Starring Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton, Natasha Calis, Charlie Tahan
Directed by John McNaughton
Distributed by Scream Factory
Nearly thirty years ago director John McNaughton delivered what still stands as one of the most visceral, impactful horror films ever made – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). The raw, unvarnished 16mm aesthetic lent the film an aura of reality few horror pictures are able to achieve. But McNaughton’s stay in the realm of horror would be brief, with only one other film in the genre – 1991’s The Borrower (which is really sci-fi/horror) – and an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” (2005-2007) to his credit. Now, after a career largely directing television episodes, McNaughton has made a semi-return with his latest thriller, The Harvest (2013). While it is certainly nice to see the director back in his old stomping grounds, this latest picture feels like it would work better in McNaughton’s other frequent medium: television.
After losing both of her parents, young Maryann (Natasha Calis) moves in with her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles) and begins to search around town for a friend. She comes across the window of Andy (Charlie Tahan), a young boy who is essentially housebound due to an undisclosed sickness. Andy’s mother, Katherine (Samantha Morton), is a stern doctor who absolutely refuses to allow Andy to play with Maryann. His father, Richard (Michael Shannon), is a bit more understanding, allowing the two kids to play video games while Katherine is out of the house. But eventually Katherine figures out what’s going on, leading her to cut Maryann out entirely. Maryann refuses to accept Katherine’s wishes and continues to visit Andy. One afternoon, after she has assisted Andy in leaving the house so they can play baseball, Andy’s mother calls to say she’s coming home early. Maryann and Andy race inside, but Maryann can’t leave before Katherine walks in the door, so she hides behind a door, which leads down into the basement, where she finds Andy’s parents have a secret hidden below.
The reason why this film would have worked better as a television episode than a film is because there are two twists to be found here, and once the first is uncovered the second can be guessed by anyone familiar with cinematic storytelling in a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds. Yet the picture continues on almost as though it’s assuming viewers won’t be keen enough to figure things out. If you can’t, maybe the revelations in the last act will be somewhat shocking; however, I would be willing to bet very few viewers are so naïve. Very little tension is built throughout the first two acts because Andy’s ailments are presented so nebulously that it seems he’s just a sick kid with two whacked-out parents. The scariest thing about the film’s first hour is imaging yourself caught in a torturous marriage like Shannon’s character. And again, once viewers can telegraph the film’s final moments after a marginally shocking reveal there’s really not much left to thrill.
What bolsters the material are some strong performances, especially Samantha Morton as Andy’s hellish mother who is overprotecting to a serious fault. Morton initially seems to be nothing more than a profoundly dedicated mother who happens to be a doctor, and she’s beginning to crack under the pressure of finding a cure for what ails the kid. As the film progresses, her mental state deteriorates to a point where it’s clear she is entirely malevolent in her actions toward Andy, prompting Richard to step in when he would normally remain quiet. As Andy’s father, Michael Shannon portrays a detached, stoic man who yields to his wife’s requests and rarely speaks up to defend himself. And like every good man who is constantly stepped on and put down, he eventually reaches a breaking point and suddenly becomes essential to the story’s conclusion.
There are some strong moments in The Harvest, but they aren’t enough to offset the relative lack of tension and they definitely don’t help after the mystery has been blown wide open. The story would be better served in a shorter medium so that the twists can be revealed in quicker succession; as a film there’s a sense of deflation once key points are made clear. The tight cast of characters doesn’t have a weak link among it, with everyone involved digging deep into the material and giving it a real shot of life. Commendable performances make this one at the least worth a watch, but it has little replay value.
The film’s 1.85:1 1080p picture is nicely detailed; featuring strong color saturation, very fine film grain and excellent definition throughout. Nearly all of the film takes place during the day or in well-lit rooms, so there isn’t much chance to show off true black levels. The picture itself exhibits a nice sense of depth. It may not be visually striking, but this is a solid transfer that looks sharp in HD.
The audio might be overcompensating a bit, with the English DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround sound track seeming like overkill considering the picture utilizes such a minimalist sound design. To be fair, sounds are discreetly placed, allowing for the track to sound full and immersive. Rears come into play sparingly but effectively. The score repeats simple motifs throughout, never really hitting any of the typical horror stings viewers might expect. Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
Director John McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones deliver a fairly thoughtful audio commentary. The opening scene, which has no real bearing on the film, was intended to be a non-sequitur to throw off the audience. I thought the scene came across as superfluous if anything. The two also discuss choosing the house and what they wanted out of the score.
The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.
- Audio Commentary with director John McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones
- Theatrical Trailer
The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger
Written and directed by Derek Nguyen
Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.
Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.
Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.
Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.
Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.
The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.
Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.
The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.
Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.
Scorched Earth Review – Gina Carano Making Motherf**kers Pay In The Apocalypse
Starring Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins
Written by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson
Directed by Peter Howitt
Let me preface this review by stating right off the bat that I’m a huge Gina Carano fan, and will pretty much accept her in any role that she’s put in (are you going to tell her no), regardless of the structure and plausibility behind it, and while that might make me a tad-bit biased in my opinions, just accept it as that and nothing more. Now that I’ve professed my cinematic devotion to the woman, let’s dive headlong into her latest film, Scorched Earth.
Directed by Peter Howitt, the backdrop is an apocalyptic world brought on by the imminent disaster known as global warming, and the air has become toxic to intake, generally leaving inhabitants yacking up blood and other viscous liquids after a prolonged exposure, unless you’re one of the privileged that possesses a filter lined with powdered silver. Filters of water and the precious metal are in high demand, and only true offenders in this world still drive automobiles, effectively speeding up the destruction of what’s left of the planet. Carano plays Atticus Gage, a seriously stoic and tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is responsible for taking these “criminals” down, and her travels lead her to a compound jam-packed with bounties that will have her collecting riches until the end of time…but aren’t we at the end of time already? Anyway, Gage’s main opponent here is a man by the name of Thomas Jackson (Robbins) – acting as the leader of sorts to these futuristic baddies, the situation of Gage just stepping in and taking him out becomes a bit complicated when…oh, I’m not going to pork this one up for you all – you’ve got to invest the time into it just as I did, and trust me when I tell you that the film is pretty entertaining to peep.
While Carano’s acting still needs some refining, let there be no ever-loving mistake that this woman knows how to beat the shit out of people, and for all intents and purposes this will be the thing that carries her through many a picture. There are much larger roles in the future for Gina, and she’ll more than likely take over as a very big player in the industry – hey, I’m a gambling man, and I’ve done pretty well with my powers of prognostication. With that being said, the thing that does hold this picture back is the plot itself- it’s a bit stale and not overly showy, and when I look for a villain to oppose the hero, I’m wanting someone with at least a shred of a magnetic iota, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything with Robbins’ performance – his character desperately needed an injection of “bad-assness” and it hurt in that particular instance.
In the end of it all, I’d recommend Scorched Earth to fans of directionless, slam-bang wasteland pics with a touch of unrestrained violence…plus, Gina Carano is in it, so you can’t go wrong. If you’re not a fan of any of the above, feel free to skate on along to another piece of barren territory.
Looking to get your butt kicked in the apocalypse with extreme prejudice? Drive on up, and allow me to introduce you to someone who’ll be more than happy to oblige.
The Good Friend Book Review – A Slasher Story for the Facebook Generation
Written by Marcus Sabom
I’m not usually a big fan of murder mysteries, but Marcus Sabom’s novel The Good Friend has certainly done a lot to make me reconsider my stance on the genre. Sabom, who is currently turning the book into a film, appears to have a real gift when it comes to keeping the reader on the edge of their seat
Usually, if you were told that a book contains an ensemble cast of four central characters instead of one main protagonist, you’d probably lose interest right away because we tend to connect with singular point of view characters more than we do with ensembles. However, Sabom proved me wrong in this regard, because each of the four leading women in The Good Friend were such engaging people with such real problems that I never felt like there were too many characters and plot threads to keep track of.
To give a brief overview of our four principal players, we have Sarah, who wants to be in a meaningful relationship after her asshole boyfriend dumps her, Alana, a slightly older woman stuck in a loveless marriage with a manipulative husband who tries to turn her kids against her, Megan, who has to deal with crazy stalkers, and Rita, who is traumatized by a vengeful psycho named Caleb after he attempts to belittle and humiliate her.
With this being a book set in modern times, they naturally use social media to broadcast their problems to the world. Now, we all know about the dangers of chronicling every step of our lives on social media, but Sabom takes things to a whole other level. Because after the aforementioned women post about their troubles on Faceplace (which is basically Facebook, but with a name Mark Zuckerberg can’t take legal action against), a masked killer begins to permanently put an end to their man problems. Whoever the knife-wielding psycho is, he’s clearly a mutual friend of all the women, because he obviously looks at their posts.
One of the only male characters in The Good Friend who wasn’t a complete asshole was Detective Jack Miller, a cop investigating the case of the misandrous serial killer. Miller is described as occasional leaning towards antinatalism, the belief that people should stop reproducing because the human race should not continue to exist. I’ve also always believed that human beings should stop reproducing because we are beyond saving, so I’m glad that Sabom was able to tap into an area that deserves far more open discussion rather than being a social taboo.
The book itself is just under three-hundred pages in length and uses relatively large text, so most readers will probably get through the whole thing in about three days. Whilst the prose was certainly easy to digest, there were a number of errors and typos that would be painfully obstructive to most of us, the most obvious being that it confuses the phrase ‘couldn’t care less’ with ‘could care less’, which, as you know, means the exact opposite.
However, if you’re looking for a easy to digest murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend is certainly an ideal recommendation. At the very least, the book should teach you not to make negative posts about people on Facebook or other social media sties, because a knife-wielding killer might be looking at your status.
An easy to digest slasher story that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend serves as a perfect reminder of the darker side of social media.
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