47 Meters Down (2017)

JUNE 18, 2017


If it were up to me (and nothing ever is, for the record), Universal would re-release Jaws every other summer, in honor of it not only being the original summer blockbuster that paved the way for everything else currently playing at the multiplex but also of it being JAWS, goddammit. On the other summers, some studio would release a new sharksploitation movie like 47 Meters Down, which of course owes some of its existence to Spielberg's classic, but also provides some thrills on its own accord and, unlike the comic book/franchise wannabe films clogging the other screens, is refreshingly simple for a summer movie. When even the low-budget horror films can't help but be bogged down in world building (Annabelle 2 has a clunky setup for the upcoming Nun spinoff), there's something kind of novel about the idea that I'll never need to remember plot points or characters from this movie ever again, as there won't be a "48" Meters Down.

Well, I mean, there probably would be if the movie was a giant smash, but like last year's The Shallows and several others before it (including Jaws, but no one was smart enough to prevent three sequels), it's an open and shut story, and a very simple one. Our heroines (sisters played by Claire Holt and Mandy Moore, who couldn't look less like sisters if they tried and honestly wasn't a necessary plot point - they could have just been besties) are on a cage-diving jaunt, where they don scuba gear and are lowered into the water to see some sharks up close, when the line breaks and their cage sinks... you guessed it, 47 meters down, to the bottom of the ocean floor (for you non-metric folk, that's about 150 feet). From then on it's a more or less real-time account of them trying to figure out how to survive when their oxygen tanks are running out and communication with their boat requires dangerous trips outside the relative safety of their cage, as the sharks continue circling the area.

So basically it's in the vein of Frozen or Thirst, as our heroes try to survive the elements as well as a natural predator doing its thing (as opposed to a human murderer and/or a "monster" like Deep Blue Sea's super-intelligent sharks), inviting the audience to play along with "Why don't they try ______?" questions that are usually answered by the film itself. For example, you might wonder why they don't just swim for the surface, as 150 feet isn't THAT far and the sharks can be warded off with flares and the like. Well, since they dropped so far, they're now at risk of getting nitrogen bubbles in their brain (known as "the bends") if they don't depressurize properly, which requires them to ascend a bit and then wait five minutes for their body to adjust before ascending again (and then stopping again). By keeping the situation simple and also unquestionably dangerous (as anyone can be afraid of sharks and also running out of air), it also restricts the amount of armchair quarterbacking the audience can reasonably bother with, unlike say Frozen, where everyone was pretty sure THEY could survive jumping off the chair and snowboarding away from the wolves. OK, maybe you could do that, somehow - but can you stop nitrogen bubbles from invading your brain, genius?

At its best, the movie offers terrific thrills that you don't often see in these shark movies. Folks tend to be on boats or some other structures (such as the rock in The Shallows), i.e. above the water, but our heroes are submerged for the bulk of the film, and director Johannes Roberts ties one hand behind his back by refusing to cut to the boat on the surface. Even when the girls make contact with their boat (captained by Matthew Modine in a role that amounts to a cameo) Roberts keeps his cameras underwater as well, allowing us to wonder if Modine and his mates are truly trying to save them or if they're leaving them behind on purpose for one reason or another. It's a fun little trick; the film takes place in Mexico and our protagonists are vacationing Americans, so decades of horror-watching has us trained to believe that the "locals" are out to rob and/or rape and/or kill them since no one can travel in a horror movie without running afoul of scary foreigners. It's really not until the last few minutes of the film that we know if they're villains or not, making a solid way to add tension to the proceedings without really doing much of anything.

It's a shame, then, that the horrendous dialogue keeps sinking the movie's chances of being a classic example of the sub-genre. When everyone shuts up and tries to carry out some life-saving action that requires considerable risk (like when Holt gets out of the cage by sliding between the bars - which requires her to take her oxygen tank/mask off first), the movie works like gangbusters, and I kept cackling at every new setback (personal favorite: when Moore's character pulls on a lodged speargun and manages to shoot herself with it - not only causing an injury but giving the sharks fresh blood to smell). But whenever things settle down and the girls chat, it's borderline painful to listen to their generic, half-realized backstories. Apparently Moore's boyfriend just left her before the trip began (he was supposed to join, if I'm understanding correctly) because she's pretty boring, so part of the reason she's taking the trip at all is because she wants to post pictures that proves she can be fun and take risks. Since we never met the guy I don't know why we should care much if she manages to win him back with her new Facebook profile photo, and the dialogue itself is cringeworthy, doing it no favors. Somehow Blake Lively talking to a seagull was more natural than anything these two alleged sisters manage to say to each other. There is also a poorly implemented bit of foreshadowing that spoils a minor twist about the finale (which recalls the original ending of another movie featuring women who are trapped below the surface), though there is some fun in trying to figure out when that particular plot point came into play.

It also felt strangely held back at times, as if it was originally an R rating and someone cut it back to PG-13 at the 11th hour. There are two attack scenes that are borderline incoherent, as if they were trying to avoid showing shark-munch action, and a later very serious injury is noticeably cut around as much as possible. There is also a lone F-bomb relatively early in the movie; I know you're always allowed one in a PG-13 but having it come so early seems to suggest there could have been more at some point (because in a movie where you're trapped with sharks, you're likely to say OH FUCK! or WE'RE FUCKED!, but they don't - Moore just says it casually in one of the first scenes, saying "I fucked up" re: her relationship). I poked around and couldn't find any evidence of this being the case, so perhaps it was designed for PG-13 and they were being overly cautious? Either way, it felt like the movie was trying to avoid the B-movie carnage were showed up to see. Roberts' other films (including the HMAD book-worthy The Expelled) were all rated R, and I honestly didn't realize this one wasn't following suit until I checked real quick during a bathroom trip (it was like 90+ on Sunday so I was chugging water), so now I can't help but wonder if it'd be a better film if he was in a position to indulge.

But look: there's Jaws, and then there are the other shark movies, and among them, this ends up somewhere in the middle of the pack. It lacks the maniacal flourishes Jaume Collet-Serra brought to The Shallows, but it's a lot better than your average Syfy thing (and, not that it's a high bar, but it's better than two of the actual Jaws sequels), and I'm glad it got a big-screen release after it was nearly sent direct to DVD/VOD last summer. It's not a movie you'd probably want to watch over and over, but for the one time you DO watch, the big screen is the place to do it, and honestly if it went VOD I probably never would have seen it unless I had to for work. The sharks look good (for the record, this is likely the lowest budgeted movie you'll see in a multiplex all year) and the pacing is nearly breakneck at times, as they're pretty much screwed within minutes of going into the water (itself a scene that occurs before the 20 minute mark). It might feel a bit handicapped at times, but it got the job done and scratched my shark movie itch until I have time for Chief Brody and his pals again.

What say you?


It Comes At Night (2017)

JUNE 9, 2017


I kept hearing how It Comes At Night's trailer was misleading and that it wasn't really a horror movie, so I rushed to see it on opening day (instead of The Mummy!) before I knew much else, as I had managed to not see a trailer yet and didn't want to press my luck. All I really knew was that it wasn't a full blown traditional horror movie, and that a lot of my friends liked it, so that was enough to be excited but also not have any specific expectations of what it might be. I point all of that out because I was still disappointed with the film as a whole; it had some really good ideas and performances, and I was on board for about 40 minutes or so, but as it went on, and again when it was over, I couldn't escape a certain "That's IT?" feeling.

And as I got further away from it (i.e. thought about it) I liked it even less, so this might have been a more positive review had I written it that afternoon instead of five days later. I wouldn't say it was a "bad" movie in the traditional sense, but more a frustrating one because it kept introducing these ideas that could have paid off beautifully - or at least, made the film more engaging - but then writer/director Trey Edward Shults would drop them without fanfare. For those who were as blind to the film's narrative as I was, the plot concerns a family of three living in their boarded up home to protect themselves against a deadly virus and also the types of evil humans that show up in 99% of post-apoc/zombie movies. One day a man named Will tries to break in and they capture him, but eventually believe him that he's just like them, trying to protect his family. After some hesitation, the dad (Joel Edgerton) decides to help Will pick up his family (and their supply stash), figuring a group of six is better than a group of three.

Well his son is a teenager who presumably hasn't seen a lot of women since hitting the point in a man's life where seeing women would be a very pleasant experience, and Will's wife is Riley Keough, who any man would justifiably be smitten with. The young man takes an instant liking to her and starts staring at her as she works a well pump, shifting his glance downwards when he should be looking at her face during conversation, etc. So when tensions eventually boil between the two families over a lack of trust, you start wondering if he'll turn on his own family out of desire to be on this woman's good side. But nothing even remotely like that happens! Keough barely even registers in the movie after she notices his attraction, turning the whole subplot into little more than padding. Yes, it helps get across the idea that he's lonely and growing up in a world that won't afford him a normal life (and, presumably, won't ever actually fall in love properly, given the seeming lack of options), but when they zero in on this particular thing for ten straight minutes of the film only to drop it and never mention it again, it's counterproductive.

I could list one or two similar examples, but given that the film seems to be polarizing (the D Cinemascore sure seems odd next to its 86% "fresh" rating Rotten Tomatoes) I don't want to risk spoiling, since half of you will likely love the film. Without spoiling anything else I will say that the script seemed like it was a draft or two away from really hitting it out of the park, which is part of what made it so frustrating - I'd almost rather watch a movie that was just a bust from the start. Oddly it's the 3rd film from A24 in a row that I've seen that left me feeling the same way - one was Blackcoat's Daughter (formerly February) and the other was the non-horror Free Fire. All three films had very direct, uncomplicated plots (though Blackcoat at least offers two such tales, with their connection being a very clumsy twist) that gave far too many talented people almost nothing to do. I mentioned Keough is largely wasted here, but so is Carmen Ejogo (Keough's co-star from The Girlfriend Experience) as Edgerton's wife, who I don't think gets a single scene to herself or even says much of anything when she's around.

But Edgerton gets plenty to do, and gives a fine performance that had me wishing that he directed it as well, since he did such a terrific job with The Gift. I mean I haven't seen Shults' other film (Krisha), but I know it ain't anything that would wind up in a "horror" category, unlike The Gift which does (even though, like this, it seems to fall on the other side of that tight line between horror and thriller), and Edgerton has proven he can handle that kind of situation and make a memorable film - not to mention one audiences had a better response to. It's funny though, he was in the 2011 Thing prequel and here, when the film's at its best, it's actually a better successor to Carpenter's film than that junk. Edgerton's paranoia about whether or not he can trust Will works like gangbusters, and Shults is smart enough to never inform us of Will's true intentions and/or if he's lying about one or all aspects of his story. There's one point where Edgerton seemingly catches Will in a lie about the existence of a (now dead) brother, but Will explains it away - was it the truth, or a lie to cover the lie? And was he only lying in the first place not out of some nefarious motive, but merely to protect himself?

We don't get those answers, and that's fine - because we're with Edgerton and his POV and if he doesn't know, neither should we. The problem is, we're not ALWAYS in his POV, as we shift to the son's perspective for several key scenes and stretches, and even Will's for a brief scene with his family. So that throws off the whole thing, because now that Shults has shown us he's NOT bounding himself to just Edgerton's perspective on things, it makes the unanswered questions all the more exasperating, because it's like he's randomizing what he chooses to reveal and what he leaves up to our imagination. He also blunders a bit by (vague spoiler ahead) proving Edgerton was right about one thing, which renders his earlier actions defensible when it seems like we're supposed to wonder if what he did was the right call. The ending is not a happy one, I assure you - but a few tweaks could have put it into The Mist territory in terms of ballsiness. Instead it's just... well, kind of a practical one.

Shults also plays with the film's aspect ratio, starting off in the traditional 2.40:1 range but going to 3:1 by the end. It's a techie gimmick that most won't notice (including myself, partially because the theater didn't have it framed correctly in the first place), and rubbed me the wrong way when I read about it later. Like he cares about this but can't be bothered to give either of his actresses anything of note to do, or resolve two subplots, or explain why they're so afraid of the virus that they sometimes use gas masks inside, but at one point Edgerton just takes his off for no reason when he's outside in an unfamiliar area. It reminds me of those obnoxious gamers who care more about whether or not the game will have a high FPS rate than they do if the game itself is actually any good. I mean if that's his deal, fine - but it will make me very hesitant the next time he's got a film out there, because it seems we care about very different things when it comes to movies. Nice cinematography though.

What say you?


Evil Ed (1995)

JUNE 7, 2017


I remember reading about Evil Ed in Fangoria back in the 90s at some point, making a note to see it as soon as possible because it sounded so much in my wheelhouse. Alas, the VHS version that was released in the US was cut, and I was too snobby to settle for such a thing, so I opted to wait until I found an uncut one. And then I just forgot about it, apparently, because I'm sure I could have found one by now thanks to having money and the know-how to import discs and such. Well, 22 years later, I've finally seen the movie thanks to Arrow's new Blu-ray, which is more uncut than ever, featuring a few extra minutes of (non-gory) footage and, of course, given a high-def/widescreen transfer to boot - it's as if I was meant to wait more than half my life to get around to seeing the damn thing.

Ironically, if I had to distill my thoughts on the film down to one word, it would be "dated", and so even with all the gore chopped out I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had I seen it in the 90s. The plot, for those uninitiated, concerns a mild-mannered editor who is used to working on art-house dramas tasked with censoring a series of slasher movies titled Loose Limbs, bringing them up to the standards required by the local ratings board. At first he wearily works on the films as "just another job", but then overexposure to all of the violent imagery starts warping his mind, resulting in a series of hallucinations and then murders as he goes more and more insane. Lots of old-school Peter Jackson-y splatter ensues. The filmmakers were taking shots at Sweden's censorship board, which was at the time one of the most strict in the world; interestingly enough the practice of cutting films was relaxed the following year, though I doubt Evil Ed was a factor in the decision.

But that just adds to the feeling that it's a bit past its time - censorship now isn't as big of a problem for horror and its fans. With more and more films going out unrated entirely (and the MPAA being more lenient in general), it feels like the time to take a stand against slicing the gory bits out of a slasher movie has long since expired (correct me if I'm wrong, but the last time they made a big stink about a horror movie was Hatchet II, seven years ago). This isn't a critique on the film's existence; just more of an observation, that I almost wish I was seeing the film now in "revisit" mode, as opposed to seeing it for the first time. There are some great gags that haven't dated at all - such as when Ed smiles proudly at a cut he made that renders a gore scene completely incoherent - but overall it felt like kicking a dead horse as opposed to standing up against some ongoing injustice.

(Note - if you are a filmmaker who has recently battled with the MPAA or any other ratings board, feel free to counterpoint, but please note I'm speaking in general terms. I do not doubt that there is still a problem with filmmakers being forced to hack up their films to appease a bunch of people who wouldn't see it anyway - it's just not something that makes the news as often as it did in the 80s and 90s when they were targeting Wes Craven and the Friday the 13th sequels seemingly out of spite. And, again, going out without a rating isn't as crippling as it used to be since newspaper ads aren't how these films get promoted.)

So without that niche appeal, it's just another "guy goes crazy and starts killing people around him" movie, albeit one with a more humorous and whacked-out slant than the average Shining wannabe. Ed's hallucinations aren't just of his friends/loved ones saying things that are only in his head - no, he sees possessed nurses, devils, and even a thing that I could best describe as a goblin version of one of the characters from ABC's 90's show Dinosaurs. His hallucinations START normally - he sees an old lady neighbor as a hot lady coming on to him early on - but they go full blown gonzo by the midpoint, which was a fine surprise. Not only is it obviously more interesting to look at, but it also showcases more of this next-to-no-budget film's surprisingly strong FX and makeup work, which more than makes up for the time capsule-y feeling. Let's not forget that by this point in the 90s, CGI was already starting to take over even in lower-budgeted horror films (1995 was the year of Hideaway and Lord of Illusions, among others), so it was already time to start appreciating the films that were still doing it the right way.

But it also feels like they didn't have quite enough for a feature with their initial concept, so the film takes an odd detour for its climax, as Ed rampages around a hospital while a bunch of SWAT type guys try to take him out. This allows for a lot of bonus gore, but also feels like you're suddenly watching a sequel to the movie you watched for the first hour or so. And not just any sequel, but one made by a new creative team, as the whole "horror movies drove him crazy" focus feels like it's no longer even relevant. It's entertaining in its own right, no doubt about it, but as a whole the movie feels a bit cobbled together from a bunch of ideas as opposed to something more cohesive. As a result I felt kind of exhausted and ready to move on, which is a bummer when being presented with top notch prosthetic work (and a very game performance from Johan Rudebeck as the title character, who reminded me of an older Toby from The Office).

Arrow's blu-ray is, naturally, aimed more at folks who already loved the movie (and were likely aware of its narrative shortcomings), and I can't imagine a scenario where they will be disappointed. In addition to two cuts of the film, there are two extensive documentaries (one running over three hours) and lots of new interviews with director Anders Jacobsson and the simply named Doc, who edited the film. Apparently they've been working on putting together this special edition for over six years now, so it's clearly a labor of love and it shows - I particularly liked the footage of them hunting around for deleted scenes (and a quick bit where Doc almost accidentally cuts up the film's negative!). I actually learned how to use a flatbed editor back in college and it gave me a world of appreciation for those who cut full films on it since doing a 5 minute short was hard enough, so seeing it in action (both here in the bonus features and in the film) gave me pleasant memories of the simpler days of being in college. Some additional deleted scenes and other outtake type material is also present, though as it was all in Swedish (with subtitles) and extensive I didn't get through it all, since I would have to keep my eyes glued to the screen instead of just listening to the interviews while I worked as I normally would. Multitasking is the only way I survive, really.

I'm happy I finally saw the film, and would happily keep it in my collection if I had a regular copy of it (I only got a screener disc in a blank plastic sleeve, i.e. nothing I would put on my shelf), as it'd be a fun one to throw on at parties given the extensive makeup and gore highlights. Arrow's set does it a justice it's never been afforded for over 20 years, and I'm happy for Jacobsson (who has only directed one film since, sadly) and his crew as they clearly worked hard to get it out there both in the '90s when it was made, and now where it can be properly seen for the first time. I wish I liked it a bit more, but not as much as I wish I was finally owning a proper copy of an old favorite that would have blown my mind when I was 15. Oh well.

What say you?


Aaron's Blood (2016)

JUNE 1, 2017


Hey, have I mentioned that I have a kid now?

I joke, of course - I know I can't talk (well, write) for five minutes (sentences) without bringing up my new, mostly wonderful job as father, but it really does have a profound effect on how I watch horror movies, and I don't just mean that it takes me a week to get through one because I never have 90 minutes to myself. It's wearing off some, but I get more worked up whenever kids are killed or in danger, and find myself feeling sad at the weirdest things. There's one Friday the 13th sequel (Final Chapter, I think) where we just see some crying parents in the hospital, and it bummed me out last time I watched! It dawned on me for the first time that some (yes, fictional) parent probably had to muster up the courage to let their beloved son or daughter go off for the weekend, and now they're dead - and so I start thinking that I'll never let my kid do the same. So when I read the plot of Aaron's Blood, I knew it was right up my alley, as it involved a father being torn between his love for his kid and his own conscience when the boy turned into a blood-needing vampire.

Now, when it comes to masked maniacs, there's a slim, but not impossible chance my son could find himself the victim of one someday, but I don't believe vampires exist, so I can watch this kind of a plot without hyperventilating at the possibilities, while also considering them in the hypothetical. WHAT IF my beloved Will (who just turned 3, by the way) turned into a vampire and needed human blood to survive? Would I be able to bring myself to kill innocent people (also someone's child) to keep him alive, or would I mercy-kill him in order to spare him the agony of immortality? I mean, sure, blood is blood and thus I could conceivably get it from prisoners or right-wing nationalists in order to lessen the guilt, but it's easier said than done, and that's just the hunger part of it. He couldn't go out in the sun anymore, so he'd have to stay home - and thus I'd have to stay home as well, which means no work. How do *I* survive, in this case?

Literally dozens of these questions ran through my head while watching, more than making up for the fact that the movie doesn't really offer much that you haven't seen in the likes of Maggie (albeit with a zombie) or Let The Right One In, among others. The father/son dynamic is the biggest wrinkle, as it's often a father and daughter (or a couple) that go through these "whatever it takes to keep my loved one alive" scenarios, but the script finds precious few moments for the two of them to bond or even really talk at all. Unlike Maggie, which kept things (too) simple, the movie offers a subplot involving a Van Helsing-y type who wants to kill the vampires but is also sympathetic to the father's situation, as the kid is all he has (the mother died some time ago). There's also a priest who wrestles with the implications and offers advice/exposition, plus his sister, and so the father (James Martinez, who was in another "Dad protects son" movie, the underrated Run All Night) spends more of his screentime with these folks than he does with his kid. As a result, the appeal is somewhat muted - you really need to see how deep his bond with his son is to go along 100% with his actions throughout the film.

It probably wouldn't have hurt to see more of the story from the kid's POV, either. Early on we get the usual scenes of him getting stronger and finding out how hard it can be to be a vampire (no sun!), but as the movie goes on he is kind of backgrounded in favor of the dad's attempts to save him. The DVD has some deleted scenes and I wasn't surprised to see that they all involved him - more stuff at school, setting up more antagonism with the obligatory bully, etc. I mean, the hook of the film is how the father-son bond is challenged by this new development, at a time when kids tend to start being more independent, so it's odd that writer/director Tommy Stovall kept muddling up that appeal with pointless diversions like the dad trying to track down the blood donor that caused the vampirism in the first place, because that stuff just isn't as interesting (at least, to me).

Indeed, the best moments are those quiet ones that kinda pulled at my dad-strings. Just this morning my kid seemed disinterested in his usual hug and kiss goodbye when I dropped him off at daycare, and so a scene where the dad considers the idea that his son will stay a young boy (11 or 12ish, in this case) forever kinda hit hard - I'm not sure I can handle the "Dad you're embarrassing me" era, and wouldn't mind always having him small enough to cuddle up with me to watch cartoons as he someday won't want to do. There's also a scene where the kid questions why the dad no longer uses one of his old nicknames on him ("Because you told me to stop calling you that," the dad sadly replies), which flooded me with memories of when I, as an adolescent, would feel a bit sad that I was too big to say "mommy/daddy" anymore - just because you want to grow up doesn't mean you want to shed yourself of all the benefits that come from being a nearly helpless toddler. It's this sort of stuff that really gave the movie its appeal to me, and I'm curious how non-parents will react to it - will it just be "boring talk" that delays the vampire action?

Being that this is a low-budget independent film, I trust no one will walk in expecting Blade levels of carnage. The body count is low, but they make those moments count with some decent vampire makeup and an admirable acceleration to the "turning" process; Tate is drinking blood at around the 25 minute mark, so there's no slow burn "save it for the third act" bullshit. And they splash real fake blood on actors' faces during the kills, so kudos for that as well. One good thing about the dad keeping so busy by meeting folks who can help is that it keeps things moving even though there isn't much traditional fangplay. It's a short movie (barely over 80 minutes), but the pacing surprisingly made it feel even shorter - I was actually kind of surprised when it ended, thinking it was only a little over an hour or so since it started.

Overall it's a well-intentioned film that tends to focus on less interesting things a bit too often, somewhat handicapping its chances to be something truly special. It's enjoyable and reasonably well made, but there are probably 20 or so minutes devoted to the same sort of "vampires must be stopped!" kinda hooey that we've all seen a zillion times. Perhaps if the two primary characters went on a road trip or something, minimizing how much time the supporting cast could drop in, Stovall and his team would have really hit it out of the park. But if you enjoy these low-key vampire flicks, and/or want something besides Field of Dreams to watch with your dad next Sunday, it's worth checking out. The disc has a smattering of standard extras (behind the scenes, trailer, and the aforementioned deleted scenes) to sweeten the deal, though I'm sure VOD (and apparently even a small theatrical run) will be where most people see it. I'll keep the disc, however - if my kid turns out to like horror movies maybe I can show it to him in time for him to think twice about telling me not to call him "Pookie" anymore, when he sees how sad the kid felt when he realized his dad stopped using his pet names in favor of his real one!

What say you?


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