Summer of Horror 2017: Part 4 The Monster, The Cell, and The Burning

The Monster

For a relatively minor modern horror release, Bryan Bertino’s debut The Strangers has become an oddly ubiquitous go-to pick for “scariest movie” whenever you ask anyone who fears home invasion – particularly women, for whatever reason. It struck a bigger chord than most expected. Bertino’s third and most recent film, The Monster, is more explicitly female-centric than The Strangers, and while I doubt many would call it scarier, it definitely hits harder emotionally.

Monster actually starts out very much like Strangers, in that it spends a good deal of time establishing the two main characters, and the fact that their relationship is clearly in its final hours. In this case, it’s The Worst Mother in the World (alcoholic, neglectful, abusive) taking the long drive with her preteen daughter to dump her off into her father’s care. The film pulls no punches when it comes to portraying how dysfunctional this mother-daughter relationship is, and it’s where the casting really proves its genius. Zoe Kazan’s (the mother) naturally youthful face gives one the impression that this child was had way, way too early in life, and Ella Ballentine as the daughter is somehow able to play anywhere from 8 to 16 years in age with nothing but tweaks to her hairstyle and lighting – which lends authenticity to the many flashback scenes.

So the two hit a wolf with their car while driving down an ominous country road at night, and according to horror movie law, this event must portend approaching evil. Sure enough, there happens to be an otherworldly man-eating creature stalking those woods, and the scene soon becomes kind of a supernatural Cujo. Yes, there is a literal monster in The Monster. It’s not some kind of Babadook, possibly-imaginary metaphor monster, not that there’s anything wrong with that. And it does get pretty gnarly at times. But that being said, this story is still all about the mother and daughter, and the idea that deep, deep down inside even the worst mother on earth is some kind of fierce protective glimmer.

Like any competent monster movie, clear visions of the monster are withheld to the max extent, letting your imagination complete the picture. There’s a good tighten/release rhythm of suspense throughout, and some quality gore. But all that aside, The Monster is a drama first and a horror film second. Whether that’s your cup of tea is entirely up to you.

The Cell

Here’s one that’s been getting bumped from Summer of Horror year after year. I had a feeling this would be a movie that wasn’t necessarily worth spending money just to watch once, so I waited until it happened to be available on a subscription streaming service. So, thanks HBO Now.

This has to be the strangest entry in Jennifer Lopez’s kind of odd career. From the In Living Color backup dancer days, to the participation in the early 2000’s “Latin explosion” music fad, to the tabloid diva days, to generic rom-coms like The Wedding Planner – that career trajectory makes sense. But then you have stuff like Anaconda, and U-Turn, and Out of Sight mixed in, and this, a visually abstract psychological horror thriller.

Directed by Tarsem Singh, The Cell is basically Inception meets Silence of the Lambs with a little dash of Seven. Jennifer Lopez has to mentally link with a comatose serial killer in order to extract information about his latest captive from his subconscious. The movie really hangs everything on these “dream” sequences (really more like nightmares on film) – everything that takes place in reality is fairly bland and flat. Vince Vaughn, still a few years out from his comedic heyday, plays the FBI agent hunting for the kidnap victim, and his character is just kind of a dud.

Honestly, I don’t know if Tarsem Singh has gotten any better in recent years, but he’s known as a visually inventive director, and in this movie I’d personally give all the credit to the set and costume designers. All the trippy, disturbing music video imagery is cool, but the whole movie is shot in a (again) flat and style-free way. If I didn’t know this came out in 2000, I’d have guessed it was from 1995. It looks far more dated than Seven, which actually came out in ’95.

And beyond that, the movie just isn’t that scary. Even though they try to introduce some real world stakes to all the dream hacking stuff, it still rings as just being “movie characters looking at scary things” most of the time. Vincent D’onofrio can play a creep in his sleep (and he pretty much does here), but he never seems as menacing as John Doe or Buffalo Bill. A curious anomaly in the Jennifer Lopez ouvre, but not much more than that.

The Burning

There are a few things all but guaranteed when you dive into a true blue 80’s camp slasher: Blood, boobs, bad acting… And of course, borderline rape from alpha male characters that’s more or less dismissed as “horsing around”. You get all this in The Burning, plus every other 80’s slasher cliche you can imagine. This is, in the clearest terms, a direct ripoff of both Friday the 13th and Halloween. It’s the quintessential 80’s camp slasher.

And funny enough, I think it’s significantly better than Friday the 13th – its most direct influence – even though it only came out a year later. There are fewer boring stretches, and as the majority of the film takes place in broad daylight, there aren’t a bunch of long stretches of near pitch-blackness that plagued the original Friday the 13th. All it lacks is the twist ending (or two) that made F13’s stamp on popular culture. It’s incredibly straightforward.

A group of teen campers decide to play a prank that involves fire on the camp groundskeeper, and you can imagine how that turns out. Some time and a few failed skin grafts later, and “Cropsy” sets out to seek revenge on the people who disfigured him – by picking off an entirely different group of a campers at an entirely different camp… Fair enough. It makes more sense when they reveal that one of the guys responsible for the burning is now a counselor at this new camp, but he turns out to be the hero!

Of particular note is the appearance of a young, hirsute Jason Alexander as one of the campers (who survives the film, by the way), and I guess Holly Hunter is in it too but I didn’t notice her. Cropsy has a pretty good thing going as a slasher, with his monstrous disfigured face and pruning shears-as-murder-implement. But for whatever reason he failed to achieve Mount Rushmore status among slasher villains. I suppose it’s because this movie didn’t offer anything we hadn’t seen before. It’s a template of a particular type of horror movie, important viewing for horror historians but not groundbreaking in any way.

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