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 The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story).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

Kindred (2020)

JUNE 20, 2021

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

When Scream Factory said they were putting out Kindred, some (including me) assumed it referred to the 1987 movie with Rod Steiger, a mutant baby thing that's right in their wheelhouse. But no, it's a new film (coming from SF via their IFC partnership), a sort of Rosemary's Baby/Flowers in the Attic hybrid about a woman who is having a pretty rough month: first she finds out she's pregnant despite being on the pill, and then her boyfriend gets killed in an accident, prompting her would-be mother-in-law Margaret (Fiona "Aunt Petunia" Shaw) to decide to basically trap her in her stately manor until the baby is born, feeling she's got a right to be a part of its life as it's all she has left of her bloodline.

Not a bad plot for a film, and for the most part it works just fine, though it can feel a bit repetitive the longer it goes. And it does go long; it's over 100 minutes and yet what I already described is pretty much the extent of its narrative. Our pregnant hero, Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) occasionally attempts an escape or tries to get someone to help her, but nothing ever works: she ends up back in the house and/or her would be saviors turn her directly over to the mother and her stepson, Thomas (Jack Lowden). The thrust comes from whether they actually mean to do her harm (i.e. will they kill her once the baby is born) or if they're actually right to be so over protective, as not only does Charlotte not want the baby (at first anyway) but she exhibits signs of some kind of mental illness that causes her to see things and forget things.

The way this is handled is pretty interesting. Early on she cuts her hand on a glass, and we see this, but she doesn't remember it the next morning - as far as she's concerned, they did something to her in her sleep. So any other developments, such as when she wakes up to find Thomas in her bed and he claims she asked him to be there for some kind of comfort, we are left not fully knowing if she is being gaslit or if Thomas is telling the truth. Apart from locking her in a room for a bit (after she becomes violent), they never really do anything harmful to her, so as far as we can see their only real crime is being overprotective of a child that they have no claim to but seemingly only want to ensure it doesn't die due to the mother's increasingly irrational behavior.

So we're dealing with a lot of gray areas here, essentially. It'd be easy to say Charlotte's the hero and Margaret is the villain, but (and perhaps actual parents like me - watching on Father's Day no less - will be more susceptible here) when it comes to the safety of the child, there is no question that despite her domineering attitude, the kid's got a better chance with Margaret. Charlotte, on the other hand, hallucinates a flock of birds attacking her car and ultimately crashes, the sort of thing that might have easily killed them both (she also repeatedly drinks and smokes after discovering she is pregnant). But your sympathies will likely lie with her anyway, because at the end of the day she is repeatedly having control of her own life being taken away. Even boyfriend Ben goads her into keeping the child when she discovers she's pregnant, waving off her hesitation and telling her she'd be a great mom.

The occasionally frustrating vagueness and circular plotting is more or less balanced out by the terrific performances of its central trio of cast members, in particular Shaw who gives an outstanding three and a half minute monologue about the double edged sword of parenting, and how she regrets being selfish when Ben was an infant - it apparently took her a few years for her protective nature to kick in. Director Joe Marcantonio lets it play out in an unbroken shot with an almost imperceptible dolly in, and it's far and away the best part of the movie, an almost literal centerpiece (meaning it comes around the halfway mark) that would have probably bumped the movie up a full star for me, if I were to give ratings here.

Marcantonio provides a commentary for the disc's lone extra besides the trailer, and while it's more technically oriented than I would have liked (as he cowrote the script I was hoping for more narrative insight) it's a pretty enjoyable track all the same. He notes that the presence of tea in the film was not an intentional reference to Get Out, as many have claimed, and also explains that the script was not written for a Black woman, specifically, but she just happened to be the best actress that he saw for the job (he notes he only made one change as a result: instead of the locked room she was originally chained to the bed, but he didn't want people to draw that connection). He also wonders if anyone would listen to it, to which I say "I did!"

He also, at one point, says that he didn't really cut much out of the movie, though he notes several occasions where something was removed, so I guess I should be grateful that the movie isn't over two hours long as it seemingly could have been. He could have cut MORE (there's a random bit with a groundskeeper that has no bearing on anything that I could see), but as this is also the sort of movie that demands a little patience, perhaps by keeping it over 100 minutes he is ensuring the sort of folks who will hate it won't ever bother with it anyway as it's "too long." Ultimately, there are better options for this sort of thing (I'm glad he mentioned Park Chan-Wook on his commentary, as Stoker came to mind more than once during my viewing, both in general atmosphere and in creepy piano usage), but it's not like we're being inundated with them, so there's no harm in a slightly lesser entry joining the field. It's better than that other Kindred, at any rate.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Killdozer (1974)

JUNE 15, 2021

GENRE: TECHNOLOGY
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (BORROWED)

There's nothing worse than a trailer or ad campaign for a film being very misleading, as it does a disservice to the film by angering the people who showed up and all but ensures it won't find its actual fans until it's been written off as a flop. But it's kind of amusing when the only one to blame is myself, as if I was ever pressed to describe what Killdozer was about, I would have said "A guy makes a tank out of a bulldozer and gets revenge on the people who destroyed his home," but that isn't remotely accurate. Turns out I combined the real life story of Marvin Heemeyer (whose modified bulldozer was indeed dubbed "Killdozer", despite the fact that, miraculously, no one was killed with it in his rampage) and the plot of King/Bachman's Roadwork in my head, somehow, and made up a different movie in my head.

Turns out, the actual movie is about a regular bulldozer becoming sentient thanks to hitting a meteor rock during a job, and proceeding to wipe out most of the crew who is working on a remote, uninhabited island, away from anything else for the bulldozer to do. It was a 1974 made for TV movie, so you'd be a fool to be surprised it had some slow parts, but when not much was happening I was entertained by the gradual realization of how I managed to come up with the wrong plot. The "Killdozer" element was easy enough to figure out (Heemeyer) but between the driverless machine running people down and "meteor shit" to blame I can only assume someone said, at some point, "Stephen King must have seen Killdozer" and I merely managed to attribute a different one of his plots to this. The human brain is fascinating, guys.

Would my imagined movie have been any better? Maybe. It certainly would have been more interesting to look at, as there are only six people in the thing and they manage to kill the distinctive ones off first. One was the lone person of color and the other stood out because it was a young Robert Urich, who my dad knew somehow (I forget the specifics and they're both dead so I can't ask) and was thus a common presence in my early TV watching days, as my parents would gravitate toward things he was in and point him out. I doubt this one was ever one they had me watch; plus he dies first so my horror-hating dad wouldn't have watched any further anyway. Worse, there is literally nothing on the island beyond the men, their makeshift camp, and scattered equipment, so Killdozer doesn't have much to destroy, nor do they have anywhere to hide.

So the movie gets pretty repetitive, as you can imagine. Killdozer shows up and kills someone, they bury him, talk for a bit, try something that doesn't work, and then someone gets killed. Lather, rinse, repeat. One could even think of it as a proto-slasher of sorts, but if you think of the blandest body count movie there's at least some scenery changes to enjoy, which doesn't apply here. Worse, the screenplay (co-written by Theodore Sturgeon, based on his short story) seemingly loses interest in itself as it goes, with the deaths getting progressively lazier. The first one it actually kills (Urich is just sort of fried by its activation and dies later), the guy crawls inside a big pipe thinking he'd be safe, only for the 'dozer to batter it around and send him to his doom - not bad. But by the end, it looks more like that bit in Austin Powers with the steamroller, as the guy is in his jeep trying to get it started while the villain rolls toward him. At no point does the man think to simply get out of the car and run, as the thing isn't very fast and also can't exactly turn on a dime, making escape pretty easy. Nope, he just sits there, even has time for a "Oh shit, I guess this is it..." kind of expression as he literally waits to be crushed. Come on, movie. Try harder.

That said, it's still pretty amusing in its way. It was a 90 minute block TV movie, so it's under 75 minutes (just once I wish one of these would come with the vintage ads that aired along with it) and thus even with the repetition doesn't have time to wear out its welcome, and the extraterrestrial origins were a nice surprise. Whatever remote control type invention they came up with (or hidden compartment for a driver) to operate Killdozer was effective enough; I was surprised how many shots there were of it driving along without a visible operator. And the cast is great: Clint Walker is the lead and he's backed up by Urich, Neville Brand, and James Wainwright (if you name a single television show of note from the '70s or '80s, he was probably in it); the "isolated, all male" grouping is rare in horror (The Thing being the most prominent) and they all play off each other well, even allow themselves to get sad when someone dies. I was also relieved that the Black character wasn't "the BLACK character"; no one ever mentions his race or treats him differently, which obviously wasn't a guarantee at this time and can really sap the fun out of these older films when seeing them for the first time today (this does not mean that they should be JUDGED by today's standards, to be clear - I speak only of how such dated attitudes can distract from the experience).

Kino Lorber's disc (which I found at Target, amazingly; you can't even guarantee that they'll have mid-level box office hits anymore now that their physical media section is so tiny, but they had Killdozer) has an audio interview with director Jerry London (a TV director through and through, which should tell you how interesting he is to listen to) and a commentary by historian Lee Gambin, who provides some insight on TV movies at the time, how the film differed from its source story, etc. He also points out some of the other movies that were shot in the same location (such as Hell Comes to Frogtown), though it looked familiar to me when I watched it the first time so I had already looked it up - same spot as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, which is right around the corner from Six Flags Magic Mountain (eerily, there was a lone bulldozer near the parking lot for a long time I always wondered about). Like the film itself he eventually runs out of gas (vehicle puns!) and leaves with a few minutes left in the runtime, and it's almost never scene specific, so it can be a little less than engaging, but if you're a die-hard fan of this film or any of the actors, there's probably enough in there to warrant a listen. Since the movie's so short and he quits early anyway it'll only take another hour or so out of your life, so you might as well if you bought Killdozer to own forever.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Censor (2021)

JUNE 13, 2021

GENRE: PSYCHOLOGICAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

One of my sadly unfinished HMAD projects was to watch all of the "Video Nasties", selecting ones I hadn't seen yet for the day's entry and giving "non canon" reviews to the ones I had. Alas, assuming I tagged them correctly, I only got a little over halfway through the list of 72 films on the "Section 1" and "Section 2" lists (the "Section 3" list was as big as the other two combined and was added later, so it was more of a "Maybe I'll do those once I finish the real ones" project). But the film Censor inspired me to at least make a list of the ones I hadn't got to yet and keep an eye out for them if they appear on Shudder or get added to the extensive/vaunted libraries of companies like Severin or Vinegar Syndrome, so *cross fingers* maybe I will eventually get to them all.

It's one of a few things that made my time with Censor ultimately rewarding overall, despite the film itself stumbled in its final reel. Set during the actual Video Nasties heyday in 1980's UK, the film stars Niamh Algar as Enid, a censor (hey that's the title!) who is tasked with writing up horror films and deciding which parts need to be removed, or if the film can even be passed for a rating at all. Unfortunately, presumably for rights issues, all of the films she watches are fake (not counting a title sequence that gives a few glimpses at real movies), which felt like a missed opportunity given the real world origins of its plot. The lone exception is Deranged, which is never seen but does play a part in the plot, as the film allegedly inspired a man to cut off his wife's face, not unlike an action that film's Ed Gein stand-in committed. Because the film got a rating with only a few cuts (and thus was not one of the banned "Nasties"), she is in hot water from the press and public, taking blame for the man's crimes because she "didn't do her job" and ban the film outright.

This subplot doesn't play much of a part in the grand scheme of things (in fact - minor spoiler - the late reveal that the guy never actually saw the movie anyway is basically tossed offhand) because Enid is far more concerned with the fact that the star of her latest assignment ("Don't Go In The Church", which prompts a pretty funny line about how they're running out of places they shouldn't go into) is a dead ringer for her sister Nina, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances when they were children. Her parents, not wishing to spend their final years hoping for a miracle, have decided to have her declared dead, so this along with the discovery of the actress who may actually be her sends Enid into a spiral. What actually happened that day? Is this actress really her sister? Will "Don't Go In The Church" get banned?

All of these plot threads established by the script by Prano Bailey-Bond (who also directed) and Anthony Fletcher, based on their earlier short titled "Nasty", have the makings of a perfectly good Polanski-type thriller where a woman unravels, but unfortunately everything goes off the rails once Enid's journey takes her to the set of the latest film starring the girl she thinks is her sister. Here, the film's Natural Born Killers-esque penchant for switching film formats and jumping between hallucinations and reality start to get the better of it, and after having me in its pocket for an hour it basically lost me. I couldn't believe how relatively quickly it began clearly heading toward a conclusion; amusingly, I saw it at the Drafthouse, which has a unique way of letting you know when a movie is almost over as they bring you the check for your dine-in service when there are only 30 minutes to go (including the credits). When my server brought the bill, I actually assumed he had it wrong and there was still lots more to go. Nope! It's just the rare film I wished was longer!

(Spoilers in the next paragraph, feel free to skip it!)

We're never given a clear explanation for what happened to her sister; we can suss it out from the little bits of info we're given along the way, but our protagonist never seems to be aware of it, which seems like a missed opportunity. There's also an undeveloped idea stemming from a Wizard of Oz-y type family film she seems to fixate on during a scene at a video store; the film comes into play in the final scene here, but again we kind of have to do a lot of the legwork ourselves (not always a problem, but when a movie is barely over 80 minutes with credits, they certainly could have padded it out with plot clarification instead of, as they do, repeating the entire credit sequence). And I love the idea that these censors are actually acting out of guilt for their own misdeeds and looking to assign blame elsewhere, but we meet at least five of her coworkers - are they all doing the same? If not, then the idea doesn't fully work, because they're just doing a job without any personal traumas informing what they do. Worse, they all just disappear from the story after a certain point, which, again, makes the movie feel incomplete. I assume it's a meta statement on how censors made those older films incomplete by hacking away at them without any regard for creative intent (the film's final shot of a VHS tape of "Censor" being ejected from a VCR points in that deconstructionist direction), but while that's a clever idea, it doesn't quite work when the film's gory murders are seen in full.

Until then, at least, it's an intriguing thriller with a unique (and appealing) backdrop. I was impressed with Algar after seeing her in the Statham vehicle Wrath of Man, and was delighted to see her taking center stage here (except for horror footage presented in full-screen, she is in every scene of the film). Her pulled back hair and matronly wardrobe tells us everything we need to know about how she might feel about the likes of Cannibal Holocaust before she even utters a word, and she handles the character's downward spiral perfectly (more and more of those tightened hairs seem to go out of place as the film continues, a nice little touch). And I hope it was intentional to present the censors' office space as the bleakest and most oppressive one of its type since Joe vs the Volcano, because it made me feel better that these horrible people would at least have to suffer in an equally horrible work environment.

I also loved the throwaway line about a film with "so many" S and F words that they couldn't cut them and just gave the film a "15" rating, because it pointed to the arbitrary nature of these boards when compared to America's MPA/CARA system. A 15 rating means no one under 15 can see the film (even with a parent), but that same rating is given to films that get PG-13s here (i.e. the Quiet Place films) as well as films that get Rs for violence (i.e. the aforementioned Wrath of Man), and even tweens can see the former without parents. So in one country, a 14 year old can't see the pretty much gore/violence free Quiet Place even with his parents, but they can all come here and see the gory/F bomb laden Spiral together. The only rating we have that teens can't see even with a parent is the super rare NC-17, which is pretty much only given to films for excessive violence or nudity (rare would-be exceptions, like The Aristocrats, end up going unrated because the NC-17 is a kiss of death).

So it's frustrating that I ended up being so cold on the film's final reel, because there was so much to like (enough that I'd still recommend seeing it, to be clear) but with a conclusion as good as the rest it'd be in that "Possibly in my top 5 for the year" kind of territory. I didn't even know it was based on a short beforehand, but it makes sense now; short filmmakers tend to have terrific ideas but fumble the endings when they make something longform, because their skill at hooking us early doesn't easily translate into a traditional three act structure. But even if the whole thing stunk, it might inspire those who have never heard of the Video Nasties to look into what is one of the more fascinating topics in horror history, so on that level I'd still call it a win anyway.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

JUNE 6, 2021

GENRE: POSSESSION, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (IMAX SCREENING)

You might notice that "Haunted House" is not among the genre tags for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and no that's just not me being lazy. Outside of that waterbed scene that featured heavily in the film's trailers, there really isn't a lot of traditional HH stuff in the film, as it wisely moves away from the template set by the first two Conjurings and opts for something closer to an X-Files/Supernatural type of procedural, with Ed and Lorraine discovering that their new family was cursed and - rather than stay with them and let the usual spookiness occur - they hit the road and try to solve the mystery.

And, while far from perfect, it largely worked like a charm for me. I didn't have a lot of love for Conjuring 2, I must admit; the family wasn't as compelling and it was clear they were trying to recapture the magic of the original despite having less to work with, so trying a new tack was the correct decision if you ask me. Director Michael Chaves isn't as strong a director as James Wan, but perhaps he realized this after Curse of La Llorona (for my money the low point of this universe*) as he barely even attempts to pull off the same kind of hokey (if often effective) scares that are this series' trademark. Instead he goes unnerving bits of violence and a sense of real world menace, which coupled with Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson's always welcome performances and a less made-up story than usual more or less makes up for the reduction in successful jolt moments.

By "less made-up" I refer to the fact that the case it's based on, the one where the film got its silly subtitled, actually did leave a man dead. Whether the culprit was just crazy or there really was some kind of satanic/supernatural explanation for what happened will be up to your personal beliefs, but unlike the previous film's "true story" there is no argument that something resulted in a person losing their life, and his murderer was sentenced to prison for it. That throughline gives the movie more weight than a couple of little girls making things up (or their parents making it up and having them parrot it), which is how you can explain away "The Enfield Poltergeist" and the like. Even the Warrens' real life involvement with this particular event was more substantial than C2's (in which their involvement was so minimal it's not even mentioned in some writeups of the story), as they were familiar with those involved before the murder even occurred.

For those unaware of the story, Arne Johnson murdered his landlord in 1981, later claiming it was possession - but his excuse wasn't out of left field. As it turns out, his girlfriend's little brother David Wetzel was possessed (or "possessed") several months earlier, and seemingly cured during an exorcism, though witnesses (including the Warrens) believe that the demon merely left David's body and entered Arne's. I mean, if you're gonna pin the devil on a murder you commit, it helps to establish the alibi months ahead, right? Alas, in real life the judge refused to buy into any such nonsense, and the trial went on without any introduced evidence of demons or the like, and Arne was convicted of manslaughter after his defense went with a more believable "self defense" excuse. He only served five years in jail and has lived a pretty normal life since, best as I can tell.

The movie spins things differently, obviously, since that wouldn't make for a very engaging two hours (yes, two hours - I was so relieved this one didn't test my patience like C2 did with its 2.5 hr runtime). The courtroom stuff is treated as a kind of ticking clock, with Ed and Lorraine needing to find some kind of proof of Arne's condition to bring before the court or else he will be tried and likely executed for his crime. Their research into the house where David lived reveals a hex, suggesting that the family was not possessed, but cursed, and from there they enter the world of witches and Satanists, discovering a link to another murder, etc. Their adventures ultimately lead them to John Noble (yay!) as an ex-Priest who, like the Warrens, has a locked room full of books and trinkets about the black arts that he keeps in order to keep them out of evil hands.

Eventually the case leads them to another connection to this universe, which I guess could be a spoiler so I won't get into it. Instead I'll just say that the movie works despite seeming like a not always graceful attempt at combining a traditional Conjuring film with one of its spinoffs. Even that aforementioned waterbed moment is kind of shoehorned into the proceedings, as Ed says something like "We need to go back to the beginning," which prompts a flashback of David, one his first day of moving into that house, sitting on the waterbed and getting his little mini-haunted house movie in return. At first it seems like this might be a lengthy round of backstory leading up to the opening scene where he was exorcised, but that's pretty much it. After everyone settles down we return to the present day and pretty much never even see the Wetzel family again other than Arne's girlfriend.

Of course, this might be due to the fact that in real life, David and his brother Carl (who isn't even in the movie) sued the Warrens for exploiting them, so the producers probably felt it was in everyone's best interest to minimize their involvement as much as possible. But again this kind of makes the movie feel a bit scattershot, and also reduces how much our ptotagonists can do their nurturing act - there are no opportunities for Ed to pull out his guitar in this one, sadly. That said we get just as much, perhaps a little more, of how much these two love each other, again making me appreciate that there's a major horror franchise focused on heroes instead of villains for once. During David's opening exorcism (which is a terrific sequence, I should note - super tense and given a small bit of levity with a pretty great Exorcist nod) Ed suffers a heart attack, which leaves him a bit winded and relying on a cane for the rest of the movie, allowing them some cutesiness that worked like gangbusters on me. At one point someone needs to crawl around in a dark basement, prompting Ed to protest that he should do it, only for Lorraine to smile and tell him to hold her purse - it's adorable! And there's a bit about his heart pills that had me practically cooing in the theater; maybe the scares don't always work on me, but I'm an easy mark for a tug on the ol' heartstrings. Still, I would have liked to have seen them bonding with either Arne or the Wetzels a little more.

(Also, for anyone confused why daughter Judy is so much older all of a sudden when their most recent entry was Annabelle Comes Home, I'll remind you that no movie in this cinematic universe immediately follows the one that was released before it. The chronological order is The Nun (released 5th), Annabelle 2 (4th), Annabelle 1 (2nd), Conjuring 1 (1st), Annabelle 3 (7th), La Llorona (6th), Conjuring 2 (3rd), Conjuring 3 (8th).)

So, again, it's not a home run, and I wasn't surprised to see people dismissing it (some even said it was the worst of this entire franchise, which, come on. It's not even the worst one by Michael Chaves!), but due to my own sensibilities being catered to, I found it more engaging than I would have if they stuck with the Wetzels' house the entire time. The occasional bits of humor (Noble explaining why he can't shake Ed's hand floored me) and focus on more flesh and blood threats kept my interest and more or less made up for its at-times awkward editing and structure (even the score suggests some production discord, as it's largely comprised of temp music, featuring everything from End of Days (!) to... 1917 and Sicario?). Hopefully they aren't scared off and return to more familiar territory with Conjuring 4 if there is one; I'd prefer if they just took what worked here and went even further off the beaten path next time around. It's the Warren characters that keep us coming back, so there's no reason to stick them in the same sub-genre every time out. And since the real life people are a. con artists and b. dead there's no real reason to even stick to their real life cases, as they can make something up 100% and it won't really be much different than the Warrens' "facts" that inspired them in the first place.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

MAY 31, 2021

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

At the end of a long weekend with my potentially hyperactive son, A Quiet Place Part II could have devoted all of its (few) spoken lines to making fun of the length of my penis and I'd still probably enjoy it for its fantasy world where kids can't talk about *anything*, let alone what various Pokemon evolve into and who they would be good to fight against. But even if I saw it when I was supposed to, fourteen months ago (before Pikachu wormed his way into my son's head), I'd probably feel the same I do now: it's a terrific sequel that manages to be every bit as tense as the original while finding a believable way of getting around the sequel-proof end that earlier film seemed to be promising. Yes, the heroes know how to kill the monsters now... but how do they spread the word without making a sound?

After a terrific "Day 1" flashback opening that allows John Krasinski to reprise his role as Lee (starting with a scene at that same pharmacy that the original opened on, and Krasinski takes time to hold a few extra frames on that damn space shuttle toy, the jerk) and gives us a glimpse of what kind of chaos just one or two of these monsters can wreak on a full crowd, we pick up right where the original ended. The family is leaving their house and heading to presumed safety at an old friend of theirs, played by Cillian Murphy. Murphy is terrific and makes the most out of a fairly standard post-apocalyptic character: the former family man who lost everyone and is now too bitter to help, but is convinced by a child's plight to do the right thing. The trailer had me thinking he was an antagonist of a sort (Tim Robbins in War of the Worlds was my mental comparison) but he proves to be a fine hero and more than makes up for Krasinski's absence.

But it's actually kind of an ensemble this time, as the kids (same actors, thankfully*) take more central roles and, due to plot mechanics, find themselves separate from each other and mom Emily Blunt for a sizeable chunk of the runtime. Regan has the most synopsis ready storyline: after finding a radio broadcast playing "Beyond the Sea" in a loop, she quickly deduces that the signal must be coming from a nearby island, and if they can get there, they can broadcast her magic hearing aid signal to anyone listening and start a more effective fight back against the monsters. She leaves on her own in the middle of the night knowing the others wouldn't let her leave, prompting Blunt to send Murphy after her while she watches the kids. But then she needs to go on a supply run, leaving Marcus with the baby. And then... well, they all make noise.

There are two sequences in the film where Krasinski and his editors deftly switch from one character's plight to the next's, keeping the tension ever increasing by ending each scene on the "worst possible moment!" (i.e. a cliffhanger) to check in with another person's own imminent death, and it works incredibly well (Inception's multi layered dream sequence is a similar style, if my own description isn't clear). One would think cutting away would defuse a lot of that suspense, but it's quite the opposite, due to this particular franchise having established that no one is safe. Maybe you coulda guessed Jim Halpert would bite it at the end of the first movie, but not their youngest child in the FIRST SCENE, so there's never a moment of "they're safe, who cares, get back to the character who is in REAL danger!" thinking you might get if they tried something like this in a movie/franchise that had already tipped its hat that they didn't have the guts to take down a tyke or a big star.

In fact the scenes would work even if the characters could make sound, which drove a lot of the suspense the first time around. That's obviously a big part of it, but having spent that nickel in the first movie, there aren't a lot of scenes devoted to "How do they (go to the bathroom, put down a battery, etc) without making a peep?" in this sequel. Instead, the script (Krasinski solo; the original writers moved on) sticks to putting people in dangerous situations where sound is inevitable, like when poor Marcus trips a bear trap and his mom's only means of comforting him is to hold his mouth shut to try to keep him quiet (shoutout to Noah Jupe's pipes; even with Blunt's hand muffling them that kid's pained howl is unbearable). Even the inevitable "evil human" scene (which is thankfully brief) is tied into this idea: the villains don't wound our hero, they simply tie a chain of cans and bottles around his neck, preventing him from pursuing them as he can barely breathe without making a clatter.

That's the sort of thing that makes this an ideal sequel, a true rarity for the horror genre (even more impressive coming from a guy who probably doesn't have a lot of Scream Factory discs in his collection). The original was a simple idea milked for maximum effectiveness, and that's the sort of thing that can lead to big step downs for their followups (Halloween II and the Paranormal Activity franchise come to mind), but they find a way around it by coming up with different ways of having to be quiet, with the tradeoff being that they also found ways of having more dialogue. Murphy's character has a sound proof "room" (inside a tank) that can only hold a few minutes' worth of air but will let people have conversations (or, in Marcus' case, finally let out that scream), and later in the film he and Regan find another spot where making sound is possible. The combination of these two ideas gives a sequel that never feels like a complete retread, nor does it feel the need to add mythology or anything. Even the flashback doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know; the monsters coming from a meteor was established via newspaper headline in the original, so seeing it happen doesn't demystify them or anything like that. By the end of the film we know just as much about them as we did in 2018, and that is a very smart decision.

They also don't change the creatures, another plus, Most monster movie sequels (Tremors, Jurassic Park, etc) feel the need to create a different monster for them to fight, but that's not the case here: they're the exact same ones we saw before (barring whatever improvements in CGI they have afforded; the film cost 3x as much as the original). The added scariness comes from more survival type situations, like Marcus running out of air in the little tank while a monster stomps around outside, or Regan losing her hearing aid at a very inpportune moment. The film only spans like 36 hours or something like that, so there isn't much opportunity for anything grand, and (at least per my three year old memory of my one viewing of the original) there are fewer moments where I found myself wondering how this or that would have been possible to do silently.

(Do they ever eat, though?)

Long story short, they cracked the sequel code! I walked out of the first thinking a followup would be disastrous (unless it just spent 90 minutes on Emily Blunt driving around shooting monsters, which I still would have been fine with), but they went ahead and made one that's just as good as the already very impressive original. In my review of the first one I noted how I gave it four stars on Letterboxd, which I had just started using, and I hope you're as impressed as I am that I walked out, not remembering what I gave the first one (I just re-read my review before writing this one), and gave this one four stars as well. Most movies I give 3s, and when I like them I bump up to 3.5, so for both films to score 4s from me is truly an honor, I assure them. Guessing the 50m opening weekend means a little to them, but still. At any rate, if you haven't been back to the theater yet, this is a terrific choice (especially since the nature of the film tends to keep audiences quiet; of the six movies I've attended theatrically since theaters reopened, it was easily the most behaved crowd).

What say you?

*During the credits, the people next to me openly wondered how the kids didn't look three years older, assuming they used MCU style de-aging on them. This led me to think that they had no idea about the film's lengthy delay, which I found kind of sweet! I would love to be that in the dark about this sort of thing and believe a little more in "movie magic" than I ever can anymore.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Army of the Dead (2021)

MAY 22, 2021

GENRE: ZOMBIE
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX)

Having seen all of Zack Snyder's live action movies on the big screen (I STILL haven't seen the owl one), I was excited to learn that Army of the Dead, despite being a Netflix release, would be hitting theaters and thus helping me keep my streak alive. But then I saw the two and a half hour runtime, and started having mixed feelings about it. While the length isn't a dealbreaker on its own (even for zombie movies! My preferred cut of the original Dawn of the Dead is almost as long), it's a lot to ask to take four hours out of my life (with travel and trailers) to pay for something I am already technically paying for at home, making this an unusual situation. So I figured that, for one of the very few times in my life, I'd listen to reviews and make up my mind that way.

Since I watched it at home after all, so you can guess that the reviews I listened to weren't exactly raves. There were some, of course, but more than one (I only scanned a few, fearing spoilers and the like) mentioned that it was curiously low on action for such a long film, so I figured the big-budget spectacle I was primarily interested in seeing BIG wouldn't be as excessive as I hoped. Long story short, I think I'd be even more disappointed if I took the time and money to hit up a theater for it, so I opted to watch at home to give it a fairer shot. And for the first hour or so, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it; Snyder hasn't lost his ability to create a fantastic opening credits sequence, and I enjoyed the off-kilter group of characters that were assembled for the movie's big heist. "Maybe I should have gone to theaters after all!" I thought at one point. But, weirdly enough, when they actually get into the zombie-overrun Las Vegas the movie starts to falter, at a time when it should be really stepping up its game. For starters, the movie has a pretty sizable budget, but none of it went to really playing up its Sin City locale; the opening sequence (showing casinos being overrun, with Snyder's famous slo-mo depicting showgirl zombies attacking Liberace impersonators and the like) pretty much gives us all the Vegas-specific action we'll see, unless you count a "Here's how the heist will go" montage of quick shots (most of which are in the trailer) when they're making their plan, which shouldn't count since it's imaginary. Their target is a vault that's inside a casino/hotel, but once they get there it's pretty anonymous and could have just been a branch bank for all it matters. That great shot from the trailer of Dave Bautista mowing down zombies as he runs over card tables is part of what is a sadly pretty brief sequence, and before long they're in generic hallways and rooms again. Worse, Snyder (acting as his own DP) shoots most of the movie in closeup with tiny focus ranges, so there's not a lot of scope to the proceedings; it's so cramped that even when they ARE outside or in a casino or somewhere equally engaging, you can't really make too much of it out.

And this strange choice ended up kind of crippling the movie for me ultimately, because if a Zack Snyder movie isn't wowing you with its visuals, what is it offering? It certainly isn't its character development; Bautista is great but he's playing an incredibly generic "tough guy with regrets" that was actually done better with noted non tough guy Jake Weber in the Dawn remake, and the role is almost distractingly cobbled together from a few Bruce Willis characters (John McClane in the last two Die Hards, Harry Stamper in Armageddon...), so he never really shines as a memorable character of his own. Snyder and his two (credited) writers steal the rest from Aliens, in particular Vasquez and Burke, the latter of whom is played here by Garret Dillahunt, who (spoiler) is the victim of the movie's much ballyhooed zombie tiger. How is this not even the best movie where Garret Dillahunt is eaten by a tiger?

The human villain plot, so obligatory in these things, never makes a lot of sense, either. Bautista is hired by casino owner Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, completely wasted) to enter the city and retrieve the money from his vault before the city is nuked (somehow the zombie infection is limited to just Vegas - they walled the city up, Escape from New York style, but uh... how did they do it so quickly before any zombies got out? We have to buy that no one was bitten and fleed when the outbreak first began?), and that would have been enough. But it turns out Tanaka doesn't care about the money, and just wants a team of hardasses to create a diversion so that Dillahunt can obtain an "Alpha" zombie head, because some of them are special and naturally, they can be used to make weapons. Why he couldn't just say this was his plan in the first place is beyond me (they're guns for hire and knew they'd have to encounter zombies anyway, and with the nuke coming, it seems they could make it easier for themselves without having to waste time planning a heist), but since it makes the central heist a complete Macguffin, it leaves the movie inert as well. It would have made more sense if Tanaka truly did want the money and Dillahunt's character was merely going rogue. Plus no one seems to care that they were being used, nor do they encounter Tanaka again, so it's a very weightless storyline.

Snyder also tosses in a bunch of nonsense that may or may not pan out in planned sequels, prequels, anime series, and who knows what else. There's some stuff with aliens (the original zombie that starts the outbreak is being transferred in Area 51 territory), and even a bizarre suggestion of a timeloop when the team encounter a previous heist team that is dressed identically to them. Cool ideas to be sure, but without any satisfactory explanation or resolution here, it's merely frustrating - this is a movie, not the pilot of a TV show. And given the film's length, I simply cannot comprehend how no one involved could be bothered to point out something like "Hey Zack, this bit here where they say the zombies come back to life in the rain - it never rains in the movie, so it's moot. How about we cut it and make the movie a little shorter instead of giving it yet another go-nowhere plot point?" Likewise, they spend a bit of time early on with Bautista essentially ripping off his crewmates by lying to them about how much money they're being paid, offering each one a different amount - you'd think this would come back to bite him on the ass later, right? Nope. Never comes up, rendering it a waste of time. There's probably a solid two hour movie here, but it comes perilously close to completely falling apart due to the man's inability to tell a straightforward story anymore and use the power of editing to remove any plot threads that end up going nowhere (having watched his longer Justice League, I was a bit prepared for this, as he opted to shoot a completely new scene that sets up storylines he already knew he wasn't going to get to explore).

To be fair, it's possible some of these weird bits are due to having to digitally replace an actor who was accused of grooming underage girls after the movie was basically finished. Snyder cast the great Tig Notaro to replace the (male) actor, but with Covid running rampant he wasn't able to secure the other actors to reshoot the scenes properly (a la Ridley Scott with Kevin Spacey/Christopher Plummer). So Notaro is always in shots by herself (in an interview, Bautista said he still hasn't even actually met her), or noticeably inserted into wide shots, but I assume there are some shots they simply couldn't fix properly. This comes to a head in the climax, where a major character sits next to Notaro (a pilot) in the front of their escape helicopter and is never really seen again. This person motivates another's entire character arc and (spoiler) is seemingly killed when the chopper crashes, but their near total absence once they get on board is bizarre; I even rewound the sequence thinking I must have missed a quick shot of their death, but nope - there's a quick, blurry, and non-commital shot of their person in the front of the chopper after it crashes, but no indication of what happened to them (someone else survives being thrown from the chopper entirely, and another passenger is clearly impaled), so the only way to know they're dead is because they don't show up alive again. But Notaro had nothing to do with some of the other go-nowhere plot points, so there's only so much leeway I can extend in this department.

Problems like this kept piling up until I simply stopped caring, and that's a shame, because it started off so well. Again, the first act or so is solid, Notaro is hilarious (her first scene is an all timer in the annals of "I got a job for you" type conversations), there's a wonderful quick bonding between the cowardly safe cracker and the team's main tough guy (who has a zombie killing saw straight out of Dead Rising* that he sadly barely uses) that I found charming af, and the zombies themselves look pretty great (so does the tiger, for what it's worth, though as someone else pointed out, a non threatening animal would have been more fun, since regular tigers are scary anyway). It's not a "bad movie" in the usual sense; it's just a very frustrating one, because anyone with some basic editing skill could probably turn it into something tighter and thus better. Some movies are underbaked; this is one where they keep adding ingredients to what probably would have tasted just fine on its own.

What say you?

P.S. If you want to see the VFX and makeup teams doing their thing, there's a 30 minute making of available on Netflix along with the movie that I recommend. For whatever issues the movie had, its zombies were stellar and the featurette dives deep into how they were created. Also, we learn why half the movie is out of focus, so that's nice.

P.S.S. Comments are moderated, and I'm well aware that this filmmaker has very vocal fans who quickly resort to trolling whenever someone dares speak against their master. So if you plan to reply in a less-than-civil manner don't waste your time, it won't get through.

*Dead Rising 1 was set in a mall, as Snyder's first zombie movie was. Now his second one is set in Las Vegas, just like the 2nd Dead Rising game was. If this is intentional, I love it, and I hope he makes a third one in a hyper-realized Los Angeles.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Grizzly (1976)

MAY 19, 2021

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

When Severin announced they were releasing Day of the Animals and Grizzly on special edition Blu-ray, I was stoked for an excuse to watch them again. But as it turns out, I had never actually seen the latter film; in my head I had caught it at the New Beverly in the pre-HMAD days, but unless my memory is even worse than expected, I just combined my memories of Day of the Animals, Prophecy, and whatever else I caught before it was all documented (via this very site) to form some kind of recollection of seeing the film. What a delight to finally actually see it and discover it was better than my "memory"! I thought it was just OK, but no, it's pretty fun!

Now, longtime readers know I occasionally am convinced I didn't see something only to discover I did (in at least one case, I even reviewed it again), but I'm confident that this isn't another of those fried brain cell moments, because a. the lead actress in the movie kind of resembles my mother-in-law, which is the sort of thing that would stick out in my mind forever, and b. the movie has one of the most graphic child attacks this side of Assault on Precinct 13, as the titular bear grabs the kid, squeezes and snarls at him a bunch, and then tosses him to the side, somehow sans his leg even though the attack never suggested anything like that. He then eats the kid's mom for good measure, and while it's not "funny" per se, it's the kind of thing that would have sent the New Bev crowd into a fever pitch.

No, this was my virgin experience with William Girdler's infamous Jaws ripoff, and I was 100% delighted with it. Knowing exactly what I was in for probably helped, as did recently suffering through a pretty bad shark movie (Deep Blood), so it was like the movie gods wanted to set things right by sending this down with the message "THIS. THIS is how you rip off Jaws!" That said, I was kind of surprised that there was no town event; the "close the beaches" plot is pretty flimsy and doesn't even really seem to matter much, as the mayor simply doesn't want to close the park, but the bear is often attacking isolated people (and at one point, leaves the park entirely), so there's no potential smorgasboard or anything. At one point he attacks a camper who is near a bunch of others, but doesn't even bother going after the guy with her sitting a few feet away, let alone anyone else.

But what it lacks in that department, it makes up for in characters, as they are pretty much identical to their Jaws counterparts; hell, the "Hooper" standin (Scott, played by Richard Jaeckel) even wears the same outfit. Andrew Prine more or less fills Quint's role; he's mostly just the guy flying the chopper around while hero Christopher George (a ranger, not a sheriff - very different!) looks for the bear, but he's got some hunter skills and even has a little monologue about bears attacking a tribe of Indigenous people (he, naturally since this is 1976, uses the term "Indians"). They even ditch "Brody's wife" halfway through like Jaws did; George has a love interest played by Joan McCall, a photographer who wants to tag along when they head out into the oc- er, woods to find the bear, but George won't let her come along and that's pretty much that. She only appears in the background of another scene, a weird decision since they establish her as a bit of a take-no-shit woman, so you'd think she wouldn't listen to George and end up in danger anyway (or, if such a thing would fly in the '70s, saving the men/day), but nope. She listens to him and stays home, because that's what Mrs. Brody did and doing something else would mean coming up with new ideas. I love it!

It also has a much hungrier antagonist than Jaws; in fact I was kind of shocked to discover this was a PG movie, as it's pretty graphic at times and even has some brief nudity, which would suggest an R even in these more lenient times of the MPAA. I actually kind of get how Tobe Hooper and co. thought they could get a PG on Chain Saw, since this movie is gorier and has nearly double the body count and managed to score the softer rating. Oh, you wacky MPAA board! So don't be fooled by the PG into thinking that the big guy only gets a few kills; I think he racks up a total of nine in the movie, and they come along at a steady clip, so the movie is rarely dull. Apart from some of the romantic stuff between George and McCall (which is sweet in its way, kind of a precursor to the gold standard set in Alligator) the movie is either scenes of the bear attacking, scenes of our heroes looking for it, or scenes of George snarling at the mayor, who is occasionally reasonable but then switches gears in between lines. Like at one point George says he wants to close off half the park, and the guy is fine with it, but then ten seconds later they're screaming at each other about something else. As a fan of George (particularly his snarling), it offered a number of wonderful moments, particularly an "Up yours!" that got me wondering why that phrase went out of vogue.

Severin's Blu-ray is pretty packed, with two lengthy looks at the career of Girdler (who only made two more movies before he was killed in a chopper crash), two commentary tracks, and a handful of other interviews and archival featurettes (one of which seems to have been assembled for a previous DVD release). Of the two commentaries, the one with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson is the better; they offer the usual biographical info and some "state of cinema then" context along with good natured jabs at some of the movie's sillier moments (and naturally, elements lifted from Jaws), making it engaging and far from pretentious. The other track, by McCall and producer David Sheldon (the two are married) has a number of good anecdotes as well, but they also fall silent on occasion, and Sheldon frequently says he or the other producer actually directed this or that scene, which may be true but kind of feels disrespectful to Girdler at times. So if you only have time for one, stick with Howarth and Thompson's.

The other pieces are all enjoyable, particularly Stephen Thrower's look at Girdler's career as he walks through all of the films he made, spending equal time on each. The other one, with Girdler's longtime business partner, dwells on the earlier ones more then races through the others (Manitou is barely even mentioned at all) as the two of them were no longer working as closely in the latter part of the director's career. I should note if you go through this stuff you're going to hear about Girdler's death at least four times, so if you have a fear of flying this won't help in the slightest. One archival piece features some terrific behind the scenes footage of the crew working with the bear, so that one is definitely worth a look for anyone who thought it made have all been faked with stock footage or something.

Day of the Animals might be a slightly better movie thanks to its ensemble cast and varied antagonists, giving it a little more pizazz, but considering this one's mercenary origins and low budget, I found it to be better than expected. But it wasn't all smiles; as I watched the bonus features and kept seeing the same scenes over and over, I couldn't help but think how fun it would have been to see this sort of thing at the drive-in last summer when I was going all the time. Now that theaters are reopening there's really no need to keep driving all the way out there (especially since their programming has been fairly terrible for the last few months, holding the same movies there endlessly instead of changing it up), so I lament that Beyond Fest was the only outlet really taking advantage of the renewed interest in the venue with repertory programming. And even their selections weren't always exactly "drive-in" fare - I mean, Silence of the Lambs is a Best Picture winner! Hopefully, now that no one needs to go to the drive-in for their big screen entertainment, the programmers opt to dedicate at least one of their four screens to B-movie junk that isn't playing at the AMCs and Regals. Hell even if they were just projecting this very same Blu-ray, it'd be worth the drive in my opinion.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

King Kong (1976)

MAY 13, 2021

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

When Peter Jackson's version of King Kong came out in 2005, people either loved it or found it to be bloated, but pretty much everyone I remember speaking to/reading was in agreement that it was better than the 1976 version. And I had to take their word for it, because I had never seen it and, given how little I enjoyed Jackson's, didn't ever really see the need to. But I would get curious from time to time due to its cast, Rick Baker's work, and - perhaps most importantly - my growing realization that I click with 1970's cinema more than any other decade, which meant I would probably like it just fine. And guess what: I did!

Even better, it cemented why Jackson's version never really worked for me (though I haven't seen the - gulp - even longer one, if that was an improvement): he was too infatuated with the original. Not that I blame him; it's a great movie after all, and so many monster movies since owe it a huge debt, making it not just great but important, i.e. the sort of movie you leave alone. He seemingly agreed, which is why his film never finds its own soul, as its constantly bending over backwards to honor the original, which - especially given its mammoth length - just has me thinking about that one the entire time and also that I could have just watched it and gotten home earlier.

Luckily for me, the makers of the 1976 version share my belief that the best remakes are the ones that take the basic concept and create new characters and situations within it. So instead of Carl Denham, Ann Darrow, etc making a movie and running afoul of the big guy, we get Charles Grodin as Fred Wilson, an oil tycoon who has discovered what he believes to be an uninhabited island with a surplus of untapped texas tea, which he hopes to bring back to the US and be a hero (and get richer) for helping the energy crisis. A paleontologist named Jack (Jeff Bridges) gets wind of his plan and sneaks on board, not really trying to stop him but instead convince him that what's there isn't oil but animals, and since he's just as curious he just wants to tag along, document what's there, and get a nice "told you so" out of the deal. Along the way they pick up a shipwrecked actress named (sigh) Dwan, played by Jessica Lange in her first movie, but there's no rivalry between the two men: Grodin's character is married (he even encourages them to get married later on in the movie after they've fulfilled their duties as the leads in a major movie and fallen in love).

Nope, Bridges' competition is, of course, Kong, who they discover when they arrive on the island and run into a tribe. This stuff is pretty similar to the older movie, but by then they've changed enough that it doesn't really hurt things, and Grodin's decision to capture Kong and bring him back has its own unique motivation: having failed to get the oil (and yet promised "the big one" to his investors) he decides to recoup his losses with a new mascot for the company, in the vein of the Exxon Tiger. Sure, at times things seem reverse engineered to get to what are the same beats from the original, but there's just enough that's unique to this version that it rarely enters "why did they bother?" territory.

Curiously, one thing they dropped was the dinosaurs. Other than a quick fight with a giant snake, Kong is the only creature in the movie, which means there's not as much action as in the others (despite the excess length; it's forty minutes longer than the original). I can't say this was the wisest choice; perhaps if there were a few snakes or the fight lasted long enough to be a kind of showcase it would be OK, but it almost feels like something they threw in at the last minute. There's a clear desire to make something like the disaster movies of the era (they even got one of its directors: John Guillermin previously helmed The Towering Inferno), so perhaps they left monsters out so they could get to New York quicker - but they ultimately don't? There's only about 30 minutes left by the time Kong even gets there, let alone starts wreaking havoc.

That said, I found the mix of effects techniques to be quite successful, with respect to limitations at the time. Yes, the blue-screen shots probably look a little too fake (especially on a gorgeous Blu-ray) for a modern audience, but at the time that was the norm, and they do a terrific job mixing the guy in the suit (Baker himself) stuff with close-ups on Lange that utilize giant animatronic hands and the like. They also had a giant robot version, but apparently it didn't work all that well so you barely see it. There's a "commentary" with Baker (actually a very long interview that is spread out a bit to make it last over the whole film)  where he talks about the various problems with the effects, including barely being able to see when he was in the suit due to the hard plastic contacts he was wearing, but you'd never tell from the finished product. I rarely found myself thinking "they could have done better back then"; it was poised as a spectacular event in that regard and I think they delivered for 1976 audiences.

Plus I genuinely enjoyed the characters; Grodin was a hoot as the KINDA but not really slimy oil guy (I kept waiting for him to turn full heel but nope, his only crime is being too optimistic, really), and after so many years of the mumbling old man Bridges, I was delighted to see a new performance of him as a young and coherent leading man, the sort of role that would go to one of the Chris' today. And Lange is a bit green at times, but she's playing a ditzy actress so it fits just fine, and I found her gradual "trust" of Kong to be more believable than Naomi Watts' incarnation of the beauty to Kong's beast, as "Dwan" (Jesus, that name) knows he won't hurt her on purpose but is still pretty hesitant about being clutched and going up buildings, whereas Watts seemed to be enjoying it after a while. The supporting cast is great too: Ed Lauter, Rene Auberjonois, and even John Lone (!) all pop up, as does my man Walt "Crazy Ralph" Gorney as the subway driver (funnily enough, I had to take my F13 blu out of the player to put this one in - Gorneyfest!). Per the IMDb, Corbin Bernsen and Joe Piscopo are in the crowd in New York somewhere, but I didn't spot them.

Scream Factory's blu-ray took me all week to get through, primarily due to the two commentaries for the nearly two and a half hour film. Baker's is loaded with candid and hilarious stories, but I wish it wasn't spread out the way it is, as the breaks that are inserted are often unnatural, not to mention long, so he'll be telling a story that will cut out for 90 seconds or so (with the movie audio returning full blast) before he comes back to finish it up, blowing some of the humorous buildup in the process. But otherwise it's an essential listen, both for budding FX artists as he talks alot about his process and why certain things won't work, as well as why he retired (too many producers getting in his way) and other goodies. The other commentary is by Kong expert Ray Morton, who wrote a book about the big lug and brings a fairly dry but extensive history of this production along with some info on the original film.

And that's good, because now that it's 45 years old and nearly behind the scenes higher-up who made it is dead (Guillermin, writer Lorenzo Semple Jr., producer Dino De Laurentiis, etc), there isn't much of that "authority" to be found here outside of Baker, who obviously wasn't privy to casting issues and legal battles with Kong's rights holders. But instead, we get interviews with the sort of personnel who rarely get to offer their insight: the assistant director, the second unit director, a sculptor, two production assistants... these interviews are all in the ten minute range and give some great "ground level" kind of anecdotes that would otherwise be glossed over for the flashier material, providing an interesting and entertaining look at how this kind of production was mounted back when film shoots could last the better part of a year (the shoot ran from January to August of 1976).

A longer television version of the movie is also included, though after the two commentaries I was kind of sick of looking at everyone (well, maybe not Lange) so I'll save that for down the road. I looked it up and it seems like it's mostly just scene extensions and a few things clarified (like how Bridges' character obtained a crew shirt), all of it added back into the movie so they could turn it into a two night event given how long it was to begin with. Then again, last time I watched a King Kong that lasted three hours I didn't think much of it so maybe I'll just leave it safely in the case (it's on a second disc) next time I get the urge to watch this particular film. I'm getting older and it's getting harder to find lengthy blocks to watch even a normal length movie in one sitting, so unless I hear otherwise I'm going to assume the theatrical version is the way to go anyway. Still, I'm glad it's included, as I'm sure it's the version some folks grew up with after taping it off the broadcast or something. Scream has always been pretty good about including the TV cuts when they were available and it's a tradition I'm glad to see continue.

What say you?

  

PLEASE, GO ON...

Spiral: From The Book of Saw (2021)

MAY 12, 2021

GENRE: SERIAL KILLER, THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (IMAX SCREENING)

I'm just gonna get it out of the way first since it's the main question people have had since day one: NO, you do not need to have seen or even have any real awareness of the previous movies to follow/enjoy Spiral: From The Book of Saw. If you've seen the trailer you've also seen the entirety of the film's connections to the previous storyline, i.e. they mention it as a possibility ("A Jigsaw copycat?") for the new threat the (all new) characters are facing, and that's about it. Unlike Jigsaw, which tried to appeal to newcomers and die-hard fans and ultimately pleased few on either side, this one quickly moves on from the tenuous connection and does its own thing, often to its own benefit - though it's occasionally hampered by being "Saw 9" to some extent.

Let's start with what works, since there's more of that. As you probably know, the movie was delayed for a year due to covid, but it feels weirdly timely due to its plot about holding corrupt cops accountable for their crimes. The new killer is targeting dirty cops, and keeping in line with his would-be predecessor, the traps he puts them in have some connection to their actions; in the first one, a cop who lies on the stand to ensure convictions is forced to rip out his own tongue in order to escape with his life, and another who shot an innocent person has his trigger finger (and the other nine) ripped off. Given the protests and "defund the police" type movements that have occurred in the past year (i.e. long after the film was shot), the movie oddly feels "of the moment" and yet simultaneously restrained. With Chris Rock as the hero (a cop himself, but presented as the only non-corrupt one on the force) there will certainly be a sizable Black audience who will cheer for these asshole cops getting their just deserts, but may also wonder why the movie didn't dig deeper unless they too are aware of the film's long delay.

(So let's make it a huge hit, ensuring a Spiral 2 that CAN take the last year into consideration!)

But even in that regard, it's the rare film in the series in which just about every death is one you can feel is justified. With Jigsaw and his accomplices often going after drug addicts and the like (not to mention complete innocents, like Bobby's wife in Saw 3D), it's nice to never have that "OK, did they really deserve this?" kind of moment and just focus on the mystery and Rock's attempts to put it all together without being able to trust any of his fellow officers. His backstory (which, surprise, has a connection to the killings!) is that he "ratted" on a cop who shot an innocent person, which began a chain of events that ultimately left him hated by all the other cops and his Chief of Police father (Sam Jackson, and yes he says his most famous profanity*) losing his job. How and why this all has to do with the present day killings is of course what the movie reveals in due time, so I won't get into that, only to say that it's an interesting way to keep the series' love of flashbacks intact without having to worry about causing any plot holes or inconsistencies with previous entries.

As for Rock (who also came up with the story! He's a legit fan of the franchise!), he is certainly a more believable cop than he was in Lethal Weapon 4 all those years ago, and luckily for him the man has aged well, looking much younger than his actual age of 54 at the time of production. They use this to slightly ridiculous effect at one point, setting a flashback ten years prior (so he'd be 44) by giving him a backwards baseball cap like he was a "kid", but one can assume his character is only supposed to be around 40 (he almost has to be playing younger, since Jackson is only 17 years older than him in reality). And he brings a new idea to the series: humor! Not dark humor, which has crept in from time to time, but actual, Chris Rock-ian humor, sprinkled lightly from time to time just to offer a bit of levity in the early going (for those who may be scoffing, I'll ease your mind by letting you know it's all confined to the first half hour). There's one line to Jackson (concerning a mall) that had me full on cackling, and once I adjusted to it in the early scenes (Rock's first appearance, where he's working undercover as a thief, comes off as a standup monologue) I have to say it worked well.

And again, we're talking about what is technically "Part 1" of a series, so there's no reason to complain "jokes don't belong here" or whatever. Sure, it would be very distracting to have this stuff in Saw VI, but that's not what this is, and it helps establish early on that this is indeed a new thing. I'd liken it to Phase 1 Marvel stuff, where we understood it was all the same world but allowed a. different tones and b. an acceptance of the minimal crossover material. By now, sure, it's weird that Sam and Bucky are the only ones who are tackling a giant terrorist threat in New York (where the hell is Spider-Man, at the very least?), but back then, before they all knew each other, no one thought much of their lack of interconnectedness. Same deal here; not only is it a decade later, but it's an all new set of characters (and a new season! The others always felt "cold" in their minimal outdoor scenes but this takes place during a heat wave) and so the tonal shift is never an issue.

Also, for I think the first time in the series, the real world is specifically established, with references to Forrest Gump and New Jack City (from Rock's own character; didn't he think it was weird he looked just like Pookie?). Characters even discuss things like UberEats and sleep training, which is a foreign concept to the series as these people have never displayed much in the way of normal human activities we can all identify with. It's still unclear where "Metro City" is, though, so they haven't gone completely off the reservoir, but in a weird way it helps us forget about the possibility of Hoffman or Amanda popping up or something, allowing this "new" world to really come to life on its own terms without the weight of eight other films on its shoulders. So much that I can even forgive "Jigsaw didn't target cops", - because he certainly did! - but to suggest otherwise would require them to get too far into mythology, so I will allow this bit of inconsistency for the sake of a cleaner story now.

However, there is one thing that misses the mark revolving the reveal of the movie's villain; I won't outright spoil their identity, but you might want to skip the next TWO paragraphs if you want a cleaner experience.

For those who are still here, even though it's not a traditional sequel, it is still sticking to the basic formula of a Saw movie, and in that respect it doesn't really have any twists, which wouldn't even be a big deal if not for the fact that it's painfully easy to spot who the culprit is. Without being hampered by the established timeline, I was really hoping I could get that giddy "OH S**T!" kind of feeling when I realized what was happening, if I ever figured it out at all before it was spelled out, but I never even got close to that sort of thing here. In fact it was so obvious to me who the killer was that I started expecting/hoping that it was a misdirect, and I even chuckled to myself at one point, because that kind of "you think you see the twist but you don't" move was pulled off quite well in... er, Spiral, the 2007 thriller (where you might start thinking a character is actually all in someone's head because she never talks to anyone else in the movie, only for the twist to be that nope, she was real, and now she is dead). Y'all stole the name but not their clever idea?

(STILL SPOILER-Y!) A friend of mine noted after that maybe after Saw IV's twist, which people had a hard time really following - and may have resulted in the series' declining box office fortunes - the producers may be weary about anything too clever. Saw V didn't even really HAVE a twist, and while Saw VI did, it was a pretty insular one (the bit about William's "family"). The Final Chapter/3D's big twist was Cary Elwes/Gordon's return, but that was spoiled in publicity and the film itself by having him appear in earlier scenes of no consequence, which should have told any viewer that he was going to be revealed as a sidekick (because otherwise why would he come back at all?), and Jigsaw's "half of it was a flashback" concept was also pretty easy to suss out. And while all that is justifiable in some way or other, it seems to me that with an all new story/characters they could at least come up with something as good as "Jigsaw was on the floor the whole time" in the original. But alas, when the guy who I thought was the killer 15 minutes into the movie was revealed to be the killer, I just kind of sighed that it was indeed as simple as I suspected. To be clear, I didn't mind the character being the villain, and his motive is on point (ain't no one gonna feel he's in the wrong, honestly), but felt the way the mystery itself was structured was a bit too obvious. A little subterfuge would have been welcome, basically.

But otherwise, I found myself engaged with the concept and the gradual filling in of the backstory, which we get in pieces along the way and also allows Sam Jackson to sport a mustache in the older scenes to make him look younger. Sam's not in the movie as much as you might hope (I guessed a while back that it was probably four scenes; I was only one off), but it's rare to see him in this sort of thing and he aquits himself nicely. As for the traps, they're not as overly elaborate as you may have come to expect, but they're in line with the simpler ones of the original, and don't rely on too much self mutilation (no "pound of flesh" types); one only required a hard bite down on something to escape death, which, while painful, at least would allow the victim to quickly get it over with, unlike digging out their own eye to get a key or whatever. Charlie Clouser's score is a fine mix of old and new (though using "Hello Zepp" should be illegal without a better twist!) and while I missed his (practical!) transitions, Darren Bousman reigns in some of his flashier sensibilities to match the "back to basics" tone and story. It's even in widescreen to help distinguish it from his three previous films, along with a new color pallette and more exterior scenes than the norm - it's one of his best films as a director, not just within this franchise. It's even kind of scary in a few moments; the old films didn't really have time for scares after a while with so much plot to handle, but here there's a couple of legit jumps.

Long story short, it's hard and even a bit unfair to compare to the Saw films in general - I can certainly say it's the best since Saw VI (though I know that isn't exactly a high bar to clear), but it also feels like comparing a singer's solo album to his band's entire discography. So let's not focus on that, and instead consider how successful it is in terms of trying to restart the series in a way that newcomers can enjoy - and to my eyes, it's a winner. Let's put it this way: if it was its own thing entirely, sans its quick references to John Kramer, my review would basically be "It's a solid thriller slightly hampered by a mystery that's too easy to solve and some surface similarities to those old Saw movies." And for what it's worth, there have certainly been a number of whodunit slashers where I could guess the killer ahead of time and it didn't take away my enjoyment, so it's really only the Saw branding here that made me feel a little let down by that element. So basically, the less you know and care about this franchise, the more likely you are to enjoy Spiral, but fans of the series should, at the very least, feel satisfied with what they have come up with as a way to revive it in a way that doesn't mess with what came before. With varying degrees, we all win!

What say you?

*The movie also has one direct Pulp Fiction easter egg (can't really miss it, but keep an eye on the door to the cold case room) and one other possible one that ultimately has Jackson saying "Ezekiel". Not sure if someone is just kissing Sam's ass or they wanted to pay tribute to chronologically challenged films of yore, but it struck me as a little weird.

PLEASE, GO ON...

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