“The Grudge” (2020) Horror Movie Mini Review

A begrudging start to 2020 horror. The Grudge is the second American remake of the 2002 Japanese movie by the same name, written and directed by Nicholas Pesce, known for Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother. Before I get into why this movie is simply not good, I want to point out what it did well, never mind that what it succeeded at couldn’t fill a post-it. What to make of this hot mess of a remake? From what I can tell, Pesce attempted to apply his brand of filmmaking–that has been championed by critics–to this post-modern horror staple property. Unfortunately, most of the movie was not executed well. With a couple of exceptions that I want to highlight. (1) Casting and (2) Atmosphere that were thoughtful.

The name Lin Shaye is no stranger to horror fans. And it’s not just because she is Producer Robert Shaye’s (of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame) sister, but she is a true horror queen! Appearing in dozens of horror movies, she is an utter delight in everything that she is in. She can be courageous and comforting (Insidious), hilariously campy (2001 Maniacs), or nightmarishly creepy (The Grudge). She delivered a fantastic performance in last year’s Room for Rent as well (which made my Top 10 Horror movies of 2019 list). She is little more than a bit part in The Grudge but she is truly frightening and unsettling. Completely committed to the character amidst a poorly written movie, she does everything in her power to save this ill-conceived remake. Even though I imagine she is aware of how bad this movie it, she gives it her all because she simply loves horror!

Secondly, the atmosphere in this movie actually works well. Perhaps this bright spot gets lost in the poor direction and abominable screenplay, but the production design, lighting, sound, and cinematography that creates the unnerving settings works very well. We spend most of our time in a few locations, so a lot of thought was put into the design of these settings. Not to the extent that any of these locations become characters in and of themselves, but the atmosphere of dread is something positive that this movie has it offer. Surprisingly, the premise of the movie isn’t bad; unfortunately, the execution is where things went array. Pesce appears to have strived for an anthological structure to the IP, but it just felt like a convoluted diegetic mess of timelines. Had he taken a page out of the Michael Dougherty handbook (Trick R Treat), then perhaps this approach would have worked much better.

The end result of the poor writing and direction is a boring, predictable horror movie. A most unfortunate way to start 2020.

Ryan teaches 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 or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Searching” Spoiler-Free Full Review

Remarkably spellbinding! Searching takes the concept of “screen life” movies to impeccable levels. Although the concept of a film relying entirely on computer screens is not new, this is the first time that it has been executed perfectly. The first wide-release film to take this approach was 2015’s Unfriended, and it was quite the pioneer in its approach to essentially adapting Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with the end result being pretty good. The following films to take the approach, including the more recent Unfriended: Dark Web, failed to tell a coherent story. Learning from the successes and failures of this cinematic concept of the past “computer screen” films, writer-director Aneesh Chaganty, along with co-writer/producer Sev Ohanian, crafts a suspenseful thriller that truly understands the power of the internet and how it enables and affects our actions. There is genuine emotion felt in this film. You will truly care about the lead characters and remain hooked for the entire film. Chaganty seems to have taken a page right out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook for suspenseful storytelling that relies upon character development, twists of the everyday, and only use on-screen violence or graphic details to supplement the story. This tension-filled voyeuristic crime drama is successfully created–not through viruses, the supernatural, dark web or illegal activities–but through the mundane things we do everyday. Perhaps this film uses modern technologies to tell the story, but the soul of this film is brilliant old-fashioned suspense. And that solid foundation is why this film will do incredibly well.

Following the tragic death of wife and mother Pam, David (John Cho) and his daughter Margot are forced to move on with their lives, doing their best to cope with the loss of their loved one. Over the couple of years since his wife’s death, David and his daughter have drifted apart but still maintain a relationship. Loss of a mother and wife has a major impact upon a family. After Margot fails to return home after a study group session at a classmate’s house and repeated unreturned texts and phone calls, David fears that something terrible has happened to his daughter. When another classmate informs David that Margot never showed for a trip on which she was invited, David reports her as missing to the police. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) heads up the investigation into the whereabouts of Margot that immediately leads nowhere. Lead after lead leads the investigation to believe that Margot may have simply ran away. Convinced that his daughter did not run away, because of so many elements of the investigation not adding up, David turns to the one piece of evidence that was initially overlooked by the police, Margot’s laptop. Following the cookie crumbs left in the seemingly mundane websites visited by Margot, David begins to connect the dots that will hopefully lead him to what happened to his daughter.

No spoilers here. In fact, I urge those who have seen it to NOT spoil it for everyone else. In a manner of speaking, this film feels very much like Psycho must’ve felt when it was released. Hitchcock mandated that no one be allowed to enter the auditorium after the movie began; and furthermore, he insisted on an adherence to strict show times. In fact, much of how our modern cineplexes are run today are a product, in part, by the release of Psycho. The closest I will get to spoiling is informing you that there is an amazing twist ending. Just when you think the story is coming to a close, watch out! Taking what Unfriended (the original, not crappy indirect sequel) did well, and learning from what Dark Web failed to do, Chaganty’s Searching provides audiences with a fantastic experience visually, and anchors the plot with strategic, effective emotional beats.

The story is just as much emotional as it is visual. Possibly even more emotionally and psychologically-driven than the images the frame can capture. Whereas other films that rely upon what we do on our computers fail to have genuine, authentic characters, Searching depicts everyday, real life people doing what millions of others do. How often have many of us been able to talk to complete strangers about something that we are uncomfortable talking to our family or closest friends about? That is precisely what Margot does. Providing additional commentary on the mediation of society through digital media, Chaganty highlights our digital selves versus our actual selves. This is evident in the healthy social life Margot was leading her dad to believe she was experiencing; when in actuality, she was quite alone and simply focussed on school work and little else. David realizes that he didn’t know his daughter at all.

Previous “computer screen” concept movies pretty much involved never leaving the primary computer screen–easily becoming visually exhausting. Chaganty’s thriller chooses to switch from iMac, to iPhone, to PC (with Windows XP), to online news footage. These changes prohibit the setting from ever becoming too familiar or boring. The minor changes keep the senses heightened. Hitchcock earned his moniker by consistently delivering suspenseful cinematic excellence; and this suspense was executed with visual precision coupled with strong emotion. Chaganty very much patterns his modern suspenseful crime drama after the exemplary work of Hitchcock. Different from previous films using real-time on a computer to allow the plot to unfold, this film takes place over a week–closer to more traditional “movie time.” One may be inclined to conclude that the tension feel less intense because of not watching the plot unfold in real time, but that is definitely not true with Searching.

From the moment Margot’s missed facetime and phone calls fail to waken her father to the heart-pounding conclusion, the tension is in high gear. Hitchcock describes suspense as the having to do with the audience having sympathy for the characters and an intense need for something dramatic or shocking to happen. While the audience does not want something bad to happen to the lead characters, they are still at the movie in hopes that something terrible happens. Ironic, isn’t’ it? Much like Hitch delivered suspense through information, Chaganty does the very much the same with Searching. Another way Hitch delivered and ensured a suspenseful atmosphere in his films was having two important events happing concurrently. With David and Vick very much leading their own investigations respectively, we often experience this dichotomy. And Hitch is certainly famous for his twits, and this film contains some fantastic red herrings and twists to the tension-filled plot.

Presently in a limited release, with the film opening everywhere August 31st, Searching is a phenomenal whodunit build upon effective suspense and visceral tension. You will be glued to the plot and feel the emotional rollercoaster experienced by David as he searches for his daughter. Chaganty has proven himself through demonstrable evidence that he understands suspenseful storytelling. Because the film exists in the everyday world we live in, it may get you thinking twice about the degree to which your own life is mediated by technology. The social commentary in the movie also reminds us to be ever vigilant who we correspond with through live video and chats. For you never know to whim you are really speaking.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, be sure to check out all my past ones! You can search for a film by title to see if I’ve written on it. Don’t forget to follow my blog by clicking the blue button in the upper left!

“Don’t Breathe” movie review

DontBreatheDon’t visit Detroit. Don’t Breathe is a brilliant horror film that will keep your adrenaline pumping and keep you guessing from the beginning of Act II to the final cut to black. Crossing into different sub-genres of horror, this movie will capture your attention every moment and catch you off guard every chance it gets. Although there is no scientific evidence for the collective belief that when one sense is removed that the others take over, it does make for a fantastic plot device that will greatly heighten your own senses while watching this efficiently ruthless movie. This is definitely a horror film to experience on the big screen–don’t wait for Prime, Play, RedBox, or HBONow. The most terrifying element of this movie is the feeling of being trapped in the dark. Just as the characters are experiencing the labyrinth that is the home of the intended robbery victim, you will also feel helpless as the terror unfolds in front of your eyes and you have nowhere to hide. Going into this film, you may think it simply a new twist on the home invasion sub-genre of horror, but you will soon find out that there is so much more to this movie than meets the eye. While some films–horror or not–are often guilty of wasting time, especially in the first acts respectively, Sony-Screen Gems’ Don’t Breath is a cinematic claustrophobic rollercoaster that includes one terrifying turn after another. In other news, if you’re looking to buy a house, this film includes some great shots of your next neighborhood in Detroit.

With all their friends gone, three young people are desperately trying to leave the city they once called home. Turning to petty theft and larceny, Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky (Jane Levy), and Alex (Dylan Minnette) receive a tip from a local crime boss that there is a house with enough money to get them all out the city. After learning that the home is inhabited by a blind old man (Stephen Lang), the small band of thieves conclude that this will be an easy gig. With the aid of security codes and keys from Alex’s father’s security business, who manages the few inhabited homes in Detroit, Alex, Money, and Rocky plan the heist. After the robbery goes 180 degrees in the opposite direction, this supposedly easy target now has them trapped. And a terrifying realization will have them holding their breath as to not get caught or worse. Two parts home invasion, one part heist, and three parts horror, this terrifying movie will have you on the edge of your seat.

For the sake of not giving anything away in the movie, I am going to keep this review on the shorter side. Sometimes the best horror movies are those that have a very simple premise. And this is definitely one of those. The heist genre is one of the oldest in the cinematic handbook. After all The Great Train Robbery (1903) was the first American film to pioneer composite editing, on-location shooting, and dynamic camera movement. Although not the very first motion picture, it is among the first and considered by many to be the first commercially successful motion picture. Early on in the dawn of commercial cinema, horror was quite prominent, thanks to Carl Laemmle who founded Universal Pictures. Don’t Breathe includes elements from many different films in the official sub-genres of horror; but to explore each of those would give away some terrifyingly morbid plot twists in the movie. The point is, this film borrows from both horror and non-horror films that helped to forge the foundation of commercially successful cinema. It’s of no surprise, after watching it, that is will likely do very well this weekend. Given that it has an August release date, I was concerned that–as good as it looked in the trailers–that it would not play out very well because the best horror films, this time of year, are released in latter September and October to make way for Halloween! But, I was totally wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Speaking of Halloween, this movie would make an absolutely perfect addition to Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights next year if they can secure the rights from Sony Pictures.

Regarding the location of the film, this is just the latest in horror films (as well as other genres) to use the motor city as the backdrop for a violent story. As a producer, myself, I realize that part of the draw to that location is the simple fact that it is incredibly cheap to shoot there. The other part is that it effortlessly sets up a feeling of uneasiness from an aerial shot of the city or suburbs. Not entirely sure that having horror films and other violent movies set in your city, now in ruins, will do much for inspiring entrepreneurs or other professionals to relocate; but it does showcase the city as a welcoming place for filmmakers who seek to pursue their respective dreams of success at visual storytelling. Ghost towns have often been used in westerns, horror, and treasure hunt movies; and without having to go to a foreign country, there really is a perfect modern ghost town right here in the US. Whether it needs to serve as a location that symbolizes greatness in ruins or to instantly prompt apprehension or unbalance, it is a diverse landscape upon which to build a story.

Just when you think the film is over, it will throw you for a loop! Looking for a fantastic film to watch on a date or with your friends this weekend, then I highly recommend Don’t Breathe. It’s the perfect film to usher in this most macabre time of year. Not defaulting to gore and jump scares, this movie is a beautifully and meticulously crafted work of cinema that will genuinely cause your blood to race and keep your senses on edge.