SEPTEMBER 6, 2016
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
The easiest complaint to lobby at the slasher sub-genre is that they lack ideas when it comes to narrative, saving too much of the relative creativity for the kill scenes while giving the killer a motive we've seen in a dozen other films. The new slasher Tell Me How I Die bucks this trend, utilizing a fairly unique idea for a body count flick - a group of college students who are earning extra cash by participating in a new drug study find that what they took (a memory enhancement drug that hopes to combat Alzheimer's) allows them to see glimpses of the future. One sees nearly everyone being killed by an unseen murderer as a result, and thus naturally her visions start coming true. It's a bit Final Destination-y, sure, but by applying the basic concept (seeing everyone die and trying to stop it from happening) to a traditional masked killer/single location scenario is enough to give it its own identity, and beyond the vision scene it's about as much of a Final Destination knockoff as Child's Play is of Magic (which is to say, not really one at all).
The key difference is that while the Final Destination movies embrace the nutty concept and make the films a lot of fun to watch, Tell Me How I Die is an interminable bore, running at least 20 minutes too long and barely using the concept for anything interesting. The best death scene is that of a security guard who gets his foot caught in a bear trap and then crawls his way to presumed safety, only to get his damn head caught in one (he doesn't crawl much after that), and he had nothing to do with the experiment or visions. The others are mostly off-screen (even a basic stabbing!), with the film committing the number one cardinal sin of slashers: offing a bunch of people in one fell swoop, which is only acceptable if it's a spectacular death scene (think The Collection). Here, the killer just gases a bunch of the anonymous test subjects (including one girl you'd swear was inspired by Barb from Stranger Things if it wasn't impossible for them to have seen the show before getting this film shot/released), and even that is mostly off-screen. It's funny, early on I actually commented that the movie had too many characters, assuming there would be some mass death scene to get things on track, but I was thinking more on the lines of The Burning - not a friggin GAS sequence in a slasher. I mean, Christ. That'd be like a giant monster killing people by shooting them.
(OK I might like to see that.)
Worse, naturally the gassing doesn't kill ALL of them, but the script takes way too much time to get the body count moving along after that, with the five survivors lasting way too long before any of them are offed. This would be fine if they didn't know they were in danger and engaging in normal behavior, but they see the killer even BEFORE the gas sequence, so they're in hysteric, "we gotta get out of here!" mode the entire time, which gets awfully repetitive and grating - and again, the movie is too damn long as it is. Even at the slasher standard time of 88 minutes, you'd probably get sick of seeing these people run through corridors and arguing about how the visions work long before the ending finally came, so this is almost legitimate torture. Add in the obligatory "We see a thing happen and then snap back to realize it's just a vision of something we're about to watch again with a minor variation" scenes and you have a movie that runs 105 or so minutes with maybe 10 of them offering anything interesting or exciting.
For no real reason, the movie is set during a horrific blizzard - the subjects are told they can't go outside because they need to be observed round the clock (this doesn't stop one character from shrieking "They've been watching us the WHOLE TIME?!?!" when a two way mirror is discovered, by the way), so it could be bright and sunny for all it matters. It's mostly an excuse to give the killer a "costume" (read: a big coat and either a hat or a hood, I couldn't really tell), not that it matters since there's zero mystery to the whodunit angle as its someone we had never seen before anyway. Some of the kids make their way to a car and sit in it for a while debating their next move, but the cold doesn't play much of a part - the car works, so they just turn on the heat, and even when they're outside they barely seem to notice the elements. The entire movie was apparently shot in Los Angeles, which would explain why the snow and cold didn't bother them (because it was either fake or CGI), but for the life of me I can't really see a point to why they bothered going to all that effort. There's a nice shot of the heroine driving up to the isolated study building, surrounded by snow-covered trees, but you can see that in the trailer anyway so it's hardly a selling point for the film.
" If the movie DOES have one saving grace, it's William Mapother as the doctor running the test. He's a bit "off" (I don't want to offend anyone by labeling him with the wrong disorder, because the movie doesn't name it, so let's just say his character seems to fall on a certain "spectrum" and leave it at that), and it's fascinating watching that kind of person deal with the usual horror movie cliches. When he's on the safe side of the door and the kids are banging on it asking him to open it, he casually explains that he won't do that because he's safe and they're not, which is hilarious. Plus he's kind of a villain, so it doesn't really matter to him if any of the kids get killed as he's only concerned about his drug test - not exactly a unique plot point in itself, but seeing those sentiments expressed by a guy who might as well be asking if anyone has any gum as opposed to a sneering/sleazy villain (think Burke in Aliens) gives those moments a little more life than they'd usually offer in this day and age - and certainly more than the rest of the movie can bother to provide. I wish I could say Mark Rolston (the only other person in the movie I recognized) offered the same sort of reprieve, but he's tasked with a silly accent that does him no favors. Good job, movie, you made me dread another scene with a great character actor like Mark Rolston.
I guess I should mention the "Youtube superstar" of the movie, the Asian guy on the poster (I won't use his name so as not to attract his fans - I've already seen some of their over-exaggerated fawning and I want no part of it). He's pretty terrible, trying to be the comic relief with lines that aren't funny, and sits out a large chunk of the middle section until stumbling out as a would-be red herring (if anyone buys this for a second, they sure picked a shitty slasher movie to be the first one they apparently ever saw). So despite his poster presence, he's not really that big of a character - I'd compare him to maybe Ted in Friday the 13th Part 2 in terms of significance, and then I'd just continue sighing that people with lots of social media followers are considered draws for modern horror films. Silver lining: it didn't work, as besides myself and my friends, there was only one other guy in the theater... for a movie showing once a day at one theater, which presumably should be drawing in bigger crowds since all potential Los Angeles viewers are being funneled into this one screening. Good tactic, producers!
It's a shame that the movie didn't work for me at all; I love to champion slashers, and to its credit it's at least well-made on a technical sense, and despite spending a lot of the time yelling the characters aren't THAT obnoxious (no one's cheating on their spouse, so they're already ahead of like half of modern horror movies with college-aged characters in that department). But when the hook is a total bust, the deaths are almost all off-screen, and we never get a really good look at the killer (let alone enjoy a nice stalking sequence or anything like that), it's just a total failure in the departments that count. A bad book doesn't get saved because they chose a nice font.
What say you?