Written by: Sergio Casci, Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Produced by: Simon Oakes, Aliza James, Aaron Ryder
Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Alicia Silverstone, Richard Armitage
Music by: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
******* SPOILER FREE *******
If you haven’t seen the Austrian horror filmGoodnight Mommy (2014), then I urge you to do so. It is genuinely one of the most startling and creepy films of recent years. It psychologically gets under the skin with the story of a mother and her two children, isolated, as she recovers from reconstructive surgery. The directors, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, proved themselves adept at creating memorable imagery, tense dread and a shocking ending up there with the horror classics.
With their latest film The Lodge (2019), they have once again ventured into the horror genre. Working with a fascinating screenplay from Silvio Casci, the film is full of intriguing themes relating to religious cults, grief, isolation, post-traumatic stress and family dysfunction. However, despite stellar work from the cast and compelling direction, the film never quite filled me with fear, nor shocked me enough to satisfy my horror needs. It works well as a slow turning of the screw type story, but at times it was too slow for me.
In essence the narrative is similar to Goodnight Mommy (2019); two kids and a maternal character are trapped together in one location and things get weird. Richard Armitage portrays Richard, a father to Aidan (Jaden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), who is desperate for them to connect with his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough). To precipitate this they spend Christmas at their remote holiday lodge, as you do. When Richard is called back to the city for work, Grace and the kids’ relationship begins to get cold. Thus, amidst the isolation and snowy landscape, a frozen atmosphere exists inside and outside the cabin.
Overall, the film is worth watching for Riley Keough’s committed performance as Grace; a victim of childhood trauma trying to be part of a caring family. Her character is striving for sanity, however, she gets something else altogether. The directors also do sterling work and create a compelling image system, notably around dolls, snow and religious iconography. The lodge itself is rendered creepy with sharp angles, overhead shots, skin-crawling music and darkness all used to sinister effect. But, despite the quality of the production, the central premise, slow pace and confusing plot developments drained any fear I felt by the end. Nonetheless, fans of The Shining (1980), The Thing (1982) and any number of cabin-in-the woods-horror films will find something to chill them here.
It goes without saying that I watch a lot of films and have over the last few years reviewed quite a few too. The last three I saw at the cinema were a bit hit and miss yet overall serviceable examples of, despite their flaws, the Hollywood genre film. The genre film is the staple of the Hollywood production model and the word genre can be used to describe and organize films according to: type, style, form, characteristics and marketing possibilities. Moreover, certain movie stars and actors would become synonymous with movie types such as: John Wayne and the Western; Humphrey Bogart and the crime or noir drama; Arnold Schwarzenegger and the action film; plus directors such as Martin Scorsese making a cinematic mark with the gangster film. In the 1950s genre film theory was debated by academics such as Andre Bazin. From then on many a film degree essay was delivered and arguments ensued between auteur and genre theories. More importantly the Hollywood movie-making monster which rose from the 1920s onwards used genre conventions and tropes, along with the star system, to promote a formula of mass production within their cinematic releases.
Such genre production is still very much in place today. But, as audiences get seemingly both attention-deficient and more cinema-knowing the melding of genres is very much a postmodern trend for the now. While a perennial spy classic like James Bond still holds onto the genre conventions like: gadgets, action and over-the-top villains, films such as American Werewolf in London (1981), Evil Dead II (1987), Shaun of the Dead (2004) successfully combined horror and comedy. Furthermore, of late Marvel instilled many of their superhero films with properties from the heist, thriller, comedy and horror genres in order differentiate and market their stories. Indeed, filmmaking has become so sophisticated some filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers cross a multitude of genres within their works. As so happens I watched three proper genre films at the cinema recently so would like to review them from both a critical and genre perspective. As usual I will give them marks out of eleven.
THE NUN (2018)
As marketing departments attempt to find new ways to promote their products we have now entered the arena of the film “Universe”. This finds events, characters, places and in this case, demons, all linked within the same historical timeline and world. The Nun is part of The Conjuring “Universe”. The demonic monster Valak first appeared in the James Wan sequel The Conjuring 2 (2016); thus, within the horror genre The Nun is both a prequel and origins film. Set in 1950s Romania is concerns a haunted Catholic nunnery which is under threat from an unholy evil. Taissa Farmiga’s novice Nun and Demian Bechir’s grizzled Father Burke are dispatched to have a look about and of course are thrown into a face-off with something from the pits of hell.
The main genre requirement of a horror film is to create fear and excitement in the audience and while The Conjuring films, directed by the brilliant James Wan did just that, this film is, aside from a couple of moments, not scary enough. It has lots of shadows, darkness, blood, screams and a gruesome supernatural monster but, despite Farmiga’s committed performance, makes little narrative sense and suffers from poor characterisation. Having said that, while watching The Nun, I at times felt it was on the cusp of being a surrealist horror classic with much hallucinatory trickery of a “what’s real and what isn’t real” variety. However, by the end I decided that while the director is clearly a talented filmmaker the screenplay did not really serve the horror genre or story well as it was illogical at best and had no defining “rules of the world” substance. Ultimately, though the main draw for studios is that horror films are one of the cheapest genre films to make yet reap rewards from the cinema-paying public. Indeed, The Nun has so far grossed $330 million dollars from a $20 million outlay. Now, that is scary!!
(Mark: 5 out of 11)
THE PREDATOR (2018)
Talking of genre-crossing directors, the writer and director of The Predator (2018), Shane Black has had an interesting career trajectory. He was a supporting actor in the original classic Predator (1987) and would subsequently become a more successful screenwriter and wrote scripts for: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Last Action Hero (1993) and most memorably Lethal Weapon (1987). Such movies put Black firmly in the Hollywood blockbuster territory so it was no surprise when Marvel employed him to write and direct Iron Man 3 (2013). Arguably his best films though were the buddy-buddy comedy-thrillers Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Nice Guys (2016) which benefited from great chemistry from their male leads. Coming full circle then to write and direct The Predator (2018), Black has delivered the best elements of his genre work but also the worst. He’s often a writer of excess, with a succession of ideas, gags, set-ups and punchlines which, if allied to a decent story, create a barrage of fine entertainment.
From a genre perspective The Predator is a mash-up of: science fiction, action, war, spy, and TV-movie-of-the-week tropes. It moves at such an alarming pace you barely have a chance to breathe. In a nutshell Boyd Holbrook’s crack soldier must save his son and the world from both nefarious Government agents and not just one Predator, but another incredibly kick-ass uber-Predator. Chuck in a dirty-half-dozen motley crew of “insane” soldiers, plus an autistic kid (Jacob Tremblay) who may or may not have the power to defeat the Predators, and you get an explosive film which, while moving rapidly, does not make much logical sense in places. For example, characters, vehicles and animals pop up in the narrative out of nowhere then disappear, which created a hell of a lot of confusion for me. Still, Black is a great writer of concepts and punchy dialogue so you’re never far away from something cool-looking, something blowing up or a funny gag or three. It’s just a shame the story was so confusing and plot delivered in such an illogical fashion.
(Mark: 7 out of 11)
A SIMPLE FAVOUR (2018)
Once again here is a filmmaker who, while predominantly working from a genre perspective has taken their comedic skills and light touch and infused it within other genres. Indeed, the very talented Paul Feig has marshalled some extremely funny films and TV shows in recent times including: The Office (U.S.), Arrested Development (2004), Nurse Jackie (2009), Bridesmaids (2011) and Spy (2015). His Ghostbusters (2016) update starring Melissa McCarthy was arguably not very successful from both a genre or reboot perspective, however, his latest film A Simple Favour (2018) is much, much better. It stars Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as polar-opposite mums, whose paths criss-cross one fateful day when the latter asks the other to look after her son. Blake Lively absolutely nails her role as the stylish, beautiful and brutally honest PR executive. Her spiteful Emily Nelson is a career best performance and when her character vanishes, the effervescent Kendrick’s go-getting, busy-body-single-mom, Stephanie Smothers, decides to hunt for her “friend”.
What follows is more comedic but still suspenseful as the plot twists from one exciting turn to another. As the unlikely detective Kendrick hilariously enlists the help of her “Mums-Net” video-log subscribers in trying to track down Emily. As the story moves forward Emily’s husband (Henry Golding) and Stephanie herself become suspects until the final revelations dig up something totally unexpected. A Simple Favour is the most successful of the genre films I watched. Feig is able to blend the comedy, noir and thriller very well and while I would have preferred the tone to be darker, I accept that Feig is what I call a “day” director; in that all his scenes seem to happen during the day. Thus, in the hands of say, David Fincher, the original novel this is based on would have been a totally different beast. Having said that we may not have got Blake Lively’s stunning comedic turn as the bitchy femme fatale and that is worth the admission fee alone.