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Nothing's CHEERY, Nothing's BRIGHT

Two tales detail the cost(s) of survival

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Now out on Netflix are two unusual films dealing with two familiar and popular genres—post-apocalypse and horror. From Northern Ireland comes The Survivalist (2015), a bleak but powerful drama about an unlikely trio trying to make it through a futuristic nightmare. Australian director Zac Hilditch shows another kind of nightmare, turning to the past in 1922 (2017), adapted from one of four novellas in Stephen King’s 2010 collection, Full Dark, No Stars.

In The Survivalist, his first feature film, writer/director Stephen Fingleton borrows a familiar trope from earlier sci-fi films, like Cornel Wilde’s No Blade of Grass (’70), to fashion a minimalist but quite effective vision of the cost of survival. After a brief prologue linking the decline of civilization to an oil shortage, the movie cuts to a forest scene and the activities of an unnamed man (Martin McCann) trying to eke a living from Nature, not quite the Mother she used to be.

Living in an isolated cabin, the man is forced to use his bodily excretions for fertilizer. Dead bodies are also valuable for compost. Though the woods seem fertile enough in themselves (there is a stark poetry in the cinematography by Damien Elliott), the man has little success finding food, especially small game.

His routine and existence are drastically changed when two bedraggled strangers arrive. Kathryn (Olwen Fouere), a white-haired mother, and daughter Milja (Mia Goth). At first reluctant to share even a scant meal with them, the man eventually lets them share his cabin, it being understood that the girl will also share his bed. The mother is compliant, asking only that he not impregnate the girl.

The film’s second half follows the building tensions as Milja is forced to choose between her mother and her protector. Outside dangers escalate: human scavengers lurk, as ruthless and desperate as the tenuous threesome.

Though it’s graphic and explicit in sex and violence, The Survivalist is grim and rather unrelenting, yet decidedly not exploitative. Fingleton’s spare script is well-served by equally lean performances by the three leads. Goth is the most familiar face to American audiences from her roles in Everest and A Cure for Wellness. She’s also frequent tabloid fodder; she’s had a longtime romance with Shia LaBeouf, whom she may or may not have married last year.

Just as grim though far more traditional in its exposition, 1922 is director Zac Hilditch’s follow-up to ’13’s superb apocalyptic thriller These Final Days. The new movie is curious enough in its own way; it’s the third novella in King’s Full Dark to be adapted for film.

A tale of supernatural vengeance, 1992 opens with haggard, middle-aged Wilfred James (an almost unrecognizable Thomas Jane) moving into a lonely hotel room where he begins to write his confession about murdering his wife and what happened afterward.

Wilfred, his wife Arlette (Molly Parker), and their teen son Henry (Dylan Schmid) live on a remote Midwest farm. Father and son are happy with their lives and the daily drudge of farmwork, but Arlette wants to sell the land and move to the big city.

In short order, Wilfred sees no other option than to kill her—his son a reluctant but ultimately willing accessory. Though the two get away with a perfect murder, the crime exacts terrible tolls on each.

Zac Hilditch provided the script, mostly preserving the integrity of King’s original narrative with one big exception that readers might not like but will probably appeal to viewers.

The film has a great visual sense, adeptly capturing the period and time which is crucial to the plot. Thomas Jane, who was the original Punisher as well as the star of King’s The Mist, looks every bit the Midwest farmer of the 1920s, gaunt and worn by life. It’s an extremely unglamorous role which he makes totally credible. The same goes for Canadian actress Parker (House of Cards), whose character has the added distinction of being unlikable.

While neither film is exactly cheery holiday fare, The Survivalist and 1922 will suit viewers who like their sci-fi and horror grim and realistic.

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