Sunday, February 10, 2019

Candidate #13

(March 2018)

I would like to introduce you to my present and the rest of the world’s future.
“I call it ‘Stem.’”

It’s been just over 15 years (Seriously?! 15?!) since Leigh Whannell burst onto the horror scene alongside James Wan with Saw.
And while Wan has gone on to direct titles outside the horror genre like Furious 7 and Aquaman (both of which crossed the $ 1 billion(!) threshold at the box office), Whannell has largely stayed within its confines, also helping birth the Insidious franchise with long-time collaborator Wan.
He then tried out the director’s chair on Insidious: Chapter 3.
Thankfully, he seems to have enjoyed that experience, enough that he’s given us his sophomore feature, Upgrade.*

“I am Stem. The system operating your body for you.
“Don’t be afraid.”

Set in the near-future, where technology has become even more all-encompassing than it already is today, Grey Trace (an excellent Logan Marshall-Green) suddenly finds himself a quadriplegic after a vicious attack.
Bitter and despondent, he’s given a chance to walk again by wealthy tech mogul Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson, who was in Amazon’s recent TV adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock).
But what could have been a second chance at a normal life becomes a bloody vengeance spree with the help of Grey’s new best friend, Stem.

“You now have full control again, Grey.”

Upgrade’s trailer suggests a balls to the wall sci-fi actioner, and the film proves to be that, an occasionally wild and exhilarating ride as Whannell executes some visual acrobatics to convey to the audience Grey’s tech-enhanced mobility. (It should be noted that Upgrade went home with the Midnighters Audience Award from the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival.)
But the film is also spiced up with some gory kills and a potent streak of techno horror, as we get exposed to the fears and anxieties of how technology can impact on our humanity, on both individual and societal levels.
And that streak is wide and prevalent enough to land Upgrade onto this year’s ¡Q horror! Candidates list.

“I’m sorry. We can’t let them win.”

* He’s also signed on to write and direct a new iteration of The Invisible Man, as well as tackle a remake of Escape from New York (for which he’s writing the script with the possibility of directing also open).

Parting Shot 1:
Reviews for Saw (and Saw IV) can be found here (and here); Insidious made the Candidates list in the ¡Q horror! 2011 rundown.
More Logan Marshall-Green can be found in ¡Q horror! 2011 Candidate Devil and ¡Q horror! 2016 title The Invitation.

Parting Shot 2:
Get Out's very own Georgina, Betty Gabriel, appears here as Detective Cortez.
She's also currently starring in Season 2 of the brilliant, sci fi-tinged espionage show, Counterpart.

(Upgrade OS courtesy of

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Candidate #12

(January 2019)

"Look, I came to the museum because I wanted to change the world through art. But the wealthy vacuum up everything, except crumbs. The best work is only enjoyed by a tiny few. And they buy what they’re told. So, why not join the party?”

Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw takes place in the dangerous waters of the art world, where most everyone is only too eager to deploy a scathing remark or a catty side-eye while they’re busy co-opting an artist’s true passion to make a quick buck.
It’s a world populated not just by artists, but by all the other personalities that tend to accrete around them, like critics or gallery owners.
The former is represented by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf Vandewalt, an inveterate critic who’s apparently unable to switch off his being “selective,” even for funerals, while Rene Russo’s Rhodora Haze is one of the latter. Once a self-described anarchist, from her days as a member of the punk band Velvet Buzzsaw, Rhodora is now a “purveyor of good taste,” as the owner of Haze Gallery.
They’re only two of the noteworthy collective of characters (and performers: Toni Collette! John Malkovich!) in this tale of art taking its overdue revenge on the industry that’s savagely exploited it, oh so cruelly and elegantly.

“Let me fill you in.
“All this… it’s just a safari to hunt the next New Thing and eat it.”

As an artist, as someone who creates, that dizzyingly high target you’re always aiming for is to create art that speaks to the audience, that can touch them in ways they never expected.
There’s a moment in the film that encapsulates that feeling masterfully, where Malkovich and Daveed Diggs--who play an established artist who’s seen better days and a new up-and-comer, the old school and the new--stare enraptured (or “ensorcelled,” as Morf would have it) at a piece of art in a gallery.
Velvet Buzzsaw takes that idea, and tosses it headfirst into horror movie territory as the art of one Vetril Dease proves to be art that can touch you hard enough to kill you.
It’s art that--to use Rhodora’s words--charges and mauls and devours.
It’s art that eats its audience.
Or, more to the point, it’s art that eats anyone who tries to profit off it in ethically questionable ways.

“We don’t sell durable goods, we peddle perception. Thin as a bubble.”

As much as Velvet Buzzsaw is a horror movie, complete with gruesome, gory deaths, what I feel is more noteworthy is that it’s also a savagely funny satire of the art world and its denizens.
Gilroy’s script impishly skewers an industry that constantly co-opts new voices and visions into its maw, all in the name of the Almighty Dollar, turning them into Brands and using them until they’re no longer of any worth, then tossing them out for some other bright new shiny talent.
Wash, rinse, repeat.

It’s a world at once terrible and ludicrous, where a bunch of plastic garbage bags or a dead body in pools of blood can be mistaken for contemporary art.
A world where the Critic is God (the one and only Voice that can apparently determine a piece’s beauty and worth, but also a Voice only too ready to spew cruel and merciless invective), a world where true, passionate creativity and artistic integrity are forever haunted by the “money question.”

“So much easier to talk about money than art.”

As Rhodora points out to a Morf who’s already left the room (and as the one sheet’s tagline says), all art is dangerous.
Or at least, art is meant to be dangerous.
Art should provoke and challenge, inspire and elevate.
Instead, it’s become mired in an industry that’s far more interested in “tax issues,” the promise of “significant appreciation,” and “cutting-edge analytics to maximize deal flow and global demand.”
The industry has filed down the teeth of art, all the better to sacrifice it at the altar of commerce.
Velvet Buzzsaw imagines all those teeth grown back, turned into razor sharp fangs.

“Well, I’m going to meet with your board tomorrow and suggest a reduction in the Emerging Artist Exhibit.
“They don’t sell any tickets anyway.”

Parting Shot: Pat Healy (familiar to these parts from past ¡Q horror! titles Cheap Thrills and Tales of Halloween) appears briefly as the “Man From Perlack.”

(Velvet Buzzsaw OS courtesy of

Friday, February 1, 2019

Candidate #11

(January 2018)

"The victim has to be a prostitute, but what type? And she has to speak English. The terror must be in English.”

Reed (It Comes at Night’s Christopher Abbott) is a man up to no good.
His meticulously murderous plans (which involve rope, chloroform, and an icepick) go soaring out the window though when his paths cross with Jackie (Mia Wasikowska).
That’s the basic set-up of Piercing, the sophomore feature of Nicolas Pesce, on the heels of his audacious and disturbing debut, The Eyes of My Mother.
Pesce adapts the script from the novel Piasshingu by Murakami Ryū, the man also responsible for bringing us Ōdishon, upon which Miike Takashi’s Audition is based.
Let’s let that sink in for a moment, shall we?

“Look at your face… the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen, I just want to hit you. Not just like a little slap on the cheek, I want to punch you with my fist as hard as I can.”

Now, having established Piercing’s pedigree, I should make it clear at the offset that it is not as viscerally unsettling as The Eyes of My Mother, nor is it as shockingly violent as Audition (though it does have its twisted moments).
And while there are similarities between the narrative arcs of Piercing and Audition, Pesce’s adaptation is clearly its own kind of animal.

“Imagine me lying here and you looking down at me. And these sheets getting wet with all sorts of things.
“Just think about what that could be like.
“Think about it.”

Of particular note are the stylistic flourishes Pesce deploys, among them, transporting the action to an unspecified setting composed of a cityscape of miniatures, and utilizing some tracks from classic giallo, among them, Goblin cuts from Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso and Tenebre.
(Pesce himself has described Piercing as “… very much my take on a giallo film.”)
He also subverts the audience’s instinctive reactions to a pair of easy listening standards in two notable sequences in the film, juxtaposing the overly familiar music against a canny use of sound to evoke substantial levels of disquiet.

“I mean… odds say you should probably just kill her no matter what.”

So if all that sounds like your cup of red ant--and so long as you keep in mind that Piercing is not as extreme a horror title as either The Eyes of My Mother or Audition--then you’d do well to check this one out.

“You don’t have to be afraid.”

Parting Shot: I’ve never been a particular fan of the Ju-On films that I’ve seen, which have always struck me as far more interested in scares and shocks rather than character and plot.
The English-language remakes helmed by Ju-On creator Shimizu Takashi weren’t much of an improvement in that area either.
But with Pesce taking the reins on the Grudge reboot, I’m mighty curious to see what he brings to the table.

(Piercing OS’ courtesy of

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Candidate #10

(September 2018)

"They are professional performers. Illusion is their craft.”

The best word I can come up with for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (billed as “Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in Divided Berlin”), is reimagining.
While the opening credits tell us that the script by David Kajganich is still “Based on the Original Screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi,” this Suspiria takes the bare narrative bones of a young American accepted to a dance academy that hides a sinister secret, and lushly fleshes it out, in both theme and character, giving us something at once familiar, and yet bracingly, beguilingly new.
Or, to use the appropriate metaphor, it’s generally the same dance, but it’s set to a different tempo, so it’s got a different rhythm, and it boasts some new, brazenly daring choreography.

“When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator. You empty yourself, so that her work can live within you.
“Do you understand?”

Some of those new steps are immediately introduced to us.
Even before Susanna Bannion of Ohio (Dakota Johnson) is welcomed into the Helena Markos Tanzgruppe, we meet Josef Klemperer (“Lutz Ebersdorf”*), psychiatrist to Chloë Grace Moretz’s Patricia Hingle (a name that should ring some bells from the original).

And while Argento bound himself largely to the dark fairy tale setting of the Tanz Academie, Guadagnino and Kajganich choose to frame the action against historical events in a “Divided Berlin,” tossing politics (including sexual), societal upheaval, and the long, twisted shadow of the Holocaust into this witches’ brew.
With a full hour more running time than the original, this Suspiria uses that additional time masterfully so motivations come more clearly into focus, and dance becomes even more pivotal and central to the narrative.

“Movement is never mute. It is a language. It’s a series of energetic shapes written in the air like words forming sentences.
“Like poems.
“Like prayers.”

Dance as magick.
Movement as vector for intent and desire, unleashing power more potentially destructive than bombs.
These come forcefully to the surface in this reimagining, as does Argento’s Three Mothers mythology.
As Klemperer recounts:

“Patricia wrote about ‘Three Mothers,’ lost in time, predating all Christian invention. Pre-God. Pre-Devil.
“Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum.
“Darkness, Tears, and Sighs.”

We may not be treated to the added layer of their three Houses just yet, but the basic mythological foundation is here for our inspection.
All these, and more, all discrete steps in this shadowy dance, which builds steadily, crescendoing in a completely batsh!t Grand Guignol finale, before segueing into a surprisingly moving Epilogue.
(Plus, Argento’s Suzy Bannion, Jessica Harper, makes a crucial appearance!)

While it’s safe to say that this was clearly another very serious instance of “Manage Your Expectations, Space Monkey,” I am relieved to announce that this is a dance I was very glad to have witnessed.

“You can give someone your delusion, Sara. That’s religion.”

* I could go on about the whole Tilda Swinton of it all (and she is amazing here, as always), but that would just detract from the whole, so let’s just leave that where it is, and simply bathe in the witchy glow of this powerful and potent “reimagining” without those added distractions.

Parting Shot: Reviews for Argento’s original “Three Mothers” trilogy can be found here, here, and here.
Given my opinions of Inferno and La Terza Madre, I honestly wouldn’t mind some more reimaginings of this type.

Parting Shot 2: Kajganich also wrote the script for The Invasion (review here), but that was butchered thanks to studio/test audience interference, so we’re not holding that against him.
He also co-wrote the script for the upcoming Pet Sematary remake, from Starry Eyes’ Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that one. (Definitely another case of “Manage Your Expectations, Space Monkey.”)

(Suspiria OS’ courtesy of