Strangers: Prey At Night (review)

Knock, Knock, Knock… Is an unnecessary but long awaited sequel to one of my favourite films home?

Well yeah actually. Strangers: Prey at night is stalking it’s way into theatres 5th May, and luckily I managed to see it early at one of Odeon’s Scream Unseen events and can tell you if it’s worth the extortionate price of popcorn.

Well i suppose it all depends what you want from your horror sequels. Do you want them to give you a back story of your title villains, like the final girl is actually his sister or his mother was raped and impregnated by 100 maniacs? If so then you are… wrong. Seriously let’s stop doing this. Luckily this film doesn’t cater to your desires – the masked strangers remain just that. Strangers.

Perhaps you wish sequels and remakes just didn’t exist and great stories were left alone. That’s admirable, however I’m sorry I have to welcome you back to the real world where greed crushes artistic integrity on a daily basis.

Or maybe you accept that a horror sequel is never going to be perfect and the best you could ever hope for is sped up rehash of the original film with more 80s slasher vibes and a fabulously camp synth-pop soundtrack? Well if you are the final group then you my beautiful friends are in luck because that’s exactly what you are going to get with Strangers: Prey at Night.

This story works as a stand alone film and doesn’t directly follow on from the original except for the return of our three creepy villains; Doll Face, Pin up and the Man in the Mask, this time at summer camp a la Crystal Lake. They use very similar tactics and say similar lines from their first outing suggesting an order and routine to their kill. This time though they are annoyingly sloppy at times with their killings and the repeat of some line such as their motives for killing don’t work as well this time around.

Probably the biggest downfall of the film is that apart from the soundtrack and a different cast of victims the film has nothing new to offer. Yes I don’t want a a backstory for my villains but why not improve on the original and do some actual character building – is that asking too much? Apparently so. The half unexplained rebellious daughter story arc is so forgettable the film itself forgot to give any resolution to it. Except *spoiler* maybe you don’t have to go to boarding school if not your parents are dead. Yay – off to the orphanage instead!

On the plus side the son and dad are both super hot. Unfortunately, however the accidental incest I saw vibes come from the son and daughter instead, so my latent daddy issues are left unresolved.

I don’t know if the writers didn’t know how to write two good looking teenagers with no sexual tension or if the actors themselves couldn’t hide their own sexual tension but the older brother, younger sister pep talk felt like a date that was going well right up until, you know, the murder part.

Ok so now I’ve got my problems with the film out of the way let’s move on to the good stuff. It’s scary. Admittedly I might be biased as the original has always freaked me out a lot but it has been a long time since I jumped that high in the cinema. I was so wrapped up in the creepy slow build up to scares that I even forgot scares they wasted on the trailer weere about to happen and jumped even higher.

The mix of slow stalking and jump scares is fun and effective. The tension is built in a similar way to the original: faceless people, a loud knock on the door at night, knowing that they are silently watching you. However being a sequel and with a bigger cast the speed is increased and the 3rd act becomes more action based 80s slasher than the slow methodical horror it started as. Yeah, some jumps are cheap but it all manages to work because of the natural impending doom the strangers bring with them.

Probably the most interesting choice the film makes is to have some of our strangers unmasked as the story progresses. I was in two minds over this. My initial reaction was stop it right now I don’t want to see that it will take the horror away. However after my brain digested the scene I realised all it really did was emphasise how human these killers are. They look like every other family when the mask is removed and that actually makes the reality of them even more plausible and terrifying

The soundtrack is perfection and that’s not just my bias as a massive 80s fan. The way the music is used to punctuate the violence is equally menacing and entertaining. If you were as thrilled as me at the creepy use of Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ in the trailer then the rest of the film won’t disappoint.

There is a definite ‘predator playing with its prey’ vibe throughout the film again and nowhere is this exemplified more than when one victim is trapped as the the Man in the Mask selects his music to kill them to, and Kim Wilde ‘Cambodia’ is an inspired choice.

The best use of the music and sound is during a pool fight between the son and the Man in the Mask. I don’t want to spoil this moment completely but Bonnie Tyler’s camp classic ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ is put to good use in a very fun and clever scene that was a real highlight for me.

Overall the film adds nothing much new to the original premise or the horror genre, even the ending is a homage to both John Carpenter’s Christine (1983) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). However it didn’t lose much of what made the original so bloody good. Don’t expect anything revolutionary and if you don’t like the original then don’t bother but if you did then expect to have a bloody good time on this journey.

I’d recommend you go and see it in the cinema for the full effect and if you are anything like me you will be checking the backseats of the car on the way home.

(SM)

You can hear Stephen’s review and our reviews of ‘Ghost Stories’, ‘A Quiet Place’ and ‘Terrifier’ in our new podcast. Just click below to listen!

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GERALD’S GAME (2017)

Mild spoilers ahead…

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The hype machine has gone into overdrive for a certain Mr Stephen King in recent months. First ‘It’ opened to record numbers and became the highest grossing horror movie ever, then over on Netflix an altogether darker, more cerebral piece of work from the maestro of the macabre slipped in quietly to give us nightmares into the wee small hours. That would be ‘Gerald’s Game’, and what a game it is.

Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood star as Jessie and Gerald, who after eleven years of a slowly dying marriage, decide to head out to their lake house in the middle of nowhere to spice things up. What begins as an innocent sex game involving handcuffs and Viagra soon spirals into a rape fantasy and death. You only have to watch the trailer to know Gerald bites it pretty early on, keeling over from a heart attack and leaving Jessie chained to the bed with nothing but her personal demons and a very hungry rabid dog for company…

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I must admit, whilst looking forward to seeing Gerald’s Game I did wonder how they could spin out 1 hour 47 minutes of a woman chained to a bed. For the most part my worries were unfounded. Once Gerald drops dead things spiral pretty quickly. We go full throttle into Jessie’s psyche and no disturbing stone is left unturned.

One thing Stephen King has always excelled at is taking our primal childhood fears and making them a very real, terrifying reality. Fear of the dark. Monsters. The hand reaching out from under the bed. The nightmare flipside of the nuclear family. The horror of parents turning a blind eye when they should be protecting us. The desperate loneliness of insomnia where everything is at its blackest and most hopeless. All of these take centre stage.

But the true horror of this piece – and of Jessie’s life – is (mild spoiler) child abuse. With more than an echo of the wonderful film adaptation of Dolores Claiborne, we’re treated to a red-tinged flashback to a solar eclipse that heralded the end of Jessie’s childhood at the hands of her father. The nuanced performances and writing around this portion of the movie bring out the manipulative depths a child abuser will go to to keep his secret safe, and in a truly heartbreaking scene we see the trauma a young Jessie goes through as she’s emotionally blackmailed into keeping shtum. This is a rare thing indeed in any movie let alone a horror movie, to see writing and characterisation of such depth.

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Which is why it’s almost inexplicable that in the last fifteen minutes of the movie we’re treated to a script that suddenly is so schmaltzy and on the nose you start to wonder if it’s flipped into a parody of what we’ve been enjoying for the previous 90 minutes. Being a connoisseur of the camp, the trashy and the bad, I could appreciate some of the humdinger lines and wrap-it-up-in-a-pink-bow resolution in a tongue in cheek way. But seriously, having gone through the traumas we see Jessie endure for the majority of the movie, my jaw was on the floor at what the movie then became.

This in no way detracts from the film experience so don’t let that put you off. There were two moments during Gerald’s Game where I screamed and shouted in horror – you’ll know the moments when you see them. One that will put you off that burgeoning foot fetish for life, and the other that will make you wince in agony along with Jessie. The film GOES there with the horror. If you saw ‘It’ and, like me and the other Screaming Queenz, thought whilst it was a good movie it lacked the depths of horror that only Stephen King can bring? Well this movie has that in spades.

Of the two much-hyped King adaptations (I’m not even going there with Dark Tower), this one brings the pure horror that ‘It’ lacked.

Gerald’s Game is one worth playing. Just keep an eye out for The Moonlight Man…

JL

IT (2017) Review: the threequel 

Stephen Moore gives his pennyworth on Pennywise…

IT was the most highly anticipated horror of the year. IT failed to deliver on its promise of a truly scary version of the classic Stephen King novel. IT was still one of the most enjoyable films so far this year. IT was IT… you get IT.

In the lead up to the release of this film I was swept away down the storm drain by an effective trailer, a plot that is still as scary as when it when it was conceived and a heavy sense of nostalgia. This will no doubt lead to massive profits for the film and guarantee it receives it sequel but may also lead to one major criticism at least by seasoned horror fans. IT just isn’t scary.

I was really excited to be genuinely terrified and creeped out by the film but it never really got there and I think there are three major factors that contributed to the lack of scares.

The film’s premise means we tap into those early childish irrational fears such as clowns, creepy paintings and errrrr germs apparently? For the most part though people largely grow out of these early fears as they enter adulthood and unless you happen to have a phobia of one of these things many of the scares are unlikely to do more than gross or weird you out.

The film also has a heavy reliance on GI effects instead of practical, and some moments that are meant to be scary look a bit plastic and silly. Many a time I was left unsure if I was meant to be scared or supposed to laugh at ‘creepy picture woman’ chasing the children. Finally we have a reliance on jump scares over tension. I’ve come to accept jump scares are inevitable in mainstream horror now and can often let out a shrill shriek when one is particularly effective but in order to be scary I need to be put in a tense state… Something that really never happens. Every time the film starts to build up tension or scare it either pulls its punches like when it refuses to delve further into the horrific racially motivated arson attack on the Black Spot and with Beverly’s sexually abusive Dad… or it breaks the tension with a witty one liner or hilariously childish and perfectly crude dick joke.

Now I’ve got my main complaint out of the way let’s discuss what makes this one of the most enjoyable films of the year. In the previously definitive TV version of the novel the main star was undoubtedly the incredibly enigmatic performance of Tim Curry as Pennywise the dancing clown.

Bill Skarsgards incarnation is a perfectly respectable performance that separates itself enough from Curry’s version to keep me happy but he is not the shining star of the show in this version. Instead the main stars of the show are the extremely talented and funny cast of children. I don’t say that sentence lightly as my usual feelings toward child actors are less complimentary and more homicidal.

All of “The Losers Clubs” managed to impress me at different times and in their own way but the two leads Bill and Bev are both fantastic. Bill’s loss of his little brother Georgie both propels the story forward and grounds it at its most insane times. He is an engaging and believable hero and leader of the group with his endearing stutter just adding to the likability of his character. Bev the female of the group delicately balances her Tom Boy thrill seeking ways with her sensitivity and caring for others. One of my favourite character moments is when Bev discovers Ben’s (aka Tits) love for New Kids on the Block and she simultaneously mocks him and keeps his secret from the others.

I started this review by discussing how IT fails to be an effective horror film but what I didn’t explain is that this isn’t really a bad thing… it’s just not what I anticipated. Instead of a straight up horror film we have a fantastic summer adventure with friends, a coming of age story that just so happens to have a supernatural undertone in the form of a dancing murderous clown and to be honest I’m not that mad about that.

As the group bond and form stronger friendships you enjoy being with them for the summer and seeing all these relatable and sweet first moments of adulthood unfold. Although one particularly well played scene of the boys watching Bev sunbathe was a little different in my life.

There are lots of beautifully played child-becoming-adult moments like this, from first crushes to a funny and endearing scene where Bev tries to hide the fact she’s buying her first tampon from the boys. Saying that when coupled with a later scene involving a whole lot of blood in the bathroom It was perhaps a little too much of a menstrual cycle analogy than I was prepared for.

There are a few other flaws, such as the underuse of certain characters and a massively shortened research of the towns history that I would have like to have seen more of but overall the film is as fun as a good old rock fight. I’m overall impressed by the film, I thoroughly enjoyed spending the summer with our pint sized heroes and look forward to a rewatch. I am, however, skeptical of how the adult based sequel will capture my attention. It either needs to turn up the horror which I doubt it will or choose another genre to be based on with the horror once again being more incidental than the main attraction but I say bring IT on!

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SM

IT (2017) Review

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Vague spoilers ahead…

I’ll tell you this straight off the bat. I think the original TV mini-series of It (1990) gets away with murder thanks to nostalgia. We saw it at just the right time, and hit the TV airwaves at just the right moment, for it to somehow become iconic and deemed terrifying. Same goes with Salem’s Lot. But watch it now and you might have a different opinion.

So when it was announced that Pennywise would be returning for a new outing on the big screen I, for one, welcomed the idea. Having read the tome of a novel, which needs a damn good edit but is utterly enthralling and almost unbearably dark in parts, I thought that maybe the new film would honour it better than the TV version. I had high hopes. And for the most part I was not disappointed. I really hoped it wouldn’t be a shot-by-shot rehash of the ‘original’ as people call it. And evidently, the team behind ‘It’ (2017) felt the same way.

The movie goes out of its way not to look or sound or feel anything like the 1990 effort. From the very start, whilst Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) helps his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) build that paper boat, there’s a notable absence of ‘Fur Elise’ being played by mom on the piano, obviously an iconic moment from the mini series. The action is moved from the barrens to the sewers and the old house on Neibolt, with no mention of dam-building, and the updating of the action to the 80s are all obvious – and successful – attempts to distance the film from it’s 1990 counterpart. Whilst obvious similarities will be drawn when Georgie is chasing said boat down the street in torrential rain, all fears of a remake vibe are set aside when we’re introduced to Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise. Nobody is ever going to touch Tim Curry’s performance but what we have here is a whole different ballgame. As Pennywise toys with Georgie and offers him fun and frolics in a subterranean big-top, Skarsgård is clearly pulling out every trick in the book to separate himself from the shadow of Curry – and for the most part it works. It’s no massive spoiler to say Georgie meets his fate early on – but this is a more ferocious, fiendish death scene that doesn’t quite go where you’re expecting it to…

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Speaking of unexpected, in It we get that rare thing in a mainstream horror movie. The emotional gutpunch. Director Andrés Muschietti draws out performances from his young cast that are loaded with authenticity and heart. Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard makes Richie Tozier loveable, annoying and hilarious in equal measure. He does a roaring trade in ‘your mom’ insults and swears like a trucker – you know, like real kids do. Jack Dylan Grazer is old before his time and riddled with anxiety as hypochondriac Eddie, and poor Ben Hanscom, awkward secret poet and christened ‘tits’ because of his chunky frame, is sweetly played by Jeremy Ray Taylor. But the standouts here are Lieberher as Bill – throwing aside the shadow of tragic Jonathan Brandis to give us a new hero we totally believe, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, who at fifteen looks about ten years older than some of the boys. Wasn’t that always the way in school? Whilst some of the boys seemed to actively recoil from puberty, the girls towered above them and strode into early adulthood ahead of the pack. And that’s Beverly, dealing with buying her first Tampax, taking on bullies at school, and absolutely flooring the boys with her sophistication and beauty… whilst dealing with the hideous reality of life at home with her abusive single father…

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And so comes the gutpunch. The reality of Beverly’s abuse, Bill’s grief at losing his little brother, not to mention Ben’s bullying and unrequited love, actually prevail over the horror of Pennywise. At its core the novel delved into the absolute trauma it can be to just grow up, make it into adolescence and come out the other side intact. And that is where this film flies high. The 80s nostalgia isn’t particularly overdone, but the truthful portrayal of the adventure – and the real life horror – of just being a kid, of that last summer you spent with your group of friends before everything changed, before shit got real – that’s what resonates in this movie.

So much so, the actual horror tropes suffer as a result. We get jump-scares, we get creaking floorboards and clowns hiding under dust sheets. The set-pieces evoke elements of Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, even more recent horror hits like The Conjuring and Insidious, and whilst some of the jumps are efficient and jolting, the horror element never quite matches the teen drama. With a lesser script, poor direction and a weaker cast, that could result in a muddled overblown mess of a film. But because you care so much for the characters and the overall package is so well done you forgive it. You go along for the ride – an epic one at two hours fifteen. But it never feels too long, nothing drags.

And yet in parts I felt like cuts had been made. After the George intro we’re introduced to Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), with a story tweaked from the novel where he lives with an overbearing Grampa (Steven Williams looking mighty fine in his old age). But after his opening scene he vanishes for over half an hour. Similarly Stan (Wyatt Olef) is given hints of a story that then vanish and he’s ignored for most of the film. Also Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) slices and dices his way on to the screen but feels underused. You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a three hour version out there somewhere, but given that I got through over two hours and could have watched more, I’d welcome that director’s cut.

Maybe it’ll have the darker elements only hinted at in this release? Pennywise offering Eddie a BJ, the real death of Patrick Hockstetter, the racially-motivated mass murder at the Black Spot? All were absent here. I also found it interesting that Henry Bowers was clearly an evil racist but never once used hate speech when attacking Mike – although ‘faggot’ was thrown around with (cough) gay abandon. So whilst I easily forgot the mini series I couldn’t quite let go of what was STILL missing from the novel…

So a flawed film but mainly brilliant. Go in with an open mind. Forget Tim Curry (I know, sacrilege), put your preconceptions to one side and revel in a film that for the most part is beautifully made and a luminous cast who will make you laugh and – if you’re a sap like me – cry too. Yes the frights are nothing we haven’t seen before, and it’s not quite as terrifying as it wants to be… but for a mainstream horror it delivers much more than you’d expect.

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That said, with a film that makes it through the gate mainly because of it’s young cast, I think for It, Chapter 2, they’ll have their work cut out to make anything as good as this. Bring it on, Pennywise…

JL