Examining a collection of Shudder Originals while pondering how the streaming revolution feels more like a return to the norm than a giant leap forward.
In retrospect, the advent of the streaming service is more a return to business as usual than a cultural revolution. The DVD era, lasting roughly two decades, now seems something of a social aberration, a brief time where people were expected to buy films to own rather than simply experience them as a passing fancy. I expect that most of you reading this have large collections of movies, but you’re not normal – most people have neither the space nor the inclination to own huge video libraries. Unlike records, which people will listen to all the time, films are not generally watched again and again – the need to own a copy is just not that pressing for most people. Netflix, Prime, Shudder, Disney+ and the other streaming services are simply new variations on the way we have traditionally seen films – whether it was in the cinema, on TV or on VHS rental, for most people film (and television) was a passing pleasure – you watched it once, moved on and then – if it was something you really enjoyed – watched it again the next time it showed on TV or was re-released theatrically. Your choices were restricted to the films that played locally, showed up on TV or were stocked by your local rental shop. For all the complaints about platforms dropping films from the service, there is still more choice on there than we ever had before the days of sell-through video – and yes, it’s very much biased towards the new, but so was your local rental store.
Those of us with a desire to own physical copies of movies are the oddballs and misfits, and we’re a dying breed. For the majority, the choice between buying one film on Blu-ray and subscribing to three or four streaming services for the same amount of money is no contest. Horror fans of a certain age are perhaps more inclined to have a collector mentality than most people, which is why you can buy bells-and-whistles editions of entirely disposable 1980s splatter movies but not many of the Oscar winners from years gone by. But that need to own vintage ‘classics’ does not necessarily extend to new productions for the audience that they are made for. Enter Shudder.
When Shudder launched, I cynically expected it to be a flash-in-the-pan, but of course, I was wrong. Not only does the platform have a lot of money behind it, but it also feeds a need for genre fans who don’t necessarily feel the need to own movies – the generation that grew up with streaming and perhaps only wants to see the latest releases, people for whom the idea of buying a movie on disc is an entirely alien concept.
The problem with multiple streaming platforms, of course, is that they have the habit of having a handful of titles that you might really want to see as ‘exclusives’ – and once we have multiple platforms that require a monthly subscription, then the cost of watching that handful of titles starts to increase.
The Shudder Originals are not, we might point out, necessarily original to Shudder. That is, they are not, by and large, Shudder productions but rather films that they have snapped up the exclusive rights to. This might seem a bit like Arrow Video calling its Blu-ray releases ‘Arrow Originals’. But there you go. That’s the world we live in now, where only one platform has any particular title and if you want to watch that, you have to sign up for the rest. Depending on your levels of disposable income, that might not be so awful – but it does ultimately reduce choice rather than enhance it, given that you are forced into an all-or-nothing decision. If there is only one film on a platform that you want to see, too bad – you have to sign up for the lot.
Interestingly though, Shudder has licenced its titles and its name to Acorn Films for Blu-ray release. The films that have emerged on disc perhaps act as a snapshot of where horror cinema is now (by which I mean around 2018 to present) and it doesn’t feel as though we are living through another golden age, frankly. For a genre once built on subversion and provocation, horror currently feels decidedly unchallenging and self-righteous, all too often made by people who seem to have a curious contempt for the audience. Horror should be problematic – it should push buttons and challenge taboos. There are certainly some movies that still do that, but a lot of modern horror seems more concerned with not upsetting the viewer. The films discussed below might not necessarily be indicative of where the genre is – but then again, maybe they are.
Anyway, this is what you’ve all come here for, right? To read me trashing movies that everyone else is telling you are the greatest things since sliced bread. Well, onwards and downwards.
TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
Let’s start on a positive note, though. You may well already be familiar with Tigers Are Not Afraid, given its play on the festival circuit – physical or virtual – and the gushing praise that followed. Such praise is often to be taken with a pinch of salt – there’s something about festivals (some festivals at least) that sees thoroughly average, sometimes quite awful films hyped as the experience of a lifetime – that’s a discussion for another time, perhaps. This film is unusual in that it entirely lives up to – perhaps even surpasses – the hype. Issa López’s film is an emotionally shattering study in childhood trauma layered with magical elements that could have easily felt crowbarred in had it been made by a lesser director.
Set in the midst of the Mexican Drug Wars – which feels more like an undeclared civil war than a battle between criminals and the authorities – the film follows Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl whose mother has disappeared, kidnapped by human traffickers connected to drug cartels and corrupt politicians. She connects with a band of street kids led by Shine (Juan Ramón López), who are being hunted by cartel leader Chino (Tenoch Huerta) after Shine stole a mobile phone that contains a video clip of Chino murdering a rival. Estrella also has three wishes, given to her by her teacher after her school classroom had become caught up in a shoot-out. Are the wishes real? Perhaps, perhaps not – but as the ghost of her mother appears to guide Estrella to safety and demand retribution, the grim realities of the world increasingly bleed into the magical.
Tigers Are Not Afraid could be heavy going, given the bleakness and brutality of the main narrative – indeed, if you find seeing children killed in movies upsetting, this is probably not the film for you. Similarly, the fantasy elements might have felt like a crude addition under different circumstances. But López allows these mystical moments to leak into the narrative in an organic, subtle way that doesn’t clash with the darkness of the main story but instead enhances it and leads us slowly towards an ending that is more cathartic than happy. The two sides of the story are so entwined that nothing feels forced and this is helped by the remarkable performances of the children – kids in films are often a mixed blessing but these children are remarkably authentic and believable, and they help ground the magical elements perfectly.
Notably, while the film examines very real horrors and tragedies, it never allows tub-thumping to overwhelm the story – something that some other films in this collection could definitely learn from. It’s a quiet, intimate little film that allows the tragedy to speak for itself rather than furiously drawing attention to its message and it is all the more effective for that. By the end of the film, Mrs R was quietly weeping and in truth, I wasn’t far behind. This is a haunting, moving and emotionally wrenching story – but not one so unremittingly bleak that it fails to offer hope. So yeah – we were a bit impressed.
Not quite as startlingly impressive or emotionally raw, but certainly much more interesting than I’d expected, is Son, a film that deftly mixes Satanic Panic tropes with bloody vampiric horror to create a suitably paranoid, small scale film that is creepily effective. It raises a lot of questions and perhaps might be said to be sending out a dodgy message at a time when Quonspiracies have breathed new, dangerous life into the whole ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse’ hysteria – but the film maintains a certain ‘what if?’ narrative that keeps us guessing about where the truth lies until the end (and, arguably, beyond).
We first see Laura (Andi Matichak) giving traumatic birth in a car. Years later, she is living alone with her eight-year-old son David (Luke David Blumm) when a group of unknown men break into their home and attempt to kidnap the child. When Laura overhears whispered plotting in the hospital, she goes on the run with her son, pursued by a police detective (Emile Hirsch) who is driven to save the pair – which seems to be because he has entered into a relationship with Laura – and members of a Satanic cult that had abused her as a child. But things are perhaps not as they seem – Laura has a history of mental illness and evidence suggests that the cult, the abuse and everything else are false memories. Complicating things, however, is that David has suddenly succumbed to a disease that causes agonising sores to appear all over his body – and only human flesh can ease the pain and the symptoms.
Ivan Kavanagh – whose previous film The Canal was another impressive slow-burn horror movie – does a fine job of building the paranoid tension here and constantly pulling the rug from under us. The film starts off as a conspiracy horror movie before slipping into gory – very gory – body horror and finally working its way towards occult horror. The positing of the Satanic Panic as having validity is a bit dubious, even if the film does try to have its cake and eat it, and I’ll admit to finding the ending a bit of a let-down – had the final scene just not been there, the film might have maintained a certain intriguing ambiguity that is lost with this closing moment. I’m not going to labour the point, of course – horror films about evil Satanic cults have been around forever and include some of the genre’s greatest works – and as I stated earlier, it’s the job of horror to be provocative and difficult, to take moral panic and mass hysteria and subvert it, and Son at least seems to be following in that grand tradition.
it is, unfortunately, rather downhill from this point on.
RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE
There are interesting possibilities that come from a horror film confronting the criticisms of the genre head-on – be that a subtle questioning of our motives for watching these films and the uncomfortable truth that the monsters in these films – savage, psychotic killers for the most part – are the most interesting characters in the films, or perhaps playing a ‘what if?’ game by taking the claims of the genre’s critics to the logical conclusion and then exposing such claims for what they are. David Cronenberg did a fine job of that in Videodrome. Then you have films like Random Acts of Violence, a violent film about a serial killer that spends much of the film indignantly suggesting that not only does violent entertainment – specifically, in the world of this film, a gory comic book where the ‘hero’ is a psycho killer called (oh dear) Slasherman – directly inspire real-life violence, but also that we are all terrible people for finding killers more interesting than the victims. How hypocritical. Of course, the film not only includes some brutally gory images (it’s the only film in this collection to have a BBFC 18 rating, in fact, though it is no more violent and gory than some of the other 15 rated films) but also follows the classic horror trope of presenting us with a carload of teenagers who are so annoying that we can’t wait to see them killed. Not because we are monsters but because this is a fucking horror film.
It’s not as if the film even explores the idea in any depth – rather, a whole bunch of people – an interviewer, a police officer, his girlfriend – simply berate the comic book creator Todd (played with staring intensity but no character by Jesse Williams) for his horrible and terrible imagination, and then the killer has some sort of bonding moment with him. I’m aware that these days everyone loves to self-righteously whine about other people’s fascination with serial killers – just look at the continual moaning about the ‘glamourisation’ of Ted Bundy by filmmakers – but to do this in a horror film about a serial killer – a totally generic horror film about a serial killer at that – shows a staggering lack of self-awareness, especially as there is nothing in the film that even suggests that it is a critique of claims that violent art begets violent actions or that the creators of such art are somehow damaged and corrupt. Director/co-writer/co-star Jay Baruchel seems woefully out of his depth here and when not slapping the viewer in the face, it plods along with set-piece moments that are oddly dreary (there’s a special skill involved in making a shoot-out dull) and flat. This is a film with delusions of grandeur, all empty spectacle and pompous finger-wagging but no substance.
Why Shudder would want to produce a film that essentially calls their viewers a bunch of cunts is anyone’s guess – they know best, I guess.
Now, I’ve enjoyed Steven Kostanski’s work in the past – whether it was the Lovecraftian horror of The Void or his work with Astron-6 – and so I had some hope for this retro-styled splattery sci-fi film, but my God, Psycho Goreman is utterly fucking unbearable. The story of an omnipotent alien who has been buried on Earth and is unearthed by the most annoying child ever to grace the screen, who for reasons too boring to explain have control over him. Seriously, Mimi, played by Nita Josee-Hanna with a permanent sneer, is the epitome of an entitled brat and – in a film full of alien monsters – quite the most unbelievable thing about the whole story. It feels like a sign of everything wrong with modern cinema that I suspect we are supposed to find her endearing and edgy as she pushes everyone around and behaves like a psychopathic narcissist. But seriously, she is intolerable.
This is another 1980s pastiche that totally misunderstands the films it purports to love. While Eighties horror was increasingly formulaic and bland, it nevertheless had a simple, no-nonsense style – dull all too often, but rarely pretentious. Psycho Goreman tries desperately hard to be smart and knowing but is simply vacuous and annoying – it has all the charm and wit of a Troma movie. If your sole requirements from a horror movie are practical effects, one-dimensional characters and awful music, then this might be up your street – and no doubt it went down a storm with undiscerning festival audiences. But my God, it was hard work sitting through this piece of crap.
Things get even worse with The Power, which feels less like a film than a tedious lecture, where any attempt to entertain, unsettle or scare comes a distant second to the need to continually hammer home its points. Horror films have long been a platform for social commentary but the trick is to be subtle and allow the audience to find the subtext for themselves. Corrina Faith’s film doesn’t trust its viewers to do that – in fact, the film is so awash with cliches and images lifted from other movies that are presented as though they are startlingly fresh moments that I rather doubt that Faith is either familiar with or appreciative of the genre. Even the title is woefully unoriginal – this isn’t the only film called The Power to be released in 2021.
Set in 1974 during the three day week (when power cuts were regular) it stars Rose Williams as Val, a young nurse with a terrible secret that is immediately telegraphed who is starting her first night shift at an East End hospital while it is almost empty of patients and the power is off. Williams plays the role with a flatness that is presumably supposed to suggest an emotional numbness after terrible traumas but she just seems pouty and dull – and in that, she fits the film perfectly as this is one of the emptiest movies you will ever see. Sure, it’s set during a power cut, but it’s murky rather than moody, the attempts at jump scares fail miserably (lacking both jumps and scares) and everything has the flat, mumbling, worthy feel of a BBC TV drama. The title, of course, has a double meaning – the real power being examined here is the power of patriarchal society and of course, every male character is uniquely awful to the point where it becomes ludicrous. Better films have made these points without sacrificing the narrative, but here the point is laboured to where even Andrea Dworkin might have found it a bit much. There’s also a nasty classist thread at work here – the working-class hospital staff seem uniquely horrible – and the whole thing feels like a constant finger-wagging. Had the film delivered on any level as a horror film, perhaps these elements might have been less irritating – but this is a one-dimensional movie that is full of its own self-importance but ultimately empty.
But let’s end on a positive, shall we?
Monstrum is a better film all-around simply because you don’t imagine that the filmmakers secretly – or not so secretly – think that they are rather above this sort of thing. This 2018 Korean film is a mix of period action and monster movie that plays with the idea that a population can be controlled – and political power gained – by convincing people that there is a terrible threat facing them that only their leaders can save them from. But before the conspiracy theorists start nodding their heads in agreement, the twist here is that the threat is actually real – Monstrum really does exist, and when a group of villagers are sent out to kill it (but in reality to be killed by the army, their deaths blamed on the creature as a way of undermining the King and allowing the Prime Minister to seize power), the beast is aroused.
Western filmmakers could learn a lot from Monstrum: the characters that we are supposed to like and likeable, the villains suitably evil and the action no-nonsense. The film is a bit overlong at 105 minutes, and Monstrum itself is a bit of a nondescript beast, looking like a giant Critter – but the film is a lot of fun and my God, if more horror movies had an ounce of the unpretentious entertainment value of this, we’d all be a lot better off.
So, two great films, one good film and three* utterly insufferable ones. At least we can say from this that Shudder isn’t going for the average – it’s all or nothing. Perhaps these are the films that speak to their audience – or perhaps they are the films Shudder believes people should be watching. Certainly, the platform has a lot of subscribers, but whether they are there primarily for these films or for the older classics is an interesting question. I somehow suspect that it’s the new stuff that pulls people in.
Final side note: UK disc sleeves are already cluttered up with BBFC certificates that sit like a blot on the artwork. Do we really need a Rotten Tomatoes logo printed on there as well, bigger even than the BBFC rating, telling us that the film is ‘certified fresh’? Apart from what this tells us about the state of modern film criticism and the desire to praise films for being on-message rather than, you know, good, is this really a selling point now?
* Full disclosure: also received for consideration was Scare Me, which proved so unbearably awful that Mrs R begged me to turn it off after 45 minutes, something I was only too glad to do. Life is too short to sit through movies that feel like a cinematic version of ‘why are you hitting yourself?’.
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