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Thursday, September 28, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Moon Garden' sprite Haven Lee Harris is...

Screen Grabs: ‘Moon Garden’ sprite Haven Lee Harris is giving Shirley Temple in ‘Silent Hill’

This week, a host of horror films delve into both childhood traumas and much more adult terrors.

This Friday brings the bazillionth feature-film Stephen King adaptation—a more precise count would require sorting out all the TV movies, miniseries, shorts, et al., which altogether number something like 200—this one based on one of his earlier published stories. “The Boogeyman” was first seen in a 1973 men’s magazine, then after CarrieSalem’s Lot, and The Shining climbed the bestseller lists, it reappeared in the 1978 collection Night Shift.

Just 11 pages long, the original is nothing special, apart from its gimmick of being a dialogue between a psychiatrist and a new patient. The latter unburdens himself of horrific recent years: He feels responsible for the successive deaths of his three young children, because he did not take seriously their fears of the title creature (a literal monster in the closet) until too late. The story’s most interesting aspect is that this haunted husband/father is painted as kind of a jerk, casually sexist and racist—but King doesn’t bother clarifying whether that had anything to do with his family’s grim fate.

There’s minimal overlap between that sketch and what’s opening in theaters this week, beyond the basic gist of “malevolent supernatural thingie terrorizing nuclear unit.”

The Boogeyman opens with a different family in grief: Therapist Will Harper (Chris Messina) is a single father, and his two children motherless, following his wife’s death in a car accident a month prior. They’re all struggling to cope. Yet somehow things get a lot worse after dad gets an unannounced home-office visit from a new client (David Dastmalchian, whose single scene encompasses the entire ’73 story) desperate to share his own ghastly if possibly delusional tale of loss.

That session ends with its own horror. Almost immediately, grade-schooler Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) and teen Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) begin experiencing frights—something lurking in the shadows, closet doors slamming open or shut of their own accord. This is dismissed as manifestations of stress. But Sadie becomes increasingly convinced that something evil is now dwelling here, feeding on the emotionally wounded and easily frightened, lurking in the dark.

Director Rob Savage made one of the very few movies that was actually clever about employing (as opposed to hamstrung by) COVID lockdown limitations, the hour-long Host. Amazingly rushed out in the summer of 2020—much duller movies composed of fake Zoom calls are still arriving, three years later—its tale of quarantined friends experiencing something terrible during a group video chat was short, sweet, simple, and scary. I was less taken by his followup, the found-footage variation Dashcam, but it didn’t lack for ideas, even if they were less effectively worked out.

The Boogeyman is a much more traditionally crafted supernatural thriller, and Savage hands that shift well, with a certain atmospheric gravity. But the script quickly grows too hectic, packed with the usual jump scares, giving us too much too soon of a creature scarier when unseen (think Alien meets Gollum.) There’s little actual plot complexity or character depth to ballast the clutter of familiar horror tropes. While the actors do their best, in the end this is just another boo! machine—one that starts out with enough intelligent restraint to put us on edge, then delivers so much formulaic, implausible goosing, we can no longer take it seriously. In the very long list of Stephen King-derived movies, ranging from excellent (say Carrie and Doctor Sleep) to atrocious (too many to mention) it lands smack in the middle: Not exactly bad, not particularly good, a passing but please-do-better-next-time C.

If 90-odd minutes of moderately scary mallflick doesn’t appeal to you, there are quite a number of alternatives this week in the general terrain of suspense and fantasy, though none land so squarely in horror territory as The Boogeyman:

Moon Garden

Child terror and peril is also central to this feature by editor turned writer-director Ryan Stevens Harris, in which a little girl comatose after a serious accident is plunged into a surreal dream world. Upset over her endlessly squabbling parents’ latest spat, wee Emma (Haven Lee Harris) falls down the stairs of their home. While she lays unconscious in the hospital, her mind wanders through a maze of fantastical landscapes and curious creatures. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she is trying to find her way back “home”—and is likewise pursued by a supernatural villain, the top-hatted, faceless ghoul known as Teeth (Morgana Ignis).

This vividly colored phantasmagoria has wowed many at genre festivals, and it does have some striking imagery. But there’s precious little else going on, particularly in the realm of narrative. In psychological terms, the content is crude, with the parents yea more one-dimensional than the various monsters of the id, and numerous soppy iterations of Badfinger’s “Without You” providing a sentimental streak amidst general pretentiousness.

Even as pure imaginative visual spectacle, Moon Garden is impressive in a very derivative way, lifting ideas a little too overtly from other precious screen treatments of childhood fears (The Reflecting SkinTidelandPan’s Labyrinth) as well as the Brothers Quay, Tim Burton, Nightmare on Elm Street, Carnival of Souls, et al. There’s also an unpleasant tinge to the adorable star’s travails: While one assumes the juvenile actress (who looks about 6) was not exposed to the more macabre sights her character flees from in cutaways. the movie still seems borderline sadistic in its emphasis, akin to throwing Shirley Temple into Silent Hill. I disliked the experience—but again, many have found it enchanting. Moon Garden opens Fri/2 at the Roxie Theater.

Esme, My Love

Parent-child relations also go south in Cory Choy’s elliptical drama, which arrives on digital platforms Fri/2. Hannah (Stacey Weckstein) drives her daughter Esme (Audrey Grace Marshall) to the rural area where she grew up, ostensibly to meet a sibling she’s never mentioned before—and because the girl is supposedly very ill, perhaps terminally. But Esme feels fine, and soon we realize the person who’s really sick here (albeit mentally) is mom. Did she ever even have a sister? Did that sister “die horribly”? Is her spirit now haunting the woods hereabouts?

Don’t ask me—this slow, tedious puzzle provides no answers, though it’s well-shot and and acted. The performers are ultimately defeated by the pointless histrionics demanded of them, in a film that grows irritatingly mannered long before we realize there’s barely enough substance here to sustain a 25-minute film, let alone a 105-minute one.

The Hole in the Fence

A sojourn to the country proves equally disturbing in many ways to the young protagonists in Joaquin del Paso’s Mexican feature, a co-production with Poland that Altered Innocence just released to On Demand platforms. The boys of Los Pinos Secondary School, aged roughly 12 to 15, arrive at the start by bus at a gated rural summer camp. They exhibit the usual juvenile high spirits, but their minders warn that the surrounding area is “dangerous,” its local residents “desperate.” We soon realize these kids are products of class privilege, already inculcated with biases against people of lower economic status or different ethnicity.

Their chaperones commence an increasingly bizarre program that seems intended to exacerbate such attitudes, mixing up religion, quasi-militaristic, and survivalist activities, as well as some twisted psychological games. Bullying appears to be encouraged, particularly towards the one non-white “scholarship kid;” paranoia is fanned by the discovery of the titular unauthorized entrance to the gated compound. What ensues is sort of halfway between Lord of the Flies and a crypto-fascist indoctrination course—a microcosm of society’s power imbalances at their worst.Ambitious and accomplished, Hole is a metaphorical tale nonetheless done realistically enough to be quite disturbing in its myriad ambiguities.

Tommy Guns

Even better is Angola-born, Portugal-based Carlos Conceicao’s film, a fascinating, unclassifiable effort that manages to straddle Beau TravailThe Village, and famous antiwar fantasy J’accuse. It is apparently 1974 in that first-named nation, then Portuguese Angola (and formerly Portuguese West Africa). But colonialist control was on its last legs then, to be replaced a year later by the socialist People’s Republic of Angola—though civil war continued unabated. In early going here, we see armed rebels run off a Catholic nun (Leonor Silveira) operating a mission. Then a handsome AWOL Portuguese soldier (Silvio Vieira) has a fateful encounter with a too-trusting young local resident (Ule Balde).

After those violent preludes, we retreat to the relative safety of a military compound presided over by one fanatical bald colonel (Gustavo Sumpta). He commands a rather paltry unit of troops who all look barely out of their teens, yet cannot remember what—if any—life they had before coming here. It is evident that time is running out in this place, however.

The near-plotless yet tense and strikingly atmospheric progress finds that end approaching in surprising ways that range from the comedically odd (as when a middle-aged prostitute played by Anabela Moreira arrives to provide collective comfort) to the supernatural. There’s also room for tenderness, sensuality, beauty, and illogic. The head-scratcher fadeout may for some extend this story’s parabolic nature to a self-canceling point. But in its rich visual vocabulary and control of complex tonal gambits, Tommy Guns is a daring, distinctive work of art. It is currently available for purchase or rental on Kino Now, and will be released to major On Demand platforms May 13.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

Offering some balm after all this comparatively heavy drama is late Japanese director Shohei Imamura’s 2001 final feature, which Film Movement has just released to home formats in a digital restoration. Handsome but luckless Yokuke (Koji Yakusho) is a desperate, jobless salaryman tipped to a hidden treasure supposedly to be found in a coastal fishing town. There, he meets a woman he’s intrigued by, Saeko (Misa Shimizu), and decides to stay on a while. Their attraction is mutual, but Saeko has a secret source of comingled pleasure and shame: Arousal stirs a physiological peculiarity in her that turns female ejaculation into a kind of dam-bursting flood.

in outline, this sounds like a puerile male fantasy of insatiability—not unlike Chatterbox, a notorious 1977 drive-in yokfest about a woman with a talking vagina. But that snickering low-brow farce is nothing like this whimsically bittersweet, empathetic shaggy tale, which arrives at a surprising destination of complexly affirmed faith in humanity’s innate goodness. For all the outrageousness of its conceit, Warm Water may be one of the least prurient sex comedies ever made. It was a fine sendoff for the director, continuing the droll humor of his later features The Eel and Dr. Agaki after a long career that had encompassed many a harsher vision.

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