Eyes of Fire (1983)

MAY 25, 2016


I don't know if it was at the video store I WORKED at or one of the ones I rented from, but I know I saw the Eyes of Fire VHS cover at some point in my life, though I never saw the film itself until tonight. And that's a good thing, because if I saw it as a kid, there would be two possible outcomes - one is that I'd hate it due to it being slowly paced and also borderline incoherent, two things I had no tolerance for in my younger days. The other is that it'd probably give me incredible nightmares, which I guess isn't a BAD thing (isn't that what horror is supposed to do?) but I prefer my scary dreams to stem from things I enjoy, like Jason or Freddy (examples chosen carefully; despite my love of Myers, I can't recall ever having any nightmares about him), and it'd probably just annoy 12 or 13 year old me that "that stupid witch movie" was disrupting my slumber.

Of course, now I'm long past the point where I can expect a horror movie to give me any nightmares (with some exceptions), but at least I have gotten a bit wiser since then, and thus can pinpoint why the movie was so hard to follow - the editing is sinful. I'm sure writer/director Avery Crounse intended some ambiguity and "nightmare logic" in his narrative, but that's not what I'm referring to when I say the movie is nearly impossible to follow in spots. I am speaking specifically to the way shots cut together, the blocking, etc - there were at least three sequences where I literally had no idea what was going on because everything was cutting so fast and/or awkwardly. As an adult I can at least recognize the problem, but as a kid I'd just say "this sucks!" and pay it no further mind.

So like I said, I'm glad I never saw it then, because if you can get past the parts that are only head-scratching from a technical viewpoint, the movie is actually kind of wonderful in its insane little way. Like the recent The Witch, the plot concerns a group of people who are run out of town and forced to live in the outskirts of town, unfortunately setting up a bit too close to a supernatural presence. Accusations and potential possessions wreak havoc among their number, though there's another threat in the form of Native Americans (Shawnee, specifically) who attack our group in an attempt to drive them away from their land. An external, more traditional antagonist is something The Witch didn't really bother with (though it did feature a few menacing looking natives in its early scenes), though that's not the only way in which they differ - this movie is relatively action packed, with shootouts and explosions, plus a plethora of crazy imagery that would have inspired those nightmares for sure. Crounse is a big fan of putting people in trees or under the mud/dirt, where they will reveal/expunge themselves and his jarring cutting will let you wonder if you really saw what you just saw.

And that's where the nightmare logic comes into play, as it mixes a fairly basic "get off our land" story with things that are totally insane, like a bit near the end where there are TWO people embedded in a tree and are seemingly at odds with each other. I admit I dozed off a couple times (a Youtube stream filled in the gaps later), but for once it wasn't really a detriment to the experience - it actually kind of added to the surreal nature of the more supernaturally-driven scenes, as my brain would fill in gaps while adding things that weren't there (during one half-awake sequence I was momentarily convinced the movie was in 3D!), and I suspect Crounse (who came from a background in surreal photography) would actually be kind of OK with a sleepy viewer getting that sort of reaction. I mean, he made a movie that had to be intended as nightmare fuel - what could be wrong with experiencing one while you were actually watching it?

Again, Youtube came to my rescue to make sure I didn't miss anything permanently (more on that later), so that's good - otherwise I'd feel unable to write a review. Which would be a shame, because I'd only have to see about 20 minutes of it to know that even if you hate the movie, there's no denying that of the low budget independent "regional" films of the early 80s, this is among the most visually impressive. The makeup work is terrific from start to finish, and the strange "death" scenes all have some ingenuity and camera trickery that you didn't get in the Friday the 13th knockoffs that were clogging the genre at the time of its production in 1983 (though it wasn't released until 1987, when it would actually fit in with all the Freddy wannabes - it was probably even accused of trying to cash in on that trend even though it was shot before the first Nightmare). It's also a period piece, and while Crounse isn't as meticulous as Robert Eggers, he shares (exceeds?) his skill at getting every single dollar on the screen. He even had enough cash left over to score the acting talents of Will Hare, best known to horror fans as Grampa in Silent Night, Deadly Night. His character even dies sitting on an old chair not unlike the one he terrorizes poor Billy from in that film!

And that's not really a spoiler - it happens early on and the narrator informs us that it's going to happen like five minutes before it does. Unusual for its period (it's far too common now), the movie is presented as a flashback, its story told by the surviving characters in the present, which tells us right off the bat that things won't end well for most of the cast. I'm not sure if the framework does it any favors; not that I was surprised to see this or that person go, but I couldn't help but feel it was something added later in order to justify the narration, which is occasionally used to explain plot points. With the movie's editing blunders and the aforementioned excess of effects work, I can't help but wonder if Crounse bit off more than he could chew and had to skip shooting certain scenes in order to pull off his showier ones, and added the bookends/narration to smooth over the holes this would obviously cause. I mean, the movie still works as is, but the narration can be a bit intrusive and there's no real dramatic payoff for "spoiling" things up front (completely different kind of movie, but Fallen comes to mind as one that really justifies what it seems to be giving away too soon).

Of course, "spoiling" this or that is moot if you can't see the damn thing. The Youtube stream I found is a cropped and typically murky VHS transfer that makes some of the night-set scenes even harder to understand, and I suspect that's the source's fault. The film has never been released on DVD, best as I can tell, and Amazon's page for the VHS tape (out of print, obviously; it was apparently released on laserdisc as well but Amazon doesn't list it) doesn't even have that cover art that I instantly recognized when word of the movie's Cinefamily screening began circling. As I've said in the past, for older movies like this, when there's no way to see it in a way that benefits its creators, I'm not opposed to Youtube or its rivals - but it's a lousy version, which I AM opposed to as the movie deserves a proper presentation. The print was damn near perfect for such an old film (especially one that had such a small release, as it means there were probably not many prints to begin with let alone that would survive so well intact), but obviously not everyone will get the opportunity to see it that way. One of the perks of living in an area with a healthy repertory scene, I guess - but don't move here, please. We have enough traffic. Needless to say, it'd be a nice if a disc version popped up someday - it's the sort of thing places like Scream Factory and Arrow release all the time, so we'll just have to hope and wait.

If the movie's editing wasn't so jarring, this could easily be a classic in the witchcraft genre (which is rather underrepresented, especially on the big screen), but some confusing action scenes aren't enough to dismiss it, either. If you're a fan of such fare, it's worth digging up your old VCR or Laserdisc player to watch it, no doubt. I've seen very few movies like it in all my years of watching this stuff, and even though not everything clicked for me I would much rather see this sort of ambition than another anonymous slasher or haunted house movie that went through the motions without any blunders. Especially in the 80s, when things got a little "safer" than they were in the 70s (at least in America) - I hope there are more minor gems like this out there from that decade, where FX technology could keep up with the nutty, borderline "unfilmable" ideas of guys who opted to stay out of the Hollywood system.

What say you?


The Darkness (2016)

MAY 20, 2016


It's rare that I don't see a new wide release horror movie on its opening weekend (outside of the busy October period, anyway), but I'm glad I waited to catch The Darkness until today for presumably once-in-a-movie's-lifetime experience I had waiting for the damn thing to start. For starters, I went to a theater I don't usually go to (because it's a dump) due to the fact that their first showing was 25 minutes earlier than my usual theater (both about the same distance from my house), so that was 25 minutes earlier I could get to work. Alas, as the sole ticket buyer who arrived right at the scheduled showtime, the "projectionist" (button pusher) apparently wasn't planning on running the movie, so after a few minutes of sitting in, yes, the darkness (the timed lights still went down) I went out and told them to start it. After a few more minutes, the dimmed lights went out entirely, and the trailer reel began... but I could only hear them - there was still no image on the screen.

Of course, if I was seeing Civil War, it'd just be "a thing that happened", and also I probably wouldn't have been alone in the theater. But for a movie called THE DARKNESS, sitting for 10-15 minutes in total darkness (the exit signs don't illuminate here) with no one to joke about the situation with (besides my Twitter followers, of course) was kind of a delightfully strange occurrence - someone could have conceivably walked into the theater quietly and I wouldn't have even been able to see them. And, needless to say, by the time they finally got their shit together (apparently the system had to be reset or something) and got the movie going, it was just about the same time the screening at my preferred theater started, meaning my time-saving measure had been a total bust.

Oddly, this was the 2nd time in a row for me that a projectionist had to be told to do his/her job, as myself and some friends were the only ticket buyers for another movie over the weekend, and as with this showing it seems word that a ticket(s) had been purchased never reached him/her. While we waited for that movie to start I told my friends about the only time that had ever happened to me before, which is when I was the only person (meaning: no friends to share the experience) at an afternoon weekday screening of Urban Legends: Final Cut and had to go out and find someone to show me and me alone the movie. I don't know what the odds are that this could happen to a person twice in a week, so I certainly wasn't expecting it to happen again today... but I'm pretty sure the odds are better than they are for the other insane coincidence - which is that when The Darkness finally started, I was greeted with the sight of Jennifer Morrison. Yes, the STAR OF URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT! I would seriously believe that I'd have a better chance at winning the lottery than I would at somehow being the only person in the theater for two Jennifer Morrison movies and having to go back into the lobby to ask someone to let me see her in action.

I also couldn't have predicted that they'd hire a recognizable actor (and another - Matt Walsh - as her husband) to appear in a single scene, with no actual closeups or even much dialogue, never to be seen again. But I also highly doubt that is the case, because I spent a good chunk of the film's 90 or so minutes being reminded that it had clearly been re-edited and/or re-shot, and thus Morrison and Walsh probably had at least one or two other scenes that were removed in the process. Almost until the very end the movie feels truncated; characters are introduced and quickly forgotten (Radha Mitchell's mother being the worst example), conversations suddenly blow up into arguments (or arguments quickly reach their cutoff point), as if a chunk was removed in order to move things along, etc. It is suggested that Kevin Bacon's character is having an affair with Morrison in this one scene (they're at the Grand Canyon and Mitchell, on an elevated hike, spies them returning from some unknown spot, with Walsh asking "Where did you two sneak off to?" or something along those lines), but since we never see her again it's not something you'll still be thinking about by the time - an hour or so into the movie - that it actually comes up. And there's a subplot about their daughter's bulimia that is resolved so quickly that viewers with actual eating disorders might take offense. She also asks Bacon if she can take her driver's license exam and he says "A promise is a promise," but I am still unsure if he's saying "Yes, I promised you could and that hasn't changed", or "No, you promised you wouldn't do this shit anymore and now there has to be consequences" - not that it matters because it too is never mentioned again anyway. I mean, I don't need to be hand-held, and it's not like the movie is confusing as a result, but it's hard to get a firm grasp on the characters when so much of their meat has been taken off the bone, so to speak.

Luckily, they DON'T seem to disrupt the character arc for Mikey, their younger son who has autism. His behaviors are the usual sort of things we see in movies (forgive me if I'm somewhat ignorant on autism; most of what I "know" comes from movies so if any of this rings false blame them, not me): he counts things, gets fixated on certain objects (he forces Mitchell to buy a pair of balloons that get more screentime than Jennifer Morrison, that's for sure), carries a backpack everywhere, etc. His "off" behavior allows for the obligatory ignorance on the parents' part when he unknowingly invites some demonic presence into their home by taking some stones from a burial site he finds at the Grand Canyon. Weird handprints start appearing everywhere, faucets are left on, he gets an imaginary friend named Jenny... all of these things are the demons' fault, but they chalk it up to new mannerisms related to his disorder. It's not until Mitchell's mom gets attacked by a snake that appeared out of nowhere that they start considering other options. Unfortunately, that's an "end of act two" decision (and mostly on Mitchell's part - Bacon needs further convincing), so you have to wait a damn long time for these people to finally get proactive about their increasingly dangerous situation.

And how do they get proactive? If you guessed "calling in an expert to cleanse the house", you are a genius (but not really, because that's what always happens). True to the movie's form, it's very clunky; basically at about 40 minutes or so into the movie Bacon's boss (Paul Reiser!) and his wife (Ming-Na Wen) tell them about a healer woman who helped their son (whose affliction is unexplained, and we never see the kid of course, so if he had like cancer or was similarly being haunted, we do not know). For some reason it takes like five extra steps for them to tell them the person's name - Reiser has to remind Bacon about her in person, then Bacon emails Reiser asking for the person's name, and a day later Reiser replies (via text) something like "Have your wife call my wife to get the number". Huh? In this day and age, why is it taking this long to obtain contact information? And if Wen had the number, why can't she just give it to Mitchell on her own? Why are so many people involved in this simple bit of information relay? And then the lady shows up (actually ladies; she speaks Spanish so her granddaughter translates) and goes through the usual Tangina/Merrin motions, again making me wonder what she did for Reiser and Wen's son since she never even seems to talk to Mikey.

It's also far too little too late, as she shows up with only about 15 minutes to go, thanks to the movie wasting so much time on things that don't ultimately matter. I mean, the film is clearly inspired by the original Poltergeist, right down to the chubby neighbor that our hero doesn't get along with (it's also set in a California suburb), so it'd be like if Carol Anne didn't disappear until an hour or so into the movie and we just spent that entire time watching chairs get stacked or whatever other little things happened in that film before she got snatched. Since I had the place to myself I considered texting friends who had seen it if it even HAD a second act, since nothing was really progressing in a meaningful way, though to be fair the minor scares along the way are at least novel ones. Grandma being menaced by the snake is a pretty good one, as is the genuinely unsettling bit where the neighbor's dog somehow makes his way into their house and attacks the daughter in her sleep. And later, a wolf is seen just stalking around their house, which isn't the sort of thing you usually see in these kinds of movies. It's the rare horror film that keeps you in suspense not from its story or setting, but just from wondering what other random stuff the director will offer in place of more traditional fright-makers.

That director is Greg McLean, with his first theatrical release since Wolf Creek (its sequel and his followup, Rogue, which starred Ms. Mitchell as well, went DTV here in the US). It's obviously much tamer than his other movies, with a PG-13 rating and (spoiler?) a body count of zero, so while I appreciate him branching out his hardcore fans might be disappointed that it's another run of the mill Blumhouse joint, as the studio once again tries to recapture that Insidious magic (Dark Skies and Sinister being previous, superior attempts) by placing an average family in a suburban home and having them face some form of terror. Considering their low-risk budgets (this one was only $4m) and the mostly successful track record at the box office, I'm not sure why they don't take more chances - the Purge sequels and (even though it wasn't very good) Unfriended are the kinds of things I wish they would make more often, high-concept stuff that at least you can remember (good or bad) down the road. It seems like their more interesting movies (like Hush) get sent straight to video, which baffles and saddens me in equal measure.

At any rate, it looks nice and McLean gets good performances across the board, but it's just so aggressively "stock", to borrow a term from the Metallica documentary. The autism angle and even the villain itself (the Anasazi) give it just enough flavor to keep it from being a total loss, and it's better than the Poltergeist remake (yeah, tall order), but I can't help but feel disappointed how formulaic it was, given the pedigree. Maybe the original cut (again, if there was one, though I would place sizable amounts of money that at the very least the final film doesn't 100% resemble the script the actors signed on for - and it's worth noting that the film was shot in 2014) offered more of those brief glimpses of personality and a more fleshed out set of supporting characters, enough to put the movie in the win column, but as is it's just too "eh" to really care one way or the other about it. I'd almost rather it was flat out awful, because then it'd at least be interesting. Instead, all I'll remember a few months from now is that I should have just let myself sit in the darkness for 90 minutes and imagine a better movie (or taken a nap, I mean how often do I get to sleep in a total blackout?).

What say you?


The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

MAY 18, 2016


My biggest regret about the HMAD book (besides, of course, the fact that not every man woman and child on this earth has a copy... YET) is that I had so few giallo titles that were eligible for inclusion within it. After I took out the ones I didn't like much and the ones that were famous (no big titles per my rule - though I quickly realized that my definition of obscure didn't quite match up to everyone else's - I could have been more lenient), I only had a couple left, when I originally planned to have a full chapter devoted to Italian movies (with gialli making up a good chunk of them). So when Arrow announced they were releasing a double-disc set of The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave (which was one of those few exceptions - it's on page 242!) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (Italian: La dama rossa uccide sette volte), which I had never seen at all, I was quite delighted.

There are a couple reasons for my elation. One is that Evelyn is a fine film that has been mangled and distributed on budget packs for years, so to see it restored and uncut was a relief (even if it means my book entry no longer applies since half of it concerns making sure you are watching a proper version as there are several cuts floating around). Another reason is an obvious one - Red Queen offered a new proper giallo for me to watch, something that I'm always happy about but rarely get a chance to experience. Thirdly, as a lover of trivia and connections, I quickly realized that the films' pairing wasn't random - they were both from director Emilio P. Miraglia (not hard to find out, but a fact I was unaware of until now), and both combine standard giallo silliness with something a little more traditionally horror. In Evelyn there's a supernatural element that (spoiler) while ultimately explained away as a ruse, still gives it a ghost movie feel that its peers often lack, and Red Queen offers up some full blown Universal/Hammer horror moments (people creeping around in old crypts, being besieged by bats, etc.) alongside the black gloved killer and beautiful women who are frequently disrobing for their sleazy male co-stars.

Hilariously, they're also about women named Evelyn who may not be as dead as previously believed, and once again an inheritance is at stake (has an inheritance dispersal ever gone smoothly in a horror movie?), though they are otherwise dissimilar enough that watching them back to back wouldn't really inspire too much deja vu - the things they share in common are kind of surface level. The setting, the characters, etc. are all very different, and honestly I might even like this one a tiny bit more. The plot almost feels more like a straight up slasher than the usual gialli I see, as there is much less police involvement than normal, keeping the focus on the victims (and their various romantic entanglements) instead of the cops who are trying to figure out who is killing everyone. I mean, of course there IS a cop character, but he's only in a few scenes, minimized to the point where I considered that he was the killer and they were sidelining him to keep him a viable suspect (if he was frequently seen investigating himself it'd be pretty dumb even by giallo standards).

It's also got one of the dopiest setups ever, with a grandfather explaining a family curse that's represented by a giant painting in his bedroom that he despises (after he tells the story to his two granddaughters, he orders the painting removed - I guess he was just waiting for the right moment?). The curse explains the title as well - the family has a curse where every hundred years, one sister (the "red queen") will murder seven people including her sister. As luck would have it, the hundred year mark occurs 14 years later, when the girls have become beautiful women and the grandfather has passed away, with his inheritance being withheld until the year is over and the curse is "broken". I mean, all of these movies are ridiculous when all is said and done, but that's gotta be the nuttiest one yet - can't someone just witness a murder or try to cover up an affair or something like usual?

Naturally, after the will is read people who are poised to get money (or at least are involved with someone who is) start getting killed off, by a pretty stab-happy murderer who appears to be a woman, with long hair and a red cloak (and a creepy-ass mask we don't get to see nearly enough). Our heroine, Kitty (Barbara Bouchet), one of the grown-up granddaughters, has killed her sister Evelyn over an unrelated matter (and covered it up by claiming she had gone to America), so naturally she starts believing that Evelyn has, er, returned from the grave - but we know it won't be that simple. We know because not only can it just not be that simple, but also because she has stashed the body in the dungeon-like cellar, and checks to make sure it's still there when the murders start happening. So who is it? Her OTHER sister, inexplicably left out of the prologue? Her boyfriend? His wife? His other mistress (Sybil Danning!) The sleazy guy who blackmails her for money (and later rapes her seemingly for the hell of it - it's not graphic or anything but it's almost certainly the most extraneous example of such things I can recall)?

The answer splits the difference between satisfying and obvious, thanks to a baffling revelation that more or less suggests two killers, both of whom over-explain themselves and, in true giallo fashion, make things more confusing. The climax is also kind of strange in that Kitty - our heroine - isn't even present for some of the bigger reveals, as she is trapped in the cellar which is flooding with both water and a bunch of rats (another of the film's old-school horror homages - it's very Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man). As usual, vital pieces of information are only given to us in the final few moments, but that's all part of the fun, and again with a limited police presence it means the runtime is spent on the main characters, giving them a chance to get fleshed out enough that really any one of them could have been the killer and it'd be a satisfying denouement. The WHYs are kind of incidental anyway, so the fact that it barely makes a lick of sense doesn't really bother me. At least, not as much as the fact that Bouchet never even gets to hear from her tormentor why he/she had been doing such things. Hopefully one of the other survivors clues her in later.

Arrow has put together a pretty extensive disc here, starting with a really good commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman, who thankfully do NOT just recite the IMDb entries for everyone on-screen and instead talk about the film's narrative, offer background info (particularly on the wardrobe), giggle about some of its sillier plot points, and make note of its context within the giallo canon - such as pointing out that one kill may have inspired one in Deep Red (same thing I thought of when I watched it). This is the perfect kind of critical (meaning, the participant(s) had no involvement with the film) commentary, offering insight and analysis but without being all stuffy and dry about it; it's a bummer they couldn't reunite for Evelyn. Then there are a pair of new interviews; one with Danning who is a delight as she talks about her pre-movie career, this particular job, and what she's done since, all without the slightest bit of pretension about any of it (her only regret is that someone else dubbed her voice in the movie). The other is with Stephen Thrower, a writer who more or less just runs down the plot and gives some general info on the participants, with a few jabs thrown in for good measure (like how the movie manages to confuse us from the first scene), though he oddly claims no one knows what happened to Miraglia, when all of the other people who mention him say that he died a few years after making this final film in his brief career.

The other extras (beyond the new transfer, of course - it looks terrific though I haven't seen the movie before so I can't speak on any improvements) are all carried over from a 2006 release from another company, putting Arrow in my cool book as I hate having to keep multiple releases of a film in order to have all of its bonus material - if I HAD that older one I could safely get rid of it, in other words. They include a few more interviews (including one with Bouchet), a curious alternate opening title sequence that shows the years passing by (though they only offer the even numbered years, for whatever reason), and an intro to the film by the production designer. They're all fine, though pale to in quality to the newer ones (both in a technical and entertainment value sense), so only mega-fans of the film need apply.

It's a shame Miraglia only directed these two films in the genre, and an even bigger one that this turned out to be his swan song. A lot of gialli tend to blend together, but his stand out by mixing Gothic elements into the usual murder plots, and it would have been fun to see what he'd do as the likes of Argento came into prominence - would he double down? Just make full blown supernatural horror films and leave the black gloved killers to his rival? We'll never know, though at least Arrow has saw fit to give his painfully brief horror career its due with this lavish set (which includes a 60 page booklet and just as many extras for Evelyn). And unlike a number of their cooler releases, this will be available in region A as well as B (their home base), so us Americans can enjoy what they put together without worrying about region locking or import shipping costs. Hurrah!

What say you?


Bite (2015)

MAY 12, 2016


Maybe I should have added a "Body Horror" tag to my list? It'd feel weird to add one NOW, but Bite is one of a small but growing wave of new films that are inspired by old-school Cronenberg, joining Thanatomorphose, Strange Blood, and the Contracted films with a story about our protagonist gradually turning into a disgusting monster. I guess it kind of fits in the monster movie vein (hence that's why I tagged it as one), but monster also (read: usually) means an inhuman giant beast of some sort, not a normal 20-something who does something dumb on vacation and ends up turning into an insect/fish hybrid thing. It's... well, it's pretty goddamn gross, really.

You'd think a horror (or any) movie would want to suck its audience in right off the bat for maximum effectiveness, but part of what makes Bite ultimately work is that it kind of sucks at first. We're seeing everything through a video camera, our trio of heroine Casey and her two pals are kind of obnoxious, and it's even got the dreaded/stupid cliche of a friend pretending to be grabbed in the water to scare her friend, only to come back to the surface laughing at her horrible and overused joke. It's like the movie is going out of its way to be as generic as possible, which is smart - even if you don't realize or appreciate it at the time. The back half more than makes up for its earlier lapses, and I have to wonder if it was intentional, making the audience let their guard down so that they're even more blown away by what happens later.

Of course, this is a risky gamble in today's film watching landscape, as 99% of the people who see this movie will be doing so on Netflix or some other streaming service, where it's a lot easier to jump ship and watch something else or, at the very least, grab your cell phone and give the movie (at most) half of your attention. Granted, the plot doesn't get very complicated, especially if you've seen the aforementioned movies (especially Thanatomorphose) as it follows their familiar pattern - the infected person starts feeling sick, then weird bumps/sores appear, then weirder shit happens, and finally they're barely recognizable as human beings. Along the way, accidental (and then intentional) deaths occur as the condition worsens, and a happy ending is not even close to a possibility. But you'll likely miss the little subtle bits that keep it a little more engaging, like the reveal of what happened to Casey's engagement ring, or her horrible would-be mother-in-law (the wedding is in a week, because of course it is) fingering the packaging for a pregnancy test as she wanders around the apartment. The characters aren't exactly multi-layered, but you gotta give the movie your full attention to get what the screenwriters DO offer (which is still more than the average modern gross out horror flick can be bothered with).

What makes this one stand out is how icky it gets. I have mentioned my fear of fish more than once on this site, so longtime readers don't need to be told that a woman turning into a fish monster is gonna gross me out. The key moment is about halfway through, when Casey walks into a surprise party and reacts by dumping thousands of fish eggs on the floor - which her guests proceed to applaud and then stomp on as she desperately tries to stop them from destroying her babies. By now we know we're watching a nightmare scene, but here's the kicker - she wakes up and stumbles around her apartment, which really IS covered with thousands of freshly dumped fish eggs! And while The Fly is a clear influence, she doesn't get Brundle's super strength - she gets his acid puke ability, plus a sort of bluish gummy substance that she secretes from her hand and makes her victim look like she was just shunting with Smurfs.

The apartment itself is (don't say a character, don't say a character...) kind of its own character (goddammit, Collins!), mirroring her own degeneration as it turns into a sort of cocoon/hive/nest thing. It's a marvel of production design that must have been torture for all involved, as it is barely even recognizable as a domicile by the time the climax rolls around - thick layers of what looks like a shed snakeskin cover the walls, tendrils of gooey tar like substances protrude everywhere, more eggs come flopping out of giant sores in the wall... imagine the cocoons from Gremlins mixed with that thing in Possession and you kind of get an idea, except across the entire apartment instead of being confined to one spot. Every shot has things just like dripping or pulsing in the background, and it really helps provide a contrast for the (one too many) scenes of someone knocking at the door asking Casey to let them in, only to finally barge their way inside and get disgusted at what they see. Casey looks right in that environment, these normal looking people are the aliens. It's a pretty neat visual, really.

Also, the hybrid nature of what she's turning into is pretty cool. I mean, her eggs are definitely of the aquatic variety, but she gets a stinger and the fly-like puke thing, giving her more of an insect quality (plus the final shot features the eggs hatching little flying things). Maybe there's some fish that matches up with all of these descriptions, but I prefer my hybrid theory, in the end (yes, that was an intentional dumb joke). We don't see what bit her, but it's something in the water - but then again her friend gets bitten too and she's OK except for a rash. So maybe it was an STD she got from the guy she bangs? Or a mixture? The movie doesn't really spell it out, which is fine...

... but leads into my other concern, which is that I wish there was a little more to the basic structure. Like I said, too much of it just involves people being worried about her and coming by to check up, only to usually get killed for their trouble. There's a go-nowhere subplot with a neighbor whose dog she walks - not that I want to see a dog get turned into a puddle of goo but it's weird how it's just dropped after a scene where the dog is afraid to go near her (at this stage she just looks like she has a bad cold or something). A random subplot about one of her friends trying to steal away her fiancee comes along too late in the narrative to mean much (by the time she makes her move it's not like the wedding is gonna happen anyway), and the cast is too compact to mix things up enough. I assume the budget was small and (rightfully) all went toward the makeup and production design, but it doesn't make it any less cyclical and thus somewhat flat - eventually you're just kinda waiting to see the next gross-out effect. Maybe the dog shoulda came back as a hero? Basically if Casey is a Seth Brundle type, the movie needed a Stathis Borans substitute to throw a wrench in the works. Explaining everything isn't exactly what I'd want, but maybe bringing the guy she banged back into the picture wouldn't have hurt. Look, I'm not the screenwriter, dammit! Just needed SOMETHING to keep it from having that "short film stretched to 90 minutes" feeling.

So a little thin and rough going at first, but if you're a fan of this niche but effective sub-genre, it's definitely worth checking out. And it's another minor win for Chad Archibald, who also gave us the enjoyable (but also padded) slasher The Drownsman and the pretty cool sci-fi flick Ejecta. All of his films have good intentions and are worth watching, but I really hope he can knock it out of the park next time (perhaps with a committed screenwriting partner that can really nail his intriguing concepts), as that's three in a row that I recommend with reservations. Sure, that's better than just making a bad movie, but it's kind of frustrating too - all three could be classics based on their concepts, but they always fall a little short for one reason or another. He's so close!

What say you?


Hush (2016)

MAY 11, 2016


No, it makes no sense that Hush has been available for weeks and I'm just getting to it now. I mean, I HAVE an excuse - I was told it should be watched in the dark with the sound cranked, a situation that no longer presents itself since dark means my kid is asleep and thus there will be no cranking of sounds (especially with his bedroom directly above the TV room). But I feel I shoulda figured something out (a hotel?) just because it was a new film from a filmmaker I really like (writer/director Mike Flanagan of Absentia fame), that had drawn comparisons to Halloween, and was a merciful 75 minutes long without credits - I fear I am just getting out of habit. I think I mentioned this before, but the lack of discipline of "having" to watch/write every day has made it that much easier to let things pass me by, which sucks when it means I could be late to the party - or missing entirely* - quality films like this.

Now, with all due respect to Stephen King (who MAY have been a bit swayed by the appearance of a couple of his books on the heroine's shelf), I don't think it's up to Halloween standards - but let's not forget I don't think any film is, being that it's my favorite one ever. However, it definitely shares a very important trait with that film: it's basically plotless, devoting its runtime to little more than wanting to spook its audience and jolt them out of their seats when necessary. It's also a bit like The Strangers (another one I quite like), but even more stripped down - it's just the one woman (Maddie, played by co-writer Kate Siegel) and the one killer, who makes his presence known to her at like the 15 minute mark or so (Liv Tyler didn't know about that guy in her house for about double that, if memory serves). If anything Flanagan could have dragged out the "toying with her" part of the movie a bit, as that sort of stuff is always good for a scare - prowling in the background as she remains completely unaware, but I have to admire that he kind of made things harder for himself by letting her know about the killer so soon (and setting it more or less in real time after).

It's even more impressive/ballsy when you consider he had the license to let her go an entire movie without knowing that a guy was in her house, because she is deaf - he doesn't even have to worry about footsteps or anything alerting her as he makes his way around behind her. Her impairment forms the basis for one of the movie's most chilling moments, which starts out as a seeming direct homage to Halloween, with the heroine making her way back and forth in a kitchen that has a big glass door behind her. Just as Annie never noticed Michael appear (and disappear) as she talked to Paul, we astute horror fans keep expecting the killer (who hasn't made an appearance yet, but I and you probably know what the movie is about) to pull a similar move - but instead it's her neighbor who shows up, frantic and screaming (and eventually - spoiler - being murdered) as Maddie remains completely oblivious. It's the film's first real scare scene and also remains its best; a perfect blend of genuine terror and maximum utilization of one of the character's defining traits.

I should mention that the killer learns in this moment about her predicament, letting us know that it's not someone with a particular vendetta against her - the fact that she can't hear him was a surprise bonus, it seems. Flanagan just posted a few days ago a response to the people who have complained that the killer's motives and origins are left unknown (he doesn't even have a name), name-checking The Strangers' "Because you were home" as a more chilling "explanation" than anything he could cook up (he also amusingly reminds people that Silence of the Lambs didn't tell us much about Lecter, and that when they did in Hannibal Rising - everyone hated it). And he's 100% right; the movie gives us a few glimpses into his personality in order to make him a real character (as opposed to say, the nameless "Killer" in Final Exam), but where he came from, why he does this, etc. are all left unknown, and that's how it should be for this kind of film. Scream can't end without Ghostface taking off his mask and giving Sidney/us a reason for his behavior, but this is a terror exercise, and thus is exempt from that requirement.

Plus, you know, it worked just fine for Michael Myers. While I like my Halloween sequels just fine, I will be first to admit that they tainted the original's power forever, as it's nearly impossible to forget what the sequels told us about Myers and why he's doing these things. And I think people forget that when they make these complaints - since it all blends together (the TV version of Halloween makes it even worse, hinting at the sister thing in the newly shot scenes) they forget that there was a time (1978 until October of 1981) where we had no idea why Laurie Strode was being targeted by this guy, and it didn't stop people from loving it. There are other examples, of course, but it's best/easiest to use Halloween when it's hard to argue with - is there anyone out there who really thought it needed more explanation and thank the sequels for providing it? I mean, maybe, but they're probably also voting for Trump. As Flanagan says in his piece, the moment you start explaining things is the moment they get silly, and I laud him for sticking to his guns and avoiding such nonsense. Knowing this guy's name wouldn't have made that aforementioned scene or any of the other solid scare scenes any more effective. It's just not the point of this particular film.

Back to the actual movie, another thing Flanagan does that I liked a lot was that he kept the cops out of it entirely. Again, she can't exactly call them for help anyway (he cuts the power, making internet pleas impossible), but if he wanted that usual kind of scene I'm sure he would have figured out a way to include one. But such scenes always play out the same way - the cop shows up, can't find anything, and gets killed just before he leaves (or he DOES find something and is killed before he can do anything about it). Instead, he just gives us the neighbors - the aforementioned victim and her boyfriend, who comes looking for her and encounters the killer - who poses as a cop! It's such a great inversion of a home invasion movie trope (getting rid of the cops who show up), and it plays into the film's other strength, which is that you're not sure how it will end up. Maddie is a novelist, and during the film's brief "let's get to know this person" sequence at the top we learn that she has multiple endings for her stories and never knows which she'll go with. That, along with Flanagan's not exactly super happy endings in his other films (and this being a movie Blumhouse didn't think could be a hit, i.e. potentially dark) had me never quite sure if anyone would survive, which aided the proceedings greatly.

See, with such a stripped down premise and cast (there are only five people seen in the film, one just briefly over a Skype call), you'd think the movie might be kind of boring, but he manages to make it work for the most part. Again, he might have let the killer fuck around for a bit longer instead of going out of his way to make her see him so soon, and there's one too many "she tries to go outside, fails, and runs back inside just in time to lock the door before he gets her" bits, but you know what this movie is with the heroine not knowing anything is wrong until the end? The goddamn When A Stranger Calls remake. I'll take a bit of repetition over "realistic" tedium any day of the week (and since she's deaf, the icemaker can't scare our heroine anyway!). If I had one legit complaint about the movie, it's that Flanagan doesn't explain that the glass on the doors is (inexplicably) just shy of shatter proof, as the killer has considerable trouble busting through it when he finally decides to do that - near the film's conclusion. Until then, even though he says he's in no rush to kill her, he clearly wants to get inside, but is seemingly incapable of just grabbing a rock or branch and smashing any of the doors or windows to do that. When he finally does we see that it's not that easy, but after 50 minutes or whatever it's been, it's a bit late to answer a simple question most audience members will probably have. There should have been a bit early on where he tries that and finds it to be too much trouble (especially with her being deaf - it's not like he'd have to worry about alerting her if he used a window she wasn't currently looking at).

The other "flaw" (note the quotes) is that it's not a movie you'll want to return to again and again; this is a one-timer if there ever was one. Maybe in 20 years I'd like to look at it again, or perhaps go to a revival screening to watch it with a crowd, but it serves its lean and effective purpose with just the one view. I say this to make sure I am clear that this is not a horror masterpiece that we need to induct in the hall of fame along with The Exorcist or whatever. It's what I like to call "blue collar" horror - it gets the job done, striving for no more and achieving no less. People will see these raves and touts from Stephen King and get their expectations inflated to an unreasonable degree, and that's a disservice to the film. I can almost see why Blumhouse opted to send it DTV; it's not worse than any of this year's releases (it's better than most, in fact) but it's so stripped down (and short) that I think people would be angry to pay the same ticket price they paid for the latest Marvel flick. No, it's perfect for Netflix or (eventual) VOD viewing, as it keeps your investment tiny and this allows for maximum rewards.

What say you?

P.S. As for why I finally watched it today - it was super cloudy and not a landscaper day for my apartment complex, so with almost no light coming through the cracks in the blinds and everything besides my surround sound being relatively quiet, I was able to get my living room as close to that ideal setup as I'll ever get.

*I was at the used DVD store the other day and was legitimately sad about all the stuff I hadn't seen. Sure, it was probably mostly crap, but I literally wrote a book on the movies I wouldn't have seen if I wasn't doing this, and thus it's possible some of them could have been included had I seen them. It really bummed me out.


Lake Placid vs Anaconda (2015)

APRIL 29, 2016


"Unless [another entry] is somehow conceived, produced, and released in the next 5 months (when HMAD ends), I'll never see it. For me, this truly is the Final Chapter. Adieu, mostly lousy series!"

That's from my review of Lake Placid: The Final Chapter, posted a few months before the daily part of HMAD ended in March of 2013. The thinking was, while I still planned to update the site a couple times a week (I know, it's usually more like once at best), I wouldn't be bothering much with sequels to movies I never liked much to begin with. Alas, I was "forced" to watch Lake Placid vs. Anaconda for one of my freelance jobs, and when I was surprised to discover that it actually had some continuity with both of the series, I looked up my own reviews and realized that I had reviewed all eight previous movies - I figured I kind of had to post a review.

And yes, EIGHT - four Lake Placids, and four Anacondas. In terms of vs. movies, it's rather squarely matched - Jason had more movies than Freddy, Alien had more movies than Predator, but these guys are on even ground - except when it comes to money and theatrical success. The first two Anaconda films were released theatrically and were successful (especially the first - outgrossing the likes of Starship Troopers, LA Confidential, Jackie Brown, and The Game, among far too many others), but only the first Lake Placid was given such treatment - and it was technically a dud, grossing a mere 31m on a 35m budget. In fact, I'm kind of confused Lake Placid went first in the title, as not only is Anaconda a bigger brand name but it also comes first in the alphabet, giving it better placement in VOD menus (whereas L is pretty much right in the middle). But either way I think it's a pretty stupid title, since Lake Placid isn't the name of the crocodile. I mean it'd be cool if the snakes all decided to just fight a large body of water, but that's obviously not what happens - it'd be like if the 2003 film was called Freddy vs Friday the 13th.

Anyway, back to the continuity - I wouldn't say you HAD to watch the other movies, but I was surprised to discover that the writers clearly had, bringing back elements from the Lake Placid series (like the giant fence that encircles the area, letting these animals live peacefully) and the Anaconda series (like the Blood Orchid) in equal measure. The two characters that return are both Lake Placid vets (Yancy Butler and Robert Englund, who survived being eaten in the last film), but the main evil business lady is the daughter of John Rhys-Davies' character from Anaconda 3, so they reward people that have memorized those movies (or, like I did, took a second to look at a Wikipedia entry to understand the connection after she kept referring to unseen father, which is sequel shorthand for a dead character). Again, it's not like you'll be confused if you go in blind, but it tickled me that the movie actually seemed to care more about the two franchise's history than Freddy vs. Jason or Alien vs. Predator did about their respective series.

I was also tickled that the movie's production company was Destination Films, which I thought had went belly-up years ago. For horror fans they're probably best (?) remembered for Bats, the Syfy-level movie that somehow got a theatrical release in 1999 (a not entirely unsuccessful one! It outgrossed Idle Hands and Teaching Mrs. Tingle, for what it's worth), but to me they're the gods who gave us Drowning Mona, one of my favorite random comedies of all time ("Demoted mother"). Alas, my enthusiasm quickly vanished, as the very first shot of the croc was hideous - not even PS2-level, more like PS1 cut-scene, made additionally sad/hilarious by the fact that the shot was behind the VFX supervisor's credit. Supervising what, exactly? A Windows 95 computer running After Effects 2.5? FX are cheaper these days and more people know how to do them - it shouldn't be this hard to get an at least halfway decent shot of your title monster(s), especially in the first few scenes.

However, some of that hope returned a few seconds later, when an unexpected bit of wit intruded on an otherwise cliche and dumb scene. Early on, Englund (sporting a hook hand, metal foot, and eye-patch to explain his survival) has been hired by the shady scientist types to get them past the fence so they could steal eggs or whatever the hell, and he's trying to back out, so one of them has a gun on him. And they're going through the motions, muttering "Not so fast..." "I won't say anything, let me go!" sort of dialogue that no one actually listens to. Meanwhile, the non-gun-toting scientists are still going about their work nearby (everyone's in one of those mobile labs, like the one in The Lost World), and one of them needs to get to a microscope next to the guy holding a gun on Englund, so he just totally ignores their own personal problems and sighs "Watch the gun..." as he casually strolls between them so he can get on with his work. Like, I love the idea that the real scientists are so used to their employers pulling guns on each other that it doesn't even faze them anymore.

As for the "vs" aspect, as expected they don't spend a lot of time on it. They meet up around the halfway point and the croc gets destroyed pretty quickly, and then near the end another croc (there are several of each monster) flings a snake into the blades of a helicopter hovering above, killing the snake (duh) and sending the chopper into an off-screen crash. No, as usual, they spend most of the movie just going after random humans, following Lake Placid sequel traditions and pitting a group of Bulgarian-as-American teens against the beasts as one of their parents tries to rescue them. This time it's a bunch of sorority sisters/pledges, naturally led by a horribly bitchy girl who, just as naturally, will be one of the last to die (after pushing one of her friends into the monster's path to save herself, of course). But director A.B. Stone bungles the moment we've all been waiting for, opting to cut to the other girls' reactions before we see the croc actually chomp on her. He cuts back to at least show her (already dead) in his jaws, but still: personal foul, movie - ten yard penalty. The only reason to keep these awful kind of characters around for the majority of the runtime is to give them a really satisfying death (even with the MPAA cuts, the bitchy girl in New Blood is a fine example - axe to the head AND he throws her across the room!), so to not actually do that is kind of a huge betrayal of our trust.

But, you know, it's fine. I got paid to watch it so that might factor into my "excitement", but they've paid me to watch others that I wished I could pay them back to STOP watching, so I guarantee it's at least tolerable. Englund seems to be having a little more fun than he did in the previous film, and I like how Yancy Butler has a different job in every movie - she was a poacher in Lake Placid 3, then an EPA Agent in Final Chapter, and now she's the sheriff (Corin Nemec plays the obligatory EPA rep). The end of the movie sets up another sequel of course, so I hope if she returns she's the mayor or something. It also offers plenty of carnage (and an impressive amount of blood being tossed on our heroes during the climax as giant monsters explode around them), and even if they're brief the titular battles are at least funny to watch, bad CGI and all. I also loved (ironically) the bit where Butler comes across some wrecked vehicles and says "What the hell happened here?" as if she hadn't already seen this sort of aftermath in two other movies - maybe she has her memory wiped every time she takes on a new job?

The crocs get more human victims than the snakes, for the record. They're the ones who kill most of the sorority girls (only one dies by snake I think - he/she crushes the car the girl's hiding in), so between that and the two characters it seems that the producers favored Lake Placid over Anaconda a tiny bit. I think the problem with all of the modern vs. movies is that they're born out of two different studios (Jason was Paramount for majority of his run, so it made sense that "The House That Freddy Built" would prefer Krueger for FvJ), unlike the old Universal ones like Frankenstein meets The Wolfman that were all under Universal's umbrella from inception. They had the characters, the sets, the history... the team-ups were more satisfying, at least on that level, than these newer ones ever manage. I think we'll be seeing a shift toward more shared universes (like Marvel) as opposed to straight one on one matches. Take Civil War - a movie that was just Captain America vs. Iron Man would have been fine on its own, but it's the fact that it's part of this ongoing series that makes it truly exciting for everyone, because it's Cap 3, Iron Man 4, Ant-Man 1.5, plus a prequel to Black Panther (and Spider-Man). Marvel is the franchise, not any one character, giving them license to do whatever but also keeps favoritism at bay - you can guarantee if Fox agreed to temporarily lend them the X-Men characters for one "AvX" film that fans of the X-films wouldn't walk away as satisfied as Avengers fans. That said, there are enough junk franchises on Syfy (including Bats, now that I think about it) that they could probably build up some sort of half-assed universe going forward. Maybe Anaconda and Lake Placid can fight Sharknado. A man can dream.

What say you?


Got A Few More Signed HMAD Books!

Hey folks! The signing for the HMAD book was over the weekend and went very well, as we sold nearly all of the copies we had on hand! That means I have a few left for anyone who wants a signed copy - anyone interested? Since the signing copies were bought in bulk at a slight discount I'll be selling them for the list price of $25 with shipping/packaging included - not a bad deal especially if you aren't an Amazon prime member (my autograph isn't worth anything, but free shipping? PRICELESS!). If you're interested just Paypal $25 and email your shipping address to my gmail (FrightReviews) and, if it's for a gift, who I should make it out to. And if you're just looking to sell it on Ebay, I don't care - just make sure you tell me not to personalize it! And, apologies, but this is for US residents only. It's first come first served so don't wait too long as I won't be ordering any more copies for the foreseeable future - they're too damn big to keep at the house! And I'm sick of looking at it!

Thanks again for all your support thus far. Between the e-book and this physical one it's sold fairly well, and you guys have done a great job tweeting out links and leaving Amazon reviews - it means a lot to me. But it's about time to let this one spread its wings on its own while I start working on the next one!


Movie & TV Show Preview Widget