Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Popcorn Frights 2019, Day 6: Queen of Spades: The Looking Glass (2019) and The Sonata (2018)

The torrential downpour that greeted me at the theater for the sixth day of Popcorn Frights turned out to be a good omen for a pair of very good gothic horror movies, one of the campier teen variety and one a bit more serious.

First up, we get the return of a genre that provided some campy thrills last year: Russian teen horror.

Queen of Spades: The Looking Glass (Pikovaya dama. Zazerkalye) (2019)

Not rated

Score: 3 out of 5

Once you get past the language barrier, there's really not a whole lot separating this from any number of American movies about dumbass teenagers invoking some evil force that tries to kill them. There are some things that resonate in every language, and a preppy trust-fund asshole nonchalantly saying to his friends "let's summon it!" upon hearing about an urban legend involving a ghost is one of them. This film knows damn well how campy it actually is, and practically winks at the audience as it throws every teen horror trope up there on screen, all while remembering to actually be a good movie with interesting characters, a well-utilized gothic mansion setting, and a killer twist at the end. In short, a rollicking good time at the movies.

This is actually a sequel to a 2015 film (franchises: another way in which it seems the Russians have learned from American horror), but you don't need to know about any of that to follow this one's story. We open with the teenage girl Olga and her adolescent brother Artyom after a car wreck that claimed the life of their mother Tatiana, whereupon they are sent to an elite private boarding school by their wealthy stepfather. There, they encounter the usual teen horror archetypes: the hunky teacher Igor, the rich jerkwad Kirill, the queen bee Alisa, the fat best friend Sonia, and the nerdy scholarship student Eugene -- oh, and a boarded-up cellar in the old mansion that their school is located in, containing a mirror that Eugene, who's studied the house's history, deduces is the subject of an urban legend involving the ghost of the child-murdering countess who once owned the place. Say her name three times in the mirror and make a wish, and she will grant you whatever you wish for... and then kill you. The kids decide to test that urban legend, and very quickly discover what kind of movie they're in.

Not a whole lot here is original. Most of the characters are boilerplate, the villain looks cool but is a design (a woman in a black, vintage-style dress) that's been done frequently before, and you can guess who is going to die and how it's going to go down from the moment they make their wishes in front of the mirror. But damn, did I have a good time watching it all. While the film takes itself seriously, it isn't grim; deaths and hauntings are treated as set pieces meant to shock and wow the audience and get them jumping out of their seats, and for the most part, it's actually effective at such. The Queen of Spades may not be an original ghost, but I was still scared by her presence or the possibility thereof, especially amidst the dark corridors of the school and dormitories in which the film is set, as I soon realized that the film did not seek to play around. The actors, as usual, are a mixed bag, but I still noticed some standouts in the cast even if my lack of proficiency in Russian made it harder to really "read" their performances. The guy who played Kirill, the rich jerk who wished for the death of the stepmother who he sees as merely his dad's new trophy wife, had an excellent death scene that was largely anchored by his performance, as he is forced to grapple with guilt over the fact that he was responsible for both her death and that of his father (the Queen of Spades grants wishes in a very "monkey's paw" fashion; here, she had the father kill the stepmom and then himself in a murder-suicide). The dynamic with Olga and Artyom was what anchored the film, with Artyom wishing that he could be with his mother forever and the Queen of Spades granting that wish by seeking to kidnap him, and Olga's arc concerning her attempts to help Artyom deal with the grief of their mother's death lent her character some added depth. It built up to a twist ending that felt gutsy without coming across as just a shock twist for its own sake, with Olga forced to pay a heavy price to get herself and Artyom out alive.

That said, things weren't all smelling of roses. Like I said, the cast was hit or miss, and sadly, one of the misses was the actress who played Olga. It was the script that really made her character interesting, as her actress came off as flat and uninterested. Beyond the leads and the aforementioned Kirill, most of the characters were one-dimensional stereotypes, with Sonia, defined entirely by the fact that she's fat, getting the worst of it. There was also a plot thread involving the possibility that the countess who became the Queen of Spades might have been framed for the crimes she was accused of by people seeking to steal her wealth, but this never went anywhere and served little but to add convolution to a story that didn't need it. Given that this film is a sequel, I imagine that this was supposed to be some clumsy world-building for the franchise, or elaborating on some plot thread from the first building, but it didn't really do this film any favors.

The Bottom Line

This is a very cool movie that successfully imitates most of what makes American films of this type so much fun, even if it's a bit of a "warts and all" deal. I sure don't regret watching it.

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The second film is a bit more serious, but no less scary, and also a nice tribute to a late, great actor...

The Sonata (2018)

Not yet rated


Score: 4 out of 5

No, this has nothing to do with Hyundais. Nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with The Perfection, which premiered on Netflix earlier this year; aside from the protagonists in both being young, female violin prodigies and their posters looking similar, they have next to nothing in common. No, this is a gothic horror film about an old, dark, creepy house and the man who used to live there, played by the late Rutger Hauer in one of his last roles -- a subtext that hangs over this film like a cloud and lends it some extra creepiness. It's small in scope and has a bit too much crappy special effects and jump scares towards the end, but it does a great job building its atmosphere thanks to excellent use of its setting and a standout lead performance from Freya Tingley.

Rose Fisher is a violinist who has been estranged from her father, the famous composer Richard Marlowe, for most of her life, refusing even to trade on his name to advance her career. When he kills himself, he leaves her his estate in the French countryside, causing her and her manager Charles to travel across the Channel to France. There, Rose discovers that Marlowe was working on one final sonata, with a number of weird symbols on the sheet music. Further research leads Rose and Charles to discover that they are the symbols of an ancient secret society that believed it could make contact with demons through music -- and that Marlowe's last sonata, which he put together through diabolical means, was meant to summon the Antichrist.

That's a pretty gnarly premise for a horror movie, and it's one that provides fertile ground for the film to thrive in. The mansion setting is used quite effectively, focusing on Rose's isolation within it at night as she searches for clues as to the true nature of her father's sonata, all while strange figures wisp by in the dark corners of the house such that she -- and the viewer -- don't know if they really saw something. Some of the scares rely a bit too much on obvious horror tricks, particularly a pretty bad-looking CGI demon towards the end as well as some unconvincing moving statues that we see in a dream, but when the film is going old-school with its scares, director Andrew Desmond shows a great grasp of suspense and misdirection. Rutger Hauer plays the father, seen for most of the film only in audio and video recordings but still hovering over the film like a shadow, his limited role put to excellent use in a manner that Hauer's passing last month does nothing to hurt. You get the sense that he may have given a part of himself over to a truly evil force in order to create his masterpiece, and that he never quite left the building, always watching over Rose as she walks the halls of the house. Rose herself is a great heroine, played by Freya Tingley with a mix of vulnerability and elegance. She doesn't just look the part of a gothic horror heroine in the old-fashioned nightgowns she spends most of the film in, she walks the walk, too, investigating the mystery of Marlowe's sonata in a manner that makes her feel like a grown-up Nancy Drew, and more than the equal of Charles.

The Bottom Line

It's a simple story that doesn't leave me much to say, except that it's a great swan song for Hauer and a rock-solid horror movie in its own right. Check it out.

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