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Antebellum

Antebellum

These butterflies have a lot to answer for, not least of
which is their abject racism.

dir: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

2020

Antebellum means ‘before the war’ in Latin, and it could mean before any war, but because Americans are Americans, antebellum is generally used to mean “before the Civil War”, like, for the losing side, meaning “weren’t things great before the Civil War?”

They weren’t, not at all, for too many, but for some people the struggle never ends. In this movie, we watch as a bunch of awful people imprison, torture and kill African-Americans, with the intention of proving their supremacy over them, based on skin colour alone.

But, you know, based on actual behaviour and lack of humanity, how is this superior to anything or anyone?

Janelle Monáe plays the lead character, and is in pretty much every scene. She carries the entire weight and freight of the film, for good and for ill. It’s a lot to carry.

She’s better known as a singer and crazily talented creator, but she’s put in some solid performances over the last few years, and she does well here with a very difficult role. A role that one wishes she didn’t have to take.

In the first 40 minutes of the film, we see life, brutal life, on a plantation. A woman is brutalised, and then killed. Southern gentlemen in the uniform of the Confederacy are the ones brutalising the slaves. A woman (Monáe) is told to respond to the name given her, and refuses, and is branded, with the initials BD.

For forty minutes this keeps up. There aren’t many details that give the game away. One of the slaves had a nose ring, a septum piercing. The slaves are made to pick cotton, at gunpoint, and then the cotton is burned. No-one gives the game away through speaking, but it should be pretty fucking obvious to anyone, no matter how little they know about the film, that this is not actually the South before or during the Civil War.

Of course the sounds of war persist in the distance, but we are told that the South is winning, and the cowardly North will soon be vanquished, so these awful people will get to continue their awful ways presumably for ever and ever.

Rating:

Color Out of Space

Color Out of Space

Nice reality you have there. Be a shame if something bad
happened to it.

dir: Richard Stanley

2019

Color Out of Space is a title that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t matter. The film itself is flat out fucking bonkers, so it’s perfectly appropriate to the title.

It’s based on a HP Lovecraft short story, with the fuller title of The Colour Out of Space, which is just as meaningless, but the importance of it is that whatever it is that is about to happen is otherworldly. As in, people will see things they should not see, which will leave them forever changed.

A witchy girl (Madeleine Arthur) conducts some kind of ceremony near a lake, and she is interrupted by a surveying hydrologist called Ward (Eliot Knight) who is, surveying something, presumably, other than the witchy girl and her witchy ways. He seems to be pretty familiar with magic ceremonies, and he wears a college t-shirt from, I’m guessing, the Miskatonic University, a common element in Lovecraft’s stuff, and plenty of other horror / fantasy stuff that’s been ripping off Lovecraft for nearly a century. He’s not really a protagonist in all of this, though he is a witness to it: cosmic weirdness is the main character. A family, one to which the witch belongs are the scenery upon which the colour, presumably from out of space, will wreak havoc.

I have pretty much avoided anything with Nicolas Cage in it for many years. As far as I know the last good performance he put in was in Adaptation. Since then I think he lost a lot of his money when some accountant / financial manager / astrologer ripped him off, so instead of being okay in a few good movies every now and then, he went to making as many terrible or pointless movies as possible in order to get some wealthiness back into his life. Again, it’s just what I heard.

Cage gives as awful a performance as we now expect from him, but it’s not inappropriate to the material. If anything, it makes what happens in the movie almost easier to handle. In a different kind of adaptation of this kind of story, we’d be introduced to a family that we came to care about, then they would be put under threat, and we would hope that they somehow find a way to survive.

This is not that kind of story. We are introduced to the family, their dog Sam and their alpacas, then a succession of terrible things happen to them, and then it ends, ominously implying that it will happen again to someone else. That kind of horror flick is usually hard to take.

I didn’t find it hard to take here. What happens to this family after a meteorite slams into the earth outside their house can be taken literally, can be taken figuratively, can be looked at as a commentary on environmental degradation, or people’s anxiety about clean water supply.

Rating:

VFW

VFW

VFW, better known as Valiant Fighters Wassailing

dir: John Begos

2020

Damn, I guess I felt like watching some 80s trash, and I found the perfect neon and blood-drenched delivery device, so, really, I have nothing to complain about.

Except it’s not actually violent action trash from the 80s; it’s a recent flick mimicking and set in the 80s and with the complete disregard for decency, physics, budgets and believability that typifies that era’s highs and lows.

VFW is ridiculously violent, but in a cheap-rubber-mask-filled-with-fake-blood-exploding kind of way. This looks exceedingly cheap and seedy, but that is not a negative, necessarily. Of course people in reviews and comments keep referring to John Carpenter’s legendary Assault on Precinct 13, not only for the heroes under siege storyline, but the exceedingly Carpenter-esque soundtrack, which is all synthesizer keyboards whenever it’s not metal guitar chords all over the place.

Our assembled heroes are, mostly, Veterans of Foreign Wars, hence the acronymic title. That would make this place where most of the heads explode the equivalent of the Returned Servicemen Leagues, or RSLs that we have here in Australia, which are places mostly old people go for cheap buffet food and booze. In our RSLs the most that happens is a little annoyance when they force you at gunpoint to sign into the guest register, if you’re not a member. Very few heads explode, though there’s probably a fair bit of food poisoning, which is no less awful than mass murder, sometimes.

But the VFW this film is concerned with, seems to be located in the worst part of some alternate history America in the 80s where a drug called hype turns users into violent lunatic zombies, and members of gangs wear lots of leather with spikes coming out of them from wacky angles. Presumably, in all realities and timelines, leather is always the textile of choice of cool people, gangs, drug dealers and their lackeys for ever more.

Rating:

Amulet

Amulet

Look at these intense faces. A comedy this is definitely not

dir: Romola Garai

2020

Another week, another horror flick set in a decaying house with some demented woman upstairs slowly dying and trying to take everyone else down with her.

Amulet could not be more different from the other film I’m referring to, being the Australian flick Relic which came out a week or two ago. Amulet is far darker, but also far less harrowing somehow than the other flick. Both were directed by women, not to lump films into categories just because of the gender of the directors involved, but I can say that at least in this instance, they are directors trying to do more than just jump scares and surprise kills.

And while Relic might have been about intergenerational legacies and the steady process of deletion that dementia brings in the aged, the narrowing of a labyrinth people find themselves trapped in looking after the elderly, Amulet is some strange amalgam of guilt, revenge, physical manifestations of evil, and some monstrous feminine energy seeking retribution. I think? I could have it all completely wrong, because the thing I was thinking the most towards the end was “what the fuck is going on, like, seriously?”

Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is clearly a very troubled chap. We see scenes of him clean shaven, meaning the past, and bearded, meaning the present. In the past, he was a soldier, in a forest, a suspiciously symmetrical forest. Something bad must have happened during The War, but we won’t find out until way later in the film. Also, we never find out which war, which, I guess, doesn’t matter. All wars are bad, and bad things tend to happen in them. But the bad thing that Tomaz does has nothing to do with the war.

In the bearded present, Tomaz seems to be leading a fairly hardscrabble existence in London, living in a squat with fellow refugees, but one detail of his existence seems to be unique to him: each night as he lays himself down to sleep, he tapes his hands together for some reason, and has to cut himself free in the mornings.

Rating:

Ready or Not

Ready or Not

Pretty great poster independent of the film, also misleading.
She doesn't hunt elephants, she's hunting rich bastards.

dirs.: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet

2019

Ready or Not isn’t deep, or profound, it’s not particularly scary or horrific or dramatically credible or in any way sensible. It’s a grotesque and macabre comedy masquerading as horror, with a sliver of class warfare at play, and it was exactly what I needed to see on a slow, cold, Thursday night.

Thursday nights are when I allow myself to have a modicum of medicinal alcohol, but not too much, because there’s work the next day, after five days of abstaining. No, please, hold your applause, I’m a humble wretch just like the rest of you, please, cease plans for the parade in my honour. My point is that on these particular Thursday nights, I’ll invariable enjoy a tipple, and invariably watch a somewhat trashy movie but be far more forgiving than, let’s say, a Sunday night. Sunday nights are for punishing Eastern European epics that make you wish the Black Plague had wiped out all life centuries ago, mostly because you have to work the next day, partly because you might be hungover from Saturday’s wretched excesses.

No, last night was the perfect time to watch this. A brave young woman (Samara Weaving) with very distinctive eyebrows is about to marry into a mega wealthy family. Not just comfortable, or rich, more like Queen of Versailles-levels of excess and Olympian remove from the concerns of general humanity. She has no idea what she’s getting in to. And nor should we, even as the film opens with a bunch of people in masks killing a guy in front of some kids.

Thirty years later is this massive wedding / undertaking, and the ominous promise that there is a game that is to be played at midnight. This is very unrealistic, unless extremely rich people are genuinely as different from the rest of humanity as they are depicted here. No-one except the staff are sober at midnight after a wedding, and usually the bride and groom have other matters to discuss in the sanctity of their marital boudoir.

This family, the Le Domases, have a central origin story to their wealth. Like Balzac said, behind every great fortune is a crime, but in this family’s case, there is a belief, or a pact, if you will, with some weird guy called Le Bail, in that the family occasionally has to sacrifice people in order to stay alive and mega-wealthy.

Sure, it seems absurd written down like that, but when you hear billionaires in our present reality urging people back to work in coronavirus times in order to safeguard their profits, and to hell with the lives of the impoverished scum, you realise “well, it’s not really that different from how capitalism works anyway.”

Rating:

Relic

Relic

Three generations of successful women, together, united

dir: Natalie Erika James

2020

The horror…of watching a loved one succumb to dementia and impending death…

For many of us, this is not why we watch entertainment, in fact it’s the exact opposite impulse. Yet here we are.

It’s impossible to separate our fear of death and the mortality of the people around us from the wellspring of fears that horror movies prey upon. Relic crafts together what looks like a haunted house story, but, really, come on. It’s not. It’s about something far less supernatural and far more likely for us all to experience, being the decline of the elders in our families.

Kay (Emily Mortimer, putting on a pretty solid Aussie accent) receives a welfare check call from the cops, saying that her mum Edna (the great Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen around the last couple of days, and isn’t answering the door. So Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive to somewhere in rural Victoria to find out if she’s okay.

But before that we watched a naked Edna, presumably, standing stunned in the lounge room, as water overflows the bath, cascades down the stairs and spreads everywhere, both beneath Edna’s feet, and towards someone else that seems to be standing in the room near her.

When Sam and Kay get to the house, they cannot find her. There are post it-notes around, saying mundane things like “take pills” or “shut the door”, maybe indicating that Edna’s having memory problems. Otherwise there’s nothing too much out of the ordinary. That is to say, nothing visually seems that much out of place, but the sound design, and the ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere never let up, never let us think anything will ever be too normal.

And then Edna is back, never explaining where she’s been or why, and not feeling the need to justify herself. Kay expresses both relief, bafflement and frustration, but Sam is just glad to have her back safe. There are tentative stabs at potentially returning to some form of normality. A doctor’s visit makes it seem like Edna hasn’t totally lost her marbles. When Sam offers to move in and look after her, Edna at first seems to welcome the company. She hands over one of her treasured rings, saying it no longer fits her, so Sam should have it.

Rating:

We Summon the Darkness

We Summon the Darkness

The title, though entirely inaccurate, feels like it should
have an exclamation mark or two, and at least one umlaut

dir: Marc Meyers

2020

Set in Indiana in the 1980s, you would be forgiven for thinking that they’re jumping onto some kind of Stranger Things bandwagon with this satanic panic horror flick We Summon the Darkness, what with the promotional poster and all.

It sounds so nasty and metal-y, doesn’t it? Like some bad people are going to do bad things at a metal gig in order to, um, summon the, uh, darkness?

It’s not as convoluted as it might seem. No actual darkness was summoned, harmed or pursued by the makers or participants of this movie. Some bad stuff happens, as in, people are killed (not really, I mean they pretend to kill people, this being a ‘horror’ movie and not reality television after all), but it has less to do with His Satanic Majesty, who thought it would be better to rule in hell than serve in heaven or at a fancy ice cream place, and more to do with three crazy kids who think it would be cool to kill a bunch of other kids and make it look like people are doing Satan’s bidding all over the place.

We watch as three girls get ready for and drive to a gig somewhere in Indiana. It could be some bar, or a barn, or a haystack for all I know. It reminded me of travelling out to suburbs like Croydon to watch gigs at The Hull, which was kind of like travelling back through time to Indiana. The rural sectors of Indiana are not ones I profess to know anything about. To be sure it just looks like a bunch of kids having fun. On the way to the gig, which is of a metal band called Soldiers of Satan or Satanic Pride or Merciful Pancakes or something suitably metal sounding, someone throws a milkshake at their car, which Isn’t Very Insurance-y. Alexis has to clean the windshield. It’s very inconsiderate. It could almost make you want to kill the people that did it, but not quite. And Val, who I’ll get to, has to pee all the time.

The gig is…funny. But to these kids it’s the real deal, I guess, and they’re super into it, kinda. Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) doesn’t know much about these bands of the day that the other ‘kids’ are talking about, like the minutiae of Sabbath and Metallica and Megadeth, and fakes her way through these conversation. If you were ever in a group of friends who were way into music, there was always someone like that in the group. Of course, you could have been that person in the group, that pretended to know all the connections, and to have gone to gigs you couldn’t possibly have gone to, and gotten back stage with whoever.

Rating:

The Platform

El Hoyo

Trickledown economics in its purest and prettiest form

(Spanish title: El Hoyo)

dir: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutria

2019

There’s…there’s never going to be a more obvious film about capitalism, the distribution of wealth, and the pressures involved in keeping people fearful, selfish and in conflict with those around them. And you thought Animal Farm as an allegory for the Russian Revolution was over the top with its pig called Napoleon, and its “all animals being equal, but some animals being more equal than others” line.

Orwell would probably hurl in disgust watching The Platform, but he’d nod his head in recognition.

What The Platform lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for with horrific depictions of how selfish the system needs to keep people, and that’s not even just to keep it functioning. The system works completely independently of what the people trapped on the many levels of the Vertical Self-Management Centre do to themselves or each other. And that the cruelty is very much the point.

The people trapped here are situated two to a level. The rooms cannot be escaped from. There is a hole in the centre of the room. Once a day, a platform lowers, and on it is food. It is the only source of food these prisoners can have. They can only eat what’s in front of them, not being allowed to hoard any of the food for later, which is enforced with lethal temperature controls. But whether there is any food on the platform depends on two mains factors: what floor you happen to be on, and the generosity of the people above you.

A high floor (as in 1 to 10) means you get heaps of untainted food. Floors below the 20s mean you’re eating scraps, plus the people above have no qualms about tainting the food for no good reason. 50 and beyond, well, it’s barely the aroma of food remaining.

Thing is, there’s hundreds of floors.

Further thing is, each month the prisoners are seemingly randomly moved from floor to floor.

When our main character awakes, he has the rules of the place, the lethal schematics explained to him by someone who has obviously been there a while. So our main guy Goreng (Ivàn Massagué) clutching his book (Don Quixote, naturally) needs to be schooled. He’s awakened on level 48, and when the platform arrives, mid explanation from Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) there are slim pickings.

Turns out that Goreng volunteered to enter this bizarre place deliberately. Like, he chose to be there, for six months, at the end of which he’ll have some kind of degree. How prestigious, to have graduated from the Vertical Self-Management Centre Academy. That’s Ivy League shit right there. Would open a lot of doors for you, doubtless. All entrants are allowed to bring one thing with them, and this guy chose Cervantes's epic about a lunatic who tilts at windmills.

Rating:

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

They make a very handsome couple, don't you think?

dir: Robert Eggers

2019

The Lighthouse is not a fun flick to sit through. Almost every visual image and moment of sound design imbues everything with the feeling of overwhelming dread, so much so that it almost becomes comical.

Is it entertaining? If it is, it’s a strange form of entertainment perhaps made for some alien species.

If it has to be pigeonholed, and it doesn’t, it probably fits neatest into the horror genre, what with all the horrifying imagery and all the constant, relentless feeling of menace. Really, even if they want to claim it’s based on a real story about how two guys in a Welsh lighthouse went fucking nuts, it comes down to being a drama about two men trapped in a loveless relationship from which neither can escape.

One of them is old with a beard (Willem Dafoe), one of them is young, but has a moustache (Robert Pattinson). The two of them tend to a lighthouse off the cost of New England, which is a phrase Americans use all the time like the rest of us always know what they’re talking about. Oi, we have a New England region in Australia, too, but you don’t hear us always bragging about it. Like ours, it’s on their eastern coast. Unlike ours, it seems to bring out the monsters that lurk within all men’s hearts.

It’s not clear that the isolation or the drinking brings out the worst in these men alone. The old man speaks like a briny salty sea dog straight out of Moby Dick, with all the poise and drama of a preacher yelling “REPENT! REPENT ALL YE BEFORE IT TURNETH TOO LATE” from the pulpit of a wooden Nantucket church. Plus he looks like both the very definition of a crusty sea captain, and the living embodiment of the Michelangelo statue of Moses from the church of San Pietro in Rome (especially in one terrifying, brain-melting scene late in the flick).

Rating:

Swallow

Swallow

This is going to hurt her more than it's going to hurt our eyeballs

dir: Carlo Mirabella-Davis

2020

This film. Was deeply disturbing. To watch. And harrowing, too!

I warn you now, it’s not for the squeamish, oh no.

Haley Bennett, who probably to her professional detriment looks a lot like Jennifer Lawrence, puts in a performance for the ages in this gutting, in many senses of the word, character study.

In the beginning she is the very image of the perfect 1950s Stepford wife so we already know something terrible is going to happen (it’s not set in the 50s). Her perfect coiffure, her perfect clothing, the overly fussy nature of that multi-million dollar house that overlooks the Hudson River, the perfect hunky husband with his mega-wealthy parents, it’s like, what do you get the woman that seemingly has everything?

Well, you give her a crippling compulsion to eat stuff that is inedible. I’m not talking McDonalds or the fried chicken in bain maries at roadside truck stops.

No, Hunter, as she is known, swallows things. At first, or at least the first thing we see her swallow, is a marble. You’d think, well, that’s a bad idea.

And you would be right. In the times leading up to this, we see Hunter being belittled, minimised, mocked and generally disregarded. It’s not loudly dramatic, it’s just in virtually everything her parents-in-law do and say, and her husband’s jerky self-centredness. We get the strong sense that Hunter is striving mightily to be the perfect wife that these rich bastards demand, but that level of struggle is too much for everyone in general, and not just her.

Lest you think this is going to be anything like the Maggie Gyllenhaal flick from ages ago called Secretary, about a woman who compulsively self-mutilates until she gets her happily ever after in a sadomasochistic relationship with James fucking Spader, it’s nothing like that. No, Hunter’s compulsion to mutilate her insides is not played for sexy laughs at all.

It’s taken very seriously, and it’s also not meant to be a coincidence that this compulsion is escalating just as Hunter finds she is pregnant.

This is a very discrete kind of body horror. Generally in horror flicks we’re worried on behalf of characters (if we care about them at all, which is not a given) that are threatened with torment or death because we either feel for them or imagine ourselves in their place. If this is a kind of horror flick, which I’m not completely convinced it falls into the category of, the horror perhaps is imagining either what these increasingly dangerous objects are doing to her insides, or imagine how it would feel if it was happening to us.

Rating:

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