“What You Did To Me, It Never Goes Away…”
With Blumhouse Productions essentially proclaiming themselves as the second reincarnation of Hammer Horror Studios, the likes of the excellent, Get Out, and the financially successful, Happy Death Day, have allowed the company to pretty much make anything they want with a guaranteed box office reward. Enter Ma, a completely barmy, over-the-top stalker horror which takes hints from pretty much every single B-movie ever, one which sees Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water, Instant Family) as the titular mother figure, Sue Ann, a lonely veterinary technician who soon begins a middling friendship with town newcomer, Maggie Thompson, as played by rising star, Diane Silvers,(Booksmart) and her own freshly found group of friends who quickly become attracted to Sue Ann’s willingness to both provide an abundance of alcohol and a safe place to party. Directed by the steady hand of Tate Taylor, a filmmaker who reunites with Spencer after their work together on the Academy Award winning, The Help, Ma is a solid and well made addition into the Blumhouse repertoire which just happens to have a particularly talented actress in the lead role of a genuinely unnerving and creepy genuine psychopath.
Bearing a very similar narrative to that of Greta earlier this year, a stalker movie which too featured a prominent and well regarded actor/actress in the lead role of a movie which was undoubtedly too schlocky and mad for mainstream audiences, Ma basically swaps Isabelle Huppert for Spencer and Chloe Grace Moretz for Silvers whilst adding a slightly more audience-friendly filmic texture. Whilst the movie never really evokes any sense of longing dread or threat to our laddish, alcohol and sex obsessed leading group of rebellious teenages, Ma instead balances nicely the absurdity of its’ narrative with a hefty streak of black comedy as you giggle your way through a ninety minute picture which allows Spencer to not only chew the scenery, but devour it. With the most menacing on-screen haircut since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and a personality which mixes Annie Wilkes from Misery with Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Spencer is undoubtedly the star turn within the movie, and with a couple of truly nasty, sadistic and memorable set pieces, Ma is not exactly groundbreaking, but with enough positive elements to make genre fans happy, the latest Blumhouse chapter is cheap, giggle-inducing fun.
Overall Score: 6/10
“They Look Exactly Like Us. They Think Like Us. They Know Where We Are. We Need To Move And Keep Moving. They Won’t Stop Until They Kill Us…”
With the past two years boosting Jordan Peele into the cinematic stratosphere, the success of his 2017 excellent directorial debut, Get Out, a subsequent Academy Award win, and having a major hand in Spike Lee’s equally superb, BlackKklansman, last year means that the American is on what’s commonly referred to as a freakin’ good roll. With a reinvention of The Twilight Zone set to arrive on the small screen at the beginning of April, first comes Us, Peele’s second venture into the world of horror which very much like his critically acclaimed debut, takes the bold decision to weave in and out of varying genres, this time ranging from home invasion thrillers to paranoid conspiracies with a touch of the dark humour which made Get Out so frivolously entertaining. Reuniting both Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke after their success together on Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Peele’s movie sees the Wilson family head to a secluded beach house on the coastline of Santa Cruz, California, a trip which brings back haunting memories to Nyong’o’s Adelaide after a horrifying incident during her youth. With Adelaide making her concerns known to Duke’s Gabriel during the first night of their stay, the family suddenly fall under siege by four intruders who, in typical horror movie fashion, seem to have more in common with them then first meets the eye, and after discovering the life and death situation they now find themselves in, the Wilson family spend the rest of their interrupted holiday attempting to make it out alive.
With Peele undoubtedly both healthily cineliterate and more importantly, a gigantic horror movie geek, the many successes of Us depend on you actively registering yourself accordingly into the film’s tone, one which sort of crosses the boundary between horror and thriller but in a similar vein to Get Out, isn’t terrifying in the way of say, Hereditary or The Witch, and instead is more an actively action packed popcorn movie in the same way that A Quiet Place falls more into the monster movie bracket than a straightforward horror. With this in mind, once the relatively straightforward set-up in which the background, key characters and beautiful setting are all aligned into place, the moment we are introduced to the overly ripe doppelgänger version of the Wilson family is when the action truly heats up, providing the audience with a home invasion set piece which rides a fine line between absurdist silliness and creepy psychological horror like a jumped-up hybrid of The Strangers and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with the latter clearly being referenced due to the uncanny resemblance between the screams made within Peele’s movie and the alien duplicates from Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland. With Peele not afraid in any shape or form whatsoever to bludgeon the audience with overly graphic levels of violence, Us also benefits from the slasher type, B-movie esque traditions of people being killed in very nasty ways indeed, and with a middle act full with clear nods to The Shining and a hint of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, the opening hour is undoubtedly a horror movie fan’s wet dream.
With the doppelgänger equivalents of the main cast offering the chance for everyone to have oodles of fun as they attempt to outshine each other in the kooky department, it’s fair to say that each of the core members of the Wilson family all have moments to show off their talents, resulting in side characters such as Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) sort of being left aside for the role of easily pruned cannon fodder without any real element of depth. With Nyong’o given the most work to as she walks away winning the award for the year’s best hair, her completely twisted performance is superbly entertaining, where even with a rather jarring choice to play her doppelgänger equivalent with a similar oxygen starved tone to that of Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending, still manages to convince you entirely that although both characters may indeed look the same, they are different entities entirely. Supported by a soon-to-be iconic horror genre score by long term Peele partner, Michael Abels, the soundtrack blends jukebox hits with strange, hypnotic remixes including a hauntingly effective version of “I Got 5 on It” by American hip hop duo, Luniz, and whilst at times the central narrative seems to be putting together almost too many ideas and themes regarding race, religion and identity, Peele’s latest is a movie which is still rattling around my brain, and for a movie which is made with this much perfection and care, it’s fair to say that Jordan Peele is quickly becoming the most interesting horror auteur of the modern age.
Overall Score: 8/10
“This Kind Of Thing… It Doesn’t Start By One Person Telling A Story. It’s More Like Everyone’s Fear Just Takes On A Life Of Its Own…”
Before the mighty highbrows of Hollywood decided to make a quick and easy buck by exploiting the majestic minds of foreign filmmakers with trashy English-speaking reincarnations of particular works, there was a time in which both the Japanese and South Korean horror genres produced some of the most impressive examples of the genre including Dark Water, A Tale of Two Sisters and perhaps most famously, Ringu, the Hideo Nakata directed adaptation of Koji Suzuki 1991 novel of the same name. Brought back to the big screen this week for a special 4K restoration, Nakata’s iconic 1998 horror thriller remains to this day a work of chilling paranoia, one which on repeat viewings continues to bewilder and terrify, and a movie which thanks to a superbly crafted digital fix up, looks absolutely brilliant back up on the biggest of cinematic screens. Whilst many will be already aware of the basic set up thanks to the Gore Verbinksi 2002 American remake, Ringu follows Nanako Matsushima’s Reiko Asakawa, a small-time journalist who investigates the sudden death of her niece and leads her onto a path regarding a local mystery surrounding a cursed videotape which when watched, gives the watcher seven days to live.
With it being twenty one years since the film’s initial release, in some roundabout way, it is easy to have much more of a fun time admiring the creepy elements at the heart of Nakata’s most impressive horror piece after multiple viewings on the small screen, and whilst big screen re-issues always fail to evoke the same sort of impact you gather from the first time a particular piece is lived through, the cinema environment always allows complete investment as you squirm your way through particular iconic set pieces which although you know are coming, are still damn effecting and unbelievably creepy. Whilst Nakata’s movie could easily be seen as eighty minutes of backstory as it insidiously sneaks its’ way up to a final act in which one of horror’s most iconic images is born, the almost complete absence of background music and humour results in an excruciatingly oppressive atmosphere as we follow Reiko through her discovery of the famous video tape and the supernatural terror of Rie Inō’s Sadako Yamamura, the Japanese equivalent of Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, just slightly more terrifying and definitely in need of a good old haircut. Whether you appreciate the tenderness of the execution from the Japanese original or the more Westernised, mainstream approach of Verbinski’s take, a remake of which is actually rather well done, Ringu remains one of the most interesting and original horror movies of recent times, one which forces you to check your TV twice before switching off the lights and one which supplies you with a fundamental fear of any female with a white dress and long dark hair.
Overall Score: 9/10
“Everyone In This Town Has Some Sin Or Regret. Some Cage Of His Own Making…”
For the majority of television series, the real discussion regarding a show’s particular merits generally land on the effectiveness of the book-ending episodes, with scrutiny more than most applied to both the opening and concluding chapters, particularly the latter with criticism always leaning towards whether the respective end of a series bows out in a well balanced and universally accepted manner or crashes and burns under the weight of the hours of storytelling which have come before it (see Dexter for such an example). In the case of Castle Rock, Hulu’s debut series was undoubtedly a refreshingly interesting, albeit flawed, genre bending haunted house of a series which attempted to pay respect to the mind of horror’s most influential contemporary writer whilst offering a glance into a town riddled with nightmares and head scratching mystery. When it came to the show’s concluding hour therefore, there was no doubt that theory after theory regarding the potential resolution of the main plot thread involving Bill Skarsgård’s The Kid was always going to be one which divided audiences, and whilst Castle Rock finished on a familiarly atmospheric and creepy note with a lot to admire, “Romans” still managed to feel ever so slightly underwhelming considering the potential that was in line to be grasped.
Picking up on events directly after episode eight, with the previous episode entirely dedicated to revealing The Kid’s true nature as Henry Deaver mark one, or maybe not as we’ll discuss later, Castle Rock’s final chapter focused on Deaver one’s willingness to return back to his own reality with the aid of Deaver mark two, whose reluctance to abide is shifted as we see through his eyes potentially more truth to Warden Lacy’s opinion regarding mark one’s closeness to evil. With the town of Castle Rock crumbling by the hour thanks to shocking character deaths, the rising sound of paranoia and a particularly violent prison escape, all plot threads seemingly accumulate as we follow both Deaver’s into the heart of the woods where Deaver mark one’s faint flicker of embedded evil seems to manifest in the show’s most terrifying jump cut throughout the entire series, and whilst many thought, myself included, that the show would inevitably veer towards a more Hollywood style resolution with Deaver one safely reunited with his true reality, what a kick in the teeth we were left with as the circle closed on seeing Deaver one once again held captive within the heart of Shawshank, this time watched closely by his alternate counterpart whose belief in his prisoner’s evil is enough to warrant a lifetime of sin. Ultimately, Deaver’s decision may not be the most humane or rewarding from the perspective of the audience but hey, throughout the series we have been warned of Castle Rock’s underlying seediness, and with a post credits sequence which suggests further exploration into the mythos and mind of Stephen King, Castle Rock‘s debut series was a brooding, bewildering and maddening slice of horror which can only get better with time.
Overall Episode Score: 8/10
Overall Series Score: 7.7/10
“God Turned His Back On This Place. Abandoned Us…”
As stated within previous reviews of Hulu’s latest success story, the fact that Castle Rock has been proclaimed as an “anthology” series by its’ creators in the vein of American Horror Story or True Detective, means that loose ends and unresolved mysteries aren’t exactly on the menu once the drama ultimately concludes in the very near future. Thankfully, Castle Rock’s penultimate episode just happened to be a twisting, mind-bending and thoroughly enjoyable chapter which put to bed the mystery of Bill Skarsgård’s, The Kid, whilst shining a ray of optimism heading into the show’s highly anticipated climax next week in which further unresolved plot threads are bound to be tied up in one way or another. With the previous episode fading to black after leaving the audience safe with the knowledge that The Kid and Molly seem to share more in common than meets the eye, “Henry Deaver” decided to dedicate the entire episode to Skarsgård’s character in order to develop such a notion as we came to realise The Kid’s true nature and place within the town of Castle Rock and the way in which his presence may indeed be key to the evil which has spread across the town since his arrival.
With an ominous opening speech featuring the familiar line; “people say it wasn’t me, it was this place” and further evidence of the seedy history of Castle Rock, the action swiftly moves onto the chance to witness the transformation of Skarsgård’s alternate Henry Deaver from a universe in which he seemingly survived childbirth and became an advocate for Alzheimer’s treatment and saving cute cats, to the enslaved victim of one man’s religious beliefs as he crosses over into “our” dimension in which the young Henry Deaver’s disappearance is finally explained. Considering the resolution of the show’s central mystery ultimately landed well and truly on the crazier side of things, kudos must go to the screenplay, with the episode’s handling of the reveals managing to explain particular plot threads rather well without ever becoming too much or too confusing whilst leaving a heavy amount of the load for the audience to ultimately figure out for themselves. With Skarsgård on absolutely gripping form as the episode’s lead and some wacky psychedelic imagery and cinematography, Castle Rock once again proved that when the show is at its’ most subversive and bizarre it’s undoubtedly at its’ best, and whilst certain questions do remain unanswered heading into the finale in the coming days, if the show can be wrapped in a similar fashion to the storytelling in its’ penultimate episode, everything should be swell.
Overall Episode Score: 8/10
“The Human Mind Is Expressly Designed To Forget Much Of Its’ Past Suffering…”
With Castle Rock hitting top stride last week with undoubtedly the best episode of the series so far, an extended hour’s worth of television which by the time the series ends will more than likely still remain top of the tree due to the sheer excellence expelled from both its’ storytelling and construction, “Past Perfect”, the eight episode of the series, reverts back to much more of the classic Castle Rock feel this week, adding more development to particular plot points whilst dialling up the hysterical sensibility canvassing the titular town which resulted in a variety of violent conclusions. With the re-introduction of the two new members of the town after their short appearance earlier on in the series when they are seen being sold the renowned “murder house” by Molly, the episode begins in familiarly wacky fashion by showing the turbulent relationship between Mark Harelik’s Gordon and Lauren Bowles’ Lilith, a rocky marriage dented by Lilith’s unfaithful indiscretion but one still on track as they declare themselves the new owners of Castle Rock’s B and B which the two are dedicated to design around the many historical deaths which have occurred within the town throughout the ages.
With an opening segment featuring an abundance of bloody murder which clearly evoked the shot of the dead twins from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the inclusion of Gordon reeked heavily of Psycho’s Norman Bates and with the added touch of a selection of axes and spooky mannequins, Castle Rock’s B and B seemed to be the main place for strict avoidance. With Molly’s predictable rescue of Henry resulting in yet more death from her part in the name of the man she clearly loves, Henry’s discovery of the now deceased Alan Pangborn resulted in The Kid being blamed for his murder even after an enlightening conversation with the local Police in which Henry was reminded of his school-time nickname of the “Black Death”, a title relatively apt considering the timeline of events which have occurred since Henry’s return to Castle Rock. With Skarsgård once again stealing the show, his IT related reference regarding his twenty seven year wait for Henry still remains overly ambiguous even when his refusal to age, as evidenced by the huge collection of eerie paintings within the B and B, points heavily towards the supernatural, and with a final, overly ripe five minutes in which Molly’s secrets were unveiled and Jackie Torrance’s hereditary knack for using an axe made total sense, “Past Perfect” was a mad yet enjoyable Castle Rock chapter.
Overall Episode Score: 7/10
“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves…”
Continuing on from the double dose of cliffhangers which concluded last week’s return to form, Castle Rock utilises an hour length episode this week to expand and develop Sissy Spacek’s Ruth Deaver, a character whose shadowy spectrum within the background of events so far comes full circle as we come to understand the true nature of her mental infliction which the likes of Alan and Henry have come to deduce as a simply case of Alzheimer’s, but one which instead lends itself more into the paranormal and surreal, with particular previous character behaviours within the series all becoming increasingly clear. With “The Queen” undoubtedly the most impressive episode of the series so far in terms of its’ beautiful storytelling, sharp pacing and heartbreaking twists and turns, this week’s episode was also the most King-esque to be offered up so far, an hours worth of paranormal imagery overshadowed by a haunting, creeping tone and a brooding, ominous soundtrack which clearly echoed a wide range of previous King related projects in which the series has taken heed from.
With Ruth’s ability to travel through the vortex of time itself made abundantly clear, resulting in last week’s strangely odd conversation regarding the importance of the missing chess pieces within her house now making total sense, the hour we spend watching Ruth as she traverses the echoes of her past memories is truly beautiful to behold, with the chance to add a deeper layer of characterisation to the likes of Deaver’s over-bearing and unstable religious father figure brilliantly orchestrated, whilst in the present, the true nature of The Kid seems to unravel itself with a heartbreaking resolution as Ruth attempts to rid herself of her reincarnated demons. With nods to The Shining in which we see Ruth battle through a very Gold Room-esque party full to the rafters with echoes of the dead, and an absolutely stunning use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” as seen in the likes of the equally beautiful Arrival, “The Queen” was a powerfully emotive and undenaibly creepy addition into a series which continues to impress the more it goes on, an episode which bears similarities to “Kiksuya” from Westworld by showing that even when taking the time to focus strictly on one character, such storytelling can be a real beautiful thing to behold.
Overall Episode Score: 9/10
“I Was There, In The Woods The Night You Disappeared…”
With the major news this week regarding Castle Rock being that the overwhelming success from critics and audiences alike have resulted in a second season being rightly ordered by Hulu, the jury remains out on how exactly all of the many as of yet, unsolved mysteries within the series so far will play out to a conclusion this year or will instead seep into the next batch of episodes set to come in twelve months time. Thankfully, “Filter”, the sixth chapter of the series, goes a long way in attempting to break down particular narrative arcs with a bit more push in comparison to last week’s slow-burning episode, with a flashier pace and a stand-out musical accompaniment resulting in one of the better episodes of the series so far, one boosted by yet another great central performance from André Holland as his character begins to understand the oddity of his ambiguous past and the origin of the strange, ringing sensation which was picked up on out of the blue during last week’s episode, whilst attempting to rekindle his distant relationship with son, Wendell Deaver, as portrayed by Chosen Jacobs, a young actor famous of course for his portrayal of Mike Hanlon in last year’s It.
With most of the action focusing heavily on Deaver’s own discovery into his murky and absent memories of youth, particularly in regards to his wanderings into the forest with his adopted father, the discovery of two previous associates of Deaver Sr. results in a surrealist, dream-like epiphany in an attempt to understand the “voice of God” which has supposedly manifested itself within the ringing sensation Henry has been plagued with since a child. With the twirling mix of forestry and incidental piano-based musical cues which wouldn’t be astray upon the musical desk of Angelo Badalamenti, Castle Rock does seem to bear more than a fleeting resemblance to Twin Peaks the more it goes on, particularly when Sissy Spacek’s Ruth is essentially a contemporary incarnation of Grace Zabriskie’s mourning Sarah Palmer, and with the added straight-faced horror elements including the recurring masked spectres haunting Molly’s subconscious and The Kid’s continual presence within the Deaver household, the show is best when it mixes the supernatural with the sublime. Concluding with arguably the biggest cliffhanger yet, “Filter” offered a vast improvement on last week’s chapter with thrilling developments, better pacing and a sudden switch into surrealism which put the series back on track.
Overall Episode Score: 8/10
“I Guess Everyone Thinks They Grow Up In The Worst Place On Earth…”
With the concluding act of last week’s episode of Castle Rock undoubtedly the best part of the series so far, a startling five minutes or so which expertly blended the dulcet, lucid tones of Roy Orbison with a genuinely unsettling murder spree conducted by Shawshank prison guard, Boyd, a character whose early demise seems to begun a sequence of events which flows into the mid-way mark of the series this week in an episode which puts Skarsgård’s “The Kid” slap-bang in the centre of ominous in-comings after he is released into the wilderness of the titular town. Whilst “Harvest” is undoubtedly the weakest episode of the series so far, with its’ slower pacing and lack of real plot movement dragging the quality of the storytelling down a couple of notches in comparison to the first four hours of the show, the halfway mark of the series is also strangely the most important, a forty five minutes which seems to continue balancing historic exposition with contemporary action without ever becoming too convoluted in a sub-Westworld sensibility and one which continues the noble art of finishing on a conclusion which leaves you gripped and ready for more.
With the release of “The Kid” the real talking point of the episode, his psychiatric evaluation and sudden care change into the hands of Molly is paralleled with the ever-growing and literal oncoming storm of wildfire, a supposedly natural phenomenon set to embrace the town of Castle Rock after already taking lives elsewhere, one which seems to ominously foreshadow events yet to come. With the orange glow of the fire raging in the distance as the episode unfolds, kudos indeed goes to cinematographer’s Richard Rutkowski and Jeff Greeley, particularly with a brilliantly executed shot in which “The Kid” overlooks Castle Rock as the screams of its’ residents intersect with the sombre, Blade Runner 2049-esque backdrop which unfolds in the distance. With Easter Egg of the week undoubtedly handed to Jackie Torrance during her discussion regarding a familial connection to one axe-wielding lunatic, it’s a shame therefore that “Harvest” is an episode which just didn’t seem to flow as freely as the rest of the series has done so far, but with the second act of the series on its’ way, Castle Rock now has to show whether it is a series which ultimately lives up to expectation or indeed falls under the heavy weight of eager King fans who already have their steely knives sharpened.
Overall Episode Score: 6/10
“There Is A Lot Of History In This Town. Not All Of It Is Good”
With the previous episode of Castle Rock dedicated primarily to the development of Molly Strand and her key involvement in the death of Henry Deaver’s father, it seemed wholly necessary that “The Box” would once again revert back to Deaver himself for a forty-five minute episode which included mysterious discoveries, a superb jukebox soundtrack and a concluding set piece which provided evidence for when the show is at its’ best, Castle Rock can be a harrowing and powerful work of horror. Beginning with the haunting nightmares of Deaver and his flickering memories of youthful captivity being presented in a superb retro-style sensibility, the eerie wailing of the voice of Tom Waits pierces the mood of the episode to perfection as Deaver’s willingness to return home begins to take a toll on Chris Coy’s Boyd, the Shawshank whistle-blower regarding the discovery of “The Kid” whose psychological toll regarding the treatment of the many prisoners inside begins to showcase itself early on as we see his character begin to crack under the pressure of seemingly being the only guiding light within the metaphorical hell-house which is Castle Rock’s local prison facility.
With Bill Skarsgård finally having a bit more to do than just stare idly at the camera this time out, his characters’ reaction to threats made by the Shawshank lawyer-type figure resulted in a ferociously unsettling reminder of not only Skarsgård’s freakishly tall body structure but the fact that amidst the unjust incarceration and unfair treatment. there is still something undeniably evil surrounding his character, even if as of yet, the evidence hasn’t surfaced to back up such a claim. With Deaver more adamant than ever to understand they grey area surrounding his disappearance, his discovery of an a-typical murder house reminded everyone that newspaper reels are still the best cinematic form of historical exposition, even if it was more fun to see if any Stephen King-laden Easter Eggs popped up in the many articles which were examined. With the episode mulling towards a sense that it fell justly into the realm of “solid, just not spectacular” with five minutes remaining, how timely it was therefore for a concluding set piece which immediately evoked the murderous rampage in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here this year, albeit set to the brilliant backdrop of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, a scene which was admired with a gaping dropped jaw and a resounding sense that now Castle Rock is halfway through its’ stay, the real action begins now.