KNOCK AT THE CABIN movie review

Knock on a different cabin. M.Night Shyamalan’s latest horror film Knock at the Cabin attempts to explore thoughtful themes but the storytelling is clunky due to the poor plotting and contrived character development. Moreover, this is a case wherein film form is employed as a tool to compensate for underdeveloped meaning and story structure. Where the film excels is in the characters and casting. Yes, the character development is contrived, but I appreciate Shyamalan’s character mix. In particular, it’s a refreshing mix because the fact the parents are a same-sex couple doesn’t factor heavily into the plot nor become a sermon, like it so often does. It simply is and that’s it. Furthermore, the casting of not only the central parental couple, but all of the characters shines because of the realistic representation of everyman. Bautista is provided a platform to portray a much different character than he has in the past, which is fantastic to witness! He is given an conduit through which he can more freely exercise his acting chops. Visually, the film is striking; there is an emotive dimension to the montage of the motion picture and the cinematography. Again, the film form is outstanding! Unfortunately, the screenplay is lacking the same degree of thought that was found in the technical approach to crafting this film.

While vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods, a young girl and her parents are taken hostage by four armed strangers who demand they make an unthinkable choice to avert the apocalypse. Confused, scared and with limited access to the outside world, the family must decide what they believe before all is lost.

Knock at the Cabin excels in montage and cinematography because of how the eye of the camera oscillates between subjective and objective placement, much in the same way our own eye (and mind’s eye) operates in real life. Treating the camera as our own eyes allows Shyamalan a brilliant opportunity to bring the audience into the narrative. Unfortunately, this is hampered by the clunky storytelling. However, because of the stylistic choices for camera placement and scene framing, the film is successful in delivering an unsettling mood and suspense with the camera (in a Hitchcockian manner). Furthermore, the film proves to be exemplary in the area of montage (or dramatic film assembly) demonstrated by the stylistic choices that provide the film with steady pacing and guiding our focus from character to character or scene to scene. While the story may be lacking refinement, the editing crafts a visual narrative that is lean and mean.

Struggling narratively, the film fails to sufficiently provide thoughtful critique (or commentary) on any area on which it concerns itself. I don’t mean to sound vague, but to discuss the themes, symbolism, or commentary would require me to divulge spoilers. What I can say, without getting into spoilers, is that there is an attempt to critique: preconceived opinions or judgments of people, willful disbelief in the face of evidence, and toxic ideologies. I appreciate what Shyamalan set out to accomplish; it’s clear that this film was supposed to be a vessel to foster conversations about the themes and subtext, but no single area of theme or subtext was setup or developed adequately. We receive glimpses in the dots Shyamalan attempted to connect, but they are glimpses at best. Flashbacks are used as a tool to provide clarity on present conflicts, but that (often abused) storytelling tool is wielded ineffectively and wastefully.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Film Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1 and LetterBoxd: RLTerry

M3GAN horror movie review

Old school plot meets 2020s world. Universal and Blumhouse’s M3GAN sets the bar high for 2023 horror movies. Solidly written, this horror movie proves that some ideas and themes are simply timeless! M3GAN can be read as a cautionary tale of the terrors of technology. Moreover, a closer reading reveals that it also concerns itself with an exploration of the responses to grief, sudden life change, and fears of parenting. While the movie takes itself seriously, the conflict and violence is done for laughs–and it certainly delivers both chilling and laughable moments! I can easily see it becoming a house at a future Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando and Hollywood.

A robotics engineer at a toy company builds a life-like doll that begins to take on a life of its own. Short synopsis, but that’s pretty much it. Simple, yet effective storytelling.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, horror/sci-fi movies were often about the dangers of technology. Ultimately, it can be boiled down to fear of the unknown, but this exploration of when technology rebels against its creator is a premise that remains timeless as technology is always changing. Back in the early to mid 20th century, it was robots; and here we are in the 21st century, and it’s still robots (well, more accurately androids or AI). The possibility of intelligent robots turning on us has always stoked fear because of the loss of control. Even in Terminator and Terminator 2, we witness the attempt to wipe out humanity. I appreciate this movie’s premise and themes for taking direct inspiration from and paying homage to all the horror-scifi movies to comes before it that fall within this subgenre of horror.

M3GAN reminds me of a feature length episode of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone. Written by Akela Cooper (writer of Malignant), the pacing and structure are lean and never lag; however, there are elements of the story (provided by James Wan) that should have been better developed. These shortcomings do not significantly impact the movie’s immense enjoyment factor. Where the film most noticeably struggles is in the direction by relatively new director Gerard Johnstone. That’s not to say that it’s poorly directed–not at all–but had the directing been stronger, the performative dimension would have benefitted. Still, I’m eager to continue to follow Johnstone as he develops as a director.

Universal and Blumhouse take the terror of a killer android and place it within a child’s toy. Again, this isn’t new, but it is a new approach to the Talkie Tina episode of The Twilight Zone or Child’s Play. Much like Black Mirror was a better Twilight Zone than Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone remake, M3GAN may be a better Child’s Play than the remake/reboot of Child’s Play from 2019. I haven’t rewatched the Child’s Play remake since it released, so I will be careful not to presume M3GAN to be better. But my gut reaction is that I enjoyed this movie more than the quintessential killer doll legacy property.

Beneath the outside/action plot of the self-aware killer robot, are themes of grief/loss and parenting fears. After Katie loses her parents in a tragic car accident, she is placed under the guardianship of her (moderately) estranged aunt Gemma whom is an engineer for a Funko-like toy company (in the movie, the toy company is named Funki). Clearly, Katie’s aunt is uninterested in being a parent–she wasn’t even interested in being an aunt–but Katie has nowhere else to go except to her father’s weird family in Jacksonville, FL. So Gemma reluctantly becomes her guardian. Where the film is particularly fascinating, in the area of commentary on parenting in the 2020s, is Gema and Katie’s interactions (or lack thereof) with one another.

Gemma takes an analytical approach to parenting by identifying logistical problems and providing measurable solutions. When Katie doesn’t respond as anticipated, Gemma is at a loss as to what to do. Gemma lacks the empathy and emotive responses that a parent (biological or adopted) needs to exhibit when rearing a child. Gemma’s life plan was abruptly interrupted and introduced to dynamics over which she had little control. In her desire to control, she builds M3GAN as both a groundbreaking toy and as a surrogate parent-like figure in Katie’s life. Through the events of the movie, Gemma learns that there is more to being a parent than providing food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. Furthermore, this serves as a cautionary tale of parents turning child rearing and education over to technology. Without human empathy, critical thinking, and intuition, a child’s cognitive and social development may be warped.

The other area on which this horror movie provides commentary is on grief/loss. Not a new theme in horror movies, it is explored in a new way in M3GAN. Katie suffers the worst loss a child can: the death of both parents. Because of the lack of real empathy and emotive care from aunt Gemma, Katie forms an unhealthy attachment to M3GAN. Because Gemma and Katie never talk about what happened (and the therapist is pretty much useless), Katie never goes through all the stages of grief and therefore never processes (to what extent a child can) the tragedy and how to move forward. M3GAN provides that which is (and should be) provided by parents and friends, but as the events of the movie unfold, we learn just how dangerous that attachment can be for Katie and those around her.

While the writing is mostly strong (save a couple of setups that aren’t followed through in a substantive way), the direction is weak in places. Over all, fairly well directed. But the performative dimension is where the movie struggles. Even though some of the characters are more-or-less caricatures of types of people we have in our lives, there are several scenes in which the performances aren’t campy enough to be funny nor are they realistic enough to be taken more seriously. Some performances fall somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it’s a casting issue, but this is where a director needs to be strong enough to get the appropriate performance out of the actor.

For those that are so often worried about a horror movie with a PG-13 rating (a sentiment that I’ve never understood), rest assured that M3GAN is wildly entertaining and, yes, you still get some fun kills and bone-chilling scenes. That said, I imagine that there will be an unrated or R-rated release of the movie on BluRay. If this movie is an indicator of that we are to expect from 2023 horror, it may be a banner year! Only time will tell, but regardless, it is one that horror fans are sure to enjoy!

Don’t wait for M3GAN to his Peacock or Prime, if you’re a horror fan, then you want to see it on the big screen! You’re definitely in for a wild ride that will have you jumping and laughing.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1 and LetterBoxd: RLTerry

THE PALE BLUE EYE period mystery review

The unsettling atmosphere will transport, while the macabre mystery intrigues. Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye is both a period murder-mystery drama and serves as an imaginative origin story for Edgar Allan Poe. With skeletons in every character’s closet, the enigma of a mystery will beckon audiences to solve the mystery along with Christian Bale’s character. Based on the novel by the same name, the film adaptation is in the same vein as The Cursed from earlier this year and Antlers from last year. Both of which are among my favorites of the last two years. So, if you liked either of those films, you will mostly likely enjoy this one as well. In addition to the aforementioned, the film also reminds me a little of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999). Unlike the film’s to which I have likened this one, The Pale Blue Eye is heavier on mystery than it is horror. While Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems have been the inspiration for hundreds of films, and his writing itself, foundational in the development of the American Horror Film (expressionism+surrealism+Freud+Poe), this is one of few films that feature Poe himself–or rather–a fictionalized version of the towering literary figure. What I appreciate about this imaginative origin story is showing a different side to Poe–a side that is actually funny and quirky. Because this is a mystery, I am unable to discuss details as that could spoil important plot points. But it’s important to note that this film’s mise-en-scene strikes a balance between one that is concerned with atmosphere and proper plotting. So often, films that are heavy on atmosphere are lacking in the story-structure department, but not this one. Despite the runtime of 2-hours, no scene ever lingers too long. If you enjoy period murder-mysteries, then you’ll undoubtedly enjoy this film. The Pale Blue Eye hits cinemas on December 23rd and Netflix on January 6th.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

VIOLENT NIGHT Christmas movie review

Highly entertaining and hilarious! Better watch out burglars, Santa’s coming to town. Universal Pictures’ Violent Night hits theatres this week. And you don’t want to miss this fantastically fun horror-adjacent Christmas action movie, which is equal parts Die Hard and Home Alone with some Krampus thrown in for good measure–and it that still has plenty of Christmas spirit! Not since Krampus have we had such unconventional Christmas movie in cinemas. Not quite unsettling enough to be a horror movie, but gorier than a typical action movie, Violent Night sits comfortably in the middle (but a little closer to action). One of the things that makes both Gremlins and Krampus work so well is that the violence is played for laughs, and audiences will find that to also be true in this movie. Even though the violence is prolific, it is schlocky and even campy, at times. Despite the creative, gory kills and pulse-pounding action sequences, Violent Night takes times to impart valuable lessons in family, hope, and even redemption. It simultaneously acknowledges how hard the holidays can be on folks that have become disillusioned with Christmas and yet manages to show the importance of never losing hope in the magic of Christmastime. Even though we may not know how it works; it’s important not to allow cynicism of this world to overpower the optimism of hope the holidays bring. With a solid screenplay, effective direction, and entertaining kills, Violent Night is an instant modern classic that is sure to find its way onto annual watch-lists every December.

An elite team of mercenaries breaks into the Lightstone family compound on Christmas Eve, taking everyone hostage inside. However, they aren’t prepared for a surprise combatant: Santa Claus is on the grounds, and he’s about to show why this Nick is no saint.

I often remark that some of the best movies are those with a simple plot and complex character, and that is what we have here! On the surface, it may be a horror-adjacent heist movie, but beneath the creative kills and campy characters lies a movie that has a lot to say about the various feelings about Christmas (and the holidays in general).

Before you dismiss this movie as just a schlockfest, there is discernible depth to this story that will resonate with audiences of all walks of life and opinions on the magic of Christmas. The commentary on the Christmas season is witnessed in the characters, specifically Santa, Trudy, and Scrooge. By extension, other manifestations of holiday feelings are expressed through the rest of the cast of Lightstones and mercenaries. Santa has become a Christmas cynic himself, because of the rampant entitlement and greed of the world, Trudy holds true to the magic of Christmas despite the negative stressors of her family, and Scrooge represents the idea that Christmas is nonsensical and worthless. All real feelings. Furthermore, the film does not shy away from discussing the gross consumerism that is so often, yet unfortunately, at the forefront of Christmas.

A growing trend for films that aim to be character studies is to neglect the plot. Not true with Violent Night! Again, the surface is a gory action movie, but at its core, it is a character study on reactions to Christmas. Even character studies need to have a well-structured plot, because the outside/action story is a visualization of the inside/emotional story. We get both in this fantastically fun movie! Santa must reconcile his purpose with the state of the world, Trudy must reconcile her belief in the magic of Christmas within her dysfunctional family, and Scrooge (more specifically pre-Christmas Eve Scrooge) gets his just desserts for reining terror. Moreover, I appreciate how the movie provides thoughtful commentary on some of the worst people–and I am not talking about the mercenaries (tho they are deplorable people), but the Lighthouse family members represent people we know from our own lives.

Much like Krampus (but far more violent and a little less scary), Violent Night is a cautionary tale on the dangers of selfishness, greed, and toxic celebrity-ism. We’ve all been Santa, Trudy, or one of the other characters in the movie. Don’t miss the schlock, hijinks, and heart of the action-packed Violent Night this Christmas season.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

BONES AND ALL horror adjacent movie review

Intriguing concept, poorly written. The highly anticipated film from director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) leaves a mediocre taste on the palate. Moreover, Bones and All represents another example of the result of concentrating more on atmosphere and technical elements than on strategic storytelling and proper plotting. “A day in the life of…” or simply “dealing with life” is not a goal; therefore, a plot it does not make. Vapid dialogue and lack of diegetic purpose plague this rather gothic romance. However, the gore is handled tastefully. The most pleasant surprise in the film is the cameo by veteran horror actress Jessica Harper of Suspiria fame! She may only be on screen for a few minutes, but her performance will captivate audiences! Unfortunately, the rest of the film is largely forgettable. In contrast to many other films this year that greatly exceed the two hour runtime, this one clocks in at a sluggishly paced two hours and ten minutes.

Love blossoms between Maren (Taylor Russell), a young woman on the margins of society, and Lee (Timotée Chalamet), a disenfranchised drifter as they embark on a 3,000-mile odyssey through the backroads of America. However, despite their best efforts, all roads lead back to their terrifying pasts and a final stand that will determine whether their love can survive their differences.

While the concept is interesting (although Warm Bodies did it better), the execution is sloppy. And I am not talking about the dining habits of our central characters. I’m talking about the disregard for screenwriting conventions. There are many refreshing ideas in the film, but the ideas are not fleshed out sufficiently. I applaud the film for delivering an original expression of an extension of the zombie genre, but I wish the story had been better paced and structured–oh yeah–an external goal for the central characters would’ve been nice too.

Although the film boasts solid casting choices (especially the Harper cameo), the visual aesthetic the central characters bring to the screen is not supported by compelling talent or character arcs. There simply wasn’t much to these characters; they are borderline one-dimensional. Lots of potential for depth, but the characters are largely the same at the end as they are at the beginning.

For all the potential for the film to serve as a social commentary on feeling alone in the world, the film never thematically lands on any particular ideology or observation of society. Extrapolating from the thematic evidence the audience is given, the film is most likely attempting to craft a story depicting when someone feels alone in the world, but surprised to find out that they are not. When relationships with your fellow man (be it platonic or romantic) are actually possible.

Despite the film taking place in the late 1980s (an era that is growing blasé as a setting for film and TV), it shares a lot in common with gothic romances because of the subject matter. Seems like every other movie releasing takes place in the 1980s, which is beginning to become tiresome and unimaginative. But, I suppose we have Stranger Things to thank for that. On the topic of visual aesthetics and production design, the film’s various midwest settings feel like a character in and of themselves. I appreciate design most when you can see the hand of the artist.

Perhaps Bones and All works better as a novel because it is overwhelmingly internally driven. Not having read the novel, I can merely infer what may have been lost in the novel to screen adaptation. Most likely what is lost is that which cannot be shown on screen, so I cannot fault the screenwriters for that. Where I do find fault is neglecting a proper outside/action story driven by a plot that points and builds to a climactic showdown and resolution. We have plenty of internal need (aka inside/emotional story), but simply dealing with life or finding love is not sufficient for purposes of compelling cinematic storytelling.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1