Horror News Network’s Winter 2020 Movie Preview

by Nick Banks

After a lackluster fall, it appears that the offerings for horror fans in the coldest months of the year will be more robust with eight films being released in the genre over the course of two months.  As usual, the choices range from recognizable re-makes (The Grudge), long-delayed releases (The Turning, Brahms: The Boy II), and some odd horror re-imaginings (Gretel and Hansel, Fantasy Island).

The Grudge (January 3):  The Sam Raimi produced remake of 2004’s The Grudge (based on 2002’s Japanese import Ju-On) arrives almost six months later than its originally scheduled June of 2019 release date.   The fact that The Grudge moved from the busy summer season to the first weekend of the new year could raise some red flags, but Sony may also have made a shrewd decision to go after a horror audience that didn’t get much attention in the fall.  Sony may also be hoping for a similar outcome to last year’s Escape Room, which surprised the industry with a strong showing at the box office (making almost $100 million world wide) which was also released in the first weekend in January.

Director Nicolas Pesce (best known for the well-reviewed The Eyes of My Mother) leads a veteran cast including Lin Shaye, John Cho, Demián Bichir, Andrea Riseborough, and William Sadler through a decidedly more bloody version of The Grudge (if the trailer and MPAA description holds true).  Will audiences be prepared for a hard-R horror film (similar to the Fede Alvarez remake of Raimi’s Evil Dead) right out of the holiday season?  Possibly the bigger question to ask is will a young generation of horror fans respond to the reinvention of a early 2000’s film?  Horror remakes have not fared well over the past few years, but The Grudge still carries a lot of name recognition (and recognizable imagery for the meme generation).

Underwater (January 10):  Do you like Aliens?  Giant denizens of the deep?  Kristen Stewart of Twilight Fame?  If so, Underwater may be the film to kick off your horror year with.

Director  William Eubank’s (2014’s The Signal) take on submerged action/horror with a PG-13 bent towards safe, yet scary thrills, does remind many of similar films that probably do it better, but the young cast (Stewart, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick) and premise is an easy one to sell to the targeted sci-fi/horror audience.  Shark films have preformed well in recent years and Alexandre Aja’s Crawl outperformed summer expectations, but will the same audiences sign up for more “unrealistic” creatures and situations?  The film will be distributed by Disney’s latest purchase, Twentieth Century Fox, so expect high production values with teen-friendly jump scares.  Underwater’s arrival one week after Sony’s The Grudge may prove problematic for the sustained success of the creepy R-rated production, more than the prolonged success of Stewart’s deep dive into the unknown.

The Turning (January 24):  As has been the case with a number of this winter’s releases (The Grudge, The Lodge, Brahms: The Boy II), The Turning has had a long and winding road to the big screen.  The film was originally scheduled to be released on February 22, 2019, and will arrive more than eleven months late.  Reasons for the delay are unclear, but delays this long do not usually end with a positive result.

Be that as it may, The Turning is another modernization of Henry James classic haunted house tale, The Turn of the Screw (Mike Flanagan will be bringing his version of the 1898 novella to Netflix next year as well, entitled The Haunting of Bly Manor).  The film stars Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, and Joely Richardson and is directed by Floria Sigismondi.  The director has an impressive music video and television resume and viewers will see what Sigismondi can do with a full length feature.  The inclusion of Stranger Things star Wolfhard can’t hurt the marketing prospects of the film (especially to the young fans of Mike Wheeler), but The Turning may have missed their window of opportunity to capture the interests of an ever more fickle movie-going audience.

Gretel & Hansel (January 31):  Grimm’s Fairy Tales have always been the source of nightmares for the young readers who discover them on dark nights before bedtime, but will modern audiences respond to a film based on the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel?  The trailer has drawn a lot of interest online (and was strategically positioned with It: Chapter 2 this past fall) and currently has 10.5 million views on Youtube.  While this doesn’t always translate to ticket sales (Slender Man anyone?), it can help separate a film aimed at young adult audiences in a packed month of similar releases.

Director Oz Perkins has been making a name for himself based on the strength of his two indie horror releases, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and Netflix’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House.  Earlier in the year, Perkins described his take on a classic fairly tale to EW, stating that”It’s awfully faithful to the original story. It’s got really only three principal characters: Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch. We tried to find a way to make it more of a coming of age story.  I wanted Gretel to be somewhat older than Hansel, so it didn’t feel like two twelve-year-olds – rather a sixteen-year-old and an eight-year-old.  There was more of a feeling like Gretel having to take Hansel around everywhere she goes, and how that can impede one’s own evolution, how our attachments and the things that we love can sometimes get in the way of our growth.”

Star Sophia Lillis takes over the role of a very protective Gretel and she is joined by co-star Sammy Leakey as the hungry brother, Hansel.  Alice Krige portrays the requisite witch and her sick hunger is prominently featured in the trailer.  Gretel and Hansel does have the chance to play like The Witch for the PG-13 set (and the visuals seem to borrow heavily from Robert Eggers’ masterpiece).

The Lodge (February 7):  The Lodge enters the marketplace as the film with the most critical adoration and buzz…even though it debuted at Sundance over a year ago.  Due to the showing at Sundance, The Lodge already has a Rotten Tomatoes score (with 43 reviews counting towards a strong 81% fresh) and the yearly proclamations that “insert title here” is the new scariest film on the block.

The Lodge is directed by the tandem of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala and boasts an impressive cast, featuring Riley Keough, Richard Armitage, Jaeden Martell, and Lia McHugh.  The basic plot revolves around a new stepmom trying to connect with some very oppositional children in a secluded, frozen cottage.  Like most of Neon’s releases (or A24 for that matter), the film may not be for everyone, and it won’t be directed at the tween audiences that most of the films in January are targeting.

The Lodge seems to follow the trend established by Ari Aster’s Hereditary, offering a mix of family drama and scares, and it will likely appeal to indie horror fans searching for more than cheap effects, but we have been fooled by “high brow” horror before and like most of the release this season, The Lodge was previously scheduled to be released in November.  Hopefully, The Lodge will deliver the story and frights for discerning horror fans this winter.

Fantasy Island (February 14):  Fantasy Island was a staple of television in the late 1970’s that somehow remained on the air until  1984.  Even if you’ve never seen an episode of the series, everyone remembers the suave Ricardo Montalban and his diminutive assistant Tattoo (played by Hervé Villechaize) informing his boss of the arrival of new guests to the island by screaming “Da Plane, Da Plane!!”

While the characters and stereotypes may not have aged too well, Hollywood is always ready to reboot a property that has any name recognition left.  What is more surprising is that any executive thought turning Fantasy Island into a teen horror film was a good idea.  The target audience has zero name recognition of Fantasy Island and older fans (are there any fans of this series?) would never expect their Saturday television program to feature screaming, scantily-clad teens.

The Blumhouse film stars Michael Peña (as the new Mr. Roarke), Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Portia Doubleday, Jimmy O. Yang, Ryan Hansen, and horror vet Michael Rooker.  The director of Fantasy Island is Jeff Wadlow, known for such low budget fare as Cry WolfNever Back DownKick-Ass 2,  Truth or Dare, and the inexplicable Youtube Red series, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television.  Wadlow is used to working on similar properties, although this one has proven problematic, with principal photography wrapping in January 2019, followed by reshoots in July 2019.  Dave Bautista was in talks to appear in the film, but it now looks like the former wrestler and current Drax will not be visiting the island.

Fantasy Island did move up its release by a few weeks, landing on Valentine’s Day, bucking the trend of the rest of the films this winter in terms of delays.  Hopefully that’s a good sign, but we’ll have to wait and see how this plane lands.

Brahms: The Boy II (February 21):  Speaking of delays, no film this season has been delayed more than the sequel to 2016’s The Boy, Brahms: the Boy II.  The film was previously scheduled to be released on July 26, 2019, and December 6, 2019, before finally (we think) settling on its current position on the calendar.

The Boy II stars Katie Holmes, Ralph Ineson, Owain Yeoman, and Christopher Convery and director William Brent Bell returns for the sequel.  Bell is best known for The Devil Inside, one of the worst reviewed films of the decade, but also one that grossed $100 million worldwide.  The original Boy fared slightly better with critics and also turned a profit ($68 million worldwide), so Bell can deliver ticket sales (even with sub-par material).

Creepy doll stories do seem to do well with viewers, but the cinematic landscape in 2020 is much different than it was in 2016, as fans seem to only show up for the biggest of blockbusters.  Only one film from last year’s list of top ten highest grossing horror films was released in January or February (January’s disappointing Hellboy reboot) and with an already saturated horror market, Brahms may have a hard time capitalizing on the success it had three years ago.  More problematic is the fact that Brahms still has no official trailer, which may point to yet another release schedule move, or a quick shuffling to one of many streaming services.  In lieu of a trailer, enjoy this serene still shot from the upcoming film below.

The Invisible Man (February 28):  Remember when Universal attempted to create their very own shared universe centered around the classic monsters? Before Tom Cruise’s The Mummy officially ended any possibility of a Marvel-style “Dark Universe”, The Invisible Man was one of the most rumored about films back in 2016, with Johnny Depp circling the title role.

When the bottom fell out, Universal and Blumhouse announced a very different approach to the classic monster characters.  This approach would focus on smaller budgets and more “character driven” (read as much less money for CGI effects) films, and no shared universe.  This time around, The Invisible Man is directed by horror stalwart Leigh Whannell and will reportedly be a very loose modern adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel and  James Whale’s 1933 film of the same name. 2020’s version stars Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid and Harriet Dyer.

Reactions to the trailer have been mixed and The Invisible Man finds itself in the unenviable position somewhere between fans of the classic that may balk at a modern reinvention and younger audiences that do not have a reference point for the character or film history.  As the last horror film of the winter season, it may be able to capitalize on the reduced competition, but the reception will depend a great deal on positive word-of-mouth and buzz or else ticket sales may also disappear quickly.

Be sure to come back to Horror News Network for reviews of many of this winter season’s releases.

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