Mrs. Claus (2018)

NOVEMBER 13, 2018

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

If you're not a discerning slasher fan and want to start diving into your seasonal horror collection, then I've certainly seen worse than Mrs. Claus (formerly Stirring). It's watchable, it's got plenty of kills (and they're done practically), and even if the mystery is so obvious the killer didn't even really need the mask, it's still a whodunit as opposed to some lame attempt at a new wisecracking "icon", which sinks so many of these things. Also, I have to give it props for hiding an additional twist in the audio for those who watch the end credits - there's no "post credits scene", but if you listen you'll hear a line of dialogue that suggests the killer had an additional helper. That's kind of novel!

But if the movie hadn't made a huge blunder I probably wouldn't have caught it, because the only reason I was watching the end credits all the way to the end was to see if it listed the filming location, because while the plot (and pretty much entire film) is set in a sorority house, it looked more like a two bedroom apartment to me, and it kept the movie at bay the entire time. Alas, it didn't list any of its locations, but I did learn that there were apparently more producers on this movie than actual crew members, and I can't help but wish one of them produced a better location for the bulk of its action.

See, location is crucial for a slasher of this sort - we need to know how far apart people are, the killer needs room to stalk/chase his victims, etc., but none of that stuff works here because everything seems so cramped. There are no chase scenes at all, really - someone will just enter a room or their car and then the killer pops up and kills them. We never see Mrs. Claus unless she's about four seconds away from offing someone, which further undoes the need for a mask at all - we barely ever get to see it, so they might as well have just taken a cue from the original Friday the 13th and done everything with POV and feet. And without any sense of geography for the "house", there's not a lot of tension the director or editor can manage when someone's in danger: are their friends in the next room, another floor? The way it looks in the movie, it shouldn't even be possible for Mrs. Claus to make her way around without being seen by the other characters.

It doesn't help that everything is a direct lift from To All A Goodnight, right down to the identical setup (a tragic death at the sorority), and motive for the killer. Hell it even cribs the same damn twist (spoiler: they're not acting alone), so it started to rub me the wrong way since To All A Goodnight is a pretty obscure entry in the slasher canon and thus could be stolen from without some folks noticing, unlike Halloween or Friday the 13th where the filmmakers tend to make those films' influence more apparent to avoid any such "ripoff" claims. I'm sure the "sorority house during Christmas break" setting will make more folks think of Black Christmas, a film that this one otherwise shares little in common with, but there aren't enough grains of salt in the world to make me believe that David Hess' film wasn't on the minds of this one's screenwriter.

But again, at least the kills are practical! And plentiful - I was worried they blew their fake blood budget on the first one (the obligatory "tragedy", in which a picked on sorority sister viciously stabs the meanest one before hanging herself) as it was almost unsettlingly bloody, but I don't think they hold back on any death scene - everyone gets stabbed or impaled in some manner or other, with the red stuff pouring/spraying in a manner that suggests they wanted to rub it in to MPAA-mangled predecessors like F13: The New Blood. Occasionally the deaths are Christmas-themed, like a guy who gets a giant decorative candy cane shoved down his throat, and I started to wish they embraced this sort of thing more often to help make up for the movies' lapses. If someone got beheaded by a giant nutcracker or run over by a reindeer, I would have forgiven all that other stuff.

Oh well. Even though I wasn't expecting a classic, it didn't quite do it for me even when I factor in its low budget hurdles. The bad acting and non-existent production value I can look past, but when they're swiping so heavily from another film that had its own issues (and wasn't exactly a big budget affair itself) it's hard to really get excited about it. There's zero excitement or engaging material to be found unless someone is being killed, and with no buildup to these moments, you'll find yourself just waiting for the next one. Luckily they're never too far apart (possibly the one thing it has over To All A Goodnight), but still - keep your phone or a magazine handy, as there's little reason to bother with anything in between. Hell they even bungle a defense of Christmas Vacation over other holiday staples by leaving it to the film's resident douchey asshole guy to say it! I find that offensive! Let the male hero be the one to rightfully acknowledge its merit!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Overlord (2018)

NOVEMBER 8, 2018

GENRE: MAD SCIENTIST, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (IMAX SCREENING)

In a bit of irony, Paramount has played up Overlord's horror aspects in its marketing, despite the fact that it actually spends more time on its war plot than anything that'd feature in Fangoria, offering a rare case of the money people saying "It IS a horror movie!" Not that it's NOT horror at all - it's just that those elements are not featured as heavily as one might expect from the trailers, which showcases all of them and sets them to ACDC's "Hell's Bells" to give the impression that this is some balls out crazy action/horror blend in the vein of the Resident Evil films (or, to stick with AC/DC, Maximum Overdrive!). In reality, the genre elements are barely even hinted at for the first half of the film, and even once they are the war plot is still very much the focus - the Nazi zombie monsters are just another thing they have to deal with as they attempt to complete their mission.

The mission is basically straight out of a Call of Duty game level - after their plane is partially blown up in flight, the four survivors of a WWII squad are hellbent on completing their objective: destroying a signal-blocking tower that will prevent US naval ships from communicating as they head toward the beaches on D-Day. As with the COD games (at least the ones I've played), there's no ridiculous "go kill Hitler" kind of narrative - their mission is part of a bigger whole, and if this is somehow your first World War II movie you won't get a hell of a lot of background info on what's going (even D-Day is presented as something they figure you already know, and, not for nothing, but you should). There are some skirmishes with Nazi soldiers along the way and when they get closer to town they meet Chloe, a French woman who lost her parents and is trying to protect her little brother from the ongoing war atrocities. Not everyone makes it out, our protagonist Boyce butts head with his superior Ford re: saving lives or finishing the mission, Nazis do slimy things to innocent people... it's very much a war movie, albeit one with a smaller scope than the likes of Saving Private Ryan or Inglourious Basterds.

The horror stuff comes in later, when they get closer to the tower that they need to take out, which is perched on top of a church. Inside that church's basement is your standard evil Nazi doctor with brightly colored syringes and scary-looking operating tables, and he is working on perfecting soldiers that can last for a thousand years. Naturally, the imperfect formula means his test subjects turn into nearly invincible mutants, and a few of them cause more headaches for our group of guys. Honestly, there are no surprises left for this portion of the plot if you've seen the trailer - you'd know the formula gets used on one of our heroes, that one of them chases Chloe around, etc. There are a few one-off visuals of other experiments, like a disembodied head that can still speak (yes, there's a very good chance someone involved has seen Re-Animator), but for the most part the zombies might as well be standard Nazis on steroids for all it matters to the plot. I almost got the impression that the pitch was something akin to From Dusk Till Dawn, where there would be zero indication that this was a horror movie until it turned into one, full-stop, only for that approach to get tweaked with through development until it was a little less crazy.

I know that all sounds like I was disappointed with the film, but I wasn't - I actually had a lot of fun with it; if anything I'm more disappointed with the marketing team for spoiling so many of its surprises instead of focusing on the war plot that the movie was actually about (I suspect a low Cinemascore will be forthcoming). All of the characters were quite likable and played well by actors mostly known from television, with the exception of Wyatt Russell as Ford, who once again proves he inherited a sizable amount of his father's considerable charisma. He plays the hardass "we have to get the job done, to hell with collateral damage" type of soldier who softens a bit over the course of the movie (they're all kind of cliches, but it's a war movie, so that's to be expected), but it's impossible to ever dislike the guy, and he gets to kill most of the Nazis which makes it easy to admire him. And near the end of the film, when he's a bit banged up from the events of the movie and grunting more, he starts to look and sound like RJ MacReady a bit, so that was kind of fun.

Also I kind of liked that the horror element remained a B-story and that the A-plot was always in focus. There are a lot of horror movies set during World War II, and I noticed that unless it was a "we got a distress call from this bunker and have to check it out" story I tend to forget what exactly our heroes were there to do in the first place, as they usually have to devote all their attention to whatever supernatural threat has sprung up along the way. Given Normandy's massive importance to our eventual victory in the war, it's a good call that the Nazi monster/zombie things never overshadow their objective, or even feel like a more weighted threat. It's just part of the escalation of things that try to prevent them from taking out that tower - from crashing the plane to Nazi patrol squads to bloodthirsty creatures, nothing will stop Kurt Jr and his pals from getting the job done!

I do wish the mad science plot was slightly more inventive, however. When I realized it was just another botched super-soldier serum thing I kind of rolled my eyes a bit; granted, these kind of movies rarely see theatrical releases (in IMAX no less) so the mainstream audiences have probably not seen too many, if any at all, but I expected producer JJ Abrams to bring something a little more peculiar to the table. There's a brief scene where Royce is chased by a dog that seems a bit demonic - perhaps more of that sort of thing would have elevated this into more of a must-see. Also, early on one of our guys steps on a landmine and is presumably killed, only to be found later hooked up to one of the scientist's operating table/machine hybrids. He is freed, and you wait the whole movie for this to have a payoff, and... it doesn't. The Nazis apparently just cured him with no drawbacks? It's very odd, and adds to the feeling that someone just threw in some horror stuff at the 11th hour (or, if you want to go with conspiracy theories, had to remove Cloverfield-y plot points) instead of really fleshing it out.

But it's a good time all the same, which is all that really matters. If you're gonna sit there with a list of quotas ("I demand 10 Nazi zombies, five zombie dogs...") instead of just engaging with the movie then you're probably going to walk away disappointed. If you haven't seen the trailer at all (or somehow just saw the part that focused on the war element) you're likely to enjoy it more than those expecting a carnage-fest. It's got some terrific action beats (Royce's forced parachute deployment is astonishing) and a small but memorable group of actors who bounce well off one another (even the kid is charming instead of annoying), serving a plot that's refreshingly straightforward without being disposable. And (unfortunately) proof once again that marketing teams can fuck over their own movies by focusing on the wrong things and prepping audiences to expect a different kind of experience.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Buy Me A "Coffee"?

Hey all, here to share a bit of some sad news: my beloved cat Butters had to be put down last week. We noticed he was eating less and not as active (even by cat standards) last Monday, but he otherwise seemed to be normal - helping his brother with his bath (and then swatting him away when he got tired of it), making his way upstairs to use the litter box, etc. So we didn't think much of it, but then on Tuesday when he again didn't come right away for food, I picked him up and brought him to the dish - where he promptly flopped over as if he didn't have the energy to stand. I took him to the vet right away, and then they instructed me to take him to the emergency hospital where they quickly determined he needed a blood transfusion right away or he'd go into cardiac arrest, as he basically didn't have any blood count. So they did that, and ran tests, and were even able to get him kinda back to normal for a little bit, but then he declined again. The tests showed he had problems with his bone marrow and his heart in addition to the unexplained blood loss, plus he wasn't eating. Every option - which even the doctors seemed to practically be talking me out of - involved heavy and risky surgery (as trying to help one thing could race up problems with the other), so on Halloween night I had to say goodbye and let him go painlessly.

Of course any pet loss is difficult, especially with a 4 year old kid who doesn't quite understand the concept of death, but this one stings even more as he was originally my father's cat, who we inherited when Dad had to move away from MA to FL and couldn't take him with him. We never saw Dad again as he passed away down there a few months later, so having Butters around was a comforting reminder of my old man, and now I don't have that either. Long story short, I'm pretty sad - and about to get worse. See, animal hospitals don't provide refunds when they can't actually save your furry pal's life, and in a couple weeks I'm going to get a very, VERY big bill for all the procedures and intensive care they provided trying to save him, which would have been tough to manage even if I had the comfort of thinking "At least it was worth it". I didn't want to set up a GoFundMe or whatever, and I truly hate to ask, but if anyone would like to offer a bit of relief via Ko-Fi, it would be greatly appreciated. I've (hopefully!) been entertaining you guys for these past 11 years on my own dime, with no paywall or obtrusive ads, and I'd like to keep doing that, but alas if these bills prove to be insurmountable I'll need to focus my time on paid endeavors, which means HMAD would likely be abandoned, and I'd hate to do that. So if you can spare a few bucks to keep that from happening, consider it an investment!

(UPDATE)

Thank you in advance, and hug your furry ones for me. And please, never ever assume that you'll have more time with them, because the last thing I thought when I brought him to the vet would be that he would never be coming home. They're tiny and they can't talk - the doctors can only do so much when they don't know where to start, and illnesses don't take as long to ravage them as they do for us. Take nothing for granted, especially your time with them.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Suspiria (2018)

NOVEMBER 4, 2018

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

If you go back through my tweets about the idea of remaking Suspiria, you'd see that I did a 180 on the idea. At first, like many, I was aghast at the idea of remaking this particular title - it was just such a singularly odd film and so deeply entrenched in Dario Argento's sensibilities that I felt trying to mimic it in any way would just come off as phony at best. It didn't help that the filmmaker attached was David Gordon Green, whose comedies (at least, the ones I had seen) didn't leave me with much confidence that he'd be the guy to do this. But after the trailer I came around a bit, as it certainly didn't look like a carbon copy, and after the first volley of reviews I completed my transition: I was legit excited to see what new director Luca Guadagnino was doing with the material.

However, in an ironic twist no one could have seen coming, I walked out almost wishing David Gordon Green had directed it instead, because he proved to be such a good fit for Halloween and perhaps could have made something more in line with my own (admittedly kooky) tastes. I didn't dislike this new Suspiria, but I had trouble connecting to it more often than not, and felt a few of Guadagnino's choices kept me at bay when it wasn't particularly necessary. I suspect it's the sort of film I'll like more on a second viewing, but as it runs two and a half hours I'm not entirely sure when or even if I'd ever be willing to give it that much of my time again. I could watch the original again (which required no "warming up") and still have time for half of another film I perhaps haven't seen at all. Or I could go for a taco.

Before I get into my issues with it I'll say this much: this is definitely NOT a soulless, "let's cash in on the name" kind of remake that largely gives the "sub-genre" such a bad name. Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich kept the basic concept of Argento's original - a girl named Suzy Bannion enters a European dance studio that turns out to be run by witches - but precious little else, making it very much its own thing and keeping cutesy nods to the barest of minimums. The closest it gets to winking at the audience is casting Jessica Harper (the original Suzy) in a bit role, but even that feels more like a genuine creative choice (given the part she plays and its use in the overall story) than a producer's idea of giving the fans something to cheer for. I went long stretches without even thinking about the original - basically every time someone was in danger I wondered if they'd walk into a barbed wire pit, that's about it.

And for whatever problems I may have had with it, I was never thinking "this sucks" - if anything I was trying my hardest to engage and walk away the fan of it I hoped I would be, rather than checking out as I normally would for a film that was seemingly on a different wavelength than I am. The actors were terrific across the board, for one thing - Dakota Johnson as Susie (they changed the spelling, yes) is wonderful and continues to prove that she's a million times better than the 50 Shades material she's sadly still best known for. She's got a tough role; she's a bit naive at first, almost ditzy, so we can see how transfixed she is by the school and Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton, but she pulls it off deftly. She also has to dance - a LOT, as this film actually has some concern about the dancing that they're ostensibly there to learn. Johnson apparently trained for over a year to get the dancing down, and Guadagnino cast mostly actual dancers to play her fellow students as opposed to actresses. It'd make a good companion piece with Climax, now that I think about it.

As for Swinton, well, she can't look out a window or take a sip of water without finding a way to make it fascinating, so it should be no surprise that she's great, but what IS surprising is that her character is kind of the most normal person in the movie. Unlike the more sinister original incarnation of the character, Blanc here is torn between wanting to stand by her coven (despite wanting to take control of it due to a lack of faith in its current leader, Markos) and wanting to protect Susie, whose dancing prowess and innocence have Blanc having understandable misgivings about sacrificing her. Unfortunately (widely publicized spoiler of sorts incoming) she also plays the role of Josef Klemperer, the film's only male character of note, and it's a distracting choice that did the movie a disservice in my opinion. Someone made a good point, that it smartly tied into the film's feminist approach (that a woman had to act like a man to make her voice heard), but I dunno, it just felt like a great actor trying an experiment that rendered a hefty chunk of the movie feeling phony and almost goofy.

See, Klemperer is a psychiatrist who didn't believe his patient (Chloe Moretz) when she said that the school was run by witches, and now that she's disappeared he feels guilty and responsible - and he's also carrying a lot of baggage from losing track of his wife during the Holocaust, still holding out hope that she is alive and living somewhere under an assumed identity. It's a tragic, meaty character... but the entire time I was just distracted by the (very obvious) fact that it was just Swinton in old man makeup. I kept hoping it'd have some in-film point to it, but it doesn't; it serves only to add more "food for thought" in a movie that's already overstuffed with it, and as a result the character never truly came alive to me, which hurt because Klemperer is kind of our detective here, since Susie is less curious than the original incarnation, giving us less of an "in" to the proceedings. We're also continually updated on the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, though as my knowledge of that even is limited, I couldn't begin to tell you what connection it had to the story of a witch monster running a dance studio. There's a strong (and timely) message of what women can do when they work together (hammered home when we learn the true fate of Klemperer's wife), but it gets muddled with all this other stuff that I'm apparently too dim to connect to the rest of it. As for the traditional horror elements, they're often jaw-dropping, particularly an early sequence where Susie inadvertently acts as a human voodoo doll for another dancer, who - if I'm following it right - is mimicking Susie's movements with her arms and legs, but with her torso not being controlled the same way, resulting in some human pretzel visuals that are as horrifying as they are impressive. The replacement for the barbed wire is suitably ghastly, and - well, I don't want to spoil anything, but if you ever thought the original ended rather abruptly, you'll be happy to know you get a long and detailed look at the final coven sequence, which ends... messily. Guadagnino also likes to make quick edits during a simple motion (someone turning in their chair, or opening a door), which can make the less "horror" scenes still feel uneasy, and he also throws in the occasional very fucked up dream sequence for good measure.

In fact, for better or worse it often reminded me of David Lynch's work, especially the most recent (and best) season of Twin Peaks. It's a little messy, and there are tonal shifts and weird choices, but it's kind of fascinating in its own way, and demands you give it your full attention to let it work its magic over you even if you're not always sure what was happening. But that was a TV show, so when there was an episode that didn't work as well, he'd usually get me back with the next one - a movie is a different experience. I truly wish I could say I flat out loved it instead of being mixed, especially when so many of its cast and crew brought their A-game (even Thom Yorke's score is quite good, and I haven't exactly been a fan of what he's been doing since OK Computer), but it's certainly a memorable and distinct piece of art. Since that's a critique some have made about the original, in that respect it's one of the most successful remakes ever. I walked out of the theater kind of bewildered, but after a couple days found myself closer to "I liked it" than "I didn't" (which, again, suggests I'd enjoy it more a second time around), so if nothing else you know it's not a disposable cash-in. Long story short: it's worth watching, despite itself, and proves once again that horror remakes can be valid if their creative teams are gung-ho about making them and not just taking a job from a studio hoping to make easy money on a dormant IP.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

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