The Void (2016)

SEPTEMBER 26, 2016


So far I've liked but have not loved what I've seen from the Astron-6 team, and The Void follows suit - I can list as many things I liked about it as I can things that annoyed me, but thankfully my main takeaway is a positive one. And that's the fact that they're not doing the same thing over and over, giving each of their films a unique feel instead of going the Robert Rodriguez route and making it hard to tell their movies apart after a while (that there are five or six guys in revolving roles probably makes that possible). Even if I never really love any of their films, if they keep that attitude I'll always be happy to follow their newest endeavors and hope for the best, rather than go in with the weariness I do some other filmmakers who I like more on paper than in their actual output.

It is unfortunate, however, that The Void starts stronger than it finishes - the film ultimately lost me not because of an aesthetic choice (like Manborg - I just got tired of looking at that style after a while) or performance, but simply by going off the rails in its 2nd half, more or less dropping everything that was working for me in favor of Fulci/Lovecraft-inspired weirdness. I'm sure for many of you that may sound like an even bigger reason to see the film, but the first half is strictly Carpenter-tinged, and if you know anything about me you'd know that in my house Carpenter > everything that isn't Carpenter. Plus, it's worth noting that I DO quite like Fulci (Lovecraft I'm kinda iffy on), but his films are batshit from the start - having that kind of thing suddenly wedged into a previously straightforward narrative doesn't quite work - I think I need to be settled in with that kind of thing from the get-go.

And when I say it's Carpenter-y, I don't mean they steal the font and have a synth score, I mean it's literally like a stew of Carpenter's previous plots. The setting is a hospital with a skeleton crew because it's being closed down in favor of another place twenty miles away, making it Assault on Precinct 13 AND Halloween II combined, and then the creature FX are very much Thing-inspired, while the white-robed cult (no, not THAT one) that begins surrounding the joint recalls Prince of Darkness. No points for originality, sure, but the mix-and-match formula was working well, and it didn't hurt that they cast great character actors like Art Hindle and Kenneth Welsh in smaller roles, while handing the lead to Aaron Poole from Rosalind Leigh, who I believe is a newcomer to this group (that's the other thing I like - they don't just cast the same five people in every movie). And as an avowed P13 fan (it's in my top FIVE Carpenter films), I loved seeing that they were paying homage to the individual characters and not just the basic plot (which Carpenter took from other movies anyway): Ellen Wong's character is a lot like Nancy Loomis' in that film, Hindle's character is clearly inspired by Charles Cyphers', etc. This allows us in the audience to both appreciate a nod to one of the master's lesser name-checked films and be surprised when those characters turn out to have different fates.

But almost exactly at the halfway point, the movie takes a weird turn, turning one human character into not just a villain, but a skinless demon-thing that wouldn't look out of place in Hellraiser (and just as prone to silly-sounding speeches about eternity and darkness and all that stuff), more or less dropping the weirdo cult dudes, and transitioning the homage approach to something closer to flat-out ripoff; the film's closing shot is so close to The Beyond that they might as well have just used Fulci's footage to save some money. Ironically, for once the team played things relatively straight - there are a few character-driven laughs, but otherwise this is "serious" horror (with a tinge of sci-fi) as opposed to their usual shtick, and I can't help but wonder if the callbacks would play better in a film that could add "comedy" to its list of genres. It's kind of hard to get really scared or even that tense when you're either smiling or rolling your eyes at yet another reference to a film you saw just like they did, but in a comedic context (like The Editor) it tends to go down easier. I'd be curious to see if the film played better to people who had never actually seen all of those aforementioned films; it's one thing to make your influences obvious, as they did in the first half - it's another to just start swiping whole shots as they do in the second.

One thing I think everyone can agree on, I think, is that the film deserves lots of love and praise for delivering giant practical monsters. Sure it's another lift (The Thing), but it's not like they just broke into Rob Bottin's house and stole his old puppets - they had to design and operate these oversized beasts, and they look pretty great. Lots of real fake blood is strewn about as well; there's a pregnancy gone awry bit that rivaled Inside for "discharge", and while not without some digital enhancements here and there they do things the right way throughout the film - even when I couldn't even really tell what was going on anymore, I was able to at least appreciate the film on a visual level. Had they started tossing CGI at us left and right, my opinion would go from "Flawed but worth seeing" to "You guys owe me money and I didn't even pay to watch it" (well, unless you count my burger and shake - my last Alamo meal as this was my last movie of the festival). Not that I'm vehemently anti-CGI, but when a movie starts to flounder, anything else that's less than ideal seems worse. The script may fall apart, but at least they didn't lose their way across the board, you know?

If nothing else, the film demonstrates Astron-6's uncanny ability to get every dollar of their meager budgets (the creature FX were crowdfunded, in fact) on-screen, resulting in a film that looks more professional and stylish than other indie horror movies with 2-3x the money (often wasted on securing 90 second cameos from the likes of Tony Todd or whoever). It's possible even some of the script's lapses were the result of having to choose between shooting another cool monster scene or a lengthy bit of dialogue and/or a grander character exit (I swear one guy just disappears, and I am 99% sure I saw a character in the background of the climax who otherwise wasn't part of the scene, suggesting a hasty reshoot). I know they plan a sequel, based on the wording of their IndieGogo for the monsters, and I'd be open to checking it out - but hopefully it's not their next movie. I like that they jump around, and would love to see that trend continue as they gradually get better at what they do. Like Ti West, I might not love any of the movies, but I know they're on the right track and offer enough to keep coming back, which is more than I can say for many of their peers. And it was a fine way to close out my return trip to Fantastic Fest (first time back in three years), because I hadn't been able to see too many straight up horror movies and was somewhat disappointed about that. I don't get to see the indie stuff as often as I'd like these days, so I was counting on this trip (my first away from my son!) to get me up to speed, only to end up seeing a lot of action flicks and documentaries. All good, mind you, but I was hoping I'd have at least 2-3 HMAD entries as a result of going, instead of just this one. Luckily, Beyond Fest and Screamfest (plus the New Bev All Nighter, which always yields at least one film I've never seen) should keep this place busy for the October season.

What say you?


Blair Witch (2016)

SEPTEMBER 16, 2016


The funny thing about Blair Witch Project is that on its own, there really isn't much to it - there are only three characters (who are easy to dislike for long stretches of the film) and on-screen action is kept to a minimum. And, most notably, there really isn't much of a story in the movie itself - you get these quick references to things that only those (like me) who will scour and the tie-in books will fully understand, but remain relatively unexplored within the 80 minute film itself. That might be because it was never supposed to exist as a pure "found footage" movie as we've come to know them - the material of the three filmmakers lost in the woods was supposed to be part of a more traditional (but fake) documentary, but Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez realized they had something special with just that footage alone. So they released the "lost in the woods" footage on its own as a full-length film and repurposed the rest of the material into The Curse of the Blair Witch and other tie-in specials, making history in the process. I'd be willing to bet if they made that movie as originally conceived it would not have been the success that it was, and we certainly wouldn't be here with Blair Witch, a direct sequel tasked that takes a "back to basics" approach, albeit now with the pressure of reviving a potentially lucrative franchise.

And by "direct sequel" I just mean it's not a meta thing like Book of Shadows, but I want to stress that you barely even have to see the first film - let alone remember it - in order to follow this one. Again, a lot of the original's story isn't actually IN the movie proper, and the target audience for horror movies today probably weren't even in first grade when the film hit theaters, so you can easily sense Lionsgate didn't want to alienate anyone by making it Saw-like in its continuity. Normally I'd scoff at this sort of thing, but I see the studio's point; since it only had one (not loved) sequel, the "franchise" hasn't remained in the general public's eye the way, say, Nightmare on Elm Street has - you can bring that series back without having to worry about the audience knowing who Freddy Krueger is. But Blair Witch is a different story, because even people who DO remember the movie might not have ever bothered to dig deep into the "lore", so the new creative team (Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett of You're Next and The Guest fame) have an interesting dilemma - they have to remind the audience who/what the Blair Witch is while following up a movie that had a campaign that largely depended on outside information. Throw too much of that nitty gritty in, and they can't expect a new audience to follow along... but if they make it overly accessible to newcomers they risk annoying the people who wanted a sequel in the first place. Unsurprisingly, they catered more toward the latter option, creating a film that almost borders on remake territory while largely keeping any "reveals" self-contained.

(Warning: big spoilers ahead - this review is more for those who have seen the film already and/or don't care about what it reveals! If you're just curious if I liked it or not - I thought it was OK. I really like the first act and some standout sequences in the rest, but as a Blair Witch devotee I felt a bit underwhelmed.)

For years we've wondered what happened to Heather in that last shot of the film, and what Mike did after that point, and where Josh went, and how their footage was found elsewhere, and so on and so on... but this film doesn't answer any of that. The plot concerns Heather's brother James* being sent a tape that might be of his long-lost sister (the place takes place in 2014, twenty years after BWP's setting) by some internet conspiracy guy named Lane, so naturally he plans to head out to the woods along with three friends and a whole bunch of cameras. The plan is to locate the spot that this tape was supposedly found and start circling from there in order to see if they can find that house where the footage was shot, and in turn maybe find Heather (they don't seem concerned with finding Josh or Mike). When they meet up with Lane, he asks if he and his girlfriend (Valorie Curry from The Following, the only cast member I recognized) can join them, and off to the Black Hills they go, with Lisa (who is making a documentary, of course) filming their car as they walk away from it - a nice little visual nod to the original.

It's this first act that works best. The plot is laid out with minimal excess, and we're brought up to speed on the first film's story (that the three people went into the woods and were never seen again), plus offered a little of what happened after - one of our main characters, Peter, was actually on one of the unsuccessful search parties. As with the original, they're smart enough to throw in some humor (Peter's reaction to a confederate flag hanging in Lane's home is priceless), and what may be my favorite little Easter Egg in the film: they stay in the same motel room before heading out to the woods. The characters are likable, there isn't much being shot for no reason... and most importantly, as a giant fan of the first film, I was happy to be back in that world again. As I've said, I like Book of Shadows, but it's not really a true sequel - it's more like Halloween III in that it's set in a different universe entirely. This film brings us back to the original world (like Halloween 4!), where our characters have never seen The Blair Witch Project because it doesn't exist (and thus, they've also been spared the shitty parodies), and each little mention of Elly Kedward or Coffin Rock made me smile. It was, so far, exactly what I was hoping for when I heard what the film's plot was.

But as I said, it almost feels like a remake at times, and as it went on I found myself feeling more frustrated than intrigued. It's not like a beat for beat remake, but even by sequel standards it sticks a bit too close to the overall structure; even with my spoiler warning I don't think I'm actually giving anything away by saying it seems they end up in the same house near the end of the film. I can't recall if it was ever explicitly said in the first film, but this was Rustin Parr's house - which had been burned down fifty years before (again, per the lore), so how the hell did they end up running around inside of it? And why couldn't any of the search parties find it? This is one question the movie kind of answers, though it's very vague and mostly just adds more questions to the pile. We've all seen enough movies to know "time travel!" when we see it, and there are some cool touches in the idea that time is moving differently for everyone (our main characters are in the woods for like 3-4 days, yet the clean-shaven Zane ages enough to have a full bushy beard by his last appearance), but the film frustratingly refuses to clarify these concepts in any meaningful way. I know being vague was part of the original film's power - but it was also simpler. Time travel (and other things I won't spoil - partly because I don't know what the hell it was supposed to mean) wasn't ever really considered in the context of the film, because the house-burning history hadn't been explained in the first film (just in the books and website), so only nerds like me wondered about the discrepancy - to everyone else it was just some house in the woods. Part of the first film's power was the idea that maybe these kids were just going crazy and there was nothing supernatural going on at all, but this one cements the fact that these woods really DO have something going on that involves the supernatural. Once you get into that area, I think the audience can reasonably expect some explanation for what is going on, because you can no longer coast on the ambiguity. All of the people who watched Blair Witch Project and walked away thinking that Heather had just cracked up now have proof that they were wrong, but that's it - no follow through. You can't just tell someone they're wrong without offering some hard evidence - it's like telling a kid he's grounded without telling him why.

I mean, near the end of the movie there's a pretty big reveal about that tape that sent them on their journey to begin with, and I'm not even sure the characters realize it. That to me seems like a giant missed opportunity to show us something that we haven't seen in one of these movies. Or maybe we have (I know I've seen a lot, but not all of them), but you know what we HAVE seen, a lot? People running through woods with cameras, and people screaming each others' names because they're not sure where they went, and any number of other found footage tropes that the movie gives us instead. See, part of what made the first film such a phenomenon was how unique it was; I know people love to cite Last Broadcast and Cannibal Holocaust as "doing it first", but that's not accurate. Cannibal Holocaust starts off and for quite some time remains a traditionally shot film, with the "found" part of it not even making half of the runtime if memory serves. And Last Broadcast is, ironically, a faux documentary with talking heads and recreations - the same sort of thing Blair Witch Project was originally designed to be. But BWP didn't offer any outside perspective; from start to finish, we are seeing everything through Heather or Josh's POV (or Mike after Josh disappears). Hell, we never see all three of them in the same shot because one of them is always holding the camera. This allowed the filmmakers (or, the cast) to create a subconscious effect on the viewer that keeps the movie from ever feeling anything like those others - and that's why so many scores of found footage movies since are compared to Blair Witch Project and not Cannibal Holocaust.

I bring this up because the movie seems to forget the audience has seen a lot of these things since 1999, and it's not quite as novel anymore. If anything the style is kind of played out; there are still the occasional winners (The Visit, or even closer cousin Willow Creek), but as of late it's the ones that act more like regular documentaries (The Atticus Institute) or rely on surveillance (Hangman) that work better than the ones that put the cameras in the hands of their characters the whole time. The narrative offers a solution to the usual "Why are they filming?" issue by giving them all little ear-cams (they look like Bluetooth headsets), but in execution there isn't much difference to how it looks to us in the audience - lot of shaky-cam, the usual digital hiccups, etc. The best chance they had to give the film something novel in its look is the fact that Lisa brings a drone along for overhead shots - and it never gets used once for a scare scene. Or, to be specific, its CAMERA never gets used for a scare scene - one of the film's best sequences happens when the thing gets stuck in a tree and Ashley (Peter's girlfriend) climbs up to free it. But before then, it's used for a couple of "Let's get a shot of the woods to see how far they are from civilization" kind of big crane-like shots, and nothing else. I guess it's kind of clever in a way, to introduce new tech (they also have GPS, but it never really factors into anything) but ultimately rely on the good ol' fashioned stuff that worked wonders in 1999 (one character even has a tape-based DV camera instead of a newer one with memory cards), but it doesn't change the fact that the special/unique feeling the original film offered obviously no longer applies.

Indeed, some of the best moments of the movie were kind of independent of the POV approach, in that it was the idea of the scene itself that was interesting, not how they filmed it. I already talked about the tree one, but there's also a terrific bit where Lisa is trapped in a tunnel that probably would have been shot more or less the same way if the movie was a traditional feature (she has two cameras, one that she's pushing and one on her ear, that even offers us two angles of the traumatic experience). And there's a surprising detour into body horror territory, where Ashley - who gets a cut on her foot early on - picks at the wound and finds... well, I'm not sure. But it's a creepy bit that is an exception from the film's frustrating vagueness, because it reminded me of Heather finding Josh's... WHAT? in the first film (if memory of the audio commentary serves it was his hair and teeth, but it's impossible to tell in the film itself). I also liked how the stickmen were used, though the POV aesthetic robs us of a clear look at an incredible reaction to one of them being snapped in half (you can only kind of tell what happened in the aftermath, not in the moment itself). I wouldn't go so far as to say that the movie SHOULD have been shot traditionally, but it's odd how often I was either frustrated by its limitations or just plain forgetting that it was supposed to be someone's POV. With so few handheld cameras and so many characters filming (via cameras we often can't even see on the others, blocked by hair or just the way they're standing), it lacks the intimacy the best of this sub-genre offers, where we always know who is filming and never forget that it's their perspective on the events around them. The movie takes time to establish how it can get around the usual "why are they filming?" pratfalls (the cameras are attached to their ears and basically forgotten, plus they have a tree-mounted cam showing the whole campsite), so it's a sin to keep us from ever getting good looks at this stuff. Why bother setting up a "cheat" if you're not going to put it to good use?

Going over it in my head, I realize that perhaps my main issue is that it kind of feels too much like a real movie? I really love the original, in part because they got it so RIGHT - you can easily dupe someone into thinking it's a legit "found footage" movie (or snuff film - inaccurate since no one dies onscreen, but semantics), because there's nothing that gives away the illusion. Even the end credits barely suggested otherwise since the film was shot by its actors and only had like 5-6 guys behind the concept and execution. Not the case here - the sound design alone is on par with any major Hollywood blockbuster, and it's just a bit too slick and too clean to work on that level, courtesy of the hundreds of crew people who worked on it per the end credits, which are as long as any traditional feature. Not that it's a crippling flaw for audiences (obviously, since you can levy the same "complaint" at Cloverfield and Quarantine and those movies weren't hurt any), and again it seems as if they were aiming more at audiences who had a passing familiarity with the original and would check this out the same way they might check out a remake (familiar title, but not a movie they might have actually SEEN). But I'm not that person - I'm the guy who was disappointed the title didn't have a "3" in it. And as a champion of the POV format when its utilized correctly, I had trouble finding much to pass my little test, where I ask why the movie HAD to be shot this way. Apart from the very last scene, I can't think of anything in it that would have lost its impact if it had been shot with regular camera setups, and since everyone has at least one camera we're never with one character long enough to get into their head the way we could Heather's. The POV was what made the first film so good - here it's more of a handicap.

Ultimately, I'm not sure if at this point, a direct Blair Witch Project sequel (at least, one without the original cast - and Heather Donahue ain't ever coming back) could ever be as fully satisfying as I would want. Too much time has passed, and it's not that I've moved on (I'm not lying - I have the books sitting right here next to me as I started re-reading them when the news broke that "The Woods" was actually Blair Witch), but horror itself has. What was once completely unique is now an over saturated market; just as Halloween II had to compete with not only the original classic but the literal dozens of other slasher movies that came out in 1981, Blair Witch faces the same things (plus a much-hated sequel souring the brand), but with even more time passed and, in turn, far more competition and raised expectations. I don't envy Wingard or Barrett (or even Lionsgate) for trying to achieve what, sadly, might just be impossible. Like I said, I don't dislike the film - there's certainly enough that they got right to make it a decent enough time at the movies, and it will almost certainly be received better than Book of Shadows. But I sure wish it was maybe 2004 right now, and I didn't have dozens of my own reviews saying "it reminded me of Blair Witch", because all of those movies left me almost numb to what this format can offer at its best. Hopefully I'm in the minority and the masses who maybe only watched a few of the Paranormal Activities and Cloverfield can get more out of this trip back to the woods than I was able to. I want another sequel, dammit - just don't make me wait nearly 20 years to get it.

What say you?

*Nerd alert - the brother's name is Randy in the Blair Witch Dossier. It's a canon addition to the overall franchise, so this is technically a mistake on the new movie's part, but I'm guessing the number of people who will pick up on that continuity hiccup is probably in the single digits. Or perhaps just me.


Raising Cain (1992)

SEPTEMBER 14, 2016


Curious - do you folks consider a movie as "seen" if you were so young that you a. barely remember it and b. wouldn't have the proper context to take away as much from it as the filmmaker intended? I usually do, but I'm starting to wonder if I shouldn't, if Raising Cain is any indication. I "saw" it when it hit VHS, making me 12 (maybe just turned 13), but even if I could remember much about it from that one viewing (all I recall: being confused, being smitten with Lolita Davidovich), I hadn't seen anything else of note from Brian De Palma at that stage (the lone, inexplicable exception? Bonfire of the Vanities), and as I watch it now I realize part of the film's fun is seeing him play with his own filmography as much as he does with the usual Hitchcock stuff. PLUS it's easier to follow when you know more about cinematic language in general; I'm sure I would have quickly understood that "Cain" wasn't really there in his scenes if I were to notice that De Palma never cheated and put them both in the same shot, for example.

(Double Impact had already come out - I knew it was possible to do this with one actor!)

While I still haven't seen them all (still no Body Double - much to my chagrin), I've seen enough De Palma by now to realize this one isn't exactly his finest hour, but probably works best for his hardcore fans (as opposed to say, Mission to Mars, which might satisfy you more if you have no idea who he is). Again, he throws in little nods to his past work - the plot feels like a variation on Sisters, and it's probably only his fans that will laugh instead of getting freaked out when a baby carriage starts rolling toward a staircase during the film's climax. Plus it's got plenty of his gee-whiz camerawork, including an epic 4+ minute long-take (a walk and talk, no less) that takes the characters down two flights of stairs and an elevator, finally ending on a corpse's ridiculous death face. The average moviegoer will not notice or at least not think much of these elements, but if you're familiar with his work it's sort of like comfort food, especially since it was his first thriller in nearly a decade.

But whether you're a BDP fan or not, I think we can all agree that the highlight of the film is John Lithgow's performance(s), as he plays at least five characters throughout the film, each with their own unique mannerisms and vocal inflection. Two of them are distinguished by their appearance (one older, one in drag), but the other three are just "off-the-shelf" Lithgow, and yet it's instantly clear when a new personality takes over - in particular the scene where Frances Sternhagen is interviewing him. When he snaps awake (she's hypnotizing him), you can tell right away it's not Carter or Cain, but a new personality we haven't met yet - just from how he's fidgeting and looking at her! Naturally, he didn't even get nominated for any mainstream awards, let alone win any due to the fact that the film was kinda/sorta horror and it also wasn't a big hit (if Silence of the Lambs only grossed 10m do you think it'd win Best Picture? Or even get nominated? Hah!). He DID get nominated for a Saturn award, yet lost to Gary Oldman for Dracula (kinda hard to argue, really), as did Bruce Willis (Death Becomes Her) and Chevy Chase (Invisible Man), which was probably the first and last time Bruce and Chevy were ever up for the same award.

However, a big draw of Lithgow's performance was kind of ruined by the film's re-structuring. When cutting the film, De Palma second guessed himself and didn't put enough faith in the audience to follow his non-chronological narrative, and so he recut it to be in order. This makes it (somewhat) easier to follow, sure, but it also gives the movie a very strange pace, because what was designed to be a twist halfway through (that Lithgow's character was a killer, not the "Mr. Mom" wet blanket he appeared to be in the original version's first half hour or so) was now pretty much the first scene in the movie. This would be fine if it was a movie about a guy living a double life (Mr. Brooks comes to mind), but it's not that kind of movie at all, so the (now) later scenes of him acting like a completely normal guy feel out of place. Because they are! Granted, there's no way in hell that the ads wouldn't have given away the multiple personalities element, so we'd know he was nuts no matter how the movie was cut, but knowing something from a trailer is different than knowing it too early in the full narrative. Like Psycho - even if you know Janet Leigh dies in the shower ahead of time, it's WHEN it happens (i.e. the end of the first act) that makes it such a shock, because even if you knew that her character died you'd probably assume it was somewhere near the end.

Luckily, this new Blu-ray from Scream Factory offers a one of a kind bonus feature - a cut of the film assembled by a fan that follows the original script's ordering. Alas, the new cut's editor, Peet Gelderblom, didn't have access to the scenes that were excised from the theatrical cut as a result of the new structure, so it's hardly a perfect execution (you almost have to watch the theatrical cut first just to know the difference when it jumps back in time), but if you mentally fill in those blanks it's easy to see that it's the superior way to watch the movie. This version keeps us more or less in Davidovich's POV (literally, at one point) for a while, allowing Lithgow's sudden turn to be the shock we were never afforded in the theatrical, and it also keeps the mystery of Carter/Cain's father (also Lithgow) slightly more compelling since we don't meet him 10 minutes in like we do in the theatrical. Both versions leave you guessing if Dr. Nix is truly alive or just another personality until the very end (in fact after about 45 minutes I don't think there's any major reordering at all), but the subplot just flows better in the recut version.

One thing the disc does NOT offer, sadly, is footage of Gregg Henry acting against Lithgow. Even though you never see two Lithgows at once, the actor still needed someone to interact with for the dialogue, and Henry did that for him throughout the shooting (in addition to his regular role as the head cop investigating the missing children). I think it would have been great to see, but alas the movie was shot in 1991/1992, long before anyone thought to record a film's entire production so it could have good blu-ray features. Instead, the disc offers a ton of interviews, including ones with Lithgow and Henry (as well as Paul Hirsch, one of the three editors), and you can't even complain about De Palma not offering one since the disc hits at the same time as the simply titled De Palma, a documentary which is basically a feature length interview anyway and covers all of his films including Cain. Lithgow's runs a half hour and is obviously the big draw, but they're all loaded with the usual fun anecdotes and recollections - it's a bummer they didn't cut them all together for a feature length retrospective (their combined runtime is almost as long as the movie itself, in fact) like they did with Day of the Dead and The Offspring, but it's not a big deal. The 2nd disc offers the recut as well as some background info on how that came together, as well as De Palma's sole "appearance" on the disc - his note saying how much he liked seeing the cut and wished he hadn't second guessed himself in the first place.

Again, I haven't seen Body Double (I swear I'll fix that soon), but I consider Blow Out to be a masterpiece and I really, love Dressed to Kill, and quite like Sisters (moreso after suffering through its remake), so I can't exactly say Raising Cain is an essential De Palma thriller when he has so many great ones to choose from (sort of like how Prince of Darkness is awesome but not even top 5 Carpenter. But it's deserving of more love than it gets, so I'm glad Scream Factory and Universal are working together a lot now, because otherwise there's little chance this minor little gem would have gotten a spiffy Blu-ray release. And I in turn probably wouldn't have gotten around to revisiting it until I decided to do some sort of massive De Palma appraisal/catch-up (I would skip Redacted, for the record), which is something I should do anyway. My favorite is Carlito's Way and it's been nearly 20 years since I watched that one! Plus he jumps genres a lot, so if I did them chronologically it wouldn't be repetitive or anything. I think I'll do this!

What say you?


The Disappointments Room Review

Hey all, if you'd like my take on The Disappointments Room (starring Kate Beckinsale - they've barely advertised the movie so you're forgiven if you're not sure what movie I'm talking about), head over to BirthMoviesDeath, since it ran there instead of here. Why didn't Devin or someone write a review, you may ask? Well, as it turns out, I'm the only one of like ten writers there who bothered to see it, which, as you'll learn if you read my review, makes me the dumbest of the lot. At least Moviepass paid for it. If you don't want to read it, I'll sum up: the only reason to watch it is to admire Ms. Beckinsale, and you can do that again in a few months with Underworld 5 anyway.


Tell Me How I Die (2016)



The easiest complaint to lobby at the slasher sub-genre is that they lack ideas when it comes to narrative, saving too much of the relative creativity for the kill scenes while giving the killer a motive we've seen in a dozen other films. The new slasher Tell Me How I Die bucks this trend, utilizing a fairly unique idea for a body count flick - a group of college students who are earning extra cash by participating in a new drug study find that what they took (a memory enhancement drug that hopes to combat Alzheimer's) allows them to see glimpses of the future. One sees nearly everyone being killed by an unseen murderer as a result, and thus naturally her visions start coming true. It's a bit Final Destination-y, sure, but by applying the basic concept (seeing everyone die and trying to stop it from happening) to a traditional masked killer/single location scenario is enough to give it its own identity, and beyond the vision scene it's about as much of a Final Destination knockoff as Child's Play is of Magic (which is to say, not really one at all).

The key difference is that while the Final Destination movies embrace the nutty concept and make the films a lot of fun to watch, Tell Me How I Die is an interminable bore, running at least 20 minutes too long and barely using the concept for anything interesting. The best death scene is that of a security guard who gets his foot caught in a bear trap and then crawls his way to presumed safety, only to get his damn head caught in one (he doesn't crawl much after that), and he had nothing to do with the experiment or visions. The others are mostly off-screen (even a basic stabbing!), with the film committing the number one cardinal sin of slashers: offing a bunch of people in one fell swoop, which is only acceptable if it's a spectacular death scene (think The Collection). Here, the killer just gases a bunch of the anonymous test subjects (including one girl you'd swear was inspired by Barb from Stranger Things if it wasn't impossible for them to have seen the show before getting this film shot/released), and even that is mostly off-screen. It's funny, early on I actually commented that the movie had too many characters, assuming there would be some mass death scene to get things on track, but I was thinking more on the lines of The Burning - not a friggin GAS sequence in a slasher. I mean, Christ. That'd be like a giant monster killing people by shooting them.

(OK I might like to see that.)

Worse, naturally the gassing doesn't kill ALL of them, but the script takes way too much time to get the body count moving along after that, with the five survivors lasting way too long before any of them are offed. This would be fine if they didn't know they were in danger and engaging in normal behavior, but they see the killer even BEFORE the gas sequence, so they're in hysteric, "we gotta get out of here!" mode the entire time, which gets awfully repetitive and grating - and again, the movie is too damn long as it is. Even at the slasher standard time of 88 minutes, you'd probably get sick of seeing these people run through corridors and arguing about how the visions work long before the ending finally came, so this is almost legitimate torture. Add in the obligatory "We see a thing happen and then snap back to realize it's just a vision of something we're about to watch again with a minor variation" scenes and you have a movie that runs 105 or so minutes with maybe 10 of them offering anything interesting or exciting.

For no real reason, the movie is set during a horrific blizzard - the subjects are told they can't go outside because they need to be observed round the clock (this doesn't stop one character from shrieking "They've been watching us the WHOLE TIME?!?!" when a two way mirror is discovered, by the way), so it could be bright and sunny for all it matters. It's mostly an excuse to give the killer a "costume" (read: a big coat and either a hat or a hood, I couldn't really tell), not that it matters since there's zero mystery to the whodunit angle as its someone we had never seen before anyway. Some of the kids make their way to a car and sit in it for a while debating their next move, but the cold doesn't play much of a part - the car works, so they just turn on the heat, and even when they're outside they barely seem to notice the elements. The entire movie was apparently shot in Los Angeles, which would explain why the snow and cold didn't bother them (because it was either fake or CGI), but for the life of me I can't really see a point to why they bothered going to all that effort. There's a nice shot of the heroine driving up to the isolated study building, surrounded by snow-covered trees, but you can see that in the trailer anyway so it's hardly a selling point for the film.

" If the movie DOES have one saving grace, it's William Mapother as the doctor running the test. He's a bit "off" (I don't want to offend anyone by labeling him with the wrong disorder, because the movie doesn't name it, so let's just say his character seems to fall on a certain "spectrum" and leave it at that), and it's fascinating watching that kind of person deal with the usual horror movie cliches. When he's on the safe side of the door and the kids are banging on it asking him to open it, he casually explains that he won't do that because he's safe and they're not, which is hilarious. Plus he's kind of a villain, so it doesn't really matter to him if any of the kids get killed as he's only concerned about his drug test - not exactly a unique plot point in itself, but seeing those sentiments expressed by a guy who might as well be asking if anyone has any gum as opposed to a sneering/sleazy villain (think Burke in Aliens) gives those moments a little more life than they'd usually offer in this day and age - and certainly more than the rest of the movie can bother to provide. I wish I could say Mark Rolston (the only other person in the movie I recognized) offered the same sort of reprieve, but he's tasked with a silly accent that does him no favors. Good job, movie, you made me dread another scene with a great character actor like Mark Rolston.

I guess I should mention the "Youtube superstar" of the movie, the Asian guy on the poster (I won't use his name so as not to attract his fans - I've already seen some of their over-exaggerated fawning and I want no part of it). He's pretty terrible, trying to be the comic relief with lines that aren't funny, and sits out a large chunk of the middle section until stumbling out as a would-be red herring (if anyone buys this for a second, they sure picked a shitty slasher movie to be the first one they apparently ever saw). So despite his poster presence, he's not really that big of a character - I'd compare him to maybe Ted in Friday the 13th Part 2 in terms of significance, and then I'd just continue sighing that people with lots of social media followers are considered draws for modern horror films. Silver lining: it didn't work, as besides myself and my friends, there was only one other guy in the theater... for a movie showing once a day at one theater, which presumably should be drawing in bigger crowds since all potential Los Angeles viewers are being funneled into this one screening. Good tactic, producers!

It's a shame that the movie didn't work for me at all; I love to champion slashers, and to its credit it's at least well-made on a technical sense, and despite spending a lot of the time yelling the characters aren't THAT obnoxious (no one's cheating on their spouse, so they're already ahead of like half of modern horror movies with college-aged characters in that department). But when the hook is a total bust, the deaths are almost all off-screen, and we never get a really good look at the killer (let alone enjoy a nice stalking sequence or anything like that), it's just a total failure in the departments that count. A bad book doesn't get saved because they chose a nice font.

What say you?


Morgan (2016)



Not too long before I sat down to write this review, I saw that Morgan had one of the worst openings of all time for a movie playing on 2,000 screens or more (i.e. a movie they figured would attract a big audience - otherwise they'd open it much smaller), which can't be a fun thing for anyone involved. I mean when it's something like Major League: Back to the Minors (near Morgan on that sad little list), fine - that's a movie no one wanted and a sequel missing the cast that made the first two films popular, so it deserves the demerit. But an original sci-fi thriller (no, it's not really horror - bear with me, I'm getting to that) should have at least inspired more curiosity, especially when the cast is loaded with interesting character actors and dominated by three female leads - a rarity for all genres, not just this particular one.

But IS it technically original? The trailer kind of sold a different movie, something more akin to Hollow Man or Species, with a lab experiment going awry and the victim offing everyone involved, but there's one other thing it played up that's definitely accurate: Ridley Scott's involvement. His son Luke made his directorial debut here, and it's not uncommon for a big name director dad to throw his name on their child's project to help them get it going (look for Martin Scorsese's new superhero movie for very, very sad proof), but there's a little more than just a ceremonial involvement going on here, which would require spoilers. So if you're one of the 7 billion people who didn't see Morgan this weekend and don't want the twist spoiled, please leave now, or at least skip the next two paragraphs.

Right now, there's a sequel to a Ridley Scott classic being shot, but unlike Prometheus Ridley isn't sitting in the director's chair - he's just producing, and I can't help but wonder if he might get some deja vu since he also produced this, which kind of feels like a blend between low-key remake and prequel of Blade Runner*. As we learn for sure at the end (but many people figured out earlier), Kate Mara's character is actually another genetic experiment, albeit from a different "Phase" than the one played by The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy, the title character who has shown signs of murderous aggression and needs to be evaluated - should she be terminated, or is the risk worth continuing the study? Mara is Lee, the risk assessment consultant (or some buzzword-y title like that) who is sent by the mysterious company to check Morgan out and make that call, but as things get hairy we see Mara is unusually skilled at fighting and survival - just as good as Morgan, in fact! I mean, it's not too hard to figure out that she's more than just a cold-hearted careerwoman, and we know the company is up to no good because it's run by Bryan Cox, but it's not until the final scene, where Cox talks to his partners and we learn the mission wasn't really about Morgan, but Lee, and to see if SHE was a viable asset for them in the long run.

It's here that the BR connection really sunk in for me (if you did see it and figured that part out a lot earlier - forgive me, I was fighting a doze the whole movie due to my ongoing moving process and a week full of very abbreviated sleeping periods), because you can boil the movie down to "Something that looks human but isn't is tasked with finding/eliminating another faux human". They're not called "Replicants" here, but they're pretty much the same - A.I. programs that can pass for human. There are other little connections/references as well, like Giamatti's character, who basically only appears in one scene, a lengthy interrogation of Morgan designed to get a rise out of her and find out for sure what she's capable of - not unlike Blade Runner's Voight-Kampff test. It also shares that film's rather cold and unpleasant tone; it's easy to see why Fox released this at the end of the summer, as it's even more of a downer than Splice, another genetically engineered "human" goes crazy movie that this would comfortably share shelf space with.

Except, despite its presence here, it's not really even close to horror, despite the trailer playing up those freakier scenes. Yeah, there's a body count and there is interest from genre fans as it's Anya's first post-Witch movie, but none of it is really played for scares, and the mad science stuff is kept to a minimum (I only put that genre tag on here because it will be of interest to people looking for that sort of movie). The last 20 minutes are more like a straight up action film than anything else, as they involve a car chase, a shootout, and not one but two hand to hand fights between Morgan and Lee that are more Seagal than Species. Despite the sci-fi prominence, Splice really earned its genre placement with that horrifying demonstration scene and Dren's transformations, but there's nothing like that here, and I can't help but think Fox really blew it in the marketing on this one, making it look more like a creepy "locked in with a monster" movie than the low-key sci-fi film it really is.

And there's no easier bit of evidence of that than the fact that the trailer barely shows Rose Leslie at all, and yet she's almost a third lead as opposed to supporting character. Her name is Amy, and she's the behaviorist of the little Crichton-y group tasked with monitoring/caring for Morgan - and she's also something akin to a girlfriend to her (who is referred to as "it" by pretty much everyone else). So when Lee and some of the others decide Morgan has to be terminated, she's the one making sure Morgan is set free instead, and gets the most interesting arc in the movie as a result when Morgan starts killing everyone off. At first, she sees Morgan's actions as a sort of "They deserved it" kind of thing, but when Morgan takes down someone who was actually trying to help her, Amy starts showing doubt - maybe they were right? Morgan shows zero signs of aggression toward her, so we're not really afraid for her safety, but it's interesting to see how torn up she gets over her loved one's actions, and you wonder if/when she will finally turn against the increasingly uncontrollable Morgan (or if/when Morgan WILL indeed go so far that she hurts/kills Amy as well).

It's also interesting that it's a summer studio movie (an R rated genre one at that) primarily focused on three women, none of whom seem to be interested in men (in a movie written and directed by men, no less). It makes the movie's failure all the more sigh-worthy to me; every other week the bloggers and "Film Twitter" are finding things to complain about re: women in movies (low point of the summer - the complaints about Apocalypse choking Mystique in an X-Men movie where a guy with all the power in the world required two women to help him), and yet here's a movie where the women are ass-kickers, intelligent, and not defined in the slightest by their relationship to a male love interest. And none of those rabble rousers see it, let alone champion it. I don't think it's a perfect movie, but can you blame the studios for sticking to what works when they do something unique and no one shows up?

As for what makes it imperfect, well for one thing it's not particularly complicated - as misleading as the trailer is, it still manages to hit upon just about every major plot point (save Leslie's character), as there isn't much else to it beyond that. Even at 90 minutes, it feels a bit stretched to get to feature length; to be fair in retrospect some such scenes were just trying to misdirect us (going back into spoiler territory here: Lee jogging is a good example), but it doesn't make the movie any more engaging in the moment. It's hard to really like Mara's character, and it's also hard to feel any sympathy for Morgan after a while, when she coldly murders someone who had only tried to help her. Not that sympathy is really what Scott and writer Seth Owen seemed to be going for, but it still makes it hard to really get attached emotionally to the movie. Especially if you're deaf - Max Richter's score was wonderful and if I heard it isolated I'd probably assume it was for some Oscar bait drama.

But ultimately its biggest hurdle is that it's unfortunately too similar to too many other movies, particularly Ex Machina and the aforementioned Splice. The film is on a lower budget than either of those, and with a lot of it probably going to cast (I haven't even mentioned Toby Jones or Michelle Yeoh!), that means the movie spends a lot of time in the same few rooms and with a lot of talk instead of action, lacking the unique makeup FX of Splice or the visual prowess of Ex Machina (which won an Oscar, don't forget) while running through similar story beats. The hook is the thing we can't really talk about, and even if we could, it's not like it makes up an entire third act or something - it's a last minute reveal. Even if you figure it out sooner, it's merely a confirmation of something you suspected, not a game-changing plot point. Based on the box office, we can't expect Morgan 2.0 anytime soon (of course that would be the title, come on), so all we have is this one little movie that's perfectly enjoyable in that lazy Sunday kind of way, ending on a beat that makes you wish the filmmakers had gotten to it sooner.

What say you?

*I also don't particularly love that movie. Huge fan of the director, but it probably wouldn't even rank in my top 10 of his films. I've tried on numerous occasions, with at least two versions of it, but it just doesn't connect with me beyond appreciation on a visual level. And don't go looking for what movie I mean if you missed the * in the text, because that's the spoiler you were avoiding, hence the vague details here.


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