Quick Takes: Shirley, Blood Machines, House In Between, Defending Jacob

Shirley is an atmospheric & engrossing study of the creative process & the monsters created in its wake. Moss is brilliantly unhinged as the pioneering #horror writer, Shirley Jackson who wrote The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery. Her provocative, seething resentment is palpable, and she is often shot in extreme close-ups with handheld cameras that add a shaky, restless energy. The film distills the dizzying madness to a singular, urgent message: "The world is too cruel to girls."

Blood Machines roars to life in a visionary spectacle that defies sci-fi & horror conventions & boldly goes forward. At a scant 40-45 minutes (& inexplicably split into three episodes by Shudder?), the pulsing synth leaves you breathless & yearning for more despite the frayed optical nerves & itchy brain stem. The perfunctory performances are almost nonessential given the conceptual nature but still its weakest link. More importantly, the gender politics give me pause, as men are ignorant buffoons but the females are all demonic ghosts within the machine – and naked. It’s a French production, so salacious sexual subtext is expected, but is this the point?

The House In Between has balls, and I will admit that I was impressed by them. Beyond that, it's clear the filmmakers don't fully grasp the structure needed to sustain a feature documentary. Specifically, this would be a multi-faceted subject, a distinct point of view, some level of education on the subject, and the ability to produce a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end. This felt more like an extended episode of a ghost hunting show without any kind of resolution. The more compelling questions were not asked: Why does this happen in small town America? What is the fascination with ghosts and ghost hunting? Why is this home owner so intent on reaching out to the media and what is her story? Ultimately, it struggles for relevancy, repeats itself, and runs out of ideas.

Defending Jacob is a tightly-paced and somber family tragedy with stellar performances that add gravitas to even the most melodramatic moments. Jaden Martell really shines in an understated performance that is both sadly endearing AND unquestionably insidious. Every moment with him is complex and excruciating. I also couldn’t believe how each episode added at least one significant reveal and yet maintained the overall mystery. This is a solid, remarkable thriller with a bleak, dark heart and at only 8 episodes is still feels a bit too long.