2019 is Hellish, and it’s a Banner Year for Horror

The Earth’s lungs are burning in the Amazon, the result of Brazilian arsonists acting on behalf of wannabe dictator Bolsonaro. The more they burn, the more land they can turn into farmland for cattle grazing. They’re literally destroying one of Earth’s last defenses against climate change in order to further one of the top five contributing factors to environmental destruction. Meanwhile, another wannabe dictator in the United States of America is doing everything in his power to imprison or reject Latin-American immigrants, regardless of their legal status. On the other side of the world, black batons, black trucks and actual black-hawk helicopters are trampling the rights of dissidents in China. Democracy and environmental awareness are on decline at the exact moment we need them more than ever. 2019 has been a horror show, so it’s no wonder we’re turning to a lower risk, lesser form of it in movie theaters. Horror has been on an upswing for a few years now, but between auteur visions like Us and Midsommar and nostalgia trips like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and the upcoming It Chapter Two, 2019 is a banner year for the genre. Whether good or bad, there are multiple horror options every month. This past month alone we’ve had Scary Stories, a sequel to 47 Meters Down, a possible cult classic in Ready or Not, and the execrable Haunting of Sharon Tate.

Sharon Tate and the Manson murders are all the rage now (August 9th was the 50th anniversary), what with Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and, yes, this colossal mistake. Haunting of Sharon Tate is everything people were foolishly worried Tarantino’s opus would turn out to be: an exploitative schlock-fest posing as true-crime horror. Hillary Duff, bless her, is trying her damnedest. She occasionally affects a quasi-New England accent, reminiscent of upper-crust types like Jackie Onassis. Why, when Sharon Tate spent her life in Texas, then California? The mind boggles. So does it boggle when showing the murders in full, down to every grim detail. When it’s not going for the jugular in the Heavyweight Championship of Tasteless Cinema, it’s simply downright boring. I counted four times I resorted to social media skimming while watching, and I’m not easily distracted.

“Haunting” is misleading, as no supernatural entities are present in Sharon Tate’s house, and thank god for that. However, it’s not without trying: there’s a spooky cassette player that echoes at odd hours in the night and hokey premonitions that pop up in Sharon’s nightmares. Technically speaking, the movie’s a mess, with fake slow-motion standing in for drama and useless small talk masquerading as dialogue. Haunting of Sharon Tate might call itself horror, but it’s no doubt the worst movie of the year. With rarities like Mandy coming every five years or so, the state of DTV or On-Demand horror is thriving in spite of how offensively terrible the majority of such products continues to be.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged plays like a movie that would’ve, should’ve gone DTV or to streaming in a different era. There was a time when Disney and other studios green-lit sequels for the expressed purpose of sending them to the bargain bins. No longer though. Any franchise, no matter how derelict, is ripe for the big screen in this age of IP. The original was a well-made if trifling creature feature that went off the rails in the third act, succumbing to one of those “it’s all a dream” conceits that is frowned upon by anyone with a brain. The sequel doesn’t go there fortunately, content to wade into a tried-and-true savior climax. However, unlike its predecessor, we don’t care one iota about four young women trapped in an underwater cave. The closest Uncaged comes to anything resembling a character we care about is John Corben’s beefy father, an archaeologist whose fate is laughable in the context of what the film is attempting thematically.

Director Johannes Roberts sets up a plot that hinges on a broken family coming together, specifically two step-sisters and their respective parents. Instead Roberts becomes infatuated with his lead heroine, an under-developed mousy type who’s bullied by cartoonish bitches at school. We learn next to nothing about her step-sister, the girl with whom she’s supposed to bond so that we give a shit when the chips are down and they have to save one another. Still, it’s occasionally funny if routinely annoying watching these dummies navigate murky waters and mega-sharks underground. One sequence involving a torrential whirlpool is legitimately frightening, and I’ll never not enjoy this current resurgence of animal monsters on film. The Meg, Crawl, 47 Meters Down, all of them of varying quality, all of them worth watching once for old school thrills. In fact, Roberts comes close to exacting the sort of claustrophobic thrills so perfected by Neil Marshall in The Descent. Close, but no cigar.

In my review of Us, I mentioned that iconography is a rarity. Not many filmmakers have the eye for it, either not even bothering or mistaking imitation for inspiration. Like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, Radio Silence (the nickname for cinema duo Matt Bettinelli and Tyler Gillett) have that oh-so-rare knack for it, and Ready or Not is proof of it. Just look at that photo, a torn bridal dress adorned with ammunition and a frail arm holding one massively long rifle in a candlelit dining room. It’s an iconic image, and Samara Weaving’s memorable visage makes it sing, her matted hair and wicked resting bitch-face potentially the stuff of future cinematic legend.

The last horror film of the summer is a funny almost-satire of the rich and depraved, and a saucy chamber piece as a dozen eccentric characters roam every nook and cranny of an old money mansion. Married into the Le Domas empire, or “dominion” as they prefer to be called, new bride Grace has no clue what’s in store for her when the family invites her to a game of cards on the night of her wedding to estranged son and boy-next-door type Alex. Naturally, she pulls the sinful card of Hide and Seek, which means the rest of the family must resort to hunting and killing her before dawn, lest they themselves die at the hands of an ethereal, satanic ancestor of theirs. Flirting with both marriage metaphor and take-down of the elite, Ready or Not is seemingly never ready to commit to either one. The latter in particular hinges on an ending where the murderous family finds themselves at a crossroads. Is the supernatural nonsense they’ve been babbling on about real or not? Radio Silence takes the road more traveled, and it almost doesn’t matter. Samara Weaving is so watchable and so good as Grace you want to forgive the film’s confused identity. Her protagonist isn’t quite a transformative bad-ass, we’ve seen that many times before too, but she’s something akin to the Ripleys and Sarah Connors of the world. She’s a modern everywoman, family outsider, and reluctant killer. By the end she’s had enough of this fucked-up family. Assisting her nicely, and rendering all of us clueless as to why his career went quiet for so long, is a charismatic Adam Brody. As Grace’s alcoholic brother-in-law and the only member of the family with a true conscience, I only wish we got more of his sullen, witty self-flagellation.

There’s something inviting about a horror film, full of gallows humor, that evokes murder mysteries like Clue and Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe it’s the decor, the old period trappings and fine mahogany, or maybe it’s nostalgia on my part. They don’t make whodunits anymore and while this is no murder mystery, it definitely looks like one. That’s what iconography can do for a film, and Ready or Not continues a 2019 tradition of doubling down on such in hopes that lasting images will lead to a longer shelf-life. We often watch a film and forget about it ten years down the road. I have a feeling Ready or Not won’t be one of them. It’s a cult film in more ways than one.

Zom-coms (Dead Don’t Die, Zombieland), sociopolitical metaphors (Us, Get Out), feminine character studies (Hereditary, Midsommar), gnarly creature features (Crawl), Stephen King adaptations (It, Pet Sematary), blockbuster IPs (Conjuring universe), and wicked satires (Ready or Not, Happy Death Day). The horror genre has never been more eclectic or successful, with both indie outlets and bigger studios churning out worthy efforts year after year. We’re currently in the midst of an indie horror boom, with A24 leading the charge and Blumhouse taking up the rear. Of course, success often breeds imitation, so we’re also reaching a point of over-saturation. More King remakes are coming down the pike, including a sequel to The Shining of all things. Nevertheless, nobody can say horror’s in a bad place when Universal Studios is giving thirty-million dollars to Jordan Peele to make a subversive home invasion thriller about class in America. Or when said thriller makes over $175 million US. We can only hope that such trends continue, with more original content surfacing as audience appetite for theme park thrills keeps growing, be it on the small screen or big screen. The movie industry needs that influx of talent and originality, and the world needs a safe space for exorcising our current fears, our subconscious dread that everything we hold dear is ending as we know it. Horror’s always been about us as humans, coping with the unfathomable. Well, the unfathomable is happening all around us every day. Will we survive?

Haunting of Sharon Tate – F
47 Meters Down: Uncaged – C+
Ready or Not – B

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