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The Watchers (2024)

JUNE 10, 2024


The 2010 film Devil (which I quite liked) was supposed to be the first of a series of films produced by M. Night Shyamalan but written and directed by others, which seemed like a good idea to me. Unfortunately those other films never materialized, and it’s only now, 14 years later, that we are finally getting another movie where the polarizing but never boring filmmaker is only hand as a producer. But he didn’t go far to find a filmmaker for his long-awaited sophomore effort as an exec, as The Watchers is directed and written by his own daughter, Ishana Night Shyamalan. It's an odd choice, I must say, to make a debut under the shadow of a very famous (and again, polarizing) filmmaker that’s also an adaptation of a novel (a faithful one at that, best I can tell – more on that soon). It’s hard to gauge one’s abilities as a storyteller when they’re not only telling someone else’s story, but also doing one that’s right within the wheelhouse of the guy whose name put a few more butts in seats.

Then again, since the movie isn’t particularly great, maybe it was a smart move. It’s hard to blame her for its lapses when she was faithfully adapting another person’s story. I never read AM Shine’s novel (which came out only a few years ago, so I can assume the pandemic inspired its "trapped in a room" scenario), but I looked at a detailed synopsis online and the film keeps all of its beats—including the goofy ending—intact as written. From what I can gather, the main difference seems to be that the novel focused on a power conflict between the two main characters, and in the film that’s more or less just a couple of arguments early on. The plot, for those who haven’t seen the trailer 900 times over the past few months, concerns Mina (Dakota Fanning), an odd young woman who works in a pet store and goes out at night pretending to be someone else (complete with a wig) to initiate one night stands. Her boss tasks her with delivering a rare bird to a buyer who lives way off the beaten path somewhere, and since this is a genre movie, her car breaks down before getting to her destination. Attempting to walk her way to civilization, she is menaced by unseen creatures, only for an older woman to appear and tell her that she must join her inside a little bunker, “right now!”

While it’d be funny if Mina said “No thanks” and the movie continued following her through the woods without mentioning the bunker again, alas she does as instructed, and learns about her predicament. The creatures, aka The Watchers, can’t come out during the day but at night they want to watch the people in the bunker, who are seen through a wall that’s essentially a two way mirror. The older woman, Madeline, is played by Olwen Fouéré, so naturally it’s on her to explain a lot of this exposition, though the other two people in the bunker, a young guy named Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and a 30ish woman named Ciara (Barbarian’s Georgina Campbell), chip in from time to time. Naturally Mina doesn’t want to stay there and keeps trying to find a way out of the forest, but her plans are continually foiled and she eventually learns to listen to the others when they say “You can’t get out!” There are “point of no return” markers around the forest, and the idea is that if you cross one, there’s no way you can get back to the bunker before nightfall (that these markers exist even though another plot point concerns the days getting shorter is a plot hole we just have to accept). But with the forest so vast and without anything to help guide them, they can’t risk continuing to run straight past the marker and just *hope* to reach safety, so the markers keep them in place.

So the first half or so of the movie is just… that. They run outside and look for supplies, then run back and kind of hang out for the Watchers’ amusement. It’s not a very compelling story (I suspect on the page it’d have the internal monologues of its characters to at least flesh them out), so you’re just kind of waiting to get answers, even when you know they’re probably not going to be very satisfying. There’s an opening scene with a guy running through the woods and eventually being attacked that should have been saved for when Mina arrived, because then she could have learned at the same time we did what the stakes actually were. Instead the audience is ahead of her, so it’s rather frustrating watching her essentially catch up to what we’ve known before we even met her. To make up for it, we are teased flashbacks to why she's ducking calls from her sister and how their mother died, but I can't say it's enough to make her into a well rounded protagonist.

Once they (spoiler) find a secret room under their bunker things pick up. We meet a new character, get an info dump, a change of scenery, etc. But of course, once we start getting all of the information, the movie reaches a critical point, where you’re either going to go along with the reveals, or laugh them off the screen. I don’t want to spoil the particulars, but I was reminded of three movies that I’ll hint at: one of Shyamalan’s less loved films of the ‘00s, another Irish horror that’s fairly recent, and the sophomore film from a modern genre titan. If you can figure out which three movies I am referring to, The Watchers is basically a stew of all those, with a dash of Quiet Place for good measure (that one’s not a spoiler, you can tell as much from the trailer). And not for nothing, but they're all more interesting.

I mean it’s not BAD, really, it’s just very uninvolving. Our characters learn the truth from an info dump presented via video logs on a computer, so there’s not much of a feeling of discovery. The characters themselves aren’t very interesting, and their conflicts get resolved bizarrely quickly (at one point Daniel locks Mina and Madeline outside, but once he finally lets them in, there’s no real repercussion or continued antagonism, everyone just forgets it within minutes). And the last 20 minutes take place away from the woods entirely, so the confined/claustrophobic setup is long gone by the time the credits roll. Mina’s backstory is doled out through a few flashbacks, one of which is a terrific jolt, but what it tells us seems to be foreshadowing an ending that the movie (or book) doesn’t have, and it also breaks up the claustrophobic setting, so I’m not quite sure why it was presented in this fashion.

Ultimately, to me it felt like a movie that was designed more for a streaming service, which is to say: for people to half watch while looking at their phones. It’s all just kind of there, never really coming to life or paying off its occasionally interesting-sounding bits (there’s a line about extra fingers that had me thinking that it might be a takedown of AI, but alas, no such luck). The actors are fine, the scenery is lovely, and I appreciated the goofy final moments just on sheer spectacle alone (again, without spoiling, but when ______ suddenly has ______ as they make their exit, I nearly applauded at the randomness), but I guarantee if I didn’t write this review today, less than 48 hours after seeing it, I’d have trouble remembering much else this time next week.

What say you?


Under Paris (2024)

JUNE 7, 2024


Much like The Exorcist with possession movies, it's impossible to watch a killer shark movie without thinking about Jaws, which also happens to be one of the few undeniably perfect movies ever made (due to its themes and measured pace, I can understand why someone may dislike The Exorcist, but there's literally no excuse for Jaws. You either love it or you're objectively wrong). And it's spawned an entire subgenre of its own; I may put them in with the killer bear, dog, etc. movies here (the "Predator" sub-genre) but if I were to put all of those movies together, I'd guess shark-based entries would make up at least of them. Under Paris is the latest one, but I bet we're only a few weeks away from another.

Sometimes these movies lean into Jaws' mighty shadow, either by ripping it off blindly or offering direct homages/references as if to say "We are doing our own thing, but we respect our master." Deep Blue Sea is probably the most overt example of the latter, as not only do they find the same license plate that Hooper pulled out of the poor innocent tiger shark, but the three sharks in the movie were killed the same way the sharks in the first three Jaws entries were. So it was kind of amusing that Under Paris owes more of a debt to Renny Harlin's blockbuster than to Spielberg's, as the film is loaded with R-rated carnage courtesy of several sharks.

There's also a lot of DNA from the two Meg films, in that the 3rd act revolves around our heroes trying to prevent a disaster at a big event. While the swiping of the "close the beaches" plot point is practically a given with these things (here it's the Olympic triathalon that the mayor refuses to cancel), we have to recall that Bruce the shark never got a big smorgasbord; the one attack on the all important 4th of July occurs at the movie's halfway point, prompting the three protagonists to head out to sea to kill the fish. Here, the opening scene tops the body count of any single entry in the Jaws franchise, and the third act, as in the Megs and some other movies, they watch helplessly as the shark causes major chaos at the event (going on as planned), spending just as much time pulling people out of the water as they do on shark control. This helps keep the Jaws comparisons at bay, which can only help a movie like this.

Also like The Meg, our hero is dealing with a tragedy on a previous underwater excursion. Bérénice Bejo plays Sophia, an oceanologist whose entire team (including her husband) is chomped by the shark in the opening scene. Years later, she discovers the same shark is now swimming through the waters of the River Seine in Paris, which is being cleaned up for the upcoming Olympics (which really are in Paris, making me wonder why Netflix dropped the movie now instead of next month when their marketing would be basically free). Naturally no one believes her, but after convincing a handful of cops to check it out, and they see it for themselves, they have her back for the rest. Unfortunately convincing the mayor to cancel the events is a non-starter, and there is also a group of "save the sharks!" activists who are trying to lure the shark back to the ocean, so the movie has no shortage of potential victims.

Luckily for us sickos, director Xavier Gens doesn't chicken out and keep the body count low. In two glorious sequences (not counting the occasional brief carnage along the way), the sharks make a buffet out of large groups (the activists and then the swimmers), offering up the sort of R rated chaos that the PG-13 Megs shy away from. Legs get eaten off, the water rapidly becomes more red, people are yanked back under the water only inches from safety... it's the sort of stuff that'd have an appreciative crowd hooting and hollering in a theater, but of course that's not an option when it's the latest movie being tossed onto a streaming service where it'll be forgotten in a few weeks. But back on point, Gens manages to bring some of his "French Extremity" energy (he gave us Frontiere(s), if you recall) to what often resembles an Asylum/Syfy type killer shark movie, which is novel. I even got the impression that no one was truly safe, which is nearly impossible in this sort of thing.

I just wish the CGI was more convincing. It wasn't just the plot that had me thinking of things like Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, as some of the VFX shots didn't really look much better than the ones in those Z-grade movies. There's a part where the shark jumps out of the water from under a boat, capsizing it and sending its four occupants plunging into the river, and it should have been a major highlight, but the shark animation was so silly looking it was hard to really get the intended rise out of me. And while we do see some folks torn apart, there is a tendency to just pull someone out and see that they're missing a leg (or both in one case) without showing the attack itself. That trick is effective once or twice, but at a certain point it becomes obvious they're cutting around things that would just look bad anyway.

Also (spoilers here) the ending is abrupt and not very satisfying. I like the general idea, but it's not even a phyrric victory for our heroes, they just don't ever accomplish anything. And (again with the offscreen stuff) the jerk mayor is seen plunging into the water, but not eaten by a shark like they deserve, adding to the generally unsatisfying nature of its closing moments. The "Planet of the Sharks" idea is fine and even intriguing, but there needs to be some kind of "win" to balance it out, either by killing the main shark or at least showing that it ate the human antagonist at the very least. Also it had one of my pet peeves, where people don't even make an effort to survive and just stand there despite it seeming like they had plenty of time to get to safety (in this case, they're in a boat as a surge of water approaches, and they make no effort to, you know, drive directly away from it). The hopeless nature of its conclusion felt like it was from a different movie entirely, souring things just a touch at a crucial moment.

But otherwise it's a good time. Bejo made for a solid heroine, the setting was novel for this kind of thing (a shark movie without a beach?), and it was taken seriously by its makers, which I can always appreciate. Again, it's a shame that it's being dumped to Netflix instead of playing in theaters, because I suspect the visual flaws would be more forgiving with everyone cheering for the moment, but oh well. One thing Netflix offers a theater can not is the ability to change the language, and you should be sure to do so and put it in its native French as opposed to the English dub that plays by default. It's not too bad as far as lip "syncing" goes, but it has that weird tinniness to it that makes it sound phony even when you can't see the actor's face in the show anyway. Plus if you can't understand the dialogue without the subs you won't be able to look at your phone the whole time, which I assume is how 90% of all Netflix content is watched. But even in English, it's a decent entry in this overcrowded sub-genre and should scratch any itch you may be having for such things.

What say you?


This Review Is Not About LONGLEGS

MAY 31, 2024


As a legit Nicolas Cage fan (meaning: I love his work and daringness as an actor, not his ability to generate memes) I was quite curious how I'd feel about Longlegs, because while it gave him a meaty role as a serial killer, it's also a film from Osgood Perkins. And so far, while I haven't DISLIKED Perkins' films (of the two I've seen, Gretel & Hansel and Blackcoat's Daughter) I also felt a disconnect from them; any one shot (particularly Gretel) looked terrific, the actors did fine work, etc., but I couldn't quite invest myself in their storylines. But this one seemed more up my alley just on premise alone, so I figured that plus Cage would, if nothing else, give me enough to chew on and discuss in a review (the other two left me so indifferent I didn't even bother).

But as the title explains, this review is not about Longlegs.

Because as it very sadly turned out, about five hours before the lights dimmed for the movie, I got a phone call from a friend who has, best to my memory, never called me before in his life; in fact he's someone who has bemoaned the idea of people actually calling someone at all when texts or emails would suffice. So I knew it couldn't be good, and it wasn't: he was telling me that our mutual friend, the great Scott Wampler, had suddenly died that morning. After screaming and crying and drinking a glass of whiskey (long before I drove, I assure you), I decided to still head out to the theater, thinking the movie would make for a much needed distraction. But it didn't work; I was unable to focus on much of it, as I just kept thinking of the fact that I was never again going to see or speak to my friend again. For what it's worth, the girl next to me seemed borderline hysterical at some of its scarier moments, so I suspect folks will really dig it when it comes out (this was a special advanced screening; it hits theaters July 12th). But me? My eyes just kind of looked in the general direction of the screen while I wondered things like "What's going to happen to Conan?"

(Conan, his dog, is thankfully in good hands.)

Making it worse is that, while he wasn't someone I talked to every week, I had actually been in contact with him more than usual recently. Scott and our other pal, Russ Fischer, had recently launched a Hellraiser-themed podcast, Jesus Wept!, and they had asked me to come on to talk Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (not that it's a particular favorite or anything, but as the series' most blatant attempt to make Pinhead more of a traditional slasher icon like Freddy or Jason, they thought my masked murderer-loving ass would be an ideal choice to talk about it). Our recording was set for Wed the 5th; I had emailed Scott earlier in the day to double check how we were recording, and two hours later even noted that it seemed odd he hadn't replied as he was usually quite quick to do so. I just figured he was at a movie or something. I cried a lot that day, but I suspect I'll cry even harder on Wednesday when 11 am rolls around and I have a giant hole in my schedule that can't ever be filled.

Scott's not the first friend to pass. Not even the first one in recent memory. But it's hit me so much harder than any have before, and there's a lot of reasons for that. One is that he was an incredibly loyal and supportive friend, a combination that is sadly difficult to come by, at least for me. As I noted, he asked me to be on his podcast, and if you've seen the announced guest list, you know he didn't need to grab random pals of his to get episodes in the can; the lineup included heavyweights like Mike Flanagan, Barbara Crampton, and Joe Lynch, not to mention actual Hellraiser series personnel like Scott Derrickson, Gary Tunnicliffe, and David Bruckner. Seeing my name on their guest list for social media alongside those others was somewhat surreal; my impostor syndrome kicked in high that day, I assure you.

And that's just one of many examples of him thinking of me when he didn't have to, and it certainly wasn't from being in the room when he needed to come up with guest ideas. With me in California and him in Texas, I've actually only spent time with him in person I think maybe four times over the past ten years. But as we were both on the staff for BirthMoviesDeath, there was a period of six years or whatever that we spoke just about every day, via the company Slack we were ostensibly supposed to use for work purposes but mostly treated as an AOL chatroom. Scott joined the site as an occasional writer when he was still working as a bartender at one of the Alamo Drafthouse locations, and over the next few years rose through the ranks to be one of its most prominent voices, to the extent that it's weird to think of a period of time when he *wasn't* there.

He became such a major fixture on the site that by the time Drafthouse laid us all off thanks to Covid, he and Evan Saathoff were basically running it. And when another company expressed interest in buying BMD to keep it going, Scott (and Evan) insisted that I be kept in the fold. That new company turned out to be really bad and we all walked away a month later (far as I know, no one ever offered to save it AGAIN), but it meant the world to me that of all the things they could have demanded, telling this guy "You have to keep paying Collins to write about whatever the hell horror movie he wants every week" was one of them. Again, the LOYALTY! For someone he spent maybe three actual hours with in person in his life! That whole "Out of sight, out of mind" thing can be a painfully real thing, especially here in LA, but it clearly wasn't the case for him, and I loved him all the more for it.

He was also a champion ballbuster, a quality I deeply admire in folks. Like a good roaster, he never took it too far or came off as a jerk, he always found the right balance of "I'm making this joke at your expense but in a way that shows I care enough about you and pay enough attention to know those things about you in the first place." It was an HONOR to get one of his trademark "DESTROYED IN SECONDS!" on Twitter, and if you never got one you have missed out on something special. He was, without doubt, one of the funniest people I've ever met, and our dark senses of humor often aligned. When I thought of a joke that was maybe a bit too mean or bleak for the masses, I would send it to him personally, and not only would he appreciate it he'd usually top it in response. I mean, the guy's handle was ScottWamplerRIP, so the sunofabitch even topped our comparatively meager attempts at gallows humor about the whole thing.

And while I don't want to make it about me, his death unfortunately comes at a time when I'm already in a deep funk about the loss of another friend. Not to death, thankfully, but instead a dumb argument that spiraled into a bigger one. Wasn't the first with this friend (who IS someone I see often/talk to every day, at least until the fight), but it seems it'll be the last, as they've cut all ties with me and responded to my last attempt at reconciliation with outright hostility on their social media. Scott's passing has generated any number of "Tell your friends you love them, you never know when they'll be gone forever" sentiments, but I am still iced out from this person (who also knew him, to be clear; in fact the last time I saw him in person they were there too). I was already pretty convinced that I'd never hear from them again (at this point it would be akin to beating a dead Horse), but this just kind of double bagged that belief. If a death of a mutual friend can't convince them that maybe it's not worth ending a nearly lifelong friendship over some hurt feelings and misunderstandings, I can't imagine anything else will.

So, yeah. I'm very sad about that on my day to day, and Scott was one of the people who could make anything more fun and help keep my mind off those kind of unpleasantries in life. I mean, the guy even had me excited to talk about Hellraiser III for Christ's sake! Seeing his tweets, or the way he could make even the least interesting news break into a must-read article, or just repeating one of our silly in-jokes out of the blue generated the sort of energy that could get me through any rough day, and now that energy source is gone, forever. I lucked out in a weird way from having taken a year or so off Twitter (I'm only really back on because of that other friend; I used to just talk to them all day but now I can't, so I talk to Twitter), because people have been sharing some of his classic bits and a lot of them I hadn't seen before because they fell during that period. I am crushed that some of his earlier "work" is gone due to a change in Twitter handles and his own deletion of older stuff (if you never heard the story of the Krippendorf's Tribe Fan Club, you truly missed out), but there is still a wealth of it on there for your perusal. The Vampire Lord saga alone is funnier than most comedies that millions of dollars were spent on to make, and he was just tossing it off on Twitter without a second thought.

And the writing is mostly all there, though you might need Wayback Machine to read it properly. The name of this post is in tribute to one of his all time best goofs: "This Post Is Not About Batman", and there are countless others. One of his last ever posts on Fangoria.com, where he's been employed since the ending of BMD (his Kingcast podcast with Eric Vespe is part of the Fangoria network) began with "Here’s a news story that’s got the ring of a particularly wild Mad Libs," already making what was otherwise a pretty bland announcement into something worth reading. I was always envious of those who could write up all those daily news breaks that had to be written (for the clicks) and find a way to make them actually interesting to those who did indeed click, and he was second to none as far as I could tell.

I don't know if I'll ever get past this one. We had a running joke about the Ozzy Osbourne song "Perry Mason" that plays quite frequently on SiriusXM, and it's probably going to make me cry every time I see it and instinctively grab my phone to snap a pic for him. We bonded over our mutual love of Fletch, a movie he watched on his birthday every year and now I think I will instead (weirdly enough, he actually died on Fletch's "birthday", that is, the date it was released in 1985), and that'll probably make me tear up too. Despite our geographically mandated distance he left such a big impact on so many things I love; he's the one who convinced me to try "Soulsborne" games, a genre I practically play exclusively now. When Elden Ring came out he mocked me for being so slow with games and he was seemingly a bit stunned when I actually got further into it than he did; a rare thing I can say I bested him at, so it was a source of pride! Believe me, it wasn't easy to best him at anything. When he was asked to be on the Screen Drafts "Alien/Predator" ranking he brought me along because of all the time we spent on the BMD slack talking about the Alien movies - how the hell am I gonna be able to watch Romulus without talking to him after?

Scott also (like most friends; sorry pal, you weren't special on this one) liked to make fun of my taste in music, so I might as well dive into something on that. There's this nu-metal band called Three Days Grace whose most recent record has a song called "Lifetime", and for two years I thought it was a breakup song but, weirdly, I only learned a few days ago it's actually about a dead person. There's a line in there that's gutted me since I heard it: "Who do I talk to when I want to talk to *you*?" and I'm sure he's rolling his eyes and mocking me to the nearest person in the afterlife at me tearing up at it, but it hurts even more now. I want to talk to Scott again. I want to spend two hours day drinking and talking about the shitty Cenobites in Hellraiser III. I want to get another email from him someday that he wants me to come back on Kingcast to do trivia and make another enemy out of some famous person I admire (Kate Siegel apparently wanted to murder me for the questions I came up with when she was the guest). I want him to mock me for constantly talking about Halloween sequels again. I want to go on Twitter and see that Creature from the Black Lagoon icon next to another joke that makes me jealous I didn't think of it first. I want to get another drink with the guy who, when I met for the first time in person, was borderline mad that I had been in Austin for a day and hadn't drank with him yet.

You go through life wanting more friends like him and now he's gone. You go through life being thankful you have someone like him to make you laugh when other things are dire, but what do you do when he's the one who's gone? It's so unfair. I hate it.

That said, hopefully I'll let you know how Longlegs is next month.

What say you?


The Strangers: Chapter One (2024)

MAY 20, 2024


Sometimes, a movie tells you almost instantly that you shouldn’t expect too much out of it, acting almost as a warning to discerning audiences that they might as well cut their losses and leave now. The Strangers: Chapter One is one such example; after a cold open where a guy is chased through the woods and then killed by the title characters, we are shown one of those overhead landscape shots along with an on-screen title saying “Somewhere In Oregon.” But in that same shot we see an exit sign for the town of Lime, Oregon, so despite the title’s insistence, we know *exactly where* we are. A nitpicky thing, sure, but it just suggests a certain halfassery, like someone (a producer most likely – and there are several of them, including Courtney Solomon, another warning I didn't heed) wanted to play up on the “middle of nowhere” cliché that’s so prevalent in these kinds of movies, even if it wasn’t accurate.

It’s also another example (some of which we learned in the trailer) that this movie, which for all intents and purposes is a remake of the 2008 film, missed the point of what made the story work so well the first time around. For those who can’t recall (the fact that it’s been sixteen years since it came out is mind-blowing to me), the central location of the 2008 movie actually belonged to Scott Speedman’s character’s family, so it wasn’t some random house in the middle of nowhere to him, it was HIS. That’s a big part of what made it scary, as it took elements from the classic home invasion scenario AND the “we’re miles from help” type stories that set up any number of horror movies.

The other thing that made it more interesting than so many others of its type is that the couple (Speedman and Liv Tyler) were not all lovey dovey; in fact they were in a very odd spot, as he planned to take her there as a celebration of their engagement, only for him to turn him down before they got there (even romantic movies sometimes can’t pull off a devastating moment like Speedman realizing he has laid out flower petals all over the place – awkward!). Even if the killers hadn’t shown up, I’d be interested in watching how the rest of their weekend went, you know? And then you can even consider things like "She just broke his heart, is he going to be all that invested in putting himself in harm's way to help her?" (There's an idea: the Strangers pick a house where everyone inside is more likely to kill each other before they have a chance.)

Alas, this time around it’s the usual thing; the couple is on a cross country trip for a new job and their car breaks down after they stopped in a random little town to get some food. And instead of being in that awkward position of “I don’t want to marry you but I don’t want to break up, either”, it’s just a standard lovey dovey couple where the girl wants to get married but the dude hasn’t had the stones to ask yet. So it’s a setup you’ve seen a million times, with a couple you’ve seen even more. And that’d be fine if the movie was doing something different, but these alterations (which, if I haven’t made it clear, make the movie less interesting) are pretty much the only parts of the movie that aren’t directly swiped from the original. From then on it’s pretty much the same: the guy leaves on an errand, the girl smokes and doesn’t notice a killer walking around behind her, he accidentally kills someone who came to help, they go out to a shed next to the house, the Strangers ram the car they try to use to escape, etc, etc.

So that’s what the experience is like for anyone who has seen the original. Will it work on folks who HADN’T seen that one, or maybe even those who only saw it the one time in theaters and forgotten about it? Well for those it’s certainly a decent enough timekiller, I suppose. It’s never all that tense (even without the flash forward this time), but there are some decent jump scares and a suitably creepy moment where the girl is playing piano (“Moonlight Sonata” of course, because again: effort was not anyone's priority when it came to crafting this take on the story) and we realize via dim reflection in a frame above her that the Man in the Mask (sorry, Scarecrow now for some reason) is sitting behind her watching her play. The obligatory attack on the girl is also surprisingly brutal, which isn't exactly a selling point on its own, but after the tedium of some other genre films this year (i.e. Night Swim, which offered a premise that essentially guaranteed no one would ever even get hurt let alone killed), I guess it was nice to see one that wasn’t afraid to actually bang the heroes up a bit.

There are at least a couple of brief sequences that manage to get the pulse racing a little more, to its credit. At one point they realize the house has a crawlspace under it, so they go under there to try to make their way to safety, only for some rats to scurry past/over them and then the girl drives her hand right through a nail, both things leaving them wanting nothing more than to shriek/scream but having to remain quiet and not give their position away. And the shed scene has a quick flash of intensity when one stranger attacks the girl through a window with another advancing on her from inside. Also, while they do some dumb shit for sure, they actually circumvent one cliche in a way I haven't seen before; our male hero is asthmatic and of course drops his inhaler, so I immediately thought he'd have an attack at the worst time and be unable to help or the gasping would give his position away or something. Instead, when he realizes it's gone, he fashions a makeshift one out of a water bottle! Not sure if that's scientifically possible, but at least it showed some quick-thinking skills.

If you’re a fan of the original who is thinking “I don’t remember things like that happening?” you are correct – these moments are among the only times that they carve their own path. But whenever it starts to actually have its own identity, the movie quickly resumes its copycat nature, once again reminding any fan of the original that they’ve seen this all before, only better. Christ, they even have the two Mormon kids on their bikes handing out fliers and the climax (once again in the early morning light) where the two protagonists are tied to chairs while the three Strangers (in the same order no less) stand over them. It’s one thing to pay homage to an earlier film when doing a remake, but copying the same beats over and over, for a story that wasn’t all that complicated in the first place, is just remarkably pointless to me.

And that’s sad, because I was legit excited when they announced Renny Harlin was directing this (and the two already shot sequels that will follow). I don’t think he’s ever made a completely great movie (Cliffhanger probably comes closest), but he’s certainly made a lot of really fun ones over the years and given his early days in supernatural horror (with a few trips back since, like Exorcist: The Beginning) I was excited to see what he’d do with a more grounded slasher type. But his wealth of experience—far and away the most of any Strangers director thus far—was no match for the stretched-thin budget (less than the original even without inflation) and far too basic/uninspired script. They honestly could have hired anyone and I’m confident they would have ended up with roughly the same level of quality.

As for the sequels, well obviously I’m not too excited to see further adventures of our survivor, as she didn’t exactly scream “The new Laurie Strode!” to me (hell, she barely even hits the levels of “The new whoever the girl in Final Exam was!”). That said, if the very clumsily implemented setup for the next one* is an honest depiction, it’ll be set in the hospital where she’s been taken for her injuries, so at least it’ll be offering new scenarios and locations simply by default. But per Harlin, the three movies together tell one complete story, so Chapter 2 will be the middle, which is traditionally the least interesting of the three acts of a traditional narrative. So again, yeah, can’t say I’m refreshing the AMC page to find out when I can buy tickets for that one (as of now, the plan is to release the next one sometime this year and part 3 early next year). But hey, kudos to them for a decent opening weekend, proving that this IP still has some pull (it actually opened higher than Prey at Night did, in a pre-pandemic, pre-“everything is on VOD in three weeks” world). So at least the next chapters are coming out to an audience that might actually want to see them, though I think they’ll really have to offer a knockout part 2 for anyone to still be interested by the time part 3 comes along.

What say you?

*It seems this section of the film got reworked some, as the “cast in order of appearance” lists some people at the end who don’t actually appear. I also have to assume that they didn’t hire Richard Brake to just be in this one movie without any lines (he’s the sheriff, seen watching them at the diner and doing absolutely nothing else) and that he’ll return in the others. But if not, that means they likely re-edited the first act as well. Amusingly, if I'm right then that just makes it even more like the original, which also got overhauled in the post process. But at least there it paid off.


Blu-Ray Review: Orphan (2009)

MAY 16, 2024


I recently was a guest on the Screen Drafts podcast where myself and screenwriter Penny Cox had to draft the top 7 horror movies of 2009, which was a surprisingly glutted year for the genre. I could have picked seven films just myself and not included everything that's a "must-see", and I only got three of the seven picks (the way the show works is, since there's only seven slots, you can either have four picks OR only get three but one of them is the #1, so it kind of evens out). Well as you can perhaps guess by now, my #1 pick was Orphan, though for its makers I'm guessing "Being added to the Scream Factory library" is a bigger honor than "Horror Movie A Day guy liked it a lot."

The funny thing is, I re-read my original review and I wasn't as glowing at the time as I often feel now. 15 years ago (Christ...) I said it was a bit too long and I was also mixed on the twist, which surprised 2024 me. I can only assume (and here I'll warn about spoilers if you're somehow still in the dark) I just really wanted a genuine evil child movie and was a bit disheartened that she was an adult the whole time, but whatever the reason was then, I've changed my tune. Not only is it just awesome through and through, but if it WAS just a standard evil kid movie, we probably wouldn't have gotten the equally insane/delightful prequel Orphan: First Kill, which would have to have recast Isabelle Fuhrman (booo) and hire some other kid in order to work since so much time had passed. Plus the "Now we know she's an adult" element gave the movie more areas to explore, whereas a typical prequel about Esther the twist-free killer kid would just come off as a repeat.

As for the length, OK, yeah, two hours for this kind of thing is a bit much, but the time is used wisely. One great thing about this movie is that it'd actually be interesting even if Esther didn't show up (or at least, wasn't evil) because of what's going on with the dysfunctional family unit. The recovering alcoholic mom wracked with guilt over an accident that left her daughter deaf, the dad who had an affair a decade ago and is still being punished for it, the son who is trying to be a rebellious cool kid but is actually a meek soul... this is not the usual "perfect family gets undone by new member" approach we've seen in other such movies. Learning these developments throughout the movie and seeing Esther use them to drive everyone further apart is a big part of the movie's appeal, and it wouldn't be possible if they were making everyone a stock character just so they could get to the fun stuff earlier.

Long story short, its "flaws" are actually strengths, and 2009 me was a moron. It's a shame so many more people read what I was saying back then than they do now!

Anyway, when the film came to Blu-ray it didn't have a lot of bonus features; just a handful of deleted scenes (some pretty good!) and a piece on the sub-genre that failed to mention Cathy's Curse, so it is worthless. For its Scream Factory debut (which is not on 4K UHD, alas), which carries a terrific new transfer along with those original supplements, they've tracked down composer John Ottman to provide an interview that is mostly more of a select scene commentary, playing a scene as is and then he talks about his approach for that particular moment. Honestly, I've seen the movie probably five times by now and I still couldn't recognize a cue in the wild, so this wasn't the most exciting thing for me, but score junkies will probably enjoy.

The only other new features are four (4) commentary tracks by critics and podcasters. As much as I love this movie I don't quite see the need to have FOUR of these things from people in more or less the same line of work, because you end up hearing the same observations, comparisons to the same movies (The Good Son—the very film I compared it to in the first line of my old review—comes up a lot across the board), etc. Also none of them pronounce the director's first name the same way (Hwa-may, Jah-mah, Jaw-may, etc.) so if you don't know yourself you won't get a straight answer here (if memory serves from when I did the junket, it's "Hwa-may") It was also weird how some of them don't even seem to love the movie or know it very well; one guy confesses to only seeing it for the first time to prepare for the job he'd already been hired for, and another pair of them somehow manage to forget that (spoiler) the father is killed during the climax, as they inexplicably spend a minute or two debating whether or not the audience would be OK "IF" he died due to him being an imperfect husband who didn't believe his wife (who they believe to be drinking again, even though it's a plot point that she bought wine but did NOT drink it). Another one notes that in the script Esther was said to be blonde and blue-eyed, "very Children of the Corn." Yeah man, Isaac, that blonde blue-eyed legend.

Some also start nitpicking the movie's logic and even MST3king it to a degree, which rubbed me the wrong way (though it's possible I was just getting commentary fatigue; I doubt they expect anyone to watch all four tracks more or less back to back, but I have a review to write!). It's one thing to make a little joke here and there at a movie's expense, but when it's seemingly the focus—and there isn't a single person involved in the movie to offer a track of their own—it starts to feel like they hired people at random just to fill up the list of special features and make it sound like a better deal. There are of course some good insights on each track, including some information about a "real life Esther" and how she worked with another sociopath to torture some children, and one thankfully points out Vera Farmiga's seeming infatuation with being in evil/creepy kid movies and shows. And as a fan myself, it was nice to hear them all wax nostalgic about Guitar Hero/Rock Band when the son is shown playing a couple times. But overall, I think they could have just had 3-4 critics on one track and the podcast team on the other and had all bases covered, while removing some repetition to boot.

But in a way it's actually just another bit of proof of how good this movie is, that I could essentially watch it four times over a week-long period and not be tired of seeing its visuals (again, the transfer is very good; I usually tend to think there isn't much room for improvement across the same format, but it's far better looking than the original Blu from 2009). And with First Kill kind of reviving it in the eyes of genre fans who maybe missed out back then (or simply didn't get on board due to the twist), with a potential third film on the way, there's no better time to give Esther a first or second chance, and I can't imagine there will be a better option than this disc anytime soon.

What say you?


Tarot (2024)

MAY 5, 2024


With precious little on-screen to engage me, I spent a little time during Tarot almost impressed that something so witless and uninspired could make it to theaters in the year 2024, because it felt like a movie we might have seen in maybe 2006 and said "Why didn't this go direct to DVD?" The movie was so bland that I also considered if the bigger studios decided to combat streamers by making their OWN forgettable pap that is best watched with your hands alternating between your laundry and your iPhone (and Sony would be a prime candidate for that considering they're the only one without a service of their own, which means most of their movies end up on Netflix anyway). I mean, we've all seen bad PG-13 horror movies before, but there's something particularly by-the-numbers with this one, to the extent that I momentarily theorized that they were going to spring some kind of Cabin in the Woods scenario on us and thus the generic feeling was intentional.

But no, it ends exactly as you'd expect it to, with the heroine running around a house dodging the film's villain while trying to enact her first/last/only plan to defeat it (any guesses as to whether or not it works?). Actually I take that back; the film's one (1) surprise moment is that it cuts to the credits after using its one allowed F-bomb, something most PG-13 horror doesn't bother to utilize as it (presumably?) gives them more leeway for the violence. But since pretty much everything happens off-screen, with a splash of blood flying on a phone or wall or whatever telling you the character died, they barely even hit those MPA-sanctioned levels. And it's not that PG-13 horror is inherently bad (Insidious and The Ring are a. great and b. among the obvious inspirations for this one), but from top to bottom everything about what we see on-screen feels like the result of asking a focus group what they'd like to see in a teen-aiming horror movie, without any semblance of genuine inspiration.

What makes that even weirder is the fact that this is credited as being based on a book called Horrorscope (this film's title until it was changed to Tarot, keeping in line with the film's stunning lack of ambition), but they completely changed the story. The 1992 novel by Nicholas Adams was a whodunit slasher where the killer was going after some teens, one for each Zodiac sign and killing them with something related to their sign (i.e. Aries, the ram, is strangled with a wool scarf). This is a full on "The Ring meets Final Destination" supernatural affair; our idiot college kids find a creepy tarot deck (more on this soon) and one of them uses them to read a horoscope, each one corresponding to their later death (so like one guy is said to rush into things and make rash decisions, and something about ascending numbers - when he sees the ghost later, he runs right into an elevator). It doesn't even use the whole zodiac; there's only seven of them so five signs are left out (consider yourself blessed to not have any character to immediately compare yourself to if you're one of the MIA signs; me being a Pisces, I got to say "Oh that's my counterpart" for the character with the stupidest death in the whole thing). So they had a story to go on with more victims, and decided to make up their own really idiotic one with half the numbers? OK, movie.

And where did the deck come from? Oh, you know, the locked basement full of antiques and oddities in the basement of the stately mansion these college kids have rented from Airbnb. Standard stuff. It was such a bizarre setup that I kept thinking (man, I sure spent a lot of this movie thinking about ways it could be better, huh?) that it had to be part of the plot, that either the girl who "rented" the place was actually setting all her friends up to die for some kind of sacrifice, or at the very least the owners would have been evil as well (this is what generated my Cabin in the Woods line of thinking, in fact, thinking that any object in the basement might have spelled their doom), but no. I guess in the universe that this movie takes place, people just rent out 10,000 sq. foot mansions in the middle of nowhere on AirBNB and hope that the randos who stay there don't steal any of their priceless artifacts.

Later when they start realizing that their friends are dying in a manner related to their horoscope readings, they google "Divination" or something basic like that and click on one of the first matches, leading them to someone who can help who thankfully only lives a few hours away. Upon realizing that the expert would be an older woman, I asked myself "Will it be Lin Shaye or Olwen Fouéré?", chuckling when it was indeed the latter (because again: zero inspiration here; in fact Fouéré appeared in one of the trailers beforehand as yet another of her exposition ladies). This whole section of the movie is either the result of some serious re-editing or just a total lack of giving a crap, because not only does the concept of geography cease to exist (they say her character is three hours away, yet when the car obligatingly breaks down on the way home, they are luckily only about a block from their front door, it seems), but Jacob Batalon's character, who on the way to her house repeated his horoscope and began fretting about ways to avoid any situation that resembled the ones in the reading, reacts to Fouéré's confirmation that they are indeed cursed by saying they're all crazy for beieving it. And then the main girl basically repeats his own theory back at him as if it's something that just clicked! I actually laughed at how backwards it was.

It's also one of those movies that seemingly exist in a world where everyone is asleep 24 hours a day, because I don't think there's a single extra on-screen. At one point a guy drops off one of the other friends at her dorm (no one else around) and proceeds to walk to the subway station, down the corridors, etc. without as much as a nighttime janitor sweeping the floors. And this is supposedly Boston (actually Serbia save for a couple of presumably licensed shots of the Boston cityscape), so the idea that you can walk a block in any direction without encountering other pedestrians and/or a Dunkin Donuts to run into for safety is beyond absurd. But it just adds to the phoniness of the whole thing, and again makes it feel like a Netflix production (famously frugal when it comes to hiring background extras; it's really noticeable and weird).

So what's good? Well, the design of the various ghosts is about the only thing on-screen that feels inspired; they're all based on the tarot cards (the Fool, the Devil, the Magician, etc) and if this movie was at least a 3/5 I'd even consider getting the NECA figures down the road if they existed. It's a shame it's so bad, because you can see the franchise potential here: there are 78 cards! Assuming they swapped them out and brought back favorits, there's plenty of sequel possibilities with these inspired designs. But alas, based on the box office there won't be a Tartwo, so we have to settle for this handful of ghouls who only get a scene each. Oh and despite bungling the Boston setting, they did at least get the name of one subway stop correct (Haymarket Station, on the Orange line), so I'll give them points for that. And I got the score on while writing this and it's quite good, but deserved a scarier movie.

"But you don't scare, so how can you say it's not scary?" longtime readers may ask. Because I went at a 5:30 showing on a Sunday, which means it had plenty of the teens the movie was aimed at, and apart from one "And then he pops into frame from around the corner" kind of scare involving Batalon's character, none of them uttered a peep during the entire thing. But it's not their fault; the first death, where a girl is basically beaten to death by one of those sliding attic ladders (the ghost, in the attic, keeps raising and then slamming it back down on the victim below) is as good as it got in the terror department. The film's C- cinemascore suggests it wasn't just a fluke audience, either.

Look, I take no pleasure in trashing the movie. I know it's hard to get a film made and theaters are hurting and all that, and I wish I could tell you something like "It's fine, your teenagers will love it at a sleepover" or something. But the on-rails presentation suggested that the studio just wanted to have a cheap horror movie in the pipeline to counter program whatever blockbuster it'd be opening against (The Fall Guy, in this case) and did absolutely nothing to ensure it would actually be, you know, good. I was not surprised at all to discover that the writer/directors are more often credited as producers (among their previous efforts: Moonfall and Expendables 4), as it certainly explained how the whole thing seemed reverse engineered from "We need a teen horror movie for under $10m" as opposed to any genuine inspiration. Even the whole "based on a book" part seems somewhat mercenary, like they acquired the rights to something that might have attracted the attention of people from my generation that fondly remembered the book from their school library, just to eke a few more bucks out of adults who'd otherwise steer far clear of such fare. Just a bit too much contempt for the audience for me. Even teens deserve better when they occasionally look up at the bigger screen.

What say you?


Abigail (2024)

APRIL 19, 2024



I've often wondered if anyone ever got the opportunity to watch From Dusk Til Dawn without knowing it was a vampire movie. For the first 45 minutes or whatever it was, there's nothing in the film to indicate anything supernatural would be happening; it's just a straight ahead hostage thriller with some humor, with the vampire stuff being sprung as a total surprise. But naturally, the marketing focused on that, so there was no way for us 90s kids to go in blind. But perhaps there's a better chance for it happening with Radio Silence's Abigail, which similarly doesn't tell you you're watching a vampire movie until about the halfway point and may frustrate some viewers who were sold on that very premise.

Luckily for me, I enjoyed my pre-vampire time quite a bit, as the film was loaded with actors I enjoy watching (Dan Stevens, Kathryn Newton, Giancarlo Esposito, and - my man! - Kevin Durand) and their Reservoir Dogs-esque dynamic, where they've been assembled for a job under strict rule not to reveal anything personal about themselves and have been given code names (Joey, Dean, Frank, Sammy... either you'll get the theme or you'll need further explanation than I have space for here if I were to spell it out) to address one another. Joey is Melissa Barrera from the last two Scream movies, continuing her partnership with the Radio Silence team, and she's never been better, I must say. She's the requisite "criminal with a heart," as she has a young son that is currently with his father after she lost him due to a drug addiction she picked up during her time as a combat medic, using the money from their job to hopefully start a new life with him. Hard not to root for that!

Of course, if you're watching unaware then you can't root for her either, as the job is "kidnapping a little girl and holding her for ransom in a scary house." It's an odd disconnect; I never once really felt bad for the girl even when they have to knock her out to finish the kidnapping process, because I knew she was a little demon that could have killed them all right then and there if she wanted, but again, if some hypothetical person goes into this movie completely unaware, they'll probably have a tough time feeling for Joey even with her sob story. And the rest don't even have anything noble to even it out; an ex-cop, a mafia enforcer, a rich girl hacker... get em, Abby!

Even beyond that, the marketing and casting also kind of tips us off that despite the RD-esque setup that this won't be a movie about the team's paranoia turning them against each other. We know from the trailer that this house they all go to is actually HER house, and that their boss (Esposito) picked it specifically. And since Esposito exits after his first scene, we know they didn't cast him for that one rather thankless part, so basically while you're waiting for Abigail to show her true nature, you're also kind of waiting for the "reveal" that they were all set up by Esposito from the beginning. Amusingly, when Abigail explains why they were chosen, it comes off as a giant homage to another '90s crime classic - which Esposito was also in! So I can't help but wonder if Radio Silence intentionally cast him as tribute, only for the marketing to kind of gum up what also plays as a surprise reveal.

But like I said, it's fun to watch the group hang out, take shots at each other, attempt to bond (the late Angus Cloud, as the wheelman, gets plenty of laughs from his very terrible attempts to woo Newton's character), etc. And even though there are no specific "she's a vampire!" kind of things until she bares her fangs, there are some in-jokes that tell us what we're watching: she's introduced during her ballet routine set to "Swan Lake", and when Dan Stevens forgets to put on his mask when entering her room, he quickly tries to hide it by pulling his jacket over it, in a manner exactly like the not-Bela Lugosi guy in Plan 9. So there's plenty of amusement to be had, and while there might be a genre switcheroo (from thriller to vampire), it's *fun* from start to finish, which keeps it from a tonal inbalance. I feel an audience can go with anything a lot easier as long as the tone remains consistent, so it's only the severely impatient that should really have an issue.

Plus, it's not like they don't make it worth the wait. While the Screams made a lot more money we shouldn't forget that this is also the team that gave us Ready or Not, and whether they wanted to pay tribute to their first big success or just absolutely love doing it, there are once again very bloody body explosions in this movie, allowing nearly character to be drenched in blood at some point before they either die later or walk off into the sunrise. The compact cast (the six kidnappers, Esposito, and Abigail herself are the only people on-screen for 95% of the runtime) means the body count is obviously not going to be very high, but Abigail's pint-sized attacks means she doesn't always land a kill shot as quickly, so, yeah. Blood. Lots of it.

I also liked their take on vampires, where rather than just get the standard fangs she gets a row of sharp teeth over her normal ones, giving it a more monstrous flair than the typical bloodsucker. Her skills also involve flying, contortion, and (I think?) shape-shifting (there's a scene with a rat that suggests she turned into a cat? Unless I was just processing it wrong), but they never forget the fact that she's a ballerina either. So instead of just running she often twirls and Grand Jetes* her way towards her victims, a sight that never stopped being funny to me. And (spoiler that the trailer only offers a quick glimpse of) she does turn someone at some point, giving that actor even more fun stuff to do while also showing off a "puppet" skill where dance comes into play again, and the whole thing is set to Danzig's "Blood and Tears" for good measure. It's a truly awesome sequence.

It's also consistently funny, with very few duds in the attempts. Stevens' delivery of "F***in onions" (another character thinks they're a protective garlic) had me laughing for quite a while, and the reveal of his character's actual name is a funny little easter egg that pays homage to another filmmaking team he's worked with. And Kevin Durand is an absolute scene-stealer as a big lug who is a little slow to understand things but seems like perhaps the only genuinely decent person in the group except for Joey (his size and slow intellect kind of led him down the "bruiser" path more than any inherent malice), making him even more endearing than she is at times. His very late understanding of why they got the code names they got had me reeling. He's the main villain in the new Planet of the Apes movie too, so despite the mocap stuff obscuring his face I hope it catapults his star power a little; dude's been killing it for like 20 years now and deserves his due. If you can manage to entertain an audience during the insufferable Wolverine Origins, you deserve the world, far as I'm concerned.

OK ONE LAST SPOILER, I promise. Skip this next paragraph and the little one after it if you've been successfully hidden from some dumb social media bickering about the film's former connection to a certain vampire film of yore.

This movie was announced as a reimagining of Dracula's Daughter, and that information remains as current on the film's Wiki page, leading some lazy critics to accept it as fact. But she most certainly is NOT Dracula's daughter in the movie, because her dad shows up and I'm pretty sure they'd say his name if that's who he was (it's Grazer or something like that). However, those who have followed this movie from the time it was announced know that it only got its name very recently, and for a while was just referred to as "Untitled Radio Silence Universal Monster Movie." The fact that it took so long to say what it was actually called suggests to me that maybe the Dracula element was removed fairly late in the process, and that until then it was going to go out with that title OR they would call it whatever (including Abigail) and reveal her dad was Dracula when he showed up. Further, one could assume that since this is another comedic vampire movie from Universal, that said Drac would be played by Nic Cage, reprising his role from Renfield. But that film's total (undeserved!) failure probably would have put a stake into those plans even if that was indeed the case. Still, when her dad appears, it's an actor you might recognize, but he's hardly a big name worthy of a surprise appearance (though if you want to maybe grasp at straws, it IS kind of a funny bit of casting if you think about the title of this film that he starred in, but that's all I got). Nothing against him, he's not someone that the audience is going to be blown away by their sudden appearance, like Statham showing up at the end of Fast and Furious 6, or Sam Jackson in Iron Man, though the reveal plays like such moments.

(Ironically I had my money on someone even less exciting to a general audience: Henry Czerny, who appeared in Scream 6 and Ready or Not and even makes a random appearance in the film with his photo on one of the walls the characters slowly walk past. I would have cheered, anyway. Love that dude. But they shot the movie in Ireland, so maybe he was still in Prague.)

Besides that, my only issue is that the climax dragged, though that's been an issue with their other movies too so I can't say I was surprised. It's one of those things where things could have been wrapped up in the next five minutes, but instead they introduce another element that keeps it going. And then another element on top of that, so that what looked like the climactic scene ends up being almost an act onto itself. It also meant making one character I kind of liked as an anti-hero into a full on villain, so that was a bummer. It's mostly made up for by the final line from _______ to ______ before they explode (if you've seen it, the one involving "the cool s**t"), but it still could have been tightened. I know most people will complain it takes too long to get to the vampire stuff; I was mostly fine with that (if somewhat surprised at the delay) but weird ol' me started checking their watch during a bloody, stunt-filled battle. Just one turn too many for me.

Otherwise: total winner. I was sad but not particularly stunned to see that the box office wasn't all that great (better than Renfield at least), though I took solace with the decent Cinemascore (B, above average for horror) so maybe word of mouth will help out and it'll be a minor hit. But audiences just never tend to flock to see these kind of movies even in better theatrical times (even From Dusk Till Dawn, with a red-hot Clooney from ER and Tarantino's first script since Pulp Fiction, didn't perform all that well), and like Disney+, Universal has done itself no favors for its theatrical output (outside of major blockbusters) by training audiences to expect that they'll be on Peacock in a few weeks. You'll enjoy it just as much at home, I'm sure, but man. It'd be nice to see something like this get the "surprise smash" label, if only to ensure we get a few more before every decently budgeted (so, not Blumhouse, which keeps spending to a minimum) original horror goes extinct or streaming only. A friend of mine, who has been involved in some very gigantic movies (meaning: his stuff doesn't go streaming), believes that in 20-30 years, theatrical releases won't exist at all. *Theaters* will, but purely as a repertory or specialty thing, while the studios gradually lose interest just as audiences seemingly do, and put their slates on streaming (or whatever the next thing is) for mass audiences. People kept saying "superhero fatigue" led to the failure of the last couple Marvel movies, but if audiences want new things, they're not showing up for those either. I've stopped doing the bullying "YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!" kind of thing that I used to, so see it or not, your call. But just know, the writing on the wall is getting easier to read by the day, and expecting to be able to go to the multiplex and seeing films like this alongside the "IP" stuff forever is perhaps misguided optimism.

What say you?

*I had to look it up, I assure you.


Death Carries A Cane (1973)

APRIL 17, 2024


I picked up Forgotten Gialli Vol 6 at this year's Overlook, as Vinegar Syndrome had a table set up outside the box office all weekend and I wanted a "souvenir" from my trip (it might stun you to learn I'm not much of a knick-knack collector). But I was also delighted by this particular volume because it was only the 2nd time that it included a film I had actually seen before: The Bloodstained Shadow. I don't remember much about the film beyond the title, but according to my review it sounds like a pretty good "level 1" giallo: nothing special, but easy enough to follow and featuring enough of the genre's hallmarks to let a newcomer know if they should keep seeking other titles. Amusingly, I can say the same thing about Death Carries A Cane, so now I'm curious if the third movie on the set (Naked You Die) is the same way.

In fact the most disappointing part of the movie is the title. While Death Carries A Cane is certainly in line with any number of other entries produced at the time, the Italian title (Passi di danza su una lama di rasoio) translates to "Dance Steps on a Razor Blade", which is way more awesome. Why would they give it this comparatively bland one? Didn't they know that fifty years later we'd have easy access to online translators that could tell us what the on-screen Italian title actually meant in English? Fools.

At least it actually refers to something in the movie, for the killer does indeed carry a cane for his limp. I don't know if it's intentional, especially with the different language, but I applauded this plot point at the end when the motive is explained, because the killer also faked being impotent, which is (at least here/now) referred to as having a limp d**k. So he has two fake limps! I dunno, it amused me anyway.

Anyway, the plot is fairly basic: someone witnesses a murder and the cops are suspicious of their story, but eventually they partner up to find the real killer. The initial murder is one for the ages, because our heroine (the stunning Nieves Navarro, who has appeared in a few other gialli) accidentally sees it while looking through a coin operated telescope in the park, and the time runs out at a crucial moment. So she scrambles to get another coin in, by which time the killer has escaped but she can see that he clearly tumbled with a street vendor as he ran. She also can see the house number but not the street name, and I guess we just have to assume that she's unable to track a straight line from the telescope to wherever it's pointing to, because they can't even find a body at first. How powerful was this telescope and why were they wasting it on tourists?

Sure enough, the street vendor also ends up dead, as does someone else who witnessed the killer's panicked run from the murder scene, so he's covering his tracks and thus that puts Navarro in danger. It's a pretty good setup, I think; the "we can't find the street" thing doesn't entirely make sense but the frenzy of the scene sort of covers it up. And the murder scenes are well done and fairly suspenseful, checking the boxes at an even clip (the J&B bottle appears just past the half hour mark, for the record) while also adding in more skin/sex than average. Not in a sleazy way like Strip Nude For Your Killer (unwanted a**l sex is not played for laughs here!), though Navarro's boyfriend tells her to either get back in bed or he will slap her around, which is a weird choice.

(She chooses the former, thankfully. And he's quite gentle with her!)

It's also got enough of the weird little things that seemingly only happen in these movies and never stop amusing me, like the cop is always sharpening pencils. There's also a part where a guy has some info for the reporter, but forgets a detail and asks to use her phone to call his girlfriend who'd remember. He gets what he needs, but then keeps talking to her about what to make for dinner. It's so charming! I also had to laugh that their big plan to trap the killer involved having Navarro dress as a hooker and sport the bag the killer knows a witness had, but when a car pulls up and the driver has a cane, it turns out to just be the police captain who was, you know, just looking for a hooker. Whoopsie!

The ending is kind of a letdown though, as it's one of those ones where the culprit is shot down before they're even unmasked, and then someone else just explains everything real quick. The historians actually talk about this as a sort of "feature, not a bug" of the genre, and while they're probably right (they're the historians, I'm the guy listening at home while eating Little Debbies), I feel that the best ones don't do that and thus it shouldn't be something to shrug off as an unwritten rule. At least it involves the line "He pretended to have become impotent to protect me from his mental illness, which would have forced him to kill me," so there's something. The rest of the track is the usual bios and such, though there is one really weird part where one historian (who is recorded separately from the other two) is talking and then suddenly they edit in the other two over him, so for twenty seconds you're listening to DUAL AUDIO COMMENTARIES! Very Spielbergian. The only other extra is an interview with the editor, and it's in Italian and he covers his whole career so I can't say it held my interest. Looks like he has a nice house though, good to know editors make bank over there.

What say you?


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