The Perfection: Dedication and Depravity Scores a 10

If you’re thirsting for an Asian horror-inspired, stylized roller coaster ride with buckets of tension, look no further than Richard Shepard’s The Perfection.

Charlotte (Allison Williams, Girls, Get Out) is a musical prodigy.  Enrolled in the elite Bachoff Academy where students are hand-picked for their talent, she is destined to become a legendary cellist. Family obligations put her career on hold and 10 years later, Charlotte is ready to reclaim her life.  She reconnects with the school dean Anton (Steven Weber, Channel Zero), and is invited to Shanghai to judge a competition along with the school’s newest star, Lizzie (Logan Browning, Dear White People). The two women soon learn they are fans of each other’s work and become inseparable.  When Lizzie falls mysteriously ill, both their worlds change forever.

Charlotte (Williams) in Shanghai

There’s a fine line you walk when reviewing The Perfection because it presents a unique timeline that catches you off guard, making it difficult to navigate around many a spoiler. What I can say is that the film is exactly what a fan of Asian extreme cinema would enjoy, and Shepard parlays the themes, style and body horror of Asian extremity in an exciting way for North American audiences. He does so not because the film sets the scene in Shanghai or because there are Asian actors, but by using the tone and beats so often used in Asian extreme cinema. Shepard has mentioned in interviews The Handmaiden and Oldboy by Park Chan-wook as inspirations, and I also get a Sion Sono or Takashi Miike vibe as well. The story starts subtly, lulling the audience with romance and kinship that’s sexy and not gratuitous, then landing an unexpected roundhouse kick to our plot expectations. We’re sent reeling just enough to collect ourselves and follow along for the ride.

Both women were made for the all-American girl role; Williams, who played the awful Rose in Get Out, is perfect as Charlotte with her fresh looks and innocence versus Browning’s appeal as the more worldly and tougher of the two. It works well, especially since they’ll need to draw on their opposite bad girl/vulnerable selves later. They both reportedly learned how to play the cello as well, to make their performances believable, and their chemistry is undeniable.

The haunting music was composed by Paul Haslinger, former member of Tangerine Dream, the band so beloved for their numerous film scores, so there’s some major musical street cred involved. I also love that Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo who both mastered complicated plots for the TV series Supernatural, were on the writing team. Their skill at dealing with intertwining plot threads is well used here.

Lizzie (Browning) and Charlotte (Williams) play together.

Shepard’s The Perfection ultimately captures the intricate web women must navigate for success, the weight of societal expectations, and what women have endured to achieve it minus the male gaze-y tropes. Be prepared for abuse, full-on gore and a whole lot of twists and turns. It’s mandatory to endure all of it for one of the most bizarre, violent and satisfying finales I’ve seen in a long time.

The Perfection is streaming now on Netflix.  Let it be the salve for you jaded horror fans out there.

Bird Box: Translating the Unseen to the Big Screen

The day I’ve dreaded for a long time is finally here. Bird Box, the 2014 post-apocalyptic horror debut novel by Josh Malerman, has been made into a film, and as a diehard fan of the novel, I’m here to give you my verdict after watching the highly anticipated Netflix holiday 2018 release.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is pregnant and not looking forward to being a mother. Amidst her life-changing situation, reports of people killing themselves after they see some sort of creature are flooding the airwaves, and soon her hometown. Malorie loses her sister to this threat, and finds refuge in a household of strangers. As the new house mates (who include John Malkovich as Douglas, Danielle Macdonald as fellow expectant mother Olympia, and Lil Rey Howery as Charlie) realize they cannot walk through the world sighted lest they go insane from these creatures, they struggle with this new normal of darkness and blindfolds. Over a span of five years, Malorie must find her maternal instinct, some hope and stay sane to navigate her blind escape to unaffected survivors on a treacherous river journey.

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Malorie rowing blind to safety.

Let’s get this out of the way: Bird Box was a book written in 2014 (see Rue Morgue Magazine’s book editor Monica S. Kuebler’s interview with Malerman in issue #146), long before A Quiet Place, and I’m pretty sure there’s a short film based on similar monsters screened at Toronto After Dark well before the mainstream horror hit too, but I digress. When I first read Malerman’s novel, I couldn’t put it down. I enjoy post-apocalyptic horror, and this hit close to home because Malerman plays with our fears of senseless violence as the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Logically, we know we can die at any moment, but he uses fear’s viral nature and the terrifying notion of our sense of sight as the cause for our demise. Malerman also gets my devotion because he wrote a female protagonist with care and sensitivity male authors often miss.

It was difficult to envision a film made from such a compelling book about invisible predators from the viewpoint of blinded prey. Luckily Danish director Susanne Bier, who has a long list of awards and nominations for In A Better World, Brothers and The Night Manager, does an admiral job translating the feel of the narrative, and I love that her illustrious career now includes a horror film. Award-winning screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the pen behind Lights Out, Arrival, and his own film Hours, shows his strength at adapting books by staying close to the jumping timelines of Malorie before being a mother and after, most likely because he had reportedly been working on a script with Malerman as the book was being written. Along with Bier, they sustain the creeping dread I felt while reading the book. Issues arise however, when Heisserer streamlined and changed some of the plot and character development to tell the story visually. The narrative is specifically non-visual and internal and his script watered down some of the more chilling moments in the novel, like the double birthing scene which is tonally quite different from the book due to the lack of creature involvement.  The ending was also far too safe and feel-good.  If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean.  I will applaud the filmmaker though for not giving us the creatures dead on since it would have, as Bier puts it in one interview, been the wrong decision, making the creatures laughable instead of frightening.  Instead, they gave us some rough sketches drawn by the sniveling rescue Gary (Tom Hollander), a conniving madman intent on showing everyone his crazed vision.

Even though the characters veer away from those in the book, the ensemble cast is surprisingly good: Malkovich was entertaining as the self-serving curmudgeon Douglas, and while Bullock played Malorie with a sufficient vigor, I found her portrayal of the character’s coping mechanisms wooden instead of stoic. I wanted to see more of B.D. Wong who played Douglas’ neighbour Greg, but AHS’s Sarah Paulson as the warmer, more feminine foil to sister Malorie, as well as Trevante Rhodes (of Moonlight fame) as her sensitive love interest Tom rounded out the key and diverse cast. Tom, who was originally white in the book, is easily played by Rhodes proving the interchangeability of race and casting. It’s refreshing to see a black man play a sensitive, protective role written for a white character.

My one issue with the diverse casting is Charlie. He is a grocery store clerk who has valid theories about the creatures. Lucy (Rosa Salazar), one of the housemates, asks him in a condescending tone if he learned his theories working at the supermarket or perhaps even (gasp!) college. She is skeptical of his knowledge which is vast because he is clearly well-read, however it’s difficult for her to believe because he’s just a black grocery store clerk. The entire household dismisses his theories in one fell swoop when he reveals he’s writing a book, even though his research is probably closer to the truth than anything else. He also ends up sacrificing himself unnecessarily later to redeem his cowardly nature. This harkens back to an age-old assumption that blacks are less intelligent, cowardly and disposable, and clearly misses the mark in an otherwise well-cast film.

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Charlie (Howery) freaks out as the group heads out to get supplies.

Overall, Bird Box is a mostly decent representation of a book that proves difficult to film, even if it’s getting mixed reviews.  While we squabble over whether we liked the film or the book better, this narrative is important now that there is a political meltdown worldwide. It’s as if the creatures are a manifestation of our greed, hate and turmoil, threatening us with self-destruction as the world’s issues come to a head, so here’s hoping we can eventually remove the blindfolds and look the monster dead in the eyes.

Escape Room: The Right Kind of Franchise Fodder

From derelict buildings to posh Victorian houses, escape rooms are all the rage, and they have been for several years now. Paying for someone to lock you in a room with a group of people so you can figure out an escape will help build spirit you never thought you had plus you’ll get a chance to flex your problem-solving skills. But what if it’s not all fun and games, and the reality of the timer running out is an actual death? This situation is posed with Escape Room, and it’s a nail-biting ride.

Zooey (Taylor Russell) is a shy, college student who is brilliant and a loner. She’s stuck in her dorm for Thanksgiving while everyone leaves for the break. She receives a mysterious puzzle box which she quickly figures out how to open, only to find an invitation to compete in an escape room adventure for $10,000. Zooey isn’t the only one who gets a box. Jason (Jay Ellis) a go-getting financial whiz, Ben (Logan Miller) a down on his luck grocery clerk, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) an ex-soldier, Danny (Nik Dodani) the uber-nerd, and Mike (Tyler Labine) a jovial blue-collar fella all figure out the cubed puzzle and end up in an industrial building where the game begins in the waiting room. They soon learn the mysterious makers of the escape room mean business when they’re almost roasted alive in the first challenge. So begins their life or death race to the finish as they work their way room to room, revealing more about each person and the invisible burdens they struggle with.

The players in a bad spot. (Sony Pictures)

The film starts with a bang as Ben tries to figure out how to get out of a library before he’s crushed by a moving wall. It’s a frantic few minutes, putting you on edge immediately and never loses the intensity throughout. Waiting to see what clues characters found and how they related to each of their pasts was fantastic and created a puzzle within a puzzle. And speaking of puzzles, the cast fit in perfectly with great performances. Canadian actor Taylor Russell (seen on numerous shows like Falling Skies and Netflix’s Lost in Space) is riveting as the shy loner Zooey who clears all the puzzle hurdles with ease and is a classic final girl. Other stand out performances came from Ellis (Insecure) and Woll (best known for True Blood), and we got the perfect amount of comedic relief from Labine, the veteran Canadian actor of Tucker and Dale vs Evil fame as well as a huge list of other notable roles. Kudos to director Adam Robitel for casting people of colour in a lead role, like, three, as well as an Asian detective played by Kenneth Fok. See? Not so hard, and the film is doing well at the box office and getting decent reviews with what seems like a teaser ending for a sequel if not a franchise (yes, please!). I also have to mention the production designer Edward Thomas who has worked on Doctor Who, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood. The sets were just brilliant and writers Bragi F. Shut and Maria Melnik came up with some great brainteasers to keep the audience guessing.

As a side note, my biggest joy received from this movie was the fact that I saw it with two young black girls: my great-niece and her cousin who nodded vigorously when I asked if they were pleased that the main character was a black girl. This is a moment that touched my heart because I know if I was their age, this would speak to me on a subconscious level. A black girl protagonist would have let me know without words that I could excel at math, I could be the smartest one in the room and not to feel ashamed about it. Actions speak louder than words and this time I got to see my sweet tween niece see someone like her winning on the big screen.

If you haven’t seen Escape Room yet, don’t miss out on it, not only because it’s a perfect Saturday night at the movies, but also for some fun, sustained suspense, people of colour in solid roles and a black final girl you can get behind.