The Lazarus Effect (2015)

FEBRUARY 26, 2015


There aren't many real world references in The Lazarus Effect, so it's a bit odd that they opt to throw out a nod to "Cujo" regarding the potentially evil dog that our hero scientists resurrect before trying it on a human corpse. Cujo is, of course, a Stephen King story, and this movie is about the consequences of playing god and bringing someone back from the dead, which should almost certainly bring Pet Sematary to any horror fan's mind. So why establish that this is a world where King exists, but not go all out and mention Pet Sematary to get them off the hook for whatever story beats it copies (inadvertently or not)? It's like some weird, opposite version of having your cake and eating it too.

Anyway, the real takeaway here is that the movie, for better or worse, has the most accurate trailer I've seen in ages, as it promises exactly what the movie offers - nothing more, nothing less. It almost takes place in real time from the moment Olivia Wilde's character is resurrected (you've all seen the trailer, I assume, so I'm not spoiling anything), so there really isn't much of an opportunity to do anything but what the trailer shows; i.e. that Wilde is resurrected and is now evil. There are some plot threads that the trailer never hinted at, such as Ray Wise as a corporate bigwig who steals their formula once they've been banned from the school (because they challenged religious beliefs on school grounds, or something), but they're all go-nowhere bits that never come back - Wise has that one scene and is never heard from again. Even the damn dog disappears from the narrative, same as he does in the trailer, once Wilde becomes the main source of terror.

So you might complain that the movie is too basic, but in a way I found it kind of refreshing that there wasn't any big twist or hidden 3rd act. I remember folks being disappointed that Lucy (which this movie occasionally reminded me of; it even brings up the old "10% of the brain" thing) wasn't as much about an ass-kicking ScarJo as the trailer suggested, but something more spiritual/metaphysical (and even kind of touching, in the scene where she called her mom), so they should be happy that Lazarus Effect delivers 100% on its marketing promises, free of any challenge. I've said this before, but it bears repeating - the more complicated a horror movie is, the less likely it is to scare anyone, because you're keeping your brain tapped into different areas and not letting your guard down enough for a "boo!" moment to work. I can't tell you how scary any of the jumps are here, because I just don't get scared at such things, but the (very small) audience yelped a few times, even at the one from the trailer with the dog ("Maybe if we up the dosage we-"), so the "keep it simple" ploy seemed to work.

Personally, I found myself more entertained with the cast, almost none of whom show up in horror movies all that often. Donald Glover in particular has a nearly comedic-free role, and even sounded believable in the science/tech dialogue scenes; it's a shame he seems more interested in his rap career (I am not a fan) as he's more versatile actor than I would have guessed. Duplass has made a couple (including Mercy, another Blumhouse release) but he's still more known for his directing (and starring within) his own films, and the comedy show The League, than popping up in horror flicks, so that offers some novelty, and Wilde hasn't been in one since Turistas, nearly a decade ago! The actors all have a solid chemistry too, and they all genuinely like each other - you're bound to think of Flatliners as well as Sematary, and in that movie the characters were often at each others' throats, so it's nice to see a version of that story where they're all getting along and having each others' backs.

And it's got some touches I appreciated as a burnt-out horror viewer. When Wilde has to throw the switch to activate the life-giving serum, she needs to remove all of her jewelry first, which we see her do the first time around but she forgets the second (they're under a time limit because they had to break into the lab due to the aforementioned corporate meddling). But it's not telegraphed or anything; director David Gelb doesn't toss in a closeup of her ring or the empty petri dish where she's supposed to put those things, and even after she gets electrocuted no one says something helpful for the cheap seats like "Dammit, she didn't take off her jewelry!" No, they just expect you to remember this plot point from 20 minutes before, so it's nice for a modern PG-13 horror film to depend on audience intelligence for a change, even if it's rather minor (and in a goofy movie about people coming back to life with superpowers). And there's a moment where it seems like someone on the team has sold them out, giving video to Wise's people to further their own career or something, but it turns out to have a simpler, less generic explanation than the umpteenth "traitor in our midst" subplot that we've seen a zillion times.

But why don't they do anything else with the dog, dammit? Wilde gets telekinesis, can read minds, etc. All we know about the dog is that he likes to watch them and prefers junk food to the water they give him. He escapes from his cage and, unless I missed something (I stayed awake! But I did have to run out to blow my nose), is never seen again, though (spoiler) we hear him yelp off-screen to suggest Wilde has killed him too. But why? Wouldn't he, as a fellow returnee, be on her side for whatever it is she's trying to accomplish when she starts killing her friends? They really coulda done more with the dog, in my opinion. Well, I guess I could argue that they coulda done more with EVERYTHING since the movie is stripped to the bare essentials (it's only like 78 minutes minus the credits), but again I kinda liked that it was so to the point. Plus, real time (I can't be sure if it's 100% real time like Nick of Time or whatever, but it certainly FELT that way) is very rare in horror, so to even attempt it is noble enough an endeavor for me to give it my approval.

It's worth noting that I enjoyed the movie despite being in a bad mood to start. As I mentioned, it wasn't very crowded (not a surprise for a Thursday night showing, as outside of the summer these tend to be under-populated no matter what their eventual fortunes may be), but most of the people that were there came in during the trailers. The only other person there before me was a guy who, for whatever reason and regardless of the odds, had opted to sit in my seat (it's an assigned seating theater), forcing me to look like an idiot and say "You're in my seat" to the only other person in a theater that seated probably 200 people. It wasn't just the principle of the thing (I purposely chose the seat, dammit!), but since the odds were clearly stacked against me that evening, I didn't want to just take some other random seat and find out that one belonged to someone. But the guy didn't move! He's like "Just sit elsewhere, who cares?" (which, again, made some sense, being that it was a then-empty theater), so I just sat a few seats away, figuring I'd wait until the movie started to safely move to a better one. But of course, the only other people who came in also sat in the prime center sections of the rows behind him, so no matter what I'd be a. off to the side, or b. the weird guy sitting way too close to strangers in a still mostly empty theater. And this being a PG-13 horror movie, cell phone abuse was almost a certainty, so I just stayed where I was because no one else was in front of us (and going up closer would be too close to the screen for my tastes). What an asshole, but also, what the hell? Of all goddamn seats...

Anyway, it's a perfectly decent little horror thriller. It explained that Hell was what I believe it to be (not a place where you're set on fire or whatever, but merely an endless loop of the worst moment in your life, for eternity), so I was on board with its minor religious aspects, and it's the rare modern horror movie where I didn't hate a single character (even Evan Peters' stoner was fine). It could have been more fleshed out (and/or broke out of the Flatliners/Pet Sematary mold a bit more often) and it's a crime to hire Ray Wise and only let him have one scene, but like the year's only other major horror release so far (Woman in Black 2), it does what little it set out to do well, and for someone who barely gets to go to the movies anymore, that's enough for me to be satisfied. I'm easy to please when it gets me off diaper duty for a couple hours!

What say you?


A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

FEBRUARY 25, 2015


A lot of independent horror movies are referred to as "Lynchian" (meaning David, not Joe or Liam), and most of the time it's just shorthand for "Doesn't make sense". And that's fine, because it saves me the time of watching it, but every now and then the description is actually accurate and even complimentary. Such is the case with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, which is basically Let The Right One In by way of Wild At Heart. The black and white photography will probably recall Eraserhead (or even Elephant Man) for those looking for Lynch's aesthetic, but it was Wild At Heart that I kept thinking about, as the film is a love story with a pretty straightforward narrative, peppered with weirdness, much like Heart (one of Lynch's most "normal" movies).

Both films also display an affinity for good ol' rock n' roll, with Girl making particularly good use of "Death" from the band White Lies, much like Jennifer's Body did a few years back. It's the only thing you hear in one of the standout sequences, where our hero Arash and the titular girl (named The Girl) begin to fall in love as they groove along to the music - it's very rare for a film to use an entire song for one sequence, and even rarer in horror, so that it's done over a scene that would be a highlight even if mute makes it quite memorable. I even rewound the movie to enjoy it again, which isn't something I do very often. Ironically, this scene is one of the few (OK, several) that I missed entirely when I saw the film a few weeks ago at the Cinefamily, as I was exhausted as always and the film was very slow paced, making "resting my eyes" all too easy a task. It's why I didn't review it then; I saw enough to know I liked it, but I knew my resulting review would be vague.

Hilariously, I thought I slept through MORE of the film than I actually had, because I only saw the two lovers together very briefly during my theatrical viewing. I assumed there were giant chunks of their blossoming relationship that I had completely missed, but now that I watched it in its entirety I can see that they actually don't spend much of the movie together. They don't even meet until the film is nearly half over, and while it and their next encounter are fairly long scenes, those are pretty much it until the film's closing moments. But the length (and that song!) actually make up for the usual frequency - you buy their feelings for each other even though you haven't spent a lot of time with them together.

The rest of the movie is given over to the film's other characters; it's a compact cast (maybe 8-9 people of note) but they all warrant their moment(s) in the spotlight. Even though many of them aren't exactly upstanding citizens (a drug dealer, Arash's junkie dad, a prostitute, a lazy street kid, etc), there's something endearing about how they all seem to know each other, and writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour deftly creates a complete dynamic, even though I'm pretty sure you never see more than 3 people in any given scene. Arash's junkie father is in deep to the drug dealer, who steals Arash's car and uses it to pick up Atti (the prostitute), who later runs into our Girl (the vampire of the lot), who... you get the idea. It's not really an ensemble, as it's clearly Arash and The Girl's story, but the movie never feels like it's being padded when Amirpour turns her attention elsewhere.

As for the weirdness, there isn't a lot - just enough for you to notice and make the movie that much more memorable. The movie begins with our hero grabbing a cat from someone's yard for some reason, there's a musical interlude with a guy (sort of in drag) waltzing with a helium balloon, and apparently this city (named Bad City) just has a giant pit of bodies that no one seems to think much about. And the scary drug dealer guy (who has the best voicemail message of all time: "Leave a message, hooker") has a Pac-Man tattoo, which makes him look like a goof. The quirkiness is balanced with some legit drama, too; while I have little sympathy for junkies I couldn't help but feel sorry for Arash's dad, who begs Atti not for sex but just to hang out with him, only for her to say he could when he had the money for it. It's interesting; if you were to just write down everything that happened in the movie in general, you'd think it was the boringest film ever made, but these little moments make it almost electric at times - there's always something just a little off-center to make it stick out.

As for the vampire stuff, there isn't a hell of a lot; The Girl feeds on a supporting character every now and then, and quite hungrily so (yay for finger biting!), but it's only a horror movie in the sense that it's about a vampire and vampires need blood. I guess some of her earlier scenes, before she meets Arash, are kind of spooky because she is usually just standing there watching a would-be victim, or following them down the street, but the stillness and usual silence of these scenes keep the movie from feeling like a full blown vampire horror. Much like last year's (even better) Only Lovers Left Alive, the vampirism is part of the characterization in a romantic drama, and thus you shouldn't go in expecting Near Dark or whatever. Even the previously mentioned Let The Right One In indulges in its horrific side more often, and the rare complaints I heard about THAT film concerned its limited "action" from folks who expected more carnage. If you thought LTROI wasn't terror-driven enough, for the love of God do not watch this movie, because I don't want to inadvertently read your eyeroll-inducing reaction. Still, it should be stressed, since the movie is being sold on the strength of being "the first Iranian vampire movie", not "the first Iranian offbeat romantic drama with a vampire who occasionally bites someone".

It'll be out on Blu and DVD in April, in a jam-packed special edition to boot, so keep an eye out for it if you didn't catch it on the festival circuit or during its limited theatrical run. If you enjoyed the aforementioned movies, it should be a fairly safe blind buy, otherwise at least give it a shot on Netflix Instant or whatever if/when it pops up; even if you hate it you'll have to admit there's nothing quite like it - which in the modern genre scene is something worth noting and respecting.

What say you?


Animal (2014)

FEBRUARY 11, 2015


Because John Carpenter is a god, somewhere over the years the usual NOTLD plot (itself inspired from Stagecoach) of folks holed up against a common enemy became more of an Assault on Precinct 13 riff, where the people who were banded together were usually enemies of some sort before they had to put aside their differences. Not that there's anything wrong with that - I myself am always won over by "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" type plotting (it's why I loved Prison Break so much) - but I must admit I was kind of relieved to see that Animal went back to the NOTLD way, where there's one guy that's an asshole, but otherwise there's no major conflict to overcome, no big speeches about how they have to work together or they'll die, etc. It's just a bunch of folks, trapped in a cabin, trying to stave off a big ol' monster. Simple, easy... and surprisingly effective.

No, it won't win any points for originality with regards to its plot; in fact it starts off so generic I almost relegated it to "something on in the background while I play with my Legos" (I got THESE for Christmas; I am now making little 'sets' for them to hang out in). It had the Carpenter font, which is getting way overused now that all the people who grew up on JC are making their own movies, and also a group of five college-aged kids heading off into the woods for camping, i.e. the most generic horror setup of all time (and, nothing against Chiller, but I wouldn't bet on them pulling a Cabin in the Woods level twist on us anytime soon). The only reason I opted to give it a few more minutes was because the male hero was Parker Young, who was the youngest brother on the great, sadly canceled Enlisted. He played kind of an idiot on that show, so it was fun to see him as an alpha male type here.

But what REALLY kept me going was (spoiler) the fact that he was the first to go. It's hardly the first movie to pull this stunt, and honestly I would have pegged him to die first if I had gotten to that point, but the movie did it much earlier than I was expecting, and on a solid jump scare to boot. And then the others run into a cabin where they meet up with a trio of older folks (including an actual Prison Break cast member! Amaury "Sucre" Nolasco to be precise), at which point I realized that the opening bit, where we see four familiar actors running from the monster (and one of them dying) WASN'T a flash forward, as I originally thought/lamented, and finally realized that a lot of the generic seeming stuff was indeed meant to throw us off. Well played, screenwriters. Then again, I should have known better since it was directed by Brett Simmons, who is now 3 for 3 in my book after the solid Husk and quite enjoyable Monkey's Paw (the latter also for Chiller). Like Sheldon Wilson, he's proven supplier of what I think of as "B+ horror", where he takes something that could be the most anonymous and forgettable movie ever and gives it enough of its own identity to be memorable. These aren't films that will blow you away, but they're a damn sight better than the stuff they'll be lumped with, and shows how much just a little bit of effort can turn a routine movie into one that I can happily recommend to fans looking for some monster action.

Part of that effort is easy to spot - the monster is a practical beast (by Gary Tunnicliffe), instead of the CGI thing that Syfy would offer us. I'm sure it had some digital touch-ups, but what's important is that there was an actual thing tearing at our actors and banging on the makeshift means of protection they cobbled together, giving them something real to react to instead of a tennis ball or whatever. And it's actually not that bad looking; it's kind of a cross between Pumpkinhead (the original, not the Asylum mockbuster version seen in Bloodwings) and a rat, but it's got hoof type feet and shark like teeth. You could easily assume that there will be a secret lab introduced in the 3rd act where we find out that the monster is a genetic hybrid created to be the perfect killing machine or whatever, but thankfully there's no exposition or backstory - it just IS. On the commentary (or maybe the making of, I forget now) it is pointed out that whenever there's a big disaster on the ocean they discover all these new forms of sea life, so the idea was that as the deforestation process gets deeper and deeper into the woods, some previously undiscovered animals would be found now that their habitat was destroyed. It's a good enough explanation for me, and it's not even in the movie!

Simmons and writers Thommy Hutson & Catherine Trillo also keep finding ways of giving usual cliches a little bit of extra character, which doesn't really change the fact that they are cliches, but at least proves they're smart enough to avoid doing carbon copies. I see so many movies where I have to wonder if the writers think they're the first to come up with something or if they're just incredibly lazy, so it's nice to see one where they seem to be saying "We know we're not the first, but we might be the first to do it this way!". For example, as with all modern horror movies featuring a group of pals, there's some infidelity going on, but the particulars are inspired (and even a bit daring), and the final girl is seen primping herself and explaining that her average looks need to be enhanced, unlike her more naturally beautiful pal. It's an unusual touch, and while they make some unsuccessful attempts to make us think she's NOT the final girl, it's a lot better than the usual virginal prude.

The other thing that I appreciated has to do with the body count, so skip this paragraph if you want to go in more blind. For those still reading, I liked how they sort of had their cake and ate it too with regards to the deaths; for a while it seemed like they were going for a more Tremors kind of thing where they let more survive than they kill off; out of the nine people in the movie I think six of them are still standing when there's only 15 minutes left before the credits start to roll. But then the monster just goes apeshit and knocks off all but one in the span of like 10 minutes! You start to get the impression that maybe there won't even BE a Final Girl, but they don't quite go that far (however, on the commentary Simmons explains that they debated over which of the final two characters to kill, so there's something).

I keep mentioning the commentary, and for good reason - it's a pretty solid track, especially considering it's a solo one. Simmons immediately points out the Carpenter font, putting me at ease, and says he wanted to have full credits over black because you never see them anymore (and he's right!), so I was on board with him pretty quickly. He barely ever pauses as he goes into detail about the locations (all practical), the monster, the cast, the production (apparently fans of the actors would hang out in the woods wearing dark clothes and facepaint hoping to sneak glimpses at them), his influences, etc. You can tell he's proud of the movie, and rightfully so - it does exactly what it set out to do and did it well, which is more than we can say for a great deal of modern horror movies (even bigger theatrical ones). It may LOOK like a generic monster movie on the surface, but the devil's in the details, and they got a lot of those right.

The commentary is the only extra worth your time, however; if you select "cast interviews" you'll be treated to what is essentially the film's trailer (also provided) with MAYBE 20 seconds' worth of interview footage sprinkled throughout, where the actors basically say their name and who they play, with maybe one piece of info about them for good measure. And then there's a teaser trailer that bizarrely makes the film look like a found footage entry (no one in the movie has a video camera, and none of the footage is in the film). The making of is OK I guess, but it's too brief (4 minutes?) to be of any real use unless you want a couple of quick glimpses at the creature design process (something that deserved its own featurette). But I must admit I liked that there were no deleted scenes - a movie this to the point, made by people who know the genre well? I'd be willing to bet there weren't any, because they all knew better than to write/film/digitize stuff they'd eventually toss anyway. Good stuff.

What say you?


What Have You Done To Solange? (1972)

FEBRUARY 3, 2015


The title character in What Have You Done To Solange? (this version was titled The School That Couldn't Scream, for the record) doesn't even get mentioned until about 70 minutes into the 100ish minute film, and then it's another 10 or so before you actually see her. Given her importance to the plot and the killer's motivation for offing a half dozen teenaged girls (and one maid, and a dog), you'd think they'd get around to introducing her sooner, but since this is a Giallo, if anything it's kind of generous to let us know what the hell is going on so relatively early. I've seen some where they'd save that sort of information for the final scene (if ever), so while it's still impossible to solve the mystery more than two or three seconds before the heroes, it makes this one of the more coherent and accessible ones I've seen.

And that's hilarious, because the hero is a teacher who is banging one of his students, a fact that almost no one seems particularly concerned or angry about. I can't recall the exact line, but his boss even suggests it's beneficial at one point, saying that he can get the girls to admit certain things to him that they'd hide from the other professors. His wife even knows about it, but while she's understandably angry about it, she gets over it pretty quickly and comforts him after his teenage lover is (rather surprisingly) killed at the halfway point. What a gal! The cop investigating the murders thinks he's a suspect at first, mostly going on the whole "you're sleeping with a teenager" angle since I assume that sort of thing usually ends badly, but before long he's on his side, basically telling others to mind their business when the hero's indiscretions are brought up.

Anyway, it's more procedural mystery than horror; there's a pretty great POV kill scene in there, and the hero's girlfriend (who is a knockout, and was 21 at the time of filming so I can say that all I want) has flashes of the murders, but otherwise it's mostly aftermath - the hero or the cop will figure out that they need to talk to this or that person, and arrive to find them already dead. I guess that's the trade off; director/co-writer Massimo Dallamano opted to tell a coherent story and flesh out his characters, so as a result he doesn't spend much time on nonsense or drawn out kill scenes. It's got the random misogyny and gratuitous nudity you'd expect (including a hilarious bit where the cop says "The girls are under surveillance" and then Dallamano cuts to a peeping tom watching the girls shower), but if you go in expecting Argento-y kill scenes you might leave disappointed.

Luckily it didn't take long for me to realize that wouldn't be the case, and I got into it. The night's first film was a snooze called Death Laid An Egg, which was the slow paced and obnoxiously scored account of a man being set up for murder by his secretary and her lover, and if Solange didn't do it for me I would have just left (that's the nice thing about not being on the HMAD "clock" anymore - I don't have to keep watching something I dislike just to make my daily quota), but even though I was tired I powered through, determined to know who took that gorgeous girl (Cristina Galbó, for the record - she was also in the early proto-slasher The House That Screamed) out of the movie. Of course, I did nod off for a bit of the 3rd act (missing Solange's introduction! She's played by Camille Keaton, by the way - it was her debut), but thankfully a pretty thorough IMDb synopsis and a non-subtitled Youtube clip of the film's 2nd half (if part 1 was there, I didn't see it) filled in the 10 minutes or so that I missed. With the kid and all, I could have very easily have slept through the entire movie, since it didn't start until 9:30 or so (the next night I went to bed at 10, in fact), so I was pretty proud of myself for seeing as much as I did.

And again I chalk that up to a rather straightforward story. I realized the last time I watched Suspiria, where I, as I always do, fell asleep 30 minutes in - the nuttiness and intensity of that first reel or so kind of exhausts me, so when the movie finally pauses to catch its breath I collapse (at the time I compared it to the fact that men tend to fall asleep right after they orgasm). Here, it's more like a good page-turner - our hero is a pretty good detective, and the clues, while occasionally a bit random, are doled out just often enough to keep you engaged. I don't know how likely some of them would be in real life (a major plot point involves the hero quickly discerning that the killer would have one dead girl's Italian book - and then just as quickly locating it in the killer's home near the climax), but in the context of the movie they work just fine.

Apparently Dallamano made a pseudo sequel called What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, which has a new cast of characters but (from what I understand) is set at the same school. I'd like to check it out someday, but first I must see the director's The Night Child, an evil child film that predated The Omen (worth nothing since the actor on the poster resembles Gregory Peck). Doesn't look like he made any other traditional Gialli other than this and Daughters, which is a shame because he seems to be pretty good at making them (unless this is just a fluke). It is one of my great regrets that I didn't see more Gialli during the regular part of the site's run, but that doesn't mean I can't make up for it when time allows - however it's easier when I have a strong reason to check a specific title out, i.e. because I liked something else from the director. Luckily, with the New Bev* drawing heavily from QT's own collection for their programming now, I assume such titles will play more often, and I'll do my best to make time to check them out.

What say you?

* Yes, I went to the Bev. From what I understand, things have been worked out, the source of many of the problems there has been tossed on his/her ass, and Michael Torgan is back working at the theater (though he wasn't there tonight). I still don't particularly care for the fact that they got rid of the digital projector (just today on Twitter, a filmmaker was informing them that a movie the theater was asking to play only exists digitally and thus can't be shown there probably ever), but if Michael's back then I guess things are OK. I still doubt that HMAD screenings will ever return since they have a new approach to midnight stuff now, but at least I can go back and sit in my favorite seat once again. I really missed it.


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