ITHACA, NY -- Horror movies, like comedies, depend a great deal on the element of surprise. This makes the really effective ones difficult to write about, because it spoils the surprise. Boasting a truly audacious script by first-time directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, “Antebellum” (QC Entertainment and Lionsgate, 106 mins., 2020) is right in line with the current wave of racial horror like “Get Out” and “Us.” It’s one of the scariest movies of the year, not because of excessive gore but because it shoves our faces into some of the worst aspects of American life and brings up ugly issues that are still plaguing the country.
Janelle Monáe stars in the film as one of many black slaves on a Southern plantation. It’s all “Gone With The Wind” imagery shot below the Mason-Dixon line. At first, we assume that this is going to be a period piece, but as the slaves are picking cotton, one of them looks up and sees a plane flying overhead, and then goes back to picking cotton. So where are we? When are we? And what’s going on here?
For the sake of the film’s power, that’s all the plot that I’m giving up. This is strong, upsetting stuff. All I can say is that what seems exploitative actually finds some kind of catharsis that we all use as we go forward.
Okay, so Halloween was almost a month ago, but it’s always Halloween around my house. So I don’t think you’ll mind me recommending “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting” (Netflix, Montecito Picture Company and Walden Media, 94 min., 2020). Written by Joe Ballarini and based on his three-part YA book trilogy, “ABGTMH” is all about Kelly Ferguson (Tamara Smart), a clever, plucky, high school-aged babysitter on a mission to find the child in her care who has been kidnapped by the Boogeyman on Halloween night.
“Labyrinth” meets “Harry Potter” meets “Mission: Impossible” as it turns out there’s a secret society of other teen ‘sitters who monitor the activities of all kinds of monsters here on Earth. Oona Laurence is particularly good as Liz LeRue, the agent who brings Kelly into the group. The whole thing is directed with lots of action and humor by Rachel Talalay, who was helming female-driven movies like “Tank Girl” (1995) long before “Wonder Woman” and “Aeon Flux” and “Tomb Raider.”
Speaking of “Harry Potter,” Daniel Radcliffe stars with Daniel Webber (“11.22.63”) in “Escape From Pretoria” (South Australian Film Corporation, 106 min., 2020), a film based on 2003 book “Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison” by Tim Jenkin (Radcliffe) about the actual prison escape by three political prisoners in South Africa in 1979. Webber plays Stephen Lee. Both men were basically railroaded for protest-based stunts that took no human lives, and the film tracks their evolving plan to get out of jail.
It’s odd that the heist movie and the prison-break movie share so many traits, but they do. What makes “Escape From Pretoria” such a straightforward nail-biter is watching Radcliffe and Webber figure out how to whittle wooden keys that matched the guards’ keys. This is lean, efficient thriller stuff with political undertones. BVC says: check it out.