Tag Archives: scary

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978) – Review

17 Dec

Science fiction is one of my absolute favorite genres because of how it can take problems of today and morph it into something that seems very unbelievable but also shockingly familiar. This is something that is explored to the fullest in the classic 1956 sci fi shocker, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Released as a double bill with The Atomic ManInvasion of the Body Snatchers turned into something so much more than a well received B-movie. It’s become a classic film that’s regarded as one of the best of the genre. Not only that, but it’s remake from 1978 comes close to matching its greatness while also being considered one of the best remakes ever to be produced. You can’t go wrong with that, so I’m thrilled to finally get to talk about these classic films.

Let’s start with the 1956 original.

After being called back to town from a health conference, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is surprised to see a mental health problem affecting many people in the neighborhood. Multiple people seem to believe that their loved ones aren’t really who they say they are and, while they look exactly as they should, are actually imposters. While investigating this strange phenomena, Miles gets back together with an old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), whose own cousin is suffering from one of these “delusions.” When Miles’ friends Jack (King Donovan) and Theodora (Carolyn Jones) Belicec find a body in their house that looks just like Jack, it occurs to everyone that these accusations about imposters may not be so far fetched after all. With more and more people becoming closed off in the town, and with the FBI being completely unreachable, Jack and Dana have to pull together to get out of the town safely and warn the rest of the world about the “pod people.” But with imposters surrounding them, who can they really trust?

I first watched this movie back in college when I took a whole class on the Horror genre. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been lauded as a masterpiece of science fiction, but also horror. I personally lean towards the side of horror because there’s something very unsettling about this film, and that has to be at least partially why this movie has stood the test of time. Sure, it is tame compared to sci fi horrors that come out today, but the black and white cinematography make the darkness feel extra dark and the soulless way the pod people move in complete unison at times is creepier than some of the more graphic scares of modern genre examples. This original movie also has one of the most exciting climaxes in this sci fi/horror genre which involves Miles running down a highway, desperate for people to heed his warning. Don Siegel’s exciting direction and Jack McCarthy’s terrified expressions make this whole segment a classic.

When this movie first came out, tensions were high and the Cold War was raging. People who worked on the movie have said that it was never their intention to write a movie that had any sort of political or societal message to it. That’s absolutely ridiculous to say. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a brilliant look at not only tensions between the Soviet Union and America, but also the plague of McCarthyism that was tearing America apart and also the soul crushing drabness of suburbia. This is an intelligent examination of the whole state of affairs in mid-1950s America, so I can’t believe anyone would say that this is just an alien invasion movie and that’s that. If that’s what you believe, I feel like you’re missing out on a lot of what makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers such a classic.

What more can I say about this movie? Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of science fiction and horror. It’s a slow burn of a movie that doesn’t have any over the top scares, but there’s a looming sense of dread, despair, and hopelessness that clouds the entire movie and makes the suspense feel all the more urgent. This is a really fun example of a B-movie that was released on a double bill that was destined to be so much more. I absolutely love this movie.

Final Grade: A

Normally remakes are a touchy subject and I’ll be the first to admit that. In this case, however, the remake is well worth the time and can be considered a timely classic all its own. How often can you really say that?

After discovering a rare form of plant species, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), who works for the San Francisco Health Department decides to investigate further. While her research leads her to a dead end, her suspicions are still aroused after her husband begins behaving like a mindless drone that barely even recognizes her. She voices her fears to her coworker Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who is at first unsure, but begins believing her when strange things begin happening all over the city that sound directly related to her predicament. Bennell brings Elizabeth to his friend and pop psychiatrist, Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who assuredly tells her that everything is ok. Things quickly go south when their other friends, Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) Bellicic find a body in their massage parlor that looks exactly like Jack. As their investigation continues, it turns out no one can be trusted and extra terrestrial forces are closing in to take over their lives and eradicate the entire human race.

Take everything that’s super cool about the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and expand on it to make it even cooler. That pretty much sums up the 1978 remake. More thought is put into explaining where the seeds that create the pods come from and the transformation of the regular humans into pod people is graphically shown. Philip Kaufman and his team clearly took the time and effort to create special effects that worked great for the time, without ever really overdoing it, and also using the camera and location to help tell the story better. One scene in particular has the camera dizzyingly following Donal Sutherland’s character threw the crowded streets of San Francisco. This clearly illustrates how alone, scared, and paranoid the character is without ever putting it into words. Not to mention, this movie has one of the most startling, bone chilling endings ever put to celluloid. That all being said, there are some flaws with this movie that don’t quite appear in the original.

In the original film, the relationship between Bennell and Driscoll is very natural and is a very believable and entertaining part of the story. It brings romance into the story, but it feels like a proper fit. In the remake, however, this romance is shoehorned into the plot and feels like a total afterthought. It’s one of those things where it really isn’t a huge problem, but it seemed so out of place that it took me out of the movie, and that’s the last thing you really want to have happen when you’re so sucked into it. This movie is also a lot longer than the original, which also isn’t a terrible thing. It just didn’t feel quite as tight, but the fact that the plot took its time also helps build the characters, lore, and suspense. The strongest part of this movie, and something that makes these tiny flaws feel super insignificant, is how the dread and suspicion and paranoia is turned up to 11. The late 1970s was a very different time than the mid 1950s, but that doesn’t mean people still weren’t afraid. The time of peace and love was coming to an end and the era of Watergate was upon them. It doesn’t quite have the same punch as the 1956 version, but the societal jabs are still there.

If you were to ask me if I’d rather watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the remake, I’d really have to think about it. The 1978 version ramps up the horror and special effects while also making the invading spores something much more physical and explained. There are a few storytelling hinderances that I can’t ignore, but this truly is one of the greatest remakes ever to be made. It’s smart, well acted, impeccably shot, and still provides all the scares that a fan of the genre can hope for. I’d say it’s just as good as the original, and if not that it’s pretty darn close.

Final Grade: A-

So there’s the first two films of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are excellent movies with their own strengths and weaknesses, but sci fi/horror really doesn’t get too much better than this. I’ll also be reviewing a few other remakes, Abel Ferrara’s 1993 film Body Snatchers and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 film, The Invasion.

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Willow Creek – Review

4 Mar

In 1967, the Patterson-Gimlin Film was released, which appears to show a giant creature walking along a riverbed somewhere in the forests of California. This footage has been a favorite amongst the cryptozoological community and has been said this is the proof of the existence of Bigfoot, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When I heard that Bobcat Goldthwait was going to be making a found footage horror film that explores the lore of Bigfoot, I was at the same time confused and intrigued. It’s been over three years since the film’s release, but I’ve just gotten around to seeing it, and I have to say that I’m more than a little surprised. Willow Creek is a suspenseful and often frightening film that is full of sharp dialogue, two rich lead characters, and a third act that provided me with some chilling moments.

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Jim (Bryce Johnson) is a Bigfoot enthusiast who decides to head to the area of Willow Creek and Bluff Creek to make his own documentary on the Patterson-Gimlin footage and his own attempts to find the area and possibly run into Bigfoot. Along for the ride is his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), who is an adamant denier of the creature, but also wants to support Jim in his efforts to shoot his film. The two finally arrive in Willow Creek and spend some time interviewing locals who have has some sort of encounter with Sasquatch, but some also warn them not to go into the woods. Despite the warnings, Jim and Kelly enter the woods where it is believed Bigfoot resides, and it doesn’t take long for them to realize that they are no longer hunting for Bigfoot, but it’s Bigfoot that’s hunting them.

So let’s get what I wasn’t a huge fan of out of the way first. For one thing, this is a pretty standard found footage movie when it comes to certain beats and the structure of the narrative. I knew pretty much exactly how the movie was going to play out and, for the most part, I was right. It even has the horror cliché of locals telling the main characters not to go somewhere, and then, of course, they go anyway. Shocker. I also just wanted a little bit more from this movie. This can also be seen as something of a compliment because I was really enjoying the movie and I wanted more of it. If another 10 or 15 minutes were added to it, I would have been thankful for it. I’m all for leaving things kind of ambiguous, and that shouldn’t change, nor do I want any more that what is shown, but a couple more scenes to build up some extra tension would have been much appreciated.

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There’s a lot more to like in Willow Creek than I would’ve ever thought. For one thing, the two main characters are very well thought out and feel genuine. They have a past and a future and it’s briefly explored through dialogue to give them more weight. They aren’t just living in the now of the movie. This makes what happens to them later on in the movie even more intense because they’ve been developed so much that we want them to escape the terrors of the woods. Goldthwait also made the smart choice to make this a slow burn of a horror film. The first 40 minutes or so may seem boring on the surface, but I didn’t find them so at all. It took its time building up the characters, the town and its inhabitants, and the lore of Bigfoot. It’s a sharply written film that is just as sharp in its execution.

So, let’s talk a little bit about the last third of this movie. Holy hell, is it something else. Put yourself in these characters’ positions. Stuck in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night with your only protection being the tent that you’re sleeping in. There’s a 20 minute long take of the couple sitting in the tent and listening to the bone chilling sounds happening outside, like footsteps and howls getting closer and closer to the tent. As this is all happening, their efforts to talk themselves down become futile. The suspense is almost too much and when Willow Creek finally explodes, it will leave you tired. It perfectly utilizes the idea that less is more and what the imagination creates, especially in this atmosphere, can be even more horrifying than anything that exists.

When this movie came out just a few years ago, found footage movies were still over saturating the market, so the only way to do the genre right is to create something special. I think Willow Creek is a special kind of horror movie. It has a tight script with witty dialogue and fully realized characters, but also a really courageous move to make a scene of suspense happen inside a tent during a 20 minute long shot. This is a very impressive film that would have been made even better if some more was added to the story or if some of the derivative moments were removed. Even with these small problems, Willow Creek stands, to me, as an under appreciated gem of modern horror.

Final Grade: B+

Near Dark – Review

3 Feb

Kathryn Bigelow has had a very interesting career in Hollywood, and she has a fair share of really good movies supporting her filmography. Her most recent feature, Zero Dark Thirty, garnered plenty of controversy, but I can’t say that it wasn’t a very well made and designed film. I also recently reviewed Point Break, which was one of her earlier efforts but still packed enough over the top entertainment to keep me interested. Today, I’m going back even further to her 1987 film Near Dark. This is a extremely interesting and well thought out take on modern vampires, and this is easily one of the best vampire movies ever made.

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Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is a young farmhand that helps his father on their farm in a small south western town. One night, he meets the beautiful, yet mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright), who seems in a rush to get home and in her panic bites Colton on the side of the neck. Colton is then taken off the road by Mae’s travel companions. The leader of the group is Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and his girlfriend Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein). Along with them is the sadistically violent Severen (Bill Paxton) and Homer (Joshua Miller), a kid who is much older than he looks. It also turns out that these travelers are vampires who roam the countryside looking for easy prey. Colton now is being forced by these vampires to accept his new life and kill in order to survive. This leads Colton on a wild ride of murder and utter chaos.

If you look close enough, you might notice that the cast to this movie is pretty close to the cast of James Cameron’s Aliens. As many people know, Bigelow and Cameron were married for a while in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cameron recommended these actors to Bigelow, and it worked out great. Henriksen is one of the most recognizable character actors working in film and television with good reason. He’s constantly bringing his best to every project he’s in and Near Dark is no exception. The same can be said about Bill Paxton, who really brings it in this movie. Because of Paxton’s excellent performance, mixed with Bigelow’s creative writing and direction, the character of Severen can easily be remembered as one of the great cinematic vampires. The rest of the supporting cast, along with Pasdar in the lead role are all very believable and do their jobs well, I just have to point out Henriksen and Paxton especially do great work.

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While the story of Near Dark is a pretty standard vampire tale, there are so many elements and scenes that put it a leg above the rest. For one thing, the vampires in this movie look like they could just be any person on the street. They aren’t pale or have fangs or anything like that, but they are just as vicious as any other traditional vampiric predator. There’s also a big focus on the affect that sunlight has on them. In fact, it’s one of the main components of the story. They don’t rest in coffins during the day, but they do have to take whatever precautions necessary not have a beam of light touch them. If it does, their skin burns and smoke starts rising off them. It’s really super cool. There’s also a now famous scene that takes place in a bar that really puts this movie up with other class-A horror films.

There have been so many vampire films made over the years that it’s hard to make the idea seem fresh and exciting. What Bigelow did here was take the vampire horror genre and mix it with the western genre to create a very unique feeling and looking film. There’s so much excellent imagery in this movie from the RV with the tin foil wrapped around the windows, to the vampires with blood dripping from their mouths in the bar scene, to an excellent shootout which results in lots of exposure to sunlight. These images are so well constructed and make this movie feel like such an original take on the lore of vampires. That’s really what I want to praise this movie for. Above all else, it is an original take on a tale that everyone knows so much about, but the newness and originality of this movie makes it feel so fresh.

Near Dark is a wonderfully original vampire film that grabbed me from the start and wouldn’t let up until the credits began rolling. It acts as a horror film, a western, and an action adventure movie all in one. I really tried my best to find something negative to say about this movie, but I had such a fun time with it that I don’t think it’s possible. This is one of those one of a kind movies that I could watch again and again without getting bored.

Final Grade: A

Don’t Breathe – Review

19 Sep

It’s been gratifying as a fan of the horror genre to see some really cool, highly original horror films to come out in the past few years. There’s been something of a horror renaissance. That being said, I’m not completely opposed to a film maker taking a familiar approach or using familiar plot devices to create a unique and entertaining horror film. It just has to be done right. Enter film maker Fede Alvarez and his newest film Don’t Breathe. This film is a mix of ideas that has been seen in films like Panic RoomThe Strangers, and Wait Until Dark, but it’s important to note that this isn’t a carbon copy of any of these movies. Instead, Don’t Breathe is an unbearably tense, slow burning horror film that’s smartly written and very well executed.

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Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three Detroit friends who make a living off of breaking into and robbing houses protected by Alex’s father’s security company. After a while, the profits from these jobs are becoming less and less from what they have been, which begins making Rocky’s plan, along with all the other’s plans, of leaving Detroit almost impossible. One day, Money is told about a house in the middle of an abandoned neighborhood with $300,000 just waiting to be taken. The seemingly only defense is an older, blind man (Stephen Lang) who seems like he couldn’t do any harm to anybody. When the three thieves enter the house and come closer to finding the money, the blind man wakes up and realizes what’s going on. It becomes clear that he isn’t nearly as defenseless as he looks, which forces the three robbers to quietly maneuver around him in the house, but they soon discover the blind man’s darkest secret that he will kill for in order to protect.

For me, Don’t Breathe is one of those movies that really hits what a horror movie is supposed to be on the head. Fede Alvarez previously directed the remake of Evil Dead, which I have not seen, but after seeing this movie and seeing how well he understands the genre, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. This is an incredibly tense film that made me cringe countless times. There were even times where I was afraid to breathe and give away the characters’ location in the house. It a movie can make me tense up and not want to breathe, then I know that I’ve just experienced an excellent horror film. The first time the movie really got me was a quick scene where the blind man quickly walks down a hallway, forcing Alex to quickly hug the wall and remain absolutely silent. The actual scene lasts only a split second, but that’s what makes it so good. There’s no cue that this is supposed to make you jump or feel frightened. The immediacy with which it happens is enough to make anyone feel uncomfortable. And that’s just the beginning. There are so many memorable scenes that almost force you to watch the movie through your fingers.

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What makes the movie even more effective are the characters and the situation that they are in. I’m not so much talking about being trapped in the house, but more so the living conditions and fighting for survival in the dying city of Detroit. Similar themes were explored in It Follows, and Alvarez continues this exploration with Don’t Breathe. The film’s focus on the environment is really important to telling the story, and the actors play their parts in this world very well. They have more dimensions than what can be expected in most horror movies, even though their performances aren’t exactly out of this world. Stephen Lang on the other hand is outstanding. The outside world doesn’t so much affect him, which is why he is so threatened when outsiders enter his domain. He is a formidable presence, and while he doesn’t say too much in the film, it’s all about his actions. Like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees before him, the blind man is a nearly unstoppable force that gives you the creeps whenever he’s onscreen. Lang really was the only choice for this character and he’s excellent.

It’s also worth mentioning that Don’t Breathe is just an artistically and technically well designed film. The cinematography is perfect, and some scenes had me really loving the look of the film. The lighting is very important to the tension of this movie and without it done just right, the movie probably wouldn’t have been as effective as it was. A lot of attention was also given to the sound, and rightfully so. A large part of this movie is focusing and becoming paranoid about any little sound that may give away the location to the blind man. Every little click and whisper is magnified, which adds a sense of distress that I felt as a viewer. One great scene had such a quiet explosion when one character steps on a squeaky floorboard. The sound and the visuals all go above and beyond.

Don’t Breathe is not only a great horror movie, it’s just a great movie in general. The performances, especially by Stephen Lang, all work very well and it’s just a very well put together movie. The idea of someone breaking into my house and invading my space is one of the most terrifying ideas to me, and seeing that idea completely flipped on its head was interesting and made for a unique time at the movies. I really want this movie to be remembered years from now, as it’s a prime example of how to properly craft a suspenseful horror film.

Final Grade: A

The Serpent and the Rainbow – Review

23 Jul

To fans of horror, Wes Craven is the equivalent of an Olympian god. I would normally say that that previous statement is a bit much, but I really can’t. Just look at his ridiculously influential body of work and compare it to anyone else working in the genre. There are some people who come close, but in my book, he’s the guy. While certainly showing his skill in the maniac killer/slasher format, he also showed his ability to work with fantasy with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and the topic of today’s review, The Serpent and the Rainbow.

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After returning from Haiti and recovering from a near death experience, Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is recruited by a pharmaceutical company to return to Haiti after they discovered a potion that seems to bring the dead back to life as zombies (not in the eat your brains kind of way either). Dr. Alan meets with a Haitian psychiatrist, Marielle (Cathy Tyson), and the two begin their investigation to procure this potion. What Alan doesn’t realize is that the captain of the Haitian secret police, Captain Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), is a practitioner in black magic, and will do anything in his power to keep Dr. Alan away from the potion, even if it means forcing him to face one of man’s most basic fears: being buried alive.

So, it’s been established that Wes Craven is a master of horror, but The Serpent and the Rainbow isn’t exactly a horror movie. There are definitely scenes that will freak you out, what with all of the weird voodoo images and the whole idea of being buried alive is enough to make anyone stifle a scream. What the movie is before any of that, though, is a mystery film with a lot of fantasy thrown into the mix. The whole plot is about Dr. Alan figuring out the mystery of the potion that brings people back to life, and his conflict between believing that the potion really is some sort of black magic, or if it just plays on the body’s biochemistry in a way that he doesn’t understand.

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The idea that this movie isn’t really a straight up horror movie may turn some people off to watching it, since that’s what you expect when you watch a Wes Craven movie. The horror aspects of this movie also feel very traditional. The most obvious comparison I can make for this movie is the 1943 film I Walked With a Zombie produced by another icon of horror, Val Lewton. Both have scenes of voodoo rituals and people being brought back to life as zombies, and in that same vein The Serpent and the Rainbow feels like an old fashioned horror film, even though it was produced in 1988.

What I mean by this is that it’s a film that doesn’t rely on scares to tell the story, unlike many horror movies both older and new. Even Craven’s film The Last House on the Left is told through a strictly horror point of view that heavily features rape and brutal violence in order to tell the story. This one has voodoo rituals involved and lots of blood, but it builds its story on suspense, taut pacing, and the curiosity of the mystery of the potion. That being said, another strong point of this movie is the eerie atmosphere which even brings a sociopolitical to the forefront since the story takes place in the midst of a Haitian revolution.

The Serpent and the Rainbow may not be the most effective film in Wes Craven’s filmography, but it is a memorable horror movie to say the least. I respect the way that the story is told through the eyes of mystery and suspense, but I also appreciate the scenes of genuine terror that are appropriately sprinkled throughout the rest of the movie. While I do say that this film is more of a fantasy and a mystery, I will also say that it is a genuine tale of horror that features themes of plot elements that I haven’t seen in a horror movie in years.

The Tenant – Review

17 Apr

Roman Polanski. How many times have I talked about him on this blog? While he has dabbled in a lot of different genres, I’ll always remember him for his psychological horror/thriller films. Starting with Repulsion in 1965, Polanski started a trilogy of horror films that dealt with psychological torture in urban environments, especially in apartments. He continued this work with his 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby, which is the most memorable of the three and is considered a horror classic. Finally, in 1978, Polanski ended the trilogy with the most enigmatic entry, The Tenant. I didn’t really expect a whole lot from this movie, considering the other two, but this proved to be the most difficult movie for me in the entire trilogy.

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Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a timid file clerk who defines the term “pushover” who is need of an apartment. As luck would have it, he finds a cheap one that has become vacant after the previous tenant committed suicide. After winning over the miserable landlord Monsieur Zy (Melvyn Douglas), Trelkovsky moves into the apartment and begins getting constantly hassled by his neighbors from all sides for his being too loud, dirty, or having people over. The hassling becomes so persistent and obscene that Trelkovsky begins to suspect that the other tenants are trying to drive him to suicide by slowly turning him into the deceased tenant. As the paranoia begins to mount and Trelkovsky’s sanity slips further and further, he soon finds himself becoming lost in the character that he fears is being created for him, and the line between reality and fearful hallucinations become less and less noticeable.

Let’s get it out of the way from the start. The Tenant is a super weird movie that made me question what I was looking at more than once. That’s not to say that the other two entries in the trilogy aren’t weird, but this one just goes off the walls bat shit insane. There’s plenty of positives to that which I’ll get to later, but I want to get passed the not so great stuff first. For one thing, the movie has no clear way to tell what is real and what is in Trelkovsky’s head, and that’s fine. What isn’t fine is that the ending neither reaffirms or denies anything that has been seen or heard. It simply doesn’t make sense, and only seems to be in the movie to make the viewer scratch their head in utter confusion. The movie also spends a lot of time not really doing anything, making it feel a lot slower and longer than it wants to be. But that’s really where my negatives end.

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I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about the state of so called horror movies these days, and its really hard to get away from that mindset after seeing a movie like this. This movie does exactly what a horror movie should do, and that is to create genuine fear, this time by using our fear of shit neighbors, letting other people bully you, and paranoia in the purest form. Where this movie succeeds is in its ability to frighten an audience without being loud. Delirious hallucinations in a run down bathroom and finding yourself spying on yourself is so twisted and weird that it succeeds in scaring more than any jump scare or spooky ghost. It’s a mental state that no one wants to live through, but how do you know you aren’t paranoid already? Confusion is more terrifying than something you can see.

There’s a lot of things that I should probably say about this movie, but after everything I’ve already said about, I don’t know how much more I can add. All I can say is that this movie is really, really weird and there’s plenty of scenes that really stick out in my head. That may actually be the strongest part of this movie, just how many memorable scenes there are and how original they seemed. The hieroglyphics in the bathroom and the tooth in the wall are just a few, not to mention a group of sadists playing with a human head in the courtyard.

While The Tenant certainly isn’t Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, it is still a film that shows how much he should be respected as a film maker. My only real gripe with the movie is the overly complicated ending and the amount of time spent doing nothing. Still, there are so many memorable and freaky scenes that it should be enough to create at least one restless night and things possibly hiding in the shadows. If you like horror films, this is a must see.