Spree (2020) – Film Review

The world of social-media influencers vying for clicks, likes, views and retweets all to achieve viral fandom is a twisted one, and ‘Spree’ is far from the first film to delve into this subject matter with a satirical lens. What makes the film different is its secondary inspiration, being based on the true story of an Uber driver who went on a killing spree in early 2016, ‘Spree’ has plenty of comically violent scenes to accompany its social-media commentary. Yet even in spite of Joe Keery’s magnetic screen-presence, ‘Spree’ is a film that always feels as if it’s on the verge of being something exceptional, but it’s reach far exceeds its grasp.

Plot Summary: Desperate for an online following, twenty-three-year-old wannabe influencer and rideshare driver: ‘Kurt Kunkle’ devises a malicious scheme to go viral, installing a series of cameras inside his rideshare car in order to film his unsuspecting victims as they meet a gruesome end…

Co-written and directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko (A Wonderful Cloud, Wobble Palace, We Are), ‘Spree’ was initially envisioned as a claustrophobic horror based around the story of the previously mentioned serial killing Uber driver who claimed a “Devil Figure” inside of the rideshare app was controlling his actions. And although this terrifying true story would have certainly provided enough inspiration for an indie horror, Kotlyarenko and co-writer Gene McHugh soon began to swerve more into dark comedy after giving the killer an intense craving for attention. This eventually evolved into the film’s central theme of social-media obsession, which while often used to great effect to mock online influencers, does frequently feel underdeveloped and retracts from the film’s tension, pushing ‘Kurt’s killing spree into the background in exchange for awkward character moments, which will inevitably disappoint those hoping to see plenty of grisly kills.

Joe Keery portrays the film’s psychotic protagonist: ‘Kurt Kunkle,’ who is suitably just as upbeat and inappropriate as many real-world influencers. This realism is most likely a result of Eugene Kotlyarenko and Joe Keery’s research, as the pair watched many cringe compilations of people online without a big following to help create the character, and this comes across through Keery’s body movements and relentless optimism, making for an occasionally irritating yet charismatic protagonist as ‘Kurt’ always remains hopeful his night of murder will increase his follower-count after trying (and failing) for the past decade. It’s just unfortunate that ‘Kurt’ doesn’t receive much development over the course of the runtime aside from one or two scenes, with much of: ‘Kurt’s life outside of the internet being left a mystery.

The cinematography by Jeff Leeds Cohn is obviously in the style of found-footage, but rather than simply having ‘Kurt’ film his every move similar to most found-footage flicks, the camera itself takes on numerous forms as the story is seemingly spliced together through iPhone cameras/screens, dash-cams, bodycams and even CCTV footage. Yet despite this ever-changing camerawork ensuring ‘Spree’s visuals stay varied, there does come a point when it begins to feel as if the film is simply piling on footage, even sometimes having three shots displayed at once through a split-screen effect which does become slightly overwhelming, especially when combined with the film’s rapid-editing.

Whilst there a few found-footage films that have successfully integrated an original score without taking away the sense of realism the subgenre provides, ‘Spree’ is most definitely not one of those films. As although the pulsing electronic score composed by James Ferraro does help to build excitement, the film’s soundtrack often plays over scenes with no clear in-world source, which does greatly dampen the illusion of the film being found-footage.

Of course, with ‘Spree’ having a heavy focus around all things social-media, it would be crucial that the film stays truthful to what the internet is actually like (even through its cynical view). And while the film does have many scenarios that feel as though they lack realism, whether that’s due to incredibly forced dialogue or ‘Kurt’s beyond-moronic actions when trying to avoid the Los Angeles police force, anytime the film displays a phone screen there is a certainty that every app/website will be a real brand and will be overflowing with detail. For example, ‘Kurt’s constant livestreaming never shies away from reality, meaning his stream’s comments are always rapidly unfurling with insults, jokes, and questions all from distinct usernames, which according to Eugene Kotlyarenko, took him over forty-nights to write out.

In short, Joe Keery’s entertaining performance can’t distract from ‘Spree’s shallow critique of social-media. As whilst some may argue the story’s lack of depth is precisely the point, for me the film feels as if its unsure as to what to do with its concept, which is greatly disappointing. As I personally think a dark comedy revolving around the obsessive culture of social-media is ingenious, and films like ‘Ingrid Goes West’ prove this idea can be executed well. ‘Spree,’ however, fails to deliver on this or its even promise of a violent and comedic thrill ride. So, while I do still believe the film will have a niche appeal, ‘Spree’s apparent flaws are likely to stop most from hitting the subscribe button. Final Rating: high 4/10.

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The Void (2016) – Film Review

An excellent throwback to 1980s sci-fi and horror, ‘The Void,’ released in 2016 and directed by duo Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, first began its life as a simple idea with two passionate minds behind it. As this surprisingly crowdfunded project makes remarkable use out of its thin-budget especially when considering the film’s many potentially expensive set-pieces, displaying its huge array of fantastic creature designs/effects, colourful lighting, and creative cinematography with enough confidence and innovation to keep any genre enthusiast enthralled.

Plot Summary: After ‘Sheriff Deputy Carter’ stumbles across a blood-soaked man limping down a deserted road, he quickly rushes him to a local hospital with a barebones, night shift staff. But when a series of strange events occur within the hospital, seemingly linked to a group of cloaked figures standing just outside the building, ‘Carter’ decides to lead a mission into the hospital’s basement to find an exit, only to discover something far more concerning…

Even though ‘The Void’ did have a handful of producers on-board more familiar with the horror genre, as mentioned previously, the film was primarily a crowdfunded project, earning most of its budget in addition to a limited theatrical release in 2017 as a result of its online community of donators and fans. And its not exactly difficult to understand why many fanatics of sci-fi and horror alike were so interested in supporting the film, as immediately from the stylised intro any fan of 1980s cinema can tell ‘The Void’ is truly a love letter to everything 80s, with the film’s narrative clearly taking heavy inspiration from classics like ‘The Beyond,’ ‘Night if the Living Dead,’ ‘Re-Animator,’ and, of course, pretty much all of John Carpenter’s filmography. Yet despite all of these influences, ‘The Void’ also manages to never feel overly derivative, even with the film’s plot sharing many similarities to the cult horror: ‘Prince of Darkness’ from 1987.

The cast of: ‘The Void’ is primarily comprised of unknown actors, which is by no means a bad thing, as the cast give solid performances across the board even in spite of their fairly one-note characters, with Aaron Poole, Kathleen Munroe, Daniel Fathers, Mik Byskov, Evan Stern and Ellen Wong portraying the main group of staff and survivors trapped within the hospital’s walls quite well. But the real stand-out of the film has to be Kenneth Welsh as ‘Dr. Richard Powell,’ easily the compelling character of the story who undergoes some enormous changes over the course of the runtime.

Samy Inayeh handles the film’s cinematography and handles it well, as whilst there are plenty of moments where the camerawork is far too reliant on hand-held shots, the film manages to even itself out over time with plenty of visually-appealing ones. However, it’s the lighting and colour palette that are certainly the most visually impressive elements of the film, as ‘The Void’ jumps from harsh reds to cold blues almost from scene-to-scene, not only to add to the film’s unearthly atmosphere of dread, but also to help hide some of the film’s budgetary shortcomings. Furthermore, the story’s signature location of an empty hospital is a very distinct setting for a horror such as this, as the building seemingly becomes more unnatural and dilapidated the further the characters explore it.

For its original score ‘The Void’ actually had quite a large group of composers (five in total), who expertly crafted a classic 1980s synth score with undertones of dark horror, which greatly adds to both the film’s style and atmosphere. And although the film’s soundtrack is usually more atmospheric than cinematic, tracks such as: ‘Starless Night’ and ‘A Hole in the World’ prove the score does have some memorability amongst its many foreboding tracks.

Partly due to the film’s budget and partly due to Gillespie and Kostanski wanting to use as little CGI as possible, ‘The Void’ is a science fiction flick that delights in its practical effects. Ensuring every creature design and the costumes and/or prosthetics that bring them to life are nothing but flawless, from their skin to their teeth to their various tentacles (of which the film seems to relish in), nearly every aspect of each creature looks truly spectacular, and its these otherworldly designs alongside the film’s over-the-top gore and buckets of blood that help create some genuinely disturbing moments.

All in all, I feel ‘The Void’ succeeds in being an enjoyable throwback to many people’s favourite decade for sci-fi and horror, with its astounding filmmaking and many impressive practical effects all resulting in plenty of thrills and chills. And although some may argue the film lacks much in the way of originality, I’d argue otherwise. As I feel ‘The Void’ is less of a capsule for nostalgia and references for all things 80s, and more of a tribute to what came before it, never quite matching-up to many of the films from the time-period its referencing, but still raising the bar for indie filmmaking and crowdfunded projects in its best moments. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Tarantula (1955) – Film Review

Before the horror genre truly began capitalising on the common phobia of creepy crawlies with films like ‘Arachnophobia,’ ‘Itsy Bitsy,’ ‘Kingdom of the Spiders,’ and ‘Eight Legged Freaks,’ the 1955 sci-fi-horror classic: ‘Tarantula’ terrified audiences with its marvellous creature effects and continuously unnerving atmosphere. Ensuring the film would go on to be the exemplary for future monster flicks despite featuring many of the usual problems plaguing creature-features at the time.

Plot Summary: In a remote facility in the Arizona desert, ‘Professor Gerald Deemer’ is conducting a series of experiments in the hopes of finding a way to increase the world’s food supply, injecting growth hormones into various animals to greatly increase their size. But when a tarantula escapes from the isolated laboratory, still growing at a exponential rate due to the formula, the giant arachnid begins to wreak havoc on a nearby town…

Directed by the late Jack Arnold (With These Hands, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), ‘Tarantula’ was just one of the many science fiction flicks Arnold undertook throughout his career, and in a similar fashion to many of his other stories revolving around horrifying creatures, ‘Tarantula’ was part of the 1950s wave of sci-fi and horror films crafted around the newfound fear of nuclear radiation following World War II. Yet while we now know ‘Tarantula‘ did greatly help in creating the ‘giant animal’ subgenre, there is an argument to be made that if not for the release of: ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ just a year prior, ‘Tarantula’ may not even exist, as general audiences only gained interest in creature-features on account of that film’s success.

The late John Agar portrays the film’s square-jawed hero: ‘Dr. Matt Hastings,’ and just like a large majority of male protagonists in 50s sci-fi, ‘Dr. Hastings’ is charismatic-enough to carry the film in spite of the actual character receiving very little development over the course of the runtime. And as expected, ‘Tarantula’ also includes a romantic subplot between ‘Dr. Hastings’ and secondary protagonist: ‘Stephanie Clayton’ portrayed by Mara Corday, which although made palatable by Agar and Corday, still feels pretty forced. However, one of the film’s biggest missed-opportunities is certainly ‘Professor Gerald Deemer’ portrayed by the late Leo G. Carrol, as whilst Carrol gives a decent performance here, the story sadly pushes his character into the background and nearly entirely ignores the suffering his character later endures after injecting himself with his formula, making his character’s inclusion seem quite superfluous.

Despite the many creature effects throughout ‘Tarantula’ clearly being the film’s main focus, the cinematography by the late George Robinson does have its share of attractive shots even with the film’s lack of colour and camera movement alike due to the technological restrictions of the time-period. As any wide-shots displaying the vast Arizona desert or the fictional town of: ‘Desert Rock’ are fairly appealing, and occasionally, even add to the film’s tense atmosphere as the uneven rocky landscape alongside the film’s dim lighting allows the giant arachnid to often lurk unseen.

The original score by the late Herman Stein and the late Henry Mancini is a thunderous and sometimes overly dramatic score, feeling very much like a soundtrack taken from films of the 1950s for better, and for worse. And while both composers are often uncredited for their work on the film, ‘Tarantula’ is far from the first time Herman Stein has collaborated with director Jack Arnold, providing scores (and having much of his music reused) for a number of his films.

But, of course, ‘Tarantula’ will always be best known for its effects, which are in all fairness the film’s best attribute. As whilst many fondly remembered science fiction and horror films of the 1950s relied on models, costumes and stop-motion to bring their strange creatures to life, many of these filmmaking techniques can feel very dated and tacky by today’s standards for films brimming with CGI. This isn’t the case with ‘Tarantula’s effects, however, as the way the film brings its signature creature to life is quite innovative, as the filmmakers actually used a real tarantula shot separately from the rest of the film, before it was then enlarged and composited/projected onto the desert locations. This clever technique allows the spider to move naturally, and was not only state-of-the-art for the era, but is still quite impressive now, as the matte effect is usually impeccable aside from one or two shots where some of the tarantula’s legs seem to phase through the environment.

Overall, just like many other films released around the time of the 1950s/1960s, ‘Tarantula’ does have its entertainment-value, but is also much slower-paced and far more simplistic than many of the sci-fi blockbusters and epic creature-features we’d see released today. Yet whilst its characters are a little uninspired and the film is more about spectacle than anything else, ‘Tarantula’ definitely has its moments, and even if just for the effects alone, I think it deserves its place as a 50s classic, flaws and all. Final Rating: high 6/10.

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Possessor (2020) – Film Review

Following his 2012 directorial debut with ‘Antiviral,’ Brandon Cronenberg, son of legendary sci-fi-horror director David Cronenberg, crafts a captivating sci-fi thriller with ‘Possessor,’ a film that deals with heavy themes of identity loss and sexual discomfort, all whilst displaying its story through some truly spectacular cinematography and lighting. And even though Brandon’s second sci-fi outing doesn’t quite reach the high bar set by his father’s work, ‘Possessor’ is still more than successful as a surreal and layered science fiction flick with outbursts of strong, bloody violence.

Plot Summary: After many years of working as a corporate agent utilising brain implanted technology to inhabit other people’s bodies and force them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. ‘Tasya Vos’ struggles to suppress her violent memories and urges, soon causing her to completely lose control when taking over the mind of a new subject, whose identity now threatens to destroy her own…

Debuting at Sundance Film Festival in early 2020, ‘Possessor’ has quickly gone down as one of the best low-budget releases of that year. Or at least this version of the film has, as according to writer-director Brandon Cronenberg, there was an alternate screenplay for: ‘Possessor’ which drastically differed from the version that was released. So much so, that Brandon stated it could possibly become a second film later down the line, encompassing all of the material that didn’t quite make it into the first, which was primarily inspired by two pieces of media, the first being the 1971 novel: ‘Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psycho-Civilised Society’ by José Delgado, and the second being the short film: ‘Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You,’ written and directed by David Cronenberg.

Andrea Riseborough gives a fantastically cold performance throughout the film as ‘Tasya Vos,’ making it clear within only a few minutes that ‘Tasya’ is deeply suffering from the effects of her job, as each time she steps into the life of a new subject, she remerges different, finding it harder and harder to untangle her true identity from the one she just inhabited. And it probably goes without saying that as a sci-fi focused around entering other people’s bodies, the story does explore sexual desire/sexual discomfort, never shying away from scenes of: ‘Tasya’ being entranced with her new body after taking over the mind of: ‘Colin Tate’ portrayed by Christopher Abbott. Who also gives a superb performance as the unfortunate host chosen to execute the company’s assassination, continuously switching between two personalities before eventually becoming devoid of all emotion as minds conflict.

‘Possessor’s cinematography by Karim Hussain also rarely ceases to impress, as nearly every shot is both attractive and memorable, with many shots leaning into the narrative’s themes in addition to providing a closer look at the heavily detailed gore effects through an array of extreme close-ups. The innovative camerawork is also enhanced by the film’s terrific use of colour, as the lighting and colour palette swiftly alters from bright yellows to dark blues to eye-piercing reds. But this isn’t where ‘Possessor’s filmmaking peaks, as it can’t be denied that the film is at its best whenever it visualises ‘Tasya’ and ‘Colin’ mentally battling for control of: ‘Colin’s body, as the film visually displays this interesting concept of a psychic battle on the astral plane through a range of editing techniques and creative yet strange practical effects. The scene in which ‘Tasya’ first enters ‘Colin’s mind is particularly astounding, as the film displays fake bodies of the two main cast members, which then melt entirely into liquid flesh.

Many of the film’s bizarre visuals are also elevated to a great extent by Jim Williams’ original score, as ‘Possessor’s synth-esque soundtrack keeps the film’s eerie atmosphere present throughout the runtime, capturing the story’s surreal tone and constantly building tension through its atmospheric feel until we arrive at the story’s thrilling climax. My two personal favourite tracks: ‘Reborn in the Mind of Another’ and ‘A False Reputation’ aren’t exactly distinctive, but both tracks do help tremendously in this regard.

The main issue ‘Possessor’ suffers from is its lack of world-building, as supposedly the film takes place in an alternate version of the year 2008, but aside from one short scene where we see ‘Colin’s day-to-day job as a data miner, which does at least serve as a comment on the paranoia of corporate overlords and their nefarious activities, the world of: ‘Possessor’ receives very little development and can often feel inconsistent when it comes to its technological advances.

To conclude, ‘Possessor’ is the perfect hybrid of sci-fi, character study and body-horror. As whilst its lack of world-building and compelling side characters do stop the film from reaches its true potential, ‘Possessor’ (along with Brandon’s previous film), definitely prove that Cronenberg’s son has talent for telling harrowing and violent stories, all the while never forgetting to integrate intriguing concepts and ideas. And with Brandon pushing for most of: ‘Possessor’s effects to be completed in-camera rather than with CGI, the two directors may be even more alike than I first thought. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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The Voices (2014) – Film Review

This obscure horror-comedy released in late 2014 will certainly make for a divisive viewing, as while ‘The Voices’ does feature an inspired use of colour and set-design alongside a stand-out performance from Ryan Reynolds, the film is also far more disturbing than much of its marketing would lead you to believe, swerving from absurd moments of humour to visceral moments of gore in a heart beat. The resulting film essentially becoming a parody/throwback of/to classic horrors like ‘American Psycho,’ and is a far-cry from a realistic study of psychosis for better, and for worse.

Plot Summary: After working a nine-to-five job at his local bathtub factory, the mentally ill: ‘Jerry’ finds comfort in returning home to his beloved pets: ‘Bosco’ and ‘Mr. Whiskers.’ Until one day, with the help of his psychiatrist, ‘Jerry’ decides to pursue his office crush: ‘Fiona.’ But when their relationship takes a sudden, murderous turn leaving ‘Jerry’ with the corpse of his co-worker, he tries desperately to strive for normalcy, only to fall deeper into instability…

Early in the pre-production of: ‘The Voices,’ director Mark Romanek, best known for the 2002 drama/thriller: ‘One Hour Photo’ was attached as the film’s director, before Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums, Radioactive) later took over as the head of the project. And whilst ‘The Voices’ does feel like quite a large shift from Satrapi’s usual work, its hard to know exactly which director would’ve excelled with a screenplay as original as this one is. As while ‘The Voices’ does share some similarities to other serial killer flicks, many of the film’s ideas are just brimming with personality, as everything from ‘Jerry’ showing symptoms of OCD when slicing-up the bodies of his victims, to ‘Jerry’ living above an abandoned bowling alley, the film just has such a unique appeal.

Ryan Reynolds really gets a chance to shine portraying the film’s mentally ill protagonist, as whilst ‘Jerry’ does commit many horrible acts over the course of the runtime, Reynolds manages to capture the idea of: ‘Jerry’ being a man forced down a road of violence. He is a distinct serial killer in the sense that he desires companionship and happiness, and doesn’t receive any pleasure from killing. So, when its eventually revealed what happened to him as a child, you can’t help but sympathise with him, evoking a level of emotion that many murderous characters struggle to achieve. But unfortunately, the film’s side characters portrayed by Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, and Jacki Weaver, all feel quite thin as a result of them only being in the story to serve as ‘Jerry’s potential victims.

Maxime Alexandre handles the film’s cinematography well, as the camerawork throughout ‘The Voices’ remains fairly creative. The film’s visuals are most impressive most, however, when it comes to the film’s colour palette, set-design, and set-dressing, as with nearly the entirety of the story being seen through ‘Jerry’s perspective, the film displays the true extent of: ‘Jerry’s delusions through its use of colour/sets. For example, when not on his prescribed medication, ‘Jerry’ views his apartment as very clean and organised, giving the location a much more comfortable feel, whereas when ‘Jerry’ does take his medication, he sees the grim reality of his soiled home.

The original score by Olivier Bernet is similar, never reaching into full on horror, but being a mixture of cartoonish dreamlike tracks such as: ‘In the Woods’ and ‘Jesus Dad,’ before then moving onto more upbeat tracks like ‘Don’t Mess with Milton.’ A seemingly ironic track focused around the fictional woodland town of: ‘Milton’ where the story takes place, claiming the town to be nothing but a friendly and welcoming place.

The main aspect of: ‘The Voices’ that I feel could make or break the film for many is likely to be its comedy, as whilst it is revealed fairly early on that many of the film’s bizarre moments such as: ‘Jerry’s pets speaking to him or ‘Jesus’ appearing on a forklift are all taking place within his mind, much of this strange humour is very hit-or-miss. However, an interesting yet small detail regarding the talking pets is that Ryan Reynolds actually voices each one of the animals himself, with each pet having a different accent, furthering ‘Jerry’s delusions. In fact, Reynolds actually modelled the voice of: ‘Mr. Whiskers,’ a.k.a. ‘Jerry’s cat, after a Scottish friend he knew for over twenty years.

Overall, while ‘The Voices’ is overflowing with both charm and wit, it also has many issues. From its quickly altering tone and many jokes that fall flat, the film is far from a perfect horror-comedy. But it does redeem many of its faults through its great performances and eccentric style, all playing into the film’s quirky personality. And its due to all of this that the film feels as if its made for a very niche audience, yet for those ‘The Voices’ does appeal to, there is a fair amount to enjoy here. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Black Swan (2010) – Film Review

Fantastically deranged at all times, ‘Black Swan’ directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Mother!) is for many, the pinnacle of the director’s filmography as of yet. As the film’s combination of numerous genres soon evolves into an incredibly unique experience that leaps onto the stage in an effort to impress, with its gorgeous lighting, dreamlike atmosphere and occasionally grotesque visuals all elevating the film’s twisted tale of a dancer obsessed with achieving her dreams. And whilst the film does trip over itself once or twice, its faults are few and far between.

Plot Summary: When ‘Nina,’ a ballerina for the New York ballet company discovers she has been chosen for the lead role in the company’s production of: ‘Swan Lake,’ she struggles to maintain her sanity as her rival dancers, eccentric casting director and obsessive mother twist her perception of reality, forcing ‘Nina’ to prove herself worthy of the duel role and be the exemplary for both the ‘White’ and ‘Black Swan.’

Although the film was never marketed as such, director Darren Aronofsky has always maintained that ‘Black Swan’ is first and foremost a psychological horror film, as the story delves into themes of mental illness and obsession, in addition to displaying many graphic sequences of what is essentially body-horror. And yet, the film also somehow manages to never feel restrained to just one genre, which is what keeps it so compelling. This experimental nature might also explain why it took around ten years to be green-lit, as Aronofsky made many changes to the original screenplay in an attempt to get the film funded, with his original hopes for a budget of around £22 million being drastically lowered to roughly £9 million in the end.

The phenomenal lead performance from Natalie Portman nabbed the actress an Oscar back in 2010, and throughout the film it quickly becomes clear as to why she won, as Portman flawlessly portrays ‘Nina’ as a committed and talented dancer being crushed by the pressure of the role she is undertaking. Portman even went to the extent of altering her voice (which had been continuously criticised by directors in the past for its childish qualities), as Aronofsky requested that for the role of: ‘Nina,’ Portman would need to regress backwards and make her voice more child-like. Furthermore, Portman not only lost over twenty-pounds for the role, but at least 95% of the dancing seen within the film was performed by Portman herself, with the professional ballerina Sarah Lane acting as her body/dance double for the complex en-pointe work. All of this is without even mentioning the excellent supporting cast of Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder, whose performances all add to the film’s surrealist feel.

Matthew Libatique handles the cinematography, which despite relying far too heavily on hand-held shots during some scenes, also makes for some truly astonishing visuals at points. As the film’s cinematic lighting alongside the grand gothic influence that the film borrows from cult horrors and other art-house films, most notably, the stylised supernatural horror: ‘Suspiria’ from 1977, grant the film a very distinct and striking look. Aronofsky’s trademark of camerawork also creeps its way into the film, as there are a number of moments throughout the runtime where the camera tracks ‘Nina’ from behind as she walks through various locations, giving the cinematography a great sense of movement not too dissimilar to leaping across a stage.

The original score by Clint Mansell also suitably feels like a score composed for a ballerina recital, as ‘Black Swan’s orchestral soundtrack is mostly a variation on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ ballet, the only difference being that the notes are played backwards in a distorted manner. This makes the entire score feel very extravagant and almost overly dramatic, as tracks like ‘Nina’s Dream,’ ‘A Swan is Born’ and ‘Perfection’ add to both the tragedy and beauty of the story.

As previously mentioned, due to its many scenes of graphic (and frankly disturbing) moments of mutilation, ‘Black Swan’ is far from an easy watch. As while the film doesn’t feature any ‘gore’ per-say, all of the scenes of: ‘Nina’s harmful acts towards herself feel more grounded in realism as a result of how minimal they are, with all of the skin picking and dancing injuries she endures being reminiscent of a real disorder, known to medical professions as dermatillomania, a disorder primarily related to skin scratching and/or skin picking.

In conclusion, even though many believe ‘Black Swan’ to be Aronofsky’s best effort, ‘Requiem for a Dream’ will always be my personal favourite film from the distinctive director, as in spite of: ‘Black Swan’s beautiful visuals and captivating narrative, the film also feels like it isn’t quite reaching its full potential, mostly due to its overuse of hand-held camerawork and unexplored characters/ideas. Regardless, this art-house horror does sustain its entertainment-value for the most part, and just like many other art-house films, can be interpreted very differently from viewer-to-viewer. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Escape Room (2019) – Film Review

Divertive yet still quite thrilling in parts, ‘Escape Room’ directed by Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan, Insidious: The Last Key) fails to unlock much of the potential in its premise, eventually devolving into what is simply scene-after-scene of the film’s characters solving puzzles in a number of themed rooms whilst on a strict time-limit. Yet depending on what you desire to see from a modern thriller, this may be enough to serve a passing diversion, as the film chooses to just ignore its lack of realism and originality in favour of distracting its audience through creative set-design and tense fast-paced sequences.

Plot Summary: When six strangers are each sent a mysterious black puzzle box withholding an invitation to an immersive escape room, they all make their way to the ‘Minos’ facility on the promise of being able to win a fortune should they escape. But after entering what seems to be the building’s waiting area, innocent fun soon turns into a deadly game as the group discover that each room thy enter is actually an elaborate trap…

From a mere mention of the film’s plot, the ‘Saw’ and ‘Cube’ franchises are understandably the first two things that come to mind. As in many ways, ‘Escape Room’ is effectively just a far less violent version of those familiar set-ups, with a character heading into a room only to be greeted with a convoluted trap that will result in their death should they not escape it. And while ‘Escape Room’ does contain at least a couple of sparks regarding something original, the film is also far from subtle in both its storytelling and dialogue, with plenty of cheesy lines, implausible events and character’s backstories being shown through literal flashbacks.

Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll and Nik Dodani all give passable performances as the main group of characters forced into a twisted game. Their actual characters however, are possibly the film’s biggest missed opportunity. As whilst a few of the characters do receive development early on in the narrative, its quickly becomes clear as to which characters the film is favouring, making it easy to predict who is going to live, and who is going to die. But if the film would’ve managed to better balance its characterisation, then not only would the story have been more compelling overall, but this would’ve kept the viewer constantly guessing as to who could go next.

Aside from one or two wide-shots when the group first enter a new room, the cinematography by Marc Spicer is mostly uninspired, never really attempting to integrate any incredibly innovative or unique shots. Still, the cinematography does serve its purpose for the most part, backing-up the story without ever relying too heavily on the use of hand-held camerawork or overly-choppy editing. Additionally, the film’s CG effects (as sparsely used as they may be), are serviceable but not much else beyond that.

Contrarily, the original score by Brian Tyler and John Carey is fairly inventive, as the pulsing and suspenseful electronic score utilises everything from ticking clocks to power tools, representing the time-pressed characters and the constantly changing environments from which they are trying to escape. This means tracks such as: ‘Coaster’ and ‘Testing Your Limits’ massively help to build tension, whereas moody tracks like ‘The King of Trading’ and ‘Let the Games Begin’ feel more sci-fi and atmospheric in nature. The film’s main theme simply titled: ‘Escape Room,’ even receives a dubstep-like remix by musicians ‘Madsonik’ and ‘Kill the Noise,’ which plays over the film’s stylised end credits.

The film’s set-design is possibly its best aspect, as rather than going for the bog-standard look of libraries and basements for the basis of each room, the film explores an array of diverse environments for its puzzles. From a log cabin complete with a snowy mountain vista to an upside-down billiards bar, the film’s ever-changing locations help keep the story’s signature concept feeling fresh. Many of the rooms also relate to the character’s traumatic backstories, the first room for example, is essentially a giant oven which will burn the group alive should they not escape, this mimics ‘Amanda’s backstory, who was badly burned after she barley survived an IED explosion while serving her country.

In conclusion, not only is ‘Escape Room’ similar to the ‘Saw’ series in terms of its story and set-up, but unfortunately, also in terms of its franchise potential. As its pretty obvious from the film’s extremely forced ending that Sony Pictures wanted their own low-budget horror/thriller franchise as an easy way to gain profit, and riffing on an already iconic series is a trouble-free way to achieve this. So, although it’s set-design and original score are admirable, in addition to a large majority of the filmmaking ‘Escape Room’ has on display being above-average if not better, the film definitely has its share of problems, and, in my opinion, isn’t worthy of an entire film series. Final Rating: 5/10.

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This Year in Film (2020) – Film List

Due to COVID-19, the film industry (much like the world itself) has deeply suffered this year, with many films be pushed-back or even put on-hold indefinitely. And while I obviously agree with all of the new precautions introduced for the safety of both the cast and crew for films currently in production, I’m also truly hoping that the film industry can recover by next year. Regardless, in no particular order, here’s my thoughts on what few films I did manage to see this year, which I will update in time as I get around to seeing any other films I may have missed.

Soul

A return to form for Pixar Animation, Pixar’s ‘Soul’ not only features the usual gorgeous animation the company is known for, but also delivers on an original and unique story with many fascinating ideas melded within. Although some of its concepts may be a little difficult for younger viewers to understand, ‘Soul’ is still a wonderful mixture of heart and creativity, and is such a breath of fresh-air for both the animated genre and Pixar themselves.

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Mank

Capturing the look and feel of a 1940s film, the sharply-written and brilliantly performed: ‘Mank,’ peers behind-the-scenes of one of the greatest films ever made, that being: ‘Citizen Kane,’ to tell an old Hollywood tale that is just as engaging as it is well-crafted. And while I don’t believe the film will end-up becoming a classic in its own right, as I could see general audiences finding the film quite dull, cinephiles will surely get a kick out of this remarkable drama.

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Tenet

Thrilling and distinctive yet very flawed in terms of its writing, ‘Tenet’ is nowhere near as compelling as many of Christopher Nolan’s other blockbusters, suffering from an incredibly undeveloped protagonist/antagonist as well as a handful of moments that feel like spectacle-over-substance. But through its impressive CG effects and exciting action sequences, ‘Tenet’ does certainly have plenty of entertainment-value even if it’s script was in need of some refinement.

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Mulan

Another of Disney’s live-action reimaginings of their beloved classics, the new incarnation of: ‘Mulan’ is beyond lacklustre, with its unlikable protagonist, dull filmmaking and more historically-accurate yet uninteresting story all being far less enjoyable than the original animated adventure. And with this film flopping at the box-office due to its purchasable release on Disney+, we can only hope that ‘Mulan’ is one of the last remakes Disney decides to force upon its viewers, but after looking at their current release schedule, this does seem unlikely.

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Scoob!

Serving as what was intended to be the first film in an animated Hanna-Barbara cinematic universe, ‘Scoob!’ Is an enormous missed opportunity for a reboot of: ‘Mystery Inc.’ As the film quickly becomes distracted by its singular goal of setting-up this interconnected universe and as a result, forgets to tell the entertaining and charming origin story its trailers promised, or even a classic spooky adventure more in-line with the original animated show.

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Onward

An intriguing idea/story quickly spoiled by its overly-fast-pacing and overstuffed world, before ‘Soul’ came along and redeemed their streak, ‘Onward’ simply felt like another disappointing film in the long-list of underwhelming Pixar flicks released in recent years. Whilst the modern-fantasy world the film takes-place within does take its opportunities to be amusing or charming, it also isn’t very memorable in the long-run.

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The Hunt

While the political-commentary throughout ‘The Hunt’ is quite easy to ignore if you only desire to see some dark comedy and intense violence. ‘The Hunt’ still somehow managed to be one of the most controversial yet also most neglected films of the year, eventually leading Blumhouse Pictures to use the film’s controversy to market the film, which really displays the company’s lack of faith in the film itself, which is nothing short of a slightly more comedic but just as bland ‘Purge’ flick.

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Possessor

From the son of David Cronenberg, Brandon Cronenberg. ‘Possessor’ may not be quite as ground-breaking as horror/sci-fi classics like ‘The Fly’ or ‘Scanners’, but this original and intriguing narrative is only complimented by its compelling themes and exceptional filmmaking, and serves as a brilliant second outing for this iconic director’s son, who I personally can’t wait to see more from.

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Extraction

Although ‘Extraction’ is very loose on story and characterisation alike, the film’s exciting action set-pieces will be more than enough to satisfy action fanatics. As Chris Hemsworth fittingly places all of his training and gruff-exterior to the forefront for the film’s many violent, exhilarating and occasionally even over-the-top moments.

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His House

A low-budget British horror with some intriguing themes, ‘His House’ is a terrifying and eye-opening look at the specters of the refugee experience. Directed by first-time filmmaker Remi Weekes, the film is certainly not for everyone, as it avoids many common horror clichés in favour of aggressively playing into its central concept, which usually works quite well aside from one or two moments where it can feel a little heavy-handed.

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Underwater

A fantastic throwback to 80s creature-features, ‘Underwater’ was undoubtedly one of the most overlooked entries into the sci-if genre this year. And although it’s story isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, this simplistic yet flashy flick will surely please any fans of cult horrors and science fiction stories, having heavy inspirations of both H.P. Lovecraft and even the 1979 classic: ‘Alien.’

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The Gentlemen

Going back to his ‘Snatch’ roots, ‘The Gentlemen’ directed by the brilliant Guy Richie is simultaneously stylish, well-crafted and hilarious. Whilst I personally feel ‘Snatch’ still has a slight edge over Richie’s latest feature, it’s still a very enjoyable ride nevertheless, and is more than likely one of my favourites from this year.

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The Midnight Sky

Iconic actor George Clooney returned to directing this year with the Netflix Original: ‘The Midnight Sky,’ and even though it lacks the dramatic heft to match its narrative scale, its flaws are often balanced by its thoughtful themes and poignant performances from both Felicity Jones and George Clooney himself.

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The Invisible Man

Another one of my personal favourites from this year, this remake of the classic 1930s monster flick: ‘The Invisible Man,’ is a refreshing and very well-directed take on the iconic character. Remaining tense and entertaining throughout its mostly original storyline, all the while continuing to impress with its excellent performances, effective cinematography and impactful original score.

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We Can Be Heroes

Attempting to capture both the imagination of younger viewers as well as the nostalgia of older audiences who grew-up with colourful family flicks like ‘SpyKids’ and ‘The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,’ ‘We Can Be Heroes’ had an opportunity to interject some light-hearted fun into this challenging year. But with its predictable and overly-marketed focus on superheroes, not to mention its clearly inexperienced young cast and abysmal CG effects and costume-design, ‘We Can Be Heroes’ ended-up being just as irritating as it was corny, lacking any of the charm those older films had for all their problems.

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Color Out of Space

A wonderful slice of cosmic-horror, ‘Color Out of Space’ explores this subgenre and its weirdly-fascinating story remarkably well. As although I personally adore cosmic-horror, this subgenre has always received little attention in modern-day cinema, yet this adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novel of the same name is just as creative and disturbing as it’s source material, sometimes even more so despite a few moments of robotic dialogue and weak acting, resulting in a strange yet truly captivating experience.

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The New Mutants

Finally, after years and years of waiting, the horror-esque superhero flick: ‘The New Mutants’ was released in 2020. And it’s fair to say it made its way into cinemas with little applause, missing its train of anticipation by years at this point, and as a result, ‘The New Mutants’ seemed to have just gone unwatched by most, and for those who did see the film such as myself, simply experienced a dull, cheesy and messy film which felt unsure of what it even wanted to be by the runtime’s end.

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Sonic the Hedgehog

Jim Carrey makes his long-awaited return to the silver screen in this adaptation of the iconic video game character: ‘Sonic the Hedgehog,’ delivering an expectedly over-the-top performance as the film’s antagonist: ‘Dr. Robotnik.’ And while the film follows the usual formula many family films stick-to, never really doing anything unexpected or overly-impressive, it does remain enjoyable-enough for children and fans of the video game series alike throughout its simplistic story.

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The Devil All the Time

Gripping, tense and dramatic, ‘The Devil All the Time’s descent into darkness may be harrowing to the point of unwatchability for some, and isn’t a film I’d recommend to general audiences. Having a devilish mix of neo-noir intrigue and gothic horror based on William Hjortsberg’s page-turning novel, the film is a compelling feature only elevated by the strong work from its all-star cast.

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The King of Staten Island

This comedy/drama from director Judd Apatow isn’t one of the director’s best films to-date, as ‘The King of Staten Island’s uncertain tone and indulgent length stop this coming-of-age dramedy’s ability to find itself, but Pete Davidson’s soulful performance and the director’s usual flair for comedy do manage to keep the film afloat.

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The Babysitter: Killer Queen

Whilst this sequel to 2017’s ‘The Babysitter’ does delve more into the supernatural aspects only hinted at in the first film, ‘The Babysitter: Killer Queen’ is worse than it’s predecessor when it comes to both its comedy and it’s pacing. Ending-up as a mostly straight-forward and drawn-out chase sequence similar to the original film, only this time without the amusing jokes or clever horror satire to hold it up.

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The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run

Aside from its attractive animation and extremely vibrant colour palette, the third major film focusing on the iconic cartoon character: ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ contains barley any story or hilarious moments. Instead, relying on bizarre celebrity cameos and strange dream sequences to fill it’s short runtime, which is sure to do nothing other than leave children bored, adults confused and fans of the beloved animated show immensely disappointed.

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Krampus (2015) – Film Review

Whilst most Christmas films get across their message about how family is the true meaning of the holiday in a wholesome and light-hearted fashion, ‘Krampus’ takes quite a different approach. As director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) crafts a cynical and amusing horror-comedy based around: ‘Krampus,’ a creature from European folklore with origins stretching back to the days before Christianity, serving as essentially the sinister twin of jolly ‘Saint Nicholas,’ punishing those who misbehave in various odious ways. And while the film is far from perfect, ‘Krampus’ creative ideas and impressive practical effects make the film worth it’s runtime.

Plot Summary: When his dysfunctional family clash over the holidays, young ‘Max’ finally decides to turn his back on Christmas, tearing-up his letter to ‘Santa Clause’ in a fit of rage. Little does he know, his lack of Christmas spirit has unleashed the wrath of: ‘Krampus,’ an ancient demon who punishes those who don’t celebrate the festive season. Forcing ‘Max’ and the rest of his family to fight for one another if they hope to survive…

Although there are plenty of enjoyable films out there to watch over the festive season, I usually always find myself craving something new around the Christmas-period, as the cliché narrative of children helping ‘Santa Claus’ save Christmas gets very old quick. ‘Krampus’ however, does certainly attempt something new, even if it isn’t always successful. As whilst the original outline for the film was closer to a straight-forward horror, focusing mostly on ‘Krampus’ picking people off throughout ‘Max’s town, it was eventually decided to make it more of a dark retelling of a traditional Christmas film. This is why the plot is kicked-off with a letter to ‘Santa.’ and why the film’s first act begins much like a family film would, before then having a drastic turn towards horror and dark fantasy.

The film’s large cast of Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Stefania LaVie Owen, Conchata Ferrell and Krista Stadler are all serviceable in their roles, even though many of their characters aren’t developed nowhere near enough. Additionally, ‘Tom Engel,’ a.k.a. ‘Max’s father, also has many moments where he doesn’t seem to take their life-threating situation that seriously, almost as if he is acknowledging how bizarre the story is, which does diminish the film’s tension at points. But with ‘Krampus’ featuring moments of humour and fright alike, the film obviously has many shifts in tone between scenes.

Jules O’Loughlin’s cinematography is nothing amazing altogether, as in spite of the film having quite a few memorable and attractive shots, there are also a large amount of bland shots whenever the camera is focusing on the actors themselves. What is far more admirable though is how the camerawork enhances the film’s set-design, making the audience believe that the film was shot inside a real house and outside on a real wintry street. When in reality, over 95% of the film was shot on a soundstage, with the snow covering the ground being made from a material that’s commonly used for making nappies.

Composer Douglas Pipes handles the film’s original score, and he described his soundtrack as “A Collection of Twisted Christmas Carols with Pagan Thrown in.” As the score incorporates everything from the sounds of chains, bells, bones and animal-skin drums in addition to having choirs chant and whisper in different tongues, making for a foreboding but suitably Christmassy score. The track: ‘A Cold Wind’ also does a phenomenal job of reiterating ‘Krampus’ as the ominous shadow of: ‘Santa Clause’ through its use of sleigh bells. However, the film’s actual sound design features some incredibly strange choices for a horror, as many goofy/cartoonish sound effects can be heard within the film, feeling immensely out-of-place every-time they are.

One of the finest aspects of: ‘Krampus’ as a film has to be its effects, as rather than having an overeliance on CG visuals, ‘Krampus’ brings all of its uniquely creepy creatures to-life through detailed costumes and animatronics, harkening back to classic 80s horror-comedies like ‘Gremlins.’ Many of the film’s terrifying monsters also share wonderfully horrific designs, with the final design for: ‘Krampus’ and his elves being distilled from various postcards and illustrations seen over-time. Or in the case of the malevolent toys, taking inspiration from the 1992 low-budget horror: ‘Demonic Toys,’ with the angel ornament, teddy bear, robot and Jack-in-a-box that attack the family sharing many similarities to the toys seen in that obscure horror flick.

In conclusion, ‘Krampus’ is a rollicking ride of a Christmas film even if it isn’t quite as polished as Dougherty’s Halloween flick: ‘Trick ‘r Treat.’ As the film’s excellent practical effects, menacing creature designs and great original score all lend themselves very well to the distinctive story, despite the narrative itself often feeling like wasted potential considering ‘Krampus’ doesn’t fully appear until near the end of the runtime. Regardless, this horror-comedy is still the best on-screen interpretation of: ‘Krampus’ and his minions as of yet. Final Rating: 7/10.

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The Babysitter (2017) – Film Review

Originally filmed in 2015 with the intention of playing in cinemas, the horror-comedy: ‘The Babysitter’ wasn’t seen by any horror fanatics until it released late 2017 after Netflix acquired the rights to the film for streaming. And although ‘The Babysitter’ doesn’t exactly break any of the rules we’ve come to expect within the horror genre, this horror-comedy with splatterings of style must’ve been entertaining enough for those who decided to watch it, as the film would eventually spawn a Netflix-exclusive franchise with two later sequels.

Plot Summary: Riddled with anxiety, twelve-year-old: ‘Cole’ has always been bullied and picked on due to his constant panicking, only finding comfort around the one person who understands him, his attractive babysitter: ‘Bee.’ That is, until one night, after ‘Cole’ secretly stays up past his bedtime to discover she’s actually part of a satanic cult, forcing ‘Cole’ to spend the rest of his evening evading ‘Bee’s band of killers who will stop at nothing to prevent him from spilling their dark secret…

Directed by Joseph McGinty Nichol (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator: Salvation, This Means War) or ‘McG’ as he most commonly goes by, ‘The Babysitter’ is a film that has received a number of alterations (both big and small) since even the early stages of its pre-production. For example, in the original screenplay for the film, ‘Sonya’ was actually a cheerleader, ‘Allison’ was a journalist for her high-school newspaper and ‘Max’ had dreadlocks, but eventually it was decided that ‘Bee’s cult followers should be reimagined to more closely reflect the stereotypical characters seen in classic slasher flicks, only in this film, they’re the antagonists. And this idea is one of the film’s best aspects in terms of its writing, as it gives the film a real sense of self-awareness in addition paying respect to what came before it. Most notably, the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, which ‘Max’ references directly at one point when he chants: “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ah-Ah-Ah” whilst chasing ‘Cole.’

Judah Lewis does manage to leave an impression in his first film role, portraying protagonist: ‘Cole’ as an innocent twelve-year-old with few friends aside from ‘Bee,’ even if a large portion of his anxious characterisation feels far too over-the-top. Then there is also Samara Weaving as the titular babysitter: ‘Bee,’ and her cult followers: ‘Max,’ ‘Allison,’ ‘Sonya’ and ‘John’ portrayed by Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Hana Mae Lee and Andrew Bachelor. Who are all wonderfully devilish throughout the film, having plenty of dark comedic moments between them making their deaths quite unfortunate, as while I’m sure most could’ve guessed their characters do die at some-point within the narrative, we don’t get to spend enough time with any of them to get a strong grasp on their exaggerated personalities or any understanding of their malevolent cult.

In spite of the usually dull cinematography by Shane Hurlbut, ‘The Babysitter’ still manages to be one of the more visually-interesting Netflix Originals through its unique style, as the film continuously implements different text, graphics and colours to give it a distinct stylistic appeal, not too dissimilar from (although nowhere near impressive as) ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ from 2010. Many of these editing decisions also help to redeem the film’s humour, which is extremely inconsistent, bouncing from hilarious cut-aways and meta horror jokes to embarrassing lines of dialogue which try far too hard.

Whilst composer Douglas Pipes has crafted some great scores in the past like ‘Monster House’ and ‘Trick ‘r Treat,’ ‘The Babysitter’ is certainly not one of them, as even with the film having many serviceable tracks. The overall soundtrack just lacks anything overly-distinctive, and I believe that if it was ever compared to any other score from Pipes, or even just a couple of random comedy/horror scores, I doubt most would be able to tell it apart. The film also throws-in the iconic ‘Queen’ song: ‘We Are the Champions’ nearing the story’s end, which feels immensely out-of-place and comes-out of nowhere.

For a large duration of its tight runtime (which the film breezes through as a result of its unrelentingly fast-pacing), ‘The Babysitter’s story is predominantly just one long chase sequence, and whilst occasionally tense, I couldn’t help but feel that the film’s screenplay could’ve taken better advantage of its evil babysitter concept or its few supernatural elements, despite the series second entry: ‘The Babysitter: Killer Queen’ delving much further into the latter. Yet the film doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its violence, having plenty of fantastically gruesome gore effects which are all successfully played for comedy.

Overall, I could see ‘The Babysitter’ being an enjoyable experience for some and possibly just a boring viewing for others. As when ignoring the film’s graphic gore and fun stylistic choices, the story leaves a lot to be desired, and can often feel derivative of horror classics even if this was the film’s intention to an extent with its focus on horror tropes/clichés. For me personally, although I do admire the film’s ridiculous tone and dark humour, the disappointing story can often feel sluggish, diminishing the film’s memorability and rewatchability. Final Rating: 5/10.

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