Spooky season is a couple of months away, but you wouldn't know it from looking at your movie calendar. We are one week away from the start of the 2023 Popcorn Frights Film Festival, with its jam-packed lineup of genre selections, but you don't have to wait until next weekend to get your horror fix.
Two new releases out now in theaters and a Miami Film Festival selection making its way to Video On Demand early next week deal with the supernatural, from mythical creatures to meddlesome spirits to ghostly apparitions tied to a beloved theme park ride. Call them the Spirit Trio. They show that the only limit to tackling familiar terrain is the filmmakers' imagination, or lack thereof. Let's dive in. There's no turning back now.
“Summoning the Spirit”: The Pacific Northwest is so Miami. At least that's the case in this absorbing Sasquatch tale that's set in Oregon but filled with Sunshine State talent. The South Florida vibes, despite the Oregon setting, are undeniable. The latest effort from prolific indie filmmaker Jon Garcia hits the ground running with ferocious jump-cut abandon as the titular creature dispatches a couple of intruders with brute force.
But this isn't their story. “Spirit,” which had its world premiere at this year's Miami Film Festival, zeroes in on Carla (Krystal Millie Valdes) and Dean (Ernesto Reyes), a couple who move to a remote forest in the Beaver State, ostensibly so Dean can work on his novel. It becomes clear pretty quickly, however, that they're also in dire need of a fresh new start. Something feels off as they go through their day, as Dean's glum demeanor and Carla's ambivalence about their new surroundings suggest deep-seated issues between them. One wishes the movie dealt with their estrangement with more specificity, but this marriage's baggage is revealed in perfunctory, nondescript broad strokes.
“Spirit” becomes more engrossing once Carla picks up a hitchhiker. Celeste (Isabelle Muthiah), aggressively sunny and chipper, introduces Carla to the group of people she came to join. They're so friendly and welcoming and oh, my God, this is a cult, isn't it? Meanwhile, Dean crosses paths with Arlo (Jesse Tayeh), a New Age-y dude who looks like a drifter but behaves like a born-again religious leader. Dean takes an instant dislike to the handsome stranger, but there's something disarmingly Zen about him. When Carla suggests they take the group's invitation to join them for a get-together, he reluctantly tags along. Lo and behold, there's Arlo, tending to his flock with messianic poise. Faint “Midsommar” vibes, and one deliciously homoerotic tussle, ensue.
Garcia, working from a screenplay credited to him and Zach Carter, introduces new characters tightly and efficiently while moving the story forward at a steady clip. Though he's no stranger to genre fare, “Spirit” is the filmmaker's first foray into horror. He's still familiarizing himself with the genre's conventions. There's a reliance, partly driven by the production's modest budget, to rely on frequent cuts, the better to convey the grisly mayhem and chaos. The gorehound in me, however, wanted Garcia to linger on the gore, and perhaps get a better look at the forest creature this fringe group venerates. He remains in the shadows too often.
What is refreshing here is that the carnage is firmly grounded on the lead characters' emotional journey. Tayeh and Muthiah have the juicier, more showy roles (both actors are swell), but Garcia takes pains to flesh out Carla and Dean, exploring how they are changed by their interactions with these Sasquatch worshippers and this forest that's enchanted in both healing and destructive ways. It all leads to a conclusion that echoes early Wes Craven in visceral and gratifying ways. (Think “Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” but with an emphasis on personal transformation.)
I saw “Summoning the Spirit” all the way back in March, and it's gratifying how much of it lingers in my memory. Thanks to a committed ensemble cast, an evocative location and capably staged bloodbaths, this is the kind of creature feature that gets under the fur. It puts its best Bigfoot forward.
“Talk to Me”: An effort to prioritize characters over chills also propels this spellbinder from Australia. The debut feature from YouTube sensations turned bonafide filmmaking siblings Danny and Michael Philippou milks a corker of a premise for all it's worth. At least it does at first.
What commands viewers' attention is a hand. Not just any hand. It's unclear if these digits are made out of plaster. The rumor mill suggests the hand belonged to a powerful medium, and that it's really his hand. Here's how it works: You touch it with your own hand, repeat the titular words, then once you establish contact with a spirit, if you're brave (or stupid) enough to continue, you say, “I let you in.”
Whoosh! You become a willing conduit for a curious entity, at least for a couple of minutes. Your eyes become unsettling black dots and you surrender control of your body. But hey, no guts, no glory. Such a powerful object should be used with the utmost care and adherence to safety guidelines. So, of course, it's brought out at suburban shindigs as a party favor, giving disaffected teens and twentysomething revelers the content they crave for their TikTok and Insta pages.
The power of the hand draws Mia (breakout sensation Sophie Wilde) to it like a moth to a flame when the acquaintance who owns it, Hayley (Zoe Terakes) shows it off one night. Mia, you see, continues to grieve her mother, and it's unclear whether her death was a suicide or an overdose. So when she sees what the hand can do, she hopes she is able to communicate with her late parent, even if it means bending the rules. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, as it turns out. Mia's friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) hosts a party against the strict orders of her mother Sue (Miranda Otto), roping in Jade's straight-arrow beau Daniel (Otis Dhanji), who used to date Mia, and Jade's little brother Riley (Joe Bird) to go under the hand's spell. Things go disastrously awry, with devastating consequences for all involved.
Up to this point, “Talk to Me” plows ahead with confidence and verve. It's clear the Philippous care for this circle of friends. In the case of Mia, she's closer to a family member to Jade, Sue and Riley. But as the characters attempt to figure out a solution to their supernatural dilemma, the filmmakers start to lose their grip on the material. The movie explores how Jade and her family, who are white, point their finger at Mia, who is Black, as the source of their calamitous situation. Race is never mentioned, but the tension is there, bubbling underneath the surface.
But the Philippous largely abandon this to indulge in tired horror tropes that add nothing to the movie. If anything, they cheapen a layered portrayal of mourning and family skeletons in order to score cheap thrills. “Talk to Me” then proceeds to twist itself into a pretzel in order to arrive at a tired, clumsily executed climax that reduces everything that has come before to a campfire tale punchline. The resolution squanders the film's earlier depiction of racially driven friction, settling for an act that, seen through the lens of representation, feels awfully problematic.
The Philippous have made a movie that ultimately plays like what it is: a first feature. It works like gangbusters until it really doesn't. Still, there is something to be said for a near miss that leaves you somewhat intrigued for what the filmmakers will do next. And in the case of “Talk to Me,” here's hoping this duo's muse inspires them to sprinkle a stronger dose of dark magic over their next project.
“Haunted Mansion”: Next to these two grown-up scary movies, yet another Disney movie based on their Magic Kingdom dark ride will inevitably feel like kiddie fare, but considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, it didn't have to be this way.
Alas, this tame and toothless IP regurgitation refuses to embrace the sinister glee of its source material, an attraction that gave nightmares to this critic when he first rode it at age 4. By contrast, director Justin Simien and screenwriter Katie Dippold take something rife with potential and give it the most pedestrian treatment imaginable.
The story kicks into gear when single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase Dillon) move into the titular property, located in New Orleans, and quickly realize it's infested, not with rodents or roaches, but with hundreds of restless ghosts. Enter a quartet of spiritual contractors, so to speak: Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a man of the cloth, Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), a former astrophysicist, Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), an extravagant medium, and Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), a college professor who's an expert in local lore and local properties.
The plasticity of the CGI-heavy hijinks is offset by some drippy business concerning Ben, a skeptic who is mourning the death of his wife, who was a believer in supernatural beings. Ben also becomes a father figure to Travis, who is bullied at school. Meanwhile, the members of this motley crew join forces to figure out what's disturbing the 999 ghosts who reside uneasily in this manor, a quest that leads them to the malevolent Hatbox Ghost (the voice of Jared Leto) and the instantly recognizable Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis), a medium trapped inside her crystal ball.
The results of this hodgepodge of ideas and storylines that range from the goofy to the mawkish are noisy, bland and curiously inconsequential. Secrets are doled out with all the finesse of an old printer churning out a document. The actors do share a pleasant bonhomie, but their banter makes the movie feel uncannily like a big-budget sitcom (when I say big, I mean it: a reported $150 million, a bigger price tag than “Oppenheimer”). The Greedy Mouse needed to surrender this property to a filmmaker adept at generating genuine dread while retaining the ghoulish humor of the Disney ride that has stood the test of time.
But Simien (“Dear White People”) approaches the material like a hired hand, content to hit all the story beats without rocking the boat, Stanfield's clever line about calling the police notwithstanding. This is barely a step up from the mediocre 2003 Eddie Murphy vehicle that first attempted to turn the popular attraction into a movie. But this more faithful incarnation turns what could have been a fun ride on its own terms into a forgettable game of Spot the Reference. Even more perplexing is the film's running gag of inserting product placements in the dialogue. Like so many parts of this uninspired retread, they land with a thud. These are not grim-grinning ghosts playing peek-a-boo. They're just grim. And boring.
“Summoning the Spirit” becomes available on digital platforms and DVD next Tuesday, Aug. 8. “Talk to Me” and “Haunted Mansion” are playing in theaters across South Florida, including Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place, Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami and Regal Dania Pointe.