Blair Witch (2016)
There was a minute there, between the summer of 1999 and maybe early 2002, where I was super into The Blair Witch Project. I was never one of those people who thought it was real, but I was entranced by the mythology nonetheless. In this era of "found footage" horror movies from Cloverfield to the Paranormal Activity (and all the garbage in between), it's easy to forget how different The Blair Witch Project was at the time of its release. There had been found footage/mock-doc approaches to horror before (most notably The Town that Dreaded Sundown and the indefensible Cannibal Holocaust), but nothing that had cracked the mainstream the way The Blair Witch Project did. When it hit, it felt like it rewrote all the rules of the genre in one fell swoop.
The new Blair Witch, written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard (You're Next, The Guest) tries to capture at least some of the spirit of the original film. Wingard and Barrett — progenitors of what's now being called the "mumblegore" movement — seem like maybe the right guys to pull that off. They do their absolute best here, and manage to introduce a few scary new concepts, taking the story into an almost Lovecraftian direction by touching on notions of extra dimensions, malleable time, and bent reality. There's one plot development toward the end that made me think at least Barrett must have read Frank Belknap Long's The Hounds of Tindalos.
But unfortunately they just don't really have anywhere to go. They try to find a way around the "shot-reverse-shot" problem common to almost all these films, but their solution feels trite and not terribly believable. Ultimately, the found-footage approach hems them in. They spend so much time trying to build on the chaotic, berserker style of the original that they lose the thread of the story they're trying to tell. Even the most interesting ideas stay pretty half-baked. The cast is able and game for whatever, but the characters are never really developed enough on the page to truly come to life. The film has a lot of good moments, but not enough of them come together in any significant way to make it a good movie.
Wingard and Barrett are real talents, and I think there was a ton of missed potential here. They would have been better off eschewing the found-footage format altogether and simply focusing on taking the story down their own weirdo path. That's clearly where they were itching to go. Say what you want about Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows; at least it was trying to do its own thing.
The Good Neighbor (2016)
I was sort of fine with Don't Breathe, the surprise hit of the summer, but I didn't really get what all the fuss was about. Critics were going nuts for the thing, but in the end it felt like a pretty well-executed but generic horror movie to me.
The Good Neighbor (originally titled The Waiting) felt more promising. Like Don't Breathe, it features some snotnosed kids violating the hermetic space of an anti-social — and potentially dangerous — old man. But The Good Neighbor seemed to have the more interesting twist on that premise. Instead of being about a bunch of kids breaking into the old man's house to steal money, The Good Neighbor features two teenage boys (Keir Gilchrist and Logan Miller) who decide to convince their surly neighbor (a superbly understated James Caan) that his house is haunted. And they install hidden cameras throughout the house so they can watch the results of their chicanery in real time.
It's an interesting idea, but unfortunately writers Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richard and director Kasra Farahani never manage to make it even a little bit believable. The boys claim they are making a "documentary" about their "science experiment" and they talk like they think this documentary is going to make them rich and famous. They're obviously smart kids (if somewhat sociopathic) so I just didn't buy that they ever believed they would get away with it. Whether or not they have a moral problem with what they're up to, wouldn't they at least have a sense of the legal jeopardy they're putting themselves in? Bianculli, Richard and Farahani solve this logic problem by mostly ignoring it and then grafting on some half-baked ulterior motive for Miller's character that makes even less sense, frankly, than him just being stupid.
I appreciate the way Farahani wants to mess with our sympathies. But it just doesn't work. Miller and Gilchrist are both solid young actors, but they're never able to make their characters interesting, much less likable.
It's Caan who makes this film worth checking out. His is one of those performances of quiet intensity that you just can't take your eyes off of. He's essentially conducting a master class in how much an actor can do with almost nothing to work with. He brings unexpected depth, and he delivers a tragic turn toward the end that is emotionally devastating, even if it's not at all earned by anything else in the film.
The Purge: Election Year (2016)
I've gotta admit, I really like these Purge movies. I wouldn't even classify them as a guilty pleasure. This is the type of anarchic, mean-spirited 70s-style exploitation that I just can't get enough of (see my review of Blood Father).
The first movie was pretty gnarly, if necessarily limited in scope. The series really found its stride with the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy. Writer/director James DeMonaco had something like ten times the budget of the first film and he used the hell out of it, giving us a full-fledged nightmare dystopia that I found as enticing as I did terrifying. The Purge: Election Year is maybe a bit of a step down, but I still had a ton of fun with it.
In case you've been living under a rock, the concept of these films is that in some near-future America, our government has been taken over by a religious rightwing party called The New Founding Fathers of America. One of their first acts of governance was creating the Purge, an annual event where for 12 hours all crime is made legal and all emergency services are suspended. The reasoning behind this is never presented as anything less than wonky, but the result is as visceral as it is predictable: rich people either barricade themselves in their homes or outfit themselves with all sorts of expensive weaponry and go prey on the poor.
In Election Year, Senator and presidential candidate Charley Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) has made it her mission in life to end the Purge after seeing her family brutally murdered 18 years previous. This has made her a hero to the poor and an absolute demon to the NFFA. In an effort to stop her ascension, the NFFA rescinds the one rule that exists on Purge night — that government officials of a certain class remain exempt.
Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), the Bronson-esque anti-hero of Anarchy, is back in Election Year as Sen. Roan's head of security. When they are predictably betrayed from within on Purge night, he and Roan are forced to run through the murder-soaked streets, where they eventually find help from a couple shopkeepers trying to protect their store (Mykelti Williamson and Joseph Julian Sora) and an underground EMT (Betty Gabriel) who is also part of the anti-Purge resistance.
There's nothing subtle about these films, but nevertheless I LOVE the bluntness of the political allegory, which seems particularly on-point in the year of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. There's something these films get right about the weird bloodthirstiness that seems to lie behind a certain segment of the American right. In The Purge films, the NFFA are universally depicted as old and white, whereas many of the Purge's victims are young and people of color. There's something deeply cathartic about seeing them fight back.
But these films are ultimately just a lot of anti-social, punk-rock fun. There's certainly an element of wish-fulfillment here — one some level, who doesn't want one night a year where we can put on a crazy mask and go wreak all kinds of havoc?
What makes these movies stand-out, though, is the way they manage to rub this impulse in the audience's faces. The murders and carnage are all sorts of blood-spattered fun... until they're not.