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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 7

Get Out (2017)

I'm a strong believer that horror, as a genre, has always existed to exercise cultural fears and anxieties. Too often, audiences and filmmakers alike have forgotten this. I've never seen a whole episode of “Key & Peele,” though the segments I have seen have been really funny. Jordon Peele, who is apparently a big horror fan, certainly hasn't forgotten that horror and social commentary go hand-in-hand. He made a boldly political genre film with “Get Out.” The film would connect with audiences, becoming a huge hit earlier in the year. I probably should've seen the movie before now but it's not uncommon for me to fall behind new releases. As one of the most talked about horror films of the year, October seems to be the right month to finally watch this.

Chris Washington, a black man, has been dating Rose Armitage, a white woman, for four months. The relationship has gotten serious enough that Rose's parents have invited the couple to visit their home for a few days. Rose's parents try to make Chris feel welcomed. However, he begins to suspect something is wrong. The maid and groundskeeper are both black. Moreover, both of them act extremely strangely. At a party the next, Chris meets another black man who also acts very odd. Soon, he begins to suspect there is a local conspiracy targeting African-Americans. What he discovers is even more horrifying than he could have guessed.

Being a black man in America is already scary. Peele need only exaggerate things a little. “Get Out” builds upon the awkwardness of being black in a white community. (And America is, in many ways, one big white community.) When Chris first meets Rose's parents, they attempt to establish kinship by mentioning black athletes or Obama. Rose's brother asks about Chris' genetic make-up. While at a big party, Chris is at the center of more awkward interactions. People asking about his sex life, feeling him up like he's a commodity, giving their own undercooked opinions. Even before outwardly creepy things happen, Peele lays hints that something is wrong. Rose's father talks about exterminating deer in a weirdly racial way. He makes a reference to wiping out “black” mold. It's not the obvious racism Peele is criticizing but the subtle kind, the type most white people probably aren't even aware of. Fittingly, when the motivation behind the villain's scheme is revealed, they deny race plays any role in it at all. I'm a pasty white guy but it seems to be that Peele is saying that black people live in a culture where they are constantly under attack or on display. “Get Out's” horror content grows out of this real world anxiety.

“Get Out” isn't just a potent political allegory. It's also a really effective horror movie. The score mixes Swahili chanting with discordant, shrieking strings to create an unnerving mood early on. The black workers on the Armitage property act in very strange ways. Their uncanny appearance and behavior is also unsettling. This leads up to more intense moments, such as when Chris stumbles upon one of the workers running around the yard at night. Or another black man momentarily lapsing out of his hypnotized state. All of this is preparation for “Get Out's” descent into full-blown surreal horror. The appearance of the Sunken Place – which became something of an internet meme earlier in the year – is a startling and original visual. Smartly, Peele also contrasts his horrific scenes with comedic ones. The scenes revolving around Chris' friend, Rod, are frequently hilarious.

Another reason “Get Out's” big box office was so surprising was its lack of any marquee names. The films tars Daniel Kaluuya, an obscure character actor best known for British television. Kaluuya as Chris, perfectly playing the character as a normal guy caught up in something bizarre while, simultaneously, giving him plenty of distinct characteristics. As Rose's parents, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are especially chilling. Whitford's gladhanding ways effectively mask a darker intention. Keener, meanwhile, impressively projects an unnerving sense of authority. Caleb Landry Jones has no time for subtly as Jeremy, Rose's brother, who is outwardly creepy in a very obvious – but no doubt effective – way. Stephen Root puts in a supporting appearance as Jim Hudson, making the blind character both sympathetic and off-putting. And, once again, I must point out hilarious Lil Rel Howery is in his few scenes, making pretty much everything that comes out of Rod's mouth funny.

If horror is a vehicle for political commentary, it's also a genre built upon catharsis. The actual details of the strange things going on in the Armitage house are not especially novel. It's the kind of story we've seen play out in other horror pictures. Honestly, considering how original “Get Out's” brand of horror had been up to that point, the reveal is a little disappointing. What it sets up, though, makes it worth it. The film almost shifts into an action film at the end. Antlers – in another move that aligns Chris with deer – are put to good use. The repressed get righteous revenge on their tormentors. It plays out gory and incredibly satisfying fashion. Peele originally envisioned “Get Out” with a much darker ending. That ending, perhaps, would've made more sense. However, the more up-beat ending was the right decision. “Get Out” ends on a note of triumph, not defeat. Given the story's obvious sociological element, it's well earned.

Due to the movie's success, Peele has already been offered at least one big blockbuster project. However, it seems the director is more interested in focusing on smaller films. He's promised that “Get Out” is the first of what he hopes is many politically engaged horror picture. I hope they are all as exciting, creepy, and well executed as this one. “Get Out” really is as good as I had read, a horror film with something vital to say without sacrificing its status as an effectively chilling motion picture. [9/10]

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Perhaps because “Curse of the Cat People” under-performed, the next horror film Val Lewton produced for RKO would feature an established genre star. By 1945, Boris Karloff had officially retired from Universal Studios' monster movies, following his appearance in “House of Frankenstein.” Karloff was increasingly disenfranchised with the horror genre. However, Lewton's more nuanced scripts would renew Karloff's enthusiasm. The partnership proved so fruitful that Karloff would appear in two more films for Lewton and RKO. For added value, “The Body Snatcher” would also throw in another genre icon – Bela Lugosi – and be based on a short story from legendary author Robert Louis Stevenson. Naturally, the film is regarded as a classic now.

The year is 1831. The science of anatomy and surgery is still in its infancy. Dr. Wolfe McFarlane is a surgeon operating out of Edinburgh. He quickly takes a medical student, Donald Fettes, under his wing. Fettes, soon, discovers that his mentor's methods are not as clean as he anticipated. Dr. MacFarlane has, for years, been working with a John Gray. A coachman by day, Gray is a grave robber by night, providing the doctor with fresh corpses. While attempting to perform experimental spinal surgeon on a paraplegic little girl, Dr. MacFarlane's demand for fresh bodies become greater. To accommodate him, Gray commits murder. Soon, the resurrection man is blackmailing the doctor.

Following “Curse of the Cat People,” director Robert Wise would make “Mademoiselle Fifi,” a war film set in the 1870s, for Lewton and RKO. Obviously, costume dramas were an area the director was comfortable with. “The Body Snatcher” is also a period piece but not a typical one. Wise fuses the Victorian costumes with the same shadowy atmosphere typical of RKO's horror movies. English fog characterizes several scenes, especially in a chilling scene where Gray encounters a mourning dog on a grave. As the story grows darker, so does the film's visual palette. There's an amazing frame of Gray hiking a dead body onto his shoulders, the shadows cast huge on the wall. The climax is set in a thunderstorm that feels especially dreary. “Curse of the Cat People” had little opportunities for the classic RKO horror atmosphere. He more than makes up for it with “The Body Snatcher's” strong use of shadows and darkness.

The film is also home to one of Boris Karloff's most frightening performances. Karloff usually brought a sense of warmth to even his nastiest characters. In “The Body Snatchers,” he does away with that completely. His character beats a dog to death with a shovel in an early scene, for one example. Jon Gray is a psychopath, only interested in furthering his own interest and willing to do absolutely anything to accomplish that. Despite being a total sociopath, Karloff still brings an odd charm to the character. Gray is charismatic, befitting a master manipulator. At the same time, Karloff brings a desperate edge to the part. Gray isn't a great planner and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. It's a fantastic villain. Karloff gets a few scenes with Bela Lugosi who, sadly, isn't given much more to do.

“The Body Snatcher” is a morality play of sorts. Dr. MacFarlane is attempting to help people, such as a poor little girl who can't walk. However, he's willing to compromise his ethics in pursuit of success and scientific advancement. By continuing down that path, by allowing himself to associate with Gray, he is dragged further down into a moral quagmire. His situation eventually forces him to commit a serious crime himself. In the end, MacFarlane's own guilty conscious is what does him. Donald Fettes, however, never stoops to the same levels as his mentor. He's able to actually help people, without ever doing wrong. The lesson here is clear: Evil acts, even when performed in the name of good, are never justified.

“The Body Snatcher” isn't without its flaws. A subplot involving MacFarlane's wife, who he married in secret, doesn't go much of anywhere. It's final scene is a bit mawkish. Russell Wade is okay as Fettes but his performance comes off as bland, compared to those around him. Still, this is a fine horror picture. An excellent Karloff performance, some memorable visuals and a ghoulish story more than makes up for any flaws. It's not hard to see why Karloff would team with the same producer again, beginning the next phase of his career. [7/10]

Fear Itself: In Sickness and in Health

Another filmmaker who made the leap from “Masters of Horror” to “Fear Itself” was John Landis. Instead of trying to fit the Showtime show's sex and violence onto network TV, Landis instead crafted a slightly goofy homage to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Samantha and Carlos are getting married. Before the ceremony, Samantha receives a note informing her that she's about to marry a serial killer. This transform what's supposed to be the happiest day of her life into a nightmare. As she attempts to get to the truth, she uncovers some other secrets about Carlos. Once again, not everything is as it seems.

“In Sickness and in Health” is pretty goofy, right down to a twist ending that barely makes any sense. Landis includes more than a few scenes of comic relief. Samantha's bridesmaids are ridiculous characters, leaping to contrived conclusions quickly. Carlos' best man is even sillier, a habit which gets him yelled at several times. Yet these comedic moments pair well with some mildly creepy scenes. The church where most of the episode is set is usually empty, decorated with creepy, hollow-eyed statues. There's more than one scene of Samantha walking through the empty church, an excellent sound design making every footstep, creak, or mysterious noise sound huge.

“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” isn't the only TV show Landis is paying homage to here. “In Sickness and In Health” stars James Roday and Maggie Lawson, who always played a romantic couple of “Psych.” (If you have any doubt that this casting was intentional, Landis previously directed three episodes of the USA Network Show.) Lawson goes well in the lead role, playing up her character's unlikely predicament for some decent comedy. Roday, some goofy and energetic on “Psych,” is too obviously threatening here. The episode would've been resolved more quickly if Roday's Carlos wasn't angry and confrontational for no reason. It's pretty light-weight stuff but “In Sickness and In Health” is another better episode of “Fear Itself.” [7/10]

Wolf Creek: Salt Lake

Episode three of “Wolf Creek,” “Salt Lake,” involves Eve Thorogood and Mick Taylor drawing closer to each other. The girl continues her journey across the outback. She encounters several faces from her recent past. Such as the pervert from the gas station and Johnny, the biker. Along the way, she also visits a roadside cafe and helps out an escaped prisoner. Meanwhile, two different men pursue her. First, police detective Sullivan attempts to track her down. Mick Taylor, meanwhile, draws closer to claiming his prey.

In “Salt Lake,” an actual cat-and-mouse game seems to be forming. Eve and Mick are on each other's trails. She finds his camp site from the night before, discovering the impaled rabbit head he left behind. He stops by same roadside cafe she was in earlier. The two very nearly encounter each other several times throughout “Salt Lake.” The episode concludes by brilliantly teasing a direct confrontation between the two. Lucy Fry's performance is growing more intense as well. A scene that could've been comedic, of Eve cutting her hair in rage, actually comes off as effective do to her acting ability.

However, “Wolf Creek” is still wasting too much time. The episode hastily resolves subplots from prior episodes. Was it really essential that Eve encounter the redneck that crudely propositioned her last episode again? The subplot about Johnny the biker resolves itself bluntly, only to set up another unneeded story. A sequence where an escaped convict stops by Eve's van in the middle of the night, helping her put a tire back on, really comes out of nowhere. By the time we discover Sullivan's wife is cheating on him, it really begins to feel like the show writers were just trying to pad out the hour. The only new addition to the story this week that I liked was Deborah Mailman as Bernadette, the mouthy owner of a cafe that was allegedly the sight of a miracle.

Jarratt and Fry's performances are keeping me hooked but “Wolf Creek's” bad habit of spinning its wheels is beginning to seriously frustrate me. Hopefully, the show picks up some steam next episode. [6/10]

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