The month-long celebration kicks off with "Stoker" and "Ready or Not."
Ghouls, goblins and everyone in between, welcome back to Cringe Blog, Binge Blog's cousin with the darkest of secrets.
Cringe Blog will be staying with us for five weeks this year. During that time, we'll be looking at different offerings from the horror, thriller and mystery genres, or anything else that feels spooky. It's one of my favorite months of the year. I know some people don't like these kinds of movies or shows, but I think they're one of the best ways to see the unseen, to feel and confront our anxieties on the screen. "Hereditary," for example, is a terrifying movie, but it also shows the different ways people express the grief of losing loved ones. "Midsommar" is possibly the world's best breakup movie (that happens to feature a Swedish death cult).
For some, those films are a cathartic experience. There's something like that for everyone, no matter what you're going through. You just have to find it, which is why I'm here.
There won't be a round-up of the typical sort during this month, but I'll be filling the space with something chilling, rest assured. Speaking of! This year, horror fans have a new way to get their fix. A new streaming service called Arrow is offering a collection of classic cult horror films for your viewing pleasure. This includes things like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Hellraiser" but also films less well-known in the U.S., like Takashi Miike's "Audition" and Max Ophuls' "Le Plaisir." This month, it is also featuring a collection of films selected by filmmaker/film buff Edgar Wright as an extra treat. Subscriptions cost either $4.99 per month or $50 per year.
But enough about that. We have actual films to discuss.
Prime Video, rated R, 99 minutes
"Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse."
We're getting off to a good start here. "Stoker" takes a lot of stuff you've seen before — creepy kids, strange relatives with mysterious motives, spiders, etc. — and turns it into something unique, with some of the best cinematography you'll see in a Gothic-adjacent thriller.
Directed by Park Chan-Wook, who also directed "The Handmaiden" and "Oldboy," "Stoker" is told from the perspective of India (Mia Wasikowska). The film begins on her 18th birthday, which is also the day she and her mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman), bury India's father, who died in a car accident. India's a quiet kid with tastes that don't exactly skew mainstream. Her father's death breaks her a little. Her favorite activity was going on hunting trips with him; without him, she recedes into her books or playing the piano. She barely wants to leave the family mansion.
Then Uncle Charlie (a supremely creepy Matthew Goode) arrives to throw things into chaos.
Charlie is the classic too-perfect stranger. He's charming. He cooks for the family. He sticks up for India when she's bullied at school. He talks about his adventures in Europe, where he's supposedly been for the past few years. He also intimately plays the piano with India — maybe a little too intimately.
"Stoker" works because of its performances, which are great across the board, and its directing. Chan-Wook makes the most of the film's creepy-house aesthetic. You often see characters enter the frame in a mirror or as a shadow before you see them in the flesh. Scenes bleed into one another like they're phantoms passing through a wall (though there are no specters in this film). One transition, from a wall of hair to a wave of tall grass, is particularly stunning.
"Stoker" is a nature versus nurture film at its core. Are we forced to grow into the people our family history says we will be? Or can a concerted effort to change spare us from that fate? The film takes a refreshingly hard-line stance on these questions. Chan-Wook has the film come full circle too, its seemingly insignificant (but pretty) introduction being given new meaning and more context. Even the film's big twist is a riff on a horror cliche, but it feels fresh because of its details and how it is executed.
Also, a pre-"Solo" Alden Ehrenreich shows up for like two scenes? It's fun!
"Ready or Not" (2019)
HBO Max, rated R, 95 minutes
This is all about Samara Weaving, who would be this generation's top scream queen if I had my way. She can unleash the wail of a banshee, and her eyes give such a striking look whether she's terrified or full of rage.
In "Ready or Not," Weaving plays Grace. The film begins on her wedding day, when she's set to marry Alex (Mark O'Brien) and join the Le Domas family, which has a board game empire. ("We prefer dominion," one character says.) The wedding is held at the family's old, vast estate. The family is a bit standoffish, but they're normal, except for one odd tradition: On each wedding night, at midnight, the newcomer has to play a game, decided by the drawing of a card. Most of these games are just that: games. But if someone draws the hide and seek card, there will be no playing around. The newcomer must hide, and the family must seek — and kill.
Discovering why the family holds this macabre tradition is part of the fun. The rest of the fun comes from watching Weaving, in a wedding dress, fight back against her seekers. Filmmaking team Radio Silence gets inventive with the kills, which do not hold back on gore or other things that might make people gasp. (There's a set piece involving a nail, and … yeesh.) But even the most vicious attacks are punctuated with humor. Make no mistake: Although there are certainly some tense scenes, the main aim of "Ready or Not" is for everyone to leave the theater (or get up from the couch) with a devilish grin.
The film also does not outstay its welcome. It takes about 30 minutes to establish the plot and characters. Then the first kill comes, and the film never lets up over the next hour.
Weaving is the obvious star here, giving Grace a hard-edged sense of humor and a believable revenge streak. But the film's supporting cast is great, too, with characters played by Adam Brody, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Kristian Bruun and others. It plays like a slasher version of "Knives Out" in many ways.
If that sounds good to you, "Ready or Not" is your next favorite thing.