Category Archives: Genre: Horror

It (2017)

I wouldn’t call myself a coulrophobe, but I did name the 1990 It miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s famous novel as the number one film that scared the crap out of me as a kid. I know it probably doesn’t hold up over time and I would likely laugh at it now, though back in the day, Pennywise the clown definitely made me scared to go to the toilet at night.

And now, 27 years later, It is back! Directed by Andrés Muschietti (the dude who delivered the pretty decent horror flick Mama back in 2013), the new big screen version of It is fabulous and terrifying, not just bringing back memories I haven’t been able to forget all these years but also adding to them.

The storyline is I remembered: A mysterious clown named Pennywise suddenly appears in the tiny US town of Derry and kids start disappearing at an alarming rate. For some reason, Pennywise appears able to morph into whatever you’re most of afraid of (which in my case would just be him), and the only people who seem to give a damn in Derry are a group known as the “Losers”, seven kids with very different backgrounds and personalities.

The main difference is that the plot only focuses on the seven main characters as children as opposed to also depicting them as adults (as was the case in the 1990 miniseries). Smart move, because this provided flexibility to keep the film as a standalone if it didn’t achieve the financial success to warrant a sequel (more on this later). Besides, from memory, the children’s part of the 1990 It miniseries was much better than the adult’s part.

Despite my vague recollection of the miniseries, I can tell there are many differences to this film version. I haven’t read the book myself (the door stopper just looks too daunting to even attempt), but from what I have heard and read, it’s one of the best Stephen King adaptations out there, and that’s a huge compliment when you look at the list: Shawshank, Stand by Me, The Green Mile, The Shining. Misery, and so forth.

Despite having admittedly big expectations going in, I knew it was going to be hard for It to live up to what I hoped it would be. The early trailers got this thing hyped up to the extreme, and there were already talks of the film smashing box office records for both the horror genre and September openings before the first public screening.

The feeling that the movie would be unlikely to live up to expectations kept my emotions quite balanced going in. In the end, the film was much better than I thought it would be, largely because there was a surprising amount of heart thanks to the brilliant performances of the children. I didn’t think that I would be so invested in the fate of the children and their bond, nor did I anticipate that so much of the humour in the film to be effective (not all of it worked, but most of it did). There was a real Stand By Me vibe with the way the kids talked and cursed (yes, there’s plenty of cursing), as well as a Stranger Things vibe from the 1980s setting, the sense adventure, and depicting the story from the children’s perspective. All seven of the leads were amazing and believable, with Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard (also the best name in showbiz) as the wisecracking Richie and Jack Dylan Grazer as hypochondriac Eddie being the standouts for me, though all of them appear to have stardom written in their future. but also not quite as scary as I hoped it would be.

On the other hand, the film was also not quite as scary as I hoped it would be. Make no doubt, it is indeed very scary, but not to the extent where I felt like I could not continue looking at the screen or squirmed in my seat. I don’t know why that was the case for me, though I do know that it’s definitely not the fault of Bill Skarsgard, who portrays a phenomenal Pennywise. From the look to the voice to the sinister creepiness, Skarsgard pulls it off to perfection. I really liked the fact that Muschietti was not afraid to push the boundaries by showing us brutal, bloody violence committed against children, which is typically taboo in almost all horror movies. I also liked that the horror comes from much more than just the monster, showing us that adults and bullies can be equally terrifying, if not more so.

One final positive is the way the film blended CGI with practical effects — it brought out a different, more unpredictable side to Pennywise, adding to the horror without going over the top.

I do wish I could have seen a little more of the adults and how they were reacting to the scary and mysterious things that were happening in Derry, but I understand why Muschietti left this part out given that the film had to develop 7 protagonists on a running time that’s already on the long side at 135 minutes.

 

At the end of the film, I was left wanting a sequel, which will definitely be forthcoming after It proved to be a monster hit by raking in US$123 on its opening weekend in the US market alone, crushing solid “expert predictions” of US$55 million. As at the time of this review, the film has already made more than US$210 million worldwide on a US$35 million budget.

Minute-for-minute and scare-for-scare, I found Annabelle: Creation to be the more frightening movie, but there is no doubt It is the superior film across technical aspects, from the direction and the cinematography to the script, dialogue, and performances. It’s up there as one of the best Stephen King adaptations and a lock to end up as one of the best horror movies of the year.

4 stars out of 5

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Wow, it’s been a long time since my last movie review, and it’s not because I haven’t been going to the cinema. I’ve just been busy with work and, well, lazy.

Anyway, I’ve got a massive backlog now so I a bunch of reviews should be forthcoming. I’ve decided to start off with the films that have left the deepest impression on me as of late, and for some, it will be no surprise that I’m kicking things off with Annabelle: Creation, the prequel to the lacklustre 2014 doll horror Annabelle, which was itself a prequel/spin-off to The Conjuring.

I have to admit, I didn’t have high expectations going in. Commercial horror films are mostly bad these days with a few notable exceptions, and it is rare for a sequel to be better than its predecessor, especially in this genre. However, there was cause for optimism given that it’s directed by Lights Out filmmaker David F. Sandberg (I actually still have to review it!), and producer James Wan clearly still had enough confidence in the franchise to give the creepy doll another shot.

Set in 1943, Annabelle: Creation goes back to how the eponymous doll was created in the first place. Aussie Anthony LaPaglia plays a doll maker living in some rural place in America, while fellow Aussie Miranda Otto plays his wife. Years following a tragic accident, a bunch of orphaned girls (led by Ouija: Origin of Evil‘s Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman) and a nun (Stephanie Sigman) move into their house. And so the horror begins.

I’m not gonna lie: Annabelle: Creation scared the crap out of me. It’s actually quite a typical horror movie with the usual set-ups and jump scares, but as they say, it’s all in the execution. David S. Sandberg has proven himself to be a real talent in his sophomore effort, employing his full bag of tricks to deliver relentless scare after scare. There’s gore, but not too much, and there are horrific images and loud, thumping sounds and blaring music, but often the real terror comes from his use of silence and darkness — it’s what you can’t see that creates the tense atmosphere and sense of dread. I’m also glad that the film doesn’t show too much and it doesn’t show things too early. Sandberg deserves a lot of credit for his restraint and knowing just how to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

It’s not one of those horror movies that creeps into your core and keeps you up at night thinking about it like say The Exorcist. It also doesn’t have much depth or originality like say It Follows or Don’t Breathe. The performances are fantastic, with Lulu Wilson really standing out, though some of the lines they’re given don’t sound like they should be spoken by children their age. My biggest problem with it is that the script is quite poor and there are loads of problematic things in it that make very little sense — almost to the extent that it takes you out of the movie.

But as a popcorn horror flick, Annabelle: Creation definitely delivers. It doesn’t slow down once it gets going, and you could argue that it gets going right from the opening scene. I felt like it was one scare after another and I had no time to catch my breath throughout pretty much the entire 109-minute running time. Even though a lot of the set-ups were obvious and I knew I was just being manipulated into the next scare, I still had plenty of fun going along with the ride.

In all honesty, Annabelle: Creation is not a great movie and has too many flaws to count. But I watch horror movies to be scared, and pound for pound, scare for scare, it could very well be the most terrifying movie I’ll see this year.

4 stars out of 5

The Mummy (2017)

The Dark Universe franchise is off to a rough start.

Universal went all out for its new “monsters” shared universe film series by forking out the big bucks for megastars Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe in the first entry, The Mummy. The hope was that the film would kick off a lucrative Avengers-style franchise that would later feature the likes of Johnny Depp’s The Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster, and possibly Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the Wolfman.

Unfortunately, and to be honest, not to my complete surprise, The Mummy turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. Not even Tom Cruise’s usual energy and Russell Crowe’s deep voice could save this ambitious but ultimately dull and inconsistent affair that compares unfavourably to Brendan Fraser’s adventure-packed 1999 version of The Mummy .

In this film, directed by Alex Kurtzman, Tom Cruise plays a soldier who stumbles across the tomb of an ancient Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella) and unleashes a powerful curse that proceeds to wreak havoc on the world. Annabelle Wallis (from Annabelle) plays a frighteningly attractive archaeologist and Jake Johnson is the sidekick, while Russell Crowe makes a pivotal appearance as Dr. Henry Jekyll (you know, Jekyll and Hyde).

It’s clear, with Mission: Impossible‘s Christopher McQuarrie as a co-writer, The Mummy was aiming to be a similar action spectacular with a Tom Cruise doing crazy stunts plus a mix of genuine horror elements and a dash of humour.  And to be fair, the film does have each of those things, but they never fit together comfortably or transition from one tone to the other with the smoothness it required. The action is pretty good but nothing I would call awesome. The centerpiece is the zero gravity stunt Tom Cruise has been selling, but the majority of it is sadly spoiled by the trailers, along with most of the other decent action sequences. If you’ve seen a trailer or two for this movie like I had then chances are there won’t be anything that comes close to wowing you.

On the other hand, there were some solid horror moments featuring grotesque creatures, but you wouldn’t really classify them as legitimately scary. It’s certainly not at the same level as a “proper” horror film in terms of generating scares. And the humour littered throughout is sporadic and mostly cheesy. Together, the three elements failed to mesh, and it was hard to get a good feel of exactly what the film was trying to be.

The film’s biggest problem is the pains it goes to in order to set up this new extended universe. The plot is steered towards creating this world of evil and monsters, and it’s not done with much of subtlety. The result is a lot of forced dialogue and exposition, which sagged the pace and the sense of adventure I hoped the film could have had. I actually guessed the ending before I even stepped into the cinema, and it’s really not that hard to do if you think about where they are going with this franchise. I will say though that it didn’t make much sense either.

I don’t put any of the blame on Tom Cruise, who clearly did everything he could for the film. Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson and Russell Crowe were all actually very solid too. Ultimately, I fault the script, which was heavily hampered by the need to lay the foundations for the future of the franchise. The story started off quite well and was exciting up to a point, but there was a lengthy middle section after Dr. Jekyll appeared that stagnated the plot to do a lot of unnecessary explaining. It’s cool they got a female mummy and all, though Sofia Boutella’s character isn’t particularly memorable and even comes across as similar to Patricia Velasquez’s Anck-su-Namun from the 1999 version.

In the end, I wouldn’t say The Mummy was horrible — it just wasn’t very good or as good as it needed to be. I wish Universal could have worked on The Mummy as a standalone first and ensured that it was a success before planning out all the later installments. They should have learned their lesson from the DCEU, which produced the similarly disappointing Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. It seems unlikely that Universal will pull the plug on the Dark Universe franchise because Tom Cruise movies typically do gangbusters in overseas markets (I saw it in a packed house on a Wednesday afternoon during work hours) — and as we’ve seen with Wonder Woman, the ship can be straightened — but it’s going to be an uphill battle after this disappointing first entry.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Belko Experiment (2017)

I had heard a lot about this mysterious, low-cost movie (US$5 million budget) called The Belko Experiment last year, primarily because of the big name attached: James Gunn, director of the smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies. It wasn’t until I saw the movie that I realised it actually wasn’t directed by Gunn (who wrote the script), but by Aussie Greg McLean, best known for Wolf Creek. Nevermind.

I didn’t really know what to expect from it, given that its premise is not exactly one we haven’t seen before — a group of people forced into a game of kill or be killed. After Battle Royale and more recently The Hunger Games, another film with the same idea feels somewhat risky, though to Gunn and McLean’s credit, The Belko Experiment manages to distinguish itself through the confined office setting and a distinct horror slant.

The characters in the film all work for a branch of a massive but vague nonprofit company called Belko Industries on Colombia. On this day, after all the local hire are sent home, the company building is suddenly locked down, after which a voice through the loudspeaker begins to dictate the rules of a deadly game. At first, of course, most don’t take it seriously, but soon they realise — through a method requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief — that they better start killing or they will die gruesome deaths.

The Belko Experiment is not as memorable as Battle Royale or as epic as The Hunger Games. That said, it’s a nice little movie that’s both scary and fun. Credit goes to James Gunn for keeping the script swift and tight. At just 88 minutes, the film has a great pace and effectively introduces a whole bunch of characters on the run without excessive exposition. It doesn’t take too long before the ball gets rolling and by then you already have a good sense of the key characters and their relationships and dynamics. At no time was I confused about who was who and what their agenda was.

The cast is another strong point. Led by protagonist John Gallagher Jr (I know him best from The NewsroomHush, and 10 Cloverfield Lane), the ensemble features plenty of recognisable faces delivering powerful performances, in particular Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) as the boss in charge, John C McGinley (Scrubs) as a creep, Adria Arjona (Person of Interest), Owain Yeoman (The Mentalist) as a torn family man, Michael Rooker (Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a repairman, and James Gunn’s younger brother Sean Gunn (Kraglin in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a stoned cafeteria worker. There are a lot of characters in the movie, and quality performances help the important ones stand out and rough up the edges of what would have otherwise been stereotypes. For me, Goldwyn — with his mix of charm and intimidation — was the clear highlight.

McLean’s directorial style meshes well with Gunn’s script. For those who have seen Wolf Creek, you’ll know McLean has a knack for the visceral, the violent, and the primal. You get all of that in The Belko Experiment, along with well-crafted tension and dashes of timely black humour. The tonal shifts are not perfect, but the film mostly does a good job of balancing the horror and the humour.

Unfortunately, The Belko Experiment is still somewhat a missed opportunity. For all the intrigue, tension and crafty violence it pulls off in the first two-thirds, the final act resorts to cliches we’ve seen all too often. I don’t know how else it could have played out, though I know I would have welcomed a bolder route that offered more surprises, not just shocks from the extent of the violence. I also felt they could have set up more enticing showdowns between characters by creating additional sources of conflict earlier on.

On the whole, however, The Belko Experiment still turned out to be better than expected. It’s not a memorable entry in the genre or a concept that makes us think deeper, but it’s certainly a sharp, well-made horror-thriller that scares and entertains without taking itself too seriously.

3.25 stars out of 5

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Unlike the majority of the movie-going audience, I was one of those people who really enjoyed 2012’s Prometheus. While I acknowledged its flaws and all the nonsensical, I found myself captivated by the horror and action elements as well as the creature designs and mythology of the universe it had created.

Fast forward now to Alien: Covenant, which is carrying high expectations given Ridley Scott’s return to form following The Martian. Whereas Prometheus tried to shy away from a direct connection to the Alien franchise, the title of this sequel indicates that they are fully embracing it this time. The trailers also showed that the movie appeared to be returning to the horror roots of the original. To be honest, even though I thought the trailers looked good, I wasn’t all that sold on Alien: Covenant because it felt like it was trying too hard to recapture the magic of the original, putting it at risk of resorting to cliches and thinly veiled homages.

Turned out I was wrong. Alien: Covenant is without a doubt a true sequel to Prometheus, but it also fails to duplicate the sense of genuine terror that made Alien so great and the awesome action that made Aliens an instant classic.

The story picks up about a decade after the Prometheus went missing, with the Covenant carrying a new crew and a whole bunch of colonists and embryos in cryosleep. The only waking member when the film starts is Walter (Michael Fassbender), an android with the same likeness as David from Prometheus. Naturally, stuff happens, and the crew finds themselves on a detour where deadly alien life may or may not be lurking.

The cast is led by the brilliant Assbender (he bends so much ass in this film) and Katherine Waterston as Daniels, with a surprisingly effective dramatic performance by usual stoner Danny McBride and the typically reliable Billy Crudup. There are about half a dozen other supporting characters, but none of them are particularly memorable, which is one of the key problems I had with the film. In fact, apart from Assbender, no one really stands out, not even Waterston, who falls way short of channeling her inner Ellen Ripley. Despite the similar height and the hair, it’s not even close.

You don’t need to have seen Prometheus to understand what happens in this film, though it certainly helps. That said, I can still imagine a lot of people being confused as to what’s going on with the plot, especially regarding what happened on the planet on which the characters find themselves on. Even I had to go back and read up on Prometheus again on Wikipedia to give myself a bit of a refresher on all the stuff about the mysterious Engineers and so forth.

However, the most important reason people will watch Alien: Covenant is for the horror/action, and the film does enough to satisfy, for the most part. Notwithstanding a couple of scenarios I found somewhat tacky, most of the horror sequences in the film deliver, with one in particular standing out from the first half of the movie. I liked that the film did not shy away from the gore and some very disgusting visuals, though I felt not enough time was spent on building up the suspense. I also enjoyed the evolution of the creatures throughout the film until we see the classic facehuggers and of course the first xenomorph. Kudos for using mostly animatronics for the creature effects as they simply look a lot more realistic than CGI.

So I found myself frightened, disgusted and excited at various parts throughout the 123-minute movie, but never truly terrified like I was for Alien or on the edge of my seat like I was for Aliens.  Considering it also had a plot that was probably more convoluted than necessary, a fairly predictable ending, and a lack of memorable characters, Alien: Covenant was clearly not as good as I wanted it to be. Despite enjoying it for what it was and being engaged all the way through, I actually think I prefer Prometheus more.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I just heard they are filming the sequel to Alien: Covenant starting next year.

Life (2017)

Wow. I really had no idea what to expect from Life, which I knew virtually nothing about other than that it was a horror sci-fi starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal (I didn’t even watch a single trailer). Such movies are usually a disappointment, so I am glad to report that I was thrilled with Life, a strong contender for biggest pleasant surprise of the year.

I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, so I will simply say that the film takes place in the International Space Station following the return of a soil-collecting mission to Mars. I guess the title of the film explains the rest.

There are no big surprises in terms of the basic plot and its progression—you can more or less guess what happens on a general overall level. However, its the way director Daniel Espinosa deals with the story, characters and tension that makes Life one of the better if not best “man should not mess with nature” sci-fi horrors. It’s way better than the most recent one in the genre I watched, Morgan (from last year), and a notch above other ones I remember such as Splice (2009) and The Last Days on Mars (2013).

After an initial set-up introducing us to the premise and the characters, Life buckles down and becomes a terrifying and gripping horror movie that makes great use of man’s fear of the unknown and the claustrophobia provided by the interior of the space station. Some sci-fi movies are good at delivering an interesting idea but not at horror, while some horror movies are good at deliver the horror but not interesting ideas. Life is a rare film that manages to do both really well, and more than once I found myself either gripping the seat rest or reaching for my wife’s hand.

The film would not have been as effective but for the strong performances of the star cast, which apart from Gyllenhaal and Reynolds also includes Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation‘s Rebecca Ferguson, The Last Samurai‘s Hiroyuki Sanada, British actor Ariyon Bakare (most recently seen in Rogue One), and Belarusian actress Olga Dihovichnaya. One of the weaknesses of the film is that there’s not a whole lot of character development (they’re too busy being terrified), and the dialogue designed to promote character development was often clunky, but the performances are good enough that you still end up thinking of them as real people and caring about their fate.

Additionally, the special effects are excellent, not just with the creature designs but also the space station itself as well as the outer space sequences. It’s great that CGI is so good these days that you don’t even think about it and simply accept it as real. You can also tell proper research was undertaken to make the science in the film feel legitimate.

I don’t want to create unrealistic expectations because there are limits to what a film like Life can achieve. Within those limits, however, it mostly ticks all the right boxes and hits the right notes to give us a genuinely terrifying, thoughtful, well-scripted and well-acted horror sci-fi. It may fall short of becoming a classic, but it’s certainly worth watching if you are a fan of the genre.

4 stars out of 5

Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

For me, the Underworld franchise is kind of like the Resident Evil film franchise — seemed like a cool idea initially, but with every passing entry I’ve cared less, albeit still enough to check it out just because they’ve gone to the effort of making another one. And it was with this indifference that I stumbled across Underworld: Blood Wars, the latest installment in the adventures of Selene (Kate Beckinsale).

In all honesty, I don’t really know what’s going on in the Underworld movies any more, and I doubt the makers of this movie had any idea either. Does it matter? Not particularly. All that matters is that Kate Beckinsale again dons her tight leather outfit and kicks a lot of ass amid some everlasting feud between vampires and werewolves — sorry, I mean lycans.

Underworld: Blood Wars seems to take a page out of the Game of Thrones handbook. The look of the sets and the new characters have a distinct Thrones feel, as does the convoluted plot full of backstabbing and double-crossing. You do need some knowledge of the previous installments to fully follow what’s going on. That said, even though I have seen the previous films I could not remember anything pertinent. Not that it made much of a difference to the experience.

The nicest things I can say about Underworld: Blood Wars is that it did not suck as bad as I thought it would, and that it’s a much better-made movie than Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.  The action is at least coherent and with a little more creativity, there seems to be some inherent logic in the storyline, and the performances from the cast — Beckinsale, Theo James (from the Divergent series), Tobias Menzies, Lara Pulver, and the great Charles Dance himself — are not embarrassing despite the shoddy lines they have to recite.

On the other hand, it really does feel like more of the same old stuff, without any genuine thrills or excitement. There are only so many ways vampires can fight werewolves. The plot is also full of annoying exposition and convenient inventions — when it needs X to happen for the sake of the plot, it concocts some character or item or special ability to make it happen. It gets tedious after a while.

So there you have it, yet another unnecessary sequel that will unlikely please anyone except the diehard, hardcore fans of the franchise. Underworld: Blood Wars is not pure trash, but there’s just nothing interesting or fresh about it to warrant your precious time.

2.25 stars out of 5

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

With the film adaptation of The Last of Us — in my opinion the greatest video game of all time — looking less and less likely by the day, I decided to check out the movie people are calling the next best thing: The Girl with All the Gifts (well, at least until Logan comes out later this year).

Yes, it’s a low budget British film, but I was still surprised how little buzz the film received, especially considering that it stars two very recognisable names in Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close. And it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie movie too, and the genre is super popular these days.

Whatever the reason, the world is missing out on a great zombie movie, one that would have easily been the best of the year but for the awesome Train to BusanThe Girl with All the Gifts is intriguing, thought-provoking, tense, dramatic, and above all, pretty darn horrific. It’s an excellent standalone film that ticks all the boxes, including being based on a celebrated genre book (by MR Carey).

I don’t want to give away too much, as part of the pleasure of this movie is gradually discovering the world in which it is set. But basically, the film starts off in a future in which a bunch of kids are kept in cells as prisoners and rolled out in wheelchairs every day to undergo lessons given by a teacher named Helen (Gemma Arterton). There is one young girl, played by the phenomenal newcomer Sennia Nanua, who appears to be particularly intelligent and makes a connection with Helen, much to the displeasure of a military sergeant (Paddy Considine). Meanwhile, Glenn Close is hanging around as a mysterious authority figure.

The trailers and other synopses give away a lot more than that, but I would advise trying to stay away from such spoilers and finding them out for yourself throughout the movie. I love that sense of not knowing what’s going on and having to figure it out from the hints that the film drops. Having said that, I have noted that the film has been hailed as “similar” to The Last of Us, so you can probably connect the dots, though I will also say that there are sufficient differences in both premise, plot and characters to give audiences a fresh experience.

The biggest strength of The Girl with All the Gifts is the girl, Sennia Nanua, who just steals every scene she is in with this blend of innocence, curiosity and fear. It’s a remarkably self-assured performance that carries the film from start to finish, and really helps audiences empathise with her character and care about her fate. As with most zombie movies, it’s the characters that make all the difference. You know the kind of quality you’re getting with veteran actors like Arterton and Close, so I was pleasantly surprised by how Nanua dominated the film with her presence.

The zombies in the film are fantastic and look, as far as I can tell, like they are played by real people in most of the scenes as opposed to CGI. They’re genuinely freaky, and director Colm McCarthy does a great job of utilising their characteristics to build suspense and deliver thrills. The set designs and visuals of the landscapes do remind me a lot of The Last of Us, so I do wonder if McCarthy has played the game and/or is a fan of it.

The main negatives about the film are some of the rules regarding how the zombies operate, which don’t appear to be consistent or logical all the time. There are also parts of the movie, particular in the beginning, that have that ugly greyish tone a lot of British movies have (and signifies boring), which is the main reason why it took me a little while to fully get into it.

In all, The Girl with All the Gifts still gets a big two thumbs up from me. Intelligent, scary, provocative and heartfelt, it’s everything I want from a Last of Us adaptation if they ever get around to it.

4 stars out of 5

Split (2016)

I wasn’t as down on the Shamhammer as some others were after his string of well-publicized debacles, from Lady in the Water to The Last Assbender to After Earth. On the other hand, I wasn’t has high as some others have been about his so-called comeback movie from 2015, The Visit. So I guess my expectations were cancelled out for his latest effort, Split.

As the title suggests, the film is about a crazy dude with dissociative identity disorder (played by the brilliant James McAvoy), who kidnaps three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch and Morgan, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) to a strange and unknown location somewhere. Much of the movie is about figuring out just what this guy is doing and what he wants as he shifts between 23 different personalities, each with its own name and traits. Critical to the storyline is his therapist, played by veteran actress Betty Buckley.

The first thing I will say about Split is that it’s very well-made for a low-budget film (US$9 million), once again demonstrating Shyamalan’s skills as both a writer and director. His ability to create tension and a sense of claustrophobia is as good as it’s ever been, and what I enjoyed most about the movie was the feeling that I had no idea what would happen next. And most of the time, the plot was indeed very hard to predict. You always look for a “twist” in Shyamalan movies, and I must say I quite liked what he had in store for us this time, even though it is more of a “reveal” than a twist per se.

The strengths of Shyamalan’s script and direction are anchored by three excellent performances. Of course, James McAvoy is absolutely astounding, pulling off each of his personalities with enough differences — subtle or otherwise — to tell them apart easily. At times he’s creepy or funny or brutal or pathetic or dangerous — and the fun lies in never knowing what you’re going to get.

Anya Taylor-Joy has been on my watch list ever since The Witch, and again she’s mesmerizing as the outsider Casey. There is just something about her eyes and expressions that add an air of mystery and vulnerability to her character. She’s going to be a star for years to come. And Betty Buckley is really a standout too as the therapist who has certain beliefs about dissociative identity disorder that become pertinent to the story.

Unfortunately, there were also a few things about Split that I didn’t like. As solid as the script was, there were still snippets of dialogue that came across as too contrived, conjuring up memories of Shamhammer at his pretentious worst. The film was also far too long at 117 minutes and felt that way towards the end. A compact 90-100 minutes would have made the film a lot tighter and more effective. And lastly, I wasn’t a fan of how the essential torture of these girls was sexualized. If it was merely to add tension, I would be okay with it, but I felt a lot of it was gratuitous.

In all, thanks to an interesting premise, well-crafted suspense, strong performances and a climax that doesn’t ruin the entire film, Split is good enough to be regarded as one of the better thrillers of the year. I wouldn’t put it anywhere near Shyamalan’s earliest films such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but Split could very well be his best effort since The Village from 2004.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: There’s a pretty cool scene at the very end of the film right after the credits start, so make sure you stay around for that. It’s a nice little surprise.

The Disappointments Room (2016)

Wentworth Miller, everyone’s favourite escaped convict, penned the script for the 2013 hit Stoker, a surprisingly atmospheric and eerie thriller starring Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode. And so it seemed normal to expect that his sophomore writing effort, The Disappointments Room, wouldn’t be too shabby either.

Hory shet. Talk about a disappointment.

Bad supernatural horror movies are a dime a dozen these days, but The Disappointments Room is shocking because it should not have been this terrible given the names involved. Directed by DJ Caruso, who was at the helm of some pretty decent movies — Disturbia and Eagle Eye (we’ll forget about I Am Number Four) — the film features the archetypal horror premise of a young family moving into a big new house in the middle of nowhere for a “fresh start.”

Kate Beckinsale and Mel Raido play the couple, Dana and David, who have a five-year-old son named Lucas (Duncan Joiner). Shortly after moving in, Dana finds a secret room in the house (guess what it’s called?) and weird stuff starts happening to her. She has deadly visions or hallucinations that seem real and there’s a mystery behind it all she needs to solve. Of course, no one believes her. She’s mental!

When I first found out why the room is called a “disappointments room”, I still thought the film had potential. The concept was intriguing and creepy, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that it was just a cheap gimmick and an excuse to heap loads of horror cliches onto it.

Sadly, the film is almost completely devoid of scares. There’s just no build up of tension or atmosphere, and the characters are all poorly developed. It gets worse as it plods along and introduces a new handyman character played by Lucas Till, though his presence adds nothing to the plot and his part of the story is actually never resolved! In fact, the entire film just loses the plot in the third act and spirals into utter incoherency. By that stage, however, no one gave a shit.

The Disappointments Room has a spectacular rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 0%, and I can’t say I disagree with every critic included in the assessment. Just a real embarrassment for everyone involved.

1 star out of 5