2019 has been a very busy year so far for the horror genre, as we’ve been getting a ton of films coming out over the last few months, which can make it hard to keep up. Here’s a look at a trio of projects that I recently had the opportunity of viewing: Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, which arrives in theaters in Los Angeles today (NY on 5/10, and a subsequent VOD bow on 5/10), writer/director A.T. White’s Starfish, and In Memory Of from filmmaker Eric Stanze.
Charlie Says: For Charlie Says, filmmaker Mary Harron explores the manipulative spell that the infamous Charles Manson (Matt Smith) cast over his followers, and in this case, three different women—Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon)—who were incarcerated for their involvement in the brutal killings that rocked Los Angeles (and the entire world) in 1969. The trio were incarcerated together, kept away from the general population, and it’s up to a social worker at the prison (played by The Walking Dead’s Merritt Wever) to try and get through to the women and make them understand the horrific impact of their actions and to find a way to finally break Manson’s hold over them.
While I loved the performances and some of the film’s technical aspects, Charlie Says admittedly doesn’t really offer up anything new to the conversation in terms of who Charles Manson was or any additional insight into why hordes of people (mostly women) would choose to give up their own autonomy in order to surrender themselves to the followings of that infamous bearded lunatic who wanted to instill his own reign of terror on society. Everything we see here in Charlie Says is pretty much everything we’ve already been told through books, news articles, court proceedings, and various forms of entertainment. And because screenwriter Guinevere Turner is mining well-traversed territory, it’s up to Harron’s direction and the ensemble to bring something different to the table, and I think for the most part, everyone succeeds here.
As mentioned, what makes Charlie Says so compelling are the performances. Smith, who many fans know from his work on Doctor Who, delivers a wholly transformative portrayal of one of the world’s most notoriously sadistic figures of all time, pulling away some of the layers of insecurity that undoubtedly propelled Manson towards his “Helter Skelter” movement. Most of Charlie Says is centered around Murray as Leslie Van Houten, who is a newbie to the Manson compound at the start of the film’s flashbacks, and the constant conflict of her character is palpable from start to finish. The rest of the cast is great, too, but the biggest surprise is Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford, who plays Tex Watson, and his arc from deserter to brutal murderer is haunting to say the least.
And while I appreciate the way Harron tries to explore the more feminist aspects of this story, I do wish Charlie Says was able to dig a little deeper into the lives of these women, as it wraps up at the point where I was most interested, where they’ve figured out that they were manipulated and have to figure out how to move forward with their lives while still behind bars. It may not necessarily have anything new to say, but Charlie Says is still an intoxicating and horrifying journey all the same.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Starfish: A powerful and moving exploration of grief set against the backdrop of the end of the world, Starfish is a stunning and poignant feature-length debut from A.T. White that feels unlike anything else you’ll see this year. Led by an absolutely heart-wrenching performance from Halloween (2018)’s Virginia Gardner, Starfish is centered around a young woman named Aubrey (Gardner) who is dealing with the recent loss of her best friend Grace, and she decides to break into Grace’s apartment looking for a safe haven for her grieving process.
As she digs around the remnants of Grace’s life, Aubrey stumbles upon a mysterious cassette tape labeled with the words “This Mixtape Will Save the World,” and little does Aubrey know just how important that tape will become, as she’s so wrapped up in her heartache that she’s unaware that around her, the world has quite literally gone to hell, and Aubrey could be one of the last remaining human beings alive after a monstrous invasion has taken over.
We’ve seen plenty of genre films that have explored the concepts of grief and isolation before, but Starfish is truly a standout effort amongst its cinematic peers and perfectly captures the messiness, the fear, the guilt, and the despair that comes from having to say goodbye to someone you love, especially when it is unexpected. Considering Gardner is pretty much in every single moment of Starfish, that requires her to become the emotional anchor to White’s story, and her relatable portrayal of someone whose soul is being stripped away by loneliness and her all-encompassing pain delivered up several emotionally driven gut punches that have lingered over me for some time now.
While it's true that Starfish feels more like a mood piece than it does a deeply layered narrative, that doesn’t meant that White hasn’t crafted something that is profoundly affecting and truly unforgettable all the same, making it a viewing experience that I would highly recommend to any film lover in search of something a little bit different than what you might be expecting. Also, Starfish features an incredible score and I absolutely adore White’s hat tip to the creatures in Gareth Edwards’ Monsters as well, and it is easily one of my favorite films of 2019 thus far.
Movie Score: 4/5
In Memory Of: A hallucinatory trip to Hell, indie filmmaker Eric Stanze’s sci-fi/horror/road trip mashup In Memory Of takes viewers on an unsettling journey through multiple states and locales as Amber (Jackie Kelly) looks for answers to the horrific neurological disorder that continues to warp her perspective and perceptions of just what exactly has happened to her and how it has all led to the troubles that she is currently dealing with. Featuring supporting performances from frequent co-collaborators Jason Christ and Emily Haack, In Memory Of is easily Stanze’s most ambitious, albeit slightly unfocused at times, effort to date.
With In Memory Of, Stanze injects his story about one woman’s quest to reclaim her identity with a sensory overload, often relying on dizzying and haunting visuals that make for a compelling juxtaposition against the small-town America motif that Stanze heavily leans into here as Amber hits the road. The thing about In Memory Of is that as Stanze moves from set piece to set piece, his story is often highly unpredictable as he consistently dabbles in new and surprising ways to keep viewers completely off-kilter, and I applaud his ability to find new ways to delve into Amber’s psychosis that we haven’t seen ad nauseam in so many films of its ilk.
Kelly delivers a strong and able performance that propels In Memory Of, but my biggest quibble with the film is its 2+ hour running time, as it does feel like some of the story (which was co-penned by Stanze, Christ, and Kelly) would have benefitted from a bit of tightening overall. Also, considering most of In Memory Of feels like a disturbing and disorienting fever dream, the film’s conclusion feels slightly underwhelming in comparison to all that preceded it.
That being said, Stanze remains one of the most intriguing horror filmmakers working at the micro-budget level, and In Memory Of is truly a welcome return for the thought-provoking director after his last project, Ratline, which was over seven years ago now. His latest demonstrates his evolution as a visual storyteller, and I just hope we don’t have to wait another seven years to see what else he can do behind the camera.
Movie Score: 3/5