Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

I’ve heard a lot of good things about The Lodge, including that it was a new classic in the genre (or something like that. I may be paraphrasing). With the last couple of horror films I’ve seen since my last film review being average or below and not worthy of a blog post (*cough* Fantasy Island *cough*), I had high expectations. At the very least, I hoped it was worth the cost of parking at the nearest theater it was playing at.

The Lodge follows Aiden and Mia, a pair of siblings living with their father following the sudden death of their mother. On their trip to their family cabin for Christmas, their dad’s girlfriend Grace comes along to get to know the kids better. The kids are less than thrilled, partly because Grace is the lone survivor of a suicide cult headed by her father. However, when the kid’s dad has to go back into the city for work and has to leave Grace with the kids for a few days, several days of madness ensue. One that will push Grace to the brink, and maybe take the kids with her.

Oh my God, this film is terrifying!

The Lodge takes storytelling and suspense hand-in-hand and creates an atmosphere where everything feels up in the air. If horror is fear of the unknown and loss of control, then this film succeeds. I saw hints of twists that were to come early in the film, only to quickly forget them even when I see them again because the film convinced me nothing was certain. Add in creepy imagery, strange happenings, and jump scares that are few and out of left field for their utmost effectiveness, and you’ve got one hell of a horror movie.

The four central characters also do an excellent job in their roles. Aiden is played from Jaeden Martell, who played Bill Denbrough in the IT movies, so he’s used to horror films, and puts it to use here. His sister is played by Lia McHugh, who also have a history in horror, so they bring the experience. But more than that, they know how to play siblings brought close by tragedy, to the point that I forgot they were actors.* Riley Keough also is excellent, showing the stress of the situation on a woman already psychologically and emotionally vulnerable so well. It’s honestly a delight to watch.

I can’t think of anything bad about the film. Doing so would be nitpicking. I will let you know that if you prefer horror films be filled with CGI and lots of jump scares (the opposite of me), this film may be a bit too intense for you. Trust me, most of the theater were freaking out in our seats. Even when nothing was happening on screen (or seemed to be happening, anyway).

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving The Lodge a 4.8 out of 5. Nerve-wracking, twisty and twisted, you’ll be freaking out from the first jump scare to the haunting ending. Grab a blanket and someone to watch it with, and get ready to squeeze their arms tightly. Believe me, it’s that scary.

*And maybe wondered their relationship was incestuous. Hey, it’s an R-rated horror film, boundaries are hazy at best if it helps the story along.

You know, when the trailers for this film hit, the response was pretty lackluster. “Oh, it’s got Kristen Stewart in it and it’s a disaster film about an underwater sea base that’s about to be destroyed. They have to find a way to survive. Whoop-dee-freaking-do!” But then word among the horror community started saying…positive things. And later rewatches of the trailer made it look cool. So I decided to see it, though I couldn’t do so till this weekend because I was sick last weekend.

Underwater follows six workers on an underwater sea base seven miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, drilling for resources to bring above. However, a mysterious quake causes major damage to the base, meaning they have to navigate the failing base and find a way back to the surface or die. But there’s something else down there with them. And it’s not going to stop till they’re all dead.

I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing and Alien with this film, and I have to say, not only are the comparisons apt, they’re justified.

One of Underwater’s strengths is how it creates its atmosphere. Soon after the movie starts, we’re thrust into the destruction as we watch a residential section of the base succumb to water pressure and shifting earth. From there, we’re right in the middle of the action as the characters have to navigate dark and narrow passages filled with water and debris. And while the situation itself is urgent, the movie takes its time, allowing us to get to know these characters as well as building a feeling of tension and encroaching doom. Realistic sets and dirty water further the feeling of claustrophobia and the horrific death just beyond the walls. Somehow, that tension is kept up even when the characters are walking across the open seafloor in suits. Probably because those suits are a thin barrier between life and death as well. Add in some well-placed jumpscares that are never excessive, and it’s damn tense.

As for the creature or creatures in this film, they are the fun innovation that change this film from just another disaster film to a Lovecraftian horror fest. Their reveal is very slow, and even when fully revealed, the darkness of the sea leaves them with a bit of mystery. Fans of certain HP Lovecraft stories will recognize the creatures. Whether you do or don’t, however, there’s no denying how scary and deadly these creatures are, and they make the film worthwhile.

As for the characters, they’re serviceable for this film. For once, Kristen Stewart’s deadpan expression works pretty well with her character Norah Price, who defines herself as a cynic trying to get by. TJ Miller as weird, funny guy Paul does okay jokes. He and the character Rodrigo, played by Mamoudou Athie, both enjoy anime. Other than that, you can’t say much about these characters, but for the purposes of Underwater, that’s just fine.

That being said, the film does have its issues. There are a few moments where the tension reaches a lull, and during those moments I felt restless and a little sleepy (though that might be because I had to wake up earlier than planned this morning). And I would have liked to see what life on the base is like on a normal day. You know, when it’s not in danger of flooding and crumpling into dust. We only get a minute and a half of seeing the pre-destruction base at the beginning of the film, and that’s mostly filled by Stewart monologuing and saving a daddy long-legs from a sink.

Altogether though, Underwater is a tense, Lovecraftian thrill ride, a modern-day The Thing, almost.* On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4. If you have a chance, go to the theater and prepare to dive into a world of terror. Most likely, you’ll find yourself pleasantly entertained, and more than a little scared.

*And not just in quality. The Thing actually did poorly with critics and at the box office after its release. It didn’t become a classic until it hit home video. I have a feeling Underwater will go through a similar process, though I would like as many people to see it in theaters as possible.

At seventy-two, King has told people he only intends to retire “when God tells me to.” Given his latest book, a 557-page science-thriller, I doubt God will be giving him that message anytime soon. And if he keeps writing stories like The Institute, I’m completely fine with that. Especially if I can eventually get on his radar someday.

The Institute centers on Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old prodigy who is planning on going to Boston for college in the fall. He also has some telekinetic abilities, though he can’t do more than move an empty pizza pan when he’s excited. Still, that’s enough to put him on the radar of The Institute, a shadowy facility in the backwoods of Maine. His parents are murdered, and he is spirited away, used in experiments that are supposed to enhance the psychic abilities he and other kids and teens have. And as time goes on, Luke not only gets a better idea of what sort of things they’re doing at the Institute, but realizes with growing anxiety that he has to get away. Before he is changed permanently. At least, changed more than he already has been.

What makes this story so scary, even though it’s more science-thriller than science-horror, is its plausibility. You can totally imagine a shadowy government or shadow government organization kidnapping kids and using them for their own ends.* There are a lot of comments on or callbacks to the Nazi experiments on concentration camp victims, and as a WWII/Holocaust scholar, those comments are extremely warranted.

Aside from that, this book is good. The characters feel real, and the Institute is well thought out, adding to the feeling you could see some of this stuff happening. Luke is a likable protagonist, smart but not arrogant about it (in fact, he worries a lot about being too arrogant with his intellect), polite, and eager to help his friends. Likewise, the staff of the Institute feel real as well, particularly how they can do what they do and think of the kids as less-than-human.

As for the Institute, it’s big and is usually good at keeping the kids within the boundaries of the facility, but it also has its issues such as faulty equipment and staff rivalries, which makes it feel real. It could almost feel like your own workplace. Just evil and incredibly cruel.

Of course, the story isn’t totally perfect. I’m not going to fault it due to the fact that it’s not one of King’s terror-inducing stories like IT, we all know he’s great at writing more than horror. Nor am I going to fault the book due to the return of psychic powers. After all, stories where psychic abilities feature prominently, like Carrie and The Shining, are why King is a household name today. But I will admit the ending does feel a little expository and may not give everyone the sense of satisfaction people are looking for. That is a criticism I’m comfortable making.

However, on the whole The Institute is a strong entry into the Stephen King bibliography, a slow-burn that will leave you uncomfortable and yet unable to put the book down. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.2. Whether you’re using your mind or your hands, I recommend lifting up a copy and giving it a read this Halloween season.

And that reminds me, welcome to October! As a horror writer, I’ll have plenty to share with you during the most wonderful time of the year (and yes, it is the most wonderful time of the year. Read this post if you don’t believe me). We’ll have reviews, writing updates, discussions of horror, and possibly a demonic summoning. Look forward to it, my Followers of Fear. And until next time, pleasant nightmares!

*Just so you know, I’m not going to directly comment on any parallels between this novel and current events, though plenty of people, including King himself, have done that already. My current job makes doing so difficult. If I ever get the opportunity to write full-time, that’ll change. In the meantime though, I’ll just keep my mouth shut and stick to reviewing stories on their own merits.

I listened to The Stranger Beside Me by true crime writer Ann Rule, who actually knew Ted Bundy, on audio book to prepare for this movie (and that’s the extent to my knowledge of Bundy). In the days leading up to this film’s release on Netflix, I was excited to see this adaptation. Nearly thirty years after the man’s death, would this film, along with the Netflix documentary (I know, I need to watch it, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet), introduce a new generation to the shocking murders of Ted Bundy?

Well, I went in expecting a different kind of movie, but I came out satisfied with what I got.

Based on the memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by his real-life girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (known as Liz Kendall in the film and Meg Anders in The Stranger Beside Me), Extremely Wicked follows the romance of Bundy and Kloepfer, how they got together, how Bundy’s arrest in Utah, his two escape attempts in Colorado, his final trial in Florida, during which he marries one of his groupies but (seemingly) still has feelings for Liz, and finally his execution in Florida.

I think what I like the most about this film is its star-studded cast. Everyone embodies their characters so well. Zac Efron as Bundy comes across as a sympathetic, lovestruck man who finds his life falling to pieces around him and the one good thing in it drifting away, while Lily Collins as Liz Kendall does a great job as a woman who put so much into her relationship with this seemingly-perfect man, only to grapple with his crimes. John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart did the man an honor, combining the judge’s Southern gentility with his own deadpan acting method (finally, a film from this year that doesn’t waste the guy’s talent). And Jim Parsons made me forget at certain moments that I was watching Sheldon Cooper. I actually had to watch the scene where he delivers his opening remarks as prosecutor Larry Simpson twice, it was so chilling. Parsons could lead a legal drama now that The Big Bang Theory is done.

I also like how the film balances a romantic storyline with what is mostly a courtroom drama. Unlike other films, Extremely Wicked doesn’t go to great lengths to show Bundy’s depravity or murders, but instead hints and flits around it until the final scene of the film. Its focus is showing how the ongoing legal saga affects Bundy and Kloepfer’s relationship and vice versa, as well as the psychological toll on Bundy. The director knew what they were going for with this film, and in that aspect it succeeded.

If I have one gripe with this film, it’s that romanticizes Bundy a little too much. Bundy’s always had a number of female fans who find him attractive despite what he’s done.* Even actors portraying him have awakened the wrong kind of fascination in teenage and young women (Ann Rule relates some of the phone calls she got after The Deliberate Stranger with Mark Harmon aired in 1986 in her book). Zac Efron is a very handsome actor, no doubt of that, and in the interest of focusing on his romance and courtroom battles, Extremely Wicked glosses over the evil in its title and makes Bundy out to be more of a sweet, hurt man than a calculating serial killer. And I’m not sure that was the best decision.

I also would’ve liked to see Ann Rule make an appearance in the film, but I think I can live without that.

On the whole, I give Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile a score of 4 out of 5. While its POV Is slightly skewed, its an entrancing thriller that draws you into the story and the bloodless battle occurring on screen. Take a look, and prepare yourself for a ride.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I hope to have one or two more posts out before the weekend is done.

In the meantime, I’m still looking for advanced readers for my upcoming fantasy-horror novel, Rose, about a young woman who starts turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems). In exchange for an early electronic copy, all I ask is you read it and consider posting a review after the release. Anyone interested should send me an email at ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com.

Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

*The scientific name for attraction to dangerous partners, by the way, is called hybristophilia. Theories to how it arises range from evolutionary desires for strong and capable partners to romantic notions of wanting to change/help a damaged partner to wanting fame or even just knowing the partner is stuck in a jail cell and won’t go anywhere. The more you know.

Author Jason Stokes in an adorable photo with one of his cats.

It’s been a while, but I have a new author interview to share with everyone. This one is with an author with an extraordinary story, both in terms of the novel he’s published and his own life experiences. Allow me to introduce Jason Stokes, author of the new novel Watcher.

Rami Ungar: Welcome to the show, Jason. Please tell us about yourself and about Watcher.

Jason Stokes: My name is Jason Stokes. I am a writer and artist currently living in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Watcher is about a young woman diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis who witnesses a horrific crime via hacked webcams. Due to her own lifestyle, she is forced to make a decision between preserving her own safety and seeking justice for a woman she’s never met. In the process she finds herself against the most powerful citizens in her city and untangling a web of corruption that involves nearly everyone she meets.

RU: You wrote Watcher while taking care of your life, who has MS, and who gave a lot of input on the story. Can you tell us what that was like?

JS: It felt like it was time for a character that had the same struggles I’ve seen her go through and exposed the way caretakers in chronically ill lives support those they care about. I wanted her to have a hero she could relate to. She was invaluable, answering questions about how she would handle specific situations, helping me walk in her shoes and uncovering things I had never thought of.

RU: Did the idea for the novel evolve out of your wife’s diagnosis? Or did it influence an already-existing idea?

JS: I had an idea but It was all wrong. It was overdone and I wasn’t feeling excited by it. When I asked myself, how would she (my wife) handle this? It started to come together. I saw a story that had more depth and stakes that were higher than your average mystery/suspense story. When she (the MC)  wakes up every morning she is already at a disadvantage and it doesn’t get any easier from there.

RU: You founded the company, Gestalt Media, that published Watcher. Why go that route?

JS: Ultimately I’m a control freak but I also want to have a role in bringing forward original projects. I wanted full control over my own work and knew the stigma of self-publishing but I also know several creators and I wanted to help bring their projects to fruition. I’m currently working with an artist/writer to publish a series of offbeat comics sometime this year.

RU: On Twitter, you spoke about how a local bookstore refused to carry Watcher. Can you tell us why and how that made you feel?

JS: The store in question refused to carry Watcher because the main character has MS but I (the author) do not. Their stance is not unique. It is a trend among publishers and retail stores to insist on own voices and to refuse books by those outside of the represented  community. I felt that as my wife’s caretaker for the last six years, I have lived this as much as anyone aside from her. I wrote it with extreme care and respect and sought her input through the entire process. The fact is, there are people whose stories deserve to be told that may not be able to for whatever reason put it into words. As authors it is our responsibility to interpret and share the world. We often take ourselves out of the equation. If it’s done with respect, care and attention to the group being represented that should be enough.

I don’t think the store itself is wrong for their viewpoint. It’s their choice but I disagree with the narrow lane it provides for future literature. As I’ve said, it’s a good intent with misguided execution.

RU: I know this is tough to ask, but how are you and your wife doing these days?

JS: As well as we can. It’s a brutal disease and every day is a little worse than the last but we stay in good spirits. She’s a fighter, a true inspiration and I’m proud to stand beside her on this journey. As long as research continues we have something to look forward to. Anything can happen.

The cover for “Watcher” by Jason Stokes.

RU: That’s good. Can you tell us what your writing process is like, if you have one?

JS: I subscribe heavily to the tenets of the Snowflake theory outlined by Randy Ingermanson. Generally I will come up with a character or a situation I find appealing. Something that isn’t often seen or a new angle. Then I’ll place it in a world and find a central scene, something that brings the story to life. From there I’ll build out starting with a two or three sentence synopsis, then a few paragraphs, then a list of scenes, until the whole things appears.

RU: Are you working on anything now or have any future plans as far as writing goes?

JS: Too many things! There’s never a shortage of ideas and projects begging for time. I have another novel coming in time for Halloween. Ghost Story is the beginning of a series involving a protagonist that can see the dead on a road trip to discover more about his exceptionally unusual past.

RU: What advice would you have for other writers, no matter their background or level of experience?

JS: I’m going to quote Chuck Wendig ‘Finish your sh*t.’ You have to finish. As scary as it is. As difficult as it can seem. The real journey begins when you write ‘the end.’

RU: And finally, if you were stuck on a desert island for a while and could only bring three books with you, which ones would you take?

JS: Well, I think it would be only prudent to include the Worst Case Scenario Survival Guide. Alternately the Boyscouts of America field book if it was available. Next I’d bring along Robinson Crusoe for obvious reasons and Jurassic Park because it is the single most entertaining novel I’ve ever read.

RU: Thank you for being on the show, Jason, and the best of luck to you and your wife, both with Watcher and in life.

If you would like to check out Watcher (I’ve already sent a request into my local library to order a couple copies), you can get it for Kindle and in paperback from Amazon. If you’re interested in more of Jason Stokes, check him out on Twitter. I highly recommend you consider doing both.

And if you would like to be interviewed for an upcoming or recent release, either check out my Interviews page or send an email to ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com, and we’ll see if we can’t make some magic happen.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

Greta follows Chloe Grace Moretz as Frankie, a young woman living in New York who finds a handbag on the subway on the way home from work. She brings the bag to its owner, Greta Hadig (Isabelle Huppert), a French widow living alone. The two women strike up an unlikely friendship and find comfort in each other’s company. That is, until Frankie finds out Greta is hiding some terrible secrets, and her relationship with the older woman takes a very dark turn.

The best part of this film is its lead actresses. I’ve always loved Chloe Grace Moretz. She’s a great actress who truly embodies whatever role she inhabits, be it a vigilante or Carrie White in the better movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (don’t @ me, Sissy Spacek/Piper Laurie fans). Greta is no exception, with Moretz really coming across as this young woman who’s kind and a little vulnerable, but also at the same time has a bit of fight in her. And Isabelle Huppert’s Greta is plenty creepy. She’s no Annie Wilkes, but she can go from sweet and grandmotherly to cruel and sociopathic at the flip of a switch. it’s a great change.

And Maika Monroe from It Follows has a supporting role in the film! Good to see her again, I haven’t seen her in anything since that film (probably my fault more than hers). She’s great as the best friend who’s seems shallow on the surface but has a deeper, badass side to her.

However, the film isn’t exactly a thrilling psychological slow burn. We’ve seen this sort of story before, and that makes it predictable. By the last third or so, I could predict what was going to happen minutes before it occurred. And while there are some tense moments, they’re too few and far-between to create a gripping atmosphere. Couple that with an unnecessary and boring dream sequence, and the film’s quality really goes down.

On the whole, I’m giving Greta a 2.8 on a scale of 1 to 5. The talent is there, and God do they try to make it work, but an obvious plot and lack of actual terror make this a forgettable entry into the thriller genre. Which is a shame, as the director was the guy who gave us Interview with the Vampire in 1994 and as I said, Moretz is the superior Carrie in the superior adaptation. But hey, every now and then you strike out, am I right?

This new film got some buzz after its trailer was released, with lots of people saying it could be scary as all get-out. That, and there aren’t many movies revolving around haunted artwork and/or the art world, so we thought it could be breaking some new ground. So I tuned in this evening. And I’m glad I had wine in the fridge, after what I just saw.

Velvet Buzzsaw follows tough art critic Mort Vandewalt, art agent Josephina, and her boss Rhodora Haze, who are considered the creme de la creme of the art elite circles or working on making that happen. One day, Josephina discovers her elderly neighbor has died, and then discovers he’s an artist of amazing talent, who also wanted all his artwork destroyed after his death. Jospehina decides to take the artwork and sell it alongside Rhodora, making them all very rich. However, several suspicious accidents and deaths occur, all occurring around the dead man’s art. Soon Mort, who has become obsessed with the dead man and his work, discovers some dark secrets around it. Secrets that are deadly in their power.

I’ve heard it said that contemporary art is about the idea behind the piece and its execution, rather than what the work portrays. If so, I think the idea here was a searing indictment of the elite art world in the form of a horror movie, but ooh, was the execution horribly botched.

Velvet Buzzsaw is only really a horror movie a third of the time. The other two-thirds, it seems to be either a slow-burn thriller about the dark side of the art world, or the film equivalent of those literary stories where characters go on personal journeys through their hundrum lives to find themselves/meaning in their lives/happiness. When it’s the third type, it’s actually pretty decent. If it were that kind of film, then we might get something Oscar-worthy. But then the film switches to slow-burn thriller, which is just kind of sub-par, all talk about cut-rate deals and how to screw everybody over (in more senses than one). And when it switches to horror, the rest of the movie has been so diluted that there’s no atmosphere or scares that the audience can be picked up.

I also found John Malkovich’s role in this film to be a total waste. He’s this tortured artist who kind of exits the film halfway through, and then we only see him in the credits, and it’s like…what? What was the point of this character? Along with Natalia Dyer’s Coco, which would’ve been a great perspective to see these events play out from if the character had been given more screen time, I’m just peeved.

If there was something about this film I liked, it was the cast. Jake Gyllenhaal, Zawe Ashton and Rene Russo do excellent jobs as the three main characters, Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame has a role as an up-and-coming artist, which was cool. And there are some cool art pieces in the film, as well as some great bits of cinematography.

But taken all together, Velvet Buzzsaw is a 2 out of 5 at best. It’s inconsistent in tone, wastes some of its talent, and ultimately creates a film that’s stylistically memorable but otherwise forgettable. If the film had maybe found a tone to focus on and, if that chosen tone had been horror or horror-thriller, given the character of Coco more screen time instead of just using her as a sort of tragic comic relief, and had devoted time to building an atmosphere, then we might’ve had something here. But since the filmmakers didn’t go that route, it’s just a damn shame.