Lunar Cycle - November 2019

Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.

ALUCARDA (1977) - ***1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Juan Lopez Moctezuma

Starring: Tina Romero, Claudio Brook, Susana Kamini, David Silva, Lily Garza, Tina French

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Satanism/Vampires

Running Time: 74 Minutes

Plot: A young girl’s arrival at a convent after the death of her parents marks the beginning of a series of events that unleash an evil presence on the girl and her mysterious new friend, an enigmatic figure known as Alucarda. Demonic possession, Satan worship, and vampirism follows.

Take Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS, add some of THE EXORCIST to it and sprinkle a bit of CARRIE, and you get 1977’s infamous Mexican horror film ALUCARDA. ALUCARDA is a tough film to review because I feel my reaction to it will be wildly different to someone else who stumbles onto this one. This movie is so many things at once that I’m still processing whether this is a good film or not. But damn if it isn’t memorable!

While the main premise of ALUCARDA is pretty linear and straightforward with its Satanic corruption arc and attempt of some sort of redemption of our main characters, it’s obvious director Juan Lopez Moctezuma had something to say when it came to institutions of religion and the idea of good versus evil. Is ALUCARDA a film criticizing the Church and how they practice Catholicism? While the nuns and priests in this convent seem to be on the side of good in the first and last acts of the film, it’s that middle portion that doesn’t paint them in a good light at all. Nuns whipping each other? Priests forcing exorcisms on people, eventually leading to grave circumstances without much remorse, wanting to hide the truth? It’s not a pretty picture and it’s no surprise this film created a lot of controversy at the time. Then again, the fact that the Church does try to stop evil from winning in the end makes me wonder if Moctezuma still had faith in some sort of religion or higher power? The Satanists aren’t portrayed as good people either, manipulating and seducing girls into joining their cult to destroy the words of God. Moctezuma shows us that good nor evil is black or white, both sides having bits of grey that reveal their flaws in their arguments. It’s a provocative film that will upset many.

The strength of ALUCARDA is due to the two main characters, Justine and Alucarda. Two orphans who quickly befriend each other out of nowhere [the film is only 74 minutes, so relationships need to develop quickly], we’re never given really time to question their fast friendship since they’re corrupted as soon as possible, leading to them destroying the convent their living in from within. The powerhouse performances by the actresses playing these characters really drive the film, making it one to watch. Tina Romero is captivating as Alucarda, giving us a performance that feels more like a force of nature than actual acting. Quiet and aloof, she lingers in the darkness and pops out of shadows as if she were a supernatural creature. Romero also gives looks of innocence, while subtly revealing layers of sin and corrupting underneath when bad things occur. It makes you wonder if Alucarda was corrupted by Satanists, or she was already evil from the start [she was born in a Satanic temple, of course]. There’s a power in Romero’s performance that most horror actresses aren’t able to achieve for whatever reason. Even though you know she’s acting, you start thinking otherwise by the film’s end. She’s amazing. Susana Kamini isn’t as powerful in her performance, but she doesn’t need to be. Her more quiet and human portrayal of Justine compliments Romero’s Alucarda perfectly, as Justine starts as the audience’s character in terms of her reactions to Alucarda’s reactions and her eventual downfall. The supporting actors also do their job well in bouncing off of Romero and Kamini to create a dire situation that the audience is curious about and how it will all end up for everyone involved. There are so many layers in the performances, fleshing out the layers in the narrative tenfold, that you’re just going along for the ride even if some of the things that ALUCARDA present can be fairly uncomfortable to watch.

Juan Lopez Moctezuma directs ALUCARDA really well, creating a trippy nunsploitation flick that manages to be a Satanic film that also expresses the debate of science versus religion, while adding a vampire element to the proceedings as well - and it actually works and manages to be fun! The set locations, with the demon looking statues in the temple and giant crosses in the convent, are very nice and add atmosphere to the film. There are also great visual moments - one involving a scene where Justine and Alucarda are being converted to the dark side inside of the convent, as the sky outside changes multiple colors like a Dario Argento film. There’s another moment where a nun is praying for Justine and Alucarda while the two girls are dancing naked with the rest of the Satanists in the other side of the town. The juxtaposition of both scenarios, as both sides effect each other through their respective powers of good versus evil, is so well shot and presented that you’re glued to the screen to see who wins the battle. I also thought the exorcism scene was shot really well, with some nice tension. And the fiery and explosion final act, with nods to CARRIE, displays great action and choreography. The film also flies by due to its quick run time and good pacing. Plus, you get cool undead make up effects, gore and blood, as well as nudity. Sounds like a good time to me! Moctezuma did a great job behind the lens.

Plus - the screaming. Oh geez, the screaming that pretty much takes up like forty-percent of the film. Once it starts, you feel like it never ends. And when the film gets a bit more quiet, you’re just wondering which character is going to start it all over again. I thought that screaming kid from THE BABADOOK was annoying, but ALUCARDA may have proven me wrong. It’ll definitely grate on people unless you’re able to tolerate it, like I did. But it does add a mood to this film not many others can claim to have. It’s… something.

Overall, ALUCARDA is one of the strangest and more controversial horror films in the genre. It’s a cocktail of THE EXORCIST, THE DEVILS and CARRIE all shook up to create this blasphemous film that also manages to be captivating and deep despite its nunsploitation elements. The performances by Tina Romero [especially] and Susana Kamini are strong and carry the film from beginning to end, while Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s eye for the camera is fantastic, visually expressing the nightmarish situation these two girls are placed in and their actions coming out of it. Plus, you have this anti-religious slant going for it while also making the religious people the “heroes” with the help of science, making me wonder what Moctezuma is really trying to tell us. Either way, ALUCARDA left me confused, intrigued, amused and disturbed all at once. Whether one thinks ALUCARDA is a good film or not, they can’t say it isn’t memorable because this is one that will linger for a while. A totally bonkers film that is probably worth a least a watch - and a few screaming spells along with it.

INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD (2018) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Patrick Lussier

Starring: Diana Silvers, Dermot Mulroney, Tembi Locke, Lavetta Cannon, Krystin Goodwin, Heidi Sulzman

Genre: Horror/Thriller

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Plot: Doting father Henry tries to help his teenage daughter, Kimberly, who suffers from agoraphobia and has not left the house since her mother’s still-unsolved murder; a year after the death, Kimberly begins to suspect that she is in danger in the house.

Continuing my journey through Hulu’s & Blumhouse’s TV-movie anthology series, Into The Dark, I decided to check out the series first Thanksgiving episode, FLESH & BLOOD. Unlike the first Halloween episode, THE BODY, which is tonally all over the place since it wants to be many things at once and has no idea how to balance it all, FLESH & BLOOD is your straightforward family drama/thriller that seems to know what it wants to say and how to say it. 

FLESH & BLOOD is pretty much a claustrophobic affair between a grieving father and daughter, whose relationship starts to deteriorate around Thanksgiving due to the matriarch of the family having been murdered the prior year, with the murderer still on the loose. The daughter, Kimberly, is an agoraphobe, constantly having panic attacks at the thought of or attempt at leaving her home. She has a visiting therapist struggling to get her treated, while the drugs she takes tend to make her feel numb and cold to things. Kim’s father is too busy renovating the house and spending long hours out of the house to really give her the attention she deserves. It’s not until she watches a news story about a missing girl, who wears a very similar necklace that her father recently gifted her for her seventeenth birthday, that Kimberly starts suspecting that maybe her father is a murderer. This mystery leads to a ton of tension between the two characters, making the Thanksgiving holiday a much harder time to process in the long run.

Unlike THE BODY, where you had multiple characters with different motivations and were written in ways that made you wonder whether you’re supposed to laugh or feel scared by what you’re watching, FLESH & BLOOD plays things as seriously as possible, crafting a mystery that leads to a predictable conclusion if you’ve seen a thriller or two in your lifetime. While generic and maybe stretching the narrative longer than it probably needed to, FLESH & BLOOD at least manages to be a less frustrating watch and entertaining little family drama with solid performances and simple twists and turns that start to build to answers that we expected, but are logical at the same time. The film tries to make Kimberly an unreliable narrator, since her medication had side effects of mood swings and delusions, making you wonder if her feelings on her father’s connections to the missing girls [and even her own mother’s murder] were legit or just all in her head. Her father’s erratic reaction to it all also made you question whether he really was a crazy murderer, or just frustrated with his daughter’s current mental state and feeling helpless that he couldn’t make her get better. The story takes all the cliche steps towards the film’s violent conclusion, but at least you understand how and why the film gets to where it’s going. Unlike THE BODY, which was all over the place, FLESH & BLOOD is extremely linear in design and more satisfying because of it. We understand the characters before the questions start to build and we understand once it’s all revealed. Both Kimberly and her father change through the course of ninety minutes, yet still maintaining the many layers they revealed prior to the shit hitting the fan. Maybe the story has some filler and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but at least I could connect to it and enjoy it all as a spectator.
The most surprising about FLESH & BLOOD is that it is directed by Patrick Lussier - the man behind really stylish and crazy visual-heavy films like DRIVE ANGRY, MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D and DRACULA 2000 [and its sequels]. This Into the Dark installment strips all the style, rather focusing on simple visuals that prefer the actors and the script to be more of the showcase rather than the direction. That’s not to say the film looks terrible or anything. It’s a visually nice looking film that contains all the professional editing and shots needed to make the storytelling mostly a success. And the panic attack scenes aren’t fresh, but the distorted visuals and crazy pans and tilts do give off the desired effect. Maybe the pacing is a bit off due to some filler and scenes going a bit too long at times, but overall it’s a solid Lussier directorial film. The violent stuff at the end is shot pretty well - it’s not as bloody or as gory as THE BODY - while Lussier manages to create a nice level of tension and suspense due to the claustrophobic nature of the story as the film only takes place inside this one house. While Lussier’s stylish flashes help the other films he has directed, I kind of liked the simplicity this time around. Maybe the budget was lower and he had less to play around with, but I think it helps makes FLESH & BLOOD stand out from the rest of his filmography.

What really sells this film are the two main performances. Diana Silvers, who was the main female protagonist in 2019’s MA, does a solid job as Kimberly. She gets to play with a whole lot of emotions for ninety minutes, going from stoic, to panicked, to confused, and to vengeful all convincingly. Having lost my mom a few years ago, I understood her pain and lack of enthusiasm in terms of the holidays. Her anger and confusion over her mom’s murder is justified, with Silvers believably portraying that, continuing once she learns the truth and becomes a stronger person because of it. I don’t think she’s done much film work yet, but I could see her doing big things if she continues to pick the right projects. And then you have veteran actor Dermot Mulroney as her father, stealing the show with his colorful performance. As he bounces off of Silvers, his acting is quite fun to watch. He plays the loving and understanding father at one point, slowly creating a more coy performance that slithers into something more sinister and malicious by the movie’s end. Mulroney’s acting reminded me of Dennis Quaid in this year’s THE INTRUDER, but with better material and actors to work with. Mulroney is not really known as the antagonist, so seeing him play against-type was a treat. I thought he was super solid and he shared nice father-daughter chemistry with Silvers. The cast really elevated the material and made FLESH & BLOOD a good watch.

Overall, FLESH & BLOOD is an improvement over the previous installment, THE BODY. The film  has a more confident tone and linear narrative that bounces between drama, horror and psychological thriller. While predictable, cliche and probably not feeling as fresh as the film would probably like, it’s still told well enough to care about what’s going on and what the main characters are going through within the story. Patrick Lussier’s direction is solid enough, even though some of his style feels a bit lost due to the simple story and probably the lack of ability to play with more things due to a lower budget than he’s probably used to. But he lets the narrative and actors be more of the focus, which is the right move since both Diana Silvers and Dermot Mulroney are excellent in their roles as daughter and father respectively, portraying multiple layers of human grief and trauma very well. Once the mystery starts to peel away, both actors really go at it against each other, leading to a fun watch. I wish the film had more to do with the Thanksgiving holiday - it’s just a backdrop really - but I still dug FLESH & BLOOD for the most part.

INTO THE DARK: PILGRIM (2019) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Marcus Dunstan

Starring: Reign Edwards, Beth Curry, Kerr Smith, Antonio Raul Corbo, Peter Giles, Elyse Levesque, Taj Speights, Tessa Goss

Genre: Horror/Slasher/Home Invasion

Running Time: 80 Minutes

Plot: Based on a shocking true story: In an attempt to remind her family of their privilege and help them bond, Ms. Anna Barker invites Pilgrim re-enactors to stay with them over Thanksgiving. When the “actors” refuse to break character, the Barker family learns that there is such a thing as too much gratitude.

Another Into the Dark review, this time for the newest entry in the series - PILGRIM - an entry that has gained a ton of buzz due to the fact that us horror fans don’t have many Thanksgiving horror films to really go to during the holiday season, making PILGRIM one of the few horror films that actually uses the holiday to its advantage and makes it quite chilling. Unlike last year’s FLESH & BLOOD, which only used Thanksgiving as a backdrop and not much else, PILGRIM goes all in on the holiday, while also providing a ton of social commentary that will surely make its audience wonder how truly grateful we all are in our current society.

The commentary is really what PILGRIM has got going for it in terms of a narrative. The villainous pilgrims that terrorize the Barker family and their community believe in the old ways of doing things, feeling that everything will be alright as long as people are grateful for what they have around them. And by old ways, I mean raping, pillaging and corrupting the lands of the Native Americans who tried to show them hospitality - trying to force religion onto them and killing them with disease and probably by physical means. The lead character, Cody, even acknowledges that the holiday was built upon something sinister, which the rest of her family just brushes to the side with denial and ignorance. Then again, we’re talking about a society that believes Thanksgiving is just about family eating turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pies at a large dinner table giving thanks, while quickly eating and running to the nearest mall to buy the latest item during a Black Friday sale. Speaking of commentary, PILGRIM uses the Pilgrims to show how reliant we are on technology, as it slowly has led to a lot of us communicating less in person and disassociating ourselves from other people in our own living space. Cody would rather be on her iPhone and laptop. Her father is too busy on his phone looking at the stock market to be aware of what’s going on in his own family. Cody’s step-mother doesn’t use the Pilgrims to bring her family together like in the old days, but rather as some social status in the neighborhood she can probably post about on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The only one who actually wants to learn is young Tate, who is too young to become cynical through the use of technology. While the Pilgrims are obviously the villains here, they don’t hide the fact that they’re hurting people to spread their agenda. The Barker family are hurting each other by not spending time or caring about what’s going on in each other’s lives outside of social media. If we’re ignorant to what has happened before our time, isn’t that how history repeats itself?

Honestly, the Pilgrims are the more interesting characters in this film because we, as an audience, know right away what their roles are and who they are as characters. When they show up and appear to be actors who are putting on this kind performance as people from the 1600s, we still know right away that there’s something sinister underneath it all. And they do a lot of things we would expect from Pilgrims. They try and push Christianity on people. They build property, decorate places and force their presence where they have no right to. There are also a lot of sinister moments where the lead Pilgrim, Ethan, is way too close to a young child that borders on pedophilia. He also gets in the personal space of lead character Cody as well, intimidating and worrying her. Ethan’s wife, Patience, is no better. She’s mostly quiet, but her stoic and cold face stay a lot about how she feels about modern citizens. There’s nothing ambiguous about the antagonists. We know who they are and we know we shouldn’t like them.

I wish I could say the same for the so-called protagonists. Got to be honest - most of them are so unlikable, you really don’t care what happens to them. This even implies to the lead character, Cody. While smart, tough and proactive, she has too much of a bad attitude for much of the film. This stems from her parents divorcing during Thanksgiving when she was young and making a wish to bring her family back together someday on a wishbone [which indirectly led to the Pilgrims arriving into her home], but she’s a young woman now and just brushes people off besides her younger brother Tate and her boyfriend. While usually right on things, she judges situations way too quickly, giving people an attitude when things don’t go her way or don’t see her perspective. You can fault this on being young, but it’s grating to watch someone you want to like and root for behave so pessimistically. You can be smart and treat people with some level of respect. Cody never gives anything a chance because it’ll affect her alone time during a family holiday like Thanksgiving, which is pretty selfish. Plus when she realizes how bad things are, she never goes for help deciding to do it herself. She becomes a better character in the final act, thankfully, making us care about her again. But it’s a rough time getting there.

The other characters are a bit of a struggle too. Cody’s father only cares about the stock market and how much money he’ll make from it, not noticing what’s going on around him until it’s too late. His priorities are all out of whack. Cody’s stepmother brings the Pilgrims in as a way to get attention within her neighborhood and group of friends [who talk about her behind her back], but it does seem like she cares about bring her estranged family together even if it’s for the wrong reasons. The neighbors, who also have to deal with this mess, are either too focused on fulfilling their carnal desires or not appreciating what they have around them, wanting something more and different. The only likable character is young Tate, who is too young to understand why there is so much danger and tension around him, while having enough smarts about him to hide away from the villains when they start looking for him. I’m not saying these characters are the worst ever written because they have to all be flawed in order for the commentary to work. But give them some sort of likable trait of us to want them to survive. Luckily the final act saved the characters from being total failures once they banded together, but a lot of viewers may not even bother getting to that point if the characters don’t relate to them on some level. I was torn on how to feel about any of them, and that’s a problem.

The direction by Marcus Dunstan is actually pretty damn solid. The writer of the later SAW sequels and FEAST films, as well as director of THE COLLECTOR series, builds a lot of tension towards the final act with a simple and quiet visual style until the film’s bonkers last half hour, where Dunstan goes for broke and just lets it all out on screen. He displays his love for Sam Raimi with oddly framed close-ups and zoom ins, as well as people puking blood as if they were a fountain. He’s inspired by Tobe Hooper with a dinner scene that’ll interest you to the point where you’ll want to see where it goes and how it’ll all end. The use of a creepy choir during the violent scenes just creates a surreal and humorous vibe that helps the audience laugh a bit because the situation itself is so creepily strange that it’s funny. The death scenes and gorier moments are shot really well, although they’re not as graphic as one would think considering the man behind the lens. Plus the film looks good and is paced really well, as it’s only 80 minutes long. The tone of the film is horror mixed with a black comedy and it works better than it has any right to. I really liked Dunstan’s work on this.

The acting is very good as well. While I wish her character was more likable, Reign Edwards was solid as Cody. Her attitude was convincing and I bought her tough, smart girl act by the end. Peter Giles was fantastic as Pilgrim Ethan, bringing a menacing vibe to the film with his method acting and sinister screen presence. He stole the film any time he appeared on screen. Elyse Levesque was also very good as Patience, playing a cold Pilgrim who wanted her ways of life to continue in the modern world by any means necessary. While Giles intimidated through words, Levesque did it via body language and a lack of facial expression, showing a woman who was mostly calm in how she lived her life and made things happen, even if it ended a person’s life for not being grateful enough. She was also very good in READY OR NOT earlier in the year playing a similar character. And it’s nice to see Kerr Smith still acting after all these years, even though I wish he did more in the film. He was cool in that final act though.

Overall, PILGRIM is a solid entry in Hulu’s Into the Dark series. The use of the Thanksgiving holiday is wonderful here, finally giving us a horror film that’s worthy of watching during this particular holiday. Marcus Dunstan does a solid job behind the camera, filming a quiet and simmering two-thirds until going all out with his bonkers final act that flipped the film on its head with crazy visuals and homages to Sam Raimi and Tobe Hooper. I wish the protagonists were more likable - the villains were cool - but they got better by the time the final act started and the actors involved [especially Reign Edwards, Peter Giles and Elyse Levesque] were all solid and helped sell the commentary of an older generation trying to teach gratitude to a newer one disconnected from personal interaction [thanks technology!] and unappreciative of what they already have by forcing upon their values by any means necessary. PILGRIM is no BLOOD RAGE or THANKSKILLING, but it’s still worthy of stuffing your face with on Thanksgiving.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Gore Verbinski

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Roland Pembroke, Celia Imrie, Adrian Schiller, Ivo Nandi, Tomas Norstrom

Genre: Horror/Science Fiction/Mystery/Thriller

Running Time: 146 Minutes

Plot: An ambitious young executive is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center” at a remote location in the Swiss Alps but soon suspects that the spa’s miraculous treatments are not what they seem.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a horror film that probably ought to be better than it actually is while being more hit than miss. The film was director Gore Verbinski’s follow-up to his failed 2013 adaptation of THE LONE RANGER after so many successes with the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, the 2002 THE RING remake and even 2011’s animated hit RANGO. A CURE FOR WELLNESS didn’t come close to lighting the box office on fire - there was barely a spark actually since barely anyone watched this film or even talks about it - but there’s something oddly old-school and appealing about this film that it probably deserves a look if you have 150 minutes to spare.

I think the most positive aspect of A CURE FOR WELLNESS is how well-made it is. The film looks absolutely beautiful from beginning to end, obviously influenced by the gothic style of other horror films directed by James Whale, Stanley Kubrick, Guillermo Del Toro and even Tim Burton. The film constantly looks washed out, with whites, grays and blacks taking up prominence to reflect the narrative’s haunting tone and atmosphere. The exteriors always look dreary, while the interiors of the “rehab center” are mainly all white until you go underground, leading to a more shadowy and darker colors. The film was shot in Germany and Switzerland, with Verbinski showcasing the beautiful landscapes, as well as turning the rehab castle location into its own character by using the interiors to their fullest extent. Some of the film’s shots are just beautiful, especially when characters are submerged in water, creating this surreal dreamlike fantasy that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hammer horror film. Verbinski has always been great in creating visual art as a director, giving his audience a ton of polished style to feast their eyes on, even if the storytelling varied in quality. My only issue with the direction would probably be the pacing, as the film does drag a bit and feels longer than it should. But he was trying to create a slow-burn psychological thriller here, so it sometimes comes with the territory. But I think the film could have lost twenty minutes and still managed to maintain what Verbinski was attempting to visualize.

I also thought the acting was fine as well. Dane DeHaan is a hit-or-miss actor for me, either being the highlight of the film [CHRONICLE] or feeling miscast and doing nothing for me [THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2]. DeHaan is pretty good as Lockhart, our main character who arrives to this rehab to bring his company’s CEO back home, only being trapped there and having to deal with some of his personal demons. I’ll get to issues with his character in a moment, but I felt DeHaan did everything that is asked of him and did it well. He has an interesting and quiet charisma about him, fitting right in a film like this both physically and his acting. Jason Isaacs is also very good as the local doctor who claims he’s curing his patients, but obviously behaves in such a shady way that you know he’s doing some sinister stuff behind the scenes. They usually involve water and eels, not necessarily in that order. Plus he has this creepy fixation with a young woman who lives at the center, which Isaacs plays up once the truth slowly gets revealed and becomes creepier than you’d expect. The man makes for a good antagonist and it’s no different here. The only other actor of note is Mia Goth, probably best known for her roles in both Lars von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. II and Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of SUSPIRIA. I honestly think she’s the best actor in the film, only because she has such an unique look about her and she plays her mysterious role so subtly and quietly that you’re captivated by her every action. Goth plays her character of Hannah with such childlike innocence at times that it starts to surprise you when she does weird things that come across as strange and awkward. She’s an interesting young actress I’d like to see more from because she brings something unique to every role she plays.

Where the film falters, besides its too-long running time, is the narrative. Personally, I enjoyed the first half of the film compared to the last half. The first half was building the film’s universe and slowly building a mystery of this town and the castle used as a hospital/rehab center, giving the audience nice looks into the characters and making one wonder whether all the strange things happening were all in their heads, or were really happening. I wanted to know what this supposed “cure” was and why it seemed to brainwash a majority of the patients inside. Creepy hospital staff and eels appearing out of nowhere just continued to create this nightmarish scenario that questioned whether Lockhart was an unreliable narrator or not. After all, his father had committed suicide right in front of him when he was younger and his mother was mentally ill, so who’s to say the visuals were all delusions Lockhart was struggling with?

The second half is more exciting since there’s a lot more action, violence, and investigations leading to answers going on. But I felt a lot of the detective stuff was extremely repetitive. Lockhart would sneak into a room, get caught and then get tortured. He would do it again, same result. This happened a few times within a small time frame and got kind of tedious. Plus while I liked the HOUSE OF WAX inspired ending, it was never really explained all that well and left me wondering what the deal was. It’s sad that I found the more disgusting sexual angle more intriguing. And the very end of the film is a total letdown, considering all the time it took to build a decent mystery for over two hours.

The characters didn’t help either, especially Lockhart. He’s just not an interesting character at all, despite his flashbacks revealing some cool information about his background and why he came across as so cold and angry most of the time. It’s obvious the film was about capitalism and how it destroys and traps people who aren’t able to play fair and be competitive, leading to disastrous things when the truth comes out. And Lockhart obviously tried to live up to his father and failed since he was involved in a bit of malpractice that would get him in federal trouble. But I never felt his character changed all that much. Sure, he tried to save the patients and especially Hannah when he realized some evil stuff was going down. But he never came across as heroic or apologetic for his previous actions, making me wonder why I should care about what happens to him. Not all characters need to be likable. Some of the best protagonists are jerks. But at least be interesting to watch and if it wasn’t for DeHaan giving it his all, the story would have been a total fail. The doctor and Hannah each had a bit of substance, so their arcs made the narrative watchable. And the other supporting characters had mysteries that kept you watching to see how they would unfold. But Lockhart, especially in the last half, was kind of frustrating to watch. 

Overall, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a stylish throwback to more gothic horror that takes its inspiration from the original Universal horror films, Hammer, and even works from Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro. The film is a stunner, looking extremely polished and beautiful with great shots of the exterior German locations and a wonderful use of the interiors of a large castle that feels like its own character throughout the film’s runtime. However, the narrative is more hit than miss, clearly giving us the struggle of what capitalism and trying to compete in a money hungry world can do to a person both mentally, emotionally and especially physically if you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. I thought the slow burn mystery building of the first half was solid stuff, but the film became repetitive and lost its way a bit as it neared the finish line [enjoyed the climax of the film though with its nod to HOUSE OF WAX and other classic horror of the same ilk]. While the acting was solid for the most part, the characterization of the main character was a bit frustrating since he wasn’t all that likable or interesting, never really changing too much from beginning to end. And that ending pretty much took the power away from a lot of the things established prior to it, making me wonder why the film didn’t end sooner than it did [the film was a bit long in the tooth to begin with anyway]. Still, A CURE FOR WELLNESS has enough going for it to make it a watch at least once if you’re into this type of Lovecraftian psychological horror-thriller like the much better SHUTTER ISLAND or even EYES WIDE SHUT.

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015) - ** out of ****

Directed By: Paul McGuigan

Starring: James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Charles Dance

Genre: Horror/Drama/Science Fiction/Thriller

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Plot: Eccentric scientist Victor Von Frankenstein creates a grotesque creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment.

Considering all the negative reviews I’ve heard and read about 2015’s VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN all these years, I was expecting an abomination close to 2014’s I, FRANKENSTEIN. And while VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN isn’t a good movie, it’s still a pretty decent watch to leave in the background to look at while you’re doing something else, I guess. It at least takes a familiar story and gives it a new perspective with some good performances, nice looking set pieces, and a commentary that argues which one should be favored - science or religion?

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN plays out as this romanticized prequel of sorts to the Mary Shelley story you already know. The film is told through the perspective of the hunchback that would be later named as Igor, being abused as he worked at the circus until he’s saved by Victor Frankenstein after Victor learns how savvy Igor is in terms of science and human anatomy. Together, they begin conducting experiments that would bring the dead to life through electricity - first with animals and then with an actual human being. Along the way, they both have to deal with a rival of Victor’s who wants the glory for himself, as well as an obsessed detective who’s so religious, he sees Victor’s act of science as the work of the Devil. The story itself isn’t fresh or all that interesting since we’ve seen this story done much better in many adaptations previous to this film. But having the narrative told through Igor’s eyes is an inspired one, as he sort of plays the role of the audience who sees Victor’s experiments as something he shouldn’t be doing since he’s power hungry and playing the role of God. But while he knows that, Igor gives us reasons as to why he supports his friend, wanting to save him from himself rather than judge or condemn him for the tragedy that’s he about to bring forth onto the world. It gives some character development for Igor, as well as for the other characters he interacts with. Seeing things through his perspective gives us interesting looks at Victor, who just wants to correct wrongs from his past by bringing balance back to the spectrum of life and death. I think it does play it a bit too safe, since it’s a bit biased in terms of Igor’s feelings towards Victor’s, never truly criticizing him. And we’re not really sure about Victor’s backstory or how he interacts with people outside of Igor’s eye, giving us only a small glimpse of the man’s full character. But it’s still a nice storytelling twist that hasn’t really been done for this story, so it gets respect from me for that.

Honestly, the strongest aspect of the narrative is the commentary. Igor and Victor are scientists who live in an era where such a thing is considered demonic and evil [considering the actions taken, there may be a point there], while the supposed good guys [the detectives chasing after them] believe in God so much, they’re willing to break laws and hurt others to make sure good wins out at the end. The debate works because both sides have their merits and their flaws. Victor wants to use science as a way to atone for his brother’s death and prove to his father he’s not a disappointment by bringing knowledge to those who may be ignorant to the subject. He obviously doesn’t believe in a higher power, feeling science holds the answers to life and death. He feels his brother’s death was because of something man did, not God, feeling science could correct the balance if someone was brought back from the dead. On the other side of the spectrum, you have Inspector Turpin - a man who is so obsessed in proving that Victor is a heretic and a vile criminal that he’s willing to put to cloud his moral judgment in order for his own personal beliefs to be the true law and order. Instead of following police law, his overly religious nature will cause him to do anything to prove what Victor doing is sinful, even if his own personal actions to make that happen could also be considered sinful by others. In many ways, their differences make them the same person. Both men are willing to prove the other wrong by doing things many would consider unlawful, feeling it would prove that their respective stances are right in the end. Maybe half of the film focuses on the ideology conflict, especially in the last half where events just blow out of proportion. But it works for a film like this and you wonder why the rest of the movie didn’t focus on this aspect more.

Instead we get this love angle between Igor and Lorelei, a former acrobat at his former circus troop who he saved after she had an accident during an act. While it’s novel to see Igor get some lovin’ from a beautiful and smart woman, it never really works because it’s just bland. It also feels like something a studio would force onto a project to cater to a certain demographic to raise profits, which obviously didn’t work for this movie. The romance subplot ruins the flow of the film, as well as take away a lot of the main focus of Victor’s descent into madness. There’s also many who believe there is a bromance between Victor and Igor that feels like a one-sided love story since Victor gets jealous and angry whenever Igor wants to spend time with Lorelei over him. I could see where they’re coming from, as Victor does seem more infatuated with Igor than vice-versa. But personally, I just saw it as a man who finally found a real friend and partner who believed in him and shared similar interests, not wanting him to spend time with someone else out of fear of losing him. It was more about possession rather than love for me, but I won’t criticize another person’s opinion if there is justification for it. I found the relationship between the two men more interesting myself.

The direction by Paul McGuigan is alright. The direction of the many set-pieces were nice and the creatures that do appear look pretty cool. The undead chimpanzee was less impressive than the actual Frankenstein monster at the end due to wonky CGI, but the Frankenstein monster seemed to be practical effects and looked awesome for the short time he appeared. The film isn’t scary and barely borders on horror really, making it a strange way to tell a Frankenstein story. And it’s not really heavy on action either, even though the film does focus more on that more than the horror aspect. I mean, when MGuigan is using slow motion during action sequences, it’s obvious the studio wants teens to fall head over heels for this film. It’s a nice, polished looking film that doesn’t do anything visually interesting other than that really. It’s fine and nothing more.

The acting is also pretty good, which is not surprising considering who’s starring in this. Even though the film is called VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, the film is more focused on Igor and Daniel Radcliffe is asked to carry the film. Radcliffe, even after all these years, is still trying to shed Harry Potter. But he does a good job here, even if he takes the script a bit too straightforward and seriously. The character feels like too much of a square [that’s screenwriter Max Landis’ - ugh - fault] and could have used a bit more color. Radcliffe didn’t have the freedom to put his personality into the role, which is a shame. But he’s still okay in the role. It doesn’t help that he’s outshone by James McAvoy as Victor Frankenstein, who gets the revel in the sinfulness and craziness of the situation. It’s obvious he’s enjoying the role, smiling and almost laughing throughout at the prospect of playing a mad scientist who won’t take no for an answer. He has a charisma that can’t be denied, managing to be both charming and disgusting at the same time. His manic performance brings life to the film, with McAvoy trying to elevate Radcliffe to his level but not really succeeding. I can see the two actors being a balance for each other, but McAvoy is just so much more interesting to watch that Radcliffe is really no match for him, despite playing the role as well as he could. Jessica Brown Findlay is also pretty solid as Lorelei, even though she doesn’t have much of a character. And I thought Andrew Scott was good as Inspector Turpin, believably growing crazier and obsessed as the film rolled on. McAvoy overshadowed all of them because he had a character he could bite his teeth into, but the other actors were fine.

Overall, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is a better film than what its reputation may perceive it to be. I'm not saying that it's good or anything, but it has a fair amount of content that makes it worth at least a single watch if you have time. The narrative is generic and there’s a romantic subplot that does nothing for the film really, but the commentary about religion versus science is pretty interesting and allows one to decide which side to take on this particular matter. The direction by Paul McGuigan is fine, as he displays the set-pieces and monsters well [although they don’t appear for too long], but does the cliche slo-mo action sequences way too much. The acting is okay as well, with James McAvoy outshining everyone in the cast including co-star Daniel Radcliffe - who takes the role too seriously to make the audience have fun with the silly premise. I was expecting a lot worse considering many people told me to avoid it for years, but it was fine for what it was. I probably would never watch it again, but I have no regrets giving this movie a bit of my time.

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