Tuesday, October 16, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 16

The Endless; 2017; written by Justin Benson; directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead

There's a mystery at the center of The Endless, one that loops and circles around on itself and might well keep viewers returning to it, just like the film's main characters.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead play brothers--conveniently named Justin and Aaron--who escaped a "UFO death cult" ten years ago. Since then, their aimless lives have been stuck on repeat. Until the day a videotape from the group arrives in the mail, and Aaron convinces Justin to return for "closure."

They receive a warm welcome and find everyone no older than the day they left. When Justin expresses surprise at this the leader smiles ambiguously and says, "We're always here."

Strange events soon begin piling up. The group plays tug of war with a rope that rises into the night sky. Characters mysteriously leave and return. Two moons appear and a third is promised, which will herald something called "the ascension." Each causes the brothers--and viewers--to question what's real and what's attributable to the cult's influence.

Benson and Moorehead are known as purveyors of smart, low-budget horror, and The Endless is yet another entry in a career filling up with them. It proves that a big idea, handled well, can beat a big budget.

The Endless is available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Monday, October 15, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 15

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles; 2011; written by Jon Foy and Colin Smith; directed by Jon Foy

If the name of this film alone isn't enough to slow you down and ask, "What the...?" maybe you're moving too fast.

Starting in the 1980s hundreds of enigmatic handmade tiles began appearing on the streets of Philadelphia, the United States and eventually South America. Most displayed a variation of the message TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOVIE 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.

You might dismiss a message like that as lunatic ravings. But isn't it more fun, especially at this time of year, to lend it just a bit of credence and see where it leads? As Justin Duerr, the man at the center of the film says, "When you start to realize that it's unusual and strange and unexplainable, it's like waking up from this dream."

The story of one man's obsession with another man's obsession, Resurrect Dead explores the shadows of underground culture, secret societies, America's crumbling railroads, a giant Chilean telescope, short wave radio broadcasts, 9/11 and arcane scientific theories about bringing dead molecules back to life. In doing so, it manages to tickle that part of your brain that wonders what else might be going on beneath the surface of our ordinary world. Or beyond it.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 14

Irreversible; 2002; written and directed by Gaspar NoƩ

Instead of falling toward the middle of this list, Irreversible could well be its final entry. Anyone who's seen it (or failed to make it to the end) already understands why.

A tale of gruesome sexual violence and its equally violent revenge, Irreversible employs two techniques that transport it from mere exploitation into the realm of art.

The first is a reverse-chronological structure that throws viewers headfirst into the chaotic aftermath of a vicious attack, then works its way back, scene by scene, to demonstrate just how helpless the characters were against their fates.

The second is stunning camera work that both disorients and thrusts viewers into the action. Shot with a single camera in a roving and near-weightless style, it makes Irreversible feel not so much filmed as something that's happening all around you, like a dream. Or a nightmare.

And make no mistake, Irreversible is a nightmare. From the opening frames, which show the final credits, it's apparent this is a film that won't be respecting any rules. No one who might be triggered by scenes of extreme violence and punishing sexual assault should hazard watching it. Even the most hardened veterans of torture porn will find themselves flinching.

But. If you can somehow make it past the brutal rape scene at the story's center, you'll eventually find yourself at home with a happy couple, in the midst of a romantic interlude, on a beautiful summer's day, when this tragic tale all began. Despite everything it's (rightfully) notorious for, this is the true power of Irreversible: proof that heartbreak, and the despair that comes with knowing what might have been, are two of the most terrifying emotions there are.

Irreversible is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 13

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; 1986; written by Richard Fire & John McNaughton; directed by John McNaughton

Thirty-plus years have only added to the air of grime and desperation that pervades Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This is not a shortcoming, since it only serves to make this tale of a murderous drifter that much more brutal and disturbing.

Michael Rooker stars as Henry, who shares a dingy apartment with his prison pal, Otis, and his sister Becky, on the run from an ugly divorce. All three occupy society's lowest rungs and are doing what they can--and must--just to hang on.

If there's a fourth major character in the film, it's the city of Chicago itself, which appears to be in similarly bad shape. It's a city of perpetually cloudy skies, rusted-out cars, cheap diners and run-down gas stations, all of it captured in low-budget grainy images reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Henry's murderous impulses form a vortex at the story's center, one that soon pulls in the other two--Otis as an apprentice, Becky into a dark romance. To say that neither survives doesn't really give anything away. By the film's end, we understand that Henry's time in Chicago was just a stop along a bloody trail, one extending far behind and ahead of him.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Friday, October 12, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 12

Manhunter; 1986; written by Thomas Harris and Michael Mann; directed by Michael Mann

Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, has very little in common with two other, more famous Thomas Harris adaptations, 1991's The Silence of the Lambs or 2002's Red Dragon.

And that's not a bad thing. Because thirty years after it was released to mixed (at best) reviews, Mann's version has since emerged as a hyper-stylized time capsule of the 1980s, a candy-colored kaleidoscope that makes both Silence and Red Dragon look somewhat, um... lifeless by comparison.

The dissonance between Manhunter's slick production and its tale of a police detective losing himself in a serial murder investigation makes the viewing experience that much more jarring and memorable. It's like seeing a human heart, still beating, under the glow of neon lights.

Manhunter is available on streaming rental.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 11

The Invitation; 2015; written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; directed by Karyn Kusama

There's a moment near the beginning of The Invitation that not only tees up everything that follows, but puts the audience on a razor's edge as well. I won't say what it is, because that would ruin the fun. And it's that element of suspense--and its eventual release--that makes The Invitation work so well.

The initial premise is simple enough. Following an absence of two years, a couple invites a group of friends to dinner at their Hollywood Hills home. But from there it gets more complicated and weirder.

Among the assembled is Logan Marshall-Green, the female host's ex-husband. From the moment he arrives things seem off. There's a missing guest. Two odd friends no one has met before. An awkward party game. And a self-actualization movement called The Invitation that the hosts really, really want to share with the others.

The need to observe social niceties as the evening heats up leads to some excruciating tension and shocking reversals. If I have any complaint about 
The Invitation, it's that the film does such an outstanding job of increasing the anxiety and encouraging your  imagination to run away with itself, that by the time things boil over it seems just a tiny bit anti-climatic. 

But only a little. Because then there's that final shot, with its helicopters overhead and dogs barking in the distance. It's so unanticipated and unnerving that you might not enjoy dinner at a friend's house for some time.

The Invitation is available on Netflix and streaming rental.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 10

Creep 2; 2017; written by Mark Duplass & Patrick Brice; directed by Patrick Brice 

In the original Creep, Mark Duplass played a man with terminal cancer who wants to make a "day in the life" documentary and plays next-level mind games with his unsuspecting videographer. 

In Creep 2, Mark Duplass plays a serial killer who wants to make a "day in the life" documentary and plays next-next-level mind games with his unsuspecting videographer. 

And so, given all that, you'd be perfectly within your rights to ask why in the hell Creep 2 is on this list. 

1. Because Duplass delivers an amazing performance. By turns charming, sinister and terrifying (sometimes all in the same scene) he navigates some treacherous emotional terrain without a stumble. 

2. Because his co-star, Desiree Akhavan, delivers an amazing performance as well. Not only does she refuse to be intimidated by the antics of a serial killer, she proves to be every bit his equal. 

3. Because together, Duplass and Akhavan are doubly amazing. Throughout the film they play a non-stop cat-and-mouse game--with each other, the audience, and the serial killer genre itself. It's genuinely thrilling to watch as their characters push each others' buttons and boundaries, keeping everything and everyone dangerously off balance, right up to the end. 

Creep 2 was one of the best times I've had watching a movie this year. And I saw A Star is Born this past weekend. 

Creep 2 is available on Netflix and streaming rental.