The Guest – A jack o’ lantern’s grin is the first hint that The Guest is more mischievous than it appears. Dan Stevens is worlds away from Matthew Crawley, playing a lithe ex-soldier whose appearance on his deceased friend’s family’s doorstep sparks a number of mysterious coincidences that throw suspicion on his story. No movie is set during Halloween without reason, and before co-writers Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard reveal their hand, it’s the smaller things like Leland Orser’s dad’s proliferating Shiner Bocks and a leering appreciation for lead actress Maika Monroe’s thighs that slowly inform its nutty sense of humor and exploitative roots. Taking inspiration from the open-ended concept of a stranger at the door, Barrett and Wingard fully embrace the spirit of the season, making Stevens the first trick-or-treater of a Halloween season that builds steadily into all-out mayhem. They upend expectations wherever they can, painting a dusty middle America in sensational neon colors and setting the mood with pulsing electronica, eventually racing toward one of the most perfectly shot conclusions in recent memory, and suggesting that all along they’ve been telling the world’s most twisted love story. What some may see as predictability is actually all part of the fun. Its tension is purposefully cut by Monroe’s skepticism and blatant uses of foreshadowing, giving preference to its own devilishness over outright shocks. An immensely funny and knowing homage to the trashy horror thrillers of yesteryear, it’s slick without being shallow, and as sincere as it is mad.
Horns – Botched is a polite descriptor for Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s Horns. Aja can’t decide how to tackle the source material, and despite good intentions – attracting an impressive cast, showering adoration on his woodsy Vancouver shooting location – it’s clear that what attracted him to Hill’s novel is its titillating black humor, but none of the underlying emotion. So when it would be right to channel the ghastliness of his The Hills Have Eyes or even High Tension, he spikes Horns with sheepish attempts at Piranha 3D campiness instead. Daniel Radcliffe’s Ig gains the ability to make people reveal their darkest secrets after desecrating his murdered girlfriend Merrin’s memorial, and the agonizing truths his at-first supportive parents reveal are given no more weight than the mercenary desires of those who cross his path. There’s a disconnect between page and screen, as if director and screenwriter trusted the other to smooth out the other’s kinks, allowing for most scenes to be shot without much thought for tone, delivery, or pacing. The oddest decision is in setting the story during Ig’s investigation for Merrin’s murder, shifting his motivation from revenge to clearing his own name. Nothing is more horrifying than seeing Ig sway from mourning his beloved to freaking out about his own incarceration, a change in attitude that isn’t helped by Daniel Radcliffe’s permanently exasperated, unmodulated performance. Aja is equally obtuse, letting a clichéd hip soundtrack carry the heavier moments while he bides his time to blindside the audience with some late-in-the-game gore. Placing priority on the details makes for a pretty picture, but despite its ostensible focus on harsh truths, it retains little, if any, substance.
Wolf Creek 2 – If the expression “head on a stick” only inspires images of Middle Age despotism, then you aren’t familiar with Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek. Villain Mick Taylor relates the term to a character he has violently incapacitated, and his choice of words forces the imagination to an even deeper level of queasiness. The biggest indication of a change of direction for this followup is that the loquacious killer never gloats about his signature killing move. The audience should already recognize it. Like Freddy, Jason, and Jigsaw before him, Mick has crossed the line from villain to parodic anti-hero, and the movie is firmly in his camp, openly enjoying his violent impulses. Calling Wolf Creek 2 crueler than its predecessor largely depends on one’s stance on its streak of pitch black humor, punctuated by actor John Jarratt’s demented guttural giggle. This time around the Outback is Mick’s playground, and any pretense of secrecy goes out the window as he blasts away cops and homesteaders alongside his usual prey. Virtually plotless, it treads the same ground as its predecessor, updating its initial pair of characters into German backpackers to give Mick’s actions an isolationist slant. Smaller ideas are nice if under-explored, like an Outback couple wise to Mick’s ways, otherwise his xenophobia creates the don’t-come-to-Slovakia vibe of Hostel that is enough to scare a weak crowd. The addition of a cleverer victim makes for some entertaining interplay, with the young man misinterpreting Mick’s mood swings as a sort of Smeagol/Gollum bipolar disorder. For awhile Mclean appears to commit to an out-and-out chase movie, but once this final boy is captured it leads to a familiar climax. As if Mick’s lair in the first movie wasn’t disturbing enough, it’s shown in greater detail here, evidence of the madman’s long career. It ends just because it has to, and the epilogue that follows is laughably stupid, paving the way for yet a third nasty outing.
In Fear – An overdose of clichés undoes what could be posited as an Irish Wolf Creek, wherein a couple are terrorized by an unseen foe after getting lost in a hedgerow maze. The setup is familiar from the get-go, the two clashing due to under-preparation, unrequited affection, menacing locals, and general idiocy in the face of mounting challenges. Writer-director Jeremy Lovering devises a number of unnerving shocks, but they never coalesce into a greater picture of who or what hunts them. A common theory of the genre holds that nothing is more evil than a lack of motivation, but even John Carpenter, herald of that theory, gave Michael Myers a hint of humanity with his sister issues and whatnot. Lovering takes it at face value, and perhaps in a bid for nihilism makes his villain as pointless as possible. At the very least, accepting the fact that Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert’s tortured pair are too inept to retrace their route, it’s easy to admire what Lovering does with their bushy prison, patiently waiting for the daylight to fade, twisting the road to and fro to shut them off from any chance of escape. Take the approach that their tormenter is other than human and the resourcefulness of the pranks played against them makes more sense and adds a mystical dimension to what is otherwise a study in sadism. If not, Lovering proves himself a better director than screenwriter in this case, making a decently nerve-rattling movie that has the misfortune of being loyal to a thin story.