Passing strange?: A critical review of “Stranger Things” season one

I don’t understand this recent run on the 80s in all things thriller. There was “It Follows,” with its fresh teens funking it up to a Casio-centric soundtrack, ghosts of neon and capitalistic tech in “Only God Forgives” and “Mr. Robot” respectively–and both in “Blade Runner 2049”–and the Netflix original “Stranger Things,” the latest investigation into the horror genre by the auteur-ish twins the Duffer brothers (brothers Duffer previously wrote for the TV series “Wayward Pines,” which featured an oddly similar theme song to “Stranger”).

I have no particular problem with the 80s–it was the decade of my birth–but I can’t help but wonder why. Is it because of the curious balance of traditionalism and materialism that emerged in the 80s, which is a perfect percolator for horror? Is it that, as the world grows increasingly nationalistic, we want to examine our own most recently nationalistic period with a monstrous eye? Or is it simply because the horror junkie gen-Xers who came of age in the 80s are finally producing films and television, and they’re feeling nostalgic? Probably the last one. Regardless, I can only caution that, while 80s horror gave us John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” Iron Maiden album covers and the continuing literary career of Stephen King, it also gave us “Mac and Me,” Boy George’s haircuts and…uh, the continuing literary career of Stephen King. Well, now that the new season of “Stranger Things” has dropped, let’s remind ourselves of the first season., cos I haven’t watched the second one yet.

An enigmatic girl with no hair, known only as Eleven, emerges from a spooky forest just outside of Hawkins, Ind., which is positioned uncomfortably, and rather pointlessly, close to a not very secret military research lab. Who is she? Does she have anything to do with the disappearance of local middle schooler Will? Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), wants to know, as do the boy’s D&D friends. Will their investigation run afoul of the sinister Dr. Brenner (a stoic and somewhat underused Matthew Modine, seemingly channeling Jim Jarmusch in appearance)? Can they enlist the aid of the local police chief (David Harbour), a seriously flawed man who starts each morning with the help of a cigarette, a beer and a some unmarked pills? And what’s up with those portals to a nightmarish mirror dimension that everyone keeps stumbling across and occasionally into?

If it seems like there are lot of questions here, it’s because there are. Some of the issues throughout the first season of “Stranger Things” are never quite explained. I get that this adds to the mystery, but it also leads to confusion when characters exhibit abilities they never exhibited before (I’m thinking in particular of the final episode here, which has some come-out-of-nowhere moments). The series also has a difficult time defending some of its themes. For example, it’s bad that Eleven is a weapon, until the kids point out that she’s a weapon, then it’s OK to use her as a weapon. Perhaps the second season will tidy things up.

But big themes are not this show’s game. It has one goal: evoke an era. “Stranger” is a paradox because it acts like it’s original while acknowledging that it’s not. At least, it behaves like it’s original, with its occasionally stylish production design and clever affectations (its now iconic font, for example, and calling episodes “chapters”). But, on the other hand, it doesn’t just wear its influences on its sleeves; it wears them like medals of honor. The plot is Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” by way of Stephen King’s “It,” with a heaping helping of the latter’s “The Mist” thrown in. And that’s not counting the horror posters scattered around the sets, the fantasy games the kids play and their sci-fi-flick-laced dialogue. Are these things strange? Yes. But stranger than what?

The cast is certainly solid. Winona Ryder is typically entertaining as Joyce, but she isn’t given a lot to do here other than pace nervously, her eyes eternally bugged out and her indoor voice constantly stuck in outdoor mode. But, hey, if you want nervous-out-of-her-skull single mom, Ryder has you covered.

David Harbour’s Chief Hopper is the most relatable character (which probably says more about me than it does about anything else), with a past that’s gradually unveiled, perfectly explaining his tightrope walk between being terrified in the face of the unknown and just trying to get through the day. Certainly all of the children are pretty irritating. It turns out that the squabbles that seemed so important to us at 12 are fairly petty past 21.

What the series does well, it does very well, and again, what it does well is atmosphere. The photography is clean, and more than that, it’s smart; Joyce’s increasingly bizarre house is shot like a fascinating Christmas light spider web, and a spooky forest on the bad side of reality is shot like a primeval nightmare. The monster design is good, and the horrors are a nice mixture of atmospheric and jump scares. The soundtrack is also surprisingly diverse while still sticking with an 80s theme (dig the use of Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in episode three; neither the original nor the cover is from the 80s, but it works).

“Stranger Things” is a clever series that is perhaps more shallow than it thinks it is. Still, it’s not called “Deeper Things,” and I will be happily watching the second season until something deeper, and stranger, comes along.

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Who’s haunting who?: A critical review of “The Awakening” (2011)

What are ghosts anyway? Horror, as a genre, has all sorts of answers, ranging from the traditional–spirits of the deceased–to the psychological–manifestations of guilt–to the Scooby Doo–it was the bank guard; it was always the bank guard. Starting off with a quote noting that, between World War I and the Spanish influenza epidemic, the first decades of the 20th century were a time for ghosts, writer-director Nick Murphy’s very BBC-looking film “The Awakening” seems to be taking a different approach, hinting that ghosts are not merely cultural or individual, but inextricably connected to the human zeitgeist.

Naw, I’m kidding. The movie’s about scary ghost children.

OK, it’s a little more complex than that.

The movie is actually about Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall, “The Gift”), a modern woman between the wars who smokes, wears pants and sits on the arm of the couch. She’s also a ghost hunter, or rather, a ghost debunker, as is evident in the first scene where she torpedoes a dubious seance. So it is with some trepidation that she takes on the case brought to her Robert Mallory (Dominic West, “The Wire”), who works at a school for boys outside of London, I will assume having little to no knowledge of the British countryside. Mallory explains that the school was once a private home, and one of the previous residents–a dead boy–has been seen by some of his students. One of them has been frightened to death. So Cathcart packs up her ghost debunking gear and heads out, only she will find more than she bargained for–although the viewer might be less surprised.

At least you will enjoy the ride visually. Murphy dots his cinematic landscape with reflected images and curious close ups, giving the film the sense of introspection. This is utterly fitting. In the end, this film is far more moody than it is scary (the chilly cinematography by Eduard Grau, who worked with Tom Ford on “A Single Man,” gives everyone touch of ill health). There are also a couple of jump scares–some work and some don’t. Oddly enough, it is when the film isn’t trying as hard to be “horror” that it works best. The sudden faces filling the screen aren’t nearly as effective as tension mounting in different rooms of the house while a boy silently smacks a ping pong ball against a wall.

In a way, this is a film about architecture and landscape. The film’s strongest asset is easily its set. The house grounds are well teased out and presented, and the building itself is huge, drafty and hollow, and fits well into both the movie’s atmosphere and its mystery. In fact, if anything, it could be developed more, as it only becomes a “character” during the movie’s climactic reveal. And the weakest asset? The soundtrack, a Gothic string of orchestral cliches.

It’s a better idea to focus on the actors. The supporting cast is great. Imelda Staunton is solid as a silent matron, Joseph Mawle is game as a creepy groundskeeper and Shaun Dooley is very good as a shadowy teacher–it’s a role that would have easy to overdo, but Dooley gives it an impressive sensitivity. However, the film is far more interested in giving screen time to its leads. Luckily for us, they are very attractive, both as actors and…well, it’s Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. They’re handsome people. The attraction that develops between them in the film is very organic, due as much to the script as to Hall and West’s natural charisma.

At the end of the day, this film feels like a piece of classic British ghost literature–perhaps too classic for some. One assumes the writing team knows what they’re doing. Murphy is a veteran of both American and English TV, and his co-writer Stephen Volk’s filmography certainly seems to contain a lot of horror. Still, the script is occasionally a bit too on the nose, and it contains too many endings for its own good, but it’s usually fine, albeit predictable. And every now and again, it’s suddenly smart. One set piece in particular, a large doll house, sticks out. I don’t want to say too much more. Suffice to say that the title is very much psychological. “Awakening” feels a bit like Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others,” not only in atmosphere, but also in its conflation of the fear of the supernatural and the horrors of war (in this case, World War I). “Awakening” doesn’t beat around the bush either–ghosts mean trauma, and everyone here is haunted.

“The Awakening” is not quite your standard horror film. Some viewers might be impressed by a strong female lead and her nuanced male co-star, both equally capable yet vulnerable; others might be bored by what is, admittedly, a familiar affair; as for myself, I’m just a sucker for a handsomely photographed haunted house story.

Putting the “bat” in “bat shit insane”: A Critical review of “Metamorphosis” (2007)

I imagine we’ve all done this. We see a DVD, and who happens to be on the cover but Christopher Lambert, star of such classics as “Highlander,” “Mortal Kombat” and that one Tarzan movie that was actually kind of like the books? Obviously Lambert, sporting a wide eyed and wide mouthed vampire scowl, is more than enough reason to watch a movie called “Metamorphosis.” We sense no danger here.

Before you ask, Franz Kafka did not contribute to the screenplay, but I’m sure that even the Prussian master of existentialist horror could not have saved this one from the bargain bin. Basically, “Metamorphosis” can’t decide if it wants to be the next Tony Scott’s “The Hunger” or start a new Underworld-esque franchise. The result is that the film, although not without its charms, is a hodgepodge of “what the hell?”

Why is it that movies that begin with a block of text feel the need to have a narrator as well? It boggles the mind. Look, either tell us or spell it out for us, but not both. Or, better yet, let the movie do the explaining itself. Either way, we are twice informed that back in 17th century Hungary, the Countess Bathory was flaying girls alive, drinking their blood and being an altogether bother to the local peasantry. So said peasants sneak in some mercenaries and slaughter her family. Seems fair.

Meanwhile, in the present, three Americans, a goofy one, a ditsy one and a sensitive one–three guesses as to who survives, and the first two don’t count–are vacationing in Hungary, looking for the old Castle Bathory. They get lost taking a “shortcut” through a graveyard–in which Lambert just dug up the corpse of his brother–and there they encounter Elizabeth (Irena Violette), an ethereal beauty in a corset who can guide them to their destination. Ain’t that convenient? There’s some other stuff–we get a pretty contrived theology lesson about purgatory, the sensitive tourist starts up a romance with Elizabeth, she later shows off her supernatural fighting abilities in a poorly choreographed pub brawl–but the fun doesn’t really start until the second act, when we wind up at Castle Bathory. Why? Because that’s where the whole reason I picked up the DVD reappears, only this time, he’s a vampire.

When it comes to “Metamorphosis,” the one thing that everyone agrees on is that Lambert is the film’s saving grace. He has the closest thing to gravitas out of anyone in the cast, and, whether he’s delivering lines of morbid humor or goofball weirdness, he’s giving it his gravel-voiced all. He delivers his lines of existentialist dialogue like they has something approaching meaning, and while I don’t quite buy it, I do enjoy it.

Which is great, because there’s not a lot else to stick around for. The script is bad on multiple levels. Everyone’s dialogue is awful. If you need a direct example, when one of the tourists encounters Elizabeth for the first time, he calls her “toots.” Because it’s still 1923, presumably. Oddly enough, although the film is Hungarian, it does not appear to be dubbed, so they can’t use that as an excuse.

The film at least looks OK. The photography is clean, and even pretty at certain points, although I still don’t understand the vogue for forgoing tripods. Are they really that expensive? Regardless, the cinematography, costumes and sets are good enough that this could pass for an acceptable TV movie. That script though…

The movie gets a little lazy at certain points. Whenever it needs a handy solution for why something works the way it works, the answer always appears to be “because vampires.” At the same time, the mythology is rather selective. Vampires still don’t appear in mirrors, but they’re unaffected sunlight. Occasionally, the film forgets its own mythology: Initially crosses shudder in the presence of vampires, like supernatural Geiger counters; later, vampires can laugh at them and set them on fire. Also, it is eventually revealed that vampires can time travel. No, I am not making this up. Writer-director Jeno Hodi did, along with screenwriters Tibor Fonyodi and Allan Katz.

That time travel thing plays out in the film’s final, most infuriating act. Once its had its Carpathian Mountain setup and its slasher-esque chase around Bathory Castle in the middle, the movies enters into the metaphysical by way of the bizarre, and it’s really bad at it (although it does finally explain why “Metamorphosis” has such a pretentious title; most vampiric imports are called things like “Blood Lovers II: Extra Blood, Hold the Lovers”). The film suddenly starts toying with lofty concepts like love, destiny and our place in the cosmos in the most confusing way possible…and then, it flashes back to humor with its stinger. Unless it was trying to set up a sequel. Who can say? In the end, you can’t blame “Metamorphosis” for not trying, but you can blame it for not making any sense whatsoever.

Thanks for the zomb-eries: A critical review “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” (2016)

Horror fans like to mutate the genre into all kinds of subgenres, and I don’t just mean things like “survival horror” or “haunted house movies” or “horror involving people in rabbit suits.” I also mean the quirky hybrid genres, my favorite being “sci fi horror” or “cosmic horror,” as it is occasionally called by those of us who have old books we don’t read on our bookshelves. One hybrid genre that ruled the budgetary roost during the last decade or so has been the action horror film, fearlessly led by two franchises: the Underworld films and the Resident Evil films. Yes, they really have been around that long; “Resident Evil” came out in 2002 and “Underworld” followed the next year. Both franchises released films in 2016, but only one had the decency to make it the last movie…for the moment.

Our old friend Alice (Mila Jovovich, as always) has a knack for surrounding herself with the right kind of people. Biking out of the bombed out remains of Washington D. C., she finds herself in the presence of the Umbrella Corporation AI the Red Queen (Ever Anderson, Jovovich’s daughter) who suggests she sneak into Umbrella HQ under the ruins of Raccoon City, locate an anti-virus that will wipe out all the infected–including Alice herself–and release it, thereby saving the final few thousand uninfected humans left on earth. And she’s gotta do it in 48 hours for…some reason. To heighten suspense, I suppose.

Unfortunately for Alice, she’s also sandwiched between a rock and a hard place, in this case the hard place is our other old friend Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts, also returning), who is sitting in the Hive and sorting paper clips, and our other other old friend Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen, also also returning), who is pursuing Alice in a so-cool-it-must-be-a-toy battle tank, which is itself being pursued by a sea of extra sprinting after the machine while wearing corpse makeup. You can kind of imagine what happens next.

Look, there’s not a lot of point in discussing the plot of a Resident Evil film. I actually have a soft spot for the series because it’s so gleefully about sticking Jovovich in tight outfits and watching her shoot increasingly oversized guns and beat the snot out of mutated Rottweilers. Usually people show up, kick things in slow motion, then scream and bleed and explode for 98 minutes. It’s fun. This film tries to tie everything convoluted that the series has been for the last 15–sorry Alice, not 10–years, and it tries to do it in a clever way. It works, in a practical sense, but it also gives the movie a heaviness that threatens to drags the actors down. The two exceptions are Jovovich, who always looks like she’s having a blast, and Glen, whose Dr. Isaacs probably has the most depth of all the characters, and he manages to jump from stoic to zealot to epicurean with ease. He also pronounces it “ruh-COON city,” so that’s nice.

As far as the feel goes, the film probably has the most distinct look of any of the Resident Evil movies, thanks in part to its lower budget. I have to say this for franchise writer-director-producer Paul W. S. Anderson: no matter how many movies he makes or how big a budget he gets, he never quite loses his guerrilla style (he photographed the majority of this film himself with handheld cameras). If anything, he has become more aggressively stylish with age. When he’s gritty, he’s film school gritty; when he’s slick, he’s splashy slick. The result is that Anderson comes across as a low rent version of George Miller. In fact, the entire first third of the film trims the budget by appearing as a Mad Max style road adventure, and it actually works.

Both Resident Evil and Underworld, as franchises, have long been a bit of a tickler for the sticklier of horror fans: Are these things genuinely horror, or are they merely Ritalin deprived action flicks with bad lighting and Halloween costumes? In a way, “The Final Chapter” tries to tilt things more in the horror direction, which is fine atmospherically, but leaves us a little in the lurch action-wise. There are quite a few jump scares, maybe more than in the average Resident Evil entry, and the film is very dark, but that’s not a plus. I mean it literally; the film is poorly lit, something which gives it atmosphere in the earlier, daytime scenes, but leaves the audience a kind of blind in the later, nighttime scenes. Occasionally it works in the film’s favor–a later scene is punctuated by splintered spikes of light from flashlights that fail to illuminate an overlong corridor in the Hive–but for the most part, it’s just confusing. Which does matter in a Resident Evil film, since they’re all about the fighting. Luckily, a fun scene with Alice defending herself while tied up and upside down happens during the day; later sequences are harder to see, and the choreography is accordingly lazy.

Of course, the film is also dark, and this time I mean metaphorically. We are dealing with extinction in pretty broad strokes, for one thing. None of this “we can rebuild society” crap. Nope. The only reason we’re trying to stop Umbrella is for revenge. Also, the slight chance of rebuilding society. But mostly revenge.

There’s also a traitor in the ranks of Alice’s allies, which could give the proceedings a nihilistic tone, if anyone on screen bothered to stop and think about it; regardless, none of them are safe from the various traps of the Umbrella Corporation or its zombie hordes–survivors are dropped down dark holes, chopped up by propellers and unceremoniously eaten. Not that that matters too much either. The other characters largely serve as meat shields to get Alice to her goal. In fact, if there was any chance for depth in the series, it would be if Alice paused and pondered about survivor’s guilt. But, nope. She’s just as stiff upper lipped as ever.

“Sometimes I feel like this has been my whole life,” Alice says at one point. “Running. Killing.” Well, yes. Technically, it has.

October 2017: An apology

I don’t know if anyone out there in bloggo land ever watched “The Fairly Odd Parents,” a children’s cartoon on Nickelodeon that sat somewhere on the spectrum between “Ren and Stimpy” and…I don’t know, something a lot more wholesome than “Ren and Stimpy.” Well, regardless, there was an episode of “Odd Parents” in which the titular parents–the fairy godmother and father of a boy named Timmy–inform their child charge that evil anti-fairies are loose in the world on Oct. 31, and that “Halloween is their Christmas.”

We here at Idols and Realities feel the same way. Halloween is our Christmas, and we’re red in the face for not posting a post on the first of October, as it was on a weekend, when we traditionally (are supposed) to post. We gotta do something real special for the holiday to make it up, but what should it be? Perhaps spend the month exclusively on a classic studio–Universal, Hammer or RKO–or some horror-twinged auteur–Hitchcock, Lynch or Polanski? Or maybe something more literary, like dissecting the work of a favorite author–a Lovecraft, King or Poe–or a theme–the haunted houses of Jackson, Matheson and James?

Well, um, OK. But how about this: At my local branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, the librarians have set up a table with all kinds of horror movies. Some of them are really crappy. What if every week I reviewed a different really crappy horror movie? I think that’d be a lot better, don’t you? Well, it actually doesn’t matter what you think, cos it’s my blog. Watch this space.