Monday, September 12, 2022


To see a thriller lately has been to dip into the psychic ripples of our very early pandemic days of isolation, of survival alone or with our closest family groups. Even as that feeling recedes into our memories, it’s a potent one sitting not too far from the surface, ready to be activated, even if only as a byproduct of standard thriller tropes. Take, for example, Beast, a jungle survival movie in which Idris Elba has to protect his daughters from a wild lion. Its suspense and sympathy rests solely in wondering how they’ll get out of this one. On safari, the girls were meant to grieve their dead mother. Now, they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with a prowling predator ready to pounce. There’s instant emotional investment playing on that sense of abandonment, with no one on the way to rescue. The family has to stick close, be clever, and do what they can to survive. Director Baltasar Kormákur, whose mountain-climbing Everest and freighter-hopping Contraband and boat-sinking Adrift have proved him a reliable practitioner of travelogue tension, here keeps up the sense of landscape and scale, the better to make the characters feel all the more trapped and alone. The screenplay is economically structured, introducing each element on the way into the jungle that we’ll need to see them out: poachers, a pride rock, an abandoned school, a tranquilizer gun. The fun, then, is seeing Elba as the ultimate family man taken back through those variables, and ultimately willing to run toward a lion and punch it in the face if it means his girls make it out alive.

Also out in the wild is Prey, a spin-off of the Predator series. In this one, the franchise’s usual extraterrestrial big-game hunters land a few hundred years ago in the territory of a Native American tribe. It’s a neat conceit, and one that finds a resourceful young Comanche woman (Amber Midthunder) best situated to puzzle out how to defeat the enemy. Unlike the team of commandos in the first film, or the other groups who’ve encountered this villain since (like L.A. cops in Predator 2, an assortment of stranded killer stereotypes in Predators, and Giger’s Aliens in Alien vs. Predator), this hero quickly runs out of backup. It’s a good thing Midthunder has a solid presence, holding the screen with a smolderingly believable toughness in the face of bewilderment. She’s enough to carry the movie ever so slightly above its thinness. If you remember director Dan Trachtenberg’s first film, the claustrophobic trapped-in-a-bunker-with-a-doomsday-prepper 10 Cloverfield Lane, he’s skilled at stranding a character in a rough spot, twisting the tension, and then resourcefully finding everything at hand to throw at the problem. Here, though, the effects are a little flimsy—simply presented CG blood and dismemberment wears out its welcome sooner than later—and the plot becomes so much running around until the inevitable. That’s true to the spirit of this franchise, though, and at least it’s found an adequately inventive new lane for it to explore.

Then there’s Orphan: First Kill, a much-belated sequel to 2009’s Orphan, which remains among the most emotionally distressing horror movies of this century. That one, from expert pulpmaker Jaume-Collet Serra, found 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman playing a manipulative, murdering orphan adopted by a well-intentioned, emotionally-fragile family. The little girl then systematically takes apart their lives—often figuratively, but eventually literally, too. Part of the disquieting fun is seeing the child actress slowly becoming evil beyond her years, finding just the right buttons to press to make her new parents really hurt and truly squirm. But where do you go from there, and after all these years? Director William Brent Bell (who heretofore has given us such deflating horror pictures as The Devil Inside, the found-footage movie that infamously pointed audiences to a URL in lieu of an actual ending) takes the story backwards in a prequel that strains credulity. 

Fuhman returns to play the young lead again, with a pint-sized body double, tons of forced perspective, prosthetics, lifts, and other tricks. Now 25, she’s playing the effort of appearing much younger, so it’s cognitive dissonance running in the other direction. We pick up with her escaping an Estonian mental facility, and then making her way to the States by impersonating the long-missing daughter of wealthy WASPs. It seems to be setting up more of the same, cooped up in a dim mansion in the middle of winter. Luckily Julia Stiles, as the mother, meets the cracked energy of the project with her own tightly-wound wickedness. The whole thing doesn’t quite work, or live up to its predecessor. And how could it, really, with the missing shock of surprise and novelty? But it manages to be suitably strange. I didn’t much like it, but I also won’t forget it.

The best crowd-pleasing horror movie in quite some time, however, is Barbarian. It’s a pleasurable piece of lowbrow appeal. It plays out like a journey down a dark tunnel, with trip-wires springing surprises with such unexpected regularity that it manages to catch you off-guard every time. The premise is an instant grabber. On a dark and stormy night, a nervous young woman (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb. (Mistake number one.) There she discovers that the house, the only habitable one in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood, has been double booked. The man staying there (Bill Skarsgård), recognizing the fear factor, goes out of his way to appear harmless. She enters, reluctantly, on guard, ready to bolt when needed. She just has to figure this out and find a place to stay. That’s already plenty for a suspenseful little movie, a cautious walking-on-eggshells night between two strangers, both gingerly avoiding calling further suspicion or danger upon themselves. But of course there’s something darker going on here. The home’s basement is definitely a place you don’t want to end up. I dare not divulge what happens from there. Even mentioning a third character, played by a recognizable comic character actor given his best role in years, feels like it’d spoil the fun. 

Writer-director Zach Cregger's prior experience in sketch comedy surely honed his flair with unfurling a shock, and selling each zig-zagging sequence’s feints toward conventionality before doubling back with details that are exceedingly gross, compellingly tense, and bleakly funny all at once. Though it’s built out of standard elements—dank corridors and creepy rooms and shambling human monsters out of a Wes Craven picture—its telling is so enjoyably inventive. Even as the style—carefully composed shots and slow, deliberate camera moves—plays it straight, the story runs circles around expectations. Even in the final moments it’s still pulling off surprises, with the sick thrill of a storyteller getting away with getting another one over on you, even after you should know better. Treating even the darkest of scares as pitch-black punchlines makes this a great ride. No matter how unpleasant it gets, it’s fun to be stuck in it and discover where it goes.

No comments:

Post a Comment