The Atticus Institute (2015)

JANUARY 21, 2015


Now that we've come to our senses and the found footage sub-genre (which it sadly became, even though it's not a genre) has died down considerably, distributors will hopefully be more choosy when it comes to the titles they select to push. Gone are the days where "Oh it's like Paranormal Activity!" can entice anyone, so the filmmakers still trying to cash in on the trend will see their films bought for pennies and dumped on budget packs, while the more interesting ones like The Atticus Institute will get a nice blu-ray release from Anchor Bay. It's not going to revive the dying style, but it's certainly a step above the dreck that we were inundated with in the earlier part of the decade.

Of course, part of that quality upgrade stems from the fact that it's not the usual found footage thing - it's a full blown (fake) documentary, with video footage from the experiment in the 1970s mixed with present day talking head bits featuring the people who survived what happened 40 years ago. It's a rare approach to take with this sort of thing, and thankfully the filmmakers didn't opt to put old age makeup on the actors - they're just played by different people (including the great Harry Groener). Sure, they don't look all that much like their counterparts (though the one main military guy is a decent match), but that actually kind of works in a way, if you look at the 1970s scenes as recreation of a real event, sort of like how Unsolved Mysteries worked. Indeed, this is basically a feature length UM episode - the ending is ambiguous, and the survivors are still looking for closure on certain things. All that's missing is Robert Stack and his trenchcoat (don't you dare invoke the Dennis Farina era on my watch).

Another thing working in its favor is the involvement of the military in a possession tale. The story hits all of the beats of your average Exorcist wannabe, complete with a 3rd act priest who hadn't been involved in the story (actually he never appeared at all, so that's more of an Exorcist III homage), but it's fairly rare to invoke the usual black-suited hardasses who of course just want to use the possessed woman (Judith) as a weapon. Since she can read minds and use telekinesis, the idea is that she'll not only be an asset for intelligence ("Hey, read that crazy dictator's mind - who is he planning to attack?") but also assassinations - who could possibly identify her as the killer if she just sat there and used her powers to transfer a heavy object into someone's noggin? So it's got Exorcist DNA, but also The Fury, which I must respect - not enough people reference that one, as far as I'm concerned.

However, it feels a bit stretched thin, particularly in the middle section when we know what's going on but have to wait until the exorcism attempts can begin. There's a good 3-4 minutes devoted to Groener telling a story about how he found a paper clip in Judith's cell and a week later it fell out of his pocket at his nephew's birthday party, which resulted in the dumb kid sticking it into an outlet and being electrocuted (and presumably killed, unless I missed it they never actually say, though they do talk about him in the past tense). Not sure why a kid would be off by himself fucking with paper clips at his own birthday party, but this is too long and complicated a diversion to be really scary - it's not even directly chalked up to Judith's actions! There's a far better version of the same idea earlier in the movie, where Judith gets under another scientist's skin by mocking her for not being there when her mother had died - it's direct, it's creepy (she obviously would have had no idea that the woman had been carrying that guilt), and it causes an immediate reaction - the scientist leaves the room, upset... and then runs back in and attacks Judith, who has a shit-eating grin on her face. For the Groener character, he just quits and feels terrible - there's not even a scene of his 70s counterpart confronting her.

I was also bummed to see a wholly terrible CGI effect in the film's closing moments, when someone is killed via psychic gut exploding (like the head in Scanners - just lower!). Not only does it not look good in the slightest (and the blood pooling on the chest seems to shift around unnaturally - it looks more like someone dropped some tomato sauce or something on your TV), but the movie had otherwise done a fine job of recreating 70s aesthetics with its footage, and this spoils the illusion at a crucial time (i.e. when the movie's just about over and you're about to pass your final judgment). The clothing and hairstyles are a solid match, but that's easy enough - I was more impressed by the set design and even the video footage - it looks dated, but they don't overboard like far too many filmmakers do when aging their footage with filters. With at least half of the movie set in the 70s, it'd be really grating to see excessive scratches, specks, glitching, etc over all of it, and thankfully writer/director Chris Sparling (directing a feature solo for the first time) understood that. Less is more!

(side note - Sparling's name seemed familiar to me, and I was surprised to see he was the writer of ATM, one of the dumbest goddamn movies I've ever seen. Hopefully that and not this was the fluke.)

The Blu has an OK brief making of featurette that sadly ends with the cast (including William Mapother, giving his scenes some Dharma Initiative flair) getting spooked by an off-screen banging, claiming that the production has been haunted like that. Come on guys. You can do better. Otherwise it's a decent little piece, with Mapother explaining the difficulties of getting into character to create so many tiny little bits (photographs, surveillance footage of walking down a corridor, etc), though I wish they had spent more time on putting together the retro sets on a low budget. The deleted scenes collection is of more use; nothing essential but it adds to something that was my overall favorite thing about the movie: it was really fleshed out for something that was completely made up. I was actually momentarily fooled into thinking maybe Atticus was a real place (it's not), as they do a fairly good job of establishing its credentials and history, with lots of superfluous details that just make it feel more "lived in". So the scenes just add to that, even if on their own they're not particularly exciting and belonged excised.

It's a shame the mock-doc genre got so flooded that a movie that's just pretty good seems like a breath of fresh air; like 3D I think this approach can be a terrific tool and a fun/interesting way to present certain narratives, but greedy producers just applied it to everything and got the audience turned against it; striking while the iron is hot rather than ensure it stayed that way. It'll likely be a long time before it can be revived again by something really special, the way Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield did in 1999 and 2008, respectively - but until then I'm fine with perfectly decent entries like this helping to wash the bad taste of dreck like Amber Alert and Zombie Diaries out of our mouths until we are able to look at the aesthetic as something to be excited about again.

What say you?


Annabelle (2014)

JANUARY 19, 2015


It never would have happened if I was still on the clock for the "A DAY" part of the site's name, but I missed Annabelle in theaters last fall due to my dumb decision to move during October, which is always so busy anyway. I COULD have gone one day instead of seeing Dracula Untold, but Badass wanted a review of that and the times just happened to work less in Annabelle's favor. By the time I had time again, it was gone (which is why I ended up seeing fucking Ouija), and trust me it bummed me out - I hadn't missed a major horror release theatrically since 2008 (Quarantine, also a casualty of a busy October), and this was one I actually wanted to see! I rarely request blu-rays for review anymore for the same busy reasons, opting to just pick and choose from the ones I get automatically, but I made an exception here as I didn't want to let it slide any longer.

Of course, the real reason I'm so busy these days is because of the baby; daycare dropoffs, doctor's appointments, extra trips to Target and the grocery store, etc, plus, obviously, just spending time with him eats up many of the hours I otherwise would be spending in front of the TV, which is why a movie like Annabelle probably works on me better than it should. While it's forever going to be known as a killer doll movie, Chucky this ain't - with some snips it could have almost worked as a psychological piece about a mother unraveling, not unlike the recent Babadook or Canal (a dad in that one). Many of the film's scares used basic parental fears as their jumping off point (stuff falling on the baby, baby getting out of its crib, etc), and it set the tone by having the pregnant mom get stabbed by an intruder around 10 minutes in, easily hooking in worry-wort dads like me.

I wrote more about this aspect for Badass, so I don't want to repeat myself too much - go read that if you're interested in how the movie works on a parent. For non-parents, or at least ones that have learned to calm down and not think your child is in danger every second (unlike me), I'm here to tell you that the movie is pretty decent, considering all that it had working against it. It's a prequel (red flag, automatically, and don't bring Godfather II into this as it's half sequel) to one of the most acclaimed studio horror films in recent memory, but it didn't have James Wan directing - his frequent DP John Leonetti took over the reins. And while normally the idea of keeping it in the family is a fine one, Leonetti seems to have a strange knack for directing much-hated followups: his previous films are Butterfly Effect 2 (the worst one of the series!) and the abysmal Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. It also lacked the Warrens, who are the real-life keepers of the real Annabelle doll (which is a Raggedy Ann, for the record - rights issues had them create their own for the movie) and were a big part of why The Conjuring was more interesting than the usual haunted house movie. In fact I think the entire movie is made up; it's hard to even say "Well the doll is real" when it's not the same one, nor is it using any of the real doll's backstory.

Because, as you might have guessed from the "It scared me as a parent!" intro, this movie doesn't focus on Donna and Angie, the college students who owned the doll (a gift from Donna's mother) and were the inspiration for the characters we met in the Conjuring's opening sequence (which we see a few seconds of again here, though Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are nowhere in sight). As they got the doll from a store in used condition, no one - not even the Warrens - knows the full story of how it came to be haunted/possessed, and so the filmmakers have made it up (whether they applied an existing script to the story or wrote it from scratch is unknown). What they've offered is a bit of a Rosemary's Baby riff at times, complete with a Manson connection - the plot kicks off when some cult members murder our hero couple's neighbors and then make their way into their own home, stabbing the mother (the baby is OK!) and smearing blood all over the doll, which other than being creepy - like all dolls of that type are - was seemingly normal until that point.

But unlike Chucky, who also got his start after a run-in with a murderer, Annabelle doesn't move or talk. I had feared that when they decided to make a full movie about her that they'd stoop to making her an animated being, instead of the motionless creep factory we met in Conjuring, but they stay the course and keep her still. There's one bit where she seems to be levitating, and I was just about to roll my eyes when I (and Mia, the heroine) realized that the doll was being held up by the demon that had latched itself onto it. Said demon is played by Joe Bishara, who performed similar duties for Insidious (the red lipstick one) and Conjuring (I forget, it was a woman though if memory serves), and works as the composer, and the makeup design is the most elaborate yet, I think. You see the process on one of the featurettes, and it seems to take hours to apply - all for a character whose presence is (thankfully, otherwise) kept to a minimum. In a time when CGI beasties are used more and more often, I truly appreciate spending the time to make a practical one when it's only going to be on-screen for a few seconds.

So without much of a presence to the demon, and Annabelle just sitting there, the movie is admittedly a bit stretched for a feature, doling out the needed plot points (calling a priest, someone getting hurt/killed, etc) a bit further apart than probably necessary. And that's why I think it might have gotten a lion's share of bad reviews (its Rotten Tomatoes score is below even a few of the Saw movies), because in between those bits it's mostly coasting on parental fears, which is fine for me but "boring" to those who can't sympathize with the terror we feel at every single little thing (I've since discovered the screenwriter is a parent himself, so he was likely drawing on the same things I'm afraid of - i.e. heavy objects falling on the baby due to an earthquake. He just has a demon sub in for the earthquake). Perhaps they drew too much on this and didn't make it scary or exciting enough for the non-parents (I'd say teens, but with an R rating they shouldn't have been trying to appease them anyway), but I assume EVERYONE can get behind the film's two biggest scare scenes: the home invasion early on, and the big basement sequence around the halfway mark.

The finale is also pretty tense, but unfortunately some folks have chosen to focus on the "racist" elements of it, which I find ludicrous. Spoilers ahead!

The heroine makes friends with Alfre Woodard, who owns a bookstore and is living with heavy guilt over her daughter's death (she fell asleep driving them home from a family gathering), and throughout the movie she's nothing but wonderful to Mia. So I almost wondered if they were going to throw in a twist where she was evil (to explain the over kindness), but as it turns out she really is just that great, and sacrifices herself to save Mia and the baby (and hopefully reunite with her daughter in the afterlife). For whatever reason, I've read more than one person see this as a hugely uncomfortable moment, because Ms. Woodard is black and the people she is saving are white, as if the filmmakers were saying "well they're expendable". To me it seems like a can't win scenario - if the character (who, again, is kind and successful and caring... and wanted to make amends for losing her daughter!) was white, people would complain that the movie was nothing but white people. And if the colors were reversed, it'd be dismissed as "another white savior" movie. Did it not cross these reviewers' minds that Alfre Woodard is just a great actress playing a role that wasn't determined by race, and people should just be happy they were able to secure her talents for "a killer doll movie"? I was actually happy that the film - which took place in the 60s - had a successful black woman and didn't make any big deal about it, only to find naysayers made it one on their own. Ms. Woodard isn't starved for work (she was in last year's Best Picture winner and currently stars as the President of the United States on State of Affairs), and with a 6 million total budget they couldn't have been paying her a fortune; I'm sure she would have turned down the role if she found it racially insensitive that her character died to save some white people.

The blu-ray has four bland featurettes that are in no way useful to anyone (except, as mentioned, seeing some of the makeup work for the demon), but the deleted scenes are definitely worth a look. In addition to a few more "as a parent this is my worst nightmare" bits (including one where the demon boils the bathwater!), there's a character named Fuller that, if my hours-old memory of the movie serves, was completely excised from the final version. He's the building's handyman, and he seems like a nice guy who's just a little off, which scares Mia every time she is forced to encounter him. One of the featurettes mentions his death (?) scene, which ISN'T among the collection, but I was surprised at how many of them had some scares (including a full blown FX sequence where the demon tears all the furniture asunder), instead of the usual "this was cut for pacing" (translation: "We cut this because it's character stuff that 15 year-olds would get bored by") footage. There isn't any explanation for their removal, and some are hard to place in the narrative, but they're still a notch above what you usually find in the cut material.

As I mentioned in my Badass piece, I'd really love to see a breakdown of the reviews between parents and non-parents, to see if the rare good reviews it got were from critics with children of their own. It's not exactly a classic even within those parameters, but it's better than I had been led to believe by (non parent!) pals who saw it last fall. Or perhaps it simply works better at home since it's a primarily interior-set movie? Or maybe they wanted Annabelle to do THIS? I dunno. I saw seething hatred from some people, and it baffled me - it's just a pretty decent little movie I won't remember in a year, same as most studio horror movies. Why was this a target?

What say you?


Killer Mermaid (2014)

JANUARY 17, 2015


Well if they had kept the original title of Nymph (Spanish: Mamula), maybe I wouldn't have been as surprised, but when I sat down with something called Killer Mermaid I was expecting a B-movie horror-comedy, possibly from the Asylum (one of their non-mockbuster entries, which are admittedly usually better than the "let's cash in" stuff). So when I realized it was actually a slasher (a minor whodunit one at that) I was fairly delighted, and it more or less made up for the movie's many shortcomings in my eyes, allowing me to enjoy it far more than I was expecting. Not top 10 (or 20) material*, but it's not like new slashers are plentiful these days, so I'll take what I can get as long as it's not total garbage.

Another surprise was that it kind of reminded me of Anthropophagus, as it involved a group of pals going to an isolated seaside area in Europe and getting picked off one by one (Anthropophagus was shot somewhere in Italy; this was just across the Adriatic Sea in Montenegró). Except instead of a mutant cannibal dude, our killer is a mysterious fisherman who is obviously finding human chum to serve the titular mermaid, who is safely locked up in a well. When I say whodunit I mean they attempt to hide who it is by just showing his feet or whatever for the first few kills, but it's kind of obvious who it is and unlike true mystery slashers it's not like we are suspecting any of our main heroes. There's the possibility one of them is working with the old fisherman guy, I suppose, but that doesn't happen - it's pretty straightforward.

The only other reason to hide his identity is that there's another old fisherman type, played by the awesome Franco Nero, and I guess maybe we should be thinking it's him. But I don't believe in a world that would deny us the possibility of Franco goddamn Nero fighting a mermaid, so I never really believed it was him. It's a shame they put the effort into the minor mystery; it keeps Nero on the sidelines for too much of the movie, allowing him to be a suspect rather than just letting him be a Quint-like hero all along. Our heroine is Kristina Klebe, who is charming and lovely, but her character's generic tragic backstory of why she doesn't like the water pales in comparison to Nero's own tortured past.

See, if you know your mermaid/nymph lore, you'd know that they sang men to their deaths, and that's what happened to Nero's crew long ago. He's the lone survivor and vows to kill her, but he's still susceptible to being drawn in by her song - which is how Klebe's male pals get them into trouble in the first place and then also end up dead (the writers need to get a touch more creative to get her female pals offed). It's a fun little device for a body count movie, because the women can't even HEAR the song and thus just get confused while the males literally walk into their deaths, the sort of thing that characters (both sexes) have been accused of in slasher movies for the past 5 decades. "Don't go in there!" "Don't go up there!" etc - it's a different story when they're kind of being hypnotized.

And it hits the beats of a typical slasher flick; a random couple is killed at the beginning of the movie, and another random guy is killed at the end of act 1, just to make sure we remember what kind of movie it is. Our group is comprised of old pals and a newcomer, and Nero fills in the "Don't go there!" stuff. But, you know, one of the villains is a goddamn mermaid, and eventually it has to be more of a monster movie. Here's where it becomes less interesting to me; not only is it obvious how it will turn out (though the sequel set up is inspired, and I truly hope it comes to pass as promised) but the FX on the mermaid aren't the best in the world, so there's little excitement for my eyes as I watch another flurry of pixels race across the screen. Even if the human killer's identity wasn't a surprise, it's still vastly more enjoyable to watch him do his thing, simply because a human being is the best practical effect of all. To be fair, the mermaid fin and stuff looks fine when she's not really doing much, but as soon as she springs into action, CGI non-wizards make their presence known.

Equally ho-hum is the obligatory human drama, involving Klebe's best friend sleeping with their male pal, even though he's engaged to another lady. He also can't stand the local handsome laidback guy who joins them on their excursion, for MORE tension that I guess to some folks is better than simply having our heroes like each other and enjoy each others' company. It's gotten to the point where I shouldn't even bring it up anymore; I guess this is just the way it's going to be in our modern slashers, just like I guess I'll always prefer the older ones because I like liking my characters and would rather see the time before they start getting killed spent on them having fun instead of bickering or taking one another aside to chew them out for some sort of infidelity.

My one other beef is a minor one, but it was really jarring. In the film's closing moments, a hero swings a big weapon toward camera/a person he intends to kill. It's nothing new; we know how it plays out - just as the weapon connects we will cut to black, maybe play a sound effect, and then roll credits. But here, they more or less do that - but then randomly cut in a shot of the weapon hitting the guy's head for a second before going to credits. Not only is it terrible editing, but it's betraying a perfectly good tradition without much of a payoff. If you're gonna do that, you have to make it glorious! This isn't even the movie's goriest kill or anything; it feels more like they had it leftover from a different ending and stuck it in real quick to get their money's worth.

Otherwise, if you're as slasher starved as me, you should enjoy it. Of course, maybe if you're going in knowing it's a slasher it might lose some of its appeal, and for that I apologize, but I had to write something! I couldn't spend 6-7 paragraphs pretending it was a junky mermaid movie just for YOUR benefit, could I? But while we're on the subject of beefing the word count, I'd like to point out that this is from the team that brought us Apocalypse of the Dead, which also had Klebe teamed up with a genre fave (Ken Foree), but wasn't nearly as successful (though it's watchable, so it's better than a lot of modern indie zombie movies). At the end of that review I said "Maybe they'll get me on the next one", and they did! I run into that sort of thing a lot in old reviews, where I saw some promise in the movie and hoped that the filmmakers' followup would be an improvement, but 99% of the time I forgot to actually check on such things. I chalk it up to volume; I can't quite recall who directed 2500 movies, let alone cross reference it with stuff I see 5-6 years later. I only thought to check this one because I had the thought "Wasn't Klebe in another movie made by guys with hard to pronounce names?" and went back to see if it was the same team. So grats to them for improving! I'll try my best to remember your names for the next one, but please bring Klebe along to make it easier for me, thanks.

What say you?

*I probably shouldn't say stuff like that in January. For all I know it'll be in my top 5. So far it's the 2nd best horror movie of the year after Woman In Black 2!


Supernova (2000)

JANUARY 16, 2015


I'm glad Scream Factory got two of the filmmakers to appear on camera and discuss the budget issues on Supernova, because otherwise I'd forever be left with zero comprehension of why MGM would spend 90 million (not counting marketing) on a space movie with no big stars or even all that much action, given the compact cast and single villain. Unless the title is Star and followed by Wars or Trek, space films don't tend to make all that much money at the box office; most others fall in the 30-70m range (often with more appeal; i.e. Lost in Space being based on an old TV show). And when they're half horror movies, you're into even more risky territory - by my (and Boxofficemojo's) count only the Alien movies tend to draw horror crowds into galaxies far far away.

But as it turns out, Supernova was meant to be a very low budget, kinda pulpy space horror-adventure, with one of the producers planning to use his own VFX company to get more bang for their buck. However once Walter Hill became interested, things snowballed - he rewrote the script, presumably adding more of what little action there is, and then began having almost daily arguments with the execs over the footage, the direction the movie was taking, etc. Eventually he quit entirely, forcing them to hire Jack Sholder to shape his footage and oversee reshoots. Then HE was replaced by Francis Ford Coppola, of all people, to seemingly do the same thing. The costs kept going up, ultimately costing about 3x what the original, seemingly superior version of the movie would have. And that's how the movie ended up on a list of the costliest duds of all time (as it only grossed 14m back) instead of just being some little movie that went nowhere.

Unfortunately, the behind the scenes shenanigans are seemingly more interesting and exciting than what's left on-screen. Given all the different cooks stirring the pot (a metaphor used twice on the retrospective) it's no surprise that the movie is kind of aimless and disjointed, but I WAS rather surprised at how minimal the action was. Peter Facinelli's villain doesn't even appear until almost the halfway point, and doesn't do much after that - he spends a lot of time just trying to use them into making sure he gets back to Earth with his cargo, so naturally other than being mysterious he's hardly twirling his mustache and blowing shit up. By the time he finally starts eliminating the crew (which is only 5 people, since the 6th dies on the way to get him) the movie's almost over, and whoever directed/edited the final reel clearly didn't have his heart in it by that point - they even cut the obligatory "the villain isn't really dead!" sequence (seen on the extras), as if to say "Look, let's just cut our losses and beat traffic."

And it's a shame, because the first 20 minutes or so promise something that will at least check off every box and reward you with a fairly entertaining movie, if not a particularly original one. I liked that our hero crew wasn't a bunch of intergalactic truckers or a salvage crew, like usual - it's actually a medical ship, sort of a freelance outer space ambulance, cruising the galaxy to answer distress calls and administer first aid/surgery/etc wherever needed (the best the script offers is the ship's name: Nightingale). James Spader is the newest addition, a co-pilot replacing a character who died for reasons that already escape me, and he's not particularly well liked by the head nurse (?), played by Angela Bassett (yep, the movie simultaneously recalls Stargate and Critters 4). But that doesn't stop them from randomly having sex after the captain (Robert Forster, in his first post-Jackie Brown role, the poor sod) is killed during a lightspeed jump.

The extras also reveal that this sex scene was created using footage of two other characters having sex (with the female in that case being white - imagine getting THAT FX job? "Make that white girl black so we can do this love scene without any reshoots!"), which is probably why it comes out of nowhere and is never mentioned again. As for poor Forster, when he dies so does the movie's most interesting character - a captain who is passing his time by doing a dissertation on the 20th century, who we meet doing an analysis on the (apparently now banned) Tom & Jerry cartoon. He also gets the best death by far; in one of the movie's few cool ideas, a lightspeed jump basically scrambles you up, and any malfunction could result in you not being put back together right - it's basically blending the usual idea of lightspeed with The Fly. Lou Diamond Phillips is terrified of the process for this reason, but it's Forster who gets scrambled - when they land everyone else is OK but he looks like something Rob Bottin might have come up with for The Thing.

This is where the movie really starts to show its seams; we are told that the ship (which has its own voice, named "Sweetie", that talks more than any other character, I think) will need a certain amount of time to repair itself, and that they will all be incinerated if they don't leave by a certain time, due to the gravity pulling them into the sun or something. The window in between these two events is 11 minutes - it sounds cool for a second but it doesn't really add any tension to the movie - until that 11 minute countdown actually starts, who cares? If the human characters had to repair the ship themselves before that deadline, then we could have something, but it's all done off-screen by the computers, making it a forgotten plot point until the final few minutes, when any movie of this type would rip off Alien and have a self-destruct countdown or whatever anyway. No one makes any efforts to help the computers fix the ship faster or anything either, so it's just as much a throwaway line of dialogue as it is, ostensibly, the thing driving the plot.

Facinelli's villain also sounds scarier on paper than he is shown to be by his actual actions; as it turns out Bassett's character fears him more than anything else in the world (as he is her ex), but you get the idea that he'd never even harm the crew if they had just agreed to take him home when he asked. Facinelli promises them a cut of his fee for finding the weird alien artifact, but Spader refuses, ordering it quarantined immediately and to be dealt with later. Even then, it's not like he snaps - he bangs Robin Tunney, goads Lou Diamond Phillips into absorbing some of the alien rock's power, etc. I thought maybe he was gonna start turning them all against each other and then sitting back to watch the sparks fly, but no - Tunney pisses him off and he sucks her out of an airlock. Then Lou Diamond realizes what he's done and tries to fight him, only for Facinelli to, uh, suck him out of the airlock. Yep, the movie's villain kills exactly 3 people and does two in the exact same manner, only moments apart. And the movie was more interesting before he showed up anyway, so you can see why this movie fails to be exciting either as sci-fi or horror.

Hilariously, the deleted scenes reveal a 3rd or 4th intriguing idea - a little gnome looking guy (dried up human?) that Facinelli left for dead on the mining colony. The deleted stuff has a lot more of this subplot of Spader returning to Facinelli's base to seek answers, something that's whittled down to nothing in the feature, and sadly this is the only real appearance of the little guy - I'm curious if he had a bigger part in any of the almost assuredly superior script drafts that were tossed out before (and during) production. There's also an alternate ending, but it's basically just what I mentioned - adding in a bit where Facinelli comes back for more (well, sort of - it's obvious why it was cut). The real draw is the 25 minute retrospective, which focuses almost entirely on the film's production issues. Lou Diamond and Forster are the only cast members, sadly (Forster exits the movie too quickly for him to have been privy to too much of the shenanigans, though he does say the movie was intended to be a lot longer than 90 minutes), but Sholder and producer Daniel Chuba are more than willing to explain what went wrong, so it doesn't lack for details. It's funny how they waste zero time on things like Phillips talking about working with the other actors or Chuba discussing where they shot it or whatever - it's literally wall to wall "dirt", though they skip over the film's horrible box office and the curious decision to put Sugar Ray (!) on the film's trailer. Which, by the way, is the most fascinating thing about the movie yet, as it seems to be trying to sell it as a sexy comedy about Spader and Facinelli's intergalactic pissing contest.

I don't know if this movie has any fans, but if they're out there they should be happy with Scream's blu. In addition to the new retrospective (the other stuff was on the DVD), it's got a decent transfer that should, if nothing else, make male fans of Ms. Tunney very happy. Only the R rated version is present (the theatrical version lacked the nudity and had a PG-13), which will upset Supernova purists, but if those people actually exist we shouldn't be enabling them. Someday there will be a book about how MGM went from powerhouse to being so broke that they couldn't afford to release their movies, and if it's exhaustive enough it should have a pretty good chapter on this movie - until then, this is the definitive account of how so much money accounted for so little.

What say you?


Horns (2013)

JANUARY 5, 2015


I really really wanted to see Horns when it came out; I hadn't missed any of Aja's films theatrically (I was one of the 9 people who saw High Tension during its US run) and I love that Daniel Radcliffe has turned out to be a pretty damn good actor. But alas, after missing it at Beyond Fest I blanked on its theatrical release entirely - I'm not even sure what (if any) theaters it played at near me during its 2 week run (per Boxofficemojo). As with most of Radius-TWC's genre releases, they didn't really advertise that it was out, and was probably in the smaller theaters instead of the bigger multiplexes, so basically you had to be specifically looking for it to know it was out, so if you're busy (like I was, with moving) it would just pass you by.

And that's an even bigger bummer when you consider that the movie is pretty fun, the sort of thing that'd be a blast with a big crowd of appreciative fans. It's not a perfect movie by any means, but its issues would probably be less noticeable if there were 200 people enjoying the movie in a dark theater (and around Halloween to boot), something that probably never even happened outside of festival showings. Of course, Radius is one of the studios who are pro-VOD, opting to show the movie in private homes BEFORE it played theatrically, a model that I'll never support but am clearly on the losing side of the battle. If this had been picked up by Fox (who released a couple of Aja's other films) it likely would have been released traditionally and possibly even become a hit. Instead, you're likely to have a conversation with someone who was unaware it had ever even come out. Sigh.

Anyway, I never read the book, but according to a talkback comment in my latest Badass article, the whodunit aspect of the movie doesn't exist in the source material - author Joe Hill told you who it was right off the bat. The mystery is definitely one of those aforementioned weaknesses; there are two obvious picks and one is a bit TOO easy so it has to be the other one. But then again, the early part of the movie, where you're not sure if Radcliffe's character Iggy IS innocent of the murder he's being accused of, works pretty well - and obviously the book wouldn't have that sort of intrigue if we knew it was ______. I'd have to read it to know for sure, but I don't think the whodunit aspect was a bad idea; I think the execution itself is to blame. With a few more suspects it might have worked like gangbusters.

A shorter length might have helped too; the movie creeps around two hours, which is fine in theory (the book is nearly 400 pages, so they clearly had to cut things as it is), but with an uninvolving mystery it starts to drag, as you just want Iggy to catch up to where you likely were an hour before. Then there are TWO showdowns with the killer, both of which seem to go on longer than necessary - if Aja and screenwriter Keith Bunin had found a way to combine the two I think the film as a whole would have been even more successful. It's possible that they took this direct from the book, but that doesn't matter - they're here to make a movie, not translate something that exists in another medium. What works on the page might fall flat on screen and vice versa, and it's their job to know the difference.

Otherwise, I was pretty entertained. The titular horns that appear on Iggy's head one day serve two comedic purposes; one being that no one seems to be bothered all that much by them, sort of like how in Grosse Pointe Blank no one really cared that Cusack's character was a hitman ("It's a growth industry!"). The other is that they inspire everyone to be brutally honest with Iggy and anyone else around, so you get a woman admitting out of nowhere how much she hates her bratty daughter and wishes she could be fucking her tennis instructor again. And then it helps the mystery in a weird way, because he can ask people for answers and they won't lie or hide anything, which should have been used to help speed the movie up but is still a good way to earn laughs in the 2nd half of the movie, when the gimmick otherwise could have been played out.

It's also got the best cast assembled for a genre film in ages. Any movie with David Morse is automatically at least "pretty good", and Aja roped in some other fine character actors like James Remar and Joe Anderson (as Iggy's father and brother, respectively) for good measure. I wish Kathleen Quinlan (the mom) was in it more, but as a tradeoff he even manages to make Heather Graham fun for the first time in over a decade, and as a Red Velvet fan it was great to see Kelli Garner in a genre film again. And again, Radcliffe has proven there's more to him than Harry Potter, to the point that even when Iggy interacts with snakes it barely registered as a coincidence to his parseltongued former character (he also does a pretty great job with an American accent; not sure if I've ever heard him with one before). Oh, Juno Temple does nothing for me but I know she is quite beloved by some of my peers - she's good too.

But what really surprised me is that the humor really worked more often than not. The TONE is a bit all over the place, and as a result I wasn't sure if certain things were supposed to be funny or not, but considering Aja wouldn't even let loose with Piranha 3D (he wanted to make a real horror movie) I feared that he simply didn't have it in him to find the humor in such a strange tale. Perhaps someone else could have made it even FUNNIER, but I'm just happy that when I did laugh, it was the intended result, not my being amused by something meant to be taken seriously. There's a bit late in the film where someone bursts out laughing after someone's head is blown off, and it's a perfect dark comedy moment - it's good that Aja is branching out! This is the guy that couldn't even find the fun in Jack Bauer fighting killer mirrors.

Sadly he didn't feel the need to discuss his newfound appreciation of the funny - it's the first of his films that he didn't provide an audio commentary for the DVD. Between that and the movie's curiously long time on the shelf (it was shot in 2012) makes me wonder if there wasn't some sort of post-production drama that resulted in both the film's limited release and this curiously low-key disc, which only has a single EPK style making of (with Aja's talking head bits coming from what appears to be a French junket) for bonus features. No trailer, no deleted scenes, no alternate language tracks, nada. The making of is fine - I particularly liked the look at how they created the appliance for Radcliffe to wear (and the surprising reveal that the movie's horns were much more realistic looking than the novel's, which apparently flashed red) - but it's hardly adding much value to the disc, which already had to overcome the fact that people could have been watching the movie at home for months now (another reason why this "VOD before theatrical" model makes no sense to me).

I know some folks hated the movie, and I can almost see why - anything with these sort of tonal shifts requires a certain mood, and I just happened to be in it when I watched. Would it have been a big hit if given a wide release? Who knows, but it certainly would have had curious moviegoers looking to find out. Woman In Black made a lot of money, and I suspect a lot of it was just from folks who wanted to see "Harry Potter" as an adult, so there's no reason to think that this wouldn't have benefited from the same sort of thing (if not more so, since he's more age appropriate and playing a role much further removed than his famous character than he did in Woman, where he was ironically a bit too young to be playing a lawyer with a 5 year old son). And a bigger success could have resulted in more adaptations for Joe Hill's work (maybe Locke & Key could have been revived!), so that's also a bummer. Usually when a dud theatrical release hits disc I will say something like "Fix your mistake, see what you missed!" but it's been available at home since early October, and thus you've probably already done that. So I guess this disc release is specifically for people like me who don't want to contribute to the VOD market but also missed its theatrical window? What a strange way to release a movie.

What say you?


[REC] 4: Apocalypse (2014)

JANUARY 1, 2015


The last film in the series polarized folks, so if you hated it you will probably be happy to know [REC] 4: Apocalypse drops the humor for a more straightforward zombie tale, albeit again without the found footage/POV conceit that the title refers to. As a result, this film is somewhat indistinguishable from any number of post 28 Days Later zombie movies, with only the setting (a boat) giving it some identity and the grand return of Ángela Vidal to justify it as a series entry. And to do the latter, they have to undo the ballsy development in [Rec] 2, so boo on that. The 3rd film's splatter humor (and shot at the first two films' aesthetic) might have annoyed some fans, but I'd rather that than just another zombie movie when we already have too many - the film simply has no hook.

Wait, doesn't it have an apocalypse, you might ask? Nope, the plot quite frustratingly picks up right where the 2nd film left off, which itself was immediately after the first, so not enough time has passed for a true apocalypse (so the title as a whole refers to nothing, I guess). It's been 7-8 years in production time but only like 24-48 hours have passed since Angela first entered the apartment building in the first film, which would be interesting and could work beautifully in an anthology series but a bit weird when you have an older looking Manuela Velasco watching footage she just recorded a day or two before. I know I love the Saw series for bending over backwards to present a serialized continuity, but it's not entirely necessary for this franchise - they even include a character from the 3rd film (one of the wedding guests who went back to her room to lie down and missed all the chaos, if memory serves), like most fans would care if it had been ignored as a diversion, the same way the Nightmare on Elm St series pretended the 2nd film never happened.

And not for nothing, but at least when it's a POV movie the shaky-cam shit makes sense - there's a fight in a hallway here that I literally found incomprehensible due to Jaume Balagueró's frenetic camerawork, as if he forgot that he was supposed to be filming it traditionally and was mimicking a character in the fracas. To me, it seems the best reason to drop the POV angle is to open things up and make your film look more like a real movie, but he doubles down and does it when there's no justification for it. Like, Michael Bay will do his swooping/circling camera stuff over a scene of two people talking because he wants to keep the energy up, but why do we need this sort of thing during a giant zombie attack? You can lock the camera down from a half mile away and it will still generate excitement.

But if you're just in the mood for traditional, contained zombie action, and just judge it on its own terms, it should more or less hit the spot. The shaky-cam crap aside, it's certainly well made, and I've longed for a ship-set undead massacre (I thought the 3rd Cabin Fever movie was all on a boat, which would have been a good substitute, but it wasn't, on any level) so that was nice to see. Velasco is a lovely presence, so even though they undo her status as a possessed person (the possession angle is expanded on here) it's nice to have her around again, eventually diving into full blown action heroine mode as she makes her way through the totally infected ship along with the male hero. And said male protagonist was a fun character, and you probably wouldn't have pegged him as the last man standing based on his introduction, so at least the movie offered one surprise.

Well, two surprises. There's a zombie monkey. But not ENOUGH zombie monkey action; it's just there to spruce up some action before returning to status quo. Still, if I don't mention the fucking monkey someone will complain, so there you go.

Oh, and watching with subs was funny, because the characters repeatedly say "Vamos!" but the subtitle guy clearly got bored translating that to the same thing every time, so he offered all of the acceptable translations, rotating them so us readin' folk wouldn't get bored. "Come on!" "Let's go!" "GO!", etc. But that also made me start thinking about the English remake, and how it spawned its own non-found footage, single location sequel (the airport-set Quarantine 2), which I derided for the same reason: it was too anonymous in a sea of like-minded films in this sub-genre. I'd argue that [Rec] 3's wedding setting and weirdo humor (Sponge-John!) gave it enough of its own identity, but there's nothing really like that here - why is Balagueró (and co-writer Manu Díez, also from [Rec] 2) guilty of the same thing as the bland DTV American version of this franchise?

Of course, the missing name from that group is Paco Plaza, who co-directed the first two (best) films with Balagueró. Again, I liked the 3rd one, but maybe solo efforts for this series aren't ideal, as I think we can all agree the first two are the best (I just looked at the IMDb board for this one, and it seems the response is once again highly polarized). The door is left open for a sequel again (and a new strain of zombie, as it infects a fish), if one comes to pass hopefully they reunite and do something a little more interesting, and maybe finish it off for good. Whether it's a return to the POV style or just a narrative that elevates it above whatever crap we pass over on Netflix recommendations, I don't care - I just want this to be the one weak point in an otherwise exciting series.

What say you?


The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death (2015)

JANUARY 1, 2015


I enjoyed the 2012 Woman In Black, but didn't think it needed a sequel; I certainly didn't think it needed one three years later when the film hasn't exactly remained at the top of our memories - when is the last time you talked about it prior to seeing a poster or trailer for The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death? But for what it's worth, it's a perfectly decent followup, offering up the same sort of old-school, fog machine drenched atmosphere and low key thrills that the original did, albeit without that film's primary selling point: Harry Potter as an adult! So what does it bring to the table?

Well, ironically, the proof that they can franchise this thing for quite a while if they want, as rather than make a direct followup (which would be difficult, given the original's ending) they have jumped ahead 40 years and introduced an entirely new set of characters heading to the house. Daniel Radcliffe's character isn't even given the usual "non returning cast member reference" of a story in a newspaper or whatever, and in fact they repeat enough of the backstory that you can watch this one on its own without being lost. I'm not sure if they do as good of a job explaining the current/tide that turns the area into an island every now and then, but otherwise it's as if it was the first film in a series, instead of a sequel (which makes the "2" in the title - a first for Hammer! - rather odd). And since it works, they have license to continue switching time periods for future installments if this one's a hit - the 70s, the present day, even a (sigh) prequel would be acceptable as they've wisely cemented the series as one about the title character instead of any particular hero.

This one's about a lovely schoolteacher named Eve (Phoebe Fox) who is tasked with taking a group of children (whose parents are either fighting in or killed because of World War II) up to the house, as it will serve as a makeshift shelter/school that will hopefully escape enemy bombs. The most recent addition to the group is Edward, whose parents were killed the night before and has become mute as a result, so of course he will be the one the evil ghost will fixate on once they all arrive. Eve takes a particular liking to him as well, for reasons that are obvious but still doled out over time throughout the movie. This is a plot machination that I never quite understood (and was demolished by Film Crit Hulk a couple years back), in that the screenwriters confusingly withhold information about the hero of their movie until the halfway point or so, even though it informs their actions. It's a perfectly good device for secondary characters; indeed, there's a nice scene later in the film where we learn why Eve's boss (the school's headmistress) is such a pain in the ass - Eve learns along with us, and thus it works perfectly. But why do we need a similar reveal for Eve, when she's our surrogate in the narrative? We should know this sort of stuff up front.

Anyway, with 7-8 children and a ghost who makes its victims kill themselves, it's not a spoiler to say that this gets into some rather grim territory, including one such death that's on-screen. Ryan Turek of Shock Till You Drop (well, formerly - he's got a new gig at Blumhouse!) had tipped me off before I saw it, so I found this stuff easier to digest than I would have assumed, as having a child of my own has made me more sensitive to such things (I probably won't even be able to watch Pet Sematary ever again). It helps that the first kid to be offed is a total asshole, and his target (the mute kid, of course) vaguely looked what I imagine my son will look like when he's 6 or 7 - serves you right, asshole kid! I do wish the movie had spent more time with the children instead of the older characters, as we've already covered similar territory with The Awakening, but it's hard to argue wanting to point the camera at Ms. Fox, and rounding out the kids might have made the movie too upsetting when they're put in peril.

But the other benefit is that it might have given the movie more of its own identity. The World War II stuff helps, of course, but once they're in the house (which doesn't appear to have been touched since Radcliffe's character left it) it's hard to remember it's supposed to be the 1940s anyway, which is probably why there's a late-game diversion to an airfield (and increased screentime for the male lead, a fighter pilot with his own reveal). But beyond that, it treads closer to remake than sequel at times, with Eve uncovering the same things about the Woman in Black's tragic past, and even a few of the same damn jump scares! Another bird whacks into a window (with accompanying exaggerated sound FX), and new director Tom Harper shares his predecessor's penchant for closeups of creepy, half broken toys. Again, you can go into this one blind and not get lost, but at times it almost seems like it might be beneficial to do so, as you wouldn't experience so much deja vu.

Then again, after a couple years' worth of found footage and CGI driven supernatural fare, it's refreshing to see a period, low-key piece like this. Hammer never made any haunting type films in its heyday (Night Creatures was a half-exception; the villains were flesh and blood guys posing as ghosts), but the atmosphere alone is very much at home with their older (read: best) stuff - the fog machines, the period setting (their 1950s and 60s films were usually set in the late 19th century; now in 2013 they make one for the 40s - again around 70 years prior), and (unlike the first) a lovely young lady in a major role. And while the neighboring town's presence has been greatly reduced, but they still find enough to do for a strong supporting cast, including actor Adrian Rawlins, who played the lead role in the original British TV production of the first story. There's no jump scare as good as the one in his version (ghost above the bed), but it's still a nice tip of the hat to have him around, and thankfully without any winks (at least, none that I detected).

I also liked that it didn't pull the usual sequel shit of retconning too much information. Especially with haunting movie sequels, there's almost always a character coming in to explain how part of what we learned before was wrong, or "There was ANOTHER child!" or whatever, because the first movie explained what needed to be done to save the day and now they need an excuse for the ghost to be up and about again. But no, it's pretty much as we remember it: the kid drowned, the mom grieved, and now she's a vengeful ghost. This is why changing time periods is helpful - it allows them to have it both ways: a clean slate for some things, but no worry about messing up existing continuity on the other. Hopefully, if the series continues (the theater had a good sized crowd, for what it's worth) they will continue using this approach, rather than dig themselves into a hole like the Paranormal Activity series has done. I get why true anthology films rarely catch on, but there should be nothing to stop them from making a series of mostly unconnected films about a particular house and the spirit that inhabits it, using whatever period they like to tell their otherwise original tale. Just try to cut back on the fake scares, yeah?

What say you?


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