The Pack (2015)

JULY 21, 2016


I like home invasion films, but they need to be relatively rare due to the fact that they're even more limited than the slasher film, which is saying something. The location trapping alone boxes in filmmakers, and since the best ones tend to offer stripped down plotting, copycat attempts often follow suit - the focus remains on the intensity and scares, not plot twists and long speeches. Needless to say, you don't have to worry about The Pack being any different, since it's a home invasion film where the attackers aren't masked strangers, but a pack of feral and very hungry dogs. They haven't been "sent" there, there's no voodoo curse or anything at work - they're just hungry, and our hero family of four... well, they're home.

But swap the dogs for the usual guys and there's really not much separating this from any number of others that have cropped up over the years, which is a bummer. It's an Australian horror flick, which are usually more than just serviceable, but that's all this one is, really. It goes through the motions established by Ils, The Strangers, You're Next, etc - just with dogs instead. We get the opening scene kill of the neighbors, the ominous buildup, the "let's run for the shed to get help", the doomed police officer who arrives and is killed before he can help... it's all the same things you've seen before, so once the novelty of the dogs wears off it gets a bit too routine. The only momentum is, grim as it sounds, wondering who, if any, of the family unit will die. You can assume the two kids will be OK, but the Kiefer Sutherland/Sean Pertwee looking dad or the Essie Davis-y mom are fair game for sure. Plus, again, it's an Aussie movie, which means NOT a Hollywood studio one, so even the kids MIGHT get chomped if the filmmakers want to risk angry viewers.

I won't spoil which of them die (again, if any), but I will thank the screenwriter for adding in some obvious dead meat in the form of a suit who comes to their home to tell them that the bank is about to take back their house and farm due to lack of payments. It's a standard horror movie character beat (I swear I've seen "Final Notice" in more horror movies than all other genres combined), but I like that it actually has something to do with the plot - the reason that they're not making money is because their livestock keeps getting killed by the damn dogs. Anyway, you know this asshole is a goner, but I like that they don't keep him in the house when the attacks come, because then it'd just lead to even more cliches. He'd lock the door behind him and leave one of the family members to die, or waste their limited ammo by firing wildly, or whatever - you just know one or all of those things would come into play. Instead, he leaves after giving the bad news and gets killed after stopping on the side of the road to piss, sparing us the antagonistic human character for the bulk of the proceedings.

This decision also cuts down on the film's amount of dialogue. I swear there are like 40 lines in the movie, most of them during that guy's scene with the parents. I watched a lot of it with "subtitles" (actually closed captioning, because no one knows the difference) because of the AC, and nine times out of ten that text appeared on-screen it was of the "[wind rustling]" or "[dog growling]" variety (also a lot of "[sheep bleating]", which I somehow never knew was the word for the sound sheep make. I am learning!). The family gets separated throughout the house fairly shortly after the dogs show up, and the characters go against horror movie tradition and don't even talk to themselves all that much - it's kind of nice to see people go get bullets without saying "OK, I need bullets" like many of their horror movie peers have done in the past. Since the dogs are kind of a known problem they don't even really have to explain things to their children (read: the audience) when they show up. Opening text tells us that feral dogs are a problem in the area, and that's all we ever need to know - there is no need for further explanation once they show up at the family's farm, so our heroes can spring right into action.

And by action I mean they hide for a bit, then run for a shed. Overhead shots show that their place is HUGE, but alas it's underutilized; I wish they could have done more with its hallways and nooks and crannies. There's a nice bit where the mom tricks one into a room and shuts the door (thankfully, they're not as smart as raptors), and a tense scene where another dog (there are four or so, I think?) finds the kids' hiding spot in a closet, but too much of the action is given to the shed or the immediate area around the window that looks out at the two available vehicles (and that damn shed). I can see the logic when picking these locations: bigger the house, the more potential for the scare scenes, but more often than not the budget and actual shooting logistics (lighting, equipment, etc.) keep them from actually getting to use that space to any meaningful degree. That's why the house for Strangers was perfect - it was mid-sized, allowing them to use almost all of it and thus maximize the suspense that could be generated. We in the audience knew our way around their place after 15-20 minutes - we never get that sense of the geography of this house, making the "invasion" of it less terrifying.

The dogs are good though. As I suspected, and later confirmed on the brief making of, they are a mix of the three obvious elements: real dogs, puppet dogs, and CGI dogs, with the filmmakers careful to use the two fake versions sparingly and maintain the illusion, rather than say "Hey we got this CGI dog that can do anything!" and blow it. Amusingly, the CGI dogs were mostly used for shots where it'd be dangerous for the real ones, standing near fire or whatever - I'm not sure if there are any CGI dogs in a shot with a human. And the puppet heads look real good but would probably fall apart if used extensively, so everything works together to create a pretty realistic depiction. Of course, that means we don't see them exactly tearing someone's face off, but there's a tangibility during the encounter scenes that keeps them threatening. There's a great face-off near the end, with both actor and growling dog in the same frame (possibly a split screen effect, to be fair, but a convincing one if so), and it's legitimately scary in that Roar kind of way, because they didn't cheat with a digital animal. Like Burning Bright, an underrated (and HMAD-book certified!) flick that similarly combines the home invasion movie with killer animals, the minimal action involving the animal actually causing harm to the characters is more than offset by wow factor of just seeing them in the same shot, something that you can't replicate with CGI beasties no matter how good they look or how well the direction/editing is for that scene.

I can't help but think the movie needed another threat, however. Like Cujo; the kid is sick and they're trapped in the hot car - there's something else to worry about besides the title character. Not the case here; their financial issues aren't exactly pressing once the dog shows up, and no one needs to get to any medication or anything like that. It might even be told in real time, more or less, now that I think of it - it's almost TOO straightforward, which I think works better when you're less certain about the safety of the cast (a real-time slasher or Descent type, with a group of pals instead of a family unit, could be terrifying if done right). Even the rare injuries they get aren't severe; no one gets incapacitated and in turn gives them a major hurdle in escaping or anything like that. Dammit, movie - complicate matters!

But hey, for "blue collar" horror, it's a winner. There's nothing BAD about the movie, it's well made and checks the boxes, and the characters are likeable (and actually kind of look like a real family, which is worth a letter grade on its own). Weightless and even routine in spots, sure, but again, the home invasion movie is as boxed in as their characters, and within those parameters (plus the limitations of using live animals as much as possible), it should satisfy its intended audience. Plus, it's been a long time since I've seen a modern killer dog flick (the woeful The Breed is the only one coming to mind, but I'm sure there's another), and it's always good for me to be reminded that man's best friends can also be ruthless killing machines, because I can't help but instantly try to pat any dog I see. Movies like this can help me learn!

What say you?


Lights Out Review

In the glory (read: daily) days of HMAD, I'd pride myself on offering up a review of every major horror release, and that's a tradition I mostly continue to this day (I know, I never reviewed Conjuring 2 - sorry. It came out while I was on vacation and when I got back I got busy and just never got around to it. I liked it though!). However, on occasion I end up having to review something for my "other" site (the one that IS updated every day, and has millions of readers), and I sure as hell ain't gonna write two reviews. So if you're looking for a Lights Out review here, I'm sorry - you won't find one any time soon (a big special edition Blu-ray, if one exists, might get me to change my mind). However, you CAN head over to BMD for my take on the film from when I saw it last month at the LA Film Festival. Short review: it's not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, but as the fun scare machine it was designed to be, it works like gangbusters, and despite what I say in the review I might actually go see it a second time, if only to give it my 10 bucks (well, Moviepass' 10 bucks, but same thing) and, now that I know it's coming, watch the audience's response to a particular crowd-pleaser moment that I'm still smiling at. So if the trailers left you underwhelmed (or worse, you thought it was just a Darkness Falls remake), I would like to encourage you to take a chance on it this weekend. My review is mostly spoiler-free, if you're worried about that sort of thing.


Ghostbusters (2016)

JULY 15, 2016


Any regular reader of the site should know by now that I was exposed to and allowed to watch R rated movies from a young age (6 or 7), so it perhaps shouldn't be a big surprise that the original Ghostbusters is not as sacred to me as several other folks - particularly men - my age. I don't even know if I saw it until I was like 8, which means it would have in between Friday the 13th sequel viewings or R-rated comedies like Vacation and Caddyshack (and no, as a kid I didn't realize the Harold Ramis connection across those examples). As a result, since I had already moved on to more "sophisticated" fare, it didn't inform my childhood as much as it did for all of those folks who have been telling Paul Feig to fuck himself and saying even worse things to the female cast of his remake (subtitled Answer The Call in the end credits, oddly), which has the blessing of every living original Ghostbuster (they all make cameos) and original director Ivan Reitman (who produced this one). Remaking this movie doesn't bother me much, is what I'm saying - and as a fan of Feig's other films (not to mention someone who has harbored a crush on Kristen Wiig for nearly a decade) I was excited to see it - for all I knew I could end up preferring it to the original.

Now, let me stress that it's not that I DISLIKE the first film. Not by any means - it's fairly great, in fact. It's funny even on repeat viewings and the story - unlike many other '80s comedies - is actually satisfying for the most part. Despite the fact that it would have been fairly easy for them to do so, the movie's plot doesn't just exist to string the gags together; the jokes are usually organic to the characters and narrative, so coupled with the FX (many of which hold up) it combines to make a film that is very much deserving of its "beloved" status. I'm just saying it's not really SPECIAL to me the way Halloween or Fletch is - it's important to realize that I recognize several films as being great but they're not of any particular significance to me, same as I realize Kobe Bryant is a great basketball player despite giving less than one shit about basketball. Plus, I'm also too old to give a shit about remakes anymore anyway. They can Van Sant Psycho a new version of Fletch with Zac Efron for all I care.

(Please don't do that.)

Luckily for my comments section, I don't have to worry much about the Ghostbros, because I don't think the new movie reaches the heights of the original. It's better than the sequel for sure (I will never understand that one's appeal beyond the finale - how can GB fans appreciate a movie that spends its entire first act trying to suggest that our heroes have become jokes?), and it might even be funnier in spots, but the villain is very underdeveloped and there are (I know this sounds weird) too many damn ghosts. It's like they had a bunch of concept designs and Feig couldn't decide which to use and thus opted to throw them all in, somewhere - the big finale in Times Square presents dozens of anonymous specters that are disposed of too easily. The movie suffers from an abundance of callbacks to the original, but one of the things they DON'T reprise is one that they perhaps should: the montage of them cleaning up NY over a period of time. That would allow for all of the designs to show up without them being an important part to anything - seeing them all used as essentially the big obstacle before fighting the main villain (who, again, isn't fleshed out enough) isn't particularly engaging. Worse, this sequence is also where the FX start to falter; during Kate McKinnon's big action moment (wiping out a dozen ghosts with her proton-handguns, the ones she licks in the trailer) is laughably bad looking, almost as if they shot the scene with someone else and had to quickly superimpose her over the action. I love practical work, obviously, but for the most part the CGI ghosts here are actually quite well done and even a bit scary (the subway one and the mannequin are on the same level as the librarian), so it's a shame the haters will glom on the few bad FX shots as it's otherwise largely a fine showcase for computer trickery.

As for the villain Rowan, on a conceptual level he's great: a bullied weirdo who uses some homemade devices to amplify paranormal activity in those areas, with the intent on having so many ghosts flying around that the wall that separates their world and ours comes tumbling down entirely, bringing about the apocalypse. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all we know about him; he shows up and plants a device while saying "they'll all pay!" or whatever, and that's about as far as we get inside his head. The meta-parallel between him and the online trolls is apparent, but it's almost like they were afraid to get really lay into these sad bastards, so as a result we're held at arm's length from the villain - in fact if you haven't paid any attention to the online vitriol, you might take away even less about his character and motives. There are a couple of moments where we see that no one wants to deal with him (two waitresses argue over which one of them has to wait on him, for example), but it's all tell and no show - he never interacts meaningfully with anyone else. Let us SEE him being "wronged" by the rest of the world, not just sitting there oblivious to two strangers whispering and saying that the world sucks. And it doesn't help matters that due to the way the plot unfolds he's almost forgotten by the time the climax rolls around, as (SPOILER) he is killed about an hour or so into the movie and becomes a ghost that possesses Chris Hemsworth's idiot receptionist character, letting the actor (using his native accent for a change) kind of take over as the villain. Then, with 15 minutes to go, the ghost leaves Hemsworth and takes on yet another form, that of a giant, growling, personality-free monster. There's nothing about this form that recalls the angry sad sack, which to me feels like a giant missed opportunity. Rowan's takeover of Hemsworth at least allows us to enjoy the actor's otherwise under-utilized comic chops (not to mention his dance moves), but even there it has the same problem: the movie can't quite pin down a primary villain. It'd be like if New Beginning was sped up and grafted on to a shorter version of Final Chapter after Tommy killed Jason off - the transition doesn't work at all for the narrative. Doing it twice is just silly.

But there has to be a big monster for them to blast away at the end of the film, because that's what the original had. As I said, there are too many callbacks to the 1984 movie, following its structure almost beat for beat and overloading it with cameos from FIVE of the original cast members (actually six if you count Harold Ramis, who 'appears' as a bust), plus Slimer and Stay-Puft for good measure. Obviously, you want the new team to show some measure of reverence to their predecessors, and one of the cameos works perfectly (spoiler: it's Ernie Hudson's), but Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold overdo it, as if they figure they can win over naysayers simply by constantly reminding them that they too love the original film. Ironically, the deja vu is the same thing that helped sink Ghostbusters II, so you'd think they would have known better. I don't think anyone would argue that this movie is at its best when it's doing its own thing, so it gets almost frustrating that there isn't more of it.

For example, the dynamic of the group is very different. Kristen Wiig is in the sort of Peter Venkman role as the one who is a bit above the ghost hunting stuff, but unlike Venkman she's not even associated with her "Ray Stantz", the Melissa McCarthy character. The two were best friends and wrote a paranormal book together years ago, but then Wiig left that stuff (and McCarthy) behind when she took a job teaching physics at Columbia, while McCarthy has taken a job at some dump college and made a new best friend (McKinnon's "Egon"). When Wiig finds out the book has been republished on Amazon she confronts McCarthy about taking it down so it doesn't embarrass her, just as a ghost shows up elsewhere. So they're sort of forced together, and she has no existing relationship with McKinnon - a big change from the original's trio of pals (Egon was the new guy, but they clearly didn't MEET in the film). As for "Winston", Leslie Jones plays Patty, a subway worker and history buff who the others meet when investigating the 2nd ghost in the movie, and who joins them shortly thereafter, much earlier in the narrative than Winston joined up (before they've even decided on a name, in fact). This lets the group have some "getting to know you" moments the original obviously didn't require, the occasional reminder of the strained friendship between the two leads (a subplot that's largely phased out as the movie goes on, only to resurface near the end), and also more time of the full group working as a team than the original movie had.

It's this stuff that makes the movie work as well as it does. Obviously everyone's tolerance for this or that type of humor varies, but I personally found almost every scene of the four of them just talking to be hilarious, and all four of them get in plenty of laugh out loud lines (even McCarthy, who seems a bit hampered by the PG-13 rating). Not that the ghost-hunting scenes lack laughs, but again those are the scenes where they seem to be constantly using the original film as a guide - the ones of them just sort of hanging out (usually involving some new tech McKinnon designed) are consistently funny, and cementing the idea that they should be reunited for a sequel. Their chemistry isn't surprising since they've all worked together on SNL (three cast members and one regular host), but despite the fact that they're all subbing in for the original's characters in some form, I was surprised at how quickly they took on their own personalities and played off their relative strengths. Unfortunately, this also means that the movie occasionally suffers from some fairly bad editing, because Feig clearly let these four talented and hilarious women play off each other (read: improv) whenever he could, and used the best gags and jokes even if they didn't always flow as well. McKinnon scores a great laugh with some Pringles in one scene, for example - hopefully you're still laughing and thus don't really notice when they're completely gone (and her expression is totally different) in the next shot.

On occasion, the plot suffers from this "hey, something's missing" feeling as well. Feig said his director's cut was something like three hours long; I don't think it feels like it's been reduced by over a third (I'm sure a lot of what was chucked was just more comedy of no narrative use), but there were at least three instances where I couldn't help but feel something somewhat important just got chucked in order to keep things moving. For example, when all hell breaks loose, McKinnon, McCarthy, and Jones are all running around fighting the ghosts for a bit, and at one point they get trapped... and then Wiig shows up and saves them. It plays like she had quit the team at an earlier point and decided to come back to them (think Han Solo showing up to help save the day at the end of New Hope), but we never saw that if so - far as we knew she was just at home when the other three sprung into action. I've already mentioned Rowan's truncated appearance, but that extends to other antagonists as well: Matt Walsh and Michael K Williams play a pair of Feds who are sort of in the Walter Peck mode, but they never do anything worthy of hiring these actors (particularly Williams, who also gets 6th billing despite maybe 90 seconds of screentime). This is nothing new for a modern comedy; Neighbors 2 (which more of you should have seen - it was pretty great!) was just as bad if not worse in that regard, but since the first film's script by Aykroyd and Ramis was famously gigantic and managed to offer a relatively tight narrative in 100 minutes, it's hard not to notice. It's part of the problem of improv; sure you get comic gold, but then it seems like there's a tendency to let the plot falter because test screenings show this otherwise unnecessary bit gets the best laughs. So when they decide 30 seconds needs to be trimmed somewhere, and the choice is between some exposition/character development, or a tangential bit that people will laugh their asses off (like Hemsworth's terrible ideas for their logo), they opt to keep the latter every time.

Also, maybe I just missed something, but all of a sudden Times Square is transformed into the 1970s (no particular year can be determined; the movie theaters are showing Willard (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and Taxi Driver (1976), so it's just random), which no one comments on in any meaningful way and seems like a lot of work for the production for a mere sight gag. Anyone have a good explanation for this bit?

Overall, I liked the movie (as did the audience, who applauded when the credits came up - rare for a Friday morning crowd). I'd watch it again, I want to see the cast come together for a sequel (not the one they tease at the end of the credits though - don't Into Darkness this shit, come up with your own villains, please!), and it left me far more satisfied at 36 than the original sequel did when I was 10. But it also kept mucking up the plot and showing its seams, which A) won't help win over any of the idiots who have been hating on this movie since the day it was announced, but an even more painful B) it makes it hard to really champion, either. "GO SEE THIS FLAWED MOVIE!" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement, and that's exactly what I wished I could give it due to all of the unnecessary hate being thrown its way - even a mega-budget studio movie can feel like an underdog, I guess. So they all deserve recognition for making it a lot better than the disaster it might have been, I can't help but feel Feig could have done a little better, either - it almost seemed like he felt he HAD to throw in those shoutouts (Slimer is particularly awful and unnecessary to boot), and did so half-heartedly, using screentime that could have been used on more of his and Dippold's own ideas. Here's hoping that they have the confidence to truly make it their own next time.

What say you?

P.S. Fall Out Boy's awful cover of the theme song appears in the middle of the movie. Brace yourself.

P.S.S. Comments are moderated here for a reason. Don't bother leaving vitriol, because it will never see the light of day. If you have something constructive to say, fine. Otherwise save it for AICN or IMDb, where pointless drivel is tolerated.


Cell (2016)

JULY 10, 2016


As I've said in the past, I am very much a movie before book guy - I know the book will be better, so I can enjoy both rather than go into a movie and get frustrated with everything that they changed or left out. But there are always exceptions (I do like to read after all, and who knows what will be turned into a movie?), and there's also the occasional... er, occasion where I don't like the book much anyway - the movie might actually be an improvement! Such was my hope for Cell, as I thought it was a terrific idea with a killer first 100 pages or so, but ultimately was left underwhelmed by; Stephen King's tendency to botch his endings was in full effect for that one, and the "Raggedy Man" felt like a poor retread of some of his better villains (Randall Flagg in particular). Could a movie fix the book's problems and turn his story into a killer cell phone signal into one of the better King adaptations?

See, I had heard that King changed the ending, and I knew from a few plot descriptions that they weren't following the book to the letter, so I went in hopeful. It didn't hurt that the cast reunited John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson from 1408, which is not only one of the better modern King films, but also a huge hit (the 2nd highest grossing after Green Mile, in fact - though inflation changes that a bit, of course) - as good of a pedigree you could hope for, even if the movie wasn't being distributed by a major studio or given much of as release (I had to drive 30 miles to see it theatrically in a tiny theater). I figured at worst it'd be an OK zombie movie that couldn't manage to overcome its less than stellar source material - certainly nothing new for the horror genre, and even an OK King movie would be better than a lot of them, right?

Alas, saying it was "OK" is almost overselling it. It's not TERRIBLE, but each act is weaker than the one before it, so what started out as a movie I was enjoying and wondering why it got dumped ended up as a movie I wished I had (like one of the four other audience members) walked out early and saved myself some time. Of course, then I would have denied myself the sight of one of the film's primary actors stumbling around as a zombie, which I assure you is even funnier the 2nd time they show it. Again, King's ending wasn't great, but damned if they didn't actually manage to make it WORSE here, and I can't for the life of me imagine why they thought this would be an improvement - they would have been better off copying his ending directly and chalking it up to respect for the text. Granted, King himself is credited with the screenplay, but so is another writer, and the "and" that separates their credits tells us that they weren't working together. So who knows if this is King's ending or not; Cusack tweeted a while back that both he and King had been cut out of the movie's communication process, so we can assume they aren't thrilled with how it turned out, either.

Back to the credits for a minute. Cusack is listed as an executive producer, which means he either sunk some of his own money into it or helped them find the financing to make it (presumably by attaching himself as a star to secure said financing from foreign territories). Alas, there are like twenty other listed executive producers, so when you couple that with the FIVE production logos at the top (none of them you'll recognize), you can quickly ascertain that this was a "film" only in the technical sense. People complain about big studio blockbusters all the time, but personally I find these movies far more insulting - they're thrown together, shot in generic locales (Atlanta here), and designed only to get sold into the overseas markets based on their "star power". It's something I see a lot in the action genre (pretty much every Bruce Willis movie in the past three years falls into this category - one of which also featured Cusack), but rarely for horror films. It's sad to see Sam Jackson joining this little crew (Nicolas Cage, Tom Jane, and Cuba Gooding Jr are other frequent offenders), so hopefully it's just a momentary lapse of judgment for the actor (who has appeared in plenty of bad movies, yes, but they're of the technically more prestigious variety, like Robocop) and not a sign of a dying career. Silver lining, he seems to be aware he signed up for a dud - I can't recall the last time I saw him so disinterested in a performance. He's usually the only source of energy in a lazy film (again, like Robocop), but here he just kind of says his lines and fades into the background more often than not; a brief bar scene where he drunkenly sings some oldie is the only time he seems like he's invested in the proceedings.

Anyway, like all those action movies I mentioned, it quickly becomes clear that one of the main problems is that they're spending too much of their limited budget on securing "names" instead of actually putting it on the screen, so you get a script that probably needed 30-60m to be shot properly, produced for maybe a tenth or (if I'm being generous) a fifth of that amount. And they blow most of the money that they had for actual on-screen production value in the first ten minutes, when the cell-phone outbreak strikes at an airport (not Boston Common as in the book, but it's a solid change) - we get some good carnage, lots of zombified extras, a plane exploding - good stuff. Lloyd Kaufman even shows up, suggesting that perhaps the loss of original director Eli Roth didn't mean that the gonzo splatter spirit he likely would have brought to the table would be gone with him. Cusack (who survives the outbreak because his cell phone died - he's using a payphone at the time) then makes his way down to the subway where he meets Jackson, and they hole up at his place (along with one of his neighbors, played by Orphan's Isabelle Fuhrman) before heading on foot up north to find his family.

This is the good section of the movie, but even here we see signs that perhaps the production wasn't quite up to the task of telling this apocalyptic story. I can forgive the filming location substitutions; as a Bostonian I knew right away that they weren't really there, but I've seen far worse attempts at passing off [name your overused filming location] as my old home. But it was almost oppressively generic - they call it "Boston Airport" instead of Logan, the subway name was wrong (I forget what it was, but it wasn't MBTA), and they didn't even show a Dunkin Donuts - despite the fact that they also exist in Atlanta! I mean, come on - putting a Dunkin Donuts in the shot is an easier method than on-screen text saying "Boston, Massachusetts" to sell the setting; the only distinct landmark I can recall is the Prudential Center as part of a CGI skyline behind them. Everything just felt completely phony, and it just got worse as the movie wore on, as Cusack repeatedly says the name of the NH town he's heading for, but offering no landmarks or geographical info to let us know how close they were. And considering how big the population of Massachusetts is, I also had trouble with its depiction of a zombie outbreak - when they're in the outskirts I guess it's fine that there weren't a lot around, but even in the streets of Boston when they leave Cusack's place to make their way north seem curiously underpopulated - they only have to sneak past one group of like thirty zombies before pretty much being in the clear.

Of course, even if they encountered swarms of zombies every step of the way it wouldn't matter much, as the trio are all expert marksmen, it seems - Jackson's character says he was in Vietnam to explain his shooting skills, but there is no explanation for how Cusack (who doesn't even know how to load the gun) and Fuhrman never seem to miss even when firing while running. As with the book, as things progress with the (goofy) plot it becomes less about the danger of a zombie attacking them and more about the zombies' hive-mind, drone behavior that has them running in circles, so the movie is not only at its best in the first half hour or so, it's also the only time the characters seem to be in any legitimate danger. The movie offers not one but two scenes where Cusack drives a truck through hundreds of the things (they're sleeping in one of them, to be fair) and neither of them carry any tension at all - the second time the shuffling drones just sort of wait until he passes before continuing their endless circling of a big radio tower. At a certain point I almost wished for the introduction of some evil humans, just to give the movie a bit of pep - it'd be better than another scene of our characters walking through zombie-free, depressingly nondescript fields and groves.

It also doesn't embrace its R-rating for the most part, as if they didn't want to put much effort into cutting it down if they had to make it PG-13. There are a couple of isolated gore gags in the airport scene and Sam gets his F-bomb in as always, but otherwise it's shockingly tame - the dozens of zombies they shoot go down without even as much as a CGI bullet hole, and the rare good guy deaths are fairly bloodless as well (one is off-screen entirely, another just gets whacked over the head). My only theory is that they DID want to make it PG-13 (perhaps that would be the "creative differences" cited for when Roth left the project - seven years ago, for the record) and got an R anyway but didn't bother to fight it? At any rate, you can get far more visceral action on Walking Dead every week (easy to compare it to since they're shot in the same state). That said, don't give me any shit about the "zombie" word or tagging - as with 28 Days Later, they are used in the exact same way and have the same anonymity/numbers as they do in any traditional zombie flick. Unless there's proof that the infection can be reversed and the victim will return to normal, it's a zombie movie for all intents and purposes.

Ultimately, the biggest disappointment with the film is that they failed to modernize the source material to any meaningful degree. Sure, we all had cell phones in 2006 when the book was published, but not "smart" phones (even those with cameras were still relatively new, and they didn't even do video yet), an element that barely plays a part in this 2016 (OK, actually 2014) film. Cusack thinks his son might be safe because he never calls anyone, just uses his phone to text and play games, and that's pretty much the extent of modernizing the concept. Hilariously, the timing for the film's late release couldn't have been better, as I and everyone else in the country was spending a chunk of our weekend staring at our phones while playing Pokemon Go - if the (never explained) cell signal originated in real life over the weekend via a stupid game, it would have wiped out the population in half the time. And for what it's worth, I was more creeped out by seeing a dozen people standing motionless in a park (save for their swipes) than I was for anything during this movie. Even the film's attempts at explaining how it works are half-assed and unresolved - they seem to establish that texting someone won't turn you into a zombie, but what about apps? There was a real opportunity here to dive into the fun sociological potential of the concept (that our phones, meant to connect us to our loved ones, are turning us into mindless zombies), but they are content with just more or less sticking to King's decade old novel, poorly and cheaply. Rarely has a professional horror movie squandered so much potential.

What say you?


Sleepy Hollow (1999)

JULY 2, 2016


My memory has gotten so bad that it wasn't until I was at the theater and experiencing deja vu that I realized I had already gone to the New Beverly to see Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow a few years back. At the time I promised to do an HMAD entry for it (it was in 2013, after I "retired", so I wasn't sworn to review anything!) if I stayed awake, but it was a midnight screening so of course I didn't. But that was nothing new for the movie - I also snoozed during my opening night viewing back in college (despite being with a girl I had a crush on - I guess I wasn't afraid to show her the real me! We never dated, natch) and again when I watched on DVD. In fact, it wasn't until this viewing that I realized there were parts of the movie I had never actually seen (such as the visit to the witch), so it's only now - nearly 17 years after first seeing the film - that I can finally say for sure that I've seen the whole thing. Go me!

The irony is that I actually quite like it; I've said before that I'm more likely to fall asleep during a movie I enjoy than one I am merely bored by, because a good movie is like a comfort to me and when I'm comfortable I nod off. This is also why I doze off almost every morning watching cartoons with my son, because he's snuggled next to me and that's just heaven (also, I've seen these goddamn Mickey Mouse Clubhouse episodes 50x a piece by now). Anyway, Burton's kind of an odd filmmaker to me, in that besides Ed Wood I wouldn't say I LOVE any of his movies, but find a great deal of them to be just enjoyable enough to own (but rarely watch); the only ones I flat out dislike are Apes and everything he's done with Depp since (save Sweeney Todd). But even more amusing to me is that this is really his only full blown, straight up horror movie; he's synonymous with creepy and macabre but his filmography rarely touches on traditional horror movies - his other genre-tinged offerings like Sweeney Todd or Mars Attacks are genre mashups. He's always used his horror influences to inform more mainstream fare (primarily comedies, the best example being Beetlejuice), but this - despite the fact that it's one of his biggest hits - remains the only time he was primarily focused on scares and suspense.

Not that the movie is humorless, at least in spirit - whether you actually laugh at any of Depp's mugging is another story. I can't be sure but this might have been the first movie where he did that exaggerated toothy grimace thing, and he also makes a few other faces when confronted with danger that are likely supposed to make us chuckle. And even if it wasn't the "origin" of this behavior, it's important to remember that at the time we certainly hadn't gotten tired of it, or even him - the actor only had a single hit movie (Donnie Brasco) in the '90s after Edward Scissorhands elevated his presumed star power, and this was also before him being in a Burton film was practically a given. In fact, the studio allegedly didn't even want him for the lead, asking for guys like Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis (!) instead - THAT'S how much different things were then. His recent career-downswing (not helped by his personal troubles) is due to his shtick growing too stale - when this movie was released he didn't even have any sort of calling card.

Luckily for the film's longevity, that stuff is kept to a minimum, and there isn't much humor to be found in the other performances. Burton stages a few Grand Guignol gags that will appeal to the gorehounds (primarily through the placement of recently disembodied heads), but again his main intent here was to tell a murder mystery that would fit at home in the Hammer canon. When I first saw (or, "saw") the movie in 1999 I had very little knowledge of Hammer; I think I had only seen one or two films and probably got the significance of Christopher Lee's appearance, but that was probably about it. Not that I'm a scholar now, but I certainly see far more of the influence; the gloomy sets, the Brit-heavy cast (including Michael Gough, the only other Hammer vet besides Lee as far as I know), and the other little touches like a stagecoach-set climax cribbed from the opening of Dracula AD 1972 (complete with the villain crashing into a tree and being subdued by the wagon). There are probably other touches I missed (as I said, I'm no scholar - I've seen a few dozen Hammer films but most of them only once), but I see enough to appreciate that Burton was spending nearly 100m of an American studio's money to pay tribute to a bunch of old British (and Italian; there's some Bava in there too) horror movies he liked.

And the plot fits right in with ALL '60s horror, not just Hammer - it's about someone knocking off their "competition" for an inheritance, complete with a recently changed will and lengthy bursts of exposition concerning characters who are already dead. It's almost like a slasher movie (in fact it was originally developed as one by Kevin Yagher and intended to be lower budgeted until Burton was brought on board), with the opening scene kill, the red herrings, and a reveal of who the killer really is. Alas, the identity of the mastermind is not difficult to figure out if you read the credits, as they are given prominent billing but have very little screentime (and even less to do in it) until the last half hour, so if you for some reason haven't seen it yet I encourage you not to read the credits if and when you finally get around to it, for it might help make the culprit a bit harder to peg. Otherwise, it's a fairly satisfying answer, despite the aforementioned exposition dumps, though I suspect fans of the original Washington Irving story were mortified at how little the movie had to do with it - Burton and his writers basically kept the names of the three main characters (and, albeit in a different context, their minor love triangle) and the idea of a headless horseman but changed everything else.

Especially when we learn that the Horseman is kind of a henchman for someone else, which is akin to Halloween 6's "Michael is just working for a cult" explanation. I mean, I guess it's better than the alternative of a personal revenge story that means little to us when the "character" is just a headless guy on a horse who shows up every now and then and kills off a Harry Potter cast member, but I can still see how it might feel like a lame way to use such a legend. To me, it's weirder that Christopher Walken plays the horseman - casting him in a role where he (obviously) doesn't speak is a bit like hiring Kobe Bryant for a basketball team and keeping him on the bench the whole time. It also feels sort of distracting for the two brief moments he appears with his head, especially the first which is a flashback and thus sort of suggests we'll see him more. I don't know if he played the role with a blue or green mask on his head, though I doubt it (according to the trivia he doesn't even know how to ride a horse, and there's a shot of him near the end, head back on, that's clearly a stunt guy), so as far as cameos go it's more of a distraction than a little bonus. Christopher Lee's bit is much more in line with traditional cameo "rules", as he's the judge who sends Depp off to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the murders - it makes sense that we never see him again.

It makes less sense about how minimal Casper Van Dien's role is in the proceedings, however. As Brom Van Brunt, the 3rd point of the love triangle with Depp and Christina Ricci, he's usually a bigger character in the story, but we only see him I think three times, the third being his death. It's funny, I remembered the big fight between him and Depp vs. the Horseman as being far more elaborate than it actually is - in reality it's rather brief and not particularly exciting, though I guess in 1999 when the actor was poised to be a bigger star it was probably a shock that he got killed halfway through. Still, before that point his role is primarily just glaring at Depp; he barely even has a real chunk of dialogue, rendering his part of the story rather insignificant in the long run. Anyway, this would pretty much be his last major theatrical feature - after this he did a bunch of TV movies and some DTV stuff (including one for a pre-video game era Uwe Boll!), and hasn't been in a wide release since, making this a rather depressing end to his big-screen career considering how inconsequential he is to the movie.

Anyway, you can ignore the plot and characters and just soak in the film's gorgeous production design and cinematography. It won an Oscar for its art direction, and DP Emmanuel Lubezki scored his second nomination for it (he didn't win, but as he won the last THREE Oscars for his work on Gravity and the two Iñárritu things*, I'm guessing it's not a big deal). It's a shame that it'd be his only film with Burton; I don't know if they didn't get along or what, but even Burton's weakest films have great production design, so it would have been wonderful if Lubezki had been the one responsible for how nice they looked on screen (of course, he's also Terrence Malick's go-to cinematographer, so it's possible Burton wants him and simply can't get him while he's off on those endless shoots). I popped in the DVD to watch a chunk of the end that I dozed through (I'll never ever see this thing start to finish without dozing off, it seems, but it was only during the big climax which I know I had seen) and almost felt guilty watching that way - the 35mm print was gorgeous of course, but since most folks won't get a chance to see it that way again, if there's one movie of Burton's you need on Blu-ray (if not 4K if such a release is planned), it's this one. The FX mostly hold up too; some of the digital trickery for the kill scenes is a bit of a sore spot, but Burton wasn't afraid to toss around the real stuff, and the occasional imperfect background plates kind of fit in with the Hammer movies anyway.

It's a no-brainer that if you're looking for anything Burton-related for Halloween time, it's probably gonna be Nightmare Before Christmas (which he did not direct, I remind you), but this is really his most holiday-appropriate entry. It's not specifically about Halloween (though there is a Jack o'lantern or two), but the gloomy setting and upstate New York locale (close enough to New England) makes it very much in line with the sort of movies I tend to pull off the shelf come October; it's almost a bummer that it's rather violent and bloody as it'll be a long time before I figure it's OK to show my son (is there a Sleepy Hollow-fied episode of the Clubhouse?). While watching I felt like I was doing a disservice to it in a way, watching with soda and with 90 degree temps outside - this is a movie to watch with a warm cup of apple cider while snuggled under a blanket. If you somehow still haven't seen it, wait until October to do so!

What say you?

*Not a fan, though if anything deserved to be showered with Oscar gold for either of those movies, it's his work.


The Purge: Election Year (2016)

JUNE 30, 2016


It's amusing that our most interesting (not BEST, before you get angry) ongoing genre franchise is from Platinum "Michael Bay" Dunes and the producers of all those generic supernatural movies you're getting tired of, but what's even more notable is that so far, each Purge film has improved on the one before it, a rarity for ANY franchise but particularly unusual within the horror genre. It's not as big as the leap from the first one to Anarchy, but by not-too-subtly zeroing in on our current Presidential election, The Purge: Election Year gets a few digs in at our current landscape, and never loses sight of this issue. What could have just been window-dressing for another Judgment Night-esque all night chase through the city (as the "Purge" concept itself was to the first film's otherwise routine home invasion flick) remains its primary focus all the way until the end, giving it a leg up on its superficially similar predecessor.

Even if the setting (urban streets, though DC this time instead of LA) was vastly different, it'd be hard to forget about the previous movie since it also retains that one's hero, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo). Having survived his attack thanks to the guy he was out to kill, he's changed his tune about Purge so much that he's become the head of security for controversial - but very popular - Presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who is running on a promise to end Purge if elected. As shown in the trailer, her family was murdered on Purge night when she was a teenager, so there's little chance of her backing down - something that scares the "New Founding Fathers" (read: typical Conservative old white guys, though they throw in a Latino and a lady or two to mix it up) enough to plot to have her killed on Purge night this year. They're very protective of their racist holiday, you see.

It would have been easy for writer/director James DeMonaco (continuing his role from the first two films, another rarity for horror) to use that as the setup and then leave the politics in the background while running through the usual action/horror moments as Mitchell and Grillo try to survive the night (much like Grillo's vengeful quest was often forgotten in the last one as he protected others), but it's never long before there's another discussion of the repercussions this night has on people, and why it should stop. Charlie is a "man of the people" type who never fails to stop to talk to someone about their own life, how they've been affected by Purge, etc., and the action culminates at the NFF's "Purge Mass", where the assholes all meet in a church (led by a priest who seems like he teleported from an Argento or Fulci movie) and ready their sacrifice of Charlie. In an ironic twist, she's actually trying to save their lives from a giant massacre that Dante Bishop is planning to help ensure she wins the candidacy (she wants to stop them so her victory is a clean one, without making the NFF folk into martyrs), a big improvement over my own cynical idea of how the movie would progress (which would have her ultimately forced to engage in Purging to save herself).

The politics even extend to the random acts of violence and "Purge vignettes" (the random little scenes we see that are unrelated to anything else but flavor up the reality of the situation) - rather than the usual scary masks the Purgers wear, this time a lot of them are adorned in costumes that are just scary versions of Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, etc. The news shows a group of tourists who have come to America to join in the Purge for the first time (they show up again later, won't spoil how), and our pursuers are equipped with drones that help track the good guys' every move. To his credit, DeMonaco gets a little more subtle for other things (the bad guys all use assault rifles whereas the heroes never brandish anything heavier than a shotgun, for example), but whereas you could watch the first two for what they were at face value, there's no mistaking the political commentary going on here.

And because of that, I almost wish the movie was angrier about it. Modern horror films rarely have anything to say the way many did in the 60s and 70s, so if Purge movies are the sole source (at least on a mainstream scale) for social minded genre fare, it would have been great if they had just said "fuck it" and actually named names instead of letting the audience draw their own comparisons. The "Minister" (the other main Presidential candidate) won't remind anyone of Trump, really - in fact we don't know too much about him at all beyond the fact that the NFF is really calling the shots and letting him be their mouthpiece (which isn't like Trump, either - key members of the GOP seem to hate him as much as the Democrats). His aforementioned dig at the gun control debate will probably go over the heads of many, and without getting into spoilers, the movie has a more optimistic tone than I was expecting - I kind of wanted the filmmaker to really let it all out, the way Serbian Film's filmmakers did about their own government via their warped movie. Not that optimism is a bad thing (it's actually kind of nice!) but again - with this bound to be the only horror film of the year with something to say, I wouldn't have minded if some of its viewers left the theater a little more riled up about what was going on instead of an affirmation that everything would be OK.

DeMonaco doesn't skimp on the crowd-pleasing moments, however. Along with the optimism is a decidedly less grim story this time around; there are a number of good guys in the film and many of them are left alive at the end, and no one really gets tortured or anything this time around, either (Mitchell gets tied up and a minor wound but is otherwise left unharmed). But when it comes to the villains, he goes all out - one Purger is hit by a car AND shot with a shotgun at close range, and he even lets a bunch of Crips (!) play hero at one point, having them lay waste to some of the NFF's hit squad (who have swastikas on their uniforms to lay it on even thicker). Williamson also has a number of great lines (he's kind of a variant on Sam Jackson's character from Die Hard 3), and with all due respect to Black Widow and Wonder Woman, the year's number one female superhero is Betty Gabriel as Laney, a reformed troublemaker who now spends Purge night driving around in an armored ambulance, assisting the wounded and also firing back on Purgers if necessary.

And that's the other thing I liked about this one - it opens up the reality of Purge night a bit more. In addition to her triage van (one of many in a network overseen by Bishop), we also see a truck driving around collecting the corpses, presumably to make everyone's commute the next morning slightly less unpleasant. The foreigners give us a small taste of how the event is seen in other countries, and part of Joe's subplot involves a massive rate increase on his Purge insurance - something I'm not sure if they have ever addressed in the past (I guess there ARE people who, like I would, just rob stores on the free crime day instead of murdering people. I just want some free games and maybe a new receiver, dammit). But that stuff is brief; murder is still the only crime anyone seems to commit when they can do anything they want, though there are some variations we haven't seen, like a lady who kills her husband and instantly regrets it. There are still a million unanswered questions about how it works, but I like that with each film we get to learn a little more about the nitty gritty of it all, which I found (perhaps too) fascinating and would almost rather watch than see another scene of Frank Grillo ducking his way through a street before killing some random Purger.

One of those unanswered questions is even more frustrating here than it was in the other two, however: the rule that says high ranking government officials are not viable Purge targets. This year, in order to curry favor with the populace (whose interest in the Purge is waning, albeit slightly), they've decided that they are fair game as well - but that means nothing since they all hide out in heavily armed fortresses anyway. It's not like our Senators and cabinet members are out wandering around on Purge night with "Sorry, You Can't Shoot Me" signs, so I never understood why DeMonaco included this exception in the first place. Besides, even if Purgers DID somehow get access to Senator So-and-so - are they simply not going to shoot because it's against the rules? How would the law even know to come after you once Purge was over, anyway? (I also never got the "no demolition weapons" thing, because again - if someone decides to blow up a building when the police/fire aren't out on the streets anyway, how would they be caught? Is it an honor system, the Purge?)

Luckily, the film is set to nearly triple its budget with its opening weekend, so we can expect another Purge film down the road that will hopefully continue the trend of improving while also filling in the blanks a bit on how it all actually works. I'm sure DeMonaco has it all laid out in a notebook somewhere - it might be interesting to see him make photocopies of it and supply them to other filmmakers who might want to use the concept for their own idea. As I said in the other reviews, there is so much potential here, and he's only one guy - even if he made one every year, we might never get a full picture of how Purge works unless he's got some help. If Marvel can do 2-3 movies a year that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, I'm sure Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes can pony up 10-15m more than once a year to fully develop this universe (or they could do a TV show or comic, I suppose). And at that low cost, they can also afford to be a little more biting, too - before someone else beats them to the punch.

What say you?


Movie & TV Show Preview Widget