The 29-year-old Spanish director Alice Waddington makes an auspicious feature debut with “Paradise Hills,” a science-fiction satire co-written by Brian DeLeeuw and offbeat genre filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo. A clever if somewhat under-realized mash-up of “The Prisoner,” “The Hunger Games” and “The Stepford Wives,” the movie has such confidence — and such an impressive sense of design — that its simplistic narrative isn’t much of a drawback.
Emma Roberts stars as Uma, a rebellious socialite who resists the marriage her mega-rich family has set up for her. After her latest angry outburst, Uma wakes up on a remote island that resembles a luxury resort, except that no one can leave until they lose weight, shed any chemical addictions and become more docile.
Uma’s roommates are the zaftig Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) and the withdrawn Yu (Awkafina). She also befriends manipulative pop star Amarna (Eiza González). They all conspire to deceive the “Duchess” (Milla Jovovich) of this “emotional wellness center,” who has a nurturing demeanor but ulterior motives.
Despite the stunningly over-the-top costumes and sets, “Paradise Hills” doesn’t do enough to visualize or to delineate the particulars of its extremely socially stratified society. Whatever it has to say about the socio-historical value of “difficult” women is limited to fairly flat girl power platitudes.
But this cast is a kick; and the movie’s attitude is righteous. It’s hard not to love Waddington’s vision of dystopia, which looks just like the cover of “Modern Bride.”
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: MStarts Oct. 25, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; available Nov.1 on VOD
‘Girl on the Third Floor’
In horror filmmaking, sometimes a single strange image is better than a dozen jump scares. “Girl on the Third Floor” director-co-writer Travis Stevens clearly understands this. His arty ghost story, about a broken man renovating a haunted house, is more contemplative than assaultive, and is peppered liberally with disturbing shots of oozing walls, shadowy holes and eerie faces.
The movie’s plot, co-written with Paul Johnstone and Ben Parker, isn’t as well crafted as its style. The first half introduces Don Koch (played by Phil Brooks, a.k.a. the martial artist “CM Punk”), a former Chicago lawyer whose temper and self-control issues have chased him to the suburbs, where he’s fixing up an old house for his more successful wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and their soon-to-be-born daughter. As he struggles with the repairs, Don is tempted by a seductive neighbor, Sarah (Sarah Brooks).
Later, Liz arrives and learns more about the sordid history of her new home, while trying to figure out what’s gone awry with Don. While the actors are strong throughout, the answers in “Girl on the Third Floor” prove less interesting than the questions.
Still, the film’s bifurcated structure is cumulatively effective, especially given that it re-centers the narrative on a wronged woman, rather than her thoughtless, rage-filled man. And the veteran genre producer Stevens makes an impressive directorial debut here, smartly turning the sourness at Don’s core into all manner of viscerally disgusting rot and goo.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD
Writer-director Zak Hilditch’s “Rattlesnake” has a fiendish premise. Carmen Ejogo plays Katrina, a single mother who pulls off the road in a Texas desert during a cross-country trip with her daughter, Clara. When the little girl is bitten by a snake, a stranger heals her, then asks for a hefty karmic payment. Katrina has until the end of the day to kill someone — anyone — to balance the universe.
In the hours that follow, the ghosts of people previously killed — as part of similarly weird transactions — appear to Katrina, to remind her what she owes. These are the movie’s weakest scenes … and there’s a lot of them. Meant to make the heroine’s assignment feel real and urgent, the presence of the ghosts instead raises a lot of questions about how exactly this “soul for a soul” deal works.
Thanks largely to Ejogo’s impassioned performance, though, Hilditch builds tension with the moments in which Katrina considers whom to kill. A man already on his deathbed? An abusive husband (played by Theo Rossi)? As Katrina fumbles her way through multiple potential murder scenarios, “Rattlesnake” becomes more fascinating, illustrating a truth other thrillers too often miss: It’s not easy to take a life.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Available on Netflix
‘The Gallows Act II’
The 2015 horror hit “The Gallows” was a silly but occasionally jolting found-footage film about a haunted high school play. For “The Gallows Act II,” the original’s writer-director duo of Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing have made a more conventional supernatural thriller, exploring the legend of the first film’s mysterious hangman, via the story of a drama student named Ana (Ema Horvath) who becomes obsessed with this “Charlie.”
The first “Gallows” suffered from the uninspired way it squeezed a routine “evil spirit stalks obnoxious teens” tale into the then-overused found-footage format. And even though Ana is a far more sympathetic of a character, “Act II” is still hackneyed.
This is an unappetizing hash of “It Follows” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” as well as countless post-“Candyman” fright flicks about curious kids conjuring bad mojo. The movie features a few effectively creepy scenes of its villain haunting Ana’s daydreams; but Cluff and Lofing have wildly overestimated how much anyone should care about the mythology of their first film, which has barely lingered in the public consciousness.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 25, Laemmle Glendale; also on VOD
The one thing the science-fiction/horror anthology “Portals” has going for it is that it ditches the usual rigid omnibus format and takes a more fluid approach to blending its shorts with its framing device. Set in a near future where the creation of an artificial black hole has led to a proliferation of slab-like inter-dimensional gates around the Earth, “Portals” chops up and intercuts its multiple story lines, which alternate between action-packed tales of the scientists who instigated this calamity and more contemplative studies of the ordinary people they’ve affected.
But while the intentions here are good, as a moviegoing experience “Portals” is mostly drudgery. The acting’s merely passable, the production values are unimpressive and the characters are strictly stock — leaning too much on either “overwhelmed tech geek” or “concerned parent” types. Ultimately, the unusual structure seems like a cover for how underdeveloped this film’s various segments are.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 25, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD