(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) There has been a lot of criticism aimed at Netflix’s Death Note movie from fans of the original anime, but the irony is that for viewers coming in fresh without knowledge of the film’s inspiration is that Death Note, taken by itself, is actually not bad—it feels like a throwback to the kind of high-concept horror movies circa 1995–2005. Something like Idle Hands, perhaps, or more specifically the first Final Destination. Consider this: A teenager gets possession of a book in which he can specify who will die and how. From that simple premise stem a few complications: a bloodthirsty demonic personification of the book coaching the protagonist or maybe trying to take over his soul; media attention toward a sudden slew of high-profile deaths (as, naturally, our hero scribbles all sorts of high-profile criminals in the book); a genius-level detective tracking down what he thinks is the source of those mysterious deaths; and the inevitable romantic complications of a high-schooler getting his hands on life-and-death power. I understand from the numerous complaints that the anime is better, smarter, stronger, faster and possibly tastier than the film adaptation, but as a first-time viewer I don’t have much to complain about: while Death Note does tie itself up in logical knots in trying to fit the premise in a two-hour movie, it’s intriguing throughout, and ends with a nice fillip that shows more imagination than the usual horror film confrontation. Nat Wolff is fine as the protagonist and Lakeith Stanfield is interesting as Detective L, but it’s Willem Dafoe who seems to be having the most fun voicing demon Ryuk. Director Adam Wingard leads the material competently, but he’s a bit stuck with the original material—even newcomers such as myself can see the compromises made in order to distill it to a movie and whitewashing it to American audiences, although my suggestion would have been to run even rather away from the source material in the hope of ending with something that doesn’t feel like a half-baked compromise between weird source material and the requirements of a self-contained movie. Until the sure-to-follow sequel presumably addresses some further plot threads, I’m relatively satisfied by the result—which is probably what Netflix aimed for when it backed its production.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) So there it is. Another Blair Witch movie. Eh. As someone who saw the original movie at a preview screening in theatres (but never bought into the “is it real?” hype) back in July 1999 and was an early annoyed at the whole shaky cam/found footage craze, I went into this sequel/remake who fairly low expectations. They were met, more by default than anything else: Working with threadbare material, director Adam Wingard can put together competent horror set-pieces (there’s an effective piece of claustrophobia near the end), but can’t seem to bring the idea to anything but a repetition of the previous film. The good news, of a sort, are that this Blair Witch is pretty much exactly what The Blair Witch Project would look like had it been conceived today, complete with multiple cameras, a drone and YouTube. The bad news is that repetition is no innovation, and there have been such an endless stream of copycat movies to The Blair Witch Project that even an official sequel feels like a useless movie. Heck, without going all hipster reviewer on you, I remember Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows as more interesting than this sequel (plus, it had nudity). Whatever new ideas are brought up by the film (such as the time loop) aren’t effectively exploited and the whole thing does indeed seem to run in circles. Callie Hernandez and Corbin Reid are sympathetic, but ultimately unable to improve the film much. In the end, we’re left with a shrug. For writer/director pair Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, this seems like a slicker step backward from You’re Next and The Guest. Hopefully they’ve learned a few things and recharged their creative batteries from the experience.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) Writer/director duo Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard previously collaborated on You’re Next, a pure genre romp that showed that there’s still life in the home-invasion horror film as long as it’s competently made. This intention seems just as strong here with The Guest, seemingly a throwback to the kind of B-movie from the eighties in which a stranger comes to town… bringing uncommon skills with him. Dan Stevens is compelling as the mysterious young man with secrets of his own; he’s instantly credible in a fairly intense role far removed from his usual persona. He’s the anchor of The Guest, and the film wouldn’t work if he didn’t nail his role as perfectly. He creates the situations to which other characters react, and by the time we’re down to a third-act horror-house suspense sequence, the film has fulfilled its own goals perfectly. (Although you have to like films with a lengthy list of innocent victims in order to enjoy this one.) Like You’re Next, The Guest is fast, cheap, self-aware and firmly in control: it’s a bit of a treat for thriller fans looking for well-made genre films.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m not much of a slasher/home-invasion horror fan, but You’re Next is a fine, well-executed example of the form. Working from a familiar let’s-kill-all-characters-until-only-one-survives template, writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard wring competent thrills out of the proceedings, and deliver a story that’s more interesting than the usual psycho-killer standby. Sharni Vinson makes for a capable last-girl heroine that anchors the film by going beyond the damsel-in-distress archetype. You’re Next cleverly makes use of its limited budget by taking place in one location with a limited (and dwindling) number of characters. Interestingly enough, the film keeps the more extreme gore under control until well into the third act –alas, the last few deaths feel as gratuitous as they are sadistic. Still, the rest is a knowing example of the genre, crafted well enough to remain interesting even for those who are not horror movie fans. It’s single-mindedly dedicated to entertainment for the audience, and that’s what makes it worthwhile.