Because I like lists, and sympathise with the tourist dilemma of “Bollocks! We only have 5 hours to spend here – what do we do first??”, I’ve decided to compile a big fat list of awesome things to do in Salem. Yes, this list could have been shorter, but the number 66 is cool, so shut your face (and click “Continue reading” to read more!):
Let’s get this out of the way now: this is NOT the movie you think it is. There’s no creature that you thought was staring at you as the dog barked in the poster. There’s no tangible ‘It’. There’s no explosive gore or legend backstory or expensive sets. This is a small, psychological drama with horror elements about a family trying to survive alone in the woods. And it’s one of the most unsettling films I’ve seen in a while.
The always-watchable Joel Egerton plays Paul, a former history teacher defending his homestead with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (a compelling Kelvin Harrison Jr). After they catch an intruder trying to steal water, Paul offers shelter to him, his wife and young son. But soon paranoia and distrust threaten to clog the beginnings of this new dynamic as Paul’s many house rules become increasingly inflexible.
The film is largely split between Paul and Travis’s eyes, after an opening scene from the POV of the infected grandfather, whom the family is forced to kill (and burn his corpse). Writer-director Trey Edward Shults‘s point of wanting to make sure we leave a better time of it for the next generation forms the maudlin tonal thread that adds a layer of dread to the film’s existing social tension and uncertainty.
It’s a different kind of post-apocalyptic story, with very little action, no shootouts and no gruesome SFX. It’s plausible; it’s what comes after the action and the shootouts and the zombie pile-ups, where fear and uncertainty and macabre nightmares are the new terrors. There is no law enforcement or government healthcare system to protect you, and you are not a lone wolf – you have family and home and the life you once had to try to preserve. But how can you trust anyone – and what if you can’t trust yourself?
I’m reminded of the famously disquieting two-sentence 1948 horror story called ‘Knock’ (Fredric Brown):
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.
Watch a cartoon after this movie. You’ll be haunted for days.
Disclaimer: I only made it to Thursday, Friday and Monday of Horror Channel’s eminent festival of screams. But holy hell, do they know how to pack in those pictures (and the after-boozing, hence posting this late).
For those not in the know, FrightFest – now in its 18th year – is a five-day horror movie festival chock full of world and european premieres, sneak-peeks, short films and guests galore. Think of it as Cannes with chainsaws (and not just me).
There was a lot to see, a lot to drink, and I even had enough beer in me to drum up the nerves to pipe up during one of the many post-film Q&As.
Here’s what I saw!
Firstly, the title absolutely does not fit the movie’s tone. It would be better suited to a chilling biopic of a ruthless Saudi oil baron or a Korean revenge thriller rather than a small horror with a small cast, all of whom are trashier than the film’s lone zombie. Secondly, I kinda don’t care, because the ‘It’ in It Stains the Sands Red is actually referring to the main character’s period. And I call ‘disgustingly brilliant’ on that.
For a film whose premise revolves around its titular tool, Camera Obscura‘s photography is disappointingly dull.
Though it improves at the halfway mark, it does so by discarding its eerie, mysterious build-up, ignoring any exploration of the cursed item’s mythos, and switching gears into an awkwardly comedic slasher.
what an unqualified buffoon-child.
One must make sure to be in the mood for an Oz Perkins film. It will be a slow-burn, scantily-scored, economically-timed piece of celluloid with richly complex characters navigating mysterious and perilous territory. By the end, it’s going to haunt you whether you liked the movie or not.
I’ve seen Perkins’ catalogue in reverse order: first the minimalist Netflix Original I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. He’s remained a pleasant curiosity since I was a dumb uni kid thinking his character was odd-dorably relatable in Legally Blonde, and when I knew that he played a younger version of his father’s character in the Psycho series. I’ve always had a strange curiosity for the offspring of incredibly famous actors from the last century – whether they resemble them in appearance or career choices, or public personae (after a handful of clicks, I stumbled across the Facebook profile of Vincent Price’s great-great-grandaughter).
February, then (or The Blackcoat’s Daughter) was a movie that was getting enough buzz online and at festivals, but only ended up with a VOD distribution over a year and a half after it premiered – despite being produced by powerhouse production company A24, keeper of some titles you, idk, may or may not have heard of (Room, Spring Breakers, Amy, Moonlight, The VVitch). Odd, given Perkins’ pedigree.
The story nicely befits Perkins’ trademark slow-burn: two girls waiting for their parents to collect them from boarding school find themselves in the presence of, well…something not quite right. Rose (a coquettish Neve Campbell lookalike from her Scream days, played by Lucy Boynton) has deliberately delayed her parents’ arrival so that she can tell her boyfriend she’s getting an abortion. The much younger, shy, meek Kat (a compelling Kiernan Shipka), is so wholesome she doesn’t even have a cellphone, and instead perfects her puritanical habits of inoffensive piano-playing and sculpting impossibly perfect twin french braids. She’d probably make a great architect. Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly and the always-welcome James Remar do some great work in a parallel storyline.
Without spoiling it, the plot progresses pretty quickly, despite many scenes in which very little appears to happen beyond slice-of-life character studies of these two girls. Some sequences are needlessly repeated to plug the gaps in the film’s attempt at cyclical/interlocking storytelling, but on balance, it doesn’t detract. Unlike some other reviewers, I didn’t find myself scared but rather unnerved – or chilled. Perkins has a way of hiding unsettling elements in the foreground; it’s enough to linger after viewing and make you wonder if, in the slow-burn, safe ordinariness of your own life, that maybe something this otherworldly horrifying could happen to you, too.
As someone who lost their job to ‘not a proper redundancy’ last Christmas, I found myself darkly amused by The Belko Experiment.
Helmed by Wolf Creek director Greg McLean and written by James Gunn, this office-based horror thriller ticks a couple of the workplace satire boxes: shiny steel coffin of a skyscraper with zero phone reception; insufferable coworkers (older perverts; impossibly cheery fat old ladies; quiet nerds; only black person is a security guard).
It begins ominously enough: Generic White Everyman Mike (GWEM) (Hush‘s John Gallagher, Jr) arrives at his completely-isolated high-rise office in the middle of No-one Can Hear You Scream, Colombia. The newly-hired, heavily-armed guards leave him somewhat prickled. Next up is a cursory introduction to new girl Dany (Melonie Diaz), whose unfriendly induction by her surrounding cubicle-dwellers makes Jawbreaker look like all of the cloying hug moments from New Girl.
Without warning, all the doors and windows are suddenly sealed. A creepy voice on the tannoy announces that the current group of 80 must kill two, or more will be killed at random.
Much like those shitty fire drills at one of my last jobs (for which NOBODY ever trained us on where the fucking fire exits even were), everyone ignores it and a handful of people’s heads literally explode. And much like that job I legit declined an interview for a couple of months ago, the group determines the the trackers implanted in their necks to be the culprit. GWEM, being the best plot-armoured imbecile that he can be, decides to take a boxcutter and literally try to extract it from the back of his neck because, you know, nothing important there. Thankfully, Creepy Voice instructs GWEM to quit his shit or he’ll make tracker go kablamo and everyone still alive decides they’d better start believing what’s going on.
Up pops Marty (Sean Gunn, who will forever be known to me as Kirk), who reminds everybody that the employment contract they all signed allowed them to ‘pretty much do whatever they want’ to them. I’d argue that’s flimsy writing logic, but anyone stupid enough to sign a contract without properly reading it is exactly the sort of pubebrain you wouldn’t root for in this kind of movie, anyway, which works for the fantastically-OTT gore. Exploding heads as punchlines? Yes, please.
A decent handful of bits in this film are darkly humorous if you’ve ever worked in an office. I once worked in a cubicle farm where my neighbour decided to block the last slivers of sunlight by lining up his length-of-service awards atop the sides of his cage. I’ve worked in places that let people work on long-expired contracts. I’ve worked in a place that underpaid me, then overpaid me. Corporate employers will do anything they can to fuck you, but the people who willingly stay in those places long-term will do anything they’re told, often under the naive assumption that their loyalty will pay off. But they’re just fodder. Expendable.
Disappointing, then, is the fact that they didn’t take the office setting and just run with it. Where’s the decapitation-by-scanner, the dismemberment-by paper-guillotine, or the drowning-by-water-cooler? It doesn’t have to be all You’re Home Alone Next, but when an arsenal of weapons is found, it feels like a groaning cop-out.
It’s not like there isn’t fun to be had, though. John C. McGinley becomes entertainingly unhinged. Sean Gunn swears so much that you could make a drinking game out of how many times he says ‘man’ or some variation of ‘fuck’. Michael Rooker has three lines of dialogue. Tony Goldwyn looks less creepy than when I remembered him in Ghost as a kid. Bighead from Silicon Valley is in it. In your head, you can imagine them making a great ensemble cast in an early cut of the film.
Even at 84 minutes, it feels like a short film stretched too thin, and unsure of what tone it wants to take. Much like your typical corporate HR department, movie seems to skirt a flabby, non-committal line between hints of black comedy and trying to take itself too seriously – with neither likeable characters nor interesting dialogue to prop up either.