Is Tony Maylam’s “The Burning” a dead teenager horror film at all, or an ambitious homage to giallo masquerading as a slasher? The possibility occupied my brain while the material on screen lumbered along slowly and conventionally, positioning itself for a checklist of obligatory sequences that we come to expect of genre vehicles. The key difference is slight yet noteworthy: instead of recycling the sort of artificial showmanship that usually informed most of the violence in the early horror franchises, the movie creates a rather convincing aesthetic of gore, right down to the gaping wounds in a neck and the severing of someone’s fingers. The blood, meanwhile, splatters in the same ambitious fashion usually seen in the films of Mario Bava, who often used it more like a substance for a paintbrush. Where does an otherwise aimless descent into superficial formula staples get the gall to be so painstaking about its own visuals? Or the patience, for that matter? Maylam’s benefit may be that he, unlike any number of stand-in cameramen pretending to be legitimate filmmakers in that time, took the time to study up on his peers in order to best them at their own routine.
In theory “It: Chapter Two” ought to be a straightforward document about a monster’s final encounter with seven surviving teenagers destined to destroy him, but in truth it’s more about the pain of buried memories – about how grief and torment have been so great that survivors have placed protective barriers over their recollections, even as they are forced to relive them in order to understand their relevance in the present. Not 10 minutes into this long-awaited sequel and the distinction is firmly established: as the members of the Losers Club gather after 27 years of life experiences away from the horrors of their childhood, they discover a great significance in drifting consciously into flashbacks, as if peering through photographs that conceal necessary answers. Clues and perspectives rush to them in a torrent of emotion, arming them with what will turn out to be the right defenses to conquer their lifelong enemy. But who is the real barrier here: a menacing clown that feasts on defenseless loners, or the unresolved fears they have suppressed for nearly three decades? It is part of the skill of a good horror movie to reflect on its subjects throughout any ordeal thrown at them, and much like its predecessor, the new film is a well-made attempt to dissect the nightmares that come with being young and impressionable in a world riddled with cruelties.
Ten convicts. One game. Nine must die. The victor walks free. This isn’t an inherently flawed plot description if viewed through the lens of a well-intentioned eye, but the offense that is “The Condemned” exploits it for nothing more than lurid, gut-crushing violence – and in the process becomes one of the most deplorable moviegoing experiences of my life. The very idea of describing these scenes fills me with a dread I rarely recognize – you know, the sort that comes rising from the pit of your stomach when you’re in the throes of danger, or about to witness something causing agony or pain to another? If that’s just a taste of what is possible, then imagine what the poor suckers involved in the movie were thinking. Did they connect with this idea in any substantial way beyond their monetary greed? Was it sold to them as a sincere attempt at understanding our perverse voyeurism? Or were they all part of an elaborate joke being played on the victims known as the audience? I mourned their innocence just as much as they must have wept over the decimation of their careers. Towards the end, a single character stares angrily in the direction of the source of chaos, and he asks scornfully, “are you really trying to save them?” “No,” she retorts, “I was trying to save you.” How strangely comical it must have been for anyone to utter those words in the same room as a director and writer who ought to have seen them as self-reflective.