Refreshingly Terrifying Marianne

French horror has always pushed the envelope with extreme terror, and Netflix has thrown its hat in the ring with its own contribution to the genre. This time though, we get some old-fashioned supernatural scares and imagery that will stay with you into the wee hours of the night with the series Marianne.

Emma Larsimon (Victoria Du Bois) is a famous horror author who rides her fame with rock n’ roll flare: she drinks too much, is flippant with her agent and publishers and has decided to kill off her main characters, a vengeful witch called Marianne and her vanquisher Lizzie Lark, to try something more adult. Emma also hides a secret. She was plagued by nightmares of Marianne when she was a teen, and after making her the subject of her novels, she stopped having the dreams and became rich.

When a high school friend Caroline (Aurore Broutin) comes to Emma’s very last book signing distraught, Emma is shaken with the news she brings her. Caroline’s mother (Mireille Herbstmeyer) is obsessed with the characters and books Emma has written, and Emma must go back to their hometown Elden to see her before she goes off the deep end.  Emma dismisses her old school chum as nutty, but when Caroline ends her life with a cryptic message to relay to her mother and the nightmares come back, Emma has no choice but to go back to her home town and not only see Caroline’s mother, but her own slightly estranged parents and face her high school friends. Once she’s back in town, Caroline’s mother is terrifyingly strange and insists Emma keep Marianne alive; and Emma must figure out what is real and what is a dream before her loved ones suffer irreversible consequences.

Du Bois as the troubled Emma.

It’s been a long time since I’ve found a series that kept me guessing and genuinely creeped out (and let it be know that all the spitting in the show skeeved this critic out). With nods to Stephen King, director Samuel Bodin creates a refreshing take on the writer going back home to deal with her demons. It’s an homage to the master with some gruesome visuals and absolutely brilliant scares built to creep the living daylights out of viewers, especially the dream sequences.  They are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time, with classic tools like jump scares, unsettling camera angles and atmospheric scoring. It may sound run of the mill; however, they are used in new and unpredictable ways.

The solid horror writing paired with fantastic performances will appeal to those of us who devour horror novels.  Bodin along with his co-writer Quoc Dang Tran must do double duty since they have to create pages from Emma’s books as well as the script of the actual series. The mythology of Marianne is well though out and executed in a way that helps you absorb the information easily, and you’ll also find a clever, dark humor throughout the episodes, keeping things light amidst all the horror. The editing team of Dimitri Amar, Olivier Galliano and Richard Riffaud creates a sharp style that leaves a wonderful sense of dread and the viewer clamoring for more.

Herbstmeyer as Caroline’s mother Madame Daugeron leads the cast as the character of my nightmares.  Her unassuming, plain look hides the insanity and evil seething just beneath her frail looking, lined skin. Du Bois is a force as the defiant, emotionally stunted Emma, and the chemistry with the rest of the cast is apparent and the strength of this ensemble. There were a couple of characters I wanted to see more of, but to stay spoiler-free, I’ll mourn them in silence.

My hope for Marianne is that there is a healthy second season and more thrills in store for Emma Larsimon and her plagued life. See it streaming now on Netflix.

Review: Empathy, Inc.

Virtual Reality has gone through many iterations, from clunky goggles to full body suits in order to experience another world without leaving your home.  In Empathy, Inc., we find out just how far one man will go to make a fast buck in this brave new world of technology.

When his tech company tanks due to false claims and mismanaged money, Joel (Zack Robidas) must move in with his in-laws. His wife Jessica (Kathy Searle), thinks it will be good for them to get away from the scandal, and his father-in-law thinks his daughter will finally do what he wants: settle down across the street and have a family.  Joel, determined to make his money back, decides to take up an old school friend Nicolaus (Eric Berryman) on his offer to invest in an extreme virtual reality,”XVR”, experience start-up, bound to make loads of cash.  Armed with his eager father-in-law’s sizable retirement nest egg, Joel funds the research after he tries out the mind-blowing experience first hand. Only problem is the experience, which lets you live in someone else’s body, isn’t just a fantasy, and real-life crime and drama comes faster than Joel could have ever imagined. With his reputation, money and life on the line, he must try to save his name and his family from the shady side of the tech industry.

Empathy, Inc. is a bleak sci-fi film noir that brings dangerous technology closer to our current time, and with all the innovation swirling around us, it’s not hard to see how it can go bad at the drop of a hat.  The film is shot in black and white lending to an arthouse feel, especially with the effective use of unusual and harsh angles by cinematographer Darin Quan. It actually reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s earlier film, Following which had the same tense and bare-bones feel. The performances were slightly uneven, but the core cast of Robidas, Searle, Klaitz as the sleazy tech genius Lester and Berryman as the sketchy Nicolaus were definite standouts. They all brought the story of greed and regret to life, and the clever script written by the film’s director Yedidya Gorsetman and Mark Leidner shows their talent for storytelling.

Empathy, Inc. builds a gradual wave of twists that will keep you riveted to the story, so it’s worth hanging in with this visually stark journey to get to the bittersweet end.

Empathy Inc. will be released in select theatres September 13 and VOD September 24.

Review: Seeds

Urges and family ties create an unnerving experience in Owen Long’s Seeds.

Marcus (Trevor Long) is a man with an affliction, and when an untimely accident occurs with his lover, he retreats to his family home by the sea to lay low while his drug dealer takes care of things. His brother Michael (Chris McGarry) must deal with his crumbling marriage, so Marcus agrees to look after his niece and nephew Lily and Spencer (Andrea Chen and Garr Long) while Michael tends to his estranged wife.

Lily is a teenager beyond her years, and becomes yet another problem for Marcus who forces himself to resist her immature advances because his affliction is getting worse, and what once looked like substance abuse slowly shows itself to be much more; haunting him as his mental health deteriorates and his life takes the form of a nightmarish fever dream.

Seeds will leave you perplexed until the last frame.  It’s a beautifully shot film, with gorgeous use of light and focus by Korean cinematographer Eun-ah Lee, but the audience isn’t going to get a nice linear story.  There are flashbacks to Lily as a little girl, nightmares that seem real, and a general sense of unease that never goes away, mostly due to the relationship between Lily and her uncle Marcus. Depending on the perspective, she is either relentless in her pursuit of Marcus or it’s him that has to control his urge not to pounce on the young woman. I’m not sure if this pairing of an older white man and a teenaged Asian girl put me off because of the taboos with incest or if her race was the issue, especially since both Marcus and his brother seemed to have a pattern with Asian women in the film.  Marcus clearly had mental issues he was working through that fueled his delusions but I’m on the fence with that type of objectification and stereotype here. The director’s wife Younny Long however, is Asian as well as the film’s executive producer, so there’s hope that her’s and actor Chen’s voice behind the scenes kept things in check and her race is merely incidental.

Amidst the understated performances, Long does a great job as Marcus and gives us a unique version of a man descending quietly into his own private hell before your eyes. Having your brother as the director could go either way, but it’s clear they make a good team.  Again, you have to hang in until the end with this slow burner served with a pinch of body horror. Long and screenwriter Steven Weisman are clearly influenced by Cronenberg and Lynch; and Long has described his film as a cross between The Shining and Lolita, but you may also get inklings of Spider, Twin Peaks, and Canadian horror The Crescent which has a similar eerie feel.

This strange, disjointed film isn’t a typical horror film, and I’m certain it’s not for everyone, but that’s ok.  Seeds won’t give you a neat package of protagonist/antagonist or a reliable guide in this journey, but it will definitely leave you with some disturbing images and an unsettling urge to check your closets before you go to bed, especially if you live by the water.

Catch Seeds in U.S. theatres September 13.

The Color Out of Space and Richard Stanley’s Return

It’s been some time since we’ve seen something directed by the infamous Richard Stanley, once slotted to helm the tragic Island of Dr. Moreau, now the subject of a popular and mythical documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau by David Gregory. While he’s been writing screenplays, Color Out of Space is the first film Stanley has directed since 2013, and guess what? It’s fabulously strange, creepy and, yes, colorful for so many reasons.

Nathan (Nicholas Cage) is a father and husband who, needing to get away from the big city, decides to take over his deceased father’s farm and make a go of raising alpacas, the animal of the future. His wife (Joely Richardson) is recovering from breast cancer and trying her best to deal with high powered clients on a farm via Skype and sketchy internet service while trying to raise her teenage children:  Wiccan-obsessed daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), nerdy Benny (Brendan Meyer), and her youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard). There also might be a problem with their water supply, so a handsome hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) checks out the surrounding area and also takes a liking to Lavinia.  When a meteor crashes onto their front yard, a strange series of events occur, and it’s up to Nathan and Ward to figure out what might be transpiring as this alien object slowly changes the landscape and all their mental states.

Color Out of Space was an efficient treat and my only TIFF viewing this year. With pacing that unexpectedly ramps up, stunning visuals and a whole lotta Cage, Stanley shines with his director’s hat firmly in place. Along with my rage-daddy Cage, the entire cast was excellent from little Hilliard to the charmingly nuts Tommy Chong as the resident mystical weed man Ezra. Adapting a story written by H. P. Lovecraft so that it’s relevant in these times is not an easy feat when this particular story has been done a few times over the decades, but Stanley, along with his long-time collaborator and writer Scarlett Amaris, manages to do it while broaching current environmental issues. I also loved that the film’s narrator, played by Ward’s character, is black, perhaps a thumbing of the nose to Lovecraft’s notoriously racist views.

Brendan Meyer, Madeleine Arthur, Julian Hilliard, Nicolas Cage, Richard Stanley, Joely Richardson, and Elliot Knight at an event for Color Out of Space (2019)

The digital effects were stunning and I’m glad I was able to see it on an IMAX screen even though the film wasn’t shot in that format. It really emphasized the colors and landscape well, immersing the viewer into this special world of madness. For the record I know there are comparisons to Alex Garland’s Annihilation, but to be honest, I prefer Color Out of Space because although it’s also a visual spectacle and an environmental morality tale of sorts, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  And those of you who want some practical effects will not be disappointed. Stanley serves up some mutant creepy crawlies that will surely make you squeal with delight.

I highly recommend seeing Color Out of Space, not only to celebrates Stanley’s return to the director’s chair, but also because horror never looked so good.

Ready or Not is Full of Horror Comedy Riches

Often,”marrying up” carries a set of consequences that you must adhere to for acceptance into the fold.  Proper etiquette, dressing to impress and a background that isn’t too sullied by scandal lest you be judged harshly is all very important in this superficial world. But what if marrying up means marrying into something more sinister than you could ever imagine? In Ready or Not, V/H/S alumni Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett give us a run for our money as a new bride gets acquainted with her sadistic in-laws. 

Grace (Samara Weaving) is about to marry Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), one of the heirs to the Le Domas game dynasty. Surrounded by old money in a massive mansion, Grace is filled with emotions and nerves as she comes from a meager, foster home background and is about to join the world of the very rich. The family members are eccentric, with Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni), who looks like Nosferatu’s stylish ex-wife, Daniel (Adam Brody), Alex’s surly and sauced brother, and Becky (Andie MacDowell), their beautiful Southern mother. Their father Tony (Henry Czerny), is the picture of a patriarchal figurehead with loads of family history and a commanding presence. It’s tradition for the family to play a game at midnight when someone gets married; using a special box passed down from ancestors to choose a game at random for the newest member. Instead of checkers, Grace gets the dreaded Hide and Seek, which means she must hide and the family seeks, however things get deadly when she realizes she must be caught and dealt with in a very unpleasant way, because the rich never want to lose. 

The Le Domas clan ready to play. Source: IMDb

I was not ready for Ready or Not, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised. The film was all action, all suspense, gorier than you’d think, and a lot of fun. Writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy managed to keep the banter funny, clever and extremely dark without going for cheap gags, and I was thrilled to see a mostly Canadian cast.  Along with Czerny and Cube’s Guadagni, we were also treated to  Melanie Scrofano of Wynonna Earp as Alex’s high-strung and strung out sister Emile, Orphan Black’s Kristian Bruun as her husband Fitch, and John Ralston as Stevens, the evil butler. They were all in fine form as the psychotic family members bent on catching their prey regardless of the cost. Weaving was stellar as the determined new bride fighting for her life, and I also have to give kudos to Andie MacDowell, who was deceivingly sweet and just gets more stunning with age.

Grace (Weaving) means business on her wedding night. Source: IMDb

With many a clever spin on a classic cat and mouse chase, spot on performances and an evil family you’ll actually kind of love, Ready or Not is destined to be a horror fan’s go-to for fun.