The Mad Hatter, The last son, and The Banishing
- The Mad Hatter (2021)
“Elevated Horror” is a sub-genre that seems to be fairly popular these days, showcased by the rise of Ari Aster, Mike Flannagan, and Robert Eggers amongst others. Personally, I love this type of horror; I am much more invested in them and I would trade the cheap scares of conventional horror with the long-lasting, subtler scares of this sub-genre. However, it is a sub-genre with very little margin of error and high risk; rarely do you get a movie in “elevated horror” that is average or mediocre. Usually, it is either great or terrible; a case in point for the latter is The Mad Hatter. Co-written and directed by Cate Devaney – with R.V. Romero credited with writing the story and star Armando Gutierrez credited with the original idea – The Mad Hatter is about four psychology students spending a weekend with their teacher in the ‘Mad Hatter’ mansion that is supposed to be haunted for some kind of project or extra score; honestly, this movie is terrible and I couldn’t care about it no matter how hard I tried. The actors are woeful, the story is simultaneously under-developed and too heavy-handed to be of any interest, and since the writing is at the level of a cheesy slasher the characters are cardboard cutout replicas of already razor-thin stereotypes. Since the movie is trying really hard to be “elevated horror” there is no horror entertainment either; “elevated horror” survives by how much you can understand the characters and their fears, and uses that as a base to explore their fears, build dread, and leaves you with lasting questions or chilling realizations about those characters or their fears. That’s a longwinded way of saying, that jump-scares or immediately gratifying horror techniques are kept to a minimum (since they have to add to the story, not the other way around), so if the story and characters don’t grab you, usually there is nothing else left for you. What I found to be the most interesting about this movie is how badly I wanted this to be a horror-comedy like Tucker and Dale Vs Evil or The Cabin in the woods (more of a deconstructive and honest look at horror tropes that I found hilarious at spots). You can’t get sillier than the villain of a horror movie being someone who made lots of hats and now kills teenagers for some reason; the psychology professor being the vessel from which horror techniques are explained and deconstructed through, only for the teenagers and villain’s antics to hilariously contradict that. I would like someone to do that version of this movie, since this movie isn’t even “so bad it’s good”, it’s just bad.
- The Last Son (2021)
Redbox Entertainment is known to be a gathering place of movies of questionable quality and intent; this may have been my first foray into that world, but I already understand why Redbox carries that baggage. Directed by Tim Sutton, written by Greg Johnson, and starring Sam Worthington, Machine Gun Kelly, Thomas Jane, and Heather Graham, The Last Son is the story of notorious outlaw Isaac LeMay searching for his offspring to kill them, since he was cursed to die by them from a Native American. There’s no other way to start this than to say Machine Gun Kelly is not that bad in this; he tries too much and his attempts at swagger feel very forced, but he’s not that bad. Worthington, who gets a bad reputation that I feel is a bit too harsh, gives a usual mediocre-to-bad performance. Similar to The Mad Hatter, what makes this movie tank so hard is the attempt at making a high-concept western and not being able to do that, which creates a boring slog of a movie with lackluster and kind of funny ending (either they thought they were going to get a sequel or it was their attempt at ambiguity/twist ending, both versions are funny). There is a genuine attempt to make something great, and at times, Sutton creates visually interesting moments and manages to get some good performances from his actors, but it doesn’t make boring characters and a general disinterest to explore the story’s main theme any easier to sit through; instead, we get scenes where Machine Gun Kelly shoots a machine gun or obvious foreshadowing of the “twist” that just spoils the reveal 20 minutes in the movie. Having said that, it’s not as terrible as one might assume from Redbox; the ending action scene was fun, all performances were decent overall, and Sutton is a good director, but the writing and decisions in key areas are woeful and make the movie not worthwhile.
- The Banishing (2021)
Similar to The Mad Hatter, The Banishing tries hard to be “elevated horror”; unlike The Mad Hatter, its failure to do so does not mean it’s a bad movie as it succeeds in being conventionally scary with great performances and production design as well. Directed by Christopher Smith (director of Severance and Triangle amongst other pretty good movies), written by David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines, and stars Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, Anya McKenna-Bruce, Sean Harris, and John Lynch. Set during the late 1930s, The Banishing is the story of “the most haunted house in England” that, as with all other horror movies of this ilk, negates to convey the actual reality of the situation; unlike other haunted house movies, this isn’t to focus on the spiritual side of things, but instead to critique it. The church’s role in this is over-the-top villains, while the occultist is a drunk and guilt-ridden madman who is shown in a sympathetic light (despite the actual person being credited as the most likely culprit in the actual “haunting”). From that wrinkle, the movie actually manages to make the first half of the movie feel tense; there is a feeling that when shit hits the fan, the usual rescuers are the ones who will bury everything under the ashes of the thing they created. However, that “elevated” part of this horror offering is what backfires quite spectacularly by the end; in fact, it might be the worst ending to a good horror movie I’ve seen in some years since it goes off-the-rails by the end and reduces some interesting ideas to disappointingly cliched tropes. That disappointment though does not make the second part any less conventionally scary; there are some great horror set-pieces and some effective jump-scares that kept me entertained and kept the experience overall positive. Findlay gives a great lead performance alongside an always-excellent Sean Harris, while the production design is very good – somewhat cliché, but still a very good execution of that cliché. Lastly, Christopher Smith is a great director, a fact that shines through most of this movie; there are some bad decisions in the script and direction, but there are also some great ones as well as a really good sense of pace and momentum.