Two of the remaining great pleasures of seeing a movie with a bunch of strangers in the flickering darkness ( the flickers now caused by both the images on the screen and the cellphone texters in the audience ) has to be the shared anxiety and delightful dread that come from watching a horror picture or a suspense thriller. ( There's also surviving intact, of course. ) Hammer Studios' The Quiet Ones, which pays homage to the supernatural fright flicks of the 1970s ( in theaters now )while far from being a perfect moviecertainly fits the bill and I would imagine that Blue Ruin, a revenge thriller ( on VOD and in theaters this weekend ) that I screened alone, would provide an audience with the same delicious creepy pleasures.
Blue Ruin isn't technically a horror film but by including copious amounts of gore, an increasing body count and its share of nail-biting sequences, I certainly have no qualms classifying it as an offshoot of that genre. It's, first and foremost, a revenge thriller with the strength of the movie's narrative its single-minded adherence to that proposition. The script by Jeffrey Saulnier is stripped down to the essence of its "eye for an eye" revenge premise. When Dwight ( Macon Blair ), a homeless drifter living on the fringes of society, is informed by a compassionate police officer that Will Clelandthe man convicted of murdering his parentsis being released from prison, Dwight goes into hyperdrive, with his only focus on killing Will.
Saulnier, who also directed, provides a great twist on his simple theme: Although Dwight is determined and clearly very intelligent, he's also completely inept in the ways of killing. Many times in the film's ensuing moments Dwight's plans will go awry and he will be forced to improvise as the stakes are raised when Will's equally murderous family gets involved. There is very little dialogue ( during a scene between Dwight and his estranged sister, he literally says, "I'm not used to talking this much" ) but that turns out to be a bonus. Every frame of the film ( also shot by Saulniertalk about a triple threat ) is very carefully composed; the movie is far from the standard glossy thriller, and the gritty milieu and handheld camerawork add yet another layer of tension.
Blair, an unknown ( along with the rest of the cast, other than The Brady Bunch's Eve Plumb in a small role ), is a great find. He imbues Dwight with an inner sadness that is always thereclearly the death of his parents has destroyed the man's life and a mixture of grief plays over his eyes, often overriding the anger that is also present. And, surprisingly, Saulnier's script finds moments of humor that help further flesh out Dwight, who is far from the standard-issue leading man, another refreshing aspect of this crafty little thriller that will have you on the edge of your seatin all the ways that are good and familiar. Saulnier will attend a Friday, May 2, screening of Blue Ruin at 7 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. www.musicboxtheatre.com
John Pogue, who directed The Quiet Ones ( and also co-wrote the script ) certainly hopes that audiences will grip their armrests a little tighter as they watch his movie, too, a witches' brew of familiar horror-film tropes ( a band of jaundiced paranormal investigators ensconced in a creepy old house in the country with no phone service and dodgy electricity; a mad doctor, er, professor; a possessed brunette with straggly hair; an innocent bystander drawn into the proceedings ). Things certainly do go bump in the nightand the day and the morning and at just about every other possible moment that Pogue can toss in an amped-up sound effect to scare the pants off his hopefully susceptible viewers.
There is very little logic in the plot that stems from the nutty professor's theory that ghosts, poltergeists and all other forms of the supernatural are created in the mind. After being cut off from funding by the stodgy conservatives at Oxford where he teaches, Professor Coupland and his two assistants ( a cutie-pie male and his sexed-up blond girlfriend ) are joined by the aforesaid newbie to the groupanother student named Brian ( Sam Claflin of The Hunger Games series ) who, luckily, also has camera equipment. The professor enlists him to document the experiment as it unfolds.
Olivia Cook plays Jane Harper, the unfortunate young lass who is convinced that a malevolent spirit named Evey possesses her. Coupland and his assistants are out to prove otherwisethat Evey is nothing more than a figment of Jane's own will. They mean to force Evey out in the open and then trap her and destroy her, thus returning Jane to normal sanity and they are using some very unconventional methods to attempt that. With her consent, they are keeping her locked up in a room in the mansion ( ostensibly so she won't hurt herself ).
Naturally, there is a much darker aspect to the story waiting in the shadows to reveal itself ( along with the nasty Evey ) and to say that this ragtag group gets more than it bargained for is, in itself, just as obvious as the movie's familiar sinister mansion setting. ( The title is another story, still shrouded in mystery for me long after the last thump was heard on the soundtrack ). Although the plot holes, as noted, are mighty big, and the believability factor thus pretty low the movie does exactly what it sets out to do and it certainly got me all shook up. It's also a big plus that the audience is asked to use its imagination in lieu of another example of splatter porn ( which this could have easily disintegrated into ).
Part of the movie's success has to do with the casting of Jared Harris as the misguided, egotistical professor in charge of this little group. ( It's the '70s, remember. ) Harris, best known to audiences for his work on TV's Mad Men and the son of the late British actor Richard Harris, has played a series of very interesting character parts and I've come to relish any film with him in it.
Here, he takes center stage as the obsessed Coupland. Prattling on about his wacko theories, an ever-present cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and demanding absolute fealty within his tiny fiefdom, Harris has a ball acting as this megalomaniac. Claflin, with his toothy grin and sexy bod ( he fills out his '70s bellbottoms and muscle tees quite nicely ), is less convincing but that has more to do with his hard to swallow character motivations. Erin Richards and Rory Fleck-Byrne are fun as the hot-to-trot arrogant assistants while Cook does her best with the standard possessed teenage-girl character.
Hammer Studios had a nice return to form with the evocative and eerie Victorian thriller The Woman in Black. With The Quiet Ones, it keeps the string going and, once again, harkens back to its own history. ( It's an easy stretch to think of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee playing the professor. )
Two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey recently took on the part of Richard III, perhaps Shakespeare's most challenging and physically exhausting role for actors.
Spacey reunited with Sam Mendes, the director who led him to Oscar glory for American Beauty in 1999, for the play, which kicked off at the Old Vic ( where Spacey is artistic director ) in London and then toured to a host of foreign countries with stops in Europe, Asia and the Middle East before heading to BAM in Brooklyn for its final shows.
A documentary crew followed the months-long production and the result, called NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage, is having its Chicago premiere engagement beginning Friday, May 2, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Spacey will attend a screening of the film on Saturday, May 3, at 8 p.m,, where he will be interviewed by Chris Jones, theater critic for the Chicago Tribune. www.siskelfilmcenter.org .