OCTOBER 11, 2014
Because they are so cheap to make, Jason Blum's "Blumhouse Productions" are usually a sure thing at the box office - most of them are pretty good (Insidious, Sinister, etc), which helps, but with budgets capped at around 5 million they almost CAN'T be considered bombs as long as there's a good marketing hook to ensure a curious opening weekend. So when he created a sub-division (called "Tilt") to release some of his movies direct to VOD (with very limited theatrical runs for a few), you have to wonder if they're just horrible movies, or if they just have nothing that can yield a terrific trailer. Such is the fate of Mockingbird and Mercy, both of which could boast a "From the director of _____" claim as well as Blum's usual "From the producer of Insidious and (whatever the latest hit is)" one, but aren't being given the chance to turn into a surprise hit like The Purge or whatever.
Mockingbird is the bigger surprise, even though it has no stars. As it's the followup (finally!) film from Bryan Bertino, who wrote and directed the quite good (and quite profitable) The Strangers, I had high hopes for this one and expected to see it on the big screen, with his struggles to get a Strangers sequel (or anything else) going making this one even more alluring. "At least it's SOMETHING," I thought, worried but not totally convinced it'd be a stinker when it was announced that it'd be joining some other films in Blum's dump pile. Alas, I can't recall the last sophomore effort from a filmmaker that left me so disappointed; even though Mockingbird is, at times, a found footage version of The Strangers, Bertino never managed to engineer any real suspense, and despite a 82 minute length I found myself checking the time remaining display an alarming number of times.
It's got an intriguing hook (and a terrific beginning), at least. One night, three people find a video camera at their door, and are initially happy at their good fortune (one of them assumes it's their prize for a survey they filled out at the mall), only to get weirded out when they discover that the cameras' off buttons don't seem to work and they get creepy messages insisting that they never stop filming. It's a good way around the common found footage "Why are they still filming this?" problem, and it's set in the 90s so there are no cell phones or high tech gizmos to use to keep things "visually interesting" (meaning, they don't cut to security cam footage or a Skype call and ruin the whole POV aspect). The three people don't seem to know each other, but it's not exactly a spoiler to say that they will eventually meet up as they run through their tormentor's hoops. Videos arrive that prove that our heroes are being watched, one couple learns that their daughters are in danger, etc.
It's all well and good at first (except for the grating title cards), and doesn't take too long to get to the "scary/exciting" parts, but that's the problem - these things SHOULD be scary or exciting, but they're not. The constantly changing POV does it no favors - perhaps if presented as a sort of anthology that showed one journey in its entirety before cutting back to another POV from earlier in the night, it'd work better, but the character of Beth has no one to play off of (she's on the phone with someone for a bit at first, but otherwise it's a solo show), so whenever they cut to her it kills the energy built up by the others. Also the tones vary from one scenario to the other - the couple (who we meet first, and I think spend the most time with overall) is a straight up family-in-crisis/home invasion type thing, where their daughters are missing and the tormentors are being the most aggressive (RIP kitty). But Beth is on her own, so her scenes have her just kind of creeping around the house (and later, the yard separating her place from a giant estate), opting for more subtle creepout moments than the in your face thrills of the other.
And then there's the clown story, which is practically played for laughs. In that, an annoying loser who lives with his mom is tasked with dressing up like a clown and going around town pulling odd pranks or getting hit on purpose or whatever, like a Jackass movie but with just one of them. The scenery keeps changing and again it's more comedic than scary, so again we have the issue where the tone of the movie keeps changing, ruining any of the scenarios' chances of being effective as a whole. There are isolated moments, like when Beth has to confront a mannequin with a looped recording saying "Pick it up! Pick up the box!", which is fairly unnerving on its own, but before long it's back to the clown doing jumping jacks or whatever the hell. I'd bet money that there WAS a cut that presented each storyline in its own contained way, and it didn't work either so this was done to spice it up - I'd be very curious to see it the other way if I'm right.
It's no theory for Mercy though - this movie ("from the director of The Haunting In Connecticut!") definitely went through some tinkering. Running a mere 77 minutes (!), the film tries desperately to cut around what was clearly an earlier introduction for Dylan McDermott's character than currently presented, but they miss a shot. So you see him sitting with our main characters for a second, with no indication of who he is or how he relates to them, and if you haven't read the credits you'll just be sitting there saying "Wait, what the hell is Dylan McDermott doing there all of a sudden?", and then it's not for another 10 minutes that you see him again, this time with a (sort of) proper introduction. Even the most casual viewer could sense something was amiss, and the movie as a whole seems like the majority of the first act was chopped out to get to the "good stuff" quicker.
To be fair, it's not too bad - grandma (Shirley Knight) is either suffering from dementia or possessed by something, and of her three kids only Frances O'Connor has the patience to help take care of her, and she ropes in her kids (including Walking Dead's Chandler Riggs) to assist. But it's clear that meds and specialty foods aren't going to keep her calm, because WITCHES, man, so Riggs has to solve the mystery and get threatened by the non surprise villain and blah blah. It's like a 70s TV movie, actually, and while that's all well and good in theory, it's got the blandness without the charm (oh, and it'll cost you 20 bucks to watch as of this writing, instead of airing for free on one of the only 3 channels you had). Still, at least most of the tinkering is seemingly confined to the first act, and it's got a fun turn from Mark Duplass as O'Connor's asshole brother - he's basically playing a Rob Corddry type, and it's delightful.
And I don't know if it was just some weird thing the writer threw in, or taken from the Stephen King short story it's based on (I haven't read it, far as I can recall) but Riggs' older brother is a budding chef, so you have scenes of him trying to get people to eat sushi, and McDermott giving him a gift card to the grocery store... it's like, they cut McDermott's intro (and I think part of his backstory), but left in THIS? It's so random that I kind of liked it, and even though they don't have the balls to kill him off I appreciate the moment where he gets supernaturally attacked (like something out of a Final Destination movie) by refuse from a woodchipper. And even though he's like 12 or whatever, Riggs gets in on the action; Knight even throws him across the room during the climax. So if you ever wanted to see Paul Blart's mom smack Carl Grimes around, this will be your favorite movie ever. Everyone else... it's FINE, but so forgettable I'm already having trouble remembering how it ended (not the case with Mockingbird, which I watched first - I specifically remember that horribly dumb ending that retroactively ruins the best moment in the movie).
I know it's pretty rare to do a double up review here (obvious joke: it's rare to post anything at ALL here lately, yes yes), but it's hard not to lump them together - they're both Blumhouse castoffs that were at one point set to be wide released by Universal, finally being dumped on VOD on the same day. I may not care much for either of them, but I didn't love Purge either and that went on to make a zillion dollars for Universal and Blum, so my curiosity of "what happened" with these two is pretty piqued (certainly more than it was by anything on screen in either movie). That they're going out with M titles is also telling - this is an age where movies routinely get retitled in order to get better placement in the alphabetized VOD listings (a movie I did the titles for got changed from an S title to an "F" for this very reason), so they're leaving them right in the middle of the road, effectively burying them on VOD, as well as WITHIN VOD. They're doing the same with Stretch, a new Joe Carnahan film starring Patrick Wilson (who appeared in two of last year's biggest genre moneymakers, Insidious 2 and Conjuring), and the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which I reviewed (positively) for Badass Digest. I'm not sure how many other Blumhouse projects will be met with the same fate, but it'll be a bummer if only the Purge and Insidious franchises get a shot from now on - what happened to taking low stakes gambles?
What say you?