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 The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story).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...

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

SEPTEMBER 13, 2019

GENRE: SURVIVAL
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

I honestly don't know when the last time I watched Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses in its entirety, in fact it's possible that I only saw it the one time, theatrically (where I dozed off for a bit to boot). I could have sworn I watched my DVD at some point before Devil's Rejects came along, but today I found myself struggling with Lionsgate's notoriously obnoxious security adhesive (where they seal all three sides of the disc, and use a sticky solution that often leaves residue on the case) as I opened it for the first time. With 3 From Hell coming in a couple days, I wanted to refresh my memory, but as I watched the film I realized my memories were so poor it was essentially like watching the movie for the first time.

Indeed, even two of my "specific" memories of the film turned out to be wrong. I thought I remembered a scene of Baby (Sheri Moon) ordering pizza, but it was just booze - I had it mixed up with Texas Chainsaw 4 I guess? And then I vividly remembered the scene where Bill Moseley executes a man, depicted via a long slow-motion crane shot, but in my head it was the father of one of the girls the Firefly family was terrorizing - this was also wrong, as the father was gunned down earlier in the sequence. No, the man who got the crane shot was none other than Walton Goggins, a name I was surprised to see in the credits anyway, further proving how long it had been since I took a look at the film (yes, I remembered that Rainn Wilson and Chris Hardwick were the two male heroes).

In turn, the movie was better than I remembered. I wouldn't say I loved it - it's kind of all over the place and has about two too many villains - but I was never bored, and found myself frequently impressed by how much memorable imagery Zombie managed to cram into the 88 minutes of his very inexpensive movie. The set dressing alone is on par with things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Nothing But Trouble, in that you can watch the movie a dozen times and still be noticing strange props and decor around the (equally colorful) characters. The Natural Born Killers-esque cutaways (recolored footage, video mixed with film, etc) get a bit overused, but otherwise I was impressed by how clearly Zombie established himself as a filmmaker in his first attempt.

Granted if you hate his "thing" then there's no chance to enjoy the movie, but just as I came around on his 2nd Halloween entry (in director's cut form) I found myself really appreciating how he was basically applying his distinctive style to a particular brand of horror (in this case, a Texas Chainsaw kind of thing, though he has some Eaten Alive in there too). I remember someone saying that if they had to guess what a Rob Zombie was like (for better or worse), their mental image would be almost identical to his film 31 - but they were saying it dismissively, whereas I kind of love that I know what I'll get when I sit down for one of his movies. If he was making them every year, I'm sure it'd get tiresome, but 3 From Hell will be his 3rd movie in the past decade - that's a big enough gap in between to enjoy his hillbilly hijinks as a diversion from the supernatural horror movies that make up an increasing percentage of what horror films are playing in our multiplexes.

It's also legitimately tense at times. The finale is kind of a dud (Zombie always knew this, for what it's worth) but there are some really great sequences along the way to make up for it. The first big attack on the group as they attempt to escape is fairly harrowing (and again, this was a movie released at a time that the likes of Darkness Falls was able to top the box office), and even the fakeout bits, like Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, in what was his first major role in years) pretending to get angry at Wilson's character for mocking him, carry their fair share of unnerving energy. Also, Zombie's penchant for zooms and film distortion lends the film the appropriate "grindhouse" flair four (really seven since it was filmed) years prior to the film Grindhouse, so he deserves some credit for bringing that sensibility into the mainstream long before it became tiresome.

Its only real flaw (again, if you're on board with its general vibe in the first place; it's admittedly a tough sell) is that it's got so much packed into it, it ultimately kind of feels like Zombie lost interest in his own villains. The final 15 minutes finds the one survivor (Erin Daniels) facing off against Dr. Satan (a character we've heard about but not interacted with) and his creations, leaving Moseley and Sheri Moon pretty much on the sidelines, which is not only awkward but simply unsatisfying - it'd be like if Sally Hardesty's final ordeal found her fighting off the random drunk from the cemetery instead of Leatherface. There's also an ongoing subplot about five cheerleaders that is continually referred to for a solid hour of the movie, only to be discarded without fanfare, making me wonder why Zombie didn't just confine them to an introductory prologue so we could focus on our hero quartet the rest of the time.

I'm gonna revisit Devil's Rejects too; I KNOW I haven't seen that one since theaters (but retain more memories of it), and in my mind it's still his best film - curious to see if it holds up to that. I don't outright love anything he's done, but I don't hate anything either (hell even his Halloween - his worst film - has stuff I enjoy), and while early reviews on 3 From Hell have been pretty scathing, I suspect I'll walk out enjoying it. I just hope I'm not doing it a disservice by refreshing my memory of the first two, when he was still hungry (and had more budgetary support for his ideas) and what he was doing was something wholly unique in the landscape. I'll know on Monday!

What say you?

P.S. I went to the 1,000 Corpses maze at Universal Horror Nights last night, my first time in one even though it's like the fourth time they've done one based on the film (which was partially shot on the same backlot), and not only did I quite like it, but was amused at scenes in the film that were essentially playing out the same as these mazes, with the girl wandering through corridors as things jump out at her. It's the first one you'll come across after you enter the park, so make sure you check it out if you plan on hitting up the event!

PLEASE, GO ON...

It Chapter Two (2019)

SEPTEMBER 5, 2019

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (IMAX SCREENING)

I've revisited the 2017 It a couple times since my theatrical experience, and realized along the way that the real MVP here was the casting agent. The kids are all so good in the roles, it more than makes up for the movie's faults (some dodgy FX, a repetitive middle section), and keeps it rewatchable long after its ability to scare has worn off. It's almost like a hangout movie as opposed to a horror movie; I'd almost rather watch the kids go swimming and ride their bikes than fight the evil clown. And the tradition continues here in It Chapter Two; in addition to the kids all returning (some noticeably aged for scenes that are supposedly taking place during the original's events), the adult cast is largely terrific as well, and whenever I found myself sighing or even rolling my eyes at some of the script's decisions, I'd be instantly back on board whenever it got back to letting these performers bounce off each other.

You should all know the story by now: It, most commonly in the form of Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård returns as well, naturally) returns to Derry every 27 years, and while the kids did a good job of putting him in his place and maybe having him go back to his hole a bit early, they didn't actually kill him at the end of the first film. Well it's 27 years later, and the murders have started again, prompting Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, a standout) to call his fellow Losers - all of whom moved away, unlike him - and cash in on their promise to come back if it ever returned. All but one of them do (the marketing has made zero attempt to hide this, so don't give me any "spoiler" shit), and the fun begins again.

While the book and original miniseries started in this present day and filled in the kids' part of the story via flashbacks, the 2017 film didn't have as much of a hint of the adult stuff - apart from the "Chapter One" title (which it only got at the end), there was nothing to suggest it wasn't a standalone story. And that worked perfectly there, but here it's slightly odd that the adult characters reunite literally moments after we've first seen Bill Hader, James Ransone, etc., not to mention maybe 20 minutes into a movie when it's something designed to be around the story's halfway point. But that's just testament to how good their chemistry is; in fact I flat out loved their Chinese restaurant reunion, as it really did give me the same feeling I get from some sequel with a long gap when two old friends share the screen again (Han and Leia in Force Awakens would be a good example), even though it occurs, in Bev's case, the next scene after we first see her in the form of Jessica Chastain.

I bring this up because the movie as a whole has to constantly overcome its peculiar situation: staying faithful to a book that they consciously went out of their way to rework the last time. I almost wonder if leaving the kids out of it entirely (or perhaps confining them to bookending scenes) would have been better, as most of the scenes with them are repeats of what we saw the first time. At around the hour mark, Mike tasks them with finding a token to sacrifice to perform a ritual he believes will stop the monster, and tells them they all have to go out on their own to find their own unique object, which means that a big chunk of the middle of the film robs us of its best asset: the adult cast's chemistry. In its place, we get a series of repetitive sequences where Ben, Bill, Bev, etc go off to retrieve their object, have a flashback about some scary incident that occurred in 1989 (one they didn't show us last time, obviously), then encounter It again in the present before running back to the inn where they're all staying.

This isn't too far of a departure from the book, where Mike asks them to go around town to restore their memories, but the "fetch quest" element is what makes it not work here, not to mention treading water narratively. In the book it made sense - we hadn't gotten the full story of their first encounter with It yet, so it was still filling in gaps, and it made sense to have each character remember those things when off on their own. But we already know what happened last time - seeing this or that isolated, previously unmentioned incident doesn't really offer us anything necessary, and it's worse if you aren't easily scared by BOO! scenes because that's their actual function anyway. And by changing the purpose for this "let's split up" mission in the first place, the movie opens itself up to a rather silly plot hole, as one character goes off to their old school and goes through his motions, even though his token was in his pocket the whole time anyway (and this isn't even a reveal - he shows it to us before he's even arrived in Derry). I understand the motive on the creative team's part for this 30 minute chunk of the film (get the kids back! Add some scares!) but it really does the movie no favors.

Another "quirk" of the film is a bit too much comedy. I am ride or die for Bill Hader and I think he is great as Richie, but they overuse his ability to make a joke - I'm of the "less is more" school of thinking, and he undercuts more than one scare or emotional moment with a crack that wasn't really necessary. When Bev actually "Beep Beep"s him at one point (the only instance of it used in the original context, I think?) I silently thanked the woman and hoped it would stick. Don't get me wrong - I laughed my ass off at a number of his lines (there's one in the clubhouse that damn near killed me) but they lean on it a bit too much. And there are other things that had me shaking my head, including a bizarre four second-long needle-drop during a scare scene that comes off as an editing error more than an intentional decision, and a truly awful nod to The Shining - in a movie where things had to have been cut (Bev's big line in the trailer isn't in it, for starters) I had to wonder why this stuff got left in at all.

And not for nothing, but the first movie made 700 million dollars worldwide - why couldn't WB improve their FX budget for the sequel? Once again It takes several forms, and while some look fine, others look downright last-gen video game level "not good", undercutting the effectiveness of what might otherwise be a perfectly good setpiece. And if you ever want to prove to someone the value of practical FX over CGI, just show them the fortune cookie scenes from the miniseries and this film back to back - it was one of the 1990 film's most lauded scare moments, and it doesn't work at all here. Skarsgård's stuff, unsurprisingly, always works perfectly, though I swear he's in it a lot less this time, which doesn't help the overall feeling that the film doesn't generate as much nightmare fuel as its predecessor (which itself wasn't exactly the scariest movie ever made). The suspense is there, particularly in the finale since they've proven they're not going to do everything the same way it was originally written, and there are a couple of great moments like Pennywise bashing his head against a funhouse mirror, but perhaps because of the length of the film spreading these moments out more, I can't say I was ever truly tense or unnerved (at least, not after the brutal opening scene, which book readers will know but was left completely out of the miniseries: the horrible death of Adrian Mellon).

But the cast! Chastain is always wonderful, but I loved seeing this two-time Oscar nominee fully commit to the traditions of a horror movie, including getting covered in blood and diving/ducking her way around whatever CGI nonsense was going on around her. Ransone (as Eddie) was also a terrific choice (possibly the best "look alike" beyond Stan, who... well, you know), though like Hader they tend to let him go for laughs too often (as well as F-bombs - between the two of them I swear they rack up more than the Pulp Fiction characters), and again, Mustafa as Mike was a knockout; his scenes of trying to explain what's going on to his old friends who have forgotten everything (including him) are kind of devastating in a way. James McAvoy as Bill was less impressive, however; not only did he look the least like his younger counterpart, but he never quite made the role his own either (doesn't help that young Bill was a standout for the original), and he also has to keep sighing his way through the film's endless running gag about how his writer character can never come up with a good ending, a nod to a traditional criticism aimed at Mr. King himself. It's cute the first time, but by the 5th or 6th? Not so much.

That said, the repetition of this idea, that the endings he had aren't good and need to be changed (when we meet Bill he's on the set of an adaptation of one of his books, where the director is insisting on a new ending), had me thinking that they were just warning us that things wouldn't go down the same way. And indeed, there are some modifications to the finale, most of which I think are improvements. In fact even though I've lived through ______'s death in two other incarnations at this point, this time was the first time I cried about it, and I attribute it to the actors (one in particular) just flat out killing the loss they were feeling. Also, Audra doesn't follow Bill to Derry this time, so Bill doesn't have to save her, allowing the focus to remain on our Losers the entire time, which is the right choice (there's also a new plot point involving a letter that I quite liked) and helped make THIS ending a winner.

(Also, I have to assume it's intentional since other King adaptations are given little nods here and there - Bill's writing room at the end looks almost identical to Gordie's at the end of Stand By Me, which is a lovely tribute to a fellow "the ending made me cry" King tale.)

So ultimately it's... a lot like the first one! If I were to rattle off a list of strengths (the cast, the general vibe, the story) and weaknesses (the FX, the repetitive middle) in broad terms you wouldn't even know which one I was talking about, which I guess makes it a successful sequel that unfortunately has to combat higher expectations (and a longer running time; it's basically one sequence shy of being a full three hours*), hence the very mixed (even downright negative) reviews. Is it a perfect film? No it is not - and neither was the 2017 one, and folks were pretty kind to it and also it made a lot of money, so I'm not sure why folks seem so surprised that this one is, for better or worse, following its structure and overall tone pretty closely. An "ultimate" cut has been teased; maybe it would work better in that regard (or, as one friend suggested, recut entirely to match the book's structure), but for now I think it's a solid followup that was probably as good as it could be considering they had the unenviable task of tackling the trickier parts of a book they wanted to remain faithful to, while also working around the fact that they had to live with their decision to make the first one as if this one might have never existed. I think they got it more or less right.

What say you?

*Indeed, we aren't shown Mike's own quest to get his sacrificial object, presumably because he already had gotten it before everyone arrived. I've seen complaints that the movie wastes Mike and points to this as an example, which is absurd on all levels because a. these same people were complaining about the entire "get the object" subplot anyway, so I don't know why they'd want it to last LONGER, and - SPOILER! - Mike isn't attacked by Henry this time around and forced to sit the big battle out. Instead, he goes down to the sewers with the others, giving Mike "more to do" than ever before. So it's a very stupid complaint in my opinion.

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Dead Zone (1983)

SEPTEMBER 2, 2019

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REVIVAL SCREENING)

I started watching SNL when I was 11, so obviously there were a lot of sketches that went over my head, but every now and then I'd enjoy one even though I wasn't even fully clued into the joke. One such sketch was when Christopher Walken was hosting and he played a psychic who could foresee inconsequential events in the future of anyone he touched ("You get a pistachio that's really hard to open!"), which I found hilarious and quoted all the time over the next few weeks. However, at the time I hadn't seen The Dead Zone, the 1983 film starring Walken, so I had no idea he was parodying one of his own characters.

I finally got around to seeing it sometime in college, and more or less immediately followed it with a read of the book, but hadn't seen it in its entirety since. So watching it on the big screen (part of a Stephen King themed programming block at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse in LA*) was basically seeing it for the first time; all I really remembered was how it ended and that the film was kind of episodic, though even the details on those two things were hazy. Long story short, it was great to discover that the film is one of the best King adaptations.

It's also one of the best David Cronenberg movies, though it's worth noting it rarely feels like one of his. Apart from being shot in Canada, it's got zero of his trademarks; hell, it doesn't even have a score from Howard Shore, as the the studio insisted on Michael Kamen (who did a fine job, for what it's worth). I can't fault a guy for following his bliss, but I also can be sad that he didn't make more traditionally commercial/studio films - it's accessible, but there's a matter of fact-ness to the film's proceedings that I don't see other directors attempting, and it serves the subject matter well.

Indeed, calling it a "horror movie" is misleading; it only really qualifies because of the pedigree of its creative team. As I mentioned the film is episodic, and one such "episode" is a chunk in the middle where Johnny helps the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) find a serial killer, which is the closest it gets to standard horror territory. But Cronenberg isn't interested in kill or chase scenes, and allows just about all of the violence it contains (not much) to occur off-screen to boot. The serial killings are never mentioned prior to Bannerman's first appearance, and neither he or the storyline are mentioned again once Johnny identifies the killer (who offs himself) - you could essentially cut the entire chunk of the movie out and it'd have no effect on the rest.

After that the plot switches to Greg Stillson, whose significance is threaded into the narrative much earlier so it doesn't come out of nowhere like the killer. Stillson's an ambitious candidate for the New Hampshire senate (not sure why it was changed from Maine) who has no intention of stopping there - he wants to be President, and when Johnny manages to shake his hand at a rally, we see how devastating that will be (the specifics are vague, but he is apparently launching nukes at some enemy). Man, it's a good thing we will never have a President that's a crazy jerk like him with access to our weapons arsenal!

OK, better writers than me have written about those unfortunate parallels already, so I'll stop at the one joke. Instead I want to talk about a small part that really gutted me out of nowhere: when Johnny makes a small joke to his father about his recent tryst with his ex lover, who is now married to someone else (and whose child with that man is in the room when he makes said joke). My dad died a year after I got out of college, and less than a year after moving out of the family home into my own apartment; I was closer to a kid than a fully grown adult, so I have been forever denied the opportunity to talk to my dad as another man like Johnny was here, making a "boys club" kind of joke as opposed to one I could ever see myself telling my own father.

Indeed, I'm now as old as Walken was when he made the movie, and seeing that brief scene really hammered home how much I've missed out on having my pops as a kind of buddy I could complain to about work or life, or ask for advice regarding things that were not even in my foreseeable future the last time I was able to talk to him (i.e. parental concerns). I know King's books have these scenes of humanity that give me "the feels", but they rarely make their way intact to the screen - and I certainly wouldn't expect one of those exceptions to be in a David Cronenberg movie, as warmth isn't really his thing.

The structure can make it somewhat frustrating for viewers who aren't prepared for it (it may be why I only saw it the one time all those years ago), but if you put less weight on the narrative and focus on Walken's tragic Johnny, the film works like gangbusters. As you might expect, Walken isn't the first guy I'd assume to be playing the role of a normal school teacher who has to save the world, but he's terrific here, downplaying a lot of his usual tics in favor of becoming, in a way, a romantic lead. His scenes with Brooke Adams are heartbreaking, and he really disappears in the role - it's only when he gets enraged at a man ignoring his warnings that you'll see the crazed Walken you know from Batman Returns and things like that.

The movie came out in 1983, same as Cujo (which also featured Bannerman, albeit played by a different actor) and Christine. They all made about the same amount of money (in fact they would be back to back to back on the 1983 chart if not for The Rescuers breaking them up), but Dead Zone made the least of those similar amounts, which is typical since it's naturally the most well regarded, even with its dated idea of a politician's career sinking after he did something despicable. I'm glad Alamo chose to include it with its select group of King programming (they only picked I think six of the 40+ options), as who knows when I'd find the time to finally revisit it otherwise?

Also, for the longest time Cosmopolis was the only Cronenberg movie I got to see theatrically, which is just a horrible way to live. But thanks to rep screenings I've been able to see many others, including most of my faves (The Fly, The Brood, Dead Ringers, this), some even on 35mm. So now Cosmopolis is simply the *worst* Cronenberg movie I've seen on the big screen, and I can sleep easier at night.

What say you?

*Where I'll be hosting my beloved Cathy's Curse two weeks from today - if you're around and want to go, act fast as we're almost sold out!

PLEASE, GO ON...

Scars Of Dracula (1970)

AUGUST 27, 2019

GENRE: HAMMER, VAMPIRE
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

At long last! I can't recall why I never got around to seeing Scars of Dracula back when this was a daily operated site, since the only other one I missed at the time was the offshoot 7 Golden Vampires (and even that I eventually got to, earlier this year), though I assume it had something to do with availability. But no matter - I can finally say I've seen this entire franchise, albeit completely out of order and spread across so many years that my memories of most entries consist solely of whatever my own review can muster up. I still long for a boxed set that will a. look nice on my shelf and b. ensure that I watch them in order for a second go around (I've only seen one or two of them a second time), but I'm sure the rights issues will keep that from ever happening.

Then again if anyone could pull it off it'd be Scream Factory, since they managed to get all of the Halloweens together and they were spread even further apart I think. Scars is the third of the Hammer Dracula series they've released (after 7 Golden Vampires and Dracula: Prince of Darkness), so they're clearly making efforts to inch us ever closer to some kind of release consistency. Now that they have a tie to Warner Bros (who controls several of the others, including the original Horror of Dracula) there's at least a decent chance they can nab them all eventually, even if they are - like my own viewing experience - released completely out of order.

However there's been an upside to this erratic order, in which I only once managed to watch two of the films in sequence (something unique to this franchise for me; I'm usually a stickler for going in order). Some of the films - in particular this one - are criticized by critics and Hammer faithful for betraying continuity in this or that way, but I was never quite sure where in the history I was, so I never noticed or even really cared much. Apparently at the end of the previous film Dracula was killed in a church, but here his bones are in his castle (where he is resurrected by a bat); no explanation is given for how they got there, but for all I knew there was nothing amiss, so I was able to watch the film by starting off on the right foot, whereas the die-hards were annoyed before the title even came up.

I'm not saying they're "wrong" to be angry - I've certainly gotten my own panties in a bunch about such things in the past (I've mellowed out a lot since). But for me personally, being blind to this kind of thing helped me enjoy the film much more than I might if I were a student of the series and knew exactly where his body should have been, and I can't help but wonder how much more I would have enjoyed something like H20 back in the day if it was the first sequel I had seen, without being grumpy that it was dismissing my beloved H4 and not resolving the cliffhanger in Curse of Michael Myers. There's a pretty believable theory that Hammer wrote the film in a vague way in case Christopher Lee didn't come back, thus making a break from the continuity to start anew with a different incarnation of the character, and then simply didn't care enough to adjust the script accordingly when Lee did in fact return for his fifth outing as the Count.

But I'm glad he did, because it's the most active he's been in one since the original. He talks more here than in the last few combined, I think, and does more Stoker-y things (like climbing on the walls), giving the character (and in turn, Lee himself) a better showcase than most of the other entries, despite whatever issues one might take with how it compares to the others. Yes, it's a bit odd to see him acting so violently here, but I'll take it over him barely appearing or speaking and let everyone else carry the movie. As for the others, it's yet another guy named Paul (the third, at least, in this series), his brother Simon, and some villagers, plus Simon's fiance who fills the obligatory "lady that Dracula is obsessed with" role. I particularly liked the priest (he's not given any name) played by Michael Gwynn, who (SPOILERS FOR 50 YEAR OLD MOVIE AHEAD!) kind of fills the Van Helsing role to some degree, making it a fun shock when he's killed off with 20 or so minutes to go.

It's also got a little more adventure-y action, with both Paul and Simon scaling the castle, a runaway coach scene, etc - it feels like part of Hammer's attempt to modernize the brand, and I bet the film would pair nicely with Captain Kronos (as opposed to House of Frankenstein, the film it was actually shown with upon release). With Lee doing more and all of this other stuff, it's easy to see why it played so well for me, and it's a shame that the Hammer gatekeepers couldn't have much fun with it. Indeed, the commentary by the usual historian, Constantine Nasr, is downright nasty at times as he lambasts the continuity, the violence, Roy Ward Baker's direction, etc. It'd be like me doing one for Freddy's Dead or F13: New Blood: presumably amusing to those who shared my less than glowing opinion of those films, but a bummer and even kind of obnoxious to those who enjoyed them. He does give it credit on occasion (such as the quite good matte painting for the long drop from the castle) and still provides the usual historical background and anecdotes (he even has Baker's copy of the script with him, with handwritten notes and such), so it's not a total waste of time, but I do wish one of the other Hammer folks could have been roped in, assuming at least one of them enjoyed the movie more.

The other commentary is an older one by Lee and Baker, moderated by Marcus Hearn (another Hammer expert). Hearn wasn't even really needed here; the two men rarely pause as they talk about the film, the state of Hammer at the time, etc., while Lee chimes in with other random observations like his favorite Benny Hill sketches (when that show's cast member Bob Todd shows up in a bit part here). As always these British gents are delightfully candid which makes some of their stories bluntly hilarious, and at the very end Lee admits he's never even seen the movie before, so it's just a treasure - I'm glad Scream Factory carried it over from whatever release it was recorded for (in 2001 or so, based on Lee's saying he hasn't made a Hammer film in 25 years as his last one at the time was 1976's To the Devil a Daughter). The transfer is also spectacular; as is often the case perhaps a bit TOO good as you can often see the wires holding the giant bat that frequently attacks our heroes.

I started this franchise in the early days of HMAD, with Brides of Dracula in 2007, and am just now finishing it up, just shy of a full twelve years later. Needless to say, my memories of the ones I watched more than a few years ago are practically non-existent, so I wouldn't begin to try to rank them or anything. That said, re-reading my reviews it seems I was often mildly charmed by the majority of them, with Dracula AD 1972 being the only one I seemed really "into" beyond appreciation for what it was doing at the time it was doing it. Maybe if I watched them all in order I'd feel differently? Who knows. All I know is I had a good time watching this one and was happy to end my Hammer Dracula viewing on a high note. Here's hoping you find it as enjoyable!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Ready Or Not (2019)

AUGUST 22, 2019

GENRE: COMEDIC, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I'm not sure how they differentiate behind the scenes, but to the average moviegoer, a Fox Searchlight movie is traditionally less commercially minded than the stuff that comes out from the traditional Fox label. Grim subject matter (12 Years A Slave), taboo topics (teen pregnancy re: Juno), Batrachophilia (Shape of Water)... it's easy to see why they might not want these things starting off the same way as Home Alone or Night at the Museum. So when you hear that Ready or Not is a Fox Searchlight movie, you're probably thinking it's disturbing or psychologically driven (they did Black Swan, after all), right? Wrong. It's actually the most fun genre movie of the summer, possibly all year.

If you've seen the trailer you know the premise (and, alas, a few of its surprises): a woman named Grace (Samara Weaving) gets married to a man named Alex who belongs to a wealthy family he has largely distanced himself from, and is made to join them for their "new family member" ritual of a game night, where the game is chosen by a mysterious box that dispenses cards with the game name printed on them. When Grace takes the card and sees that it's Hide & Seek, she laughs at the idea of adults playing such a silly kid's game, but everyone else clearly takes the matter very seriously. She goes off to hide, and her new in-laws grab crossbows and axes - if they find her they mean her very serious harm. Since this is not a short film, she gets privy to their plans and decides to fight back, with only minimal support from her husband.

As I said, the trailer does give away some things I wished it hadn't (at least two major moments in the trailer, with plenty of context offered along with them, are from the film's last 15 minutes), but the interesting thing about the movie is that the filmmakers seem to be aware everyone will know the premise already, and it gives the first 20 minutes or so some bonus comedy for the audience. When her husband suggests they just elope ("I'm giving you an out...") she just sees it as him having jitters or whatever, but everyone in the audience is laughing because they know he's really trying to possibly save her life. Likewise, there's no big dramatic reveal of their murderous intentions - patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) just starts handing out the weapons to his wife and children as casually as he might deal the cards if they were playing poker.

Which leads me to one of the film's odder weak spots - the fact that it's ONLY Hide & Seek that means someone will be hunted and sacrificed. A few of her fellow "married in" in-laws reveal their games ("I got Old Maid at mine - what the hell even IS that?" says her husband's brother-in-law) and someone notes that it's been ages since they had to play Hide & Seek, but they don't do a thorough job of clarifying that, apparently, those who play Old Maid just play the game and go to bed - there's no high stakes for that or checkers or whatever else the card might say. So I was watching for a while thinking that the Old Maid guy and others did indeed go through this ordeal and "win" (survive), making the family's repeated "if we fail we're all dead!" claims confusing for a bit.

But that sentiment is offset by how damn fun it is. Czerny is one of those actors who is always just a delight to watch and truly excels at playing villainous assholes (when they killed him off on Revenge, I stopped watching the show as he was the last good thing about it), so seeing him get to get more manic as the film goes on was truly a gift. See, they only have until sunrise to find/sacrifice Grace or they'll all die (per the backstory of his great grandfather, who started this tradition after making a deal with a mysterious man in exchange for their good fortune for their business dealings), so as time winds down he panics more and more, while his wife (Andie MacDowell in rare form) does her best to keep him focused.

The real MVP, however, is Adam Brody as Alex's brother Daniel. An alcoholic who is said to always be hitting on Grace, he is clearly growing disillusioned with the family traditions and isn't sure if he should continue to assist them, making him a bit of a wild card. At one point he finds Grace accidentally (he was just looking for a drink) and allows her a ten second head start before alerting the others, though he seemingly can't bring himself to become a full blown accomplice. So part of the fun is wondering when or if he will truly turn sides, as well as the realization him hitting on her was probably his own way of trying to get her to leave on her own accord and save her life, without having to actually turn on his family. Brody gets some of the film's best lines (including one near the end I obviously can't repeat, but if you see it you'll know which one - the phrase "for a week" is involved), and it cements my post-Jennifer's Body belief that the actor is truly at his best when playing in horror comedies.

That said, everyone is doing fine work; they're all playing in-law stereotypes (ditzy sister and her clueless husband, Brody's wife is an ice queen, etc) but they walk on the exact right line between horror and comedy - it's not a movie meant for scares, per se, but it delivers on the suspense even if you're never far from another laugh, and the cast keeps it from ever veering too far into goofy comedy. And Weaving dives right into the physical demands of the role, including an accidental fall into a pile of decomposing bodies and a gnarly "hand through a nail" bit - all in a wedding dress! (She does change her shoes into something she can run in though; sorry, Jurassic World fans.)

Fun: that's the keyword here. It's a goofy premise played straight as can be, with enough blood/violence to justify its R rating (the F-bombs would have sent it there anyway) but not so much that it starts feeling like a torture flick. The climax is that rare mix of jaw-dropper and crowd-pleaser, and - even though I deplore the habit in real life - it's got the best use of a "now I need a smoke" moment in who knows how long (ages, since people almost never smoke in movies anymore). Ultimately its only real flaw was that the trailer gave away so many of its secrets, but since knowing the premise before the protagonist gave it some bonus humor, it kind of evens out. Don't let the "buried at the end of August" release date fool you - this one's a winner.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019)

AUGUST 16, 2019

GENRE: PREDATOR, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

"There won't be a "48" Meters Down." - BC, Horror Movie A Day (from the review of 47 Meters Down)

OK in reality I meant there wouldn't be any sequel at all, but ironically I am still *technically* correct, because they decided to be less cute and named their sequel 47 Meters Down: Uncaged instead. To be fair, it's a more accurate title than "48" - the heroes in this one aren't too far down at all, let alone further (if so, they've abandoned the "bends" concept that drove so much of the original), but they ARE uncaged, as the four swimmers this time around are on an impromptu scuba dive and have nothing between them and the sharks.

That is, except for the area itself, which is a flooded Mayan temple. I guess this series is committed to reminding us of The Descent, as the first one cribbed its (UK!) ending and this one borrows the same kind of claustrophobic thrills, as narrow tunnels and an unsure path to reach the surface offer up just as many scares as the sharks. Also, because the sharks (and one random fish that is used for a scare!) have been down there for so long, they basically evolved without eyes, making them blind and needing sound to find their way around - just like the Descent monsters.

But hey, "The Descent with sharks" is a pretty solid concept for a B-movie like this, and honestly I think it might be a minor improvement over the original. For starters, the expanded cast means, well, more action - the sisters in the original had to live until the closing moments (give or take a hallucination), but there are four divers plus three dudes who are working in the area to... clear a path for development, or something? It doesn't really matter, as it allows for a few extra potential victims, plus a scene where a guy is welding while listening to music only to get spooked by the villain, a classic cliche kind of horror movie scene except for it's all playing out underwater. It's an amusing sight.

And naturally, not everyone makes it out, which means there's more shark carnage this time around. Also, it retains the "more or less real time" approach of the original, but as they don't have a cage to sit in and stay safe for a bit, there are far fewer cringe-worthy dialogue scenes, which were a major blight last time. Sure, the pre-dive dialogue is generic and vague (our heroine Mia is hated by everyone at school, but we have no idea why - a new Johannes Roberts tradition I guess as we never understood what Bailee Madison's character had done wrong at the top of Strangers 2), but once they're down there they rarely say anything outside of things like "Look out!" "Check your air!" and "We're trapped!" (followed by "There must be a way!"), so that's nice.

In fact if anything they go too far in the opposite direction. Mia has a stepsister, Sasha, and we quickly learn the two don't really get along ("She's not my sister," Mia says to her stepmom, who she does seem to bond with - a nice change of pace from the norm in horror movies). But when Mia's dad (John Corbett) sends the two of them off on a shark-watching boat only for Sasha's friends show up and convince them to change their plans and go scuba diving with them instead, Mia hesitates for a second... and then Sasha is suddenly her BFF. Sasha's pals also take to Mia quite quickly, making me wonder why they even set up any conflict at all. I was expecting/assuming to see their animosity have to be put aside in order to survive and then maybe they'd actually find their sisterly bond that they lacked, but nah, all four of them get along just fine for the rest of the movie. It's the rare film in that the people who come in late and get there just in time to see them go into the water (maybe 15 minutes in) will actually get the better experience - we that got there on time had to watch a prologue that had no bearing on anything. They don't even get mad at the girl who causes them to get stuck in the first place by poking around and ultimately knocking over a Mayan statue, blocking their path.

So it fails on character levels (if you show up to this expecting such things in the first place, that is), but it delivers the shark goods. The "they can't see us" thing is used to good effect without overdoing it, as are the "it's too narrow, I'm stuck!" kind of moments - Roberts keeps everyone moving and divides his time equally between the survival elements and the shark stuff. Their dwindling air supply is mentioned just enough to remind us without really focusing on it (in the first movie they might as well have just put an on-screen graphic the entire time since they brought it up so much), and when they find an air pocket to give the oxygen tanks a break, they discover the air is too stale/toxic to breath for too long, so that added another complication/variation to break up the repetition. Once again some of the attack scenes are a bit hard to follow since they're all wearing masks and flailing about too much to make out any features, but Roberts delivers on the money shots when they happen, so it's forgivable.

Less forgivable: the director's frequent slo-mo shots (including one of Mia that had the audience laughing when it wasn't a funny moment), and trying to pull the Sam Jackson in Deep Blue Sea thing again for the death of one character. That one worked amazingly, but it's been 20 years of diminished returns on such things - now we can pretty much see it coming, which is the exact opposite of how it should work. Let's give this "someone important dies mid-speech" thing a rest for a while, huh? But some of the other scares (particularly one during the climax) play flawlessly, and there's even some gnarly gore considering the PG-13 rating, so if you're just there for the body count you should be satisfied (and certainly more so than you were with the first one). The FX are pretty good too - in fact the cheapest looking thing in the entire movie (besides the horrible Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures logo) is the film's title, which has a cool dissolve from blood kinda thing but when the letters themselves form they look lo-res. How y'all make an albino shark look real enough but not the letter M?

The first one came out in June and was a surprise hit; this one has the more fitting release time of August, but isn't expected to do as well - go figure. Maybe the recent Crawl, which catered to the same kind of thrills (and was, admittedly, a bit better) just scratched everyone's itch for such fare, or maybe the complete lack of connection to the first* means they're starting from scratch and won't benefit from the usual sequel bump? (Not that this year has been particularly kind to sequels anyway.) It's not quite good enough to play the "YOU GOTTA SEE THIS!" card, but I hope those who enjoy such things can scrounge up the cash (or Moviepass, A-list, etc) and time to give it a look.

What say you?

*Minor spoiler, but there's a scene where *someone* reaches the surface and spies a boat nearby - for a hot minute I really thought it was gonna be Matthew Modine's boat from the original and finally give it a tie in to that one, especially since the movie was noticeably "timeless". Our heroes are four teenaged girls and not a single one of them ever has a cell phone! But alas, it's a different boat, and the film remained completely standalone. Maybe if it becomes a hit anyway they can do a couple more one-offs and then make a 47 Meters Down: Avengers kinda thing where all of the survivors team up.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Vice Squad (1982)

AUGUST 13, 2019

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

No, Vice Squad is not a horror film, but with director Gary Sherman's considerable contributions to the genre (Death Line and Dead & Buried chief among them) and the release on the horror-centric Scream Factory label (as opposed to the company's mainstream leaning "Shout Selects" one) I figure you guys will let it slide if I review it here. And in my defense I hadn't seen the movie and for some reason thought it was about a serial killer preying on prostitutes, leaving the police to send one of their own undercover to pose as one. If you know what actual movie I'm talking about, feel free to remind me of its title in the comments!

Anyway it's a pretty solid "all in one night" thriller. A junkie streetwalker named Ginger has held out some of her earnings from her pimp, Ramrod (Wings Hauser), and when he finds out he beats her so hard she ultimately dies from her injuries (he didn't seem to be aiming to kill her, so at least I knew instantly I had the wrong idea of the plot). A cop named Walsh (Gary Swanson) is determined to put Ramrod away, so he blackmails one of Ginger's colleagues, simply known as Princess (Season Hubley) into luring him into a rendezvous while wearing a wire, hoping to get him admitting to being a pimp on tape. And they do! But the cops transferring him to jail are terrible at their jobs and he escapes, so the next hour of the movie is basically Princess shaking off her ordeal with Ramrod by trying to find more normal clients, as Ramrod uses his own network of assholes to find out where she is so he can kill her for revenge.

When the movie sticks to Ramrod and Princess, it works pretty well - it's fun watching Hauser chew the scenery (and he's an equal-opportunity psycho - at one point he cuts a rival pimp's balls off, off-screen), and Hubley has some of that old school Jamie Lee fierceness in some choice moments with Johns (or even Walsh). Alas, Swanson is either not a great actor or his role was simply underwritten, because he's kind of a stiff and spends most of his screentime barking out street locations ("He's on Olympic, passing Crenshaw!" and such). His fellow officers are more fun, especially considering the "all one night" aspect as Ramrod busts one guy's nose during his escape and spends the rest of the movie with those ridiculous/unflattering white bandages over it. They track their own leads and report back to Walsh as he closes in on Ramrod, and their adventures are always more fun than his - it's an odd movie in that the "hero" is the only thing holding it back.

Now, this movie is from 1982, which means younger audiences - especially those who seek Twitter validation but can't bother with context for what they're ranting about - would have a field day with the movie's exploitative and "un-woke" elements. But the ironic thing is the movie is actually fairly low on on-screen violence and contains almost no nudity despite a number of sexual encounters (I think we see Ms. Hubley's bare behind for a second, that might be about it). Ramrod's violent actions are primarily delivered off-screen, allowing us to just see the gruesome aftermath, and even some of Princess' jobs are played for laughs, like the old man who wants her to wear a wedding dress as he lays in a coffin pretending to be dead (when she screams, he cries that she "ruined it" and makes her leave). Still, if you want sanitation across the board and every word and action to reflect the current accepted limits of taste, please don't watch this movie. Again, it's from 1982; no one was making it with 2019's standards in mind.

Speaking of sanitation, for me one of the highlights of the movie was seeing old school Hollywood, where the movie is entirely set (no frequent Valley detours, so eat it Quentin!). There are plenty of old New York movies showing Times Square and the like back before it became a tourist destination, but I rarely come across any that are so Hollywood-centric (usually it's just a few scenes with most of it set downtown or in the valley). It was a real trip seeing Hollywood and Cherokee all grimy and loaded with adult-themed entertainments (plus the very obvious prostitutes), in the same spot where I now often stop for a crepe at the place that has good crepes but few hookers in my experience. Some of those valley locations have barely changed (there's a shot of Burbank in Full Moon High that could be recreated today with only "medium difficulty Photo Hunt level" differences) but nearly every storefront you see here has been replaced by some chain or at least more family-friendly, not to mention the general vibe. Now the only unsavory types you really see there are the scientologists and TMZ tour assholes.

And they're certainly easier to make out on Scream's Blu-ray, which has a pretty great transfer (though as I never saw the movie before I cannot speak to how it stacks up to previous releases). It also comes jam-packed with bonus features, including - natch - a comparison of the shooting locations between then and now, though the video quality of the "now" shots is kind of messed up (it looks like it was transferred at a different frame rate?). It's a silent collection of shots, unlike the ones Sean Clark does for Horror's Hallowed Grounds, so if you want more info about why this or that place has changed so much you won't find it, but it's got pretty much every exterior location in the movie accounted for. The rest of the bonus features are interviews with Sherman, producer Brian Frankish, plus Swanson and several of the other cast members (no Wings or Season though, dammit). The interviews all run around an hour (Sherman's is even longer) and focus on their entire careers, so if you just want Vice Squad info you need to step through a bit (they're all broken into chapters, thankfully), but if you happen to love this or that performer you'll be happy to know that these are not just quick and fluffy pieces and you'll get your money's worth on them alone.

Sherman also has a pair of commentaries; one is from an older release (seemingly a DVD? He says "20 years ago" at one point re: the movie's production which would put it around 2002) and a newer one where he's joined with Frankish. He tells some of the same stories, as you might expect, but if you're a fan I can't imagine you'll have trouble making it through both, especially with Frankish around on the latter (David Gregory moderates him on the former, though he doesn't pipe in as much as some of his contemporaries) to add some of his own insights. Long story short, it'll take you like 10 hours to get through this entire disc, so if you're a completist you best carve out a good chunk of time for it. Now if we could just get Scream Factory to release Sherman's Lisa!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)

AUGUST 9, 2019

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I suppose I should note that my experience with Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark consists of reading at least one, I think two of the volumes in 3rd or 4th grade courtesy of my school library. I'm sure I had my favorites, ones I'd re-read before returning the book(s), and probably talked about them with a friend or two, but that's about it. That was damn near 30 years ago; my memories have faded to the point of being completely useless - I might as well just say that I am aware that the books exist and that they had some creepy-ass art. Last month at trivia there was a round on the original stories and we got a zero, and it wasn't a case of "Oh man, I'd know it if I heard it!" kind of answers - the questions might as well have been in another language.

Luckily, this means I won't be sad that my favorite story or stories weren't represented in the feature film version, or that they changed something about them, or any of the other complaints people tend to make whenever a childhood fave is adapted for the screen. That said, I do know for certain that the context is changed, because instead of making a traditional anthology film that you'd expect given the source material of unrelated short stories, director André Øvredal and his writers (which include producer Guillermo del Toro) weaved a few of them into a larger narrative, not unlike the Goosebumps movie. To me, this was the right call - if they just picked 3-5 of the stories and did straight adaptations, it'd probably be a bit of a bore, not to mention an instant turn-off for fans who may have had a different wishlist of what stories should be done.

Instead, we get a pretty traditional narrative about a group of friends accidentally unleashing evil and trying to figure out how to stop it, allowing a few of the books' iconic monsters to show up in a single story. This means we get invested in the heroes and that the film has a driving force from start to finish, as opposed to the stop/go/stop again that can plague an anthology film's overall strength. Take Creepshow or its first sequel for example - if you don't like a particular story (in my case, I have next to no love for Something To Tide You Over in the original and Chief Woodenhead in Creepshow 2), that's a section of the film that you don't like, and probably want to skip over on Blu-ray. You can't really do that here; even if you don't care for, say, "Big Toe", if you skip over that chunk of the movie, you won't know what happens to one of its primary characters.

And yes, things do happen to our group of heroes - this may be aimed at the younger horror crowd, but that doesn't mean it's been sanitized of any real danger. It's almost structured like a Final Destination movie, in fact - our main character, Stella, is the one who first opened/read the book and keeps it with her at all times, and when she notices a new story being written right before her eyes (in blood), she will race to that person's aid and try to warn them of the danger that they're in. Unfortunately she's usually too late or they simply don't listen to her, and then after some "we have to figure out how to stop it!" kind of stuff the process will begin again, as a new story appears and she once again runs off to try to stop it - same as any FD movie functions once the one who had the vision realizes what's going on and arrives at the person's house (or office, or gym, or whatever) just in time to watch one of the classic Rube Goldbergian setpieces unfold.

The deaths here aren't that elaborate though; if anything Øvredal minimizes the actual violence in favor of the buildup, which worked pretty well for this non-reader as I didn't know what form the evil was about to take. For example at one point a character notices that the next story (at that point, the title is all that appears) is "Me-Tie-Dough-Ty-Walker", so if you read the story you'd know what was coming, more or less. I didn't have a clue, so I got to be just as surprised as the character (Gil Bellows, in this case) when a head came rolling out of a chimney and started talking. I didn't personally find the movie all that scary, but the genuine stakes and continued surprises (read: new monsters who were taking their turn as the focus for a few minutes) kept it more or less engaging anyway.

I say more or less because despite this correct approach, it still kinda ran out of steam for me around the halfway point, when a character makes a rather silly decision for seemingly no other reason than to give the filmmakers the opportunity to add another monster to the mix. Stopping the evil isn't a time-consuming process, and Stella seems smart enough to figure out what she has to do (or at least, where to go), so the movie could have been over quicker if she just went and did that instead of choosing to stay in a holding cell with her friend Ramón, who is suspected of wrongdoing by Bellows' sheriff character. They also don't spend a lot of time on Sarah, the ghostly girl who is seemingly behind all of the terror, making her a rather unexciting archvillain - more of her and her story could have helped the climax feel like a real showstopper, but instead it just feels like another obstacle.

Another odd thing about the movie is that there's more interesting things going on in the margins than in the actual narrative. For starters, it's set just before the 1968 election, and since I've recently learned that people don't bother to know their history when sitting down to watch a period piece, this means that young folks are going off to fight in the Vietnam War, and the US populace was about to vote for the man who'd become the 2nd shadiest President of all time. In other words: bummer times, and our characters are living through their last carefree years before they're old enough to be drafted (in fact one of them already IS old enough, as we learn later). The film opens on Halloween, and the kids are dressing up to go out, despite knowing they're getting too old to be putting on costumes - it's in service of a revenge prank on the local asshole, but I still got the impression they were trying to hold on to the youth the country seemed determine to end for them by shipping them off to war the second they were eligible.

Also, Ramón is the victim of racism, both at the hands of the aforementioned asshole (who calls him a wetback) as well as a comparatively subtle form from the sheriff, who immediately zeroes in on him as an "outsider" of sorts and laughs when his car is destroyed (for an extra bit of evidence that the sheriff's an asshole, we later learn he's also a Nixon voter!). Normally when we're talking about racially charged elements of the 1960s, it's specifically black characters being targeted, so it's interesting to see it from a Latino's perspective for a change, and used just enough for it to be notable without being distracting. Also "for a change", Night of the Living Dead shows up courtesy of a drive-in double feature (with fellow public domain staple The Terror, though we never see any of that one), but it's not just because it's free for the filmmakers to use - it takes place a few weeks after the movie originally came out! It's the exact right movie to use, for possibly the first time ever.

Ultimately, it's a pretty good movie that comes almost frustratingly close to being just straight up good. They had all of the right pieces in play, but there would always be one "off" decision keeping a setpiece from being as exciting/scary as it should have been (for example, the spiders that come out of the girl's cheek should have had me squirming, but alas the digital bugs are by far the worst CGI in the film), and if you ask me its first half wasn't as strong as its second, which added to my somewhat muted overall impression. One of Stella's friends is also kind of a lousy actor (or at least, giving a lousy performance), which also diminished some of its strength, since it's right around where he makes his exit that the film also starts to lose steam narratively. But on the other hand, the Halloween atmosphere (at least in the first 20 minutes) and small town setting (Pennsylvania to be specific, though naturally it was shot in Canada) make it a fine way to start prepping for the upcoming season, and it'll be a great midway film for nine or ten year olds who have gotten too old for House With A Clock In Its Walls but aren't ready for Freddy or Jason just yet.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Last Shark (1981)

JULY 30, 2019

GENRE: PREDATOR
SOURCE: STREAMING (AMAZON PRIME)

For as long as I've been aware of the idea of Jaws ripoffs, I've known about The Last Shark (aka Great White), which was - as far as I know - the only one of the bunch that Universal took the time to take legal action against, forcing them to pull the movie from theaters in the US. In turn, it's never had an official release on video here, though every now and then - like right now - it will pop up on Amazon Prime and we can see what the fuss is about without stooping to paying someone (not the filmmakers, certainly) for a bootleg. For all I know it was director Enzo G. Castellari who uploaded it to the service himself.

Or it could just be some rando like me. As I learned a few months back when One Cut of the Dead briefly appeared on the site, there isn't much of a vetting process to get a film on Prime. While you can't just have something show up on Netflix or Hulu, Amazon kind of makes it easy, so there are probably lots of illegally uploaded streams showing at any given time, but there is unfortunately no way to tell the difference if it's available "free with Prime" (I assume folks can't charge $3.99 or whatever the standard Amazon rental price is for a film they don't own). It's still there as of this writing, so unless Universal is simply too busy with Hobbs & Shaw, maybe it's a legit release for once - can they really hold a grudge for nearly forty years?

The funny thing is, it's not really any more of a ripoff than others I've seen. The template for these things is pretty set in stone - there's a "you can't close the beaches" kind of plot, a Quint-like hardass with all the best lines, a mild-mannered hero (they usually combine Brody and Hooper into one character, for whatever reason) - and this movie doesn't stray far from it, but neither does a dozen others that Uni never bothered to bully around. Plus they ended up ripping THIS MOVIE off a few years later - the shark roars when it attacks, and the only other movie I've seen that happen in is Jaws The Goddamn Revenge, a film that insults the original Jaws far more than this one does.

In fact it's kind of amusing how Castellari and his crew go out of their way to mix things up, especially if you're aware of the movie's notoriety and are expecting to be thinking "OK yeah I can see why they had to sue these Italian guys" throughout most of your viewing. For starters, the mayor is kind of proactive! Sure, he's worried about the upcoming *rolls the event-o-dex* annual regatta, but he doesn't dismiss the threat outright, either, agreeing to precautions rather quickly. Hell, when the fake Quint (Hamer, played by Vic Morrow, whose character has a line of dialogue that seems like a bad-taste joke about his own death the following year) tells him he'll need eight boats, he offers ten! And later, when the shark causes havoc anyway, my man actually goes out on a chopper himself to try to capture the thing - he's like half Mayor Vaughn, half that unnamed guy with his wife's roast!

Also, in a move that Carl Gottlieb should be amused by, the town's local reporter turns out to be the bigger human asshole (the newspaper man, played by screenwriter Gottlieb, had a much bigger part in the Jaws novel than he did in the film), and the film kind of depicts his soul being corrupted as he seeks fame for catching video of the maneating shark. At the top of the film, he's just trying to put together clips for the mayor's campaign video, and seems like the kind of put-upon guy who might aid our heroes to get back at the demanding mayor (again, at this point we're expecting the mayor to be an obstructionist and nothing more). But over the course of the movie you see him lose his integrity and put people in danger to get his footage, fully demanding the punch in the face the hero gives him right before the credits roll.

(Hopefully it won't change before you see for yourself, but the Wiki synopsis never names his character ("Bob Martin") until the punching moment, making it a hilarious non sequitur.)

It's also got a pretty great "less is more" kind of sequence where the shark is attacking the regatta. While "Bruce" couldn't be trusted to work, their fake shark kind of only has one move - it surfaces from under the water at a 45 degree angle and roars a bit. This wouldn't work for a big attack scene, so Castellari has the shark get tangled in a buoy chain, and the sequence plays out with the buoy darting through the water toward boaters and swimmers - it's a solid sequence! With so many anonymous victims in harm's way, and the Italian horror sub-genre's history of being pretty casual with killing people off (including kids), there's no reason to believe everyone will get away safely, so it kept me more on edge than I would have expected.

Unfortunately the film as a whole is a bit of a slog. While it's never as blatant as I was led to believe (nothing even remotely as actionable as "Terminator 2" (aka Shocking Dark) cribbing from Aliens), the plot is more or less the same thing, and it's not like Jaws itself has that spectacular of a narrative. It's a great (perfect!) movie because of everything working in unison to create movie magic: Spielberg's sense of pace, the memorable and distinguished characters, the incredible music... this movie has none of those things. The music in particular is kind of awful, in fact, to the point where I wished they were ripping off John Williams, as it would probably be better or at least more fitting. The hero's not particularly exciting, and the FX are crummier than other Italian films of the era, so there's just not a lot here to really grab you beyond the novelty of its mere existence.

But hey, it's about forty minutes shorter than Jaws and it has the line "One thing's for sure, it wasn't a floatin chainsaw!" (floating chainsaws > boat propellers, re: things you can blame for shark attacks), so there are worse ways to kill an hour and a half. Plus it's shark week and the people behind 48 Meters Down inexplicably waited until mid-August to release their movie, so you might as well check it out while it's there, if only to see how seriously Universal took their Jaws property back before they inflicted Dennis Quaid in 3D on us.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

FTP: Redcon-1 (2018)

JULY 18, 2019

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

I'll give Redcon-1 this much: for an independent zombie movie, it has better production value than I'm used to seeing. The cast is huge, the zombies are plentiful, and the characters are almost constantly on the move, so in terms of scope, it's clearly not a "hey we have this office building and my buddy knows how to do makeup so let's make a zombie movie" kind of deal like you unfortunately can run into in this post-Walking Dead world. Unfortunately that also ties into its most crippling flaw: it's kind of an overlong mess, too - they could have saved some money on the budget AND had a better movie if the script was reigned in a bit.

Coming in just under two hours, the movie is another "there's a scientist who might have the cure for zombieism and we need to rescue them" men on a mission movie that any good zombie movie fan has seen before (possibly seen *enough* by now)... but only for its first half, by which point most of the men (and one woman) are dead. Then it becomes a more "personal stakes" kinda deal, as our hero is trying to save a little girl who might also be the key to the whole thing, but they're both targeted by an evil human (sigh) who wants to wipe them and the rest of the area out to contain it. This is another scenario you've seen countless times, but the two don't blend together as much as director Chee Keong Cheung (who also wrote with two others) probably hoped - it's more like the movie just changes gears entirely.

This means that the rather action-packed first half slows down for flashback scenes (many of which exist to re-contextualize things we have already seen) and an increasing absence of zombies, which is an odd choice for a fairly long film. You'd think they'd want to go the other way, slowly building up to an all-action second half and sending us out pumped (or at least, forgiving of its slower first hour) but instead I found myself getting restless at the point where my investment should be at its highest. It doesn't help that the characters are largely generic stock characters and the constant movement means we're still meeting new people in the 3rd act (a woman who plays a crucial role for the finale is barely seen beforehand; she's like 12th billed but if one were to just watch the final 15 minutes they'd assume she was the 2nd lead). Maybe it was a planned TV show that got scaled down for a movie?

But again, it looks pretty good (save for some bad digital blood - they have a lot of the real kind too thankfully) and was rarely flat out boring, so if you're in the mood for some mid-grade zombie action it should suffice. And if you're a fan of the cinema of 1997, you should be happy as it has what seems to be a direct homage to Con Air as well as "Female of the Species" from Austin Powers over the end credits, for some reason (a song that's most recognizable line is "the female of the species is more deadly than the male" is a weird choice for a movie where a female is the key to humanity's survival and the men do the majority of the ass-kicking). However, this just reminded me of a time when zombie movies were much harder to come by - had it COME OUT in 1997 maybe I would have had more fun with it on novelty alone. Nowadays, there's just not a lot here to separate it from the others.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Crawl (2019)

JULY 11, 2019

GENRE: PREDATOR, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

Remember Burning Bright, the movie about a young woman and her little brother trapped in their house with a tiger during a hurricane? OK, well, Crawl is basically the same thing except it's her injured dad instead of her brother, and it's an alligator instead of a tiger. Actually a few alligators - I can't be sure but I think there's at least four swimming in and around the house that they're trapped in by a massive hurricane that has flooded their cars away and cut off all communications they may use to call for help. Whether it's intentional or not I don't know; it's not like Burning Bright was this huge hit or anything (it went direct to video, in fact), but as a fan of that one I was happy to see the concept play out again, even if it ultimately suffered from a few of the same issues.

And by that I mean it's a bit repetitive, which is the direct result of the otherwise smart choice of keeping things simple. Characters being trapped with a monster is nothing new, but usually they're in a much bigger locale, like the research facility in Deep Blue Sea, or Jurassic Park in Jurassic Park. Here (and in BB), the setting is a pretty ordinary house in Florida - nothing exotic about it, and while sets are probably being used there's only so much they can expand (wider hallways than your or my house, for example) before the direct appeal - "this could be MY house!" - is diluted too much to be effective. And with the minimal cast, the filmmakers can't just off someone else every 10-15 minutes or else the movie would be too short (as is, it's the rare under 90 minute movie playing right now), so you get a lot of scenes of the heroine slowly making her way around the same spots, temporarily escaping danger only to face a new but more or less similar obstacle moments later.

That said, it's a pretty fun ride all the same. Director Alex Aja (making his first fully original movie since High Tension; everything else has been a remake or book adaptation) masterfully offers up a number of terrific jump scares, most of which even made ME jump so it should play like gangbusters for those who are more easily startled anyway. Kaya Scodelario is pretty great in the role of Haley, a would-be champion swimmer who doubts her own abilities despite encouragement from her father (Barry Pepper), a divorcee who has started withdrawing from his children as well. The plot kicks off when her and her sister are unable to get a hold of him, knowing he lives right in the center of the hurricane target, so Haley drives down to check on him and finds him in the basement of the family home he's halfheartedly trying to sell, unconscious from a pretty nasty wound. Guess how he got it?

Yes even though the house hasn't flooded yet, at least one gator is already inside, so there's minimal waiting for the fun stuff to get going once she arrives at the house (probably 20 minutes into the movie). The various pipes and half-walls in the (seemingly too big, but whatever) basement provide them with spots that are safe from the gators, but the rising water means they can't just sit and wait for the storm to pass and help to arrive, as they will drown first. The dad's injuries keep him from getting too far, so it's all on Haley to move him around, find help, battle the gators, and - when time allows - patch things up with her old man before it's too late.

Without spoiling anyone's fate, I will say this - Aja and the screenwriters (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) improve on Burning Bright's minor issue that the two people in the movie were never in any believable mortal danger - they're not going to kill a little kid, and if Briana Evigan dies at all it won't be until the film's conclusion. Not the case here - Pepper can go at any minute, having fulfilled his 2nd billing status after only about ten minutes (since the other six people in the movie only have a scene or two each, it's not a big task), and as a bonus (for lack of a better word) there's also the family pooch, Sugar, who is big enough to avoid easily drowning or being stepped on but not big enough to help in any meaningful way. There's a bit where Haley tries to escape the basement using an access panel that is unfortunately blocked by a hutch or something on that floor above, and she can only get her hand through - which the dog just sniffs and licks instead of being a superhero movie dog and moving the thing out of the way himself. The realistic approach is most welcome, and with Aja's penchant for surprise attacks, you're worried about the pooch every time he appears.

This sequence unfortunately leads to one of the movie's occasional "the characters have to act stupid for the plot to work" bits, which I always feel can be improved upon with a little bit of effort. Moments after this escape attempt fails, a cop comes by in his boat and starts checking the place out, knowing Haley went there and concerned he didn't hear back from her. She knows he's there, but rather than go back to the hatch that was big enough to fit a hand through, where she could call for help and it would only take him a few seconds to push the thing out of the way, she bangs on pipes and calls for help from her random spot in the basement, prompting further complications. There's also a dumb moment where she gets back to her cell phone (after having dropped it in the open near the gator) and instantly tries to call 911 from there, instead of retreating back to her safe spot first - come on! We know the phone will end up broken/useless anyway, why make your character look like a dummy in the process when there's so many other ways to solve the phone problem?

Otherwise, she's a well written heroine - she's remarkably "quiet" in that she rarely screams or panics - she's able to think quick and be resourceful more often than not. There's a bit where she gets a gun and how she uses it is something I don't know if I've seen before (except in the trailer, which sadly gave it away), but I know it's pretty badass. Aja doesn't indulge in his gore as much as you might expect given his previous adventures with water monsters, but he doesn't hold back when necessary, either - the R rating is justified, but never flaunted, which is an approach I quite liked. There are some gnarly injuries and a pretty glorious death for a supporting character, but it feels like everyone decided to be as realistic as possible, perhaps to balance things out with the kind of ridiculous plot? Though to be fair, there have been reports of gators entering homes even without the aid of flooding waters, so I guess it's not as farfetched as it may seem on paper. The gators look good too - the CGI is never dodgy and animatronics are used when possible, so I was pretty happy with them, and Aja smartly keeps them partially submerged more often than not to minimize any potential fake-looking moments anyway.

Basically, if you liked Burning Bright or The Shallows, you should be pretty satisfied here as the approach seems to be "basic story maximized for scares/suspense", and it works far more often than it doesn't. I believe it's told in real time from the moment she enters the basement to look for her dad, which is always a ballsy tactic that I admire, and it works to the film's advantage more often than not, as we can keep track of where everyone (and everything) is, while also never having time to slow down and forget the various dangers (bleeding out, rising waters, and of course, chompy chomp). It's a shame they didn't hold off release until August, as everyone's still seeing Spider-Man and/or waiting for Lion King, so it's not like the movie's gonna pack every theater this weekend (plus Stuber, pretty much the summer's only other R rated original so far, is opening today as well), because it'll probably be one of those movies people end up wishing they saw on the big screen when they could and it would probably sell more tickets in the less crowded August, but I assume they wanted to stay away from 48 Meters Down (I don't care, that's the title it should be and that's what I'm calling it!), so I get it. Here's hoping it does well enough for Aja to secure another wide release next time (his last two were very limited), now that we know he is capable of delivering more traditional thrills - if Eli Roth can do a kid's movie there's no reason his fellow "splat pack"er can't be trusted to apply his keen eye and craftsmanship to a blockbuster type, if he so desires.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

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