It Takes Evil to Write Evil. “Shirley” reviewed! (Neon / Digital Screener)


Backdropped inside the mid-1960’s of Bennington, Vermont, famed horror fiction writer, Shirley Jackson, and her husband, Stanley Hyman, a folk literary professor at the Bennington College, welcome a young newlywed couple, Fred & Rose, in their home, but the stay isn’t for social purposes as Fred stands to be the assistant professor aiming to achieve greater success under professor Hyman and Rose becomes the happy wife whose reluctantly willing to help with household chores as the surly Shirley flounders in a writer’s rut, sour around polite company, lethargic for most of the day, and at war with her cheating husband, but Shirley finds inspiration when taking a fascination to Rose, merging her with a news story of a missing local girl that leaves Shirley entranced, catatonic, and inhibited from writing her novel. Once disdained by Rose’s very presence, Shirley exploits Rose’s eager ambitions and trustworthy attributes by befriending her as an endless flood of literary muse offerings that breathe life into Shirley’s next masterpiece.

“Shirley” is a biopic allegory of half-truths and a tale of a grim waltz between common civility and the yearning, paralyzing pursuit of opus mastering from the “Madeline’s Madeline” director, Josephine Decker. From the creator of the “I Love Dick” television series, writer, Sarah Gubbins, who adapted the screenplay from the author of “Shirley: A Novel,” Susan Scarf Merrell, provides a textural interpretation of renowned horror and mystery fiction writer Shirley Jackson during the bitter final years of her and Stanley Hyman’s unusual, yet threadbare functional, relationship. “Shirley,” in itself, is like one of Jackson’s terrifically terrifying horror stories woven together with anecdotal fragments of Shirley’s flailing existence with the new energy of a fictional young couple to drain the life from for her own benefit and is cinematically arranged the story like a perverse thriller of intellectual capitalism. The Los Angeles Media Fund (“Dark Crimes,” “The Bye Bye Man”) and the biographical drama producing powerhouse, Killer Films (“Notorious Bettie Page,” “Infamous”) serve as the production companies behind “Shirley.”

Hot off her success in the gender-dystopian television series, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and in Leigh Whannell’s vision of a Universal monster classic, “The Invisible Man,” Elisabeth Moss embodies the titular role of Shirley Jackson with a fluid performance of a corkscrew soul. Moss aims to make Shirley as a detestable gorgon with nihilistic and agoraphobic intellect and a narcissistic view of her work she considers to be the holy grail. Moss is methodic and calculating in her character’s icy social skill set and floats half-seen above the water’s surface like an alligator hunting, ready to snap when a warm blooded meal doesn’t expect a thing. Shirley Jackson is only as interesting as her philandering other half, Stanley Hyman, who has a whole separate cache of quirks and callous intentions, though parading in a much more vibrant, lively, and gregarious manner. “The Shape of Water’s” Michael Sthulbarg has pitch perfect execution of Hyman’s managing tugboat who pulls and escorts this cruise liner-sized ego to port with an unorthodox show of a manipulation and affable disingenuous blend working tirelessly that ship to anchor after a long voyage on rough, stagnant seas. Fred and Rose enter like a parallelogram, a four-side rectangular where two sides pair together equally in length, of innocents wondering into a den of a pair of hungry lions. Then, the parallelogram flips and skews to form an twisted mirror of itself that has turned the sweet and loving Fred and Rose into a pair of awaken fragments of Shirley and Stanley. We don’t get to experience much of Logan Lerman as the assistant professor who shadows in Hyman’s overshadowing dominance, but we’re rather engrossed by Odessa Young’s onscreen reciprocity with Elizabeth Moss. Rose falls short of being the epitome of youthful innocence with a fast and loose shotgun marriage to Fred because of her pregnancy and her rendezvousing sexual appetite with Fred, but Rose’s delicate curiosity and naïve gives way for Shirley, Stanley, and even Fred to tread all over her. Young fully grasps Rose’s disadvantage in the viper’s pit that sizes her up for a great fall.

“Shirley” doesn’t bask in the spotlight of the biopic-ee’s celebrated work, like “The Lottery” or “The Haunting of Hill House,” even if it name drops the former; instead, Josephine Decker’s film is cut from the Susan Scarf Merrell cloth that disconnects and desensitizes intellect from moral conduct. Distinct lines are drawn between the couples Shirley and Stanley, whose dynamic teeters on alcohol, smokes, and a banter based on a fraction of love less, and Fred and Rose, who are teased with the taste of the good life, bow and scrape for the attention of their hosts. As the scrupulous infatuations begin to blur the lines and Fred and Rose become infected by Shirley and Stanley’s inceptive wicked cynicism, a metamorphosis occurs as the naïve newlyweds are now the bitterly tireless unable to cop with their shortcoming whereas Shirley and Stanley remain unaffected, if not, better off than from when they started, leeching the purity from the impressionable youngsters like a pair of scholarly vampires. Decker’s airy, dreamlike touch evokes another level of the already Freudian bombarded “Shirley” that’s laden with heavily schemed psychoanalytic foreplay and undercurrent human reaction to a string of unconventional occurrences.

Become the fly trapped in a web of deceits with “Shirley” heading to Hulu, VOD, virtual cinemas, and select drive-in movie theaters come June 5th, 2020 distributed from Neon. The rated R, 107 minutes quasi-biopic is presented a widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, a digital screener doesn’t allow me to critique the A/V quality. However, composer Tamar-kali’s subdued score lingers on the right side of brooding without feeling overly dreadful and with feeling more horrifically intrusive, complimenting Shirley’s aggressive mind rape of Rose’s psyche. There were no bonus features included with the digital screener nor was there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. Unlike the sullen, reality bending state as the titular persona, “Shirley” is an entertainingly cathartic glimpse into the worst side of erudition plagued upon those lesser informed that builds lustrous works of horror on the backs of perfidy.

Purchase the poster with Elizabeth Moss!

Evil Lurks in the Woods. You’ve Been Warned! “Altar” review!


Maisy and her socially reclusive brother, Bo, venture on a mountain getaway trip with Maisy’s former college friends. With Bo documenting with a handheld video camera as part of his way in comforting his anxiety, he captures the dynamic of how each of Maisy’s friends have changed over years, especially with Asher and his recently High School graduated girlfriend, Pam. After breaking down on the side of the road, falling behind the rest of the caravan, they encounter a strange man with an axe, harshly warning them to not continue up the mountain pass. Shrugging of the warning and returning to their now working vehicle, the group resumes their drive, but makes a wrong turn and becomes lost in the mountains’ thicket of the Sierra Nevada. They decide to setup camp for the night and continue their way back the next morning, but the discovery an ominous, skull-riddled altar in the woods unleashes a frightening presence that won’t allow them to leave. As tensions rise and night falls, Bo keeps his camera running as a soul inhabiting evil has fallen upon them that seeks to destroy them one-by-one.

“Altar” is the 2016 found footage horror from writer-director Matthew Sconce. Sconce is actually able to harness a fraction of the mysticism and presence that made the found footage genre a thing back in 1999 with the ground breaking flick “The Blair Witch Project” and does a well enough job implementing it into his very own version of an allusive satanic cult ghoul, but with more specials effects and screen time. Despite being titled “Altar,” the story barely wraps itself around the titular object with only a handful of brief scenes, one of the scenes being the thinly-connected introduction that intensely catches the attention, while mostly focusing on the friends’ road trip chatter, breathtaking scenic gasps, and becoming lost on the mountain without much peril in-between. Even the creature, whom makes the scene approximately the last 10 minutes, has more of a presence than the altar itself.

The plot follows around Maisy Marks and her Aspergers labeled brother, Bo Marks, played by Stefanie Estes and Jesse Parr who pull off the socially awkward brother and the cutesy overprotective sister well enough to pass muster. Maisy’s other “beau” is Ravi, played by Deep Rai, and along for the ride as well is muscle head Asher, Tim Parrish, and his ditzy, teenage girlfriend, Pam, played by Jessica Strand. Rounding off the group is Chelsea, a communications graduate who could only find work as a bartender who seems to be stuck in life, and she’s catered to by Brittany Falardeau. Michael Wainwright, Tina Johnson, Master Dave Johnson, and Catherine Wilcox make up the rest of the cast. As a whole, the acting wasn’t terrible even if the script was conventionally kitschy and with a group of young actors, I’m fairly encouraged to see more of their work.

However, acting is only a third of the battle when critiquing a film and “Altar” has falters more in it’s own story and script that’s peppered with cliche after cliche. The scenes leading up to the mayhem constantly hyped that something bad is going to happen; Bo finds an online article of two newlyweds missing for six months (part of the introduction), characters kept comparing their scenarios like horror films, or a daunting man, named Ripper, sternly warns them with a very large axe in his hand. Moments like these try to build tension, but when overtly and grossly laid out for views, sustaining the substance behind them is lost and waters down the effect toward campy foreshadowing. Special effects weren’t overly cinematic nor where they similar to video nasties and kept simple, much like “The Blair Witch Project, with a little more padding to them. The Evil Spirit, as it’s credited in the film and portrayed by Nicole Osborne, is a black and white nightmare that’s effective on camera; slightly cheesy with a hint of gooeyness, but edited in nice and sporadically for those eye-clenching jump scares.

Production company Movie Hero Studios partners with Distribber for a VOD nationwide release of Matthew Sconce’s “Altar,” including platforms such as iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, PlayStation Network, and on Hulu. A DVD-R screener was provided and so commenting on video and audio quality will not be critiqued and there were no extras on the reviewed disc. “Altar” is, disappointingly, just another found footage casualty with hasty slivers of hope of not falling into the muck that has become an over-tapped genre. What Sconce has done with “Altar” makes the film enjoyable enough for a single viewing with little-to-no repeat value as everything lays out in the open and the only subtly in the entire film is the altar itself.

Watch “Altar” on Amazon.com!