Smile (2022)

Writer/director Parker Finn’s SMILE had my number from the get-go and appears to have been reading my diary. My very first kindertrauma involved haunting smiles (SATAN’S TRIANGLE (‘75)) and multiple freaky grimaces have haunted my psyche ever since (the ending of TV-movie DON’T GO TO SLEEP (‘82) is particularly culpable). Everything about SMILE from its sterile psychiatric setting, rampant paranoia, discombobulated protagonist (a flawless Sosie Bacon), aversion toward the familial, and trauma-fueled denouement was singing my name (albeit through clenched teeth). Remarkably though, SMILE went and pushed me even further than I was prepared to go. This is a horror movie that is not afraid to take the gloves (braces?) off, shelve subtlety, and roar directly in your face. I would never give away the multitude of surprises this flick has rolled up its sleeve but suffice to say, my jaw hit the popcorn-covered floor on more than a few occasions.

Well meaning psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Bacon) attempts to help a student who recently witnessed her professor beat himself to death with a hammer. Since the incident, the poor girl claims to have been haunted by a free-floating malignant entity that threatens to kill her and reveals itself by somehow entering random people and creepily smiling.  Rose is of course skeptical until the student freaks out and commits suicide in front of her, basically announcing, “Tag! You’re it!” Now Rose is seeing super shady smiling people everywhere, receiving phone calls from beyond, and destroying all her professional and romantic relationships by acting like an absolute lunatic. It’s clear she has to find a way to break the curse she’s under soon or she will be the next person to die horribly and pass the supernatural cootie on. All this may sound familiar to fans of THE RING and IT FOLLOWS but SMILE offers a disquieting downward spiral all its own. Once Rose’s life is upended by the unknown force, the whole world seems to change around her and the alienation and profound paranoia she feels is palpable.

SMILE is beautifully done. Finn’s direction is superb and there’s always something going on visually to back up Rose’s sudden estrangement with her once familiar world (I was reminded of Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (‘78) on several occasions). The score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is like nothing you’ve ever heard before and does wonders enhancing the film’s off-kilter atmosphere. The acting too is spot on; Sosie Bacon makes you believe the impossible and fearlessly disassembles herself piece by piece on screen. Scary, thrilling, and with a moving undercurrent that urges you to let go of guilt from the past, SMILE is everything I hoped it would be and substantially more.

Pearl (2022)

It seems like just yesterday I was singing the praises of Ti West’s “X” and now here comes PEARL, the prequel that reveals the foundation of horror that film is built on. PEARL is a truly singular experience and quite a sight to behold. It openly borrows from many a classic film before it (everything from THE WIZARD OF OZ (’39) to MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)) and yet feels just about as fresh and forward-bound as a film can be. Freakishly effervescent Mia Goth portrays the title character Pearl, a young girl with big dreams who is trapped on a farm taking care of her scowling deadweight parents, some standard livestock, and a friendly alligator with a big appetite. Feel free to place this lunatic character study right up there with the all-time greats (Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) Willard Stiles (Bruce Davidson & Crispin Glover) May (Angela Bettis), and maybe Iif I may be so bold) that crazy kid Jamie (Sammy Snyders) from THE PIT (’81) to name a mere few). West has never been more confident on a visual level (especially when it comes time to whip out the red hues) and there are more than a few scenes that I just can’t seem to shake from my head, try as I might.

On my way to see PEARL I got some worrisome news (it’s a long story, but suffice to say everything turned out as wretchedly as possible and my attempts to fix the troublesome situation failed miserably) and I have to say it really affected my viewing experience though I’m not sure for the better or worse. I do know that from the trailer of PEARL I was really expecting a hilariously morbid quirky romp but I ended up with so much more than I anticipated. Turns out PEARL is just so damn tragic that it began to actually pain me to watch it. Goth gives an incredible, for the ages lengthy monologue (while seemingly channeling the entire cast of THE SHINING (’81)) explaining her morose feelings, motivations, insecurities, and general psychotic history and it’s legit glorious but it’s also gut-wrenching to visit the depths of her delusions and self-hatred. I’m sure I was a bit over-sensitive at the time of my viewing but geez, I almost felt the urge to tap out before I too joined in her woeful sobs (seriously, it makes my depressing boo THE ATTIC (’80) look like XANADU (’80)). I loved it; Goth & West make an incredible team but ouch! I may have to watch GREASE 2 (’82) to recover my equilibrium.

Barbarian (2022)

Late one night during a raging storm, Tess Marshall (a relatable Georgina Campbell) arrives at the small house she rented for the weekend only to find the key missing from the lock box outside. She sees light and a figure inside so understandably exasperated; she bangs on the door, which is answered by an odd man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard, inadvertently carrying the baggage of previously portraying a psychotic killer clown). It turns out the domicile was accidentally rented to two parties for the same weekend! Since it’s raining cats and dogs and they just happen to be in the most dilapidated and depressing area of Detroit, the two form an awkward alliance and agree to share the place together. What could go wrong? Everything could go wrong. Everything you could imagine and a dozen things your mind could never comprehend can go wrong.

I’m not going to be the one to spoil this film’s surprises. Nope, I knew nothing about it going in and I’m a hundred percent sure that’s the best way to see it. (Now whispering) I will say, writer/director Zach Cregger’s BARBARIAN absolutely feels like being trapped in a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. There’s this horrible force that keeps pushing you forward against your better judgment as you go deeper and deeper and sense that where you came from is disintegrating behind you. There is nobody to help, in fact, your every plea for assistance is misconstrued and digs your grave deeper. Every choice you make to fix the situation backfires and makes things worse. You witness the darkest heartlessness of humanity and the unfathomable pain and despair that it fosters. There are no happy endings here, just inevitable decay and rot. It’s all so outlandish it can’t possibly be real but it’s happening all the same. You have a few glimmers of light, a few hopes for escape but you squander them trying to do that right thing for people you have no idea don’t deserve it. Something primal makes you want to cry out for your mother and that may be the biggest mistake of all. BARBARIAN is an ordeal. It can be furiously frustrating at times when the most backward choices are made but I think that just adds to the anxiety and the feeling of hopelessness. It’s a bad dream of a movie and like many bad dreams, it can’t help being as fascinating as it is thrilling.

My Kindertrauma:: Jaws (’75) By Unk-L

My earliest film-going experience was seeing JAWS in a drive-in as a child. I recall one of my parents telling me if the movie got too scary I could opt to look out the rear window of the station wagon at the screen in back us. That screen was showing THE REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER. I did not understand why a film claiming to be about the Pink Panther was not a cartoon.

Of course, I loved JAWS. What child could resist JAWS? Me and my brothers later went on to play JAWS in the pool, own a rubber shark toy and name our first gold fish JAWS who was later replaced by JAWS 2 before there was an actual movie sequel with that title. JAWS was a true cultural phenomenon in the seventies and whenever I watch the film now, it’s like I’m jumping through a time tunnel back to my youth.

Anyway, as much as every scene featuring the shark in the movie thrilled me to no end, there’s one moment in the movie that really stuck out and lingered in my mind. You likely know exactly the one I’m talking about. Late at night, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) come across what looks like the half-sunken abandoned boat of Ben Gardner (Craig Kingsbury) who had earlier gone in search of the shark hoping to kill it and collect a reward. Matt gets in his scuba gear to check out the bottom of the boat where he finds a chomp-y shark bite-sized hole and a large tooth. All is quiet and dark when suddenly Gardner’s bloated, blue, floating head appears complete with one bugged-out eye and another missing and a frozen expression of sheer terror. The head so startles Matt that he drops the tooth. It’s undoubtedly one of the most effective jump scares in cinema history.

Recently JAWS was re-released all digitally cleaned-up and sporting brand new 3-D effects so of course, I jumped at the chance to see it. It turned out to be an incredible experience to watch this film that I’ve seen countless times over the course of my life in a brand new way. It’s absolutely stunning. The funny thing is that even though I could not have been any more prepared for the appearance of Gardner’s floating head popping out, it still somehow made me jump once again. John William’s incredible score blasting on the speakers almost makes it impossible not to flinch. Countless things have changed over the course of my life but there are some things that will always stay the same. JAWS will always be a masterpiece and Ben Gardner’s head will always startle the living daylights out of me.

Traumafession:: James of LARPing Real Life on The Gauntlet (1977)

I have a confession to make before I even get to my Traumafession: I have never seen the Clint Eastwood movie The Gauntlet. My dad took me to see other Eastwood-Sondra Locke vehicles, namely the goofy but fun Any Which Way films, but never this 1977 crime flick.

So how does a picture I’ve never watched end up as something that traumatized me as a youngster? Look no further than the 30-second TV spot.

Put aside for the time being that someone in a position of power at Warner Bros. decided that the advertisement for a tense, edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting action film required a voiceover by radio’s American Top 40 host, Kasey Kasem. The really scary moment happens at around the 12-second mark in the ad.

It is then that the passenger-side door of a racing ambulance opens, and Sandra Locke spills out of it. She clings to the door for dear life while the freeway flashes by beneath her. She screams as she hangs scant inches above the tarmac. What makes matters worse is that she seems to be dressed in only a blue t-shirt and short-shorts. Talk about road rash!

Who is she? Who is chasing her? Why is she in an ambulance? Why is the ambulance driving so fast? Why isn’t she wearing her seatbelt? None of these questions mattered to my then 6-year-old brain. The only fact I gathered in that one-second-long clip was that car doors opened for no good goldang reason while you drove on the highway, so you better be ready at all times!

After seeing this ad for The Gauntlet, I was very wary of sitting next to the door while accompanying my parents to the grocery store, the mall, or to Grandma’s house. Remember: this was the 1970s. As a little kid, no one cared much about my safety. I didn’t have to ride in a special seat in the back of the car. Heck, my sister used to sit on the central fold-down armrest in the front seat of our Pontiac Grand Prix – sans seatbelt! The chances of being launched head first through the windshield or bouncing like a superball off the dashboard during a head-on collision were quite a few percentage points higher than the door inexplicably opening while being chased down Route 65 by evil cops who wanted to make sure I couldn’t rat them out.

Yet, as a little kid, I made darn sure that the door was shut firmly and locked tightly before we backed out of the driveway. I didn’t even like touching the door’s armrest or handle until the car was at a full stop. I assumed that when my dad took the car in for its yearly inspection, the first thing on the to-do list was “Make sure doors do not open on their own during high-speed chases.”

To this day, when I get into a vehicle, the image of Sondra Locke will flash through my mind, and I’ll keep as close a watch on the door as Woody Allen did on Christopher Walken’s hands on the steering wheel in Annie Hall.

-James Lewis of LARPing Real Life

American Horror Stories: Bloody Mary

Lately, I’m super behind on my horror television viewing but recently I got a heads up that the latest episode of the stand-alone horror anthology series AMERICAN HORROR STORIES revolves around the legend of Bloody Mary so I could not resist checking it out. Bloody Mary was one of the many mental phantoms that haunted my young brain and seemed to follow me from home to summer camp and to every sleepover I ever attended. I was never brave enough to say her name three times into a mirror but I can tell you that just looking at my own reflection seemingly mutate while staring at it in the dark was freaky enough to force me to turn the lights back on in a frenzied panic.

This particular re-telling of Bloody Mary involves a “Monkey’s Paw” wish-granting twist to the familiar folk legend. Four teen girls, sisters Elise and Bianca (Raven Scott and ANNIE (2014)’s Quvenzhané Wallis) and pals Lena (Kyanna Simone) & Maggie (Kyla-Drew) seek out Bloody Mary (Dominique Jackson) believing that she might improve their less than ideal living situations. Mary is happy to oblige with the caveat that the gals must commit heinous immoral acts (paralyze a competitor, leak nude photos of a classmate, accuse a teacher of rape) to have their dreams come true. Declining to fulfill Mary’s request is an option as well but then she gets to fatally rip your eyes out. This moral dilemma adds a sharp new edge to Mary’s usual mirror-bound modus operandi.

Directed by SJ Main Muñoz, Bloody Mary is a fresh and twisty take on the ubiquitous campfire story. It’s got many unique curveballs to deliver while also charmingly stoking nostalgia for ‘80s/’90s supernatural slashers like the ELM STREET series and CANDYMAN (’92). There’s a fun, past-curfew vibe to the entire affair and the likable characters feel like more than cannon fodder when their numbers eventually dwindle. Our antagonist’s harrowing backstory is equally compelling and a fine job is done adding flourishes to the malleable tale many of us grew up with. Thanks to high production values, quality writing, and impressive direction this stand-alone, hour-long tale feels like it could have easily been a feature film if it was so inclined. Even if you’ve missed previous entries in this series, check out Bloody Mary, it’s exactly the kind of spooky fun the approaching Halloween season calls for.