Lunar Cycle - March 2020

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.

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

Directed By: James Roday

Starring: Jimmi Simpson, Mary McCormack, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Maggie Lawson, Stephanie Beatriz, Julianna Guill, Michael Weston, Amanda Walsh, Sutton Foster

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Plot: Celebu-chef Peter Rake escapes a scandal for a weekend at his family’s isolated vacation home, but there are debts to repay and Peter has to learn the lesson that a woman’s place is anywhere that she chooses to be… if he survives.

Another month, another Lunar Cycle reviewing Hulu’s Into The Dark series. I expected the first March edition of the anthology movie series to be about St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s not surprisingly [2020’s edition would be, however]. Instead, TREEHOUSE caters to International Women’s Day and the #MeToo movement that continues to gain momentum in recent times. With a strong cast and a message that’s obviously relevant and able to decipher, it’s a shame that the execution of the storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. Like 2019’s DOWN, TREEHOUSE has something important to say but doesn’t quite know how to tell it without blurring the message within its narrative choices.

I understand why many are tired of these modern social commentaries that refer to feminism, since a lot of filmmakers make the commentary the agenda rather than just making a good movie with the commentary adding meat to the normal narrative. But I’m also getting tired of films that have something important to say but seem to avoid telling it a certain way so it won’t offend a portion of the audience. I feel like TREEHOUSE struggles with that, as a film like this should make us want to completely root for the victims to get a bit of justice on a jerk who uses his gender and/or position in life to oppress others - in this case, women. And the second half of the film, where a group of angry women want revenge on a misogynist chef [inspired by Gordon Ramsay] for awful things he got away with in the past. I won’t spoil anything since it’ll take away from the actual final act of the film, but witchcraft and supernatural stuff is involved to scare and torture this man as a way of learning a lesson about being a better person to women. 

That’s great and all, but it hurts a film when the entire first half is very much focused on the film’s supposed antagonist. And while Peter looks pretty bad during the opening moments of the film where he’s shown berating his employees, especially the female ones, he’s also shown to have a great affection for his daughter. He’s maybe a bit neglectful to his daughter and while he’s shown as a mean boss, Gordon Ramsay’s outbursts look way worse in comparison. And Peter does show a bit of sexism when it comes to women’s issues, which bothers his female neighbors during a group dinner, but it’s nothing that would warrant the treatment he receives later on. That is until we find out the terrible things he’s done to random women over the years in the second half of the film, turning your opinion on him slowly. But the fact that the film focuses so much on Peter right from the start and lets the audience get to know him as a personality, that it becomes a struggle when all these women want to do awful things to him as a punishment for crimes we had no idea about for 50 minutes prior.

Speaking of the female characters, while I understand their motives and their means of torturing Peter for his past crimes, they don’t come across as sympathetic at all. They say two wrongs don’t make a right, and it feels like TREEHOUSE is the epitome of that. The women do have their reasons for doing what they do to Peter and it’s all revealed within the film’s second half. But I wish I had known these facts much earlier for the audience to get on the female characters’ sides and want them to justify their revenge on Peter. They come across looking just as bad as he does, which doesn’t do the narrative any favors in the end. And while the revenge comes across pretty okay visually, it feels a bit unsatisfying when you think about it once the movie is over.

Other than that, the script is fairly pedestrian but entertaining enough to make TREEHOUSE watchable. The dialogue by PSYCH actor and TREEHOUSE director James Roday and his co-writer Todd Harthan is decent, with some amusing lines referencing other pop culture items - like referring to a goat as “Black Phillip” [THE WITCH], as well as some nods to PSYCHO & SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The tone mostly captures a seriousness that’s refreshing, even though the commentary is one made for some melodrama and thrills that barely make their presence known where it matters most. There’s a great script here and maybe from a different perspective, TREEHOUSE could have reached that level. But it’s just average at best and makes you wish there was more to it than actually is.

Speaking of James Roday, his direction is a mixed-bag. He does have an eye for things, especially when it comes to using dramatic colors to pop a scene or reflect what a character is feeling. At times, I felt I was watching a Dario Argento film, which was kind of interesting on a visual level. And the film, for the most part, does look nice. The pacing is good as well. However, I had issues with some of the shaky cam going on at times. And some of the editing was a bit off for me. It’s nice to see Roday branch off to behind the camera and hopefully he’ll only grow from here.

The cast is pretty solid. Jimmi Simpson is always reliable in any role he’s in, and TREEHOUSE is no exception. He portrays every emotional beat well, making it hard to hate his character even though the film wants you to. The female cast all have their moments, especially Mary McCormack, Julianna Guill, and Nancy Linehan Charles as the almost-blind housekeeper who may know about Peter’s actions than she lets on. No one really wows you, but they all played their roles well and had great chemistry together. Considering how weak the script is, these fine actors attempted to elevate it somewhat. I just wish the film had a story that executed the message better because these actors could have had something really juicy to chew on.

Overall, the TREEHOUSE segment from the March 2019 edition of Hulu’s Into the Dark series definitely has something to say about the #MeToo movement and possesses all the ingredients to tell it in a meaningful way while still presenting the commentary as a horror film. But like the installment previous to this one, February’s DOWN, the filmmakers of TREEHOUSE have no idea how to use any of these ingredients to create a melodramatic thriller that could captivate an audience while teaching them something relevant in today’s society. A revenge-motif by a group of angry women [who may or may not be witches] against a male sexual predator should be interesting, bold, and ultimately satisfying. But the film focuses on the male character way too much, making us somewhat sympathetic towards him prior to any knowledge of his wrongdoings. And the women, who are justified, come across just as bad as the antagonist of the movie due to lack of genuine characterization and empathy. The film does have some decent dialogue and amusing moments, as well as a strong cast who are game to elevate a generic script. PSYCH actor James Roday directs the film with nice pacing, a decently serious tone and visually popping colors at times. But the shaky cam has to go and some of his editing choices are questionable. TREEHOUSE is a middle-of-the-road film like most of them seem to be slipping into as I continue through this anthology series. But considering the premise and the commentary it wanted to share, it should have been a lot better than it actually is.

INTO THE DARK: CRAWLERS (2020) - **1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Brandon Zuck

Starring: Jude Demorest, Pepi Sonuga, Giorgia Whigham, Cameron Fuller, Olivia Liang

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Aliens

Running Time: 81 Minutes

Plot: On St. Patrick’s Day - a night of wild parties and drunken revelry - and follows three unlikely friends who band together to save a college town from a vicious horde of body-switching aliens.

Continuing looking into the March entries for Hulu’s Into the Dark, we have this year’s St. Patrick Day’s installment called CRAWLERS - a film not so much about the holiday itself, but it involves an alien invasion occurring during a favorite drinking day for many. While never matching the greatness of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS or THE FACULTY, CRAWLERS manages to be a decent time and more fun than the installments I’ve watched lately. And it’s nice to see an Into the Dark entry that doesn’t shove its message in your face for once, letting it play within the narrative while focusing on the characters and the alien deal they’re involved in.

I think what helps CREEPERS stand out above a lot of other Into the Dark films is that the script actually allows the characters to develop enough for us to care about them. I’m not saying they’re the best written characters ever, but they all have distinct personalities and issues that make them easy to tell who from who. Shauna is the narrator of the film, giving us what happened on last year’s St. Patrick’s Day through her eyes. She’s also a drug dealer who is a major conspiracy theorist [which she got from her mom], not once surprised when the aliens make their presence known. She’s very stoic, but you can tell she was born to be a leader and is constantly pro-active, making her likable. Misty is the good girl who doesn’t really like to party or cause drama, dealing with a traumatic issue involving a frat boy who may or may not have date raped her. Chloe, her supposed best friend, sees Misty as a burden and would rather focus on herself having fun without her. Yuejin is Misty’s replacement in Chloe’s life, pushing buttons with her cynicism and bad attitude. And then you have the fraternity - mainly Michael [the accused date rapist who feels he can get away with anything because of his money and his lawyer father] and Aaron [the frat president who is misunderstood and proves he’s a decent guy along the way]. All the characters feel lived in and all feel as if they know each other well, creating bonds and tensions that propel the film along. A lot of these Into the Dark films have characters that are either not fleshed out enough, or are written a certain way that makes it hard to relate to. CRAWLERS has characters that stay consistent from beginning to end, making you care about what happens to them even if you don’t like some of them all that much as personalities. It was refreshing to see that for once in this series.

I also liked that the message of date rape and how college towns treat a lot of it wasn’t the central focus of the film. That’s not to say that the screenplay doesn’t give it a ton of attention, because Misty’s character and her change towards the end stems from her feeling like no one has her back on the wrong that has fell upon her. She doesn’t remember the night with Michael, unsure if she was assaulted or not. Because of this, she can’t call the police and accuse Michael of a crime - one she feels the cops will just see as “college students being college students”. Michael harasses her any chance he gets because he feels she’s ruining his reputation. Chloe feels like she should just get over it, just wanting to have fun and not deal with Misty’s “funk”. Aaron also feels it’s wrong for Misty to give the entire fraternity a bad name, especially when not all the brothers behave like Michael. While he apologizes to Misty for what Michael may have done, she also makes him realize that by not punishing Michael, he’s become sort of an accessory to the crime. And the best part about that is that Aaron doesn’t even argue about it, silently admitting that even though he’s a good person, staying in Michael’s company doesn’t make him as innocent as he would like to believe. It’s something a lot of college women deal with on campuses, and CRAWLERS does a nice job giving that subject a voice that never feels forced. It grounds the story in a way you wouldn’t expect in an alien invasion film, but it takes it seriously and uses it when only necessary. I appreciated the subtlety.

And while I liked how some of the alien invasion stuff is handled in terms of making the audience paranoid over who’s a human and who’s an alien copy, I felt that CRAWLERS could have done a whole lot more with the concept. I understand the budget to these movies aren’t huge and you have to make with what you do. But the story should have a bigger scope and the alien stuff doesn’t occur as much as one would like. When they do appear, the film is a lot of fun. And I think the filmmakers did the right thing using the rest of the time to focus on the characters’ interactions and opinions of each other to build a real bond that would help them against the invasion. But a real budget and a focus on the body swapping would have made CRAWLERS go from above average to pretty great. It feels like a young adult drama with aliens added in a lot of the time, which is a problem.

I also thought Shauna’s narration and bookending the film took away some tension from the film. Since I already know she survived it and looking great doing it, some of the suspense was gone and left me wishing she was an unreliable narrator who either made the whole thing up or was twisting the truth to make her look better. And while some of her voiceover comments were funny, it kind of ruined the flow of the film at times for me. I also thought how Shauna and friends ended the invasion was way too easy and not satisfying at all. Where was the drama? The tension? The suspense? Kinda weak.

Brandon Zuck does direct a nice looking film with decent pacing and clever editing to make us wonder who the aliens in the film were. It’s obvious he was inspired by 80s films like NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, the remake of THE BLOB, and NIGHT OF THE COMET. Colors pop, the gore effects are better than expected, and one scene where a character is dealing with a double and trying to convince the gang who the real one is happens to be really well done. I liked that Zuck focused on each character about an equal amount and allowed us to get to know them all individually. But I wish he could have been more ambitious with certain special effects, lighting at times [even though the final act has some nice moments], and just visualizing the alien invasion in a more exciting way. It’s a finely directed movie that has its moments, but you can see where he could have really pushed things further.

The acting is really solid, however, with the cast elevating the script to make the audience forget about a lot of the shortcomings in the script and direction. Giorgia Whigman is really good as Shauna, bringing a lot of fun in the role without showing much facial expression. Her lack of energy in the role actually adds a lot, sort of becoming the audience’s voice when it comes to the alien story. Jude Demorest is believable in her shallow performance of Chloe, making her a bit unlikable despite her beauty. Olivia Liang brings a lot of energy and cattiness as Yuejin, making you like her even when you shouldn’t. Cameron Fuller, son of producer Brad Fuller, is solid as Aaron. He plays both arrogant and likable very well, having nice chemistry with his female co-stars. And Pepi Sonuga does what she can as Misty. She doesn’t get a whole lot to do but play sad, bored, or frustrated for the most part. But she does become a bit more empowered towards the end and handles the social commentary stuff as well as the script allows her to. Of all the characters, Sonuga stood out the least for me. But I still thought she had a decent performance.

Overall, Into the Dark finally put out an above average installment with their St. Patrick’s Day themed film, CRAWLERS. While nowhere as good as THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS or other memorable films involving cloning aliens, CRAWLERS manages to be one of the more fun Into the Dark movies with a well-acted cast, characters who are fleshed out enough to be likable, and commentary about college date rape that gets enough attention to create character moments, but not take away the focus from what the main sci-fi storyline. The direction by Brandon Zuck has energy, but his vision could have been pushed further considering the lack of alien action throughout the film. But sometimes an ambitious project and a small budget don’t mix all that well. Plus, a bit of tension and suspense is lost due to the way the film is narrated. And that ending was pretty flat and came across as way too easy. But I had more fun with CRAWLERS than some of the installments that I’ve watched recently. Not must-see, but maybe worth checking out for those interested in this Hulu anthology series.

THE GRUDGE (2020) - * out of ****
[WTF? Vault]

Directed By: Nicolas Pesce

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Betty Gilpin, William Sadler, Frankie Faison

Genre: Horror/Mystery/Supernatural/Ghosts

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Plot: After a young mother murders her family in her own house, a detective attempts to investigate the mysterious case, only to discover that the house is cursed by a vengeful ghost. Now targeted by the demonic spirits, the detective must do anything to protect herself and her family from harm.

Earlier this year, I did an Original vs. Remake review for both 2002’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and 2004’s American remake THE GRUDGE. Both were two films I hadn’t given much thought about until the release of the newest installment, 2020’s THE GRUDGE, which made me wonder what was the point of rebooting a franchise a lot of people stopped caring about long ago. Despite a good cast and an up-and-coming director, 2020’s THE GRUDGE didn’t really grab the attention of a lot of people, not doing all that well at the box office. Still, I wanted to check it out since a lot of people who had watched it considered it the first bad film of 2020. After having seen it, I was surprised that the 2020 film is actually a sort-of-sequel to the 2004 American remake, making me somewhat interested where this side story would go. Still, its execution and justification for its existence leaves a lot to be desired, making 2020’s THE GRUDGE a film only a fan of the franchise should possibly watch.

There are a lot of things that THE GRUDGE does that makes me realize how good this film could have been if things had been done differently. The narrative is told similarly to how the original film was told - in a non-linear structure between multiple characters that eventually intersect to reveal twists or answers to questions asked in earlier scenes. For some reason though, I found the structure to be a bit compelling - which I didn’t find myself feeling about the first two films. Seeing how things intertwined and how all the characters were connected to each other keeps your interest, giving me some “a-ha!” moments through the film’s final act. 

That being said, this structure sacrifices any sustainable character development because the film has a lot of characters to follow, yet doesn’t really give much depth to any of them. Even the main character, Detective Muldoon, is given a certain background story and is the nucleus to the entire film as she ties everything together by the end - yet I don’t know much about her outside of the situation THE GRUDGE puts her in. She’s a caring mother. She’s a motivated and pro-active cop when it comes to investigating a mystery. But nothing about her connected with me on an emotional level to really care whether she survived this whole ordeal. The supporting characters get even less, even when they’re given their own scenes that are fairly interesting at times. And they all seem to have interesting backstories and connections to the house that possesses the Grudge. But there’s not enough time given to that for us to really care what happens to them, especially when their fates are revealed before the flashbacks occur within the film. So while the structure kept my interest, the writing itself felt pedestrian.

It also doesn’t help that the evil spirits are now a random mother, father and daughter rather than the more popular Kayako, Toshio or even Takeo ghosts that THE GRUDGE films are based around. I mean, I understand the need to do your own thing and start off fresh with a set of new evil ghosts that could haunt characters in future American films. But it just feels derivative of what’s been done before. Also, these new evil characters don’t have the depth or emotional connection to their backstory as the Saeki family did in the original films. These new spirits felt like something I could catch on certain seasons of American Horror Story, not doing anything interesting but appearing and scaring people. They share the same croaking sound as the previous villains, but that’s really the only thing interesting about them. I do appreciate that the Grudge creates new vengeful spirits no matter where they’re located, possessing new homes to spread the curse. But nothing was really done with the aspect of that story, making it feel like old hat. I think the producers played it a bit too safe when it came to the Grudge aspect in general, making THE GRUDGE feel more like an unnecessary reboot rather than a sequel that could advance the original story and build upon it to create a genuinely intriguing franchise that has a justification to exist. It’s a shame because there’s a good film here somewhere if only the screenplay would take narrative risks. Even the ending is flat as hell, which makes everything before it meaningless. It’s disappointing.

The direction by Nicolas Pesce is alright. Most of the film has this earthy, yellowish tint throughout, making it almost look like a crime thriller between the mid-1990s to mid-2000s - which works since THE GRUDGE takes place between 2004 and 2006. The pacing and the editing of the non-linear sequences is done mostly well, until the film’s final scene which feels like it comes out of nowhere with no time to build up to what happens. The special effects are pretty standard and not all that impressive, considering they look like something you would have seen years ago in films like 2016’s LIGHTS OUT with the film’s use of lighting and scale. I’ve never seen Pesce’s other films, but I have heard by many that he has done some cool indie horror films that are very much well liked. So it has to be studio interference that butchered the tension and suspense from this flick, since THE GRUDGE barely has any momentum. There is more than one moment where you can feel a build of tension, making you believe it’s leading to a big moment. But these moments are pretty much cut short, taking away any sort of atmosphere in favor of jump scares that have been done to death. I will say that this film has some gruesome looking imagery at times, which are pretty cool and help elevate this film. But they are few and far between. THE GRUDGE is a nice looking film, but not much else visually really.

The cast also feels wasted here, but they try their best with the material given to them. Andrea Riseborough, best known for her work on BIRDMAN and MANDY, does what she can as Detective Muldoon, the film’s lead character. She plays it tough, smart, and scared all believably. I wish she was given more of a chance to shine, but she does the best with what she has. Demian Bichir of THE HATEFUL EIGHT gets even less to do, even though he’s in one of the best shock moments of the film. John Cho [of HAROLD & KUMAR fame] and Betty Gilpin [THE HUNT, G.L.O.W.] have some good material to work with as Peter and Nina. They share nice chemistry with each other and get most of the emotional beats in the story, even though the film never really lets their storyline build to something meaningful. Cho, in particular, has really grown to be a believable serious actor as of late and I feel he should have been given more to do because he would have rocked it. Lin Shaye probably has the most fun playing a woman who is passing away, but is comforted by the spirits living in the house she’s moved into. She’s creepy, sympathetic and gets to have the most memorable moments in the film that I actually enjoyed. Jacki Weaver and Frankie Faison get to have their moments as well, but they have short roles that don’t really allow them to chew on the scenery. I do think Faison has one of the more interesting characters in the franchise, playing a man who intentionally moved into the Grudge house knowing what was inside. Feeling his wife was dying anyway, he felt the house would keep her spirit alive even in death, regardless of the evil inside of the home. I wish the film had focused more on that aspect because it’s a refreshing look on the haunted house story. Too bad the studio went with tried-and-true instead.

Overall, 2020’s THE GRUDGE is a film no one asked for and one no one cared about considering it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office. There is genuinely a good GRUDGE film here, as it does present some new and interesting ideas throughout. Yet, the producers were either to lazy to develop them or too scared to create something fresh in order to give horror fans the same ol’ premise they’ve been accustomed to for 18 years now. The non-linear structure is honestly compelling and it’s cool to see the dots connected by the film’s end. But the characters don’t have much depth, making it hard to really care about them - especially when some of their fates are revealed within the first act. The new Grudge ghosts are a mistake, in my opinion, as they’re not as compelling as the original Saeko family. They’re just around for jump scare purposes and nothing more. Nicolas Pesce’s direction seems to have some studio interference as it feels he has a vision for a new generation of THE GRUDGE, but decided to play it straight and give audiences something predictable instead. The film looks nice, however, and it’s edited and paced mostly well. The cast is great and they try their best to make the material stand out. But most of them feel like guest appearances, not given enough time to really develop the characters they’re portraying. Some of the actors get some juicy material to work with, but the film doesn’t bother developing it, focusing on getting rid of the characters in ghastly ways instead. However, Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Betty Gilpin and Lin Shaye shine the best considering they’re not given enough to do. This could have been a really cool extension of the franchise, taking the story further through the next decade. But instead, THE GRUDGE plays it too safe and didn’t do a whole lot to justify its existence for me. At this point, if you’ve seen one GRUDGE film, you pretty much seen them all. Oh well.

THE HUNT (2020) - **1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Craig Zobel

Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ethan Suplee, Teri Wyble, Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Emma Roberts, Christopher Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Glenn Howerton, Justin Hartley

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Action/Comedy

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Plot: Twelve strangers wake up in a clearing. They don’t know where they are - or how they got there. In the shadow of a dark internet conspiracy theory, ruthless elitists gather at a remote location to hunt humans for sport. But their master plan is about to be derailed when one of the hunted, Crystal, turns the tables on her pursuers.

With the craziness that was unleashed to the entire world in terms of a coronavirus that has made most of us have to stay home to avoid catching it and getting sick, I’m sure some have forgotten that we were still going through it for years before this when it came to gun violence - especially in the United States. There wouldn’t be a week where you wouldn’t hear about a school shooting, or a shooting in a mall, or just gun violence where people are gathering. It was alarming, depressing, and just upsetting. The gun debate was a huge part for the last couple of years and will probably continue once a treatment plan and/or vaccine is created for COVID-19. This debate affected Hollywood in many ways, including shelving Blumhouse’s horror-action film THE HUNT before it had premiered in September of 2019. 

But then time had passed and THE HUNT was allowed to be released a few weeks ago, considering the gun debate had been brushed under the rug for now in order to combat a virus. With many claiming the film to be “controversial” and “pushing buttons that will upset many sensitive people” through its political satire and violence, the buzz for THE HUNT had built to a point where it found an audience both in theaters [prior to closing] and now on streaming where it’s doing really well.

Seeing friends watch it and compliment the film on certain aspects, I finally sat down and decided to give THE HUNT my full attention. I won’t lie - theaters pulling the film last year made me very curious about the content and how it was so controversial that “the film should never been seen at this certain time in our society”. It also had a lot of actors that I enjoy and the trailers made it seem like it was more of a black comedy than something that could seriously offend anybody. So I wasn’t sure what to expect watching it. Now having sat through it, I have no idea why THE HUNT was even pulled from theaters. And considering the hype the film received by the media and even by friends, I felt let down by the film. I’m not saying it’s terrible, because it’s far from that. But it was just a horror film that had a lot of gore and a commentary that attempted to say something important, but really said nothing all that meaningful due to its execution. It’s personally a conflicting watch.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. Betty Gilpin, probably best known for her Emmy-nominated work on G.L.O.W., is the only reason to watch THE HUNT. Out of the cast, she’s really the only one that’s given material to really chew on and do something with. Her portrayal of Crystal could have been pretty cliche, as the character is a tough and smart military veteran who doesn’t flinch at danger and is completely detached from the politics and social norms around her. Gilpin could have been over-the-top with it, giving us your typical action heroine who can miss bullets by just moving an inch to the side, or reciting punny one-liners to establish the character into the pop culture lexicon. But Gilpin does the total opposite, playing Crystal as a woman that seems slightly unhinged due to the War in Afghanistan and not caring what others think about her. She twitches, stays quiet most of the time and only cares about her own survival if she feels others around her will jeopardize it. I thought Gilpin did an incredible job in the role. The other major player is Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as Athena, the person responsible for The Hunt itself. We don’t see much of her until the film’s final act, where Swank really shines along with Gilpin as the two finally meet face-to-face. But Swank is always a presence throughout and it seems she’s having a lot of fun playing against type. I haven’t seen her in a major project for a while, so it was nice seeing her after all this time.

As for the rest of the cast, they all provide their moments even though they mostly don’t get a ton of screen time. When you think a recognizable actor is going to have a major role or possibly be the lead of the film, they’re quickly gone and you kind of feel shell-shocked by their exit. The first couple of times, I was actually surprised by this turn of events, thinking it was actually clever to give the audience a sense of false security. Too bad the rest of the film can’t maintain that feeling, but it works wonderfully in the film’s first act. Some great actors all contribute to that - such as Emma Roberts, Glenn Howerton, Ian Barinholtz, Ethan Suplee, Amy Madigan, and so on. THE HUNT has a great cast and uses them well for the most part in different ways that keep the audience on their toes.

I also liked Craig Zobel’s direction here. The film is well paced for its 90-minute runtime, capturing some nice action and intentionally funny moments throughout. The first act’s take on The Most Dangerous Game is both shocking and thrilling, constantly twisting and turning the situation to keep one visually invested. THE HUNT is incredible violent, especially during the film’s beginning. The gore is pretty gnarly, with people getting blown up into many pieces or just until half of a body is left. People are getting shot left and right, stabbings to the neck, arrows targeting people, grenades and mines blowing people up, and other messed up violence. It’s all shot well and some it done tongue-in-cheek, which livens up the mood. Even the quieter moments are allowed to resonate and allow the actors to flesh out some of the characters a bit. It’s a nice looking film and balances the horror and action very well, while sprinkling some black comedy that made me laugh at times. Nothing about the visual presentation bothered me.

Where it comes to the screenplay though, that’s where THE HUNT becomes frustrating. Adapting The Most Dangerous Game and using politics and social issues to drive the story isn’t a new concept, as it has been done before countless times. But that part of the narrative is handled well and is one of the reasons why the film works as well as it does. We clearly have two sides and it’s not too hard to root for the side where the victim is trying to rise up and free herself of this terrible game over the evil bastards who see this game as something fun and necessary to prove a point.

The issue is that THE HUNT is so focused on the idea of politics and how both sides are really one-and-the-same that it sort of misses the point of what it’s trying to execute. We currently live in a society driven by social media where things like politics and religion have brought people together as much as they have driven people apart. It’s almost an online Civil War at times because a lot of people can’t seem to understand the other side’s point-of-view without lashing out in nasty and even violent ways just to prove that their opinions are the right ones. It’s a great concept to use if you’re trying to readapt The Most Dangerous Game because you can easily see why one side would want to target the other side. The problem is that typically, you’d want one side to be clearly good and the other side being clearly bad. But THE HUNT, even though it’s obvious writers Nick Cues and Damon Lindelof [who worked on HBO’s Watchmen TV show] have clearly picked a side, wants the audience to see that the world is really a shade of grey. While that’s true in reality, it doesn’t make for a compelling story on film since you’re left wondering who you’re supposed to empathize with and trust.

I guess the people in charge of The Hunt are liberals who are completely politically correct and refuse to be bullied by clearly ignorant and non-PC folks who enjoy their gun laws and the old ways things were done. The players in the game are more conservative and probably fans of a particular President who are anti-immigration, have no issue using guns, are seem to be residing in red states. If the script had chosen a side, I’d feel the supposed controversy of the film would have been justified. One side of the fence would have been upset and the uproar would have created a massive buzz for the film, regardless of half giving it some bad publicity. But Cues and Lindelof show that both sides are flawed to the point that only Crystal comes out of the film as the only real likable person because she doesn’t take a side at all nor particularly cares to. The Hunters felt bullied and decide to use their power to hurt those who hurt them. The Hunted don’t understand what’s going on, but sometimes come across as racist or just plain vulgar. And they’re almost portrayed as a bit stupid, which doesn’t help their cause. Yes, each side has its pros and its cons. That’s just the world we’re living in and some of us are just thicker-skinned to deal with it. But when it comes to cinema, there should be a clear message and commentary with a chosen side for audiences to latch on to. Telling people that no matter side you may stand for, neither one will make you a hero or a villain is something people will have trouble comprehending. The political commentary just feels like decoration than something meaningful to the plot. Yes, people are going to be upset with the subject matter. But if you’re going for it, go for it and think about the consequences later. It seems the writers may have backed off and played it safe to please a general audience, which is the total opposite of this film’s intent. I mean if you think about it, it’s obvious who the villains are here. But the film wants to have its cake and eat it too by pointing out that the other side is also as bad besides a couple of folks. The use of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is inspired, but it doesn’t matter all that much until the last few minutes of the film. It’s too bad because I always dig this particular concept, but the wishy-washy commentary brought it down for me.

Overall, THE HUNT is a film that doesn’t warrant the controversy it had received in 2019 during the United States’ struggle with massive amounts of gun violence that seemed to happen on a daily basis. Yes, THE HUNT is a pretty violent film and there is a lot of gunplay at hand here [as well as arrows, grenades, land mines, and knives]. But it’s nothing that hasn’t been done in previous films or films that have been released since, using The Most Dangerous Game trope to justify it’s violent existence. The action and gore sequences are nicely shot, and the cast is really good - especially G.L.O.W.’s Betty Gilpin as a woman who can handle herself very efficiently in a violent situation while behaving in a intriguingly bizarre and deadpan manner that separates her from everyone else. 

While the concept is used well [it’s a hard one to screw up even after all these years], the political commentary is mishandled as both Nick Cues and Damon Lindelof try to present both the far-left and the far-right characters as both unlikable without really choosing a side for the audience to get a sense of what they’re really trying to say that isn’t obvious. It’s clear who the villains are here, but the writers felt like they had to complicate it to justify THE HUNT’s existence, which brings the film down. It’s a decent and sometime fun watch bogged down by a flawed point-of-view… or lack there-of really. THE HUNT is a film that deserved to be as controversial as described with a powerful message. Instead, it’s just your above average The Most Dangerous Game adaptation with quirky characters who don’t really have much to say that we didn’t know already. What a shame.

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