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By Leonard Heldreth

Our films this month are all about ghosts, aliens and demons.

 

A Quiet Place

Horror movies often use sounds to frighten an audience—a creaking door, howling wind, rustling noises—but John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is set in a world that tries to remain silent. The film starts with “Day 89” in what is a post-apocalyptic world, where blind aliens who hunt their prey by sound have decimated the human population. The story focuses on a nuclear family—father Lee Abbott (played by director John Krasinski), his wife, Evelyn (Krisinski’s actual wife, Emily Blount), and three children: Marcus (Noah Jupe), Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and Beau (Cade Woodward). The film opens in an abandoned store in upstate New York, where the family is searching for supplies, especially some medicine for Marcus, who is sick. They move softly and communicate only with sign language. The girl is deaf and seems most at home in this soundless situation; the youngest boy finds a model plane and plays with it as his father shushes the sounds he makes. Later, as they hike through the woods, Beau starts making noises again, and the startling result is not positive.

The movies then jumps ahead almost a year. The family has secured themselves on a large abandoned farm, and the wife is very pregnant. They are all working on ways to deal with giving birth and having a baby who will not know to keep silent; some of their solutions are quite ingenious. How they deal with the new arrival in this precarious situation, and how they find a way or two of protecting themselves from the aliens who are always nearby, listening and hungry, brings the film to an almost positive ending.

The tension starts off high in the opening scene and its tragic conclusion and seldom lets up. Individual scenes ratchet the sense of suspense even higher. As Evelyn gives birth in an empty bath tub upstairs, she hears an alien coming up the steps. How can a woman give birth silently? In another scene, a nail protrudes from a step, and the audience knows that when someone steps on the nail (the characters all go barefoot to minimize their sounds), the scream of pain will have to be muffled before it is even made. Another suspenseful scene involves two of the children being trapped in a silo, caught between a creature pursuing them and grain that shifts under their feet and threatens to suck them under.

The aliens are seen clearly only once or twice, but they resemble a giant spider crossed with the alien from Ridley Scott’s series—swift, powerful, bloodthirsty, merciless. With huge ears that unfold like opening blossoms, they have few apparent weaknesses, although they can be stopped by a shotgun blast. Unfortunately, the sound of the gun guarantees that all the other monsters in the neighborhood will come running.

The movie is tightly edited to only 84 minutes, and the sets are believable. As in most horror films, there are holes in the plot logic, but these are seldom noticed at the time and can generally be forgiven in retrospect. Anyone who is looking of one of the scariest horror movies of the year will want to check out A Quiet Place.

 

Ghost Stories

Based on a 2010 Liverpool stage play that had two very successful runs in London plus extended tours in Toronto, Moscow, Sydney, and other cities, the film version of Ghost Stories is almost an anachronism from the 40s and 50s. Consisting of three short films with a wrap-around story, it has the structure of anthology horror films like Ealing Studios’ classic Dead of Night (1945—one of the all-time great films about the uncanny).

Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson wrote the original script and adapted it for the screen, avoiding the redundancy of bringing a successful stage format originally inspired by film back to the screen. Overall, they have succeeded, although some long stretches of dialogue still have a whiff of the stage.

Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is the host of a stage and television show called Psychic Cheats, which debunks belief in the afterlife, and he enthusiastically gloats over the people he exposes. Goodman is contacted by Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), a paranormal investigator from the ‘70s who inspired Goodman as a boy. He tells Goodman that he has changed his mind about the other side and that there are three cases that made him do so, asking Goodman to look into a trio of unexplainable supernatural happenings. These three central stories can basically stand alone, although there are people and references that tie into the wrap-around story.

The first narrative involves a surly night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) in a now-closed insane asylum for women. He hears strange noises and sees spectral forms as he patrols abandoned hallways where the lights flicker and frequently go out. It’s standard but well-handled horror, and the watchman’s family background adds to the unease.

The second story tells of a young, unlicensed driver (Alex Lawther) hitting something in the road while driving at night through a foggy English forest; the object he hit turns out to be a demonic creature who is unhappy about what has happened and comes after him.

The third story is about a wealthy banker, Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), whose baby’s nursery is invaded by a poltergeist on the night his wife gives birth. These three stories and their main characters are pulled together in the wrap-around story, which puts everything into a different light.

The acting is excellent throughout, with Freeman standing out as the big name draw (and deserving it) and Lawther impressive as the totally freaked-out teenager meeting his first demon. Ghost Stories is creepy, but it also brings in a dry British sense of humor. It doesn’t reach the classic stature of Dead of Night, but it provides some memorable chills.

 

Hereditary

In his feature film debut, writer/director Ari Aster has created the most disturbing film of the year; despite a controversial ending, Hereditary is highly impressive. Powered by superb acting, this study of a family slowly coming apart under what may be supernatural influences is as much about grief and family dysfunction as about ghosts and other eerie intruders.

The opening shot is of 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh’s obituary. Her daughter Annie Graham (Toni Collette), son-in-law Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and the grandchildren, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), are preparing for her funeral but feeling little grief. Grandma was a private person who was not easy to live with, and the family has been under significant stress since she descended into dementia and moved in with them some years before. In a eulogy at the funeral, Annie acknowledges her surprise that so many people came. Charlie notices the smiling apparition lurking in the back of the church.

Later, trying to cope with her guilt, Annie attends a grief-support group, but she finds the group to be of little value. Then, a second tragedy occurs, and desperate for help, she returns to the group with a friend (Ann Dowd). The second attempt is no more successful than the first and leads to additional complications, such as seances. In the meantime, Grandma’s grave is desecrated, and Annie is under increasing pressure to complete the miniatures she is making for an upcoming exhibition of her work. To tell any more would be to remove some of the tension and fear the director has worked so hard to create. One of the film’s achievements is to let the viewer think it’s going in one direction and then to jerk it in another without resorting to the trite mechanisms of most horror films.

Much credit for the film’s success goes to the acting. Australian actress Toni Collette is superb as Annie, conveying the exhaustion and anger of a woman on the brink of a nervous breakdown; when she verbally attacks her son, it’s as scary as anything supernatural. Milly Shapiro, who won a Tony for Matilda on Broadway, is excellent as the 13-year-old granddaughter who cuts off dead birds’ heads for sculptures, was closest to Grandma and has a vision of her sitting in a flaming field. Alex Wolff is very effective as 16-year-old Peter. He moves from being a slacker, whose answer to any problem is to light up a joint, to being caught up in demonic forces he cannot understand. Gabriel Bryne has little to do but be the solid father figure, but he handles it well and keeps in the background as needed.

The sets are outstanding: the unnamed rural northwest location that isolates the family; the modernistic house with stained-glass windows; the tree-house, whose heaters glow demonically at night; the miniature sets that Annie creates from her life’s experiences; and other carefully chosen locations and props pull it all together. Pawel Pogorzelski’s excellent camerawork and Colin Stetson’s moody soundtrack all contribute to the unnerving atmosphere that permeates the film.

In interviews, Aster has acknowledged the influence of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.  He tried for a film“whose primary aim was to upset the audience in a very deep way,” one “that betrays you on every level, where you become invested in all these people, and what happens to them is not fair. You have to contend with it.” Hereditary is not an easy film to watch, but its dysfunctional family, fraying at the edges from grief and life’s attacks, may be more realistic than we would like to admit.

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