Listen to me!

Got three hours to kill, or a long daily commute? I was once again honored to join the Killer POV podcast with filmmakers Mike Williamson and Dave Parker, alongside hosts Rebekah McKendry, Elric Kane, and Rob G! The topic was debates; we each had to pick a few movies that we liked that most others seem to hate, and defend it/hopefully convince someone to change their tune (or at least give it a second chance). I went with my usual targets: The Hitcher remake, My Soul To Take, Book Of Shadows... but I also joined the defense of a few other picks like Urban Legend 2, while vehemently standing my ground that Freddy's Dead is a bad movie.

It got kind of chaotic; in addition to the expanded number of guests there were also a few adult beverages being consumed, so I'm sure there's a lot of obnoxious interruptions and two conversations going at once. But it was a damn fun time recording it, and I hope it's at least half as fun for you to listen to! The podcast is one of the better ones out there in my slightly biased opinion, so hopefully you're a regular listener. And if not, I hope now you become one (this was the longest episode ever by far, so don't get scared off - usually they clock in at around 2 hours). You can check it out at iTunes or HERE. Enjoy!


Nurse 3D (2013)

JANUARY 30, 2014


If Paz de la Huerta had even a smidgeon of acting ability (or used it if she has; I've never seen her in anything else), Nurse 3D probably wouldn't work at all. It's basically a mix of American Mary and Single White Female, with the title character going around killing every man in the vicinity like the former and becoming dangerously obsessed with a female pal like the latter. On paper, that sounds like a recipe for a perfectly rote slasher/thriller that you'd forget about within moments of the film's conclusion, but since even merely saying a character's name proves to be an insurmountable task for Paz, it takes on this bizarre, nearly alien tone that, intentionally or not, turns the film into a trashy comic delight.

Again, I've never seen her in anything, so maybe it's just an unusual acting choice, akin to Nicolas Cage deciding to play a character with a heavy Southern drawl or something for no real reason. As we eventually learn (thanks to a hilariously on-the-nose exposition dump courtesy of Michael Eklund), her character killed her dad as a young girl and was raised in an institution, so she clearly has a reason to be "off" - she's never really had normal interactions, we can assume. However, none of the other characters in the movie seem to notice how incredibly awkward she is when making simple conversation; for the male characters (all of whom are constantly horny) I guess you can just assume they don't care because they want to have sex with her, but why do the other females, particularly Katrina Bowden, carry on as if there's no reason to suspect that this robotic woman has a few screws loose? So I have to assume that her clunky deliveries and jaw-droppingly insane moments of "rage" are the result of a bad actress inadvertently making a film funnier than it was meant to be, and that her co-stars merely did their best to ignore it.

Luckily, it seems director Douglas Aarniokoski WANTED to make a funny movie and lucked out with the casting. You don't do a slasher film in 3D unless you're looking to provide an audience with silly thrills, which is why when a guy gets tossed off a roof he can't just land on the ground or on a parked car - he has to land on an iron fence so we can see the spike burst through his chest and splatter CGI blood in our faces. But if Nurse Abby was played normally, the movie would be actually kind of dull. Surprisingly, there aren't a lot of comin at ya gags after that until the film's ridiculous climax, which finds Paz and Katrina tossing each other around various rooms at the hospital as the former makes a very bloody attempt at escaping capture for her crimes. In fact, if you can't find this playing in a theater near you (likely), you're OK "settling" for the (2D) VOD option, because apart from those occasional gags, it's a very flat 3D film (surprising, since it was shot with 3D cameras, not a conversion). Most of the movie takes place in small rooms inside the hospital or someone's apartment; the few exteriors are just alleys and the like (presumably to hide the fact that the New York-set film was shot in Canada), so there's not much depth to the shots - you can take the glasses off and not even notice a difference in several scenes.

Naturally, the warm-blooded males (and some females) are probably wondering if there are "other" benefits to the extra dimension, given the risque artwork and sex-driven narrative (Abby zeroes in on cheating male characters), but in this department it's actually tamer than I was expecting. Paz is naked more than once, but only has one true (brief) sex scene, and Bowden doesn't show off much either (butt in a long shot), so ultimately it's no more explicit than your average 90s "erotic thriller" (even when she cuts a guy's junk, we don't see anything - wimps). The sleazier elements mostly come from Paz's occasional voiceover - said butt shot is accompanied by Abby explaining that she's looking at "the same ass she was eating the night before", and you can laugh just as hard as that in 2D. The movie definitely earns its R rating, but it doesn't seem like they were aiming for anything more explicit.

As a narrative, eh, it's fine. There are some baffling choices (has anyone involved with the production ever used email before? Because that's not how it works) and a few dropped subplots (Nelson seems to have designs on Bowden, but nothing comes of it), but it's got a nice, fast-ish pace that keeps us from asking too many questions while we're watching. Plus, it's only like 85 minutes and Bowden catches on at the halfway point, sparing us too much time where we're way ahead of the film's sympathetic hero, but it still kind of follows the "____ From Hell" template rather closely - a 3rd party catches on to the secret past and is dispatched, our hero is framed for some of the psycho's crimes, etc. It may be short, but it's still copying the beats we've seen a million times, so if you're not on board with the movie's gonzo sense of humor (the "sassy black nurse" character is constantly dialed to 11, and it actually works), or find Paz's non-performance too much (little?) to deal with, there isn't a hell of a lot left to recommend here. One could enjoy the (too) brief turns by Judd Nelson and Martin Donovan as a couple of sleazy jerks (Nelson is the head doctor; Donovan is Danni's stepfather), but otherwise this is strictly a love it or hate it affair; I can't really see any possibility of a middle ground.

And that's a bummer, because I suspect watching alone on VOD will result in a lot of "hate it" reactions. It's a crowd movie that will rarely get the benefit of one, and it's possible that the big screen and 3D presentation, while unnecessary in the technical sense, added immensely to my enjoyment. There were only like 8 other people at the screening, but they were all laughing as often as I was, and post-screening tweets were all positive (but again, of the "so bad it's good" variety). That sort of thing doesn't quite work at home - I encourage you invite a few friends over if you can't find a theater nearby. And it's finally a win for Aarniokoski, who made the woeful-even-by-Highlander-standards Endgame and also the abysmal Animals (under a different name), which nearly scared me out of getting up early enough to drive to Santa Monica for the screening this morning. If he can channel this sort of attitude and energy into something meatier next time around, I'll forgive him for good!

What say you?


Phantoms (1998)

JANUARY 29, 2014


I could have sworn I reviewed Phantoms a few years back, but if so, it disappeared just like the residents of Snowfield. I know I had only seen the movie twice; once when it first came out on VHS (!) and again when I bought it years later, which in my head I saw as a "For HMAD!" move, but after an exhaustive search (I typed "Phantoms" in the search and didn't see it) I have to just accept that I have never put my thoughts down on this, which will likely be the only legit horror movie my boy Ben Affleck ever makes unless you want to count his bit role in Buffy.

Therefore, unless you've read my running commentary review of Armageddon (or my Twitter, particularly on last year's Oscars) you're probably unaware of how much I love the dude, who not only co-starred in my 2nd favorite movie but also came from Boston (like me!) and managed to become a much in-demand filmmaker and actor after a few years where it seemed like I was the only one in his corner (2003-2006 or so... man, those were some dark times). It actually wasn't until I watched Project Greenlight that I realized what a genuinely smart and passionate guy he was, not to mention funny - even ignoring the Boston thing (there isn't exactly a surplus of Boston-based filmmakers in this generation), dude's a pretty good role model. His only flaw, far as I'm concerned, is that he seemingly has no interest in the horror genre, as his one and only trip to it is now a punchline in a career that has plenty of them. Speaking of which, I am truly baffled by the enduring popularity of that idiotic "bomb" joke from Jay and Bob Strike Back, and question the intelligence of anyone who still quotes it, even if ironically. I cannot for the life of me think of a hackier thing to say, and feel nothing but sadness and contempt for those who do.

Then again, maybe if this was a bigger creative or commercial hit, he'd be coaxed back for something (I mean, he's played Daredevil and now he'll be Batman - it's not like he's opposed to the sort of thing he'll get Oscar nominations for). If Phantoms was the only horror movie I ever saw, I probably wouldn't start watching them every day of my life. That said, it's actually not that bad as these things go (by things I mean pretty much every Dimension horror movie post-Scream). The first 40 minutes or so, until the military shows up, are actually quite solid - a pair of sisters (Joanna Going and Rose McGowan) arrive in their hometown and discover that every resident has seemingly vanished. Ironically I wish Affleck didn't show up as soon as he did, because the REALLY good stuff is when it's just the two girls looking around, getting freaked out... when Affleck (as the sheriff) and two fellow officers arrive, some of that eerie tension is deflated (plus, it's hardly one of his best performances, though I quite like Liev Schreiber's turn as a twitchy/creepy deputy character). But it's still a solid chiller for a while after that; I particularly like the bit where they find a pile of watches and jewelry... and gold teeth and pacemakers. Joe Chapelle keeps up the balance between answering questions and providing reasonably exciting scare scenes (including a surprisingly early kill for one of the cast), and there's a refreshing lack of the irony that permeated most horror films of the period - it's just a good ol' fashioned monster movie.

But then Peter O'Toole (RIP) and the military enter the picture, and it starts to falter. The occasional (practical!) smaller monsters are replaced with a giant CGI thing of no interest, and our protagonists are sidelined in favor of a bunch of anonymous guys in hazmat suits or military gear, clearly fodder. And O'Toole is largely wasted; reduced to rattling off exposition and the occasional witty line to liven things up (you can be assured that they don't know what to do with him when he's introduced sipping tea and tapping at an ancient typewriter - because that's what all old British guys do, right?). By the time Affleck and Going finally snap back into action (McGowan's role throughout the entire movie is simply to stand slightly behind the other characters and ask questions or offer "hilarious" reactions), that solid first half is little more than a memory, and you're left with watching a slightly above-Syfy level monster movie.

Of course, this IS a Dimension production, so we can assume that it was more interesting when shot and just got edited down to a hollow shell later. The monster's "backstory" is actually quite fascinating, but they whittle it down to almost nothing so they can get back to random CGI-heavy kills. Reshoots aren't hard to spot since Affleck had his teeth fixed in between, but since the movie was not part of a major series like Halloween, nor a success in any way (it's actually one of his lowest grossing films - even Gigli places a bit higher), there hasn't been the slightest bit of movement to get the original cut released. I doubt it'd ever be a masterpiece, but if the strength of the first half had carried over to the second, it'd actually be one of the better late 90s horror films (that it was one of the few that wasn't a slasher automatically makes it a bit more interesting - even if it has two Scream cast members on the poster).

If I programmed double features, I'd probably have it as the B-movie to The Mist, which also came from Dimension (but is good the whole way through - yes, I am a fan of the ending). Both deal with confined characters battling an ancient evil that takes many forms (including moth-type things), and offer a much better group of actors than their B-monster movie plots would attract otherwise - I think it'd be fun to watch them back to back. They're both sort of anomalies in the Dimension canon (these two plus Mimic are pretty much the ONLY true monster movies they've produced in the past 20 years; they otherwise stuck to slashers and traditional villains like vampires and werewolves), and are both underrated - not on the same level, obviously. But The Mist certainly should have been a huge hit and Phantoms deserves better than being a go-to punchline for the embarrassingly lazy.

What say you?


I, Frankenstein (2014)

JANUARY 23, 2014


Like any good horror fan, I get annoyed when people refer to the monster as "Frankenstein", and so the I, Frankenstein title has been a sore point since I first read up on the film and discovered that Aaron Eckhart was indeed playing the monster, not the doctor. As it turns out, however, this is the LEAST of the movie's offenses; I was laughing at it within minutes of its opening frames, and then mostly just bored for its scant 80 minute or so runtime (without credits). I may not be the biggest Underworld fan in the world, but even the worst entry in that series wasn't as soulless and idiotic as this - I actually started to MISS those movies at one point.

I'll get the few things I liked out of the way. One, it's cool to see gargoyles in such a prominent role in a big film like this. Sure, they spend more time in human form and the overuse of CGI means that they're just another generic flying monster for most of the movie, but the closeups usually look pretty great (I almost regretted not seeing in 3D, however since it was a convert it probably wouldn't have been worth the extra 3 bucks) and at least it's conceptually more interesting than another form of werewolf or vampire. And their enemies are demons, who can be killed instantly (too easily, actually) with anything that bears the gargoyle's symbol, which you'll see several dozen times in the film since they slap it on everything (even their building is shaped like one).

But that's also part of the problem. It's unfortunate enough that it's clear from the start that the demons are bad and the gargoyles are good, because it gives Adam (the Monster) nothing to really DO in the movie. The gargoyles find him almost instantly and explain their entire war to him and how evil the demons are, and then the demons show up and have the modern shitty CGI-fest equivalent of twirling their mustaches. It might have been fun to toy with expectations and have the Gargoyles turn out to be the real villains while the monstrous demons were actually good (shades of Nightbreed, basically), but the movie can't be bothered to do anything interesting like that. So it plods along on rails, tossing us one dull action scene after another, broken up only by lengthy globs of exposition from one of the supporting cast members.

Even sillier, the whole Frankenstein element has almost nothing to do with anything. The demons, led by Bill Nighy, want him because they want to recreate Frankenstein's experiment and use it to give life to a bunch of demons that are housed in a Matrix-y hive - but in execution it's no different than any "he/she is the chosen one!" scenario, and for the bulk of the runtime he's just running around killing demons or getting tossed through walls or ceilings, giving us almost nothing to latch onto. It almost seems like the movie would play out exactly the same had he never gotten involved at all, and even that would be OK if there was an interesting Gargoyle hero to make up for it (like 13th Warrior - Banderas is supposedly our hero but Buliwyf is the true badass in the scenario), but they're all blank slates, with the exception of poor Miranda Otto as the Gargoyle Queen (yep) and Jai Courtney as the most gung-ho in their cause (which is basically just killing demons). There's an almost kind of interesting beat at the hour mark where the Gargoyles turn on Adam and it looks like he might join the demons, but it goes nowhere.

Actually, most of the movie goes nowhere. It's just "stuff happening"; even the first scene (after racing through his backstory - which was likely a real sequence at one point and just chopped up to what amounts as a "previously, on Frankenstein" montage) just has a bunch of demons show up and start fighting him before a bunch of Gargoyles show up and fight THEM. And since this is a modern action movie, the fights are nearly incomprehensible - closeups of limbs and things being smashed before CGI takes over. After this we get what I can only describe as a tutorial scene from a video game - he is walked down a corridor while someone rambles (like in Arkham Asylum when Batman is being led to the Joker's cell), and then - I shit you not - there's a scene where they explain the weapons and magic system. I half expected an "Achievement Unlocked!" window to pop up on the screen. Bill Nighy tries his best to give some weight to the proceedings (he's the main, human looking villain - so of course the ending has him covered in CGI-enhanced makeup when he turns into a monster), but his villain is as generic as Eckhart's hero.

Another bizarre thing about this movie - it's strangely underpopulated. The whole hook of bringing Frankenstein's monster into the modern world is a complete non-starter; there's only a single scene of him interacting with the human populace (to give the movie credit, it thankfully avoids any corny Rip Van Winkle type jokes), and the rest of the time he's either in the Gargoyle manor (which resembles any LOTR or Game of Thrones type castle) or on the empty streets of the city. The only other modern touch in the entire movie is the computer equipment in the lab run by the film's only two human characters of note. One of them is Yvonne Strahovski, who is saddled with one of the most thankless female roles in ages. I guess they figured simply making her a scientist would be enough to avoid criticism, and therefore just had her go through the "potential love interest who eventually needs to be rescued" motions as if there's a single person on the planet who wouldn't roll their eyes at such things by this point.

In short, it's a goddamn waste of time for everyone involved, including the audience. There isn't a single good action scene, the characters are an insult to cardboard cutouts, and if it were released in 1996 it would likely be outclassed by the cheapo/quickie tie-in video game for the Sega Genesis. And it apes so much from the Underworld movies that even that series' biggest detractors will just wonder why they're not watching one of those instead. There's a possibility that it was an interesting script at one point, but through an endless development process (this thing was announced in 2010 and there are at least 9 credited producers), and possibility some additional editing after that, any trace of a unique or creative movie has been completely washed away.

What say you?

P.S. If you ignore me and see the movie anyway, be sure to watch all of the credits. There's no extra scene, but there IS a Special Thanks to Mary Shelley. I nearly shat myself.


Devil's Due (2014)

JANUARY 16, 2014


Had Devil's Due been shot traditionally, it probably would be pretty good. It's got a pair of likable leads, a fairly fast pace, and a "modern Rosemary's Baby" flair that is refreshing from all the haunted house movies that we've been getting lately. It'd be the sort of movie you watch, more or less enjoy, and forget about until it pops up on cable, prompting you to say "Oh yeah, this was pretty good" and watch a few minutes before remembering you have an Xbox. But alas, they had to go and make it a goddamn found footage movie, and that's where the movie all but completely falls apart.

The problems start as soon as the FOX logo fades from screen, as we're treated to a bloody Zach (Matt Saracen, né Zach Gilford) fumbling with his wedding ring while sitting in a police interrogation room. The date tells us it's March 30th, and he tells us "I didn't kill her". So we know his wife is dead, and then when they ask what happened, they go back just a little over 9 months, which tells us that whatever happened, there's a 99.999999% chance it happened on the night their child was born. So we're already way too far ahead: we haven't even met his wife but we know she's dead, and we also know that she'll make it to the end of her pregnancy. But I held out hope that there would be a twist to the proceedings, like in Memoirs of an Invisible Man where Nick/Chevy is telling his story to us but catches up to the present with another 20 minutes or so to go, letting us know that maybe he DOESN'T have a pre-seen happy ending.

Well, there isn't. Instead, the movie just plays out exactly as the bookend suggests, without a single justification for essentially spoiling the movie before it even begins. No twist, no further context to what we saw, nothing. Hell they even once ask him "Tell us what REALLY happened!", threatening a Moebius strip of a movie where we just see the same damn thing over and over. Similarly, there's no real justification for the use of a camera - the bad guys steal the tapes (at one point literally from under Zach's nose, not sure how that one worked), so there's no in-movie explanation for how WE'RE seeing any of it, and I guess we just have to assume that the bad guys got a hold of the 4-5 other cameras that were filming one of the movie's big scare scenes (the priest bleeding during a mass that you saw in all the trailers), or else his innocence could be proven fairly easily.

So we just have to put up with the usual found footage cliches for 90 minutes, just because it's the cool thing to do nowadays I guess. We know nothing major will happen until the due date, so we settle for mostly weak scares - the baby REALLY kicking, a guy watching the house, Samantha lashing out in her sleep, etc - until the big day arrives and shit can finally hit the fan. To be fair this is no different than most found footage movies, but that's exactly the problem: we've seen all of this before. At least without the bookend we could wonder if either parent would survive - it'd be kind of ballsy (and relatively shocking) to kill Gilford off at the halfway point and let someone else pick up the camera, but alas, the movie is on rails 90% of the time, and those few inspired moments (such as when a group of kids stumble upon Samantha eating a deer in the woods) aren't quite enough to make up for following the found footage template so closely.

The one saving grace is Ms. Miller, who is not only VERY photogenic but also effortlessly natural, the latter being a must for this sort of thing. I've only seen her in 1-2 other things, and was smitten with her in those as well, but at no point did I think about her other characters - she truly made Samantha feel like a real person (can't say the same for Gilford; whenever he got upset or angry all I could hear/see was Matt Saracen). The plot dictates that she spends most of the 2nd half either half asleep or in silent "possessed" mode, but for the first 45 minutes or so, she makes it more believable than even the ones starring complete strangers. I've said before that casting recognizable actors in these things is a detriment, but if they could deliver performances like this, I'd never think twice about it.

She's also able to overcome the painfully bad exposition her character has to spout. We are told at least three times in the first 20 minutes that Samantha's past is a question mark: her parents died when she was born and she grew up in a foster home (she even tells Zach this information, as if he didn't know by then). Since they kept hammering it home you'd think it would have a payoff, but no - the fact that she is chosen by this cult to birth the antichrist seems to be random dumb luck, not some predetermined fate like in End of Days. I guess if I was being charitable I could describe this as misdirection, but if that was their intent - why do it so clunkily? I mean she actually says to her fiance (and they've been together for years) something like "I wish I had home movies, but my parents were gone as soon as I was born", as if he wasn't already aware of that. It'd be a bad line in any movie, but it's exponentially more face-palming when it's presented under the guise of "reality".

Oh, and not for nothing, but for those who don't follow me on social media - my own wife is pregnant right now, and thus I am going through some of the same things Zach is (such as unintentionally annoying his baby mama with his excitement and worry). It's rare I see a horror film I can identify with in any meaningful way, so when I see one that's focused around something I'm not only going through (minus the satanic cult and supernatural powers), but that's also SCARING ME in real life... it's almost unforgivable that it can't get under my skin or even provide any real anxiety. I got a standard jolt or two from well designed jump scares, but I got that much from Paranormal Activity 4. This is better than that (most movies are), but it's still a huge disappointment that it failed to connect on this level - it should have been a given.

Ultimately, the main issue I had with the movie (besides the idiotic wraparounds) was that it actually had a talented filmmaking team behind it. The collective known as Radio Silence, who made one of the best parts of the first V/H/S (the Halloween one at the end), makes their feature debut here, and while there is some of that short's inspired lunacy (particularly in the climax, where Zach has a GoPro attached to his shirt and is thus free to be more active), it's depressing how often they stoop to tired found footage gags. When the evil cult dudes show up and install 15 cameras in their house I groaned, because I knew it would lead to lame Paranormal Activity-style gags, and sure enough - before long we're watching multiple angles on a single scene. If you can't stick to your premise (and if they have so many cameras, why are the members also following our heroes around at all times and standing outside their house?), then maybe just film the movie traditionally and use surveillance footage when it actually lends itself to that style? One of the film's few inspired bits isn't even one of the characters' cameras - it's grocery store surveillance of Samantha (a vegetarian) eating raw meat and disgusting the fellow shoppers. Along with the deer scene, that means the best parts of this POV movie aren't from the POV of its two main characters. Something's broken. It's not a disaster by any means, but I can't help but feel let down that it's not even the best found footage horror movie playing right now.

What say you?



Oh hell yes! When I first saw The Exorcist III a few years back (yes, a few. I was late to the party on the entire franchise - I didn't see the original until I was 19!), I realized how great it would be to see the film with a big crowd, thanks to one of cinema's all time best jump scares. Having been hosting these screenings for nearly 5 years now (!), I know a lot of folks are seeing the film for the first time, so it's going to be great to watch those "virgin" reactions on January 25th, when we kick off HMAD's 2014 schedule at the New Beverly with this 1990 sequel, often considered to be the only worthy followup to William Friedkin's original.

A big part of that acclaim is the cast: George C. Scott takes over for the late Lee J. Cobb as Kinderman, Jason Miller returns as Karras, and it boasts small roles from everyone from a young Kevin Corrigan (as an altar boy!) to Samuel L. Jackson, in one of his first appearances. But one of the most memorable turns is easily Brad Dourif's as the Gemini Killer, and I'm pleased (and more than a little giddy) to announce Mr. Dourif will be joining us for pre-movie Q&A! He's genre royalty, as far as I'm concerned - Chucky alone would cement his legacy, but X-Files, the LOTR films, (previous HMAD show) Urban Legend, and, for my money, the best thing about Rob Zombie's Halloween remake put him over the top. And he's almost assuredly the only Oscar nominee I'll ever have up there, so I'm pretty damn honored/nervous!

Luckily otherwise things will be normal: I'll have crappy DVDs to give away for easy trivia questions, and the Q&A will be BEFORE the movie so you want to get there on time. The New Beverly is located at 7165 Beverly Blvd in Los Angeles (90036), 2 blocks west of La Brea. Street parking is plentiful (aim for Formosa) and tickets are a mere 8 bucks, cash or card at the door (you can also buy in advance at BrownPaperTickets. The show is at 11:59pm on Saturday, January 25th - be on time for the Q&A! See you there!

P.S. As always, feel free to post the below image on your own blog/site, tweet the link, Facebook, etc - I want the place PACKED for that jump scare!


We Are What We Are (2013)

JANUARY 6, 2014


A friend of mine recently asked what the best After Dark title thus far was, and my answer (after some thought; there's like 40 movies to choose from and my memory sucks) was Jim Mickle's Mulberry St., a low-key zombie film that stood apart from the others by actually resembling the sort of independent production that I thought the label was supposed to be catering to. Mickle impressed even more with his followup Stake Land, a terrific vampire/post-apocalyptic drama that added some familiar faces to the mix (Danielle Harris has never been better in a film, and it was great to see Kelly McGillis again), and now he's 3 for 3 with We Are What We Are, a very good remake of an impressive but very slow Mexican film that I saw at Frightfest back in 2010.

I just reread my (mini) review of the original, and I called it boring, but it's one of the films that you might not think much of at the time, but sticks with you for one reason or another, and I'd probably like it more if I ever found the time to revisit it. And I should do that before making the next claim, but screw it: I think I like this one even more (even though it's actually longer!). It's a very different execution of the same basic idea (siblings - who happen to be cannibals - cope with the loss of one of their parents on the eve of their annual "feast"), so you can watch the two movies back to back and not feel much repetition, but I think the way Mickle and his writing partner Nick Damici (who has a smaller acting role here than in their previous two films) speaks more to my sensibilities, which allowed me to enjoy it more right off the bat.

And it's amazing how it all spirals from reversing the sexes - the mother dies instead of the father, and it's two sisters and a brother instead of two boys and a girl. So everything different about its narrative stems from that basic change; the loss of a mother means that the young boy has no one to comfort and nurture him, and since the father is still alive there isn't much of an income issue. Likewise, the son isn't old enough to engage in "I'm the man of the house now" type plotting - in fact the children here don't take much of an active role in the family "tradition" until the very end of the film, whereas the original dealt heavily with the boys trying to take their dad's place and failing miserably. It's a very unique approach to a remake, which is surprising since it seems so obvious - what better way to FORCE yourself into having a fresh take on a story than to just swap the sexes of its characters and go from there?

But even ignoring the remake aspects, it's just a solid film. Like Stake Land, it's closer to drama than full blown horror, allowing those "scary movie" bits to really resonate in ways they never could in a traditional genre flick. The body count is low, but each one counts - there's a kill at the end of the second act that shocked me both times I saw the movie (I caught it during its brief theatrical run in October, but never got around to writing it up as it was during Screamfest), and it's got another gruesome moment early on (someone whacking their head on a pipe) that made me cringe all over again. It's also got an interesting, morbid hook - the small upstate NY town has been flooded thanks to constant torrential downpour, and thus the bones of the Parker family's victims (i.e. food) are rising to the surface and floating down the river. More and more bones surface as the film goes on, and local doctor Michael Parks is convinced that they're not animal. You could probably make an entire movie just about his character, in fact - his daughter has been missing for quite some time and he starts to suspect that the Parkers may be to blame, so he starts investigating sans any help from the local police. Parks is a terrific actor and plays the most sympathetic character in the film; you'll likely wish you had seen more of him when the credits begin to roll.

You might also wish there were several hundred more hours of Jeff Grace's score when all is said and done. The film actually has a few composers; apparently Grace did some music and then Mickle needed more, but Grace was unavailable, so other composers Phil Mossman and Darren Morris were brought in for the rest. And their stuff is good, but Grace's contributions are simply phenomenal; there's a cue called "Preparing the Body" that plays over a rather sad montage of all these lonely, broken people going about their day - it's the sort of thing you'll put on repeat if you had the CD (the editor of the making of doc apparently feels the same way - he uses it several times). I've sung Grace's praises before, but this is his crown jewel, in my opinion, and I honestly believe it elevates the film. Likewise, the gloomy cinematography and near constant rainfall also adds to it - it's hard not to instantly feel for these people when they can barely step out of their house without drowning.

And that's even more impressive when you watch the making of (which runs just under an hour) or listen to the commentary and discover that there was only ONE shot in the entire film where it was actually raining during its production. It's not even an important shot - just one of the still shots that make up the opening title sequence. Everything else was faked with machines and digital trickery (and the cinematography by Ryan Samul, who has served on all of Mickle's features), making the documentary pretty interesting at times because you'll see how bright and shiny it was during the film's gloomiest scenes. It's not much of a doc though; apart from occasional "Oh the camera's pointed at me so I'll say something" moments, it's just a silent assembly of footage from the film's production. Things occasionally seem to be going wrong, but there's no one to explain to us what the issue really is, so it can be a bit of a dull affair given its length - you'll see how a dolly track is assembled, but insight on what they're shooting or how it fits into the story.

The commentary is much more essential; at first I was a bit worried since Mickle and Damici are joined by Samul and two of the actors Bill Sage and Julia Garner); a red flag that it could turn into a jokefest, but it's actually pretty enlightening and chock full of real info on both the production and its story (plus some good natured ribbing). There are some priceless anecdotes about Parks, and Samul doesn't get too bogged down in technical details like some DPs tend to, so it's as accessible as it is entertaining. There are also a few interviews with Mickle, Sage, and Garner, where they talk more about the characters and story, and the line of thinking that got Mickle wanting to make the movie in the first place (I won't lay it all out, but basically it amounts to when you start to question your families' traditions). The film's trailer is also included, making this a pretty nice package, though I should note the audio mix could have been a bit clearer - Sage in particular is hard to decipher at times since the character is soft-spoken. Subs are included if you still can't hear him when you turn it up full volume!

Ordinarily I'd roll my eyes at the idea of an exciting new filmmaker dipping into remake territory so quickly, especially when it's a remake of a film that's only a couple years old (it was hitting festivals at the same time as Stake Land, in fact), but they've done a great job of making this story their own while paying the original its due respect (the father still repairs watches for a living). It's not like Let Me In where it seems simply doing the story in English seems to be the primary motivation - this is a fully developed film that can stand on its own (while encouraging folks to check out the original if they haven't already). And it just further positions Mickle as one of the most interesting new genre directors working right now, so it's a winner all around.

What say you?


Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

JANUARY 2, 2014


When Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was announced, it was as a "Latino-centric spinoff" of the series, hence the lack of a number in its title (an actual Paranormal Activity 5 will hit this October after taking a year off). Now, maybe Paramount has a different idea of what "spinoff" means, but in my house, that means it's something that doesn't require a full working knowledge of the flagship series - it takes place in its universe but otherwise tells its own contained stories. Think Prometheus; quality of the film aside, you can't say that any part of it REQUIRES you to have seen Alien or its sequels - it just adds to (or subtracts from, depending on your POV) the experience. That is not the case here; if anything it's more connected than the last "true" sequel (it at least explains more about what's going on) and a good chunk of it won't make a lick of sense to anyone who hasn't seen (and retained a solid memory of) the 2nd and 3rd films.

But getting into more about that would be spoiler territory; nearly all direct references to the previous films are confined to the 3rd act, so I can't talk about them without ruining some of its surprises. However, I will say that some of it seems shoehorned in - an appearance from a returning character (not Katie) is so brief, and the dialogue so exposition-heavy, I couldn't help but wonder if it was added late in the game, as if they got cold feet about making a film that was entirely free of the increasingly convoluted mythology the series has (sort of) established. I mean, the person literally shows up and explains a few things, without a single "Oh, since that happened to me I've been doing this and that", or even seeming like they are traumatized from their experience (though the trailer has footage from this scene that didn't make the final, so perhaps a longer cut will change that). It's odd, to say the least, and the appearance of another series regular isn't very organic, either - and it adds even MORE nonsense to this concept to boot.

So let's just focus on the first hour or so, where we meet our new heroes Jesse and Hector, best friends who have video cameras so they can film themselves doing dumb shit like riding a laundry basket down a flight of stairs. For the most part it's thankfully a single camera affair this time around, most of it is shot through Jesse's standard video camera, and they have a GoPro that they use sparingly (though there's an unexplained third one during a would-be sex scene), and while that means more handheld stuff that might make you nauseous, it gives the film an energy that the others lack - at no point are we treated to a title card saying "Night #1" or whatever and then forced to watch 30-60 seconds of a bunch of different views of the house showing nothing happening. Of course, the flipside is that there's little to no reason for them to be filming as the plot thickens (unlike the others where they could just cut to the always running security cameras), but at least the faster pace and heightened sense of simple MOVEMENT keeps you from questioning it while the movie's still playing.

It's also got a different plot and more characters - the main location is an apartment complex where roughly half of the residents are involved with the story at one point or another (plus Jesse's friends who seemingly never leave). And instead of someone noticing traditional haunted house bullshit, it kicks off with our heroes hearing noises and investigating by lowering their GoPro camera through a heating vent so they can see inside the apartment below. What they discover is a strange blood ritual of some sort, and it's not long afterward that the woman in the apartment is killed by an acquaintance of theirs. Shortly thereafter, Jesse starts noticing "changes" (and what appears to be a bite mark on his arm), at which point the movie turns into Chronicle for a bit, with Hector filming his friend as he demonstrates his newfound ability to lean back at 60 degree angles without falling over, or toss a would-be mugger 30 feet with little more than a shove.

In other words, it spends a lot of time distancing itself from the mythos AND style of the flagship series, making it all the more puzzling when the 3rd act becomes, basically, Paranormal Activity 5. It had been such a relief to see a central location that wasn't a gorgeous SoCal home, and to be free of the increasingly gibberish storyline, so it's kind of a drag when it climaxes (twice!) in familiar spots, with "old friends" making appearances (and even a copy of one of the original's best scares). There are a lot of exteriors this time around, which is another change of pace (the film's two best jolts are outside, in fact), so when it turns into another "guy walking around a house using night vision" finale, I couldn't help but feel let down. If anything it would have made more sense (and been more satisfying) to start it off like a typical PA and then go off into new territory, not unlike Rec 3.

And I was also sad that they didn't use the GoPro more often. Part 2 introduced the multiple cameras (Micah only had one or two), Part 3 gave us the awesome oscillating fan-cam, and 4 had all the Skype stuff. The portability of the GoPro could have been used for some unique scares and scenarios, and if it was mounted on a helmet or something the movie wouldn't even have to explain why someone was still filming - it'd be hands free and probably forgotten about! But the device makes an exit fairly quickly, with nothing to take its place (thankfully, no one uses their phone this time). As for the new tradition of using toys in odd ways (Teddy Ruxpin in 3, a Kinect in 4), we have a couple of goofy/fun sequences where an old Simon game is controlled by the spirit, using the green and red buttons to answer "yes" and "no", much to the superstitious grandmother's dismay (they should have made this character the maid from PA2!). It's not the most terrifying thing in the world, but it sure beats another Ouija scene, and real toys that we know/love always help ground these things into a form of reality we can recognize - nothing takes me out of a movie quicker than some fake video game (usually using the SOUND from Donkey Kong or something to make it seem even more phony) or generic toy.

So overall, it's a decent enough entry in the series (my rank would be 1, 3, 2, 4 - this would be around 2, can't decide if I like it more or less though), but by stripping it of its trademarks, it doesn't do much to distinguish itself from the 11,000 found footage movies currently playing on Netflix or VOD, unless you count the Latino focus and less isolated setting. And when it DOES make efforts to fit into its franchise, it does so at the expense of including newcomers, which I thought was part of the point. Plus, it adds even MORE questions in that area, so whether you're a die hard fan or a complete newcomer, the film is likely to frustrate you for one reason or another, so your ability to be scared and get sucked into a "try to help our possessed loved on before it's too late" scenario will determine how much you can still enjoy it.

What say you?


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