Canadian director Rob Jabbaz shot The Sadness, his debut feature, in Taiwan, with a fully Taiwanese cast and script that draws in broad enough strokes to sidestep national or cultural specificity. Given the havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked on human civilization, it seems inevitable that we will soon see a wave of pandemic-themed horror cinema (indeed, just over half a year into the severest stage of lockdown, American director Rob Savage had already released the Zoom-focused thriller Host). In The Sadness, Jabbaz uses our contemporary context as a framework for his own variation on zombie narrative formulae, very much in the tradition of George A. Romero’s landmark Dead cycle.
The plot is unapologetically simple, designed to navigate its way through various gruesome set pieces. It begins with the focal couple, Jack (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina), bickering about rescheduling vacation plans, before Kat leaves for work and Jack goes about his morning routine. It isn’t long before Jack has his first encounter with a victim of the Alvin virus, a disease that turns its hosts into red-eyed manifestations of pure id. We learn that this virus attacks the limbic system, a system that connects the area that regulates aggression to the area that governs sexual drive. As a character notes, “These areas of the brain aren’t terribly dissimilar.”
This plot element drives some of The Sadness’s most compelling thematic threads, especially with regard to the undeniable animality undergirding humanity, constantly pressing against the fraying fabric of “social order.” Jabbaz suggests some anti-humanist ideas by cutting periodically to close-ups of Jack’s fish circling inside its tank, echoing the entrapment of its human character counterparts — when we get down to the brute, existential mandates of our true selves, we are defined purely by instincts of self-preservation. The film gestures to this idea through pessimistic dialogue as well: “You are just like me: violent and depraved,” an infected man tells a woman who uses extreme force to defend herself against him.
Such philosophical asides are all too brief, though. Jabbaz’s primary focus is on cartoonishly gory entertainment. The director approaches scenes of carnage with glee, maximizing on IF SFX Art Maker’s expertise with practical effects (the film includes some selective deployment of CGI, too, but there is an evident emphasis on old-school gore throughout). This is perhaps the film’s greatest merit: its willingness to plunge into absurd Grand Guignol, presenting novel depictions of mutilation and murder. This is a perfectly valid project for any horror film: to release frustration and fear through unfettered, operatic visualization. In an era where genre cinema is all too often bogged down in broad thematic pretensions and suffocating self-censorship, this aspect of The Sadness is, in itself, refreshing.
Romero’s Dead films contained caustic and multifaceted diagnoses of racism, capitalism, the military industrial complex, and technological surveillance, punctuated with boundary-pushing depictions of violence. The Sadness follows this tradition, but its commentary feels somehow less dangerous, its carnage less transgressive. Undoubtedly, Jabbaz’s picture has no shortage of onscreen brutality, but the horrific scenes seem designed primarily around grisly humor, cutting around the most upsetting implications of a virus that leads to widespread murder and rape. Certainly, there are fleeting glimpses of social commentary — characters speculate that the Alvin virus is a hoax being propped up for the economic benefits of the wealthy elite, and one quick monologue seems designed explicitly to evoke our contemporary real world circumstances: “No one trusts doctors anymore. Everything must be politicized. There can no longer be truth. Politicians are the worst. A nationwide lockdown probably felt like career suicide to them. It’s an election year, and they don’t want to risk running the country into a recession.” However, these glimpses appear carefully calibrated to avoid serious upset, more concerned overall with fun than disruption.
Writer: Mike Thorn
The Last Thing Mary Saw
The Last Thing Mary Saw isn’t exactly a bad film per se, but it is exactly what horror cinema doesn’t need right now. Yet another somber, religion-inflected exercise in moody period “horror,” Edoardo Vitaletti’s debut feature plays like a dour inversion of Fear Street Part Three — also bad, but at least somewhat adrenalized in its own Nickelodeon way — both films fixing a doomed lesbian love affair at their center. Here, the details concern, of course, Mary (Stefanie Scott) — introduced with blood trickling from blindfolded eyes as she is interrogated about her grandmother’s death, the only memorable part of the film — a young woman raised by a hyper-religious family in a hyper-religious rural Long Island community in the 1840s. The narrative then moves back in time from this setup. The unnamed grandmother (Eraserhead’s Judith Roberts) is a stern matriarch who exerts power over her clan and community, and when Mary becomes sexually involved with the family maid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman), it becomes clear that for her, the wages of sin just might actually be death. Of course, an extra wrinkle is introduced in the form of a stranger who saunters into town. As he’s played by Rory Culkin, you can quickly predict his general unsavory character.
But despite the overfamiliar setup and easy calculus of the narrative, The Last Thing Mary Saw isn’t necessarily damned upon conception; the period trappings offer plenty of opportunity for building an effective horror milieu, as does the thematic potential inherent to genre-fied depictions of religion’s symbiotic relationship with evil. The problem, then, is that Vitalleti’s film does nothing to distinguish itself, unless you count its utter solemnity in its favor: the images are frequently cast in near pitch-blackness, action almost entirely occluded; a not insignificant number of line deliveries here are mumbled and/or whispered to the point of indecipherability; and the dialogue that is audible is noticeably in love with its own old-timey, highfalutin character. It’s a vibe, to be sure, but one that’s more oppressive than anything else. There’s a whole lot of candle-lit sequences and a bevy of low-angle shots presumably deployed to articulate some (nonexistent) ominousness, but like everything else here, it feels entirely prescribed — unimaginative, verbatim execution in fire-and-brimstone-style foreboding. Vitalleti could have at least short-circuited the film’s narcotizing effect had he bothered to mussy anything up, but his shiftless approach seems to trust that the film’s particular setting will make up for its clear deficiencies of personality and texture. The final result of all this is something of a contradiction: there’s no denying that there’s a vision here — it would be near impossible to remain this willfully gloomy and sedate without intent — but it’s one that takes its melange of influences (The Village, The Witch, The Crucible, The Virgin Spring) and flattens them to the point of rendering the material comatose. Pardon the excessive cuteness, but Mary should just feel lucky this film wasn’t the last thing she saw.
Writer: Luke Gorham
There’s a palpable sense of melancholy at the heart of writer/director Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane, a ghost story that largely eschews scares in favor of exploring a young girl’s loneliness and her parent’s repressed trauma. 10-year-old Leah (Kiera Thompson) lives a reasonably comfortable life on an expansive rectory in the British countryside. Her father Thomas (Steven Cree) is the local vicar, who tends to a fairly diverse parish. Her older sister Bex (Hannah Rae) is killing time before leaving for college, and she and Leah bicker as siblings tend to do. Her mother Sarah (Denise Gough) has something of a stern air about her, always busy and reluctant to waste time on the frivolous flights of fancy that young children tend to indulge in. She’s not unkind, exactly; harried is more precise, with a kind of haunted, thousand-yard stare. Platt efficiently sketches in this quotidian familial dynamic with a careful emphasis on Leah’s perspective, frequently framing shots from her point of view — closer to the floor and peering around corners or through partially closed doors. One night, for no real reason other than that she’s a child, and children act on impulse, Leah steals a lock of hair from a pendant that her mother wears around her neck. Awakened by the disturbance, Sarah searches desperately for the item while Leah sneaks back to bed and tosses the hair out the window. She thinks she’s simply getting rid of the evidence of her harmless indiscretion, but Sarah is first frantic, then heartbroken. As if summoned by the lost totem, or perhaps by Leah’s guilt, a young girl begins visiting Leah in the middle of the night. Clad in a white dress with frilly angel’s wings strapped to her back, the visitor (played by Sienna Sayer) ingratiates herself to the lonely Leah as the pair play games and snuggle under the covers. To her credit, Platt doesn’t play coy with the young girl’s otherworldly provenance — she is a ghost, and she has a quest for Leah to complete.
Unfortunately, Platt does play coy about almost everything else in Martyrs Lane, creating a puzzle box narrative that quickly runs out of steam despite a relatively brief runtime. The visitor gives Leah new instructions every night, each one leading her to some lost bit of ephemera that, while meaningless to Leah, triggers furtive looks and audible gasps from mom and dad. Leah collects each trinket — small blocks with letters on them, an old doll, a missing button — and creates a kind of altar with them, although in service of something she doesn’t understand. Meanwhile, her nightly visitor becomes more aggressive with each task, and her white dress and costume wings begin to yellow and decay. It all eventually leads to the secret of what happened on Martyrs Lane, the source of Sarah’s distant, aloof personality. It’s a shame, as the narrative gamesmanship winds up detracting from what is a sharply drawn portrait of a family in distress. The film’s best scenes involve these fractured relationships mending, like Bex dropping her surly attitude to sleep next to a shaken Leah, or Leah’s father indulging in a moment of childlike glee while he prances about with her on his shoulders. Even poor Sarah occasionally relents and cracks a smile. Platt has a sharp eye, and gets outstanding performances from her cast; Thompson and Sayer are particularly good, and whatever virtues the film has rest largely on their small shoulders. There’s intimations of fairy tales here, as well as the occasional indulgence in “it was actually a dream” jump scares, but aside from an out-of-place, distractingly bombastic climax, which frustrates more than it edifies, Martyrs Lane barely constitutes a horror movie. And while Platt certainly has a knack for eerie atmospherics, there’s simply not enough here despite the ample talent on display. In the end, this is just another metaphor for trauma, with cliches and boredom ultimately trumping any sense of catharsis.
It’s probably unnecessary to note that Japanese (pop) culture, and more specifically its cinema today, has a sort of very vivid coolness and charm that often easily distinguishes it for international viewers. The escalating domestic box-office success of live-action manga adaptations is no exception, even if internationally, this burgeoning “genre” may still be more of a cult attraction with a diehard but niche target audience. This brief exordium offers context for Tsutomu Hanabusa’s Tokyo Revengers, which is adapted from a famous, ongoing Weekly Shōnen manga of the same name — created, written, and illustrated by the mangaka, Ken Wakui. The film follows the story of 20-ish protagonist Takemichi Hanagaki (Takumi Kitamura) who, after being pushed onto subway tracks in front of a rushing train, is suddenly and magically thrown ten years back into the past where he tries, in a familiar Orphean manner, to save the life of his high-school sweetheart Hinata (Mio Imada) who, alongside her younger brother, Naoto (Yôsuke Sugino), was a victim of violence involving the Tokyo Manji gang. This mission, then, to change the past by altering the gang’s course, offers the thematic crux of Tokyo Revengers: specifically, the necessity of love’s survival in a time of overgrown hatred and violence.
As in its original comic form, Hanabusa’s Tokyo Revengers plays out as a mélange of bloody gang battles, high-school romance, and a time-travel genre play. The mix should work, but the problem is that the film’s limited runtime never provides adequate space for all of these modes and ideas to fully develop. In its format as a feature film, Tokyo Revengers can at best wink at its source material, perhaps relying too much on the assumption that its target audience is already familiar with most of the characters and situations here, and can thus fill in the gaps; this, even through a glimpse at the anime series version of Tokyo Revengers produced by Linden Films and which was aired earlier this year on Japanese television, also speaks to the lackluster effect of Hanabusa’s effort. In fact, this direct comparison elucidates how devoid Tokyo Revengers is of the brio and dash that make its manga and anime variants so enthralling in the first place. The vivacity of a sharp color palette would have been a significant boon here, rather than excessive appliance of grimy tints and heavy use of artificial green and blue filters (especially during nighttime scenes) that the director relies on; the half-hearted atmosphere could have opened up into a wild, joyous experience — think the ravishing, singular formalism that Sion Sono has employed for his manga-based films like Tokyo Tribe or two-parter Shinjuku Swan.
Apart from some specific action sequences (mostly gory fistfight sequences), which seem to be the Hanabusa’s primary focus — competent without ever overtly impressing; well-choreographed and effectively pacing — everything else here, including the romance between Takemichi and Hinata, never really function at the same energy level and remain underwhelming. But if there’s any redeeming factor that keeps Tokyo Revengers somewhat engaging until the end, it’s the film’s aesthetic of flamboyant, punky appearance, and the excellent performances Hanabusa coaxes out of the massive acting ensemble. This strength is especially pronounced when it comes to the two main Manji gang members, leader Mikey and right-hand man Draken, who bring a little force and hip rhythm to the proceedings thanks to Manjirō Sano and Yûki Yamada’s respective work. But despite this appealing sheeling and occasional injection of spirit, there’s just not enough to give these under-developed characters (unforgivable for the Moebius gang members) any depth or nuance, and ultimately renders everyone here mere cosplayers. Still, Tokyo Revengers has already become one of the highest-grossing box-office hits of 2021 in Japan, which means plenty are able to overlook Hanabusa’s omission of narrative color and his decision to remain pro forma with his film adaptation rather than aiming for anything more ambitious. A more cynical take, however, sees in that only proof that Tokyo Revengers can win over predisposed manga diehards by the virtue of simply transforming cartoon characters and worlds into something more “real.” For those whose praise isn’t a foregone conclusion, it will likely prove disappointing, unimaginative, and only partly-conceived affair.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Don’t Say Its Name
Following the release of last year’s Blood Quantum, Rueben Martell’s Don’t Say Its Name is a welcome addition to the still-small genre of Indigenous horror. Here, a community in the mountains of Northern Canada is besieged by a violent specter that attacks its victims without warning and leaves a trail of bloody, eviscerated bodies in its wake. Beginning with a (seemingly unrelated) hit-and-run that leaves local activist Kharis Redwater (Sheena Kaine) dead, Officer Betty Stonechild (Madison Walsh) has to break the news to Kharis’ bereaved mother, Mary Lynne (Carla Fox). Betty already has her hands full dealing with her teenage nephew, Ben (Samuel Marty), and a well-meaning white cop named Andy (Justin Lewis) who has access to lab facilities that the tiny tribal department doesn’t. But before Kharis’ body has even been buried, a young couple is attacked in the middle of the woods. The woman, a surveyor for mining company WEC, has been ripped open, and her fiancé is in shock, claiming he saw and heard nothing except for geysers of blood. Betty has been around domestic violence for her entire life, and is ready to chalk it up to a case of a drunk man abusing his girlfriend. Soon, however, there’s another attack, this time targeting a male victim. His girlfriend says the same thing as before — no warning, no sound, an apparently invisible killer. At this point, Betty decides she needs some help, and so she deputizes Stacey Cole (Sera-Lys McArthur), a local game warden and former soldier suffering from PTSD after her time in Afghanistan. Stacey seems to have some idea about what’s going on, but fearful that Betty won’t accept something supernatural in origin, she approaches her uncle, Carson Stonefeather (Julian Black Antelope). Carson is also a town elder, a believer in legends and folklore, and he and Stacey set out to catch or kill this ghostly predator. The film’s plot alternates between police procedural, as Betty investigates the initial hit-and-run and how it ties in with WEC’s underhanded mining efforts, and ghost story, as Stacey and Carson realize they’ve gone up against more than they can handle.
It’s all engrossing enough, despite some bumps along the way. The screenplay in particular is occasionally rough, as characters tend to speak in unnatural sounding declarative sentences and shoehorn in awkward exposition (it’s the kind of film where characters will state their relationships to each other solely for the benefit of the audience). It’s mostly a good-looking film, with a few awkward stylistic flourishes that detract more than they add, like Stacey’s PTSD being visualized via wailing electric guitar solos and the sounds of helicopters on the soundtrack. And it doesn’t take a genre expert to figure out where the story is heading long before it gets there. Still, there’s much to like as well: Walsh and McArthur make for appealing leads, both no-nonsense, take-no-shit professionals who square off with danger without hesitation, there’s ample gore on display, and at least one exquisitely timed jump-scare. It’s a unique and fully-realized milieu, chock full of realistic, lived-in detail. When communities ask for more inclusive films, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about, where the specificity of the lives behind and in front of the camera adds texture to otherwise run-of-the-mill creature features. So much so in fact that one can imagine a straightforward, dramatic version of the film, where a put-upon local cop must deal with shady corporations, implicit and explicit racism, and white folks butting in where they’re not wanted. It’s a small film, certainly, but Don’t Say Its Name speaks to the great potential out there when boundaries are pushed and horizons expanded.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Kwon Oh-seung’s debut feature Midnight is a sturdy genre picture whose novel character perspective helps ward off some of its narrative absurdity. The film follows Kyung-Mi, a woman with a hearing impairment who works as a virtual sign language customer service provider. One hellish night, Kyung-Mi (Jin Ki-joo) and her mother (Gil Hae-yeon) find their lives suddenly intertwined with a young woman named So Jung-eun (Kim Hye-yoon), as all three become the targets of an inhumanly intelligent serial killer, Do-Sik (Wi Ha-joon).
Midnight situates its proceedings within an environment enmeshed in casual misogyny and ableism, depicting both individual and institutional disregard for women and people with disabilities. However, it wisely sidesteps the trap of relegating its central women solely to the restrictive “victim” category. Kyung-Mi is a dynamic and interesting character, even when the plot guides her to make decisions that stretch the limits of plausibility. One particularly amusing scene depicts her enduring an awful dinner with ignorant clients, responding to their idiotic remarks with combative sign insults they cannot understand (“I said you look ugly; guess you don’t get it,” she signs to one man. “I’ll grind your face,” she tells another). Unfortunately, the film’s script often dictates that its characters follow the mandates of plot rather than allowing its story to adhere to plausible character psychology. As such, it requires a feature-length suspension of disbelief to an extreme degree: Midnight’s players make incessantly baffling choices simply to keep things moving from scene to scene.
But when Kwon settles into pure action, he does some genuinely exciting things. The director shapes entire sequences around the inherent tension between what Kyung-Mi can’t hear and what Do-Sik and the audience can (a squeaky door handle, oncoming traffic, the clink of blades inside a bag). There are some exhilarating foot chase and combat scenes, propelled by a breathless visual approach and some skillful choreography. Kwon also maximizes digital photography’s unique capacities for shooting nighttime sequences. Filmed primarily in handheld and tracking shots, Midnight achieves a persistent sense of lurking uneasiness, as if there might be someone hiding just outside the frame at any given moment. Do-Sik stores his weapons and some of his victims inside a van with neon pink interior, an unnervingly alluring beacon that floats unnoticed through the urban blackness. It’s also worth noting that the picture skillfully incorporates cellphones and text messaging into its narrative beats. The omniscience of this new technology has presented entirely new obstacles to horror creators, and Midnight thoughtfully rises to the challenge rather than working around it: some of the tensest moments stem primarily from misidentification or misdirection via SMS.
But above all, this is a straightforward genre picture with its focus on pure thrills. In some ways, it recalls John Hyams’ economical Alone (2020), although it never quite matches that film’s strongest moments of formal ingenuity. Additionally, Midnight showcases its allegiance to several classic horror movies of the 1970s and ‘80s, both through subtle visual nods and bigger thematic connections; while watching, it’s not hard to catch references to a number of such flicks, including Eyes of a Stranger (1981), The Shining (1980), The Hitcher (1986), and When a Stranger Calls (1979). So while it might buckle under concerted narrative scrutiny, falling prey to some of the genre’s familiar narrative and psychological shortcuts, Midnight works just fine as a solid piece of escapism.
Writer: Mike Thorn
On the Third Day
Daniel de la Vega’s On the Third Day, co-written by Alberto Fasce and Gonzalo Ventura, begins with three separate lives intersecting on a dark, lonely stretch of highway in the middle of the night. Cecilia (Mariana Anghileri) is on the run from someone, or something, with her young son Martín (Octavio Belmonte) asleep in the backseat. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Enrique (Gerardo Romano) is tasked with transporting a package to Santa Cruz, a wooden crate which has been wrapped tight with thick chains and is shaped suspiciously like a makeshift coffin. As Cecilia speeds down the road, she spots Lucia (Veronica Intile) on the shoulder, her car broken down. As she contemplates stopping to assist this stranger, her car drifts into the other lane and is broadsided by Enrique’s truck. After a cut to black, Cecilia wakes up in an abandoned building, stumbles outside, and realizes that three days have passed since the accident. Just what exactly happened to Cecilia during this prolonged blackout, the now unknown whereabouts of Martin, and what has escaped from Enrique’s crate make up the backbone of this Argentinian horror-thriller, which tiptoes around its central mystery while gradually introducing the possibility of a supernatural occurrence. Could Cecilia possibly have killed her own child?
Doctor Hernan Pastori (Lautaro Delgado) doesn’t seem to think so. He checks Cecilia into the hospital and reassures her that the police are doing everything they can to find Martin. But Inspector Ricardo Ventura (Osvaldo Santoro) is more skeptical, a lifetime of hunting down criminals having exhausted any benefit of the doubt he might extend to a suspect. The plot thickens when Cecilia’s ex-husband Fernando (Diego Cremonesi) storms into the hospital, demanding to know where his son is. Suddenly, there’s another suspect; surely this bullheaded man with a violent temper seems a more likely culprit than the damaged Cecilia.
De la Vega and cinematographer Mariano Suarez are borrowing heavily from the Giallo playbook here, particularly Argento and Fulci, with a dash of De Palma flair. They make heavy use of mirrors, as Cecilia sees flashes of Martin’s red hoodie all around her (echoes of Don’t Look Now are clearly intended), as well as freeze frames, smash cuts, and slow-motion zooms. It keeps things lively, even if the film is nowhere near as colorful (or as outrageously violent) as its more obvious stylistic antecedents. It’s a beautiful looking film, with precise framing that never becomes antiseptic (a far too common occurrence in our present era of “elevated horror”). Eventually, Cecilia escapes the hospital, and with Oastori’s assistance, makes her way to a hypnotist. A long flashback ensues, filling in the details of who Cecilia and Martin were fleeing and why, as well as conclusively answering the question of any supernatural influence on the proceedings. Concurrently, Enrique, revealed to be a rogue priest of some sort, has dragged poor Lucia back to his home and proceeds to dispose of her corpse in a very specific, ritualized manner. It’s all very creepy, and a lot of fun, at least until the final reel, where the various narrative threads and compounding mysteries have to come together and finally start revealing some answers. On the Third Day doesn’t wind up exactly where you think it’s going, but whether or not its big reveal works will surely be up for debate amongst audience members. Still, it’s got a final gut punch up its sleeves that really lands, and the lead performance by Mariana Anghileri is truly remarkable. On the Third Day isn’t perfect by any means, but it leaves a mark.