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Review of IT (2017) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
2017, 135 min., Color
Horror-Thriller
Warner Bros.
Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+ (nice interview with King, great feature on the kids)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

The 2017 reincarnation of It might be rated R, but it was one of those exceptions that under-18s begged their parents to take them to see in theaters. Why? Because that young audience absolutely loves the hit TV series Stranger Things, which pays tribute to ‘80s movies and takes its central structure from It, the Stephen King novel that inspired a popular 1990 TV miniseries before it did this remake.

In It, as in Stranger Things, the plot revolves around a fantastic sci-fi/horror force that is somehow involved in the mysterious disappearances of local children. And in It, as in Stranger Things, a group of pre-teen friends defy parents and secretly try to solve the mystery and stop the disappearances. Not coincidentally, there is one girl and one black boy in this group of bullied kids who band together, just as there was in Stephen King’s novel and TV miniseries.

The book does a much better job of explaining how “It” came to Earth like an asteroid, crashing into the small Maine town of Derry, which King based on his experience living in Bangor. “It” is a shape-shifter who surfaces every 27 years and feeds on children after preying on their fears—one of those fears being clowns, a shape that Pennywise, as the character calls himself, relishes. If you weren’t afraid of clowns before the 2017 version of It, you might be. Bill Skarsgard plays the creepy character with the same kind of unpredictable, hypo-energetic madness that Heath Ledger brought to the role of The Joker in The Dark Knight.

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Review of SPLIT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No, no, no
2016, 117 min., Color
Horror-thriller
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, and some language
Universal Pictures
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is a solid thriller right up until the end, when the director decides to play to his fans and his own indulgences, rather than tying things up for viewers in a more satisfying way. But using the reverse situation of Panic Room, Shyamalan manages to put characters in jeopardy and keep them there for the duration of an otherwise tense and effective film.

Split is obviously inspired by the sordid news story out of Cleveland, where three young women were held captive in a basement by Ariel Castro. The bus driver had targeted two of them because they were friends with his daughter. The women were raped and tortured in captivity for more than a decade before their miraculous rescue.

Rather than tell that story, Shyamalan wisely chooses to stay clear of extremes and instead create a PG-13 thriller that teens can watch—a cautionary tale that reminds them it’s not just “stranger danger” that poses a problem. It can be something as innocent as a party, where the girl’s father offers to drive two of her friends and a “pity invite” home, with the girl’s approval. Instead of a sex-driven abductor, Shyamalan offers a less tawdry and more interesting alternative: a captor who has multiple personalities. The most sexual the film gets is when we learn that one personality “likes to watch young girls dance naked,” but in another wise move the director avoids nudity and instead has one of the girls spend part of the film without a top (wearing only a bra) and another without pants (wearing only panties).

If this 2016 film were a TV series it would probably be called The James McAvoy Show. The Golden Globe nominee (Atonement, 2007) gives a tour de force performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb . . . and Dennis, and Patricia, and Hedwig, and Barry, and Orwell, and Jade—seven of the 23 distinct personalities that share the same body. As he goes from character to character you can even see a believable transformation in his facial features—not just the expression, but the way his face looks.

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LIGHTS OUT (Blu-ray)

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lightsoutcoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 81 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material, and brief drug content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D (deleted scenes only)
Trailer
Amazon link

I can’t explain why teenage girls like horror-thriller movies so much, but I can tell you that the two who watched Lights Out with me were satisfyingly scared. This 2016 film won’t ever be considered top-fright entertainment, yet it manages to play the genre game fairly well.

At the heart of all horror-thriller films is this simple concept: It’s HERE! No it’s not. It’s HERE! No it’s not. It’s HE—AHHHHH! Usually there’s a build-up of tension before the release, but present-day horror-thriller dabblers don’t seem interested in that or anything else besides the simple formula for scaring people.

lightsoutscreen1Lights Out is based on a short film by director David F. Sandberg, but the expansion to feature-length film doesn’t include any simmering set-up. We’re thrown right into a horror situation and then, like people corralled in a dark room, we’re subjected to the “It’s HERE” nope “It’s HERE” jumpfest—one that’s milked for all it’s worth with the addition of loud musical cues. One of the girls gave it an A-, while the other thought it a B-. Either way, both girls said they’d watch it again—and hopefully understand more about what was going on.

I doubt it. Without sliding too deeply into spoiler territory, let me just say that there isn’t a satisfactory explanation for the horror phenomenon that haunts this film, primarily because the apparition itself inexplicably changes. One minute it’s substantive, and the next minute it’s more wispy—kind of like the ending, which seems to make sense unless you think too much about it. That holds true for the beginning, too.

lightsoutscreen2What does that leave you with? The formula, of course. In this variation, when the lights go out (and sometimes they go out as a result of the horror phenomenon) an apparition appears and seeks to harm people. It’s not just anybody that the apparition targets, either. It’s a particular family. Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) moved away from her mother (Maria Bello) and much younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), in order to stay sane. You see, the mother talks to an imaginary person and is chronically depressed. So why is young Martin still living with her? Good question, and another one that’s never answered. All that matters is that Martin freaks out when the lights turn off and he starts seeing this apparition . . . as his older sister once did. Who is it? What is it? What is it after? Those are the questions that are never fully answered, but which drive this horror-thriller all the same.

If all you require of a horror-thriller is that it scares you, then Lights Out does the trick. If you need it to make complete sense, well . . . it’s NOT HERE! But hey, that’s the world of the supernatural. As with magic, do you really want to know everything?

Sex: People in bed after implied coupling, but nothing shown
Language: A few “shit”s and that’s about all I remember
Violence: Clawing, choking, dragging people into darkness
Adult situations: A phenomenon tries to hurt or kill people, and one death with blood is shown, while others are off-screen; a character also commits suicide
Takeaway: When the formula works, it works