Bring on the Blockbusters

A film critic returns to proper moviegoing with some (mostly lacking) horror titles.

Last time I wrote for this paper, I had little interest in watching contemporary movies, as I wasn’t so eager to engage with the modern pandemic moment in my spare time. What a difference a year makes! With vaccinations rolling out at a surprisingly rapid clip, with restrictions easing, with families reuniting, with hopes unexpectedly up, contemporary movies no longer sound so unappetizing.

And I’m a little ashamed of what I’ve been craving: the bloated, inhuman, intellectual property-dependent blockbusters that I usually regard with contempt.

It has little to do with the movies themselves, but with what they symbolize as a restoration of public life. Blockbusters have always skated by on a bell curve – people don’t expect them to be good, it’s just what you do to be a part of the culture. The movies that are authentically good, with few exceptions, don’t give someone that dubious gift. For the record, this isn’t as it should be. The pandemic allowed smaller, more ambitious and idiosyncratic films to briefly inherit the Earth on various streaming channels and virtual festivals – trends that hopefully won’t, but probably will, disappear. But that’s a discussion for later: First a bit of fun is in order.

Below are a few of the movies I’ve watched during my gradual return to cinematic society, culminating in an IP-dependent vehicle that marked my first trip to Movieland in 14 months, about six weeks after I received my second vaccination shot. These are all horror movies released so far this year, for the sake of a convenient through line, and because the last thing I saw in a theater before the pandemic belonged to the genre, Leigh Whannel’s “The Invisible Man.”

“Saint Maud”

Rose Glass’s acclaimed debut film is in part a chamber play, in which a devout and very pious Roman Catholic, Maud (Morfydd Clark), serves as an in-home nurse for a once-fun-loving dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who is wheelchair bound and dying of stage-four lymphoma. We’re primed for a resonant culture clash, but Glass favors a “Taxi Driver”-esque scenario in which we watch an obsessive gradually succumb to her demons. There’s confidence in the filmmaking, especially in the constricting and highly subjective camera angles, but “Saint Maud” becomes a monotonous and forgettable exercise in essentially waiting for a woman to go nuts. The daring empathy of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” or the operatic gothic humor of Brian De Palma’s similarly themed “Carrie,” or the spiritual anguish of an Ingmar Bergman film, are nowhere to be found, and a film this gruelingly austere needs something. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

“Come True”

Another debut film concerned with a young woman’s potential decline, though Anthony Scott Burns’ “Come True” is more beautiful and tonally varied than the funeral dirge otherwise known as “Saint Maud.” Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) is a teenager with a sleep disorder – she sleepwalks and routinely dreams of dark hellscapes populated by shadowy phantoms – who takes part in a study that only amplifies her confusion and terror. Like a number of recent horror movies, “Come True” is wild about the 1980s, boasting a poignant synth score and more cinematic references than you can count, most obviously to Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” But Burns carves out his own brand of doomy horror poetry with striking camera pirouettes, emo-noir hues, and truly unsettling dream imagery that physicalizes Sarah’s alienation and entrapment without overexplaining them. And the swing-for-the-fences twist ending is heartbreaking. (Rentable on most streaming outlets.)

“Wrong Turn”

The screenwriter of the 2003 horror film “Wrong Turn,” Alan B. McElroy, returned to pen this remake, and he’s done more than serve up another platter of the bloodthirsty, hillbilly mutants that are a staple of the series. No, this new “Wrong Turn” is intended as a more earnest examination of the class resentments that drive, well, hillbilly mutant movies, namely the clash between the left and right, North and South, and the elite and poor. Rather than mutants, we get a secret society living in the Appalachian Mountains the splits off from mainstream culture years ago as a rejection of the blossoming Civil War, and who now practice their own form of country justice on trespassers, as well as people who murder their own kind out of the stereotypical assumption that they are themselves killers. One admires the effort, though this “Wrong Turn” does suggest “Tucker and Dale vs Evil” played pseudo-ludicrously straight. (Rentable on most streaming outlets.)

“Spiral: from the Book of Saw”

Like the new “Wrong Turn,” “Spiral” is another horror sequel that’s attempting to freshen up its brand with a nod to contemporary class issues. The Jigsaw Killer and his various disciples, who taught people biblical lessons via Rube Goldbergian torture machines over the course of eight “Saw” movies, is still presumably dead, but a new killer is applying his practices to corrupt police officers for the sake of systemic reform. Not an awful idea, and the casting of Black superstars Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson intensifies the potential racial-social intrigue, but the premise remains undigested, essentially serving as window-dressing for typical “Saw” shenanigans. That said, returning “Saw II, III, and IV” director Darren Lynn Bousman has learned a few of the right lessons from the Spierig brothers’ surprisingly lean and elegant “Jigsaw,” similarly winnowing the series’ incoherent mythology down to a few manageable components while embracing a tighter, more stately sense of composition. “Spiral” is a relatively enjoyable night of torture at the movies, and if that sounds strange, well, it’s been a hell of a year and a half. (Currently playing in theaters.)


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