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 over-reliance 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 that obscure film.

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’ didn’t actually release until 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 splatters 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 usually goes by, ‘The Babysitter’ as a film has received a number of alterations since its pre-production. As in the original script, ‘Sonya’ was actually a cheerleader, ‘Allison’ was a journalist for her school paper, ‘John’ had the nickname: ‘John the Baptist’ and ‘Max’ had dreadlocks. Before the characters were later reimagined to more closely reflect the common stereotypes of victims in slasher flicks, only in this film, they’re the antagonists. 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 script could’ve taken better advantage of its evil babysitter concept or its supernatural elements, despite the series second entry: ‘The Babysitter: Killer Queen’ delving more 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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As Above, So Below (2014) – Film Review

Co-written/directed by John Erick Dowdle (The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine, Devil), ‘As Above, So Below’ is certainly an interesting found-footage flick, as while at a first mention the film may just sound like another a stereotypical horror, this claustrophobic delve into the caliginous Paris catacombs does actually have some depth hidden beneath its generic exterior. But unfortunately, even with the story’s intriguing religious imagery/influences, the film soon plummets into clichéd mediocrity, mostly as a result of its bland characters and weak scares.

Plot Summary: When a team of explorers venture into the miles of twisting catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, all in search of the historical: ‘Philosopher’s Stone.’ They encounter far more than they bargained for when they realise they have entered into the first of the nine rings of: ‘Hell,’ where visions of their past sins begin to relentlessly torment them.

From a quick glance at the film’s visuals, its understandable why many would see ‘As Above, So Below’ as just another found-footage horror, only this time capitalising on the daunting real-world location of the Paris catacombs, which hold the remains of more than six-million people in the small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris’ ancient stone-quarries. But the film’s setting does heavily-relate to the story of: ‘Inferno,’ a short poem written by Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the fourteenth-century, focusing on the tale of man who journeys through ‘Hell’ guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Even the film’s title plays-into this central idea, as the words: ‘As Above, So Below’ are derived from “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” which is a line from the ‘Christian Lord’s Prayer,’ which begins with “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…”

Although their characters are immensely mundane, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert and Ali Marhyar are all serviceable in their respective roles, delivering the usual screaming, ventilating and panicking performances that occur in most found-footage films. However, while the film’s protagonist: ‘Scarlett’ is portrayed well by Perdita Weeks, the character herself is noticeably very unlikable, mostly due to her constant obsession with the ‘Philosopher’s Stone,’ which she places all of her friend’s lives at risk for without question, and its never made clear whether we should actually be rooting for her to survive or not.

The cinematography by Léo Hinstin is more of the usual for this subgenre, providing the viewer with plenty of shaky and out-of-focus shots as the characters make their way through the almost pitch-black burial-ground. This doesn’t distract from what is easily the film’s most impressive (and most ambitious) filming tip-bit however, which is that the film was actually shot in the Paris catacombs themselves, not in a sound-stage. In fact, this was the first production ever to secure permission from the French government to film within the catacombs, which would have been quite a challenge as the series of narrow, winding tunnels with centuries-old skeletons arranged on the walls would’ve had little room for equipment/crew. Yet this does pay-off as the film utilises it’s location extremely well, always placing its characters in tight areas to insight claustrophobia in the audience.

While the film doesn’t feature a complete original score for obvious reasons, one of the strongest aspects of found-footage flicks, sound design, is actually an area where ‘As Above, So Below’ is lacking. As despite the film’s many attempts to feel impactful when the characters dive into water or are nearly crushed by a collapsing celling, a vast majority of the sound effects don’t sound as if they are coming from within the catacombs, usually sounding quite evident they have been added in post-production on account of the absence of any echo or density.

As a large portion of the film’s narrative is based on Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ the film’s basic structure revolves around the characters heading further and further into ‘Hell,’ with each character facing a vision of a personal sin from their past. These rings (or levels) in order are ‘Limbo,’ ‘Lust,’ ‘Gluttony,’ ‘Greed,’ ‘Anger,’ ‘Heresy,’ ‘Violence,’ ‘Fraud’ and ‘Treachery.’ But outside of the film’s previously mentioned religious symbolism, after the characters leave the initial catacombs, each ring is represented purely through dark empty caverns, which become quite repetitive after a point.

Altogether, despite the Paris catacombs being a very compelling setting for a modern horror film, in addition to much of the film’s religious influences making for quite a unique story. I’d still suggest other claustrophobic horrors like ‘The Descent’ and ‘The Thing’ before ‘As Above, So Below,’ as not only does the film eventually devolve into the standard horror formula without much experimentation, but if you’re unaware of any of the religious-context, then I could definitely see the film being fairly forgettable. In all honesty, I feel this film may have been better-off as non-found-footage, as I think this would’ve allowed the film to better explore its story and themes. Final Rating: 5/10.

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) – Film Review

Based on the controversial 1980s children’s book series of the same name, written by Alvin Schwartz and nightmarishly illustrated by Stephen Gammell. The film adaptation of: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ directed by André Øvredal and co-written/produced by Guillermo del Toro, takes a very different approach than what many may expect when considering its source material, as the film ditches the book’s original anthology structure in favour of a more interconnected story to mixed results.

Plot Summary: On Halloween night, 1968. A group of childhood friends enter the abandoned home of: ‘The Bellows’ family, whose shadow has loomed over the small town of Mill Valley for generations as a result of notorious murder: ‘Sarah Bellows,’ who turned her tortured life into a book of scary stories many years ago. But these terrifying tales soon have a way of becoming all too real when the reclusive: ‘Stella’ decides to take-home ‘Sarah’s story-filled journal.

Clearly inspired by Steven King’s classic novel: ‘It,’ ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ takes the now-popular route of focusing on a younger cast, capturing that classic spirit of childhood adventure mixed with plenty of light-horror, but rather than setting the film in the hackneyed time-period of the 1980s, the film actually chooses to set it’s story near the end of the 1960s, which I feel helped the film stand-out amongst the ‘It’ remake and it’s many similar incarnations. However, since its release, ‘Scary Stories’ has received plenty of criticism for its underwhelming horror, despite this being a completely intentional decision on-behalf of the filmmakers, ensuring the film as a first-step into the horror genre for younger viewers, never displaying too much violence or overly-intense scares, not too dissimilar to the book series itself.

Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Gabriel Rush and Austin Abrams portray the main group of friends and all do a decent job overall, as while their individual characters don’t exactly break-new-ground, they are likeable enough and have their inklings of both personality and humour. Contortionist Troy James, who once appeared-on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ also appears in the film as one of the monsters: ‘The Jangly Man.’ Who aside from having some CGI-enhanced facial expressions, actually performed all of his impressively unnatural body movements himself, including walking backwards and crawling upside-down.

Roman Osin’s cinematography does remain visually interesting for the majority of the runtime, having plenty of creative shots with an effective implementation of colour alongside. But its the film’s monsters that are unquestionably the best aspect of this adaptation, as the film takes the horrifying and abstract illustrations of Stephen Gammell and melds them into live-action flawlessly. So much so, that even in spite of each creature’s very limited screen-time, every monster manages to be quite memorable in its own right, from ‘The Pale Lady’ to ‘The Big Toe’ to the dilapidated poster-child scarecrow: ‘Harold,’ all of which were brought-to-life through prosthetic make-up and convincing practical costumes, rather than just CGI.

The original score by Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich is a fairly average horror score, yet does still serve the story well for what it has too, even if most of the tracks aren’t worth looking-up afterwards. But its also within the main score that there a small nod towards the original book series, as one of the tracks that plays throughout the film is titled: ‘The Hearse Song,’ which is actually a short song from the book series’ first entry.

As previously mentioned, the main creative decision that seems very peculiar to me is that the film adaptation of: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ is not an anthology film, despite the books the film is based-on focusing entirely on different characters/monsters with each new story. Instead, the writers chose to create an original story based-around the depraved spirit of: ‘Sarah Bellows’ bringing the stories within her book to-life, which was apparently done in order to stop one of the stories from overshadowing the rest, according to Guillermo del Toro. Yet I personally feel that this makes the film less entertaining, as many of the story’s concepts and creatures feel under-utilised due to this overarching (and occasionally corny) narrative, even if the main story does borrow some of its ideas from other unused tales within the books series.

For the most part, ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ does triumph in its goal of crafting a horror more accessible for younger viewers, as I could see this film appealing to many young audience members in search of a gateway into the horror genre. If you are already a veteran within the genre however, then I feel ‘Scary Stories’ will more than likely disappoint, as the film’s many cliché story-beats and lack of any gore or truly tense moments does result in this adaptation becoming a mostly forgettable horror flick with the exception of its many unique creature designs. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) – Film Review

Co-written/produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Troy Nixey, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ embraces many of the same elements as del Toro’s other films, crafting a narrative which combines both traditional gothic horror and childlike fantasy. But sadly, unlike a usual del Toro project, there is a noticeable absence in everything from captivating characters to memorising practical effects/creatures, resulting in a film that feels like a mostly copy-and-paste effort beyond one or two interesting ideas.

Plot Summary: After being sent to live with her father and his new girlfriend at their recently-renovated manor, the previous home of the long-missing painter: ‘Emerson Blackwood’. Young ‘Sally’ begins to hear ominous voices emanating from the basement’s ash-pit, soon leading her to discover the cause of the painter’s disappearance…

Taking heavy inspiration from the classic H.P. Lovecraft short story: ‘The Rats in the Walls.’ ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is actually a remake of a low-budget 1973 TV film, as the now-iconic director Guillermo del Toro has stated in the past that he was terrified of the film when he first watched it as a child, later inspiring him to reimagine the mostly-unknown horror flick. Yet even with a much larger-budget and a more well-known cast, the film is still quite underwhelming when it comes to both its scares and story, as the film’s narrative follows a formula almost identical to many other modern horrors.

All of the performances throughout the film aren’t anything overly-impressive, as whilst Katie Holmes does try her best to portray a young girl witnessing sights that no one else believes. Her character: ‘Sally’ (similar to the rest of the film’s characters) receives very limited characterisation, which does make many of the scenes revolving around the family-dynamic far less entertaining. Then there is also ‘Sally’s father and his girlfriend: ‘Kim’ portrayed by Guy Pearce and Bailee Madison respectively, and although Madison gives a serviceable performance, Pearce may give one of the weakest performances of his career here. As ‘Sally’s father: ‘Alex,’ always shows little concern or remorse when it comes to his daughter, making the character immensely difficult to resonate with.

The cinematography by Oliver Stapleton is very grand in its execution, allowing for a large number of wide-shots, some of which even flow smootly-around the various rooms of the manor. But it’s the film’s colour palette which is most worth noting, as the film utilises much more red and yellow than many other modern horrors, which is a pleasant change in terms of visuals as the more vibrant colours reflect the manor’s elegant design, which is probably one of the most visually-striking ‘haunted houses’ in recent memory, with even the manor’s front entrance having a beautiful carving of an old oak tree merged into the multi-coloured glass.

Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders provide the original score for the film, which similar to the film’s cinematography, gives the story a much more ‘epic’ feel. As the heavy-orchestral score could’ve easily been taken from any classic gothic horror, lending itself effectively to many scenes aside from a couple of generic tracks. The film often also features some fantastically-creepy sound design, as the film’s creatures continuously speak to ‘Sally’ using their ghostly whispering voices, which seemingly echo throughout the usually-empty corridors of the manor.

Although many of del Toro’s other outings do provide plenty of wonderful practical effects to gaze at, usually creating an array of unsettling/memorable creatures, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ takes another (less-appealing) route to its monsters. As the film’s creatures are brought-to-life almost entirely though CG effects, which not only makes some shots appear slightly dated, but also manages to take-away from nearly all of the film’s tense moments. Additionally, the film’s creature designs aren’t all that menacing, as despite the idea of evil fairytale monsters being quite unique (as the creatures are later revealed to be a sinister incarnation of tooth-fairies). The creature’s extremely small-size does make them feel very unthreatening even if it is a nice change-of-pace over having one large entity, as the film never does enough with its miniature antagonists regardless of what knives/tools they arm themselves with.

‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is regrettably a film that is just not worth its short runtime. As while I admire the effort to combine famed fairytale stories with a chilling atmosphere, the predominantly poor performances and numerous unexplored concepts leave the film simply another bland horror flick with a surprisingly weak screenplay by del Toro to-boot, especially when compared to much of his other work. Still, with all that said, I feel that Troy Nixey does deserve another shot in the director’s chair someday, as since this film’s initial release, he actually hasn’t worked on any other projects, which is unfortunate, as I do believe he does have some talent as a filmmaker when looking at this film’s merits. Final Rating: high 3/10.

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The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Film Review

Upon its initial release, the original: ‘Blair Witch Project’ blew many audiences away with its realistic depiction of found-footage horror, leading many viewers to believe that the events they were watching on-screen actually took-place, making for a truly petrifying experience. However, now, many years after its first appearance in cinemas, the film’s reputation has significantly altered with both critics and audiences alike, as ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is definitely a film that lies outside of the usual horror clichés.

Plot Summary: When three student filmmakers travel to Burkittsville, Maryland in attempt to produce a documentary based-around the local urban-legend: ‘The Blair Witch,’ they mysteriously disappear after traveling into the nearby Black Hills Forest, leaving only their footage behind to be discovered one year later…

Whilst ‘The Blair Witch Project’ wasn’t the original found-footage horror film, with the infamous exploitation flick: ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ first introducing the horror sub-genre in 1980. ‘The Blair Witch Project’ was the first film to popularise the found-footage concept, as this film was at one point in time in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ for the largest box-office ratio. As the low-budget film only had a budget of around £45,000 and made back over £189 million, quickly spawning an inconsistent horror franchise despite the film’s only partially-complete backstory for its creature and setting.

The three main cast members of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams (who all share their real-names with their characters), are all tremendous throughout the film. As while their character’s don’t receive nowhere near as much development as they should considering how much screen-time we spend with them, each one of the actors do give the impression they are becoming more tormented and frustrated the longer they remain in the Black Hills Forest. The main reason the film’s protagonists don’t receive much characterisation however, is actually due to the film’s production itself. As with the film not focusing very heavily on story, the actors were given no-more than a thirty-five page outline of plot-points rather than a full script, so as the shooting days continued, the cast just played-out various scenes. Only having little knowledge of the mythology behind: ‘The Blair Witch’ and improvising the vast majority of their lines.

Practically the entirety of the cinematography by Neal L. Fredericks is exactly what you’d expect from a found-footage horror, featuring an abundance of both shaky and out-of-focus shots, further adding to the idea that just behind the lens is a group of amateur student filmmakers (with some scenes even being shot by the cast themselves). In addition to the hand-held camerawork, the film’s visuals are also quite distinctive when it comes to its visual quality, as throughout the duration of the film, many shots remain incredibly grainy and occasionally even switch to a completely greyscale colour palette, which again, whilst adding to the realism of the film being a no-budget student documentary, does ensure the absence of any genuinely attractive shots.

Although its only heard during the film’s atmospheric end credits, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ does actually have an original score composed by Antonio Cora, but obviously being a found-footage horror, the film mostly aims to please with its sound design. As the sounds of crackling leaves and chirping birds are heard continuously, with many of the eerie branch-cracking sounds heard at night even being made by the director and his friends simply walking-up to the cast’s camp-perimeter and then tossing around twigs, rocks and branches in various directions.

The main aspect that many will either adore or despise about ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is its previously mentioned focus on realism and minimalist storytelling, as while the film does utilise its forest setting very effectively throughout the runtime, many who may be expecting a thrilling final act or possibly even a glimpse at ‘The Blair Witch’ herself will be greatly disappointed. As a result of the story’s constant emphasis on realism, the film never actually provides any evidence of the supernatural, with many of the film’s tense moments mostly relying on the darkness of the woods or the belligerent quarreling between the characters.

In conclusion, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is certainly a fascinating horror film even if it isn’t always a successful one. As to this day, this found-footage indie flick is a very divisive film for horror fans, with a 86% score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has the highest-rating of any film that was also nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Picture. So even with the cast’s impactful performances and ‘The Blair Witch’ herself being an intriguing urban-legend, this is one horror that really depends on your personal taste. For myself, while I find the film far from perfect and considerably less-compelling than many other iconic horrors, I can appreciate what this experimental piece of filmmaking (and its marketing) was trying to accomplish, and for that, I feel its worth at least one viewing for any fan of the genre. Final Rating: 6/10.

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Happy Death Day (2017) – Film Review

Another horror flick from production company Blumhouse Pictures, ‘Happy Death Day’ released in 2017, does at least extend-out of the usual range of Blumhouse horrors to become more of a horror-comedy than just a straight-forward teen slasher. But similar to the rest of their associated franchises e.g. ‘Insidious,’ ‘The Purge’ and ‘Paranormal Activity,’ both ‘Happy Death Day’ and it’s sequel definitely have their fair share of issues, with some being far more severe than others.

Plot Summary: Waking-up in the dorm room of a boy whose name she can’t remember after a night of heavy-drinking, self-centered college student: ‘Tree Gelbman’ intends to continue her trend of avoiding her birthday, but little does she know that later that night on her way to another party, someone is waiting to murder her. Only after being killed, ‘Tree’ awakens in the same dorm room, soon realising she is being forced to relive her brutal night of murder over-and-over again until she discovers her killer’s identity.

‘Happy Death Day’ similar to many other day-repeating stories in the past, takes most of its inspiration from the comedy classic: ‘Groundhog Day’ from 1993. Yet unlike many of the other films that are inspired by this beloved comedy flick, it becomes clear over-time that ‘Happy Death Day’ is quite derivative of: ‘Groundhog Day.’ As the film’s story not only utilises the comedy’s plot without much innovation (only throwing a killer into the mix). But the film even steals the main point of the narrative, that being its main character and their correlating character-arc, using the time-looping concept to in a way punish the protagonist for their cruel behaviour towards others.

In spite of this however, the protagonist: ‘Tree’ portrayed by Jessica Rothe, is by far the best element of the film. As while ‘Tree’ does go through a character-arc that is all-too-familiar as previously mentioned, Rothe makes a fantastic first-outing as an actress through her very enjoyable performance. Then of course, there is the killer, whose identity remains a mystery throughout most of the runtime. Known as ‘The Babyface Killer,’ the killer’s outfit is actually the mascot of: ‘Bayfield University’ where the film takes-place, and although the costume itself is far more goofy then intimidating, the mask/costume was actually designed by Tony Gardner. The costume designer behind the now-iconic: ‘Ghostface’ costume from the ‘Scream’ series, which does help redeem to the killer’s undoubtedly petty motivation.

The film’s cinematography by Toby Oliver isn’t anything amazing overall, but does still back-up the story effectively in a variety of scenes. Whether that’s through its use of wide sweeping-shots when the characters are in an intense chase, or when more shaky hand-held camerawork is used to reflect ‘Tree’s break-down when she first realises she is stuck in her current crisis. Yet similar to much of its story, the film never leans enough into a more outlandish/experimental nature when considering what the film could accomplish with its cinematography.

Talented composer Bear McCreary handles the film’s original score, which isn’t very distinctive from most of his other work within the horror genre. But despite the score’s lack of memorability, it still does feel as if there is a decent amount of effort put-into it, as the soundtrack actually has quite a lot of range even if some of the tracks don’t always fit with the tone of the film. This also goes for many of the songs used throughout ‘Happy Death Day,’ as nearly all of the film’s song choices massively differ in both genre and general popularity.

But still, the biggest problem ‘Happy Death Day’ suffers from is the inconsistency of its tone. As although the film does attempt to have scenes featuring both scares and humour alike, many of the film’s jump-scares and jokes range in quality, and occasionally even cancel each-other out. Additionally, the film also takes an unusual approach to its violence, as while ‘Tree’ dies countless times throughout the film in a number of different ways. The film never allows for any creative or darkly amusing deaths due to its lack of any blood or gore. Yet this wasn’t always the case, as the original script for the film did actually include more violence, so much so that it would have gained the film a higher age-rating, with plenty of scenes having much grislier deaths that were later altered by director Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) during pre-production.

Altogether, whilst the signature performance from Jessica Rothe does help to make ‘Happy Death Day’ a far more enjoyable viewing, in addition to the film’s idea of a protagonist being repeatedly murdered having plenty of potential for a horror-comedy. The film just doesn’t do enough with its story, feeling almost as if its a little restrictive on-itself, never delving enough into being either funny or freighting respectively. So, if you desire an amusing horror-comedy to stick-on one evening, maybe just go-back to your more accustomed choices over this mediocre slasher. Final Rating: 5/10.

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The Babadook (2014) – Film Review

Surreal, engrossing and truly terrifying during some scenes, ‘The Babadook’ is in my opinion, one of the best modern horrors released in quite some-time. Through its excellent filmmaking, astounding performances and horrifying yet also intriguing creature, ‘The Babadook’ attempts to do something different with its horror, going-about its story with far more depth than many other films within its genre, soon becoming an experience that’s just as immersive as it is disturbing for anyone who stumbles upon it.

Plot Summary: Following the sudden death of her husband in a car-crash, the now-widow: ‘Amelia’ struggles to cope as a single mother, as her son’s chaotic behaviour and constant paranoia of monsters makes her friends become distant and even her sanity begin to fade. Until one night, after the pair read a mysterious pop-up book titled: ‘Mister Babadook,’ they soon discover a malevolent creature has manifested itself into the dark corners of their home.

Directed by Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale), ‘The Babadook’ is a horror film that has much more to offer beneath its surface, with themes of family, grief and trauma throughout. Based on the short film: ‘Monster’ also directed by Jennifer Kent, ‘The Babadook’ actually takes much of its inspiration from one of Kent’s real-world friends, a single mother whose son was traumatised by a monstrous figure he thought he saw everywhere in the house. So Kent imagined a scenario in which this creature was real, eventually leading her to create her short film, before then wanting to expand on the idea further.

The main area ‘The Babadook’ excels where most modern horrors fail is the characters. Only featuring a main cast of two terrific actors, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, with Wiseman only being six-years-old at the time of filming. The mother and son of the film are both compelling characters for very different reasons, as the mother: ‘Amelia’ struggles to cope as a single parent. Alienating her friends/collogues and becoming more lonely and sexually-frustrated as time passes, mostly due to her son: ‘Samuel,’ who continuously struggles with anxiety and his absence of a real father, which makes it challenging for him to mix with other children. This all adding-up to making the film just as effective as a family drama as it is a supernatural horror.

Although Radek Ladczuk’s cinematography isn’t quite as impressive as the film’s magnificent editing, which allows for plenty of quick visual storytelling in addition to giving the film a level of style that I personally didn’t expect. ‘The Babadook’ does still feature a number of attractive shots, which are enormously enhanced by the film’s dread-inducing lighting. As not too dissimilar to the horror flick: ‘Lights Out’ from 2016, ‘The Babadook’ himself only appears within the shadows. So with nearly the entire runtime being set within a dark run-down house (usually also at night), the creature could be lurking within any shot, and occasionally, even is.

Slightly fairytale-esque in parts, the original score by Jed Kurzel may not be a stand-out horror score up-there with the likes of: ‘Halloween’ or the original: ‘Psycho.’ But the score is still a fair amount more creative than many other modern horror scores, with tracks such as: ‘Trippy Television’ and ‘It’s Only a Story’ giving the film a very dreamlike feel, sounding almost as if they were composed for a Tim Burton project at points. That is, before the soundtrack becomes a little more of the standard horror affair with tracks like ‘The Playground’ and ‘Re-Writing the Story,’ despite these tracks still helping to build tension throughout.

Immensely creepy throughout the film, ‘The Babadook’ himself is a very memorable and frightening presence in spite of his fairly goofy name. As every one of his appearances is always elevated by his bone-chilling sound design, which is very uncanny in a similar fashion to the original score. The only major issue I take with the film is the lack of encounters the characters actually have with the creature, as while many of his scenes are extremely well-executed, ‘Mister Babadook’ just doesn’t have quite enough screen-time for me. However, this problem also extends to nearly all of the film’s side characters, as ‘Claire,’ ‘Robbie’ and ‘Mrs. Roach’ all feel under-utilised within the narrative, even though the story’s main focus is very clearly the mother and son relationship.

To conclude, ‘The Babadook’ is a brilliantly-crafted horror, mostly as a result of its atmospheric cinematography/lighting and masterful editing, alongside its great performances and array of tension-filled moments. Whilst perhaps not for every horror-addict due to its sparse amount of jump-scares and very low body-count. Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut is certainty a horror flick I’d recommend to most, and considering Kent has stated that the film will never receive a sequel, its clear the film was a true passion project that won’t fall into the trap many successful horrors do of milking themselves into a over-blown franchise. Final Rating: 8/10.

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The Bye Bye Man (2017) – Film Review

Simply from the laughably-atrocious title of the film alone, I’m sure many can guess why ‘The Bye Bye Man’ fails so miserably as a horror flick. Coming-off more as a student film project rather than a feature that actually made its way into cinemas (mostly due to its amateurish acting and filmmaking alike), ‘The Bye Bye Man’ is an incredibly lacklustre and mindless horror down to even its last few minutes of screen-time.

Plot Summary: When three college students move into an old house just off-campus, they unwittingly unleash a supernatural entity known as ‘The Bye Bye Man,’ a dark creature that preys upon any victim that discovers its name. Now withholding this knowledge, the group attempt to keep the existence of: ‘The Bye Bye Man’ a secret whilst also trying to save themselves.

Despite the film’s title implying otherwise, the actual antagonist of the film hardly appears in-full throughout the runtime. In fact, the story on which the film is based: ‘The Bridge to Body Island,’ actually has a much more complex mythology for the creature than the film itself. Originally being born albino in New Orleans in 1912, who eventually ran-away from home and began murdering people and cutting-out their eyes and tongues, which he would then sew together and bring-to-life using voodoo. The original story of: ‘The Bye Bye Man’ is far more interesting and disturbing than what appears in the film, which is nothing short of undeveloped and even fairly boring in terms of both his design and his abilities.

Relatively new actors Douglas Smith, Cressida Bonas and Lucien Laviscount unfortunately, all lead the film with quite poor performances. As while the cringy and often moronic writing certainly doesn’t help, their performances are lacking in both urgency and charisma, so it becomes quite difficult to care about them once the supernatural occurrences begin. Surprisingly though, the actor behind: ‘The Bye Bye Man’ himself is Doug Jones, known for his fantastic creature/character performances such as: ‘Abe Sapien’ in the ‘Hellboy’ series, and ‘The Amphibian Man’ in ‘The Shape of Water.’ Yet even though Jones may seem like too much of an accomplished actor to be in such a minimal role as this, with talented actress Carrie-Anne Moss also making an appearance, its possible that at one point in time the script for this film may have actually contained some creative ideas.

James Kniest’s cinematography is another area in which the film lacks, as the bland camerawork only allows for a couple of visually interesting shots throughout, usually resulting in the film having a very flat and occasionally cheap look. However, one shot the filmmakers must have been pleased with is the shot of a large industrial train traveling at night, as this shot is continuously reused at multiple points. But what’s confusing here is that this shot’s inclusion is never explained, nor does it having any bearing on the plot whatsoever, only appearing at random within the protagonist’s dreams and once in the real-world nearing the end of the film.

The film’s original score by the Newton Brothers isn’t memorable in the slightest, simply being a standard piano/strings-focused horror score with the exception of the track: ‘The Bye Bye Man,’ which feels very out-of-place when compared to the rest of the film’s soundtrack. As the creature’s main theme sounds like something ripped straight from an episode of: ‘Goosebumps.’ Also worth a quick mention is the film’s corny use of the recognisable 50s song: ‘Bye Bye Love,’ which is just far too on-the-nose for me.

From its constant jump-scares to its many typical horror clichés (e.g. a group of college teens, creepy scribbled drawings, an old foreboding house, the protagonist looking-up the creature’s origins in a library), the film is teeming with much of the usual problematic writing that floods many modern horror scripts. Only this time, the film has simply nothing else to set itself apart from others within the genre. The only aspect of the film that could’ve been remarkable would’ve been ‘The Bye Bye Man’ himself and his ‘Seeing-Eye Hound,’ made from pieces of his victims. But as already mentioned, the film does nothing with its antagonist or his hound, only utilising the dog-creature to stand alongside ‘The Bye Bye Man’ through some abysmal CG effects.

In conclusion, ‘The Bye Bye Man’ is one of the last films I’d recommend to any horror fanatic. Completely absent of any likeable characters, an intriguing/threatening antagonist or any sense of an eerie atmosphere, its hard to believe that the film has any positive reviews at all. And yet somehow, it does. All we can do is hope horrors such as this fade into obscurity and never receive a sequel, prequel or anything else of the sort. As this genre has already suffered enough in recent years with the likes of: ‘Truth or Dare,’ ‘Chernobyl Dairies’ and ‘The Gallows’ just to name a few. Final Rating: 1/10.

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