Friday, November 13, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Scary Christmas


Halloween 2015 has come and gone, and the Christmas movie season is well underway with both the James Bond adventure Spectre and The Peanuts Movie raking in big bucks. But a pair of spooky flicks, one new in theaters and one new to home video, are trying to assert themselves before the Santas, reindeer and snowmen take over. The Nightmare Before Christmas' Jack Skellington would be proud.

The Hallow, opening this weekend in Los Angeles, is an Irish-set tale of malevolent fairy folk out to protect their forest home from usurpers. Their primary target is a young family headed by Adam (Joseph Mawle), a conservationist hired by the company that is planning to turn the forest into tract homes. His wife, Clare (Serbian actress Bojana Novakovic, who has a number of horror films under her belt), and their infant son are (unfortunately for them) along for the ride.

Despite warnings from their neighbors, the unbelieving Hitchenses are soon beset by ancient, fungus-based creatures that have called the forest home for millennia. They are able to turn humans into their own with the help of needle-like appendages that inject their fungal spores. One particularly tense scene in the film shows Clare this close to being injected via her eyeball.

Director Corin Hardy has a great eye himself for visuals and his success on The Hallow, his first feature, has already secured him a job directing the upcoming reboot of The Crow. The creepy creatures are shown only fleetingly until the film's finale, which proves most effective. Unfortunately, the script falls prey to the old "Why don't they just get out of the house?" complaint that has prevented many previous horror movies from achieving their full potential. Adam is especially, egregiously stupid as a father, frequently abandoning his baby in seedy locales. One ends up rooting for the monsters to succeed in stealing the baby because we suspect they will take better care of it. I dare say Adam is the dumbest dad in horror movie history.

This past summer's suspenseful sleeper hit The Gift is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. The first film written and directed by actor Joel Edgerton (Exodus: Gods & Kings, Warrior), who also co-stars, it is a tense freakfest with an unexpected social conscience.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall headline the cast as Simon and Robyn, a happily married couple who have just relocated to Simon's hometown. They haven't been there too long before they cross paths with Gordo (Edgerton), a former high school classmate of Simon's. Mutually friendly at first, things get uncomfortable once Gordo starts leaving strange gifts on their doorstep and, more disturbingly, showing up at their house while Robyn is home alone.

Secrets are gradually unearthed about the true nature of Simon's prior relationship with Gordo. The transformation of Simon from sympathetic protagonist to the plot's true villain is extremely well-handled by Edgerton as writer-director as well as by Bateman. I won't reveal specifics about this or about Gordo's motivations but they make The Gift more significant than your average modern-day psychological thriller. The film's ending is truly haunting but the Blu-ray and DVD include an alternate ending that clarifies some unresolved plot points as a bonus feature.

Between its opening sequence set against the backdrop of Mexico's Day of the Dead and overall sense of foreboding, Spectre emerges as probably the darkest out of all 24 "official" big-screen James Bond sagas. It is also the longest at 148 minutes and most expensive of them all, and the film's excess becomes sadly draining rather than exhilarating.

007, once again effectively embodied by Daniel Craig, ends up in Mexico at the behest of a posthumous message he receives from the former M (Judi Dench), who died at the end of Skyfall. There, he offs an Italian mafia strongman but, more importantly, steals his octopus-emblazoned ring. Longtime Bond fans know the multi-tentacled sea dweller is emblematic of SPECTRE (ordinarily capitalized except in this film's title), a vast and powerful criminal organization intent on world domination. What's more, it is headed by Bond's cat-loving archnemesis, Blofeld, who makes an appearance here for the first time since 1983's "unofficial" entry Never Say Never Again.

Spectre boasts many impressive elements, including its "Writing's on the Wall" title song performed by Sam Smith (the first out gay singer to pen and warble a Bond theme), typically spectacular stunts and Hoyte Van Hoytema's gorgeous cinematography. Ben Whishaw's Q has a beefed-up role here (the character's possible homosexuality is also hinted at), while Christoph Waltz is more restrained than usual as a key villain and more threatening as a result.

I can't help but feel though that a leaner, less expensive Spectre would have been better. For starters, the film's first five minutes could be cut with no negative impact on the story. There is also a pointless supporting villain, Mr. Hinx, played by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) and a largely wasted turn by Monica Bellucci. Blofeld's efficiency experts should have been allowed in the budget meetings and editing room.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Hallow: C
The Gift: B
Spectre: B-

The Gift is now available on DVD and Blu-ray:

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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