June 20, 2024
Also: A couple runs into horror in gripping 'The Changeling,' Jennifer Reeder's 'Perpetrator' is a bizarro (in a good way) teen horror tale.

What makes the horror genre unique from other cinematic genres is how strangely diverse the offerings can be. Want proof? Let’s take a look at a number of new releases pushing the genre into bold, different and sometimes satirical directions.

And should all that scary business be too much for you, there’s also a sweet romantic drama that’s suitable for the YA crowd and romance fans.

Here’s our roundup.

“El Conde”: What sounds like a novel and quirky notion — turning Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet into a vampire who’s undergoing an existential crisis — avoids simple gimmickry to deliver a successful and gory horror movie as well as a damning indictment of the corrupt leader and his greedy, blood-lusting wife and adult children’s rule. The result is one of Pablo Larraín’s most cohesive, most engrossing and adventurous films yet. That’s saying a lot for the filmmaker who also retooled Princess Diana’s royal life and turned into a tortuous and claustrophobic nightmare  with “Spencer.” In “El Conde,” you can taste Larraín’’s bile and outrage over Pinochet and his brood’s fascist rule, as he takes a gorgeously demented and Gothic look into the depraved minds of family members trying extract as much blood out of their lineage and the land that they once ruled. Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) becomes a bloodsucker during the French Revolution and is now prepared to eat veggies and die in an Edgar Allan Poe-appropriate mansion shoved at the bottom of the continent. When a devout nun (Paula Luchsinger Escobar) arrives, it disrupts Pinochet’s plan and makes family members suspicious. Unlike parts of Larrain’s best movies — the tonally off-key ending of “Spencer,” for example — “Conde” never loses sight of its stark vision and message about tyranny remaining eternal as it repeats itself time and time again through history. This one should be an awards contender, particularly for its soundtrack, its production design and its mesmerizing cinematography that sometimes recalls the vampire classic, “Nosferatu.” This is a masterpiece. Details: 4 stars out of 4; in select theaters Sept. 8; streaming Nov. 15 on Netflix.

“The Changeling”: New York book dealer Apollo (LaKeith Stanfield) and librarian Emma (Clark Backo) meet rom-com cute and start to express their deep love for literature and later for each other in sweet ways. But an ominous, often hidden presence lurks around them and their Queens apartment. When an unfathomable act happens in Episode 3 — showrunner Kelly Marcel’s eight-episode adaptation of author Victor LaValle’s shifty novel evolves into a dark, disturbing modern fairy tale, one that’s inventive, original and hard to shake off. “The Changeling” takes its time so we get to know and appreciate both of the characters, a smart move that makes the horrific event all that more surprising and shattering. “The Changeling” always keeps us off balance and often in the dark, as it touches on various issues — race, parenthood, gender roles. Centering it is Stanfield, who gives maybe one of the most nuanced and gut-wrenching performances you’ll ever see in a horror series or film. Few actors can make you feel the pain and anguish inside of a character with the ferocity that he can. He is the one driving this series over the finish line. Details: 3½ stars; three episodes drop Sept. 8.

“Perpetrator”: Director Jennifer Reeder’s distinctive and downright bizarre horror films refuse to lean on cheap jump scares or the approval of gorehounds. In other words, her feminist-forward work upends standard tropes and leaves you chewing over what you’ve just seen. Her oddball “Perpetrator” is a twisted tale that celebrates feisty teen spirit, which it portrays through the eyes of its lead character, Jonny (KIah McKirnan) who learns about and taps into special powers she has once she goes to live with her weirdo aunt (Alicia Silverstone) who serves one disgusting cake. While the identity of the kidnapper/killer of high school girls where she now lives turns out to be rather obvious, that reveal doesn’t matter much since Jonny’s refusal to become anyone’s victim makes the themes brought up in this genre-defiant film a cut above the rest. Details: 3 stars; now streaming on Shudder.

“My Animal”: Jacqueline Castel’s visually arresting supernatural coming-of-age/coming-out feature debut isn’t scary per se but creates a sure sense that things will get bad, very bad, for its main character, Alaskan teen and hockey player — and werewolf — Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez). Life does prove to be hard for Heather and her family, or pack, a wild bunch that doesn’t conform to the status quo. For that reason, Heather’s branded a weirdo at high school and is a loner until she meets figure skater Jonny (Amandla Stenberg, electric in every scene) Soon a creature of desire gets unleashed. Castel’s unsettling drama might strike some as an obvious parable for coming out in a small town, but Castel’s cagey feature grazes other issues as well, including familial bonds, intolerance and the fear of others. All good points. But it’s the crazy color palette applied on this film that won me over and kept my attention. Details: 2½ stars; in select theaters Sept. 8 and on streaming platforms Sept 15.

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“Brightwood”: Writer/director Dane Elcar’s scrappy but well-executed feature debut serves as a calling card for this talented filmmaker. The two-hander turns an ordinary outdoor run around a pond in the woods into a freaky event. The setup is as simple and straightforward as it sounds: a bitterly unhappy married couple (Dana Berger and Max Woertendyke) go out for a jog and, after squabbling, discover that they’re just running around in circles, a metaphor that fits snugly. But are they the only ones in the woods? “Brightwood” answers that question and comes up with a couple gut punches near the end. Berger and Woertendyke make their characters engaging and appropriately irritating. It would be interesting to see what Elcar could do with a bigger budget. Details: 2½ stars; available on Amazon Prime Video.

“Dude Bro Party Massacre III”: This often hilarious spoof of 1980s horror movies came out in 2015 but only got released for rental this month, and we’re all the better for it. If you’re a genre fan, you won’t want to miss this cheeky satire that skewers the tropes and has a laugh track success rate of 80 percent. Not bad. Not bad at all. What is bad is, purposely the plot, as Brent (Alec Owen) goes undercover in a Chico frat to figure out who slew his twin brother, Brock. Filled with jabs at slasher classics such as “Friday the 13th,” “Sleepaway Camp” and more, this irreverent goofball of a movie can’t help but put a smile on your face. Walnut Creek native and “The Room” icon Greg Sestero pops in to play the handsome but rather dense Derek, who’s a real tool. Watch for Patton Oswalt in a small but crucial role of the sheriff. It’s a must watch for midnight viewings, and comes from the comedy team 5-Second Films. It even has ‘80s-style commercials tossed in throughout. Details: 3 stars; available now for rental.

“Bad Things”: Director Stewart Thorndike’s sense for striking visuals is readily apparent in this “Shining”-influenced relationship/horror thriller set in an abandoned hotel. Too bad the storytelling is sluggish and opaque to the point that we wind up being bored even with its short running . What a shame since there are narrative seeds worth tending to and see sprout in Ruthie’s (Gayle Rankin) family backstory. As she and her three friends (Hari Nef, Rad Pereira and Annabelle Dexter-Jones) hang out in the deserted hotel, Thorndike moves toward significant storylines and then retreats, failing to take advantage of its potential. Details: 2 stars; available on Shudder.

If all that horror gets too much for you, check out Aitch Alberto’s sweet gay-themed romantic drama “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” In this adaptation of the popular YA novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, two El Paso, Texas, teens from different homelives become loyal friends and more as they spend time together. Aristotle (Max Pelayo) is more reserved and wary of others while Dante (Reese Gonzales) is more trusting and upbeat. When they’re separated over one summer, the two discover through letters that they mean something more to each other. Both young actors are immensely likable in an immensely likable film that reminds us that it’s important to be true to who we are. Details: 3 stars; in theaters Sept. 8.

Contact Randy Myers at [email protected].