Monday, March 15, 2021

Scare Tactics: THE EMPTY MAN and FREAKY

Due to the vagaries of 2020 releases and corporate rejiggering, Disney ended up barely releasing Fox’s long-shelved horror movie The Empty Man last fall. It was only in theaters with no promotion and no critic screenings in the middle of a raging pandemic at a time when most exhibitors were closed and the few that weren’t were mostly empty anyway. So of course it went almost entirely unremarked upon and certainly barely seen. That’s a shame. The movie is strong stuff, the feature debut of David Prior, previously a creator of DVD features who now proves himself a filmmaker of style and distinction. I hope he makes it a habit. The film stretches over two austere hours. It’s patient with widescreen compositions, understated sound design and softly insinuating score as it takes a standard missing persons setup and grows weirder and more haunted by the scene. In approach there are echoes of David Fincher or Ari Aster in the bold use of deliberate tone and exquisite punctuation of editing and titles. It’s the sort of picture that’ll boldly declare “Day One” during a deeply creepy extended, mostly unrelated, tone-setting curtain raising sequence that ends with the film’s name followed by the introduction of our main character nearly 20 minutes into the feature. Prior quickly conjures a thick, mesmerizing atmosphere in which the tingling possibility of the physically uncanny and psychically unwell grows heavier with well-earned portent.

This is a confidently unsettled mood that matches the exhausted collapsing temperament of its lead character. James Badge Dale stars as the type of mournful lonely guy who’d get dragged into a mystery in these sorts of stories. He has a tragic backstory slowly unraveled for us, but from the instant we see him alone in a chain restaurant, sipping beer and sadly trying to slip the waitress a “Free Birthday Meal” coupon, we know that he’s a pitiable, sympathetic figure. And because we’ve felt the genre tremors and we’ve seen the mysterious going on in the opening — as, years earlier, three hikers meet a spooky fate lost in the mountains of Bhutan — we know that his friend’s runaway teen daughter is mixed up in some bad stuff. The movie takes on shades of Richard Kelly as an elaborate subterranean paranormal conspiracy starts to unravel, with the dark corners and quiet alleys Dale sleuths down getting him entangled with a rash of disappearances and suicides possibly connected to a creepy cult with a doughy wild-eyed leader (Stephen Root) who worship (or are maybe possessed by, or drawn to, or working for, or all of the above) the Slender Man-like figure of the title. It builds to unusual crescendos of shivery compositions preyed upon by heavy hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-tingling moments. It arrives at its scares earnestly, not in jumpy jack-in-the-box trendiness, but through stillness and insidious simmering unease.  

Another satisfying 2020 horror film lost in the pandemic shuffle is Freaky, a giddy jolt of a slasher riff that grafts a Freaky Friday twist onto the old hack-hack-hack kill-kill-kill tropes. It comes to us from Christopher Landon, whose Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U took Groundhog Day for a similar ride. All three are hugely enjoyable crowd-pleasers with exuberant set-ups and payoffs that know how to wring out a clever hook for all it’s worth. They have the tone of Craven’s Screams without imbuing the characters with those films’ teasing self-awareness. They can figure out the big genre conceits well enough, but don’t turn to each other and monologue about horror tropes. They just run through them energetically and enthusiastically. (One guy running from danger shouts, “You’re black! I’m gay! We are so dead!”) Where Freaky one-ups Landon’s previous pictures is in the gore, with several bloody shock moments of bodies cleaved in two or smashed apart. They’re of a piece with the slasher tradition, and deliver the did-I-just-see-that? gross-out glee of the genre’s best. And it somehow doesn’t tip the balance of what is a weirdly sweet and very funny teen comedy, complete with booming pop music and vibrant colors, surrounding the kills.

It has a mousy, unpopular, insecure high school girl (Kathryn Newton) nursing a crush, commiserating with two best friends, and dealing with family problems, and who finds all that taking a backseat to the main event: the serial killer (Vince Vaughn) who, through a simple use of a magic dagger, switches bodies with her. It gives Vaughn his best role in years, and he rises to the occasion playing a petite high schooler in his lumbering middle-aged bulk, convincingly matching the girl’s energy and able to play scenes opposite her crush or her friends in ways that aren’t condescending and track the emotional stakes. Similarly, Newton’s performance takes on a skulking dangerous swagger and, though it might stretch credulity that the maladjusted creep would have such a good sense of style, he seems to enjoy the easy access to vulnerable teens this great disguise gives him — and isn’t that all any slasher film villain wants? Like any good body swap comedy, it gets a lot of mileage out of its terrific lead performances, who take it seriously while understanding the lark of it all. And then the slasher beats get layered upon it, and the whole thing is a finely proportioned, sugary satisfying genre parfait. The film runs through its paces quickly and enjoyably, never swerving too far into the unexpected, but serving up the expected with style. Landon clearly enjoys delivering so thoroughly on a high concept premise, there’s no way he’d let it go to waste.

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