Friday the 13th in October is generally geared toward horror, but the main release of the week has theaters instead counting on a Taylor Swift concert film to bring in a whole lot of money. In the meantime, there are a variety of genre flicks out there to see. This set of write-ups includes a slow-burn thriller, a possession-based horror film, a dystopian thriller, a neo-noir, an anthology horror sequel, a paranoia supernatural comedy, a military courtroom drama, and a horror prequel. The following features reviews for The Royal Hotel, When Evil Lurks, The Mill, Reptile, V/H/S/85, Monsters of California, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, and Pet Sematary: Bloodlines.
The Setup: Americans Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are backpacking in Australia and take a temporary live-in job as bartenders in a remote Outback mining town. Soon, they find themselves trapped in an unnerving situation that grows rapidly out of their control.
Review: While director Kitty Green’s breakout feature film, The Assistant, was a tense depiction of a scenario eerily close to how things allegedly are within toxic film production company offices, The Royal Hotel opts for something closer to a genre flick. Granted, this slow-burn psychological thriller still hues very close to reality, but one can take the setting and atmosphere as a sort of unexpected purgatory for Hanna and Liv. Full of simmering tension and unchecked male aggression, there’s no doubt plenty of truth in what’s presented, given the origins of this story, which stem from the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie. Still, with strong performances from Garner and Henwick, a terrific Hugo Weaving as the bar owner, and an especially creepy Daniel Henshall as a patron not to be trusted, the whole experience is well-rounded as it builds towards its conclusion. I wish there was a bit more to take away, but as a taut display of disturbing behavior, the movie is worth checking into.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: The residents of a small rural town discover that a demon is about to be born among them. They desperately try to escape — but it may be too late.
Review: Continuing the theme of tense situations, When Evil Lurks combines a pressure cooker of a story with startling imagery that makes it clear this film will take no prisoners. Writer/director Demián Rugna takes an exciting approach to a story about possession by depicting it as a plague that’s acted out in ways fitting of 28 Days Later. As a result, once things get going and our protagonists recognize what they’re in for, very effective choices are made to keep the suspense high, the violence brutal, and the suffering of it all very palpable. A lack of safety, indicated early on by some twisted acts, will keep the viewers on their toes, along with just having Argentinian actors who do not exist in the same realm as manicured movie stars. It grounds the proceedings well enough and allows the rest that occurs to really cut deep.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters. Available to stream on Shudder starting October 27, 2023.
The Setup: Joe (Lil Rel Howery) is a rising star at the mega-corporation Mallard. Devoted to his family and fixated on success, his life unravels into a nightmare when he wakes up in an open-air prison cell with no memory. Forced to work as a beast of burden, he must find a way to escape before the birth of his child.
Review: Obvious comparison points to Black Mirror aside, it quickly becomes clear what director Sean King O’Grady and writer Jeffrey David Thomas are going for with this bleak examination of corporate work life. Given the single location and character, the trick is sustaining engagement throughout. At 100 minutes, The Mill does feel at times like it is stretching itself more than it needs to, but it has a crucial element working at its center. That would be Howery, who has excelled plenty in his quick rise as a comedic supporting player. Here, he gets a chance to show other dimensions, and there’s strong work on display to show what other areas Howery may find comfort in if given the opportunity. As a thriller with a metaphorical high concept in play, I wish there was more meat to chew on. Still, I can’t say this didn’t do the job of playing with expectations and creating a fitting sense of unease by taking this man out of his cubicle.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Hulu.
The Setup: Following the brutal murder of a young real estate agent, a hardened detective (Benicio del Toro) attempts to uncover the truth in a case where nothing is as it seems and, by doing so, dismantles the illusions in his own life.
Review: There is such great effort put in by many involved in this film that it’s a shame it isn’t better. Functioning as the convenient Netflix choice to make up for the lack of a Prisoners-type movie in theaters, this noir-ish procedural thriller makes the most out of its lead actor, at least. Del Toro, who I consider the best “less is more” actor currently working, gets a fine time to shine as our main character, investigating the murder. Fairing not so well is Justin Timberlake, who can’t entirely escape the feeling that he’s trying. Fortunately, this cast is loaded with character actors to make up for it. This includes a no-nonsense Eric Bogosian as a police captain, and, most surprisingly, Alicia Silverstone as the smart and dedicated wife to del Toro’s character. Still, coming in at over two hours, a solid first hour is upset by a storyline that becomes overly convoluted yet uninvolving as the mystery becomes clearer. Director Grant Singer puts in plenty of nice touches to stress a certain kind of seedy environment, and del Toro gets a lot of lived-in aspects to his role to play with, but the film still can’t entirely shed the feel of being a “lesser than” attempt at a strong cinematic effort.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Setup: A heart-pounding journey into the grim underbelly of the forgotten ’80s through five tales of terror on a taped-over made-for-TV documentary.
Review: While still having yet to find a successful set of shorts to match V/H/S/2, let alone a segment as terrific as that film’s Safe Haven, I continue to get excited by yearly installments of this anthology horror series. This time around, directors David Bruckner, Scott Derrickson, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Natasha Kermani, and Mike P. Nelson are on hand to deliver a variety of stories set in the 80s. One is focused on an actual natural disaster but ties it to the ancient Aztecs. Another finds a group of campers getting much more than they bargained for, with an additional twist that plays with this film’s format. I found each to be at least interesting. Still, Derrickson’s short is the last before an epilogue, and for good reason, as it’s the most effective. Finding room for home invasion and an additional supernatural element, keep your ears open for a reference to The Black Phone while enjoying his latest way to push some effective gore onto viewers. Topping it all off is perhaps the best dark joke this series has come up with. Play the tape.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Shudder.
The Setup: After discovering research left behind by a missing government agent, Dallas Edwards (Jack Samson) and his misfit high school friends embark on a righteous and dangerous adventure to uncover a paranormal conspiracy in Southern California that brings them face-to-face with some of the government’s most guarded mysteries.
Review: While trying to put aside expectations is sometimes in mind, it’s hard not to have thoughts on how a film by the Blink 182 member who is obsessed with UFOs will go. However, co-writer/director Tom DeLonge shows some credibility here in a fairly lighthearted sci-fi comedy with a ton of heart. At just over 100 minutes, the film is still far too long and verges on putting off my interest by the time we reach the third act, but I cannot deny what was working. This cast is fun, with a set of friends and a tone in mind that wants to capture the Amblin spirit, but if the kids were stoners/skaters. The way the film escalates into a bizarre conspiracy theory movie should be hardly surprising, but the choices as to how to go about this serve as a mask for some familiar but effective themes as well. As a fun midnight movie type of experience, it’s an enjoyable enough venture from the guy at the rock show.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters and on VOD starting October 6, 2023.
The Setup: Barney Greenwald (Jason Clarke), a skeptical lawyer, reluctantly defends an officer of the navy who took control of the Caine from its captain, Lt. Philip Francis Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland), while caught in a violent sea storm. As the court-martial proceeds, however, Greenwald increasingly questions whether it was truly a mutiny or the courageous acts of a group of sailors who could not trust their unstable leader.
Review: Not being made clear enough is that this TV legal drama is the final film from the late director William Friedkin. What’s nice is that Hurricane Billy went out on top. The New Hollywood director has scripted a modern take on the classic story/play by Herman Wouk and uses the resources afforded by a straight-to-streaming film to make it as tense, affecting, and even humorous as needed. It’s also excellently acted. Sutherland and Clarke are dynamite in this picture, with the latter leaning into his effectiveness as a lawyer despite a clear haziness over his duties. Sutherland, meanwhile, is perfectly vulnerable as a stern, stalwart leader tasked with defending actions against a younger generation. And I can’t not mention the late Lance Reddick, who is also in the zone as the head judge with some of the best reaction shots of the year. A real joy comes from seeing the evolution of this film cinematically, as it begins very clearly as a plain TV movie, only to incorporate more cinematic flourishes over time. It catches the viewer off guard by the time we start realizing choices made for dramatic zooms and distinct camera angles. Of course, I should have expected nothing less with Friedkin at the helm.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Paramount+ with Showtime.
The Setup: In 1969, a young Jud Crandall (Jackson White) is set to leave his hometown of Ludlow, Maine, searching for his life’s purpose. However, before he makes it out, Jud and his childhood friends encounter an ancient evil that has gripped Ludlow since its founding.
Review: Speaking of Jason Clarke, if you were hoping we would get a prequel film tied to the very forgettable version of Pet Sematary he starred in back in 2019, well, you’re in luck. ‘Bloodlines’ does little to show why it needed to exist, which almost feels emphasized by the fact that you can barely see the film. I don’t mean that it’s hard to find, but with so many scenes set at night, it would be one thing if the film used a darker atmosphere to build up to good scares; however, this movie feels like it was shot through a black plastic bag. Still, say you have an easier time watching the film than I did – there’s still nothing else here of note. It’s a pretty bland story that presents us with young Jud Crandall. It would perhaps be fun if White attempted the affected Maine accent heard in the other films. Alas, that is left out, along with much else to help us enjoy the machinations of a cursed burial ground. Sometimes, a dormant franchise is better.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Paramount+.