Blood Fest (2018)

OCTOBER 12, 2018

GENRE: COMEDIC, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

I recently bemoaned the less than record-breaking box office of Hell Fest on Twitter, and someone replied that Blood Fest coming out at the same time didn't do it any favors. To be fair, he had a point - both films are about some kids who find themselves being killed for real in a Halloween haunted park attraction - but they are very different in both plot and tone. Ultimately it'd be like suggesting that Incredibles 2 should have tanked because Avengers Infinity War also came out so people didn't have any more interest in superhero ensembles (and, nothing against Blood Fest, but it wasn't a wide release and the Blu-ray was released after Hell Fest's debut, so it's not like there was much of an audience that theoretically had its fill). So if you avoided Hell Fest because you saw this already, boo on you! BUT - if you DID see Hell Fest and were considering skipping this, I think it's worth a look.

The biggest difference, of course, is that the kids are aware of the danger they're in right away in Blood Fest, as the host of the park (writer/director Owen Egerton) tells them as much during the opening ceremonies (one of the film's "grain of salt" necessities is that this particular park requires everyone to arrive by a certain time and also pay attention to a guy on a stage instead of going off and doing whatever). In Hell Fest, the characters are stalked by one silent killer who is able to do his thing without drawing attention to himself, but here they lock the doors and try to kill every single person inside (Egerton has hired killer clowns, chainsaw murderers, etc. for the occasion). So it's more survival horror than traditional slasher, even before some dimly explained supernatural elements (zombies, vampires) are added to the mix.

The other key "they're not really alike" element is that this one is kind of played for laughs, though it's not a spoof or anything like that. Scream would be a reasonable point of reference for the tone; the stakes are very real, but the script finds humor throughout thanks to the characters and, yes, many references to horror classics. But they're not above making up movies, either; in order to get around what would be astronomical licensing fees, the characters talk about Halloween and Friday the 13th and what not, but none of the movie posters or attractions (based on movies, I believe?) are drawn from anything you or I have seen. The main one we see is a series called Arbor Day, which has a Jason-like killer and a complicated backstory that directly mocks Halloween's (we're told parts 5 and 6 had some hooey about an alien mark, a clear swipe at "Thorn"), and the film's Robert Englund-esque thespian collecting paychecks to play the killer is one of the people trapped inside with our heroes, which allows for a few more gags but also a minor "Don't meet your heroes" subplot as the guy turns out to be a dick (and of course, warms up to them throughout his time in the film).

One thing it DOES have in common with the other film is how good it looks for what couldn't have been a lot of money (in fact, a lot less than Hell Fest, from what I understand). The kids spend a lot of time in rather anonymous hallways and such as opposed to the haunts, but there is still an impressive sense of scale to what we see, with untold numbers of extras and a gigantic body count. There's enough practical blood to forgive the digital spray, and on that note they actually use CGI correctly for the most part - sizing things up, recoloring shots, etc. There's a bonus feature that shows the before and after shots for many of the film's digital tricks, and I was legit surprised to see how much it was used invisibly, as opposed to "let's make a CGI monster go after them" or whatever. It occasionally looks fake, sure, but the intent is spot on which makes it easier to forgive.

I was also impressed that Egerton wasn't afraid to kill off his characters (so it actually tops Scream in that regard). Since there was a breezy charm to the proceedings I assumed most of our named characters would get out alive, but no - the body count is sufficient and I was often surprised to see someone die when they did. The backstory and "surprise" villain (working with Egerton's character) was a bit dumb, i.e. the kind of thing you'd expect in a movie with no body count whatsoever aimed at younger people (think the live action Scooby Doo films), but they committed to delivering real stakes as if this was a deadly serious film as a whole. So there is some occasional tonal whiplash, and I doubt anyone would ever find it scary or even particularly suspenseful as a result, but it's never a crippling thing - it's just kind of slight as a whole, like a movie you want to casually hang out with as opposed to really invest yourself into.

Along with the aforementioned VFX showcase, the disc comes with a pretty fun commentary by Egerton and some of the actors, where they discuss the usual stuff along with some irreverence and trivia (apparently the Halloween 6 gags were supposed to be more plentiful!) - if you liked the movie's brand of humor, you will like the track. There's also a deleted subplot that I think is supposed to be an in-joke for fans of Rooster Teeth (their online comedy outfit, of which I have next to zero experience with) and some other deleted scenes that unfortunately don't have a "Play All" function nor do they include any explanation for their removal, which always bugs me. On that note, the disc also has like six trailers that you have to manually skip one by one, without access to the menu - another strike against the disc! Why do companies do this? Trailers are advertisements, and the only time we should be forced into watching them is if we are watching the product for free and they need to find another way to get their investment back. If I bought the disc, I shouldn't be subjected to such things, especially not over and over again. If we care about their other movies, we can choose to watch the spots - don't make us kill our remote batteries that much faster by not letting us bypass the lot of them by pressing "menu". Back to the deleted scenes, it includes what would have been the second funniest line in the movie, so give the video store one a look if nothing else. There's also a look at the design of the film, but it's also sans any kind of insight from the filmmakers so it's not particularly useful beyond reasserting that they worked hard on the film.

A sequel is more or less set up at the end, and I'd be fine with spending another 90 minutes with the people who survived. Not all of the humor was my cup of tea (the trailer gave away the one line that really had me burst out laughing), but I was endeared both by the content and the ambition, and I am familiar enough with Egerton (via Twitter and the like) to know he's a real fan of this stuff and not just using it as the butt of his jokes. It's a fine choice for the current season, and the disc has enough bonus content to justify the purchase cost should you choose to go that route. Good work, folks.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Halloween (2018)

OCTOBER 17, 2018

GENRE: SLASHER
THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)

For a while there, it looked like I may never get to use my "Halloween Series" tag on this site again unless it was for yet another re-release of one of the films on Blu-ray that inspired me to write something. Multiple incarnations of a new entry in the series fell apart (one just a few weeks before shooting), Dimension seemed to be having problems getting ANYTHING done, and the other "old guard" franchises like Freddy and Leatherface were either on ice or barely getting released, so it just seemed like no one would want to bother. But through some combination of miracles and presumably a healthy number of zeroes on a paycheck, the series was revived by Blumhouse, and they even managed to get Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter on board. Two years and change after it was announced, Halloween (hereafter "H40" so as not to confuse with the same-named original) is now here, and thanks to a few festival and test screenings a lot of info and spoilers are out there, leaving only one question: Was BC, bastion of Halloween continuity and nitpickiest asshole on the planet, satisfied?

As a matter of fact, I was.

This will be a long review, as per tradition, so I just wanted to get that out of the way so you could move on, especially if you've managed to avoid any major spoilers or plot information. I won't get into specifics, but I will be talking about spoiler-y things in general later, so maybe wait to read the rest now that you know it's passed my smell test. It's not a perfect film - there are two blunders at a crucial time in the narrative, and it seems some character beats got left on the cutting room floor (at 105 minutes, I can't exactly blame them for trying to trim wherever they could), but it gets all the important things right: Jamie is at the top of her game (far better than she was in H20), it has a terrific, crowd-pleasing finale, and (most importantly?) the Carpenter score is PERFECT. Yes, some hardcore fans may bristle at the "none of the sequels happened" slate-wiping approach, but if you'd rather make John Carpenter sit down to write music for a scene where a Druid cult talks to Busta Rhymes just to ensure every previous movie got its due, I'm not sure anything can ever make you happy in life.

Might as well start with that approach. The biggest hurdle this movie has to overcome is getting the fans to forget everything else that's happened, including/especially the whole "Michael is Laurie's sister" thing. For many fans (including this one), this has always been the case, either from seeing a sequel first or just hearing about it - it's horror's version of "Darth Vader is Luke's father", i.e. common knowledge to people who haven't even seen the films. And the film does a pretty good job of establishing the non-existence of those other films (better than H20 did, for sure - fans have made attempts to explain how 4-6 could have still happened in H20's timeline, and even though they're wrong, it's at least somewhat possible. This time? Not a chance in hell), as well as waving away the sibling idea through dialogue ("Just something people made up") - but then engineers a plot that sends Michael to Laurie's front door.

So it's kind of a "having cake and eating it too" thing; they want to restore Myers to the "boogeyman" who kills at random, but they also want to give people a showdown between him and his most famous target. To be fair, he does seem fairly content wandering around Haddonfield and murdering folks and only crosses paths with Laurie because she's obsessed and hunting him down... for the first 75 minutes or so. But then there's a plot twist (which I'll get into later) and it's hard to forget he's back to being a random murderer, as he literally drives to Laurie's house when he could have just returned to town and found more people to kill there (Laurie, understandably, lives in isolation outside of town). They're not related anymore, and he sure as hell doesn't work for a Druid cult, but it sure seems like he wants to finish her off in particular.

Speaking of Laurie, the other thing we have to just kind of shrug off is... you know, H20. I don't love that film, but despite the fact that this film is superior in every way, the "I've waited forty years..." stuff never quite lands with the impact it should, because we know it's only been 16 years (since Resurrection), and we've already seen a damaged Laurie have her reunion with the guy in the white mask, which steals a lot of H40's thunder. If you are indeed the ideal audience member for this movie, i.e. one who saw the original and none of the other sequels (and stayed oblivious to the sibling twist), I am eternally jealous of you, because I never managed to fully shake/ignore my memories of those films*, even though many of them were inferior. When Jamie first sees Michael again in this film, as he's being transferred (as always, they transfer this guy on literally the worst night of the year to do so, Halloween Eve), she breaks down and cries, and you want to feel that forty years of buildup that Laurie is feeling - but I'm just like "Well at least she knows it's not a paramedic wearing his mask this time."

But like I said, this approach is preferable to the alternative of saying those movies DID exist, and trying to find a way to explain how it can all work is best left to fans with nothing better to do. For whatever split personality vibes you might get from it, the simplicity of the film is what makes it work as well as it does, and we get to spend more time with Laurie as a human being than as the guide through forty years of conflicting sequels. And it helps demystify Michael, helping us think of him as an everyday real world killer as opposed to a supernatural maniac like Jason or Freddy. Our entry point to the story are the two people behind a true crime podcast, and one of them makes a plea to Laurie for her to go to Smith's Grove (we are led to believe she never has done this) and confront Michael, and say the things that she's been bottling up for the past four decades. She doesn't get to do that, but it got me thinking of how in a normal world, if someone were to survive an attack, they'd likely have to sit in a courtroom with that person and perhaps get some things off their chest there. By removing all the Druid silliness, it's possible to think about that happening, and it becomes a really effective moment. We all laughed in Halloween 5 when they put Myers (with his mask!) in a jail cell, but this version, who has only killed five people and survived a few gunshots (and a needle stabbing - I love that the mask has the hole in it), it doesn't seem strange at all - a character even points out that there are plenty of worse people out there in the here and now (any shooting spree perp you remember killed far more people, for example). It's hard to put aside Laurie's history as we've seen it over the years, but for whatever reason I quickly bought into the idea that this Myers is just another guy who went on one (1) killing spree and got locked up after.

And on that note, one of the things the movie never quite cracks is explaining how Myers got captured in 1978. Originally there was a plan to open the film then and show it (with some minor retconning of the original ending), but it was scrapped at some point, leaving only vague lines of dialogue here and there to sell the idea. Again, Halloween II didn't happen either, so there was no explosion - he was just GONE at the end of the original, and presumably didn't walk back into Smith's Grove himself. But through scattered lines of dialogue it seems he was apprehended shortly after going out the window, with one of the arresting officers being Hawkins, who is played by Will Patton in the film. He's a new character that's kind of treated as a fan favorite coming back to the fold (hell, he even gets a better introduction than Laurie), and even when the film is closer to the end than the beginning they feel the need to remind us that Hawkins was there that night. You gotta love a movie that not only tells us that six other films never happened, but seemingly made one up in between. Not that I want them to change the original's ending, but I wish they did have that flashback or something to not only reinforce the fact that Halloween II's events never happened (explosion aside, it's an easier launching off point since he was at least down for the count, not MIA) but to spare us the awkward dialogue later.

That said, Hawkins is a terrific new character; he's not a sheriff but he fills the Brackett/Meeker role admirably, without coming off as a pale retread of either. He's introduced playing a pinball game, clearly establishing the small-town boredom a veteran cop in that situation must be feeling, but he also knows not to dismiss the idea of Michael Myers running loose in the city. These films have never really found a way to make up for Dr. Loomis' absence in the wake of Donald Pleasence's death, but having a quirky character actor like Patton (who I've loved for over 20 years and was ecstatic to hear that he was cast in a Halloween film) chasing Myers through the town, sometimes alongside a crazed Laurie Strode, is about the best consolation option I can imagine. The "new Loomis", per Laurie, is Dr. Sartain, who we're told was a student of Loomis' (who has now just passed away, presumably of old age) and picked up where he left off in trying to reach Michael. Due to an injury he suffers during Michael's inevitable escape he is sidelined for a good chunk of the narrative, which is for the best since once he wakes up and joins the hunt it's hard not to think about the real Loomis.

OK here's the somewhat spoiler-y paragraph, so skip this one for sure if you want to be unsullied! Sartain is also involved in one of those aforementioned blunders; I'll refrain from getting into it but you'll know exactly what I'm talking about when it happens. In addition to being wholly unnecessary, it will also likely remind you of a bad call in one of the other sequels, which baffled me to no end - they were trying so hard and mostly succeeding in getting us to forget about those, why risk giving us the unpleasant flashback? Especially at the point it occurs in the film, which is roughly the end of act two. Some breathless editing aside, the film is working like gangbusters until then, and while this minor subplot is thankfully done and over with about ten minutes later (and, while not spelled out, we can assume explains something a little hokey in the film's setup), it's a shame that they have to kind of work to get us back on board when they were so close to finishing up with a home run. If the movie's a hit (and tracking suggests it very much will be), I hope they just agree once and for all that there's only one Loomis and we don't need any attempt at a substitute.

The other adults are Judy Greer and Toby Huss as Laurie's daughter and son-in-law, and to no one's surprise they are kind of sidelined. We're told that Karen (Greer) was taken away from Laurie when she was only 12 because the social service folks didn't care too much for how she was being raised (more or less the same way Sarah Connor raised John), so they're not on the best of terms as Karen thinks she's just wacko and of course will realize in the end that Laurie was right. But they don't do much beyond roll their eyes at Laurie and fret about their daughter Allyson, giving Greer yet another opportunity to make the most out of a role that, until the third act, may as well have been filled by Central Casting (see also: Jurassic World, Ant-Man, the new Apes films...). She gets one of the most crowd-pleasing moments in the franchise near the end, and Greer is one of those actresses who will always add a little flavor to her screentime (keep an eye on her at the dinner scene in particular; the focus is on Laurie but she's engaged), but I was hoping she'd get to do more throughout. The movie really could have used a one on one scene between the two women (perhaps there was one; when Karen says that Laurie came to see her earlier that day, it's unclear if she's lying), as we never quite get a glimpse of what their relationship was really like.

Luckily, we do get a bit of how Laurie is with her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), as she takes the money she got from the podcast and gives it to the girl in secret. We get the idea that these two hang out more often than Karen knows, which is lovely and sweet (likewise, later on when Laurie has a bit of a breakdown she cries on the girl's shoulder, a reversal of what you'd expect from a granddaughter/grandmother relationship). Allyson and her friends are less prominent than you'd probably expect from a slasher movie, and in fact the other blunder I mentioned (vaguely spoilerish?) is that her boyfriend kind of disappears from the story after pissing her off, without a comeuppance and/or a Brady-style redemption moment. I know it's weird to be like "We need more time with the asshole boyfriend!" (in one of the Easter Egg moments, we are told his father is Lonnie Elam, of "Get your ass away from there!" fame), but it ties into the overall issue that Allyson kind of gets marginalized for a chunk of the film, even disappearing for a bit entirely and suffering a disconnect from the rest of the proceedings when they do cut back to her, as if to say "Don't worry, she's still out there!" It's fine to see Laurie do her thing, but I almost felt kind of bad for Andi, getting to be cast as "the new Laurie Strode", essentially, and then watching the real one do all that stuff. She's practically never even in direct danger from Michael, when all is said and done - though if you ever yelled at Laurie for something she did in the first movie, the film's closing shot seems to be specifically for you, hinting that she'll get her moment down the road.

I do want to digress just for a moment here while I'm on the subject of Laurie and her relationship with Allyson and Karen - I think it's safe to say Laurie ended up going to that dance with Ben Tramer, and kept the party going in the back of his car later, if you catch my meaning. It's forty years later and Allyson is 17, so the earliest Karen could have gotten pregnant is when she was only 22 herself (factoring in both nine month periods), and even earlier if Laurie didn't go out and celebrate surviving the night by having some unprotected fun. It's one of those things no one was probably really thinking about too hard, but it's kind of amusing how everyone that came up with Laurie having a kid (the others being Jamie Lloyd and John Tate) decided that she would have them during college, if she even went at all. Girl forgets her chemistry book ONCE and it's a downhill slide into blowing off her studies forever...

Well it's been 2,600 words so maybe I should talk about the suspense and kills in this slasher movie. I'll just let you know straight up: there are perhaps a number, perhaps even too many off-screen kills in the film, so if you are the type of slasher fan who judges a film based on its death sequences first and foremost, you're going to go away displeased. Michael racks up a fairly high count (I want to say 16?) but we only actually see about half of them, which is in line with Halloween 4 but in a film that's 20 minutes longer, and without any larger scale "Michael kills x number of people in the ____" aftermath scenes like that one's police station and ambulance. I didn't mind it for the most part, but there's one in particular I feel we are really cheated out of seeing; I can't say WHO, obviously, but the character is being proactive when we last see them, and then later their corpse is found, in an awkward manner to boot, leaving us to wonder how exactly things went down and robbing us of our last moments with one of the film's more endearing characters.

But when we DO see Michael in action, oh man. It's a terrific mix of stalking and brutal violence; he gets his Dick Warlock on around the film's halfway point, making his way through a crowded Haddonfield street where residents just assume he's another trick r treater, but takes cues from (don't take the wrong way!) Tyler Mane on occasion as well, ramming heads into walls over and over and stomping on heads (hey, the man's been cooped up for 40 years, so he's got some shit to work out!). I wouldn't have minded a little more playfulness since they were going back to OG Michael (the guy who'd put a sheet on his head and knock plants over to scare people), but he's the scariest he's been since H4, easily. The climax in particular is pitch perfect; it's almost like a home invasion movie with Laurie trying to find Michael in the house, knowing he's hiding in one of her many closets - it's the first time I as an adult have been able to get tensed up watching one of these movies, and it felt GOOD. I also liked how quick and simple the kills were; David Gordon Green and Danny McBride seem to realize that "creative kills" are more of a Jason thing anyway, so his bare hands and kitchen knives serve his purposes 99% of the time, as they should. The mask looks great and new Michael actor James Jude Courtney is a good match for Nick Castle (who also returns for a key moment or two); whatever complaints the fans may have about the continuity and such, there's no way a true fan could dismiss how Michael is depicted this time around.

Speaking of continuity, obviously they had to keep any sort of callbacks to the others to the barest minimum, so there aren't a lot. The most prominent is the Halloween III masks, which are seen in the trailer and messes with nothing since that movie existed in a different universe anyway, but there's a quick nod to Halloween II in the form of one of its briefly seen characters. And it's hard not to think about H20 (or RZ H1) during a gas station bathroom scene, but otherwise they keep their more overt winking confined to the original. I mentioned Lonnie earlier, but there's an even better deep cut for the hardcore; I won't tell you what it is, only to pay attention to radios whenever they're used (also, pay close attention to the set decor in Karen's old bedroom). And near the end, they put a spin on one of the original's iconic moments that had the crowd cheering. Indeed, one thing I noticed about this one compared to others (and other slasher movies in general) is that the crowd-pleasing moments involved the protagonists, not the villain. No one cheers for Michael the way they might for Jason, and I think it's a big part of why the movie works.

In addition to those moments and the expected screams (Green may not be known for horror, but the man can craft a jump scare), the crowd was also laughing a lot, and it was intentional. Perhaps it's not too shocking since the script was co-written by Danny McBride, but there's a lot of genuine humor here, and it's only very rarely ill-placed (a long scene between two cops rambling about Banh Mi sandwiches comes to mind). The two kid characters in particular are hilarious (don't worry, kid haters - they're not in it much; their combined time is probably still less than Lindsey's in the original), and Ray is pretty funny in that hapless dad kind of way (if Breaking Bad never happened you might see Bryan "Malcolm in the Middle" Cranston playing him). Even Laurie gets a couple of chuckles; she's no Keri Tate here, so when she sees a glass of wine she'll happily slurp it down instead of hiding it from her boyfriend. One thing that always bugged me about H20 is that Jamie Lee was basically just playing herself for the most part, but this seems more in line with the Laurie we remember, except now she has a perfectly good reason to be so cautious.

Finally, we come to the music. Oh man. If you've listened to John Carpenter's Lost Themes albums as well as the recent Anthology release (where they redid a bunch of themes, including Halloween's) you'll get a pretty good idea of what it sounds like, and it's just as good as you probably imagine. Occasionally it sounds pretty much identical to the original cues (at least to my ears, which I fully admit are not particularly musically inclined, which is why I rarely discuss music but I figure it's probably sacrilege to not even try for this particular film), but for the most part it sounds familiar enough to recognize the standard themes (though I'm not sure if the slower "Myers House" one ever showed up) but not so much that you'd get the idea Carpenter (along with his usual bandmates, his son Cody and also Daniel Davies) just collected a paycheck. It's gonna get spun a lot by fans of the series and those who just love JC's particular style independent of the films - I wish to hell I had it already so I could have it playing while I wrote this review (I went with Lost Themes for the zillionth time - most of my book was written to that, so it's fitting, heh).

To sum up: it works. No, it's not perfect, but most of what keeps it from that status (besides, you know, the fact that few films ARE) have nothing to do with what the filmmakers did or didn't do - it's just that this material is so well traveled by now, it's just hard to avoid deja vu. But that's the thing about sequels, which gets exponentially harder as the series goes on: you want to give people something new while also retaining the things that make people like it (which will vary - some folks LOVE that Laurie is Michael's sister and are upset that this movie dismisses the idea), and I don't envy anyone who gets hired to find that balance. Everyone here gave it their all, but despite what the script says the movie is still "Halloween 11", ultimately, and can't fully escape the baggage - good or bad - that's on the table with it. But under those circumstances, beyond a few editing choices I fail to see how this could have been any better than it is, and it's pretty damn good. For the first time in the nearly 30 years I've been a fan of this series, I've walked out of a theater happy with the new Halloween film I just saw. Thanks to everyone who finally made that possible.

What say you?

P.S. Someone will ask, so fine, and if there's no space between entries that means it's REALLY close: 1, 4,3, H40,2, 5, RZ H2 (d cut), H20/Curse(either cut), RZ H1,Resurrection.

*After writing this review I watched the movies back to back at the Beyond Fest screening, and it WAS easier to ignore the others without any breaks in between. I recommend a viewing of the original immediately before heading out to the theater!

PLEASE, GO ON...

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

OCTOBER 11, 2018

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

When I saw Cabin Fever fifteen years ago I probably never would have guessed that its creator, Eli Roth, would in one year make a Bruce Willis action movie AND a PG kiddie horror flick starring Jack Black. But even if I somehow had, I certainly wouldn't have assumed that the Jack Black one would be superior. The House with a Clock in Its Walls could have been disastrous (like Death Wish was, though I pin far more blame on the casting of Bruce Willis than Eli's direction), but the "Splat Pack" guru seems pretty comfortable with this kind of fare - it's not the best of its type or anything, but it's imaginative and sweet where it needs to be, and he has a good grasp on how to make the scarier scenes work on adults without being too messed up for kids.

Based on the same-named book that I read in 4th grade and can no longer remember at all, the plot concerns a kid named Lewis who loses his parents (or just his mom? It's kind of unclear, he obviously has a dad but he only seems to miss his mom) and is sent to live with his eccentric uncle. Said uncle (Black) lives in a standard old creepy house where weird things happen, and before long Lewis starts to become privy to its secrets. His uncle (and his neighbor, played by Cate Blanchett) can perform magic, and they start to teach him some of the spells, which gets him out of his shell a bit. Naturally, he makes some mistakes and ends up awakening a long-dead bad guy, and they all have to work together to send him back to Hell (or whatever the YA version of Hell is). The book has a bunch of sequels about these characters, so maybe the plots get more complicated or at least interesting, but here the focus seems to be on introducing everyone and giving them a simple story that can yield a few fun setpieces.

And that's fine, because the characters are far more compelling than you'd find in the average "PG horror" movie. Blanchett's Mrs. Zimmerman in particular is incredibly memorable, thanks to both the character's tragic backstory (she lost her family in the Holocaust, a fact Roth commendably relays to the audience with subtlety) and Blanchett's charming performance. While Black has done this kind of thing a lot, she's not exactly the person you'd expect to find in a movie with farting topiary animals and pumpkins that puke seeds - but as you might expect from her long career of being terrific, she nails it. She's fully committed to the occasionally goofy material, but isn't going overboard like her co-stars, and more than once I wished the movie was more about her than Black or the kid.

Especially since the kid is... well, kind of annoying. Granted, he lost his parents and is having a tough time making friends, but he spends most of his time shrieking or crying, like Ron Weasley in the earlier Potter films, and turned up to 11 to boot. The script actually has a strong message about proudly marching to your own beat instead of doing things to impress people you want to like you (an attitude that yields him a would-be girlfriend in the film's closing scenes), but some of that impact is diluted, because I wouldn't want my kid to act like this one, either. Maybe Roth, being out of his element, didn't know how much/little he could reign in the kid's impulses as an actor, but the kid kind of bugged me in the Daddy's Home movies too, so I dunno. As for Black, he's just doing his thing, and you should know whether or not by now that's something you can enjoy or at least tolerate (I thought he was fine).

As for the creepy stuff, it works well, though there isn't a lot of it, surprisingly. While many kids' movies are content to race through dialogue and get to the FX stuff in fear of losing their audiences' interest, Roth (and the script by Supernatural's Eric Kripke) let the plot unfold, if anything, somewhat slowly. The film's villain is barely even hinted at until the second half of the movie, and he doesn't really show up in the flesh until its final 25 minutes, giving the movie a lot of time without much of a momentum. The majority of the things that probably caught your kid's eye in the trailer are all in the third act, so I guess it's good that they're probably more excited about Goosebumps 2 by now; I'm here, three weeks late, to tell you that maybe waiting for video will be better for this one if your kid gets restless easily, as there isn't much exciting stuff in the first hour outside of the odd background effect or quick bit (that purple snake thing behind the door that you saw in the trailer? That's pretty much that entire scene). Once the villain starts wreaking havoc they'll be riveted, just don't be surprised if they frequently skip ahead to the film's final act once they get the DVD.

And they won't care, but for us adults - the FX are good! There's a possessed chair that kind of acts like a pet, and it's so well done that I actually got kind of sad when it was attacked by the villain. The CGI pumpkins could have been a little better, but their puke seems practical for the most part, so it's a fair trade. The house itself is great, kind of a blend of Pee Wee's Playhouse (with all the various things in it just kind of "living" even if they're not the focus of a particular scene) and a standard "Kid moves into a new giant house and has adventures" kind of movie set. I mean, it's an Amblin production, from a guy who knows his shit - it'd be shocking if any of this stuff didn't work, because for the most part they could do these parts in their sleep. It's just the pacing of the script and the kid's performance that hold the movie back a little; it's probably best suited for an 8 or 9 year old who might start rolling their eyes at animated horror stuff for kids, but aren't quite ready for R rated fare. But from an adult, I just want to say kudos to Roth and Kripke for not talking down to the kids or giving them lowest-common-denominator garbage. Even if it can be a bit slow moving, it's never grating - that's ultimately more important.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2018

GENRE: MUSICAL, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (FESTIVAL SCREENING)

The first job I had out of college was working QA for a software company, and it was infinitely more boring than it already sounds. To keep myself awake (which didn't always work, of course) I used the software to design a very primitive 3D animation (I called it 2.5D animation because it was so boxy - it wasn't far removed from the Dire Straits video) that I planned to use for an animated zombie musical that I wrote. I took it very seriously; storyboarding the entire script, designing some of the sets and characters, etc... but like with all my ambitious ideas life got in the way and I never finished working on it (to be fair, even if I kept it up I'd probably STILL be working on it, as animated films tend to be the work of thousands, not one asshole who didn't even really know what he was doing). Still, I held out hope I could do it someday, and thanks to Anna and the Apocalypse I know that it might actually be good, too! As nutty as "zombie musical" sounds on paper, it works!

Of course, these people know how to write songs, and were smart/talented enough to attract actual actors, so they got one up on me. Our cast is a group of high school seniors, all of whom find themselves at a crossroads - lead Anna wants to travel a bit before going to college, her best friend John is in love with her, another pal feels her relationship with her girlfriend AND her parents slipping away, etc. Basically, their days would suck even if not for the zombie outbreak that decimates most of the town overnight, giving us a group that you not only want to root to survive, but also some character driven stakes that keep us engaged even when the undead aren't on-screen. Some of the character dynamics are a bit muddled (it was a good twenty minutes before I realized Anna and John *weren't* a couple, for example) which occasionally hampers the more personal storylines, but for the most part it's a movie that might work just as well even if the zombies never showed up.

But they do, and more importantly - they don't particularly care about who you'd assume will live or die. It's not a particularly grim movie, but I was surprised more than once to see certain people get bitten, with the film ultimately giving you enough survivors to find the climax somewhat hopeful while also never once feeling particularly "safe", either. I'm sure some will write it off as too "cutesy" or whatever, but if you strip away the songs and some occasional high school drama that adults may roll their eyes at, you're left with a solid zombie story that largely refrains from embracing the cliches (there's only one "evil human", an asshole professor from their school who we know is a prick even before the zombies appear) and thankfully doesn't waste time with people trying to figure out what they are and how they can be stopped.

Which, I guess, is a good a place as any to admit that yes, the writers have clearly seen Shaun of the Dead. There's a scene where Anna sings an upbeat "It's gonna be a great day!" kind of song while remaining oblivious to the zombie carnage around her, and even if you haven't seen that film since 2004 you might be reminded of the bit where Shaun walks to the store, so caught up in his own business he doesn't notice anything amiss. The zombie discussion is also quite similar to Shaun's; these people have seen zombies in popular culture and more or less instantly accept that that is what they are dealing with, no further debate necessary. To be fair, it carves enough of its own identity that it never feels like a "rip-off" of Edgar Wright's film, but don't be surprised if you think of it more than anything from Romero or Kirkman.

But none of those dudes ever thought to have people sing about the zombies! The songs don't sound like traditional showtunes; modern pop musicals like High School Musical are more of an influence than Little Shop or Rocky Horror, and most of the songs are ensembles as opposed to solos or even duets - there might be two of those out of ten or so songs? I didn't keep track, but it's definitely lopsided in favor of letting a good chunk of the cast sing on the song of the moment. The songs themselves are bubblegum pop (unlike the more dance-inspired ones in the HSM films), and the message of most is basically "life can be a drag but you gotta keep fighting on", so it can feel a touch repetitive as it goes - and it doesn't help that the best two songs are also the first two songs, IMO - but there's so much charm it's easy to forgive. Still, if the average Kelly Clarkson hit has you wanting to plug your ears, I would probably skip this one.

Or just skip the songs, as it's not like they drench the film, with as much as ten minutes going by between them. Again I didn't keep count, but it seemed to me there were fewer songs than any other movie musical I can recall, allowing you to "get into" the film in ways most musicals don't allow. The first one doesn't even kick in until a few scenes have passed, so you might already be a bit invested before anyone even opens their mouth to sing (and, as I said, those first songs are the best ones, buying the movie more goodwill than it ultimately needed), which is a smart move for something so offbeat and also without the benefit of an existing stage show or whatever to familiarize yourself with the songs. Unlike La La Land or Greatest Showman, this doesn't have big stars to lure you in, making it all the more impressive that they even got it made, let alone with what seems like a decent-sized budget. The school gets used a lot, but there are big sequences in a variety of other locales (a bowling alley, a Christmas tree lot, Anna's neighborhood, etc.) and plenty of carnage as well, including far more bloodspray (often practical!) than I would have guessed beforehand. The filmmakers clearly aimed to please horror/zombie fans *and* musical fans in equal measures, and I think they largely succeeded.

Given the film's UK roots, largely unknown cast, and polarizing sub-genre, I'm surprised that Orion is opting to open the film wide, but it's a gamble I certainly endorse. It's a crowd-pleaser for sure, and given the film's Christmas setting it will be not just be fine counter-programming for all of the Oscar bait that will start choking our theaters come November, but also the sort of film you'll hopefully be in the mood for anyway, as it's not as mean-spirited as most Christmas horror movies are. Despite the R rating (for language and violence, though the latter is never remotely as graphic as that of Walking Dead), it's borderline family friendly, so it'll be a fine addition to your collection of seasonal Blu-rays. I know I can't wait to throw it on during one of my annual Christmas Eve Watch And Build-A-Thons (where I assemble a large Lego set while watching Christmas specials and movies), and might even make it one of Will's first zombie movies once he's ready for such fare (Shaun will probably come first, natch). Until then, I'm just happy that it exists: a zombie film with charm, satisfying me as a horror fan AND a guy who knows more Taylor Swift songs than you might expect.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

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