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

HALLOWEEN ENDS horror movie review

Well, it’s better than Kills. While Halloween Ends still struggles narratively, I appreciate what David Gordon Green attempted to do in order to add a thoughtfulness to the action plot and diegetic subtext. What we have here is a melodrama maskerading around as a slasher that delivers an insufficient amount of fun and genuine suspense. After the hugely disappointing and largely forgettable (except for how bad it was) Halloween Kills, expectations were set incredibly low for the final installment in Green’s take on the Laurie Strode/Michael story. Thankfully, the final chapter isn’t bad–that’s not to say it’s good–it’s more accurately described as watchable. As an added bonus, there is prolific exposition at the beginning that negates the need to watch Kills, so audiences can go from H40 to Ends and not miss anything, really. Even though there is one distinct kill inspired by, and some other shot compositions and camera movements that pay homage to the 1978 original, none of these moments feel like gross attempts at winning audiences over with pure nostalgia. Halloween Ends continues the trend for horror films, particularly the (what I like to call the) neo-slasher to focus so hard on atmosphere, social commentary, and melodrama that both the fun and suspense layers are so thin that they may as well be non-existent. From Halloween (1978) to SCREAM, the slasher delivered creative kills and icons but it also delivered highly entertaining movies in which we have found thoughtful subtext and social commentary in hindsight. Aside from the wandering narrative direction of Halloween Ends, it suffers from a lack of a demonstrable ability to generate a fun atmosphere for the audience.

Four years after her last encounter with masked killer Michael Myers, Laurie Strode is living with her granddaughter and trying to finish her memoir. Myers hasn’t been seen since, and Laurie finally decides to liberate herself from rage and fear and embrace life. However, when a young man stands accused of murdering a boy that he was babysitting, it ignites a cascade of violence and terror that forces Laurie to confront the evil she can’t control.

No spoilers.

The boogeyman, no more. “Was that the boogeyman?” –Laurie, “Yes, I believe it was.”–Dr. Loomis. Sorry, Sam, apparently not. In addition to sucking the fun out of the neo-slasher, filmmakers are also removing the boogeyman or monster factor from the killers. Instead of accepting that our killers are monsters that have evil running through their veins, filmmakers feel the need to explain why a monster isn’t a monster; rather, the killer is created by society. Up to Halloween Kills and Ends, you may have asked yourself “what makes Michael tick?” The short answer: we do not know enough–or at least we used to have an insufficient amount of knowledge about–his psychology, sociology, or physiology to know for sure. And that was a good thing! No longer is that the case.

Why? There no longer exists a mystery. Because now we do know too much about his mind and body; therefore, he ceases to be the boogeyman. Being the boogeyman (or a monster) was so important to, not only this franchise, but horror in general. That little bit of mystery and fantasy allowed him (and icons like Michael) to remain monsters that were to be feared and never truly understood or explained. That’s what made them scary–there was no explanation, which mitigates any control may feel we could achieve.

But since we are voyeurs who are obsessed with knowing, David Gordon Green decided that we needed to know why Michael (and those like him) was the way he was. What’s funny, is that in the original 1978 Halloween, the best sequel Halloween H20, and in H40, we can gather enough evidence to hint at what may make him tick, but at the end of the day, it’s fun speculation. Even before we had to have Michael’s behavior (directly or indirectly) explained to us, Michael likely suffered from and displayed signs of a combination of antisocial personality disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder. But none of that truly matters any longer because we now know that Michael and those that admire him are created by society’s negative impacts on their young, impressionable lives. True evil is does not exist.

Many fans of the Halloween franchise have a fondness or even love of the (seemingly) one-off Halloween III: Season of the Witch. And while I do not share a particular fondness for this installment, I can appreciate the creativity behind the expression of this tale of Halloween. And maybe if it wasn’t indirectly connected to Halloween, I may like it more. Anyway, I digress. I bring up Season of the Witch, because there are some shared elements between this Halloween movie and Jason Goes to Hell: the Final Friday and Halloween Ends, And I will leave it at that, as to avoid spoilers. If you’ve seen both of these movies I’ve referenced, then you may be able to make connections.

David Gordon Green and his team of writers inject a heaping helping of melodrama into Halloween Ends. Right up there with melodrama perfectly suited for–you fill in the blank–show on The CW or Freeform. Clearly, this was an attempt at adding some gravitas to this poor excuse for a slasher by spending time on dysfunctional family dynamics. After this trilogy, I am convinced that no family unit is healthy in Haddonfield. Bullies, manic and demanding moms, overbearing and weak fathers, nobody feels real in this town–all caricatures of what we don’t like about some people in society. There is no normal ever established. Establishing a sense of normalcy is important because it’s only then that the slasher can upset the order.

Even though this is the final chapter in the Michael/Laurie story, the movie does tip its hat to future Halloween movies. This is one of those movies that isn’t bad enough to warn people to spend their money and time elsewhere, but it’s also not good enough to where it needs to be seen at the cinema. While I firmly believe that horror movies are best experienced at the cinema in a crowded auditorium, the experience of this one will be good enough at home with some friends.

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

BARBARIAN horror film review

Outstanding! Each and every layer of this masterful horror film is crafted with care and precision. Barbarian strikes an uncanny balance of unsettling terror juxtaposed against clever irony and humor. Writer-director Zach Cregger delivers the best horror film so far this year, and among the strongest in recent years. Not only does the film boast exceptional shot composition, the screenplay is sleek and no scene goes wasted. The fine-tuned plot mapping and story structure provide a solid foundation upon which the thoughtful story is told. I heard some in the audience make statements related to the observation that this film is largely flying under the radar, but I posit that is a good thing. While I had only seen the trailer for this film in passing, I’m glad that I didn’t know more about the premise (aside from the AirBnb setup) because it may have detracted from the visceral experience of a film that has the soul of an arthouse motion picture but the high concept of a more commercial feature. If you see it before your friends, DO NOT spoil any of the twists or turns as this film should be appreciated for the emotional and physiological roller coaster that it is. My advice is go in as blind as possible. Oh, if modern horror films had already promoted you to question ever visiting Detroit, this film will convince you to avoid the motor city.

A young woman (Tess) discovers the rental home she booked is already occupied by a stranger (Keith). Against her better judgment, she decides to spend the night but soon discovers there’s a lot more to fear than just an unexpected house guest.

Simple plot, complex characters. The recipe for a great film! But don’t let the high concept outside-action story lull you into a state of projecting predictability upon the story. Just when you feel that you may have it figured out, Cregger throws you for a loop–a loop that was setup earlier in the film unbeknownst to you. Zach Cregger has demonstrably studied masters of suspense and horror such as Hitchcock, Argento, and Craven because he took the best parts of Psycho, Suspiria, and The Hills Have Eyes to create his original expression of tried and true tentpoles of horror. In an age wherein most features are remakes of previous motion pictures, this film serves as a reminder that there are fresh ideas out there to be expressed on the silver screen. And not just original ideas, but well-written stories with solid plotting that don’t leave you wondering what you just watched. Accessibility should never be thought of as lacking meaningful substance for those that want to read the film more closely.

Whereas I won’t venture too far into the story progression, I do want to comment on the opening scene(s) because it reminded me of Suspiria. What’s funny, is that I was wearing my Suspiria t-shirt last night to the screening. I liken the opening of Barbarian to Suspiria because of the central character driving in the rain to a house whereat there is no room for her accompanied by an ominous score. Even though the score isn’t as iconic as Goblin’s score in the Argento masterpiece, the score was an extension of the increasing tension at the opening of the film. And who should finally answer the door to this rather quaint, Instagram-worthy house in the middle of a neighborhood long-condemned, but a Norman Bates-like character. The opening and entire first act setup everything that is to follow.

Georgina Campbell, who plays our central character of Tess, and Bill Skarsgard, who plays Keith, demonstrate excellent on-screen chemistry. Later on in the film when we meet actor AJ Gilbride, played by Justin Long, he complements the fantastic character dynamics and mix. Speaking of Long, there is a clever nod to Jeepers Creepers that you’ll just have to watch the film to find out. Often times, it’s horror films with small casts and intimate settings that deliver the best thrills. Because a writer can spend time on developing central and supporting characters and making sure that every scene has a beginning, middle, and end, and that every scene sets up the scene to follow. Even in a film with figurative and literal layers to the story, each scene should teach us more about the individual characters and further develop plot beats in a manner that does not make the story more convoluted, but slowly reveal the end, one layer at a time.

While I find this film to be overwhelmingly smartly executed, there are a couple of ideas that I find to be problematic, and furthering stigma and misrepresentation instead of using the opportunity to provide a more constructive depiction or argument. Of the two observations I made, I can really only touch on one of them without getting into character or plot spoilers.

When Tess discovers that there is something seriously wrong in the idyllic suburban cottage, she eventually receives a response by the police, after waiting some time. On one hand, I appreciate the setup to and this scene itself because it shows how dangerous is it for cities to reduce the public safety workforce (call it what you will), but where I find the scene problematic is that both police officers dismiss Tess’ concerns even though she is demonstrably in distress. In an era wherein a large number of media portray law enforcement in an unfair, misrepresentative light, this could have been an opportunity to show that the police could very well have been skeptical, but chose to act upon Tess’ claims. This would’ve made for a more constructive, accurate scene versus what we got. This doesn’t mean the police should have found concrete evidence or were instrumental in saving the day, but it would have helped to combat the dangerous ideology that law enforcement is irresponsible.

Deserving of a rewatch, this film is one you don’t want to miss seeing on the big screen! Not only does this film standout compared to the horror films we’ve had this year, but it is one of the best-written films of the year, period. I hope that Cregger’s next feature is as thoughtfully written and directed as this one.

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

BEAST movie review

A roaring good time–the one time you’ll watch it. BEAST is a fantastically fun popcorn movie that will leave you on the edge of your seat, even though it’s moderately predictable. The script is lean and mean, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. At an hour and a half, Beast delivers what it promises: Idris Elba facing off against a man-eating monstrous lion! Where the movie underperforms is in the one-dimensional dialogue, leaving little to no room for subtext. But, the way I see it, we don’t enjoy these glorified B-movies for razor sharp dialogue, but rather for the engaging escapism they provide.

Recently widowed Dr. Nate Daniels and his two teenage daughters travel to a South African game reserve managed by Martin Battles, an old family friend and wildlife biologist. However, what begins as a journey of healing soon turns into a fearsome fight for survival when a lion, a survivor of bloodthirsty poachers, begins stalking them.

Underscoring the main action plot of survival against the t-rex-like lion, is a heartwarming story of the father’s (Elba) redemption with his estranged daughters in the wake of his ex-wife’s death. It’s incredibly refreshing to watch a movie in which the men are not stupid (in fact, no one is stupid in this movie) and the father is responsible and loving. Perhaps Universal should have used this movie as its Father’s Day weekend release instead of Black Phone.

On an almost meta level, this movie shares some elements with Jurassic Park, which is expressed through one of the daughters wearing a Jurassic Park tank-top. Some might find this lazy, but I feel it works well because it does foreshadow the thrilling and terrifying adventure that will soon befall our small central cast. It’s also fun to think of one of the greatest movies of all time in the real world of the movie, which helps to prime the audience that what you’re about to watch could happen in the real world. Yes, the lions are CG; but I gotta say, they looked pretty good. Certainly better than the CG animals in The Lion King. In no small part is the suspension of disbelief possible with the CG in this movie due to the fact that most of the screentime features our human characters. There is an attempt at a conservation message, but it ultimately falls flat; however, there is a theme of supporting and appreciating that which deviates from your plans or passions, and it is tied up nicely with a bow in the end.

The responses of the audience at the screening were mixed. Some thought it was a lot of fun, while others were rooting for the lion. Perhaps my experience is characterized by knowing when a popcorn movie is to simply be appreciated for its ability to keep us entertained for the duration of the picture. Interestingly, the movie Crawl was released in August of 2019, and it was received far more favorably. Which is puzzling, because I would say that both of these movies have a lot in common.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. 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