Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

APRIL 27, 2014


I have seen an embarrassingly low number of Jim Jarmusch films. In fact, by seeing Only Lovers Left Alive today, I doubled my intake, which is just pitiful considering how much I liked the other (Down By Law). However, since I also liked this quite a bit, I'll do my best to rectify the problem soon - at the very least I can make good on my now 15 year old promise to see "that Samurai movie that they had a trailer for at Blair Witch Project". The two films I've seen are quite different, and I can only assume Ghost Dog is just as different from these two as they are from each other, so if nothing else I can't imagine I'll find myself getting bored going through his filmography the way one might if they were to do the same for a filmmaker who doesn't stray far from the course (Jean Rollin, for example - I like his stuff, but if I watched it all in a week I'd want to kill myself).

Of course, this isn't really a horror movie in the traditional sense; of its five primary characters four of them are vampires, but there's not a lot of bloodsucking action - what little of it there WOULD be in the film's narrative takes place off-screen, though we do get a look at all of their fangs. Like many a modern vampire movie, our heroes opt for cleaner blood; protagonist Adam (a terrific Tom Hiddleston) secures his from a source at a Detroit hospital, while his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) trades for it with another vampire (John Hurt) while living in Tangiers. They're not separated for long before she comes to Detroit for a visit, at which point he takes her around his city and shows her things like where Jack White grew up.

And that's one thing I loved about the movie; while nearly all movies about immortals throw in a reference to some historical figure as a person our ageless vampire knew, this dives deep into it. Adam is said to have known Tesla and composed music for Schubert, while Eve's friend is none other than Christopher Marlowe, still bitter about Shakespeare's success. It's a fascinating concept to basically apply a Forrest Gump style journey through history but with a vampire whose exploits can stretch a few hundred years further back - I can't help but wonder if it'd be more fun to read a novelized take on the film, free of budgetary concerns (or likeness issues) and thus able to weave even more famous folks into the tale. But don't get me wrong, that's not what it's about - Marlowe's use is primarily to get the point across of a guy who has been around for 500+ years - any character can just SAY as much, but when you have an old, bitter Marlowe hissing at Shakespeare in the present day, it carries more weight than a mere line of exposition.

But the real meat of the story is what a drag it is for vampires, something that's been explored before but never quite in this fashion. It still addresses things like contaminated blood being a problem that they didn't have to worry about "in the nth century", and being seen as mysterious because they never go out during the day, but it's always done with a dryly humorous approach that I quite enjoyed. For example, in order for them to fly back to Tangiers to Detroit, they have to ensure that the flight takes off and lands during the night, forcing them to seek out bizarre layovers that confuse travel agents - that's a new one, far as I know. And as he is a musician, Adam has to create without being seen, since he'd have to explain his non-aging - hence writing music for Schubert (and they suggest he's done the same for Neil Young), which adds to some of the humor when he interacts with a music groupie (Anton Yelchin) who just wants to do what he thinks would be the right thing and expose his talent to the venerable Detroit music scene.

I also enjoyed how Jarmusch seemed to be making fun of typical vampire motifs; at one point Adam and Eve discuss how they've both had dreams of her sister visiting, which clearly is something they dread. In any CW level vampire story, this would mean a villain who was attempting some sort of supernatural coup or curse or whatever - but as it turns out her sister is just a pain in the ass who drinks all their blood and whines about not being taken out on the town. Plus, she's played by the wonderful Mia Wasikowska, so you the viewer should be torn between wanting them to toss her on her ass and wanting her to be on-screen for every possible second, adding to the peculiar brand of fun. Sure, the movie doesn't really have much of a plot (the 3rd act, driven by a blood shortage and "we have to lay low for a while" subplot, is basically just there to get us to an ending), but there's something endlessly entertaining about watching two vampires deal with the day to day annoyances of being a vampire.

It's not a full blown comedy, however - it's actually quite touching at times, and melancholy to boot - they were turned at a time when the world was simpler and wonderful, and now it's passed them by while also making it nearly impossible to carry on with their way of life. Even suicide poses a problem - he has to task someone with making him a wooden bullet to get the job done (one of the few vampire "rules" that are acknowledged; mirrors apparently aren't a thing since Adam and Eve Skype when they are apart). Unless you count gaining incredible knowledge (there's a hilarious bit where he scoffs at someone's wiring, as he's become an expert), the movie smartly never romanticizes a single thing about being an immortal beyond never having to suffer through the death of your spouse (it's so nice to see a vampire love story about two vampires instead of the usual human/vampire connection), and the scenes of the two of them dancing or sharing a popsicle made of blood hammer that point home: everything else about their life kind of sucks, but they're perfectly happy and content together. It's quite lovely, and the age difference between the actors (with Swinton having a good 20 years on Hiddleston) was a ballsy but inspired choice - if the guy was older it'd just feel a bit too "normal", but the other way around makes it easier to understand how they complete each other in a weird way.

Of course, the lack of typical vampire action (and the two hour runtime) will probably raise a red flag for some who suspect this is just Twilight with older vampires, but that's not even remotely the case. The Hunger would be a closer point of reference, but even that would be misleading. I've never really seen anything quite like it, and while it's probably not the sort of movie I'd watch over and over, it was a far more satisfying viewing experience than all of this year's wide release full blown horror films, and comes highly recommended to anyone looking for something a little offbeat.

What say you?

*Yeah, their names are Adam and Eve. I guess it's supposed to be cute - but it's the only eye-rolling thing about the movie for me.


The Quiet Ones (2014)

APRIL 24, 2014


The remake of The Woman In Black was one of the more successful horror movies of 2012 (even topping that year's Paranormal Activity entry), but it's taken over 2 years for Hammer to come back with another film to help solidify their rebirth. Unfortunately, The Quiet Ones won't be as successful as that one; not only does it lack as strong a hook as "Harry Potter as an adult", but it's not quite as good either - and horror films haven't been connecting with audiences as of late. I'd really love to see Hammer make a big comeback and stick around for a while, but with intermittent releases and a spotty track record, it's gonna be a tough hurdle - especially with Blumhouse productions soaking up all of the attention (and our dollars).

Like all modern horror movies, this is based on a true story, which you should know by now means exactly nothing. The inspiration came from an experiment in Canada (not England, as the film depicts) where a parapsychologist attempted to prove that collective subconscious could "create" a ghost. Their results were somewhat successful, as it turns out, but the story as is wouldn't make for a particularly exciting movie - however I'm confused why they didn't at least use it as their jumping off point for their movie, which opts for more generic possession thrills and what may be a world record for jump scares built around SUDDEN LOUD NOISES!, rather ironic considering the title (which never fits the movie, so I assume it was just someone's idea of a joke).

Then again, it's very possible that the original script WAS indeed based more closely on the original story, as it was rewritten so heavily that it now carries a "based on the screenplay by" credit usually reserved for remakes (another bit of irony, since it's the first wide release new Hammer production that ISN'T a remake), followed by three separate writer credits including the director John Pogue. Add that to the 10 or so listed producers, and you can safely assume that this was a production with too many people adding their two cents, making it a miracle that it's even watchable, let alone "not that bad". I'd be curious to read that original script; I don't think being rewritten is a bad thing every time out (it worked out OK for Casablanca, and while I may be in the minority for loving Armageddon, I assure you that it's better than the earlier draft of the script that I have), and every now and then I caught a glimpse of what would be a much more interesting movie.

I can also assume at some point there was something meatier for Jared Harris to work with; he's the best thing about the movie by far but the more interesting elements about his character are mostly explored through throwaway dialogue (including a late reveal that should have been clarified in the movie's first 10 minutes - see THIS Film Crit Hulk column for a thorough explanation why, as it's similar), as if one or more producers were worried about too much time being spent on this "old guy" instead of the handsome lad from The Hunger Games or the cute girl from Bates Motel. Indeed, I was actually surprised he stuck around for the whole movie, I figured he'd give them their assignment and more or less exit the film, but he's there with them throughout the picture, actually earning his top billing. However, he spends a lot of that time making knowing faces and acting shady (and smoking! He smokes constantly), with the four younger cast members getting most of the fun stuff.

And they're fine; I recently saw a horrible movie about four college kids doing an experiment in an old house (The Ganzfeld Haunting), and in that thing the students barely seemed interested in what they were doing and too stupid to even fill out the college application, so it was nice to see that the three of them here (Olivia Cooke being the possessed one) were competent and more or less focused on what they were doing, save for some sex and the occasional addition to the movie's surplus of fake scares (there is one that actually works pretty well - a loud crash is heard but then one of the males runs out and assures the other that it was just the bed breaking from their sexual activity). Also, as I only know Cooke from Bates, it was nice to see her in a completely opposite role: unhinged, sexually aggressive, and dealing with heavy trauma - a far cry from her shy, reserved Bates character (also nice to see her whole face without a tube covering it).

But it's just so rambunctious! Hammer movies aren't known for their fast pace, and the science driven background of its plot led me to think that this would be something like The Stone Tape, but no - the movie races to get us to the first encounter with Cooke's character Jane, possessed by an entity named Evey that has a strange fascination with fire. And from that point it rarely quiets down for more than a minute or two; if they're not actively trying to activate Evey (they are trying to separate the two using scientific methods instead of the usual religious ones) they're shouting at each other about the previous scene, or there's another loud jump scare meant to jolt us. I was pretty sleepy when I went but the movie made it nearly impossible for even me to doze off (yes, "nearly" - I think I was out for a minute or two, but whatever I missed couldn't have been much since I saw everything that was summarized on the film's lengthy Wiki synopsis) because it was never far from another shout or bang (or loud volume reprise of the original "Cum On Feel The Noize" by Slade). The story goes to some rather grim places, and that sort of thing works better in a movie that has some patience - this one never really does.

As a result, the movie is fairly repetitive, since they hit the ground running even though there's only one target. Imagine if Merrin and Karras showed up at Regan's in the first reel and spent the whole 90 minutes trying to help her in her bedroom - that's pretty much what the movie is. They try to make contact, something freaky happens, our cameraman hero freaks out, the others reassure him, and then the process repeats. The changing POV doesn't really add much to the proceedings either; there are a few good bits where watching from the POV of the camera lends it an uncomfortable touch (particularly during a part of the climax where the camera has been dropped), but otherwise it's just a gimmick to somewhat add it to the found footage craze (I'd say about a third of the film is shown this way). Plus it's not always instantly clear when they're switching; the POV footage has some dust and specks added in to differentiate, but it's still all too easy to tell that it's just digital footage given some filters, and there isn't much difference in the frame size either (it goes from 1.85 to 1.66). Going black & white for these sequences would have made more sense, I think.

However, like I said, it's watchable and even somewhat entertaining. It's nice to see a non-religious take on a possession story, and Harris livens things up considerably, making it better than most of the year's genre fare almost by default. Like Oculus, I suspect it will play better at home (perhaps in an extended cut?), something I hate to say since obviously I want people to show up in theaters for horror films so that the studios continue to take chances on them - but that's sadly the case here. The intimacy of the 16mm scenes is somewhat muddled by being projected on a 40 foot screen, and even the stupid LOUD BANG! jumps will probably have a better effect at home when you're more comfortable. Here's hoping Hammer gets one of their more exciting properties off the ground (like a Captain Kronos remake!) soon, as that's the sort of thing that will almost assuredly be a better fit for the multiplex.

What say you?


Death Do Us Part (2014)

APRIL 21, 2014


Many of the best slasher movies were the result of producers trying to cash in on a trend or starting with anything but a story first (Friday the 13th famously began life as an ad just to secure the cool sounding title), so while I dislike such approaches to filmmaking in general, I can't really knock Death Do Us Part on that alone. As the producers happily tell us in the making of piece, they had a location and wrote a movie around it, put together cheaply just to get something done while waiting for other projects to come to fruition. It's a slap in the face to storytelling, but at least they're honest about it. Some of that cynicism of course bleeds into the project, since you can tell no one involved had any real passion for slasher movies, but it's kind of fun in its own way, and ultimately the movie is too harmless to get into too much of a fuss about.

Plus it inspired a good point made by someone on Twitter, after I commented that nearly every modern slasher movie involves infidelity among the group - in this movie's case, the bride-to-be's fiance is nailing her sister (something the sister insists doesn't end after the wedding - hot). The theory was that simply having sex isn't a big enough "sin" anymore, the way it was in the slashers of yore where, as Randy would clarify later, "if you have sex, you die". It's the '10s now, so we gotta make it more complicated, and admittedly if folks are having an affair it makes more sense for them to go off into the woods without telling anyone. So maybe this is the case, but if so - is it worth it coming at the expense of instantly hating two of our alleged heroes? Who can possibly feel sympathy for a woman who is banging her sister's husband/boyfriend? I think Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter handled this sort of thing perfectly, with that one guy kinda flirting with one of the twins, pissing off Sarah (Judie Aronson, whom no man would ever even consider cheating on, but whatever) so she takes off, and then the guy comes to his senses and goes after her, giving Jason the chance to kill them both. That keeps us from really hating any of them, and you still get the desired effect.

That said, there's another thing that always bugs me in these sort of things, which is someone saying that they should wait until sunrise and go for help. I guess the logic is that if it's light they'll see the killer coming, but come on - Jason always took down someone during the day (a few of them in the remake, actually), and even Michael Myers has racked up a kill or two when the sun was still up. Usually the plan is announced and that's that, but here, another character shouts "He's not a fucking vampire! He can still kill us when the sun is up!" Not only is it a funny line, but it offers up the logic for them to keep running around in the dark, keeping us assholes in the audience from questioning it. These folks may not care much about slashers, but they're at least smart enough to think about ways around their lapses.

However, they do bungle one thing pretty good, and you should skip this paragraph if you're not a very astute viewer, because maybe their attempt at a twist will work on you. See, it's one of those "we start the morning after all the killing" movies, with the survivor telling their story, and I'm pretty sure every one of these has resulted in the storyteller being the killer, so we're already primed to figure it out. But they curiously avoid showing the person's face, obscured by her wedding veil, and thus anyone paying enough attention would probably (and correctly) discern that the person telling the story isn't the bride, but one of the supposed victims. It's something that would totally work on paper, but on-screen, it's just too damn distracting that we can't see her face. Plus, with only three women in the cast, it's not even a surprise which one it is, since it's not the bride and the other one is definitely killed rather quickly (though I guess some weirdo cross-dressing thing would be hilarious and inspired).

And by quickly I mean relative only to the other deaths, as the movie takes forever to start offing these jerks (well, most are jerks; one of them is nice to the point of sounding psychotic). I think we're like 50 minutes in before the first strike, which is an eternity in slasher movie minutes. Even stranger, the killer has a mask (a burlap thing, kind of like Cronenberg in Nightbreed) but they almost never show it, or him/her - the kills are largely off-screen, which is the sort of thing you do when, you know, the killer is just walking around as themselves, like the first Friday the 13th (which at least had a hand or something). Not sure what their thinking was behind this decision, but it's a baffling one - just like their pained attempts to make the creepy caretaker look like the killer. The genius of Scream (name-checked in the making of) is that they make Billy so obviously look like the killer that he "can't" be, making it a legit surprise when he is - but these folks opt to even go so far as to have their red herring actually chase one of the heroines at one point, just so it'll be a "surprise" when he turns up dead.

But it's functional, and it's rare to see a slasher in the woods movie with adults instead of the usual college kids (even if they still ACT like college kids). The actress playing the sister was quite attractive, and even if it was oddly paced it never really bored me (I kept getting amused by how much the guy clearly hated the woman he was going to marry). Plus Aaron Douglas shows up in the wrap-arounds, always nice to see that guy. And even if none of its plot twists actually worked, I gleefully enjoyed watching everyone turn on each other in gloriously over the top fashion (one, angry about not being appreciated, proceeds to brain the offender with a rock as sad music plays). Also: it's shot in Canada instead of Louisiana like every other low budget horror movie made these days, so there's something. Basically, it offers the bare minimum, but that's still more than you get on the average Anchor Bay release as of late - most of them I can't even get the energy to write about, so kudos to team Death Do Us Part! You inspired me to meet a quota.

What say you?


Wolf Creek 2 (2013)

APRIL 15, 2014


Some are better than others of course, but I've only had one truly miserable Christmas Day, as far as I can recall. It was 2005, I had just moved to CA, specifically for a job I didn't end up getting, forcing me to work at Best Buy (and more demeaning, the E! network) to pay bills. Worse, my wife was still in Boston working her real job (and thus ACTUALLY paying the bills, since neither BB or E! were enough to live on), so all I had was my cat Butters, who as usual didn't buy me anything. Since I wouldn't be able to have fun, I figured I'd go see some depressing movies - Munich and Wolf Creek - as they would fit my mood. But while I actually quite liked Munich for the most part (pretty much everything except that sex scene, good god), I had little affection for Creek, finding it unpleasant, not very well paced, and erring a bit too close to what critics will call "torture porn". But after hearing some positive word about Wolf Creek 2, including from a few who also didn't think much of the original, I got excited - and sure enough they were correct: this is a better film.

Oddly, the most suspenseful bit as right at the top of the movie, as serial killer Mick (a returning John Jarratt) is pulled over by a pair of asshole cops, who are determined to ruin his day despite Mick's friendly cooperation. We WANT to see him killing these assholes, in other words, which is a perfect way to start off this kind of sequel. If you were to poll horror fans about how they'd like a sequel to Wolf Creek to play out, 99 out of 100 would say "Follow Mick" instead of "Follow that one guy who lived", so why not kick things off with not only a murder, but one where we can kind of be on his side? It's a tricky balance for these "horror heroes" like Freddy or Pinhead, where they're more interesting than their victims but still have to be the bad guy in the narrative, but returning director Greg Mclean pulls it off in this sequence.

From there it becomes a Richard Franklin homage, with a Road Games like cat and mouse structure (including two big car chases) and a Psycho-ish twist that finds both of our would be protagonists killed, with a good Samaritan who tried to rescue one of them taking over as the hero. For a few minutes I actually thought the movie would keep changing protagonists with Mick himself being the only constant, especially when now-hero Paul (Ryan Corr) is himself rescued by a couple of helpful strangers - maybe he'd get killed and Mick would go after these two for a while, and so on. Alas, it's more of a Hitcher scenario from there on out, which deflates the suspense but keeps the movie from being too much of a retread of the original. I got a bit nervous when, post cops, we meet a couple of tourists making their way around Australia (even stopping at that same crater from the first one), but when things switch gears they stay switched for the most part, giving the sequel its own identity without straying too far off the path.

It's interesting how both of Mclean's post-WC films have seemingly addressed criticism head on, almost as an apology from the filmmaker. After many decried Wolf Creek's misogynist tone (of the 3 protagonists, the two females got killed, quite horribly - while the male lived), he gave us Rogue, in which the croc only managed to kill male members of the cast, leaving each and every female alive when the credits rolled - including one that suffered what looked a lot like an unavoidably mortal wound. And another complaint about Wolf Creek was that Mick took too long to appear, which is fixed here since he's in almost every scene. There's really only about 15 minutes or so that he's off somewhere else, and our hero never gets too far from him during the 2nd act, which is basically one big chase scene. And the 3rd act is mostly in Mick's hideout, where Mclean seems to be paying a bit of homage to Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 with the series of tunnels and a skeleton adorned with Christmas lights (though that might have been in WC1, I can't recall). Jarratt seems to be relishing his expanded role, offering plenty of colorful phrases (his reaction to a kangaroo is pure bliss) and a demeanor that is equal parts annoyed and cheerfully drunk.

Two quibbles keep it from being a full home run, and one has SPOILERS so skip this paragraph if you don't want the ending partially given away. The first is that it's a bit too long, and could benefit from some tightening (particularly the 3rd act) and maybe one less scene of someone trying to flag down a car only for the driver to ignore them or almost hit them. We get it, the Outback is a terrible place for outsiders - this is overkill. The other (again, SPOILERS!!!) is that the ending is a bit too similar to the first film's, which kind of makes it feel like it could be skipped entirely if we are given a Wolf Creek 3. The "based on true story" element is a stretch (and we know that by now), so I'm not sure why they opted for something that almost seems like they're just trying to be true to the story - go all out! Or maybe lead us into THINKING that we're seeing the same ending, only to pull the rug out from under us. Again, the 3rd act dragged a bit as is, so for it to all come down to a rerun was a bit disappointing.

But the first hour and change work like gangbusters, and I'm always happy to see a sequel more or less fix what didn't work (at least, for me) about the original and deliver something more enjoyable overall. Sure, the tone is different - the first one was grim and dark, whereas this one is a bit more spiritedly macabre (which is just a way to say it's kind of fun to see all this death, again, like TCM2), and thus appealed more to my sensibilities. Can't say it'll end up on my top 10 of 2014 list if I were to make one (I probably won't), but it'd be a frontrunner for biggest surprise - and in some ways that's just as impressive. Hopefully it won't take another 6-7 years for Mclean to make his next film - supposedly he's got something cooking with Blumhouse right now, but that's hardly a guarantee for a speedy release (just ask Bryan Bertino or Oren Peli). I've gushed before about Australian horror, and I think he could be one of the big ones if he'd only have more output!

What say you?


Oculus (2013)

APRIL 10, 2014


A funny thing occurred to me moments before buying my ticket to Oculus tonight - I actually had no idea what the movie was about. I hadn't seen a single trailer or TV spot (yay for DVR!), and the posters around town just showed some typical supernatural horror images that told me nothing. So why was I there, if not compelled by what I had seen or learned about the film's premise? Simple: it was the followup film from Mike Flanagan, who made the terrific Absentia a couple years back*, and thus I'd be there even if it wasn't horror. But also, I was curious where I'd stand on the movie, as all week I had seen fellow horror writers arguing about the movie's merit or lack thereof - whose side would I be on, if any?

Sadly, I inch closer to the ones who didn't like it very much. I didn't HATE it by any means, and I'd even give it another look a few years down the road, but I was left disappointed for sure. And this is where my ignorance (by design - I actually wish I could see all movies with a blank slate) may have hurt a bit; had I known it was a haunted mirror movie, I would have gone in with a "this is a haunted mirror movie" attitude instead of a "This is the new film from a filmmaker who really impressed me the last time out". I'm not sure there has ever been a good haunted mirror movie - my favorite thing in the genre would probably be the Jim Steinman spoken word piece "I've Been Dreaming Up A Storm Lately", where he rambles about a mirror that shows him a reflection of someone and then he has to find the person that matches it (yes, this is the same scenario as the David Warner segment in From Beyond the Grave, which had the good sense to be an episode instead of a feature). When I think of the full length films in this sub-sub-genre, I think of Mirrors (eh), the Amityville sequel (worst in the series?) and the horrendous Witchboard 3. This is actually better than all of those, but that's such a low bar to clear it's not even worth pointing out.

But hey, at least now I know what it's about! A young man is being released from a mental institution on his 21st birthday, greeted by his sister (Karen Gillan, who only took about 5 minutes to make me understand why so many people watch Doctor Who) who doesn't seem to hold any real grudge against him for killing their dad (hence the lockup). Before long, she's convinced him to come back to their childhood home and help her with an experiment - proving that the giant black mirror that their father (Rory Cochrane) had bought (and had conveniently been more or less dropped b.ack into her hands) possessed some sort of supernatural energy, and was actually to blame for their parents' deaths. They set up a bunch of cameras, and Gillan explains a bunch of confusing "rules" about the scenario - an alarm will go off every hour to remind them to eat, no one can use a cell phone in the vicinity of the mirror, etc.

She also offers up a complete history of the mirror's "crimes", and that's where the movie starts to falter (well, unless you count the less than impressive performance from the guy playing Gillan's brother, which just makes her presence more enticing). It's just too much info at once; strange for a movie that really only has two people in its present day sequences. There's no reason that they couldn't have saved some of the background on the mirror's victims for a bit later, or just had the brother read up on it on his own - especially since it doesn't really matter in the long run. The victims appear as ghostly menaces, but they're not full blown characters - it'd be like if Lin Shaye stopped cold 20 minutes into Insidious to explain who all those random ghosts were in The Further. The REAL story that we care about is what happened to their parents - the other stuff is best saved for DVD bonus features for those who wanted to explore the mythology a bit more.

So it's no surprise that the movie works much better when it's in flashback mode, showing us when the happy family moved into the house, how the mirror started to affect Cochrane, how his strange behavior and the kids' insistence that they saw a woman in his office led matriarch Katee Sackhoff to believe that he was having an affair, etc. In the present day, they're just trying to prove that the mirror is evil, which we kind of already know, so it's not particularly compelling - however there is still the question of how things played out in the past. Did the brother kill the father out of self-defense, or was he possessed as well (and if so, is he still)? How did the mother die? And what's with the food thing? But even though I was enjoying these scenes more, I couldn't help but be concerned that the movie was more interesting when showing us things where we knew the ending (if not the specifics), and rather dull when focusing on the present day where the outcome wasn't already known to us.

And that's the other thing - the movie didn't really strike me as scary. It's refreshingly low on jump scares, which is impressive for a movie about looking at a mirror - but it never quite gels as a low key, creepy thing either (which Absentia excelled at, I should say). There's a pretty great bit involving an apple, and the chain of events that result in the parents' deaths is exciting, but otherwise it always feels like it's missing an ingredient or two. The concept is fun and I like that they take a more scientific approach to their attempt at proving that it's evil (she's even prepared for the electricity going out, adorning the entire house with battery operated lanterns), but it just never snaps to life. I had forgotten that it was based on a short film that Flanagan had done before Absentia, but once I recalled, the movie's lax pacing and lack of increased stakes made sense - they stretched out a 30 minute concept into (well) over 90, rather than use the short as a jumping off point for an expanded, more elaborate story. Instead of going forward, he went backwards, fleshing out the story of the protagonist's childhood and splitting the character into two (in the short, the lone male seeks answers; now it's the female while the male sort of protests). Personally, I'd have had the experiment end at the end of the first act and spend the next hour on the what if scenario - they have undeniable proof that a mirror is haunted, now what?

On the other hand, I'm happy that this kind of movie is playing in wide release. Sure, it's a Blumhouse release, so it'll get lumped in with the Insidiouses and Paranormal Activities of the world in terms of expectations, but it's not likely to appeal to the same audiences (though the R rating should hopefully ward off the teens who would give it WORST MOVIE EVER! "reviews" afterward due to the slower pace and lack of dumb jump scares). It's original and demands your attention, which is unusual for a wide horror release - even if it doesn't really work all that well, I appreciate the effort to do something than another goddamn found footage haunting story (which this easily could have been, given the cameras used in the experiment and the younger versions of the kids' obsession with tech devices). I have also heard rumblings of re-editing, which could make or break a movie like this - snipping 10 minutes out of a Paranormal Activity movie can't really hurt, but a movie that's trying to draw you in and give you more of a skin-crawling effect needs time to work its mojo.

So: oh well. Again, maybe I'll like it more on a second view, but as of right now I won't be joining the argument on Twitter; I didn't dislike it enough to give it any more shit than I already have (mostly concerning its hideous end credits, which look like public access dreck), but I certainly can't join the ranks of its supporters. It's an OK-ish movie that I had higher hopes for, and that's about it. Flanagan already has another movie in post, so I hopefully won't have to wait another 3 years to see what this obviously talented filmmaker has up his sleeve - I may not have loved this, but as with guys like Ti West, I know that they'll never make anything generic, and will give us something to talk about after - since opinions will always vary, that's all we can really ask for.

What say you?

*The only other thing I knew about Oculus was that Absentia's lovely Katie Parker was supposed to be in it. Sadly, the scene was cut, which just proves my theory that a longer version will probably be better.


Jinn (2014)

APRIL 8, 2014


The found footage movie Afflicted has gotten some good notices, sounds like something I'd enjoy, and has the backing of CBS Films (who gave us The Woman in Black and Last Exorcism 2)... however, it only opened on ONE screen here in Los Angeles. Worse, it was the Mann's Chinese 6 (or whatever they call it now), which is a horribly overpriced, inconveniently located theater that I avoid as much as possible. On the other hand, we have Jinn, a movie that's been on the shelf for years, is reviewed positively only by its own filmmakers on the IMDb, and a distributor I've never heard of behind it - and yet I had at least 3 theaters around me where I could see it, in addition to another dozen around the Los Angeles county. Something is clearly broken with this current system, a thought that crossed my mind several times during this interminable and barely coherent horror/action blend.

Some movies you can just tell are gonna be a slog as soon as they start, and Jinn did nothing to prove my instinct wrong after its exposition heavy opening scene, where we are told the history of Jinns and Shaitans, followed by more exposition given by a pair of characters in a poorly lit room. Then we meet our hero Shawn, and we get more exposition, and then freaky stuff starts happening, prompting Ray Park to show up and... offer more exposition. Sure, he kicks some folks (and stars in the nuttiest action scene I've witnessed in quite some time), but his job is to just explain some stuff and transport our hero to two other characters who will go on to explain the movie's convoluted and never even slightly interesting backstory. There are five people of note in the film, and three of them spend most of their screentime rambling about the history of its creatures, why Shawn is involved, what needs to be done, etc. It's like an entire season's worth of Supernatural gibberish packed into 90 minutes, without any of that show's humor, interesting characters, or breaks in the ongoing story to take down a monster or have a little fun (Castiel working at the gas station earlier this year? Hilarious!).

That the lead character possesses no charisma at all is another crippling flaw. I can't fully blame the actor, perhaps he's great (he's got a lengthy resume, even appears in Captain America 2). But when his role has him do nothing but stand there and listen to others ramble for large chunks of the runtime and keeps him from doing any of the real action until its 3rd act (by which point any reasonable human being would have given up on the thing, but I am not a reasonable man), it's hard to find him all that compelling. Before he undergoes his "Chilla" (ritual to become a Jinn, if I'm following correctly) and does some fighting, the biggest action sequence is the one I mentioned, with Park doing everything. During this fight scene, Shawn stands near a car that he can't get into because it's locked, prompting Park to shift focus away from fighting to use the Force to transport the keys from the valet station (at a mental institution?) to the other man. That Park was single-handedly killing the shit out of all of the bad guys and probably could have finished them off in another 20 seconds and just brought him the keys the normal way is besides the point, I guess.

The car stuff is about as interesting as the movie gets. I've seen thousands of movies in my life, and I've more or less watched the credits for most of them, so believe me when I say that this has to be the first feature film that not only dedicates a sizable chunk of its endless (15 minutes) end title sequence to the team that built the "Firebreather" car that Shawn drives/shows off in a lengthy sequence that serves no other purpose beyond "let's show off our cool car". Even more hilarious, this portion of the credits is followed by, I shit you not, a list of every person who has one along with their custom number from its limited run! And here I thought the promise of a sequel at the top of the credits (not a scene setting one up - an actual "THE JINN WILL RETURN!" onscreen message, though we get the monster coming back at the very end of the titles too) would be the most laughably brazen thing about them. Really, I had more fun watching the titles; they weren't as interminable as the film and at least showed some balls that the (PG-13) feature itself lacked.

See here's the thing - I'd rather watch a completely awful piece of rubbish like The Mangler than ego-driven nonsense like this. Director/writer/editor/producer/co-star/car designer/visual effects consultant (seriously)/3-4 other titles I've forgotten Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad is clearly full of himself and interested more in showing off his car than making a good movie. In fact I'm surprised he wasn't playing the main character himself, a la The Room, which this could have been the next of had it not been so damn dull. The plot may be gibberish, but it's got competent acting (William Atherton even pops up, but not as an asshole!), halfway decent production value, and a cool monster courtesy of Robert Kurtzman. In other words, it's not bad ENOUGH - it's just a hollow shell of a movie with zero passion on display. There's no insanity like The Room, nor anything as jaw droppingly awful as the finale of The Mangler, with a giant laundry machine stampeding around dimly lit hallways... it's just THERE, boring us to tears with every new long-winded explanation of a mythology that couldn't possibly excite anyone. I'm all for using real life mythology as a backdrop for a genre flick (the Chilla, for example, is a legitimate and very difficult ritual - though it doesn't help you fight monsters as far as I know), and it's rare to see Islamic customs being used in this sort of thing, but it's got to have a compelling hero with a strong motive at its core - otherwise it's just window dressing. Our hero is just some guy with a fascinating car. Maybe the car should have talked and taken over hero duties itself.

What say you?


Stage Fright (2014)

APRIL 6, 2014


If they had thrown in a Community reference, there would be no doubt in my mind that Stage Fright was made for a very specific audience of one: Brian Collins. I mean, putting Meat Loaf into a movie is already a guaranteed butt in the seat, but Loaf SINGING, which is incredibly rare (out of 60+ films, he's only sung in about 5 of them)? And in a SLASHER movie? One with a custom mask instead of a giant coat like half of the modern slashers are given? And with a song during the end credits ABOUT THE END CREDITS??? Which are done with the "Carpenter" font that accompanied most of his films? These are all niche-y things that I've confessed my love for time and time again, so to have them all in one movie is pretty damn rare, and thus I didn't pay too much attention to pans OR raves from pals who saw it at SXSW last month - this movie was too in sync with my personal tastes for anyone else's opinion to matter much.

The funny thing is, even without the Loaf and the other things, I'd be excited to see the movie since it was the feature debut of Jerome Sable, who was the genius behind The Legend of Beaver Dam - hands down my favorite short of the past 5 years or so. It could have been a straight up drama and I'd be curious to see how he fared with a feature length narrative, but since it didn't stray too far from Beaver Dam's inspired "slasher meets musical" approach, I had high hopes. Were they met? Well, sort of - it's not exactly a home run, and there were times where I was flat out disappointed, but overall I was entertained and had a dumb smile on my face for many sequences. It may not be perfect, but for a feature debut, it's a damn good start.

It definitely feels like a film from someone used to shorter pieces, however. The first 5-10 minutes are damn near perfect, offering a gory murder and a full musical number from the majority of the cast - perfectly setting up the concept and showing their hand to potential lameos in the audience who thought they were there for one thing or the other. And then Loaf comes in and starts singing the 2nd number, and while it's not very good (it's probably the weakest in the film, admittedly), it calmed my fears that he'd be a minor character who exited the movie early (I was also relieved that he sang - he's been in a few other music-heavy movies without actually singing himself). Indeed, this is actually one of his bigger acting roles in quite a while (of the ones I've seen; he does a lot of indies that sound unbearable and thus I avoid them), showing up quite often and lasting all the way to the final reel. His mustache is ridiculous, but you get to hear him yell "FUCK!" over and over at one point, so it's a good treat for his fans, especially if they are like me and thus disappointed his roles in Tenacious D and Burning Bright (two of his more promising sounding gigs) were relegated to a single scene each.

But he is not the main character. That would be the very lovely Allie MacDonald as Camilla, whose mother (Minnie Driver in a cameo) was murdered after a performance of "The Haunting of the Opera", a "Phantom"-esque musical that she was starring in at the time of her demise. It's now 10 years later, and Camilla works as the cook at a musical theater camp, which has just opened for the season and will be putting on a production of... you guessed it, "The Haunting of the Opera". Camilla wants to work out some of her demons by auditioning for the role her mother inhabited, something the director doesn't think much of but the producer (Loaf), who has also been sort of her father figure, allows. As you might expect, people start dying at the hands of a killer who looks like the one in the play, which has been retrofitted to take place in feudal Japan (hence the Kabuki mask).

However, not ENOUGH people die at his hands. Because there are a bunch of kids around, logically there can't be much of a body count until the night the show premieres, as they would obviously be freaked and demand to leave the camp. But since the plot involves auditioning, rehearsal, etc - there's a lot of down time in between the opening kill and the next, to the point where you might forget you're watching a slasher movie. The killer makes a few appearances in between, snarling at photos of all the would-be victims and singing quick rhymes about how much he hates their music or whatever, but that doesn't count - they really should have opted to have a kill scene somewhere in between; a telephone repairman or something would suffice - anyone they could kill off without anyone noticing/caring that he was missing. Curiously, there aren't a lot of songs in here either; we hear snippets of the ones from the play, but otherwise there isn't another full blown musical number for a while - the movie just kind of drags until opening night.

Luckily, once we get there the movie really comes (back) to life. Just as a good short will have a knockout closing moment, the movie quickly makes you forgive its earlier lapses; the Kabuki Killer gets really active, there are more songs (including a hilarious metal one from the killer that I was humming later), and Sable finally finds the best balance between the needs of his story AND both of his genres - it all works almost perfectly (though I was bummed to discover an off-screen kill - in a movie that needed more as is, you shouldn't be robbing us of one!). The killer reveal isn't too shocking, but there's an extra twist to it that worked well, and a character gets a shockingly gory demise that I was legitimately surprised by - it's like some Grand Guignol shit all of a sudden. Plus, again, the end credits have a song about the movie, something I always love anyway (and he even thanks people for reading the credits! God, if they had just hired me to do their titles I'd have a permanent nerd boner at that bit).

I do wish that the younger cast members were given more to do, however. I get why they wouldn't be part of the slasher stuff, but after their glorious opening number where they sing about how happy they are to be at camp where no one will make fun of them or beat them up for liking musicals, they're basically just background players. Most of the focus is on the older people: Loaf, MacDonald, the director, the creepy janitor, a big NY theater guy who is coming to see the play... some of the kids could have easily have been the star of their own movie (particularly the one with glasses who was there to avoid his dad, and the one with the lisp), but after the play has been announced they're just sort of THERE. Friday the 13th Part VI had the same sort of scenario; little kids couldn't be Jason fodder like the adults, but they found enough for them to do (the kid reading Sartre still kills me) to give them a real reason to be there - here it was basically just cancelling out a ton of suspects/victims without any real payoff.

But like I said, it's a good start for a filmmaker who clearly isn't interested in doing generic fright fare, and seems to embrace the challenge of doing a horror comedy. With James Gunn and now Drew Goddard off making superhero stuff, we could definitely use a talented filmmaker to fill the void in this particular sub-genre. Stage Fright is by no means perfect, but how many of our great horror filmmakers really hit it out of the park their first time? If this is Sable's Dark Star or Hollywood Boulevard, then I am perfectly fine with that, and eagerly await his Halloween/Gremlins.

What say you?


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