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A Quiet Place ••• 1/2

Starring:  Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds
Director: John Krasinski
Screenplay: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck
Drama/Horror/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: April 6, 2018



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time to review Simon & Garfunkel’s film version of ‘Sounds of Silence’.

i just hope to find a Quiet Place to review this film. Let’s recap:

The year is 2020, and most of the earth’s population has been decimated by vicious creatures called the Death Angels. With hyper-sensitive hearing, these creatures attack and kill anything that emits the slightest sound. The Abbott family has managed to survive, thanks to their mastery of ASL (American Sign Language). There is Lee Abbott (John Krasinski), his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and their three children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Noah (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward).

While Lee and son Beau are on an excursion, Evelyn goes into labor and steps on a nail and emits a noise that attracts the beasts. Now it’s a game of cat and mouse as the Abbotts must evade the death angels while keeping silent.

Greg, it’s hard to imagine crafting a decent movie that is 90% silence, but that’s what A Quiet Place manages to accomplish. We’ve seen this villain before in the movies, a pure-evil animal-like villain in the same vein as Jaws and Alien. Only the most empathetic of us will show compassion for a creature than indiscriminately kills and eats anyone who makes a sound. And only the most foolish characters in a movie would choose to have a baby in a world with creatures that will devour a crying baby in mere seconds.

Despite a rather boring pure evil villain and the foolhardiness of the baby, this movie works rather well as a horror story. The creature is bloodthirsty and relentless, and as in every scary movie, there are plenty of false scares and predictable moments of suspense. Our main hero, Lee, is compelled to invent a device that will destroy the creatures, and our secondary family member heroes all manage to overcome their fears and transform into courageous, resourceful threats to the creatures.

I was favorably impressed with A Quiet Place. Unlike typical horror stories, this is not a tale strictly of fright, but a tale of survival and family. Young Regan blames herself for her youngest brother’s demise and imagines her father also blames her. The tension between father and daughter is exacerbated by the typical angst of a teen trying to become independent.

At first the fact that Regan was hearing impaired seemed like an ironic twist. Later we discover that her disability becomes the key to defeating the Death Angels. While the actress who plays Regan happens to be deaf, this is not what separates her from other young actresses. Millicent Simmonds virtually carries this film with her emotive face. She has only one other acting credit before A Quiet Place, but she delivers in a film that requires a strong emotive presence. Truly, she is the breakout star of this film – standing toe-to-toe with the likes of Emily Blunt and John Krasinski.

This movie heightened the suspense by having Evelyn deliver her baby on her own, within “earshot” of a Death Angel lurking in her house. Somehow she does it noiselessly and without any pain medication, which has to be the most remarkable feat in human history. The birthing scene had me on the edge of my seat, as did the film’s climax requiring Lee to sacrifice his life to save his children. It’s good to see good old fashioned ingenuity win the day in defeating these “eerie” beasts (pun intended).

By the way, the FX crew did a fabulous job creating a brand new villain with elaborate ears that were (fortunately) no way reminiscent of the Ferengi in Star Trek. These beasts were indeed terrifying and Krasinski deserves kudos for steering this cinematic ship with sharpness and alacrity. In terms of archetypes, we’ve certainly got the pure evil villain here, along with the scientist hero, the damsel in distress, the budding teen girl with attitude, and a small child who you know is going to do something foolish to attract trouble.

A Quiet Place delivers on both suspense and emotional levels. The actors do an amazing job of performing without much dialog – keeping us interested by their actions rather than their words. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

This is very much an ensemble cast with the father as the leader. In our book Reel Heroes and Villains we discuss the family ensemble and how important it is. We are also guided by the Moxnes model which uses the family as a paradigm. I give them 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Again, as an archetype, the FAMILY saves that day. Otherwise, we only see THE PURE EVIL monsters. Usually, this is a boring trope, but it works well here as it forces the family to work together. And what family would be complete without the ANGST-RIDDEN TEEN. I give these archetypes 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

A Quiet Place is one of the best films in the horror genre that I’ve seen in a few years. This innovative new villainous menace brings a taut, quiet urgency to virtually every scene in the movie. The production, direction, and casting of A Quiet Place is just about perfect, although it’s pretty clear that the only reason the Abbotts decided to have a baby was for me to lose 10 years of my life in fright during the baby’s delivery. I give this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey appears in bold relief here as the family is compelled to transform the way the think, move, and survive in this new dystopian world. Most importantly, Lee’s ability to construct a device capable of defeating these ear-monsters is the culmination of the journey for his family and his gift to humanity. I award these heroes 4 Hero points out of 5.

We’ve reviewed the many archetypes in the film, and I agree with you Greg that a rating of 3 archetype Arc points out of 5 seems about right.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Unsane ••••

Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Horror/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: March 23, 2018


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, if 7-up is the un-cola, could Dr. Pepper be the un-sanity?

Um… Ok. Let’s take a look at a veiled take-down of the mental health profession as we review Unsane.

We meet young Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a woman who has recently moved 500 miles away from her hometown and is trying to establish a new life. She is depressed and seeks help from a psychiatrist, who commits Sawyer against her will to a mental institution. Sawyer’s efforts to escape only serve to convince the staff that she requires even more institutionalization. Her only friend in this hospital is a man named Nate (Jay Pharoah), who is spending four weeks there to recover from his opioid addiction.

Sawyer has given in to the fact that she will have to spend a week held against her will, when she meets an orderly, George, who she claims is her stalker, David Strine (Walton Goggins). Nobody believes her, least of all the audience. Sawyer is paranoid and explosively violent. But soon, String drugs Sawyer and we’re all in on it – Strine has followed Sawyer from Boston and is stalking her even in captivity. Now, Sawyer has to find a way out of her mental prison and escape this dangerous man.

Greg, Unsane gives us a suspenseful depiction of a young woman’s involuntary incarceration in a mental hospital. This movie is packed with villains. There is the deranged stalker who makes life miserable for our hero. There are the evil hospital administrators who knowingly imprison Sawyer for profit. There is also the American healthcare system that incentivizes hospitals to ensnare captive victims such as our hero. This film is disturbing yet effective, and giant kudos go to Claire Foy who does a terrific job playing a tormented hero.

This is as dark a hero’s journey as we’ve ever seen, Greg. At the outset of the story we see that our hero is struggling emotionally and socially. Attempting to get help from a psychiatrist totally backfires on her, and then we learn that her crazed stalker is in charge of dispensing her medications. She gets help from her mother and from Nate, both of whom are soon eliminated by the stalker. This is one of those films where the hero is left completely on her own and must summon inner reserves necessary to vanquish the villain. Sawyer musters the courage and grit to outwit her nemesis. Is she transformed by her harrowing experience?

The film’s final scene suggests that she is not transformed, that she remains a slave to her inner demons. This lack of transformation represents a deviation from the normal hero story pattern, and I think it was done intentionally to underscore the deep scarring of sexual violence in our society. Sawyer should most certainly not simply go on with her life as if nothing had happened. To do so would diminish the trauma and seriousness of this deep societal problem.

Scott, this movie gave me flashbacks to Misery. We have an unwelcome admirer who uses a medical condition to trap our hero. There’s even a scene where the villain, Strine, hobbles our hero by smashing her ankles with a hammer.

Otherwise, I thought this a skillfully played ‘cause’ film – a film that wants to promote a cause through storytelling. Unlike other cause films (such as 2016 The Promise which did a terrible job of exposing Armenian genocide), Unsane focuses on delivering a psychological thriller while at the same time exposing corruption in the mental health system. Unsane shines a light on mental health at a time when there is much lip-service paid to it in the United States.

Unsane is a first-rate thriller that had me on the edge of my seat and had my heart pounding. It is predictable in spots – do we ever doubt that Nate will bite the dust? But despite a few lapses, Unsane soars on the strength of its star, Claire Foy. She shines in the role and gives us a searingly convincing victim of stalking and harassment. Unsane deserves a rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, Sawyer’s hero’s journey is among the darkest and grimmest we’ve seen in quite a while. We just reviewed Tomb Raider and commended the physicality of its star Alicia Vikander. In Unsane, similar commendations go to Claire Foy, who exudes a remarkable physical presence in combating her fellow patients, hospital staff, and stalker. Sawyer also has many of the Great Eight traits of heroes — she is smart, strong, resilient, reliable, and inspiring. Is she caring and selfless, too? Yes, as she shows compassion for her mother and for Nate. I give her 4 Hero points out of 5.

Several archetypes do stand out in this film: the innocent victim, the evil corporation, the deranged stalker, the guilt-mongering mother, and the slain ally to the hero. I award them 3 archetype Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Unsane is an interesting movie for a couple of reasons. First, it has long uncut scenes of mostly dialog. Second, it was filmed completely on an iPhone 7 by writer/director Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh is known for creating minimalistic and experimental works. See his project Mosaic – a choose-your-own adventure for mobile viewers. I was impressed with the accomplishment of creating a good psychological thriller with a minimum of overhead. I give Unsane 4 out of 5 Reels.

Sawyer is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. She is psychologically damaged. And she very well should have been committed for observation. But when she sees her stalker nobody, not even we, believe her. Even though we know she is damaged, we are pulling for her because we see she is strong and resilient – two qualities we look for in a hero. I give her 4 out of 5 Heroes.

For archetypes, I’ll see your INNOCENT VICTIM and raise you a WITLESS DOCTOR who is a COG IN THE MACHINE along with the EVIL ADMINISTRATOR. I give them 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Flatliners ••

Starring: Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenplay: Peter Filardi, Ben Ripley
Drama/Horror/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: September 29, 2017




(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, do you think the brainwaves of movie studio executives have flatlined?

I flat out believe that is the worst one-liner ever. Let’s recap:

A young woman named Courtney (Ellen Page) is driving and texting at the same time with a little girl in the passenger seat. The distraction causes the car to veer out of control and into a river. Nine years later, Courtney is a physician completing her residency at a prestigious hospital. She’s interested in near death experiences and wants to map the area of the brain responsible for these hallucinatory experiences. Enlisting the aid of friends Jamie (James Norton) and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), Courtney decides to “die” and then get revived while under a CT scanner.

Sophia stops Courtney’s heart and she has an out of body experience. Her friends are so amazed by the happenings that they in turn go through the experiment. But something goes awry. Sophia starts having illusions of someone following her. And her friends see strange things as well. Soon, they realize that they’ve brought something back with them from the great beyond – something they each will have to deal with.

Greg, this modern version of Flatliners had the potential to be something good and worthwhile but it squanders all that potential by taking the cheap and easy route to storytelling. The idea that there may be a realm of conscious existence beyond death is a fascinating concept and deserves serious treatment. This film teases us into believing it might take an earnest look at the topic but instead it devolves into a standard ghost story with an unlikely and unbelievable moral resolution.

There are so many flaws to the movie that I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps the most striking idiocy occurred when all the characters leap to the bizarre conclusion that making amends for their past transgressions will rid them of the ghosts from the afterworld. We never actually see any evidence for this strange form of posthumous justice, but I suppose the idea we’re supposed to swallow is that all bad things happen for reasons that we all have control over. If only the world were this simplistic.

I agree. This film starts out wanting to ask questions about the hereafter, but never attempts to answer them. One suggestion I’ve heard is that part of the “dying process” is to be confronted with your sins and given the opportunity to atone for them. Since our heroes never complete the journey, they bring their sins back with them. I like this point of view, but surely, it is never presented in the film.

The real annoyance here is that there is mounting evidence about near death experiences that are much more interesting than this movie. I think a documentary about the dying brain would be more entertaining than (as you call it), a standard ghost story.

There is a discernable hero’s journey here, with our heroic ensemble departing into a supernatural world. The closest thing we have to a mentor figure in this story is Diego Luna, a more seasoned resident physician who gives warnings about the dangerous nature of his colleagues’ activities. Our heroes appear to be transformed morally as a result of their experiences. Sophia must apologize to a classmate for broadcasting nude pictures of her all over her high school. Jamie must make amends to a former girlfriend whom he impregnated and abandoned. Marlo must admit that she caused a patient’s death. As I’ve mentioned, these moral transformations seem contrived to me.

Yes, while Flatliners is an updated version of the classic, it is no more moving than the original. It was enjoyable as a horror film, but certainly not as good as other horror movies we’ve seen this year. I can only give 2 out of 5 Reels for this film. The heroes are average and go through changes that make them worthy of screentime, but not very exciting. I give them 3 out of 5 Heroes. Finally, this movie is all about transformation of the ensemble heroes. I agree with you that these transformations seem contrived, so I can only award 2 out of 5 Deltas.

 Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

No doubt Flatliners fell flat, Greg. The film had more than a kernel of potential but ruined it by settling for a cheap ghost story with a silly, hollow moral twist at the end. The ensemble cast was likeable and talented but there was no reviving the deadness of this screenplay. I agree that the movie only earns 2 Reels out of 5. We do have a hero’s journey here with some familiar elements such as departure to a dangerous world, encounters with villains, mentorship, and a real, albeit contrived transformation. This movie proves that a scary story needs good storytelling, otherwise the only thing I’m scared of is going to the theater again to see more “scary” fare from these filmmakers. I’ll give our heroes 2 hero points out of 5, and 2 transformation Deltas out of 5, too.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

IT •••

Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenplay: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga
Drama/Horror, Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Date: September 8, 2017


Scott, to paraphrase Indiana Jones: Clowns. Why did it have to be clowns?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I do believe this story was Stephen King’s clowning achievement. Let’s recap.

It’s 1989 and we’re introduced to 12-year-old Billy (Jaeden Lieberher). His younger brother George had gone missing a year ago and for the most part everyone believes him dead. But Billy is holding out hope. We know that evil PennyWise (Bill Skarsgård), the Dancing Clown killed George in a gruesome way.

Billy and his best buddies (Ben, Richie, Mike, Eddie, and Stan) are heading into their thirteenth summer with some obstacles. Among them, three bullies lead by Henry. Henry cuts portly Ben in an act of villainy and the boys need supplies from the pharmacy to patch him up. They enlist the help of 13-year-old Beverly (Sophia Lillis) who distracts the pharmacist as the boys abscond with gauze, tape, and rubbing alcohol.

Ben does some research and discovers that the town of Derry has been plagued by terrible tragedies and missing children every 27 years. And like clockwork, the current year of 1989 is ripe for tragedy again. The boys begin encountering the clown individually and narrowly escape with their lives each time. They learn that the clown feeds on each individual’s unique fears. Billy suspects that George may still be alive and devises a plan to confront the clown at the well house where all the town’s sewers meet.

Scott, I don’t usually like horror films. I went in to IT with low expectations. But I was pleasantly surprised. It was reminiscent of Stand By Me and The Goonies. Everyone in the ensemble has a hurt or pain and a main goal. By the end everyone learns a lesson, lasting friendships are forged, and the world is a better place.

Usually horror films rely on eerie music and shocking surprises to instill fear into the viewer. IT doesn’t disappoint here. Although, I felt the soundtrack overly foreshadowed the scarier moments. When I look back at other horror films, only The Exorcist still gives me a reptilian sense of dread. IT had a scary clown, but nothing in this film really made me look over my shoulder on the way to my car. IT wasn’t that scary.

Greg, I do enjoy some movies based on Stephen King novels. Stand By Me, The Green Mile, and Shawshank Redemption come to mind. Those stories are not “scary” movies by any means; they have depth and storytelling elements that transcend the horror genre. I’m afraid that this film, IT, follows the formulaic scary movie plotline a little too closely for my tastes. There is a monster that is killing people, and we are subjected to both false scares and real scares. While kids are dropping one by one, a group of heroes takes matters into their own hands and gangs up on the monster, killing it.

My bias against this genre is no doubt showing itself big-time, but the bias exists because these scary movies simply prey on the same fear over and over again. This movie lasts over two hours, which is unfortunate and unnecessary. Every parental figure in this film is a horrible human being, which conveniently pits our young teen heroes on their own against this circus performing menace. The clown has extraordinary supernatural powers that conveniently appear and reappear, depending on whether the plot is best served by them. Although there were elements of the story that I appreciated, such as the pseudo-romance between Beverly and a couple of the boys, there just wasn’t enough here to maintain much of my interest.

The ensemble cast led by Billy and Bev make up a nice team hero structure. Everyone contributes and everyone has something to overcome. It’s hard to manage a 7-way ensemble cast and give everyone something to do. Usually some character gets relegated to the background while some other character drives the story forward. In the ‘biz’ doing it right is called ‘sharing focus.’ And IT does ‘it’ really well.

Our heroes are all lacking courage at first but exhibit increasing confidence as the story progresses. When Bev’s bathroom is sprayed with blood, all the boys chip in to clean up the mess. One definition of courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in the face of fear. And our heroes ultimately achieve that level of heroism.

You’re right that there is a clear heroic transformation taking place during the course of the film. These boys (and Beverly) band together to fight the evil Henry and the evil clown, overcoming their various phobias and past baggage in the process. The transformation goes beyond conquering fears; there are also three coming-of-age elements at work here: blossoming romantic feelings, male bonding, and rebellion against parental figures. Stephen King’s fingerprints are all over these characterizations and they do add much-needed depth to the anemic horror-film structure.

IT is uncommon horror fare. I was surprised that I had a good time. I came to care about these characters and I enjoyed their transformation and coming of age. I give IT 4 out of 5 Reels. The ensemble structure was very well-managed. It’s hard to pull off a group dynamic and IT delivered. I give the kids 4 out of 5 Heroes. And you can’t ask for a better transformation than 7 people each facing their individual fears and overcoming their weaknesses. I give them 5 out of 5 Deltas.

 Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

IT is an overly long scary movie that doesn’t distinguish itself enough from the countless other films in this genre for me to give it a positive review. Yes, clowns are scary, but no one needs to see over two hours of killer clowning going on. Stephen King did add some much-needed character depth to our hero ensemble, and this movie desperately needed it. Still, the story is too formulaic for my tastes, and as such I can only award IT 2 Reels out of 5.

These heroes do go on a journey and endure hard trials, a terrifying enemy, and an admirable love interest in Beverly. There are no human mentors assisting them; only a library full of books detailing the dark history of the town. There is a coming-of-age transformation that is done well and saved this movie from being a limp re-tread of bad horrors movies from the past. I award these heroes 3 Hero points out of 5, and 3 transformation Deltas out of 5, also.

 Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Alien: Covenant •••

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: May 19, 2017


Will you enter into a covenant with me to review the latest Alien movie?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

No doubt the words from this review will explode from the page. Let’s recap.

We meet newly minted android David (Michael Fassbender) who has been invented by genius Weyland. Then, we flash forward to the future where the crew of the Covenant is awakened by android Walter (also Michael Fassbender) from cryogenic sleep because their ship has run into trouble. The Covenant is a colony ship taking 2000 colonists to a terra-formed planet. While repairing the ship, Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) receives a message from a nearby planet. He makes a plan to go to the planet, against the advice of his second in command, Daniels (Katherine Waterston).

A team of crew members descend to the planet and notice it is void of any animal or insect species. They discover a ship that had crash-landed there years earlier. Two crew members become infected with tiny microorganisms that soon morph into creatures that explode from the crew members’ bodies. The landing craft is destroyed and android David appears on the scene to rescue the remaining crew by taking them to a sheltered area. Soon the truth about David’s motives and his past actions on the planet becomes horrifyingly clear.

Alien: Covenant is a proper prequel to the franchise started with the original Alien film from 1979. The other so-called prequel, 2012’s Prometheus was a confusing mish-mash of science fiction tropes that never quite jelled as a coherent story. There was a lot of confusion about whether Prometheus occurred within the same universe as Alien – both among fans and the filmmakers. Alien: Covenant aims to knit the story lines of the four Alien stories with the less popular Prometheus. And I think it succeeds.

Sadly, however, Alien: Covenant is not only predictable, but borrows so heavily from Alien and 1986’s Aliens that there is nothing new to see here. When we see two identical androids, we know that there’s going to be the ol’ switcheroo at some point. It’s an idea older than Star Trek’s “Enemy Within” episode with two Kirks. We aren’t surprised when there are pods in David’s basement and a “face-hugger” erupts and kills Oram. We are only surprised that Oram is so clueless as to put his face into the pod as it slowly, menacingly, opens and undulates. We saw all of this in the classic Alien films so it doesn’t shock us as it once did.

Greg, I think you’ve pretty much nailed the main issues with this movie. It’s time for the producers and writers of the Alien franchise to make a decision about what its goals are and where it should be heading. Ridley Scott, are you listening? Yes, when we go to an Alien movie, we do harbor the sick need to see razor-toothed neo-creatures explosively burst out of live human bodies. Alien: Covenant gives us three cool body-explosions with aliens chewing their way out of a man’s back, another man’s stomach (very old-school), and one out of a man’s mouth. The CGI effects are sickeningly realistic and we love it.

But what’s the point? As you’ve said, Greg, we’ve seen this before and we’ve also seen “synthetics” who oscillate between good and evil. The franchise desperately needs to move forward with fresh storylines that go beyond mere survival from face-hugging biological weaponry. The idea of a Prometheus race of superhumans who created homosapiens on earth is promising but the concept is barely explored in these past two Ridley Scott films. Let’s hope we see some much-needed inventiveness in the next Alien installment — and this inventiveness needs to extend further than showing a new bodily orifice from which a creature explodes.

The hero structure is a bit muddied. We’re not sure who we’re following in this film. At first it looks like we’re following Walter since he’s the android running the ship when the prologue is over. Then it looks like an ensemble where we’re following the crew of 12. But then the story appears to focus on Captain Oram and his difficult decisions to both save the colonists and his crew. But ultimately, it is Daniels who is the hero of the story since the rest of the crew is picked off one-by-one and Oram gets an embrace from an alien. I found it hard to know who was the main character.

As far as transformations go, there aren’t any to speak of. Oh sure, people are transformed into alien fodder. And aliens seem to go from pods to full-grown Xenomorph. Nobody really learns anything. Daniels seems like a strong character at the beginning and it’s no surprise when she goes full “Ripley” on the alien when the chips are down. This is a classic horror film set in outer space. No one really needs to grow or change since scaring the audience is the priority.

You’re right, we have a large hero ensemble operating here, although it could be argued that ultimately this is a story of two cyborgs, Walter and David, who operate not as buddy heroes but as rival heroes. The human characters are a large group and so we don’t really have sufficient time to bond with any of them, which is unfortunate. They all die one by one, and in true Ridley Scott fashion, at the end the remaining hero is a woman who is at the mercy of evil forces beyond her control. The filmmakers here have once again set the table up perfectly for a sequel.

Although it is true that there are no real transformations among the humans, the synthetic David has undergone a transformation toward the dark side. The unfortunate aspect of his transformation is that it occurs off-camera and we’re only told (sort of) how he came to destroy the Promethians and why he is now enamored with the alien creatures. There are a lot of physical transformations going on among the Xenomorphs, some of them inexplicable, but these physical changes are consistent with previous incarnations of the Alien franchise.

Alien: Covenant is a good prequel to the Alien series and a much better addition to the franchise than Prometheus. While I was entertained, there wasn’t much depth to the story and we didn’t see much that we haven’t seen before. I give Alien: Covenant 3 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes are hard to measure. In the end, I would say that Daniels is the hero as she is the last woman standing. I give her just 2 Heroes out of 5. Finally, the transformations are hard to find as well. Daniels seems to go from a submissive follower to a true leader and warrior. I give her transformation 2 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

We’re basically on the same page here, Greg. A total of 3 Reels out of 5 seems about right for a movie that delivers all the blood-splattering alien killings that we hope for in an Alien film. One hopes that the next installment introduces some fresh storytelling ideas. Daniels is certainly one of the heroes in this ensemble, but I see the duo of synthetic beings, Walter and David, as the main hero pairing. Their story is fairly solid but hardly memorable, and so 2 Hero points out of 5 seems right to me. The paucity of transformations is another weakness of this film, so like you, Greg, I can only award 2 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Life •••

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: March 24, 2017


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we just saw a movie that was certainly full of life. And its opposite.

For the life of me I can’t remember a more thrilling movie. Let’s recap:

The six-member crew of an international space station recovers a dormant single-cell life form from Mars. They successfully revive it, and soon it grows into a complex multicellular organism. Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) calls it “all muscle, all brain, and all eye.” Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) conducts experiments on it, and one day the creature grabs onto his hand and won’t let go.

And it begins killing crewmembers. Captain North begins to instantiate the first of three firewalls. They lock the creature in the lab. But things don’t go as planned and it slips into the ventilation system. Now it’s a race against time to try and destroy the creature before it destroys the crew. And since they don’t know if the creature can withstand the rigors of planetary re-entry, they can’t allow the space station’s orbit to decay and allow the creature to get loose on Earth.

Greg, the title of this film, Life, is both brilliant and misleading. Its brilliance lies in the movie’s portrayal of how humans discover new extraterrestrial life. The misleading aspect of the title, of course, resides in the wake of human dead bodies resulting from the alien’s ruthless nature. The creature has an unyielding drive to live, a drive that stops at nothing to destroy and consume all other life forms in its path. This movie called Life is about a death machine.

This film left me feeling disturbed and dismayed about life in the universe and the doom awaiting our own planet. I haven’t felt this deflated and defeated after seeing a movie since 2014’s Nightcrawler. You may recall that Nightcrawler ends not just with evil triumphing over good, but evil growing stronger throughout the movie and remaining seemingly unstoppable at the end. Life does exactly that, too. Perhaps not coincidentally, actor Jake Gyllenhaal stars in both Nightcrawler and Life. To take on these roles, Gyllenhaal must believe that human life is pretty much doomed.

I saw Life as a combination of 1971’s The Andromeda Strain and 1979’s Alien. In The Andromeda Strain a virus is brought to Earth when a satellite crash lands after being hit by a tiny meteor. And of course Alien is the classic horror-in-outer-space thriller about an alien attacking a crew aboard a spaceship.

What all of these films have in common is man’s unwitting demise due to our innate curiosity. We are reaching out into the unknown vastness of space. Some stories talk about the exciting possibilities. Life, and the others, remind us that “here, be dragons.”

I enjoyed Life for what it was – a horror film set in outer space. But there’s not much new here. The creature grows at an alarming rate. It appears to learn even faster. Somehow, it knows about spacecraft, outerspace living, and how to use sharp objects. It’s all very unbelievable. But, since the point of the film is to play upon our darkest fears, logic is not a necessity.

As a horror film, there is a particular storyline formula for our hero ensemble to follow. There must be peace and levity at the outset, followed by an encounter with an unknown entity. Our heroes must underestimate the danger of the entity, with one or two of the heroes making crucial errors allowing the entity to gain better access to the group. One by one the heroes are killed in gruesome fashion by the entity, until the very end when one lone hero survives. But in Life, the survivor appears to be stranded in space while the evil entity has landed on earth and is about to feast on 7 billion inhabitants. Our heroes have failed in their mission — never a sign of good storytelling, in my opinion.

I must say, I much preferred the ending in the original Alien movie in which Sigourney Weaver outwits and outlasts the alien entity. We’re left frightened but exhilarated that good has defeated evil. I do understand that Life’s dismal ending appears necessary as a set-up for a sequel. Imagine the bloodbath that awaits humanity, and all the heroes who will need to step up to stop the monster and its offspring. Still, as a stand-alone story, Life doesn’t work, as our heroes do not transform and use their transformation to prevail.

As we noted in our review of Get Out – story often gives way to shock value in horror stories. Still, not all stories must end happily. If you look the the classic Planet of the Apes (1968), the story ends with our hero realizing that he was stranded on a future planet Earth where Man had destroyed himself, giving way to the rise of the apes. It is a cautionary tale.

In Life we see the same result. Our hero takes the creature to the planet surface and local fisherman unwittingly open the capsule, apparently unleashing the creature on the Earth’s populace. This, too, is a cautionary tale: Don’t mess with mother nature. If Mars is dead, it’s probably best to leave it alone. As we venture out into space, we must be sure not to bring back anything that might harm us. For me, it was a satisfying ending.

Life is a movie about death, lots of it in fact, both onscreen and inevitably soon to come in big numbers in the future. Don’t get me wrong; this movie is expertly crafted and riveting. Our hero ensemble is simply outmatched by this creature designed as a biological weapon, and as such we have a failed hero’s mission and failed hero’s journey. I left the theater feeling worse than when I entered, which is never a good storytelling effect. Because the movie is so well made, I still have to award it 3 Reels out of 5.

There was heroism in this movie, albeit with failed results. Dr. North locks herself out of the space station while the beast is attached to her, thereby (she thinks) saving her colleagues. Dr. Jordan selflessly volunteers to be jettisoned out in space with the creature, thereby (he thinks) saving Golovkina and the planet Earth from the creature. These failed acts of heroism are noteworthy, but they don’t come with any transformation, mentoring, or positive outcomes. As such I can only award these heroes 2 Hero points out of 5.

I didn’t detect any lasting transformations among our heroic characters. Displays of selflessness do occur, and one could argue they stemmed from transformations in the moment. But good storytelling demands a lasting dispositional change in the protagonists, and we don’t get that here, as most of our heroes die. The alien creature undergoes physical transformation — it gets bigger, stronger, and deadlier. So for that reason, I can award 1 Transformation delta out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Life isn’t an original movie. We’ve seen this theme before. What it does have is Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. And that makes it some kind of fun. The creature was pure evil which isn’t unusual in a horror flick. And the ending caught me by surprise, even if it was obvious to my date. I can give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

Our heroes are the spacemen and women. They display the usual elements of heroic behavior including intelligence, strength, and endurance. But not quite enough intelligence – which makes the horror story all the more interesting. I give them just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And there isn’t a lot of transformation for our heroes. Although the creature undergoes a strong physical transformation. I give it just 2 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Get Out •••1/2

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenplay: Jordan Peele
Horror/Mystery, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: February 24, 2017



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Well, Greg, it’s time to get out the old review pad and review this next movie.

Get out of town – let’s recap…

The story begins with a Meet the Parents-like scenario. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is about to meet the parents of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). Chris is concerned because Rose hasn’t told her parents that he’s Black, but she assures him it won’t be an issue. They arrive at the home of Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), and Chris notes the odd behavior of the African-American couple, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who work for the Armitages.


Chris is especially worried about Rose’s mother, Missy’s occupation – a hypnotherapist. He doesn’t trust therapists at all and hypnotists least of all. Missy promises to cure Chris of his smoking habit. Later that night, when Chris is craving a cigarette, he goes out on the lawn for a smoke. He encounters the lawnkeeper going for a sprint. When he goes back inside, Missy is there stirring a teacup in a way that causes him to go into a hypnotic trance. She makes him relive his mother’s death when he was a child. It’s a chilling moment for him and for the audience.


Greg, Get Out is both odd and oddly enjoyable. The movie taps into a great fear that many of us have involving the meeting of a significant-other’s parents. We want everything to go well, and so good storytelling demands that things go poorly. In Get Out, everyone Chris meets at his girlfriend Rose’s house is either slightly “off” or very much “off”. And it gets worse with time, leading one to wonder why Chris (along with every family in every haunted house movie) doesn’t run fast and run far much sooner than he does.

Despite operating from a predictable formula, this movie strays cleverly from it by focusing on racism in its ugliest forms. I was never able to quite figure out why horrible racists would want the consciousness of their loved ones to inhabit the bodies of what they consider to be racially inferior people. The racists seem to dwell on the so-called size and strength of African-Americans, but it still defies logic that white supremacists would perform this surgical procedure. In any event, the story follows a common pattern but does so in a fresh, albeit bizarre fashion, and the overall cinematic result is strangely enjoyable.


To elaborate on what you’re talking about, Scott, we have to let our readers in on the secret of the film: the aging white population of Rose’s family is killing black visitors and exchanging brains with them. So, the elderly white folk are inhabiting the young bodies of such people as Chris whom Rose is enchanting and bringing home to their demise.

It’s a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with elderly white folk as the pods. The story gives director Jordan Peele an opportunity to expose white racism by putting Chris in the “special world” of the fish out of water. And by fish I mean a black man and by water I mean a sea of elderly white folk. It’s both embarrassing and embarrassingly funny to watch Rose’s family touch Chris’s hair, comment on his genetics, and praise Black celebrities (“I voted for Obama twice”).

Chris follows a good hero’s journey, being thrown into bizarre and dangerous circumstances. Unlike most hero stories, Chris receives no help; he’s totally on his own, although we can’t discount the assistance from afar from his pal Rod (LilRel Howery) back home who IDs Logan, the missing musician from Brooklyn. More than anything, Get Out is a story of survival, much like Gravity and the final act of Silence of the Lambs. The hero finds him/herself in the proverbial belly of the whale and does what it takes to basically not die.

In terms of transformation, there is certainly a series of sinister physical transformations taking place at the Armitage’s residence. Does our hero Chris transform during the story or as a result of the story? He certainly must summon up courage and resourcefulness to extricate himself from the dungeon of doom in the basement. This type of transformation in times of crisis is common in the movies (and in real life). We never see how Chris becomes a changed man in the aftermath of his ordeal, but we can infer with confidence that he’s forever changed.

With comedy and horror, story structure often gives way to shock value. Director Jordan Peele is half of the comedy duo of Key and Peele who have made a career of poking fun at racial issues. Both come from interracial families and have seen racism “from both sides, now.” Get Out is the culmination of Peele’s comedy career and with it he continues to mine racism for humor – and now horror as well.

So, it’s no surprise when no one in the movie really transforms. Chris is probably scared straight on white women – or potentially romantic relationships – for a while. He’s pretty much the same guy at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. However, the audience rose in cheers when Chris finally breaks his bonds and skewers Rose’s brother with the antlers of a stuffed deer. There was definitely some catharsis for the viewers in my theater when he transforms from prey to predator – taking out the whole family one by one.

Get Out shocked and entertained me for two hours, thanks to numerous creepy and memorable characters plus a grisly secret kept by the family whom our hero is trying to impress. The racism in the film was blunt and discomforting to a comic extent, which was probably the intent of the filmmakers. The performances by the cast were excellent and the storytelling was solid, despite the family secret defying logic from their racist perspective. I award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey was bold and required a fierce independent spirit for our hero Chris to survive. It is a true story of survival requiring courage, resilience, resourcefulness, and necessary brutality. My only complaint is that Chris takes a little too long to ask Rose if they could leave the house. The minute that Walter, the groundskeeper, came at Chris at full speed at 3am at night was the minute that Chris should have hightailed it home to safety. But he stayed and paid the price, thereby treating us to a horrific ordeal from which he escapes. I give his heroism 3 Hero points out of 5.

There isn’t much in the way of overt transformations in this film, other than the obvious physical mutilations carried out by Dean and Missy Armitage. As I’ve mentioned, Chris couldn’t have extricated himself from the horror of his situation without transforming mentally, emotionally, and physically. These are the types of transformation we discuss in our latest book, and they happen when real world heroes confront emergency situations. Still, we never see Chris as a changed man after his ordeal, and so I can only award 2 Transformation deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Get Out is an uncomfortably comedic horror film. It’s said there is truth in comedy.  Surely the funniest moments in the film were of white people saying stupid things in the presence of a black man. Both white folk guilty of such moments and black folk who are subject to them feel a sense of discomfort that gives rise to humor.

The image of white people taking on the bodies of black men and women may be a metaphor for white people adopting black culture: minstrels in blackface, tap dancing musicals, rock and roll music, and modern rap are all examples of how whites take on black culture and make it their own. And in so doing rob blacks of their own cultural identity. For holding up a funhouse mirror to American racial culture, I give Get Out 4 out of 5 Reels.

In the typical horror movie, the protagonist commits some social sin (say, teenagers having sex, drinking alcohol, and smoking pot). Then they go somewhere they should not be going (say, into an abandoned house). And must pay the consequences (attack by an axe wielding madman).

Chris is just such a character. He’s defied social norms by dating outside his race. He is transported to a scary mansion where he meets the evil family looking to rob him of his brain and his life. It’s not what I’d call a hero’s journey, but it is a classic horror plot. I give Chris 3 out of 5 Heroes.

As we’ve discussed, there isn’t much transformation going on in Get Out. This story isn’t so much about transforming the characters in the movie. But, perhaps, the people transformed are the viewers. We can laugh a bit at ourselves and become more aware of our latent and subtle racism. And so we can transform into more aware individuals. I give Get Out 3 out of 5 Deltas for transforming the audience.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Split •••1/2

split_2017_filmStarring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Horror/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2017



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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we’re often split in our opinions about a movie.

I’m of two minds on this film. Let’s recap…

We meet three teenage girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). Claire and Marcia and the “cool” girls and Casey is a loner who frequently gets into trouble at school. The girls are in a car, ready to be driven home by one of their fathers, when a man named Kevin (James McAvoy ) commandeers the vehicle, kidnapping the girls and locking them in a subterranean room.

Meanwhile, Kevin is meeting with his therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who has been receiving frantic emails from Kevin’s alter ego Barry. Dr. Fletcher’s suspicions are raised when Kevin denies sending the messages. In a later session Kevin describes a new personality called “The Beast” which has the powers of many powerful animals. Fletcher thinks The Beast is a metaphorical character, but we know better.

Greg, how interesting that we are devoting our 2017 movie reviews to the importance of character transformation in storytelling, and lo and behold we are presented with a movie about a man with dissociative identity disorder. Kevin routinely transforms among two dozen different personal identities. We’ll get to that later.

First, let me say how surprisingly pleased I was with this movie. Based on the trailer, I didn’t expect much. The film turns out to be far more than a formulaic teenage screamer/thriller movie with the usual false scares and predictable slasher villain. Split is a psychologically fascinating film that serves as a sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s very underrated Unbreakable. We’re treated to a movie that makes us think about the very purpose of the hero’s journey, which is to take us on a path that will bring us great pain yet make us better, stronger people in the end.

I agree. Split was an uncommon thriller. The photography and direction seemed stilted, almost amateurish. But the performance by James McAvoy switching between multiple personalities, often in the same scene, really sold the story.

The three girls represent three different types of victims. Claire is the natural leader and believes that her Tai Kwon Do lessons will be enough to overpower Kevin. Marcia is the follower who looks to the other girls to decide how to proceed. And Casey wants to wait and see what Kevin is all about. Casey has experience with predators since her uncle ritually molested her as a child. It’s an interesting comparison of personalities.

I see this film as a tale of two heroes, Kevin and Casey. They’re both emotionally broken from abuse, outsiders doing their best to deal with their pain. Dr. Fletcher almost serves as the narrator of the story, telling us how the broken among us have a head start in becoming their best, superhuman selves. Kevin is slowly transforming into “the beast”, an indescribably strong, powerful mutant who needs people to eat. Casey’s transformation is brought about by her ordeal as Kevin’s captive.

The entire story is based (loosely) on the true and inspiring theory of post-traumatic growth in the field of psychology. The idea behind PTG is that the horrid experiences that traumatize us can serve as grist for the transformative mill. That which does not kill us may indeed make us stronger, better people. Research studies are confirming this phenomenon, giving many abuse victims great hope for a better future.


While Kevin undergoes a physical transformation, Casey undergoes an emotional one. Kevin, as The Beast, kills the other two girls. But when Kevin realizes that Casey is also a victim of abuse, he lets her go. He’s only interested in the “impure” girls, not the “pure” Casey. Frantly, I’m confused by Kevin’s definition of pure or impure. But, at any rate, after Casey has survived The Beast, she finds a new resolve to stand up to her abusive uncle. She is no longer a victim.

Split is a surprisingly cerebral thriller that takes the message of the hero’s journey to a superheroic extreme. We learn that emotionally broken people are more highly evolved than the non-broken among us. It’s a theme with biblical origins (“the last shall go first”) and it has psychological validity in theories of post traumatic growth. “We are what we believe we are,” our hero Kevin proclaims, summing up the film’s message of mind over matter and mind transforming matter. James McAvoy turns in an astounding performance and M. Night Shyamalan has produced a winner of a movie. I award Split 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two heroes, Kevin and Casey, go on remarkable heroes journeys. Many of the most searingly painful stages of their journeys occur earlier in their lives and are shown in brief flashbacks. We are thus treated to the final stages of the journey during which our heroes are on the precipice of great change. Our heroes are complex, almost anti-hero in the case of Kevin and tortured in the case of both of them. Their journey of growth is unconventional yet inspiring. I give them 5 Hero points out of 5.

The transformation of our two heroes is the true star of this film. Kevin’s transformative journey has been ongoing for years, whereas Casey’s is brought to fruition via her captivity. Our two heroes’ transformations are physical, mental, and emotional in nature. We describe these types of transformations in our book, Reel Heroes & Villains. The transformations in this film are dramatic, surprising, and inspiring. I give them 5 Transformative points out of 5.

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I agree, Scott. Split is an exciting thriller and a nice addition to M. Night Shyamalan’s catalog. Aside from some stylistic choices in cinematography, it was a well-conceived and executed film. However, I was unhappy with the epilog which brought back Bruce Willis as David Dunn from Unbroken. There wasn’t anything that tied the two films together except one line at the tail. It smacks of commercialism and an attempt to revive interest in the older film. I give Split 3 Reels out of 5.

I agree again that we have a strong pairing here, but I wouldn’t call Kevin a hero. Surely Casey is the hero and Kevin is that antagonist. Casey wants to escape and Kevin opposes that goal. Casey is stronger than her two counterparts. And it is her past experience with abuse that makes her more likely to survive her ordeal than her unlucky friends. I give Casey 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The transformations in this film are on the one hand physical, for Kevin, and emotional for Casey. We watch Kevin transform from a splintered personality to a terrible “horde” who eats flesh for delight. It’s a gruesome change. Casey starts out already stronger than her peers. But we learn that she wasn’t strong enough to fend off her molesting uncle. But by the end of the film, her experience with Kevin made her strong enough to stand up for herself. If she could face Kevin, then she surely could face her uncle. I give these transformations 4 out of 5 points.

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Krampus •1/2

Krampus_posterStarring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner
Director: Michael Dougherty
Screenplay: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty
Comedy/Horror/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: December 4, 2015


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Well, Greg, someone’s coming to town. And it’s not who you think.

They’ve put a kramp(us) in our style. Let’s recap…

We meet a somewhat typical American family living in the burbs: Tom (Adam Scott), Sarah (Toni Collette), and their kids Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Emjay Anthony). Sarah’s sister’s family arrives and we are witness to plenty of tension and family dysfunction. Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) is particularly difficult and reviled by most of the family. Max is ridiculed for wanting to follow family traditions, including the task of writing a letter to Santa. But Max writes the letter anyway.

Things continue to go sour in the household and Max tears up the letter and throws it into the night with a wish for a better family. Grandma “Omi” warns that Santa’s alter ego, the Krampus, will descend on families who don’t get along at Christmastime. Soon thereafter, all the power goes out in the neighborhood and daughter Beth decides she needs to brave the storm to see her boyfriend. She’s not gone long when a strange beast descends upon her and she hides under a car. Then, a strange toy explodes and Beth is no more.

Greg, Krampus is a strange movie that suffers from not knowing what it wants to be. If it is trying to be a horror movie, it fails because the premise, the characters, and the so-called scary scenes are neither realistic nor scary. If it is trying to be a comedy, it fails because the attempts at humor or satire fall flat. Krampus lacks a rudder and a compass. It drifts along, finding a way to fill two hours without producing a single memorable moment.

The primary hero of the story is probably poor Max, who deserves a better family and a better fate. One could argue that the family unit is the hero, with the entire family ensemble being terrorized by Krampus and his gang of misfit minions. Debating whether the hero is Max or his family is pointless, as no one in this movie really grows in any way. They just try to survive one Krampus attack after another. Perhaps at the end they’ve been humbled and will now treat each other better. Perhaps. By the end of the movie, frankly, we don’t really care.

Harsh words, Scott. I think Krampus seeks the same audience as 1984’s Gremlins. This is a dark Christmas comedy. It borrows heavily from horror concepts like the hidden villain and gross-out visuals. It could very well become a cult classic. Like many horror films, the characters are picked off one by one and the people who are the least likable are the most likely to be done in. While I do think you’re a bit hard on Krampus, Scott, I have to agree that it lacks a sensible direction.

It’s pretty clear to me Max is the hero of this story. It’s very much told from his point of view. He is the one who made the Christmas wish that he wanted a better family. And at the end of the story he gets his wish. It’s just that the family lives in fear of being demolished by the Krampus if they don’t behave. I’m reminded of the great Billy Mumy episode of The Twilight Zone called “It’s a Good Life” where everyone feared the little boy and behaved perfectly for fear of being wished into the corn field. Krampus works on that level and so it’s the family who are transformed, even though Max is the protagonist. It’s a less cathartic ending, but it makes sense given the concept.

The supporting characters are right out of the stock-character section of your local K-Mart. Grandma Omi plays the role of the exotic and mysterious prophet whom no one listens to until it is too late. Max’s cousins are garden variety bullies. Aunt Dorothy is such an abomination that no one would ever invite her over to their house, yet this family does just that. This movie is populated by caricatures, not characters.

Krampus himself should be interesting, or at least is potentially interesting, but this movie manages to portray Krampus as the dullest villain we’ve seen in the movies this year. We aren’t given any information about Krampus, his origins, or his mindset. Krampus just wants to torment the family and pick them off, one by one. Even his henchmen are uninteresting dolls who are supposed to be either scary or funny or some weird combination of the two. All I know is that I kept looking at my watch, waiting for this film to end.

Scott, I’m reminded of the hero/villain structure we presented in our book Reel Heroes & Villains. Max’s extended family represent an ensemble cast headed by Max’s parents. The Krampus is the evil mastermind and his followers are the henchmen – doing the dirty work.

I agree with you that we’ve seen all of these characters before. This movie was much more a cartoon or even a situation comedy rather than a Hollywood feature. Every character was straight out of the Hollywood trope handbook. Some of the actors were even well-known TV personalities from sitcoms gone by. There are no memorable characters here. Everyone just played the stereotype they were dealt.

Krampus is a forgettable film about Santa’s nasty doppleganger who is as evil as Santa is good. This is a gimmick film, with the gimmick being the anti-Santa. All the terrorizing that Krampus does to that unfortunate family is by-the-numbers and far from interesting. So we’re left with a gimmick, and not a good one at that. I can’t think of a reason to give Pus Cramp more than one single pathetic Reel out of 5.

There’s not much of a hero’s story to speak of, unless watching a family be terrorized by a dull anti-Santa constitutes a story. You’re right, Greg, that Max’s hurt feelings may now and forever be holding the family hostage each Christmas. Does this represent a hero’s transformation?  I don’t think so. As mentioned before, the family has certainly been humbled and it may now give Grandma the respect she deserves. But that’s hardly a transformation worth watching. Again I give a rating of 1 out of 5 in the hero category.

The supporting characters were flimsy stereotypes and as forgettable as last week’s meat loaf. Not a single character is the least bit memorable, unless you count one of the cars that broke down in the road. I do remember that car, as it had the good sense to check out of the movie early on.  No surprise here that I award this cast 1 cast rating point out of 5.

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Well, Scott, some of us like meatloaf. Krampus is not as imaginative or enjoyable as Gremlins, but I think it hits its mark. It was released in time for Christmas but I it may find a home as a Halloween treat as well. I don’t see much need to see this film again, but I liked it more than you did as I laughed at the many ways the director and writers found to kill off family members with Christmas joy. I give Krampus 2 out of 5 Reels.

The hero’s journey is muddied by the fact that it is Max who is the protagonist, but it is the extended family who learn the lessons. We’ve identified this pattern as the “catalytic” hero. In this case, Max is the catalyst for imparting a transformation in others. The problem is that it is the evil Krampus’s temper that teaches a lesson, not Max’s heroism. So, this is a pretty weak hero’s journey, after all. I give Max just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

As we both noted, the secondary characters are mere cookie-cutter shadows of trite Hollywood favorites. Although, I thought Grandma “Omi” was memorable – and Krista Stadler delivered an Oscar-worthy performance in an otherwise unremarkable film. I give the supporting cast just 2 Cast points out of 5.

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The Visit •

The_Visit_(2015_film)_posterStarring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Comedy/Horror, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: September 11, 2015


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time to visit The Visit.

In which we’re reminded of something we’ve known since childhood: old people are scary. Let’s recap.

We meet a woman named Paula (Kathryn Hahn) and her two children, a 13-year-old son named Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and his older sister Becca (Olivia DeJonge). Becca is estranged from her parents, and consequently Tyler and Becca have never met their grandparents, who live far away in Pennsylvania.

Tyler and Becca’s grandparents have finally gotten in touch with Paula and have requested to have the grandchildren come stay with them for a week. Paula is unsure at first, but gives in to the request when the children point out that she’s not had a vacation since… forever. So the children get on a train and meet their grandparents for the first time.

Things are going pretty well. The children settle into their new abode and Grandpa comes into the bedroom and says that it’s best if they all go to bed at 9:30. After all, these folks are old and accustomed to an early bedtime. However, things get creepy when Becca hears strange noises. She opens the bedroom door only to see her grandmother walking aimlessly around downstairs and vomiting on the floor. The next day Grandpa explains Gramma has “Sundown Syndrome” which makes her kind of crazy after the sun goes down. And we’re off…

The Visit is the scary movie we’ve seen a million times before. There is the predictable set-up, where a family is happily excited about entering into a new situation. We encounter the scary entities (in this case the grandparents), and for some reason these scary entities decide to become scary gradually. There are plenty of false alarm scares. We have victims (in this case two kids) who don’t leave the house when anyone in their right minds, even kids, would leave in a heartbeat. We have a warning early in the story not to go somewhere (in this case, a basement). Yet somehow our victims go there anyway.

So there’s nothing original here. We even have the derivative use of a handheld cam, along with several absurd situations where our victims are holding the cam long after it makes any sense to do so. The absurdity is heightened by one of the victims taking a poopy diaper in the face. Yes, you read that correctly. No, this isn’t the Three Stooges, but Moe would have been proud to have delivered that poopy-diaper-facial.

You’re right about that Scott. The good thing about this movie is that the horror is played up for laughs. It’s not as smart as, say, 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods but it comes close. The movie seems to know that it’s a ridiculous horror movie so it has our heroes do crazy things. Tyler is a budding young rap star, or so he thinks. He’s obsessed with getting girls to like him so he makes up rap lyrics about how all the girls his age are a foot taller than him, etc…

Becca is a wanna-be movie director, so it makes sense that she’d want to videotape everything and gives her brother a camera too – so he can videotape everything. Each day ends with Becca reviewing and editing her self-shot videos into a documentary about her mother and grandparents.

This “found footage” approach has been used in horror films before. It was most notably used in The Blair Witch Project (1999) and in J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield (2008). Director M. Night Shyamalan spoofs the technique by having the actors do things no one in their right minds would do. Like pointing the camera behind them as they run. Or having the grandmother find a hidden camera, only to drop it in just the right place so the audience can witness her trying to open a door with a butcher’s knife. Since it looks like a spoof, we’re all happy to play along.

Speaking of Shyamalan, The Visit even features the typical Shyamalan surprise-ending, all predicated on the confluence of many unlikely events, namely, that the kids have never seen photos of their grandparents, that mom never sees the grandparents during their Skype chats, that visitors always come over when no one is home, etc. Now that I think about it, that poopy diaper to the face was the highlight of the movie.

There is no hero transformation in this movie that I could detect, with the possible exception that maybe the two kids are scarred for life and will need decades of therapy. For this movie to work, the two trapped kids have to experience something interesting, mystical, or transformative to escape their horrid situation. Alas, the resolution is not even remotely interesting. Shyamalan arranges for the girl to stab grandma and the boy to hit grandpa with the refrigerator door. It’s a pedestrian ending to a pedestrian movie.

I think we have this problem with extreme genre films, Scott. When you look at slapstick comedy (which The Visit comes close to) you realize that story is secondary to yucks. Likewise with horror movies. What’s important is the fright factor. People don’t go to these films to be uplifted or to learn something deep – they go for the feelings of laughter and fright.

And I’m OK with that. I think you overlook the fact that Tyler has always felt his dad left home because he froze during a tackle in a pee-wee football game. This has left him with guilt and germaphobia. Well, the diaper in the face fixed the germaphobia and the climactic scene where he saves his sister by tackling Grandpa shows his growth as well. It’s not fantastic growth, but I think it counts.

The secondary characters of the grandparents were interesting as they evolved from being kindly mentors into dark mentors and even “pure evil” villains in the end. The mother is in the prologue and epilogue and otherwise has no purpose in the film – other than to be oblivious to the danger she’s put her children into. And finally, the two mental hospital employees who check in on the kids are not really germane at all.

The Visit is not worth a visit to the theater, nor is it worth a visit to Netflix, unless of course you love seeing incontinent old people terrorizing young children. I found The Visit to be humorless, predictable, and uninteresting. The two child actors, however, did a very nice job with mundane material, and so kudos to Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge for making the most of their poopy situation. I give The Visit a grand total of 1 Reel out of 5.

I didn’t detect much of a hero’s journey here at all, although I will grant you that the two kids were thrown into a dangerous unfamiliar world. But that’s about the only element of the classic hero quest that I see here. There’s no mentor figure or transformation, although you’re right, Greg, that the dirty diaper was the answer to the boy’s fecal-phobia. I’ll be generous and award our buddy heroes 2 Heroes out of 5.

As you point out, Greg, there aren’t many secondary characters. The two deranged grandparents do a decent job of creeping us out, and the kids’ mom does a serviceable job in her role. The supporting characters get a whopping 2 rating points out of 5.

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I found The Visit to be a light-hearted jab at the horror genre. Shyamalan did a good job of giving the audience exactly what it wanted: something simple with a predictable twist. He used his many talents to produce a comedic horror film without getting lost in his own mythos. It’s not a great horror film, and not a great comedy. I give it just 1 Reel out of 5.

The protagonists of the story comprise a type of buddy hero pair that we haven’t examined until now: that of siblings. They represent a pretty simplified view of siblings who love each other but also kind of get on each others nerves. We haven’t seen the likes of this since The Brady Bunch. Unlike you, Scott, I saw some transformation for our heroes. But I have to admit, it looked like it was thrown in at the last moment. I give them just 2 Heroes out of 5.

As for our secondary characters: the mother is a prop to start the whole thing off and to bring us home again at the end. She has no real purpose in the story otherwise. The two grandparents have in interesting trajectory that starts out benign and grows into sinister. I give them all just 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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