FTP: Observance (2015)

FEBRUARY 14, 2019


Digging through emails, it looks like poor Observance has been sitting in the dreaded pile since the summer of 2016, and I assure you it's not even close to the oldest title in there. But at least I have a good excuse for letting it pass me by - that's when I moved into my current home, and to this day I feel bad because the very first thing I watched in that home was the first episode of 11/22/63, which I specifically asked for to review (unlike this) and never finished it because it took all month to actually finish moving in. If memory serves I didn't even have the surround sound hooked up yet and just watched that one episode through (shudder) the TV speakers. Wonder how it ended?

Anyway, if you're the type of person who needs to understand what's going on in their horror movies, I'd steer clear of this one - it's got that "I'm gonna channel my inner David Lynch" feel to it and leaves the viewer with way more questions than answers. However, if you just want to feel uncomfortable/unnerved it's actually a pretty good entry in the Repulsion/Tenant sub-genre of "someone in an apartment goes nuts" movies. Actually, it reminded me even more of Occupant, a similarly uneven but mostly admirable indie version of this kind of movie, but I doubt namechecking that one will ring as many bells. I was stunned to learn that it only cost $11k; it looks just as good as any other indie (you know, the kinds with 6 or even 7 figure budgets) and has a pair of solid actors in the lead roles (plus bit parts for John Jarratt and Benedict Hardie, who played the main henchman guy in last summer's Upgrade). As "calling card" kind of movies go, I must say if I was a studio exec I'd be trying to land director Joseph Sims-Dennett as he clearly knows how to maximize his budget.

But I'd hope he'd work with a writing partner, or let someone else handle that part entirely. Even in the realm of "you're not supposed to understand everything" types the script seemed to be just sort of tossing things for the hell of it as opposed to not spelling everything out. The plot concerns a desperate man who agrees to a surveillance job of a woman who is about to marry into some well-to-do family, only for him to start hallucinating and suffering from body horror type ailments as the job drags on much longer than expected, but I was never quite able to discern the connection between these two things. Occasionally it starts to be seemingly building toward the idea that maybe HE is the one that's actually being observed, but it never pans out. And I'm at a total loss with the ending; it's certainly a surprise and rather grim, but also far too abrupt.

Still, when it works it works rather effectively, especially the body horror stuff. Our guy gets some kind of huge (bed?) sore on his back at one point, and its ooze/blood has stuck to his shirt, forcing him to pull it off over his head as quick as he can - it's like a "rip the band-aid off" kind of thing, but times a hundred. And he pukes up some mysterious black ooze - the same stuff that appears to be filling up more and more of a jar every time he sees it? Couldn't tell you what that was all about, but I do know it gave me the proper unsettling feeling. This was a festival movie, and it probably worked even better in that setting, as you'd be more "trapped" (like its character) than you are at home, free to pause and what not - I highly encourage an uninterrupted viewing for it to provide the most effect on you, if you plan to check it out.

What say you?


Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

FEBRUARY 9, 2019


"I pray neither [Director Chris Landon] or anyone else messes things up with "Happier Death Day" or whatever."

That's the closing line of my review of the original Happy Death Day, and well... here we are. I got the title wrong, but Landon did indeed return for Happy Death Day 2U, which also reunites the entire original cast (save for a few one-sceners from the original like the cop who pulled Tree over for speeding) and picks up immediately where it left off. Luckily I was also wrong about how good it might be - it's not AS good as the surprisingly great original, and it barely even qualifies as a slasher movie this time around (more on that soon), but it's inventive and fun, and equally charming while also tugging at the heartstrings a bit, more than making up for the reduced novelty factor in the process.

(There are spoilers for the first third of the new film ahead, as well as for the entire original, so if you want to go in blind I'd skip this review, but if you haven't seen the original yet I IMPLORE you to do so before you watch the new film as it will not only be harder to follow, but you won't get nearly as much out of it on an emotional or comedic level).

The hardest part about sequels - especially to films as high concept as the original HDD - is that you usually have to focus on one aspect that made the original so memorable and enhance that (while introducing new elements), or else you end up with a glorified remake by trying to just do the same thing again. Given the way the original worked, Christopher Landon (who wrote solo this time around; the original screenplay was credited to Scott Lobdell, who is not involved with the followup) had a few options: take a page from the Final Destinations and introduce a new cast with someone else stuck in a similar situation, ditch the "Groundhog Day" element and make a more traditional slasher, or dive deep into the sci-fi stuff and background the killings that won't really matter anyway? If you've seen the trailer you'd know that he opted for the third choice, coming up with a film that has more DNA with Back to the Future II and My Science Project than Halloween II or whatever else you might have assumed it'd be compared to.

As I said, even though it's been a year and a half for us the movie doesn't jump forward in time - it actually starts a few minutes earlier than the end of the first, showing Ryan (Carter's clueless roommate) making his way from his car back to his dorm room, with just enough notable encounters (a barking dog, a near-miss with a skateboarder, etc) to give us the idea that maybe he will be stuck in a loop now. But now we learn more about him - he's a science major and working on some kind of energy machine in the campus' incredibly large lab, much to the chagrin of the dean who is trying to shut down the experiment. After we run through all of this setup, Babyface returns and kills him, at which point he wakes up in his car again and runs through the routine.

But this is, of course, the NEXT day, the one where Tree has finally escaped her loop, so when Ryan enters the room and starts asking about deja vu, she instantly realizes what is going on and together they figure out that his experiment must have been what caused her time loop in the first place. Things are further complicated when the three of them catch Ryan's killer and discover it's... Ryan? Yes, somehow the machine caused two parallel universes to overlap, putting two Ryans in one world in a variation on the butterfly effect, but in an attempt to fix that timeline Tree ends up getting sent back to "her" day again, where Carter doesn't really know her yet and her roommate is still alive and trying to kill her. Or is she?

It takes a bit, but Tree eventually realizes that while she is back to reliving that Monday/her birthday, it's one from one of those parallel universes, so things are slightly different. Her roommate is NOT trying to kill her this time (in fact she's carrying on the affair with the doctor, who doesn't even know who Tree is in this scenario), and Danielle is a nicer person - in fact so nice she's actually dating Carter, which naturally makes Tree even more desperate to get the hell back to her own timeline. But then she finds out about another thing that's different, and suddenly her choice isn't so easy - Carter aside, this world seems to be a better one for her, with the added bonus of no one trying to kill her. Don't worry, dark comedy fans - she still dies a lot in the film, but it's a plot motivated reason as opposed to failed attempts to outrun a masked killer.

As you might have gleamed from that information, the slasher element is heavily backgrounded this time, to the point where it barely even matters. The subplot about Ryan's killer is finished once Tree goes back a day and starts going through that one again, and in that universe the killer isn't really concerned with her (though they cross paths, naturally). Given the nature of the film's plot, there's very little wiggle room to introduce new characters, and even by this high-concept movie's standards it'd be a stretch to think someone else wanted to kill this version of Tree, so there's only a few chase/slasher kind of scenes, with long stretches in between them to boot. It's a character driven followup, which is rare for any genre but especially horror - it'd be like if Halloween II followed Laurie Strode's attempts to readjust to the world while Myers was just off chasing someone else most of the time.

So if you're only here for the horror, you're going to be disappointed. However, if you're one of those folks who walked out of the first movie wondering how it is she got stuck in a loop in the first place, you'll be delighted to know that this movie answers that question, with at least three scenes of a science student explaining science-y concepts to the clueless Tree (including one with everyone's favorite: someone poking a hole through a piece of paper). And if you loved Jessica Rothe as Tree, you'll be even happier - despite the Ryan-centric opening scene she's still very much front and center, and it's incredibly satisfying to watch her continue her personal journey in an organic way. The film's funniest sequence comes rather early, when she first wakes up in the day again and storms her way through the now familiar gauntlet, screaming at everyone and everything ("SPRINKLERS!") while a very confused Carter and Ryan follow behind her. Once again they use the "every time she dies her body gets weaker" subplot to give it some tension (though as with the original there's no real consistency to it - one day she's passing out from the damage her body is incurring, the next she's fully functional and just sort of worried about it), and it really works - Rothe totally sells the conflict of not knowing if this next death might be her last while also trying to make sure everyone is saved.

The stuff with the dean is kind of a misstep, however. It just adds a complication in a film that didn't really lack for them, and results in a lengthy chunk of the third act being devoted to our heroes trying to get the machine back from his office and into the lab so they could run one final test. There's some really bad comedy in there involving Danielle and there's no real tension to derive from it - we know damn well they're going to get it back, so why even bother with any of this? The experiment failing and/or Tree having to reset one last time to save this or that person gives it the stakes it needs to be engaging, so I don't know why we had to be subjected to this silliness, especially when it means less time spent on making the new slasher storyline more involving. Perhaps if they opted to let the Babyface catch on to the loop (let's not forget, they're actually completely separate elements even in the original) and make THAT the thing that threatens their ability to get the machine up and running, it'd be less of a departure (and simply be more satisfying, though if you're amused by Danielle and the Dean's antics I'm sure you'll be happy either way).

Otherwise, it's better than it has any right to be, and as a bonus it makes for a great double feature. Even though a year and change has gone by with this young cast, they do a great job with the makeup to look like no time has passed (and yes, Tree finally breaks down and yells about how sick of that shirt she is), so take that, Halloween II! But more importantly, the script has a number of payoffs and jokes that work much better with a fresh and thorough memory of the original - we watched them back to back at the Egyptian for this special event (with Rothe and Landon doing Q&A in between) and more than once there was a moment that I can guarantee wouldn't have landed as well had I just gone off my 16 month old memory of the first film. So I highly encourage a refresher if you have the time, in order to get the most out of it. And stick in your seats through the credits for a setup for a third film (pay close attention - there's an obvious "this is what HDD3 would be about" part, but a much more subtle hint about what it could REALLY be about), which I'll happily see just to enjoy Rothe's performance for another two hours, though I wouldn't be surprised if it drops the slasher element entirely by then.

What say you?


The Prodigy (2019)

FEBRUARY 5, 2019


Just this week I once again had to defend Orphan again, as it somehow landed on some site's list of the 20 worst twists in movie history or some nonsense. My only theory for why that reveal (which I'm gonna have to spoil in this paragraph so skip ahead if you inexplicably still haven't seen it) gets dragged so often is because people don't take the time to consider that it was a brilliant way to circumvent what seems to be a rule at the major studios, which is that evil children can't really do anything vicious. By making Esther (still played by a child actress) into an adult with a growth deficiency, the filmmakers were able to get away with letting her cut loose (the nun!), while cinematic cousins like Mac in The Good Son didn't really do much of anything beyond toss a dummy off a bridge (with no one being seriously hurt, we're assured). The Prodigy ends up somewhere in the middle of those two, but overall lands closer to Orphan on account of how surprisingly dark it is.

The plot is pretty straightforward: suburban parents have a son named Miles (the usual way, i.e. not adopted) and in addition to his heterochromia (different colored eyes) he seems to be gifted; he speaks early, he can figure out complex toys as a toddler, etc. After checking in with him a few times as he grows, we get to when he's eight, and his behavior starts leaning toward the disturbing side of things - including a possible attack on his babysitter and a definite attack on a schoolmate. Mom (Taylor Schilling) starts taking him to different specialists, but as soon as Colm Feore shows up you know he's gonna be the one to crack the mystery, because you don't get Colm Feore to be in your movie to be another cog in the wheel. The trailers have part of his explanation, but in the full scene he also explains how Miles can be cured of this new development.

Unfortunately that's at about the halfway point, and there are no other wrinkles to the plot. Worse, the opening scene (which I won't spoil here) gave us almost all of the information we needed anyway - a peculiar match cut in the first five minutes spells it out to any audience member with half a brain, so Feore isn't revealing so much as he is confirming the problem. It's a strange choice for this sort of thing, to the point where I wondered if they were purposely trying to lead us astray so they could pull out a more surprising reveal later. Whether or not they do is again something I won't spoil here, but either way it's odd to spend so much of the movie being ahead of its characters, watching them discover things we already learned for ourselves in the film's first sequence.

And that adds to my ongoing curiosity regarding the film's script and if it was reworked at a late stage. Not only is the information doled out earlier than necessary (and occasionally even repeated) but there are a few dropped story points that struck me as odd. Early on Miles causes a babysitter to fall down the stairs and cut up her foot (and perhaps break a bone or two) but the scene ends with her calling for the boy, unaware that he was at fault - and then it just cuts to later, with Miles saying he can't remember what happened. The babysitter's fate is never confirmed, nor is she ever mentioned again (same goes for Feore's character, who makes a phone call to give Schilling some more info and seems to be setting himself up to play a bigger part, only to never reappear). Likewise, he attacks one of his schoolmates at his fancy genius school, and later we see him attending what seems to be a regular public school - did he get kicked out of the other one, or did they decide it was best for him to be in a more normal environment? Schilling and her husband are also drawn with as much depth as a slasher victim - we're never told what they do for a living or anything like that, and a hint about a miscarriage or something ("We weren't sure we'd ever have you" she tells baby Miles) is never fleshed out either.

Yet, it still works for the most part! Maybe I'm more lenient given my well documented love of this particular sub-genre, but I had a good time watching it all the same. The trailer spoils one of its two best scares (and yes, it's swiped from Shock, but I suspect unlike Annabelle this is an intentional tip of the hat as there are some other similarities), but the other got me good and is more of the "Gah! CURSED IMAGE!" variety than a jump, and there's another more subtle one involving a simple line of dialogue that delighted me in its surprising harshness. Indeed, the film as a whole is shockingly dark/unsettling at times, particularly in the Feore sequence when Miles (in evil mode) tells him how the rest of their little session is gonna go. And the end is also less studio-friendly than I was expecting, which is always a plus.

Speaking of Annabelle, like that film I suspect it will work better on parents than non, because it plays on those very particular emotions albeit in very different ways; that one juiced up its scares by putting the kid in danger, this one opts for a "Would you do this if it was YOUR kid?" kind of thing though again, no spoilers so no details (I blame Pet Sematary's trailer debut for being so spoiler conscious - people were legit crying "spoiler!" at a trailer. Incidentally, same writer! Jeff Buhler wrote Pet and this). I also got some of the same creeped out vibes I get from body horror movies at times, and when you think about it it kind of makes sense. Someone once compared not knowing where your child was to having one of your own organs out in the wild somewhere, and it's true even for fathers who, as you hopefully know, never actually had the child inside of them and attached to them the way mothers do. So when Schilling starts suspecting the kid is evil and noticeably bristles when he tries to hug her or whatever, you really feel how skin-crawling and conflicting it must be for her, to be afraid of her own child's touch. There's a bit where he climbs into bed with her and tries to snuggle - it's one of the most unnerving things in the entire movie, without the need to have any violence or jump scares.

So I guess your mileage will vary depending on how much you enjoy this sub-genre. Nicholas McCarthy (whose movie The Pact is one I highly recommend, and am happy to see him getting a wide release) checks all the boxes one expects from this sort of thing, but the screenplay as presented on-screen is almost too mercenary at times, as if they didn't want to distract the audience with pesky things like "subplots" or "complications" or even "other characters" (these people have no friends or neighbors, apparently; even a brief Halloween scene seems to exist in a world with no other people). It'll scratch your itch if you have one, but goes no further than that, making it hard to recommend in general the way I could for the likes of Orphan or Home Movie. But whatever may have happened to the script or finished cut along the way, what we got is still effective at what it does, and a good way to tide us over until the seemingly more ambitious Brightburn comes along later this year.

What say you?

P.S. Hover at your own risk because it enters spoiler territory, but the movie also shares some DNA with this pet fave of mine, so that was a fun realization. However it'd be a huge red flag for most people (and again spoils some things) so let's keep it on the DL for now. Just feel free to tell me you agree (without using the name!) on Twitter or in the comments, I like to know who my peeps are for this particular film.


FTP: Boardinghouse (1982)

FEBRUARY 1, 2019


As a fan (well, "fan") of Sledgehammer and some other early shot on video oddities, I was excited when I won Boardinghouse at trivia a while back, because while it sounded like something I would enjoy I was also leery of blind buying the damn thing (especially on DVD, gross!). Now I could see it for free and not mind if it turned out to be really bad! But man, I wasn't prepared for just HOW bad it was; it actually took me several attempts just to finish it, and that was the 96 minute version - there's another that runs an hour longer, something I have to assume is akin to waterboarding or flying on Spirit Airlines. I know there's some appeal in seeing something this amateurish and weird, but whatever that je ne sais quoi is that makes the likes of Things and (to go out of horror) The Room into a compelling experience, it's definitely absent here.

I can give them some leeway on the removal of nearly an hour of footage - I can't imagine even something like The Godfather would be much use if more than a third of the film was lopped out. But thanks to MovieCensorship, a site that runs down the differences between two cuts of a movie, I know that a great deal of the footage is just padding or scenes running longer thanks to more cutaways and the like. Entries like "The shorter version cuts away a few seconds before she gets to the door" are common, so unless you believe that watching someone walk all of the way to a door is essential to the film's coherency or merit, I think you'll agree that this movie wasn't "ruined" by getting hacked up. Obviously some of that footage is meatier than the example, but after reading through the entry (which is very long since so many of the cuts are of a few seconds here and there) I am certain that the film couldn't be saved thanks to how it was made in the first place.

And no, I'm not referring to the shot on video aesthetic - it actually looks fine for that sort of thing, and in fact I've seen movies made twenty years later that looked much worse. No, the problem is that the director cast himself in the lead role of a guy who is a sex magnet for every woman in the film, which is icky and implausible in equal measures. And since it's a lot cheaper to film a guy being hit on by a lady or two than to have a big chase/kill scene, we spend most of the movie watching the women fawn all over this guy, and not nearly enough time on the killer doing his thing. So that leads to the other problem - it's one of the most meandering "slashers" I've ever seen; the setup is fine (the owner of the titular boarding house nabs a group of comely ladies who all move in around the same time but then start getting picked off one by one) but the killer takes too much damn time to do that. Instead we get scenes of the hero going to work, meeting clients, one of the girls working on an album, a pie fight, a pool party (including a bizarre catfight), and horrifying sex scenes.

I know all that makes it sound like a lot of fun but I assure you, the lack of any momentum makes these moments just as dull as everything else. I think the thing that makes The Room "work" is that it's actually kind of a threadbare story about a guy whose fiance is cheating on him with his buddy, but keeps tossing in all these non sequiturs to keep it lively. But most of the things this movie offers are exactly what you'd expect from a slasher - they're just too spread out and done too poorly for it to ever be any fun. In fact, the only amusement I ever got out of the damn thing (besides the electronic score, which occasionally sounds like an Asylum mockbuster of Halloween II's) was when they clearly edited something out, as a scene would just randomly fade out before any discernible point to it had been made; presumably they had to keep part of it for continuity or to avoid cutting an actor (read: friend of producer) out entirely. I can't help but wonder if they kept going and got the thing down to like 75 minutes if it would actually work?

P.S. The menu is horribly designed too. This whole affair was a waste of a trivia prize!

What say you?


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