Have you ever been on a date? Have you ever hosted something? Have you ever seen a colour? If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions then boy, have we got a show for YOU! Buckle up, monkey funsters, because this week we punched apathy right in its stupid face, scraped the bottom of the available barrel, and we found Dating Amber, Host, Blood Quantum, and Color Out of Space.
In Dating Amber we head back to the mid nineties, and a small town in Ireland that’s not exactly a hotbed of LGBT acceptance, as the nuns teaching sex “education” point out. That’s a problem for schoolkids like Amber (Lola Petticrew), who’s still in the closet but knows that closet is market “lesbian”, and also for Eddie (Fionn O’Shea), who’s not ready to admit to anyone that he’s gay – even himself.
In an effort to head off the playground taunts, Amber suggests that she and Eddie start a fake relationship, although the exact level of he fakeness proves something of a challenge for the confused Eddie, particularly after some trips to the more welcoming big city where Amber finds someone she’d want a real relationship with. The shock of this could have Eddie do something quite silly and continue to deny his sexuality, but thankfully this is an easy going comedy and not a gritty study of depression, so that’s headed off swiftly and we can all head off into a new millennium in harmony.
Well, perhaps not, but even with current headwinds I think we can say society is a little more accepting twenty five years after this is set, although I expect schoolkids remain as horrible to each other now as they do in Dating Amber. Refreshingly, this film shows a fairly realistic, low level of horribleness more or less in line with what I remember my contemporaneous schooling being like, as opposed to the American versions shown on film which often seem more like a particularly harrowing episode of Oz.
Dating Amber is a consistently gently amusing coming of age tale, with likeable, sympathetic performances from Petticrew and O’Shea, and highly capable support from the likes of Sharon Horgan and Barry Ward. It’s only real problem is one that’s barely worth caring about, that being that if like us you’re old enough to have seen this rodeo a few dozen times before there’s not much here, with perhaps the exception of the location, that’s going to be even remotely new to you.
However, that’s not stopped, checks notes, every rom-com in the history of film, so I don’t see why that should stop this film. Unchallenging stuff, perhaps, but greatly enjoyable nonetheless.
I will say this for global pandemics: they seem to inspire opportunistic marketing and creativity in equal measure. We had all just about come to terms with the idea of lockdown at the point which Netflix were busy capitalising on the rights to Contagion, and around the same time a young filmmaker named Rob Savage played a Zoom video call prank on his friends that ended up becoming an online sensation. In that video Savage complains of hearing footsteps in the attic above him, which his friends insist he investigate. One jump scare and a few million views later, Savage was knocking at the door of Shudder, AMC’s subscription horror service, with a pitch to make the thing a feature.
I like nothing more than a good horror film, the problem being that 98-99% of all horror films are quantifiable insufferable garbage. What I do appreciate about the genre is that it has proven itself a fertile ground upon which many directors have earned their stripes, encouraging as it does creativity, inventiveness and fiscal prudence. Particularly true in this age of the omnipresent high quality video camera in your pocket, almost anyone can make a horror film, but that’s a double-edged sword where one side is markedly more honed and sharper than the other.
In Host a group of friends, coordinated by a young woman named Hayley, meet online over a Zoom call to conduct a seance with a psychic named Seylan. One of the group, who takes this all about as seriously as I, Scott or Drew would, plays a prank on the group that backfires spectacularly, releasing a murderous rogue spirit. Jokes on you, rational people!
The best thing about Host is it’s perfectly timed opportunism. With a literally captive global audience who were forced to acquaint themselves with the plot’s key mechanic pretty much overnight, this is very much a case of striking while the iron is red hot. Now, the film does not really avoid the tropes of the genre, and much of what happens here will be familiar to anyone who has seen the likes of Paranormal Activity and its ilk, though there is one nice instance which plays on the video background feature of conferencing software. For the most part the action relies on jump scares, and while we’ve rounded on those in the past these are at least mostly effective. The reason I’m not going to completely unload on Host, however, is that I will allow most premises at least a finite amount of my attention, which brings us on to the second best thing: the running time. At a shade under one hour, Host may not have set my world alight, but it did at least respect my time. We’ve spoken a lot recently about movies outstaying their welcome, and that at least is one criticism it would be churlish to level here. Is this movie ever going to trouble the ranks of the few great horror movies? No. Did find myself glancing at my watch? Also no.
Host is by no means the first horror movie to address the information age of increasingly isolated online relationships; 2014’s Unfriended and 2018’s Searching are both notable examples of directors who got there first. What this movie does do well is to understand the limitations of its chosen medium and leverage that into something which is familiar enough to appeal to fans of the genre, and individual enough to stand out. Ultimately I am never going to watch this movie ever again, which sounds like a put down, but I would temper that by saying that in no way, shape or form do I grudge Host it’s time with me.
Blood Quantum is certainly a zombie film. And that might be about as much as you need to hear about it to add or exclude from your watch list. I suppose that we’re due you a little more information, though.
On a First Nations reserve, the local sheriff of the Red Crow Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) stoically does the rounds, even managing not to seem too perturbed when the gutted fish his father caught spring back to life and start flopping around. To be fair, he’s distracted by a call to pick up his sons, Forrest Goodluck’s Joseph, and local bad influence Kiowa Gordon’s Lysol from a nearby town. There, the all too familiar, to an audience at least, start of a zombie outbreak happens.
Smash cut to six months later, where a strange twist of fate has made the Red Crows immune to zombification. Take that, smallpox. Their reservation, which is on an island, provides a defensible base for them to hold, which scavenging for resources to help themselves and any non-shambling refugees from the mainland. This, however, rankle Lysol, who’d rather not add any more mouths to feed, and his resolve to do something about it, and the chaos that unleashes, provides the main narrative reason for continued ripping apart and chewing of people, which is not something that their antibodies can do much about.
It’s not all zombie action – in fact like most of the better horror films the central planks of it are barely about zombies at all – with the bulk of the emotional work of the film coming from Traylor and his ex-wife (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) Joss wondering if they’ve been suitable parents to their kids, just as Joseph struggles with his impending fatherhood in a suddenly very different world.
That said, it’s not doing anything that you’ve not seen before, and some of the actions Lysol takes seem mainly in the interest of making a plot happen, rather than anything believably driven from his character. But, well, find me a horror film where character motivations aren’t a problem and I will award you a special prize.
Blood Quantum does win a few representation points for its setting and its stars, although I’m not convinced it’s doing much with that – while clearly the title and the inverse viral resistance thing points to First Nations and Native American history, it’s window dressing, the same way that “being shot in a mall” is window dressing in Dawn of the Dead, not a treatise on consumerism.
Really, it’s main problem is external – I imagine there’s many people like us who have sat through quite enough zombie movies and television series over the past, what, twenty years, and aren’t quite ready for a resurgence in them yet.
But, between some commendable, if perhaps a touch too restrained performances, some pleasingly gross effects work, and a sword-wielding ass-kicking Grandpa, if you’re in the market for a zombie film this is a pretty good option.
Color Out of Space
When is a colour not a colour? There are two answers I will accept, one of which is when you’re Rhythm Nation. On the offchance that you are not down to discuss Janet Jackson, I will instead refer you to the second acceptable answer, which would be when it is Color Out of Space. If that means nothing to you then I can only assume you are no fan of HP Lovecraft.
The Gardner family have, we learn, abandoned city life for the comfort of remote New England woodlands, occupying a grand old house once belonging to the father of patriarch Nathan (Nic Cage). While Nathan’s focus alternates between cooking dubious meals, drinking bourbon and tending his alpacas (they’re the animal of the future), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) maintains income by trading stocks over a tenuous satellite internet connection. Their three children are, in descending order of age, a developing stoner, a Wiccan Witch and a relatively normal young lad of about 7 or 8.
Into this idyllic if disorganised world comes one night a meteorite, landing just outside the Gardner home next to their well. Initially shrugged off by authorities and somewhat made fun of by a local news channel, the otherworldly interloper soon proves to be more unusual and problematic than it first appears, as it transpires to be a vessel for a colour beyond description; a colour that begins to infect and mutate everything in the surrounding area, including the Gardners.
Generally regarded as one of its author’s finer short stories, Color Out of Space has been adapted a few times now, and while I’ve never seen any of those attempts I can understand why it’s an attractive source material. The text is vivid in its description of the setting, suggestive enough in its narration to be unsettling, but vague enough in plot and detail around the events that befall the Gardners to make it an attractive scaffold upon which to hang any number of potential themes. With that in mind I’ll begin my observations on a positive: this movie is certainly at the better end of the quality spectrum as far as Lovecraft adaptations go, though as many listeners will appreciate that statement comes with the caveat that the bar by which we measure this is pretty low.
Part of the problem faced by filmmakers in adapting Lovecraft across the decades has been the author’s reliance on suggestion rather than explicit description when conveying the horrors that have unfolded, compounded by the fact we are often being related these stories after the fact by a narrator who may or may not have been directly adjacent to said events. Color Out of Space was one of Lovecraft’s first stories to establish this style, and in bringing an entirely implied menace to a visual medium director Richard Stanley faces all the same issues as his peers. It’s relatively easy to label a colour as indescribable in text, but how do you show me that on film?
For the most part Stanley, who works here from a script he co-wrote, does an admirable job of setting up both the family and the menace. Nathan, Theresa, Ben, Lavinia and Jack are, in spite of some potentially irritable idiosyncrasies, a pretty likeable family with a laudable conviction to their change in lifestyle. Cage in particular is as good as we’ve probably seen him in some time, making Nathan broadly relatable, even as he demonstrates to a nonplussed onlooker the intricacies of correctly milking an alpaca. Cage channels his inner weirdness in a way that is immediately gently humorous to the point of endearing, sparing us a city-escaping archetype who might otherwise have been insufferable. Similarly Richardson avoids falling into stereotype as the Power Mother, keeping her stock trading frustrations to a minimum, and together with Cage she engages us emotionally as we witness some tender moments between the couple centred around Theresa’s recovery from a cancer operation.
My chief gripe, arguably the more important two major ones I have, is that the point at which we start to witness the meteor’s ill effects denotes a pretty sharp demarcation between this and a complete halt to any character development. Just as we are coming to empathise with these characters we become distracted by the shift in focus toward the bizarre, and the next thing we know all hell is breaking loose. Here we come to the second concern, which is that Stanley inevitably falls into the age old trap of showing, not telling the horror, and in this case it’s time that would have been better spent getting to know the family dynamic and, as a consequence, anything resembling a theme.
I bring theme into this not because it’s necessary, but because I have the feeling Stanley is trying to work something grander into the mix, and I really wanted him to succeed. For example, enough reference is made to Nathan’s drinking habits that I’d be tempted to suggest the colour is actually an analogue for his habit; the news report scene plays into this with humour, and every time Nathan pours a drink the camera really wants me to notice the increasingly odd chromatic tendencies of the ice, but nothing much else comes of it. Similarly Theresa’s implied battle with cancer would easily play into the body horror aspects that emerge increasingly toward the film’s final act, but if that’s the case it’s not really enough just to mention the word and then never really re-visit it.
There is still much to like here, though by the time we reach the final couple of reels, most of which feels lifted almost directly from the 2011 remake of The Thing it’s only really Cage’s performance that holds matters together, and by “hold together” I mean like duct tape can technically hold a bike together so long as you’re not planning on going off any sweet jumps. I was partly sold on Color Out of Space on the basis that it was “Full Cage,” however I have to report at peak madness this is more “85% Cage,” give or take. If nothing else one must remember this is Stanley’s first film in 23 years following The Debacle of Dr Moreau, and it’s not without promise considering the director has stated he would subsequently like to tackle Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. Nonetheless I can’t help but wonder what might have been had this fallen into the more capable hands of someone who understands creeping intensity like Shane Carruth, or character like Marielle Heller.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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