Merry Christmas! (Shitter's Full)

Hey folks! I swear I'm not dead! I'm just very very busy as of late. We had some cutbacks at my day job which has dramatically increased how much I have to do (yes, this is what made me quit doing the site every day in the first place - now it's worse!), and it's not only wiped my free time but also my brain. It takes me 6-7 hours to write my Collins' Crypt articles now (often over a period of 2-3 days) because I'm so exhausted and end up spending chunks of time rewriting it because it didn't make any sense. So, along with the lack of any new horror releases that would inspire me (Krampus being the obvious exception), it's been quieter than I'd like.

You may also wonder why you can't make up for it by reading the HMAD book that was promised by Christmas. Well, that one's out of my hands - I was maybe a bit late in delivering my draft to the editor, but she had to do a ton of other, more pressing work (a lot of it related to that space movie you're probably sitting in a theater waiting for as you read this) that left her unable to give it the time it'd require to have it out by now. So it won't be out until February (I hope!), and I apologize for that as well, though believe me no one is more disappointed or frustrated by the delay than me. I just hope you guys are still interested by the time it sees the light of day.

Now for good news! If I have to inject myself with Red Bull to do it so be it - starting in 2016 I will be updating at LEAST once a week, no exceptions. I realize that almost all of the reviews I posted this year were of theatrical or festival releases, and that will change - I'll go back to reviewing DTV junk, random indies, older stuff, etc. Obviously part of that is to make sure the site is still active enough to remind you about the book, but also I need the practice - I'm getting rusty when it comes to reviewing (something I don't really do for Crypts, which are more essay-driven). I actually almost met this quota for 2015 (50 reviews for 52 weeks), but they were erratic - a lot in October, as always, but then only two since. I want a bit more consistency; I might even try to always post them on the same day each week so that I can be sure to stay on top of it and also give you guys something to look forward to every ____ (leaning toward Thursday). This was always the plan once I finished the book (at least, my part of it), but the work layoffs derailed it and it's only just now starting to stabilize again. I COULD start now but a. the movie I picked to start was so bad I couldn't finish it and b. I figure I might as well wait until the New Year since a lot of folks are probably out of work for the rest of the year and office drones are my bread and butter. Plus January has a few horror releases that I would have reviewed anyway so that'll be a good way to get my butt in gear before I start settling for anonymous junk.

So enjoy your holiday, and don't forget me just yet - 2016 will be the most "active" the site's been since I stopped the daily part of it!


Krampus (2015)

NOVEMBER 12, 2015


I don't know what it is about making mean-spirited Christmas movies that just gets me all giddy; when I think about my favorite holiday films, with the exception of Die Hard they all have a mean streak: Gremlins, both Black Christmases, Silent Night Deadly Night, Scrooged... and now Krampus can join that lineup, blending Christmas Vacation's family dynamic with Gremlins' sense of "family friendly" horror. In fact, much like Gremlins was one of the films that inspired the creation of the PG-13 rating, Krampus might be the one that finally gets the MPAA to create something in between PG-13 and R. If you thought Gremlins' "Santa Claus in the chimney" story was dark... yikes. But again, that sort of thing just speaks to my sensibilities, and I was legitimately CACKLING throughout most of the movie.

Director Michael Dougherty (working from a script he wrote with Zach Shields and Todd Casey) paces the film incredibly well, giving us time to know the 11 people who will be terrorized by the title character and his minions in the film's second half. Our hero family is led by Adam Scott and Toni Collette, who seem to be well off but unhappy, with Scott's mom living with them while raising a standard bratty teenaged girl and a pre-teen son who still believes in Santa. David Koechner fills the Cousin Eddie role as the gun-loving husband of Allison Tolman's character (Tolman and Collette are sisters), and they even throw a bit of a nod to the original Vacation by springing a bitchy aunt on them as a "surprise". Plus they have four of their own kids (including a baby), setting up a big group of characters you assume will be totally safe for this PG-13 movie.


Without spoiling who, let's just say that there is shockingly a sufficient body count offered in the movie, something I was not expecting at all. I mean, the bitchy Aunt is a given and MAYBE Scott's elderly mother, but I couldn't see anyone else being picked off. Indeed, early on the daughter goes to see her boyfriend, and the veteran horror viewer in me thought "Oh, the boyfriend can provide the bloodshed so we can get our fix without actually seeing a family get decimated on Christmas" (ditto for a delivery man), but (spoiler!) the boyfriend is apparently dead before the girl even gets there, and it's pretty obvious that she joins him soon thereafter. It's pretty rare to off any of a family unit in one of these things - I mean, if you think about Gremlins, none of the Peltzers end up dead, you know? That's not the case here.

And while you might think that might come off as pretty grim, it's not the case. Even with my stupid dad gene making me oversensitive to this sort of stuff in horror (even watching the Friday the 13th movies last week, I started thinking about how sad Rob and Sandra's parents must be to lose both their children in one week), I never got bummed out by any of the carnage. The humor certainly helped - Adam Scott is, as always, effortlessly hilarious, earning one of the biggest laughs with a mere sigh, and Koechner has got the dimwitted asshole routine down to a science by now. And I've been totally smitten with Allison Tolman since Fargo, so it delighted me that she scored what might have been my favorite non-horror related laugh with a passive aggressive snipe at her sister's fondness for fancy food. And the aunt is played by veteran scene-stealer Conchata Ferrell, so you know she's got some good lines in there. In other words, even if Krampus and co. hadn't shown up, I would have been enjoying this Ref-like look at a family who hates each other but is forced to try to get along for Christmas.

But alas, a goat monster, killer gingerbread men, and one freakishly terrifying Jack in the Box all show up and wreak havoc on the joint. The FX are pretty astonishing for the most part, with Dougherty employing a healthy blend of practical and CGI to bring his various creatures to life. Given that the title monster would have been enough I was happily surprised to see all of the others, giving the film a more madcap, (again) Gremlins-y flair at times - while also using Krampus sparingly, making his moments count instead of (over)using him as a lone boogeyman. Turns out one of the people in the house has crossed paths with him before (a flashback that plays out in an animated sequence - so good), and their little reunion serves as the bulk of his stuff, while everyone else battles the more insane, Evil Dead 2-esque assortment of things coming to life (the payoff for a bit about Collette getting Mom's Christmas tree angel instead of Tolman is perfect).

In fact, even with the harsh stuff, it's actually a pretty good gateway horror movie for kids. It might give them a few nightmares (seriously, that Jack in the Box is goddamn disturbing), but unlike Gremlins they don't come down hard on the "No Santa" thing (in fact it kind of reinforces the idea that he exists in a roundabout way), and the young son will give them a peer to take the journey with, something Gremlins didn't really have (Corey Feldman got phased out of the movie so he doesn't count). There's an F bomb, but no gore or anything, and (goes without saying since the only characters are a family unit) no sex stuff, so it's also a better option than Christmas Vacation or Scrooged ("Can't even SEE the nipple!"). Not saying it's a better MOVIE than those, but if your 7 or 8 year old is curious I think it's pretty much an OK choice if you know when to block their ears.

However, the pacing can get a bit wonky, particularly when everyone leaves the house. I won't get into what happens there, but Dougherty rushes through some things and then drags out the aftermath, with one of our heroes very slowly trying to save one of the others from some Krampus-y ritual. I don't know if staying in the house would have fixed the issue, but since it starts almost as soon as they walk out the front door I have to assume it's at least partially to blame - holing up in the film's primary location for the big climax is always preferable to going off into an anonymous exterior, in my opinion. Especially when the house is big and kind of under utilized - we only see one of what has to be at least four bedrooms, there's probably a basement and/or a garage that could have been used for a setpiece, etc. In fact it kind of looks like the Home Alone house from the outside, and I couldn't help but think of how I could probably draw a decent map of that film's setting from memory, but am still unsure as to how this house all fit together. Is this a crippling problem? No, not at all - but the best part of the movie is when there are like three different fights going on at once throughout different parts of the house, so I can't help but wish they spread out even more instead of spending most of the movie huddle together in the living room.

Otherwise, this worked like gangbusters for me. I was won over instantly, with an opening sequence showing a typical Black Friday-esque mob trampling each other, beating each other up, and then bitterly waiting in line (set to the tune of "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" - and yes I know this is basically copied from Jingle All The Way but it's too funny an idea to waste on a middling Arnold comedy from the 90s), but the real meat of the movie delighted me just as much for the most part. The ending was ultimately satisfying (be patient! I know you'll groan about something but it works out, I promise), the creature work is terrific, and the cast was game for everything Dougherty threw them. It might not unseat your current favorite Christmas horror movie like his Trick 'r Treat did for Halloween for some (not for me, of course, though I'll be first to admit he invoked the spirit of the holiday much more successfully than Carpenter did), but it'll find its way into your rotation for sure. Counting down until I can show Will...

What say you?


Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

NOVEMBER 8, 2015


I noticed far more writing credits on Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse than the shooting script seemingly would have required, which means I'd have to do research to find out which of them was responsible for the thing that kept me from really liking the movie. Most of it actually really works well, with an endearing trio of best friends at its center and a sweet, if slightly cliched, subplot about how one of them isn't "growing up" as fast as the other two and how they handle their eroding bond, all set against a zombie outbreak that has seemingly wiped out most of their town. Alas, someone thought it'd be a good idea to work an American Pie-esque series of raunchy encounters and subplots into the mix, and it all but kills the movie's potential every time it rears its ugly head.

Since the heroes are 15 or 16, this would make for a pretty good early entry zombie for your budding horror fan if not for all the sexual hijinks. It's one thing for a Friday the 13th-type boob shot before Jason kills the fornicating teens, but one of the three guys talks about sex non-stop, there's a trip to a strip club (yes, an undead stripper does a routine, more on that soon), and in the weirdest moment, a female zombie snags her top on something and exposes her breasts, at which point the horny guy fondles them. Well, tied for weirdest; later on an old lady zombie (Cloris Leachman!) tries to eat his ass but her dentures are out so he doesn't get infected or anything - we just get a visual of an Oscar winner slurping away in dangerous proximity to a teenager's asshole. It's gross and unfunny, and doesn't jive at all with the kid-friendly plot about doing what's right, standing by your pals, etc. It also primes the movie too much for what is its only good gag - a kid is falling out of a window and grabs hold of what he/we think is a zombie's bathrobe belt, only to discover that it's actually the guy's dick. With all the boobs and raunchiness you know a dick gag is coming, and it deflates some of the gag's impact - imagine how funny and shocking it'd be in an otherwise chaste movie? It'd still go against the otherwise PG-13 tone (the violence is no more harsh than what's allowed on Walking Dead), but at least the payoff would be worth it.

That said, I did appreciate that the fat kid of the group wasn't the butt of fat jokes the whole time. He has a toilet moment (someone had to), but otherwise they don't really bother with lame gags - even during the aforementioned window scene (they're jumping out the window onto a well-placed trampoline to bounce to safety), you'd half-expect some dumb Kevin James-y gag where he crashes through the trampoline or can't bounce high or whatever, but he clears it just fine. His dedication to the scout group is also refreshingly not played for laughs; his friends are getting a bit too old to be earning merit badges or whatever, but they clearly still have some affinity for it (and plenty more for him), so he's not painted or treated as a dork or a loser or anything like that. In vague exposition that I assume was truncated, we learn that his father died two years ago, so scouting with his two best pals (and their scout leader, played by David Koechner in a rare non-asshole role) is how he keeps the sadness at bay - and the friends respect that. This could have easily turned into a mockfest both about scouting and the "weird kid" that sticks with it after puberty, but at least one of the writers was smart enough to know that the comedy can stem from genuine character interplay and situations, not by making fun of everything.

As for the zombie stuff, it's fine. They explain it away with some accident at a science lab (the janitor, played by Workaholics' Blake Anderson, snoops around and unleashes it) and it takes a while to really get going, but there's an interesting element to it that I haven't seen much: they retain basic (VERY basic) functions of their pre-zombie life. I mentioned the stripper, and then they encounter a weird homeless guy with an affinity for Britney Spears who, despite being undead, recognizes "Baby One More Time". And sure enough, when they go to a police station for help, a zombie cop does what a normal cop would do - he fires his gun repeatedly at the people he's supposed to be protecting. The filmmakers also split the difference for the whole "fast or slow" thing - they just kinda briskly walk, which I found amusing, and on that note despite being a zombie comedy they don't drown in Romero references (save for the hero being named Ben, but with that as the only one it might just be a coincidence). There's a shoutout to Haddonfield for some reason, but otherwise the biggest reference is probably a Die Hard spoof (it's during the cock scene, which I admit is part of why I was won over by it - the kid falls just like Hans, with the now dismembered cock in place of Holly's watch). I don't know why so many zombie comedies seem to be knee-deep in references to other movies, but it's nice to see an exception.

Oh, and zombies are a thing they know about, which I always love. It's settled in about two seconds; a zombie approaches, someone says "Is that a... no, it can't be!" (or something along those lines), and then it's shot in the chest and survives. Then it's shot in the head and dies, and the shooter says "See? Zombie." and that's that. I've been saying for years that we're long past the time where anyone should be in the dark as to what a zombie is, so I'm glad we're finally getting to that place. This also informs how they make their weapons, in a sequence that thankfully doesn't do the Evil Dead thing with a bunch of quick-cut zooms as the trio gears up for battle. The boy scouts angle is actually kind of underplayed in the film; they're out on a camp trip, but they leave the woods pretty quickly and apart from their badge-covered shirts, the whole concept barely applies until it's time to make makeshift weapons at the hardware store. Closeups of their various badges (archery, engineering, etc) are mixed with them making appropriate weapons, presumably using the knowledge that they've gained over years of scouting. And the weapons are effective - one makes a pneumatic airgun thing (like a cannon used to fire promo shirts) with doorknob ammo that can put a hole through several zombie heads with one shot, and another modifies a weed-whacker. It's always bugged me that in zombie movies, even after the "only to the head" rule has been applied you still see people shooting at chests, so I liked that they actually make weapons that are specifically to take out the heads. And there's even a fun payoff where the one lifer scout has been trying to earn his fire-making badge, and of course finally gets it right to save the day - like the nudity, it seems like these multiple writing teams were all making different movies, and I wish I could see the one that keeps the scouting angle front and center throughout, as I found it quite charming.

So the movie is sloppy, basically. It's not terrible; I was enjoying myself and was impressed with the main kid (Tye Sheridan), but they might as well have color coded the images to match the obviously rewritten (and rewritten again) script. And I couldn't help but think that the best audience for this movie wouldn't even notice things like that, but at the same time, the sex gags (one girl is literally eaten out, I should mention) would be too much for the 9 or 10 year olds the rest of the movie would be perfect for. It's sort of like Deadly Friend in that regard, where I am seriously unsure who the target audience was for this thing. Older horror fans who miss Stifler and the rest of the Pie guys? Has to be a tiny grouping, even tinier than the film's terrible box office would suggest. I was actually surprised that there were like 15 other people in the theater with me, considering that the film was "enjoying" a record-setting terrible weekend - I figured I might even have a private screening. No one seemed super into it, but there was only one walk out, so I guess the rest all felt the same as me: it's an OK movie that was the victim of people making bad, ill-fitting decisions on what kind of movie it should be.

What say you?


Stung (2015)

NOVEMBER 2, 2015


I've said on numerous occasions that a full scale monster movie revival is long overdue, but as long as we get a movie like Stung every now and then, I guess I can make peace with the lack of a glut of such things - quality over quantity, in other words. Stung isn't exactly the Jaws of killer wasp movies (actually, it might be by default, but you know what I mean), but it does more right than wrong, offers a fun Lance Henriksen turn, and gives you two lead characters that are likable and worth rooting for, in an era where having just one seems to be too herculean a task for many modern filmmakers. To me, that's a win, even if the movie isn't really doing anything particularly new.

Let's go back to Lance for a second. Certainly he's taken a number of paychecks over the years, including in other killer bug movies like In The Spider's Web, so his presence doesn't exactly guarantee confidence (beyond "at least Lance's scenes were good", of course). But I was delighted to see that this is the rare movie that actually has him lightening up, even cracking jokes once or twice - he's not the usual hardass authority figure or shady human villain, he's just a small town mayor who rolls his eyes at the sort of crap he's forced to do as mayor. It's the sort of role you could see someone like Bruce Davison or John Heard playing, which isn't often the case for Lance's characters. He also lasts quite a while; it's not spoiling anything to say he dies, but again, we've all seen a number of these movies where he's only in it for like 5-10 minutes, but here it's actually one of the fuller roles I've seen him have in a long time*. His reaction to the wasp outbreak is incredible, too - he just glares at them as if it was a normal annoyance, then grabs his drink and calmly makes his way to safety while everyone panics around him. It's pretty much how I expect the actual Lance Henriksen would react to zombies or whatever might kill us all someday.

But the real heroes are played by Matt O'Leary (Sorority Row represent!) and Jessica Cook, as a pair of caterers for the party where all the shit goes down. O'Leary is pretty great in the role; he's introduced as a sort of slacker/klutz type, but proves to be capable when the wasps attack, earning the respect of his boss (Cook) and Lance in equal measure. Cook is also quite charming, and I like that they seem to save each others lives in equal measures (she might even have one up on him), instead of having one be the alpha dog. I don't want to see him rescue her over and over, but I suspect I'd be just as annoyed/bored if they were trying to "play against expectations" by having her constantly saving his life and be the real alpha - both have flaws and both are equally heroic, and it works perfectly.

Less perfect is the script's lack of patience - I talk a lot about these three because they're all the movie gives us within 15 minutes or so of the wasp outbreak. Sure, you expect a good chunk of the anonymous/minor cast to eat it so we can focus on 6-8 people, but screenwriter Adam Aresty only gives us about 5 minutes or so of that group before 3 of them are killed within seconds of each other, giving the rest of the movie not much to work with when it comes to attacks and kill scenes. Sure, the quick deaths come as a shock when they occur - but at what cost? Suspense gets deflated quite a bit after all this, especially when you know Lance will die too. I liked the movie, but I suspect I'd REALLY like it if there were more characters to bounce off each other throughout the 2nd and part of the 3rd act. I mean, you know who is gonna make it to the credits right off the bat, but that's no excuse for wiping out everyone else so quickly.

At least the kills look good, at times great. Alas, CGI wasps are employed on the regular, but they DO have a practical one to use when possible, and it works pretty great, plus makes the CGI ones easier to forgive. The computer wasps don't even look that bad, to be honest, but it's the fact that they were at least using a flesh and fake-blood one when they could that really won me over. And there are some smaller ones that are practical, at least when squished - they produce this flytrap-esque gluey substance that must have been torture on the actors, and it looks fantastic. Plus there are some surprisingly gory kills, including an eyeball bit that Fulci would applaud. The wasps also kind of nest inside their human victims, so there are some fun bits where legs or the head come bursting out of a dummy corpse - good stuff.

Scream Factory/IFC's Blu-ray has some solid extras, though I would advise skipping the production blogs as they were designed for the web and probably far less obnoxious if viewed once a week instead of all at once. Plus they repeat a lot of the info (and even some footage) on the more typical making of, so just watch that for your behind the scenes fix. And definitely listen to the commentary with Aresty, director Benni Diez, and producer Benjamin Munz as they point out some of the film's minor glitches (such as the very European looking truck that the heroes drive in this New York-set, Germany-shot film), heap praise on the actors, and generally give off a fun vibe that matches the film's. Everyone clearly had their heart in the right place, making it easy to forgive the pacing snafu. It might occasionally feel like a glorified Syfy Original Movie, but really - if those things were even half as good as this on the regular, then "Syfy Original Movie" wouldn't be something we used as a putdown.

What say you?

*Weirdly enough, a few days later I saw another one that had more Lance than expected - but unfortunately it was Harbinger Down, which wasn't a very good movie. That said, at least Lance's scenes were good.


Kristy (2014)

OCTOBER 29, 2015


Well, it's finally here. Nearly three years after Kristy was shot, and after several release dates that came and went (plus a couple of other titles, including Random and Satanic), the film was finally released as a Lifetime Original Movie, which is like the saddest fate one could imagine for a would-be theatrical release (doesn't even get the dignity of going DTV!) Given that the movie was already too late to the party, cashing in on The Strangers nearly five years after that film became a big hit, I had long since given up hope that I'd be able to watch the movie in a movie theater, but I still thought it would at least get something more respectable than this. However, going in I wasn't too sad about its fate - after all, a good home invasion type movie would probably play just as well (maybe even a bit better) at home, right?

Unfortunately, that ties into the main problem with the film - our heroine Justine (Haley Bennett) isn't confined anywhere for more than a few minutes. When I heard the basic plot (a girl staying at her college alone on Thanksgiving gets tormented by hooded killers) I assumed it was a tiny school and/or she'd be stuck in her dorm building for the bulk of the film - which would be a fine setting for some taut suspense. But the script always has her on the run, using the entire (and quite large) campus for its unmemorable setpieces, making the entire film feel like the climactic chase scene from a slasher like Friday the 13th than a "home invasion" type. Not only does this get us thinking about the logic more than we should (a campus that obviously has a large student body and she's the ONLY ONE staying behind for Thanksgiving? It was pretty common at my school and we were like 1/4th its size), but it gets mighty repetitive. We know she won't die anytime soon since there's no one else in the movie of note (more on that soon), unlike The Strangers where they COULD kill Liv Tyler or Scott Speedman at some point because there would still be the other one to carry us to the end of the movie, so watching her outrun and occasionally off one of her tormentors loses its novelty value before the halfway point.

The script also beats us over the head with an early chunk of the film that runs through every single thing about Justine that we will need to know about later. She can swim! She knows how to make an explosive! She can use a bat! Etc. And she even has a foreshadow-y English class for good measure, because screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski apparently cannot let one horror movie cliche go unchecked. He also hates the idea of confining his heroine in what's supposed to be a confined thriller, so she leaves the campus entirely to buy some basic snacks, instead of just having there be a school store for her to use (again, my school had this, and we didn't have in-dorm security guards, a big gate with another guard, etc). H20 came to mind more than once, and even that campus felt more inescapable than this one and being stuck in H20 wasn't even a plot point. Later on her boyfriend, who had left to be with his family, just drives back on campus, and again I had to wonder why no one else was doing this on the regular. Maybe they thought a big campus would be more cinematic, but all it did was seemingly betray the point of this brand of horror and help make it a bad movie.

As for the killers themselves, they're fine. They're part of a thinly developed group of Satan worshipers who murder girls they dub "Kristy" (some sort of Christ connection - why not guys named Chris?) and post videos of said murders to a website. Whatever. They're led by Ashley Greene, who is unrecognizable (boo) and the only one who gets any sort of identity, but their final showdown lacks any real interaction - it's rushed and anticlimactic, to say the least. Their first encounter, at the gas station where Justine is buying her ice cream and Mountain Dew (yep, a college campus that doesn't have a vending machine with cold soda, I guess), has way more oomph to it, and I have to assume that they originally had something bigger planned and just didn't do it (or cut it). In fact most of the film's best scenes occur early on, with the best one oddly being the most extraneous, when she runs to the groundskeeper's shack and gets him killed.

I know that sounds spoiler-y, but that's how the movie plays out - she runs around, finds someone, they are killed, and she runs again. You could cut any such sequence out and it wouldn't affect the plot at all, but this one sticks out in particular because the groundskeeper (James Ransone) had only been introduced in a quick, otherwise pointless shot early on when we're learning all about her awesome swimming and science skills. Why the groundskeeper knows her name is beyond me, but I suspect the whole sequence was a late addition to pad the runtime a bit. Also, there's so much fog in the scene it almost feels like she ran into another dimension, but whatever - it's a fun little sequence that has the killers working together for a change (a lot of the stalking scenes are solo - you almost never see two of them at once after their initial attack). The pool scene was OK too, with Bennett using her breath-holding skills, but again - she's the only person in the movie that's alive/not a killer, and the runtime isn't at feature length yet, so there's not a lot of suspense regarding what will happen next.

Going back to what I said about the movie feeling like a feature length slasher showdown - the key to those scenes isn't the part where the killer's chasing Laurie Strode, Alice, etc - it's when she starts fighting back and using her head. The fact that we know that she'll succeed doesn't matter - she and the movie itself have earned this scenario. This movie doesn't have any of that other stuff - it's just that chase, never ending and without a single fresh idea. I guess I can give it a few points for being completely dialogue free for long stretches, but that's hardly enough to make up for its abrasive genericness. Perhaps director Olly Blackburn didn't want to be confined again (his previous film was Donkey Punch, set almost entirely on a party boat); if that was the case maybe they should have hired someone else to direct. On a conceptual level, this movie COULD work, but it doesn't.

What say you?


Bone Tomahawk (2015)

OCTOBER 25, 2015


The past seven or eight years haven't been fun for us Kurt Russell fans, since he's barely worked at all (a pair of little seen indies is pretty much it since Grindhouse), but 2015 has proven to more than make up for it. He got to be one of the best parts of the last Furious movie (which grossed a billion dollars! A Kurt Russell movie made a billion dollars!!!), and he's got The Hateful Eight on the way - which should, if nothing else, be a more satisfying Tarantino entry than their last collaboration. And in the meantime, we have Bone Tomahawk, which for reasons I'll never understand became one of those obnoxious "Day and date" releases where a few screens will show it starting on the same day it's available on VOD, which will of course be how most people see it. Luckily I live near one of those select theaters, so I got to see it on the big screen where it belongs.

And I saw it with a crowd, of sorts. All of these Image releases play in the exact same spot - Screen #5 at the AMC Burbank 8, which is located inside of a shopping mall. I see a lot of these screenings because that's where a lot of Nic Cage and Bruce Willis movies end up nowadays, and as lifelong devotees to both actors I go see these things even though I know they'll probably just make me sad. These screenings tend to be nearly empty (just a few weeks ago I had the entire room to myself with a Cage thing called Pay The Ghost), but for this movie it was probably about a quarter full. Sure, that's disastrous for a big budget movie on an Imax screen or something, but again, this is a movie that's available (for less) at home on VOD, and it was also past the mall's closing time on Sunday night, so we all had to put effort into even getting into the damn place, let alone buying a ticket. People actually wanted to see this movie, dammit - why couldn't they have at least given it a REAL limited release (i.e. a few hundred screens as opposed to a few dozen)?

Needless to say, the crowd seemed to be happy. It was almost weird hearing big bouts of laughter after a good line in this same room that I usually am free to fart out loud because no one else is in there to mind, but not as weird as the fact that this cannibal western was actually pretty funny. The plot is about four men who ride off into dangerous territory to rescue one's wife from a tribe of cannibalistic cave dwellers, which doesn't exactly suggest lots of guffaws, but since the cannibal stuff is mostly confined to the 3rd act, writer/director S. Craig Zahler made the wise decision to keep us engaged by giving his leads a lot of fun banter - but never so much that it becomes a comedy. And it's the GOOD kind of funny, in that it all stems from the characters and how they interact - nothing in the movie is PLAYED for laughs, it's just naturally funny at times.

These moments are usually courtesy of the great Richard Jenkins, who would probably earn an Oscar nomination for his work here if the movie was big enough for the voters to notice it. He's the deputy of Russell's sheriff, and he's just perfect in every scene; he's not "dumb" or even "dim", but just kind of aloof I guess, the sort of guy who forgets to eat because he's so focused on doing his job and not letting his (younger) boss down. And Russell plays off him perfectly; you instantly believe that these two have been working together for years and are totally in sync with each others' pros and cons. When Russell has to remind him to blow on his hot soup before he takes a sip, you get the impression it's something he's probably had to do a million times - and more importantly, it's something that he does so lovingly, not out of annoyance. And they both have to sigh their way through their time with Patrick Wilson, the man whose wife they're attempting to rescue. Wilson has broken his leg in an unrelated incident before they set off, so he slows them down but is determined to go along and help retrieve his wife.

Slightly less bro-ish with them is Matthew Fox, as a somewhat bigoted and fully vain hunter who joins them on their quest because he wants to kill some cannibals (he also says he feels responsible since he's the one who involved the woman in the first place and inadvertently put her in harm's way). He thinks he's smarter, faster, and just plain BETTER than the others, and in some occasions he proves himself correct, but while he's a bit of a jerk he's not an antagonist in any way - it's just how he is, and he harbors no ill-will toward them (and of course, saves their lives once or twice). Fox has had some disturbing personal drama in the past few years that has probably made him less enticing in Hollywood, but there's no denying he's a solid actor when given the right role, and someone rightfully pointed out on Twitter the other night that this is the perfect use for him; he's always kind of an unlikable hero.

There are a few other actors you'll know in the movie, but they aren't around long enough to make much of a mark. And that's not really a spoiler; there are a few casualties during the film's two (brief) horror scenes prior to the 3rd act, but the rest of the townsfolk just stay behind and are never seen again. It's kind of weird that recognizable actors like Michael Paré and Kathryn Morris have such brief and thankless roles, as if they signed on for meatier (if still small) roles and saw some of their biggest moments excised. I don't even think Paré even gets a closeup - that's not a cameo, that's a known actor inexplicably playing a background role. Russell's introduction also feels trimmed, so if I had to guess I would assume that there was a lengthier first act at one point and it was cut down to get the guys on the road faster (and in turn, get to the cannibal stuff faster). It doesn't hurt the movie really (and it's still long, 2+ hours), but it's distracting in its own way - you never want to get the impression that you're watching something that's been trimmed, even if it's for the greater good.

And while it may take "too long" to get to the action for some (I didn't mind it, though I was also warned ahead of time not to expect wall to wall action), it's certainly worth the wait. Zahler is quite fond of springing violent acts on us out of nowhere instead of building up to them - it's just as much of a shock to us when someone loses their hand as it is to the guy who just lost it. And the cannibals don't hold back, splitting one character in two starting from the groin (yes, you see junk), seemingly trying to cook another from the inside (by jamming a hot item inside a giant cut on his stomach), etc. Even the surviving characters take a good beating, so while there isn't a lot of violence, what there is is sufficiently/surprisingly gruesome. Let's be clear - this is a western with some horror in it, not the other way around, but if you're patient Zahler and co. will reward the gorehounds who heard "Kurt Russell vs. Cannibals" and had visions of some John Carpenter-y creature fest.

Speaking of Carpenter, Zahler must be a fan - not only did he cast Russell (and shoot widescreen!) but he also composed the music, including a wonderful old timey theme song called "Four Doomed Men Ride Out" that plays over the end credits. Only two others sat in the theater with me to appreciate it, which is a shame - I lobby hard for the return of movie theme songs, and I was shocked that this had one as most of the ones that do tend to be slashers (My Bloody Valentine) or just plain goofy movies (Killer Klowns). But it fit the movie as a whole, in that it was a nice surprise and satisfied nearly all of my particular cravings. Kurt Russell! A horror western! Solid characters in a genre film! No dad stuff to upset me! And it finally rewarded me for all of the times I sighed my way into the Burbank 8 for another movie starring one of my heroes, something that Cage and Willis kind of deserve at this point for making so many bad movies, but Russell certainly does not. It's a shame that so man of you won't get to see it theatrically, but it's a bigger shame that we've gotten to the point that movies like this are deemed undeserving of a shot while Paranormal Activity 6 gets 1,500 screens. Oh well. At least Quentin will give mainstream audiences the chance to see Russell's glorious bushy beard in a few months, even if I doubt there are any cannibals trying to eat it in that one.

What say you?


Crimson Peak (2015)

OCTOBER 24, 2015


I usually hate seeing movies "late", i.e. after they've been out for a week, because by then all the surprises have been spoiled and my expectations are thrown all topsy-turvy by hearing everyone's two cents, which makes my viewing almost a complete 180 from how I prefer it - going in completely blind and untainted. But for Crimson Peak, it might have helped waiting a week, because lots of folks have been bemoaning the film's lack of full blown horror elements in favor of a romantic tale, so that, coupled with the fact that the trailer* left me cold, is the reason I think I actually quite enjoyed it - it might even be my favorite of Guillermo Del Toro's American (read: non Spanish) films.

I should add to that the fact that among those, I was no big fan of Pacific Rim, wasn't wowed by Blade II, and found the Hellboys to be fairly enjoyable but never wanted to watch them again - making Mimic (!) my previous favorite, ironic since he has mostly disowned it. But I love all of his Spanish language films, so despite my constant disappointment with his studio work, I keep giving him the benefit of the doubt, and finally I found myself rewarded here. I don't think the film is COMPLETELY horror-free, as some have claimed - it's fairly evenly split between the ghost/horror stuff and the romance between Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Thomas (Tom Hiddleston). In many ways it's reminiscent of House of Usher, albeit with the sexes swapped - Mia's kind of the Mark Damon role, with Hiddleston as "Madeline". That leaves Jessica Chastain in the Vincent Price slot as the more villainous of the pair. But the plot is otherwise similar; the decaying home, the seeming refusal to leave it or welcome any outsiders, and a family "curse" of sorts that will prove to be everyone's downfall.

But Del Toro wasn't just looking at an old Roger Corman film for influence - there's lots of The Haunting, The Shining, and (maybe?) The Others in here, plus a subplot borrowed liberally from another genre film that I won't name because it will kind of be obvious what EXACTLY he is taking from it. Some of my peers weren't as careful, cluing me into something that's supposed to be a major shock at the end of the 2nd act, and it's the sort of thing that really annoys me. No, they're not coming right out and saying it, but if you have seen Crimson Peak and know what movie I'm referencing (based on a book, and recently remade for television), you will probably agree that just saying the title is a dead giveaway for the plot point that resurfaces here. It'd be like someone saying that a movie was influenced by The Crying Game - no one is going to think of that movie if the plot concerns IRA agents and double crosses, so obviously they mean that some woman in the movie turns out to be a dude.

Luckily, even knowing that was coming didn't ruin anything. There are certainly far worse ways to spend two hours than looking at Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain in gorgeous period outfits; hell I might enjoy this movie even if there was ZERO horror. But what really got me was how patient it was - the trailers seemed to suggest almost nothing in the movie happened outside of its main location, but on the contrary - it's 40 minutes before they even arrive there. That first act establishes all of our characters in New York, and includes the great Jim Beaver as Edith's father. I didn't even know he was in the movie, so seeing him was a glorious surprise, as were the bit roles by Burn Gorman (also a bright spot of Pacific Rim) and Leslie Hope, the latter a one-time actress crush of young BC thanks to It Takes Two. As you can probably tell from the trailers' absence of these people, their roles are limited and before long we're down to the primary four, but the point is - there's a bigger world (and even some humor) than the marketing had led me to believe.

And it's these scenes that make the long-awaited arrival at the mansion as deflating for us as it was for Edith. The house is falling apart in wonderfully weird ways - the floor is sinking into the red clay that comes up from the ground (for bricks; it's the key element of the family's fortunes), and the collapsing roof allows it to snow inside - this has to be the only movie where a would-be kill from being thrown off a balcony inside is prevented by a large snowpile. But the red clay surfaces everywhere, allowing Del Toro to give you a movie where the house seems to always be bleeding (and even cinema's first logical "red water comes out of the faucet" scene!) but isn't anything the characters find strange. One of the best things about Del Toro's movies is his fascination for unusual details, and rarely have they worked so well as they do here - it's living up to its schlocky influences ("BLOOD POURS DOWN THE WALLS!" sounds like something you'd hear in a drive-in movie trailer, right?) but also not distracting away from the mostly grounded narrative. Hell, the first big horror moment in the main narrative (it opens at the end, and then offers a flashback) is something out of a giallo, with black gloves and a straight razor that may or may not come into play (I loved the misdirection here).

As for the ghosts, eh. I have long since grown tired of seeing CGI tendrils of smoke or goo or whatever the hell else these designers think is scary or even visually interesting, and even if I HADN'T just suffered through more than enough of them in Paranormal Activity 6, I would have been rolling my eyes at their usage here. Their primary design is spectacular, as they are formed (or half-formed) from the same blood red clay, giving them an appearance that is equal parts ghostly skeleton and Frank in Hellraiser. Most of their appearances are little more than floating down a corridor and pointing while croaking out some sort of cryptic warning, making the film more fitting for a Halloween Horror Nights maze than I thought (it was a kind of shitty maze), but that's the sort of thing that will make it a pretty good Halloween option for the years to come. In fact, given its Imax release, I'm kind of stunned the film isn't in 3D as well - the ghosts' movement and the house itself would have lent itself nicely to the format.

I can only guess that the reason is the film's length - it's only seconds under a full two hours, and seemingly could have been trimmed here and there - I swear there's two full sequences that are identical, where Edith wakes up, discovers her husband isn't in the bed with her, grabs a candle, and goes around to investigate until she finds a Haunted Mansion reject*. There aren't any major unnecessary subplots or anything like that (Del Toro's not Peter Jackson, after all), but since the story has to serve two masters (horror and romance) it's just kind of a given that it'll run longer than the average 90 minute horror (or 105 minute romance). Even 5-10 minutes could have helped it out a bit, and might have even wiped out a number of those "it's not even horror!" complaints. I mean, this is a movie that has a man's head being bashed into a sink, multiple bloody stabbings, and even a good ol' fashioned shovel to the head - even without the ghosts, it'd certainly qualify, but maybe the stretches in between those things are just too much for folks to handle.

It's a shame the movie tanked so spectacularly (it will be GdT's least attended studio movie by a wide margin), because while I get that it won't be for everyone, it seems the people that it WILL be for have largely avoided it. It has some minor issues but nothing too damaging, and the big screen is the right place to enjoy such gorgeous production design (and, for his largely female fanbase, Hiddleston's thrusting bare ass during a love scene). I take some solace in the idea that maybe after two money losers in a row, GdT will be forced to scale it back even further or just go all out and make something in Spanish again, since smaller = better when it comes to his features. If you think you might enjoy this sort of thing, I urge you to check it out soon (as in, this week, before Friday), as by then it's likely to be downgraded to the crappiest screens around in order to make room for the new releases, and will be gone entirely by mid-November, I'm sure.

What say you?

*Yes, I know this was one of Guillermo's 7,000 announced projects that have yet to come to fruition. Couldn't help but wonder if he was just getting this sort of ghostly action out of his system in case it joins all the others that will never happen.


The Exorcism Of Molly Hartley (2015)

OCTOBER 26, 2015


The original Molly Hartley isn't exactly a movie people love and have been demanding a sequel to; it was a low budget programmer aimed at teens, shot cheap, directed by a producer (never a good sign), and while it turned a minor profit, no one seems to ever remember it existing. In fact it was "famous" in these parts for being one of the only theatrically released horror movies I missed while still living up to the "A Day" part of Horror Movie a Day, which is perfectly fitting for such an anonymous movie. So when Fox announced The Exorcism Of Molly Hartley, I assumed it would be more or less a remake of the original - why would they continue a storyline no one seems to remember?

Well, oddly enough, that's exactly what they did. Molly is played by a different actress (Sarah Lind from Wolfcop), but it dives deep into what that film established, and more significantly, actually makes up for that film's weirdo (admirably so) ending. In fact, the only thing I really remember about the original, seven years later, is that Molly turned herself over to Satan at the end, and had zero drawbacks from it - she got more popular, her grades improved, etc. But there was no "Just one thing..." twist or whatever - the ending couldn't be construed as anything but a fully happy one. She didn't even get possessed (read: all black) eyes! In retrospect I think it might have just been a nod to The Legacy (also admirable), but it was still a weird way to end a movie aimed at impressionable teens. Satan is good!

Screenwriter Matt Venne must have agreed, as the movie wastes no time in establishing that there IS, in fact, a downside to her life-changing deal. When we first meet back up with Molly she has just made partner at her firm, the youngest person to do so in fact, and is out celebrating that and her birthday. By now she's used to getting everything she wants and life just kind of working out great for her, and thus she does what anyone in that position would do - encourages her male pal and his girlfriend to get drunk and then go back to her place for a threeway. Alas, she starts seeing things and blacks out, and when she wakes up her new pals are very much dead. The cops take her to an institution, and the steady march toward living up to the film's title begins!

But an exorcism needs an exorcist, and that's where Devon Sawa comes in (and yes, we're at the point where Devon Sawa is now old enough to play weary priests). Curiously, the movie doesn't show us Molly until the 15 minute mark - we spend that first chunk of the film with Sawa as he attempts an unrelated exorcism that goes badly, killing the victim. He is defrocked and sent to the same institution Molly will find herself in later, which allows the movie to pack in a number of allusions to a number of religious-themed supernatural classics: The Exorcist AND Exorcist III, plus a bit of Emily Rose (a shrink played by longtime HMAD crush Gina Holden is tasked with deciding if Molly is possessed or crazy), an out of nowhere homage to The Omen, and a touch of Rosemary's Baby for good measure. You might read that and think the movie is nothing more than a series of ripoffs from better movies, but honestly I found it to be a fairly enjoyable stew, combining familiar elements in a way that may not surprise you all that often, but isn't necessarily bad.

The dual protagonist aspect works well; Sawa's priest and Molly have about equal screentime, and Venne's script finally has them meet at the exact right time (about halfway), when we've gotten invested in both of their stories and can watch their scenes with far more interest than the average Exorcist wannabe allows for. By establishing that exorcisms can be deadly (something we rarely see, in fact), we're worried that Molly could be next to die under his watch, but we're also rooting for him to redeem himself. It's the rare case where the recasting of a character actually works in the movie's favor - had Haley Bennett returned, it might be somewhat annoying that the movie devotes so much time to a different character, but as we're kind of meeting her for the first time here (and the movie opens on Sawa first), their equal importance is always balanced. Holden doesn't get to do a whole lot (dammit), but she serves a good function in the 2nd half, breaking up the exorcism attempts, and also doing some of the backstory heavy lifting.

And it's in these scenes that the movie kind of stumbles; there's a REALLY terrible bit where Molly quotes Paradise Lost and both Sawa and Holden discuss how she could have known that sort of thing, with Holden saying she'd look into her school records to see if she ever read it there. I mean, when a character starts speaking Latin out of nowhere, sure, that might be possession. Quoting a damn book that you can find at any bookstore, not so much. And while I guess it's unavoidable to draw comparisons to Linda Blair's profane outbursts, some of these just sound completely silly, mocking the "The crow cocks three times" story, among others. Some of the other Exorcist lifts work well though; the obligatory pea soup callback is wonderfully icky, with poor Holden getting completely drenched in the crap instead of just taking a little dribble on her face. But why is it pea soup? Why do they have to go with green whenever someone has to projectile vomit in these things? I know some folks think so highly of Exorcist that they automatically dismiss every other exorcism movie as a ripoff - I'm not among them, but even I wish they were a little less overt.

Otherwise, I have to admit, for a movie that shouldn't exist, it's pretty enjoyable. The actors are good, the music is REALLY good (quick: name all the good scores in DTV movies. Yeah.), and the mix of Rosemary's Baby-esque "she's the chosen one" stuff and good ol' fashioned exorcism motifs works well more often than not. Oddly, this is sort of Venne's thing: scripting a DTV sequel to a lousy theatrical release and somehow making the better of the two films (he also did Mirrors 2 and Fright Night 2, which was actually yet another remake but still miles better than the stupid Colin Farrell one it was tied to). He's not infallible (Bag of Bones, though he had a lesser King book to work from and the most indifferent director on the planet shooting his pages), but that's a pretty decent track record, far as I'm concerned, and he's definitely the guy to hire if you're planning on making a sequel to, I dunno, Whiteout or something.

The Blu-ray comes with a few bonus features; you can skip the director diaries and "surveillance" footage (just long takes of shit we see on monitors at the hospital), but the look at exorcisms in the real world is fairly interesting if you're interested in the subject. For starters they spend more time talking to real priests and psychologists than the actors or director (who also gave us the I Spit On Your Grave remake and its first sequel; oddly enough the 3rd film, which he skipped, was released on the same day at this), so it actually has a little more to say than the usual fluff piece, where it'd usually be window dressing for movie promotion. Here it almost seems like they added the actors in later just to tie it together. Like the film itself, better than you'd probably expect out of something so seemingly unnecessary. Speaking of unnecessary, a digital copy is included in case you want to watch a pixelated version on your iPad or whatever.

I won't keep this disc; it's a perfectly OK movie that I'll never feel the need to watch again and nothing more. But the fact that it actually paid off/made up for the wonkiest thing about the original really tickled me, and (spoiler?) I liked how they set up a 3rd film, showing that Molly might still be possessed or whatever, AND also showing another girl seemingly being picked to be next. Hell maybe they can branch off and do both - do a series of "The Exorcism of ______" films and more ______'s of Molly Hartley. The Death of Molly Hartley, The Resurrection of Molly Hartley, The Inquisition of Molly Hartley... the possibilities are endless! And, apparently, potentially enjoyable!

What say you?


Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)

OCTOBER 23, 2015


I used to always rewatch at least the previous entry of a franchise before heading out for a new sequel, if not a few of them if the series had been going long enough. However, time does not allow for such things anymore, and usually I'm lucky if I even find time to skim the films' Wikipedia entries beforehand. But I was asked to moderate a Q&A for the first Paranormal Activity just two nights ago, giving me my first viewing of the original/best film in the series in probably 4 years, and I spent a good chunk of that viewing wondering how in just six years it went from a series that worked because it was so simple (and largely believable) to one that was in 3D and promised to explain all of the "mythology" that had been building over the previous four sequels. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension retains the found footage element (and the "Night #_" title cards) but is otherwise unrecognizable as a followup to that perfectly simple and effective film - and hits a new low for a franchise that hadn't been exactly knocking it out of the park lately.

Based on the grosses for the last two films, maybe some of you haven't kept up with this convoluted and increasingly uninteresting saga, but if you're in the mood to return to its world I have some good news for you - the only ones you really need to see are the first and third films, which are also the best. As this is the last one (they say, though tracking suggests that the box office won't be strong enough for them to change their minds) we will apparently never get any explanations for the unanswered questions from Paranormal Activity 4 (no expensive fork backstory!) or The Marked Ones, as those films are barely acknowledged (Hunter makes a brief appearance, and since there's a magic door I guess we can count it as a callback to Marked Ones' climax). Katie only appears as a little girl, leaving Katie Featherston completely out of this one for the first time - a bizarre choice considering its supposed position as the series closer. At this point it's more or less for fans only - why not give them one last scene with the series' most prominent player? It'd be like sending Jason to hell in a movie where he barely appear- oh, wait.

Anyway, the movie takes place in 2013 and focuses on the family that lives in a brand new (and impossibly gorgeous) home that, as we learn around halfway through, was built on the spot where Katie and Kristy's home was, before it burned down. While setting up Christmas decorations (and filming themselves doing it, even though it seems like the sort of task that would be easier to do with two hands) they find a box that doesn't belong to them, and wouldn't you know it - it contains an ancient video camera and the box of tapes that we first saw in PA3. Tapes get watched, freaky shit starts happening, more cameras are set up... you know how this goes by now. The trailer highlighted one of the film's few fun ideas, which is the idea that the girls on the 25 year old tapes were somehow seeing our heroes in the present and even communicating with them - but the film barely uses it. It only happens twice (and you've already seen one), so you can't help but feel kind of deflated when such moments come and go so quickly, only to be followed up by yet another two minutes of watching everyone sleep via multiple camera angles before anything happens.

The other new wrinkle for this entry is the 3D, which sounds wholly ridiculous on paper - why is a found footage movie in 3D? Better yet, HOW is a found footage movie in 3D, given that the consumer cameras these people use don't have that function. But oddly enough, it's one of the film's few bright spots, as director Gregory Plotkin wisely keeps everything flat except for when the ghost is out and about, with its floating particles and the things it's "touching" being given the extra dimension over an otherwise standard 2D image. So yeah, you're spending a giant chunk of the movie's runtime wearing 3D glasses for no reason, but at least it's movie-logical in its implementation, and gives the film most of the faint pulse that it has.

But at the same time, it's sort of representative of everything that's wrong with the movie. The first one terrified people with little more than loud bumps on the steps and a few shadows moving around - this one relies on a giant CGI black swirl to get those boo moments. On occasion Plotkin trusts in the audience's imagination - there's a fun little bit where the mom (who, in keeping with the film's attempt to remind us of 1 and 3, is once again a gorgeous brunette) sticks her head in the fireplace to get something that the spooky daughter threw in the back of it, and the unseen ghost turns the gas on - that's the stuff that works! The thing that will give you House on Haunted Hill (the remake) flashbacks - not so much. And not only is it not scary, but it also runs perpendicular to the very thing that made the original movie work: its natural believability. You could probably fool a younger audience member into thinking that the first film was a legitimate recording of a couple who got haunted, but even my infant son would recognize this one as a scripted Hollywood movie from start to finish. Recognizable actors, 3D, and CGI by no less than ILM itself will keep you from ever buying into the "reality" of the movie, which is the whole point of a POV movie in the first place. I mean, Christ, when you need the FX wizards behind Star Wars to create the scares in your Paranormal Activity movie, you're obviously doing something very wrong.

(Also wrong: needing three credited writing teams. To make a sequel to a movie one guy made by himself in his own house.)

It also has its own internal problems, starting with the vague characterization we're given for its leads. In a nice nod to Oren Peli's early days, the dad is a video game designer (or programmer? Bug tester? It's never clear, but we only see him frowning at an iPad once saying he needs to get the game finished, so it doesn't matter), but whatever mom does is a total mystery, and neither of them ever have to leave the house, I guess (the film never once goes beyond their front yard - even when they try to escape by going to a hotel, we just hear about it when they return, defeated). And yet, they apparently require a live-in nanny? Olivia Dudley from Vatican Tapes is always nice to see, but I honestly couldn't tell you why she needed to be in this movie, and the film offers no real explanation either. At first I thought she was a friend who was kind of always hanging around, but there's a scene where the little girl wakes up in the middle of the night and it's Dudley, not the mom, who comes in to comfort her. I also considered the idea that maybe she was just the wife's sister, but if so it's kind of creepy that the dad's brother would be hitting on her so much, as they were in-laws. So two stay at home parents have a nanny and a gorgeous, gigantic home (the little girl has a bedroom AND a playroom) with a Christmas tree that would make Clark Griswold jealous, and as always with these things also apparently live in a bubble where neighbors are never concerned with all the screaming and crashes that occur. Again: why operate under the guise of reality if you're more unbelievable than the average Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? Why not drop the video camera angle completely?

Speaking of the camera, I had to laugh at the idea that these folks were already filming every stupid thing they did for no reason BEFORE they find the box of tapes and magic video camera. Toby the ghost has incredibly weird luck when it comes to choosing victims, as they all just love filming things all the time. And yet it doesn't stop the brother from mocking the family from PA3, saying "Did these people just film EVERYTHING?" as he himself is being filmed for no reason (and this of course leads to the inevitable scene where a man tapes his brother and sister-in-law as they watch a tape of them watching a tape). Exposition is a frequent problem as well; Dudley is CLEARLY dubbed in one major scene, rattling off nonsense about the witch cult, and other bits of backstory reveals are similarly dropped in voice-over by dad or whoever is holding the camera. They also throw in the idea that Katie posed as a real estate agent to make sure that THIS family moved into THIS home, which doesn't jive with PA4's narrative. If you recall, that one took place in Nevada, so clearly Toby can get around - why would Katie have to go to all that (seemingly impossible) trouble to make sure this targeted family lived in that particular house? Couldn't he just go anywhere they ended up?

This is the series that killed Saw, which is amusing because it attempted the same sort of annual longevity and ran out of gas way earlier. Saw rebounded creatively with its 6th film (albeit not financially, that was the one that went up against the first Paranormal), but this, essentially Paranormal 6 since the "spinoff" Marked Ones ultimately opted to spend its third act bending over backwards to be connected, is possibly its nadir. Even Paranormal 4 had a pretty good ending (this one's is terrible, for the record) and the fun Kinect stuff - here, without 3D it will have nothing of note really going for it. I find it funny that they took down Saw but ended up with one less entry and not even half of the goodwill - people are still asking about a Saw 8, but I can't imagine too many people will be bugging Blumhouse and Paramount to continue the series after three dud entries in a row (Marked Ones was better than this or PA4, yes, but hardly a return to the heights of the first three, and the grosses were only half of what PA4 made, itself a major disappointment). Somewhere along the line they lost sight of what made the first three movies so successful and interesting, and ended up with a baffling, half-baked mythology that this finale only partially resolves. Maybe they're not totally ready to call it a day on this series, but I'm sad to say as a major champion of the original - I think I am. Good luck with the video game.

What say you?


Hangman (2015)

OCTOBER 14, 2015


I've lived in my current place for exactly a year now (why I opted to move in October is a decision I will never understand), and I have yet to actually enter the "attic" that is accessible from the hallway connecting the bedrooms upstairs. I only own a little painter's ladder that's not nearly tall enough for me to get in there or even look around, and I usually have more pressing matters to deal with, so I just never bother to find a way up there. Best I can tell it's not tall enough for me to stand up in (even my infant son might bump his noggin), but it still kind of weirds me out, that there's this entire area of the place I live that I've never actually seen. And that may be why Hangman worked on me, because the home invader sets up shop in a similar (larger) attic space that no one in the house ever seems to check thoroughly.

Unfortunately the cops also neglect to give it a good once over, I guess, because otherwise the movie would be over pretty quickly. For reasons I'm not sure I totally understand, the guy trashes the place after setting up his cameras and attic "bedroom", instead of just leaving it as is so they wouldn't suspect a thing. Luckily for him, the cops that are called to investigate the break-in apparently don't check the attic, so I guess he was either VERY daring or just knew from experience that the LAPD tends to be lazy (I've lost count at how many times I've seen someone blow through a red light right in front of a cop who ultimately did nothing). Still, I wish director Adam Mason had justified this behavior in some way.

Oh, yes, that's the same Adam Mason who made Broken, which I dubbed the most worthless movie I had ever seen (and I watched it after coming home from Screamfest, if memory serves), and whose other two films I had seen showed little improvement. That, plus two warnings from trusted friends had me thinking this would be a disaster, but I must admit it had me spooked more than once. There are a couple of moments where you're watching a long take of the parents sleeping or something and then suddenly you realize that the Hangman has been sitting/standing there watching the whole time (night vision + unfamiliar room = your eye isn't naturally drawn to a completely motionless figure wearing all black), and I love shit like that. And it's thankfully short on violence; Broken in particular was one of those movies that equated torture with terror, but here there's almost none, and what little there is tends to be pretty quick. The film's opening, showing the Hangman finishing up at the last family's house (i.e. killing them) before moving on to this new one is a bit torture-y, with screaming and a knife being grazed along a terrified woman's body, but that's as harsh as it gets.

It's also surprisingly funny. If there's one justification for Hangman trashing the joint, it would be for the runner about dad Jeremy Sisto finding his daughter's vibrator when he goes to check her room. It could have been just that one gag, but it keeps coming back - she later asks if he "found anything" when he went in her room, and then he tells the mom about it and they make jokes - it's kind of endearing. The family unit is much more believable than many of these things; Paranormal Activity 2 in particular kept coming to mind (due to the x number of fixed cameras, but also the kitchen was very similar) as one where they didn't really FIT, but they had a trump card here - the kids are actually siblings. It's Ty Simpkins from the Insidious movies and his sister Ryan, and while they aren't the focus as much as the parents, their very (obviously) natural brother-sister love/hate dynamic works great, and as the parents Sisto and Kate Ashfield are also believably in the 16th or so year of their marriage.

Unfortunately an important part of the plot requires Ashfield to be home "alone" for big chunks of the runtime, because the Hangman eventually plants evidence to make it look like Sisto is having an affair (with a character played by Amy Smart, who is never seen close enough to know that it's Amy Smart*). So obviously Sisto's character is always off working late (which is usually movie shorthand for characters that really ARE having affairs), and she has to be the sort of movie housewife that is constantly collecting laundry from around the house and finding incriminating things (lipstick on the collar in this case). It's kind of a weak subplot, and in the post movie Q&A (moderated by some jerk) Sisto admitted that this family drama should have been worked into the movie earlier, since the movie has a big hurdle to clear - it feels long. The scares all work, but they're also a bit repetitive, and there's a lot of fat between them (SPOILERS AHEAD - skip to next paragraph if you wish!). There's a subplot with the daughter's boyfriend that seems to exist solely to give the movie a kill, and I couldn't help but wonder if the movie would have "needed" it if they had just moved things along a little faster. Or they could just trust in the audience enough to not demand bloodshed and delete him entirely, which would bring the runtime down a bit. Don't get me wrong - it's only 85 minutes, which is normal feature length, but for something like this, where you're looking at identical camera angles and a minimal cast the whole time, even 3-4 minutes could make a huge difference.

Speaking of the fixed angles, having the villain be in charge of the camera is a godsend, as no one has to pick up a camera to investigate a noise or whatever, but while that logic is sound some of their actions are not. Even when they know someone has broken into the house, they're a bit too cavalier about weird things that occur after that, like a vase disappearing and the OJ being on the counter when they go downstairs in the morning. There are three separate moments where the wife will inquire about something weird and Sisto's like "Hmm? I dunno." and not, you know: "Oh shit we still have a burglar problem!" As I've said a million times, horror movies kind of require that we drop our guard a bit when it comes to logic, but when it's a found footage-y type like this the problem is exacerbated, since it's being presented as reality. And the irony is, for these movies the logic problems are usually "why are they filming?" but in this one they're NOT so we end up back in the same spot we are for traditionally shot films. I have no answers for how to work around these things (they can't be too paranoid because they'll find the guy, but he has to do SOMETHING or else there's no movie), but I can say it's certainly a red flag for the movie, and the sort of thing that probably resulted in those friends all but begging me not to go see it.

But I think they were being ridiculous. Considering my very negative attitude toward Mason's other movies, I was certainly prepared to join their chorus, but I realized quickly that it was a lot better than they had led me to believe. Perfect? No, not even "great" - but for what it set out to do (creep you out, make you fear drinking from a previously opened bottle of wine, etc), I think it did it well, and as a fan of Alone With Her, I liked seeing another one along those lines as opposed to typical hand-held blandness. And it was still getting to me a bit hours later; I realized this morning that I never actually went into my office last night after coming home (as I usually do), and suddenly the movie's idea of someone hiding in plain sight in your home got spooky to me all over again. Hangman coulda been in there all night! *Buys ladder*

What say you?

*The character's extremely limited role in the movie led to a confused audience member thinking that the wife was accusing him of having an affair with their daughter, i.e. the only other female in the movie. That was pretty funny.


Mosquito (1995)

OCTOBER 11, 2015


There have been approximately 11 million arguments about practical FX vs CGI over the past 20 years or so, and I've probably engaged in half of them (on the side of the former, of course). But it wasn't until I watched Mosquito that I finally realized one of the primary advantages to a physical object that the actors are interacting with - they can be GROSS. Sure, some of the FX shots in this 1995 flick are dodgy as hell, but even when it's at its most corny, there's something particularly icky about watching these giant mosquitoes with their thick hairy parts, slimy legs and stickers (I don't know any bug terms and I'm not going to know them) that really put you in the moment more than even the best CGI can. It's the tactile element that makes this film in particular a good example for how the non-computerized versions of these things will always be the superior option.

To be fair, I should admit I have a particular hatred of "skeeters", due to a childhood allergy that would cause bites to swell up into these clammy welts (and we were in the woods in Maine a lot, so I got bit on the regular). Also I have sensitive hearing, and that high pitched whine they make when they buzz near my ear is actually more disturbing to me than nails on a chalkboard (I assume it's the "danger" element that elevates it above that classic classroom mishap). And director Gary Jones went for the jugular here, offering not 30 foot insects like Them!, but ones that are about half the size of a full grown man - the right size to freak me out. I've explained before that giant monsters don't particularly scare me, because the logic part of my brain says "I can see/hear/FEEL it coming and just get the hell away", but these things can fly into an RV, through a window, etc. - and again, they're practical, so their size allows the actors to wrestle with them on the regular, upping the icky factor. I wouldn't say I was terrified by the movie, but I was certainly more engaged and unnerved by it because of this.

The aforementioned weak FX shots were mostly limited to ones where Jones and co. were trying to make the numbers of mosquitoes more impressive, using mattes and plates and other 1950's style tricks to make a couple of bugs look like a dozen. But even those are fine in the long run, because they make good on the idea that there are a lot of these things flying around - and by that I mean a lot of them are killed. In fact, the very first one we see gets killed almost instantly, splattered across a windshield like billions of bugs before it, except causing actual damage to the car in the process (and mistaken for an animal by the driver). And Jones offs a ton of human characters early on (mostly off-screen) as the things annihilate a picnic area, but evens the score throughout the movie, as our motley band of heroes kills another one every few minutes as they first get together and eventually make their way to presumed safety. For anyone who ever got a nasty bite, or had trouble killing a pesky insect in their own house, this movie will prove to be quite cathartic.

And it's good that there's plenty of action, because some of the acting is... well, let's just be nice and say that everyone earns an A for effort. I will say this though - I appreciate that none of the actors seemed to be mugging for the camera or doing it ironically. The performances are just genuinely stiff in a few spots, which is infinitely preferable to a bunch of jerks assuming that they have the license to act bad on purpose because it's a dumb monster movie. No, they take it serious, and while the movie isn't exactly a comedic version of these things (it's inspired by 50s monster movies, sure, but it's not like Killer Klowns or Slither), this makes the occasional lousy performance a lot easier to deal with. That said, I WAS a bit disappointed that Gunnar Hansen was tasked with making a horrible joke when his character inevitably grabs a chainsaw to fight off the bugs ("I haven't used one of these in 20 years," he says as my eyes roll out of my head), because to me it would have been funnier if they didn't even make a big deal of it. I've noted before that Hansen was always pretty selective with his movie roles (this was only his 5th one post-Chain Saw - an average of one every four years), and I always assumed part of that was him not wanting to be coasting on Leatherface forever, so I wish he vetoed this dumb ass line.

Watching the bonus features, it became pretty clear why the movie turned out better than I was expecting, as everyone got along well and had faith in both Jones and the movie in general. They 'got' it, in other words, and everyone worked hard to do it justice. Across the 75 minute retrospective, 40 minute behind the scenes video (with optional Jones commentary), and feature commentary you'll hear almost no "dirt" whatsoever - and nearly everyone is accounted for. Some of these retrospectives are sadly lacking in the major players (I still remember getting a Fletch "special edition" that didn't have Chevy, Michael Ritchie, Joe Don Baker, Tim Matheson, Geena Davis...), but the only two major actors that aren't here are actually dead which would make their participation tricky. There are some typical "perils of low-budget filmmaking" type stories, but unlike say, Deadly Spawn (where the director and producer won't even sit in the same room and spend their commentaries taking shots at the other), these folks seemed to get along just as well then as they do now, and it's genuinely endearing (and sadly rare). The only low point seems to be their unfortunate distribution, which saw the film sold for a profit but never given much of a release as they went bankrupt due to other movie failures. Jones repeats some of his stories across the three, but if you enjoyed the movie they're just as endearing. Some deleted scenes are also included but none of them are worth the time to navigate over to them (the extended ending is literally just the same ending, extended, as the survivors just walk further).

It's well known that the first half of the 90s produced several classics and a lot of forgettable crap, but relatively few mid-level movies like this. It's not a masterpiece, but it's got this infectious charm to it. Initially I assumed it'd be something I'd eventually glance at while folding laundry or building another Lego kit, but I found myself getting more and more into it as it went on, and by the time they went full blown Night of the Living Dead, holing up in a farmhouse and boarding up windows (except with mosquitoes instead of zombies), I was totally on board. It's a shame it didn't get a chance to be a bigger hit back in the day, but I suspect it would have tanked anyway - I honestly think the awful, CG driven monster movies that have plagued us since have made this look even better now than it probably did back then. Synapse is releasing it alongside fucking Manos, but don't let that feel you - this is not a "so bad it's good" type of thing, it's just a solid B-movie, the likes of which we could always use more of nowadays.

What say you?


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