By Alex McPherson

A disturbing and technically accomplished horror film, director Robert Morgan’s “Stopmotion” packs its imaginative ideas into a frustratingly predictable template.

Viewers follow Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi), daughter of famed stop motion animator Suzanne (Stella Gonet). Suzanne, elderly and experiencing arthritis, can’t complete her final project on her own —  so she forces Ella to mold grotesque miniatures and set up shots under her overbearing gaze.

Ella is berated for every mistake and unable to embrace her independence, personally or creatively. Any attempt at expressing herself is shot down, and Ella’s toxic relationship with Suzanne has instilled a sense of deep insecurity about her own abilities as a storyteller and as a human being in general.

Early on, Suzanne suffers a stroke, which sends her to the hospital, and Ella is tasked with finishing the film (a symbolic story featuring an ill-fated cyclops) on her own. Her caring but clueless musician boyfriend, Tom (Tom York), who’s seemingly unaware of Ella’s deep-seated trauma, helps Ella find an abandoned studio apartment, and she attempts to finish production. 

She meets a mysterious, unnamed little girl next door (Caoilinn Springall), who expresses immediate fascination with stop motion animation but calls Ella’s current project “boring.” She proceeds to feed Ella a new story of a girl being chased through the woods by an amorphous “Ash Man” and pushes Ella to incorporate out-of-the-box materials for the characters — from raw meat to mortician’s wax and roadkill. Ella, continuing to feel as if she has no agency of her own, complies with Little Girl’s requests, all while experiencing visions of her gnarly stop motion creations coming to life in the real world, the Ash Man stalking her not unlike her heroine.

Tom and his sister Polly (Therica Wilson-Read), who also happens to be a professional stop motion animator for commercials, grow increasingly concerned over Ella’s declining mental health, but their efforts do little to prevent her slide into madness. Ella’s desire to create art is poisoned by trauma, repression, and self-loathing; a liberating and self-destructive force that she both controls and is controlled by.

With meaty (pun intended) ideas like this, and visual effects that never fail to unsettle, it’s disappointing that “Stopmotion” is so conventional in its narrative beats. Underwritten characters and a rushed setup hold it back from connecting on a deeper emotional level, neglecting to make the most of a committed performance by Franciosi and a tragic story that deserves an approach less beholden to tropes.

Morgan, a stop motion animator himself who previously directed short films, nevertheless has a striking voice in his feature-film debut, exploring the potentially destructive depths of his craft. Indeed, “Stopmotion” is a sensory treat, greatly enhanced by evocative mood-setting, crunchy sound effects, and Dan Martin’s outstanding creature effects work — seamlessly melding the real with the imagined as Ella’s sanity crumbles before our eyes and blood flows to a copious degree. Aurora Vögeli’s patient, at times hypnotic editing, combined with Léo Hinstin’s cinematography, contribute to a hazy disorientation, which the film maintains from beginning to end, catching us off guard with bursts of gory violence and off-brand arts and crafts.

Franciosi, too, is stellar, lending Ella tangible sadness, frustration, and volatility with her eyes and body language alone, far more effectively than the occasionally awkward screenplay by Morgan and Robin King. Ella is a damaged soul, traumatized and beholden to an artistic calling, driven mad by a desire to prove herself and “take control” of her own life, regardless of those she harms along the way. 

Springall effectively brings her alternately chilling and annoying character to life, guiding Ella down a path towards her base impulses for violence and repressed rage, encouraging Ella to succumb to her demons rather than craft a new narrative for herself and her fleshy armatures. After all, as Little Girl explains, “All good artists put themselves into their work.”

Ultimately, however, Ella’s deterioration is rendered less involving than it should be. Some of this is due to the flatness of supporting characters like Tom and Polly, who embody archetypes (the supportive yet emotionally immature boyfriend, the seemingly friendly back-stabber) that are both shallow and dull in comparison to our tormented protagonist, as is Suzanne — a villain painted in broad strokes. 

This contributes to a general lack of grounding and tangible stakes throughout “Stopmotion” that, combined with the one-note depiction of Suzanne and Ella’s relationship to begin with, makes Ella’s de-evolution less poignant than inevitable and schematic, no matter the film’s niche framing.

Sure, there’s plenty of memorably icky set-pieces and stylistic flourishes, but “Stopmotion” can’t escape a prevailing sense of predictability — any surprising or thought-provoking topics the film broaches are in service of a central arc that’s foreseeable from the outset. 

Perhaps that’s acceptable; this is a horror film, after all, with an obvious appreciation for body horror and pessimism about humanity, but Morgan’s film misses an opportunity to go beyond surface shocks to leave a lasting impression once the credits roll.

Formulaic though it often is,  “Stopmotion” still promises great things to come from the filmmaker in the future, if style and substance can be melded into a whole that truly comes to life.

“Stopmotion” is a 2023 British animation horror film directed by Robert Morgan and starring Aisling Franciosi, Tom York, Stella Gonet, Therica Wilson-Reed, and Caolinn Springall. It is rated R for violent/disturbing content, gore, some language, sexual material and brief drug material, and the runtime is 93 minutes. It opened in select theaters in the U.S. on Feb. 23, and will be available on video on demand March 15, with the digital release expected to be available on major platforms like Apple TV, YouTube Movies, and Vudu. IFC purchased the film and will likely stream it on Shudder in a few months. Alex’s Grade: B-

By Alex McPherson

Clunky and formulaic, but kept afloat by gripping performances and a vicious mean streak, director Andre Øvredal’s “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is a fun albeit insubstantial vampiric bloodbath on the high seas.

Inspired from a single chapter of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula titled “The Captain’s Log” and framed via flashback in epistolary fashion, “Demeter” recounts a grim tale of Count Dracula’s voyage from the Carpathian Mountains to London. He wreaks havoc upon a crew of hapless sailors who have absolutely no idea what they’re in for on an otherwise routine cargo-transporting trip across the Aegean.

Among the crew is Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham of “Game of Thrones” fame), an aged shipman embarking on one last assignment before leaving his seafaring days behind him; his curious, enthusiastic grandson, Toby (Woody Norman); the severe First Mate, Wojchek (David Dastmalchian, mostly one-note with some shoddy ADR); an earnest, Cambridge-educated physician named Clemens (Corey Hawkins); the ship’s superstitious cook, Joseph (Jon Jon Briones); plus a foursome of sailors (Chris Walley, Stefan Kapicic, Martin Fururland, and Nikolai Nikolaeff) who, not by the actors’ faults, don’t have much time to distinguish themselves. There’s also a strange woman aboard who rolls out of a crate, Anna (Aisling Franciosi), who’s lost plenty of blood but is able to hold her own as a confident badass. 

Oh, Dracula (Javier Botet) is aboard, skulking in the darkness and picking off unfortunate chaps in swift, jump-scare-laden attacks. It’s a battle for survival on the Demeter, as the crew try to vanquish the devil in their midst and make it to London alive before Dracula makes an all-you-can-drink buffet of their innards.

Javier Botet is Dracula

With hints of “Alien” and “The Thing,” “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” has the potential to be a taut, claustrophobic thrill ride with a horror icon uncaged. Unfortunately, Øvredal’s film doesn’t fully capitalize on its premise; rushed editing and trope-heavy frights hold it back, leaving its talented ensemble (especially Hawkins) to do the heavy-lifting, with reminders of a more emotional, immersive experience that could have been.

The ingredients are seemingly all there for a horror knockout: detailed production design, a claustrophobic atmosphere, committed actors putting in their all, and the opportunity to witness Dracula unleashing carnage on a fateful oceanic voyage — screams echoing through the ship’s winding corridors and stairways as waves crash against the hull under the cover of darkness.

Whether or not due to studio interference, however, “Demeter” refuses to slow down enough to allow its characters to develop, or allow its promising atmosphere to seep into viewers’ bones, turning the unpredictable to predictable through generic staging and framing.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t spend more time fleshing out its characters (both human and vampiric) early on, as most are reduced to archetypes that, despite some colorful dialogue by Bragi Schut Jr. weaving in occasional dark humor, feel like a missed opportunity for more stakes and dramatic depth. Hawkins, Cunningham, and Franciosi are the standouts — bringing pathos and groundedness to their characters that the screenplay only fitfully provides.

Hawkins, in particular, brings a fierce rage, compassion, and courageousness to Clemens that leads to some poignant moments as the body count rises. Denied opportunities because of the color of his skin and underestimated by his peers — Wojchek reeks of prejudice — Clemens seeks to make sense of the world, encountering a creature that’s the ultimate test of his resolve as literal Evil incarnate.

Corey Hawkins as Clemens in The Last Voyage of the Demeter, directed by André Øvredal.

The film’s attempts to weave these themes into the narrative are heavy-handed, for sure, yet driven home by Hawkin’s commanding screen presence. Cunningham, to a lesser extent, conveys the Demeter’s world-weary Captain with tangible sadness, while Franciosi shines as a wronged heroine eager to fight back against fate.

Dracula himself, as portrayed by Botet, is creepily rendered as the spindly, lightning-fast creature — undergoing physical transformations over the runtime that present new challenges for the sailors to contend with — but is otherwise reduced to a fairly standard movie monster, put in repetitive situations where viewers well-versed in horror rhythms will know beat-for-beat when he shows up to chow down on whichever unlucky sap is in his sights. 

Indeed, it’s a shame that Øvredal doesn’t put Dracula in more creative situations to torment the sailors, or take full advantage of the vessel’s enclosed spaces to ratchet up paranoia and suspense, although Tom Stern’s cinematography adds some stylistic flair though dutch angles and bird’s-eye-view shots that emphasize the feeling of always being watched.

The scare-factor is further lessened by Øvredal’s decision to show Dracula early on breaking from the crew’s perspectives to give away what they’re up against, appealing to short attention spans and not trusting viewers to use their imaginations, like the sailors, to speculate what lurks out of sight. Suffice to say, plot holes rear their heads too, as do illogical decisions (maybe Clemens and co. should fight back during the day, rather than at night when Dracula’s on the prowl).

Taken on its own, lower standards, “Demeter” is always watchable, and sometimes involving, thanks to some impressively grisly carnage (no animal or human is safe) and the aforementioned acting talent on display. There’s a comforting escapism in watching a gothic-inspired bloodbath unfold that doesn’t have high-minded ambitions and takes a cheekily confident approach in laying the groundwork for a future franchise, no matter whether it comes to fruition. Chills, suspense, and memorable characters are absent, but viewers could do much worse than “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” and on a rainy day, it’s tempting to hop aboard.

LIam Cunningham is the Captain.

“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is a 2023 horror film directed by Andre Ovredal and starring Corey Hawkins, Javier Botet, Liam Cunningham, Aisling Franciosi, David Dastmachian, Jon Jon Brionis and Woody Norman. It is rated R for bloody violence and runtime is 1 hour, 58 minutes. In opened in theaters Aug. 11. Alex’s Grade: B-.  

 Note: this review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

By Alex McPherson
Brooding, raw, yet ultimately uneven, directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s “God’s Creatures” is dripping with dread-inducing atmosphere and acting talent, led by an excellent Emily Watson.

Set in a coastal Irish fishing town — drenched in fog, dreariness, antiquated ideals, and a heavy sprinkling of impending doom — the film opens with the drowning of a young man. In this community, nobody is taught how to swim, so the villagers aren’t tempted to risk death themselves to rescue someone, a fitting illustration of the stiff norms that have remained for generations.

Aileen (Watson) works as a supervisor at the seafood processing plant (run entirely by women, except for one male manager), preparing oysters and fish caught by men in the village. She lives with her stern husband Con (Declan Conlon) and near-catatonic father-in-law Paddy (Lalor Roddy), who will barely move a muscle only to suddenly slap Aileen in the face, implying a violent past. 

Aileen dutifully goes through the motions — working long hours, quietly conversing with coworkers during smoke breaks, babysitting her daughter Erin’s (Toni O’Rourke) infant child, grabbing an evening drink at the pub — until the day her dearly beloved son, Brian (Paul Mescal), returns from a multi-year trip to Australia. Brian had left Aileen and company unexpectedly, not communicating with the family while overseas.

This left a gaping wound in Aileen’s heart, so his unexpected reappearance fills her with joy; Con and Erin are more ambivalent about Brian’s return. Brian is eager to resume working on his grandfather’s oyster farm, and Aileen has no qualms about stealing supplies from work to support him. In fact, Aileen is willing to sacrifice much to protect her child, even if he turns out to be a far different person than she imagines he is.

Soon enough, troubles arise. Brian is accused of sexual assault by a young woman and family friend named Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi), who works at Aileen’s plant and once had a romantic relationship with Brian years ago. Aileen provides an alibi in court for Brian without a second thought, thus saving him from further investigation. 

This decision, however, gradually eats away at Aileen’s psyche, as she sees Sarah’s subsequent ostracization from the townsfolk, and experiences a crisis of conscience. She’s torn between her maternal instincts and factual reality, slowly but surely recognizing the troubled traditions that control her community, manifesting in both subtle and blunt ways. The title “God’s Creatures” takes an ironic bent as Aileen comes to recognize the harmful dynamics at play, baked into the fabric of the land.

Suffice to say, “God’s Creatures” is quite a downer. A simmering menace persists from beginning to end — largely thanks to impeccable sound design and carefully calibrated performances — rendering this bleak drama practically a horror film. With a muted color palette and stark, wide vistas, Chayse Irvin’s cinematography is fittingly chilly. The score, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, is full of discordant strings and startling percussion, complementing the clamor of oyster shells and the swoosh of lapping waves. 

Like a living, breathing monstrosity, the music builds upon itself as Aileen’s conflict intensifies, incorporating additional elements that, at one point, evoke the feeling of an unseen creature breathing heavily — an omnipresent threat that exerts control over anyone in its grip. Shane Crowley’s screenplay, while occasionally leaning into heavy-handedness, rarely feels out-of-place, its authenticity helped by thick Irish accents. 

Watson is, as ever, absolutely mesmerizing as Aileen, communicating multitudes without uttering a word. Although the film withholds detail of her past and her close bond with Brian, Aileen remains a believably conflicted protagonist. Her initial relief and happiness with her son’s return turns to rash protectiveness, doubt, anger, and instability. Watson sells each aspect of her character’s evolution (or de-evolution), the camera focusing on her during prolonged closeups where we witness the guilt, grief, and fire burning just beneath her stoic facade. 

Mescal’s charismatic screen presence suits the character of Brian, a shifty lad whose banality belies a violent, impulsive heart. Brian acts very differently when he’s being watched from when he’s alone, and Mescal expertly embodies that dichotomy, although the film leaves little doubt to Brian’s culpability. Franciosi almost steals the show, lending haunted gravitas to the role of Sarah, a woman alienated from the only place she’s called home.

Despite excellent fundamentals and ever-timely subject matter, though, Davis and Holmer’s film fails to explore its characters and the world they inhabit with the depth they merit. “God’s Creatures” prizes tone above all else, grounding us in a richly textured setting, yet neglecting to give its inhabitants the same care.

Indeed, Aileen’s grappling with morality does raise pertinent questions about love and loyalty versus truth and justice, but winds up wading through melodramatic waters. It’s a shame that, at arguably the height of her intensity, the film turns away from her, and undercuts both Watson’s performance and the contemplative storytelling that came before. 

In addition, the film’s focus on Aileen’s struggles takes attention away from Sarah’s experiences and the isolation she feels. Aileen is often relegated to observing her from afar, eventually recognizing the role she plays in Sarah’s suffering. This approach, while giving Watson loads of time to showcase her skill as a performer, lessens the emotional heft of Sarah’s story. 

Scenes where Aileen encounters Sarah tap into the insidious ways that casual misogyny and power imbalances manifest themselves, but only on the surface level. One searing monologue by Franciosi at the film’s conclusion alludes to a resilient, scarred, and complex character who deserves more than a few moments to get the spotlight. Davis and Holmer choose to merely acknowledge Sarah’s challenges rather than engage in insightful commentary, especially surrounding her treatment by others, and her own courage and strength despite it. By the time “God’s Creatures” finally centers her narrative, it proves to be too little, too late — deserving of a plot with wider focus, and one less centered on Aileen’s predictable (albeit undeniably well-acted) psychological turmoil.

Still, the formal elements of “God’s Creatures” shine, even when the drama takes jarring turns. This is an icy, chilly ordeal, which leaves a mark once the end credits roll regardless.

Emily Watson

“God’s Creatures” is a 2022 psychological drama co-directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, starring Emily Watson, Paul Mescal and Aisling Franciosi. It is rated R for language, and runs 1 hour, 40 minutes. It opened in select theatres in U.S. on Sept. 30 and is now available to rent through digital platforms. Alex’s Grade: B.