Manhunter (1986)

I recently filled in a pretty big blind spot in my mental library of the film canon: I had never seen The Silence of the Lambs, despite it being one of the biggest films of the nineties and occupying a massive place in the American pop culture landscape of the past thirty years. Every single part of the film has been parodied, homaged, recreated, dissected, and interpreted musically; its influence loomed huge, and looms still to this day. I’ve also seen virtually everything else in the Thomas Harris adaptation canon, as I was a fan of the Hannibal TV series and I’ve seen all of the other film adaptations of the Lector works other than Lambs. I was inspired to finally seek it out and watch it after recently seeing two works that referenced it: I’m finally getting around to watching The X-Files, and early Dana Scully is very clearly based on Clarice Starling (even the X-Files wiki has a page about this), as well as the introductory scene of Betty Cooper in the first posts-timeskip episode of this season of Riverdale, in which Betty runs the Quantico course that Clarice does at the beginning of Lambs. All this hype is well-deserved; that Jodie Foster has delivered a lifetime’s worth of fantastic performances makes her portrayal of Starling no less fantastic, Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal is delightfully creepy, the mystery elements of the plot are perfectly constructed, and it’s a movie that earned its place in pop culture. My biggest complaint, really, is in regards to the workmanlike quality of Jonathan Demme’s directorial work.

To put it simply, Lambs just isn’t very stylish, and a lot of the storytelling is in the (admittedly great) performances. That’s typical of how I feel about Demme’s work; a few years back, one of the weekly summer specialties that the Alamo Drafthouse ran was called “Un-Hitched,” featuring films inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. I saw all four features that ran as part of the specialty program and wrote about three of them: Body Double, Special Effects, and (as a submission for Movie of the Month) Who Can Kill a Child? Even though I disliked Special Effects, I still had something to say about it, but Demme’s Un-Hitched contribution, The Last Embrace, left me completely apathetic. His productions are substantial but lack a quintessential auteurism, and that shows though in Lambs, despite it having a fairly long-lasting legacy. There are a few moments that stand out: the nightvision stalking of Clarice in Jamie Gumb’s basement is inspired, and the shooting of Clarice’s initial interviews of Lector place him behind glass while the camera (and the viewer) stays outside of his cell, then having her final scene with him in Memphis show with the camera in his cell while Clarice paces on the other side of the bars is a great depiction of the inversion of their power dynamic. Overall, however, what Lambs made me want to do was revisit my favorite Harris adaptation, the oft-overlooked Michael Mann flick Manhunter, which was released in 1986, just five short years after the publication of its source material, Red Dragon.

When it comes to the general public’s interest in the Hannibal Lector character, the story with the greatest staying power and most mainstream recognition is Silence of the Lambs, but to my mind, the plot of Red Dragon is the Hannibal Lector story. It’s certainly had the most adaptations, with Manhunter coming first in the eighties, then getting a second adaptation under its original Red Dragon title as a Lambs prequel in 2001 and starring Edward Norton as Will Graham, before finally being adapted as part of the third season of NBC’s Hannibal TV series helmed by Bryan Fuller. Although the last of these was a Tumblr darling and had a devoted following which praised the show’s visual flair, Manhunter is also no slouch in the visuals department. When I think of the quintessential eighties neo-noir (neon-noir?), Manhunter is the film that I think of.

Surprisingly, the Red Dragon plot outline is pretty consistent across all three adaptations: some time prior to the “current” events, FBI profiler Will Graham was investigating a series of serial killings by a man named Garret Jacob Hobbs. During the course of that investigation, Graham partnered and coordinated with well-regarded psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Hannibal Lector. Graham shot and killed Hobbs in self defense, and Graham was himself grievously injured by Lector while attempting to escape the doctor upon the realization that Lector was also a serial killer and cannibal. While recovering, Graham’s injuries are photographed and published by sleazy tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds, and although he heals physically, his mind takes longer to recover. The very thing that allows Graham such great insight into the mind of the killer, his empathy, also makes him susceptible to the same pathological tendencies of the killers he pursues. Now, with the emergence of a new prolific serial killer nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy,” Will comes out of retirement to consult with Lector once more in order to catch him. The Tooth Fairy is in fact one Francis Dolarhyde, a bodybuilding film development specialist with a slight facial deformity about which he is extremely neurotic.

Dolarhyde has an obsession with the William Blake Revelatory poems/paintings about the Red Dragon, and he believes that he is transforming his victims in his murders of them, as they “bear witness” to a transformation that he calls “The Great Becoming.” Graham attempts to bait Dolarhyde into a trap by leaking false, inflammatory information about the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon to Lounds, but an enraged Dolarhyde captures and kills Lounds instead of Graham. It is discovered that Lector and Dolarhyde have managed to send each other messages via personal ads in Lounds’s newspaper, and Lector provides Dolarhyde with information that endangers Graham’s wife and stepson. The Red Dragon aspect of Dolarhyde’s personality is temporarily pacified when he strikes up a relationship with his blind co-worker, Reba McClane, but his jealousy regarding an innocent interaction with another co-worker leads the Dragon to reassert itself. The only major narrative deviation from the source material and the other adaptations here is that, in Manhunter, Graham attacks and kills Dolarhyde in his home to save Reba; in the Red Dragon and Hannibal TV series adaptations, as well as the original novel, Dolarhyde stages his death so that he can pursue Graham’s family in vengeance without interference, only to be killed by Graham’s wife Molly when invading their home.

Manhunter is a great movie, one of the best neo-noirs ever made. Not to throw a fantastic movie like Silence of the Lambs under the metaphorical bus, but Lambs has nothing on Mann’s sense of style and his cinematic eye. Every frame of Manhunter is gorgeous, even when it’s shocking, disturbing, or creepy; at this point, audiences have seen three different versions of Francis Dolarhyde take three different versions of Reba to pet three different sedated tigers, and although neither Tom Noonan’s Dolarhyde nor Joan Allen’s Reba are the best or most interesting versions of those characters, this is still the most visually striking interpretation of that scene (for the record, Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon is the best Dolarhyde, and Hannibal’s Rutina Wesley is the best Reba). Manhunter’s various tableaux run the gamut from oppressive institutional white spaces to vibrant, almost violently purple sunrises, to stunning salmon sunsets, neon blue night scenes in Graham’s beachside Florida home, and moody shots of Graham inspecting his reflection in various darkened windows. This is used to great effect; when we first meet Brian Cox as Dr. Lecktor (as it is spelled in this film), he’s clothed entirely in white and housed in an all-white cell. When we see reverse shots of Graham from Lecktor’s point of view, the white lines of the cell bars blend into the background of the walls, there’s an impression of Graham, metaphorically fractured into pieces in a white void. That same whiteness is mirrored in the home of the family that was most recently slain by Dolarhyde, which shares that same ascetic aesthetic, other than the Pollock-esque splatters of arterial spray. In an early scene, Graham’s wife Molly (Kim Greist) sits with FBI behaviorist Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) in a lovely silhouette against the sunset over the ocean, and you think to yourself, “God, this is a gorgeous shot,” and then that shot is succeeded by another beautiful diorama, and another, until the film ends.

Cutting the final Graham home invasion scene and killing Dolarhyde early is a strong choice, but I think it works well here, giving the film a cleaner (and more expedient) resolution. Like most Harris adaptations, this one clocks in at a pretty significant length—120 minutes, alongside Lambs’ 118, Red Dragon’s 124, and Hannibal (2001)’s 132—and omitting the final scene allows for earlier sequences to “marinate” a bit more, last a little longer, and have a greater impact. If there’s anything that it stumbles with, it’s Dolarhyde. Both Red Dragon and the TV version of Hannibal weave the Dolarhyde point of view into their texture a bit more evenly, while Manhunter takes perhaps a little too much time before getting to him. As a result, the back half of the film contains long periods of screentime with the focus shifted to Dolarhyde and Rita with very little Graham, which makes for a slightly uneven, but still very rewarding, viewing experience.

There’s so much to love and praise here: the occasional giallo-esque score, the dream sequences, the lingering shots of stillness that create tension, the palate, the acting choices, but it really needs to be seen to be enjoyed. Although Manhunter is older than I am, it’s not streaming for free anywhere, but I guarantee it’s worth the rental price.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

4×4 (2021)

I love a good high-concept gimmick. Any premise that feels like it was pitched as scribbles on a bar napkin calls out to me like an irresistible Siren song – whether it’s “haunted Zoom call“, “killer cocktail dress“, or “cannibal mermaid musical“. As a result, the bar-napkin premise for the new Argentine cheapie 4×4 was too good to pass up. 4×4 is a single-location, confined-space thriller about a petty thief who gets trapped in a high-tech “bait car”, then tormented for days by his victim-turned-captor. Basically, “bait car torture porn.” It mostly delivers on that gimmick for its first hour too (even if the concept feels a decade stale). We are trapped in the bait-car torture chamber with our unlucky-thief protagonist for a miserable, laughable stretch of high-concept cruelty, making for some highly entertaining modern exploitation trash. Then, 4×4 commits a major sin; it abandons its gimmick for a stubbornly traditional, moralistic conclusion outside the car-prison, ruining its trashy appeal for a last-minute attempt at respectability. Bummer.

After an opening-credits montage of security cameras, locked gates, and barbed-wire fences spotted on the streets of Buenos Aires, we jump right into the central action of the story. A thief in soccer hooligan drag breaks into a parked SUV and removes the car’s radio, then pisses on the backseat as a childish prank. He immediately regrets that prank, though, as he ends up spending the next few days of his life soaking in his own piss. The car doors are locked; the windows are polarized & bulletproofed; he’s an isolated prisoner, made to spend endless days in solitary confinement as his rich-asshole captor taunts him over the would-be stolen radio. Most of the torture is the confinement itself; outside of the car’s AC system being weaponized for bursts of extreme cold & extreme heat, the thief is mostly just left to stew in his own repugnant juices & stench. His only water source is the condensation he licks off the car windows in the morning hours. His only escapes are the delirious dreams he has while starved & dehydrated. His only company is the villainous voice on the radio that holds him captive . . . until that villain ruins the movie by insisting on facing his victim in person, outside of the car.

The ideal version of 4×4 would stick to the confines of its commanding gimmick. It starts off on the right foot with the weaponized AC unit & bullets ricocheting off the unbreakable windows, but the booby traps should have exponentially escalated from there. Transforming an ordinary SUV into a mechanized torture chamber leaves plenty of room for over-the-top gimmickry. Unfortunately, the movie shies away from its true destiny as a inane high-concept thriller to instead stage a spirited communal debate about the morality of vigilante justice. Instead of sawblade steering wheels, trash-compactor seating, or tentacled seatbelts, we get a sober, both-sidesing conversation about street crime & wealth-disparity that asks empty rhetorical questions like “What is happening to us as a society?” What a letdown. No one’s going to seek this movie out for its philosophical insights on the morality of petty theft or vigilante justice. Even if that were the case, it ultimately doesn’t have much to say on the topic. The audience is only on the hook for the bar-napkin promise of killer-SUV hijinks, and the movie’s outright cruel to drive away without satisfying that vehicular bloodlust.

-Brandon Ledet

Femme Fatale (2002)

Brian De Palma’s late-career erotic thriller Femme Fatale opens with an exquisitely staged diamond heist, set during a red-carpet movie premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. It ends with an all-in commitment to a sitcom-level cliched Twist that zaps any remnants of prestige or intelligence from that refined opening locale. Those two bookends—a pretentious Art Cinema patina and an intellectually bankrupt gotcha! plot twist—perfectly frame what makes the movie such sublimely idiotic fun. Femme Fatale is preposterous, lurid trash from the goblin king of preposterous, lurid trash. De Palma imports his refined visual acrobatics into the cheap Paris Hilton-era fashions of the early 2000s, and the result is just as impressively crafted as it is aggressively inane.

The opening image of Femme Fatale finds then X-Men villain Rebecca Romijn lounging naked in a French hotel room, watching a classic noir (1944’s Double Indemnity) on a cathode television. Even without the way the title underlines the femme fatale tropes of the noir genre, the audience instantly knows she’s bad news because she shares the same slicked-back bisexual hairdo Sharon Stone sports in Basic Instinct. Romijn pulls off the Cannes diamond heist by distracting her mark with bathroom-stall lesbian sex. She then double-crosses her fellow thieves, and struggles to protect herself (and her loot) in a world where she slinks around with a target on her back. Luckily (very luckily), she’s able to escape by stealing the identity of a French civilian who looks exactly like her (because she’s also played by Romijn); she just has to hope that a snooping slimebag paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) doesn’t blow her cover, or else she’ll have to seek her own revenge for the betrayal. The rest of the film is a convoluted tangle of blackmail, double-crosses, strip teases, and unearned plot twists. It’s all so cheap in its Euro trash mood & straight-boy sexuality that it’s a wonder De Palma managed to not drool directly on the lens.

Story-wise, Femme Fatale is only remarkable for its perversely laidback pace. It’s shockingly unrushed for such a tawdry erotic thriller, allowing plenty of time for relaxing bubble baths, leisurely window-peeping, and little cups of espresso between its proper thriller beats. Otherwise, the film would be indistinguishable from straight-to-DVD action schlock if it weren’t for De Palma’s pet fixations as a visual stylist and a Hitchcock obsessive. All of his greatest hits are carried over here: split-screen & split diopter tomfoolery; suspended-from-the-ceiling Mission: Impossible hijinks; shameless homages to iconic Hitchcock images like the Rear Window binocular-peeping. The mood is decidedly light & playful, though, especially in the flirtatious deceptions shared between Banderas & Romijn. In that way, it’s a lot like De Palma’s version of To Catch a Thief: beautiful movie stars pushing the boundaries of sex & good taste in a surprisingly comedic thriller set in gorgeous European locales. The difference is that Hitch’s film is a carefully crafted Technicolor marvel, while De Palma’s is only elevated a few crane shots above a Skinemax production. Both approaches have their merits.

I wish I could say that there’s some pressingly relevant reason to recommend this film to new audiences. The only contemporary connection I can bullshit on the fly is that its stolen identity sequence recalls the recent Hilaria Baldwin nontroversy in the press, as Romijn’s titular conwoman is publicly exposed for faking a French accent for seven consecutive years (even to her husband). The truth is that I only watched this because it’s one of my few remaining blind-buys from the pre-COVID days when I would collect random physical media from nearby thrift stores. The copy on the back of that DVD is so dated in its relevancy that, just under its “Fatale-y Attractive Bonus Features” section (woof), it includes an America Online Keyword for the poor dolts who might want to research the film on The Web but need the extra guidance. That early-2000s-specific insignificance speaks to the film’s broader appeal. This is disposable, amoral trash that would be totally lost to time if it weren’t for the over-the-top eccentricities of its accomplished horndog director. What would normally be an anonymous entry into a genre comprised mostly of cultural runoff instead feels like a significant cornerstone of De Palma’s personal canon.

-Brandon Ledet

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate is a masterpiece of Cold War paranoia and pro-American propaganda, visually stunning and chilling.  It was talked about a lot these past four years, since during the Trump presidency people were experiencing increased Russophobia and witnessing Eastern European scandals and intrigue.  However, given the film’s message about patriotism and military force, I don’t think it’s the safest comparison to modern events.  Centering around the struggles of two soldiers, Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) after being kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists, the film mainly concerns the American military and political handling of The Red Scare, taking an inherently critically flawed and culturally problematic viewpoint.  That being said, it has an amazing handle on the psychological power of editing and features wonderful performances by everyone involved.

The film opens with the company of Marco and Shaw at the Chinese/Korean border during the Korean War.  They are a gang of rough and tough men, the typical everymen of the 1960s, cutting loose during wartime: drinking, gambling, and objectifying and exotifying the local women.  However, their leader, Shaw, is a wet blanket.  He is a cold and prim rich boy who thinks they’re all lowly trash. Of course, his fellow soldiers find him intolerable.  During a mission they are deceived and captured by a group of sinister Communist scientists who intensely brainwash them.  Without revealing too much of the plot’s twist and turns, I’ll say that they are returned home suddenly with warm feelings for Raymond Shaw.  Marco gains a high-up position in the military and Shaw works for a newspaper relishing in writing smear pieces against his simpleton presidential-hopeful Conservative stepfather (James Gregory), who is merely a pawn for the domineering Mrs. Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury).  Marco is tasked with deprogramming Shaw, who lives a sad and lonely life haunted by his mother’s overbearing shadow.  Eventually, we realize that his mommy issues are the key.

One of the most effective scenes in the film is the demonstration of brainwashing by the Communist scientist.  It cuts back and forth from what the soldiers see (a boring talk from a ladies’ garden club) to the panel of red leaders from all of the world in an amphitheater decorated with huge portraits of Stalin and Moa in the background, in case you forgot what side this sinister cabal was on.  There’s a jarring effect created by the juxtaposition of the mundane droning on of the women’s club and the scientific enthusiasm and twisted plotting.  The clash of the mundane and “the evil” is a chilling way to set us up for constant doubt and paranoia for the rest of the film.

Now, let me get to my real issue with this movie: it reeks of misogyny.  The mother is set up to be the ultimate villain.  The idea that an ambitious woman is more dangerous than world powers that have extreme scientific advances in the realm of psychology is, quite frankly, sickening.  I have no sympathy for Mrs. Iselin.  Angela Lansbury delivers a performance that renders the character utterly reprehensible and unforgivable.  That said, the whole idea of a mother’s failures being the downfall of the country is a special kind of good old fashioned American woman-hating.  It’s really drilled home with the idea that the only way any of this is uncovered is through a team of highly trained military personnel. It just feels a little overkill.  But there is only one thing that pro-military rhetoric in the USA wants to kill, torture, and demean more than a Communist: a powerful woman Communist.  There’s enough analysis of the treatment of women during these wars and missions “to spread democracy” to inspire entire dissertations so I’ll leave that to more skilled folks than I.  Suffice to say, there are serious consequences to this line of thinking.  The only sympathetic women in the film are those who stay on the sidelines being supportive and nurturing.  This includes one whom gets killed off, in an example of an ambitious woman trampling a traditional, attractive feminine figure.  A true 1960s man’s nightmare and the nightmare of many contemporary men as well.

In a political vacuum, I’d say that this is a spectacularly made film, a real classic.  It is technically wonderful, with extremely talented performances.  But we are not in a vacuum.  As a country, if this is the narrative we turn to again and again, we will probably never get over gender disparity.  The Manchurian Candidate is a chilling piece of paranoid propaganda.  It upholds the rhetoric of the status quo: xenophobia, misogyny, and a hyperbolic love and trust of the troops.  It’s an entertaining and effective film, but culturally we need better narrative touchstones.

-Alli Hobbs

Villains (2019)

It can’t have come to this, can it? Kyra Sedgwick isn’t old enough to play a psychobiddy. Right?  Our eternally youthful Madam Sedgwick is a respectable 54 last year.  How old was Bette Davis when Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was released in 1962? According to Wikipedia she was born in 1908, so … 54.

Well, shit.

Villains is a 2019 comedy thriller about spacy, star-crossed stick-up artists Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), whose getaway car runs out of gas at the worst possible moment. Happening upon a house, they break in with no real plan before realizing that they can siphon the gas in the car in the house’s garage, get back to their alleged vehicle, and then be on their way to Florida, where Mickey has designs on selling seashells down by the seashore. They stumble across something in the basement (I’ll come back to that in a minute), and before they can get out with their hides intact, homeowners George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Sedgwick) come home with their infant, Ethan. Although the younger couple start from a position of power—they have a gun, after all—their elders quickly get the upper hand and before you know it, Mickey and Julia are handcuffed to a pole in the basement while George and Gloria try to decide what to do with them. 

All of the film’s marketing, such as it is, really hypes up the something in the house, and that was what originally drew me to the flick. Here’s Hulu’s synopsis: “A pair of amateur criminals break into a suburban home and stumble upon a dark secret that two sadistic homeowners will do anything to keep from getting out” (emphasis mine). IMDb’s description is virtually identical, but the reveal of what’s in the basement comes very early in the film’s runtime, less than halfway through Act I, and is the reason that the rest of the plot exists. If you want to check this one out with absolutely no spoilers, then turn around now and come back later (or don’t; it’s still a free country*). Here’s what’s in the basement:

A little girl named Sweetiepie (Blake Baumgartner). 

And the “dark secret”? Gloria and George could never have children. Ethan’s just a doll (we learn this later but long after Gloria says, in roundabout religious language, that either she or George is infertile) that Gloria got from her mother before the latter died of cancer in the former’s childhood. George kidnapped Sweetiepie as a replacement for the child that Gloria could never have, but it didn’t work out, and so instead of just killing her they’ve locked her up in the basement. Which is obviously messed up, but I was expecting a twist that was less Room and more in the vein of Fright Night, or at the very least something in the ballpark of Apt Pupil

That having been said, this is a fun little romp. I’m forever saying that there are far too few thrillers set during the daylight hours, and if we’re all being honest here, many of those which do exist look cheap. Not so here, as dual neophyte directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, who are also each credited as co-writer, craft a dynamically shot feature with an eye for depth of field and a couple of fascinating framing choices and shots that I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen before. Monroe is clearly having a lot of fun here, and it’s nice to see her getting to have a good time and let loose after great-but-understated performances in The Guest and It Follows. I know Donovan only from Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (I have a soft spot) and somewhere in the neighborhood of 786 commercials for Burn Notice during my final semester of grad school while watching Criminal Minds in syndication for six hours a day. While his is the weakest performance of the leading quartet, it’s only because George and Gloria are characters on the more exaggerated end of the scale, having a wholesome folksiness that lacks the edge of malice that the character requires, and Donovan doesn’t get to showcase the range that his screen partner does. There’s a fun bit toward the beginning when he attempts to ingratiate himself with Mickey and Jules, without success, and it’s fun, but each scene thereafter is a variation on delivery. I was surprised by Skarsgård here as well, as I know him almost solely from Hemlock Grove, in which he rose to the level of the material (not very high) and the IT films, in which he was fantastic. He’s magnetic here in a way that I haven’t seen before, as a man who isn’t terribly book smart, or street smart, but is charming and has a certain brightness about him that surfaces when it’s needed most. 

Sedgwick is great here, hamming it up with an erotic dance and over-the-top seduction in one scene, then doing a perversely quick spin to sympathetic as she cuts the skin of her hands to shreds grasping at the porcelain shards of Ethan’s shattered head, then to threatening, then maternal. I saw Singles when I was sixteen and absolutely fell in love with Sedgwick, and even further back than that, for some reason, every time I watched Amazing Stories when I was a kid, it was always the episode where she sends food down that well in the desert. That scene in Singles when she delivers the monologue about garage door openers is peak cinema to me. Unlike other films in the psychobiddy genre, the camp here is undeniably intentional, and although this hurts the film a little on the whole, it also gives Sedgwick the opportunity to play things a little broadly and to the cheap seats in some scenes as she babbles about her past and Ethan, and to bring everything around her into sharp focus when she reminisces about her childhood and George’s courtship of her. 

Standout scenes include a painful tongue stud removal, the repetition of the “carwash,” which is a unique and sweet act of intimacy in which Jules waves her hair back and forth over Mickey’s face like an automated car wash mop, a reverse laundry chute escape, and Gloria pantomiming. Check it out. Or don’t; again, I’m not your boss.  It’s on Hulu.

*Void where prohibited, and your mileage will vary.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Black Box (2020)

Black Box is the story of Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), a man suffering from amnesia following severe injury in a car crash that also claimed the life of his wife. He struggles with keeping up with the basics, like eating breakfast, making dinner, turning off the coffee pot, and picking up his daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) after school. Although he wants to go back to work as a photojournalist, his editor (Gretchen Koerner) gently rejects his new portfolio, citing both budget cuts and that his work doesn’t have the spark that it used to. After receiving nothing but negative prognoses for the return of his memories from multiple doctors, he’s not very optimistic when his doctor brother Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) recommends he see a noted specialist, Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), who works in the same hospital as Gary. Brooks, through a combination of hypnotherapy and virtual reality brainwave augmentation, tells Nolan that there is hope to retrieve his seemingly-lost years with his wife and daughter. As Nolan starts to go deeper into the titular black box, however, what gets pulled out of his subconscious doesn’t seem to match the life he’s living now. Was he someone else once? Was Nolan once the person who could have done the things that he now remembers? 

Charmaine Bingwa and Donald Watkins also star in this sci-fi thriller from first time feature director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, who also shares a writing credit with Stephen Herman. Both men have experience with several shorts, and it’s not immediately apparent that this is their first feature. It does feel a little slight in places, and it’s not a surprise when Jason Blum’s Executive Producer credit shows up in the early credits, as this feels very much like a slightly off-brand episode of Black Mirror, which is an appellation that could also be applied to some of the more sci-fi slanted episodes of Into the Dark, like All That We Destroy or Culture Shock, but with a sensibility that’s more in the realm of Bloodride. This works better than any of those, however, as it never feels like a TV show, but it does exist in the realm of the near-future speculative fiction indie realm that features pictures like Marjorie Prime.

Between the time that I first started writing this review and picking it back up to complete it, I reread the Wikipedia page for it, and wouldn’t you know, there’s a reason it feels so much like Into the Dark: it’s an “installment in the anthological Welcome to the Blumhouse film series.” Still, it’s worth noting that Into the Dark has still produced multiple films that are actually quite good, and one of them (New Year, New You) even made it into my best of 2019 list. Like New Year, New You, Black Box uses its “smallness” as an asset instead of fighting the smaller budget and trying to make something outside of its grasp, creating a world in which the stakes are personal and rooted in internal struggles with the worst elements of our nature. The twist that centers the film comes very late in the game, but it’s well-seeded with just the right amount of foreshadowing, and there’s still sufficient screen time in the movie’s relatively lean 100 minutes that follow that reveal to let us explore the implications of what we’ve learned and the ethics of what our lead has to do next. But one of the ways that Black Box spins its humble budget of straw into passable onscreen gold is in its cleverness.

For instance, the representative mind world inside the box features a frightening creature in human form but which moves with distinctly inhuman noises (like the cracking of bones) and motions (crabwalking in the upward bow yoga pose); this is accomplished by the hiring of contortionist Troy James for the role, but instead of attempting to CGI a different face onto him, every face in the dream world is initially blurred Ringu style. This is incorporated into the narrative as part of the process, as the blurry face represents an incomplete memory for Nolan to reconstruct. A lesser movie would try to do something more complex and ultimately overcomplicate things, but by leaning into the limitations, Black Box turns them from flaws into strengths. 

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the film because writing around the twist is always a little tricky. In films like this one, that’s often the main drawing point, and my lifetime love of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone proves that I’m always on board for it, as long as the twist is good. This one’s a little more complex than normal, and it requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but you’d have to be a real taskmaster for realism to be unwilling to go along with this one. It’s not the strongest one I’ve ever seen in this type of film, but as someone who has the unfortunate writer’s tendency to try and guess the next twist instead of letting the work take me on a journey, this was one in which I couldn’t guess the twist, and that’s always a plus. Luckily, Black Box doesn’t depend solely on that twist, as it becomes a different story afterward, about what the reframing of what has happened so far and what could happen next is a pivot that changes the film but doesn’t muddy it at all, which would be a feat for even a more experienced director. Its only real crime is that it lacks a truly cinematic eye, which is clearly a matter of budget in this case and not behind-the-camera crew. It remains to be seen how many pies Jason Blum can stick his thumb into, and Into the Dark has already run thin in a few places, but you wouldn’t know it from Black Box

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Run (2020)


As we wind down toward the end of the year, it’s time for my annual “watch everything I can get my hands on because if I don’t I won’t be able to make a top ten list” tradition. It’s not a hot take to say that this has been a terrible year, and a lack of major studio flicks means there are going to be a lot more straight-to-streaming releases that end up making the rounds this year. Run is definitely one of these, as it’s a straight-to-Hulu movie that feels bigger than it really is.

Chloe (Kiera Allen) is seventeen and wheelchair bound, in addition to a host of other physical maladies that include but are not limited to diabetes, asthma, and arrhythmia. She is cared for by her doting mother Diane (Sarah Paulson), a substitute teacher, although she is excited about the possibility of leaving home to attend the University of Washington and anxiously awaits her acceptance letter. Chloe’s life is one of structure and routine devoted to academic study, building a 3D printer, and a regimen of medications and physical therapy. Life is sweet until Chloe, while trying to sneak some chocolates, discovers a prescription of her mother’s and catches Diane in a lie that unravels the seemingly solid world in which Chloe lives.

It’s easy to dismiss Run, and honestly, I’m trying my best not to dismiss it myself. It’s a deceptively slight movie, with a premise that’s worn a little thin. It’s not much of a stretch to assume that the film was inspired by the real life story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Dee Dee, who came to national attention after the latter’s murder in 2015. It’s been a hot topic several times already: in HBO’s Mommy Dead and Dearest documentary in 2017, Investigation Discovery’s 2018 doc Gypsy’s Revenge, and fictionalized in 2019 in both the film Love You to Death starring Marcia Gay Harden as Dee Dee and the Hulu series The Act starring Patricia Arquette as the same. Run was initially conceived in 2018 as well, and began production that same year, with the intent to be released earlier this year to coincide with Mother’s Day (a deliciously macabre idea) before being pushed back due to (what else?) COVID-19.

But here and now, appearing with little fanfare a week before Thanksgiving in the twilight of the year, it feels a little tired and dated, especially in a year that already gave us powerhouse performances from Paulson in the gratuitous and wholly unnecessary Ryan Murphy joint Ratched as well as (I assume) Mrs. America. Run succeeds not on the strength of Paulson’s performance, although she’s as reliable as ever, but on that of relative newcomer Kiera Allen, along with deft direction by Aneesh Chaganty and some beautiful cinematography from Hillary Spera. With those elements removed, add a gauzy filter, and this becomes virtually indistinguishable from a Lifetime Original starring Tori Spelling as the lead in A Mother’s Folly or My Only Sin Was Too Much Love.

All that separates it from that fate is Allen’s Chloe, who projects a kind of strength that makes her a capable successor to James Caan’s Paul Sheldon in a modern Munchausen by Misery. That’s not a stretch either—it’s in the text of the film, as the automated recording that Chloe reaches when dialing 411 asks her to designate a city and state when she calls, and gives the example of Derry, Maine*; still later, she enlists the assistance of a pharmacist who is named only as “Kathy” in the film but is credited in full as “Kathy Bates,” per IMDb. And there’s a lot of Misery mixed up in here, down to the entrapped individual learning the shocking truth about their captor from a box of old photos and newspaper clippings. This, too, contributes to the general “Haven’t I seen this all before?” malaise of the film, although to his credit, Chaganty’s camera is more dynamic than Rob Reiner’s was; for its great performances, Misery is shot like a stage play, while there are many stand-out sequences in Run, but there’s something just a little … silly about them. I don’t want to spoil anything by going into why, but the final act reaches moments of complete absurdity among other scenes that are more grounded and thus more thrilling.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out some of the ways that the film wrings drama out of the simplest of things: getting the mail, trying to Google something, hanging up the phone before getting a charge for calling 411, and even phoning a stranger. It’s also fully a 2020 film, as it revolves around being trapped inside and losing out on important milestones because of the selfishness of another person, as well as the fact that our lead’s two biggest heroes are a frontline healthcare worker and a postman (thanks for saving democracy, USPS!). But in the end, it doesn’t transport you anywhere or really serve as a new version of this story that we’ve seen several times now. It’s fine.

*Yes, I am aware that Misery does not take place in Derry or even New England, as it takes place in Colorado. Don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Rental (2020)

When staying at an Airbnb, I always go through this period of unease in the beginning. Being in a stranger’s home/private room always feels a little strange at first, but I always get over it after about like 15 minutes. That’s of course after I check in the closets, under the beds, and behind all the corners to make sure there’s not a psycho waiting to slit my throat. Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, really taps into that 15 minutes of initial Airbnb fear to the point that it feels disturbingly personal.

The Rental is definitely one of the best horror/thriller films to come out this year. It follows a group of two couples and their short getaway in a fabulous Airbnb rental home. One couple is made up of Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), and the other couple is made up of Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend, Mina (Sheila Vand). Once they arrive to the Airbnb, the owner, Taylor (Toby Huss) meets them to hand over the key and go over the house’s amenities. There’s something off about him that everyone seems to pick up on. Mina, who is Muslim, initially requested the booking, and her request was denied by Taylor. Charlie then requested the same rental and was accepted immediately. Mina’s suspicion of Taylor’s racism is confirmed when he makes some racially motivated comments towards her during their arrival. It’s more than obvious that he is not a good guy, but the group tries to ignore that fact since they won’t have to deal with him for too long as he won’t be at the rental for the weekend. As the couples enjoy some recreational drugs and cut loose at the rental, a horrible mistake is made that could ruin the relationships of both couples. It’s soon discovered that this incident was filmed by a camera hidden in a showerhead. This is the point in the film where things go downhill for the group and everything spirals out of control.

I love movies that make me feel like I have everything figured out until some wild plot twist at the very end throws me completely off track. That’s exactly what The Rental does. Who wants to watch a movie that is predictable anyway? There’s just something so unique about the film’s ending that really kept me thinking about it. It annoyed me at first because it left a lot of questions unanswered, but it also gave me the space to make my own assumptions. The ending both makes total sense and doesn’t make sense at all, so prepare yourself for that. Franco has mentioned that he left it intentionally ambiguous because he wants to eventually film a sequel, and I am so down for that.

We are officially in spooky season (and apparently still in an active hurricane season), so The Rental is definitely a good pick if you’re interested in exploring a new horror/thriller film to get yourself in the Halloween spirit.

-Britnee Lombas

Angst (1983)

I usually don’t have much patience for home invasion thrillers. By default, there’s always been a misanthropic, Conservative viewpoint to the genre, wherein upstanding, taxpaying citizens are terrorized on their own property by the unwashed riffraff outside. The home invasion template preys on fears that the desperately poor are only one broken window away from robbing, raping, and disheveling away your illusion of middle-class suburban safety – bringing you down to their grimy, subhuman level. It’s gross. I am starting to notice a variation on the genre that does work for me, though, something I discovered when I first watched The Strangers a couple summers ago. Home invasion films are scariest and most relatable when the villains aren’t desperately poor or morally deficient, but rather have no motivation at all beyond a shrug and a “Just because.”

The pinnacle of the no-motivation home invasion film arrived decades before The Strangers and thousands of miles away from the pristine American suburbs where the genre usually dwells. The 1983 Austrian curio Angst spends much of its runtime attempting to understand the psyche & motivations of its killer trespasser, only to reveal that there’s nothing there to understand. He kills just because. The opening scene is an action shot of him already indiscriminately stalking and murdering strangers merely because they happen to be home and nearby. He’s arrested and eventually released, then kills again, this time drawing out his cruel torture to a movie-length displeasure. The killer narrates the film himself, explaining at length that he’s committing these crimes simply because he likes to commit them. He finds them thrilling, entertaining. With some level of accompanying disgust, the audience likely does as well.

The most immediately impressive aspect of Angst is its overactive camerawork & ice-cold atmosphere. Body-mounted cameras and severe-angle crane shots rattle the audience so that we feel just as crazed as the killer who takes us on the uninvited home tours of well-to-do Austrian neighborhoods. It’s a cold, dizzying sensibility shared only by over-stylized Euro horrors like Possession, Climax, and Luz. Meanwhile a Big Black-style industrial drum machine underscores the brutality on display, so that everything is simultaneously framed beautifully but presented as viciously ugly. It’s an impressively upsetting mood, offering no reprieve from the suffocating psyche of its narrator – a nastily hollow man who kills because he wants to kill. There’s something about that total lack of motivation that efficiently chills my blood, maybe because it’s more reflective of real-life cruelty & violence than the class war callousness that usually commands this genre (usually with a much duller aesthetic palate as well).

It seems that one-time director Gerald Kargl was also fascinated by no-motive home invaders, or at least by real-life killer Werner Kniesek in particular. When a title card announces “This film is based on true events” a few already-bloody minutes into the runtime, it plays almost like a jump scare. We’re treated to a brief true-crime slideshow detailing the killer’s history after that announcement, searching for answers to what appears to be pointless, aimless cruelty. Maybe it was the childhood abuse that led Kniesek to kill. Maybe his trail of dead could have been shortened if the legal system hadn’t found his sadism itself an argument for innocence by reason of insanity. By the time we rejoin the killer doing his thing from house to house, neither of those questions really matter. As we hear Kniesek tell it in his own words, he’s just acting on pure, self-pleasing impulse with no real need, philosophy, or ambition to speak of. Terrifying.

-Brandon Ledet