We’re taking a brief break from our 31 Days of Halloween Films to take a look at Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular clown.

Set in the late 1970s or early 1980s (a year isn’t explicitly mentioned but the clothing and look and feel of Gotham indicate it’s somewhere in this time frame) the film opens to a newscaster announcing that garbage strikes are ongoing and that civil unrest amongst the population is growing.

We’re introduced to Arthur Fleck, a street clown who is obviously down on his luck and cuts a rather sad figure – he’s beaten up by a bunch of kids in the first 15 minutes of the film which indicates how pathetic he is.

We know there’s something “not quite right” about Arthur as, after manically laughing for a good few minutes (he has a condition), he asks his social worker to have his doctor up his medication. It’s this “condition” that’s caused some controversy amongst reviewers and audiences: it’s obvious that Arthur is mentally ill and is let down by the system when funding is cut and he loses access to his support system and medication. Many have questioned the representation of Arthur as mentally unstable as being “dangerous” and “damaging” and I can certainly see their point – we don’t really see Arthur as a sympathetic character and he uses his mental illness as an excuse for his actions.

As the film progresses, both Arthur and Gotham both begin to spiral out of control with Arthur becoming increasingly unhinged and the City becoming more and more lawless. After being attacked on a train Arthur finally snaps and kills his attackers while dressed in his clown makeup, an action that resonates with the city’s inhabitants and begins an “anti-rich, anti-establishment” movement with people roaming the streets wearing clown masks in solidarity with the killer clown.

Arthur’s relationship with his mother is quite an odd one. While we’re not aware of his age (I’d guess mid-thirties), he still lives at home with his mother (and even bathes her at one point which was rather uncomfortable to watch) and is very much controlled by her. It’s this relationship which is the driving force behind his final breakdown and change from Arthur into the Joker character.

Robert De Niro makes an appearance as a stereotypical talk show host who shows a clip of Arthur embarrassing himself during a stand-up routine which further distances Arthur from society and sets him on a path to death and destruction.

I don’t want to give one of the major twists in the story away but I do have to question the validity of Arthur’s narrative. His descent into mania means that he’s an unreliable narrator. Like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, the story we see depicted on screen is what Arthur wants (or allows) us to see and we need to question whether he’s actually telling us the truth or if what we’re seeing is his ideal version of events.

This lack of clarity does present a bit of a problem – did what I watch actually happen or is it the imaginings of a madman? In a way the film is trying to be too clever for its own good, but in another way it’s also a further expression of Fleck’s unhinged state.

I didn’t recognise the director’s name (Todd Phillips) so when I discovered that he is the director of Starsky & Hutch and the three Hangover movies I was surprised as they’re not the most arty highbrow films. Joker is wonderfully shot, tight framing on Phoenix’s face makes for unsettling viewing, the composition of the shots evokes memories of Taxi Driver and The French Connection and the lighting conveys the emotional undercurrents of the characters. The one thing I did find a but jarring was the score – the heavy cello music just didn’t do it for me and I found myself concentrating of the music rather than the scene at some points.

This isn’t a typical “Superhero” (or should that be “Supervillain”?) origin story. It’s dark, gritty and feels like its happening in the real world, not some comic book creation and while we are introduced to a young Bruce Wayne this film is far removed from the current DC Superhero universe.

If you suffer from a fear of clowns (Coulrophobia if you want to get fancy) then stay away from this film as in the final third pretty much everyone is in a clown mask, it’s also probably important to note that Joker is a lot scarier that this year’s other clown Pennywise (in a rather disappointing It Chapter 2) – a scene in Arthur’s appartment made me physically flinch from the violence.

Overall, Joker is a good film but it’s not great. Phoenix puts in a solid performance as Fleck and will probably get an Oscar nod for his work but the uncomfortable subject matter and the way it’s handled knock a point off for me.

Watch this film is you’re in the mood to be disturbed and don’t mind being left with some questions.

Halloween (2018)

This review is part of the 31 Films For Halloween Series (Note: this review was originally published on the 27th October 2018)

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If you’ve seen Halloween II, Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch, Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers, Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers, Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later and Halloween Resurrection then….. you have completely wasted your time. According to Halloween (2018) none of the events in these films happened and any reveals in the films have been retconned. Heck, the opening title sequence is a pumpkin rotting backwards which pretty much shouts “We’re turning back the clock folks!”

So, with that in mind Halloween (2018) is a direct sequel to Halloween (1978), Michael Myers is no longer Laurie Strode’s brother (dealt with quite eloquently by Laurie’s Granddaughter who brushes the suggestion off as an invention that helps sell a story) and Michael has spent the last 40 years in prison after being caught at the end of the first film.

The story starts with some internet journalists visiting Myers in his mental institution to get material for a podcast they are putting together. One of the bright sparks has the idea to wave Michael’s mask at him in order to illicit a response and is most upset when he doesn’t get one – well, the guy hasn’t spoken a word for 40 years, I don’t think waving a William Shatner mask at him will make much difference.

Now, it wouldn’t be a horror film without a few coincidences would it? It just so happens that Myer’s psychiatrist studied under Dr Loomis (he even sounds a bit like him which is a nice, if slightly freaky homage), the podcasters visit the day before Halloween (I know, right?!) and Myers is due to be moved to a more secure facility that very night (wow!). Of course, the prison transfer doesn’t go to plan (do they ever?) and Myers is able to escape to wreak slasher terror yet again on the town of Haddenfield.

So, where does Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) fit in to all this now the brother/sister connection has been removed? She’s been spending the past 40 years preparing to get her own back on Michael – to the extent that she trained her 8-year-old daughter to shoot (but this is set in America so that might be normal, I don’t know) and caused the kid a fair amount of psychological harm which resulted in her being taken into care at the age of 12.

Laurie lives on a compound just outside Haddenfield and seems to have removed herself from life – although she begrudgingly talks to the podcasters after they offer to pay her $3000. She has a fractured relationship with her  adult daughter (played by Judy Greer) and her dick of a husband (those two really don’t go together at all – sack the casting director!) but seems to have a reasonable relationship with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). When Laurie gets wind of Michael’s escape she goes to look for her family to keep them from Michael’s clutches.

Why is Michael fixated on Laurie? It’s sort of explored in the film – I always thought it was some form of twisted admiration as she was the only one that really fought back but maybe I’m reading too much into it.

There’s Michael’s usual slasher routine – make sure you keep an eye on the background at all times just in case you miss him – it’s almost like he has a little checklist he needs to follow: Blue overalls? Check! Freaky mask? Check! Big ass knife? Check! Still, it’s a Halloween film so what are you expecting?

There are some nice references to the original film – some scenes are almost near-perfect recreations of those from 1978, there’s also an interesting interaction (in more ways that one) between Dr. Sartain and Officer Hawkins. It’s also great that they didn’t mess with the music – the original theme was a freaky as hell and it would have been terrible if they had tried to modernise it but thankfully John Carpenter’s piercing piano is still there.

I’m not going to going in to any more detail as I don’t want to spoil the scares for you, but it certainly follows the horror movie rules. One character to watch out for though is Julian (played by newcomer Jibrail Nantambu) who will move on to great things I’m sure.

Is the film better for being a direct sequel to Halloween (1978)? Not really as it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference but it does allow them to fix the messes that were Halloween H20 and Resurrection.

While you don’t have to have seen Halloween (1978) before seeing Halloween (2018) I would recommend it so that you can understand some of the insider references and nods to the prequel. Overall it’s a good film and perfect for viewing at this time of year – just don’t get a hot drink in case you jump and spill it in your lap!

If you’ve haven’t seen the first film the following Screen Junkies “Honest Trailer” will explain all (spoilers, obvs)

Assassination Nation

Assassination Nation is one of those films that probably won’t do a massive amount of business at the box office but will slowly become a cult classic like the films that have inspired it. I was lucky enough to see a preview screening so here’s what I think of the film.

This film is a weird mash of Meal Girls meets Heathers meets The Purge with a bit of I Spit On Your Grave thrown in for good measure.

Set in the town of Salem (irony? I think not) the story follows 4 high-school friends: Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) who are living the carefree existence that Teenagers on their way to college enjoy, concerned with only the best Instagram filter or how many Tumblr followers they have. That all changes though and their dark secrets begin to haunt them.

At the start of the film there’s a list of trigger warnings including violence, rape (attempted), blood (sooo much blood), homophobia… I won’t go into them all but needless to say the list is fairly comprehensive and while the triggers listed at the start of the film do appear, it seems they’re acknowledged more as to satirise the way everyone prefaces every Tumblr post with “Trigger Warning” more than to indicate their real threat – after all, would you be watching this film if you were worried about the trigger list? I don’t think so.

Anyway, on to the plot.

Within the first 15 minutes, the tranquil life of Salem is turned upside down when it turns out that the Mayor (who ran on a family values ticket) is a cross-dressing sex pot who likes to photograph himself in ladies panties with his willy out. How do we know this? Someone hacked into his phone account and posted all of his saucy snaps online which are then quickly shared across the town thanks to the power of social media. The Mayor then decides that, instead of resigning like a normal person, he’ll blow his head off in front of a town meeting and from that point on all hell breaks loose.

During the next 45 minutes or so there’s lots of Sexting (sexy Whatsapping? SWapping? Maybe not) between Lily and someone in her contact list only known as “Daddy”, Bex is sexting someone on the football team and Sarah meets up with random blokes and takes photos – in fact the only normal person is Em (although her mother is not normal). There are also parties where kids get off their faces on drink and drugs  and share it all to their Instas and Snapchats – so far, so youth of today.

Except the images between Lily and Daddy are leaked and after the death of the Mayor the town can’t deal with this. A literal witch hunt starts, mob mentality rules and the whole town decides to implode.

I can’t really say too much about the storyline as I’ll end up giving things away which I think you need to discover for yourself – the audience learns certain things as the sexts and images are released and it’s a nice twist that you don’t already have the inside scoop from the sleep-over-pillow-talk of the main characters that usually happens in a film like this.

What I will say though is that the last 45 minutes of this film is truly fucked up – I mean, you think you’ve seen a teen revenge film (à la Heathers)? You ain’t see nothing! That being said, it’s not as gory as the trailer would lead you to believe but that’s probably a good thing as this could have been a truly horrific film.

It certainly shines a light on the perils of putting too much information out there – and the fact that just because you’ve sent a saucy selfie to one person doesn’t mean that other people won’t have access to it in the future (think Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photo hack). With this film being an 18 though it’s missing the audience it should be aiming at – 15 year olds and under, but then the film wouldn’t have such and impact if it were watered down to suit this audience bracket.

This film definitely isn’t for everyone, it’s very dark and there’s little humour to be found – Mean Girls was essentially a satirical comedy and Heathers had a dark undercurrent of satirical humour. Assassination Nation is more of a “Hold a warped mirror up to society” kind of film and while it may seem unbelievable, considering some of the rallies that we’ve seen in the States recently, I personally don’t think it’s too far of a stretch for something like this to happen.

The film is well made, there’s a couple of nice directorial “gimmicks” that make you feel uncomfortable and yet draw you in and the editing is well paced, the soundtrack also matched well with the tone of the film but could have heightened the drama a little more. Overall it’s well put together considering its limited budget and while the box office is bound to be low given the controversial subject it’s going to be a sure fire classic on streaming services.

Watch this film if you’re looking for an alternative dystopian future that’s closer to home than you might think – just leave your phone alone so you don’t send incriminating tweets while watching it!

Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels

It took me a while to get into Penny Dreadful when it first aired in the UK. What I thought was going to be a slow and plodding historical horror took a few unexpected twists and turns and after a couple of episodes had me hooked. My one main complaint of the series was that it seemed to end too soon, a couple more episodes would have tied it all up quite nicely whereas I felt a sense of unfinished business the way they left it.

Anyway, my gripes aside it looks like they are making a sequel and this will move from late Victorian London to 1930’s cosmopolitan Los Angeles.

I’m looking forward to it but I can’t help thinking the producers have missed a trick and that setting the series in Chicago at the World Fair in the 1890’s would have been the way to go. It would have allowed crossover from characters we already know and we could have checked out H.H Holmes and his Murder Castle!

More info on DenOfGeek

Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina

If you want to be reminded of getting home from school, plonking yourself in front of the T.V and laughing along to Sabrina The Teenage Witch’s zany adventures then this is most definitely NOT the show for you.

This show is dark, seriously dark – and I mean that literally and figuratively.

The show is set in the town of Greendale where it “always feels like it’s Halloween” (presumably because it’s so gloomy and they don’t light any scenes properly) and follows Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) as she approaches her 16th birthday where she must attend a “dark baptism” and give herself over to The Dark Lord.

There’s one tiny problem: Sabrina is half-witch, half-mortal and as the date of the ceremony approaches she begins to question where her loyalties lie.

This is so far removed from the Melissa Joan Hart TV Show that I’m not sure why they chose this title unless it’s merely for the shock value – and even the Archie Comics on which both versions are based describes Sabrina as “spunky, flirtatious and sometimes scatterbrained” – and while she’s certainly spunky (well more like an authority-deifying know-it-all) she’s certainly not flirtatious thanks to long-term boyfriend Harvey and she definitely isn’t scatterbrained.

So we have Harvey, Aunts Hilda and Zelda and Salem (but don’t expect a sassy sarcastic cat, he meows and that’s about it which is a shame because a couple of pithy comments here and there would have helped lighten the mood a bit). Sabrina’s friends are Roz who’s some kind of annoying self-righteous millennial (“How DARE the establishment not allow me to read this book even though it’s not on the syllabus and is banned…”) and Suzie who’s non-binary which is fine except they seem quite pleased when they’re called “Son” so that’s not really non-binary is it? There’s also cousin Ambrose who’s described as “pansexual” so that’s pretty much every right-on box ticked.

Sabrina’s trying to figure out how she can balance these two opposing worlds and the more that she looks into her witch heritage, the more she begins to question it – and it’s not surprising really as this isn’t your “Sabrina The Teenage Witch”, “Charmed” or even “Dark Willow from Buffy The Vampire Slayer” type of witchcraft. No, this is some serious shit that involves cannibalism and apparently having to get undressed quite a bit.

And speaking of getting undressed, that leads me to one of my major issues with “Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina”: These kids are supposed to be 15, just turning 16, and we have Sabrina naked in one scene with evident side-boob (the actress is 19 so I guess that makes it okay does it?) and wearing a negligee in several other scenes which I found rather unnecessary and uncomfortable. After all of the impetus of the #MeToo campaign they’re sexualising a teenage girl – and I don’t care if it’s because witches are hedonistic and live for pleasure it’s just plain wrong and did nothing to serve the scenes. These could have been shot in a different way without the need for giving old men something to jerk off to.

Anyway that rant’s over. Let me get onto the other problems I have.

The story line is relentlessly dark, even the most horrible horror films have some slight comedic relief but there isn’t any here – or if there was I missed it completely. Aunt Hilda (played by Lucy Davis) tries to add a bit of humour but it falls flat thanks to the overall tone of the script and as a result you’re pounded with this depressing story that doesn’t let up. I’m not asking for much, Hilda could have made a few light-hearted comments – I think that’s her purpose but it’s not used. The only thing that made me chuckle slightly across the 10 episodes was when Zelda got annoyed at Hilda and killed by bashing her head in (watch and you’ll see why it was amusing – I’m not a sicko, honest!).

I’d also love to know what the directors and cinematographers were thinking with this weird-arse fish-eye bokeh lens thing they have going on. I initially though they were using it to denote that some crazy magical crap was going down but no, it seems to be some odd stylistic choice that blurs the background characters when in fact seeing their reactions would actually be cool and useful.

Plot wise it holds it own, each episode starts exactly where the previous one left off which is why I think Netflix was the best vehicle for this show: if it was shown weekly on The CW as initially planned they wouldn’t have been able to produce the episodes this way. This continuity really helps with the flow of the story and allows you to be pulled along with it although I did have to back-track to a previous episode a couple of times as I’d missed something that turned out to be important.

There’s some interesting threads that weave their way through the 10 episodes with the main one being what’s behind school teacher Mary Wardwell’s (played by the marvelous Michelle Gomez) fondness for Sabrina which is finally revealed at the end of episode 10, and it’s worth watching the series just for this.

Before you start watching Chilling Adventure of Sabrina make sure you have some friends, a bottle of booze and shot glasses handy as I reckon this series will make an excellent drinking game – drink every time they say “The Dark Lord” and you’ll be paralytic half-way through episode one!

I hadn’t read any reviews of the show so had no preconceptions going in to it and I’m not saying it’s terrible because it’s not. I think the problem stems from the fact that the show centres around a 16 year old and wants to be dark and edgy but can’t be because Sabrina’s so young. The show’s rated 15 so, unlike Sabrina The Teenage Witch, it’s not targeted at a young audience. If they’d have put Sabrina in her 20’s – maybe approaching her 21st birthday instead of her 16th then they could have gone a lot further and darker with it and it’s a shame as it seems like a huge missed opportunity when you compare it to something like The Haunting Of Hill House which used children in a really clever way

Would I recommend it?  Mmmm. The title’s rather misleading for starters – it’s neither chilling and nor are there many adventures really. I wouldn’t go out of your way to watch it but if you’re stuck for something to view the it’s worth a look – just don’t expect any laughs or a talking cat!

The Haunting Of Hill House

So , it would seem that the Internet has gone bat-shit crazy for Netflix new series “The Haunting Of Hill House” so I thought I’d better see what all the fuss is about.

Apparently this show will cause you to vomit and pass out – the last time I heard that a film or show was doing that to people was “The Exorcist” – but that’s way back before we had gross-out blockbusters like Saw.

Tweets About The Haunting Of Hill House

Although if the master of horror Stephen King likes it, it must be worth checking out!

Stephen King Hill House Tweet

The Haunting (1963) is one of the first ever horror films I can recall watching, it’s super-atmospheric and really well shot, the 1999 version of The Haunting staring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones is more style over substance but a decent remake – both take a few liberties with the original book but are reasonably close.

So, that brings us to the 2018 version which isn’t a remake and more of one of the modern “re-imaginings” that are so common at the moment. The story follows the Crain family: Parents Olivia and Hugh, and children Steven, Shirley, Theo, and twins Luke and Nell as they move into Hill House in order to do it up and flip it so they can put the money towards their “forever house”.

From the moment they move in, the family experiences odd occurrences but are re-assured by the housekeepers – The Dudleys – that nothing untoward is going on but on the first night Nell is certain that a mysterious woman she calls “The Bent Neck Lady” (who looks like the girl in the well from The Ring) is standing at the bottom of her bed.

Warning: Spoiler Alert Below (click to reveal)

Pay special attention to when The Bent-Neck Lady appears – you’ll thank me for it later and have a massive series of “Oh, Shit!” moments

I’m not going to go into too many details on what the family sees in the house as I don’t want to spoil it for you. I will say that it didn’t make me hide behind the sofa, vomit or faint – in fact I only jumped once out of 10 episodes, but to get me to jump at all is pretty good going for a film or show!

This is one of those programs that definitely requires watching 2 or 3 times in order to get all of the little details you may have missed the first time around. The story jumps from past to near-present to “yesterday” in no real order and with the near-present and yesterday time periods it can be a little confusing as to where you are in the timeline. I like the way that they edit between the time periods, having a character picking up an apple in “Yesterday” and eating it in “The Past” or opening a door in “The Past” and closing one in “Yesterday” for example. There’s also something happening in the back of quite a few shots and the main action tends to draw you away from these little clues and scares that definitely deserve a re-watch.

As well as the clever editing, there are some fantastically well filmed shots – I’m not sure if they were done in one shot-and-take as they appear or are cleverly put together. For example, the night of the storm (in the episode “Two Storms”) has all of the family in the main entrance hall in the house and this is filmed in a wonderful sweeping shot that revolves around the set and the characters, dipping in and out among them so that you feel as though you’re part of the action.

The acting is superb but the stand-out performances for me were Henry Thomas as the Past Hugh Crain (yes, Elliot from E.T is all grown up now!) and Timothy Hutton as the “Yesterday” Hugh Crain. I don’t know whether Thomas imitated Hutton or they both worked on their character together but the voice and mannerisms are spot on and you can really believe these are two versions of the same person.

The child actors are great considering the scary shit they have to deal with – my one concern is that I can’t see “Past” Luke turning into “Yesterday” Luke – I know plenty of people have Neville Longbottomed in the past but unless he’s had major lasik surgery it’s just not a good fit (although I can see why they chose Julian Hillard as Past Luke as he’s super-cute).

Hill House - Young And Old Luke

The Yesterday adult characters are well done – although I did get a bit confused to begin with as to who was who as they all apparently use the same hairdresser – there’s only one blonde woman in the show and everyone has quite similar hairstyles (I guess soft waves are in this year) but once you see them a couple of times it makes sense!

Haunting Of Hill House - Crain Sisters

See, same hair! Well, okay not exactly the same but you’d think one of them would have like a shorter cut or straight hair!

So, is this show worth watching – it’s a resounding YES from me, the one thing that lets it down a bit is the last episode – I would have rated the series 9 out of 10 if it hadn’t been for the cop-out ending. Maybe I didn’t “get it”, but it just didn’t quite seem to sit with the tone of the rest of the show so I had to knock a point off – yup, a full point deducted just for one episode but as it’s the finale I don’t think that’s harsh.

Warning: Spoiler Alert Below (click to reveal)

The show borrows a lot from “The Amityville Horror”. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not but the room upstairs is called “The Red Room” which is the same name as the hidden room the Lutz’s found in Amityville, this room is also similar to “The Room Of Requirements” in Harry Potter!

I don’t think you’ll faint or vomit but I do think you’ll have a scare or two and will also have a great time watching it – make sure you watch in the the dark with the lights off!

A Simple Favor

I’m really struggling to decide what to make of this film! On the one hand it’s a story about friendships and their boundaries and on the other it’s a dark tale of deception and deceit.

I’m not going to go too deeply into the story as I don’t want to give the plot away – and well done to the editor of the trailer, it’s refreshing to go into a film without the entire thing already having been played out in the previews – but the basic premise is that Mommy vlogger Stephanie (Kendrick) meets Emily (Lively) as their children are at school together. They start to hang out and over Martini’s Stephanie talks about her life. One day Emily asks Stephanie to do her “A Simple Favor” – pick up her son after school and she then vanishes. Stephanie is then left to investigate Emily’s disappearance and there are lots of twists and turns as she delves deeper into Emily’s past.

The story is an interesting one: we all have dark secrets that we keep hidden, even if we look like we’re the sweetest person on the planet. We have friends, but how much so we really know about them? What boundaries should be pushed, and what should be left well alone?

Director Paul Feig is usually better known for bawdy comedies (Bridesmaids, Heat) and there is a hint of dark comedy in the film which adds to the story rather than detracting from it.

The style of the film is very reminiscent of early Hitchcock and there are nods to fifties film noir from the style of Emily’s home and outfits to the chic French inspired soundtrack.

I haven’t read the book but I guessed one of the main plot twists quite early on, this didn’t detract from my viewing though as there were plenty more twists to come.

I did really enjoy A Simple Favor. I think my difficulty in deciding what to make of the film comes from the fact that it’s not easily compartmentalised as one particular genre: it’s a thriller, romance, drama and buddy movie all in one. I think I would have preferred the film to be a little darker in place, but overall it’s a great movie and well worth a watch.