July 2021 Roundup

A Classic Horror Story

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Netflix // Directed by Roberto De Feo & Paolo Strippoli // Starring Matilda Lutz, Will Merrick, Yuliia Sobol, Peppino Mazzotta, Cristina Donadio, Francesco Russo

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With the title A Classic Horror Story, I cannot pretend that I was not immediately concerned that this movie would be a collection of well-worn, eye-rolling tropes and genre conventions bundled together under the premise of subversion or simply novelty value. Directors Roberto De Feo and Paolo Strippoli’s movie begins with, you guessed it, a standard horror cliché - a group of strangers travelling through deep woodland when trouble strikes (do not worry, this is in the plot synopsis) - but it does weave in interesting ideas and some decent twists to keep things enticing and prevent ACHS from simply being a ‘clever’ title. The attempts at social commentary throughout, however, were not explored enough and there was an overriding feeling that the “quantity over quality” rule was in place regarding story ideas utilized and implemented. Of course, no story is ever original anymore (well, few) so ACHS does lean on the established rules of the genre, but it combines these with some decent imagery and genuinely wince-inducing sequences designed to smother you in a state of fear and anxiety until we roll around to the admittedly slightly underwhelming conclusion. Matilda Lutz (who was so good in 2017’s Revenge) is solid throughout in a movie that tries with many approaches, succeeding with most but falling short on others. Whilst never threatening to be a classic horror story, this is nonetheless a solid and effective effort. 

 
 

Fear Street Part One: 1994

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Netflix // Directed by Leigh Janiak // Starring Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger, Ashley Zukerman, Darrell Britt-Gibson

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Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy, a three-week horror event from Netflix inspired by the novels of RL Stine, begins with Fear Street Part One: 1994 and will continue with two more releases over the coming weeks (namely 1978 and 1666). The trilogy will cover the story of Sarah Fier, a witch executed in 1666 by the Shadyside locals but not before she could unleash a curse on the town damning it to a future filled with death and misery – unlike its affluent rival neighbourhood, Sunnyside. Fear Street Part One: 1994 brings with it the anticipation of a fun, scare-filled throwback to the slasher era of the mid-nineties, and, well, it certainly begins that way with its loving homage to Scream, and, throughout, 1994 tries its best to keep that verve that propelled Craven’s classic along. It is mostly successful despite the movie losing momentum in the middle act before ramping up with a blood-spattered and exciting ending. 1994 does suffer from slight pacing issues though and, at times, it did start to feel slightly repetitive with some of the decisions made the further into the story we got. The characters are fine, Benjamin Flores Jr. as Josh, the younger brother of our lead Deena (Madeira, in a decent, if unspectacular performance), is the standout performer in a movie of frustratingly forgettable characters. The story itself is simple enough (teens get stalked by mask-wearing loonies as they search for items and clues) but has the inclusion of Deena’s rocky relationship with her ex-girlfriend Sam (Welch) that provides the backbone and ensures a focal point remains for our leads. Visually, 1994 pops off the screen and is a treat for the eyes and if you can get past the horribly in-your-face soundtrack, you will find yourself having a great time (Scream composer Marco Beltrami delivers a good score also). Fear Street Part One: 1994 scores a lot of points for capturing the period and including the staples of the slasher genre (Masked killer? Check. Teen ensemble? Check. Useless law enforcement? Check) but I cannot help but feel it did not go in ENOUGH on its premise. It is bookended by great sequences but in-between there is a lack of energy and, honestly, slashings to justify its 18-certificate rating, however, 1994 sets up the trilogy with a fun first installment that is as bloody and vibrant as it was frustrating. 

Fear Street Part Two: 1978

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Netflix // Directed by Leigh Janiak // Starring Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Ryan Simpkins, McCabe Slye, Ted Sutherland, Gillian Jacobs, Kiana Madeira, Benjamin Flores Jr., Olivia Scott Welch

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Following on directly from Part One: 1994, Fear Street Part Two: 1978 takes us back in time to the late-70s to continue the mythology of Sarah Fier and to begin connecting the threads that emerged from the first movie. Deena (Madeira), Sam (Welch), and Josh (Flores Jr.) are still around but in 1978 we are introduced to Ziggy (Sink), Emily (Rudd), Alice (Simpkins), and a collection of characters that play host to the stereotypes of the time and genre decade conventions. 1978 falls foul of the same issues that plagued 1994 – uneven pacing, (mostly) uninspiring characters, and a soundtrack that attempts to bludgeon you with its ubiquitous nature – but it feels truer to what it is attempting to be (that being a 70s slasher set in a summer camp, we all know the type) even if I couldn’t fully be immersed due to not totally believing the setting, it didn’t “feel” like a 70s movie. What those classic movies of old did have was an impressive body count and 1978 certainly delivers on that aspect. It is far darker, bloodier, and more violent than its predecessor, anyone with a tolerance for ax-wielding madmen should find enough to satisfy their desires here. As Ziggy, Sadie Sink puts in an excellent performance carrying the movie alongside on-screen sibling Emily Rudd – the movie hinges on her and she is up to the task with a committed performance. Additionally, Ryan Simpkins as Alice adds to the emotional foundation with a good performance and McCabe Slye looks alarmingly like Robert Pattinson here. The movie falters slightly whenever it deviates from the slasher territory and heads underground (literally), but the overall story is strong enough to keep it engaging. The tie-ins to 1994 were intriguing and there’s plenty left over to set up a potentially tantalising finale. A few issues notwithstanding, 1978 still ends up being a deliciously brutal romp and an applaudable throwback to beloved horror movies of old.

 
 

Fear Street Part Three: 1666

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Netflix // Directed by Leigh Janiak // Starring Kiana Madeira, Ashley Zukerman, Gillian Jacobs, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Darrell Britt-Gibson

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The finale of Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy, Fear Street Part Three: 1666 was tasked with ending the trilogy on a high note whilst satisfyingly connecting every story thread from the previous two entries – not an easy task for any trilogy. As the title suggests, the setting for the finale is the year 1666, allowing for some slower-paced, atmospheric folk horror but eschewing the rampant pop culture references that were so prevalent in 1994 and 1978 (well...for the most part...). The core cast of Madeira, Welch and Flores Jr. return once again and just fiiiiine, however, this time they come with horrific Irish accents. Seriously, they’re terrible. Before an unconventional but fabulous shift/twist halfway through, 1666 moved at a pensive pace but did deliver some distressing and effective sequences (at earlier points than its predecessors, I must add) that more than made up for the comparatively muted visual and auditory approach. Disappointingly, as with 1978, I struggled with the authenticity of the period setting, I never believed I had been swept back a few hundred centuries, it still felt very...polished? In order to tie up the trilogy effectively, we must return to 1994 and it’s here that the movie begins to collapse. The situations and sequences in the ‘present’ feel a bit silly and with the addition of more and more threads, events, characters, etc., the movie begins to feel bloated and struggles to keep up with and contain itself. Whilst the overall synergy and connectivity are impressive, it’s a shame 1666 (…'1666’) lost impetus by going so big and bombastic in its finale. That being said, fans of the first two movies will undoubtedly be pleased with the events of the finale and you’d be hard-pressed to say the resolution of the varying plot points and arcs wasn’t an impressive feat. As part of a trilogy, 1666 provides just enough to satisfy but taken on its own merits, it is uneven, creaking at the seams and not entirely thrilling. 

 

Black Widow

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures // Directed by Cate Shortland // Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Olga Kurylenko, Ray Winstone, Rachel Weisz

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It’s taken twenty-four movies and the death of the titular character but we have finally received Black Widow, the solo outing for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff. Set after Captain America: Civil War, Natasha is on the run with the spectre of her past plaguing her and that spectre arrives in the form of Russian ‘super’-soldier Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (Harbour, clearly having a blast) and Melina Vostokoff (Weiss) AKA her surrogate parents and Yelena Belova (Pugh), her ‘sister’. Black Widow mainly focuses on the family drama especially between Natasha and Yelena and it’s at its strongest when it does. The family scenes are infused with humour, emotion and plenty of action to offset the less interesting aspects - i.e. Ray Winstone’s awful Dreykov (complete with awful Russian action), his legion of mind-controlled Black Widows, cringy weaponised pheromones (hello, Austin Powers) and the naff Taskmaster (Kurylenko) also. It’s a shame the villainous side is lacking as there is plenty to enjoy in Black Widow, not least the ever-impressive Pugh making her debut in the MCU and being positioned for bigger stories at the same time. It’s this aspect that also harms Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson feels sidelined in her own movie for much of it - the sheer amount of backstory, exposition and set ups throughout ensure that this never truly feels like Natasha’s movie which is a shame. The first half of Black Widow is superior to what comes in the latter stages - despite the inclusion of helicopter-led jailbreaks, frenetic vehicle chases and country-hopping adventures, it still feels smaller in scope than the overblown third act but still has a distinct lack of spying from the super spy of the Avengers. The positives do outweigh the negatives in Black Widow - it looks good, the performances are strong, there is plenty of solid action sequences to enjoy and we do get to say goodbye to one of the OG MCU stalwarts - but Black Widow does frustratingly end up feeling fairly middle-of-the-road in terms of the MCU output.