or Gene Wilder, if you prefer.
I AM SO TENSE!
or 2016: the Year of the Small Tense Movies
Sorry for the clickbaity title. It was emotionally honest and the second title was too dry for my tastes. The first half of 2016 has had three movies all with small budgets, each of which I have wanted to do a review, that although disparate in their genre share the common trait of being tense as fuck. As I literally just finished seeing the last of them I thought I would one mega review on all of them. So here we go!
Starting off the list is the Witch. Now if you're only familiar with this movie through it's trailer I would like to clear something up. This is not a horror movie. Sure there are scary scenes in it and at times you feel fear but at it's core "The Witch" is a suspenseful folktale with elements of horror peppered in. It makes you uncomfortable (in a good way) more than it makes you afraid.
It is also probably the best shot movie on this list. The visual story telling is on point throughout. The use of color and long lingering shots to crank up the tension is masterful. Every scene built upon the last and only in the end do you get any sort of release.
The acting was similarly great. Most of the actors I had never heard of or seen before (except for the Dad who was Dagmar Cleftjaw in Game of Thrones) but whoever they were they drew me in. Even the kids were great and there are very few child actors who you can truly commend for acting talent. Of the three this one ranks second for sheer acting talent on display.
Now the place where the Witch might fall flat for some people is that it is really slow. And by slow I do mean slow. Most complaints I have heard about the movie is that it is boring and don't get me wrong if you're the sort of person who dislikes slow burn movies you will find this movie boring as fuck. The plotting has been designed to constantly keep that same tension at a constant humm. Yet it does sacrifice momentum in places to get that so I think of the three it is the weakest when it comes to momentum/plotting.
What also sets this one apart from the other two is the attention to detail and authenticity when it comes to all of the historical clothes, houses, farming equipment, guns etc. All the research really does shine through from the dialogue to the general daly puritan way of life.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Second up the biggest of the three in terms of budget and marketing push. I originally wanted to call this "2016: the Year of the Small Tense Indie Movies" yet this movie is decidedly not indie. No matter how much it feels like one. This is the type of movie that gets made less and less in Hollywood. These sorts of highly original movies with more budgets than the average indie flick but less budgets than the summer blockbusters and big budget oscar dramas are seen as something not worth spending money or time on. Maybe that's why "10 Cloverfield Lane" used the Cloverfield monicker, to beat the odds.
So let's get into the meat of it. This was one of those of movies that I was on the hype train for and was surprised that it managed to exceed my expectation even then. If you leave aside your anger at this not being a true sequel to a tepid at best movie that came out almost ten years ago then I think this is the movie I can most easily recommend. As a package it is the most solid. Not my favorite mind you just the most competent as a whole.
The camerawork and editing are again high points in this. Where the Witch cranked it's tension up with lingering shots this one does the same with all the claustrophobic and tight angles it uses. You also get a very good understanding of the space throughout the film so when stuff goes down in the third act you know the bunker as well as you do the three main characters. Definitely a close second when it comes to camera work.
Speaking of the characters... HOLY SHIT THE ACTING IN THIS MOVIE IS GREAT!!! John Goodman kills it! Probably the role that has best shown his dramatic acting chops since "Barton Fink". This is not to take anything away from Mary Elizabeth Winstead or John Gallagher Jr. both of whom do excellent jobs as well. Winstead especially makes you buy the arch her characters takes throughout the movie. Also although the camerawork does pitch in the main source of tension in every scene is the dialogue and acting. Definitely the best movie of the three if you're looking for great acting.
Unlike the Witch I don't think 10 Cloverfield Lane ever uses slowness to build tension. The plot is rock solid and the pacing is quick without feeling rushed. It is also more light than the other two so if you're looking for something that makes you tense but not "I am about to throw up from all this tension" sort of tense then this movie is a better choice.
What sets it apart from the other two is definitely the production values. This is sort of evident throughout the film but amplified when comparing it to these two. When the other two look lean and mean because they had no choice then 10 Cloverfield Lane is lean and mean because of a directorial decision.
Finishing up the list is the one I saw most recently and the one I think I love the most. Even though on the surface it is maybe the weakest. Yet unlike the other two this one speaks to me the most. Which is weird because of the three this one is the most straightforward on the face of it. It never tries to hide what kind of movie it is like the other two do. Brutal, painful and tense as fuck.
This movie was honestly scarier for me than the Witch ever was. At first I thought it was because of the more modern setting but once I explored my feelings a little more I realized what it really was. Most movies don't make you believe their violence, they don't want you to feel like you're watching a for reals snuff film after all. Even gory movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Evil Dead don't make you think what you're seeing is real instead they revel in the fakeness of it all. This movie however makes you believe the actors pain and suffering. I am not a squeamish person when it comes to gorey movies and there was a scene where I closed my eyes. Not because it was so gorey but because it looked too much like how the real thing would be like.
Now that said this isn't still what I would call an horror movie. Rather a thriller with horror elements. In a weird way this probably reminds me the most of the Canadian cult movie "Cube" as in places it is almost a puzzle. Unlike the others neither the camerawork or the acting are particularly impressive (aside from Sir Patrick Stewart of course but I would hope that goes without saying), don't get me wrong they're still good, very good in fact, but compared to the other two they sort of pale. Yet when it comes to plot this one was definitely the most engaging. From the moment that "Nazy Punks Fuck Off" gets covered to the moment that the movie ends I was enraptured in the plight of this poor punk band.
Probably this one is the hardest for me to recommend. It is the harshest and the most painful to watch yet I thoroughly maintain this one is my favorite. Will probably go see it again tomorrow and take some notes like I did for the Witch. But yea this one is definitely the most niche of the three movies. Might become one of those cult movies that people point to as influential in twenty years or so.
Most of Jeremy Saulnier's early work seems to be heading into that territory though I think that is in some ways a good thing. The man definitely has not made any concessions to his art for money. If you like this movie and haven't seen Blue Ruin or Murder Party fix that by the way. Those are his other movies and they are also good though in different ways.
To come to some sort of conclusion after all that I must say I have really enjoyed our momentary flash of highly suspenseful movies. I didn't know it was a genre that existed let alone one I liked so much. All of these movies were good in my opinion. Feel free to disagree however, I ain't no critic just someone who enjoys movies. Tell me your own favourite suspense movie!