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...

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