The Shallows (2016)

JUNE 24, 2016


Considering how much I love Orphan (and really like House of Wax), I was starting to get nervous that Jaume Collet-Serra might have left the horror forever in favor of Liam Neeson(s); a would-be master of horror who didn't seem interested in cementing his status or even adding to the defense for it. Orphan was seven years ago, and since then he's made three action films (and a fourth is on the way) with bigger budgets and (usually) higher box office returns - why would he come back? Well, maybe he just needed a killer idea, which he got with The Shallows, in which a woman is stuck on a rock with a hungry shark endlessly circling her, waiting to make its move. That's pretty much it - it's a home invasion movie where the home is a small (and not stable) bit of the ocean, and instead of a guy in a mask we get a hungry Great White.

Luckily, Collet-Serra knows precisely how to pace the movie, never letting it get boring but also not jumping the gun and straining credibility too early either. The movie is barely over 80 minutes with credits, and he makes them all count, giving us just enough character development time before heroine Blake Lively grabs her surfboard and heads into the water. A quick lunch break offers a little more backstory (and allows for a Facetime cameo from Brett Cullen, playing her dad - a Lost vet safely at home is a cute casting choice, if it was intentional), but then she goes back in and gets in trouble right around the 20 minute mark, giving us nearly an hour of woman vs. shark action. She utilizes three "locations" to stay safe, each with their own major setbacks - the first is a dead whale that the shark doesn't plan on leaving intact for long, the next is a rock that will be submerged once the tide comes in, and the third is a buoy that the shark can easily tip over if he gives it a big enough headbutt.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything to lay all of that out - the trailer does that anyway. At first I was annoyed that the trailer shows her making it to the buoy after setting it up as a sort of main goal (akin to showing Tom Hanks leaving the island on the Cast Away promos), but it's clear that Collet-Serra (I'm going with just Serra from now on, that OK?) knows staying too long in any one spot will kill the movie's pace and also have us start picking apart the logic, so he keeps her moving and thus even if you haven't seen the trailer you'd know she got to here or there. She's the only main human character - we know that if she's going to die at all that it won't be until the runtime has nearly expired, so the trick is to keep giving her new injuries and obstacles to deal with (and that said injuries will keep her from Open Water-like water treading, as she'd be dead instantly with the blood loss). Like, sure, she gets to the rock before being eaten, but NOT before she scrapes her foot up on the coral - the fun doesn't come with seeing whether or not she'll survive, but how she'll managed to get out of her latest predicament. I should note that the trailer does wreck some of the fun by showing a moment that probably should have happened earlier in the movie than it does, because it involves a character who leaves fairly early on and thus we know he'll come back later - it would have worked a bit better for her to be isolated for good earlier on, I think.

But as a whole it still works better than it has any right to, though we can't chalk the success up just to Serra and/or Lively (who I never liked much, but acquits herself nicely here) - they are assisted greatly by Steven Seagull, Lively's closest thing to a major co-star. He's one of the many gulls flying around and pecking at the whale carcass, and gets a broken wing during one hectic scene, grounding him on the rock with her for the bulk of her time there. I can't recall ever seeing a seagull "act" before, but if I have that one wasn't nearly as good as Steven (yes, that's how he's credited), who gets closeups and everything. With Lively's survival not in question anytime soon, he provides the bulk of the movie with its "Will they make it out?" suspense, and damned if I didn't tense up every time it seemed he might be served up as bait or just to give the movie a horror jolt whenever it had been a while since the last one. I wouldn't dare reveal his fate here, but suffice to say his time onscreen, and "chemistry" with Lively, more than made up for the movie's paper-thin narrative and eventually ridiculous spectacle.

On that note, I should stress that for the most part this is more like Jaws than any of its sequels, but near the end - particularly when she's in the buoy, which functions not unlike Hooper's shark cage - I started wondering if the thing had a personal vendetta against her, a la Jaws 4. I know we need a big finale, but when it starts chewing through metal to get at her after it had eaten three people in less than 24 hours (plus whatever it got out of that poor whale), it starts coming off more like Jason Voorhees than a regular ol' shark. For his part, Serra dives headfirst into the silliness, with a money shot I am so happy the trailer didn't spoil (as I was with an earlier one that gave the movie its best jolt), but if you were enjoying the more grounded aspect of the film, you might want to duck out as soon as she leaves the rock and make up your own ending.

(Speaking of ducking out, a guy went to the bathroom and missed the climax, even though it was obviously time for one or both of them to meet their maker - you couldn't hold it for another minute, guy?)

As he did in Non-Stop, Serra spices up his single location imagery with graphic overlays, like a 32 second countdown that times out how long she can jump into the water to retrieve something before the shark can swim back to her, Facetime calls, and pictures of her mother, whose memory she is honoring by traveling to this remote beach (as she went to it when she was pregnant with her). But unlike that film, which was in a sterile, boring environment, he really didn't need the assist - the film is GORGEOUS, and no not because it stars a beautiful woman. He gives us these great (way) overhead shots of the crystal clear water and its various rock/plant formations under the surface, big widescreen vistas showing how far she is from this or that safe spot, etc. - I can't recall the last horror/thriller that looked this lovely. Even the horror stuff has its own sort of beauty, like when she is first attacked and the water turns crimson red around her - Argento will be proud, if he sees it. Such shots more than make up for the film's sometimes lacking CGI - there's a pretty terrible shot of a victim who has been cut in half where the bloodstain on the bottom of his torso seems to be floating around the screen, and the facial replacement for Lively on her surfing shots will have you yearning for the relative perfection of the CGI Myers in H20. With such a minimal cast and lack of location changes, roughly half of the film's credits are for VFX folk, so I'm not sure who is to blame for the bad shots, though at least the ones of the shark all look good to great. Still, its such a technical and aesthetic marvel 98% of the time, it makes those blunders really stand out as laughable.

Ultimately, the singular nature of the film means it won't be one I revisit often, if ever, but that's fine - it's just great to have another Jaume Collet-Serra horror movie again. I think it's a must-see on the big screen to appreciate the scenery and the major shark scenes, however, and certainly a better use of your summer moviegoing dollars than Independence Day 2, which feels like everyone involved is just doing it out of obligation (even Goldblum seems bored more often than not, and Emmerich couldn't even be bothered to destroy anything you didn't already see get blown up/knocked over in the trailer). Those who wanted more alien action in the first one will be satisfied, I think (we see them a LOT this time around) but otherwise if you want big silly fun at the movies this weekend, this is the movie that will provide it - along with some genuinely good editing and craft. And it's been a long time since there was a "serious" (by comparison) shark movie after all the Syfy/Asylum stuff, so it's worth seeing just for the sheer fact that it's daring enough to lend itself to more Jaws comparisons than Sharknado ones. And it pays off - I think Spielberg would have fun watching it without feeling like he should sue someone.

What say you?


Clown (2014)

JUNE 19, 2016


I knew Clown had been on the shelf for a while, but I hadn't realized how long until the credits were reaching their end, and I noticed a 2013 copyright date (plus the MPAA number was 48,000-something - they're in the 50,000's now). Since then director Jon Watts has made another feature (Cop Car) and landed the plum gig of directing the Spider-Man reboot we are actually excited about this time thanks to the new Marvel deal (and star Tom Holland winning us over in Civil War), and Dimension has probably put another half dozen movies in their vaults for TBA release. Indeed, when the Dimension logo flashed at the beginning I tried to remember the last time I had seen it theatrically, realizing it was probably also 2013 (Dark Skies!). Three years is a long goddamn time, and while I'm sure they're relieved its finally out there in its native US, they can't be thrilled about the weird release it got.

I mean, the number of screens is nothing unusual - it's about the same that Aftershock got a few years back, which was another Dimension/Radius movie that Eli Roth produced. But that one, if memory serves, ran at normal screening times - Clown was bizarrely restricted to a maximum of two shows per day at every one of its Los Angeles screens (about a dozen of them), and all at the same times, more or less 5pm and 10pm (or later). No early matinees for folks like me who prefer to get their movies out of the way around noon (i.e. when the kid is napping), no 7:30-8pm slots that would be the most crowded. Nope, just the weird "too early, I'm not out of work yet" and "It's too late" slots most don't go to, as if the theaters wanted to assure the movie had poor attendance. I don't get it, and if anything I was kind of stunned to see eight other people in the theater for this 9:55 showing - I figured I had a shot of having the place to myself, since it was also available on iTunes and, as always, Dimension didn't do any real advertising.

So does the movie deserve this tossed-off fate? Most certainly not. I wouldn't dub it a classic or anything, but I quite liked how it played its goofy premise - about a man who can't take a clown costume off - totally straight, giving the movie more of a body horror flavor than the Dr. Giggles-esque slasher I was sort of expecting (as usual, I barely knew anything about the movie going in, so I'm sure that information isn't as surprising to most of you). And I loved how it wasted no time on getting going - our tragic hero puts the suit on pretty much in his first scene (after his wife - Laura Allen of Awake non-fame because NBC canceled it too soon because they're jerkheads - calls him to tell him that the clown they've hired for their son's birthday party has canceled on them), and realizes something is wrong not too long after that. Watts and his writers tease out his plight for a bit - he keeps the costume on for the whole party because the kid knows it's him anyway (and thus he doesn't have to take it off to show up as dad), passes out on the couch after the party, then wakes up late and has to rush out the door to get the kid to school... it's like 16-20 hours before he even gets a CHANCE to try to take the damn thing off.

This leads to the movie's first of many gore gags, in which he tries to remove the shirt by slicing at the fabric with a box cutter, only to slash his wrist in the process (Watts then keeps us cringing when he grabs an even stronger weapon to try to cut the neck area of the clown suit). As he learns shortly thereafter, the suit isn't just a regular old thing - it's the actual skin of a demon (and original, pre-kid friendly clown - think Krampus/Rare Exports re: Santa) and it has now fused to his own, with only way to get it off - death, or the sacrifice of five children. Naturally, this being an R-rated movie produced by Eli Roth, the suspense doesn't stem from whether or not he will kill a kid but whether he will that all important fifth kid, giving the movie a rare taboo thrust that a. you don't see anymore and b. usually would upset me too much now that I have a child of my own. Luckily, the supernatural element, along with the fact that our very young murder victims are all but anonymous (meaning we don't meet them much earlier than their deaths, most of which are wholly off-screen), kept me from getting all over-sensitive - I cringed a bit at one of them but was otherwise on board for the deranged ride.

Speaking of deranged, the movie's obligatory "I know what's going on and how to stop it" character is played by Peter Stormare, automatically making the movie worth my and your time (between this, Dark Summer, and Bad Milo, I quite like this period of his career, showing up and having a ball in genre films) in his few scenes as the brother of the man who owned the suit (he died, which is why our real estate hero had access to his belongings). At first you think he's the grand villain, but he's actually quite noble and just driven mad by the responsibility of trying to keep the suit from hurting anyone else. It couldn't be destroyed, they couldn't risk just throwing it out or burying it somewhere, so they kept it under lock and key - unearthed only because a man was frantically trying to keep his son happy. Since today was Father's Day, I couldn't help but feel more than the usual amount of kinship with the man, as I'd probably do the same thing even if I KNEW the consequences if it meant ensuring my son had a good birthday (I'd then kill five random kids at my earliest convenience to get back to him!).

Alas, that's one area that the movie ultimately falls a bit short of greatness, because it's a tragic, Fly-esque story of a man who we didn't get to know much before he got infected and don't really spend a lot of time with afterwards. Big chunks of the movie focus on Laura Allen's character, and then the kill scenes switch to a full blown slasher movie mode where he's kind of in the shadows and the camera stays with our would-be/will-be victim. He's basically a zombie by like the 40 minute mark, so while his final form is quite monstrous, it lacks that tragic element that The Fly and some of these others had, as we didn't get to really experience his gradual disintegration as well as we should, or even get into his head all that much - he's mute during many of these scenes. The strange premise is even kind of played for laughs at first (he has to go to work with his clown suit on; the doctor thinks he's just some weirdo, etc.) so that also keeps us at arm's length - when Allen finds herself in a position that she might have to kill him at the end, I didn't feel the devastation that I felt for Geena Davis' character in Cronenberg's masterpiece.

Ordinarily this is where I'd say "I wish there was more of" this or that, but if anything the movie's other issue is that it needed some tightening. Again, whenever he's about to kill a kid, the movie becomes a slasher (particularly in the Chuck E. Cheese segment late in the film), leaving him in the dark and us wondering where he might pop out as our random kid makes his way through the tunnels of the arcade's giant maze thing - the scenes are fine bits of stalk n' slash on their own, but they don't quite fit in this movie of a man being turned into a monster, and that time coulda/shoulda been spent on his POV, fighting (or not) the urges that he could not control (someone suggested the movie might even be an allegory for pedophiles, which is fascinating and makes me want to watch it again under that impression), instead of just instantly turning him into Jason Voorhees. Shaving a few of the movie's supporting characters might have helped, too - Allen has a friend and her father who both kind of serve the same purpose, so weeding one of them out might have helped as well.

But, you know, it's a full length movie based on a joke trailer. Hobo With A Shotgun is fun but ultimately a bit exhausting, and Machete is damn near unwatchable (I never bothered with the sequel) - this isn't exactly a sub-genre overflowing with masterpieces, and your expectations should be set accordingly. Those with Coulrophobia will find plenty to disturb them (the movie dives into trying to unsettle you with an opening sequence populated by closeups of various clown memorabilia) and the body horror element, while not always successful, is certainly an inspired way to go about a killer clown tale. I wish it was a little better, but not as much as I wish it hadn't been effectively buried - it's a pretty good movie that deserves the audience that would enjoy it if they knew it was (finally!) out there.

What say you?


Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003)

JUNE 14, 2016


Usually, when I review a Victor Salva movie, I make a note that I know what he did and that I'm just here to review the movie he made, but he makes that separation pretty difficult with Jeepers Creepers 2, which might take Freddy's Revenge's record for most homoerotic horror sequel in history. Granted, the characters in the film are older than the boy he assaulted (and, as I feel in fairness I must remind people, plead guilty when charged and served time), but they're still kids, and he finds more than one way to get them shirtless (lingering on their bare chests whenever possible). Plus there's a sequence where the Creeper discovers he can easily get to all that young flesh via the backdoor exit of their presumed safety, which is all kinds of icky.

Of course, it's easier to make these connections and shake your head when the movie isn't up to snuff, and that's the issue here. I've seen worse (including from Salva himself), but it's nowhere near as effective as the original film (which itself had some problems), and Salva makes the fatal mistake of over-populating his film, with so many jocks on the bus (plus some cheerleaders, a couple coaches, and the driver) that he doesn't even have time to identify them all. Sure, it gives the film a different flavor than the original, which focused on just two heroes for the most part, and it also helps make it harder to guess who our survivors will be, but it's equally hard to care much, either. By the end, I feel I still barely know anything about the people who survived, let alone the ones that died along the way - an issue that could have been prevented with a few lines of dialogue explaining why there were only, say, ten people tops on the bus (just say they had two buses because of all of the equipment or something - done). It'd still be "bigger" than the original, but not so overstuffed that it starts to resemble a lesser slasher flick more than a cool monster movie.

Because independent of the bus folk, and off-screen for far too long, is a much more interesting character played by Ray Wise, and I don't need to tell you or anyone else that keeping Ray Wise in your movie as MUCH as possible is the correct way to go. Alas, after the opening sequence (which is also one of the best parts of the movie - love the Creeper posing as a scarecrow), Wise pretty much checks out for about an hour or so, only rejoining the action for the 3rd act when the kids, calling for help from the bus, reach him via CB radio. Once he shows up with his homemade harpoon gun things pick up a bit, but by then it's too late for this to be anything but a relatively lackluster followup. Too many interchangeable kids with too much generic drama (including some half-assed attempts at racial tension and even a go-nowhere subplot about one of the players being in the closet) is bad enough, but when we're focused on them instead of Ray Wise (who has a personal vendetta against the Creeper) it's just twisting the knife. To be fair, the kids are involved in some of the best moments - I love the injured Creeper kind of leap frogging his way to a victim (also injured), and the bit where he tries to remove a javelin from his head by sliding it back and forth, finally giving up and just pulling it sideways out of his own head - but OVERALL the movie is more effective when Wise is doing his Ahab/Loomis thing, and much less so when it's just a bunch of kids yelling at each other.

But again, fewer kids might have solved the problem. The concept itself is actually a pretty good one, as it's essentially a "hole up and keep the bad guy out" story in your Precinct 13 or NOTLD vein, albeit on a broken down bus in the middle of nowhere. Salva milks his location dry - you'll know every inch of this bus before the end of the film - but I just never found myself particularly engaged by their dilemma, so whether the Creeper got them one by one or in one fell swoop made little difference to me. Apparently there was a scene of them playing their game before getting on the bus, and I can't help but wonder if that's a big part of the reason I felt so disconnected - it likely would have given them some much needed context that would have improved things greatly. Instead, I actually couldn't tell if they were on their way to a game or coming home from one for a bit after what is now their introductory scene, which means we're starting off on the wrong foot.

Salva also hamstrings himself with a truly terrible "psychic dream" subplot, where one of the cheerleaders inexplicably dreams of Justin Long's character from the first film, who also helpfully explains the "Every 23 years for 23 days..." concept to her so that she can pass this information on to the others. I'm not sure why it's necessary for them to know all of that; a number of the Friday the 13th movies let most of their characters be ignorant of Jason (in Part 3 they never say his name at all), and this "rule" is so goofy that it's probably best not to bring it up any more than absolutely necessary. Wise could have told them about it when he showed up (as a grieving father hunting it down, it'd make sense for him to have picked up this information somewhere) if it was vital for the kids to know what they were dealing with, sparing us the out of nowhere supernatural element. Jesus, why didn't Salva have me rewrite this damn thing before he shot it?

He also could have used my assistance before sitting down for his new interview for the obligatory retrospective piece on the film, because he starts off by blaming 9/11 for the first film's quick death at the box office after a solid (then record-breaking for Labor Day) opening weekend. There's just one problem with that - 9/11 occurred the Tuesday after the film's SECOND weekend, so unless you want to get heavily into conspiracy theories we can be pretty sure that the 2nd weekend drop had nothing to do with what was going to happen a couple days later (and, to further debunk his "theory" - it dropped LESS on the weekend after 9/11 than it did the weekend before it). I mean, Christ, guy - you're already on thin ice with pretty much everyone who watches anything you do, and now you're gonna toss 9/11 into the mix for no reason?

That unfortunate part aside, it's a pretty good recollection, though I'm not sure if it really required it since the existing special edition was already packed and everything has been carried over. The featurettes, the two commentaries, etc - all here, most of them on a second disc (rare for Scream Factory) to save room for the transfer on the main disc. I never saw it on DVD so I can't speak to its improved picture, though I CAN say it looked fine to my eyes and should make fans happy, though as always some shoddy CGI work (the Creeper flying, mainly) is prone to look worse than you remember now that it's been cleaned up for high def. The other new features are an interview with Wise (at 20 minutes, it's possibly longer than his actual amount of screentime) and the three adults on the bus, including the lady bus driver whose role was originally meant for Meat Loaf (dammit!). As for the commentaries, feel free to skip the one with Jonathan Breck and the people who worked on his makeup/design unless he's actually on-screen, and also keep in mind there's a featurette focusing on the character where they highlight all the important info anyway (though Breck tells a pretty horrifying/funny story about mosquitoes biting the inside of his eyelids on the first movie). Salva's is of course more interesting, and he's joined by a large chunk of the cast, but he drops some of that same unearned pretension from time to time that can't possibly help your probably already low opinion of the guy.

There is also a collection of deleted scenes, and if you think the movie laid on the homoeroticism a bit too thick, you might be stunned to learn how much thicker it was - nearly every deleted bit has eyebrow-raising material, including lengthier peeing scenes (one of which includes a guy rubbing one out in front of his friends?), more shirtless closeups, and the oddly written line "You use that mouth on your brother?" (spoken to a young boy, for the record). Again, I try to just ignore Salva's past when I watch his films, but he sure as hell doesn't make it easy, so I guess I can take solace knowing that it could have been even worse if someone didn't think better (the footage is presented sans commentary or introduction, so we have no idea why any of it was cut). But I know some folks feel differently, and they have every right to - and have probably already made up their mind about whether or not they will be supporting this release. However, I ALSO know those folks probably aren't reading this review, and only the film's fans are - to them I say it's probably worth the upgrade for the Wise interview alone, and also to have the film on a stand-alone Blu (it was previously only available on a double feature with the first film, which Scream has also re-released with new features, including a new commentary with the two leads). Just don't wade into any Facebook threads about it.

What say you?


Don't Hang Up (2016)

JUNE 8, 2016


Last week I saw I Know What You Did for the first time, so it's kind of funny that today I found myself sitting in a theater watching a pseudo-remake. Don't Hang Up, like William Castle's lesser film, concerns a pair of crank callers who pick the wrong random number to dial, and face the consequences of their actions. Unlike that earlier movie, there's a body count on both sides of the equation here, and the movie doesn't stop cold to address the killer's romantic complications, so overall it's a much better film - though it's not quite a home run, either (more like a solid double if you want to stick with baseball metaphors). Maybe crank calls just aren't the key to genre masterpieces?

Of course, the main problem is that unless you're a 12 year old, you're probably not going to be too endeared to anyone who spends their free time bothering and in some cases downright terrorizing people, as our two "heroes" don't exactly ask about running refrigerators or Prince Albert's whereabouts. We learn how far they go right off the bat when they call a woman in the middle of the night, pretending to be the police and telling her that there's an intruder in the house who may be about to enter her daughter's room. Later they tell someone that his daughter died in a car crash - I mean, JESUS, that's a pretty horrible thing to do, so you're kind of on the killer's side when he starts tormenting them. The big difference between this and Castle's film (besides the gender change - our crankers are male here) is that the murderer isn't even identified until the very end, let alone become his own (unmasked) character, so we get to play a guessing game, wondering if they just called the wrong guy (i.e. a murderer) that night or if it's someone they wronged in the past.

I don't think it's spoiling much to say it's the latter, as it doesn't take long for the killer to reveal that he's got one guy's parents tied up in their home and has potentially kidnapped the other guy's girlfriend - he couldn't have set all of that up in the hour or so that occurs between them making their calls and the killer calling them back. He also forces them to make tough choices (i.e. "Kill your friend and I'll let your parents go" sort of stuff), and since it's a modern horror movie, he also has to play mind games with them and reveal that one has slept with the others' girlfriend. If you've read my Collins' Crypt this week you already know about that, as it inspired a rant that's been brewing for quite a while now (so long that I momentarily had to wonder if I had already written the same thing with a different movie as the inciting example), and it certainly didn't help endear the characters to me further - now I also have little reason to like the girlfriend, who was at least not involved with the prank calls.

The weirdest thing about the movie is that it only focuses on two of the guys, despite the fact that the opening sequence establishes four of them. One of them shows up briefly and is removed from the suspect list at around the halfway mark (he works as a pizza delivery guy and is on call - they even buy the pizza they prank deliver to a neighbor), but the other, known to us as "Prankmonkey", is completely wiped out of the movie after the first five minutes. I'm not sure if they wanted us to wonder if the 4th guy was actually the one tormenting them for some sort of ultimate prank (or if he just followed the natural progression of someone who would tell a woman her daughter was about to die into full blown psychosis), but it's a pretty unsuccessful red herring if that was the case, and the fate of "PrankMonkey" remains maddeningly vague until the very end - are they saving his comeuppance for a sequel? I mean he was kind of the main guy for their little group (they post very popular videos on Youtube), so leaving him out of the revenge scheme would be like if the killer in Terror Train took his revenge on the group when Doc was out of town or something.

Plus, having a third guy in the house where 95% of the movie takes place would mix it up a bit, so loyalties could be further tested, alliances could be made, etc. It gets a bit repetitive watching the two guys have the same arguments over and over ("Let's make a run for it!" "We can't!" - we hear like five variations on this discussion), not to mention, again, the small issue that they're assholes who deserve what's coming to them. Indeed, ultimately we learn what exactly they did to earn the killer's scorn, and I was sitting there thinking "Wait, if that's what happened, what took you so long to strike back at these assholes?" It's a weird thing to be thinking about in a horror/thriller movie like this - it's not even a "gray area" kind of thing, I was fully on the killer's side once all of the information was laid out.

Where the script let me down, the filmmaking made up for it, however - for a movie that's set almost entirely in a upper-middle class living room, it's got a lot of visual flair. The directors (another directing pair! So many these days - remember when it was almost unheard of?) mentioned Panic Room as an influence and it shows - there's a great swooping tracking shot that carries us from high above the ground, down to the house, through the keyhole, in between knick-knacks... it's a technical marvel and not at all what I expected to see in a movie about people talking on the phone. They also pull one of those Strangers-y moments where the killer is just standing in the house behind one of the (unaware) protagonists, which will never not spook me out. Incidentally, after coming home I got distracted by something when I pulled into my garage and forgot to close the door, noticing it a half hour later - I was definitely on the lookout for random masked people standing silently in my house for the next few minutes.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the movie more or less, but more for its technical showcasing and almost admirable decision to make the killer more sympathetic than the "heroes". Had the killer been just some random guy with no clear motive, it'd be a disaster - the reveal kept it afloat, though it doesn't change the fact that we spend 75 minutes focusing on two assholes and precious little else. Kind of asking a lot of an audience, in my opinion. I bet it'll be a bit easier to digest at home though, when you have the added tension of wondering if anyone is silently stalking you as you watch a horror movie (a feeling you can't quite get in a crowded theater). Hell, playing with your phone during less thrilling moments might even add to it!

What say you?


Fender Bender (2016)

JUNE 2, 2016


Thanks to the existence, and, far as I'm concerned, UTTER PERFECTION of Halloween, you can't ever really fault a filmmaker for mimicking any part of it for his own slasher film. Sure, it probably won't be as good, but a slasher fan will have to find something else to complain about unless he wants to sound stupid. Case in point, Fender Bender has a low body count compared to many other slashers, but it's also identical to Halloween's (even the sexes are the same - three girls, two guys) and not a lot of motivation for our murderer, but to consider these things a detriment is to say Halloween is also wrong in those departments. You can't have it both ways; either a slasher flick is allowed such behavior, or it's not.

And actually, we do get a "motive" of sorts, one that actually made me smile as it almost seemed like writer/director Mark Pavia was making fun of the very idea of explaining everything. I wouldn't dare spoil it for you, but if you can honestly tell me that it's worse/stupider than what we ultimately learned about Michael Myers, or even any number of one-off killers with shockingly silly motivations (Urban Legend 2 and Shredder come to mind), then I'll quit reviewing slasher movies. However, I ask you to think about it for a few minutes - yes, what we see is goofy (in a charming way), but even real life murderers have odd "traditions" - phases of the moon, shared birthdays, etc. (not to mention the so-called "Alphabet Killer"), and his thing fits in just fine with those. I'll take simple over complicated any day of the week.

The reveal also erased one of the problems I had with the movie, which is that he didn't use his car enough. Again I don't want to get into the killer's particular MO, but it works out, if perhaps a bit too late. I mean, the killer is called The Driver and the movie is titled Fender Bender - I was hoping for a little Highwaymen/Death Proof-esque vehicular manslaughter. He only uses a car for one kill (and it's a good one), which until we know why he prefers to be on foot seems like a waste of a killer/concept. Luckily, Pavia makes up for it with a pretty sweet costume, accentuated by a black leather mask that gives him a Prowler/Harry Warden-esque appearance - it definitely passes my "Would I want an action figure/model kit of him?" test, always a big plus for me with a modern slasher. Especially for one where we know who the killer is - we see him unmasked early on when the eponymous incident occurs (and it's a recognizable actor too - Bill Sage from We Are What We Are and the "other" The Boy), so there's no reason to mask him for the audience's benefit - it's just cool, dammit.

And I think that's why I dug the movie - Pavia clearly has respect for the slasher genre, even though he is actively aware that doing the usual thing just doesn't cut it anymore. I've ranted over and over that we need more slashers, but the simple fact remains that you can't really DO those kind of movies anymore - the locations (and holidays) have all been used over and over, and the simplicity of the older ones can't be replicated anymore, as we just expect too much from our modern films. Add in cell phones and GPS and all of the other things that didn't exist when the best slasher movies were made, and you realize that filmmakers have to adapt - with a sub-genre that has a pretty rigid formula. Pavia has found a way to straddle that line, making a "throwback" (most of which suck) in some ways but not shying away from modern touches - our characters have and use cell phones, and our heroine learns about the killer's previous misdeeds within hours of reporting their accident to her insurance company. I think about movies like My Bloody Valentine, where an important plot point hinges on the lack of information being available at one's fingertips (namely, Harry Warden's current living situation) - that wouldn't fly today, so you can't do that kind of storyline anymore unless you compress it to a couple hours, max. In his own little way, Pavia found a way to live up to old-school slasher standards without a bunch of contrivances (we can generalize it with the "no signal" approach), and in a way even using technology as a tool to tell his story without it being intrusive.

I do wish the accident was as drastic as its outcome for our heroine though. The Driver rear-ends her, and basically just scrapes up the paint on her rear bumper, but she acts as if the car was totaled. And she's also grounded; while to be fair the grounding is technically for taking the car without asking, it all still feels like her whole world was thrown into upheaval for the sort of accident that you'd forget ever happened (and, again, wasn't even her fault). The parents' punishment is also a bit odd, as they decide not to take her to a show they're planning to go to as a family, and go away for the weekend without her. A 17 year old girl being "punished" by not having to hang out with her parents and getting the house to herself for a night or two doesn't exactly track - perhaps they should have reworked it a bit to have it so she pretended to be sick or had too much homework to do or something so that they'd leave her behind and she could get the car fixed before they noticed (it's her mom's car that's damaged and the parents take the dad's, I should explain). It'd feel a bit more realistic, I think, instead of leaving me kind of puzzled about everyone's reaction to a pretty simple, not particularly damaging bump on the road.

WARNING: this next paragraph is MAJOR SPOILER TERRITORY so please do not read it if you don't want part of the film's ending given away!!!

But ultimately, same as with the "motive", the film's conclusion made it easy for me to overlook its occasional lapses, because it didn't commit one of my pet peeve "sins" for this kind of movie - our heroine does not survive against this veteran serial killer. I don't need every movie like this to end on a grim note, but I've always been annoyed when they establish that our killer (or family of killers!) has been doing this for years without incident, but our protagonist manages to off them or at least escape by doing pretty standard things like "run away" or "fight back". You're Next is one of the few I can think of that actually gave an explanation for why THIS hero/heroine succeeded, because we learn Sharni Vinson's character has had extensive survival training - I loved that! But our girl here hasn't been so fortunate, and when she discovered that The Driver had like dozens of licenses of his previous victims (most of them older than her) I had to roll my eyes, assuming she'd somehow overcome this guy when none of the others had ever been able to. So when I was proven wrong, I was pleasantly surprised - sure, it's a bummer, but it's not really nihilistic or anything - Pavia doesn't want to send you on your way laughing, but he doesn't seem to want to depress you either. It's just how it is.

Long story short, it gets more right than wrong, and is another winner for the Scream Factory/Chiller partnership that also yielded Bite. I wish it had one surprise in its narrative earlier, because until the last five minutes or so it's kind of basic (not BAD, just pretty meat-and-potatoes), and it would have been nice to have been won over sooner, but as I've said in the past - better an OK movie has a great finale than a great movie sputtering out of gas and ending on a shrug. And it's a modern slasher where the heroine's boyfriend isn't fucking her best friend (he IS cheating on her, but with some random we don't see/care about, and she takes her revenge on him to boot) and the group of pals seem to genuinely like each other, so even if it DID have a shitty ending I'd probably recommend the movie on the strength of that alone. Enough with the toxic friendships in these things! Let us LIKE the people, even if most of them are gonna end up dead!

What say you?


I Saw What You Did (1965)

MAY 31, 2016


I am a fan of William Castle, but not a would-be biographer, so it's just an insane coincidence that I watched I Saw What You Did today, as it's also the 39th anniversary of his early-ish death - the sort of thing I would do to celebrate a filmmaker I admired if I knew the date (though a birthday would be more likely than the day of their passing - even for me that's kind of morbid). And if I was doing it on purpose I'd probably go with House on Haunted Hill or something - not this relatively weak effort from the veteran filmmaker. It has its moments, but like The Tingler, the concept is too thin to sustain an entire movie, so the excess "downtime" keeps it from ever really coming to life like his best films.

And it's worth noting that his best films were usually scripted by Robb White, whereas this one was by William P. McGivern, a writer with a LOT of television work on his resume* - and that's exactly what this often feels like. I actually checked halfway through watching to see if it WAS indeed a TV movie, because it had that same sort of stilted quality I associate with such fare of the period, though I was pretty sure I remembered that it wasn't when I saw this movie's section in a William Castle doc I saw a few years back. Nope, it was a theatrical release, albeit one that was saddled with one of the worst scores that I've ever heard for a feature film - it seriously sounded like the incidental music you hear on The Brady Bunch, and I had to laugh when looking up the composer (Van Alexander) when I discovered he did indeed work on a Brady Bunch series (the short-lived variety hour series of the late 70s), plus other sitcoms like Bewitched and Hazel. Honestly, I think half my problems with the movie would have been solved it had a good score behind it instead of this cartoonish nonsense that kept assuring me everything would be OK in the end, like a sitcom.

But even Bernard Herrmann couldn't overcome the fact that the movie's premise was simply too thin for an 80 minute feature. The title refers to what our heroine, Libby, says during her crank calls to random people in the phone book, a joke that backfires when she calls someone who actually DID just commit a murder. The murderer, of course, doesn't realize it's a prank and believes he has been identified, and naturally things turn bad for everyone. But we're something like 35 minutes into the movie before she even calls him, and it's another half hour before he goes to her house. The suspense and scary bites - i.e. the things Castle surely hyped in his trailers (he doesn't do an intro on this one, sadly) - are very few and far between until that point, and even then it's not exactly a nail-biter. At one point the killer actually sets his sights on Libby's younger sister, who is like six years old or something - I mean, come on. Who can possibly get worked up about this? Even nowadays I wouldn't buy her being in any danger, let alone in a 1960's movie.

Then again, it's also a post-Psycho film, so breaking a taboo or two certainly wasn't out of the realm of possibility. And Castle makes sure you remember Psycho, setting the first of the film's two murders in a shower, complete with stabbing and blood circling the drain (though in a fun inversion, the killer is the one in the shower - he pulls his victim - his wife - into it). But when the script has the killer arrive AFTER Libby's best friend - i.e. our most likely teenaged victim - goes home for the evening, you know neither Castle or McGivern are interested in shocking the audience that badly. The girls are safe, the killer is dispatched by a cop, and the movie ends on a legit sitcom line about never using the phone again, where you half-expect a laugh track and/or a cutaway to another family member shaking their head in an "Oh you wacky kids!" way. I mean, I know I said I'm on the hunt for movie movies I can show my son when he's a bit older (but not old enough for the likes of Friday the 13th), but the average episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse has as much terror. Goofy almost drowned in that last one!

The movie's big draw was Joan Crawford, who turns in an extended cameo as a neighbor of the murderer, who is pretty much OK with him killing his wife because she's in love with him and sees it as their chance to be together. She also gets to terrorize Libby when she brings her sister and friend to the killer's house to see what he looks like (obviously at this point they don't know he's dangerous - they're just dumb girls who think he sounded handsome from their awkward, brief phone conversation). Crawford thinks Libby is the man's young mistress, chasing her off and inadvertently saving her life, though she is offed herself a few minutes later after confronting the man/professing her love for him again. It's obvious that Crawford had seen better days, and apart from her confrontation with Libby she doesn't get to really do anything that exciting - even her death scene is nowhere near as notable as the earlier one of the wife. Still, I'm sure 1965 audiences were stunned to see Joan Crawford stabbed and killed 2/3 of the way through the movie that gave her top billing.

Unfortunately, her scenes are wholly perfunctory - with the exception of providing the killer with Libby's address (Crawford steals the registration card from the car to get her in trouble with her father), there is really no reason for them to exist. And given the fact that everything revolves around phone calls, I'm sure there could have been another way for him to find out where Libby lived, so even that's kind of a flimsy excuse. When Libby does finally find out that the man is dangerous, it's not because of Crawford's death - it's because someone found his wife's body and word got back to her (from her friend, who heard it on the radio). Worse, these Crawford scenes aren't from Libby's POV, which is kind of crucial for this kind of thing - it'd be like if When A Stranger Calls opted to show the guy calling from the upstairs phone ten minutes before Carol Kane is told that he's in the house. Speaking of Stranger, that film's director Fred Walton directed a TV remake of this one in the 80s, with Shawnee Smith (yay!) in the Libby role and Candace Cameron (!) as the younger sister. As for stunt casting, in place of the Crawford character they had a man - David Carradine in fact, with his brother Robert as the killer (the love subplot was also dropped, obviously). I never saw it, but from the fairly thorough Wiki synopsis it seems like it's similar enough to know it's not worth tracking down, but at least its uneventful plot and minimal body count would be more befitting of a TV movie than a theatrical feature. And it's probably got a better score.

Scream Factory put the film on Blu for the first time (an original Anchor Bay DVD has been OOP for ages), though it doesn't have any real bonus features - just the trailer and a gallery. If you're in the mood for a housebound thriller (one that also feels a bit TV movie-ish at times), they also recently released You'll Like My Mother, which is much better and also has some notable bonus features (well, one, but it's a 50 minute interview with stars Richard Thomas and Sian Barbara Allen). I didn't get around to reviewing that when I saw it and of course now too much time has gone by for me to write it up in any useful way, but it's got better suspense scenes, a more interesting plot, and even though it's longer, much less padding. And I want to stress that I like that Scream puts these lesser known titles out, even if some of them are duds like this, I know there are some fans who will be stoked to have it on Blu-ray, and will appreciate that the company put it out alongside their bigger "gets" (they just announced The Thing today, in fact). I quite enjoyed Mother and that's a title I never even heard of until they put it out - which is a great model, I think, as they use their clout earned from the Carpenter and Craven releases to get fans' attention on these lesser known flicks. You're not going to love them all, but so what? Life's too short to stick with the movies you know you like all the time; take a chance on the others.

What say you?

*And also the novel that was turned into Night of the Juggler, which I just saw for the first time a couple weeks back. Now THAT'S a thriller! It's unavailable on modern home video formats, but I'm sure you can guess a place that has it in full (via a VHS transfer); if you're a fan of kidnapping/thriller types and/or old-school New York flicks, it's a must see.


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