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Friday, December 3, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Horrors for Halloween: some silly, some quite...

Screen Grabs: Horrors for Halloween: some silly, some quite good

Last Night in Soho falters, Antlers soars. Plus: Signal Broadcast Intrusion, Night Teeth, more fiendish flicks

With Halloween arriving this weekend, you would expect the movies to cough up some scary entertainment, and indeed there are two major releases in that vein coming out on Friday. Definitely anticipated as more treat than trick is Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. But it’s been a long time since Hot Fuzz and Shawn of the Dead, years filled with the decreasing delights of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The World’s End and Baby Driver. This latest is a natural progression: Even more than that last film, it has high energy, cool visuals, and a very cool soundtrack that soon only heighten the perception that a thin premise is being stretched woefully thin.

Actually, the central idea does sound promising: Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who worships the 1960s, finds herself transported into that era—at least when she’s sleeping—upon moving to London for school. Each night in bed she’s swept into the dizzying circa-1965 reality of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a classic “smashing bird” of the period eager for singing fame, or any other fame. But as Sandie’s figurative dream goes south, thanks in part to a shady boyfriend-manager-pimp (Matt Smith), Eloise’s actual dreams turn into nightmares, then begin bleeding into her waking hours. Did we mention that Eloise may have a history of mental illness? Well, there’s that.

Last Night is fun to a point, with its Absolute Beginners fetishism towards swanky retro style. But the horror elements flat-out don’t work; the characters in either era remain stubbornly one-dimensional;  and Wright makes an eventually terrible error trying to turn this inherently silly, camp film into some kind of #MeToo era statement. It’s a bad decision that at first just feels forced, then seriously labored, then becomes almost suicidally convoluted. A fantasy this flashy and frivolous takes on issues like sexual exploitation and violence at peril of offending by trivializing them, and Wright’s presumed good intentions only rub salt in that wound. 

You might enjoy glimpsing actual Swinging London faves Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp, and Rita Tushingham in their dotage here, and there’s no question the director enjoys toying with their star-making era’s clothes, decor, music, and cinematic tropes. Still, I think I may finally be done getting excited about a “new Edgar Wright” movie. The last ones overstayed their welcome, too, but Soho’s entire second hour was one too many. I knew I wasn’t having fun by the frequency with which I kept checking my watch—whose deadly slow progress provided the evening’s only real horror. 

Not intending to be any fun at all is Antlers. This uncommonly serious mainstream horror movie is, despite supernatural elements, really about child abuse/endangerment, as well as communities that an evolving economy ruthlessly leaves behind. In an inland Oregon town whose industries have all long dried up, two men are running a meth lab in an abandoned mine. When they’re attacked by some unknown creature, that leaves 12-year-old Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) in dire straights—his mother already dead, this malnourished, withdrawn kid must take care of himself, a younger brother, and the thing that his already-problematic, now “infected” father (Scott Haze) is becoming. 

Noticing his plight, if not fully understanding it for some time, is schoolteacher Julia (Keri Russell), who’s returned to her hometown after a long absence that began when she fled her own abusive home. Now she’s sharing a house with the younger brother turned sheriff (Jesse Plemons) she’d had to abandon then. 

Directed by Scott Cooper, who’s brought a similar darkly empathetic sensibility to prior movies about organized crime (Out of the Furnace, Black Mass), addiction (Crazy Heart) and the “Wild West” (Hostiles), Antlers is pretty damn bleak for a monster movie. It is indeed scary and atmospheric, often impressively well-crafted, with fully committed performances. It gets under the skin in ways meant to be unpleasant—the psychological discomfort here is at least as acute as the terror of a Wendigo (a shape-shifting, murderous evil spirit in many Native American tribal mythologies, little-seen here until the end) running around feeding on “the lost, the frail, the depraved.” 

The title may suggest a silly good time, like Gremlins or Cooties, but this unsettling film works by uniting horror movie conventions to a sombre drama about singularly grim social issues. It’s the kind of very good movie that will make money because it’s a genre film, but will get excluded from awards contention for precisely the same reason. 

Among smaller new releases to streaming formats, also taking its horror-ish concept very seriously is Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion. Harry Shum Jr. (“Glee,” Crazy Rich Asians) plays a tech geek whose labors in 1999 consist of archiving a TV station’s old broadcast videos. Such lonely focus on the past seems to suit his personality, which has withdrawn since his dancer wife disappeared some years ago. But then the tapes he’s logging begin showing signs of connection to a mysterious broadcast disruption in 1987—and, perhaps, to the case of his wife and other disappearances. Pursuing these cryptic clues, he goes down a rabbit’s hole of subterranean conspiracies and eccentric characters.

This mystery, which may recall prior celluloid ciphers like Blow-Up or Videodrome, is richly atmospheric in its maze-like chase after an elusive narrative goal. But the spell Gentry casts palls eventually, as we realize he has no intention of resolving the puzzle; the dense, sinister mood really is the film’s substance, with nothing tangible behind it. That is somewhat frustrating, but Intrusion is still worthwhile for its distinctive, clammy, paranoid ambiance of hidden worlds occasionally intruding into our own, swallowing up the unwary. It is, bizarrely (if only faintly), “based on a true story”—there were actual such broadcast disruptions during the late 1980s, whose cause remains unknown despite extensive Federal investigation. Dark Sky Films launched the movie on Digital/VOD platforms last week. 

By contrast, there’s nothing somber in the least, let alone fact-based, about Netflix feature Night Teeth. Director Adam Randall and scenarist Brett Dillon’s film has Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as a college student and aspiring DJ/music producer who begs his brother (Raul Castillo) to let him play limo chauffeur for a night when big bro is busy. But it turns out what he’s busy with is hunting vampires, and the two glamazons (Debby Ryan, Lucy Fry) who’d hired his ride are… well, you guessed it. Little bro has a very hairy time from dusk to dawn, finding himself not just in the middle of a humans vs. bloodsuckers war, but of an attempted violent coup between rival vampire factions.

Night Teeth is like a flipper, funnier take on Blade, turning its notion of a secret vampire underworld into a night-long crawl amongst LA’s A-list parties and nightclubs, with our hero both terrified and seduced by his walk on the wild side. It’s a clever, stylish film with surprising affection for its characters, and a satisfyingly flashy climax. Also worth seeking out is Randall’s last film I See You, a very different, ingenious non-fantastical thriller that likewise adds up to more than you’d initially expect. 

Not quite horror, but considered pretty sordid and shocking stuff when it came out in 1947, is Nightmare Alley—a noirish melodrama based on a lurid bestseller that was considerably watered down for the screen. But it still alarmed fans of the normally squeaky-clean star Tyrone Power, as well as studio 20th-Century Fox, which quickly buried the commercial flop before it further tainted their leading box-office attraction’s image. (Which was exactly what Power had hoped to do; he acquired the property and produced the film in an attempt to break from the bland repetition of his swashbuckler and romantic-comedy vehicles.) In the long run, however, the film acquired status as a kind of flawed minor classic, its cult rep sufficient to generate a starry Guillermo del Toro remake that will surely edge closer to horror, and which comes out this December. 

It will invariably be compared to this first version, a stretch then not just for the star but also director Edmund Goulding, whose fare usually tended towards more genteel vehicles for the likes of Garbo and Bette Davis. Power plays Stanton Carlisle, a rudderless young man who finds his niche as a carnival barker. From there he uses deceit and worse, as well as a series of women (Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker), to scale a ladder of success—one whose heights he will topple from, thanks to his own greed and ambition. 

It’s a cynical, ugly cautionary tale somewhat at odds with Power’s scrubbed good looks (he isn’t the most convincing sleazy cad), and the excess production gloss Fox expended on this gritty subject. A truer Nightmare Alley might have been made at one of the era’s “Poverty Row” studios, though even they would’ve had to bow to the censors. It is, nonetheless, a compelling movie that looks great in the digital restoration BAMPFA is showing at its downtown Berkeley theater this Sun/31, as well as Sun/Nov. 7 and Sat/Nov. 27. More info here.

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