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Under the Skin (Blu-ray / DVD)

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Under the Skin (Blu-ray / DVD)Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Distributed by Lionsgate


Nearly every ardent film aficionado understands that cinema is highly subjective, with most pictures garnering an equal number of supporters and detractors. Sometimes, half the fun in seeing a new movie is the post-viewing discussion that breaks out among friends over what did and didn’t work. Few films, though, can divide audiences more rapidly than art house movies. Where some viewers key in on subtleties and nuance, others see a pretentious mess that could bore a person to death. You don’t run across many people who have a “meh” reaction to something intrinsically artistic – either they love it and praise it endlessly, or they hate it and can’t spew enough vitriol. One such film that has recently divided filmgoers is writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). Adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name, which was written by Michel Faber, it’s the tale of an interstellar succubus that travels to Earth for the purpose of luring in lonely men and denuding their bones of flesh via an… unusual method. It has been met with stirring acclaim – it currently holds an 87% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes – though there seems to be an equal number of critics who found it to be a pointless exercise of languid cinema. While at a cursory glance it may be easy to see where they’re coming from, the fact is Glazer’s film is purposely unconventional and a bit obtuse, requiring much deeper thought if viewers want to gain knowledge of its true nature. Nothing is overtly spelled out; it’s all in the subtext.

An alien (Scarlett Johansson) arrives on Earth to take the place of her predecessor, who has died under unknown circumstances. What these two “women” share are attractive features that would interest most hot-blooded men, which is essential to their purpose. Johansson (her character is never named) drives the streets of Scotland at night, attempting to pick up on single, unattached men who are more than eager to follow her back to her flat. Once inside the austere, blackened tomb where she resides the men strip down and follow her sultry figure across the room before being enveloped by a viscous liquid that preserves them alive, yet slowly softens their skin before sucking the flesh from their bones. It is not a pleasant way to go, even when you consider their final view of her curvaceous backside. She views humans from an objective perspective, with little regard for their lives and emotions; she is merely a tool here to do a job.

Her nightly endeavors hit a snag when she meets a young, deformed man (Adam Pearson, who looks not unlike the legendary Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick) who is shy and unaccustomed to attention from such a beauty. His grotesque exterior belies the gentle person under the skin, and, so, she begins to learn there is more to humans than just their outward appearance. She decides to let him go. Her experience with this young man changes her perception of not only those around her, but herself; of the body she inhabits. This leads her on a journey of self-reflection and stark realization; a trial through which she attempts to assimilate within the human world, experimenting with food and relationships and sex; things which were once so foreign to her. Constantly shadowed by a male of her species, one who maintains a constant vigil over her affairs and cleans up any messes, she is eventually resigned to the fact that despite her best efforts, she will never enjoy the pleasures our world has to offer.

Plot is secondary here; the story is more concerned with capturing the existential journey an alien takes when confronted with the possibility of becoming something more than what it is. Much like the people around her, viewers are kept at a distance, merely observing her actions without becoming deeply involved. Her purpose on Earth is only vaguely defined – we don’t exactly know why she’s seducing and liquefying these men. So much of the film is left open to interpretation that viewers with a short attention span (i.e., sadly, most of the younger generation) will probably check out early on without considering the messages being conveyed. The title has a double meaning, as it not only refers to there being something more under the skin of Johansson’s character, but also of the film’s depth. A reasonable comparison might be the work of David Lynch (though this film never reaches those lofty heights) because without a deeper evaluation of what’s being shown it would be all too easy to casually dismiss it as artsy, theoretical garbage.

It’s hard to believe any man wouldn’t jump into a vehicle if propositioned by Johansson, but many of the men she preys upon are either uninterested or oblivious to her intentions. If some of the reactions seem rather candid and genuine, that’s because they are. Many of her nightly escapades were shot using hidden consumer-grade cameras mounted in a van, with the actress calling out random men on the street that were only told of the ruse after the shots were completed. It’s a subtle touch that adds an extra layer of realism. Even many of the film’s characters (none of whom are given screen names) were portrayed by untrained actors. The aforementioned young man with severe facial disfigurement? That’s his real face, and his casting is testament to the realism Glazer attempted to achieve. The alien “cleaner” who shadows Johansson’s every move isn’t an actor at all, but a world-class motorcycle racer. The role required someone who could drive at high speeds on slick roads, and rather than use a stunt double Glazer simply hired Jeremy McWilliams, an Irish professional racer, to don the helmet. As a result of these casting decisions, and the fact that most have very little dialogue, the film’s veracity is greatly heightened.

A good film can almost always be elevated by a great score, and the work done here by Mica Levi, aka Micachu (of Micachu & The Shapes), is exemplary. Droning bass lines are punctuated by bursts of Fox string sounds, a technique that has been used for decades to heighten tension and emotion. The score incorporates elements of electronic and acoustic instruments, giving the entire affair an appropriately alien feel. Levi’s leitmotif used during the film’s sequences of seduction is mysterious and sexy, like a lure that emanates from within and puts these men into autopilot. The atonal compositions are hypnotic, easily lulling viewers into a trance. It’s certainly one of the best film scores of the year thus far.

Despite a dearth of major activity, I never found myself bored while watching the film. Sure, Glazer lets himself veer into Terrence Malick territory at times, with long, sweeping wide shots that linger in a fixed position for lengthy periods of time. Thankfully, the Scottish landscape where they shot is so gorgeous that few will be bothered by witnessing its consistent beauty. If some find the film to be cold, well, that was intentional. This is a cold world to an alien being – it’s even cold to those who aren’t alien – and it succeeds in never allowing viewers to feel much comfort. Under the Skin is a stoic reflection of humanity through the lens of the ultimate foreign body. Some of Glazer’s directorial decisions are rather puzzling – with many questions left entirely unanswered – but for those who enjoy films that aren’t wrapped up in a neat package by the time credits begin rolling this is a cerebral experience that feels satisfactory. It may not be perfect, but it certainly is unique in a sea of homogenized cinema.

Viewers must keep in mind that the film’s 1.85:1 1080p image was produced using a variety of cameras, and so the results are going to vary from scene to scene. The color palette veers toward steely, blue hues with saturation stripped down in other colors. The muted aesthetic was intentional, as was the decision to shroud most of the film in a state of near-darkness. Black levels are inky and deep, aside from a few cases where contrast was boosted on purpose, rendering them a bit hazy. The nightly encounters with men on the street were captured using GoPro-style cameras, and they look about as reasonable as can be expected – grainy, not very detailed, and like a home video. Although much of what we see is bleak, the Scottish vistas look simply gorgeous and haunting. This might be far from what Blu-ray aficionados consider “reference quality”, but it is no doubt presented just as accurately as Glazer and his collaborators intended.

A great deal of the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track rests on the compositions of Levi because there isn’t a lot of dialogue to be heard. When characters are speaking, it is presented cleanly and balanced, though good luck making out what half the Scots here are saying. Those brogues are thick as a brick. The most boisterous moments come when Johansson enters a nightclub, with bass thumping and the sound of patrons echoing all around. Otherwise, the track comes to life only when Levi’s score is slowly working its magic to immerse listeners. Rears come to life for added ambiance, but this is a very minimal sound design that keeps viewers focused more on the images on screen and less on what they’re hearing. Subtitles are included in English SDH and Spanish.

The back cover sells the supplements a bit short, claiming to hold only one featurette. That one featurette is actually several shorter pieces that together form a nice making-of that runs over 40 minutes, focusing on camera, casting, editing, locations, music, poster design, production design, script, sound, and VFX. An insert containing a code for digital Ultraviolet HD download is included in the package.

Special Features:

  • The Making of Under the Skin featurette

    Film:

    4 out of 5

    Special Features:

    3 1/2 out of 5

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    Through the Cracks – Trick or Treat (1986) Review

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    Starring Marc Price, Tony Fields, Lisa Orgolini, Glen Morgan, Gene Simmons, and Ozzy Osbourne

    Directed by Charles Martin Smith


    I have been a horror fan for more than half of my life at this point. Meaning I have seen most of the quality horror offerings under the sun. But that said, every once in awhile a classic sneaks past so we wanted to create this “Through the Cracks” review section for such films.

    Case in point, I had never seen the Halloween horror flick Trick or Treat until last night. I know, right? How the hell did that happen? But these things do happen and so for everyone that has seen the flick a million times, this will be a review of the movie from a super horror fan that – at the age of 33 – is seeing Trick or Treat for the very first time.

    Now let’s get to it.

    First off you have to love the movie’s plot. Mixing horror and heavy metal seems like a given, yet preciously few films Frankenstein these two great tastes together.

    Like many of you out there, I am a big metal fan as well as a big horror fan. The two seem to go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Or Jason and horny campers.

    I dig bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and even those hair metal bands (Dokken forever!) and I’m well aware of the legends surrounding playing these records backward.

    Off the top of my head, the only other flick that combines the two to this degree is the (relatively) recent horror-comedy Deathgasm. I say more horror-metal flicks! Or should we call it Metal-Horror? Yeah, that’s a much more metal title.

    It only makes sense that someone, somewhere would take the idea of “What if Ozzy Osbourne really was evil and came back from the dead (you know, if he had passed away during his heyday) to torment a loner fan?” Great premise for a movie!

    And Trick or Treat delivers on the promise of this premise in spades. Sammi Curr is an epic hybrid of the best of the best metal frontmen and his resurrection via speaker is one of the great horror birthing scenes I have seen in all my years.

    Add to that the film feels like a lost entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. More specifically the film feels like it would fit snugly in between two of my favorite entries in that series, Dream Warriors and The Dream Master.

    This movie is 80’s as all f*ck and I loved every minute of it.

    And speaking of how this film brought other minor classics to the forefront of my brain, let’s talk about the film’s central villain, Sammi Curr. This guy looks like he could share an epic horror band with the likes of Mary Lou from Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II and the Drill Killer rocker from Slumber Party Massacre Part II.

    Picture that band for a moment and tell me they aren’t currently playing the most epic set in Hell as we speak. I say let’s see an Avengers-style series of films based on these minor horror icons sharing the stage and touring the country’s high school proms!

    In the end Trick or Treat has more than it’s fair share of issues. Sammi Curr doesn’t enter the film until much too late and is dispatched way too easily. Water? Really? That’s it?

    That said, the film is still a blast as director Charles Martin Smith keeps the movie rocking like an 80’s music video with highlights being Sammi’s rock show massacre at the prom and his final assault on our hero teens in the family bathroom.

    Rockstar lighting for days.

    Even though the film has issues (zero blood, a rushed ending) none of that mattered much to this horror hound as the film was filled to the brim with striking horror/metal imagery and a killer soundtrack via Fastway and composer Christopher Young.

    Plus you’ve got to love the cameos by Gene Simmons (boy, his character just dropped right out of the movie, huh?) and Ozzy Osbourne as a mad-as-hell Preacher that isn’t going to take any more of this devil music. P.S. Watch for the post-credits tag.

    More than a few of my closest horror buddies have this film placed high on their annual Halloween must-watch lists. And after (finally) viewing the film for myself, I think I just may have to add the film to mine as well. Preferably on VHS.

    Trick or Treat is an 80’s horror classic. If you dig films like Popcornand if you put the film off like I did, remedy that tonight and slap a copy in the old VHS/DVD player.

    Just don’t play it backward… God knows what could happen.

    All said and done, I enjoyed the hell out of my first viewing of Trick or Treat. But what do YOU think of the film? Make sure to hit us up and let us know below or on social media!

    Now bring on Trick or Treat 2: The Prom Band from Hell, featuring Sammi Curr, Mary Lou Maloney, and Atanas Ilitch’s Driller Killer from Slumber Party Massacre Part II!

    • Trick or Treat (1986) 3.5
    3.5

    Summary

    Charles Martin Smith’s Trick or Treat is a sure-fire Halloween treat for fans of 80’s horror flicks, as well as fans of heavy metal music.

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    User Rating 3.25 (12 votes)
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    AHS: Cult Review – Clowns, Cults, Politics, and Peters

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    Starring Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Billie Lourd, Cheyenne Jackson, Frances Conroy, Mare Winningham, and Allison Pill

    Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk


    ** NO SPOILERS **

    It’s here. We’ve reached the end. The newest season of “American Horror Story” has ended and now we are here to provide you guys with our season review of AHS: Cult.

    Spoiler free.

    To start things off let me say I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “American Horror Story”. It breaks down like this: I enjoyed the absolute hell out of the first season of the series (“Murder House”), couldn’t get through “Asylum” (I know, I know, I’ve tried), dug “Coven” for what it was, really enjoyed “Freak Show”, and again I couldn’t get into “Hotel” or “Roanoke”.

    That’s the story of me and “American Horror Story”. Plain And simple. But what did I think of the new seventh season of the notorious horror anthology series? Let’s find out.

    Back when the seventh season of AHS was first announced (then going by the title “AHS: Election”) I was immediately intrigued by the new season because I heard it would not include any supernatural elements. Like the fourth season, “Freak Show”.

    Now I’m a fan of ghosts and weird creature-men with drills for d*cks, don’t get me wrong. But the series has thus far relied almost exclusively on horrors of the supernatural variety (other than “Freak Show”) so this major change of pace was again welcomed by this guy.

    Instead of vampires, aliens, and witches this season relied on terrors of the mind. Psychological fears and anxieties. The horrors man does to man. Deep issues.

    Oh, and clowns. Like a lot of clowns.

    But just because this new season didn’t include anything supernatural, that doesn’t mean the 11-episode season wasn’t filled with twisted visuals and horrifically disturbing acts. No, sir. This season boasted some showstoppers including S&M, gimps, and a house of horrors that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rob Zombie flick. It was all good.

    But let’s backtrack a bit here.

    Allow me to rundown the season’s plot for those who may be unaware. “AHS: Cult” tells the tale of a world post-election night. The literal dawn of Trump’s America. In one corner we have Sarah Paulson’s soccer mom, trying to fight through life with a series of crippling phobias (including clowns, holes, blood, and being a good person).

    And in the other corner, we have Evan Peter’s angry, white (blue-haired) male, looking to seize Trump’s new position of power to bring about the end of… Actually, I want this to be a spoiler-free season review, so I’m just going to say the dude’s got big plans.

    Like Manson-size plans. Let’s leave it at that.

    With these two characters established, the new season then proceeds to send them spiraling into a collision course of political sabotage, intrigue, and clown-based nope, nope, nope-ing that can only end with one – or both – of them dead as Dillinger.

    Overall “AHS: Cult” belonged end-to-end to Mr. Evan Peters. The young actor has continued to show his striking range from season to season of Ryan Murphy’s horror show and this season was no different. Peters’ turn as not only Kai, the blue-haired leader of the titular cult, but as infamous leaders such as David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson – to name a few – owed this season.

    I can only hope he doesn’t pull a Jessica Lange and opt-out of more AHS next year.

    Speaking of top performances, “AHS: Cult ” showcases some other chilling and memorable turns with Alison Pill’s strangely vulnerable, put-upon wife character being the best next to Peters in my eyes. This actress needs to be in more films/TV!

    Along with Pill, actress Billie Lourd killed it time and time again. The “Scream Queens” breakout star and Carrie Fisher spawn was yet again a highlight in her second Ryan Murphy series. Bet she has the starring role in next season. Mark my words.

    Add to that, the season also boasts a handful of fun cameos, including John Carroll Lynch’s return as Twisty the Clown, Emma Roberts as a bitchy reporter that will do anything to end up on top, and Lena Dunham as SCUM Manifesto writer Valerie Solanas. The cameo cast killed it and I wish they would have been present for more episodes. What are you gonna do?

    On the sour side of the season, I didn’t dig Sarah Paulson’s character. At all. But I’m sure that was the point. Right? I’m still not sure. But, boy, I wouldn’t even want to be stuck in line behind her at a Starbucks for three minutes, let alone spend the better part of this season’s 11-hours with her and her whiny bullshite. Urgh.

    That said, she pulled it out by the finale. That’s all I’ll say.

    In the end, I enjoyed this season as much as – if not more – than any other of the series. “Murder House” will still no doubt go on as my favorite season of the series, but “AHS: Cult” will rank third after season one and “Freak Show”.

    While I was on the fence about the season after three episodes, the show ended up ditching Paulson’s character (and/or shifting her arch) after a lull so the episodes picked up quickly. Whenever the season turned its focus back towards Peters (in whichever incarnation he was playing at the time) the show got better and better. Every time.

    Not a bad way to spend my Tuesday night for the past 11 weeks.

    Bring on season 12.

    • American Horror Story: Cult (2018)
    3.5

    Summary

    The seventh season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story was Evan Peters’ show all the way through. The young actor pulled out all the stops time and time again to make what may have been a lackluster supernatural-free season a winner.

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    User Rating 4.08 (13 votes)
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    The Axiom Review – A Stylish and Clever Slice of Independent Horror

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    Starring Hattie Smith, Zac Titus, Nicole Dambro

    Directed by Nicholas Woods


    The Axiom is an ambitious, well directed, impressively acted and stunningly shot independent horror film that has just a few, teensy little flaws holding it back from greatness (and therefore will have to settle for just being really, really good, instead).

    The first thing you realize when watching The Axiom is that this is a beautiful film. Everything is framed and shot in a lush and stylish manner, but one which is always tonally appropriate for the scene.

    The second thing you’ll notice, and keep noticing as the film plays out, is that the movie really struck gold with this cast. Not only is there a total lack of the sort of stilted and unnatural acting seen in countless other microbudget horror affairs, but the performances are genuinely fantastic across the board. The main characters are believably chill and relatably normal in the early scenes, and the acting remains just as impressive once things start getting a bit more… intense. It’s not often that an independent horror film has so many good performances that it makes it hard to pick the movie’s acting VIP, but that is undeniably the case here. Taylor Flowers delivers what is probably the showiest performance (and does it very well, indeed), but the entire cast really is quite good.

    The central premise of the film is both interesting and original, and touches upon the real life fact (given some recent attention in the ‘Missing 411’ books and documentary) that a lot more people sure seem to go missing out in the woods than seems reasonable, while simultaneously weaving all sorts of folklore, fairy tales and urban legends into the mix. It’s also clever in the way that it very naturally reveals aspects to the relationships between characters that serve to later – or sometimes retroactively – explain some of the more questionable decisions they make or attitudes they display. While that may sound like screenwriting 101, it’s surprising how many films fail to do this. The Axiom rewards the viewer’s attention in other ways as well, with many aspects of the movie that initially feel odd or unnatural receiving reasonable explanations (within the context of the movie) by the end. It’s not quite as challenging (or as rewarding) in this regard as, say, something like Session 9, but it does add a nice layer of complexity to the storytelling.

    The film’s score, by Leo Kaliski, is also quite good. There may be a moment here or there where the music hits an overly familiar beat, but overall it not only fits the movie’s tone, but does quite a bit to help set that tone as well.

    The only thing that I don’t feel the movie quite pulls off – and I’m trying to be vague here, because I feel like the less you know going into this film, the better – is some of the makeup effects work. The gore stuff is very well executed, but some of the other stuff feels like it was crafted with the intention of shooting it in a more… stylized manner. Instead, filmed as it is here, the result is sometimes less than impressive and can fail to make the impact that the movie seems to be implying that it should. And while some of what the makeup effects lack in execution is made up for with the ingenuity and creativity of their design, it’s still a bit of a shame when they don’t quite pull them off because, aside from a few niggles that I have with the writing, the effects are the only aspect of the film that occasionally fails to live up to the high level of technical proficiency that The Axiom otherwise demonstrates.

    ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS:

    • Man, the acting in this movie is really good. The dialogue may stumble once or twice, but these actors always sell it anyway.
    • Give back Mia Sara’s DNA, Hattie Smith!
    • If you’re going to put your female lead in shorts this small, I hope you’re not sensitive to viewers unleashing a nonstop parade of “Has anyone seen my pants / OH GOD WHERE ARE MY PANTS!” jokes.
    • “You just pop this here ‘Blair Witch Stick Person / Anarchy sign’ sticker up on that there windshield of yours, and them park rangers? Well – heh heh – they won’t bother you none, no sir.” Hmmmmm…
    • The film really is shot amazingly well – better than a lot of mainstream releases. Cinematographer Sten Olson has a real future ahead of him.
    • As does writer / director Nicholas Woods, for that matter. Any director who can get this level of quality out of their cast and crew on their first ever film is someone to keep an eye on.
    • “I’ll make a run for it and get help,” says the female lead, and I’m like “Yeah, let her go – she has no pants to weigh her down.”
    • The gore effects in the movie are both realized and utilized very well.
    • Welcome back to horror movies, “I’ll be right back” dialogue spoken unironically by and/or to ill-fated characters.
    • The Axiom
    4.0

    Summary

    In the end, The Axiom is a solid and entertaining flick that manages to wring a level of quality and originality out of the somewhat tired “Don’t Go in the Woods” horror subgenre not seen since 2012’s Cabin in the Woods. The cinematography and acting are hugely impressive, it features a nice, unnerving score, the premise is original and captivating, and the whole thing moves at a nice pace that helps keep the film’s flaws from dragging it down.

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    User Rating 4 (17 votes)
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