Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Bring on the zombies!

Screen Grabs: Bring on the zombies!

A bloom of horror in a pandemic, with #Alive, Spiral, Ravers, The Devil All the Time, more. Plus: Fort Mason drive-in opens

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Such was the fire-induced gloom recently that I kept thinking it was getting near Halloween—which is still more or less six weeks off. But a flood of horror-themed releases (as well as less entertaining real-world horrors) certainly made it seem as if the year’s most pagan holiday was already nigh. 

Now that we can open our windows again (just how low can that bar for “positive news” go?), it’s still appealing to stay inside and watch someone else endure reassuringly fictive travails that are worse than even off-screen 2020 has coughed up yet…fingers crossed. One such film we were looking forward to reporting on but can’t is Antebellum, an intriguing construct in which superstar musician Janelle Monae plays a woman surviving 21st-century academia—and, it seems, 18th-century plantation slavery. I won’t spoil (as some advance reviews did for me) how those two things turn out to co-exist. What sounds like a fascinating thriller in the Jordan Peele mode of genre-fied overt race-relations commentary unfortunately proved inaccessible to moi, as screeners are increasingly being given to press under such high cautionary security measures that, well, I just couldn’t figure out how to watch the damn thing despite having official permission to. Oh well. 

Less troublesome was recent Netflix arrival #Alive, a South Korean zombie movie by Il Cho that is not to be confused with a concurrent low-budget U.S. horror simply entitled (like numerous films before it) Alive. The hashtag’d one felt particularly relevant when it premiered last week, as it centered on a protagonist trapped in his home. Though in this case, it’s not ash-filled smoky air he’s avoiding, but, well, you know: Shuffling cannibal undead. Alone in his family’s high-rise apartment while the others are out, Ah-In Yoo’s immature video gamer is not in the least prepared for long-term isolation when some sort of plague descends. Relatively safe in his hidey-hole, he nonetheless must witness the carnage outside, fend off external attacks, and eventually collude with another cowering neighbor (Shin-Hye Park). 

A couple years ago a French movie called The Night Eats the World put a similar protagonist in an identical situation, and let us get bored with him for 90 minutes. #Alive risks no such stasis, serving up a busy series of perils and resourceful solutions. If what you want from zombie movies is gore, gore, and more gore, you may be disappointed, but otherwise this is smart, fun genre entertainment. 

Less ingenious but also entertaining is Spiral (another title with umpteen movies attached to it), which is sort of the Get Out Meets Rosemary’s Baby of homophobia. An interracial gay couple (Jeffrey Bower-Chapman, Aaron Cohen) and their bratty teenage daughter (Jennifer Laporte) move from city to country. But their reception in this lily-white community is a little…off, or at least so it seems to the African-American half of this domestic duo. 

His fears are dismissed as paranoia until it’s too late… but suffice it to say that if you see your neighbors lurking around in a circle wearing monastic robes in the dead of night, it’s probably not Jesus they’re worshipping. Kurt David Harder’s film doesn’t provide any great originality, or the most subtle of political metaphors, but it’s a solid piece of supernatural suspense. Spiral is available on AMC’s genre streaming platform Shudder.

Likewise treading familiar ground in a diverting if not quite memorable way is Jeremy Berg’s The Last Laugh, an old-school slasher with some elements of Italian giallo. Steve Vanderzee plays a once-hot comedian whose career faded after a tragic personal setback five years ago. Now his agent has gotten him an overdue big comeback break, opening at a huge theater for a movie star returning to his standup roots. 

As if he weren’t already nervous enough, our protagonist keeps finding evidence of violence (even dead bodies) at the venue in the hours leading up to showtime. No one else believes him, of course—but in fact we do see a masked figure picking off the staff one by one. Just out on VOD, The Last Laugh is well-made of its type, even if it fails to build much cumulative tension from its nice atmospherics and perhaps too-measured pacing. Be warned, however, that the fadeout hits a “Wha?” kind of narrative wall sure to infuriate those who expect a mystery to be solved, at the very least. 

Beyond the stricter boundaries of horror, there’s Luz: The Flower of Evil, SF-based Colombian director Juan Diego Escobar Alzate’s visually sumptuous debut feature. Its characters live in an isolated mountain community under the spell of wild-eyed religious zealot El Senor (Conrado Osorio) and his three “angel” daughters (Yuri Vargas, Sharon Guzman, Andrea Esquivel). He keeps promising miracles, even a Second Coming—but the latest youth (Julian Camacho) he abducts, dubs “Jesus” and holds captive seems to be simply another unlucky child. These people seem frozen in another century; only the discovery of a portable tape recorder suggests the time is no earlier than 1970. 

Luz  may remind you on the one hand of The Witch or the more recent German Hagazussa in its folkloric tale of fear and hysteria amongst superstitious people. On another, its voiceover narrations, drifting music, and sometimes overweening poetical lyricism suggest the influence of Terrence Malick. That twain doesn’t quite meet, in that the narrative and suspense elements are somewhat sapped by an aesthetic that’s gorgeous, yet doesn’t quite suit those elements (or render them convincing). Now on digital and VOD, Luz is an often frustrating film, but also a strikingly ambitious maiden effort with a distinctive artistic sensibility. 

Likewise flaunting a singular, highly worked style is Faust from famed Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, who’s still active at age 86. This newly restored 1994 feature was his second, coming after 1988’s Alice (which itself followed a quarter-century of fascinating shorts), and like that Lewis Carroll-derived fantasia mixes live action and stop-motion imagery to conjure a bizarre fresh take on a familiar source tale. This labyrinth of grotesque and surreal amusements finds a modern-day Prague businessman (Petr Cepek) entering a theater to apply greasepaint and costume. He then sporadically plays the role of the good (well, not-so-good) Doctor F. in interactions with a marionette Mephistopheles and other phenomena. This no more a straightforward version of Goethe (or Marlowe) than Aleksandr Sokurov’s marvelously perverse Russian one from 2011. But it’s a witty, eccentric delight, with the director’s trademark mix of the droll and macabre on full display. It’s currently playing via Roxie Virtual Cinema.

Speaking of Beelzebub (and religious hysteria), he’s got title billing in The Devil All the Time. But this new Netflix drama requires no otherworldly influence to spur its characters’ misdeeds—the evil on display here is lamentably all-too-human. Adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel (with the author himself providing somewhat gratuitous voiceover narration), it’s a nearly 2 1/2 hour dirge of cruelty in the Rust Belt backwaters of post-WW2 Ohio and West Virginia. 

Bill Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Jason Clark, Tom Holland, Mia Wasilkowska, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan and others portray figures spanning a few decades and generations, all dedicatedly etched by the actors yet never transcending one-dimensional victimhood or villainy. There’s murder, suicide and death by cancer within the first half hour; and that’s before we’re introduced to a transparency phony preacher with the proverbial lust in his empty heart, not to mention a couple of roving serial thrill-killers. It’s the kind of movie where you know right away that if there’s a dog, and a child loves that dog, the dog is gonna die. 

Directed by Antonio Campos, The Devil takes itself very seriously, yet never manages to seem more than an arbitrary pileup of gloating misfortunes. All this presumably worked in the well-regarded book (which has been both called “grindhouse literary” and compared to Faulkner, so go figure). But here it seems too sprawling and digressive to function as extra-dark neo-noir, too literal-minded to become larger-than-life American Gothic, too stereotypical and inauthentic to provide any larger truth unsullied by glib cynicism. It’s a well-made yet peculiarly joyless enterprise that is hard to defend as art, and harder still as entertainment. 

Moving from the pretentious to the ridiculous, we have last (and very much least) Ravers, a movie so stupid I thought it had to be Halloween already. Harking back to the Raver Madness-type cautionary flicks of twenty years ago or so, albeit with no presumably serious cautionary intent, it finds a lesbian germophobe (Georgia Hirst) and others trapped at an illegal rave that unfortunately takes place in an abandoned beverage factory where a chemical accident spiked the product. When a stash of the tainted grog is broken out, the partiers turn homicidal in a not-quite-zombies-but-kinda-just-like-zombies way. 

Crass (there’s an early closeup of someone picking their nose), silly, and with a whole lot of truly terrible music—Groove, this ain’t—Ravers is also energetic and colorful. If you have a soft spot for the brain-dead pleasures of something like Uwe Boll’s infamous (and, let’s face it, entertaining) House of the Dead, you will find there’s some fun to be had here. Releasing to limited theaters today, it may provide savvy drive-ins with a throwback to the days when such joints were more likely to play B-grade sexploitation and/or gore horror than the latest Hollywood blockbuster. 

You can, by the way, now have a more-or-less actual drive-in experience without driving to San Jose or Concord—though you’ll still need a car. Launching today and running six days a week through October. 18, Fort Mason Flix is a pop-up drive-in on the SF waterfront with a 40-by-20-foot LED screen purportedly ninety times brighter than the average indoor theater projector (a good thing, since some shows start at not-so-dark 6 pm). This opening weekend is heavy on fantasy, ranging from family-friendly cartoonage (MinionsFrozenInto the Spider-Verse) to sci-fi (The Matrix) to cult musicals (Xanadu, Purple Rain). There will be concessions and bathrooms, but also COVID restrictions—you’ll be expected to wear a mask when not in your vehicle. For the full schedule and ticket info, click here.

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