Welcome!

If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking 1-2x a week, and it's better late than never! Before reading any of the "reviews", you should read the intro, the FAQ, the MOVIES I HAVE ALREADY SEEN list, and if you want, the glossary of genre terms and "What is Horror?", which explains some of the "that's not horror!" entries. And to keep things clean, all off topic posts are re-dated to be in JANUARY 2007 (which was before I began doing this little project) once they have 'expired' (i.e. are 10 days old).

Due to many people commenting "I have to see this movie!" after a review, I have decided to add Amazon links within the reviews (they are located at the bottom), as well as a few links to the Horror Movie A Day Store around the page, hopefully non-obstructively. Amazon will also automatically link things they find relevant, so there might be a few random links in a review as well. If they become annoying, I'll remove the functionality. Right now I'm just kind of amused what they come up with (for example, they highlighted 'a horror movie' in the middle of one review and it links to, of all things, the 50 Chilling Movies Budget Pack!!!).

Last but not least, some reviews contain spoilers (NOTE - With a few exceptions, anything written on the back of the DVD or that occurs less than halfway through the movie I do NOT consider a spoiler). I will be adding 'spoiler alerts' for these reviews as I go through and re-do the older reviews (longtime readers may notice that there is now a 'show more' which cleaned up the main page, as well as listing the source of the movie I watched, i.e. Theaters, DVD, TV) to reflect the new format. This is time consuming, so bear with me.

Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

APRIL 21, 2017

GENRE: ALIEN (?), MOCKUMENTARY
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I can't recall if it was for an article, in a conversation, or maybe just a few tweets, but a while back I listed a few "rules" for making an effective found footage movie, after growing weary of seeing so many that failed to even come close to presenting any sort of reality. I mean, sure, when you're walking into Paranormal Activity 6 you can't expect anything even remotely believable (which is the key to making these particular movies work, but what do I know? I'm just the guy laughing at the series' downfall), but standalone films really have no excuse for the sloppiness I often see. So I'm happy to say that Phoenix Forgotten gets a lot more right than it does wrong, and its only real flaw is joining a party that's essentially over. Had it come out during the format's peak in popularity (2011-ish), we might be singling it out as one of the best of the lot. Now, it's just likely to ignored, and eventually give lazy punwriters an easy mark given its unfortunate title.

The most important one of these rules is to let the viewer get sucked into the possibility that what we're watching is real. Now, I mean in a general sense - I know Ridley Scott did not produce an actual snuff film, but if they do their job, I should catch myself on occasion thinking that I'm seeing at least SOME actual footage, not an entirely fictional piece. Because if they can't do that, there's really no point to the POV aesthetic - it's limiting for the filmmakers and can be a turnoff for some viewers (motion sickness, for starters), so when handicapped from the start it baffles me that so many fail to even try to depict a naturally shot piece. Impossible cutaways, recognizable actors, overuse of CGI, people filming their own loved ones being murdered... all these sins are committed time and time again, but I saw little to none of that stuff here. In fact, given the way the movie is structured, I really believed that I was watching re-purposed footage for a while, as if filmmaker Justin Harper found someone's home movies and creatively cut them in a way that could be used as genuine backdrop for a present day story he made up.

And that leads to the second rule Harper and his crew thankfully followed - they made the movie compelling from the get-go. Far too many of these films have long buildup to brief payoffs (even some of the good ones are technically guilty of this), because there's just the one or two cameras being used on this one trip into the woods or whatever, and the movie has to hit a feature runtime but also make sure no one is too rattled to keep shooting. Phoenix finds a pretty simple but effective way around this - it splits the timeline between the present day and 1997, with the present day scenes featuring a young woman (Sophie) who is making a documentary about what happened to her brother Josh, who disappeared twenty years ago... and also liked to film his adventures. At first, we're not even sure how their story ended - we know she's trying to find out what happened to him and his two friends, but the movie doesn't straight up tell us in the present day that he was never found. We see old news footage and such about the initial search for them, but unless I missed something*, they avoid coming down hard on their status in the present day. For all we know they found the bodies, or they found the three teens but they were so haunted by whatever they saw out there that they're unable to communicate anymore. I think it's around the halfway point that we get concrete proof that they are indeed still missing (presumed dead), as until then they just keep things vague: "I want to know what happened to my brother" or things along those lines. It kind of reminded me of the show I Shouldn't Be Alive, which would depict tragedies that befell rock climbers or white water rafters or whatever - there would be a group of 3-4 people who get lost/injured, but only 1-2 of them would be telling the story so we could still be in suspense about what happened to the others.

Another thing in the movie's favor in these early scenes is that it's funny, even somewhat charming at times. Two of the kids do a little spoof of the end of Contact, the aloof dad hopes that if they saw air force planes that it's "our air force", our wannabe documentarian hero is given advice on how to be a better interviewer, etc. And when they visit a pair of UFO enthusiasts and tell them that they shot the footage that was used on the news (the lights first appeared during Sophie's birthday party, so the camera was already out), one of them says "Oh that was you? Congrats! Can you please try to focus next time?" (or something along those lines) that literally made me burst out laughing. It's an unspoken tradition for these things that the people who seemingly want to be filmmakers kind of suck at it, so it's funny to see it actually called out for once (and by a jovial old guy who is still charmed by the kids and helping them out). Likability is a problem in modern horror as a whole, and even the best FF movies tend to have obnoxious protagonists (Micah, Heather, etc.) - it's not often I find myself genuinely enjoying all of the characters in one of these things.

The movie also gives us enough clues to suggest something more grounded than aliens might be responsible for their disappearance (if anything, they kind of make the abduction possibility more of a late-game theory, as opposed to something they assume right off the bat). Josh has a crush on the girl of the group (Ashley), but it seems that she is more into his buddy Mark, who they bring along on their UFO spotting trip because he has a car and better survival skills (i.e. reading a compass). In the present day we learn that some blood and a few beer cans were found in the car, so the idea that maybe this was merely a tragic love triangle/drunken accident is teased for a bit. It's also heartbreaking when Josh's mom (in the present day) says she hopes that Ashley had feelings for him in return, as he never had a girlfriend and she wanted him to experience that in his short life - because we know she didn't, and if he is dead, then I guess he did indeed die without having any romantic encounters. Since very few of these films ever bother with a dual timeline or even present day bookends, we never get any sense of how these mysterious disappearances weigh on their loved ones, so I loved seeing this brief moment of rather gut-wrenching humanity.

Then of course there's the possibility that they saw something they shouldn't have and were disposed of in the vast desert, with drug dealers and such brought up briefly as potential theories. But the one that's given some actual weight is that old standby: government coverup. As with all UFO cases (and the Phoenix Lights sightings in 1997 really did happen, look it up if you're unfamiliar), there's always the "It was the government testing a spy plane" or whatever idea, and there is indeed an air force base near where the kids are looking for the lights to appear again. Harper smartly uses some legitimate real news footage of the governor of Arizona mocking the idea of aliens back in 1997, juxtaposed with the (also real) fact that he admitted it could have been extraterrestrial about a decade later, when he was no longer governor and thus didn't have to worry about looking silly and/or trying to keep his people from panicking. Obviously, anyone sitting in the audience "knows" it's aliens because of the trailer (and a random drug dealer would be a really underwhelming answer), but if you don't see the trailer (and I never did, for the record), the film does a fine job of keeping "alien abduction" out of your head for a surprising amount of time, by utilizing the little bits of evidence they do have to present more grounded theories.

(My initial theory: he was murdered by Fox executives, because in 1997 he somehow has a VHS copy of X-Files: Fight the Future in his bedroom. The two friends were collateral damage.)

The key to all of this "we don't know" stuff is the fact that they've only found the first tape the kids made, because the second (final?) one obviously would have been on them at the time they disappeared. So the first 45-50 minutes of the movie have a Lake Mungo-esque feel to it, as if we were watching an Unsolved Mysteries episode where they had actual footage instead of recreations. As I said, they had me believing for a while that the 1997 footage was all legit - the aspect ratio and quality changes to what they'd actually have back then (4:3 VHS quality crap), unlike Paranormal Activity 3 and some others that couldn't be bothered to try to match the proper technology for the time. And even more importantly, what we were seeing really wasn't all that unbelievable - the incident was real, and there probably IS footage shot by an adventurous teenager, running around in the local desert hoping to get more proof of it. In reality, that kid would find nothing and go home, but if a filmmaker in 2017 got access to that footage and cut it up in between newly shot (fictional) scenes of actors pretending to be related to the people in that footage, no one in the audience would be the wiser, and it'd be pretty creative to boot.

Of course, that illusion is eventually shattered when their final tape is found, thanks to a librarian who finds their damaged school camera in storage (how it got sent to them isn't spelled out, but the camera has a "Property of (whatever school it is)" sticker on it, so we can assume someone found it and mailed it to them however many years later). The tape is a bit beat up but can be played, and at this point we see it play straight through, revealing what happened to them (well, mostly, it's a single camera hampered by 1997 technology, so it's not exactly crystal clear, but that's also realistic). If there's one thing about the movie that bugged me, it's that they don't return to the present day after the footage is watched. It's treated as a reveal; she hits PLAY and then they cut to later as she is stunned by whatever was on the tape, and then she makes an inquiry at the air force base to see if they can help her explain what she saw, but they refuse to help. Then she just kind of shrugs and we watch the entire tape in full, and when it finishes the movie is over. Does she show it to her mom, or the other kids' parents? Upload it to Youtube? Finish her documentary? We just don't know. It's kind of a weird way to close it up, because the movie is presented more as her journey than his, and we kinda figure from the start that his ended in tragedy, so it would have been nice to see how things ended up in the present day.

As for that last tape, this is where the movie becomes more traditionally found footage-y: they goof off a bit, they film more than necessary, and finally they get lost. The period setting serves it well; we know they won't have GPS or cell phones (these existed in 1997, but no explanation is required for their absence - they weren't commonplace as they are now), and they just have the one camera, so 99% of the time it's Josh's POV, allowing us to never forget whose POV we're seeing (a major issue with many FF films, especially Blair Witch 3 and pretty much any one about ghost hunters). But they justify the continued filming in a way I don't think I've heard before - when the obligatory group member goes missing, the other two keep shooting landmarks, so they can retrace their steps in the morning (rather than run in circles looking for him in the dark, they decide to keep moving in order to find help). And we get answers for the blood and beer cans, so that has its own small charms when we discover the actual context for their existence. I mean, if you're sick to death of these movies I don't think there's anything in this segment that will change your mind, but take it from this "expert" - they do way more right than wrong here.

Apparently, it's all for naught as far as box office goes, as the film is expected to only gross a mere $2m this weekend, which is pathetic for a film opening on 1500+ screens (to compare, Blair Witch Project sold about that many tickets on its opening weekend - which was in only 27 theaters). It's not the film's fault; I think the audience is just burned on this sub-genre for the time being, and it's not quite ready for a revival, even if the movie delivers the goods (though I should stress it's not particularly scary; unlike Blair Witch Project's strange noises and such throughout, it's really only the last five minutes that put the movie in the "scary movie" genre, as it's otherwise basically a straight up mystery documentary). Hopefully it will find its audience on home video and VOD down the line, but even if not I hope they can take some solace knowing that they won me over - I'm as tired of these movies as anyone, and was not expecting to enjoy it (I don't go into a movie HOPING to hate it, I just didn't think there would be anything to hook me in. I was really only going because I hadn't updated the site all week and had time to see it before work). But it didn't take long for me to realize that they actually thought the POV aesthetic through and knew how to keep the audience engaged without cheating or breaking any semblance of "reality", and remained largely free and clear of the genre's usual pitfalls. Good job, folks - sorry about all the shitty ones over the past couple years that apparently have audiences unwilling to give yours a chance.

What say you?

*Very possible, as the theater skipped their usual 20 minutes of trailers due to a technical issue, starting the movie "early" (a few minutes past its actual listed time). I had to wait for them to brew coffee, because god forbid they ever make it before being reminded, so when I walked into the theater expecting trailers, I saw the movie was already on. It doesn't seem like I missed anything of note (it couldn't have been on for more than 30-60 seconds), but it's possible there was some text at the top that clearly stated their status in 2017.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Tank 432 (2015)

APRIL 11, 2017

GENRE: PSYCHOLOGICAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

While I'm neither a scholar or even dedicated fan of Ben Wheatley (I've only seen two of his movies, but Free Fire is one of my most anticipated films of the year, if that makes up for it), the name means enough to me by now to know that whatever the project is, it will be an interesting one. To be fair, Tank 432 (formerly Belly of the Bulldog) is merely executive produced by him, which is often a ceremonial credit one lends to a pal in order to get the film a bit more attention (hey, it worked!), and writer Nick Gillespie is a frequent collaborator of Wheatley's, making his feature debut here. I can't speak as to whether or not that is definitely the case here, but if you thought Wheatley's own films were puzzling and cold, you should steer far clear of this one, as it makes something like Kill List look like the most formulaic studio release in ages.

I don't usually do plot summaries, but I'll break tradition here because, quite frankly, it's pretty much all I can say about the film with any certainty. A group of mercenary soldiers are trying to transport two hooded POWs (if this is even a war) on foot when they come across some corpses and a car that won't start. They make their way further and find a tank, but before they can fully check it out someone starts shooting at them so they dive inside and shut the door, inadvertently trapping themselves. Then they start going through the motions of single-location horror (trust and mental states break down in equal measures) and people start dying. Our lead (Rupert Evans from The Boy) is kind to the prisoners while the rest of the squad is not, and one soldier hates rookies - and now I've also told you everything I learned about the characters in 90 minutes.

To be fair, I am not now nor have I ever been much of a fan of these kind of aloof, "mood above coherence" horror or thriller movies, because I tend to prefer a narrative that I can get a grasp on and characters I can give a shit about (or at least tell apart, which I had trouble doing at first until two of the men were removed from the equation). Nothing wrong with a little mystery, and I don't need every question answered, but this is a movie that starts not unlike a segment in Memento, albeit without the "OK now we will flash back ten minutes so you can see how he ended up in this chase scene" explanations. I actually had to double check the runtime because it seemed like my Blu-ray skipped forward a few minutes, and it's far too late by the time we learn that not knowing what was going on in the first minute was part of the point. That I'm still unsure of what the point WAS is just the cherry on top, I guess. Gillespie based the film on his own short story "The Smith Hill Forest Incident", but I'm not sure if it was ever published, because the only evidence of its existence that I was able to find online was in reviews/press notes for this movie. Perhaps it will yield some clues if he ever releases it, though if it's not in the next few hours, I'll likely forget all about it.

That said, there's JUST enough here to give it a look as long as you're prepared for such rampant ambiguity. As you might expect given the "psychological" tagging, hallucinations are common, and the assorted visuals that accompany them - gas masked specters, flash-forwards of our characters covered in a mysterious orange powder, insects and the like - do their job in unsettling the audience just as the characters are. The claustrophobic setting is also inspired; when I heard the movie involved characters trapped in a tank I assumed that they were "trapped" as in pinned down and not able to get far from it, not literally trapped inside one. Gillespie cheats a bit to give his angles (i.e. the camera is aimed at the right side of Evans' face, but on the reverse shot we can see he's up against the side of the tank and therefore no camera could be there unless that side was removed), but apart from establishing shots used to show time passing he stays inside with everyone, rather than cut to other characters or a command center or anything like that. They're in the tank for a good 45-50 minutes before this approach is abandoned, enough time to be as sick of being in there as they are. The story may be incoherent, but the film as a whole sure allows us to feel the same way its characters do.

Also, I'm not sure if this is a compliment or not (complisult? h/t Community), but since we don't know what's going on or what these folks are all about, the movie is NOT the latest in the endless series of war-set horror films where our heroes are undone by the traumas of war, like Deathwatch, R Point, Below, The Squad, etc. Do these people deserve their fate? Are their pursuers actually the ghosts (real or imagined) of innocent victims of the war they're fighting? Couldn't tell you, so we can say they're NOT and this is different than 90% of horror films with war backdrops. Much like found footage movies about abandoned asylums, I think I've seen enough of those movies, so I was a bit relieved when I realized this was not the latest one. And even if it is, at least it's still different, because those I usually understood and here I was just frequently wondering if I perhaps fell asleep or somehow activated a "shuffle scenes" feature on my Blu-ray player.

But like I said, there are folks who really love those kinds of movies, and they're probably not being satisfied as of late, especially not on a professional level with recognizable actors and actual production value. The actors are fine, the score is quite good and it's never dull to watch, so it technically meets watchability requirements - it just lacked that element that makes some hard to follow movies compelling (see: most David Lynch), where I might want to rewatch a film to see if I could get the answers on a second go around. Here, they didn't give me enough to care to do that, but if I'm not in the target audience I guess it doesn't matter much what I think. You guys can keep making fun of me for liking Shocker or whatever, it's fine.

What say you?

*Yes, war + orange usually means Agent Orange, but if that's what it's supposed to be I think Gillespie looked at the wrong symptoms.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Life (2017)

MARCH 24, 2017

GENRE: ALIEN
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

It's often said that horror is the one genre that doesn't require any stars, because people just want to be scared and it's easier to do that when it's a complete unknown playing the lead as opposed to Tom Cruise (The Mummy, coming this summer!) or whoever. But while it's true in general, there is still an obvious benefit to star power, which is why an Alien ripoff with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal goes to 3,000 screens while an Alien ripoff without them goes to the Syfy channel if it's lucky. But thankfully, Life has taken cues from other movies, notably Gravity and Apollo 13, making it the rare "An alien monster gets on the spaceship" movie that never loses focus of its sci-fi setting, making it seem fresher than expected and ultimately a rather enjoyable entry in this sub-genre, one that rarely graces the big screen (not counting actual Alien franchise entries, the only two I recall in the past fifteen years are Apollo 18 and Pandorum).

Now, please note that when I say this it's as an observation, not a critique - the irony about Alien being the one that we hold this sub-genre's standard to is the fact that its space setting really doesn't play much of a part in it once everyone's back on the ship. Our heroes are closer to truck drivers than astronauts, and large chunks of the ship just look like warehouses and maintenance tunnels - you can isolate a few scenes and show them to a newbie and they'd have no idea it was supposed to be a space-set film. There's no such chance of that here; the setting is the International Space Station, and everything is cramped and modular - plus you can almost always see outside into the darkness of outer space. And even more than that, our characters almost never sit down and certainly never walk anywhere (except on the exterior of the ship), as they float around for nearly every scene in which they're being chased or are trying to isolate "Calvin", the alien lifeform that follows tradition and tries to kill everyone on board while they work to make sure it doesn't get to Earth.

Even their methods of trying to kill the thing are more rooted in NASA than we usually see in these things. As they obviously have no weapons, our heroes' methods of flushing out/containing/killing the thing involve, for example, shutting off oxygen to key areas to lure him to where they want him. There's a sequence where it manages to get outside, and finds a way back in through one of the six thrusters, but as they don't have a visual on all of them they need to watch the meters for temperature changes within the thruster chambers. When the temp changes, they engage that thruster hoping to blow him right back out into space - but by doing so they are also pushing the station closer to the atmosphere, which is obviously not a good idea unless they're sure he's dead/gone. It's that sort of stuff that more than makes up for the fact that it does borrow from Ridley Scott's textbook more than a couple of times, as both films, for all their details and differences, are about an alien monster getting on a ship and picking off its crew one by one.

But hey, again, we don't see those on the big screen as often as we might, and it's not like the trailers tried to hide that fact. Indeed, I commend the trailer editor(s) for not cheating a single thing and giving us plenty of money shots, but expertly crafting them in a way that keeps the movie surprising even though we've seen a lot of it already. For example (not a spoiler, but it will lessen some suspense), the trailer shows us the alien latching itself onto that guy's hand, so we know that it's coming - but it's not the first time he engages with Calvin in that matter. So every time he goes to study it, we get tensed again, wondering if THIS will be the time that he gets nabbed. The editors also re-arrange the footage in a way that makes it look like some things happen early on actually happen in the 3rd act, and vice versa - the first death happens only about twenty or thirty minutes in, and it works like gangbusters. Speaking of the deaths, they're not the main reason the movie got an R rating (the F bombs are more to blame for the most part), but there's a subtle gruesomeness to them all the same. Calvin is fond of slipping inside of a body and eating its nutrients from within, and since everything's in zero-gravity you get lots of tiny blood droplets floating endlessly from a victim as they expire, with their corpse just floating in a hallway or whatever for the rest of the movie.

As for Calvin, he's a fairly unique monster himself, in that he is not humanoid in any way shape or form (it's a long time before a face-like appendage is even made visible) but more of a cross between a plant and an octopus? He gets a bit larger after every kill but he's never even as big as any of the characters, which is rare for this kind of movie as you're expecting some oddly shaped stunt guy to don a suit eventually. And like the astronauts he just floats everywhere, so it's a rare "flying" alien menace, plus his squishy nature allows him to get through tiny holes and vents easily, making containment a lot harder than simply closing a few doors on him. He's also exceptionally strong and can adapt quickly to new stimuli (and seems to be impervious to fire and other usual methods of harm), so the fact that he's a bit smaller than a Xenomorph or Leviathan ultimately means little in the long run. Oh, and if you're wondering, he's named by a contest-winning child back on Earth - as with the "how can we stop it" stuff, the writers really kind of thought through the reality of what would happen if some astronauts found proof of life on Mars, i.e. everyone back home would be excited and the astronauts would be on TV and seen as heroes to little kids.

On that note, the multi-national cast is pretty good, if not quite as balanced as the Nostromo or other ensemble crews. The ship's captain (Olga Dihovichnaya) doesn't get as much background story as her colleagues, and Hiroyuki Sanada's entire deal is shown on the trailer (he has a newborn kid!). And Reynolds lays on his wisecracking nature a little too thick in some scenes, as if he's only there as comic relief for the crew as well as the audience, though he thankfully knows to shut up when shit hits the fan. But they're all distinct individuals with clear jobs on the ship, as opposed to some others of this type where the crew seems a bit interchangeable. Here, when a specialist dies, that's it for that sort of thing - the others aren't trained to fix it. It doesn't get as coldly clinical as Sunshine (which co-starred Sanada, incidentally), but apart from one rather conventional scene where someone risks their life to save another who is being pulled away by Calvin, they all seem to get that dying is OK if it means the alien does too. That said, the "everyone must die" scenario doesn't quite play out as you'd expect, and I'll refrain from any further discussion on the film's conclusion other than to say it was a nice surprise.

Long story short, this is a case of "the devil's in the details", as it managed to take a very well-worn plot and make it stand out in a sea of imitators. Yes, the movie obviously has more of a budget than the stuff on Syfy and video store shelves of yore, but one must give credit to the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the Zombieland/Deadpool writers, playing it mostly serious for a change) for going in with the approach of "What would happen if this really happened" instead of "What would make for the coolest death scenes?" or whatever. With a little more character work (and a payoff for a bit about Rebecca Ferguson's blood that gets dropped) this would jump up to must-see status, as opposed to just "See it if you're in the mood for one of these, because it's one of the better ones". It can't ever escape Alien's shadow (the way the letters are spaced on the title card suggests they're not even really trying to, to be fair), but it makes a damn good effort, and gave me 100 solid minutes of entertainment regardless.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Slaughterhouse (1987)

MARCH 14, 2017

GENRE: SLASHER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REVIVAL SCREENING)

I don't know why I never rented Slaughterhouse as a kid; I distinctly recall seeing it at my usual video store right next to the Silent Night Deadly Night series, and obviously I was all about the slasher genre that it clearly belonged to, but for whatever reason I never gave it a chance. Maybe it was because I didn't hear much about it in Fangoria and such chances rarely paid off (see, or don't see: Iced), or maybe the lack of a mask on the killer's face left me less impressed. Or maybe I just somehow knew if I was patient I'd get to see it in the ideal setting: on the big screen with 200 other horror fans, on a 35mm print that would definitely contain the gore that may have been cut from the VHS*. Alas, as the film unspooled, I realized there was another possibility for skipping it: perhaps I just knew it wasn't very good.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a disaster or anything, and I could name a few worse slashers just from that same year (Open House, The Outing, Slumber Party Massacre 2...), which is worth noting since this was past the heyday of the genre and thus they were a bit rarer at this point, as even indie producers were making more creature/ghost-driven vehicles that could spotlight showy FX as opposed to splattered blood and disembodied limbs. So the slashers that were coming around, like this, weren't so much trying to compete with the Friday the 13ths and the like, but merely just catering to the non-discerning. With slashers only coming around every once in a while (as opposed to nearly every week as they were in the early '80s), there wasn't as much need to be GOOD, just... well, to exist at all for the people who were then like I am now: willing to watch anything as long as it had a big guy hacking up teenagers.

Whether this leeway dawned on its filmmakers or not is unknown, but after listening to their Q&A I don't think it did. The director did mention that he preferred comedies but understood it was easier to get a horror film made/sold than a comedy when you didn't have a lot of money, but I didn't get a sense that they were a bunch of get rich quick schemers - they seemed to genuinely want to deliver a good movie. And to its credit, despite their inexperience (if writer/director Rick Roessler has ever made anything else, the IMDb hasn't caught wind of it) the film actually manages to deliver some effective shots and interesting beats, including more than one wide shot where Buddy (the hulking brute killer) is there but not being heralded with a musical sting or anything like that. There's one terrific one where the heroine - who will be drawing your eye - is at the bottom of the frame looking for her friend, whose corpse is being dragged out of sight by Buddy, walking on the level above her. Stuff like that says to me someone was at least putting in effort to give the movie a little more oomph than required, and not just doing the bare minimum to get the movie finished and profitable.

If only that sort of elbow grease was applied to the script, they could have had a legitimately solid entry into the slasher canon. The ingredients are all there, but they're let down by a script that is hellbent on focusing on the wrong things, and goes beyond slow pacing into almost surreal territory. For example, we meet our standard group of six teens in the first scene, where they are partying near the titular location. Two of them sneak off to fool around, annoy Buddy, and get killed - perfectly normal stuff. Then we cut to the next morning, and the other four have noticed their friends are missing but don't think much of it. After a full reel of farting around town (I swear a good ten minutes of this movie is just of the male lead driving his orange jeep around), they all go back to the slaughterhouse to film a music video (the '80s, man...). At this point I'm thinking "OK, now things get going!", in that they will show up, do their thing, find something odd (or even one of the bodies), and Buddy could start finishing them off. But no! They leave AGAIN and kill more time around town, only to finally return with about 20-25 minutes to go in the runtime. This is not how one structures their slasher movie!

And like I mentioned, there's a strange focus on things no one would possibly care about listening to. Just as the aforementioned Open House spent a lot of its time explaining the real estate business in detail, Roessler's script has its adult characters (all rival slaughterhouse owners) go on and on about their equipment, their process, etc. One even shouts at another about his tendency to allow 30% fat on his roast, which I guess is bad but I mean, I don't really care much unless I plan to actually buy my meat from this fictional character. There's a fine line between fleshing out the characters and simply boring the audience by spending too much time on irrelevant minutiae. It's like Roessler watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre (a very obvious influence, with a bit of Motel Hell too) and got annoyed that they didn't spend enough time explaining the meat-making process because they were in a rush to be scary, and was determined to correct it. The script also curiously doesn't understand how foreshadowing works; the male lead's poor driving skills are brought up twice (and he almost runs a guy over in a separate incident!), with the sheriff (his girlfriend's father) even getting a close-up as he says that "someday I'll have to scrape you off the highway", which is ironic when he... uh, is smashed in the head by Buddy. Inside the slaughterhouse. When he's not driving.

Luckily the kills are fairly varied; Buddy carries a big axe that could be his Freddy glove (i.e. pretty much the only thing he ever uses to kill someone), but he only uses it a couple times. For the others he mixes it up: the slaughterhouse machinery gets used, and he merely crushes the head of one guy with his bare hands - all presented with minimal (better than nothing!) prosthetics and fake blood spray. Since the blood looks more purple than red in a couple instances, I guess it's fine that this isn't exactly a movie that would give the MPAA a heart attack, but given Buddy's hulking size and the title I was hoping for a little more carnage (that it was showing on a Grindhouse night made me even more hopeful for the sort of stuff we would usually need unrated cuts to see. I mean, next week they're showing Pieces). It's not bloodless, it's just... subdued, I guess would be the best word, with the variety making up for it. Doesn't quite make up for how they're paced, but at least if you were to make a highlight reel of the film it wouldn't be repetitive.

In addition to the kills, the film also offers up the occasional inspired or at least memorable bit that also helps lessen the blow of its stop-and-start structure. The opening credits are set to cheery music played over footage of a real pig being slaughtered (none of the gorier parts of it, thankfully, but we see the poor guy walking to his doom, being hit with the prod, and then being hung up in preparation to become delicious bacon), and there are a number of intentional laughs sprinkled throughout. Buddy has some choice reactions to whatever's going on around him, and I never tired of the awful meat-related puns that accompanied a number of the kills - Arnold as Mr. Freeze would approve of how they never stray from the gimmick. There are also some weird character choices, like the fact that the deputy, who mentions his family for no real reason, is having an affair with the town floozy. He's kind of a goofy guy, so what could have been a simple "He's desperate and willing to settle for the town hussy" note becomes "he's an asshole cheating on his wife and risking losing his kids to a divorce", with no payoff to any of it - we never see/meet the kids and his wife's only contribution is being the unheard other end of a phone call. And he dies, so now we're feeling sad for two fatherless kids, all of which could be avoided if they just snipped the line where he mentioned them. I also enjoyed how we kept hearing about the local radio station's annual jamboree show, and when it finally arrives, it gets shut down after 20 seconds due to a power failure (even better, no one even boos - they just all happily leave as if they had their fill anyway).

So alas, it's just another underwhelming late-coming slasher. Dream Warriors aside, 1987 is hardly a banner year for the sub-genre, so it's not like I'm shocked and stunned to discover this won't be replacing My Bloody Valentine or Black Christmas on my list of favorite non-franchise slasher movies (speaking of the sequel that never came to pass - it's actually set up early in the movie, instead of the end - we are told Buddy has a brother early on, but the finale doesn't establish his return). Maybe I was putting too much stock in its placement as a Grindhouse night selection, but I also kept thinking of the underrated Sweatshop, which also had the "hulking brute killer" scenario but way more of that Grindhouse-y sleaze and attitude. So the lesson to learn here is that if you're a 9 year old looking for something to rent, get Sweatshop and be ahead of the curve when it gets a revival screening in thirty years!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

MARCH 12, 2017

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I was rarely as excited for a big blockbuster as I was for Peter Jackson's King Kong back in December of 2005. It came out the night I flew home to see my family for Christmas, and I was so hellbent on seeing the film I barely even saw any of them before racing off to the theater for the next showing. And within an hour, I felt myself sinking into my seat, feeling guiltier and guiltier about ditching them for that slog of a movie. I knew it was long, but I figured Peter Jackson - the guy who made Dead Alive and was now free to do whatever he wanted post-LOTR - would dive into Skull Island's creatures and give us a $200m creature feature. Instead we got ice skating, and it was just the first of what has been an unbroken streak of disappointing movies from this former hero of mine. Luckily, twelve years later, I got to see most of that movie I wanted to thanks to Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Kong: Skull Island, which is an hour shorter and features twice as much monster action.

In fact, things start a touch quicker than I even expected. Jurassic Park was a clear influence on the filmmakers here, but there's no long buildup like that movie had - I think that scene from the trailers where Kong tosses a tree through the windshield of a helicopter comes at about the 30 minute mark. Since there's an action scene right at the top (a flashback that establishes the John C. Reilly character, who crashes on the island along with a Japanese pilot during a WWII dogfight), that means there's really only about 25 minutes worth of setup before the movie becomes, more or less, a nonstop chase/fight movie. Our heroes are going to the island to take photos and see what's there (John Goodman's character is pretty sure there are monsters there, but the mission is disguised as mere recon to see what resources the island may have, before the Russians get there first), and Kong's big initial attack wipes out about half of them and scatters the others into two primary groups. One group stumbles across Reilly and the other jungle inhabitants, and learn that Kong is actually kind of a good guy and acts as the primary defense against the real dangers of the island. The other group, for the most part, keeps running into those other dangers. We go back and forth between the two groups for a while, which allows for a perfectly balanced mix of adventure and character development; we're never away from action for too long, but we also get to know the people who may or may not be eaten by "Skull Crawlers" or giant squids, or stomped on by Kong as he makes his way around his home.

Well, to be fair, we get to know MOST of the people. Goodman, Sam Jackson, Reilly, and Shea Whigham (as one of Jackson's men) get to play fairly complete characters, but they're all billed below Tom Hiddleston, who really serves no function in the movie other than to look gravely concerned at whatever the next obstacle is. He is hired because the island is unknown territory and they need a badass like him to guide them through. He's basically Indiana Jones and Han Solo rolled into one guy, at least as far as his introduction goes - but once they're all on the island he really doesn't do a hell of a lot. He kills a few flying monsters with a sword (while wearing a gas mask, so his big hero moment could just be a stunt guy for all we know) and supplies Brie Larson with the tool that save their lives later, but I honestly think if you digitally erased him from like 90% of his scenes there would be zero effect on anything. He's just THERE, as if they hired him before writing the script and forgot to include his character in the plot, but didn't have the heart to tell the actor he was no longer needed. Near the end he becomes the voice of reason against Jackson, who just wants to kill Kong and everything else on the island, but that stuff could have been given to Larson or Reilly (the latter also serves as their guide once he's introduced, so at that point Tom doesn't even have a useful skill for the group anymore). Larson fares slightly better, but also feels a bit like someone noticed late in the development that they needed another female character in there, rather than an essential part of the plot.

Amazingly, the movie manages to overcome the fact that it doesn't give its two main characters anything to do. While the CGI occasionally suffers from that weightlessness that big movie monsters tend to have (when Kong is toppled during a fight, it feels like his size should be causing a tidal wave or earthquake, but the humans nearby barely flinch), for the most part it shows us the best money can buy. The designers have some up with a variety of monsters, including spiders with legs that are so long that they are initially mistaken for trees, and a four-legged creature that is made out of wood and bark, and acts like a scared dog when shot at. Kong and the "Skull Crawlers" get the majority of the screentime devoted to beasties, but I'm glad that they peppered in some others to flesh out the world of the island a bit more (we're also told that there are ants that sound like birds, but we never see them). And not all of them are antagonists, which adds to the Jurassic Park-y feel - some are just cool to look at and won't hurt you, like the "veggie-sauruses" of that movie. Stuffier types might find it annoying that the monsters are more fleshed out than the characters, but they probably also complained that Godzilla wasn't in Godzilla '14 enough, because such folks are never happy and certainly never consistent, so don't listen to them.

The movie also has a bit of a mean streak that I appreciated. Not like, Silent Night Deadly Night levels of gleeful hatred towards humanity, but certainly more than I was expecting for a PG-13 movie that attracted kids. There's an obvious hero type who gets wiped out at the halfway mark, and that scene in the trailer where a character seems to be sacrificing himself to save his friends doesn't quite work the way anyone would expect. It's also got a respectable amount of carnage (including a through the mouth impaling!) and even a few kinda scary bits (the spider scene, mostly). But it's also funnier than I would have assumed; Reilly is even more gutbusting than he appeared to be from the trailer (I'm still laughing at his final line to the native people), and Whigham gets a number of good, crowd-pleasing lines. There's also terrific use of a Nixon bobblehead (you just have to see it) and even Kong gets a couple of smiles, like when he slurps a giant squid leg like spaghetti (he also uses a big propeller like a kind of brass knuckles, which is awesome).

Less successful is the editing, which shows a number of seams. This movie is under two hours (and that's with very lengthy credits on account of the CGI), and I suspect that wasn't always the case, because what major blockbuster movies are under two hours anymore? At one point Larson begins talking about the Japanese pilot in the past tense, but since she obviously never met him nor had Reilly mentioned him, there was clearly a scene or at least a few lines to set up her reaction. It's not until about ten minutes later that it's even clear who she was referring to, which is just plain awkward storytelling no matter how you slice it. There is also a cutaway of a hex nut falling in between some gears on their boat, which you can assume is foreshadowing a malfunction down the road, but there's no payoff for it. And I'm pretty sure Sam Jackson's squad respawns at some point, because I kept mentally trying to keep track and there were always more alive than I could have sworn was possible given the casualties we just witnessed. As with the weird lack of a point to the Hiddleston character, it's not a crippling flaw, but it definitely raised an eyebrow more than once, and I can't help but wonder if some exec demanded some cuts at the 11th hour to shorten the runtime, resulting in some sloppier than usual editing for a movie this size.

So it's not a home run, but it's a lot closer to one than I would expect out of current day Warner Bros, which is always seemingly bungling its big movies by treating them as parts of a long-running franchise that's being forced on us from inception, as opposed to the good old days where they'd only make sequels to movies we liked. Indeed, the post-credits scene is just there to set up a vs. film with Godzilla (whether it will be the one from the 2014 movie, or a new incarnation a la Batman in BvS, I'm not sure), but at least they weren't dropping a bunch of teasers for it throughout the film like they did in BvS with its bullshit Flash cameos and such. But unlike BvS, this actually excites me about returning to this world; maybe not in a vs. movie, but I'd love to come back to Skull Island (perhaps in a prequel, with Reilly's character in an Enemy Mine kind of scenario with the Japanese pilot) and meet more of its inhabitants. Naturally, they've already dated the vs. film (and, sigh, hired writers to come up with the story for it AFTER they promised us when we'd see it), but as with its DC characters, the shared mega movies being planned doesn't mean we can't get stand-alone entries in the same world. Naturally, I'm more excited about giant monsters than superheroes (even with my beloved Affleck as Batman), so the fact that Skull Island is (so far) better received than any of their DC films is hopefully a good sign that more will be coming.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

FEBRUARY 25, 2017

GENRE: POST-APOCALYPTIC, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

With Walking Dead scoring massive ratings and World War Z more than doubling the gross of the previous highest grossing zombie film, I don't understand why we never got glutted with zombie flicks at the multiplex as we were with found footage movies in the earlier part of this decade or torture-y/hardcore horror in the '00s. And in turn I REALLY don't understand why The Girl With All The Gifts, based on a popular novel and led by three known actors (the horror genre doesn't need stars to be a hit, don't forget), got this nothing release - even here in LA it only played on one (not large) screen, with no marketing even for its accompanying VOD release. In a few years this is going to be one of those titles that gets cited as a winner the way we do for the likes of The Babadook or Hush, while folks have to be convinced the likes of Bye Bye Man actually got wide theatrical releases. It's a broken system, and has been for years, and I don't see it ever improving again; I'm happy I got to see it theatrically, but it's a shame I had to double check someone's geographical location before suggesting they do the same.

Because unlike many of the horror films you have no choice but to see on VOD, there's actually a scope to this film that would be served well on a big screen. It's not the kind of zombie movie where everyone holes up in a "safe zone" that gets overrun - it's about that safe zone being overrun and forcing our group of heroes (five of them) to make their way on foot through their eerily quiet, crumbling city to another safe area some miles away. The zombies are formed by a kind of fungal virus in this particular story, and it affects the world as well as its inhabitants, spawning these giant vines and pods throughout the city. So it's overgrown like many a post-apocalyptic film, but it's not just a cool-looking bit of production design - it's actually a source of the danger, as the pods threaten to burst and send the virus airborne. The zombies themselves are incapacitated by these vine structures, so our heroes stumble across a few that look like that they are victims of Eldon Stammets from Hannibal (and some are in groups, so it's like a cross between his victims and Lawrence Wells' totem), which is both the creepiest thing I've seen in a zombie movie in a while, and also one of the most unique.

So it's kind of funny that this is not a traditional zombie movie. It has a number of the beats of such films, but the zombies kind of stand in spot, swaying back and forth (like grass, keeping with the plant theme), unless they smell a human target. Humans are issued a scent blocker spray that they apply to themselves like bugspray, and that keeps them safe unless they make eye contact - allowing for a nailbiter scene where they make their way past dozens of zombies who are standing in place like mannequins. Sure, it's not much different than Shaun of the Dead's "let's pretend to be zombies and walk right past" bit (other than the lack of humor, obviously), but the zombies just standing there adds a level of uneasiness that sets it apart. Also, even when one zombie is alerted, it's usually isolated, so when one of our heroes accidentally spooks one, it's not like they're done for - they have to silently (and quickly) dispatch the activated one before any others catch on (kind of like in a Metal Gear game when you trigger an alarm but if you kill the closest guard things are fine). It's genius; it allows the sequence to break tension and then get it right back, which, if I've ever seen that before in a zombie movie, I can't recall it at this time.

Speaking of Shaun, it's kind of funny that one of the aforementioned recognizable faces is Paddy Considine, who appears in the other two installments of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy but gets a rare lead role here as one of the three adults who are in charge of the titular "Girl", whose name is Melanie and may be the key to saving the human race. She is one of several children who were infected in the womb but did not become full fledged zombies like the others, but live as a kind of hybrid. Like the regular infected, they have a thirst for flesh and blood (animal will suffice, though human is preferred) and get a bit worked up at the scent of one, but unlike the others they are capable of speech, free thinking, etc. Considine's character is kind of a Capt. Rhodes type who just wants to kill her, but he works with (for? I missed some of the specifics) Caldwell (Glenn Close), who wants to dissect Melanie and the other children in order to find a cure, believing their hybrid state is the key to a vaccine. And then there's Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who is the childrens' teacher and has taken a particular liking to Melanie. Naturally, she wants to protect her, so you have this odd dynamic where Melanie is being kept alive by the three adults but for different reasons. And naturally, the thing about her that makes them afraid of her eventually proves to be essential to their survival, as she can make her way quickly through the zombies to find supplies or a scout the best route, or sniff her way to find a missing member of their group.

And the cool thing is, I agree with all of them. Considine's character is introduced as an antagonist, but he comes around and bonds with her in his own way, and never really enters full "evil human" mode. Close's character actually inches, er, closer to that territory, as she will seemingly stop at nothing to achieve the "greater good", but since we never see any of the people she's allegedly trying to save (there are only like ten named people in the entire movie; we never see any traditional civilization, even in a flashback), her goal, while noble, is hard to really consider when it means the possible death of the little girl who we've spent the past 90 minutes with - a flesh and blood reality vs. a vague notion. Naturally, not everyone survives this journey, but the script by Mike Carey (adapting his novel) smartly balances out the primary characters so that one is never more or less likely to survive than the others, and gives them enough time for us to really care if and when they are dispatched. Not since Dawn of the Dead have I seen a zombie movie (or show) where I literally did not want ANYONE to die, a relieving feeling that I probably won't experience again for a while.

My only real nag about the entire movie was the ending, which generally works fine but I have a major question about how one character is still alive (to be as vague as possible - the final scene is obviously some time later, so what is ______ drinking/eating?), and Melanie's final action against the zombie fungus seemed a bit abrupt. I later learned that the book had a scene that set up her decision (I can't recall if they said it was filmed and then cut from the film, or just excised to begin with), so I get it now and it smooths over some of that concern, but neither I or they can/should expect everyone to follow up with the novel (or movie news sites) to get that context. Not that the ending was confusing or anything, but it seemed like they rushed through the final moments after pacing the previous 100 so perfectly, so it was a bit of a bummer that they couldn't retain that near-perfect quality. Perhaps book readers can mentally fill in those blanks and not even notice (with Carey writing both, I doubt there are any major changes - just things that the movie didn't have time for), but that's the double edged sword of seeing a movie based on a book - you're always going to partially dampen the surprise of one by experiencing the other first. I tend to watch the movie first before diving into the book, because the book will be fleshed out (it's like a director's cut!), whereas watching the movie after reading will almost always feel like you're getting cliff's notes, but rarely do I feel I SHOULD have read the book first so I'd have a little more understanding of the final moments of the story.

But a few quibbles about the ending is nowhere near enough to take away the fact that this is a great addition to the zombie sub-genre, and is very much undeserving of its unheralded release into the world after some well received festival appearances - including Fantastic Fest, and I'm almost afraid to look up what I saw at the same time I could have been seeing this, as I wasn't exactly in love with many of the movies I saw there this year (update: turns out it was Call of Heroes and The Void; I liked this more than either of them, but I doubt I'd have the chance to see them theatrically, so I guess it evens out). Then again, this way I got to buy a ticket at a regular screening, and do my part to try to convince the money men that movies like this should be championed and given a chance to thrive on the big screen.

What say you?

P.S. I didn't even realize it at the time, but the director was Colm McCarthy, who directed Outcast - a HMAD book selection! Definitely a name to watch and one I won't forget next time.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Get Out (2017)

FEBRUARY 23, 2017

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

There are a lot of awful things that will come from the Trump administration (for examples, refresh your Twitter feed, and then again when you finish reading this review as there will likely be a new one), but there is one good one: it's likely to yield a number of politically charged or at least downright ANGRY horror movies. Ideally, it would be not unlike the '60s and '70s output, not coincidentally when our country as last in such dire straits (when things are good, horror tends to be at its blandest - i.e. the '90s). Of course, he'll likely/hopefully be impeached before any of them see the light of day given the slow nature of productions, but that's part of what makes Get Out such a minor miracle - it feels like a partial response to a world run by a racist old white guy who swears he's not racist, even though it was written and shot during the relative calm of the Obama administration. Writer/director Jordan Peele is either a clairvoyant who really should have warned us, or has been blessed with the best timing possible for his debut film.

When Peele announced he would be making a horror film, most (including myself) thought it would be a comedic one; maybe not exactly Boo! A Madea Halloween, but something along the lines of The 'Burbs or maybe Cabin in the Woods - smart stories that utilized comedy and horror in equal measures. So it's kind of funny how apt my examples turned out to be even though the film is a straight up horror (it's got some laughs, but not enough to dub it a "horror comedy"), because like Cabin it's got actor Bradley Whitford and like Burbs it focuses heavily on one man's paranoia about some folks in his proximity, in this case his girlfriend's WASP-y family. However, the main difference is that neither of those films tackled anything as heavy as race relations, which gives Get Out both its aforementioned timeliness as well as primary strength - Tales from the Hood might be the last mainstream horror film to take on these issues as directly and seriously as Peele does here, and that was over twenty years ago (if I've forgotten one, forgive me - and no, I wouldn't say Land of the Dead quite qualifies as that was more of a basic "rich vs poor" thing, and The Purge series has some bite but it's largely drowned out by its Cannon-esque gunplay and chase scenes).

The thing I loved most about the movie is how it was at its most nerve-wracking when none of the horror stuff was happening. Our black hero Chris is meeting the family of his white girlfriend (Rose, played by Allison Williams), and she assures him that his race won't be a "thing", stressing that her dad voted for Obama twice (and would have done so a third time if he could!), but it's clear right off the bat that it's making them uncomfortable. But not in the way you'd expect - they keep bending over backwards to show how much they "don't care". Dad (Whitford) keeps calling him "my man" and, as Rose predicted, tells him how much he loved Obama. He even proudly tells Chris that his father was beaten by Jesse Owens in a race once, fawning over the physical prowess being black afforded Mr. Owens. For a while, Chris takes this stuff in stride and even finds some of it amusing, but by the time the family invites a bunch of their like-minded friends over for an annual cookout (where one introduces himself to Chris by asking him if he golfs, just so he can explain how much he loves Tiger Woods), he's gotten pretty tired of it, and has started noticing too many odd things that aren't helping his discomfort.

Now, I dunno if it's my inherent white guilt, or Peele's skill as a filmmaker, or both, but either way I found myself more tensed up during these earlier scenes than I was when shit hits the fan and Chris discovers what's really going on (something I won't spoil here, though I will hint that the movie could technically be marked with another genre tagging). It was almost like the same kind of squirming feeling you get when Michael Scott on The Office is getting particularly awful (think "Scott's Tots"), but when in the context of a movie you know is a horror movie, it becomes almost unbearable - I was almost hoping someone would just lash out and stab the other just to RELIEVE the tension. Sort of like how the congressmen who are loudest about how gays shouldn't be able to marry and transgender people shouldn't be able to use the bathroom of their choice are always the ones caught blowing dudes in public bathrooms, they're too loud about how much they are NOT this thing that it becomes obvious that they ARE. Chris can see right through it; despite no indication whatsoever from him that he feels this way, they act like their guest assumes they are racist and have to prove that they're not... a mentality that is kind of racist!

Anyway, that attitude extends to the horror-part of the plot, which again I won't spoil (and will laud the trailers for following suit), only to say that it's brilliant. It's also up for interpretation: is Peele suggesting the film's villains are colossally stupid, or secretly ashamed of their perceived limitations? The film works beautifully either way, so it doesn't really matter, but when thinking about it I had to pause and reflect on the fact that this was the first major horror film in a long time that got me thinking this heavily afterward. Nothing against the Underworld and Resident Evil sequels that are possibly playing in the same multiplexes, or even fellow Blumhouse production Split, but these aren't movies that give you a lot to work with. Their face value attributes are pretty much all there is to them, so seeing something with layers is not only refreshing, it's INTIMIDATING as a writer (especially one who has gotten rusty since I stopped writing a review every day). I'm used to just judging a horror flick's merit on whether they used CGI monsters or not, or if the kill count was sufficient for that sub-genre - who the hell is Jordan Peele to challenge me and make me reflect on how I was unfortunately led to believe certain things about minorities thanks to a few friends (and sigh, family members) when I was a kid, before my all-white school/neighborhood afforded me the chance of actually knowing any? Thankfully I knew better by the time I got to high school, but not everyone from my grade school was as lucky; thanks to Facebook it's easy to see a few old pals haven't quite passed that stage and are now likely passing those attitudes on to their kids. It's gross, and something I don't want to think about all that often period, let alone when I'm watching my horror movies. Can't I just talk about zombie makeup or something?

I kid, of course. These are conversations that need to happen, and if this is how they come about then so be it. Thankfully, Peele wasn't out to punish anyone in the audience, and knew enough to ease some of that tension with genuine humor. Most of it comes courtesy of Chris' best friend Rod, who is a TSA agent that is also watching Chris' dog while he's gone, giving him a real reason to keep in touch as often as he does (I'm precious enough with my cats when I go out of town, checking in with the "cat-sitter" twice a day, so I can't imagine how I'd be with a dog who'd actually give a shit that I'm gone, unlike cats). As I said, the movie has humor without ever being a full blown comedy, and 90% of them come from this character, who is in the movie JUST enough to feel like a full character (and not just some funny friend of Peele's that he wanted to include, i.e. The Paul Feig Problem) but not so much that he wears out his welcome. And yes his TSA job actually has a point (besides Peele getting us to like a TSA agent, another stroke of brilliance), resulting in what was probably the biggest audience-friendly moment in the film. Goddammit I wish I could spoil these things!

I have almost no complaints about it; there's a bit of a logic stretch to one reveal (to be as vague as possible, it involves old photos) and Rose's brother, played by Caleb Landry Jones, feels like he had a big scene or two cut somewhere along the line, but neither of them are exactly what I'd call fatal flaws, just occasional distractions. And that's really all that "bothered" me, everything else worked like gangbusters, to the extent where I already plan to see it again, to see how the 3rd act reveals change my perspective on earlier scenes. I'd also like to once again revel in the fact that there are almost zero typical cliches in the movie: no mirror scares (there is a "someone moves past frame unnoticed" one, but it's actually well done), no "no cell service" nonsense, etc. Peele is actually a major horror fan (he says he's actually been wanting to make horror movies all along, it just turns out he's damn hilarious and was doing just fine in the comedy world), so it makes sense he'd know what sort of things were played out and would annoy his fellow horror fans if he included them. Hell, he even actually ties the obligatory prologue into the narrative, instead of it just being a standalone attack scene of no real consequence (i.e. Scream 2 - a terrific setpiece focused on characters who aren't connected to any of our heroes and are barely mentioned again). This is a guy we want making horror movies, and I hope it's not a "one and done" kind of deal for him.

Finally, speaking of who makes our horror movies, I hope to hell the movie makes Split money (update: so far it has! I wrote this review on Friday but forgot to finish editing and post it), because maybe that will convince Blumhouse to branch out even more often. Nothing against the Insidious series (which is continuing), but I think they've run paranormal horror tales into the ground, and really should be utilizing their low-budget (and thus low-risk) model to more challenging fare like this, instead of haunted house and possession flicks. They can always fall back on safer stuff should these more risky ones not pay off, but so far they pretty much always have: The Gift, Split, and this all made just as much money as their more traditional scarefests (moreso in Split's case; it's their highest grossing film ever). Even The Purge has found greater success with their more politically charged sequels than their average home-invasion original. Horror fans may be drooling over their Halloween revival, but that's not all we want - give us something we can really sink our teeth into both as horror fans and (for most of us) angry human beings who have to worry about actual Nazis again. And as the low grosses for this year's genre sequels (and Bye Bye Man) have proven, we want something new, and not necessarily escapist fare, either. The major studios will always churn out the normal stuff, but we don't really have any outfits like Blumhouse who have been able to create a dependable brand while keeping the budgets low (and get those films released by major studios, usually Universal), so as Trump administration continues to wreak havoc on the world, now more than ever we need them to commit to more fare like this.

What say you?

P.S. Now that Jordan Peele has proven a comedian can make a horror movie, can we please get Bill Hader's When A Stranger Calls A Dude made? If you haven't heard of it, google it, and then tell me that doesn't sound like the best thing ever.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Havenhurst (2016)

FEBRUARY 21, 2017

GENRE: SLASHER, THRILLER
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)

If nothing else, I've made one thing perfectly clear over the years: I enjoy seeing Danielle Harris in my horror movies. So when I saw her name in the cast list for Havenhurst I asked for a review screener, something I almost never do anymore because I lack the time to keep up with such obligations (indeed, this review is like two weeks late). But honestly, I couldn't remember the last time I saw her in a new horror movie*, so my interest was piqued enough to make the exception. Alas, I don't like to spoil anything in the first paragraph, but if you were planning to see the movie just for her, I would advise you to skip this one, as she dies in the first three minutes - before her credit even appears! Not that I thought she was the Final Girl or anything (Julie Benz is billed first), but three goddamn minutes? Even Drew Barrymore lasted a good ten minutes in Scream!

Luckily for the part of my brain that is able to enjoy horror movies even if Ms. Harris isn't around, the movie isn't all that bad. Kind of a blend between Saw and Crawlspace, it takes place almost entirely in the titular building, which is home to several people who are trying (some harder than others) to improve their lives after hitting rock bottom with drugs, booze, sex, etc. But the place is run by the always delightful/creepy Fionnula Flanagan, who insists on obeying the rules (NO drugs, booze, sex... you get the idea) or else they will be evicted immediately. Since this is a horror movie, you can guess what actually happens when someone is "evicted", and while I can't vouch for the logic of a place that is clearly at the center of what must be several disappearances without ever being investigated (until now!), it works for what it is, and at 84 minutes with credits certainly doesn't wear out its welcome, unlike certain other creepy building movies of late.

And while I missed Harris, it's not like Benz is chopped liver, and it was nice to see her playing a more relatable character since her other genre turns tend to be a little more fantastical (Buffy) or unlikable (Saw V). She's a recovering alcoholic who was friends with Harris' character and has moved into her now vacant room at the Havenhurst, and seemingly isn't there for more than 12 seconds before she starts getting suspicious of the sounds she hears in the middle of the night, Harris' sudden disappearance, etc. There's a fun little but of detective business where Benz and a cop/possible love interest discover that the blueprints for the building (found in Harris' things; we are led to believe she was killed for snooping) depict rooms that are bigger than they appear to be in reality, the rare horror film to include hidden passageways that are actually logically implemented, instead of just being there for the hell of it (Black Xmas is a particularly eye-rolling offender). Plus for whatever reason I always just enjoy watching people study diagrams and solve minor mysteries like this in movies; if In The Mouth of Madness spent a full half hour on Sam Neill cutting up the book covers and making the Hobbs End map it'd probably be my favorite Carpenter movie.

Another thing I liked was that it randomly invoked H.H. Holmes, who in real life had a "murder house" much like Havenhurst that was modified to make victims easier to access and kill. It's an interesting way to use a real life serial killer without going to the trouble of making it a period piece (or a silly supernatural thing like 8213: Gacy's House), and also to allow the audience to enjoy its cheap thrills without it feeling exploitative, as it might if it were recounting the actual murders Holmes committed (which numbered anywhere from nine to two hundred victims, depending on his mood during confessions). There was a wave of indie biopics about serial killers during the '00s (many of which I reviewed here, almost none of which were particularly good) that I don't think ever actually covered Holmes, oddly enough. I assume the 19th century setting would have been too difficult to pull off for those low budget affairs (which, for all their faults, did usually try to stick more or less to the facts, unlike Naked Massacre or Henry, which were much looser versions of high profile murderers), but suffice to say an accurate film about him would be, if nothing else, one of the most colorful, given his cross-country trail and aforementioned architectural shenanigans. Scorsese and DiCaprio are supposedly making one, so hopefully that comes to fruition, especially if Marty's in schlock mode.

My only major issue was that it could have been paced better; we know something's up right off the bat and Benz is front and center for the most part, so it starts to feel a bit repetitive. There's no real mystery to what's going on (we see who the killer is in the first scene with Danielle), so it's mostly just a "how will it ultimately conclude?" waiting game. The murders are gorier than expected (especially the nurse lady) and it's fun to see how many things Flanagan and her sons have rigged up (the bed that tilts and sends its victim down a floor is particularly admirable), but as much as I like Benz I did start to tire of her looking intently at the walls looking for hidden doors and the like after a while. Perhaps letting Flanagan take a more central role and go batshit (think original Mother's Day) would have helped matters, or teasing out the mystery a touch just to give it a little more oomph might have helped.

It also seemed a bit too dark, though that might have been the screener so I can't really hold it against the film. Had I gotten my act together I would have known for sure, as the film was playing for a week at one of the Laemmle theaters (where I've seen a number of similarly independent horror films that play for a week before hitting VOD), but I suck. It's funny, I used to get annoyed when publicists would offer screeners instead of actual screenings, and would even turn down the (free, convenient) option if I knew the film would be playing theatrically. But now that such endeavors would come at the expense of spending time with my kid (or, if he was asleep, my very-close-to-beating copy of Final Fantasy XV), I pass them up in favor of the screener, which I can pause when necessary and tackle on my own schedule. It's not ideal, and I still champion theatrical viewings for those who can find the time for it, but at least I'm coming around a bit on the alternative. But man, even if it only would have been for three minutes, it woulda been nice to see my lady on the big screen again! My bad.

What say you?

*Turns out it was See No Evil 2, which helps explain why I couldn't remember it.

PLEASE, GO ON...

A Cure For Wellness (2016)

FEBRUARY 18, 2017

GENRE: MAD SCIENTIST, THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

One of my favorite movies is Meet Joe Black, which a lot of people hated on account of it being so glacially paced, but for me I think that was part of the point of it - the film is, after all, about someone trying to make the most out of his last few days before Death (Brad Pitt!) takes him away. Director Martin Brest and his editor(s?) let everything breathe just a touch longer than necessary, making the film run three hours long (to the second!), a mostly successful way of getting Anthony Hopkins' mental state across to the audience - you too would want to hold on to everything when you knew for sure when your time was up. Long story short, I understand why that movie is as overlong as it is, but I can't for the life of me figure out why Gore Verbinski and HIS editors let A Cure For Wellness run two and a half hours long to tell its own, less moving of a story about a guy getting stuck in an asylum.

Let that runtime sink in a bit: two and a half hours long. 150 minutes. That's longer than all of this year's Best Picture nominees by a comfortable margin, even though overlong films are usually synonymous with Oscar recognition. And if I was the type of reviewer who summed up the plot, I could do so without skipping any important details and you'd be left wondering how the movie could possibly run that long. Now, I'm not saying long movies are bad (this actually runs just a bit SHORTER than two of my all time favorite films, in fact), but there has to be a justification for asking you to sit there that long, and Wellness ultimately does not provide one. It's not a terrible movie or anything, but as it dragged on and kept failing to switch into a new gear that would pay off the long wait to get there, I found myself getting more and more frustrated, and less and less concerned for the well-being of its heroes.

Like most movies that ultimately feel too long (and I should stress I knew how long it was before I bought my ticket), things start of well enough, though in retrospect perhaps our hero Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) arrives at the asylum a bit too early considering how long he'll be there before the movie ends - perhaps more time spent in New York would have sufficed, letting the buildup to his arrival breathe a bit? I swear he gets there at around the 15 minute mark, on a mission from his bosses to find Pembroke, a company partner who needs to sign off on some documents in order for a merger to go through (yep, like Meet Joe Black, it involves a merger! That's actually why it came to mind; I don't automatically associate every movie with Martin Brest's underrated classic). Pembroke went to this place in Sweden (sort of a cross between a spa and a detox center?) to get better and suddenly/mysteriously decided not to return, so Lockhart is sent to get him back and sign the papers before someone goes to jail (there's some vague corporate misconduct stuff that Verbinski seems to know no one will care about, so he pretty much skips over it). At first, the unhelpful staff gives the impression that the movie will be about his quest to find this guy, but he does like 10-15 minutes later with little fanfare, so there goes that theory. And it's not like there's any indication that this place might actually be on the up and up, so we are quickly placed into "What are they really up to?" mode and hoping the answers will be worth the wait.

Well, at 90 or even near 120 minutes, they probably would be. The reveal is actually kind of gonzo and feels like something that you might find in a Hammer movie, and few actors are better equipped to play sinister mad scientist types than Jason Isaacs, so for all its faults the movie at least ends on a high note. But since we know where Pembroke is and also that the place is not just a typical spa so quickly, there's precious little intrigue to sustain us through the film's endless series of scenes where Lockhart sneaks around, sees something creepy, and is sent back to his room. There's a mysterious female patient (Mia Goth) who is treated like a daughter by Isaacs and is also the only other patient besides Lockhart (who is confined there when he breaks his leg in a car accident as he attempts to return to his hotel on the first day) who is under sixty, it seems, so in between the more thriller-y stuff we get scenes of the two of them bonding, though thankfully the film avoids giving them an actual romance (his character is late twenties, but she's a teen). Since we know Isaacs is a villain the only real question (in general, I mean) is whether she is too, but the character isn't interesting enough to give the movie the amount of ammo it needs.

Also, not a lot really happens, making it a peculiar version of a "horror film" as it lacks any real thrills or scares despite the finale that's ripped out of any traditional B-movie. The car crash is one for the ages (and involves a deer, which I want to believe is Verbinski's way of throwing shade at The Ring Two), and folks who have an issue with dental trauma better keep their hands ready to block their ears and eyes, but with the central mystery being kind of a bust (even the specifics are kind of obvious - we know something's up with the water almost instantly, yet it takes DeHaan like two hours to come to this conclusion) the movie could have used a lot more "stuff" to jolt it back to life every now and then. Almost the entire film is from Lockhart's perspective, and I can't help that might have been a fatal decision - perhaps letting some of the side characters (such as a middle aged woman who fills Lockhart in on the asylum's past, and seems to be the only other patient besides him to mistrust the place) have their own solo adventures would have been beneficial.

One thing it never fails to deliver is a nice LOOKING film, however. Verbinski's always been dependable for creating striking images, though he seems to be losing his touch when it comes to marrying them to a compelling storyline. This is his fourth disappointing effort in a row (after Lone Ranger, Rango, and the third Pirates film), a troubling streak for a career that began so promisingly; I can't help but wonder if he needs to be reigned in a bit by his producers, not unlike Zack Snyder (who also seemed to satisfy audiences more in the earlier part of his career than as of late), as I'm sure his mammoth successes have given him final cut and less interference than he might otherwise receive on these studio efforts. The trailer spoils a number of these meticulously planned shots (the mirrored train going around the bend, the old folks doing water aerobics with the red/green balls, etc), but there are plenty of others to enjoy, and honestly it's probably the only thing that kept me going once it neared the two hour mark and I realized that there wasn't any time left for the movie to ever be more than another "A guy finds out a creepy doctor is up to no good" movie, the type of which I've seen several times before and often got me home about an hour earlier.

Oddly, one exception is Shutter Island, which ran about ten minutes shorter but had a far more engaging story (and better flashbacks - here we occasionally see Lockhart's parents, but there's precious little payoff to their implementation, which is often quite awkward). It's a movie I couldn't help thinking of anyway since DeHaan bares a slight resemblance to young Leonardo DiCaprio, but I had to laugh when I went out later and saw that Syfy was running the film as their Saturday night movie (apparently they don't have any sci-fi options?). The TV was muted (this was at a bar for a friend's birthday) and it was about halfway through the film, but I found myself more interested in what was happening than I ever managed after about 45 minutes or so of Wellness, which pretty much sums up the overall problem with it. When it comes out on Blu-ray, rent it from Redbox and watch it at 1.5x speed so you can still hear the dialogue - I suspect that it will be more satisfying as a whole. And if not, at least you'll find out in 50 minutes' less time.

What say you?

P.S. There's a flashback to 1987, focused on the stock market crash that happened that year - and a little boy is seen playing with a Robocop figure to establish the timeframe. I almost wish I could forgive the movie's faults on the strength of that alone.

PLEASE, GO ON...

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