A modest sleeper hit earlier this year, was Ti West’s X. That hat-tip to the grungier side of 1970s horror cinema involved a bunch of youthful Me Decade amateurs secretly making a porn feature, but of course they pick the wrong creepy, isolated Texas farmhouse to film it in. X was overrated in some quarters, but it was still above-average for the genre, even though a measure of its forgettability is that I thought I’d seen it a year or two ago—not just five months back. Probably its cleverest aspect was having Mia Goth play two roles, though viewers were extremely unlikely to guess that until the final credits. X ended with a teaser for a sequel (or rather prequel) focusing on one of those characters, apparently shot back-to-back with the movie just seen.
Enter Pearl, set a half-century earlier, when the titular figure (Goth again) is not yet a homicidal septuagenarian nymphomaniac, but a sweet and innocent young farm girl. OK, maybe not so sweet or innocent. It’s 1918, and Pearl is stuck in the middle of nowhere with a strict, humorless German-emigre mother (Tandi Wright) and mute, wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sutherland). The husband she’d hoped would take her away from this dreary life is off fighting WW1, and an influenza epidemic has further cut off access to the wider world. The best Pearl can do is steal an occasional hour at the picture show in town, fueling the dreams of stardom her eagle-eyed ma decries as “foolish fantasies.”
But Pearl is not so easily dissuaded, nor does she take setbacks well. In fact, we begin to think she’s no mild eccentric, rather someone with significant mental health issues, and an alarming mean streak. Along with those already mentioned, figures in the small but sharp ensemble here who will unfortunately suffer Pearl’s dark side include the handsome movie theater projectionist (David Corenswet) and her sister-in-law Mitzi (Emma Jenkins-Purro).
West has said he plans each chapter in this hopeful franchise to have an entirely different stylistic slant. Where X sought to emulate the queasy, downscale rough edges of movies from half a century ago like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left, Pearl is intended to evoke the idealized small-town Americana of 1940s MGM products, with their studio-bound artifice and overbright Technicolor. That’s a difficult style to reproduce today, let alone on a relatively low budget. The intended homage is complicated further by the fact that it makes so little sense delusional film fan Pearl (who’s living in the middle of the silent era) would imagine her world as one shaped by the wholesome musical fantasies of The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis, released 20-plus years later.
We’re meant to experience the irony in that dream gradually being ripped from her eyes, as the film finally turns into a bloodbath. But impressive as she was in X, Goth (who co-wrote the script with West this time) can’t quite hold together this more ambitious but shakier construct. The film ends with the kind of risky, prolonged falling-apart closeup that is meant to indelibly cap a histrionic tour de force—but instead it underlines that the performer is pushing the hammy envelope with a character that remains a contrived pastiche of Dorothy Gale, Carrie White, and Norman Bates.
Still, Pearl is at least an audacious gamble in a too-often formulaic genre, and entertaining as such, even if its intended mix of cineaste referencing, black comedy, and psycho-horror doesn’t quite gel. At least it didn’t for me—other reviews have been much more enthused. Pearl opens Fri/16 at theaters nationwide.
As it happens, there are several other adventurous horror and horror-adjacent new movies in circulation at present, wide-ranging from Senegal to South Korea to Scandinavia, and from very earthbound fears of vicious criminal violence to interplanetary sci-fi spectacle.
Speak No Evil
No film so far this year made my skin crawl to the degree of Christian Tafdrup’s slow-burning tale of misplaced trust. Danish yuppies Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are on vacation at a Tuscan resort villa with their little girl Agnes (Liva Forsberg) when they meet a Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders), who have a roughly same-aged if much more withdrawn child (Marius Damslev as Abel). The two camps hit it off, spending nearly all their time together, English being a common second language. Back home in Copenhagen, Bjorn in particular seems to pine for the male camaraderie he felt with Patrick. So soon the family is packing up again to visit these new friends, at their invitation, in the Netherlands’ rural south.
But this time the dynamic feels a little off—the hosts demonstrate behaviors that strike their guests as weird, inappropriate, even a wee bit alarming. They very nearly leave, then are persuaded to stay. Perhaps it’s all just a misunderstanding between different cultures, anyway. Right?
Almost nothing “happens” for a very long time in Speak No Evil, yet the atmosphere of discomfort is positively squirm-inducing. Tadjup exactly locates that awkward point where you realize you can’t quite handle being in a particular situation, yet are too well-mannered or embarrassed to bolt. It is that polite reluctance to say “No” which makes the Danes perfect prey for predators whose sheepskin disguise is gradually shed.
Redolent of movies like Funny Games and The Strangers, this psychologically punishing yet coolly detached thriller may strike some as a needlessly unpleasant, even sadistic test of viewer stamina, with no neat explanation of “why” at the end. But its harrowing cumulative impact is very hard to shake. Bypassing the Bay Area in its limited current theatrical release, Speak No Evil becomes available for streaming on genre platform Shudder Thurs/15.
Already on Shudder is this ambitious and impressive genre exercise. In contrast to Speak’s generalized social-critique microcosm, it seeks to encompass the whole of modern Africa’s post-colonial political and criminal turmoil in one fantastical tale.
We start in the middle of Guinea-Bisseau’s 2003 military coup d’etat, with three notorious mercenaries (Yann Gael, Mentor Ba, Roger Sallah) taking advantage of the chaos to flee with stolen gold and a rescued and/or abducted Mexican cartel druglord (Renaud Farah). Aiming to reach Dakar, their damaged plane instead forces a landing in Senegal’s remote Sine-Saloum region, where they seek shelter at a somewhat mysterious resort in the middle of nowhere. They’re told there are no vacancies—until a chorus of screams ring out, at which point the four travelers are informed two rooms have “become available.”
The atmosphere is far from relaxed, with fellow “holiday-makers” antagonistic, secretive, and speaking many tongues (or in some cases sign language). Each character’s backstory, we eventually glean, provides an illustration of regional historic wrongs, from child soldiering to ethnic “cleansing.” While it takes them a while to guess, viewers quickly surmise that these people have been gathered here for a judgement of the cosmic rather than courtroom type.
Director Jean Luc Herbulot’s second feature is arguably most effective before the supernatural elements kick in, bringing with them CGI monsters that are well-realized but less potent than the human personalities on display. Nonetheless, Saloum (which Herbulot co-wrote with Pamela Diop) is a complicated, original mix of hybrid genre content and political indictment, its edge further sharpened by a slick, flashy, but controlled stylistic surface. It would make a good viewing companion piece to the African action flashback of The Woman King, which opens (and we’ll review) on Friday.
The evil that men do is also very much the theme for this exceptionally nasty tale of vicious mayhem and righteous retribution. In New Jersey, the daughter (Katie Kelly) of a pastor (Michael Lombardi) meets a cruel end at the hands of a merciless criminal (Joseph Gatt), simply for innocently crossing his path. The police detective assigned to the case (Marc Menchaca) turns out to have also suffered an equally tragic and senseless loss at the hands of a serial rapist-killer (Jacoby Shaddix). Because naturally our government institutions let these kinds of monsters go—yes, you might wonder if the film’s script consultants included such human car alarms as Glenn Beck or Tucker Carlson—it turns out said cop has devised his own personal “justice system.”
The Retaliators has been made with considerable vigor. But the somewhat disjointed, exquisite-corpse nature of its storytelling may well be attributable to the fact that on top of the two scenarists (Darren and Jeff Allen Geare), it has three credited directors (Lombardi, Samuel Gonzalez Jr., Bridget Smith). The result is a sort of compendium of sadistic, sensationalist content that is at once cleverly twisty and kinda just gross.
The film avoids overt politicizing. Yet you feel they’re appealing to exactly the wrong people—the types who might think “We’d better overthrow the government because I see bad stuff online”—when it paints US society as Good People at constant risk of lethal harm from grotesquely cartooned, roaming evildoers. Or when it glorifies vigilante payback, not least by scoring such action to tacky yee-haw rock tracks. There’s a happy ending: The pastor learns not to “turn the other cheek” when confronted with a garden-variety jerk, but to face-punch him… er, just like Jesus would? MAGA Jesus, I guess—not that hippie in the Bible. The Retaliators is playing short runs at theaters starting Wed/14, including the Century Cinemas in Daly City and Walnut Creek (more info here).
Last and perhaps least—though it probably cost as much as all the above films put together—is this South Korean extravaganza, posited as the first half of a probably five-hour duo a la Dune. In 1380, an SUV leaps from the sky, disbursing a robot to recapture an alien criminal that has escaped the human villager’s body it was “imprisoned” in. It extracts the slithery creature from its female host, leaving a baby behind that cyborg Guard (Kim Woo-bin) and his sentient car sidekick Thunder (voice of Kim Dae-myung) decide to raise (as precocious preadolescent Ean, played by Choi Yu-ri) in modern-day Seoul.
That’s just the opening. This crazy concoction from writer-director Choi Dong-hoon also tosses in sorcerers, spaceships, cats that turn into cat-men, swordplay, gunplay, ray-gunplay, invisibility cloaks, flying fu, near-incessant time travel, CGI scenes of mass destruction in which (a la yesteryear’s Godzillas) nobody seems to get hurt, nonstop action, and lots of tentacles. Plus elements from The Matrix, E.T., and umpteen other films, too much broad comedy, and an entirely unironic megadose of “it’s about family!” sentimentality.
Lured in by a New York Times review suggesting this was the kind of hot mess that’s a delirious guilty pleasure, I can’t say I agreed: Though it may well grow more coherent in Part Deux, these 142 minutes offer the kind of high-concept mashup in which too many borrowed ideas result in nothing more than a shiny toy, all eye-candy spectacle and no filling. If you liked, say, Van Helsing, but wished it was a Korean sci-fi action fantasy family film, you may be just the viewer Alienoid was engineered for. It is already playing Bay Area theaters, including the CGV Cinemas SF on Van Ness and the Balboa.