The 2021 spooky season starts on two different notes.
Attention, readers: Please play this song in a separate window before reading in order to set the mood. Thank you.
Well, well, well. As sure as the moon overtakes the sun each night so the creatures that like darkness can play, it is now October. It is our darkness, in other words, the month fans of horrors and thrillers and slashers and haunters come alive. The month where it's encouraged to dress as someone you're not. The month that brings the world a little closer to chaos than it always is. It is in that spirit that our dear friend Cringe Blog has returned to us.
Because of how the calendar falls, Cringe will be staying five weeks this year, a boon for those of us that lap up #SpookySZN content like potion from a witch's cauldron. We only have 31 days to celebrate, after all, before it officially becomes "holiday season" and everything turns *retches* joyous.
I know that not all Binge Blog readers share my love of scary films and TV shows, but as always, the goal of Cringe Blog is to celebrate all reactions to horror. One of today's recommendations is nominally a horror movie, but it also made me laugh more than any other movie this year (save "Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar," which more people should watch.) The other recommendation has a lot of blood but, honestly, isn't very scary. It's more interested in stimulating your brain than your pulse.
Horror is a vast canvas; there are infinite stories to be told within the genre. Horror can sometimes be more about aesthetics than anything else. What's the difference between "Mean Girls" and "Carrie" other than a little pig's blood (and some death)? They tell similar stories about the adverse affects of teenage bullying and irresponsible parenting and key scenes happen at a school dance in both. Throw some telekinetic powers into "Mean Girls," and you're halfway to a horror classic.
I guess what I'm saying is…
(pretend this is "Horror" talking to "All other genres")
Now that we're all agreed on that, let's begin. Happy hauntings.
"Midnight Mass" (2021)
Netflix, rated TV-MA, seven episodes, approx. seven hours of content
The No. 1 thing I appreciate about "Midnight Mass," the new horror-adjacent series from modern genre master Mike Flanagan ("The Haunting of Hill House"), is that the official trailer does not reveal every card in the show's hand.
You do get to meet Riley (Zach Gilford), who is returning home to his small, isolated town of Crockett Island, known as the "Crock Pot" to residents, after doing … something bad. And you get to see Riley's mother, Annie (Kristin Lehman), nudging him to talk to the town's new priest, Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), about the guilt he's feeling. And you see that things are happening. Some are good things, like Leeza (Annarah Cymone) leaving her wheelchair and walking to take communion during a church service, and some are more ominous, like a parade of dead cats washing up on the shore. So, clearly, this is going to be a tried-and-true religious horror series about the nature of fervent faith and the good and the bad that can result from it, right?
Well, yes. But it's also something else, an entry in a different horror subgenre that somehow dovetails perfectly with the religious overtones Flanagan wants viewers to see. I haven't seen a mix of these two subgenres things before, at least in this particular way, and I'm so glad Netflix did not reveal the twist in the trailer. Experiencing it along with the show was a blast; "Midnight Mass" takes its time in letting on what's happening, but once it does, it's basically full throttle to the end.
I certainly won't be revealing it here, though beware spoilers on social media and elsewhere. So what can I talk about in the meantime? I think it is safe to reveal that the show does a lot of talking about, well, a lot of things. There are a lot of monologues in "Midnight Mass." Too many of them, frankly, and most of them also go on for too long. When they hit, though, they really hit, mostly in later episodes. Flanagan has death and redemption on his mind in this show, specifically what needs to happen for people to be content with leaving Earth and how they want to go.
But I'm sure that won't come into play here. I mean, who would die an untimely death on a quiet place like Crockett Island?
Like "The Haunting of Hill House" and "The Haunting of Bly Manor" before it, Flanagan and "Midnight Mass" want to make you think more than they want to scare you. This might be the least frightening show on a minute-to-minute basis that Flanagan has made. Most scenes are just people talking about complex and emotional issues. But the lack of scares actually imbues the frights that are there with more power. Think about the now-famous car jump scare in "Hill House" but spread throughout the series.
And yes, Flanagan has once again succeeded in making me tear up, this time at the finale, as one character has a beautiful inner revelation as the world goes to Hell around them. He's too good at that shit.
Even if you don't care about the genre twist I teased — though how could you not be? — you should watch for the performances. Siegel, Flanagan's wife, gives her best performance in any of his projects here, but it's Hamish Linklater who stole the show for me. At once empathetic and monstrous, inspiring and frightening, Linklater's Paul Hill shows off both sides of the show's central theme. He genuinely wants to help people, but his methods for doing so are tainted by an evil that he mistakenly sees as holy. Linklater's performance is complicated and raw and real, and I could not take my eyes off him.
HBO Max, rated R, 111 minutes
I just realized that "Malignant" also has a twist that I can't spoil. Goodness, I should try to spread these entries out in the future, but there's nothing to be done about it today because I have to write about "Malignant," and spoiling where this movie goes is a sin Paul Hill would heartily punish.
Let's talk about what we're working with here. We've got James Wan, director. You know James Wan. "Saw"? "Insidious"? "The Conjuring"? "Aquaman" and "Fast and Furious 7," for some reason? That guy. Great. We love him. Horror fans, I mean. He's a king. Any time James Wan announces he's releasing an honest-to-goodness horror movie, it's an event. There's usually one guarantee with Wan movies: They're going to be bonkers.
"Malignant" lives up to that promise. But if I told you why it's bonkers, without any context, you might not believe it. Or, I should say, it wouldn't make any damn sense. So let's provide context.
"Malignant" answers the question "What if there was a horror movie, but it was also kind of a parody of a soap opera?" And I mean a "Days of Our Lives"-level soap opera. All the cops in this movie talk like the only thing they've ever watched is every episode of "CSI" on a loop. Our heroine, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), will often wind up like she's going to give a big reveal, only for it to be something like telling her "sister" that Madison was adopted — followed by a deadly serious music cue, as if the president was just told his wife had been kidnapped. The lighting is insane; everything looks purposefully digital and cheap. At one point, detective Kekoa Shaw (George Young) is chasing a suspect through the streets of a city where it always rains, and he jumps off a fire escape, and instead of landing on his feet like an action hero, he slams insanely hard into a dumpster. Watching that happen is the hardest I have laughed in 2021.
If it isn't clear by now, "Malignant" is not meant to be taken seriously. At all. It is not frightening. It is to laugh at and, by the end, laugh with. So think about that when we talk about plot. Here that is, by the way: Madison's abusive husband, Derek (Jake Abel), is killed by an intruder. The intruder goes after Madison too, though she manages to get away. But soon after that, Madison — who is pregnant at the time of the attack — starts having visions of other people being murdered by this same shadowy intruder. The visions are so intense that it's like she's physically at the crime scenes. When she tells the police what is happening to her, they start to believe she's responsible. And the shadowy intruder won't leave her alone …
It is within this wholly hokey context that the final twist comes. You'll probably see it coming at a certain point, at least getting the general idea of what is happening, but the specifics of what is happening are so insane that it won't matter. The final 30 minutes of "Malignant" had my jaw slacked because I honestly could not believe anyone gave James Wan to make this thing. Don't think about how it all works. Just take in the sheer audacity of it all.
"Malignant" is not everyone's speed. I've seen some people say things like, "The final 30 minutes are great, but the first two acts suck!" which I don't understand personally; I think the first two acts are crucial. I certainly understand not liking the whole package, though. And if that's you, that's fine. Thanks for giving it a shot for me on Cringe Blog's opening weekend.
I think a lot of people will dig it, though, especially with my primer on the movie's tone. Go in expecting to laugh, and be pleasantly surprised at what you find.
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