No pun intended, but there definitely was a shift in the direction of horror from its still-peak decade of the 1980s to the lesser years of the 1990s. Perhaps there was so much saturation with mainstream movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street and their plethora of sequels and knock-offs, that the genre had hit a tipping point. In the 1990s, horror morphed more into "adult thrillers" like The Silence of the Lambs which traded teen schlock charm for serious adult drama sheen. Even the teen horror flicks which popped up near the end of the decade were more meta in their approach, riffing off their predecessors with both glee and condescension. Looking back at all the movies which hit number one at the box office in the 90s, a movie like Graveyard Shift feels like anomaly. It was a short lived success, dropping a near-fifty percent in its second week, and ended up raking in a million or so shy of its $10 M budget. Like many horror movies of its time (especially Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan), Graveyard Shift boasts creepy, intriguing poster art and publicity materials which fail to live up its promise. However, if taken purely as a corny monster movie, Graveyard Shift is fun and effective. The crisp photography by Peter Stein highlights the gorgeous greenery and near-dusk blue skies of the Maine locale. Even when their subject matter is swill, Paramount films of the late 1980s and early 1990s have a beautiful, defining look to them.
Based upon Stephen King's 1970 story, later included in his collection Night Shift, Graveyard Shift is set at a ramshackle textile mill in Maine that's infested with vermin. King's story is fleeting and packed with punchy, descriptive dialogue from the workers and the mill's foreman. And while the rats are described, the horror is more suggestive than literal. The story's abrupt ending also leaves the horror to one's imagination. Somehow the rats are less menacing in the film: all squeaky and docile-looking. Only skin-crawling when they are regulated to nibbling on bloody cotton and falling prey to gunky effects.
The movie also elongates the short story by adding more characters and drawing out the arrival of the central character, Hall (played competently by David Andrews), a drifter who unlike many of the other workers, is not only an outsider but one who attended college, and ends up in the town to take on a job at the mill cleaning up on a July 4th-holiday weekend in midst of threats of closure from OSHA. The foreman Warwick (Stephen Macht) is a bit of a brute, harassing and abusing his workers and haplessly dealing with the rodent problem. He'd be a little more intimidating if Macht didn't have such a fussy and affected Maine accent ("The show's ovah" is a laughable, quotable line). It's an interesting, tongue-in-cheek acting choice indeed. In fact, many of the actors seem to be acting in different films. Brad Dourif amps up his goonish, gum-smacking Vietnam vet exterminator role to the highest of heavens. I guess that's what you'd expect with Dourif, but I was more interested in the naturalism of others like some of the bit parts including Hall's fellow worker Winsconsky (Kelly Wolf). A little bit of wandering into the lives of others is usually the strength of the best King film adaptations, unfortunately screenwriter John Esposito skimps on much detail of the local folks. A friendly car ride between Winsconsky and Hall is too brief and doesn't go too deep, even if it's beautifully shot and a nice respite from the movie's on-going sense of conflict and meanness. The film kind of falls apart in the second half before the giant rat finale.
But director Ralph S. Singleton (his only feature film to date), gets a lot of things right--the sweat and sets--an amazing use of a real-life Bartlett Yarns mill in Harmony, Maine. The movie goes for a different conclusion than King's story, but in the end, this is all shallow monster movie entertainment. The rickety "End Theme" with its mimicking of the titter-tattering sounds of the rats and the mill machines intertwined with a repetitive use of the movie's dialogue is oddball and genius. Despite its faults, Graveyard Shift is one of the better American horror films of a decade meager in the genre and one of the last high budget studio pictures of the era to meld light camp with dingy played-straight horror. **1/2
Jordan Peele's tremendous debut Get Out is one of the finest new horror films I have seen in quite some time. Perhaps the first flat-out horror masterpiece of this decade. It's also an excellent and sharp social comedy.
After a chilling opening of a kidnapping of a black man on a nighttime suburban street (complete with Flanagan and Allen's "Run Rabbit Run" instantly adding both idiosyncrasy and wit), the story initially focuses upon Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and the anxieties of his first visit to the secluded, woodsy manor of the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). In true (and symbolic) fashion, the couple hit a deer en route (quite an elegantly-framed jump scare moment) and thus begins the Polanski-esque unrelenting sense of dread. The parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are seemingly genial even if somewhat peculiar. Their worst traits seem to be their tinges of patronizing behavior. Their black groundskeeper and housekeeper (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel, respectively) act bizarrely. And the brother (Caleb Landry Jones), with his reddish blond pony and beady eyes, has a brash, off-putting intensity in the guise of a friendly headlock.
Peele and lead Kaluuya carefully draw us into a setting of this goldish-cream colored walled house of artsy knick knacks, surrounded by slim, stark trees and soon populated with a party of quietly sinister white people (similar to the subtly off-kilter depictions of characters in '75's The Stepford Wivesand Rosemary's Baby) where the smallest gestures and comments give off a heightened sense of fear and paranoia and laughable disgust. All of it quickly descends into a terrifying and exquisitely apt "Twilight Zone" of its own.
This movie comes at a time where there are pretty much zero studio films (this one was picked up by Universal) that are fascinating and challenging, incredibly well-assembled but also encourage yelling, laughing, screaming and clapping. There have been critically praised slavery epics in the past few years--Steve McQueen's12 Years a Slave the most notableand Tarantino's Django Unchained (which this film has certain glimmers of--especially in its candlelit dinner scene) and also problematic films like The Help which are from the perspective of whites and deal with racism by creating an unrealistic, plasticity over-the-top central villain. Hidden Figures was a bright spot in last year's mainstream movies by using a Hollywood glossy narrative usually tailor-made for white historical men to effectively tell the stories of three black women. Get Out shares similar themes of racism, the commodification of black bodies and minds and yet is set not in the antebellum south but in a modern-day, self-proclaimed liberal enclave (Steven Thrasher assesses these ideas much more brilliantly in his Esquire write-up). It also flips the gender role of the traditional final white girl being a black man (notoriously the black man has always been one of the first few victims in a slasher pic).
While Get Out absolutely stands on its own as an original horror film, the movie has many fun homages and relationships with other fright flicks. The rich score by Michael Abels is full of many influences: I found the use of a "Love Theme," which begins with standard earnestness and twists itself into a more absurd connotation, reminiscent to Pino Donaggio's score in Don't Look Now. A astonishing hypnosis scene--a hybrid of performance (Kaluuya's haunting, tearful eyes and Keener's chilly balefulness), sound design (the repetitive stir of a spoon in china), film editing (by Gregory Plotkin), photography (by Toby Oliver), and a creepily lulling string score--invokes a painful childhood memory of Chris which recalls the demons of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
I wasn't so into LilRel Howery's tonally off comedy but it's hard to knock something that brings so much joy. Especially as he kind of becomes this film's Scatman Crothers. A scene with him and a detective (a great small part turn by Erika Alexander) is quite hilarious and disarming. Peele's debut film is so impressive and one that seems flashy but holds such a delicate web of emotions. The balance between satire, humor, and horror is perfectly handled. Any slight misstep could have cracked the picture (reminiscent of its broken-pane poster design), which is what makes the film-making and writing all the more stunning. The cast too, is perfectly chosen and everyone plays their roles with gusto. Thank God for this picture released in the doldrums of early winter which requires so much engagement and thought (one can go on and on in all the themes it explores) but is also a tense, crowdpleasing hoot. The rousing reactions of the packed crowd I saw it with certainly added sparks to the film's already well-honed electricity. ****