An 81% match of sci fi and drama: A critical review of “Kismet” (2018)

It is a well-known fact–well, well-known by me at least–that I am not a big fan of the phrase “speculative fiction.” What fiction, after all, does not speculate? Hell, what writing does not speculate? I have always viewed the phrase with distrust, at best a means to group somewhat disparate groups like sci fi, fantasy and horror together–which the literary universe has long set out to do–and at worst an effort at rescuing “worthy” pieces of fiction from the “classless” genres of sci fi, fantasy and horror.

However, there are times when even I must admit defeat. The novel “Kismet” seems to take place in a not-too-distant future or a universe only slightly removed from our own, and one of its central plot drivers is a piece of technology that impacts individual human life, but one might have a hard time describing it as sci fi.

“Kismet” tells the tale of Anna, a twenty-something about to be a thirty-something with a pleasant job in journalism and a perfectly supportive live-in boyfriend, but she worries she’s missing out. She tries an app called Kismet, which offers to match users with an ideal partner after digesting one’s entire digital existence. There she finds potential partners, including Geoff, a dashing older man who might open her up to more–or at least help her work out some daddy issues.

“Kismet’s” writer Luke Tredget is described as a “writer and aid worker” on his Twitter page, so perhaps that’s why the characters his novel seem to often be writers and aid workers. We’ve all got to find meaning somehow, I suppose. Accordingly, it might be a little too convenient that I find Anna relatable. She’s within my age group and she works in the industry I do, so a lot of her fears and observations sound familiar.

That said, Tredget’s characters as a whole are distinct and well-rounded. As the book goes on, no character–no matter how minor–is really too sinful or too saintly. This is quite true of Anna, whose dips into doubt and selfishness make her a delightfully, perhaps even refreshingly, human protagonist.

The prose is clever and easy to read, although it does remain in the present tense the entire time. This increasingly popular practice can be acceptable in some short forms, but it can be distracting in a novel–why are we doing it? Who is relating this story and who is their audience? Is it all happening RIGHT NOW? Although those nagging distractions remain throughout the book, they are usually in the background, and the novel never feels its 400 pages.

A bigger discomfort–one that stands outside of the narrative and enjoyability of the book–is whether it can be described as sci fi. Perhaps not–not because its future only takes place in the not-too-distant future or because its tech is not-so-different–but because the novel does not spend a lot of time philosophizing.

Sci fi, especially soft sci fi, often delves into lengthy speeches dissecting its themes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing that “Kismet” stays largely silent. Philosophizing can be handled very well, but it can also bog down a book. One way or the other, “Kismet” never feels weighty, and it retains its intelligence throughout.

The book certainly offers readers a lot to think about, including the immediacy and intangibility of personal relationships in the modern era, the ubiquity of social media, and finding purpose while aging in an increasingly fast-paced society. There’s even a twist–of course there’s a twist–which comes about for the novel’s climax that is well handled, tying into the themes of the novel and allowing the narrative to state one of the book’s big ideas in a wholly organic way.

However, don’t expect a startling thrill ride. “Kismet” is slightly sci fi and occasionally comedic, but it’s a character study. Despite its themes, we’re here to people watch rather than muse. Perhaps this is really literary fiction, a genre that is, in its own way, as descriptive and shapeless as the moniker “speculative fiction.”

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Cocooned in complacency: A critical review of “The Chrysalis” (2018)

This blog is not known for its cutting edge analysis. We barely review anything fresh, let alone anything less than a year old. Is that fair? One cannot live in the past eternally. Then again, if Brendan Deneen’s relatively recent novel “The Chrysalis” is an example of what passes for intelligent horror in the brave new world of popular fiction, then perhaps there is a reason to keep living in the past.

Tom and Jenny Decker–he trying shake off a drinking problem and she recently pregnant–are moving up in the world. They are moving out of a cramped New York dwelling into a New Jersey suburb, moving from bar tending into the corporate world and moving from a couple to a family of three. Their new house is surprisingly inexpensive for its size, which either has to do with the fact that it’s a fixer-upper or that its previous occupants murdered each other while influenced by something inhuman growing in the basement.

When one begins researching “The Chrysalis,” one notices that it’s described as a slow burn, blending psychological thriller with sci fi elements. That sounds like prime cosmic horror. It’s also kind of a lie. There is very little that is slow or subtle about “The Chrysalis,” and its narrative has more in common with the fuzzy logic of slasher films than titans of psychological horror.

The story is very familiar, with its alcoholic heroes and haunted houses and things going bump in the basement. That doesn’t bother me. Deneen admitted that the novel was inspired in part by his love for retro horror movies. Unoriginal isn’t bad. It just puts more pressure on the presentation.

And it doesn’t bother me that so much about the eldritch thing downstairs is left unsaid. Its origins are shrouded in mystery, as is how it influences the inhabitants of the house. Readers are free to imagine whatever fantastic history they want for it, and that’s fine. A little mystery is good for the blood.

What’s a little less fine is that its ultimate goal seems unrelated to how it behaves for the entire story–assuming its goal is revealed in the final pages of the book, which I think it is. And if I’m wrong, then that’s a flaw in characterization. That’s not surprising, given how shallow all the characters are.

Tom and Jenny are both presented as attractive young people who have a lot of things handed to them, which is useful for the plot because it needs a lot of conveniences to keep it going. Tom has a best friend who hands him a new job. Jenny opens an exercise studio and the universe hands it a bunch of new customers. There’s a nosy neighbor with a weird little girl who exist so that Jenny has someone to talk to while Tom is out acting like a dick and waiting for Jenny to forgive him. You get the idea.

The worst example happens when Tom is considering working at a bar where a cool old dude has taken a liking to him, seeing as how Tom looks like his long-lost son. Nothing is particularly made of this tidbit, which just acts like an excuse for the cool old dude’s daughter to reveal she’s transgender. It’s never mentioned again, and no one’s relationship is impacted by it, because that kind of sensitive revelation happens all the time to Tom. After all, his sister-in-law is in a mixed race lesbian marriage.

One could waste time wondering if Deneen isn’t just ticking a box on a diversity checklist–antagonists include a bigoted middle aged white handyman and a comically uncaring white-collar boss–but the pressing problem is that no one is much deeper than their description. That’s when you might start wasting time asking if anyone actually acts like that.

Let me help you out. In reality, not everyone talks like an adolescent or behaves with the emotional balance of children on a seesaw. If you’re a new employee, your boss will actually do oversight on your performance. Mental hospitals are not that accommodating. And injured squirrels do not crawl into basements, jump into the arms of strange human beings and allow themselves to be stuffed into the waiting primordial maw of a mutating thing that’s growing out of the side of the foundation.

So the answer is no, people don’t actually act like that. At least, normal adults don’t. You could try to defend things and say that that’s the point. A pretty standard critique of “The Chrysalis” is that its about the horrors of growing up–the fears of taking responsibility at work and at home. If that’s the case, everyone is failing at being an adult, regardless of age, race, gender identity or whether or not something evil is living in their basements.

A quick glance at Deneen’s writing career reveals that he has mostly written children’s books, YA and fan fiction-style mashups. He’s an experienced writer, and his writing style is certainly readable. But if he wants to make something that’s really worthy of comparison to “Rosemary’s Baby,” that style needs to mature as much as his characters do.

Best films of 2018

Today is the day of the LA Marathon, so it seems natural for someone in my physical condition to observe this sacred day by staying inside and watching movies. Besides, isn’t that the real Los Angeles tradition?

Below, please find this blog’s long awaited (by me at least) best of 2018 film list. As usual, the films will be arranged generally, with the best at the top and the worst at the bottom. That means the film on top is not necessarily the best film of the year; it just happens to be better than most of what’s underneath it. Likewise, the film at the bottom is not necessarily the worst film of the year, although one could do a lot better.

Annihilation: Who would have thought that “thoughtful” and “big-budget sci fi” would go together? Alex Gardland, apparently. This is a visually striking film that tells little but shows much. Its solid cast is up for the intelligent script.

First Reformed: The always interesting writer-director Paul Schrader turns out a very interesting metaphysically-informed thriller. A brilliant cast (including Cedric the Entertainer) tackle the film’s myriad themes, and the deep topics are matched by deep photography. Definitely worth repeated viewings.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Oh Coen brothers, have you ever make a truly bad film? I haven’t seen it so far. This smart, stylish pulp Western(s) is sometimes surreal, sometimes even a little deeper than that, but always that beautiful mix of intelligent thriller and dark Coen comedy.

Unsane: A smart, compact thriller that tries to tackle “mental health in horror” from a novel–perhaps even necessary–direction. Clair Foy’s controlled performance is perfect for such a paranoid film.

Thoroughbreds: Can we count this as a 2018 release? I’m going to. It’s my blog, and this is a great film. It’s stylishly shot, excellently cast (the leads are two of the smartest contemporary scream queens), with a script that leaves audiences with lots to talk about without overstaying its welcome.

Stan and Ollie: This is a quaint and comfortable bio-flick, perfectly designed for classic film fans. Perfectly cast, especially Steve Coogan and John C. Riley, who seem to live their roles. Plus, the always watchable Danny Huston.

Game Night: More stylish than you’d expect, this well cast comedy thriller is solidly funny. Plus, Danny Huston again (in a small role. Again).

A Quiet Place: Although not quite as clever as it thinks, this survival horror flick is handsome, well performed and pretty darn smart. Fantastic performance from Emily Blunt, but ain’t they all?

Rampage: If you want to see only one overly produced video game sci fi last summer, make it this one. The pulpy story doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s bolstered by some smooth, and surprisingly violent, special effects and a sly, enjoyable Jeffrey Dean Morgan performance.

Black Panther: Sure, it falls apart a bit in the third act, but most comic book movies do. Before that, the film smartly tackles race, responsibility and statecraft—what’s the last comic book movie you saw that tackled statecraft? Throw in a surprisingly smart and sympathetic villain, and I’m perfectly satisfied.

Hereditary: This year’s “smartest horror movie,” it is a smart horror movie, and subtle and well cast, but the overall effect is that it’s trying a little harder than it has to.

The Predator: It’s not that bad, people. It’s also not great, but the fun cast has fun with a funny Shane Black script, which is undermined by a bit of convenience and a sequelicious ending. Delightfully violent, although the SFX sometimes craps out (you know the drill–good practical, hit-and-miss CGI).

Hold the Dark: Interesting, atmospheric arctic thriller that perhaps never quite lives up to its potential, although it has a lot of downbeat intrigue along the way.

Spinning Man: Not great, but a smart and servicable murder thriller–and timely, given its academic setting. It’s literate and well acted, although oddly photographed sometimes.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead: This brilliantly constructed, and sometimes even touching, Orson Welles documentary is probably a better film than the film it documents.

Malevolent: Nothing you haven’t seen before, but this quiet haunted house film starts very strong–nicely acted, smartly written and well photographed. Then it lurches uncomfortably from thoughtful psychological horror into messy slasher for the third act. Oh well.

Bird Box: Well-made and watchable, this post-apocalyptic/wannabe psychological horror film is never as good as its own high concept.

Super Troopers 2: If you liked the first “Super Troopers,” you will probably appreciate the second one. I liked the first one. Spoiler: Farva finally gets his liter of cola.

Looking Glass: Another case of “people, it’s not that bad.” This abnormal thriller sits somewhere between sorta neo-noir and not quite surreal. It’s well photographed, stylishly lit and acted just fine.

Any Bullet Will Do: A fun but familiar script for a pulpy Western with a game cast and cool nature photography.

Avengers Infinity War: Exactly what is says on the label. Big, loud, everyone kills everyone else. You want spectacle, you can do far worse.

Deadpool 2: Josh Brolin is great to watch, isn’t he? Almost no one else could say, “The name’s Cable,” and say it with conviction, a straight face and, somehow, a sense of humor. I genuinely believed that man’s name was Cable. As for the whole film, it works, but nothing’s as fresh the second time around.

Ocean’s Eight: It’s a caper picture. It’s clever and funny and whatnot, and the cast seems to be having fun as well. If you’re up for a caper picture that doesn’t do too much else, you probably will too. Great soundtrack though,

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms: Decent enough candy cane flavored fantasy. Great design, although both Matthew Macfayden and Morgan Freeman aren’t given enough to do. Kirea Knightley looks like she’s enjoying herself though.

Tag: This based-on-a-true-story men-behaving-like-boys comedy is about as good as it could be, all things considered, thanks to a talented cast that carries the admittedly slim premise as far as it can go.

Billionaire Boys Club: A stylish, servicable financial thriller. For better or for worse, Kevin Spacey is probably the best part of the movie.

Ready Player One: Fun to look at–both for spectacle and catch-the-pop-culture-reference–and sometimes quite fun, but at two hours and 20 minutes you will be looking for a long time. A few too many endings for its own good.

Hotel Artemis: A smart, stylish and well cast dystopian thriller that takes itself a little too seriously at the end.

You Were Never Really Here: This violent and cerebral crime drama is great to look at and is built in an intriguing narrative, but is it just style over substance? Well, do we care? Not really, and that’s part of the problem getting into the film.

The Other Side of the Wind: An interesting experiment, but far from Orson Welles’s best. Still, what can you expect from a movie that took decades to edit? Besides, how often do we get to see a new Welles film?

10×10: This psychological thriller has a good cast and is well photographed, but its twisted abduction premise is nothing you haven’t seen before.

Down a Dark Hall: Nicely atmospheric–too dark at times, but at least it makes sense in the plot–and well photographed, but this tale of a haunted school for girls is brought down in the third act by a muddled script.

The Princess Switch: A pretty boilerplate Yuletide romantic comedy. If there’s anything innovative about it, it’s that it adds smartphones to “The Prisoner of Zenda.”

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom: Better looking. Worse script. The plot is built out of increasingly ludicrous plot contrivances. However, it is the most Gothic of the franchise so far, thanks to director J. A. Bayona. I don’t know why Jeff Goldblum is in this film. Maybe he doesn’t either.

Bad Samaritan: A passable but forgettable thriller that feels oddly “Lifetime original.” Strangely enough, it actually improves in the third act, where we finally get to see David Tennant’s controlled crazy in action.

Wrinkle in Time: There’s always a danger when translating a book to the screen–it can turn out too thin or too overstuffed. This is overstuffed. A few successfully atmospheric moments and a good supporting cast can’t make up for the hollowness of the film.

Skyscraper: Dwayne Johnson does better than this movie deserves. It’s like “Die Hard” only in a building. Wait a second… Just watch “Rampage” instead.

The Commuter: It’s Liam Neeson on a train. You can probably figure out the film from there. You’ve seen it before, and you’ve seen it tighter than this.

When We First Met: A silly little time travel comedy that doesn’t try very hard and succeeds at it.

Winchester: Not the worst film of the year, despite its early release date, but very far from the best. Great sets and costumes can’t quite mask the script’s anachronisms. The brooding atmosphere is spoiled by a reliance on unexciting jump scares.

Apostle: Sometimes strikingly well photographed, this horror film is nevertheless too thin, too long and too unrelatable. Like a cross between “The Witch” and the “The Wicker Man” except not as good as either. At least the villains seem to be having fun.

Tomb Raider: An excellent cast is wasted on a brainless, big budget action thriller that’s built on so many coincidences Charles Dickens would blush.

Ouija House: This well intentioned horror thriller has good photography considering its budget, but that can’t make up for its shallow script–or for the fact that people spelling words out loud letter by letter does not make for great cinema.

Little Stranger: A disappointing period haunted house story. Good impressionistic photography, but the atmosphere falls flat since there’s no investment in the characters, and any thrills fall flat since glaciers move faster.

Slender Man: A waste of celluloid, but what did you expect? Disappointing, somewhat murky story that’s only notable for what it could have been. Poor direction and special effects.

Alcatraz: Uninteresting and anachronistic. I could deal with one or the other, but not both at the same time. Track down this prison escape indie only if you enjoy watching grown men in blue jumpsuits shout at each other.

Game Over Man: Is this one “Die Hard” in a building…for the College Humor crowd? A raunchy first scene elicits some laughs from the high schooler in us all, but it sets the bar so low the talented cast spends the rest of the film tripping over it.

Curse of the Mayans: This indie thriller feels very much like an “Ancient Aliens” inspired vanity project. The scenes with costumed Mayans dancing are sensitively shot. Just about everything else, including the seemingly endless diving scenes…are not.

The Cloverfield Paradox: We started with an ambitious sci fi thriller, so we might as well end with one. The only difference between this and “Annihilation” is almost everything. Decent cast tries hard with stupid, crappy script. Just re-watch “Event Horizon” instead.

I can’t believe I still haven’t seen “The Favourite,” “Bad Times at the El Royale” or the new “Suspiria,” and I really can’t believe that I still want to see “Venom”…

Senseless horror: Critical reviews of “A Quiet Place” and “Bird Box” (2018)

On its most basic level, horror engages the senses. We watch a horror flick and our skins creep and our hearts race, all inspired by the sights and sounds onscreen. The clichés are clichés because they work, from creaky doors to rotting faces suddenly filling the screen. So imagine this blog’s surprise when two films–well publicized ones at that–came out last year that each sought to remove one of our trusted horror sensations from us.

This blog is hardly the first place that noted the synchronicity of last year’s “A Quiet Place” and “Bird Box.” In fact, people have argued “Bird Box” ripped off “A Quiet Place” because it came out later, or that “Quiet Place” was the ripper offer because the book “Bird Box” came out before either of them. But who ripped off who isn’t the point. I mean, they both probably ripped off the Frittening of Shetland Islands folklore. Or something. I don’t know. The point is how these films utilized their novel approaches to horror movie making.

Summer blockbuster “A Quiet Place” removes our ability to hear each other when a race of animalistic and eternally hungry aliens crash land on earth. Invincible, for all intents and purposes, and attracted by sound, they wipe out Earth’s defenses in weeks. Now, a pregnant woman (Emily Blunt), her husband (John Krasinski, who also directed and wrote the film) and their children are one isolated family struggling to survive silently in the aftermath of the invasion.

Netflix holiday fare “Bird Box” also concerns a mother (Sandra Bullock) who is trying to get her creatively named children–“Boy” and “Girl”–to an alleged safe haven in a world where society has fallen apart. The catch is they have to do it blindfolded because they are being stalked by monstrous entities that, as soon as looked at, either drive one insane or drive one to suicide.

The similarities between the films seem rather obvious. Both are post-apocalyptic horror films with a female lead, a splash of motherhood and the well-handled weight of guilt. But this ain’t “Rosemary’s Baby.” The real bridge between the two is the way they play with the senses: sound in “Quiet” and sight in “Bird.”

In theory, this is nothing new. Horror films grow still to surprise us with a shocking sound, and they withhold the appearance of the monster to build suspense. One could argue that “Quiet” is actually using a very old tactic, unfolding like a silent film. And, if one wanted to be cheeky, one could say that “Bird” is just riffing on the “Eye of the Beholder” episode of the original “Twilight Zone.” But I digress.

In practice, each of the films takes its tactics to an extreme, and they both do so rather ingeniously. “Quiet” doesn’t just shock us with sudden sound; it delves into what a world devoid of noise would look like, from carpeted everything and sizzle-free cooking to a very creative use of fireworks. Likewise, “Bird” is about more than don’t look–don’t look–scream! It shows us squabbling survivors blacking out windows as they try to figure out how to avoid an enemy they never want to see.

Where the films really start to differ is in execution. “Quiet” is the smoother operator. The monster design is solid, Krasinski’s camera is solid (cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Chistensen), Blunt’s necessarily physical performance is fantastic and veteran horror composer Marco Beltrami’s score has an appropriately classic feel.

“Bird” is a little less engaging. Bullock’s character is not an easy person to get to know, and her development, either by design or delivery, is somewhat stagnant. Perhaps that’s the point, given she’s had to toughen up to survive the apocalypse and everything, but it still makes for murky viewing. Oddly enough, the supporting cast (John Malkovich, B. D. Wong, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, pretty much everyone else) express more despite appearing less.

Also, “Bird” can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a dystopian sci fi or a psychological horror film, and accordingly, it never packs quite the punch you would expect. “Quiet,” on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable being a monster movie, although it gets a little too comfortable at the end. Still, even someone easy to disappoint–like me–can put up with a single exaggerated shotgun pump after 89 minutes of effectively tense horror.

From a technique standpoint, there is a clear difference. It is this blog’s boringly repeated opinion that movies are a visual art form. Anything that remembers, enhances and utilizes that is fine film making; anything that detracts or withholds that—particularly for the duration of a film—is probably not. Accordingly, wrapping the camera lens in fabric is an interesting gimmick, but robbing an audience of dialogue and focusing on tense and tender images is far more cinematically satisfying.

Heavy handed horror?: Critical reviews of “Annihilation” and “Unsane” (2018)

When a film is particularly unusual, it’s very common to grasp at what’s similar to it in order to come to grips with what it is. The fairly unusual sci fi thriler “Annihilation” got this treatment, getting compared to “Under the Skin,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the original “Solaris,” as well as personal favorite “The Fountain.” One film that didn’t come up a lot was the “Ghostbusters” reboot, a film that was surprisingly polarizing and decidedly controversial, both for its female cast and its social media handling.

“Annihilation” (written and directed by Alex Garland, the “Ex Machina” dude) spins a weird tale, part cosmic horror and part philosophical sci fi drama, of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who is volunteers to investigate the “Shimmer,” an alien world that has mysteriously sprouted up on Earth. The exploratory team–all women–includes a medic, a physicist and, perhaps tellingly, a psychologist. All are aware that no team has returned alive from the “Shimmer.” What they aren’t aware of is Lena’s own connection to the place.

So why the comparison to “Ghostbusters”? After all, “Annihilation” is an infamously obscure film, almost an art film, and “Ghostbusters” is a popcorn flavored reboot. However, for better or worse, the all female leads make it easy to draw uneasy parallels. It might not be a powerful point of entry, but it’s worth some examination.

This blog speculated on “Ghostbusters” when it was still in production, and we’re sorry to say we were right to speculate. As a horror film, it wasn’t scary; as a comedy, it fared a little better, but there was a self consciousness to it that was wholly unnecessary. There was a lot of hand holding in the script, something it didn’t need to worry about. The film’s leads were all experienced comedy alums. Rather than worry about them being funny, the script should have spent a little more time giving the film an identity outside of its cast.

Despite also featuring excellent actors, “Annihilation” did not suffer the same problems, in no small part because there is so much else going on for it than its mono-chromosome casting–psychological and philosophical themes, genuine tension, even its intriguing design. In fact, although a variety of reviewers did comment on the film’s female leads, they were just as likely to talk about its alien beauty and impenetrable plot.

“Annihilation” did very little to remind you that its cast was most female, and in doing so, avoided a lot of female stereotypes it could have walked into. It had other things to talk about, and it preferred treating its characters like people rather than props. The film even made a quick comment on it. When the team realizes it’s been codified, Lena notes it’s comprised of “all women.” The team physicist, Tessa Thompson’s Josie Radek, adds: “Scientists.” Enough said.

Another film that was as impressive in its handling of its themes as its execution was “Unsane,” director Steven Soderbergh’s psychological horror flick about a young woman (Claire Foy) who has relocated to evade a stalker. After a therapy session, she inadvertently checks herself into a mental health facility. When she tries to leave, she realizes she cannot because she signed a waiver to stay. And when she thinks she sees her stalker working there, her behavior only grows more erratic, and the staff is even less likely to let her leave.

“Unsane” was shot by Soderbergh on an iPhone 7 and edited on an app, which fits its claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere perfectly. It would have been easy for the film to be all about the technology, and indeed, a lot of critical attention was lavished on how good it looked considering its compact genesis. But critics were just as liable to latch onto the solid performance by Foy (who, believe it or not, we have talked about before–why is this article becoming an exercise in blog nostalgia?). All this is saying nothing about the film’s themes.

Mental instability and horror go hand in hand. It’s a given that you’ll touch on crazy in a psychological horror film, but it’s hardly a given that you’ll do it well. Films that try to handle mental illness sensitively, or at least intelligently, are rare–Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” perhaps stick out as movies that make an effort at authenticity. “Unsane” can join their ranks not only for looking at mental illness, but also for looking at the mental health system.

“Unsane” tackles the issue of mental illness not only from the patient’s perspective, but from a bureaucratic–and insurance–point of view as well. People do indeed get lost in the mental health system, and that can be just as serious for the afflicted as the notion that what they see might not be seen by everyone else.

But what ultimately anchors “Unsane” is that, by the end of the film, it is a well made thriller. An interesting technological experiment, of course, and an earnest effort at exploring an often overlooked element of mental illness in cinema, but an engaging thriller throughout.

If “Annihilation” curiously recalls “Ghostbusters,” then “Unsane” recalls “Get Out,” another thriller with a social conscious. The difference is that, while both films handled their social issues intelligently and organically, “Get Out” started to enter rather ridiculous territory in its third act while “Unsane” maintained its nature through its climax. Perhaps it all comes down to confidence. While all these films had their subjects in hand, “Annihilation” and “Unsane” felt certain enough in themselves to let their themes do the talking while the films played out.

Early signs of madness: A critical review of “The Avenging Conscience” (1914)

If you ask someone what their favorite old horror movie is, they might say something like “The Exorcist” or “Night of the Living Dead.” While those aren’t exactly new, they’re hardly the oldest horror films out there. Universal and RKO both produced scads of famous and infamous horror films in the 1930s and 40s, far before Friedkin or Romero were rolling out their own brands of thriller.

But there are also plenty of Gothic horror films in the silent movie category, courtesy of melodramas like “The Phantom of the Opera” and grotesque experiments like the Thomas Edison produced “Frankenstein,” which predates Universal’s film by 21 years–and maybe a few of your friends, feeling suddenly embarrassed by how recent their favorite “old” horror movie was, went straight for the “Nosferatu.”

So what about psychological horror? One might think that a style of cinema so theatrical and visually oriented would not lend itself to the nuance and intimacy of psychological horror. But, surprisingly enough, the film that is apparently the first feature length American horror film is also arguably the first genuinely psychological thriller.

“The Avenging Conscience” tells the morbid tale of a young man called only the Nephew (Henry Walthall) who lives and works under the watchful eye of his eye patch-wearing uncle, Uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken). He is content with his lot, until he meets and falls in love with a young woman, his Sweetheart (the coincidentally named Blanche Sweet), who his uncle absolutely forbids him from marrying.

Still, love will find a way, even if it involves firearms. Caught in an emotional whirl, the Nephew plots to kill his Uncle, ensuring his inheritance falls promptly in his hands and his path is clear to his Sweetheart. But once the deed is done, he realizes that his peace of mind has become harder to hold onto.

“Conscience” is a good film to discuss on the 210th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe because it plays like fan fiction of that author’s works. Writer/director/producer D. W. Griffith was clearly a fanboy. He had already shot a couple of Poe related shorts, and his script shows obvious influence from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” as well as echoes of “Annabelle Lee,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat.” Poe’s face even pops up for a second on the back of a book the Nephew is reading.

Of course, it’s not enough to simply slap the name and handsome visage of the master on the picture and call it psychological horror. There has to be something more, and there is. Walthall does a fine performance as the Nephew losing his grip on sanity. He goes a little overboard at the end, but he builds to it at least, something that most silent performers didn’t grasp.

The special effects sequences also build, starting with some images of a ghostly Uncle and then heading in some interesting territory involving the risen Christ and animal-headed demons. Even some of the more obvious flaws therein–the clumsiness of some of the editing and the primitive nature of the some of the matte shots–seem to add to the surreal flair of the film’s second half.

Although the special effects and pacing are typically praised, the ending is a bit more divisive. It’s a twist ending that’s either innovative and intriguing or an annoying cop-out, depending on your mood. But the twist is followed by a conclusion that is a total left-field non sequitur. It’s bizarre, antique and, whether you like it or not, pure Griffith.

Most people prefer to focus on the animal imagery in the film’s first half. It’s most obvious when the decision to kill crosses the Nephew’s mind–it’s punctuated with images of the savagery of the insect world–but also take a look at the caged bird in the background of the murder scene. The Nephew may think he’s free with his Uncle dead, but he’s just as trapped as ever.

Perhaps the most interesting visual display occurs before any of that happens. When the Nephew and the Sweetheart are talking in a garden, they are framed by a gazebo in the background and cradled by a fountain with an Asian dragon spouting water in the foreground. It’s a beautiful shot and an intelligent shot, for sure, but there have been other beautiful and intelligent shots in the history of cinema.

What makes the image particularly fascinating is that it fades to black, cuts to a b-plot of two other lovers, and then cuts back to the darkened image of the Nephew and Sweetheart, then back again. That the b-plot is kind of goofy and unnecessary is unimportant. What is important is that no one made movies like this, with an understanding that film can be structured with an abstract, nonlinear rhythm that plays with time, space and narrative. Few people make movies like that right now. To paraphrase Orson Welles, some of Griffith’s work was old even then, and some of it we’re still figuring out today.

Just in time for the holidays: A critical review of “Hold the Dark” (2018)

Well, we began the year with a round of Netflix reviews (sort of), so we might as well end it with one more. Besides, we just hit the longest night of the year and Christmas, and New Years is on the way. What better way to spend it than with wolves of the two and four-legged variety?

A woman in a very, very remote Alaskan town (Riley Keough) writes to naturalist Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), requesting that he track down the wolf that killed her son. Despite being an author rather than a hunter, Core hops on a plane and heads up. Unsurprisingly, he starts uncovering some dark secrets from the get go. The woman’s husband (Alexander Skarsgard) is also in town, recently returned home from military duty in Afghanistan. When he learns of the fate of his son, he goes on a rampage, and Core is caught tracking a different kind of predator.

“Hold the Dark” is based on a novel, and it shows. The film is leisurely with its pace and with its various epiphanies. While it’s slow to get off the ground, once it does, it tends to move–a battle between rural police and a lone shooter with a chain gun stands out as a tense and intense sequence–but even then it’s with more of a sense of dream-like wonder and fascination than sense of urgency.

The narrative also skips around a little bit, as if the screenplay has been reformatted from chapters; it was adapted by Macon Blair, who has worked with director Jeremy Saulnier a number of times as an actor, although perhaps the film’s pace owes more to editor Julia Bloch, who has a very interesting resume.

Director Jeremy Saulnier has helmed a couple of thrillers I’ve meant to see and a couple of episodes of “True Detective” I have seen, so he gets a pass; the cinematography, by one Magnus Nordenhof Jonck, perfectly pairs the relentless mood with nature-documentary prettiness.

The actors are a little less successful with this approach. Wright, who has the most to do as a truly literate hero, gets stuck playing a grumpy grandpa for most of the film. Well, maybe he is a grumpy grandpa by now. He does do it well. But just about everyone else in the cast is left playing characters that feel oddly shallow–but perhaps they’re less shallow than they are symbolic, like bullet points on a list of required ingredients for an alchemical equation.

“Dark” is a little esoteric–convoluted might be the right word–but there’s always something going on onscreen, so viewers shouldn’t get bored trying to figure out what’s going on off screen. The photography is as majestic and temperate as an iceberg, and both the script and the shots are layered with enough cryptic symbols to make Carl Jung choke on a pretzel. It’s the kind of film that rewards re-watching, assuming you want to re-watch something so downbeat. Whatever holding the dark means to you, this film has it covered.

Ultimately, “Hold the Dark” is obscure, bleak and cold as a wolf’s teat. It’s a little long on time and short on diversity of mood, but its constant atmosphere manages to be ominous, oppressive and chillingly beautiful. If that’s not a metaphor for the holidays, I don’t know what is.