Since 2022 began, I’ve had the good fortune to watch some pretty spectacular examples of genre-bending movies and TV. Wasting no time, on Jan. 4 I saw Spontaneous, which I figured would be good but ended up leaving me a weeping mess. One way a film can genre-bend is by starting out in one place, genre-wise, and ending up somewhere very different. Spontaneous starts with — forgive me — a bang that feels decidedly horror-comedy (specifically, teen comedy with bloody explosions), but by the end it’s been both a coming-of-age drama, an involving sci-fi-ish thing, and a genuinely moving romance, all mixed with some truly artful philosophizing about the importance of taking risks and recognizing life’s transience.
That’s a lot of lifting for one kicky dark comedy, but thanks to both a brilliant screenplay and the two leads’ lovely performances — though for me Katherine Langford is the beating heart of this movie — it really comes together, and even the crazypants free association of the ending feels earned because of all the great stuff that came before. The scene with Mara and her boyfriend’s mom in the cemetery at night, in its context, is one of the best single scenes I’ve watched in quite some time.
Then there’s Yellowjackets. Unlike with most of what I watch, I didn’t realize at the beginning how far into horror this one would lean. It could have been pitched as “Lost meets Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls,” but none of those possible inspirations channels quite the sense of foreboding and menace that Yellowjackets manages to from the jump. That opening scene, of the hunt through some pretty Blair Witch-y woods, stays with you throughout the consistently excellent first season; its themes of brutality, tribalism, and maybe even cultism never really go away, no matter how mundane the settings and situations get.
There have been countless “flash back/flash forward” movies and series that examine characters in childhood and adulthood along parallel tracks, but Yellowjackets packs a bigger wallop than most in its depiction of trauma’s many and varied aftereffects as well as the pain, guilt, and in some cases ruthlessness that seethe beneath the surface of some people’s polished family lives. Even for those of us who didn’t survive a plane crash and resort to cannibalism and God knows what else, a placid exterior doesn’t mean there isn’t turmoil within. And Yellowjackets does particularly wise work in its exploration of female friendship, which it depicts as capable of both immense strength and alarming fragility.
Next, Werewolves Within is up-and-comer Josh Ruben’s adaptation of, apparently, a 2016 VR game of the same name? We live in weird times, man. Sam Richardson is terrific as buoyant park ranger Finn Wheeler, and Milana Vayntrub shines as manic-pixie-dream-girl-with-a-dark-side-who-is-also-a-letter-carrier Cecily Moore. (FWIW, for anyone out there with a raging crush on Vayntrub, this movie won’t help you shake it.) By the film’s midsection I began to feel like it wasn’t more than the sum of its parts, which isn’t a huge problem when the parts are funny and diverting. At the same time, I quickly tired of the film’s gay male stereotypes that seemed more rooted in the 2000s than the 2020s, and the requisite band of dumb yokels that surround Richardson and Vayntrub feel a bit worn out, too.
Compared to Spontaneous, Yellowjackets, and the also excellent Love & Monsters (how many sci-fi comedies feature a male hero choosing peace and empathy over violence in the climactic battle?), Werewolves Within comes across as above-average horror-comedy, but not transcendent — not an all-timer. They can’t all be, though, and if you’re staying in on a snowy February night, you could do a lot worse.