One of the most ascendant names in horror, or possibly filmmaking in general, has got to be Adam Wingard. If you don't believe me, in addition to the output he's already given us in the past five years, which I'll get to in a minute, he's also been tapped for the American remake of Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil, and a future film in Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse, Godzilla vs. Kong, which are both announced for 2020 at the moment.
But in four features since he really broke, all of which I've seen, Wingard is 0-for-4 with me.
The most recent on that list is Death Note, the Netflix original film I saw last night. Like some (but not all) of Wingard's other films, it looks great. The story is ultimately underwhelming, though, and in the end it couldn't even get to three stars for me, falling short at 2.5.
That should seem familiar, and in fact represents almost a high watermark for Wingard's work. You're Next made it to three stars, grudgingly; last year's Blair Witch, only two, and that might have been generous. The Guest matched Death Note's 2.5 stars, but the way I think about that movie is much worse than a 2.5 star film.
What does Wingard have that I am missing?
Even in his contributions to these recent horror anthologies, which is probably when I started thinking of him as ubiquitous in the horror world, he comes up short. I didn't really care for The ABCs of Death, and when I looked up his segment, it was Q is for Quack, a self-referential short in which the filmmakers are annoyed with being assigned the letter Q so they try to kill a duck (which goes horribly wrong). I don't even remember this, but the description does not sound good. (Though when I look it up on my post devoted to The ABCs of Death, I did rank it seventh out of the 26th films, but my comment was "Predictable resolution to the two directors' outside-the-box 'What do we do with the letter Q?' short, but it was funny enough." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.) Then I have a limited fondness for V/H/S, but just discovered that he directed the framing story, which was not what I like about that movie.
I suppose there are two movies of Wingard's that people really celebrate, those being You're Next and The Guest. I'm not on that same page. I was actively disliking You're Next until one of its twists was revealed, and I thought that was clever enough that I elevated it to three stars. The Guest, however, was sour for me from the start and never recovered, feeling especially cliched in its house of mirrors finale.
Death Note starts out promisingly enough. It's based on Japanese source material with which I am not familiar, and in both instances it deals with a magical notebook that can kill anyone whose name you write in it, as long as you are also picturing their face when you write it. I guess that helps the book distinguish between the world's 73,822 John Smiths.
It's definitely in Final Destination territory in terms of its look and feel, and how many of the deaths rely on Rube Goldbergian mishaps. That's a good thing for me as I really like the first two Final Destination films.
But then the monster shows up.
His name is Ryuk, and he looks pretty cool:
And it was probably a good decision to have him voiced by Willem Dafoe, at least on the surface.
But what happens is that Dafoe's delivery is primarily comedic, making Ryuk not very scary at all. Plus the ADR is not very good, so Dafoe's dialogue does not sound as though it's emanating from Ryuk. Making him even more of a distraction than something scary. Really, the character is just a nuisance.
I like the high concept of a book that will allow you to kill any person whose name you know and whose face you can picture, and the story considers the power of such a book in some interesting ways. The problem is, the film covers a lot of this territory in its first 30 minutes, then spins its wheels for another hour. That hour is devoted primarily to the book's many rules, some of which seem to contradict each other and not all of which are ever learned. The film even jokes about how many rules there are, self-referentially. The problem with this is that what the book can or cannot do is never satisfactorily established, leaving it possible for the writers to fly in with any deus ex machina rule to write themselves out of a corner. With so many rules it's not even possible to determine what might be a plot hole and what might not be, which is a problem.
If what he did with an existing property in Blair Witch is any indication, I'm not particularly hopeful for his remake of I Saw the Devil, a film that does not beg for a remake. And my affection for Kong: Skull Island is such that I don't want to see anyone other than Jordan Vogt-Roberts make a future King Kong movie, and especially not someone whose worth I haven't liked so far. That's how I felt and continue to feel about Gareth Edwards, whose Monsters disappointed me before Godzilla disappointed me even more, and then Rogue One even more than that relative to my expectations. So I supposed it's good that he's not making that announced clash between the two monstrous titans ... but I'm not any more hopeful for Wingard's potential.
In a year in which I feel out of sync with the popular impression of a lot of films, I suppose it's not a surprise that I also feel out of sync with the popular impression of Adam Wingard.
Whether he'll ever get me in sync with him remains to be seen.