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Spooky Stuff at the Movies

George Wolf George Wolf Spooky Stuff at the MoviesIn the Earth - Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute via IMDb
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Pretty quiet week at the movies, but there are some solid options – especially if you like scary movies. Here’s some help figuring it out.

In the Earth

In theaters

by Hope Madden

If there’s one Ben Wheatley film people don’t seem to like, it’s 2013’s A Field in England. That film feels a lot like an experiment made with limited resources about strained friendship and hallucinogenic substances.

Wheatley’s latest, In the Earth, is a lockdown film—a kind of experiment made with limited resources about strained friendships and hallucinogenic substances. Wait, wait—it works better this time!

Made during and ostensibly about the pandemic, Wheatley’s film finds more terror in avoiding the virus than other lockdown films have found dealing directly with it. We open, Romero-like, with hazmat suits and government facilities, but that makes way pretty quickly to a dreamlike—one might even say enchanted—trek into the woods.

Scientist Martin (Joel Fry, Yesterday) joins park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar) in an infection-free zone of forest to make a two-day trip on foot into the depths of the woods. They are here to check in on a scientist (Hayley Squires, In Fabric) who’s been incommunicado. But we all know that you should never go into the woods no matter the reason.

Honestly.

In its best moments, the film feels a bit like the director shaking off the style-over-substance films he’s made lately. (I’m looking at you, Rebecca.) Instead, he leans toward the genre-bending, lower-budget thrillers like those that got him noticed in the first place: Down Terrace, Sightseers, and especially Kill List.

And, yes, A Field in England.

In the Earth blends ecological terror, pagan ritual horror and Lovecraftian SciFi into a dreamlike episode. Performances are wonderful, and when Wheatley gets gritty, watch out. (Oh, Martin and his poor foot!)

Fry’s energy in the film is so thoroughly honest. Martin is not really outdoorsy, he’s a little butt hurt about something, and he’s probably not that used to human company. And thus, his character is entirely articulated before he even speaks.

Torchia’s grounded, handy performance makes a perfect counterbalance, which prepares us for the two wildcards (played brilliantly by Reece Shearsmith and Squires).

It’s expert casting within top-notch visual storytelling. It’s also a bit exasperating, especially its closing moments. The drug-fueled mayhem and madness work to an extent, but also feel a bit like a narrative cheat.

For longtime Wheatley fans, In the Earth feels like a return to form – or at least a step in that direction. It delivers a couple of good wallops, too.

It’s no Kill List, though.

Grade: B

Jakob’s Wife

On VOD

by George Wolf

Her name is Anne Fedder. But Jakob’s Wife pretty much sums up the nearly invisible routine Anne (Barbara Crampton) is living.

Jakob Fedder (Larry Fessenden) is the well-known pastor of a small town church, and Anne is well-known as his wife. Anne’s life seems to have only gotten smaller during her 30-year marriage, and if pressed, she’d probably admit she wouldn’t mind a little shakeup.

A late-night meeting with old boyfriend Tom (Robert Rusler)? Intriguing, but his seduction skills got nuthin’ on The Master (Bonnie Aarrons, aka The Nun), who’s waiting on them both.

The next morning, Jakob gets the first clue that things will be changing.

“Did you make breakfast?” he asks.

Anne answers, “I’m not hungry.”

At least not for pancakes. After The Master’s touch, Anne is a brand new woman, sporting fresh hair and makeup, tight, low-cut dresses and provocative new appetites.

It’s no wonder this has been a passion project for Crampton (who’s also a producer), and she makes the extended feminist metaphor ring gloriously true.

Director/co-writer Travis Stevens (Girl on the Third Floor) wraps the bloodlusty tale in a fun retro vibe of ’80s low-budget practical, blood spurting gore, but it’s Crampton (and the chemistry with her fellow horror vet Fessenden) who truly elevates this beyond the standard vampire playbook.

To see a female character of this age experiencing a spiritual, philosophical and sexual awakening is alone refreshing, and Crampton (looking fantastic, by the way) makes Anne’s cautious embrace of her new ageless wonder an empowering – and even touching – journey.

Stevens revels in the B-movie underpinnings, stopping short of tackling any systemic issues inherent in a woman’s longtime restlessness. The focus stays intimate, and only on how Anne’s new freedom affects Jakob and their local community (which remains nameless, though filming was entirely in Mississippi).

But with Crampton and Fessenden so completely in their element, Jakob’s Wife is an irresistibly fun take on the bite of eternity. Here, it’s not about taking souls, it’s about empowering them. And once this lady is a vamp, we’re the lucky ones.

Grade: B

Our Towns

On HBO

by George Wolf

If all politics is local, then Our Towns is the most political film you’ll see this year.

Because authors James and Deborah Fallows had one rule as they traveled the country looking for towns with interesting stories. Never, ever talk about the national political climate.

The Fallowses, both longtime writers, reporters and academics, have lived and traveled all over the world. Their 2018 bestseller Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America was based on their extensive reporting for The Atlantic on the civic and economic renewal of America’s towns.

Oscar-nominated directors Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern) put the gentle, reassuring authors front and center for an easygoing documentary from HBO that touts possibilities over partisanship.

From the influx of refugees in Sioux Falls, South Dakota to the 20% unemployment of Columbus, Mississippi; from the end of logging in Bend, Oregon to the climate change fears in Eastport, Maine, we see how these towns have adapted and thrived.

And, by the way, what we see is gorgeous, thanks to the drone footage from Bryan Harvey and the cinematography from him and Ascher.

The solutions – diversity, investment, innovation, local engagement – may not be revelations, but the surprise comes in seeing how some communities have actually been able to move these ideas from buzzwords to policy.

The film skirts specifics, as well as the deep ideological divisions that stand in the way of such progress, but even that seems true to the stated goal of locality. It never wavers, even in the face of celebrity. Because even though you clearly see actor Jeff Daniels playing guitar and singing with a band in Charleston, West Virginia, his national fame is completely ignored, as it should be.

It is not lost on The Fallowses that their book research coincided with a national recession and their film project debuts during a global pandemic. But even with such large-scale challenges, they say the building blocks for recovery are the same, and they start in our own neighborhoods.

For 97 minutes, Our Towns shows you that underneath all of our ugliness, there are success stories we can look to for examples of hope and possibility.

And now feels like a pretty good time to see them.

Grade: B

Reefa

by Brandon Thomas

Based on a true story, Jessica Kavana Dornbusch’s Reefa explores a short period in the life of street artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez.

As the film opens, the Hernandez family is about to get what many immigrant families can only dream of: their Green Cards. Originally from Colombia, the Hernandezes are in the United States – Miami to be specific –  as asylum seekers. Young Israel Hernandez has a potent love of art, and has become quite a well-known graffiti artist around the city. As Israel begins to think more about his future away from Miami and his family, the complexities of life as a young immigrant make themselves more and more evident. 

Reefa is the kind of film that proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. This has both positive and negative sides to it. The movie is charming and gets a lot of mileage out of the fantastic chemistry between the actors playing the Hernandez family. The same can be said of the cabal of young people playing Israel’s friends. These are the kinds of scenes that don’t necessarily move the narrative forward, but they do allow the characters to come alive in a way that many melodramatic plot threads do not.

While the majority of Reefa is tonally light, there’s an overarching sense of dread that cannot be ignored: whether it’s the constant state of worry felt by Israel’s parents over their status as refugees or the threat of an overzealous police officer who lets his disdain for immigrants be known. You know tragedy is coming – you just don’t know how. 

The film occasionally dips its toe into After School Special territory. The real story of Israel Hernandez is compelling enough, and the more embellished aspects added to the film have a phony feel to them. The shoe-horned romance between Israel and a New York model, Frankie (Clara McGregor), lacks any spark. The eventual conflict that arises in their relationship only highlights many of the weaker story issues in the script. 

The performances are generally quite good with Tyler Dean Flores impressing as the titular character. Veteran character actor Jose Zuniga (Con Air, Alive) delivers in a small, but impactful, role as Israel’s demanding father. The rest of the cast doesn’t leave the same impression, but they do well with the material provided. 

While not the most successful film it could be, Reefa still ends up serving as a touching tribute to a young man taken too soon.

Grade: B-

The Banishing

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Christopher Smith has repeatedly proven a knack for horror.

Whether he locks us up in the tunnels beneath London with Franka Potente (2004’s Creep), transports us to the Dark Ages with Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne (2010’s Black Death), or forces us on a weekend corporate team building of death (the sublime 2006 horror comedy Severance), Smith takes an audience somewhere we probably shouldn’t go.

The Banishing drops us in rural England, just days before WWII. Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey) and her young daughter arrive at a beautiful-if-creepy estate where Marianne’s husband Linus (John Heffernan) has just been appointed Vicar.

Naturally, the house is haunted. The Church says one thing, but this odd redhead from town (Sean Harris, the picture of subdued weirdness) whispers another.

The Banishing is really the first Smith film to walk such familiar ground. His screenplay, co-written with David Beton and Ray Bogdanovich, takes inspiration from England’s infamous Borley Rectory—allegedly the nation’s most haunted house.

The direction that inspiration leads is rarely in question. Smith trots out a lot of familiar ideas, though he does package them well. Some incredibly creepy images accompany Marianne’s deepest fears, and Smith puts horror’s beloved old mirror prop to exceedingly spooky use.

Performances are solid as well. Findlay, in particular, finds depth and genuineness in the frequently portrayed role of the woman to be deemed insane in lieu of dealing with the supernatural.

Smith sometimes crosses over effectively into the inner working of the mind, and these scenes feel freshest and most engaging. They are overwhelmed, unfortunately, with stale plot devices.

The result feels very un-Christopher Smith-like (if there is such a thing). He’s been a tough filmmaker to pinpoint because each of his movies varies so wildly from the last. The Banishing looks and feels unlike anything else he’s done. Too bad it feels so much like what everyone else has.

Grade: B-

Sensation

On VOD

by Phil Garrett

Martin Grof’s Sensation is a low-tech science fiction mystery/thriller that pulls together familiar plotlines and devices including a protagonist with a mysterious family history, people with superhuman abilities, research facilities, unknown threats, and the dynamic of the real world vs. the dream world. The film feels more than inspired by films such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Tenet, along with the superhuman sub-sub-genre.

The plot centers around Andrew (Eugene Simons, Game of Thrones), a young man with no knowledge of his family history, including his father’s identity. Andrew is drawn into a patchwork mystery after a strange and confrontational meeting with Dr. Marinus (Alastair G. Cumming), who delivers Andrew’s DNA test results. He is then followed by mysterious men in matching gray hats who disappear from the film as quickly as they appear. Marinus confronts him and explains that Andrew’s life is in danger and only by joining a secret research program to explore his superhuman sensory powers will he be safe.

Safe from whom? Good question. The veil of vagueness seems to be part of Grof’s attempt to build tension, but it plays as a trope in the boldest of terms, whether through familiar scenarios or bald dialogue that could be delivered by characters in any similar movie. 

Andrew heads off to a secret research facility in the remote English countryside at an appropriately gothic manor estate. There he meets the “enigmatic” Nadia (Emily Wyatt, the Rise of the Footsoldier franchise) who runs the program. We’re introduced to the research group, all of whom have different super-senses like Andrew, all drawn together for special training to learn, focus and sharpen their abilities, and all in danger from unknown forces.

Sound familiar? The double-secret secret of their powers? They can “receive information” via their senses, which is highly valued by, you guessed it, that vaguely defined threat.

The film weaves its way through scenes and sequences that, again, seem more than inspired by other films, delivered with that mix of vagueness and baldness we’ve become familiar with. The dramatic action plays out fairly flatly with huge exposition dumps dropped in at just the right time. The story heads down a spiral of interwoven plots and subplots that are not fully baked, culminating in a protracted final act that tries hard to be inventive but feels like a different movie altogether.

Story aside, the cinematography visual style – ranging from foreboding interiors of the manor house to the sharp, vibrant streets of London – is well put together and effective for the low-tech nature of the film, often elevating the storytelling. The score is impressive but sometimes used as a crutch for dramatic tension. Eugene Simons and the ensemble should be given credit for their work in trying to bring some emotional truth to the film.

Hard-core genre fans may be interested in this exploration of familiar territory, but overall, Sensation plays like a love letter to a genre, and ends up a fractured, amalgamated narrative that works hard to be entertaining and intriguing but doesn’t quite get there.

Grade: D

Follow George and Hope on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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