knows how to play notes, not music.

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The Medium (2021) ☆☆(2/4): A hollow and unpleasant geek show

Thai filmmaker Banjong Pisanthanakun’s new film “The Medium”, one of the most anticipated horror films of this year to me and many other South Korean audiences due to its South Korean co-producer Na Hong-jin (Remember “The Chaser” (2008) or “The Wailing” (2016)?), is a hollow and unpleasant geek show to say the least. The more I reflect on its many supposedly scary and intense moments, the more the movie feels vulgar, exploitative, and reprehensible in numerous aspects, and I am still regretting over wasting 2 hours of my life at last night. No, I do not mind being scared or challenged as watching those dark horror films willing to shock or repulse audiences by any means necessary, but, boy, this dreck gave me one of the most tedious and uninteresting experiences I have had during this year.

Like several recent horror films about exorcism such as “The Last Exorcism” (2010), the movie is a mix of found footage and mockumentary, and its first act begins as a standard local culture documentary on the shamanism in rural Thai areas. Mainly through a local female middled-aged shaman named Nim (Sawanee Utoomma), the movie shows and tells us a bit of what she and many other local have believed for years, and then we see how she earns her meager living via giving others some spiritual help. According to her, the women in her family have been destined to become shamans, or “mediums”, to represent a certain local god who is simply one of numerous supernatural entities out there, and we hear about how she eventually became a shaman instead of her older sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan), who incidentally escaped to Christianity after refusing to carry their family obligation.

When Nim subsequently attends the funeral of Noi’s recently diseased husband, she and Noi remain estranged from each other, and they do not interact well much with each other as reflected by a brief moment when Noi’s only daughter Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech) delivers a note from Noi, but then Nim gradually comes to sense something wrong from Mink. While she looks mostly fine on the surface, Mink has been behaving rather weirdly, and Nim later witnesses a very odd and disturbing incident from Mink during the following night.

As her niece keeps behaving weirdly day by day, Nim is convinced that her niece is experiencing something not so far from what she had a long time ago, so she tries to handle this situation for herself, but that is not welcomed much by her older sister, who adamantly refuses to believe all those shamanism stuffs in her younger sister’s spiritual world. As Mink’s circumstance becomes worse and worse, Noi tries her best to keep things under control, but, of course, she eventually begins to wonder whether she made a big mistake when she refused to carry that family obligation.

While all these and other things are happening around Nim and her family, they are constantly followed by the cameras of several crew members of the documentary in the film, who are somehow allowed to get full access to almost everything without much ethical consideration. As Mink goes through more of her inexplicable predicament, the cameras in the film stick closer to her just for capturing more disturbing happenings from her, and we accordingly get a series of uncomfortable scenes where the cameras feel more like creepy unethical voyeurs instead of objective observers. In case of a certain scene presented via closed-circuit TV cameras, it is utterly vile and unpleasant in its sleazy objectification of female body, and this only comes to remind us that the movie regards Mink as nothing but a mere object to be tormented and humiliated throughout the story.

The movie becomes a little more interesting during the middle act as Nim tries to discern what is really going on around Mink, but this part goes nowhere while casually throwing a certain taboo into the story without no particularly dramatic purpose, and we get more confused and disoriented than before. Is Mink really possessed by the ghost of someone very close to her? Are her mind and body actually filled with more than one spiritual entity? And is there really the connection between her ongoing plight and that dark history of her father’s family?

As entering its last act, the movie prepares itself for a full-throttle exorcism mode along Nim and several other main characters including one of her fellow shamans. While we surely get several disconcerting moments of demonic possession including the one involved with a very unfortunate dog (Please brace yourself if you are an animal lover, by the way), we are served with lots of typical shaky camera movements as those documentary crew members in the film keep shooting stuffs as before.

However, do all these and other things in the film really add up to, well, something enough for us to endure them all? To be frank with you, I am scratching my head on that matter while discerning more of its superficial narrative and thin characterization, which are the main reason I did not care about whatever was going on the screen. The main cast members did try as much as with their bland cardboard roles, and there are some competent aspects in the film including its effectively moody cinematography, but I kept observing the film from the distance without much care or attention during my viewing, in addition to not being so scared or challenged at all.

In conclusion, “The Medium” is a wretched genre exercise which only attempts to distinguish itself via numerous unpleasant and repulsive moments, and I was quite disappointed and depressed as I walked out of the screening room. At present, my mind is already ready to move onto other horror films which may be better than this dud, and I am sure my mind will soon forget the bad aftertaste from watching it.

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Fear Street Part Two: 1978 (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): …And then it goes back to 1978

Netflix film “Fear Street Part Two: 1978”, which was released on last Friday, tries to bring some fresh air into its genre territory just like its predecessor. Again, we are served with a gruesome horror tale of serial killing coupled with some supernatural elements, but the movie still provides a fair share of fun and thrill before opening the door to the final chapter of its trilogy in the end, and I found myself more entertained than expected.

The story starts at the time point not long after the cliffhanger ending of “Fear Street Part One: 1994” (2021). Its two main characters, Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her nerdy younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), managed to survive another horrible night of murder in their cursed hometown Shadytown, Ohio in addition to saving Deena’s girlfriend Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) from a bunch of serial killers controlled by the malevolent spirit of a powerful witch in the 17th century, but, alas, Sam subsequently becomes possessed by the spirit of that witch, and Deena and Josh must find any possible way to solve this new trouble before it is too late for Sam.

It seems that the solution may come from the sole survivor of one of the previous serial killing incidents in the past, so Deena and Josh hurriedly go to the house where that sole survivor lives at present. That person in question is not so cooperative while quite resigned about what has been going on in Shadytown for many decades, but that person eventually agrees to tell Deena and Josh about what happened at a local summer camp in 1978.

The movie accordingly moves back to that summer camp in 1978, and we are introduced to Ziggy Berman (Sadie Sink) and her older sister Cindy (Emily Rudd), who are not so particularly close to each other due to their personality difference. As trying to be as exemplary as possible, Cindy hopes that her participation in the summer camp program as a camp counselor will be another stepping stone to a better life outside Shadytown, and she often regards her more laid-back Shadytown colleagues with disdain. In contrast, frequently bullied and ridiculed by the campers of the neighboring town which is better than Shadytown in many aspects, Ziggy, who is naturally included in the Shadytown camper group, does not think that is possible, and she is usually annoyed by her sister’s haughty and fastidious attitude.

At least, there comes a little consolation for Ziggy while she goes through another miserable day at the summer camp. There is one kind and compassionate male camp counselor from that neighboring town, and this lad not only saves Ziggy from her latest humiliation but also helps her a bit when she later plans a little sweet retaliation against one of her bullies.

However, of course, there soon comes a big trouble when Cindy and her several fellow Shadytown camp counselors go into the surrounding forest during the following evening. Using the records left by a camp nurse who suddenly tried to kill Cindy’s boyfriend for no apparent reason, they eventually locate a certain spot associated with the old dark history of their town, and, as many of you have already guessed, that eventually leads to the beginning of that infamous night to remember.

What follows next is not so far from “Friday the 13th” (1980) and its countless sequels, but the movie, which is based on the popular book series of the same name by R.L. Stine, often toys with our expectation as swinging back and forth between twisted humor and bloody horror as required. I particularly like how the sequence involved with a very smelly underground space is swiftly punctuated by one gory moment of shock later, and I was also tickled a bit by a little homage to the killer character in “Friday the 13th Part 2” (1981).

Although the ending is already predetermined from the very start, the movie keeps engaging us as never losing the focus on what is being developed among its main characters, who have more life and personality compared to those disposable human targets in many lesser slasher horror films out there. As some of these main characters try their best under their increasingly perilous situation, we come to care about them more than expected, and that is one of the main reasons why the expected climax works with considerable dramatic effect.

Under the competent direction of director/co-writer Leigh Janiak, who directed all three films of the trilogy, the main cast members in the film dutifully fill their respective spots. While Sadie Sink and Emily Rudd complement each other well as two contrasting sisters who come to depend on each other more than expected along the story, Ryan Simpkins and Ted Sutherland are fine as two substantial supporting characters in the story, and Gillian Jacobs, who has been mostly known for her supporting turn in TV sitcom series “Community”, shows the more serious side of her talent during her brief appearance in the film.

On the whole, “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” is a fun genre exercise as entertaining as its predecessor, and you will be more curious about how everything in the series will be resolved in the following last chapter of the trilogy. So far, the series has been fairly satisfying, and I guess I can have a little more expectation on whatever we are going to get on the upcoming Friday.

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Werewolves Within (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A nutty werewolf murder mystery

“Werewolves Within” is a nutty whodunnit flick which often delighted me with its cheerful mix of horror, mystery, and comedy. Within its familiar genre territory clearly influenced by “And Then There Were None” (1945) as well as “The Thing” (1982), the movie, which is incidentally based on the video game of the same name from Red Storm Entertainment, deftly swings around several different genre modes before reaching to its eventual finale, and the result is often uproarious while accompanied with enough intrigue and suspense.

The story of the movie is unfolded mainly via the viewpoint of Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson), a forest ranger who has recently been transferred to a very small remote rural mountain town. Although the number of its current residents are a little more than 10 without any particular attraction to draw outsiders, this town somehow has a big inn run by an ebullient middle-aged lady named Jeanine Sherman (Catherine Curtin), and that is where Finn is going to stay while doing whatever he is expected to do as a forest ranger.

Shortly after arriving in the inn, Finn encounters several persons who are as colorful as Jeanine, and one of them is Cecily Moore (Milana Vayntrub), a young plucky female mail carrier who also recently began to work in the town. She subsequently has Finn meet the other people in the town, and we get an absurdly tense scene where Finn happens to encounter a guy who can be regarded as the unfriendliest person in the whole town.

While the other residents of the town look nice and friendly to their new forest ranger compared to that hostile dude, it turns out that there has been a little conflict among them due to the matter involved with a wealthy businessman currently staying in Jeanine’s inn. This businessman is willing to give a considerable amount of financial compensation in exchange of getting a permission to build a massive gas pipeline across the town, and some of the residents have no problem with that while others including Jeanine have opposed to that.

During the following night accompanied with a heavy blizzard, a couple of disturbing things occur. Probably due to the blizzard, the whole town happens to be cut off from the electricity line from the outside, and there is also a terrible incident involved with a pet dog belonging to one of the residents. As almost everyone in the town comes to gather at Jeanine’s inn for discussing what the hell is going on and how they should respond to that, the tension among them is increased more than ever, and then there comes a shocking moment of discovery which was already announced to us via the prologue scene of the movie.

Fortunately, one of Jeanine’s current guests happens to be a scientist who also happens to be an environmentalist, but the scientist is soon thrown into panic and confusion after trying to analyze the biological samples obtained from that alarming discovery. While trying to calm down the scientist, Finn and others in the inn later come to learn of the scientist’s final conclusion; There is a murderous werewolf, and it is quite possible that this werewolf is hiding among others in the inn right now.

After another terrible incident, everyone in the inn comes to believe what the scientist told them, and Finn tries to handle the situation as much as he can, but, to his frustration (and our amusement), things keep getting out of control. He and other cannot possibly leave the town right now because the only road between the town and the outside world happens to be cut off due to the blizzard, so he sees that he and others must stick together for increasing the chance of their survival, but, alas, most of others turn out to be as untrustworthy and uncooperative as the main characters of “The Hateful Eight” (2015).

Now I will be more discreet for avoiding spoilers, so I will just say that I enjoyed how the screenplay by Mishna Wolff takes one hilarious plot turn after another while steadily maintaining its narrative momentum. There are several obligatory moments of false alarms along the story, but most of them are handled better than I expected, and you will certainly get a good laugh from a certain big phallic object in the town, which is as transparent as Chekhov’s gun but is utilized more effectively than you might think.

Above all, the movie depends a lot on the talent and presence of its cast members, who bring each own life and personality to their respective archetype roles as well as the main cast members of “Knives Out” (2019). Sam Richardson, who has been mostly known for his supporting turn in HBO comedy series “Veep”, ably balances his performance between humor and sincerity, and he and Milana Vayntrub click well together during several key scenes in the film thanks to their precise comic timing. In case of the other cast members including Catherine Curtin, Michael Chernus, Cheyenne Jackson, Harvey Guillén, and Glenn Fleshler, they all have each own juicy moment to play, and we come to observe their characters with more chuckles even though their characters are more or less then silly figures who may be eliminated along the story.

Overall, “Werewolves Within”, which is directed by Josh Ruben, is funny and compelling enough to hold our attention before its rather weak ending, and it is certainly better than “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” (2020), which I happened to watch right before watching it. While “The Wolf of the Snow Hollow” is a little too jumbled and incoherent as often spinning its wheels, “Werewolves Within” simply goes all the way for more laughs and thrills in contrast, and I assure you that you will have a more productive time with the latter.

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The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): He has other issues besides that….

Jim Cummings’ second feature film “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” attempts an offbeat mix of horror and comedy, but its two very different elements do not click as well as intended. On one hand, it wants to be your average scary werewolf horror film, but, despite some obligatory moments of shock and terror, it is not particularly compelling or interesting. On the other hand, it also wants to be a character comedy about one pathetic man-child hero with emotional issues, but, it only becomes a weak and tiresome one-joke comedy as being placed right next to the gory aspects of the horror part of the movie.

Cummings, who also wrote the screenplay, plays John Marshall, a police officer of a rural town named Snow Hollow. When he is introduced around the beginning of the film, he is attending an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting which happens to be held right below his workplace, and it is quite apparent to us that he is still struggling a lot with several emotional issues including his recent divorce. As anyone with drinking problem will attest, that is not a very good sign for any alcoholic trying to get back on the way to sobriety, and then he finds himself distracted by what is suddenly going on at his workplace right now.

As already shown to us during the prologue scene, a gruesome murder case happened at the previous night, and Marshall and other police officers are aghast at how savagely the victim was mutilated. On the surface, it seems that some very twisted dude committed this heinous deed, but there are some strange things at the crime scene. For example, there is a big footprint of some animal, and, not so surprisingly, one of Marshall’s colleagues later suggests that the victim was actually killed by a werewolf.

Marshall does not believe that preposterous possibility at all, but then his town is soon shaken by another horrible case of murder and body mutilation, which certainly attracts more attention from the world outside. While the media including a local newspaper have a field day on the possibility of a crazy serial killer lurking somewhere in the town, Marshall becomes more pressured than before as trying to get things under control, but the situation surrounding his case only gets worse as days go by.

Meanwhile, Marshall’s private matters keep troubling him as usual. Although he has been sick of his ex-wife since his divorce, he still cares about their adolescent daughter, but he and his daughter Jenna (Chloe East) have been quite estranged from each other without much interaction between them, and they will be drifted apart from each other more once she goes to a college far from their hometown. In case of his father, who is also the sheriff of the town, he also does not interact that well with his son, and he also stubbornly insists on keeping working as usual despite his current serious health problem.

The only consolation for Marshall comes from Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome), one of his fellow officers who really wants to solve the case just like her colleague. While trying to support her colleague as much as she can, she also attempts to gather useful clues which may lead them to any potential suspect, but, not so surprisingly, they keep going nowhere with that growing possibility on the existence of a werewolf in their town.

However, Cummings’ screenplay deliberately focuses more on Marshall’s increasingly troubled emotional state without paying much attention to the mystery in the story. Besides showing the entity responsible for those atrocious killings a bit too early, the movie also gives us a possible suspect in advance, and I was quite disappointed by the contrived solution clumsily thrown later in the story.

Furthermore, the movie also stumbles a lot as a character comedy. The main characters are more or less than broad caricatures, and, to make matters worse, the movie fails to flesh out them with enough sense of life or personality to draw our attention. While Cummings tries really hard to sell his character, Marshall is no more than an unpleasant and uninteresting alcoholic jerk in my humble opinion, and many neurotic moments of his are monotonously shrill without much character development. As a result, we come to observe Marshall’s emotional struggle from the distance without any care or attention, and that is one of the reasons why the finale, which is accompanied with a certain familiar seasonal song, does not work at all.

In case of the other main characters, they are also rather bland and superficial, but some of them leave some impression thanks to the performers playing them. While Riki Lindhome manages to acquit herself well despite her thankless role, Chloe East brings some common sense to her several scenes with Cummings, and Robert Forster, a great character actor who sadly passed away in 2019 before the movie was released in last year, ably fills his supporting role with his own presence.

Although it is not wholly without good elements to notice, “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is one or two steps down from Cummings’ first feature film “Thunder Road” (2018). While that film amused me enough, “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” somehow annoyed and frustrated me at times, and now my mind keeps going back to “Werewolves Within” (2021), which did a better job of mixing horror and comedy within its own werewolf story. Maybe you can enjoy “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” more than me, but I would rather recommend you “Werewolves Within” instead if you really want some nice thrill and good laughs.

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Gaia (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little spooky eco horror film from South Africa

South African horror film “Gaia” impressed me a lot with many disturbing moments to remember. Although the story, which is reminiscent of many other horror films ranging from “The Ruins” (2008) to “Annihilation” (2018), sometimes suffers from its rather thin narrative and broad characterization, these and other weak aspects in the film are mostly compensated by its undeniable visceral visual power coupled with simple but sharp environmental messages, and my mind is still haunted by what I witnessed from this curious piece of work early in this morning.

The movie, which was shot in the remote wild areas of the Tsitsikamma forest in South Africa, opens with two employees of South African forest service moving along a river in the forest. While Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) is casually rowing their boat, Gabi (Monique Rockman) handles a drone to check out the surrounding area, and we accordingly get an aerial shot which emphasizes how vast and remote the forest really is.

And then something unexpected happens. When the drone is looking around somewhere inside the forest, it comes across a mysterious figure, and then it is suddenly disconnected from Gabi’s remote-control panel. Although Winston suggests that they should let it go, Gabi is adamant about retrieving the drone, so she soon goes inside the forest for looking for the drone, while Winston is doing some routine stuffs in the meantime.

Of course, things do not go well for both Gabi and Winston. Not long after going inside the forest, Gabi comes to sense that she is not alone at all in the forest, and then she gets herself seriously injured by a booby trap. Hearing her scream from the distance, Winston instantly tries to find Gabi as soon as possible, but, no so surprisingly, he also finds himself lost in the forest, which comes to look more ominous than before as the day is being over with the darkening sky.

Meanwhile, Gabi manages to find an empty cabin where she can rest for a while and then take care of her injury, but then she encounters the two residents of the cabin: Barend (Carel Nel) and his adolescent son Stefan (Alex Van Dyk). It is apparent that Barend and Stefan have lived there for many years without any interference from the world outside, and Barend clearly does not welcome Gabi much, but he lets her stay in his cabin in addition to having her injury treated via a rather crude but effective way.

As Gabi comes to spend more time with Barend and his son, we get to know a bit more about him and his son. Before living the life of your average survivalist, Barend was a plant pathology expert, and the forest was a special place for him and his wife, who, according to him, died due to bone cancer shortly giving birth to their son. In case of Stefan, this young lad is mostly silent, but he soon becomes curious about Gabi, and she comes to take pity on him as discerning how much his world has been limited by his father, who is more like a zealous cult leader instead of a protective father.

However, as already shown to us, Barend and his son are not bound together via a mere belief. There is indeed something scary and mysterious within the forest, and we accordingly get a series of uncanny scenes including the recurring one involved with a big old tree glowing with ominous bloody light every night. While frequently having vividly disconcerting dreams, Gabi is also quite unnerved to behold what Barend and his son have to deal with everyday, but it looks like there is no way out for her.

Once its origin of terror is fully revealed during its second half, the screenplay by Tertius Kapp comes to lose some of its narrative momentum, but the movie keeps serving us striking moments of awe and terror under the competent direction of director Jaco Bouwer. Besides deftly establishing a subtle aura of menace around the screen, Bouwer and his crew members including cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt did a fantastic job of bringing considerable realism and verisimilitude to the film, and what the movie comes to unleash on that solid ground is often quite mesmerizing to say the least. According to the IMDB trivia, Bouwer and his production team had lots of difficulties besides the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when they shot their movie in the Tsitsikamma forest, but the overall result is still top-notch in technical aspects, and you will come to admire more of their efforts behind the screen.

The main performers in the film dutifully fill their respective roles. While Moonique Rockman functions as our surrogate heroine, Carel Nel and Alex Van Dyk are quite convincing in their shabby feral appearance, and they and Rockman generate enough dramatic tension to engage us despite their predictable character arcs along the story. Although his role is your average token supporting character, Anthony Oseyemi holds his own small spot well, and you may feel sorry for his character even though you can instantly discern his character’s end coming from the distance.

Overall, “Gaia” may require some patience from you in the beginning, but it will be a rewarding experience especially if you are looking for something different. Like any good horror films, it is packed with mood and details to be savored, and you may come to reflect a bit on the humanity’s problematic current relationship with the nature on the Earth.

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False Positive (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Something is wrong with her pregnancy…

“False Positive” is a psychological thriller movie which attempts to explore the female fear and anxiety on pregnancy. Clearly reminiscent of “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), the movie is creepy and interesting enough to hold our attention during its first two acts, but then it stumbles more than once during the rather jumbled third act, and that is a shame considering some good efforts from its cast and crew members.

The story is mainly told through the viewpoint of Lucia “Lucy” Martin (Ilana Glazer), a promising female copywriter living with her surgeon husband Adrian (Justin Theroux) in New York City. While their married life has been affluent and comfortable as reflected by their slick modern apartment, they have actually been struggling to have a baby during last two years, and there has not been any success yet to their disappointment.

And then there comes a good news for them. Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), a renowned fertility expert who has been running a prestigious women’s clinic in the city, is willing to help them as Adrian’s old mentor, and, with the full support from her husband, Lucy gets herself examined at Hindle’s clinic and then inseminated via his state-of-the-art technique.

It does not take much for Lucy to find that she finally gets her wish, but it turns out to be quite more than she wanted. She is pregnant with no less than three fetuses, and Dr. Hindle suggests that she should made a certain choice for guaranteeing safe pregnancy and birth. Although she understandably hesitates at first, Lucy eventually comes to make the decision on that, and her husband respects her decision despite his initial reservation.

During next several months, everything seems to be going pretty well for Lucy and her husband, but Lucy cannot help but feel wrong about her pregnancy. Her husband and Dr. Hilton assure her that she is simply going through prenatal depression, and one of her new friends she encounters at a meeting of pregnant women also tells her that there is nothing to worry about, but she still frequently becomes nervous and agitated, while also suspecting something fishy from her husband as well as Dr. Hilton.

As its heroine is slowly mired in inexplicable fear and anxiety, the movie begins to toy with the insidious possibilities surrounding her pregnancy. There is a brief hallucinogenic moment which is definitely influenced by the infamous nightmare sequence in “Rosemary’s Baby”, and we also get several morbid moments which will make us have some reasonable doubt on the reliability of Lucy’s increasingly unstable viewpoint. Is she just going through a very serious case of prenatal depression? Or, are her husband and Dr. Hilton really planning something diabolical behind their back?

Meanwhile, the movie also tries to mix a number of different elements into the story, though many of them are disappointingly underdeveloped on the whole. The subplot involved with Lucy’s workplace could illuminate more of how difficult it is for women to balance herself between work and pregnancy, but this part is eventually put aside without much afterthought. In case of the part associated with a well-known midwife who may help Lucy more than Dr. Hilton, it is so superficially handled that a revelation around the end of the story does not feel like a surprise at all, though the movie makes a little sharp point on a certain stereotype.

Anyway, director/co-writer/co-producer John Lee and his crew members did a fairly good job of imbuing the screen with a considerable degree of uneasiness and insidiousness. The last act does not wholly work, and the predetermined ending is not as strong as intended, but several competent aspects of the movie including the cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski, who previously collaborated with Ari Aster in “Hereditary” (2018) and “Midsommar” (2019), still engage us even at that point.

Although I am not that familiar with her TV sitcom series “Broad City”, Ilana Glazer, who also co-produced and co-wrote the film along with Lee, is a good performer as far as I can see from the movie, and she ably conveys to us her character’s trembling state of mind along the story. Even as we come to question more of what is presented through her character’s viewpoint, Glazer’s solid performance still keeps us on the edge, and she steadily supports the film right up to its very last shot.

Several other performers surrounding Glazer are also well-cast in their respective roles. While Justin Theroux is suitable as a husband who may not be totally honest with his wife, Gretchen Mol is as cheerfully creepy as required by her character, and Zainab Jah and Sophia Bush bring some personality to their rather thankless supporting roles. In case of Pierce Brosnan, he wisely underplays his character as subtly suggesting what may lie beneath his character’s confident benevolence, and it is evident that he is clearly enjoying every juicy moment given to him.

Although it is not satisfying enough for recommendation, “False Positive” is not entirely without interesting stuffs at least. The overall result is merely disturbing and uncomfortable without enough dramatic impact to linger on me, and I wish it went further with its pulpy aspects, but I will not deny that I had a fair share of entertainment during my viewing.

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