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The Poppies of Terra #14 - Seven Haunted Train Cars

By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

2023-10-11 09:00:24

The Halloween-bound fright train is picking up speed; so much spookiness, so little time. Here are my capsule thoughts on seven recent releases. Down them at your peril. 

Maybe the Saw franchise’s most gnarly pain device is its increasingly tortuous chronology. Saw X (dir Kevin Greutert), the latest installment, is really Saw 1.5, but since the eighth film in the series, simply titled Jigsaw, was a covert prequel, the original Saw becomes in effect the second entry, making part ten the third one, and thereby pushing Saw II to the fourth spot on the timeline. Fortunately, Saw X does more than simply cravenly carve out a gruesome notch for itself in the franchise’s crowded past: it offers the series’ most sustained insights into John Kramer, and it pits him against a cunning, ruthless adversary. The first half of the movie plays with its food, and the second half leaves no body part unravaged. Anchored by strong performances by Tobin Bell in the lead and Synnøve Macody Lund as Cecilia Pederson, the movie won’t make any new converts to the series, but it does at least go to the trouble of attractively tabling the usual gory dismemberments. If the writers run out of ideas by the time Saw XX comes around, here’s a suggestion: a crossover between the Saw and Final Destination universes. Who can orchestrate the most lethal, impossibly complicated trap, Jigsaw or the Grim Reaper?

Deliver Us (dir Cru Ennis & Lee Roy Kunz) is more ambitious than Saw X, but it suffers numerous identity crises along the telling of its virgin-birth Christ/Antichrist religious psychodrama. The tone falters; there are too many dream sequences, and extended montages of ominous music blaring to scenes edited like a music video. Despite solid performances by the likes of Jaune Kimmel, Alexander Siddig and several others, the overly portentous screenplay leads to a lackluster experience. Just like God always seems to need tax breaks, the Devil always seems to be shopping for a new chubby baby through which to be born. Remember Peter Hyams’ apocalyptic cheesefest End of Days? Well, Deliver Us doesn’t even rise to that corny level of entertainment. Instead, it’s more like a Linklater-esque hangout movie with really tortured, pretty people in a cabin. End of Daze

Possessions inform Exorcist: Believer (dir David Gordon Green) and When Evil Lurks (dir Demián Rugna). The first is a direct sequel to William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece, and the only Exorcist film to lure back Ellen Burstyn, now ninety years old, whose presence, disappointingly, amounts to little more than an extended cameo, and doesn’t, to boot, arise organically from the new story being told. The first forty-five minutes or so of Green’s picture, though closely mimicking the framing, editing and even rhythmic techniques of Friedkin’s predecessor, create an effectively creepy mood of intrigue. Alas, thereafter the narrative is seduced into idolatry. Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill give it their all as the two possessed girls, and Leslie Odom Jr.’s quietly commanding, inward-focused performance serves the film well as ritual leads to histrionics, but there’s no escaping the fact that we’ve seen this particular hex before. I think Green deserves some credit for showing restraint in what could have been a self-parodying debacle of a climax, and Michael Simmonds’s accomplished cinematography, along with the work of composers Amman Abbasi and David Wingo, serve the proceedings well. Whereas the original Exorcist worked on multiple levels, however, this movie explicitly spells out its themes and ideas, which turn out to be leftovers from Green’s Halloween trilogy, and the screenplay often feels pandering. Ambiguity and abstraction have been meticulously leached out by a calculus of widest-possible-demographic appeal, retrospectively shallowing out the moments of fright: Subtexorcist might have been a more accurate title. By contrast, Rugna’s ferocious When Evil Lurks is a wild Argentine beast of a movie, flailing and frothing with bucketfuls of gore at each twist. Insert every possible trigger warning here. The shocking visuals are not there for titillation’s sake; the film coyly plays with genre conventions and creates a serpentine narrative that imaginatively and creatively fuses the possession and contagion sub-genres. The story’s invented mythology is rich enough, in fact, for the movie to also function as an alternate history. Rugna’s precision and control over his material are evident at all times, sharply in contrast with the hysterical characters who consistently misstep on the way to their dooms and the often frenetic pacing of their incompetent attempts to escape their Grand Guignol circumstances. As unrepentantly grim as the recent Evil Dead Rise, this movie is like The Empire Strikes Back of an as-yet-unmade trilogy. (Continuing with the Stars Wars comparison, we might somewhat cruelly observe that Uriel has been Jabba-the-Hutt-ed by his demonic catarrh). It’s easy to imagine an earlier episode dealing, for example, with Mierta’s colorful backstory, and a sequel tackling the expanding waves of infectious cataclysm. I think this movie will be divisive; genre connoisseurs will likely see it as the year’s highpoint of bespattered originality, while everyone else will be repulsed and confused. When evil lurks, stomachs lurch, but not without a hearty helping of brains.  

Wanting to get away is a common thread between the slow-burn Australian Outback-set The Royal Hotel (dir Kitty Green) and the Stephen King-verse reboot prequel, of course firmly rooted in Ludlow, Maine, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines (dir Lindsey Anderson Beer). Green’s drama is a masterclass in character-driven tension-building and elliptical storytelling. As the movie progresses we learn almost nothing about the specific history of friendship linking Julia Garner’s tightly-wound Hanna and Jessica Henwick’s more roll-with-it Liv, and yet much can be gleaned from the clues on display. Their bond is powerful enough for Liv to be able to charmingly disarm Hanna’s instant concerns upon arriving at the eponymous locale, and for Hanna to be fully complicit in Liv’s desire to be as far away from whatever happened in her past as possible. This is not a revenge thriller, or grindhouse exploitation dressed up in indie garb, as the trailers might suggest, but a wonderfully observed portrait of all shades of human behavior, from the heartfelt and whimsically silly to the woefully misogynistic and pathetically self-destructive (Hugo Weaving is fantastic). Depending on your tastes, it might pair nicely with Alex Garland’s oppositely phantasmagoric Men. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, on the other hand, lays everything out neatly, dealing with horror tropes like cursed Native American land and a conspiracy of silence by adults, without pretensions to novelty. Forrest Goodluck and Isabella LaBlanc as, respectively, Manny and Donna Rivers are the most interesting characters, able to voice points of view usually absent from these types of stories. Jack Mulhern is not given enough scenery to chew on, though I did enjoy each time he said “Timmy ain’t home,” and David Duchovny’s grizzled Bill Baterman is fun. Beer, in her directorial debut, stages the main horror action beats well, and doesn’t pull any punches in the disfiguration department, but the whole affair is left airless in its prequel casket, and the screenplay’s stitching together of scenes fails to rouse any escalating sense of threat or genuine heebie-jeebies. Sometimes, dread is better.

We end on a note of family-oriented relief, if being stabbed to death sixteen times when’re sixteen can qualify as wholesome escapist fare. Totally Killer (dir Nahnatchka Khan) is a meta-aware time travel slasher that aptly exploits its premise–what if a Final Girl could prevent a murder spree decades in the past, while also saving herself from her own mask-donning psycho?–to good humorous effect. The fish-out-of-cultural-sensitivity-water material is funny and endearingly crass, to the extent that besides Scream and Back to the Future I think we should invoke Hot Tub Time Machine. While the social commentary and character dynamics are involving, the murder mystery is underdeveloped–no prizes for correctly guessing the identity or identities of the perp(s). On the whole, the film-making is proficient and moderately stylish, but lacks the self-assured panache of Scream, a comparison it unfortunately invites, or the charismatic central performance that ultimately sells the similarly genre-mashing Happy Death Day duology. It’s a breezy, bloody romp with period charm and plenty of nods to other movies. "This is the time machine?" asks a character in 1987 upon seeing the protagonist produce an exotic handheld device. "No,” says the protagonist, “that's my phone.” Perhaps future generations of viewers who use their phones as time travel devices will find that small moment totally killer.


Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published over fifty stories and one hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in professional markets. These include Analog, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy's Edge, Nature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus,, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cyber World, Nox Pareidolia, Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities, and many others. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg was published in 2016. Alvaro’s debut novel, Equimedian, and his book of interviews, Being Michael Swanwick, are both forthcoming in 2023.

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