Serial-killer movies are a dime a dozen these days, with the true-crime industrial complex exploiting the ill-deeds sprees of increasingly obscure murderers to keep up with audience demand. Anyone wary of the genre might balk at the idea of “Strange Darling,” a cat-and-mouse drama about the tail end of a murder spree, but to do so would be to miss out on an exemplar of the form. Writer-director JT Mollner flips the script on this tired genre, crafting the cleverest thriller of its kind in a while with a mighty assist from a pair of killer performances by co-leads Willa Fitzgerald and Kyle Gallner. Best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible, “Strange Darling” demands a bit of patience, but it also rewards it.
It opens with a title card that reads like a badge of honor — “shot entirely on 35mm film” — followed by a text crawl informing us that the killer was active throughout the Interior West before a final hurrah in the forests of Oregon, where the film takes place. Despite being set just a few years ago, “Strange Darling” is in many ways a throwback. Gallner’s mustache and yellow-tinted sunglasses evince a distinctly ’70s vibe, as do the grainy visuals and frequent appearance of “Love Hurts” on the soundtrack. Even with these vintage touches, Mollner shows himself to be more forward-thinking than most of his genre peers. He’s clearly a student of the game, one who studied his forebears’ lessons with adroitness to better prepare himself to put his own mark on them.
Backstory out of the way, the film then moves on to the main action, in a manner of speaking. Divided into six chapters and beginning in medias res with the third, “Strange Darling” opts for a nonlinear approach that initially runs the risk of coming across as a Tarantino-lite affectation before gradually (and then suddenly) revealing itself as a sly means of concealing a genuinely clever twist. “Strange Darling” really does benefit from knowing only what little its longline divulges — “a day in the twisted love life of a serial killer” — but know that it opens with an injured woman known only as the Lady (Fitzgerald) running for her life from a man called the Demon (Gallner) before drifting further and further from audience expectations with each out-of-sequence chapter.
Gallner, so impressive in this summer’s “The Passenger,” is on a roll with his second exceptional performance in a row. He frequently vacillates between menacing and charming in the span of a single scene, with the imposing physical presence of a snake slowly uncoiling as it prepares to strike. He’s met his match in Fitzgerald, who displays an innate talent for gnarled characterization that she never got to explore on MTV’s small-screen adaptation of “Scream.” (Though largely a two-hander, the film features Ed Begley Jr. and Barbara Hershey as two older hippies who have the misfortune of getting caught in the Lady and the Demon’s wake.) The two of them are entangled whether or not they want to be, two halves of the same oxidizing coin.
There’s beauty in that decay, some of which comes from an unexpected source. Giovanni Ribisi has been acting since he was a child, but it seems what he really wants to do is direct — photography, that is. The first-time cinematographer proves as adept behind the camera as he is in front of it, bringing out the color and texture of all the blood, handcuffs and gunpowder this story entails in vivid detail. It’s an unexpected addition to his repertoire, but a welcome one at that.
“Do you have any idea the risks a woman like me takes whenever she decides to have a little fun?” the Lady asks in a pivotal scene showing us how she and her counterpart first came to know each other. That she even broaches the subject is an early sign that the film is taking a more thoughtful approach to gender dynamics, predatory relationships and dangerous men than most of its genre peers. As the narrative skips back and forth in time, Mollner invites audiences to adjust their first impressions of the dynamic between the Lady and the Demon. Like a lot of toxic relationships, theirs begins with promise before quickly deteriorating. “Strange Darling,” meanwhile, is something like the opposite: It feels destined to become a cult classic that grows more satisfying with each successive viewing.
Maestro is the movie of the year. Amendment: not to slight the amazing Oppenheimer, make that one of the two best films of the year. But Bradley Cooper’s warts-and-all biopic about volatile conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein has more passion, tenderness and heartbreaking resonance—and it’s a lot more fun.
MAESTRO ★★★★(4/4 stars) Directed by:Bradley Cooper Written by: Bradley Cooper & Josh Singer Starring: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan Running time: 129 mins.
Cooper, already revered as an actor of extraordinary skill, is fast becoming one of our best contemporary film directors. His recent take on A Star Is Born extracted a career-changing performance from Lady Gaga (not even in the same league with George Cukor’s definitive 1954 version starring Judy Garland, but impressive). Now, he shows massive improvement in every creative department—acting, screenwriting, cinematography, editing, scoring—to create not only the celebration of a great man but a great tribute to filmmaking itself.
Maestro is the closest thing to perfection I’ve seen on the screen in a very long time. Despite the prosthetic nose he designed for himself to look more like Bernstein that raised the hackles of some offended viewers but was publicly approved and applauded by members of Bernstein’s own family, it’s a meticulously calibrated character study that personifies the conflicted traits, mannerisms, triumphs and flaws of a musical genius who conducted his life like the movements in a symphony, paying a supreme price for the privilege—and the loving, long-suffering wife who wrote and signed the check.
Admire or admonish the result, but protests are a waste of time. Every ravishing frame is the exclusive vision of Bradley Cooper. It’s his film, and he’s in the catbird seat from start to finish.
Or, I should say, it’s Carey Mulligan’s film, because as Lenny’s patient, devoted wife Felicia, who sacrificed her own acting career to guide, support and honor his fame while coping with the pain and humiliation of his numerous homosexual affairs throughout their tortured marriage and the negative effect they had on her, this thrilling, inventive, brilliant and beautiful actress is endlessly mesmerizing. From the day a dying Bruno Walter surrendered his baton and Lenny became a 25-year-old sensation conducting the New York Philharmonic to the day Felicia died of cancer, she was the primary force throughout his life and career, and with radiant naturalism, Mulligan gives ballast to a great centerpiece. Cooper’s direction and exemplary screenplay, co-authored by Josh Singer, are admirably generous in allowing her performance the space it deserves.
The film leaves no stone unturned and no turn unstoned as it investigates every turbulent chapter in Bernstein’s career. You get the Broadway forays with Betty Comden and Adolph Green that produced Candide, On the Town, and West Side Story. From every angle, the director moves into Lenny’s skin with blistering ease. Blending himself in bed with the bodies of his male lovers, chain-smoking and talking like a rapid-fire machine gun, conducting with a baton in one hand and a cigarette in the other, lowering his voice and speaking through his nose almost without breathing, and filling the screen with heart-stopping musical sequences from Beethoven to Mahler’s 2nd Symphony to recreating those popular Young People’s Concerts on Omnibus, Mr. Cooper is awesome. Vocally and physically, he literally disappears into the role.
When the elements combine, you get a film as welcome and rare as a perfect Christmas morning. Maestro is a masterpiece.
Join Staff Reporter Sophia Verma as she reviews the new horror film “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” released on Oct. 27.
Bringing the heart-pounding terror of classics like “Hush,” “The Black Phone” and “Insidious” to the big screen, Blumhouse Productions takes a stab at turning Scott Cawthon’s wildly popular “Five Nights at Freddy’s” video game franchise into an edge-of-your-seat horror film. This film is sure to delight and disturb fans who love horror and the franchise. With a track record of adapting frightening source material into blockbuster scare-fests, Blumhouse seems set up to transform the sinister, animatronic characters that have terrified players for years into equally chilling movie antagonists aiming to stalk their way to box office glory. As of Nov. 6, the movie has made over $217 million worldwide.
The main animatronics in this movie are Freddy Fazbear, Chica, Bonnie and Foxy. During the first three and a half minutes of the movie, I felt very tense and anxious. The movie opened with a security guard, Mike, beginning his first overnight shift at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria, and he barricaded himself inside of the security office so that the animatronics couldn’t catch him. While watching this scene, I was lulled into a false sense of security since I thought the guard was going to be okay. Unfortunately, he was chased down by one of the animatronics and was strapped down to a chair. When he woke up, he was face-to-face with a nightmarish bear mask contraption that had glowing red eyes. The interior of the mask was filled with blades and it was moving quickly towards him. I was immediately hooked in and really liked how the film wasted no time bringing the horror, jumpscares and nerve-wracking chase experiences straight from the games to the big screen.
However, the first 34 minutes of the movie felt really slow to me and were not engaging. After the harrowing opening sequence, the film settled into a slower pace as it showed Mike looking for a job while also delving into the backstory of the five missing children tied to the pizzeria, whose souls inhabited the animatronics. There were also many scenes where Mike’s sister, Abby, followed him to his new job at the pizzeria and met the animatronics.
While these events were important for setting up the plot, this section of the film felt drawn out compared to the terror, fear and intenseness of the opening scene. I thought that it was a bit confusing and hard to follow since there were so many storylines happening at once. While watching these plotlines unfold, I found myself willing for the pace to be picked back up, eager to get back to the frights promised by the first vigorous moments. I think that the film could have benefitted from tightening up these slower parts to better maintain the fear factor, as the real action and interesting parts didn’t start until about 40 minutes into the film, which is when I started to get into it again.
After the slow parts were over, the rest of the movie really delivered on the horror and suspense aspect. The action picked back up after Mike started his night shift and the movie kept me on the edge of my seat with nonstop scares and shocking moments. I have to say, for a PG-13 rated horror movie, some of the jumpscares were a bit over the top. I think that an R rating would have made much more sense for this frightening film. For example, there were three jumpscares that were definitely uncomfortable to watch, even if they didn’t scare me.
Those who don’t wish to read about the descriptions of the jumpscares should skip the following paragraph. One of those three jumpscares was when Carl, a thief who trashed each room of the pizzeria, got attacked by Mr. Cupcake, Chica’s sidekick. Mr. Cupcake was hiding in an abandoned fridge and jumped onto Carl’s face after he opened the door, mangling him. Not even two minutes later, Hank, one of Carl’s friends and another thief, got killed by Bonnie in a storage closet. During this scene, there was a bloody handprint on the door and disturbing sounds of bones cracking. Four minutes later, Max, Abby’s babysitter, got chomped in half by Freddy, which reminded some fans of “The Bite of ‘87,” while others are calling it “The Bite of ’23.” Watching those three very graphic and violent back-to-back jumpscares made me wish the movie had toned the jumpscare aspect down a bit for the PG-13 rating.
Overall, I really enjoyed watching “Five Nights at Freddy’s” and would recommend it to horror fans looking for a scary good time. When it came to building suspense, once the pace picked back up after the slower middle parts, I could not stop watching and I loved the nonstop action once the horror ramped up. The film had chilling atmospheres as the animatronics chased the characters through the pizzeria in the dark and even followed some to their houses. While a few moments pushed the boundaries of the rating, a majority of the scenes were creative, fun and intriguing. So, if you love horror, jumpscares and animatronic terror, definitely check out “Five Nights at Freddy’s” for a thrilling flick, just be prepared for some gruesomeness. I’d give this movie an 8.5/10 overall because I liked the way that it was entertaining and provided an exhilarating horror experience.
Leave it to Scream Factory to resurrect one of horror’s most unsung series, beautifully restored and prettier than they have ever looked before. 1988’s original Night of the Demons comes in a crisp 4K release, complete with an all-encompassing feature-length documentary about the making of the film (You’re Invited: The Making of Night of the Demons), and a plethora of bonus features; the sequels, 1994’s Night of the Demons 2 and 1997’s Night of the Demons 3, both come to Blu-Ray for the very first time. In grand Scream Factory tradition, both of those single-disc collector’s edition titles are showered with commentaries, interviews, and extra cuts of the film typically reserved for AAA titles. Party like it’s 1988, and let’s tear open the bowels of these fantastic new releases.
First up, the original Night of the Demons, once titled Halloween Party, has seriously never looked better. For those unfamiliar with the story, its setup will check boxes for any fan of schlocky 80s horror. The dilapidated Hull House, once a funeral home, serves as the site for a killer Halloween party (title drop), hosted by uber-goth, Angela (Amelia Kinkade). The teens have the clever idea to host a séance there, and mere minutes later, a demonic presence has been unleashed from the crematorium. One by one, the body count rises as the unleashed demons shove lipstick tubes into nipples and take over new hosts, Evil Dead-style. Night of the Demons is particularly notable for its potent Halloween atmosphere. As a kid who watched this movie way too young, I latched onto nearly every macabre moment, especially that ending with the razor blade apple pie. Filmed at a historic mansion later demolished in 1990, Hull House itself becomes an actual character.
The synthy score and dynamic animated opening credits set the stage for the unnerving moments that will follow. On this 4K disc, the excellent lighting and shocking practical effects really pop. The darks are jet black, and Angela’s legendary “Stigmata Martyr” dance sears a permanent mark on the retinas. Just as I remembered, Night of the Demons remains the perfect burst of gory fun for spooky season, and deserves to be on regular rotation. No expense was spared in terms of the disc’s features; I did not have a chance to check out the commentaries, however, the rest was impressive. Writer Joe Augustyn, who also scripted the second film, speaks candidly about its legacy, and changes to the original script. In his first draft, two characters were supposed to be a gay couple rather than a straight one, which would have been revolutionary for a horror flick in the 80s. The aforementioned documentary was the highlight, and showcases nearly every major character.
Changing gears, Night of the Demons 2 slithers in nastier and bigger than its predecessor; some would argue this sequel surpasses the 1988 original. Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith (Leprechaun 3, Leprechaun 4: In Space), the title makes major tweaks to the formula, and doubles down on the comedy. Angela (returning Amelia Kinkade) has now become the stuff of legend—people go to Hull House on dares, and the events of the first film have left Angela’s sister, Mouse (Merle Kennedy), an orphan. Instead of being set at only one location, Demons 2 alternates between Hull House and a catholic school, where a satanic conjuring has occurred. Mouse gets dragged to Hull House for a Halloween party, while another occurs at school under the watchful eye of nun Sister Gloria (Jennifer Rhodes). Before long, Angela reemerges, and a bigger cast—much better developed this time around—gets put on the chopping block. Keep an eye out for a young Christine Taylor, one year before she would go on to play Marcia in The Brady Bunch Movie. Trenchard-Smith and screenwriter Joe Augustyn really go for broke this time around. Demon handjobs, holy water balloons, heads in toilets, and much more fully embrace the zany premise.
Again, the phenomenal effects work from Award-winning special effects artist Steve Johnson greatly contributes to the quality of the direct-to-video sequel. At one point in Demons 2, Angela becomes a humanoid snake creature, which is probably the most impressive scene. Kinkade laments the 27 hours she spent in snake makeup, strapped into a trench and glued to a teeter-totter. To this day, that remains an effects record. Additionally, it netted Kinkade a bigger paycheck than any other title. As the sole returning cast member from the original, Kinkade’s Angela steals the show with Freddy-like one-liners. On purely a technical level, Demons 2 surpasses the writing of the first by featuring textured characters and a zippy narrative structure. Leaving room for a Rambo-nun to swoop in and save the day could not have been an easy feat, yet they weave her into the fabric of this sequel seamlessly. The special features are again terrific, going into the freedom of process behind the demon performances. A lengthy talk between Kevin S. Tenney and Brian Trenchard-Smith conversationally details how they crafted Demons 2. The duo go off on random tangents frequently, but hearing them shoot the shit delights, particularly when they discuss the Leprechaun movies. A VHS-quality workprint of the sequel is also included.
Most people consider Nights of the Demons 3 to be the worst entry in the series, and I am inclined to agree. With that out of the way, the concept is pretty fun. This entry was an entirely Canadian production, filmed at a historic home as Hull House that looks nothing like 1 or 2. A group of teens take shelter in Hull House to “lie low” after they accidentally shoot a cop at a convenience store. Angela (Kinkade for the final time) returns again, up to her old tricks, but she pretends to be an innocent at first rather than a horrifying demon. Demons 3, directed by Jim Kaufman who had neither helmed a horror feature nor seen the first two films, has a decidedly different feel. More akin to a cheesy episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark, there are nevertheless so many intriguing ideas present. Snake arms and bizarre transformations color this entry, and unlike Demons 2, this actually feels direct-to-video. At least Angela seductively dances in each movie, and Kinkade can embrace her dancing background.
Night of the Demons 3 was the most tumultuous production of the bunch. Original writer Joe Augustyn, who wanted 3 to be set in an apartment complex, was not interesting in returning to Hull House for the same old, same old. Instead, the first film’s director Kevin S. Tunney came back. His script was highly regarded, but hiring an amateur director and robbing Hull House of its identity all but ensured it would not live up to previous entries. In both the commentary and an interview, Tunney laments what could have been; he even comments that while the original is untouchable, he would love to remake Night of the Demons 3. Amelia Kinkade speaks more positively of her experience, enjoying the heavier focus on Angela, as well as her time on location in Canada. Kinkade seems so sweet, and fondly looks back on her time with all three films. The disc also includes a TV edit of the film, and a director’s cut workprint.
Night of the Demons remains one of horror’s most underrated franchises, even with 2009’s campy remake shining a light on the series once more. Its striking VHS cover arts remain some of the best from my youth. Each entry shines a distinct point of view on late 80s/early 90s horror that no one else was successfully tapping into at the time. Love them or hate them, Scream Factory really gives the most bang for your buck, as it loads the entire trilogy with captivating special features. Pop them in for a return trip to Hull House if you dare!
Scream Factory provided review copies, but the thoughts and opinions expressed here are all my own. All three titles are currently available for purchase from Scream Factory, and would make great holiday gifts for any horror fanatic!