Showing posts with label horror drama. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horror drama. Show all posts

Dec 26, 2020

GWEN (2019)

With Gwen being marketed as a Shudder Original, and released to video from the genre-friendly RLJ Entertainment, it would be easy to assume it’s an out-and-out horror film. Its own synopsis includes the words “malevolent presence,” and the cover alone shows a gloomy and dim image of a young girl clutching a crucifix in front of a roaring fire. Having watched the film twice now, I’m hesitant to label it as a horror film, though the act of watching it definitely conjures horror (in a good way). Thanks to its period setting, its ease at earning and establishing dread, and its focus on the slowly dissolving family unit, Gwen comes off as a cinematic soulmate to 2015’s The Witch, another film I was hesitant to label as horror…and Gwen contains even less horror than that.

Despite that, Gwen is a solid, well-made, and eerily authentic feature from writer/director William McGregor. Every inch of its running time feels absolutely genuine. The actors, especially young Eleanor Worthington-Cox (The Enfield Haunting) as the title character, sell the desperation and despair of this poor family undergoing every possible hardship: the father is missing in action, the mother, Elen (Maxine Peake, Black Mirror), is suffering from a strange illness that causes her seizures, and the family is barely making enough money to scrape by. Bureaucrats in town continue to pressure Elen into selling off the only asset they have left — their house and farm — but she refuses, saying it’s all they have left — that it’s their home. Meanwhile, Gwen takes over her mother’s duties and tries to sell some of their farm’s produce in the town’s marketplace, but shoppers avoid her as if she has a catchable curse.

The moment Gwen begins, the viewer too easily slips into that world, and at no point does something “movie” happen to rip you out of the world that McGregor has created. Again, similar to The Witch, the dedication to making that world feel as genuine and realistic as possible is a total success, and it’s every bit as effective as A24’s eerie romp with Black Phillip. From the wardrobes to the accents and especially to the production design, it’s one of the most authentic period horror films you could ever see.

As for the horror aspect, where Gwen may lack in more typical horror scares (The Witch comes off damn near mainstream when comparing their horror content), it more than makes up in wallowing despair. Make no mistake: Gwen is certainly not a feel-good movie. If you have patience for slow-burn tales, you’ll enjoy watching it, but you won’t enjoy how it makes you feel. At times, it feels like a triathlon of how poorly things can go for a single family. Its ending, as well, comes off abrupt; when the screen cuts to black at the end, you’ll be waiting for it to fade into the next scene instead of directly into the closing credits.

The sound presentation might actually be the sleeper agent of the movie; the quiet ambience and low-key score by James Edward Barker infests your brain and lays most of the groundwork for the film’s focus on despair and futility. Gwen is one of those flicks where the sun never shines, where the world is draped in rainy gray. The picture only ever fills with life a single time–when Gwen is at the doctor’s office begging him for medicine to take home to her mother—it’s the only time the film feels hopeful, and that things might be okay for the family.

If you want a good-time, party-like horror movie, run as fast as you can from Gwen, but if you’re someone who prefers to wallow in the dark, or if you’re especially into period dread, Gwen and her family are waiting for you.

Jul 12, 2020

MAGGIE (2016)

Maggie is a remarkable film in many respects, the most remarkable being that it was, for a long time, the little movie that could, and not one that many people took seriously. With several new Arnold films not doing all that well with audiences (in terms of box office), the announcement of him signing on to a zombie film alongside Abigail Breslin, who had already done a zombie film (and a comedy at that), didn't bode well, as right off the bat, it wasn't a project anyone was taking seriously. Talkback sections on the film's announcement were littered with the typical disdain for the actor's legacy and age; quotes from his previous films were appropriated and zombified. "Put the zombie down!" etc. The internet did not miss the chance to be the total cliche that it is.

And then Maggie began making film festival rounds to mostly positive reviews, and even those reviewers who panned the film at least had the decency to rightly herald Arnold's performance. For a long time, Arnold has been less of an actor and more of a superstar celebrity. And that's okay. He's only contributed some of the most entertaining action films on Planet Earth, so in that regard, not everyone need be Daniel Day Lewis. His mysterious "Austrian" accent and subsequent inability to fully articulate through it has relegated him to taking on roles where his subdued and slightly unusual way of speaking didn't inhibit the type of role he was playing, like, say, cyborg, or barbarian, or kindergarten teacher.

It's entirely possible that Maggie director Henry Hobson cast Arnold for somewhat the same reason - choosing someone who once represented the immortal screen superstar to this time play it small, sad, and even helpless. Without being able to rely on muscles or guns or groan-inducing puns, Arnold, this time, has only his performance to contribute. Finally, after all these years, the Austrian Oak has proven that he does have the chops to commit to such a role, relying only his talent without any of his familiar crutches in sight.

Maggie doesn't fully work and its ending may leave the viewer a little unsatisfied, but for the majority of the running time, what does work fully overcomes its weaknesses. Much like George Romero has been doing for fifty years, Maggie uses its zombies as a metaphor, but this time confines it to the family unit - more specifically, to the pain of losing a child to terminal illness. It's about witnessing the slow transformation from living to dying, and feeling completely helpless to stop it. To call the film powerful might be overstepping a bit, but at times it can be deeply affecting, with a roundhouse of excellent performances (including the film's best, which belongs to Bryce Romero [no relation!] as the doomed semi-love interest, Trent) and strengthened by restrained storytelling, Maggie offers the most unique film of Arnold's career as well as one of the most rewarding and unassuming gems of the year.

Hobson designed Maggie's visual presentation with muted and pale colors, as if every piece of surrounding is void of life. Details are finely captured, including Arnold's weathered and craggy face. Background textures of the family's depressed and depressing farmhouse, which contribute to much of the established mood, are also ably captured - they don't so much "pop" as they just exist, in keeping with Maggie's restrained style. From the squeaking and rattling of Wade's truck to the ambiance of burning fields to David Wingo's melancholy score, Maggie's audioscape remains as intimate but present as the film itself. Dialogue is clean and well-presented. Environmental ambiance has been perfectly subdued, wiping away the sounds of birds and other native wildlife, adding to the overall feeling of death that drapes across the entire world. Only the desolate sounds of cicadas remain. 

Strip away all your preconceived notions of just what kind of film Maggie is based solely on the fact that Arnold's face appears on the cover. Not only is Maggie purposely pensive (fans of the quicker-paced The Walking Dead should keep walking), it also plays things 100% serious, perhaps at times to its detriment, but it's still one of the best and underseen films of which Arnold has been a part for a long time. One hopes that Maggie's excellent video release introduce the film to a whole new audience that may have missed it the first time, leading them to embrace the new approach by one of cinema's favorite leading men, perhaps that will result in Arnold taking on more serious films and avoiding studio nonsense like Terminator: Genisys - and that's a possibility we should all take very seriously.