Review: ‘The Black Phone,’ starring Ethan Hawke

June 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ethan Hawke and Mason Thames in “The Black Phone” (Photo by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures)

“The Black Phone”

Directed by Scott Derrickson

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Denver in 1978, the horror film “The Black Phone” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-boy, who gets kidnapped by a serial killer, is kept in the killer’s basement, where the boy gets phone calls from the ghosts of the other teenage boys who were murdered by the killer. 

Culture Audience: “The Black Phone” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ethan Hawke and anyone looking for a tension-filled horror movie that isn’t a remake or a sequel.

Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw in “The Black Phone” (Photo by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures)

Creepy and suspenseful, the horror movie “The Black Phone” has the ghosts of murdered children as story catalysts, but the movie’s equally harrowing moments are in depicting realistic child abuse that can come from a stranger, a family member or a schoolmate. “The Black Phone” does everything a horror flick is supposed to do: keep audiences on edge, have well-acted memorable characters, and deliver plenty of moments that are genuinely terrifying.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, “The Black Phone” reunites Derrickson with several key players involved in the making of Derrickson’s 2012 sleeper hit horror film “Sinister,” including co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, producer Jason Blum and actors Ethan Hawke and James Ransone. Just like in “Sinister,” Hawke has the starring role, while Ransone has a pivotal supporting role in “The Black Phone.” Both movies are from Blumhouse Productions, the company owned by Blum, whose specialty is mainly horror. Both movies are effective horror films, but “Sinister” was a haunted house story based entirely on supernatural occurrences, while “The Black Phone” taps into the real-life horror of child kidnapping and murders with some supernatural elements as part of the story.

“Sinister” had an original screenplay by Derrickson and Cargill. The screenwriting duo adapted “The Black Phone” from a short story of the same title in author Joe Hill’s 2005 collection “20th Century Ghosts.” (Hill is the son of horror master Stephen King.) In the production notes for “The Black Phone,” Derrickson says many aspects of the movie (including the scenes of the movie’s protagonist being bullied at school) were directly inspired by his childhood growing up in Denver in the 1970s. “The Black Phone” takes place in Denver in 1978.

The movie opens with a seemingly idyllic scene of teenage boys playing a casual game of baseball. Two of the players in the game are 13-year-old Finney Blake (played by Mason Thames) and Bruce Yamada (played by Tristan Pravong), who are both classmates in the same school. (Some movie descriptions list Finney’s last name as Shaw, but his surname in the movie is definitely Blake.) After the game, Bruce is kidnapped by someone driving a mysterious black van.

Bruce’s abduction is the latest in a series of incidents in the northern Denver area, where other teenage boys have gone missing and are widely believed to be kidnapped. Bruce is the fourth boy to have disappeared. The other three missing kids are Griffin Stagg (played by Banks Repeta, also known as Michael Banks Repeta), the neighborhood paper boy Billy Showalter (played by Jacob Moran) and an angry troublemaker named Vance Hopper (played by Brady Hepner). The police who are investigating have very little information to go on, since most of the disappearances had no known witnesses. All of the boys are believed to be have been kidnapped while they were outside on the streets.

While people in the area are feeling that children are unsafe on the streets, Finney (who sometimes goes by the name Finn) and his 11-year-old sister Gwen Blake (played by Madeleine McGraw) fear for their safety inside their own home. That’s because their widower father Terrence Blake (played by Jeremy Davies) is a violent alcoholic. Terrence is especially brutal to Gwen, because she has psychic abilities that he wants her to deny. Gwen’s psychic visions usually come to her in dreams.

Based on conversations in the movie, viewers find out that Gwen inherited these psychic abilities from her mother, who committed suicide. Terrence blames the suicide on these psychic abilities because the kids’ mother (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) claimed that she heard voices. Terrence says that these voices eventually told her to kill herself. The movie doesn’t go into details about when Terrence became an alcoholic, but it’s implied he’s been on a downward spiral since his wife’s suicide.

After Bruce disappears, somehow the police find out that Gwen told people about a dream she had that Bruce was abducted by a man driving a black van and carrying black balloons. Because two black balloons were found at the place where Bruce was last seen alive (the police did not make the black balloon information available to the public), investigators from the Denver Police Department—Detective Wright (played by E. Roger Mitchell) and Detective Wright (played by Troy Rudeseal)—visit the Blake home to interview Gwen. She is defiant and defensive over the cops’ suspicions that she knows more than she telling.

Gwen starts cursing at the cops and swears she has nothing to do with the disappearances of Brandon and the other missing boys. When asked to explain how she knew about the black balloons, all Gwen will say is, “Sometimes my dreams are right.” Terrence is present during this interview. He’s nervous and apprehensive that the cops are in his home. He’s also angry that Gwen is being disrespectful to the cops.

After the police detectives leave, it leads to a heart-wrenching scene where a drunk Terrence viciously beats Gwen with a belt and demands that she repeat, “My dreams are just dreams.” Sensitive viewers, be warned: This is a hard scene to watch, and it might be triggering for people who’ve experienced this type of violence. During this beating, Finney just stands by helplessly and watches, but later in the movie, he expresses guilt and remorse about not stopping his father from assaulting Gwen. As abused children, Finney and Gwen often rely on each other for emotional support.

Finney is introverted and doesn’t have any close friends at school. However, things start looking up for him a little bit in his biology class when the students have to do dissections of frogs and are required to have a lab partner. No one wants to be Finney’s lab partner except a girl named Donna (played by Rebecca Clarke), who is a fairly new student. Donna indicates that she likes Finney and probably has been noticing him for a while. His bashful reaction shows that the attraction is mutual.

Finney experiences physical violence at school, where he is targeted by three bullies. One day, in the men’s restroom at school, these three bullies corner Finney and are about to assault him. However, a tough teenager named Robin Arreland (played by Miguel Cazarez Mora), who’s also a student at the school, intervenes and scares off the bullies because Robin has a knife. Robin advises Finney to be better at standing up for himself.

Eventually, Robin and Finney get to know each other too. They don’t become best friends, but they become friendly acquaintances. This budding friendship is interrupted when Robin disappears, not long after Bruce has gone missing. The cops visit the Blake home again, but Gwen has nothing further to add, mainly because she terrified about divulging to the cops what she has dreamed.

It isn’t long before Finney is kidnapped too. This isn’t spoiler information, since it’s shown in the trailers for “The Black Phone.” His kidnapper is nicknamed The Grabber (played by Hawke), and he approaches Finney on a late afternoon when Finney is walking down a residential street by himself. The Grabber (who has long hair and is wearing white clown makeup, sunglasses and a top hat) is driving a black van with the logo of a company named Abracadabra Entertainment and Supplies.

When The Grabber sees Finney, he pretends to stumble out of the van and spill a bag of groceries. Finney offers to help him pick up the groceries. The Grabber tells the teen that he’s a part-time magician and asks Finney if he wants to see a magic trick.

Finney agrees somewhat apprehensively, and his nervousness grows when he notices that there are black balloons in the van. When Finney asks this stranger if he has black balloons in the van, the stranger kidnaps him. Finney has now become the sixth teenage boy to disappear in the same neighborhood.

Finney is kept in a dark and dingy house basement that has a mattress and a toilet. On the wall is a black phone that The Grabber says is disconnected. “It hasn’t worked since I was a kid,” The Grabber tells a terrified Finney.

The Grabber (who usually wears grinning clown masks that look similar to DC Comics’ The Joker character) tells Finney not to bother yelling for help, because the entire basement is soundproof. There’s only one door to and from the basement. It goes without saying that the door is locked from the outside. The Grabber also has a black pit bull as a guard dog.

There are several scenes in “The Black Phone” that show how The Grabber is a completely twisted creep. There’s a scene where Finney wakes up to find the masked Grabber staring at Finney because The Grabber says he just wanted to spend time looking at Finney. When Finney says he’s hungry and asks for food, The Grabber won’t feed him right away. There are other scenes where The Grabber uses intimidation and mind games to keep Finney under his control.

Even though The Grabber says that the black phone in the basement doesn’t work, shortly after Finney becomes imprisoned in the basement, the phone rings. The first time that Finney picks up the phone, he doesn’t hear anything. The next time the phone rings, he hears static and a voice of a boy who sounds far away. It’s the first indication that Finney has psychic abilities too.

It was already revealed in the trailers for “The Black Phone” that much of the movie is about Finney getting calls from the ghosts of the boys who were murdered by The Grabber. The only real spoiler information for “The Black Phone” would be the answers to these questions: “Does Finney escape? If so, how?” “Does Gwen use her psychic abilities to help find Finney?” “What will ultimately happen to The Grabber?”

Another character who is part of the story is a man in his early 40s named Max (played by Ransone), who gets on the radar of police because Max has become obsessed with the cases of the missing boys. Max is a cocaine-snorting loner who thinks of himself as an amateur detective. His home is filled with newspaper clippings and other items related to the investigations about the missing boys.

Even though a lot of information about the “The Black Phone” plot is already revealed in the movie’s trailers, there’s still much about the movie that’s worth seeing. (Audiences also got a early showings of “The Black Phone” when it screened at film festivals, including the 2021 edition of Fantastic Fest, where “The Black Phone” had its world premiere.) The scenes where Finney communicates with the dead boys are absolutely haunting and often mournful. These scenes include some flashbacks to the boys’ lives before they were kidnapped.

Vance’s flashback scene is artfully filmed as a 1970s hazy memory, as are many of the flashback scenes. Sweet’s 1974 hit “Fox on the Run” is used to great effect in this scene, which takes place in a Shop-N-Go convenience store where Vance is playing pinball. Gwen’s dream sequences were filmed using Super 8 film, which was the standard film type for home movies in the 1970s.

The production design, costume design, hairstyling, makeup and cinematography in “The Black Phone” all give the movie an authentic-looking recreation of the 1970s. The movie’s soundtrack includes some well-chosen songs, including the Edgar Winter Group’s 1972 hit “Free Ride,” which is played in the movie’s happy-go-lucky baseball game scene that opens the movie. (Coincidentally, “Free Ride” and “Fox on the Run” were also prominently featured in writer/director Richard Linklater’s 1993 classic comedy “Dazed and Confused,” which is an ode to 1970s teens.)

“The Black Phone” also has pop culture mentions to movies of the era. Finney and Robin talk about the 1974 horror movie “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” which Finney says his strict father would never allow him to see because he’s underage. Robin says he has relatives who let him watch rated R movies. They also enthusiastically discuss the 1973 Bruce Lee action film “Enter the Dragon,” which is “The Black Phone” filmmakers’ nod to how popular Lee was with teenage boys in that era. Later, Finney is seen watching the 1959 horror movie “The Tingler” on TV one night, which is a scene inspired by director Derrickson doing the same thing when he was a child.

“The Black Phone” also accurately depicts the limited resources that people had if children went missing in 1978, long before the Internet and smartphones existed. It was also before missing kids’ photos were put on milk cartons, inspired by the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz, who was kidnapped while walking by himself to school in New York City. It was also before the 1981 abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who was taken from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida. As a result of this tragedy, Adam’s father John Walsh later founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The 1970s decade was also a prolific time for notorious serial killers, including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Hillside Stranglers and the Son of Sam. According to the production notes for “The Black Phone,” The Grabber character was at least partially based on Gacy, who did part-time work as a party clown. Most of Gacy’s victims were teenage boys and young men whom he lured into his home by hiring them to do temporary housecare jobs. There was a sexual component to Gacy’s crimes that are not included in “The Black Phone,” although there are hints that The Grabber could also be a child molester when it’s mentioned that The Grabber likes to play a game called Naughty Boy.

In his portrayal of The Grabber, Hawke gives a viscerally disturbing performance that will linger with viewers long after the movie ends. Thames makes an impressive feature-film debut as Finney, who goes through a wide range of emotions in the movie. McGraw is also a standout in her portrayal of feisty and sometimes foul-mouthed Gwen. “The Black Phone” has some comic relief in how Gwen is ambivalent about the Christianity that she has been taught. And although Robin’s screen time is brief, Mora is quite good in this portrayal of a character who makes an impact on Finney’s life.

Despite some predictable plot developments, “The Black Phone” is a better-than-average horror movie because it doesn’t forget that the story and characters should be more important than showing a lot of violence and gore. The movie does have violence and gore, but it’s not gratuitous. The movie also makes a point of showing that abuse crimes don’t always come from strangers, but that abuse is often hiding in plain sight in schools and in families, where the abuse is committed by people who seem to be “upstanding citizens.” It’s this message that should resonate as a warning that a lot of horror in this movie continues to happen in real life.

Universal Pictures will release “The Black Phone” in U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022.

Review: ‘Crimes of the Future’ (2022), starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart

June 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Léa Seydoux, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart in “Crimes of the Future” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Crimes of the Future” (2022)

Directed by David Cronenberg

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city, the horror film “Crimes of the Future” has a predominantly white cast (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two performance artist collabortaters, who multilate bodies and perform organ surgeries as part of their act, encounter people who have their own bizarre agendies on how to change this act. 

Culture Audience: “Crimes of the Future” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker David Cronenberg and squeamish-inducing movies that don’t offer easy answers.

Scott Speedman in “Crimes of the Future” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Crimes of the Future” is not a crime drama but a body horror movie that has something unique to say about a society that becomes numb to mutilations. The movie’s striking visuals and enigmatic story can intrigue viewers who are ready for a slow-paced cinematic challenge. “Crimes of the Future” is definitely not writer/director David Cronenberg’s best movie, and it’s sure to be divisive, depending on people’s expectations before seeing this film.

“Crime of the Future” takes place in an unnamed part of the world where most people speak English with an American or Canadian accent, but there are plenty of people with accents from other places outside of North America. (The movie was actually filmed in Athens, Greece. “Crimes of the Future” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.) Wherever the story takes place, it’s in an unnamed era when certain people’s bodies have evolved to be immune to pain, and they have the ability to grow organs that are outside the “norm.”

As such, it’s become a form of entertainment for live, invasive surgeries to be performed on these people. If a new organ is discovered during this type of surgery, it’s extracted and treated almost like a rare jewel or a prized trophy. These organs are then put on display. At the same time, a secretive National Organ Registry exists to find and register these taboo organs, which are often tattooed for identification purposes. The National Organ Registry keeps records of as many tattooed organs as it can find.

One of the people who has this ability to grow new organs is Saul Tenser (played by Viggo Mortensen), a solemn and pensive type who walks around wearing a black hooded cloak when he’s in public. If Saul had a scythe, he would look like he’s in a Grim Reaper costume. At home, Saul spends a lot of time in an OrchidBed, a half-cocoon-like device with tentacles, where he is routinely examined for possible new organs growing inside of him. Saul also uses a chair called the Breakfaster, which has arm rests that resemble and move like human arms.

Saul lives with his work partner Caprice (played by Léa Seydoux), a former surgeon who left the medical profession behind to become a full-time performance artist. Caprice is someone who does livestreamed surgeries as part of her performance act with a willing Saul. They both think that what they are doing is high art, but Caprice is much more fanatical about it than Saul is, and she’s the one who often does internal body examinations of Saul. Caprice and Saul’s act is called “Body Is Reality.”

Meanwhile, the beginning of “Crimes of the Future” shows the murder of an 8-year-old boy named Brecken Dotrice (played by Sozos Sotiris), who was smothered to death with a pillow by his mother Djuna (played by Lihi Kornowski) while Brecken was sleeping in his bed. Before he was killed, his mother observed Brecken eating a plastic garbage can in the bathroom, in a way that suggested that she’s seen him do this before. After Djuna killed Brecken, she called someone to come pick up the body.

“It will be here, but I won’t be,” Djuna said matter-of-factly to the person she was talking to on the phone. But when she hung up the phone, she started crying. The scene then shows that the man who arrives at the house to retrieve the body is Lang Dotrice (played by Scott Speedman), Brecken’s father. When Lang sees Brecken’s body, he also starts to sob. What is going on here? It’s explained later in the movie, which also shows what happened to Djuna and Lang.

The harvesting of organs has become a lucrative business. Some people see it as art, while other see it as a crime. But what concerns law enforcement the most in this story is that people with the ability to grow organs abnormally can pass down this ability genetically, thereby possibly creating population of mutants. It’s the movie’s way of commenting on how eugenics play a role in this society.

During the course of the story, three people are heavily involved in finding and investigating people who have these “mutant” genetics. The National Organ Registry is operated by a stern agent named Wippet (played by Don McKellar), who calls “desktop surgery in public” a “fad” and “repulsive.” Wippet has a subordinate colleague named Timlin (played by Kristen Stewart), who is scientifically curious and less judgmental about these surgeries. And there’s a law enforcement officer named Detective Cope (played by Welket Bungué), who’s on the lookout for people with mutant genes. All three of these people encounter Saul and Caprice at various times during the movie.

Detective Cope works for a department called New Vice. He jokes to Saul that the department got that name because it sounded “sexier than Evolutionary Derangement.” Detective Cope adds, “Sexier gets more funding.” The detective also has a personal reason to hunt for mutants, because he believes that one of his colleagues was deliberately killed by a mutant. It has to do with a plastic candy bar that looked like real chocolate and was ingested by this cop, who died from eating this fake candy bar.

The live surgeries attract elite crowds that have the money to see this type of “high art.” The movie is a not-so-subtle commentary on how morality boundaries can change in a society that reaches a point where something such as paying to see live surgeries is acceptable, as long as it makes a lot of money. At the same time, anything that makes a lot of money is open to getting scrutiny from those who want to regulate and control it.

“Crimes of the Future” also shows how anything that makes a lot of money is often deemed sexy and desirable. More than once, people make a comment that says that this type of surgery is “the new sex.” There are multiple scenes that show how open surgery wounds or surgery scars are considered erotic.

One of the movie’s more visually memorable images is of a man—who has ears that look like skin growths all over his body—getting is eyes and mouth sewn shut before he does a provocative dance for an audience. And there’s a subplot in “Crimes of the Future” about the concept of internal organs being “inner beauty,” with Saul being encouraged to enter an “inner beauty contest.” If all of this sounds too weird to watch in a movie, then “Crimes of the Future” is not for you.

Many scenes in “Crimes of the Future” are meant to make viewers uncomfortable. The live surgery scenes are not for viewers who get easily squeamish. On the other hand, the movie is not as gruesome as many other “blood and guts” horror films. What might make people more uncomfortable than the sight of seeing someone’s intestines being poked, prodded and extracted is the fact that the society in this movie is so casual about these procedures being so public.

“Crimes of the Future” is by no means a perfect movie. The story gets somewhat repetitive in making its point about how art, commerce and morality can get twisted into something unfathomable by the standards of today’s society. It can be labeled science fiction, but it’s not too far off from reality, when in this day and age in real life, there are plastic surgeons who make money from doing livestreams of their surgeries, with the participating patients’ permission to do these livestreams.

Some of the acting and dialogue in “Crimes of the Future” can be stiff and dull. In fact, one of the movie’s biggest flaws is that the characters could have used more depth to their personalities. Mortensen’s Saul is the only one of the main characters who’s written and performed as someone who has more on his mind than these surgeries and mutant genetics. Stewart, who whispers a lot of her dialogue in a way that will thoroughly annoy some viewers, portrays Timlin as fidgety and often insecure—in other words, someone who’s a lot like other characters that Stewart has played before in movies.

The movie introduces a few subplots that ultimately go nowhere, including a possible love triangle between Saul, Caprice and Timlin. Caprice tells Saul almost from the moment that they meet Timlin that she doesn’t trust Timlin. Caprice has a reason to be suspicious, because as soon as Timlin finds out that Saul and Caprice are not lovers, Timlin lets Saul know that she’s romantically interested in him. It’s never really made clear if Caprice is secretly in love with Saul or not, but Caprice acts very possessive about Saul throughout the movie.

Another useless subplot is the introduction of two technical experts named Berst (played by Tanaya Beatty) and Router (played by Nadia Litz), who don’t add much to the story. Berst and Router do repairs on the devices that Saul uses, such as the OrchidBed and the Breakfaster. The last time Berst and Router are seen in the movie, they’ve climbed naked together into an OrchidBed because they want Caprice to do some kind of surgery on them.

“Crimes of the Future” is a very “male gaze” movie, because Caprice is in another scene where she’s shown fully naked too. It’s a scene implying that Caprice is getting sexually aroused by a surgical procedure. Meanwhile, there is no full-frontal male nudity is this movie at all. Caprice could have been a more fascinating character, but she’s very underwritten. She’s coldly clinical for most of the movie, except for scenes that have a sexual context.

Lang ends up seeking out Saul and Caprice for a reason that’s revealed in the last third of the film. This reason is sure to turn off many viewers of the movie, but it’s an extreme example of how far people in this “Crimes of the Future” world will go to get attention for these live surgeries. The messages and themes in “Crimes of the Future” are sometimes delivered in a disjointed and muddled way, but the movie serves up some uncomfortable truths about how human nature can be fickle and how ethical standards of society can fluctuate.

Neon released “Crimes of the Future” in U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022.

Review: ‘Hell Is Empty’ (2022), starring Spencer Peppet, Nia Farrell, Travis Mitchell, Laura Resinger, Aya and Meredith Antoian

June 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Aya, Meredith Antoian, Nia Farrell, Travis Mitchell, Spencer Peppet and Laura Resinger in “Hell Is Empty” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“Hell Is Empty” (2022)

Directed by Jo Shaffer

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror flick “Hell Is Empty” has a predominantly white cast (with one African American and one person of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage runaway ends up joining the small harem cult of a deranged and controlling man who thinks he’s a messiah. 

Culture Audience: “Hell Is Empty” will appeal primarily to people who like don’t mind watching dull and badly made films about cults.

Pictured clockwise, from upper left: Aya, Laura Resinger, Meredith Antoian, Spencer Peppet, Nia Farrell and Travis Mitchell in “Hell Is Empty” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“Hell Is Empty” is an apt title for this terrible horror movie: It’s a type of cinematic hell to watch this empty, soulless and incompetent filmmaking. This relentlessly stupid movie about a brainwashed harem cult is an assault on viewers’ brain cells. The only viewers who might be spared the full idiocy of “Hell Is Empty” are those who can’t bear to finish watching this time-wasting garbage, or those who fall asleep because “Hell Is Empty” is so boring.

Directed by Jo Shaffer (who co-wrote the abominable “Hell Is Empty” screenplay with Adam Desantes), “Hell Is Empty” has nothing new, clever or interesting to say about a not-very-original concept for a horror movie: A tyrannical man keeps a group of women captive and abusively controls their lives. In the case of “Hell Is Empty” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city), the women have been brainwashed to believe that that he is a messianic, human incarnation of God.

The movie’s protagonist is a teenage runaway named Lydia (played by Spencer Peppet), who finds herself quickly joining this cult after she leaves home. “Hell Is Empty” opens with a title card saying: “On Sunday, she was declared a runaway. Her mother declined to post a reward.” This information implies that Lydia is under the age of 18, although Peppet looks a lot older than someone who’s supposed to be 16 or 17 years old.

The first time Lydia is seen on screen, she has facial injuries and appears to be barely conscious or unconscious when she’s kidnapped and brought to an isolated area that’s surrounded by water. Even if you’re a runaway who doesn’t want to go home, being abducted and dragged to a strange area is a terrifying experience. But when Lydia’s regains consciousness and finds out that she was kidnapped by a cult, she ludicrously never even asks where she is during the entire story. That’s how absurd “Hell Is Empty” is. Get ready for more stupidity, because this movie is full of it.

The cult leader’s name is Ed (played by played by Travis Mitchell), but he insists on being called Artist by the small harem of women who are under his control. These women are the only people who are the members of Ed’s cult. They all live in (horror movie cliché alert) a remote wooded area. Ed has the persona of a religious messiah, who tells his followers that he is a human incarnation of God and that they have to do whatever he says. They live in a crudely built house with no electricity and no modern technology.

Because Lydia never asks where she is and doesn’t make any attempt to find out, viewers can immediately see that she’s less than smart. It’s supposed to be the movie’s not-very-believable way of showing that Lydia has such little regard for her life that she doesn’t care where she lives. But “Hell Is Empty” is so poorly written, an early scene in the movie directly contradicts this notion, because Lydia tells Ed that she wants to leave. Ed says that “tomorrow” he will take her back to where he found her. But he never does, and Lydia never asks to leave again.

An example of how bad the screenwriting in is “Hell Is Empty” is in the scene showing Lydia and Ed’s first conversation with each other. Ed asks her, “Who made you?” Lydia says, “Nobody.” Ed scolds her: “Liar! When you were struck down on the side of the road, I found you and raised you up, gave you glory.” (Exactly where is the glory in being kidnapped? Lydia never bothers to ask.)

Ed continues, “The world has mistreated you. I can see that. You’ve been abandoned.” Lydia replies, “I left.” Ed then says, “You could be home. I’ve seen your salvation in the water.” The only thing to come out of this nonsensical conversation is that it implies that Ed found Lydia not fully conscious on the road. The movie never bothers to explain why, and Lydia never talks about it. It isn’t long before Lydia becomes a member of this cult, which now consists of five female members:

  • Lydia, the mysterious and abducted runaway, who won’t reveal hardly anything about her past except that her father died and her mother didn’t want her. Later in the movie, Ed calls Lydia a “dumb Kentucky slut,” which implies that somehow he knows she’s from Kentucky.
  • Saratoga (played by Nia Farrell), who is about seventh months pregnant with Ed’s child. Saratoga, who sometimes is called Sara, has a welcoming and friendly personality. She hugs Lydia a lot, as if she’s desperate to have a real friend in this oppressive atmosphere. Saratoga is certain that her unborn child is a boy. “He has to be,” she tells Lydia.” He’s the son of God.”
  • Vivian (played by Laura Resinger), the oldest woman in the group. Vivian, who rarely smiles, is very bossy toward the other women in the group when Ed isn’t around. Viewers later find out that Vivian (who met Ed when he worked at a carnival in Champaign, Illinois) has been with Ed the longest and had a monogamous relationship with him until he decided to have a harem. It’s why Vivian is jealous of the other “sister wives” that Ed has brought into the cult.
  • Millie (played by Meredith Antoian), the most restless and rebellious woman in the group. Millie is desperately unhappy and acts like she wants to leave this cult. And you know what that means in a horror movie.
  • Murphy (played by Aya), the quietest and meekest woman in the group. Murphy, who sometimes goes by the name Murph, is the most likely to blindly follow orders from Ed and Vivian.

All of the women sleep in the same bed together. Vivian complains to Ed that because Lydia is now living with them, the bed has gotten too crowded. Ed ignores her complaint and replies, “The Lord has sent us a new lamb.” Vivian is the only one in this group who really dares to show that she has a mind of her own, but she’s still very much under Ed’s control.

How controlling is Ed? During Lydia’s first meal with the group, a miserable-looking Millie, who is menstruating, asks Ed to be excused from the table because she needs to change whatever she’s using as a sanitary pad. At first, Ed won’t let her leave the table, and he only changes his mind reluctantly after he berates Millie for interrupting the meal with this request.

Later, when the women are in their bedroom, Millie sobs that Ed/Artist doesn’t love her anymore. Vivian says that all that matters is that Millie loves Ed/Artist, and that this love is “better than the needle.” This comment implies that Millie was a needle-using drug addict until Ed “saved” her.

And who exactly is Ed? In a private conversation that Ed has with Lydia, he tells her that he used to be an airplane pilot, but he quit because “I’m not meant for their machines.” And in a cringeworthy pickup line, Ed tells new cult member Lydia: “Having you here has been a little breeze on my soul.” Millie later tells Lydia about Ed’s seeming affection for Lydia: “He’s no good. He only likes you because you’re new.”

“Hell Is Empty” becomes a monotonous chore of watching repetitive scenes with the women doing whatever Ed says and listening to his religious rants. There are multiple useless scenes showing some of the women chopping wood, or Ed showing off his telescope. Ed also likes to smoke cigarettes and curse, so he isn’t so “pure” and “godly” after all. These cigarettes become part of a subplot about betrayal in the group.

Lydia and Saratoga predictably become friends. And the more Lydia spends time with this cult, the more uncomfortable she becomes. Her discomfort increases when Lydia sees that Ed does not show the compassion that he preaches. One day, Lydia and Saratoga are walking together on a nearby beach and find a barely conscious wounded stranger named Christian (played by Liam Ouweleen), a good-looking guy in his 20s.

Lydia immediately wants to bring Christian back to the house to give him medical treatment. Saratoga disagrees because she says that Ed wouldn’t approve. (And it’s obvious because Ed wants to be the only man in the house.) Lydia and Saratoga somewhat argue over this matter, until Saratoga relents and helps Lydia carry Christian back to the house, where Ed and the rest of the women are outside when Lydia and Saratoga arrive with Christian.

Ed has a very angry reaction when he hears what happened, and he refuses to let Lydia and Saratoga bring Christian into the house. Lydia begs Ed to have mercy on this bleeding stranger who needs help. Ed then huffs that this man can be brought into the house: “Fine! Don’t put him in the living room. It’ll ruin the goddamn carpet!” It’s a very campy moment that might bring one of the few laughs that this dreary film can muster.

It turns out that Christian is a lecherous creep. When he regains consciousness, he makes lewd and derogatory remarks about the women to Ed and the women. “It’s an interesting group you’ve got here,” Christian tells Ed. “You must be drowning in it.” Christian also makes it known that he’s sexually interested in some of the women. Because Ed is the type who wants to be the “alpha male,” Christian’s fate is a foregone conclusion.

One of the biggest problems with “Hell Is Empty” is that it’s a horror movie that’s not very scary at all. Because very little is told about the women in the cult and their backgrounds, viewers never really find out what the stakes are if these women leave this cult. Do they have loved ones who are looking for them? What do they want to do with their lives if they leave the cult? The filmmakers don’t seem to care much about these characters, and neither will viewers.

The last third of “Hell Is Empty” is nothing but predictable and badly staged scenes with very little suspense. The acting in the movie ranges from unremarkable to unwatchable. “Hell Is Empty,” just like the title suggests, ultimately adds up to nothing but an appalling void that’s a drain on the time and energy of anyone who has the misfortune of experiencing it.

1091 Pictures released “Hell Is Empty” on digital and VOD on March 1, 2022.

Review: ‘The Innocents’ (2021), starring Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Sam Ashraf, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Morten Svartveit, Kadra Yusuf and Lisa Tønne

June 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rakel Lenora Fløttum and Sam Ashraf in “The Innocents” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“The Innocents” (2021)

Directed by Eskil Vogt

Norwegian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Norway, the horror film “The Innocents” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person, one multiracial person and a few people of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four children discover that they have psychic powers, and at least one of the children uses those powers for sinister and deadly reasons. 

Culture Audience: “The Innocents” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching creepy and disturbing horror movies about homicidal children.

Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim in “The Innocents” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“The Innocents” sometimes falters with sluggish pacing, but this horror movie excels in immersing viewers in an atmosphere filled with deliberate torture and dread. A lot of the terror happens without a word being spoken. A warning to sensitive viewers: “The Innocents” is not the type of movie you will want to see if you get deeply disturbed by seeing on-screen depictions of fatal animal cruelty and children who murder people.

Written and directed by Eskil Vogt, “The Innocents” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, which also world premiered “The Worst Person in the World,” a romantic comedy/drama co-written by Vogt. “The Worst Person In the World” (which received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay) has much better character development and more engaging pacing than “The Innocents,” but Vogt should be commended for writing two very different movies that are quite memorable.

“The Innocents,” which takes place during a summer in an unnamed city in Norway, begins with a middle-class family of four moving into a high-rise apartment building. As an example of how the adults in the movie are secondary to the kids in the story, the names of the parents in “The Innocents” are not mentioned. The adults in this movie also leave their underage kids without adult supervision for long stretches of time.

The family moving into the apartment complex has relocated because the father (played by Morten Svartveit) has gotten an unnamed job in the area. The mother (played by Ellen Dorrit Petersen) is a homemaker. These parents have two daughters: Anna (played by Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) and Ida (played by Rakel Lenora Fløttum), who have some problems in their relationship, but the two sisters mostly get along with each other.

Anna, who is 11 years old, has regressive autism. At 4 years old, she stopped speaking, although she can make sounds to express herself. Later in the movie, Anna begins speaking again, using limited vocabulary. Ida is about 7 or 8 years old. Ida is often tasked with looking after Anna, and it causes Ida to sometimes feel resentment toward Anna. Ida also feels that Anna gets too much attention from their parents.

Two other children who live in the apartment building will have their lives forever intertwined with Anna and Ida. Their names are Ben and Aisha. And all four children find out that they can connect with each other on a pyschic level. Because all of the children are on a summer break, there’s no mention of them going to school.

Ben (played by Sam Ashraf), who is about 9 or 10 years old, is a sullen loner who likes to say and do cruel things. Ben is an only child who lives with his single mother (played by Lisa Tønne), who often yells at him because she thinks he can’t do anything right. Ben’s father is not mentioned in the movie, which implies that this father is not in Ben’s life.

Aisha (played by Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who is about 7 or 8 years old, is also an only child. She lives with her mother (played by Kadra Yusuf), who seems to be recently divorced or separated. Pictures of Aisha’s father are in the household, and he’s talked about as if he’s still alive, but he is not living in the household. Unlike Ben, Aisha is a kind and empathetic child. When she sees her mother crying, she feels her mother’s emotional pain too. Aisha can also feel other people’s physical pain.

The apartment building where the children live has other apartment buildings nearby. There’s a playground at the center of these apartment buildings. It’s at this playground where Ben and Ida meet for the first time. There’s also a wooded area nearby where the kids play. The playground and the woods are the two areas where most of the kids’ activities happen in the movie.

Shortly after meeting in the playground, Ida and Ben walk into the nearby wooded area. He tells her that he used to live in a place where he would climb up in a tree and fire a slingshot at “people I think are mean.” It’s the first sign that Ben has a sadistic side to him. And if it isn’t obvious enough that Ben is going to be the biggest villain, there are multiple of scenes of Ida seeing Ben creepily looking at her and other kids from a distance.

Anna and Aisha are the first to show a psychic connection to each other. When Anna thinks something, Aisha often does it, and vice versa. They can also feel each other’s pain each time one of them gets an injury. At first, Anna and Aisha don’t understand what’s going on, until they meet each other and find out why they have an instant bond.

Ida and Ben also discover they have their own pyschic powers, but they find out at different times. Ben’s psychic power includes telekenisis and mind control, thereby making him much more threatening than the other three kids. At first, Ben keep his power a secret, but all four kids eventually find out about each other’s powers. How they all find out are among the best scenes in the movie.

When Ben and Ida start hanging out with each other, Ida thinks that Ben is rebellious but harmless. Ida believes she’s a rebellious loner too, so she’s at first happy to meet someone who seems to be like she is. Ida changes her mind about Ben being someone she can trust when Ben does something heinous to a cat. After witnessing this animal cruelty, Ida tries to avoid Ben, but Ida figures out that things often don’t end well for people who reject Ben.

A long stretch of the “The Innocents” is kind of a monotonous zone where not much happens after the killing starts, because it’s about the kids keeping their powers a secret from anyone else. They don’t tell any adults because they don’t think the adults will believe them. Or even worse: If they are believed, the kids think that they will be considered “freaks” and possibly taken away for scientific experiments.

Not that the adults seem to notice a lot of what these kids are doing anyway. If there’s any big flaw in the movie, it’s that the parents seem very neglectful and uncaring about what their pre-teen kids are doing when adults are not around. The parents seem vaguely aware that their kids are making new friends and hanging out at the playground, but they don’t seem to care to meet these new friends or the parents of these new friends.

Are there parents in real life who are this thoughtless? Absolutely. But it’s a convenient contrivance that all four of these children happen to have parents who don’t seem at all curious about what their kids or doing when the parents aren’t there, or concerned about the kids’ safety when trusted adults are not with children. Haven’t these parents heard that this type of neglect is how child abductions from strangers are most likely to happen?

But most of the horror in “The Innocents” wouldn’t be as impactful if the parents in this story acted like responsible and fully attentive parents. The movie seems to want to make the point that with these psychic powers, these children are more dangerous than adults who don’t these powers. A lot of horror movie viewers can take bloody scenes of adults killing each other, but there’s something particularly unsettling about a child committing first-degree murder.

The child actors in these roles are perfectly adequate, but all of the child characters except Ida have personalities that come close to being very hollow and two-dimensional. Ida is the only one who seems to have a complex personality, so Fløttum gives the best performance. Ben is a predictable sociopath and only seems to get emotionally hurt for selfish reasons. Aisha is the character that needed the most development.

The ending of “The Innocents” is not too surprising. But getting to that ending is a very uncomfortable ride for viewers. And since horror movies are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, “The Innocents” certainly achieves that goal in an original story.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “The Innocents” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 13, 2022. The movie was released in Norway in 2021.

Review: ‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2,’ starring Tabu, Kartik Aaryan and Kiara Advani

May 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kiara Advani and Kartik Aaryan in “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” (Photo courtesy of T-Series Films)

“Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2”

Directed by Anees Bazmee

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Indian cities of Bhawanigarh and Chandigarh, the horror comedy film “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” has an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In order to get out of marrying a man she doesn’t love, a young woman and her new love interest pretend that she died in a bus accident, while he pretends to her family that he’s a psychic who can communicate with her spirit, and the woman hides in the family palace that is believed to be haunted by an evil female ghost.

Culture Audience: “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the stars Tabu, Kartik Aaryan and Kiara Advani; the 2007 movie Bhool Bhulaiyaa; and engaging movies that skillfully blend horror, comedy and musical numbers.

Tabu in “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” (Photo courtesy of T-Series Films)

A horror comedy is a difficult subgenre to make entertaining because there could be problems with blending tones of being scary and funny, but “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” succeeds on almost every level. The movie’s plot twists and musical numbers are intriguing. Unlike a lot of horror comedies that hold back on being terrifying, “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” doesn’t skimp on ghoulish footage (which has impressive visual effects), while still maintaining a comedic edge in the story for several laugh-out-loud moments.

Directed by Anees Bazmee and co-directed by Pankaj Kumar, “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” is a sequel to 2007’s “Bhool Bhulaiyaa” but viewers don’t need to see “Bhool Bhulaiyaa” to understand “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2.” (The words “bhool bhulaiyaa” translate to “labyrinth” in English.) That’s because both movies have entirely different stars, with the only thing both movies having in common is a female ghost named Manjulika Chatterjee, who is haunting a family palace.

“Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” (which was written by Aakash Kaushik and Farhad Samji) begins with an evil female ghost raging through a palace in Bhawanigarh, India. The palace is owned by the well-to-do Thakur family, and priests eventually capture this malevolent spirit, trap the ghoul in a room, which is sealed. Because the ghost is a direct threat to the Thakur family, they abandon the palace and find another place to live. At the time this haunting incident occurred, one of the members of the Thakur family is a girl, who’s about 7 or 8 years old, named Reet Thakur.

“Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” the fast-forwards about 15 years later. Reet is a recent college graduate who is engaged to be married to a man named Sagar (played by Sparsh Walla), whom she does not love. However, it’s an arranged marriage, and Reet is being pressured by her father Vijender Singh Thakur (played by Milind Gunaji) to go through with the wedding. She is traveling by bus from Chandigarh back to her hometown of Bhawanigarh to reluctantly prepare for the wedding.

During this bus trip, Reet meets a handsome and flirtatious bachelor in his 20s named Ruhaan Randhawa (played by Kartik Aaryan), who almost immediately asks for Reet’s phone number. Even though Reet tells him that she’s engaged to be married, and her wedding is in a matter of days, Ruhaan is undeterred in showing a romantic interest in Reet, especially since she says she doesn’t love her fiancé Sagar. Reet is obviously attracted to Ruhaan too because she gives her phone number to him.

However, Reet plays hard-to-get during much of the time that she and Ruhaan spend together. Ruhaan (whose family is never seen in the movie) can sense that Reet is independent-minded and doesn’t want to be forced by her family to do things that she doesn’t want to do. And so, Ruhaan tells her that she should just abandon this trip to Bhawanigarh and go with him to a music festival instead. Reet quickly agrees.

Reet and Ruhaan have a lot of fun at the music festival, as their attraction to each other begins to grow. But then, they find out some tragic news: The bus that they were supposed to be on crashed, and there were no survivors. Reet’s family members are devastated, because they think she died in this bus crash. Viewers will have to suspend disbelief for this part of the movie, because Reet’s body would have to be found, in order for her to be declared dead. Perhaps another woman’s unidentified body could have been mistaken for Reet’s, but even that is a stretch of the imagination, since DNA tests and/or dental records would realistically determine a dead body’s identity.

Reet decides to use this bus crash as an opportunity to hide from her family and start a new life with Ruhaan. In the meantime, Reet and Ruhaan decide to hide in the Thakur family’s abandoned palace in Bhawanigarh. While they are in hiding, Reet overhears in a phone call that her fiancé Sagar and her cousin Trisha (played by Mahek Manwani) have been secretly in love with each other. Because the family thinks that Reet is dead, Sagar and Trisha decide to go public with their love affair and get married to each other. Reet is surprised by this news, but ultimately, she’s happy for Sagar and Trisha, because Reet never wanted to marry Sagar.

The Thakur family decides to have Sagar and Trisha’s wedding celebration at the palace, which has been in a state of neglect for years. And so, preparations are made to clean up the palace to prepare for the wedding. Members of the family also believe that there’s a chance that Reet’s spirit has returned to the palace. Reet and Ruhaan don’t know yet that their hiding place is about to be visited by members of Reet’s family and people who work for them. But this “fugitive” would-be couple will soon find out that they won’t be left alone in this hiding place.

Ruhaan is discovered on the palace property, but he is able to avoid getting in trouble as an intruder, by convincing the Thakur family and he is a psychic friend of Reet’s who can communicate with her from the dead. It’s a lie that Ruhaan makes up on the spot, and the rest of the movie is about him going through with a charade that he’s a psychic who can talk to Reet and other spirits. While Ruhaan is able to talk his way out of being kicked off of the property, Reet has been hiding in the palace, but she’s able to see much of what’s going on from where she hides. Ruhaan also fills her in on the details.

Meanwhile, Reet supplies Ruhaan with personal information about herself and her family so that he can appear to be a convincing psychic. There are many comedic scenes where Ruhaan makes over-the-top statements and gestures, in the movie’s obvious parody of psychics. Ruhaan even says, “I can see dead people,” in an obvious spoof of the famous line from the 1999 movie “The Sixth Sense.” News of Ruhaan being a psychic eventually spreads through the community. He becomes a local celebrity and is given the nickname Rooh Baba.

Of course, Ruhaan and Reet desperately keep the lie going and go to great lengths to keep Reet hidden in the palace. However, some people begin to suspect that Reet is still alive, or at least that her spirit is haunting the palace. Ruhaan finds out the story of Manjulika, so he tries to blame any suspicious activity on Manjulika. Other family members who are involved in the story include a cousin named Uday Thakur (played by Amar Upadhyay); his wife Anjulika (played by Tabu); and a boy named Potlu (played by Samarth Chauhan), who’s about 9 to 11 years old.

The village’s senior priest (played by Sanjay Mishra), his wife (played by Ashwini Kalsekar) and the village’s junior priest (played by Rajpal Naurang Yadav) all become skeptical about Ruhaan’s psychic abilities. They also think that Reet might still be alive. And so, the three skeptics hatch a plan to “expose” Ruhaan.

All of the cast members rise to the occasion by playing their roles well. Aaryan has to do a lot of comedic lifting in the movie, since his con game is frequently the focus of the movie’s jokes and shenanigans. Tabu is also very good in the movie, where her acting gets more prominent as the movie progresses. Yadav’s performance as the buffoonish junior priest is strictly for comic relief.

Most of the twists and turns “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” are in the last third of the movie, which has a much darker tone than the previous two-thirds. It’s no surprise that Reet and Ruhaan fall in love with each other. What might surprise people is how the movie ends. “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” has some moments that are more predictable than others. The unpredictable moments are where the movie shines the most.

T-Series Films released “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2” in select U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022, the same date that the movie was released in India.

Review: ‘Wyrmwood: Apocalypse,’ starring Luke McKenzie, Bianca Bradey, Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Tasia Zalar, Jay Gallagher and Nicholas Boshier

May 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Bianca Bradey and Luke McKenzie (center) in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” (Photo by Thom Davies/XYZ Films)

“Wyrmwood: Apocalpyse”

Directed by Kiah Roache-Turner

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia, the horror film “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few Aborigines) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A mercenary soldier has his loyalties tested during a battle of humans against zombies in an apocalypse. 

Culture Audience: “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of zombie movies but don’t care if the story is good and just want to see a lot of bloody violence.

Tasia Zalar and Shantae Barnes-Cowan in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” (Photo by Emma Bjorndahl/XYZ Films)

With a forgettable story and even more forgettable characters, the zombie flick “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is just an idiotic and incoherent mush of violence that quickly becomes boring. No one is expecting a zombie movie to be high art, but an entertaining zombie should at least give viewers some suspense over what’s going to happen in the story. There are absolutely no surprises in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse,” which is just an obnoxious and very predictable mess.

Directed by Kiah Roache-Turner (who co-wrote the “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” screenplay with his brother Tristan Roache-Turner), “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is the sequel to 2015’s “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead,” with both movies taking place in Australia during an apocalypse. (How unoriginal for a zombie movie.) The screenwriting is so lazy, it’s essentially the same story as the first movie: A woman, who has become human mutant zombie, has to be saved by a sibling, who is trying to not let this zombie sister get captured by authorities.

In “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead,” the zombie sister is Brooke (played by Bianca Bradey), who is supposed to be saved by her mechanic brother Barry (played by Jay Gallagher) during a series of inevitable gory scenes. Brooke and Barry are also in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse.” In “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse,” a zombie sister named Grace (played by Tasia Zalar) is supposed to be saved her sister Maxi (played by Shantae Barnes-Cowan), while both sisters encounter a mercenary soldier named Rhys (played by Luke McKenzie), whose job is to capture zombie civilians to force them into a military that doesn’t have enough people.

The chief villain in “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is Surgeon General (played by Nicholas Boshier), the corrupt leader of the military. In the beginning of the movie, Grave and Maxi are looking for Barry and Brooke, because Brooke and Grace have something in common: They’re both a “hybrid”: a human who has not completely turned into a zombie yet. Rhys ends up capturing Grace, but his alliances might or might not be with Surgeon General during the course of the story.

As a sequel, “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” does a terrible job of explaining who Brooke and Barry are, as well as their backstories from “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead.” As a narrative film, “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” barely does anything to make viewers care about any of the movie’s characters, who say nothing but trite and embarrassingly bad dialogue. All of the acting in this movie is mediocre to horrible. “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is just a sloppily directed zombie film that has a lot of blood and guts, but this movie has absolutely no heart or soul.

XYZ Films released “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” on digital and VOD on April 14, 2022.

Review: ‘The Ancestral,’ starring Lâm Thanh Mỹ, Quang Tuấn, Mai Cát Vi and Dieu Nhi

May 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lâm Thanh Mỹ in “The Ancestral” (Photo courtesy of T2 Group)

“The Ancestral”

Directed by Le Van Kiet

Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of Vietnam, the horror film “The Ancestral” features an all-Vietnamese cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After the tragic death of his wife, a widower takes his two underage daughters to live in an abandoned ancestral mansion, which appears to be haunted by ghosts.

Culture Audience: “The Ancestral” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of horror movies about ghosts and haunted houses.

Mai Cát Vi and Quang Tuấn in “The Ancestral” (Photo courtesy of T2 Group)

“The Ancestral” overcomes repetitive clichés in movies about haunted houses, by delivering an intriguing plot twist in the last third of the movie. Spooky jump scares, convincing visual effects and good acting make “The Ancestral” an entrancing horror film. “The Ancestral” does a lot with a relatively small number of people in its cast. It’s a movie that could have gone down a predictable route, but it keeps viewers guessing over what will happen until the very last scene. Viewers should stick around for a mid-credits scene that shows the fate of one of the characters.

Written and directed by Le Van Kiet, “The Ancestral” (which takes place in an unnamed part of Vietnam) begins with a widower named Thanh (played by Quang Tuấn) driving himself and his two underage daughters to an abandoned and dilapidated mansion, which is described as an ancestral family home. Elder daughter Linh (played by Lâm Thanh Mỹ), who’s about 14 or 15 years old, is a serious and responsible child who has essentially become the female head of the household. Younger daughter Yen (played by Mai Cát Vi), who’s about 10 or 11 years old, is more outgoing and playful than Linh.

The family is grieving over the death of Thanh’s wife, who was the mother of Linh and Yen. Thanh’s wife died a year before for reasons that are later explained in the movie. Even though this ancestral mansion is dark, run-down and very creepy-looking, Thanh has decided that they are going to move there for a change of scenery. He thinks that this change of environment will help all three of them heal from their grief.

However, the house is a less-than-ideal place to raise two children. There is no electricity in the house. And it’s the type of abandoned place that has been neglected for so long, many things in the house look rusty and worn-down. And as is typical for a haunted house in a horror movie, it’s also in an isolated area, where there doesn’t seem to be any neighbors around for miles.

Not long after moving into their new home, Thanh tells his daughters: “It’s just the three of us now.” He also tells Linh that she has to look after Yen when he’s not there. The movie never details what Thanh does for a living, but he’s often away during the day. He plans to have Linh and Yen homeschooled, so he later introduces them to a pretty young woman named Ms. Hanh (played by Diệu Nhi), whom he says will be the girls’ tutor.

Strange things start happening immediately after the family gets settled in the house. Linh and Yen both start to see various people in the house. And these people appear to be ghosts. Some of them are shadowy apparitions that run across a room and disappear. Others run on all fours and then attack before Linh and Yen wake up, as if it was all a bad dream.

And these sightings don’t just happen at night. In an eerie and chilling scene, Linh is outside in the house yard as she hangs laundered sheets to dry. She starts to see human faces pressed against the sheets. But when she looks behind the sheets, no one is there. And then what appears to be an old lady, who has matted hair and black teeth, attacks Linh before running away. This time, Yen saw this ghost too.

Adding to the terror, Yen starts to sleepwalk. And sometimes she appears to be experiencing paralysis during a nightmare where she can’t wake up unless someone vigorously shakes her. Yen and Linh tell their father about these scary incidents, but he dismisses it all as the girls having bad dreams. Thanh tells his daughters: “There are no such things as ghosts and demons.”

Ms. Hanh is kind and sympathetic to Yen and Linh. This tutor also seems to be spending a lot of time with Thanh, which leads Yen to joke that maybe their father and Ms. Hanh will end up dating each other. Ms. Hanh also goes out of her way to show that she wants to befriend the girls, and not just be their tutor.

One day, Thanh surprises the girls by showing them a new, more modern home where they will be moving to in the near future. Yen and Linh each has her own bedroom in this new home. Ms. Hanh has even gone to the trouble of decorating each of the girls’ bedrooms, according to the tastes of each girl.

But this seemingly idyllic new living situation is hindered as more haunting incidents occur. These ghost sightings and jump scares become a little tiresome after a while when it’s just a repeat of the girls getting scared, and their father not really doing anything about it but comforting them and telling them that ghosts aren’t real. By the middle of movie, viewers might be frustrated that nothing much is being done in plot development.

But viewers who are patient enough to stick around for the last third of the movie will be rewarded with some compelling twists and turns. Lâm Thanh Mỹ and Mai Cát Vi give very good performances as loyal sisters Linh and Yen, whose sibling relationship is at the heart of the movie. There’s a little bit of melodrama in a climactic “life or death” scene, but this melodrama doesn’t lessen the impact of the suspense that ramps up in this last section of the movie. “The Ancestral” has its best moments when it shows that even in the devastation of grief, there is always hope for healing.

T2 Group released “The Ancestral” in select U.S. cinemas on May 13, 2022. The movie was released in Vietnam on March 18, 2022, and in Malaysia and Singapore on March 24, 2022.

Review: ‘Hatching,’ starring Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä, Jani Volanen, Oiva Ollila and Reino Nordin

May 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Siiri Solalinna in “Hatching” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Hatching”

Directed by Hanna Bergholm

Finnish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of Finland, the horror flick “Hatching” has an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old girl brings home and secretly hides a mysterious bird’s egg, which grows, hatches, and lets loose a terrifying and deadly creature. 

Culture Audience: “Hatching” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching suspenseful horror movies that use gory images as symbols of repressed feelings that affect relationships.

Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä, Jani Volanen and Oiva Ollila in “Hatching” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Hatching” is a thoroughly absorbing horror movie that uses the hatching of a mysterious egg as a representation of childhood angst and inner demons. In its uniquely gruesome way, “Hatching” offers astute observations of adolescent rebellion in a dysfunctional home. It’s a very impressive feature-film debut from director Hanna Bergholm. “Hatching,” which was written by Ilja Rautsi, had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Most of what happens in “Hatching” (which takes place in unnamed parts of in Finland but was filmed in Latvia) is spoiler information that would give away too many surprises in the movie. However, it’s enough to say that “Hatching” doesn’t waste time in showing that something sinister is about to happen in the home of 12-year-old Finnish girl Tinja (played by Siiri Solalinna), who lives with her parents and her younger brother. It’s a family that, on the surface, appears to be happy, loving and “perfect.” But not everything is what it first appears to be in “Hatching.”

“Hatching” opens with a scene that shows a familiar activity in this household: Tinja’s status-conscious mother (played by Sophia Heikkilä), who does not have a name in the movie, is making another video for her social media blog called “Lovely Everyday Life.” It’s a stereotypical “mommy blog,” where a mother tries to project that she has a picture-perfect life with her husband and children. Even when she’s at home, Tinja’s mother dresses as if she’s about to do a photo shoot for an article about how glamorous mothers are supposed to look.

Tinja’s mother has gathered her unnamed husband (played by Jani Volanen), Tinja and Tinja’s younger brother Matias (played by Oiva Ollila), who’s about 9 or 10 years old, into the house’s living room to film another video showing how “happy” they all are in this family. It’s never stated what the source of the family’s income is, but they have a well-kept, middle-class home. The names of Tinja’s mother and Tinja’s father seem to be deliberately unmentioned, as a way to show they could be like any other parents.

Viewers will immediately notice that Tinja and her mother physically resemble each other (they’re both pretty with long, blonde hair), while Tinja’s father and Matias have a similar physical appearance of wearing glasses and looking a little nerdy. However, the parents’ personalities are not similar to their look alike children. Unlike her extroverted and talkative mother, Tinja is shy and introverted. Matias is outspoken and inquisitive, unlike his father, who is passive and doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Different scenes in the movie show that Tinja’s mother is much more attentive to Tinja than to Matias.

The family’s video session is suddenly interrupted by a thumping sound on a nearby window. Tinja goes to the window to find out the cause of the noise. When Tinja opens the window, a large black bird suddenly flies into the house and starts frantically flapping everywhere in the room, causing several glass items to shatter. The family members try to capture the bird, but it makes the chaos worse, because in chasing after the bird, the family members cause other items in the room to break too. The biggest item that breaks is a glass chandelier, which is destroyed when the bird flies into it, and the hanging chandelier crashes to the ground.

Eventually, the bird is captured. In front of her family members, Tinja’s mother holds the bird in a blanket and snaps its neck to kill it. She kills the bird with no hesitation and with a hint of sadistic pleasure, as if she’s smugly happy to get revenge on this animal that caused damage to her picture-perfect home. Tinja then puts the bird in a trash bin in the family yard. As she walks away, Tinja does not see the bird twitch, as if it’s still alive. And you know what that means in a horror movie.

Not long after this incident, Tinja is out walking in the nearby woods at night because she heard strange noises coming from the woods. She sees a large black bird on the ground. This bird is severely wounded for unknown reasons and is barely alive. To put the bird out of its misery, Tinja kills it with a rock.

And not far from the bird, Tinja finds a small egg, which she takes home and hides underneath her bed pillow. The egg quickly grows into the size of a very large watermelon. Observant viewers will notice that the egg gets bigger every time that Tinja experiences something that makes her very anxious.

Tinja is a gymnast who is being pressured by her mother to win important competitions. Tinja’s mother often watches Tinja during Tinja’s gym practices. When she is practicing gymnastics moves, Tinja generally does well, but she has a tendency to falter when she gets very nervous. And her mother makes her nervous. Tinja’s female gymnastics coach (played by Saija Lentonen) is tough but not abusive. Tinja’s closest friend in her gymnastics class is Reeta (played by Ida Määttänen), who is friendly and outgoing.

Tinja’s mother is the type of parent who will demand that her child keep practicing until everything is perfect. One day, after all the other gymnastics students have left because the practice session is over, Tinja’s mother insists that Tinja can’t leave until she perfects the gym move that Tinja had been practicing. The coach tells Tinja’s mother that it won’t be necessary, since the practice session has ended for the day, but Tinja’s mother persists until Tinja does what is expected of her.

On another occasion, Tinja’s ultra-competitive mother puts on a fake smile when she asks Reetta if she plans to enter the qualifying round of an upcoming competition. When Reetta says yes, Tinja’s mother then makes a point of telling Reetta in front of Tinja that Reetta will have to work extra-hard to defeat Tinja. It puts Tinja in an awkward position of reminding Tinja that she will be competing against Reetta, who is her closest friend. Reetta is not as intense about the competition as Tinja’s mother wants Tinja to be, but since this is a horror movie, you just know that Reetta is not going to go unscathed in this story.

As much as Tinja’s mother is obsessed with projecting the image of “perfection,” she is far from perfect. Tinja finds out one day when she comes home from gym practice alone. repairman named Tero (played by Reino Nordin) is in the living room with Tinja’s mother because he is replacing the broken chandelier. Tero is younger and better-looking than Tinja’s father.

At first, Tero and Tinja’s mother don’t see that Tinja has seen them in the room. Tinja is shocked when she sees her mother slowly rubbing Tero’s leg. And then Tinja’s mother and Tero kiss like lovers, but they quickly stop kissing when they see that Tinja has witnessed this act of infidelity. A little later, Tinja’s mother goes into Tinja’s room to explain what Tinja saw.

“Sometimes, adults have these special friends,” Tinja’s mother says. Tinja asks, “What about Dad?” Her mother replies, “Dad is Dad. You know what he’s like. How about we keep this between us?” Tinja’s mother then says that she’s going away for a few days, implying that it’s probably going to be a tryst with Tero.

Tinja tries to pretend that she’s okay with finding out about her mother’s infidelity, but deep down, it really bothers her. And this burden is made worse because her mother expects her to keep it a secret. However, there’s a point in the movie where Tinja’s father lets it be known to Tinja that he knows that his wife is having an affair with Tero, but Tinja’s father prefers to keep quiet about it because he loves his wife and wants to stay married to her.

Around the time that Tinja finds out about her mother’s extramarital affair, the egg gets larger and eventually hatches. And what comes out of the egg ends up wreaking havoc on people inside and outside the home. It’s enough to say that Tinja ends up naming the creature Alli.

“Hatching” is one of those movies that could have turned out looking tacky and amateurish if it had the wrong cast members and the wrong director. That’s because some parts of the screenplay needed better explanations. For example, the scene where Tinja discovers the egg looks too random and not that believable. What 12-year-old kid is going to walk alone in the woods, in the dead of night, just because of hearing some bird squawking?

There’s another part of the story where Reetta is walking alone at night in an isolated area. That scene also looks a little too fake and contrived. However, those are minor flaws when most of the movie is filmed in a way that makes it believable that Tinja has grown both fond of and afraid of this creature that hatched from the egg.

“Hatching” also makes a point of showing that although it would be easy to assume that this creature is the movie’s villain, Tinja’s self-absorbed mother also does a lot of damage too. In addition to pressuring Tinja to be perfect, Tinja’s mother has inappropriate and hurtful conversations with Tinja about Tero.

At one point, Tinja’s mother tells Tinja: “I think I’m in love. Tero is the best thing that ever happened to me. This is the first time in my life I feel like I really love someone. I have to see where it takes me.” How do you think that would make any child feel to hear a parent say that about someone else?

As good as the cast members are in their roles, this movie really stands out because of Solalinna and her stunning feature-film debut in “Hatching.” As Tinja, she portrays a wide range of emotions with authenticity, along with showing the angst of a child who has to present different sides of herself to the world, in order to keep certain secrets. More than a typical horror movie, “Hatching” shows how destructive this secrecy can be.

Bergholm brings the right amount of pacing to the movie, although at times there’s some unnecessary repetition over how close the creature comes to being discovered in Tinja’s room. The movie’s visual effects are not award-worthy, but they get the job done well in fulfilling a certain purpose. With “Hatching,” the filmmakers and cast members seem to understand that the best horror movies aren’t always about what’s seen on screen but how what happens in the story makes viewers feel. “Hatching” shows in alarming details how the pressure on girls to be “perfect” can be its own kind of horror story.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Hatching” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 29, 2022.

Review: ‘Men’ (2022), starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear

May 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jessie Buckley in “Men” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

“Men” (2022)

Directed by Alex Garland

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional Village Kotson, England, the horror flick “Men” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman, who is grieving over the death of her estranged husband, rents a home in the English countryside and has a series of disturbing encounters with men. 

Culture Audience: “Men” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching horror movies that use abstract and often-gruesome scenes to convey messages about relationships between men and women.

Rory Kinnear in “Men” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

Filled with symbolism intended to make viewers uncomfortable, “Men” has incisive observations about grief, guilt, toxic masculinity and female empowerment—all wrapped up in an atmospheric horror movie. Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Men” is the type of horror film that is best appreciated by people who don’t expect all horror films to follow a certain formula where a “villain” is defeated at the end. In fact, the movie leaves it open to interpretation if there are any “villains” and how much of the story occurs inside the mind of the story’s protagonist.

“Men” (which takes place in England) begins with a striking and disturbing image of protagonist Harper Marlow (played by Jessie Buckley) watching a man die while she’s in her apartment home. Harper is British, in her early 30s, and she works in an unspecified job where she has to deal with data figures. As she looks out her apartment window, she’s shocked to see a man falling. This scene is played in slow-motion, as if it’s some kind of dream. But it’s no dream. It’s a flashback memory that Harper is having.

And the man falling out of the building was Harper’s estranged husband James (played by Paapa Essiedu), who died in this tragic fall. His death happened on the day that Harper told James that she wanted him to move out of their home after they had a brutal argument. Harper had already told James that she was going to divorce him. Some other things happened on that day to explain why Harper has a bloody nose. Whether or not James’ death was an accident or a suicide is discussed in the movie, which makes it clear that James was definitely not murdered.

After this horrifying opening scene for “Men,” Harper is then shown arriving at an English countryside mansion called Kotson Manor, which she is renting for two weeks in a place called Village Kotson. It will be a getaway retreat for her after James’ death. It’s never detailed how long ago that James has died, but it’s implied that his death was fairly recent, because Harper booked the rental under the name Mrs. Harper Marlow, out of habit.

The owner of the house is a middle-aged man named Geoffrey (played by Rory Kinnear), who has nervous energy and is very talkative when he gives Harper a tour of the house. When Geoffrey asks Harper where her husband is, Harper makes a comment that implies that she’s divorced, but she hasn’t changed the “Mrs.” part of her name yet. Harper also tells Geoffrey that she has kept her married surname, but she plans to change that too.

James’ death isn’t the only thing that Harper lies about to Geoffrey. There’s a baby grand piano in the house. James asks Harper if she knows how to play piano. Harper says no. James comments, “Me neither.” However, when Harper is alone in the house much later in the movie, she plays the piano. And she’s clearly a very skilled piano player. It’s the movie’s way of showing how women sometimes hide their talent to make men feel more secure.

“Men” has several religious symbols from Christianity’s Old Testament, including the Garden of Eden and the biblical story of the birth of humankind. The first thing that Harper does when she arrives at the house is eat an apple from the apple tree on the front lawn. Geoffrey jokes to Harper that the apple she’s eating is “forbidden fruit.”

Geoffrey, who is upbeat and friendly, apparently lives alone, since he doesn’t mention anyone else who lives in the house. Harper has a very good first impression of this well-kept estate, which she later describes as a “dream country house.” Geoffrey seems very confident that Harper will take good care of the house before he leaves. But it won’t be the last time that Harper will see Geoffrey.

Harper’s best friend is an opinionated and confident American woman named Riley (played by Gayle Rankin), who is close to Harper’s age and who also lives in England. Riley is a supportive and attentive friend to Harper. Harper and Riley are shown having FaceTime conversations throughout the movie. In one of their conversations, when Riley becomes concerned about Harper’s safety, Riley offers to go to this country estate to give Harper some company, but Harper declines the offer. Later in the story, it becomes clear how this friendship represents the power of female solidarity.

Harper thinks she’s going to have a peaceful and quiet vacation at this home in the English countryside. But soon, strange things start happening. While out for a walk in an open field, Harper uses her phone to take a photo of the lush green scenery. But she’s horrified to see a naked man (also played by Kinnear) in the distance suddenly appear in the photo. The man, who is bald and has a stocky build, is completely nude and just staring at her silently in a creepy manner.

Harper goes back to the house, calls Riley, and shows the photo to Riley. They both have a laugh over this awkward situation. But it won’t be the last time that Harper sees this bald, naked man.

While taking a walk through the woods, Harper come across a tunnel, which has an unusually long echo whenever she makes sounds in the tunnel. Harper is charmed and amused by this echo, but her whimsical moment comes to an abrupt end when she sees a shadowy figure of a man at the end of the tunnel. The man, who is wearing a business suit, appears to be watching her.

And all of a sudden, the man starts running after Harper. She frantically runs away, goes in the house, and locks the front door. Harper looks out the windows and doesn’t see any sign of this stranger. She assumes that the man lost track of her when she ran away in the woods, so she’s fairly certain that he wasn’t able to follow her to the house.

Harper then calls Riley to tell her about this odd experience, but Harper decides to shake it off and give Riley a video tour of the house. As she gives the video tour, unbeknownst to Harper, the naked man is walking around on the house’s front lawn and peering through the house’s front windows. He also sees the apple tree and starts eating one of the apples. Eventually, Harper sees the man, who tries to break into the house. Harper calls the police, and the man is arrested.

The rest of “Men” shows Harper having varying degrees of hostile experiences with some of the men who live in the area. Viewers can easily see that most of these men look like Geoffrey, including a church vicar, the naked man, a cop, a pub owner and two farmhand brothers who are both customers in the pub. But is something supernatural going on in Village Kotson, or is it all an elaborate hallucination from Harper?

There’s also a young male character named Samuel (played by Zak Rothera-Oxley), whom Harper first meets when she goes to a church for some meditative solitude. Behind the church is a cemetery. Samuel is sitting on the church steps, wearing a face mask of a blonde woman, when he asks Harper if she wants to play a game. When Harper politely says no, Samuel calls her a “stupid bitch.” Samuel is also rude to the vicar and tells the vicar to “fuck off” when the vicar tells Samuel to stop bothering Harper.

Are there any women in this village, besides Harper? Yes. After the unnamed naked man is arrested (he is mute, has no identification, and is presumed to be homeless), a female police officer named Freida (played by Sarah Twomey) takes Harper’s statement with empathy and professionalism. The 999 phone dispatcher/police operator (voiced by Sonoya Mizuno), who takes Harper’s call about the intruder, is also a woman, although she is only heard over the phone.

However, the movie is really about the characters played by Buckley and Kinnear, who give compelling and admirable performances. The flashback scenes in “Men” demonstrate that although Harper is on a “getaway” trip, she can’t really get away from her feelings about James’ death and how their impending divorce had an impact on their lives. The movie’s pacing might be a little slow for some viewers, but the last 15 minutes of “Men” are a bold and bizarre knockout.

What does all of this symbolism mean in the story of “Men”? The movie shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways what it’s like to be a woman in a world where men have most of the power and want to keep it that way. A woman who is independent, intelligent and confident is seen as a “threat” to this dominance. And this male insecurity comes out in various ways, such as trying to make women feel weak and inferior to men.

One of the most telling scenes in the movie is at the church, when the vicar talks to Harper, who confides in him on how her husband James died. At first, the vicar seems compassionate in comforting Harper. But when the vicar finds out how Harper’s husband died, this impromptu counseling session ends on a sour note because of rude and insensitive comments that the vicar makes to Harper, as shown in the “Men” trailer: “You must wonder why you drove him to it … Might it be true that if you had given him a chance to apologize, he’d still be alive?”

Even “nice guy” Geoffrey has his moments of sexist condescension. When he gives the house tour to Harper, he says to her with a smirky grin: “Ladies, watch what you flush.” He adds, “Septic tank,” as if to say that the septic tank can get easily clogged. Geoffrey’s snide comment is a subtle menstruation reference to women and girls being told not to flush sanitary pads down toilets. Geoffrey could have easily told Harper about the septic tank without making it sound like women are more likely than men to clog toilets.

The series of increasingly horrifying encounters that happen in “Men” range from sexist comments to outright violent misogyny. Some of it happens in Harper’s flashbacks too. The movie takes a scathing look at how male egos are intertwined with society’s idea of what outward masculinity should look like. And the movie also shows how men are taught to hide their inner pain and insecurities, which misogynistic men often take out and inflict on women.

“Men” also shows how toxic masculinity breeds more toxic masculinity. This toxic masculinity can morph into many different forms—and it isn’t always violent. It’s shown in conversations between men and women when men talk over and interrupt women, to try to assert male dominance. It’s shown when men dismiss women’s thoughts, feelings, intelligence, skills and worth as less important than men’s.

It’s shown when men are hostile to women who are or could be in leadership positions over men. It’s shown when men excuse, enable or tolerate horrible actions from men, but give harsher judgment to women who do the same horrible things. It’s shown when men are quick to blame women when women are wronged and are the victims. It’s shown when men think they know best on how women should live their lives.

“Men” will frustrate some viewers who won’t understand the symbolism in this richly layered movie. People who have no knowledge about Judeo-Christian religious beliefs might also be confused over what the apple tree means in the story. (Look up the story of Adam and Eve, if you don’t know it.) But for people who get what the messages in “Men” are all about, the main takeaway should be that toxic masculinity is everywhere, and people really can’t escape it. “Men” also sends an impactful message that grief should be honestly confronted (not avoided), and women need to tap into their own strength to overcome the damage of misogyny.

A24 will release “Men” in U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022.

Review: ‘Firestarter’ (2022), starring Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon, Kurtwood Smith, John Beasley, Michael Greyeyes and Gloria Reuben

May 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zac Efron and Ryan Kiera Armstrong in “Firestarter” (Photo by Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures)

“Firestarter” (2022)

Directed by Keith Thomas

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Lewiston, New York, the horror film “Firestarter” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A psychic father goes on the run with his 11-year-daughter, who has the deadly ability to start fires through her mind power, and they are fugitives of the U.S. government and law enforcement. 

Culture Audience: “Firestarter” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Zac Efron and the Stephen King novel on which the movie is based, but the movie is another failed attempt to do justice to the book.

Michael Greyeyes in “Firestarter” (Photo by Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures)

The 1984 and 2022 versions of “Firestarter” are both awful horror movies for different reasons. The 2022 version has better acting than the 1984 version, but the screenplay is worse. It’s a dull, incoherent mess with the last 15 minutes as the most heinous. The 2022 edition of “Firestarter” is from the horror-oriented Blumhouse Productions, which has a “hit and miss” track record, when it comes to putting out quality films. The same can be said of any movie adapted from a Stephen King novel or short story. “Firestarter” is based on King’s 1980 novel of the same name.

Directed by Keith Thomas and written by Scott Teems, the 2022 version of “Firestarter” should get a little credit for not being a copycat of the 1984 version. But that’s not saying much when the 2022 version is a tedious remake that takes too long to get to the “fugitives on the run” aspect of the story that was shown right away in the 1984 version of “Firestarter.” The first two-thirds of the 2002 movie are bogged down with a lot of repetitive scenes that don’t effectively further the story and in fact stall it on very monotonous levels. And the ending of the 2022 “Firestarter” movie is drastically different than the ending of both the book and the 1984 movie.

And even worse: The title character in the 2022 version of “Firestarter” goes from being a compassionate child to being a ruthless killer during a certain part of the movie. It’s a huge change in personality that looks very phony and hard to believe. People watching “Firestarter” already know that this girl has the ability to kill people with her fire-starting powers. But when she starts killing for reasons that aren’t really justified (and one of her murders is particularly shocking and despicable), it’s going to be a problem for a lot of audience members to see an 11-year-old child depicted in a way that doesn’t stay true to the book or the 1984 movie.

In both movies, a father named Andy McGee and his pre-teen daughter Charlene “Charlie” McGee are being hunted by the U.S. government because they both have unusual abilities as the result of a top-secret experiments that the father underwent when he was a college student. The research was being conducted in a lab by a mysterious government agency called The Shop, which administered a psychedelic drug called Lot 6 to the research participants, who were usually young people desperate for money. Andy met his future wife Vicky (the mother of Charlie) during these experiments.

As a result of these experiments, Andy developed psychic abilities where he could exert control over other people’s minds. Vicky also developed psychic abilities too, but not to the extent that she had mind control powers. Meanwhile, Charlie’s psychic powers came with the ability to start fires with her mind. She’s most likely to start fires when she’s angry or afraid.

Both movies also have a scene where Charlie gets angry at her mother and accidentally sets her mother’s hands on fire. And both movies show that when Charlie starts to get worked up, the temperature rises considerably wherever she’s at, and people start to sweat as a result. Charlie has to be trained to control her fire-starting abilities, but any training she gets isn’t enough. Meanwhile, Andy’s psychic abilities put a strain on his mind, which has internal hemorrhaging every time he uses his abilities, resulting in blood coming out of his eyes.

Back when Syfy was called the Sci-Fi Channel, it had a 2002 miniseries called “Firestarter 2: Rekindled,” which was about Charlie as an adult. This low-quality sequel series is not essential viewing along with any “Firestarter” movie. In fact, it’s not essential viewing for anyone who likes good entertainment.

In the 1984 “Firestarter” movie, Vicky is already dead, but she is seen in flashbacks. In the 1984 version of “Firestarter” (directed by Mark L. Lester and written by Stanley Mann), the McGee family was played by Drew Barrymore as Charlie, David Keith as Andy, and Heather Locklear as Vicky. It’s a very sloppily edited film with terrible dialogue and campy theatrics, including over-acting by Keith and co-stars such as Martin Sheen and George C. Scott.

In the 2022 “Firestarter” movie, a lot of screen time (about half of the movie) is taken up showing Andy (played by Zac Efron) and Vicky (played by Sydney Lemmon) raising 11-year-old Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) in Lewiston, New York. (The movie was actually filmed in the Canadian city of Hamilton, Ontario.) Both parents have very different opinions on how to handle Charlie’s fire-starting abilities. Vicky strongly believes that they should train Charlie to control these abilities. Andy disagrees.

“We have to protect her,” Andy tells Vicky, who replies: “Training is protecting.” There’s cause for concern, because Charlie has told them that, after a three-year hiatus, her “bad thing” has started to come back. “Something feels weird. My body.” And she says it’s not puberty.

The experiments that Andy and Vicky underwent in collage are breezed through in an opening-credits montage that shows quick flashbacks and voiceovers. These experiments were led by Dr. Joseph Wanless (played by Kurtwood Smith), who is seen later in the movie in a scene that doesn’t have very good placement in the story. The U.S. government has been looking for people who underwent these experiments to possibly use their superpowers as weapons of mass destruction.

The first half of the 2022 version of “Firestarter” has a lot of monotonous scenes of Andy, Vicky and Charlie at home, work or school. Andy’s backstory is briefly explained in the experiments montage, where he tells Dr. Wanless in an interview that he was orphaned at the age of 7 years old because his parents died in a car accident. When Andy is asked if he’s ever had an authentic psychic experience, he reveals that he had a premonition about this fatal car accident a week before it happened. The movie doesn’t bother to reveal anything about Vicky’s family background.

Andy works as a life coach/therapist, where he puts people through hypnosis/mind control to solve whatever personal problem they want to be solved There’s an unnecessary scene that shows Andy doing just that in a session with a client named Darla Gurney (played by Hannan Younis), who wants to quit smoking. Apparently, Andy and Vicky never thought about Andy controlling Charlie’s mind to brainwash her into not starting fires. Maybe Charlie is immune to this kind of mind control, but the movie never says so either way.

The 2022 version of “Firestarter” also spends considerable time showing Charlie in school, which is something that the 1984 “Firestarter” movie didn’t waste time showing. Charlie (who is a quiet and introverted student) is harassed in school by a bully named Gavin (played by Gavin Maciver-Wright), who picks on Charlie because he thinks she and her family are weird. For example, Gavin taunts Charlie because her parents won’t let her use the Internet.

Charlie’s teacher Ms. Gardner (played by Tina Jung) gently suggests to Charlie that Charlie can use the Internet at school to help her with her homework, but Charlie says that her mother has told her that using computers for extended periods of time can cause health problems. Later at home, Charlie pleads with her mother to get Internet access in their home.

Vicky is firm with her response: “That stuff rots your brains. We can’t afford it right now.” Charlie later finds out the real reason why her parents don’t want to have Internet access or computers: They think it will make the U.S. government easier to track them and spy on them.

In a scene that takes place in a school gym, the kids are playing dodgeball, and Gavin cruelly throws the ball at the back of Charlie’s head. The throw is hard enough to definitely hurt Charlie, who runs away and hides in a school restroom. Gavin calls Charlie a “loser” and sneers, “Yeah, run away, you freak!”

Ms. Gardner is the teacher on duty, so she follows Charlie in the restroom and is shocked to see the restroom filled with smoke. And as soon as she walks in, Ms. Gardner sees a closed restroom stall have its door blown wide open, as if an explosion was set off in the stall. The teacher sees Charlie come out of the stall, so Charlie gets in trouble for the damage.

The police are called to investigate. Charlie’s parents try to smooth things over and insist that Charlie did not set off an explosive device, but they can’t say the real reason why the restroom stall exploded. When the parents are at home, Andy has this to say about this explosive incident: “Our cover’s been blown.” Andy knows it’s only a matter of time before The Shop finds out about Charlie.

And he’s right. The McGee family gets on the radar of an official from The Shop named Captain June Hollister (played by Gloria Reuben), who sets a plan in motion to capture Andy and Charlie. She contacts an embittered war veteran named Rainbird (played by Michael Greyeyes) to enlist him as a hired mercenary. His mission is to find Andy and Charlie and bring them in for research. Captain Hollister insists that unlike previous mercenary jobs that Rainbird has done for the U.S. government, this quarry (Charlie and Andy) must be brought back alive.

The movie hints that Rainbird has been mistreated by the government, so Captain Hollister tries to appeal to him, by saying that his mistreatment came from “the old guard … I’m the new [guard].” Rainbird also drops a big hint about his own personal experiences with government experiments: “Before they tested their poison on pretty young co-eds, they had to use the lab rats.”

The Rainbird character was also in the “Firestarter” book, but he was not the main pursuer in the 1984 “Firestarter” movie. Instead, 1984’s “Firestarter” had a bunch of nameless government agents (all men, usually in business suits) in physical pursuit of Andy and Charlie, while Rainbird (played by Scott) makes his move much later in the story. In the 2022 “Firestarter” movie, it looks completely unrealistic that Rainbird is the lone person (without any real backup) looking for Andy and Charlie. If Andy and Charlie are so important to The Shop, there should be teams of trained professionals who go out looking for these two people with dangerous psychic abilities.

At any rate, Rainbird breaks into the McGee home, which results in Andy and Charlie escaping and going on the run without Vicky, whose fate is shown in this home invasion scene. Both “Firestarter” movies have a scene of Andy and Charlie temporarily hiding at a rural farm home. In the 2022 version of “Firestarter,” this hideout scenario happens when fugitives Andy and Charlie get a truck ride from a stranger named Irv Manders (played by John Beasley), who ends up inviting Andy and Charlie into his farm home for a temporary place to stay.

Not all of Charlie’s victims are human. After Charlie and Andy go on the run, there’s a scene where Charlie sees a stray cat and tries to pet it, but the cat scratches her out of fear. This unlucky feline then gets scorched to death.

When Charlie and Andy bury the cat and pray over this makeshift grave, Andy seems more concerned about the cat than the fact that Vicky is no longer with them. Vicky seems almost like an afterthought in this prayer scene, when Charlie says offhandedly toward the end of the prayer: “And bless mommy too,” as a reminder to Andy that they shouldn’t just be praying about the dead cat.

One of the most unrealistic aspects of the 2022 version of “Firestarter” is that when people get burned by Charlie’s fire, they almost never scream out in pain. It’s an odd choice to not have this type of screaming in a horror movie. There are also unrealistic scenes where Charlie should be burned by all the flames or overcome by all the smoke in a blazing room, but she’s not.

Most of Charlie’s freakout fire blazes don’t happen until the last third of the movie, but hardly anything in this boring sludge of a story is scary. The acting in the 1984 “Firestarter” movie was very over-the-top, and it was bad in a “train wreck” type of way. In comparison, the acting in the 2022 “Firestarter” movie is a little more professional and polished, but much of it is too restrained and often downright lackluster, especially from Efron, who is never convincing as a grieving husband.

Charlie goes from being a meek child who’s scared of her fire-starting powers for most of the movie to a sudden transformation into a rampaging, cold-blooded serial killer. It’s a jarring and extreme change that makes Charlie look like she’s got a personality disorder too. The ending of the 2022 version of “Firestarter” is what really makes it irredeemable, because it’s just mindless mayhem that tries to overcompensate for the lack of scares in most of this disjointed, bland and misguided movie.

Universal Pictures will release “Firestarter” in U.S. cinemas and on Peacock on May 13, 2022.

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