I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I was hugely disappointed when a Hellboy reboot was announced; not because I dislike the character or comic, on the contrary, Hellboy is probably my favorite ‘superhero’ — for me, it’s Big Red’s inner struggle that makes him immensely relatable. I was disappointed because this new film signaled the end of acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s proposed Hellboy trilogy, with Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) wrapping up on multiple dangling threads. So I, like many others, was clamoring to see a third and final chapter, closing out del Toro’s projected narrative (seriously, there was an online petition to finish the series off at one point), and this ‘fresh adult take’ heralded the end of that dream.
As saddened as I was, I was ready to judge this Hellboy retelling on its own terms and merits — every film, no matter how unjustified, deserves a chance. Helmed by English genre-nerd Neil Marshall — best known for the claustrophobic female-driven nightmare The Descent (2004), and having also worked on a bunch of action-heavy Game of Thrones episodes — and set to embrace the comics’ darker, horror-driven roots, Hellboy ’19, at a minimum, seemed to be trying something a little different.
… here to raise hell.
However, with the film’s media screening so close to its release, and the embargo lifting hours before opening to the general public, I feared the worst — an unconfident distributor, a shoddy production or both. And then the reviews come out, with Hellboy debuting on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes with a paltry 9% — that’s as low as 2004’s outrageously awful Catwoman. Reading the many criticisms thrust against the picture, it’s clear that Hellboy, as an IP, is really quite niche — people either don’t get the character, are too unfamiliar with the source material (it’s not a Marvel or DC property), or simply don’t dig obscure cinematic grotesqueries. Before getting into the nitty-gritty, let’s address one of the film’s biggest ‘evils’ according to the press — it’s bloatedness.
True, there’s a lot of movie shoved into Hellboy’s 121 minutes — on that, I agree. The editing is also a bit choppy (which doesn’t help), but this could be due to the ‘apparent’ behind-the-scenes turmoil between Marshall, star David Harbour and producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin. Irrespective, anyone who knows anything about Hellboy can tell you that, as a straight-up adaptation (even with its kitchen-sink approach), this thing coughs up the blood-soaked goods, honoring the spirit and mythos of Mike Mignola’s seminal work.
Stay the hell out of their way.
The film takes its cues from an eight-part anthology titled The Wild Hunt (issues #37 to #44 in the ongoing Hellboy saga), written by the great Mike Mignola and illustrated by Duncan Fegredo, first published in 2008-09; and, much like the movie, it delves into Authurian lore/ legend, while featuring a side-plot that sees HB bash the crap out of three gnarly flesh-eating goliaths. And it’s this same yarn that reunites Hellboy with Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) — whom our antihero rescued as an infant from fairy changeling Gruagach (Stephen Graham), an anthropomorphic boar who now seeks vengeance on the titular man-beast for past humiliations. Oh, and it pits Mr. Right Hand of Doom against nefarious enchantress Nimue, the ‘Queen of Blood,’ the flick’s chief nastie. So yes, I’d say it’s pretty faithful and accurate as a big-screen take.
Perhaps a lengthier runtime would’ve helped fill in the blanks for non-diehards (which seems to be everyone I speak to), or maybe Lionsgate/ Millennium Media should’ve handed Marshall a larger budget given the film’s scope and scale (it’s said to have cost somewhere around $50 million U.S.). Snippets of other stories, such as a brief origin sequence and a flashback to a short titled The Corpse could’ve probably been omitted, too; but what the hell, this latest Hellboy plays out like a crimson-colored love letter to Mignola’s rich, exhaustive spectral universe, peppered with Marshall’s stylistic touches, and nods to ’80s fantasy/ horror classics such as Excalibur (1981) and Lifeforce (1985) — fans of cult cinema will eat up all its gory goodness.
‘Who you callin’ a runt!?’
Penned by telly writer Andrew Cosby (who, all things considered, has done an okay job), the picture opens with a stylized black-and-white prologue set during the age of King Arthur — and the introductory shot, of a crow, ferociously tearing out the eyeball of a rotting corpse, more than sets grim the tone. It’s here, upon Pendle Hill, where we learn that fifth-century sorceress Nimue, the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), and her army of mythical creatures, is prepping to unleash all sorts of apocalyptic chaos onto mankind until she’s viciously betrayed by her coven, dismembered (quite graphically) by Merlin (Mark Stanley) and King Arthur (Brian Gleeson), who scatter her severed remains across Europe. Granted, we’re given a ton of exposition, narrated by Ian McShane’s Trevor Bruttenholm, aka Professor Broom, which does, unfortunately, feel awfully rushed — there’s almost too much to wrap one’s head around.
We then cut to present day, Tijuana, where we meet David Harbour’s cussing red brute, Hellboy, who’s in search of a missing comrade, having vanished some time ago while staking out a vampire nest in Mexico. Of course, things end bloodily, and the hulking half-man, half-demon goes MIA. He’s eventually located and dragged back to the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.R.P.D.) in America by his adoptive father, McShane’s Professor Broom, who’s much crankier than John Hurt’s earlier incarnation.
Time to send in the big gun.
Needless to say, Hellboy doesn’t stay put for very long, as he’s speedily sent to England, agreeing to meet with the secret Osiris Club, who need his aide with a ‘giant problem.’ And, like a bat out of hell, Hellboy finds himself smack-dab in the middle of an age-old conflict between man and monster, having one foot in both worlds. But, in order to do what’s ‘right,’ and stop the newly resurrected Nimue from blanketing the earth with torments of hell, he’ll have to team up with M-11 agent Ben Daimio, a face-scarred, creature-hating military man (Daniel Dae Kim), and former pal Alice, who’s now a spirit medium — cue the bone-splintering, jaw-tearing, head-splitting mayhem.
Beneath all the ripped limbs and splattering insides (Hellboy has been stamped with an R18+ rating here in Australia), this is the story of a powerful, (mostly) well-meaning cambion trying to find his place in the big, bad world, which, let’s be honest, del Toro’s duology explored better. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in Hellboy ’19 — the film, punctuated with dark humor, has a real Gilliamesque flavor, echoing much of the work of the ex-Monty Python man. A sequence where Hellboy makes a deal with a hideous one-eyed witch named Baba Yaga (played ‘Twisty’ Troy James and voiced by Emma Tate), whom he banished to a snowy realm some time ago, is deliciously disturbing, the bits inside her moving chicken-legged ‘hut’ some of the flick’s finest, and most frightening. Oh, I’ve also got to mention a gruesome segment where several oversized Silent Hill-looking demons crawl out from a hole in the ground to shred, skin and slaughter a number of hapless Londonites in some truly horrific ways, this montage one of the most shocking things I’ve seen in a mainstream film for quite some time.
Distant relative of Meg Mucklebones?
To speak of the devil, Stranger Thing’s David Harbour does a solid job under layers of red prosthetics as the eponymous big fella himself whom Ron Perlman famously portrayed over a decade ago. Similarly, despite the casting controversy Daniel Dae Kim, Lost (2004-10), is quite good as Japanese-American special ops guy Ben Daimio, a part that was initially given to Ed Skrein before he dropped out due to claims of whitewashing. Plus, it’s great to see the pulpy 1930’s vigilante Lobster Johnson up on screen, played by none other than Thomas Haden Church.
For anyone with a melting-pot passion for sickly twisted carnage, Neil Marshall’s Hellboy might be just the ticket, offering enough thrills, chills and kills to satisfy. While it’s not as ‘visionary’ as del Toro’s The Golden Army, Hellboy ’19 is still one helluva manic ride — I’ll go out on a limb and say I loved it. Unfortunately, given its dismal reviews and so-so reception, we may never get to see Koshchei the Deathless cause havoc up on the silver screen, who’s teased in one of the film’s in-credit stingers — and that’s sinful stuff!
Fleeing from the city and an abusive husband, Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) and her young son, Chris (James Quinn Markey), make a new home for themselves in the remote Irish countryside. One day, the kid goes missing — Sarah finds him in the nearby woods, close to the titular hole in ground — a foreboding pit, pregnant with implied menace. Thereafter, Chris starts acting a bit hinky. And the terror unfolds from there.
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Lee Cronin, The Hole in the Ground can’t help but remind the viewer of Jennifer Kent’s 2014 instant horror classic, The Babadook. Once again, we have a harried, put-upon single mother, an evocative, somewhat oppressive neo-Gothic setting, and a young boy acting increasingly — and perhaps supernaturally — strangely.
There’s something wrong with Chris.
Yet The Hole in the Ground carries with it a distinctly Celtic sensibility, due not only to its setting and the presence of solidly dependably Scottish character actor James Cosmo — Highlander (1986), Trainspotting (1996), and all points in between — in a supporting role, but in the folkloric explanation of what’s going on, which hinges on Irish myths about the changelings, the otherworld, and the fair folk.
Readers of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and the darker sort of fantasy have always known that fairies are a bad bunch possessed of good press agents, but when a local crone (Kati Outinen) who accosts Sarah starts alluding to doppelgangers and people not being who they appear to be, it’s a rare intrusion of this specific type of dark lore into the cinematic realm. Unfortunately, The Hole in the Ground doesn’t do anything too original with the material — it’s merely window dressing on a pretty (peat?) bog-standard spooky kid movie.
A very well-made spooky kid movie, mind you. Though he only has a handful of shorts and a couple of TV episodes under his belt, director Cronin shows considerable genre chops and awareness, slowly building a sense of the uncanny and inexplicable while acknowledging that, yes, this film is part of a tradition. Early slow aerial shots of Sarah’s car driving through forested hills recall Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic The Shining (as does some wallpaper later on); young James Quinn Markey, Mother’s Day (2018), is the latest model of unsettling moppet, à la Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999), Noah Wiseman in The Babadook, and, yes, Danny Lloyd in The Shining (Cronin may be a fan); and the final act is a descent into darkness that recalls everything from The Silence of the Labs (1991) to, well, The Descent (2005).
Nothing gets between a boy and his mother …
In truth, it may all be a little too familiar for the seasoned horror hound, and your enjoyment of The Hole in the Ground may hinge on whether you prefer to see genre conventions reinforced or subverted (either is valid). Strong performances elevate the material — the interplay between leads Kerslake and Markey is wholly naturalistic and convincing, up until the narrative demands that it not be — but let’s hope Cronin’s next offering stretches the genre a little further.
In 2019, a beloved tale will take you to new heights.
You’ve seen a dragonfly, a horsefly, and a housefly, but have you ever seen an elephant fly? Well, certainly not since 1941, when Walt Disney Animation Studios released their 3rd fully-animated feature, the tightly budgeted Dumbo, which was rushed into production and quickly dropped into theatres, the House of House hoping it would help them recoup some much-needed revenue following the expensive fiascos that were Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) — things have totally turned around since then, the aforementioned now both considered to be all-time classics.
… on with the show.
If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’d no doubt notice that (apart from taking over the world) Disney have been busy reviving many of their time-honored tales — remember 2017’s Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book before that, with The Lion King and Aladdin due out later this year. Their first offering for 2019, however, is Dumbo, directed by hugely gifted visual virtuoso Tim Burton. Surprisingly, this live-action adaptation is not so much a remake and exists as more of a re-imagining, introducing entirely new plot threads, sequences and characters while eliminating much of what made the original so iconic — you can liken it to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, which is far more of a Burtonesque beast than a straight-up Disney romp. But, hey, at least Dumbo ’19 never forgets its roots.
Dumbo opens in the early 1900s, where natural born showman Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is enjoying the lucrative life of traveling showbiz, chugging across the American Midwest with his Medici Brothers Circus (Burton opens the flick with a fantastic montage of the wandering carnival in its heyday). We then cut to 1919, where World War I has changed the landscape; not only has Max’s circus run into financial turmoil but his star equestrianism performer, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), has returned from the trenches missing an arm, learning that Max has since sold his prized horses. Eager to pick up his life after the loss of his co-performer wife — who passed away from sickness while he was absent fighting for his country — Holt accepts a job as the caretaker for the troupe’s pregnant elephant, Jumbo, in order to support his now-motherless kids, science wiz Milly (Nico Parker) and her little brother Joe (Finley Hobbins).
Seeing is Believing
When Jumbo gives birth to a calf with abnormally large ears, ringmaster Max — believing that the inclusion of a ‘cute’ baby elephant could help get them back in the green — demands that Holt hide the deformity. Things, though, don’t go according to plan, with the young elephant’s ears flopping out during a packed-out performance, the laughing audience nicknaming the tyke Dumbo; everyone is shocked, upset or angry, with the exception of Milly and Joe, who swiftly discover that, with some assistance from a feather, Dumbo can use his flappers to fly! Word of Dumbo’s astonishing feat quickly gets around, catching the attention of sliver-wigged entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who approaches Medici and his non-existent brother with hopes for a collaboration, Vandevere promising to house all of Max’s wackadoo crew if Dumbo were the new star attraction of his larger-than-life Coney Island amusement park, Dreamland. Initially dazzled by the sprawling splendor of the bohemian wonderland — which bears an uncanny resemblance to Disneyland, what with its Wonders of Science, Rocket to the Future and Nightmare Island pavilions — it isn’t long until Milly and Joe begin to suspect that something about their new utopia isn’t quite right.
Littered with Burton’s signature trappings, trademarks and garnishes — think quirky characters, wildly exaggerated sets, décor, and outfits, and stylized architecture (the innovative design of the forward-looking Dreamland is simply sublime) — Dumbo ’19 is a beautifully realized film; each and every frame is teeming with flavor and imagination. Scripted by Ehren Kruger (best known for penning a chunk of Bay’s Transformers movies), the screenplay is what ultimately stops Dumbo from soaring beyond the clouds. You see, the ’41 film is a mere 64 minutes long, leaving Kruger to pad out the runtime with superfluous narrative strands, in turn losing sight of the story’s emotional core — a baby being separated from its mother. To put things into perspective, this latest Dumbo take is about 48 minutes longer than the toon classic, bloated with stuff about corporate greed and villainy, and dysfunctional family dynamics. And when the movie’s real themes do finally come to light — messages of animal abuse/ exploitation and captivity — they feel somewhat unprompted, taking a backseat to other threadbare ideas, like belonging, celebrating differences, and the dangers of golden handshakes.
Nothin’ but net
Still, there’s enough good in Dumbo to warrant a trip to the cinema — it suckered me in — and much of this can be attributed to the titular lil’ tusker, who’s been admirably brought to life via some cutting-edge digital wizardry (much like the flora and fauna in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book), his sweet, puppy-dog eyes, and adorable oversized ears sure to melt even the coldest of hearts — he’s wonderfully textured and really quite expressive. Allying with the definitive Disney version, this Dumbo can’t, and doesn’t physically speak, and nor do any of the other critters we meet — look out for a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo’s brazen, bucktoothed pal.
And that’s just one of many nostalgia-pushing shout-outs, including a call-back to the boozy, hallucinogenic ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ — which I’m sure gave many of you nightmares back in the day — presented here as a kind of opulent delusion, filtered through the peepers of the wide-eyed Asian elephant; this sequence is heightened by the trippy score of Danny Elfman (who samples the song from the animated film but adds his own eccentric spin on the material), making this the composer’s 17th team-up with filmmaker Burton. The absolute highlight for me, though, is the impressive recreation of the well-known fire-fighting act, which sees Dumbo perform a deadly stunt while wearing sad clown makeup, this scene just as tragic as it is triumphant.
Performances, overall, are a mini circus attraction within themselves. Irish actor Colin Farrell — despite not being Burton’s first choice for the role — does a credible job as Holt Farrier, a wounded entertainer returning home from the war to find that things have changed, while the great Danny DeVito (who’s worked with Burton four times now) energizes all of his scenes as a small-time P.T. Barnum emcee, his interactions with a cheeky CG monkey constantly hitting their mark. Unfortunately, Burton’s new muse, the always-ravishing Eva Green, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016), is sidelined as French trapeze artist Colette Marchant, having very little to do bar take to the sky atop Dumbo in Dreamland (a nod to Disneyland’s Dumbo the Flying Elephant carousel ride perhaps).
Michael Keaton, another of Burton’s frequent collaborators, delivers the strangest performance in the entire picture as money-hungry tycoon V. A. Vandevere, the veteran actor spending all of his time trying to figure out an accent for his impeccably-dressed villain, proving that, in the end, he doesn’t know the character he’s playing — and that’s a darn shame. Similarly, newcomer Nico Parker is rather stiff and rigid as one of the curious kids on Dumbo’s side. It’s also worth noting a couple of delightful support players in Alan Arkin’s skeptical New York banker, J. Griffin Remington, and Game of Thrones’ DeObia Oparei, who portrays Rongo the Strongo, Medici Brothers’ resident strongman/ Max’s overworked accountant. And it’s fun to see legendary boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer appear as a presenter for Vadevere’s extravaganza, with a playful take on his famed catchphrase, ‘Let’s get ready to rumble!’
‘I do all my own stunts.’
Heartbreaking in parts, sometimes dark (yes, it’s PG for a reason), hugely uplifting and funny, Dumbo, sticking closely to Disney’s time-tested formula, is a nice addition to the studio’s postmodern library. While it’s definetly not their best-translated work (the inclusion of an unneeded human element is more of a hindrance than a help), Dumbo outshines Bill Condon’s sub-par Beauty and the Beast any day, giving us inspired sights and sounds, and some prime performances to boot. It doesn’t all work, but it’s bold and unique (significantly skewing away from its source material), and that’s a rare treat in today’s cinematic landscape. So ‘roll up, roll up,’ as far as kids’ films are concerned, Dumbo’s the clear prizewinner these school holidays.
Acclaimed Australian character actor Hugh Keays-Byrne was born in India and raised in Britain, but he’s called Australia home since he came here in 1973 on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company and, in his words, ‘… fell in lust with a woman called Christina Ferguson, and that was it!’
When the RSC left the Antipodes, they were down a man, with Keays-Byrne having elected to stay with his newfound love. ‘And I’m still with her,’ he notes.
The very next year saw him book his first Australian film role as doomed gang member Toad in Sandy Harbutt’s bikie epic, Stone, an experience he describes as ‘… very fascinating and exciting. It was a very intriguing experience for me, and it set me up for … I don’t know, it just set me up for lots of stuff, because it was a very good environment to work in and have a go.’
However, it was in 1979 that Keays-Byrne landed what remained, until 2015 at least, his signature role, that of the villainous Toecutter in George Miller’s seminal road rage actioner, Mad Max. Indeed, Keays-Byrne is identified so strongly with the role that it took almost 40 years for another part to supplant it in the public’s imagination — that of Immortan Joe in, surprise surprise, Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller’s long-awaited return to the apocalyptic milieu of his most famous films.
It’s chiefly for these roles that Keays-Byrne will be appearing at Supanova in Melbourne and the Gold Coast over the next few weeks, and so naturally it’s about these that we mostly talk when we catch up with the seasoned thesp.
Ride eternal, shiny and chrome!
Starting in the mid-70s you’ve got all these roles in films that are now lauded as Australian classics — Stone (1974), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), The Man from Hong Kong (1975), Mad Max (1979), and more. What was like as an actor in the Australian film industry at that time?
It was exciting. I didn’t really know — like you never do when you’re in the middle of something. You never know what’s what. It’s only in retrospect, when I look at those times, when I think, ‘Oh god, there was certainly a lot going on there, and wow, I did all those things!’ And a lot of them stuck, which is unusual, I think — it’s that whole lucky thing. I mean, Mad Max stuck — here it is, we’re here talking about it, and it’s 40 years later.
Why do you think that character, The Toecutter, has stuck and resonated?
I have no idea. And I mean, really, if I knew I’d go to the bank now, wouldn’t I? So, no, I’ve actually got no idea.
How did you build the character? He’s very poetic — he puts on voices and accents, there’s a homoerotic element in there, he’s dangerous, he’s funny — where was your head at when you were putting this guy together to present him to the camera?
I think in my preparation I was trying not to work out what I was going to do next — so I didn’t really know what I was going to do next. I took that risk of just learning the lines, and all of those things that I did I feel were cued from the script in one way or another. It was very spontaneous, partially because I’m lazy and I don’t like to do homework — that’s true! And that’s still me a bit. I’m lazy — I’m a lazy actor, and that can’t be helped — that’s just one of those things, and I’ve been lucky enough for that to be alright. I mean, sometimes you panic — you think, ‘Oh my god, here I am, and I haven’t prepared! I haven’t sorted myself out!’ But I trust myself; it’s the only thing I can say about approaching a character like The Toecutter. I just trust myself to come up with something pretty weird at the time.
And was the environment receptive to that? You were working with a fairly inexperienced director at the time, and a lot the actors were non-professionals. Were you able to stretch, or did you get push back? How was it?
It was good. [Australian actor] Reg Evans taught me something on the railway station when I grabbed his face. I think the first time I grabbed him I was a bit rough and he sort of, as a person, said, ‘Hey, don’t be so rough.’ He didn’t say that, but his body language did. And I thought, ‘Of course! I don’t need to be rough!’ He taught me that at that time, at that moment, and I believe that made that scene work.
The Man, The Myth, The Legend
And almost 40 years later you circle back around, and you find yourself in Fury Road. If you look at them as bookends on your career, you’ve got this scrappy little Aussie indie that goes on to take on the world, and then you’ve got this massive, huge budget, wildly acclaimed action extravaganza. What was the contrast like, going from one to the other?
Well, you know the contrast! There it is! It was like winning the pools — unthinkable really. The difference in the scales, the difference in the being of it all, the excitement of it, the shock and awe of that sort of scale. And also the feeling of, ‘My fuck, we’re never gonna pull this off — how can we pull this off? How is this gonna work?’ All of those things.
And then there it is — George Miller pulls it off. With the help of [editor and wife to Miller] Margaret Sixel — never to be underestimated, that work! Extraordinary. Well, everyone who did everything, really — at that scale, at that level, the skills displayed are remarkable. It kept staggering me out — I couldn’t believe it. John [Howard, who played The People Eater] is still there! John is still saying to me, ‘Oh my god! This is my first massive digital picture!’ And he’s so excited; he’s like a 10-year-old — it’s fantastic!
How does that scale of production affect you as an actor? Do you have to modify your performance to make sure you’re felt through the spectacle?
I think it just helps. And I was backed up by a very good cast of War Boys who knew. All I had to say was, ‘Gentlemen, your job is to make me The Man. If you don’t think I’m The Man … the only way it’s gonna work is if you believe in Immortan.’
When I was a spear-carrier in the Royal Shakespeare Company, the director would say, ‘You have to make this King Lear — you have to make him the most powerful person on the planet, so just think about that, all of you standing at the back.’ And we really managed to get that. There was a couple of times when I thought they were a bit slack, so I’d shout at them, but it was all good — that’s where the Immortan comes from — he’s a man of order.
And how does the costume in that situation affect your performance?
It acts as an adjunct, all of those things. And that’s a great and extraordinary thing that costume people do, and the make-up people do, and the prop manufacturers do — all of those things are another bit in your arsenal. By the time I’d got all that kit on and everything, I was the Immortan — and woe betide anyone who forgot that when I was getting out of the make-up van.
Interview by Travis Johnson
Hugh Keays-Byrne appears at Supanova at the Melbourne Showgrounds from April 5 – 7, and the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre from April 12 – 14. For more info, hit the official site.
Hot on the heels of the success of Riverdale, the CW’s sexed-up, soapy, modern take on fresh-faced comics mainstay Archie and the gang, comes Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a terrific, horrific new iteration of everybody’s favorite teenage witch.
This is, of course, not the first time Sabrina Spellman, a half human/ half witch who has to juggle her responsibilities in the supernatural world with her life in the mundane realm, has hit the small screen. Back in the day, we got Sabrina the Teenage Witch with Melissa Joan Hart in the title role, who had fun, family-friendly supernatural exploits from 1996 to 2003.
But this is 2018 (or at least it was when this was released), so out goes the Teenage Witch’s pastel-hued, pre-watershed, kooky-spooky escapades, and in comes lashing of sex, violence, horror, intrigue, betrayal, and honest-to-Beelzebub Satanism — all done in an arch, camp, tongue-in-cheek style that should work wonders for a knowing, media-savvy audience, and drive more conservative viewers to apoplexy (how the fundies haven’t worked themselves into a lather over this one yet is beyond me).
There is a statue of Baphomet at Sabrina’s witch school, folks. That speaks volumes.
‘Where my witches at?’
The 2018 version of Sabrina, played by the eerily innocent-looking Kiernan Shipka, Flowers in the Attic (2014), is 15 going on 16 and lives in the picturesque but slightly off-kilter town of Greendale, where her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto) run the local mortuary. She has a doting boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch), and close friends in the outspoken Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and the put upon, gender-fluid Susie (Lachlan Watson, and top marks for inclusivity and representation) — all of whom she may have to say goodbye to, as on her 16th birthday she’s due to sign her soul away to the Dark Lord and begin her studies at the Academy of the Unseen Arts. But it turns out that selling yourself to Satan in return for untold magical power isn’t necessarily the smart play …
Narratively, Sabrina ’18 throws a lot at the screen in hopes that something may stick. Almost all of it does, and we’re offered a plethora of story strands that we might follow at some point in addition to the main thrust. Fascinating characters drift in and out of view, like saturnine, pansexual cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), who doesn’t let being magically bound to the confines of the Spellman house stop him from getting into trouble; Ms. Wardell (Michelle Gomez, Doctor Who fans), Sabrina’s favorite teacher, who happens to be possessed by a primal and vengeful demoness; the Weird Sisters (Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph, and Abigail Cowen), a triumvirate of bullies at the Unseen Academy (who are basically the magical equivalent of the Heathers), and on and on.
… this magic moment.
But the greatest joy in Sabrina is textural. The show revels in its lurid, gothic atmosphere and witch-chic trappings. The production design is wonderfully rich and layered, clogged with cobwebs, drenched in shadows and littered with spook-deco furnishings. In-jokes and Easter eggs abound, sure to delight keen-eyed horror-heads — characters are named for horror icons both obvious and obscure, Sabrina and her buds analyze scary movies over milkshakes, and even the set dressing gets in on the act (clock the skylight in the Spellman parlor, Argento fans).
Speaking of horror, the new show certainly doesn’t shy away from it. Sabrina ’18 spills more blood in one episode than its forebear did in its entire run, and the show is packed to the gills with monsters, demons, curses, and more. The witches here are good old-fashioned Salem-style consorters with devils, not Margaret Murray-style neo-pagans — although the feminist action group Sabrina and her friends set up at school is called WICCA.
Yes, there is a strong feminist bent running through Sabrina, which should come as no surprise. Overtly, Sabrina uses her powers to protect people from alpha male douchebros (Susie is beset by bullying football jocks) and the like, but beneath the surface, it’s all about trying to get out from under patriarchal control systems. Witchcraft may seem at first taste to be all about ghoulish girl power, but the Church of Night is devoted to the service of the notably masculine Dark Lord in general and his main man on Earth, Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), in particular. With what would have been, in a simpler series, the obvious counterpoint to the mundane and mainstream being revealed to have feet of clay, perhaps the big bad isn’t [REDACTED FOR SPOILER PURPOSES] but blind ideology itself — consider that when you hit the storyline wherein one young witch looks forward to being ritualistically cannibalized by her sisters because being selected to be eaten is seen as an honor.
Boy Meets Ghoul
The show’s biggest flaw is that there’s just so much going on, narratively, thematically, and even visually, that watching it can be an overwhelming experience, as it juggles characters, plot threads, backstories, lore and mythology, metatextual references and more. It’ll certainly reward repeat viewings, though — and it deserves, and will doubtlessly attract a fanbase who’ll be up for that. Spooky kids rejoice — Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is gruesome good fun for woke witches.
No, that’s not the tagline for a gory slasher flick, but the latest LEGO movie! Could it actually be that half a decade’s passed since we were introduced to ‘Everything Is Awesome,’ the ridiculously catchy pop theme from The LEGO Movie (2014)? Groundbreaking in its animation and storytelling, The LEGO Movie was a pitch-perfect mix of zany fun and surprisingly mature observations, kick-starting a new cinematic universe (‘cause hey, gotta have interconnectivity these days, right?).
The films that followed in its wake were good — The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) — and then forgettable — The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017) — all the while attempting to stick to the formula laid out by the terribly underappreciated duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who, in recent times, have unfortunately become more infamous for getting booted off Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), than being praised for their consistently entertaining filmography.
An inevitable blessing and curse, the commercial and critical success of The LEGO Movie meant that a ‘second part’ was in the works from the moment the original proved to be such a triumph. With Lord and Miller backing away from directing duties, taking seats in the story and producing departments, it all rested on the shoulders of an intimidated Mike Mitchell, Trolls (2016), to deliver the goods on the follow-up. The last time Lord and Miller did this, it was for the sequel to one of my favorite animated films of the last decade, their insanely whacky Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), and sadly, despite moments of inspiration, the sequel lacked the twosome’s magical touch for zesty pacing and comic timing.
The plot of this one picks up directly where the previous left off — things have been restored to their former glory in the LEGO city of Bricksburg when a few weird Duplo aliens appear. This is courtesy of what’s happening in the ‘real’ world, with young Bianca (Brooklynn Prince) coming to play with her older brother Finn (Jadon Sand), who was the narrative architect of sorts in The LEGO Movie. After wreaking all sorts of havoc upon the city and its townsfolk, the story cuts to five years later and our plastic heroes, including Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), Lucy/ Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and Batman (Will Arnett), have reluctantly settled into a dystopian Mad Max-type of land known as ‘Apocalypseburg.’
Emmet, ever the optimist, believes things can only get better, despite being plagued by a nightmarish vision of ‘Armamageddon,’ in which the world literally breaks apart, sucking everyone and everything into a dark void. Tensions rise with the arrival of a mysterious helmeted outsider, General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), who, at first, invites, then blatantly kidnaps a select few, whisking them away to meet the somewhat suspicious shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) of the Systar System. Determined to help his pals, Emmet builds a spaceship and blasts off into the unknown, encountering edgy badass Rex Dangervest (also Chris Pratt) and his loyal crew of intelligent raptors. With things upbeat, bright and full of bouncy music in the Systar System, Emmet and Lucy soon come to realize that not all is as it seems.
‘Whoa Rex, are you … a guardian of the galaxy?’
The LEGO Movie 2 finds an admirable way to further the adventures of Emmet and co. — it’s great that things don’t simply repeat themselves, and the narrative, once again, provides something of a mature commentary on familial harmony by its conclusion. Without Lord and Miller in the driver’s seat (proving that they have that secret special sauce), Mitchell’s pacing tends to lag, pulling a move straight out of the more irksome aspects of Shrek 2 (2004) — the film is decked out with multiple musical numbers. They aren’t necessarily bad songs in themselves, but they do feel largely like an excuse to pad out the running time and sell soundtracks, with the brain-washing loop ‘Catchy Song’ gleefully rubbing itself in the face of parents who’ll have to endure the drive home from the cinema with their kids yelling out loud, ‘This song is gonna get stuck inside yo’ heaaaadd!’ It’s this blatant approach that kinda crosses the line from entertaining to crass selling, sort of like the criticisms that were thrown at McDonald’s Happy Meals for so many years. I will say, though, much like that fast food staple, I can’t deny that The LEGO Movie 2 doesn’t have its bang for buck value — as a light and fluffy distraction, there’s still enough here to warrant a watch.
Scenes with tennis-loving raptors and baby-voiced love-heart bombs/ stars kept me in stitches, and a shot of LEGO-ed Dorothy and pals from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz skipping along with Emmet to ‘Catchy Song’ was a pure joy. In that regard, as a film designed to make you happy and forget about your worries for a couple of hours, it’s pretty darn successful, I just can’t say there’s sequences or new characters that stick out as much here, unlike the first outing — there was that unexpected Jekyll and Hyde thing goin’ on with Bad Cop/ Good Cop voiced by, of all people, Liam Neeson, Taken (2008), the then-hilarious rip into the ultra-seriousness of Batman, and the excellent reveal as to how the whole film actually makes real-world sense when you find out it’s constructed by a kid, playing with his father’s LEGO kits.
Man of Sparkles
This latter aspect, the inner logic of the narrative, kinda gets stretched and ultimately broken in this one. It’s especially a shame when you realize that the solution to keeping it all intact could’ve been remarkably simple. Essentially, filmmakers could’ve ditched the whole sci-fi/ quantum mechanics angle (sure you’ll also have to toss away the references and jokes), replacing it with the reality that these LEGO characters are manufactured toys (with multiple copies), the characters seemingly unaware of this fact. Basically, the message and motivations behind the big moments and reveals would’ve remained, as would the narrative journey, while possibly even tightening some of the more sluggish parts. But hey, sci-fi jokes rule, right?
On the voice cast, it doesn’t feel like the key players ever left the studio, and that’s a plus, knowing that there’s still a solid consistency to the characters’ portrayals. Of the new additions, I was particularly fond of a droll Noel Fielding of cult comedy TV show The Mighty Boosh (2003-07) fame, contributing to a parody of Twilight’s Edward Cullen as day spa coordinator Balthazar. Just on that day spa sequence, a quick left-field cameo by Bruce Willis in typical John ‘Die Hard’ McClane gear was an outrageous highlight. A game Tiffany Haddish, Night School (2018), sounds like she’s having a gay old time playing her Queen as cute, yet slightly sinister. In a refreshing move for a populist mainstream animated film, the assembled talents don’t feel like they’ve been chosen for sheer star power as much as being the right fit for their respective roles. I really wish more animation productions would take a bit of inspiration from this.
‘Be watevra you wa’nabi.’
Look, on first viewing, I felt I got enough from The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, but ended up surprising myself by going again and still having a good laugh. It didn’t improve the experience, but it didn’t lessen it either. It’s that middle ground that the movie hovers over. As one of the characters sings, perhaps in pre-emptive anticipation of any negative reactions to the film, ‘Everything’s not awesome/ But that doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless and bleak.’ And hey, at least this wasn’t the headache-inducing dud that was The LEGO Ninjago Movie. I think I’d rather build an actual LEGO set than destroy my brain cells with that one again.
The specter of mortality hangs over Stephen King’s Pet Sematary more than most other horror texts. In whatever form it takes — 1983 novel, 1989 film adaptation, the gonzo 1992 sequel, Pet Sematary Two, or this new cinematic iteration — this is a story about how we cope with the inevitability of death.
It’s specifically filtered through the experience of enduring the death of one’s own child, and perhaps because of that Pet Sematary seems to resonate with parents much more than with the kidless and fancy-free. This is Every Parent’s Nightmare skewed into actual nightmare territory, as grief-stricken doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) does the unthinkable after his daughter Ellie (newcomer Jeté Laurence) is skittled by a semi-trailer: he exhumes her body and re-buries it in the ‘sour’ ground beyond the titular Pet Sematary hidden in the woods behind his country house, knowing that this ancient patch of land, known and feared by the local Indigenous population back in day, will bring her back from the dead. This being a film of a certain genre, she comes back ‘wrong,’ and more supernatural terrors unfold from there.
Never underestimate a tabby …
Of course, Louis should know better. After all, he’s already had the family cat, Church, come back vicious and hissing after planting the poor thing in the same soil (Church, too, was the victim of a speeding truck), so it’s not like he isn’t across the likely outcome. Still, grief can make a man crazy — perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh.
Maybe it’s the fault of kindly old Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), the wise and wizened neighbor who first clues Louis in to the existence of the cursed location. Jud means well and is given to somber proclamations of local lore and down-home wisdom regarding life, death, and the whole shebang, but you could argue that the best way to protect people from a cursed burial ground is not to tell them it exists.
Some blame could even be laid at the feet at Rachel Creed (Amy Siemetz), wife to Louis and mother to Ellie, who retreats to her family home in Boston following Ellie’s death, taking their young son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) with her and leaving Louis alone with his guilt and the terrible temptation that lies beyond the Pet Sematary. A bit harsh? Perhaps, but in doing so she’s reenacting the childhood trauma that led to her own pathological hear of death — her parents left her alone with her dying sister, Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), who was suffering from spinal meningitis, and it was Rachel’s negligence that led directly to her death. Of course, she can’t know what Louis will do when left to his own devices, but the parallels are clear.
‘Fear this place.’
We know, though, that the blame game is for mugs — Pet Sematary’s primary thesis is that things will get bad, and then they will get worse, and no good intentions or actions or anything will arrest that tight, awful spiral down the plughole of the universe. It’s a lot like life: you get old (if you’re lucky), you get infirm, you get sick, and death comes creeping by increments. Or, you get wiped out by a truck, literally or metaphorically, and leave the people who love you devastated in the wake of your sudden, shocking absence. But it is going to happen, and interference via any agency, scientific (it’s no accident that Louis is a doctor) or supernatural, is going to change that. At best, it’s going to delay the inevitable. In Pet Sematary, it’s more likely to make things infinitely worse; the horrors wreaked by the film’s revenants are paralleled by the horrors endured by Zelda in her sickbed — in both cases, to quote the works most iconic line, sometimes dead is better.
So, Pet Sematary is a grim, grim, slog, and it’s remarkable that these misanthropic, fatalistic themes are embedded in a film that is, on the surface, a well-made, polished, populist horror movie, the sort that sates the metroplex crowd while bugging the genre veterans for ‘not going far enough.’ Pet Sematary goes plenty far — it just does so surreptitiously right up until the climax, when it goes for broke, and its pessimistic subtext really comes home to roost (no spoilers here, but I will say that it departs from the source material in marked and inventive ways).
There are times when it could use a little more polish, though. A few folk horror elements, such as a funeral procession of animal-masked kids on their way to plant a dead dog, and Crandall cluing Louis in on local legends of the Indigenous Wendigo monster, are left unexplored, and while they’re interesting and creepily evocative, might have been better excised completely to better streamline the narrative.
There’s also a moment or two when the desire for spectacle overrides taste and sense. The accident that claims Ellie is a touch OTT, with the tanker of the truck decoupling and wiping her out rather than the more likely — and grimmer, and more thematically satisfying – event of the vehicle just plowing straight through her without pause. It’s a key moment in the story, of course, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be heightened so melodramatically.
There’s also at least one moment that requires a metatextual knowledge of the previous film adaptation to really land, and it involves a scalpel and an ankle. Whether that is a problem or not is pretty subjective, but suddenly being reminded of a different incarnation of the text when you should, hopefully, be fully engrossed in this one is a misstep, I feel. It’s cleverness for its own sake and counters the emotional immersion that good horror depends upon.
But then, you have a solid, empathetic performance from Jason Clarke, who is the emotional anchor of the whole affair — which is why, when he’s adrift, it’s so affecting. This is really the best thing Clarke’s done in ages, and a timely reminder that while he may crop up in dross like Serenity (2019) and, god help us, Terminator Genisys (2015), he really is a top-notch talent. Seimetz is great too, and Lithgow always is (although he never quite eclipses Fred Gwynne’s iconic performance in the ’89 version), but it’s Clarke who’s the heart of the film, and his work does a lot to counter pretty much all of its failings.
‘… I think I’ve made a grave mistake.’
There’s a reason why Stephen King is one of the world’s most popular authors, and its because he is able, when he’s in his groove, to explicate universal truths — let’s face it, mainly universal dreads — in a supremely accessible way. This latest take on Pet Sematary manages the same trick. For all its supernatural trappings and zombie kids, its function is to remind us that, probably sooner and more painfully than we’d like, we’re all taking a trip to the Sematary too, and it’s kind of amazing that people will be lining up in droves at the box office to be reminded of that.
There’s been a bit of an explosion of terminal romance films of late — from the time-honored American classic Love Story, dating all the way back to 1970, to Mandy Moore’s more recent A Walk to Remember (2002), and who can forget 2014’s life-affirming YA weepie The Fault in Our Stars. The most recent entry into the ‘sick-lit’ subgenre is Five Feet Apart, which, though aimed squarely at Fault’s young-adult demographic — exploring teen-centered topics of love and depression — isn’t based on any pre-existing IP; rather, the film takes its cues from the ‘six-foot rule’ IPC guideline, outlined by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, stating that anyone diagnosed with CF should stay at least six feet away from one another at all times, minimizing the risk of cross-infection. A novelization of Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis’ script does, however, exist (already a New York Times bestseller), with both the novel, written by Rachael Lippincott, and the film green-lit at round about the same time.
‘I love you … and it’s killing me.’
The movie opens in what seems to be a typical teenaged girl’s bedroom — it’s warmly lit and welcoming, decked out with posters and lights and whatever else you’d expect to find in an adolescent’s bedchamber. There we meet cheery seventeen-year-old Stella Grant (Haley Lu Richardson), who seems to be prepping for a night out with her gal pals. We very quickly learn, however, that Stella is, in fact, a patient at the Saint Grace Hospital (and has been for the better part of ten years), bidding her friends farewell as she’s left all alone in a cold, clinical and sterile space. Stella, as it turns out, has cystic fibrosis (a genetic disorder that affects the lungs) and is a bit of a social media junkie, using technology to cope with her illness. Stella is big on Vlogging, making bravely honest YouTube videos that discuss/ educate others on what it’s like to live with CF; moviemakers use snippets of her recordings to bring us up to speed on the life-threatening sickness — call it Cystic Fibrosis 101.
Stella is also ‘clinically OCD,’ partaking in a drug trial that could potentially prolong her life, and sticks to a fairly regimented medication schedule. One can say that she lives for her treatments rather than doing her treatments so that she can live. Be that as it may, she’s made herself quite comfy at the medical institution, with her childhood best bud, fellow CF patient Poe (Moisés Arias), housed only a few doors down, having also befriended hard-line head nurse Barbra (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) who monitors the teens.
Distance gives them a reason to love harder.
Things change, though, when Stella one day bumps into the tall, dark and handsome free-spirited artist Will Newman (Riverdale heartthrob Cole Sprouse), learning that he’ll be staying at the clinic too, being a CF’er suffering from B. cepacia, a bacteria resistant to antibiotics, which, if not treated properly, can swiftly lead to lung function decline — pretty serious stuff. Will, being a ‘glass half empty’ kinda guy, is eventually compelled by Stella, who’s more of a ‘glass half full’ kinda gal, to drop his devil-may-care attitude when it comes to his treatment, agreeing to take his routine more seriously if he’s allowed to sketch her.
Although Will’s morbid worldview and Stella’s steady optimism initially causes the two to butt heads, the time they spend together, webcamming while downing their meds and sneaking out late at night to go on steamy ‘rest home’ dates, enable them to become friends, well more than just friends, their frisky flirtation soon becoming the real deal, genuine love and affection — as relationships go, theirs is very much a case of opposites attract. Despite pleas from Nurse Barb, urging the couple to remain at a distance, Stella dictates a new five-foot rule of separation (using a pool cue), insisting that she take something back (in this case, one foot) from the terminal illness that has robbed her from living a complete life, which her older sister Abby (Sophia Bernard) does, enjoying a wild, carefree lifestyle in order to make up for Stella’s lost experiences.
You’re my favorite daydream.
As far as ‘sick teen’ flicks go, Five Feet Apart is just as heartwrenching and heartwarming as one would expect (so bring tissues), but probably leans into its subgenre’s clichés more often than it should — the soundtrack seems to feature every indie rock title that cites medicine or disease, to tasteful effect, though. With that said, given that this is the feature-film directorial debut for Justin Baldoni — best known for his acting work in The CW’s Jane the Virgin (2014) — Five Feet Apart boasts the right mix of sad and sweet, and for a story primarily based in a bleak and bland environment (a hospital), it remains surprisingly engrossing, following our sickly in love teens as they try to battle cross-contamination; clocking in at almost two hours, the narrative still feels tight and never outstays its welcome.
What stands out is the screenplay, written by relatively untested scribes Daughtry and Iaconis — who pen the soon-to-be-released The Curse of La Llorona (2019) — and its observations on living with CF. Sure, a lot’s been romanticized to amp up the drama, but the film manages to stays true to the strict treatment mechanisms of battling with cystic fibrosis, spotlighting how this deadly disease impacts both the lives of the CF sufferer and the loved ones around them; the late Claire Wineland (founder of the non-profit organization Claire’s Place Foundation) worked closely with the cast and crew as a consultant, ensuring that the film accurately depict the day-to-day challenges of living with CF, the 21-year-old cystic fibrosis victim tragically losing her life shortly after (in September of 2018).
Life got you down?
And, of course, the theme of human touch is ever-present, with Five Feet Apart exploring our inherent need for physical connection. There are some nice little moments sprinkled throughout, reminding us that CF’ers need to look at the world through a different lens, forced to find pleasure in the smaller, simpler things — a sad reality for these unfortunate folk. And minus some mawkish, hackneyed dialogue (this is, after all, a YA tear-jerker), the able-bodied cast do a stellar job in rendering the emotional highs and lows of our key players.
In a real star-making turn, Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen (2016), gives a nuanced, vanity-free portrayal as Stella, coming off as your kindly girl next door type — she’s wonderful here and really anchors the drama. Similarly, the dreamy Will Newman is admirably played by Cole Sprouse, his rule-breaking bad-boy certain to break the hearts of many female patrons (hormonal girls in particular). And if it weren’t for the authentic, palpable chemistry between stars Sprouse and Lu Richardson, the romance wouldn’t work (or work as well as it does); a scene the pair share at a swimming pool really sticks out, being tender, touching and heartbreaking all at the one time. Support players are just as stable, injecting comedy and pathos into the proceedings, fulfilling the requirements of their roles effectively; there’s Moisés Arias’ Poe, who, having accepted his ill fate, has difficulty letting others in (romantically), and Kimberly Hebert Gregory’s chief nurse, who gets her own mournful backstory to justify her rigid, often unsympathetic actions.
‘Oh, ’cause you always pack for a hot hospital romance.’
As another film based on real-life husband-and-wife Katie Donovan and Dalton Prager, who, back in 2009, met as teenagers on a Facebook page for those battling with cystic fibrosis — the pair also being the inspiration for John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars — Five Feet Apart succeeds as a charmingly crafted sob-story that’s well developed and agreeably executed, the picture bringing our attention, once again, to a chronic disorder many still aren’t aware of — and I guess any awareness, be it positive or negative, is good. Although some have criticized the flick for its misinterpretation of CF (think disease-appropriation), using it to frame a ‘forbidden love’ narrative, Five Feet Apart doesn’t pity its main players; rather, it uses them to comment on sacrifice and selfless love — and to me, that ain’t so bad.
Having already staked out his place in the horror pantheon with his feature directing debut, the excellent and unsettling Get Out (2017), Jordan Peele fortifies his position with his remarkable follow-up, the ambitious and uncompromising Us.
‘Ambitious and uncompromising,’ of course, can be read as ‘not for everyone,’ and fair enough — while the critical consensus has been overwhelmingly positive and the box office hugely impressive (over $70m in the U.S. opening weekend), reviews have frequently been qualified with reservations, and a few lonely voices have straight-up disliked the film outright. That’s nothing to be worried about, though. Indeed, that means everything is working as intended. Us is a deliberately weird piece, one that invites multiple, often conflicting interpretations, and that’s going to frustrate viewers who want concrete, nailed-down explanations, causes, and even themes in their fiction.
You should still go and see it, and you should go and see it knowing as little as possible — this is a film with some powerful surprises that are best found in the wild rather than exposed in a think piece, and we need to do at least a little exposing here just for analytical purposes. There’s no guarantee you’ll love it, or even enjoy it — although I had an absolute blast — but you’ll be challenged by it, and that’s a rare treat at the multiplexes right now.
Us could have been a fairly standard home invasion thriller in the mode of The Strangers (2008), and for a while there it looks like, a creepy wrinkle aside, that’s what it’s going to be. Our protagonists are the Wilsons, an affluent black family — mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), dad Gabe (Winston Duke), teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and young son Jason (Evan Alex) — whose summertime stay at their Santa Cruz beach house (the place The Lost Boys (1987) was filmed — Peele loves his metatextual nods and flourishes) is interrupted by the appearance of four strangers outside the house in the dead of night.
The ‘creepy wrinkle’ is, as the marketing material has already shown, that the malevolent strangers are doppelgängers of the Wilsons, here for some terrible and at first unknowable purpose. Gabe’s mirror is a hulking, inarticulate brute, Zora’s a grinning sadist, Jason’s a scarred and crawling pyromaniac, and Adelaide’s is their vengeful matriarch, come to rain hell into Adelaide’s life for … well, that would be telling.
Honestly, if Us had just kept to this tight, inexplicable nightmare scenario, it would have been great enough. Peele is not a dilettante, he’s a serious student of horror, and it shows in the way he constructs his scenes and set pieces, building tension, ratcheting suspense, eventually releasing it with catharsis or humour or both (the connection between comedy and horror is well-trod ground — you can make up your own hot take vis-à-vis Peele’s comic background if you wish).
Afraid of your own shadow?
He’s also smart enough to know that the best horror is an exercise in empathy, and so he takes his time to build up Us’s protagonist/ victims as fully rounded, likable people with foibles, quirks, and recognizable relationship dynamics. His cast does an amazing job of this, and the quality of their work is even more apparent when you consider that they’re each playing two roles, and each role is both marked different and tangibly congruent.
Nyong’o gives the stand-out performance, of course. Adelaide and her doppelgänger get the majority of the screen time, and the bulk of the dialogue (indeed, doppelgänger, or ‘Tethered,’ as the film terms it, Adelaide is the only antagonist who speaks clearly), and Nyong’o excels in both roles. It is queasily unsettling to see these two characters, each played by the same performer, converse, one a normal woman, the other a croaky-voiced, clearly horribly traumatized, and incredibly dangerous creature, and marvel at what different experiences brought them each to where they are, and how Nyong’o embodies both so completely.
That’s of paramount importance, as our empathic position is tested and questioned as the film’s scope opens up and it becomes apparent that what is happening is not restricted to the Wilsons, although their experience is both central and causal here. When, in a bravura and shocking moment, it becomes clear that the Tethered are rising up everywhere, Us goes from being a well-made quasi-slasher to something of grander ambitions.
There’s going to be a lot of ink spilled over Us’s subtext. The exact nature of the Tethered is left ambiguous (the origin we’re given late in the film comes from an unreliable source and is frayed around the edges to boot), but this is, in the broad strokes, the story of an underclass rebellion. You can read it as a critique of capitalism, a commentary on fears of socialism (the red jumpsuits the Tethered wear are very ‘workers of the world’), an exploration of Jung’s notion of the shadow self, and more. Notions of identity are highlighted — not just the ideas of racial identity that were foregrounded in Get Out, but broader, deeper notions about who we are, who we say we are, and the elements of our personas that we hide away.
Us doesn’t offer fixed answers; rather, it invites exploration, which will excite some and bug the hell out of others. We’re on unsteady, shifting ground for much of the film’s running time, and the answers we are given tend to be not wholly satisfactory, opening up further questions. The Tethered are shadows, and they’re made of shadow-stuff — the short answer to where they really come from is ‘inside us,’ and the answer to what they want is ‘everything we have.’
Which is, all other considerations aside, a timely fear. Paranoia about wealth inequality, immigration and refugees, climate migration and more is at an all-time high, and a horde of people who look just like us coming to shove us out of our own lives because they have nothing is a powerful image — it’s an irrational fear, but a primal one.
… down the rabbit hole
Indeed, the primal level is where Us does its best work. It’s a fever dream of a film — not as illusory or deranged as Dario Argento’s weirder stuff or Lynch’s wild rides, but at times more upsetting because it teases us with the possibility of explanation before tearing it away. We have to build our own meaning out of the pieces given to us, which means we have to work with Us to make sense of the world — about as fitting a metaphor to end on as I can imagine.
Deadpool, (2016), director Tim Miller and Fight Club (1999), The Social Network (2010), and Gone Girl (2014) honcho David Fincher are the creative engine behind Love, Death & Robots, an 18-episode animated speculative fiction anthology series that’s about, well, exactly what it says on the tin.
This kind of exercise makes sense when you take the history of the genre into account. The Golden Age of sci-fi was built on the backs of short story writers, after all, and although the novel is now the dominant literary form, the short is still an important part of the canon. Often SF works best when it’s about one idea, deftly explored within the parameters of a tight word count (do we really need another Peter F. Hamilton doorstopper, is what I’m saying).
‘You’ve seen one post-apocalyptic city, you’ve seen em’ all.’
SF literature aside, Love, Death & Robots’ other obvious ancestor is comics, particularly the predominantly ‘adult’ European comics anthologized in France’s Métal Hurlant magazine and reprinted for the anglophone audience as Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal itself came to the screen in the form of an anthology feature back in 1981, and Fincher and Miller were in fact attached to reimagine the notion as of 2008. Nothing came of it, the rights were snapped up by Robert Rodriguez (who thus far has done zilch with them), and now, a little over a decade later, we have Love, Death & Robots.
Which is not too far a leap from what you might imagine a Fincher/ Miller Heavy Metal joint to be — they’ve pretty much just filed the serial numbers off and used prominent science fiction writers like John Scalzi, Joe R. Lansdale, Ken Liu, and Alastair Reynolds as source material, farming the grunt work out to various animation houses around the world. The result is a grab bag of sci-fi shorts of varying quality — that’s just the nature of the portmanteau business — all of which are worth a look.
The better offerings are the more playful. Three Robots, based on a Scalzi short, is a mordantly humorous bit of business that sees three droids take a walking tour of a post-apocalyptic human city and ruminating on the fleshy beings who once lived there. Fish Night, taken from a Lansdale story, strands two traveling salesmen in Monument Valley in order to answer the question of whether non-human lifeforms have ghosts.
Don’t shoot the passenger
A couple are just straight-up tightly written thrillers that fulfill their remit efficiently without pushing the boundaries, such as the stranded astronaut drama Helping Hand and the high-octane heist story, Blind Spot. And we even get a couple of more conventional horror shorts — the vampire-themed Sucker of Souls and the werewolf-centric Shape-Shifters, neither of which add much to their respective mythologies, but will certainly scratch that supernatural itch for you.
In terms of animation style, the pen and ink stuff is more striking than the preponderance of CGI, most of which looks like nothing so much as a well-rendered computer game cut scene. The hard/ military sci-fi on offer, such as Lucky 13 and Beyond the Aquila Rift, add to this feeling by dint of their predictable sameness, existing on the Starship Troopers (1997)-Aliens (1986)-Halo conceptual axis and offering nothing particularly new or interesting to the subgenre.
Indeed, the problem with much of Love, Death & Robots is that very little of it feels fresh. We’re almost 40 years on from the original Heavy Metal movie, and this effort feels of a part with it, having developed in terms of animation technology but not having traveled too far conceptually. This extends to the series’ approach to sex and violence, which comes off as pretty adolescent — there’s nothing wrong with nudity and gore in cartoon form, but you’d hope it’s in service to something in the narrative or the theme of the work in question. Instead, it’s mostly rather gratuitous here.
‘Are you scared now?’
There are bright spots, of course. Good Hunting, based on Ken Liu’s short story, beautifully animates a steampunk riff on an old Chinese legend, and Zima Blue, taken from an Alistair Reynolds short, is the most conceptually ambitious of the lot, dealing with notions of art, purpose, and consciousness in a deliberate and provocative way.
Still, while enjoyable and on genre, Love, Death & Robots isn’t the boundary pusher it advertises itself as. As a statement of purpose, this season works fine, but if we’re getting a second salvo let’s hope they commit to really giving both the genre and the format a workout.