Preservation (2014)

DECEMBER 15, 2017


As a big fan of Chris Denham's previous film Home Movie (an HMAD book entry, even!), I spent a while looking forward to what he did next. But post-daily HMADing I lost track of a lot of those one-time guys that impressed me, and therefore somehow I didn't even realize his next film was not only on Netflix, but a couple years old at this point. Doh! Of course, if the film was better it probably would have been on my radar, so I chalk up my being late to the party more to the fact that no one had thought to recommend it or even mention it to me (though once I found it I think I remembered Sam from Shudder saying something about watching it ages ago) than me just being out of the loop. Still, it's no fun to be reminded once again that I can't keep up as well as I used to - why is this forgettable movie making me feel old? Screw you, Preservation!

To be fair it's not a "bad" movie by any means - it just didn't do anything I hadn't already seen in other movies, and again - my input isn't as exhaustive as it used to be, so someone who IS keeping abreast of all the films that pop up on Netflix and its peers might even find less to be surprised about here. The best surprise happens in the first few minutes, when we see a pair of brothers driving off to the woods, talking about their dad and letting us know how different they are (one brother is into silly internet videos, the other doesn't even own a phone!). They're talking for a few minutes before we discover someone else is in the car with them: the wife of the cell phone-loving brother, played by Wrenn Schmidt, who I liked a lot on Outcast and was happy to see showing up earlier than expected. Given the brothers' subtly dysfunctional dynamic I was thinking maybe Schmidt would be playing someone they met up with in the woods and perhaps fought over while they battled whatever terror awaited them, which might give the film some interesting angles (i.e. one brother letting the other come into harm's way to better his chances of getting together with this lovely woman), but nah. Like most of the movie that followed, nothing about the dynamic is either novel or even integral to the narrative, because even my 3 year old could tell you who'd be the first to die and who'd be the only survivor out of this trio.

Ah, but the killers might be unique, right? Wrong again, and I'll have to spoil their nature so skip this paragraph if you want to be surprised. At first our obligatory woodsman murderers wear masks that conceal their identity, with Denham choosing his angles carefully so as not to give anything away. But near the end of the second he lets us in on the secret - the trio of killers are actually teenagers, DUN DUN DUN! For casual horror fans this might be mindblowing, but a lot of us have seen Ils (Them), and therefore we've already seen this movie set in a house instead of the woods. We've also seen Eden Lake (which was in the woods to boot), which never tried to hide the nature of our heroes' tormentors, and also had the inspired twist on Last House on the Left's third act to add some more flavor. Here, the killers are teens and... well, that's about it. Nothing else really changes once our character(s) discover this. Even when it comes to fighting back, there isn't any debate or even much hesitation. In fact, the two most excessively violent acts against the killers occur after the hero in question has realized how young the antagonists are, with any delay being more of a "Can I kill this person?" kind of thing rather than a "Can I kill this CHILD?" one (which perhaps would have had more ambiguity if the character hadn't already dismissed the idea of hunting earlier in the film). And when you add in standard self-defense protocol, there really isn't anything shocking about it - it's just another mild-mannered vacationer being driven to kill a woods-dwelling psychopath in order to survive.

It doesn't help much that all three characters are fairly stupid. The brother is a war vet who can figure out how many attackers there are and what direction they came from/where they are headed from the way the grass and branches on the ground are bent, and can make a weapon out of found materials within seconds - i.e. a badass who can handle himself. Yet at his first opportunity he inexplicably turns his back to his attacker after subduing him with a few hits, opening himself up to what could have been an easily preventable attack. His brother and sister-in-law both do the same thing in other scenes (and every time, they pay for it) but at least they could chalk it up to being naive in such situations - how the hell did this guy survive the war if he is capable of making such a rookie mistake? It would have been way more interesting/exciting if he did everything exactly right and managed to get killed anyway, to suggest that even a trained soldier couldn't survive these dudes let alone our yuppie other heroes, but when he is taken out primarily because he's a dumbass, it doesn't really do much of anything except give the movie one less character to worry about. It also quickly kills the chance that he snapped and is doing this himself, which his brother believes is indeed the case - even if it wasn't actually believable (to me anyway) they could have milked the idea for a while, rather than kill him off almost as soon as the idea was introduced.

There is one slightly unique thing about it though: cell phones work! True, the hero's phone is only used for a different cliche (the workaholic whose phone will of course ring when his wife's already complaining about how he's always working), but at least the idea that they could call for help should the need arise gives it something. But most of the cell use is for something else: the killers use them to communicate even when standing right next to each other (yep, it's the horror movie version of a sight gag from Clueless, 20 years ago), letting us into their heads a bit as they never speak (with one pointed exception I won't spoil). It's through the phone that we see they're fans of a shooter game, giving us an entry-level "It's just a GAME to them!" motivation for their crimes and letting us know that they're not off-the-grid rednecks. I mean, it's fine, but I've seen it before in earlier movies, so I'm baffled that out of the entire crew no one told Denham that someone had beat him to the punch. Granted, horror movies have always borrowed liberally from one another, but the key is that they usually offer variations or tweaks that give it is own personality. The only time we get that here is in the final scene that briefly returns us to civilization, where most of these films end in the woods.

Obviously, I doubt Denham sat down and said "I'm going to do the same thing people have already done but add a short epilogue!", but I had to wonder (frequently) if he was aware of those other films (in particular Eden Lake, since this film has a port-a-potty scene that recalls that film's sewage moment). I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he hasn't, or otherwise he probably would have done more to distinguish his film from those (and no, adding a brother to the usual couple doesn't count). Even the (more) recent Killing Ground - which I did not care for - spent some time with the villains in their normal day to day life and also had the flashback structure to make up for its generic story (once again, people in the woods being murdered by locals), which is the sort of wrinkle(s) that could have benefited this film. I certainly don't need to be blown away by every choice in a horror film, but I would like something to remember about it in a few years (months?) if someone were to ask about it, especially when it comes from someone I know is capable of delivering. I can't see that happening here; my biggest takeaway is that the main guy was the lead "actor" in LA Noire and it was weird to see him in the flesh instead of the robotic Uncanny Valley version I'm used to (I know he was on Mad Men as well but I never watched it, so LA Noire is my main go-to for the guy. Deal with it!).

A filmmaker friend of mine frequently uses me as a sounding board about horror ideas, asking if this or that idea has been used in a movie, and I can't help but wonder if this should be standard protocol for the genre: ask around a bit and make sure you're treading new ground, and if you're not but really want to make that film, find ways to rise above the older competition. You don't need me to tell you that there are more horror films than any other genre, due to their "cheap to make" nature and, with all due respect, less discerning target audience making them easy to lead into profit. As a result, this means there are more copycats - intentional or not - and thus it's more likely that the great idea you have has been done before. There's no reason that a similar film can't be made, naturally, but again - it would be beneficial to everyone if the film had a few ideas of its own, especially in the survival sub-genre where the plots tend to be thin and the mortality rate is usually higher than slasher films (how often do you see two or three people get away from hardcore killers on a mountain range?), which makes them much less suspenseful than they ought to be as it seems like there's a rule that all but one of them has to die. I mean, look at the "Die Hard in a ______" sub-genre - the location changes, the villain's complicated plot changes, the stakes change, etc. There's room to make it your own, even if the basic concept is the same. With these kind of movies, the concept is pretty much all there is to it, reducing the ability to make it your own. Ironically, Home Movie STILL stands out as an anomaly in the found footage sub-genre, and maybe I was expecting too much here, thinking that he'd be able to really put a stamp on these films. Alas, it's watchable and well made (the scenery is gorgeous), but there was not a single point in the movie where I was wondering what might happen next. If you haven't seen the films I mentioned, I'd recommend starting with this stripped down version and then check those out, pretending they came later and wanted to improve on the basic idea.

What say you?


Little Evil (2017)

DECEMBER 13, 2017


There aren't a lot of movies about evil children that I dislike (hell, it's hard to even disappoint me), and as Tucker & Dale was one of my favorite movies of the year I saw it (2010, though it was delayed for a bit and didn't come out until the following year if memory serves) I was eagerly looking forward to Eli Craig's followup, Little Evil. The premise seemed like a winner, basically a comedy version of The Omen (or a more supernaturally driven Problem Child) but with the always great Adam Scott in the (step)dad role (bonus, my beloved Evangeline Lilly as the child's mother), with the added bonus of Craig proving that he's able to wring plenty of laughs out of well-worn material while also adding some creative tweaks and even satisfying the "horror" part of the horror-comedy blend. Alas, the film simply didn't work for me; I barely ever laughed and found even less to enjoy about the storyline itself, which despite its R rating (for language only, as it turns out) is shockingly toothless and rarely steps outside of Omen's narrative. So it's The Omen but not scary or funny, basically - what's the point?

I'd be very curious to extend some benefit of the doubt to Craig and read the original script that was sold to Universal a few years back (Uni is not involved with the final version, which was released as a Netflix exclusive), as it seems like they had to chop some things out that maybe their non-Universal budget couldn't handle. For example, the film starts incredibly awkwardly, with a pointless flash-forward and some talk about Scott and Lilly's wedding being a disaster long before we see some brief footage of it from the videographer (Dale himself, Tyler Labine, in one of the film's few good scenes), making it feel like the film's first 20 minutes were excised/reworked. I could be wrong, but either way it puts the audience at a disadvantage for no good reason, and the flashforward spoils one of the film's central mysteries, which is whether or not Lilly's character was evil as well or if she genuinely didn't think anything was wrong with her son. There are other things throughout the movie that feel "off", such as a clown Scott rents for the kid's birthday party - they keep making a big deal about how he did a bad thing by hiring this particular guy, but we don't see him hiring him (when it's too late to care anymore he finally mentions that he just found the guy online), making it all feel like the punchline to a joke with no setup.

The other weird thing is that it keeps building up reveals to certain characters, like the kid's real dad or a hunter named Gozamel who will help them, seemingly setting up some stunt casting for these brief cameos. But no! They're just random guys! I mean nothing against the actors, but when you keep mentioning someone in an irreverent comedy and build up their first appearance, we're kind of trained to expect them to be someone that will make us laugh when we see them. Maybe Will Ferrell is the legendary hunter, or the child's father is an A-list "serious" actor from some previous devil movie having a little fun with his legacy (Gabriel Byrne would have scored the most points from me, obviously). The movie does indeed feature a few notable quickie roles (Sally Field as a child services agent, Clancy Brown as a priest who believes the end of the world is coming), and Scott's stepfather therapy group is rounded out by familiar TV stars like Donald Faison and Chris D'Elia (who scored the film's biggest laugh, in my opinion), but their appearances aren't really built up in any way. Again, it's just kinda "off", like they took the movie out of the oven before it was done baking.

Curiously, the film's wiki page notes that they didn't reshoot anything and it had a fairly brief schedule, so I can't help but wonder if it was one of those things where they rushed it into production to secure a certain actor (Scott has his own show on Fox, so I'm guessing his schedule was packed) and they simply didn't have time to rework things, let the actors fuck around to secure better improv takes, etc. I mean, the movie is definitely a comedy with supernatural elements, not a traditional "horror-comedy", so if it failed as a story that'd be almost forgivable as long as I was laughing a lot. The recent Ghostbusters update is a good example - I laughed a lot at the movie, so I at least enjoyed watching it the one time even though the story/villain were dogshit. Little Evil doesn't benefit from the same thing; I swear I only laughed I think five times throughout the movie, and I'm not exactly hard to please when it comes to comedy, especially this particular kind (irreverent/ironic/random). This is the kind of movie that seems tailor made for my sensibilities (killer kids! Dad stuff! Evangeline Lilly in a sundress!), but it just never came together for me.

Luckily, it did have a few bright spots that kept me from giving up entirely. The aforementioned scene with Labine as the pretentious wedding videographer was pretty funny; his chemistry with Scott was solid and it earned my first real laugh of the movie, where Scott seemed more concerned with the guy's lack of a tripod than the fact that his wedding was destroyed by a tornado that might have been caused by his Antichrist stepson. Craig gets some mileage out of Scott's fellow stepdads treating the whole "Antichrist" thing as yet another common issue stepdads have to deal with, and I liked that Craig worked in nods to other creepy kid moviess (Poltergeist, Children of the Corn, Rosemary's Baby...) without turning it into a ZAZ-style parody film. Plus I was happy that the devil really was involved, and that they didn't go the cop-out route and chalk every weird thing in the movie up to paranoia. Then again, Netflix spoils the happy (and lame, and like most other things in the film, clunkily established) ending with one of the screenshots that accompany the film's page (the ones that scroll past while you're reading the plot info), so it seemed like they didn't even want the audience to be surprised by anything.

Oh well. I watched the trailer a while back and was a bit concerned that there weren't any laughs, but I was hoping it would just be one of those deals where the trailer can't quite sell the movie's tone (and thus laughs) in the traditional way (one of my favorite comedies, Drowning Mona, doesn't have a funny trailer either). Alas, the trailer was dead on - the gags just keep falling flat for a variety of reasons, and while the kid is good there's not enough genuine menace for it to work as a black comedy either. It's just kind of there, leaving talented performers stranded and showing none of the spark that made Tucker and Dale such a winner. Hopefully I'm right and it just wasn't made under the best circumstances, and Craig can come back to my good graces with the next one. Until then, I trust someone can satisfy my evil child itch, comedically or otherwise? I can't just keep watching my Cathy's Curse blu-ray.

What say you?


Satan's Blade (1984)

DECEMBER 8, 2017


Even if I've heard nothing good about it, there is no slasher film from the golden era that I would refuse to see, and it's also the only kind of Blu-ray I will still blind buy, because good or bad I know I'm more likely to revisit something like Satan's Blade than a big budget action movie I enjoyed in theaters but haven't thought about since (that said, I still bought the last Fast & Furious movie even though I know I can't bring myself to see the crew let Jason Statham come to the family BBQ after he killed Han). But my friend Matt gifted me this one last year, because he figured it would be up my alley and shares my passion for seeing/collecting slashers from this particular era - alas I only now got around to finally seeing it, which makes me sad. If I'm not someone who will drop everything to make time for a random early 80s slasher, who am I?

So in a weird way I feel better that I didn't like it all that much; if I had this perfect gem sitting around for a year or so I'd kick myself for all the time I could have spent tweeting my praise (see: Cathy's Curse, which I have been championing before I even had Twitter to do it!). It's not unwatchable or anything, but the lows greatly outnumber the highs, and so it kind of exists in that middle ground where it's not actually good, but it's not insane/inept enough to watch for a laugh (like Sledgehammer) either. You can find more of that sort of thing on the bonus features, like the 30 minute interview with the director where he shows off a few props, the VHS cover, a Fangoria issue the film was covered in, etc. - all while standing up at a camera aimed at the chair he was sitting in when the interview began, so you spend most of the time looking at his mid-section and also his wife (?), who is still seated and looks annoyed. If whoever shot/edited the bonus feature made the film, we might have something for the "WTF" crowd, but alas.

That said, it has its own identity, thankfully. For starters half of the will-be victims are adults (the two men are lawyers, in fact), and there are two groups with minimal intersecting. It mostly takes place at a "ski lodge", where there are the lawyer dudes and their wives, and then five college girls in the adjacent cabin, so the killer is able to take out the group in one cabin while keeping the others from noticing/caring/going into a panic in the other. And when I say cabin I mean "Suburban Townhouse", because that's what it resembles; for a cabin, there's a distinct lack of coziness to the two domiciles - I mean their bedrooms have linoleum flooring and cement walls, which doesn't exactly sell us on the setting. If you fast forward over the exterior establishing shots you'd probably wonder why all of the neighbors didn't hear the ruckus once the killings finally begin in the film's final 30 minutes, as the idea of being isolated never really comes across. Worse, pretty much all of the killings are indoors as well, which not only minimizes the potential for chases (a key part of a slasher film), but their ill-fit makes the climactic scenes awkward where they should be tense. The homes are fairly small, so the actors have to behave unnaturally in certain scenes, like when the killer smashes a window and grabs one of the women and it somehow takes like 20 seconds for her husband to get there when she was only like ten feet away. He also looks puzzled when she screams, as if she was too far away for him to see what was happening, but based on the layout of their two positions, he should be looking right at her! Also, I'm pretty sure they just slightly redressed one cabin to make it look like a second, as the layouts seem identical and they have the same shitty paintings and tapestries on the wall (albeit in different places), so it can be a bit disorienting, while also keeping the film visually flatter than it should be.

(That said, the Blu-ray is presented open matte when it was intended to be masked down to 1.85 or whatever, so you see the boom mic a lot and lots of unnecessary headroom. Use your TV's zoom feature if you can!)

The pacing also hurts it. The killer has very little presence outside of his (again, chase-free) kill scenes, so after the opening scene kills it's like a full 45 minutes of horror-free tedium, save for one of the film's few bonkers highlights, where an old lady with a broken arm tells about some spooky legend. The rest of the time we're just watching people go in and out of their cabin to go fish or ski (we don't see any skiing footage), or drink without doing anything crazy. Hell, the male lead actually rejects the younger ski bunny girl who is hitting on him, prompting a five minute discussion about how much he loves his wife instead of a sex scene that could have resulted in a kill right when the movie could have really used one. This is followed by an endless sequence where the guy goes back to his lodge to have sex with his wife (after another long talk about how much he loves her), intercut with scenes of the spurned ski bunny walking around the woods. And if you're thinking we're watching this because it will end in her death, guess again, as all parties survive the sequence. In fact she's the closest thing the movie has to a Final Girl, making her one of the rare ones whose primary character trait is wanting to bang another woman's husband.

The kills aren't worth the wait, either. They didn't have the money/skill to do anything interesting, so it's mostly like a shot of the killer's knife swinging and then a cut to the victim holding the spot where they got hit, with blood dripping out from a pack they're probably squeezing in their hand. As for the killer himself, due to the (not particularly successful) attempt at a whodunit angle and the fact that no one involved seemed to understand that the cliches of slasher movies were there for a reason, he has no mask or anything, we just see his hand or leg or whatever during the kill scenes. This is probably why the box art promises a demonic thing that kind of looks like a Lego Bionicle (Tahu, specifically), as the titular blade wasn't enough to entice anyone, I'm sure. Final Exam (another maskless killer, though he still had a physical presence) at least had the creep silhouette thing instead of showing off their bland guy and/or lying outright.

Basically the only reason to watch the whole thing is to get to the insane killer reveal. Not his/her identity, because that's kind of obvious, but why they did it, delivered in a speech that appears to be overdubbed from someone's living room even though the scene takes place outside. It's the sort of moment you wish the movie had more of, because it's got that "holy shit what were they THINKING?" appeal that is very much missed from most of the rest of the movie. I even watched it a second time to see if it was just my mood or whatever, but nope, it just didn't work for me. Someday I'll go nuts like Rivers Cuomo did when he tried to find the scientific formula for the perfect pop song, but I will try to solve the mystery of why some of these inept indies delight me so much while others just leave me bored. I don't know if there is a specific thing to pin it on, but I sure as hell know I'll have fun trying to figure it out. Until then, I'll keep this in the collection out of habit, but against the odds described at the top I don't see myself revisiting it again (on the flipside, I'm watching Disconnected again today for the dozenth time), though I might pull it out to show someone the insane interview.

What say you?


Cult of Chucky (2017)

DECEMBER 5, 2017


Universal has a weird knack for keeping series not only going longer than anyone would have guessed, but in some ways IMPROVING as they go on. The Fast & Furious series is only now starting to fall apart (largely due to the real life death of its main character), but in those sorry post-2 Fast days, who would have guessed that part 5 would be the apex of the series and that part 7 would gross over a billion dollars? Or that there would even BE that many sequels? Likewise, when Child's Play 3 came and went without fanfare, it should have been the end of the series, but they revived Chucky seven years later with Bride of Chucky and have continued to make new sequels that people eagerly look forward to (even demand), a far cry from some of its competition where sequels are made only to retain the rights to make more of them (cough, Hellraiser, cough). Cult of Chucky is the newest entry in this consistently surprising series, and while it doesn't quite hit the mark as well as the previous entry (Curse of Chucky), it's a more than worthy addition to the franchise.

Plus, to be fair, Curse was blessed with a bit of a handicap - no one was expecting "Child's Play 6" to be any good, especially when it was going direct to video (the others were all theatrical releases). But it turned out to be a terrific restart for the series, and it did so without "rebooting" or ignoring entries - what appeared to be a largely unrelated entry (or the dreaded "True sequel to the original" approach taken by pretty much every Texas Chainsaw movie) turned out to be very much tied in with the established mythology. When Chucky washed makeup off his face to reveal the scars on his face from his previous injuries, I got downright giddy in a film I was already very much enjoying, as it was a return to the original's suspenseful roots, and director Don Mancini was essentially making an old-school "Old Dark House" movie (complete with a fight over inheritance!) with Chucky standing in for the usual fake ghost or whatever. This time, we KNOW these films can measure up, so the element of surprise is diminished a bit.

At least, when it comes to the overall quality - its narrative is very much on par with the last few sequels, in that you probably wouldn't have guessed where the plot would go. At the end of the last film, Nica (Fiona Dourif, daughter of Brad "as the Voice of Chucky" Dourif) was sent to an institution after being blamed for all of the murders Chucky committed there, while our favorite Good Guy doll got his head blown off by his old nemesis, Andy Barclay. When this one begins, we see Andy going on a disastrous date, then going home to forget his troubles with a beer and a blunt that he shares with... Chucky's disembodied head! Turns out Andy aimed a bit to the side, so while Chucky's looking pretty terrible he's still alive, and the two have a weird co-dependent "friendship" of sorts. Honestly I could have watched a whole movie of this, but before long we're off to catch up with Nica, who was just transferred to a minimum security institute and is seemingly starting to believe that she really did commit the murders, not Chucky. However, her psychiatrist wants to make sure she's really over her fear of the doll, so he buys one (from Hot Topic!) and introduces it to her and her fellow patients. But Chucky's soul is with Andy, so there's no way this one could be alive, right?

Well, if you're wondering what the title was referring to, now you have your answer. Seems Chucky found a way to spread his soul across more than one doll, and once that's established, the movie comes off almost like a Thing variant of sorts, as you're wondering if he's been able to possess any humans along with an increasing number of Good Guy dolls that have found their way to the hospital. Not only does this allow for suspenseful scenes that Chucky isn't even present for (her shrink is seemingly crazier than Chucky, something even the doll notes), but also gives Brad Dourif a chance to have a couple scenes where he talks to himself, as Chuckys argue over who gets to kill someone or whatever. The stuff with the psychiatrist can drag a little in spots, but it's offset by the other patients that he's in charge of, one of whom takes a liking to Chucky because she thinks it's her dead son (leading to what might be the series' first truly horrifying moment). Mancini has a knack for creating characters that are almost automatically interesting, allowing him to quickly get back to Chucky (or Nica, our hero) without having to spend too much time making sure we know/care about these new people. I particularly liked the orderly, Carlos (Zak Santiago), who in one brief scene tells us more about who he is as a person - both with dialogue and actions - than I've ever learned about the main characters in certain Jason or Freddy films. It's testament to both Mancini and the actors that we don't need Chucky on-screen every second to be invested in the story.

But naturally, the film is at its best when it's letting Chucky do his thing. Dourif's as good as ever (his delivery of "I just CAN'T with this guy!" is an all timer in context, which I can't spoil here), and the animation is much improved over the previous film, where Chucky's face seemed to be completely different in some scenes. A behind the scenes clip on the Blu-ray shows that they are still using practical puppets with a number of operators for the facial expressions, so while there might be a few computerized "touch ups" here and there, he's still very much a practical effect and I'm never not appreciative of how well they pull it off (though I think the pre-CG Child's Play 3 remains the best he's ever looked). Since he's not just trying to play "hide the soul" every five seconds he's got more to do here than in many of the other sequels, and is up and about most of the time we see him as opposed to Curse, where the plot dictated that he remain still for a while. After the largely comedy-free Curse, Mancini seems to be dipping back into comedy at times (complete with a meta joke about Hannibal's cancellation - Mancini worked on the show), but the comedy largely works and is still nowhere near the level of the (horror-free) Seed of Chucky.

Chucky also really pops thanks to the film's visual style. As it's set in an institution, you can imagine that you'll be seeing a lot of sterile, nearly color-free environments, so when Chucky scampers down a hallway or someone carries him through the room, you can't help but zero in on him (another reason to be relieved that they do such a great job with the doll work). Mancini also peppers the film with diopter shots and split screens, and it doesn't take much effort to realize he's paying homage to Brian DePalma, which he admits to on the commentary (and in our interview!) and works remarkably well in the context of a Chucky film. As I was saying about the films being surprising, each one has its own flavor and style (remarkably, the three Mancini directed himself are the most varied), so you get a certain kind of film (in this case, the mental institution/psychological thriller movie) but now with Chucky, and so using these specific devices actually has two uses. One, it helps set it apart from the others, but the more important second one is that it gives the audience a bit of a subconscious shorthand to know what kind of movie Chucky is invading this time.

I do wish they had taken another pass at the editing, however. It's actually a few minutes shorter than Curse (the series' longest entry), but it feels a bit sluggish at times, even a bit repetitive in some cases. Indeed, some of the split-screen shots were created in editing (not the original design) in order to speed things along, and I can't help but wonder if that tactic could have been employed elsewhere. The climax is also a bit stiff compared to the others - there's big stuff happening to the characters (particularly in Nica's case), but visually it lacks oomph compared to the others. With Andy back it's easy to remember the big climaxes of CP2 (the toy factory) and 3 (the carnival), and here it mostly just amounts to a few people (and even Chucky) standing around talking. I don't need the hospital to blow up or anything, but a chase or something would have been nice; even if we've seen that sort of thing before it would at least send us off with a bit of an adrenaline rush. It's an unusual film in that the bulk of the "money shot" action occurs in the middle, so that coupled with the slight overlength deflates the movie a bit.

That said, the closing scene (along with the post-credits teaser) suggests a more female-driven followup, which I think would go over like gangbusters. Not to mention, given the current social/political climate, a "woke" Chucky movie might be kind of fascinating as long as Mancini and co. can successfully pair it with whatever new sub-genre they plan to ape next. I'm not a huge fan of Bride or Seed, but I know folks love them, and in turn Tiffany, so I'm sure they'd be happy to see her return after sitting these two out. I just hope they don't go full-blown comedy again; the little asides here were fine (though the shoutouts to earlier kills - "All actual examples!" - were clunky AF) but I'm far more impressed by their ability to make this goofy concept work in the suspense/horror mode. But whatever path they take, I know not to underestimate Mancini (and producer David Kirschner, who has also been around for all of them), so I eagerly await the next one - even if it means my sweet "Complete Collection" boxed set will be obsolete!

What say you?


Gerald's Game (2017)

NOVEMBER 30, 2017


I for one couldn't be happier about the resurgence of Stephen King adaptations hitting movies and TV, after a curiously long drought that started in 2007 (when we had The Mist, one of the most acclaimed King adaptations, and 1408, one of the all-time biggest box office hits for a movie based on his work - seriously). Apart from the odd limited release film like Cell and TV shows that either didn't pan out (The Mist, again) or had little relation to the source material (Haven, which was very very loosely based on The Colorado Kid - they got five seasons for a show "based on" a book that was less than 200 pages) there just didn't seem to be much interest in doing King. But in the past year alone we've had the Hulu stuff (11/22/63 and the upcoming Castle Rock), Mr. Mercedes, It, possibly some other movie I'm totally forgetting existed and don't need to be reminded of in any way, and now* Gerald's Game, which is the second Mike Flanagan film to debut on Netflix after the terrific Hush.

To me, this is proof positive that filming King is a big deal again, because the novel is 25 years old and even more "unfilmable" than Misery (coincidentally, that one came out on a new Blu-ray this week and I discussed it here if you're interested). For those unaware of the concept, it's about a woman named Jessie (Carla Gugino) who is not particularly thrilled about her husband (Bruce Greenwood) trying to spice up their sex life with handcuffs, but is trying to go along with it for his sake. Alas it gets to be too much for her and she tells him to stop, and they start fighting - at which point he has a heart attack and dies, with her still chained to the bed and no neighbors around for miles - and a hungry feral dog in the house who will eventually get sick of snacking on her husband's corpse and look for something fresher. Of course, even if it was a real-time thriller you can imagine that a woman chained to her bed wouldn't be enough to sustain a feature running time, so Jessie starts cracking up a bit, imagining her husband and her mirror self in the room with her as sparring partners and motivators, filling in backstory and making the movie far more compelling that it would appear to be from the simpler description.

I have not read the book yet so I don't know everything that changed, but the Wiki synopsis of it tells me that she imagines other characters (including a shrink), whereas here it's just herself and the husband, though I don't think the movie lacks as a result. On the contrary I found it quite interesting, and it also made it easier to remember the central conceit, which is that these people were saying things that Jessie herself was imagining them saying. It's not like Split where they're supposed to be other personalities, nor is the husband a "ghost" or anything of that nature - she doesn't have access to any information that she didn't already possess, and so when a possible affair is mentioned, Greenwood can't say "Yes, I slept with her", because Jessie herself doesn't know for sure. It's just how she imagines the conversation will go at that particular time, which is not only interesting from a cinematic perspective but also a performance one. While Gugino has (rightfully) gotten plenty of acclaim for her performance, Greenwood also does some of his best work ever with a trickier role - 90% of what he is saying in the movie isn't necessarily him, but what his wife - currently very emotional and more than a little pissed at him - would imagine him saying. Greenwood can't ever go into full villain mode, because we're seeing a conflicted woman's impression of him. A part of her still cares about him and that comes out every now and then.

This technique also tells us, long before a flashback cements it, that Jessie doesn't stand up for herself all that often. Think of every imaginary fight you have with a friend or spouse - you tend to "win" or at least get a lot of good digs in, right? She never does, at least at first - she takes Greenwood's jabs and rarely fires them back at him. The approach also allows us to see her mind putting things together, something that's always proved to be difficult when adapting King as his characters spend so much time in their own heads, which is part of what makes people love the books (and in turn get disappointed with the movies). As a bonus, Flanagan is able to use an idealized version of Gugino as the imaginary one, with perfect hair and makeup, to fully visualize the actual Jessie's plight, as she suffers from dehydration and the general trauma of the whole thing. The only way to make Carla Gugino look "bad" is to juxtapose her with one that's ready for the red carpet, basically, so they truly lucked out there.

I also appreciate that he doesn't play up the more traditional danger elements, such as the dog. It's always around, but she tends to get rid of it quickly when it comes sniffing around, and he doesn't even really try to make it scary all that often. Early on Greenwood refers to it as "Cujo" (heh), but that's the only time you'll be thinking of him or any other killer dog. It's just hungry, it's not a boogeyman on four legs. Likewise, Flanagan doesn't stoop to pointless diversions that we know won't work, like having someone come to the door as Jessie tries to get his attention, and he thankfully gets Jessie's imaginary escape out of the way early, so we're never fooled for a second that we're watching anything but a daydream. The movie's about a lady stuck in her bed - she ain't getting out of it until the runtime is nearly over. Considering the story's limitations, it's easy to imagine a hack filmmaker would do everything they could think of to make it more visually exciting (I always think of Michael Bay taking a meeting on Phone Booth and asking "How can we get this out of the booth?"), so I laud them for sticking to the guns that King laid out in his novel, which obviously didn't have to concern itself with such matters.

On the other hand, maybe they could have deviated when it comes to the character of Raymond Andrew Joubert (spoilers ahead!). Throughout the film Jessie has glimpses of a boogeyman she dubs Moonlight Man, and it seems like it's just a weird little hallucination that she conjures to make sense out of this or that thing that's happening to her. But no! We find out the "man made of moonlight" is actually this Joubert, a grave robber/necrophiliac who has started to murder folks as well, and the film ends with Jessie confronting him in the courtroom. It's slightly different than the book (where he's dubbed "Space Cowboy") but the whole thing could have been dropped, honestly. As with any single location kind of movie, the second they leave the movie's essentially over, so that they drag it out for an additional 10-12 minutes with this stuff - which was barely even hinted at in the film's first 85 minutes or so - is slightly crippling. Sure it's nice to see how Jessie moves on, but it feels like a sequel rather than an epilogue, and since Joubert was never really a threat to her I couldn't quite care about him being arrested and tried. It'd be like if Halloween II continued so we could find out how that kid with the cut mouth was doing.

Otherwise, I had no issues with this unusual thriller, and it inspired me to move the novel up in my queue of King to read (next one's gonna be Misery, for the record). And it's another strong bit of evidence that Mike Flanagan is one of our few modern "masters of horror" candidates, i.e. the kind of guy that people will rip off in 20 years like they do to Carpenter and Romero now. Not saying he's on their level (yet), but with so many filmmakers these days branching away from horror at the earliest convenience, it's nice to see one that is happy to stick around - his next project is a remake of I Know What You Did Last Summer, for pete's sake. I just hope it or whatever else he does next gets a proper release - this is his second movie for Netflix and another (Before I Wake) has yet to be released at all in the US. Absentia got a shitty distribution too, so only Oculus and Ouija 2 have been seen by the masses (and naturally those aren't as good as his others, though at least they ARE good). But whatever path he takes, I know I'll be following - he's more than earned my trust at this point.

What say you?

*Now meaning like two months ago, but I'm slow these days so give me a break.


Jigsaw (2017)

OCTOBER 25, 2017


Not for nothing, but when I asked anyone who'd listen (OK, let's be honest: I just complained on Twitter) to make another Saw movie, I thought it was understood that I wanted one that resolved Hoffman's fate, showed how Gordon would carry on the legacy, etc. Indeed, the original title for Jigsaw was "Saw: Legacy", which seemed to point in that general direction, though I knew it would likely be more accessible to new fans given the seven year gap since the last one (in fact, the time between the original Saw and its "Final Chapter" was less than the time in between it and this next installment). A blend of easy to follow continuity payoffs and a standalone story would seem to be the best way to go if they wanted to revive the series while also satisfying the fans who wanted it in the first place, right? Alas, they leaned very heavily toward the "standalone" part of the formula, offering a decent enough entry with regards to "A bunch of people in traps get killed while the cops solve a mystery" sort of stuff, but a crushing disappointment when it comes to how it fits in the overall story.

Note that I will be getting into spoilers later in the review, but for now I'm only going to talk about the basic plot. I'll warn you again when the real spoiler-y stuff comes up.

As we all learned in the trailer, a new game has seemingly started, and it all points to being the work of Jigsaw. But they tell us he's been dead for ten years, and everyone has modern cell phones and such, so we're dealing with a present day story as opposed to one that picks up right where the last one left off, which has always been the series' forte. We're also dealing with an entirely new cast of characters - the first time since the original Saw that every single person on-screen was a stranger to us, as opposed to a returning favorite or ongoing sub-villain like Amanda or Hoffman. Again, I knew it wouldn't be super continuity-heavy, but I was legitimately stunned at how disconnected everything was from the ongoing saga, to the extent that when they actually do mention another character (Jill, to be exact) I felt like cheering. Not keeping up with the later entries or having an iron-clad memory of their revelations is one thing - this movie doesn't require you to have seen any of the films at all, even the original. As long as you understand the basic idea (a guy named John "Jigsaw" Kramer places flawed/bad people in death traps and tasks them with earning back the life they've wasted) you're as caught up as you need to be; even the mention of Jill won't confuse anyone - the entire reference is something like "Jill Tuck - you know, Jigsaw's wife? Her family owns this place."

"This place", by the way, is a farm that is housing the current game. It's part of what is actually one of my favorite things about the movie - it's the most visually distinct entry in the series, as it has a number of exterior scenes (always a rarity in these films; some of them never step outside at all), and rarely lets its characters wander around grimy dungeons. The barn setting also allows for different kinds of weapons/tools for the traps - such as two characters who are trapped in a silo that is rapidly filling up with grain, and then things like hoes and metal rakes are dropped on them for good measure. It's also got one of the more nerve-wracking traps in the series: a sort of razor sharp spiral that our victim is being lowered through in order to get the key to his escape, forcing him to refrain from the slightest bit of shifting or else he'd get sliced apart. All this stuff works well; it's very reminiscent of Saw V (their first trap is so similar looking that I thought it might end up being a point of some sort), but the new setting and less hateful characters make it an easier sell. And they're not as self-serving, either - when one person figures out how to bypass the first trap (with shockingly little harm required), she runs around trying to help the others succeed as well, rather than just leave them to rot as some of her trapped predecessors might have done in the past.

As for the other plot, we are introduced to a cop named Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), a sort of "breaks the rules to get the job done" kind of guy not unlike Erik Matthews, who gets involved early on and shortly thereafter is alerted to a body that seems to be the first victim of the game that's under way inside the barn. The thing is, the body that has evidence on it suggesting that John Kramer is the killer - but he's dead (right?), so Halloran starts trying to figure out who the real killer is. For reasons that escape me, he instantly zeroes in on Logan, the coroner who inspected the body - I assume the thinking was that Logan lied/faked evidence to pin it on Kramer in order to cover his tracks, but that's never actually suggested aloud. Halloran just instantly suspects the guy and his partner Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson), with her being under suspicion because it turns out she's a fan of Jigsaw's work. It's one of those things that inorganically happens in movies, where they just need to get to that point and they skip over any meaningful logical path to get there. Anyway, the movie more or less unfolds like all the others, cutting back and forth between the cop-driven mystery and the game that's slowly but surely killing off the cast members, building toward the point where they converge and we get a twist.

If you grew weary of the series' increasingly complicated mythology, and/or bailed before the "final" entry, but enjoyed the general idea, then you're the ideal mark for this particular installment. It's basically a greatest hits album in movie form, taking ideas from the other entries (I, II, and V mostly) and offering them up in rapid succession to maximize the audience's potential for enjoyment. But like a greatest hits album, it lacks the soul that makes that band's actual albums so essential - the movie doesn't really offer anything we haven't seen before on a narrative level. Sure, the "There's blood under the fingernails that matches John Kramer" kind of stuff is interesting, as we've never really seen how this world moved on from Jigsaw as an ongoing threat (as Hoffman and co. kept his games running without pause), but who could possibly believe that Kramer really might be alive? Saw IV's opening was seemingly designed to beat us over the head with the idea that he was definitely not faking his death, so barring some sort of supernatural hooey (or worse, a twin brother) we know it's not that simple and that someone is pulling the strings in his name.

This is where the film's insistence on being a coherent entry point for newcomers sort of handicaps it, as the film only has so many suspects and we can't count on any of our old pals to be involved. I was hoping for something along the lines of Curse of Chucky, where it seemed like a soft reboot for a while only to reveal its ties at the top of the third act, allowing the likes of Hoffman or Gordon to enter the picture (given the film's secretive shoot and the fact that we were the first audience to see it as they didn't do public test screenings, anything was possible), but after a while it became clear that they really did not want to risk alienating anyone by requiring them to... uh, be Saw fans. And if you know how these movies work, you can probably figure out what's really going on long before it's spelled out, and even if you don't it likely won't really shock you when they do. In the earlier entries, I was almost never able to get ahead of the characters, but here I just kept waiting for them to get on with what I already suspected (and then confirmed, albeit in a slightly different manner at least). I mean, it's not the film was bad or poorly made or anything, but after seven years, I just feel they could have come up with something better than this. It's just too safe.

And now we're gonna get into spoilers, so back out now if you don't want the twist ruined for you! You've already gotten more than you need to know to decide if you want to check the film or not, so the rest of the review is specifically for those who are just curious, or have already seen the film and want my take on it!

I'm warning you!!!

OK now that it's just us, let's talk about how the twist not only makes zero sense in the context of the film, but also how the big reveal bites off more than it can chew with regards to the series. At a certain point near the end of the farm-set game, with only two players left, a Pigman enters the scene and fiddles with some shit, then takes off the mask/hood to reveal... John Kramer! Alive and well, and giving the audience reason to let out a big cheer. Again, this is not a supernaturally based series, and even they can't be so dumb as to pull some twin brother shit (they almost seem to be trying to get us to think that, with the minor reveal that John has a nephew), so anyone with a good sense of these things would probably understand right away that this game has been set in the past, seemingly even before the one we saw in Saw II (with Tobin Bell having naturally aged nearly ten years since, it's hard to tell based on his appearance where in the timeline it might be, which was usually how we could more or less place the flashback scenes in the overall chronology). But wait, how can Halloran and Logan be finding their bodies in the present day (established beyond a shadow of a doubt) if this game is at least ten years old? Wouldn't the corpses be pretty rotted out by now?

Turns out, the corpses that are being found in the present day are just more or less freshly killed "stunt doubles" for the original victims in the barn. When the bodies are found, they're all mangled up, so the viewer doesn't notice anything is different and goes along with it just fine. But here's the problem: no one is monitoring the game, and therefore no one involved with finding/inspecting these bodies has any idea of what the original victims looked like (as those original bodies are still just collecting maggots and dust in the barn). So it's basically a cheat for no other reason than to trick the audience, whereas the best twists in the other films always made sense for our characters as well. The closest exception would be Saw IV's reveal that it was taking place at the same time as III, but that wasn't something that any character would have a reason to comment on, and best as I can recall there was never an attempt to make us really believe otherwise - it was just a "hiding in plain sight" thing that didn't really have much of a bearing on anything. When the characters are setting complicated plans in motion for no other reason than to trick the folks on the other side of the fourth wall, I can't help but bristle a bit (another example would be The Village, where the characters inexplicably didn't have medicine on hand for their children, despite the fact that they would have no reason to believe medicine wasn't a thing that existed "yet"), and I expect better out of these movies.

Anyway, by now we know that Logan is yet another one of Jigsaw's apprentices, and has been engineering all this stuff in the present to ensnare Halloran the dirty cop (they really blew it by killing off the series' longtime coroner in Saw 3D - if HE turned out to be one of Jigsaw's guys, it have been a fun little ret-con, plus given the film a much-needed tie to the others). Even if you ignore the idea that Jigsaw had yet another person helping him out (he apparently helped to create the first bear trap, if I'm following one climactic scene properly), there's still the question of what exactly he's been doing all this time. We've seen Gordon, Amanda, or Hoffman setting up pretty much every other trap in the series thanks to the various flashbacks along the way, so what exactly Logan brought to the tabel is a mystery, as is why he apparently waited ten years to spring into action and take down this cop that he had a vendetta against. Yes, I know Jigsaw II: Saw IX can answer these things, but that's a bit presumptuous for an attempted revival of a series that only stopped in the first place because of dwindling grosses. If you're going to rewrite history once again, you gotta shine a light NOW on how some of it changed what we already knew, while leaving a few things left open for the next film. This might be part of the problem with having an entirely new creative team (this is the first time in the series that neither Leigh Whannell nor Dunstan/Melton had any involvement with the script), because those guys could plant things in one movie to answer later, knowing how it would work, but that's not an option here. Hell they don't even answer the questions we still had (i.e. is Hoffman alive?), let alone find a way to successfully meld their own reveals with the others.

The word I keep coming back to is "lackluster". It's not a bad movie, really - I just can't see anyone being excited by it, fan or not. Besides the spiral slicer the new traps aren't really all that memorable, the twist is equally obvious and overly complicated (Logan explaining the dummy bodies is possibly the clunkiest exposition this series has ever offered), and I just spent too much of the movie thinking "is this it?". Not the entire time, mind you; I got real excited when the (really kick-ass!) new version of the main theme kicked in (Charlie Clouser joins editor Kevin Greutert as pretty much the only holdovers from the other films, besides the producing team), and it was fun to be back in this world for a while. But once the novelty of "Yay! A new SAW!" wore off, I found myself less and less invested in the film's storyline, ultimately just kind of waiting for it the obvious twist out of the way in optimistic hope that there would be another that was more worthy of the series and more satisfying to the hardcore fans that live for the silly ret-cons. Alas, that better twist never came; the movie ends exactly like Saw V (albeit with a new tagline) and sitting through the whole end credits will only tell you what its MPAA registration number is. As a revival attempt, it's as safe as you might expect - but this is a series that lived by its surprises and ability to trick its fans, so when it fails to do that, what's the point of it even being a Saw?

What say you?

P.S. Despite the ads having a more playful vibe, the film isn't really any more "fun" than the others, and one of the victims' backstory involves rolling over on a newborn in the same bed and suffocating it, which might be the most upsetting thing in the entire series. Just fair warning in case you thought this might be less grim than the others.


Leatherface (2017)

OCTOBER 23, 2017


When I realized I would be out of town when Leatherface screened at Screamfest, I was devastated, as I pride myself on my occasionally preternatural ability to see the franchise films in theaters even if they're being cast to VOD (have YOU seen all six Wrong Turn movies on the big screen?). However I was misinformed, and this past weekend the film was indeed released theatrically - only twice a day at an expensive theater I haven't been to in years, but still. I hadn't heard anything good about the film and had its "twist" spoiled for me already, but I had to see for myself and keep my streak going - the only film in the Texas Chainsaw series I haven't seen theatrically is that terrible one with Matthew McConaughey, and I'm perfectly fine with letting that stand (though, I know me a bit too well, and I'm sure if it showed at the New Beverly or whatever I'd sigh and buy a ticket).

As it turns out, it's really not that bad of a film - it just has no business passing itself off as a sequel (or prequel, I guess - let's just go with "installment") in a long running series. Apparently learning no lessons whatsoever from the unsuccessful, not well-loved The Beginning from 2006, we have another prequel designed to tell us how Leatherface came to be a guy with a chainsaw and a mask made of human skin, as if there was any need to know this. Maybe Leatherface was awesome because we didn't know anything about him? Has one single "horror hero" series benefited from filling in its villain's backstory? Pinhead, Michael Myers, and Freddy were all but destroyed when they started getting too much into their "origins", forcing reboots to the series (or, in Pinhead's case, such a lack of further interest that it went direct to video), so why they thought Leatherface would be any different is beyond me. When it's someone like John "Jigsaw" Kramer, the mythology is part of the fun of the series anyway, so it works - there is no mythology to speak of in this particular series.

My article for BMD this week gets into this a bit more if you'd like to check it out, but the long and short of it is that this series is too much of a mess for a prequel to have any weight to it. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels, but there is some value in seeing how Darth Vader went from an innocent boy to the dark side - because he redeemed himself at the end of Return of the Jedi, thus restoring the humanity we had never seen before. Likewise, Obi-Wan dies halfway through his first movie, so it was nice to see him actually doing the things that made him such a legend. Not every decision they made worked (cough, Boba, cough) and yes the overall quality was much lower than the original trilogy, but functionally it made sense to try. That is so not the case with this series, as Leatherface has had no consistency as a character - his look changes drastically, his family members rotate every time, etc. It's possible that someone might watch this movie without even knowing which film its prequelizing (the name they give him - Jedediah - was also used for one of the family members in the Platinum Dunes films), which is a pretty big problem.

For those unaware, it's from some of the same producers as 2013's Texas Chainsaw 3D, and thus it's tied to that film as well as the 1974 original, making it the first time in this eight-film series that three films were in one timeline (part 3 ignored 2, part 4 ignored 2 and 3, the two Dunes films are on their own, etc.). So now the chronological "canon", for lack of a better word, is Leatherface > TCM '74 > Chainsaw 3D, with the other films no longer existing as far as anyone behind these entries is concerned. However, while Chainsaw 3D made some decent effort to truly tie it into the events of Hooper's film, even going so far as use footage from it as padding for an intro set the next day, this one doesn't go to those lengths, making it feel more stand-alone than any prequel should. And the ties are pretty flimsy - Stephen Dorff's character is the father of the sheriff we met in Chainsaw 3D, for example, and we get some insight as to how the Carson family ended up with the Sawyers. You'd think they'd follow 3D's lead and actually recycle some footage - maybe end this film on the group propping up that corpse we see in the original film's intro, or maybe Leatherface watching Sally and her friends pull up to the family gas station. In other words, do anything to set in stone that it's supposed to be all part of the same continuity for once, but nah - you'd need to remember everyone's names from 3D to make much of a connection to anything at all. Leatherface as we know him is barely even in the film - he only makes his mask in the film's final seconds.

(Yet they call the movie Leatherface.)

So what's it about? To be fair, the concept is actually fairly interesting - we meet a group of young mental patients, with the understanding that one of them will grow up to be Leatherface - we just don't know which one it is. Again, I don't see how this can be at all engaging from a franchise perspective, as Leatherface is just some mute guy in a mask killing people, not a character with levels that we might want to see peeled back, but a "whodunit" structured as a "who WILL do it" is kind of a fun idea. However it might be better in a novel, where physical appearances don't give it away - or force the filmmakers to cheat. One of our young psychos is a giant hulking brute, just like Leatherface! But with the identities being withheld, it's obvious that this guy isn't really him, because if so there's no reason to hide that fact from us. So by trying to not being obvious, the filmmakers make it painfully obvious which character it is, and while it's occasionally interesting to think "Huh, he used to speak!" or "Huh, he was kind of handsome!", it doesn't really matter to anything that happens later. As dumb as The Beginning was at times, there was at least some goofy joy to discovering that, say, Monty's legs were sawed off by Leatherface himself, but none of what we see here will change how you look at the 1974 film (or even 3D, really), rendering it a largely useless prequel.

Plus, again, Leatherface is only as interesting as the people around him. Granted, they try to recapture some of that dysfunctional family spirit by having him on the run with three other wackos (plus one hostage), but as these people are obviously goners there's no reason to get invested in their insanity like you would for Chop-Top or whoever. Again, when you're dealing with prequels, there's already a big disadvantage for the writers as they are writing toward a set in stone ending (the beginning of the next film, more or less), and it's even worse when we're talking about doing it 40+ years later with an entirely different crew. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel didn't write their film to be the middle chapter in a story, so everything we see here is being reverse engineered without any of the original resources to give it weight. I'd be more interested in seeing the Sawyer family in the days leading up to the slaughterhouse closing, if they absolutely had to make a prequel for whatever reason, as that would at least show us what the hell Edwin Neal's hitchhiker character was like when working a (relatively) normal job. Imagine that dude in the breakroom?

But if you ignore its ties to a series, the Badlands meets Devil's Rejects concept kind of works, and held my attention on that level. Dorff is basically the same as Bill Forsythe in Rejects, a lawman who had a vendetta against this family and manages to seem like more of a villain than they do, and it's interesting that he racks up as many cold-blooded kills as Leatherface throughout the film. It gets a bit repetitive with regards to their hostage, a nurse from their hospital named Lizzy who tries to escape every 10 minutes only to be stopped by one of the quartet, but the scenery changes, there's a diner scene that invokes Natural Born Killers, and even though I knew damn well he wasn't Leatherface I kind of loved the big lug guy, who acts as a sort of bodyguard for every other character at one point or another. And Lili Taylor shows up in a few scenes as the matriarch of the Sawyer clan, giving the series one of its rare female villains that do anything besides sit in a chair speaking gibberish.

However, it suffers from a painful lack of true suspense or terror, regardless of its ties to one of the scariest films ever made. Lizzy is the only heroic character in the film, so there's a considerable lack of people to worry about, and with "Leatherface" still not in villain mode all of our kills come from either Dorff or the Mickey/Mallory (or yes, Kit/Holly) types who he's on the run with, murdering people who we meet roughly three seconds before they're shot or stabbed. It's violent enough, sure, but considering the film was directed by the Bustillo and Maury team that gave us Inside - one of the most suspenseful horror/thrillers of the '00s, hands down - it's almost puzzling how flat it is in that department. I got more tensed up with one of the trailers before the movie than I did with any scene here, which is a big problem. Apparently the film was recut and reshot by another filmmaker (I have a guess, since there's a prominent one listed as an "Executive Producer" who has been brought on to other films to fix them in the past), so I'm not willing to cast the blame entirely on them, but if the producers were trying to make it scarier with their reworking, they failed miserably. There's a slightly unnerving scene early on involving a kid in a pig mask, but otherwise even the comically minded TCM2 managed to be scarier.

So I'm kind of at a loss here. On one hand, a reportedly troubled production shows no overtly noticeable reworking (though the opening titles are very awkwardly inserted, something even some friends noticed - it's not just my title-creating mind complaining this time!) and held my attention for ninety minutes. It's well shot and edited, and the Bulgaria shooting location isn't really as bad of a fit for Texas as I feared (it's actually a more believable Texas than the previous film, which was shot in Louisiana). On the other hand, it's rather alarming how un-suspenseful it is, and its main thrust - showing how Leatherface turned from a normal killer into the skin-wearing one - doesn't really work as well as anyone presumably thought it would. And it's almost certainly the last we'll see of this particular incarnation of the character/storyline, so it's hard to recommend tracking down "if you're a fan of the franchise", because it'll just be yet another narrative dead end in a series that already has too many of those. Your call.

What say you?


Happy Death Day (2017)

OCTOBER 16, 2017


Full disclosure: my friend was a co-producer on Happy Death Day. Fuller disclosure: I was so tired when I watched it that I actually forgot about that until it was like halfway over, and I was already a big fan of what it was doing by then. But still, I usually avoid reviewing anything that my closer friends worked on, and I'd follow suit here if not for the fact that HOLY SHIT A SLASHER MOVIE IS NUMBER ONE AT THE BOX OFFICE! I mean, every third review I write probably has some kind of reference to a slasher movie that I love, because let's face it: it's my favorite kind of horror movie, and it's not often my needs are being served by Hollywood these days. The last original slasher film (no sequels/remakes) to come out in wide release from a major studio was My Soul To Take, all the way back in 2010 - that's far too goddamn long (and that one was so crazy it was easy to forget that it was indeed a slasher at heart).

So if you think I'm biased or whatever, too damn bad - I'm too happy to have this kind of movie again and I don't want my raves about it to be limited to a few tweets. It's not a perfect film, but it gets so much right that it barely matters, and that they do it with the limitations of a PG-13 rating is just gravy. Hilariously, I rewatched Friday the 13th: The New Blood a few days earlier and was once again aghast at how bloodless the movie is (thanks to the MPAA), and so when watching this I couldn't help but chuckle that it actually has more on-screen impact wounds and blood - with a PG-13 rating by design - than the *still R rated* bloodless Friday the 13th movie (no actual nudity in New Blood either, for the record - I think it might actually get a PG-13 in its current form if not for a few F bombs). For all the complaints about how these movies *need* to be R rated, it's really just a lot of crap - as long as the killer has a good look (check), there are a number of kills (check, albeit with an asterisk, as I'll explain later), some suspense (check!) and a character you want to see survive (check x2), there's no reason they can't serve their purpose just because the murder scenes lack bloodspray.

Of course, it helps to have a hook to make up for it, and that's where the film really shines. Yes, it has a timeloop gimmick that is identical to Groundhog Day's, albeit with a few key differences - one being that our heroine Tree (Jessica Rothe, who will be an A-lister in 2-3 years if this is any indication) doesn't have infinite lives like Phil Connor did. As she learns after four or five deaths, her body is retaining the trauma of whatever killed her (just as her brain is retaining the memories of what happened) and weakening as a result, so eventually she will shut down for good. Also, we don't see anything of her life prior to the loop day - the film opens on her waking up on that day, whereas Groundhog Day gave us a good 10-15 minute glimpse of Phil's life and demeanor before the first time we heard "I Got You Babe". So while the mechanics are the same, there are enough differences to the presentation to justify borrowing the concept (which is not exclusive to Groundhog Day anyway - it was first done in the story "12:01"), and as a bonus someone even points out that Tree's dilemma is a lot like the movie.

But like Phil, she is also someone who is kind of an asshole and seemingly has to become a better person if she wants to actually see tomorrow. It doesn't take long for us to see all of her faults as a human: she's a drunken mess who looks down on most of the people around her (she's a sorority sister, if that helps clarify what we're dealing with here), treats her roommate like shit, sleeps with her married professor, ignores calls from her dad, and mocks one of her sisters' choice of lunch foods. Basically, in slasher terms, she's the girl you want to die first (and will usually die last; since we've already mentioned New Blood, she's basically Melissa), and the thrust of the movie is split between her trying to solve her own murder, but also learn to become more like a Final Girl. It's kind of genius when you think about it (at least if you're a slasher aficionado who understands and embraces these archetype roles) and Rothe does a terrific job at finding that balance - she has to do terrible things in her first day (or two) but without ever crossing the line into full blown monster.

Another smart move on screenwriter Scott Lobdell's part is to mix up the other deaths so that Tree (which I think is a nickname for Theresa) is the only one we see die multiple times, keeping the body count "high" even though no one dies permanently. So on the first day it's just her, but on the second day she lives a bit longer because she knows when to run in the opposite direction, which allows the killer to off someone at her next location before killing her again. Then on the next day she does a lot of things differently, and someone else gets killed. And so on and so on, so that by the end of the movie we've seen just about every single character get killed - as you would in a straightforward slasher - but without it being part of the repetition. Since the killer is seemingly only after her, only offing other people who happen to get in the way, we are spared any sort of "Tree has to figure out how to save each victim in time" kind of video-gamey scenario (think Bill Murray realizing he's running a few seconds behind and needs to run to save the kid from falling out of the tree on that day). That's a big part of the movie's success, I think, as it allows for constant new developments as opposed to getting a pretty rigid day "right". It also allows the deaths in the third act to have more weight, as Tree is closer to getting it right and thus runs the risk of letting someone die permanently in order to keep herself from inching closer to death by letting herself die again in order to save them.

Unfortunately this results in one of the movies' few blunders, in which a major subplot is introduced too late into the proceedings, severely crippling its ability to look like anything but a big red herring. Seems there is a mass murderer in the hospital that Tree ends up at a few times, and for a bit she believes he is in fact the masked killer who is after her. But since the story was so hastily introduced, no intelligent audience member could possibly believe that this guy might be the killer, as it would be too much of a cheat and writers will know better by now than to pull a Friday the 13th (or I Know What You Did Last Summer) and make the killer in this whodunit someone we hadn't even really met. No, without spoiling anything I can say that the killer's identity is a satisfying one, and it's a shame they couldn't introduce this red herring character earlier/more gracefully so that we might actually buy into the idea for a while. In fact I pegged one character as the killer fairly early on (what can I say, I'm really in tune with these kinds of movies) and the introduction of this generic villain did absolutely nothing to change my original theory, which is a clear sign that it's not really working as intended. Then again, I suppose some of the teenagers in the audience who aren't even aware of the existence of things like Prom Night and Night School, let alone seen them, would be able to spot these "tells" as well as seasoned slasher fans, so maybe it worked like gangbusters on them.

Tree also utilizes a Sherlock Holmes-ian level of deduction on a few occasions, which seems not so much like a character trait but merely the writer wanting to move things along and having no better way of doing it. Luckily, such bumps in the road are instantly paved over by Rothe, as well as Israel Broussard as Carter, the owner of the dorm room that she wakes up in every day with little awareness of who he is at first. Seems she got super hammered on the never-seen previous day and he ended up taking her back to his room, but nothing sexual happened - he's a nice guy who let her stay in his bed while he slept in his roommate's. By the 3rd or 4th day she realizes he's a good guy and tells him about her predicament, but of course he can't remember anything once the reset button occurs. It's through their relationship that you can really see her grow as a person, as she goes from yelling at him and telling him that he isn't allowed to tell anyone that she was there to warmly welcoming him in front of her sorority sisters after six or seven cycles (and of course, he is reset every day and barely knows her beforehand, so none of her behavior seems out of character to him as she always gets a blank slate to start the day from). Lots of slasher films (hell, horror films in general) end up pairing off the Final Girl with the male survivor, but it's rare that you actually see their romance blossom in a believable fashion - it's usually just "well we're both alive so let's kiss" as opposed to the natural progression of two people getting to know each other. How often do you get to say a slasher film is also kind of adorably sweet?

But fear not - it passes the most important test of a slasher (for me anyway), which is simply "Would you want an action figure of the killer?" The answer is yes, I very much would - the school mascot mask (some kind of man baby?) is a perfect fit for this goofy horror blend. And yes, "goofy" is what I'm going with; I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a "horror comedy", as it's dealing with some grim material and rarely opts for jokes or sight gags that might make you laugh out loud, but there's an underlying breeziness and even a few weird moments that make it more than just a teen slasher with a twist. If anything I'd kind of liken it to Princess Bride, of all things, in that it manages to satisfy fans of a number of genres at once (horror, romance, sci-fi of sorts, and coming of age drama) without ever leaning too far in one direction. The few hiccups are of no real consequence in the long run, and I suspect Tree will be a favorite Final Girl among the younger generation the same way old farts like me embrace Ginny from F13 Part 2 and Nancy from Nightmare on Elm Street: proactive and smart, but not so mousy that girls wouldn't want to be just like them (I mean, I love Laurie Strode, but who is like "Yes! I want to be the one all my friends use so they can have fun!"). It's also another win for Chris Landon, who directed the last decent Paranormal Activity movie (The Marked Ones) and the uneven but better than its reputation Scout's Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, which also offered a surprisingly winning "the hero has to mature" story in the middle of horror carnage. Here's hoping he sticks around in the genre, but I pray neither he or anyone else messes things up with "Happier Death Day" or whatever.

What say you?


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