The first full week of October, predictably enough, brings a seasonal slew of horror-film classics (and cult classics, and not-so-classics) to movie screens everywhere, including Portland’s independent theaters. The big mainstream scares ostensibly come from the once-promising indie filmmaker David Gordon Green’s belated sequel The Exorcist: Believer, which intrigued me until I started reading the uniformly negative early reviews. (The film did not screen for critics in Portland.)
Still, there are vampires and demons and ghosts and lycanthropes and blobs and killer klowns aplenty to choose from. As much as I dig over-the-top terror, though, the most disturbing films are the ones that exploit all-too-real fears, and that reveal (and revel in) mundane, human-scale evil. That’s why I’d nominate the Australian import The Royal Hotel as the scariest movie opening this week.
It all starts innocuously enough. A pair of American—though they tell everyone they’re Canadian—backpackers travelling the world, Hanna (Julia Garner of Ozark) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), take a job at a ramshackle pub in the remote Australian outback near a coal mine to earn some much-needed cash. What could go wrong?
Well, basically everything you would expect. At first, the isolation and alienation of being two young women in a bar full of dusty, drunk, uncouth men night after night is about what Hanna and Liv probably expected. But slowly and subtly, rustic gregariousness shifts into unveiled misogyny and thinly veiled threats of violence. The bickering between bar owner Billy (a crusty, bearded Hugo Weaving) and his long-suffering wife (Ursula Yovich) becomes more and more evidently dysfunctional. And a trio of regular customers, miners covered in dust and menace, slowly erode the thin veneer of civilization.
Hanna, more suspicious from the start, tries to restrain Liv from leaning into the hedonistic, nearly nihilistic vibe of the place. We’re not told much about the pair’s prior relationship, but the circumstances create a rift in whatever friendship they had, leaving Hanna alone to plot her escape and, eventually, her survival.
Director Kitty Green’s previous film, The Apprentice, also starred Garner as a woman dealing with an environment of inescapable, growing misogyny. She’s adept at ratcheting up the tension subtly enough to almost make Liv’s “boys being boys” attitude seem plausible. Once it’s fully ratcheted, Green struggles to come up with a satisfying resolution, but that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise compelling ride.
The film that The Royal Hotel reminded me most of was the 1974 Australian thriller Wake in Fright, another tale of a naïve outsider venturing into the dusty heart of darkness that covers most of the country. Having seen both of these movies, I’d rather enter a haunted graveyard, a Transylvanian castle, or the jaws of Hell itself than spend a weekend in the Outback. (Opens Friday at Living Room Theaters, Salem Cinema, and Regal Bridgeport Village)
ALSO OPENING FRIDAY:
She Came to Me: The latest from writer-director Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis) is a curious blend of madcap rom-com and magical realism that, despite a talented and effective cast, never quite meshes into a whole. Peter Dinklage, in bearded-creative mode, plays an opera composer struggling to finish his latest work. In a perfectly random series of events, he meets Marisa Tomei’s tugboat operator and has a spur-of-the moment tryst. Keeping this from Anne Hathaway, as his tightly-wound psychiatrist wife, he uses the encounter as the creative spark he needed. Meanwhile, Dinklage and Hathaway’s teenaged son is in love with the daughter of Hathaway’s immigrant housecleaner. And that daughter’s stepfather is a self-righteous court stenographer who participates in Civil War re-enactments (on whichever side is short a guy).
This conglomeration of character traits and subplots never congeals, despite Tomei’s impressive efforts to make her blue-collar manic pixie dream girl into a three-dimensional character. There are moments that work, but too much of Miller’s first feature in eight years feels, I hate to say, like aimless, late-period Woody Allen. (Opens Friday at Regal Fox Tower)
The Sticker Movie: Hey, it’s not every day (or week or month) Portland hosts the world premiere of a film. So it’s a real relief that this energetic, punk-fueled documentary is such a pleasure. Taking a global view of the subculture of sticker art: i.e., all those cryptic decals you see on traffic signs, lampposts, dumpsters and almost any other urban surface. Including (often anonymous) interviews with the guerrilla artists, including Shepard Fairey, who make, and apply, these “bite-sized symbols of civil disobedience,” it’s an eye-opening look at an art form too often dismissed as mere visual clutter. (Cinemagic, through Sunday)
Pedro Almodóvar: Two Short Films: The Spanish icon’s new half-hour effort, A Strange Way of Life, starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal as a pair of estranged cowboys, is paired with his 2020 short The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton, and a 30-minute interview with the director. (Cinema 21)
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe: A somewhat under-the-radar adaptation of the best-selling young-adult novel by Benjamin Alire Saenz about two Mexican-American teenage boys growing up in 1987 El Paso, Texas. (Salem Cinema)
When Evil Lurks: A man arrives in a remote village and gives birth to a horrific demon in this intense Argentine horror film. (Broadway Metro in Eugene)
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE
- Denis Villeneuve’s masterful science fiction allegory Arrival (5th Avenue Cinemas, through Sunday)
- Camp classic (and sequel-in-name-only) Food of the Gods II (Cinemagic, on VHS)
- Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie star in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (Clinton)
- Coulrophobes beware: Killer Klowns from Outer Space have arrived! (Academy, through Thursday)
- The documentary Las Abogadas, which profiles a South Asian immigration lawyer, screens to kick off Eugene’s first South Asian Arts and Culture Festival: DesiFest Eugene (Eugene Art House)
- A classic Universal monster gets his origin in 1941’s The Wolf Man (Academy, through Thursday)
- Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake of The Blob (Cinemagic, also Sunday & Wednesday)
- An encore presentation of the delightful documentary History, Mystery, & Odyssey: Six Portland Animators (Cinema 21)
- Octavia Spencer stars in Ma (Clinton)
- Nicolas Cage goes full Nic Cage in Mandy (Clinton)
- Programmer Eliot Lavine kicks off a five-week tribute to Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro with their first collaboration, Mean Streets (Cinema 21, 11 am)
- The Beatles’ catalog gets a trippy update courtesy of Julie Taymor in 2007’s Across the Universe (Cinemagic, 1:00 p.m.)
- The story of Tamara Mark, an actress and dancer who became a leading autism activist while raising her two nonverbal autistic sons, is told in the powerful documentary Beyond (Cinema 21)
- Georges Franju’s Classic French horror Eyes without a Face (Clinton)
- Natassja Kinski in Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People (Clinton)
- Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River (Cinemagic)
- Nicole Kidman stars in Alejandro Amenabar’s neo-classic chiller The Others (Hollywood, through Thursday)
- Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle star in director Antonia Bird’s marvelous mishmash of cannibalism, vampires, and revisionist Western history, Ravenous (Hollywood, in 35mm)
- Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (Kiggins)
- 1980s horror-comedy at its campiest in Terrorvision (Clinton)
- Malcolm McDowell plays a stranger who just needs to use the phone in the 1987 two-character thriller The Caller (Cinemagic); Church of Film presents the stylish 1982 Czech bloodsucking-car flick Ferat Vampire (Clinton)
- Kung Fu Theater gets in the seasonal spirit with Seven Brothers Meet Dracula (Hollywood, 35mm)
- Natasha Lyonne and Bud Cort star in Jamie Babbitt’s ahead-of-its-time 1999 queer comedy But I’m a Cheerleader (Cinemagic)
- Tony Todd is the O.G. 1992 Candyman (Hollywood)
- The unique perspective of Black people in the psychedelic community is explored in the documentary A Table of Our Own (Cinema 21)
- An amazing opportunity to see the first 35mm feature ever shot in American Sign Language, Deafula, being screened in Portland for the first time in nearly 50 years (Hollywood, in 16mm)
- Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm (Clinton)
- The first feature length horror film ever made adapted Dante’s L’Inferno, and screens here with a live score from the nationally renowned Montopolis. This should be an amazing evening. (Cinema 21, also Friday, Oct. 13 at Eugene Art House)
- The original zom-com, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead (Hollywood)
- Tom Hanks’ first leading-man role comes opposite Daryl Hannah’s mermaid in 1982’s Splash! (Cinemagic)