Hellraiser: Judgment (2018)

FEBRUARY 16, 2018


Of all the major horror franchises that came along (or at least had their biggest showcase) in the 1980's, Hellraiser was the one I never particularly got into the way I did for the others. I was late to the party in even seeing them; I think I was in high school before I watched the first three, only watching them once or twice before the release of Hellraiser: Bloodline, which was the only one I saw theatrically until Revelations in 2011. And most of the others I only bothered to watch for HMAD entries, having heard nothing good about any of them (and then, adding more negative reviews to their coffers), so now that I'm only updating sporadically I probably wouldn't have exactly rushed to watch the tenth film, Hellraiser: Judgment if not for two things. One is that I was offered a copy, so I could save myself a rental fee or blind buy down the road, and - more importantly - the other is that I heard from a number of people that it was a surprisingly decent entry, not quite hitting the highs of its theatrical releases, but certainly a step up from its DTV brethren.

And they're right! I mean, I wouldn't exactly refer to it as a "good" movie, but it's the only one of the DTV films (and I'm including Revelations in that group, despite its one-week limited release) that feels like a legit addition to the mythology that was established in the first four films. Even the one where Kirsty showed back up didn't really feel like a new chapter in an ongoing story (however loosely it was depicted), but a gimmick used to lure in folks who might be disinterested, like how Marvel (unnecessarily!) threw in Falcon and a setup for Civil War to entice people into seeing Ant-Man. But here, the scenes with Pinhead and some of his fellow Cenobites/demons/angels/whatever almost feel like they could have come from Clive Barker's imagination, and it's a shame the entire movie couldn't revolve around them as these sequences (which make up maybe 25% of the 80 minute film) are clearly where all the budget went, and now that I've seen it for myself, obviously the reason for the film's better-than-average reviews (it's actually got a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than Hellbound as of this writing, insanely enough).

Alas, that other 75% focuses on a trio of cops investigating a Seven-y serial killer who is killing people according to the Ten Commandments, even though "Thou Shall Not Kill" is one of them, the hypocrite. Maybe if we ever really saw him in action and/or the film gave us a few red herrings as to his identity this material would be more enjoyable (if still cliche; how many Biblically minded killers have we seen over the past 20 years or so?), but we mostly only see aftermath. The MO for these scenes is as follows: the detectives arrive on a scene to look at a dead body or some other kind of tableau, talk about this or that clue, then retreat to their wood-paneled office that looks suspiciously like one you might find in a used car lot or construction site. The murder sites are fine, but their office and some of the other sets are so phony looking (again, probably because all the money went into the Pinhead scenes) that it was hard to care much about their (and only their, as no other cops are seen in the film, despite the fact that this killer has seemingly earned a citywide manhunt) investigation into this vaguely defined, rarely seen killer.

It also lacks much in the way of surprises after its first (and best) ten minutes. In the opening scene we see Pinhead lamenting (heh) the advance of technology, and how he is becoming obsolete as people can just go to the internet to have their desires fulfilled instead of going to him (kind of like how we don't really need travel agents anymore when we can just head to Expedia), and I loved that concept. Unfortunately not too much is done with it, but at least it leads into the introduction of The Auditor, who looks like a Cenobite version of Claude Rains as the Invisible Man. His job is to interview would-be victims about their crimes and type them out on a typically monstrous typewriter, at which point the pages will be consumed by the Assessor (played by John Gulager!). He then pukes the results into a funnel where a trio of naked women with their faces ripped off scoop up the gross mixture in their hands and pass judgment. Why they go through all this trouble, I don't know, but I like the idea of them having their own pointless bureaucratic process for what they do.

But then our protagonist Sean (Damon Carney, who I dubbed "Michael Fauxbender" due to his mild resemblance to the actor and that their boring serial killer plot reminded me of the woeful Snowman) follows a couple of clues and ends up in the house, where we see the process again, too soon after the first and more or less spoiling the film's mystery before the halfway point. His "audit" is largely unheard by us, but the lengthy results cause the Assessor to choke during his consumption, and whatever he did has gotten the OK from the higher-ups, who instruct the Auditor to let Sean go. At this point the film starts to resemble one of the later episodes of Supernatural, with angels and demons arguing over jurisdiction and the like, but since it was at least moving away from the serial killer plot I was happy to watch it even if it was largely a repeat of a sequence we just saw 25 minutes or so ago.

In fact, if I had to guess, this sequence (or the earlier one) was added to get Pinhead and the other creations into the movie more. Since 2000's Inferno, the common complaint about these films (besides just kinda sucking in general) is that Pinhead isn't in them enough, even though that's the one thing that they share with the original (where he isn't even named Pinhead yet, but "Lead Cenobite"), so I'm sure there was a push to find a way to include him in more sequences (hilariously, at one point during the serial killer investigation they briefly cut to him spinning a Lament as he sat around waiting, as if to remind us that he was there). And unlike the more expensive Doug Bradley, new actor Paul Taylor (thankfully replacing the guy who played him in Revelations) was probably easier to pay for more days of work, so the reasons to limit his appearance were presumably based more on narrative than money. And Taylor is actually pretty good in the role; his physique is similar to Bradley's, which helps, and he's got a similar enough voice that it's easy enough to accept the transition. Whereas the last guy felt like seeing a kid in a costume, Taylor is someone who could conceivably continue playing the character for future installments and be accepted by the fans, not unlike the initial hesitance/eventual championing of every new James Bond or Batman (remember when everyone cried about Ben Affleck being cast? Some of the same people are now upset he might not come back for more).

Speaking of winning fans over, the makers cast Heather Langenkamp in the film and touted her involvement back when the film was first going into production in 2016, but if you're planning to see it for her, I'd advise against it, as her role can barely even be considered a cameo. She plays the landlord of one of the victims, and her on-screen time is limited to just two shots (one from behind!) as she walks down a flight of stairs, mutters a few things about the tenant, and opens a door. It's the kind of role that would usually be filled by Central Casting and perhaps not even meet the director until the day of shooting, yet she is given fourth billing for this nothing appearance. I'm not even joking when I say that an extra standing behind one of the cops as they wait in line for coffee is actually on-screen more than Ms. Langenkamp, and it's pretty lame of them to use her name/our affinity for "Nancy" to sucker in a few folks who might otherwise have no interest in another (or even their first). I was thinking she'd show up in one of the deleted scenes, but that's not the case. There are only two, and one is just an extension of the opening with the Auditor (played by writer/director Gary Tunnicliffe himself), letting things go on a bit longer but otherwise offering nothing of note. The other is more substantial, showing Sean and the other detective (Egerton, played by Alexandra Harris) talking about God while in a church, which clues us more into Sean's motives and gives Egerton a bit more to do than just ask for or deliver exposition (per Tunnicliffe, she wasn't even in the original story concept, but added at the producers' request, which helps explain why she's fairly extraneous in the narrative). With the the movie being so short I can't say it needed to lose scenes for pacing, but I doubt anyone will watch it and think it should have been in the movie, either. There's also a gag reel which provided some minimal amusement.

Tunnicliffe and his crew should be proud of what they've done here. It's no secret that this film (and the last one) were made quick and cheap by Dimension in order to hang on to their rights to the series (the contracts require them to make a movie within a certain amount of time; failure to do so for the Halloween series is why it ended up at Blumhouse), but he clearly wants to restore the series to its former highs instead of just playing studio lapdog and putting in the bare minimum that they require. The effects are practical, the designs are solid, and the scripts (yes, even Revelations') are far more interesting than the previous entries, where they were rewriting unrelated spec scripts to include Pinhead, which would be fine if the series was more anthological from the start, but there was this cool world opening up (particularly in the 2nd and 4th films) that got unceremoniously dropped when the series went DTV. Even if the results are imperfect, the attempt to get things back on track is admirable, and I hope that Dimension's money woes clear up somehow or (far more likely) the series is handed over to a studio that might realize the potential and give Tunnicliffe (or his replacement, if that was the case) the money to live up to the standards the series set in its initial entries. Until then, at least we have, for the first time since 1996, an entry that is actually worth watching (uneven as it may be), though I should stress that it might take suffering through the likes of Hellworld to really appreciate it.

What say you?


House Of The Long Shadows (1983)

FEBRUARY 8, 2018


I've repeatedly explained the main reasons I started Horror Movie A Day (eleven years ago this week! Happy birthday, me!), mostly involving catching up on movies I missed and working on my abilities as a writer. But there was another one I don't talk about as much: hoping to find "that movie I saw on HBO when I was a kid", though in reality I probably only saw a few minutes, because only one scene really stuck with me: some people (including a blond woman) on the stairs, sunlight streaming through, and a body turning to dust. This memory had me thinking it was a vampire movie of some sort, but my vague description was not good enough for anyone to help me identify the film. But thanks to Twitter, I discovered that old HBO listings were collected online, and so using my memory of what I was doing at the time (watching TV while my dad packed up our RV for a trip to Canada) and a family photo album that helped me find the date we left for that trip, I was finally able to determine that the film was House of the Long Shadows.

So I asked if anyone had a copy, with my friend Amy coming to the rescue, and then in typical Collinsian fashion I didn't get around to watching it for another six months or so. But that's fine, it was nice to check off this box to celebrate HMAD's latest anniversary, even if I had to "cheat" to find the film. See, my hope was that I would just end up watching the movie in the same random fashion I watched at least 80% of the films I watched for the site, totally unaware that a 30+ year mystery was about to be solved, and freaking out when that vivid memory appeared in full on my television. However, as it turns out, my memory was quite off; I know for sure this was the movie I saw, but the "body turning into dust" was actually a little doll that was filled with maggots spilling everywhere when it was toppled over, and while the staircase of my memory was indeed in the film, they were not on it during the dust/maggot scene. Likewise, there was no sunlight coming through at all, and given the time it was on (around 630-7pm in May) I suspect it was actually just the actual sunset coming through the window near the TV. But that's just how memories work, especially over time - they jumble and get combined, and I suspect if we were to get a Blu-ray of any ten "vivid" memories of our childhood showing us how they actually happened, they'd be much different than they occur in our minds.

What's funny is that when I got older and would start trying to describe the movie online to people who might be able to help, I'd say that it might be a Hammer movie, because now that I'd seen a bunch of them (via HMAD) I realized that the tone - as best as I could a. recall it and b. really consider it as a 5 year old - was similar. So when I finally identified the movie, it tickled me to see that not only was it indeed a British film (again, the sort of thing a 5 year old would have no way of comprehending), but it starred the two premiere masters of Hammer horror: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, making it probably the first time I had seen either man in a film, nearly a decade before I'd know who they were. While it wasn't actually a Hammer movie, describing it as one was inadvertently a better clue than my description of the scene I remembered - I mean if you say "Hammer" obviously someone's gonna start rattling off Lee and/or Cushing movies.

What's even funnier is that it's not even really much of a horror movie, and that I lucked out and remembered one of the few scary bits in the entire thing. Watching now I have even more doubt I watched it all as a kid, because it's too slow and talky for me NOW let alone as someone who probably should have been watching cartoons. Despite the incredibly distinguished claim of being the first film to cast Lee, Cushing, and Vincent Price in a film where all three actually interact with one another (with John Carradine for good measure), the (spoiler for 35 year old movie ahead) "all a set up" nature of its plot leaves very little opportunity for terror, and it takes a while for all three of the actors to even show up in the movie, despite their billing. The plot concerns a writer (Desi Arnaz Jr, fifth billed even though he's in pretty much every shot) who is dared by his publisher to write a new novel in 24 hours while staying at an isolated creepy old house, a bet he gladly takes and sets off with what is supposedly one of the only two keys to the joint. However when he arrives he finds two housekeepers (Carradine and Sheila Keith), and then after a while the other big stars show up one by one roughly every five to ten minutes. The movie is half over by the time everyone's there (second billed Lee being the last to arrive, at the 50 minute mark), so it minimizes the amount of time these titans can really bounce off one another.

Worse, the script has Price and Cushing as brothers (Carradine being their father - a curious casting choice since he's only five years old than them) but Lee as a real estate jerk of some sort who doesn't trust them, keeping them apart for a big chunk of the remainder of the film. And even though they're all top-billed the real stars of the movie are Arnaz and his love interest (Julie Peasgood, the "blond woman" of my memory), so their roles are basically glorified cameos as opposed to the leads. Anyway, once everyone's there it gets more fun, with the family gathering to finally release a murderous brother who has been locked in the attic for forty years after murdering a village girl, only to discover his room is empty. Clearly, it must be him that starts killing everyone off one by one, mostly off-screen, right? Well, if you've seen a movie before, or even just a trailer for a movie, you might know exactly who the brother is, and in order for that plot point to work (i.e. why his family members don't recognize him when he arrives saying he's someone else) Walker and screenwriter Michael Armstrong pull another twist on us: it was all a ruse put on by the publisher to make sure he either won his bet, or gave his writer enough inspiration to write a new book, winning either way.

Of course, for this sort of thing to work, the horror stuff has to stop with fifteen minutes left, so that everyone can "come back to life" and explain how it worked. Makeup! Fake weapons! A lot of sleight of hand tomfoolery! We can ignore the fact that our hero could easily have killed any of these people (or at least the real culprit) at any time - indeed he actually throws the villain down the stairs - but not the fact that the movie runs a too-long 103 minutes and after about 90 they tell us most of what we just saw was complete bullshit. It's one thing for a movie like April Fool's Day where a. it's pretty fun at least and b. it's kind of expected considering the holiday setting, but here it's a bit of a dick move that they didn't fully earn. Even if we ignore the number of times that the horror icon guys were going along with the story even when Arnaz wasn't present to hear it (staying in character, I guess?), the movie is just too drawn out to forgive the ruse.

To be fair, the film is paying homage to "Old Dark House" movies (not "Haunted House", a distinction Walker makes on his commentary), and most of those had "it was all fake" kind of endings too - but in those, there was still a legit danger to the characters. In those, most of the time it'd turn out that the "ghost" or whatever was just a guy who was murdering everyone - for real - in order to collect an inheritance or steal their jewels, but there's nothing nefarious at all here, with the body count set firmly at zero. It's also usually not that easy to figure out who the bad guy is (The Bat, for example - which has Vincent Price! - fooled me), whereas here it's pretty obvious the instant the actor appears since he is claiming to be someone boring and they wouldn't hire him for that. Long story short, the reveal that it was all a game didn't even bother me all that much at first, because I figured they were up to something equally sinister, but instead it ends with everyone throwing a party congratulating each other on their performances. That scene does have Vincent Price calling Christopher Lee a "bitch" (in good humor), which is hilarious, but still.

So, ironically, it's almost a perfect "horror" film for a 5 year old, since the movie itself tells you that it was all make believe, saving the child's parents from having to do it. If it were only like 85 minutes and threw in a bit more spooky business (even the older films had more on-screen action), it'd actually be something I'd want to show my kid in a year or two (not to mention a safer way to introduce him to Price, Lee, etc. than their other films of note). But I think he'd be bored; I'd rather wait a bit longer and let him see these titans in their glory rather than in their twilight (I think this was Cushing's last genre film, actually). As for me, my favorite thing about the disc (besides the trailer, narrated by Price and adding "That's me!" when rattling off the list of actors) was Walker explaining that the film was profitable because HBO paid good money for its broadcast rights - the very thing that allowed me to catch one of its highlights as a young lad. It also helps me realize that the rat movie I saw probably WAS Of Unknown Origin (next to last paragraph explains) and like this, my memory was likely just mixed up with other things, so thanks, movie. Wish you were better, but you've done your part and now you can move on in this world.

What say you?


The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

FEBRUARY 5, 2018


It's no secret that a number of franchise movies sprung from original scripts that were rewritten to accommodate an unrelated series. All of the Die Hard sequels (except for the last - and by far the worst - one, oddly enough) began life as other things; for example an original called "Simon Says" bounced around as a would-be sequel to Rapid Fire AND a potential Lethal Weapon 4 before becoming Die Hard With A Vengeance. Dimension has bought spec scripts and turned them into Hellraiser and Children of the Corn entries, with varying results of not-much-success, and when Lionsgate needed a Saw II ASAP after the monster success of the original, they reworked a script called "The Desperate" they were already looking at (with the writer, Darren Bousman, agreeing to do it if they let him direct - a bold gamble that paid off for everyone, since Saw II is the biggest moneymaker of the series). In all those cases, they clearly did a lot of work to make them "fit" (presumably, the original "Simon Says" script did not feature Hans Gruber's brother, for example), but when it comes to The Cloverfield Paradox, originally a script called God Particle, the connections are not only flimsy, but add confusion to a film with enough of its own problems.

Luckily we have 10 Cloverfield Lane to slightly prepare us for the former - that film was completely unrelated until its closing moments, and even then it was a pretty tenuous connection - the monster in the original Cloverfield did not resemble the ones we saw in Lane, suggesting that if they were indeed related, there must be some sort of Mist-level disaster that has unleashed multiple monsters on our planet. The Cloverfield Paradox, which debuted last night on Netflix in an unprecedented manner (more on that soon), more or less explains how this happened via a quick Skype cameo by a conspiracy theorist played by Donal Logue, but does so in a confusing and very vague manner that requires you to fill in the gaps yourself, with the caveat that you might be wrong since there is so little in the film(s) that supports it. Because of the success of the MCU and the Fast and Furious films (particularly when it comes to how Tokyo Drift came to be important), we're getting conditioned to believe that films in a franchise will ultimately "come together" with a big megamix of all the characters it has introduced, but that kind of thinking that will lead you astray if you apply it to this series.

Because (spoiler for the first 10 minutes ahead!) if I'm understanding the point of Logue's monologue correctly, these films (perhaps) all take place in different dimensions, with the common thread being monsters that take advantage of a rift in the universe caused by the actions of the characters in this film. The film's main plot is a Sunshine wannabe thing about a group of international space folk trying to save the planet with a space Macguffin (in this case the "Shepard", some sort of particle accelerator that will give the Earth unlimited energy, somehow), and when they fire up their beam it causes things to go screwy for them - they find themselves suddenly thrown into another dimension. So Logue was right about the catastrophic results, but he also tells us that using this thing will produce side effects, up to and including monsters and "beasts from the sea" being dropped into our world, and not limited to this time but in the past and future as well, so we can assume he was right about that, too. To me, after thinking about it for a bit, I realize he's basically saying to the audience "Stop looking for ways that these make sense as a series of connected films. Every one of them is from another universe, and all future entries will be too, because it allows us to keep taking unrelated scripts and making them into Cloverfield movies without having to worry about a "timeline" or "returning characters" or anything like that."

(The next one is set in World War II, for the record, so.)

Unfortunately, while 10 Cloverfield worked on its own (in fact, it's actually superior to the original), Paradox is kind of a bad movie with or without references to "Slusho" or whatever, and Logue's poorly implemented exposition dump isn't clear enough to differentiate what appears to be direct ties to the first film, which is also confusing viewers to boot. Without spoiling things, a scene near the film's very end features an object from space hurtling toward the Earth, which some people I've talked to believe is the same thing that crashed in the water in the first film (during the home video epilogue). It isn't, but since the ads tout that the film explains where the monster came from, it's easy to see why folks would think it was - and that's something producer JJ Abrams or really anyone else who worked on the film should have realized. Had the movie been good on its own, this sort of thing would be easier to shrug off, I suspect, but since it's such a letdown I think folks are trying to make more out of it than there actually is, to connect it to a film they love and therefore give it more reason for existing.

Sadly, it doesn't seem like Cloverfield-ing the movie was its only issue: someone clearly reworked the opening sequence quite a bit, offering a mostly silent montage (with a baffling number of shots where the actors are clearly speaking dialogue we were originally meant to hear) that shows us that our crew of world-savers have been up there for nearly two years, that their "Shepard" device is not working, and that they are starting to get on each other's nerves. Unfortunately we don't get much in the way of characterization for these people beyond hero Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), so when they start fighting there's no reason to choose a side or even care at all, and the wordless montage doesn't exactly fully depict their frustration or cabin fever, rendering it largely useless in the grand scheme of things. We also don't know much about the world they're trying to save; we're told there's an energy crisis and a brimming World War of sorts, but it's all just say-so, and it seems the major drawback to the energy crisis (in the one scene set on Earth before Ava goes into space) is long lines at the gas station. And really, how bad can the energy crisis be if two years later - i.e. when things are presumably even worse - she's able to call her husband from space and talk to him in real time? Wouldn't that require energy/power of some sort? Wouldn't this kind of activity be one of the first thing that they deny people? Let's keep in mind that the energy crisis is so severe before she leaves for space that they steal a power supply to let their kids have a nightlight and it catches fire and kills them. Or let's not, since otherwise it's pretty stupid that both of these things happen in the same universe.

But that's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about: the movie introduces a second universe when it was already having trouble making one believable enough to care about. That said, when the two universes collide the movie actually gets kind of fun for a bit, almost comically (intentionally!) so at times. There's a woman (Elizabeth Debicki) who in another universe is besties with Ava and is part of the crew, who gets fused to the ship during the universe-blending event, giving us a terrific, Cronenberg-y visual, with wires and pipes threaded through her in a way that is perfectly clear she didn't just get impaled on them in an accident. This also leads to her not trusting certain people because in her version they were traitors, and she's also best friends with Ava in her world where in this one she doesn't seem to exist at all (or at least, no one knows her the way she knows them). Also, Chris O'Dowd plays, more or less, Harry Dean Stanton's character from Alien, and is the best part of the movie even before he gets sucked into a wall and loses his arm when he is pulled out. But it's not "ripped off" or anything - he doesn't even feel pain from it, the wound is cauterized (even though someone says "it's like he was born that way", which doesn't match up to the visual, but by this point I already knew it was a bad movie), and a few minutes later they find his arm, moving around on its own like Thing from Addams Family - and it actually helps them solve the next crisis by writing a message, though not before O'Dowd delivers the movie's best line by a mile: "What are you talking about, arm?"

It's this sort of goofy/trippy thing that the movie really could have used more of, because it's such a total failure as a sci-fi film. Everything they do is vaguely defined, and all of the problems that arise (i.e. things that result in the body count rising, sometimes by via self-sacrifice) are only clear because we've seen them in other sci-fi movies (Sunshine, Event Horizon, Passengers...). There are some fun ideas, such as a character using a 3D printer (primarily used to make bagels) to make a gun, and I guess in the future cement putty has a sort of "app" doohickey that helps it spread over the required area, but everything seems like it was reverse engineered from an idea someone had, with no further explanation considered. There are even potentially interesting ideas and subplots that are brought up and never followed through on, like the fact that in Debicki's version of the crew, there was no Tam (Ziyi Zhang). She says this and we the accompanying "dun dun DUNNNN" kind of moment, but that's the beginning AND end of the matter. It never comes up again, except in your mind when you think "Wait, why did they bring that up? And why did they leave it IN, when the movie was clearly re-worked a bit?" All it does is tell us that things were different in their universe, but we already knew that. A friend told me this is to justify Debicki taking Zhang's job later in the movie, but with everyone so ill-defined, who would have questioned it anyway?

The most baffling decision involves their immediate issue after firing the cannon, before the disembodied arm/people in walls stuff comes up: the fact that they might have just wiped out all of human existence. After the event, they look on their navigational equipment and realize they cannot see their Earth, as if it was just gone, and even start trying to wrestle with the fact that they might have just killed 8 billion people while trying to save them. A fascinating idea, no? Too bad the movie almost instantly assures us that it's not the case, cutting back to Ava's husband Michael (Roger Davies) on Earth, a doctor who is en route to the hospital when a colleague texts him to say not to come because it had been destroyed, moments before he finds a little girl in the rubble of some other building that might have been attacked by a Cloverfield monster (THE Cloverfield monster? Couldn't tell you - we only see a shadow). He then does what you or I would do - takes the little girl, spends no time looking for other survivors (some doctor, eh?) and texts his buddy casually asking if he can use his bunker, the way one might ask their neighbor to borrow some flour. For a brief, wonderful second I considered his buddy might be John Goodman's character from 10 Cloverfield, which would have been my kind of hilariously stupid, but nah. His random unseen friend just has a bunker, I guess, and doesn't need to use it for himself despite giant monsters swarming the city.

We cut back to this stuff a few times during the movie, and it's always jarring, but also frustrating as it's vastly more interesting than the bulk of the space sequences (I've described all of the freaky moments already, I assure you. The rest is straight out of the outer space disaster 101 textbook). Davies is a good actor who brings a lot to his underwritten role, and in 30 seconds we know more about the little girl than we ever do about the people in the space station who have far more screentime. I would have liked seeing them in some sort of Last of Us kinda journey as they make their way to reunite her with her parents, but after a couple of scenes they're more or less dropped from the proceedings, letting a quick text message resolve her plight and giving Michael nothing to do until the final scene of the movie, which entertained me because it reminded me of another part 3 with only the thinnest connection to its predecessors (think Tom Atkins). I also kept thinking that it seemed like they were trying to suggest these scenes were occurring parallel to the events in the original film, but as that one took place in 2008 and this one clearly takes place in the future (undefined, but Michael's phone sports a "7G" network), that doesn't work - and even if it did, we'd still be left with the question of why no one in the original Cloverfield seemed to have a problem with an energy crisis, as it would have been ongoing for at least two years by that point.

OK, by now I'm sure a fan of this film (and there are some, and I am happy that they're able to enjoy it) is just itching to point out that I love Armageddon, i.e. the space movie so dumb that NASA uses it to test applicants, tasking them to find everything wrong in it. And yes, I do, but guess what? It has an INTERNAL logic that allows the movie to work for me, which this movie lacks and is thus why it annoyed me so much. For example, people love to harp on Armageddon's concept that "they can't train astronauts to drill for oil in 6 months, but can teach oil drillers to be astronauts in 12 days." On paper, yes, this is probably very stupid (I'm no expert in either field, so I have no idea), but in the movie, they justify it, repeatedly. Bruce Willis and co. are never once required to do anything astronaut-y (Bruce asks if they do and is told they do not, Billy Bob shouts "Can they physically survive the trip, that's all I need to know!", William Fichtner and HIS crew are shown doing all of the repairs and communications stuff, etc, etc.), and then the "world renowned experts on drilling" have more than a few problems "just drilling the hole", finding it difficult despite their years of expertise. In fact one of them is killed simply from a drilling mishap, not because he didn't know how to operate his spacesuit or whatever, so yeah, I think the astronauts who took a few courses in learning how to operate the drill arm (which they didn't even have, since the whole reason Harry was brought in in the first place was to fix it so it could work in space) might not have succeeded in saving the world. Long story short, it was a silly issue given an in-movie explanation for its existence, allowing the non-pedantic to enjoy the film. The movie can do any stupid thing it wants as long as it provides a justification for it - and this movie fails miserably at justifying anything about itself.

Now, if this mess had gone into theaters as originally planned (for April, if memory serves), it would have been screened for critics who would have warned you away, or it would be hidden from critics who would use that as proof that you should probably stay away. But instead, perhaps sensing its inevitable box office failure, Paramount (who can't afford another flop right now) sold it to Netflix, who then used the Super Bowl to turn it into an unprecedented event. If you recall, last year they debuted a teaser for Bright during the big game, but didn't release it until a year later, giving us a full year to wonder what this movie might be. This time, they teased that the film was coming "sooner than you think" and then, at the end of the game, came back to tell us it was available RIGHT NOW! (I was sticking around for This is Us, so I don't know if they really did time it exactly to the end of the game or not) - and keep in mind that as of four hours before, no one even knew what this movie was called or seen a single shot of footage from it. So they bypassed the usual marketing buildup and gave us a big budget sequel (of sorts) "for free", continuing the tradition of "Surprise! Here's the movie!" that the other two films also managed in their own way. A good idea, except this time it almost seems like they did it because they knew they had a stinker and figured the best chance the movie had at being watched was to make everyone feel like they would be the first in the world to do so. I'm sure it worked; Netflix doesn't release stats/numbers on their titles but the movie was being live-tweeted and hashtagged all night and now people have been making jokes about it and/or trying to explain it all day today, so we can assume that more people watched it than the average episode of one of their original series.

So in that respect I don't know if the movie is a "success" or not for them - if we watched it we already had the service, and they don't have commercials, so how does everyone watching the movie at once generate revenue for them? But let's assume somehow it does - do they care that the movie sucks? Furthermore, does Paramount care that it taints the brand they planned to extend with a WWII set entry due in November? And most importantly: why is this one such a mess? Again, it's not just the clunky Cloverfield-ing that does the script in, it's all over the place even within its own internal story - the franchise tie-ins just make it worse. With the filmmakers inadvertently shielded from doing any press for the film (yet) it's hard to tell who is to blame and where things might have gone wrong, but I sure would love to see an earlier cut or hear a candid commentary track from its screenwriters, who presumably wrote something interesting and then lost some things in a retrofitting that didn't even work anyway. The terrific cast and occasional moments where it starts to become something exciting both deserve better than the final product, and audiences deserve an explanation for the film they somewhat got duped into seeing by treating it as some sort of surprise gift. It's the U2 Songs of Innocence album of movies, basically.

What say you?


Winchester (2018)

FEBRUARY 1, 2018


When I still lived in Massachusetts, the family took a vacation to California to visit my sister, flying to Los Angeles and spending a few days there, then driving up the coast to spend a couple days in San Francisco. While planning the trip, my mom gave me and my sister a tourist guidebook and said we could each pick a place to go as long as it was more or less on the way; she picked Disneyland I think, and I picked the Winchester Mystery House. Well, we went to Disneyland, but my pick was vetoed for reasons I can no longer recall (I assume it's because unlike Disneyland, no one else wanted to go), so the only time I've ever really seen much of it is in Winchester, which is somehow the first feature film (not documentary) to explore this legendary haunted house (or at least, actually film at it, per the IMDb) despite the fact that it should have been a no-brainer. The possibilities are endless - a modern day story about paranormal investigators checking it out, perhaps in found footage style? A wholesome family buying it and discovering its secrets? Or maybe just a Session 9 kind of thing about a team of unfortunate real estate guys trying to put together a cohesive layout map of the damn place?

See, for those uninitiated, the Winchester house isn't just a mansion - it's a maze, complete with dead-end hallways that serve no purpose and doors that open into walls or, more dangerously, second story drops. The reclusive and eccentric owner, Sarah Winchester, had the place built and rebuilt over and over for nearly forty years, with construction workers and carpenters working on it day and night every single day (though her biographer says this is an exaggeration, and that she would actually allow breaks). She did this to give rooms for the ghosts of victims of the Winchester rifles, a company she inherited 51% of after her husband died, even though she detested the weapons and what they were used for. With a huge fortune (and continued income) at her disposal, she used it to make amends of sorts, and this has allowed the house to continue to thrive as a tourist attraction, as it's claimed to be haunted and even if it wasn't it's just a nutty place to see with its interior windows and slapdash design. So again, there were lots of possibilities for a film version, and the one they came up is rather simple: a doctor (played by Jason Clarke) is hired to evaluate Sarah's mental health, to see if she's fit to continue running the company. Her talk of ghosts and endless construction have got the guys who own the other half of the company rightfully worried that she'll do something nutty and jeopardize the business, so they're hoping Clarke will see it their way and officially write her off as a loon.

But Sarah is played by Helen Mirren, so we know right off the bat she's not crazy and that there really is a ghost problem there, because you don't hire Helen Mirren to play someone who will be pushed aside by a bunch of weasely men in suits. She makes this clear in her first big one on one scene with Clarke, sizing up his drinking problem within seconds and insisting that he knock it off ASAP, and when he says he will you believe him - he won't risk further wrath. Still, I liked this angle; even if the outcome was obvious - it's a big improvement on the usual sort of "skeptical expert is called to investigate if ghosts are real" plot. This allows a number of scenes with the two stars merely talking to each other, with Clarke trying to run her through basic tests and Mirren trying to get into HIS head since she's the one who requested him in the first place as (minor spoiler, we learn it like 30 minutes in though) he had "died" in the past for three minutes and thus might have a particular knack for dealing with spirits and the afterlife. Had he been there specifically to deal with ghosts or lack thereof, like Rebecca Hall's character in The Awakening, we'd just have to watch a bunch of scenes of him fiddling with equipment and denying what he saw with his own eyes for half the movie. Instead, Clarke is on board with the fact that the place is haunted pretty early, which is a nice change of pace.

Unfortunately, the script didn't think of much else to do to give the movie some oomph, so after a promising first act it devolves into a standard Insidious/Woman in Black-y kind of deal with vengeful ghosts being dealt with so they can be at rest and blah blah blah. It hits all the buttons one might expect from this kind of thing - there's a bunch of jump-scares (including a pretty great one involving Mirren and her nephew), objects floating around, loud noises... you know the drill. But why introduce this legendary backdrop and not use it for anything of note? Besides implementing the San Francisco earthquake around the end of the second act (which in real life resulted in the house reducing its number of stories from seven to four), after a while there's no difference between this and any other horror movie house, despite the Spierig Brothers' constant attempts to remind us of how huge the place is by cutting to swooping aerial shots of it every five minutes. We're told that it's easy to get lost, but no one ever really does, and the go-nowhere doors and the like are rarely used either. Plus, despite its size, it feels like 90% of the interior scenes take place in one of four areas: Sarah's office, Clarke's quarters, the room the nephew shares with his mother, and a staircase that is sectioned into four paths, making it look like an amusement park queue line. Clarke bumps his head once or twice, and that's about the extent of him being able to work/spring into action within this supposed labyrinth - it feels like a giant missed opportunity to put a stranger in there and never once have it be much of an issue.

Plus it just feels like an Insidious movie half the time, exacerbated by the fact that Angus "Tucker" Sampson has a supporting role as one of the construction guys. You got the kickass senior citizen telling ghosts off, the kid in jeopardy, and, like the first Insidious, a whole bunch of anonymous spirits with just enough detail to make you think "Huh, wonder what their story is." Yet they focus mainly on one, a guy who shot up a place while wearing a bag over his head. His introduction to the story is quite well done (part of that aforementioned first act that had me thinking this would be a winner), but he poses no real menace to our protagonists, even Clarke, whose character, unlike the others is a fictional person and even primed for being offed on account of his backstory. You don't need a body count for a successful haunted house/ghost movie (see: Poltergeist. Do not see: Poltergeist III, the only one in the series where someone is killed because of the ghost-y stuff), but it helps to at least feel like there's a true danger to the predicament. The earthquake does more of that heavy lifting than the ghosts ever do, which adds to the film's ho-hum final act. Like the Spierig's previous film, Jigsaw, it's one of those movies where I kept hoping that the generic proceedings was misdirection for something grander to come, only for it to end with no such upswing.

Alas, it's at its best when it's simply Mirren and Clarke talking, which probably isn't going to help sell tickets. Mirren is of course one of the best of all time and it's wonderful to have her in a "HMAD" kind of movie, even if it's beneath her talents. She commands the screen like few others and seems to be enjoying going a bit out of her element (this is, I think, her first legit horror movie, though she's been in a few thrillers and sci-fi films), though I hope her top billing doesn't mislead you about her screentime, as she isn't in it nearly as much as Clarke, who we're with for nearly every scene. Luckily for me, I quite like the actor - he's handsome but not in a traditional marquee movie star kind of way, and he's got that Terry O'Quinn/John Vernon kinda vibe to him that will ensure if this kind of more heroic role doesn't suit him he can be a great in-demand villain for the rest of his life if he wants. There's a great bit where he tries to fool Mirren with a magic trick that she susses out instantly (probably even before he finishes the maneuver), and the look on his face is priceless - he knows he cannot pull a fast one on this woman, and I started wishing the movie could just do away with the other characters and let this be some sort of off-kilter "romance" between the two of them as they battle ghosts, instead of stooping to haunted kids making scary sounds.

Basically, it's a January horror movie through and through, but since it's coming out in February I guess I expected a little more out of it. The Spierigs have proven that they are capable (Daybreakers) but fail to give this any real life (the score by one of the brothers is quite nice at times though), and there's only so much Mirren and Clarke can do to keep it interesting. Add in some confusing messaging about guns (it would seem like a shoe-in for an anti-gun approach, but then the bad ghost is defeated by... shooting it) and the fact that we just went through this kind of thing with Insidious 4 and you're left with not a whole lot to recommend a big-screen excursion, even as Super Bowl counter-programming. Save your money to visit the real house or contribute to some kind of gun control charity, because those will have a lasting impact - the movie is already escaping my memory less than 24 hours after seeing it, which is never a good thing. As I've said before, I'd rather see something shockingly bad than aggressively forgettable, but it's much worse when it had all the ingredients for something truly interesting.

What say you?


Class of 1999 (1990)

FEBRUARY 1, 2018


Ideally, Class of 1999's Blu-ray release this Tuesday would have been delayed out of respect for the two students who were killed (along with over a dozen others shot) at their high school in Kentucky last week, and then possibly again after today's (thankfully death-free, so far) school shooting in Los Angeles, because that's what used to happen on the then-rare occasions this sort of horrible tragedy occurred. Anything involving students and violence was delayed or altered, sometimes for even months after such an atrocity (remember when Teaching Mrs. Tingle, released five months after Columbine, was Killing Mrs. Tingle?). But that sort of "out of respect..." maneuver is pretty rare these days, because there are so many similar events (the Kentucky incident was the 11th school shooting in the US this year so far, after one month) that they'll never be able to release it without it being "too soon". There is sadly another always around the corner, because it's not like anything will ever change.

Luckily, unlike the "original" Class of 1984 (this movie is considered a sequel, but there's nothing in common besides the general idea of schools being overrun by assholes), there's no way that this film's terrifying vision of the near future will come to pass, since we're nearly twenty years past its setting and we still don't have android teachers at all, let alone ones that murder the unruly kids. School violence is of course still a problem, but whereas 1984 dealt with it in a fairly believable manner (fed up teachers fighting back) this is straight up B-movie cheese, closer to Terminator than the evening news. With these shootings fresh in my mind (if not the minds of the news cycle, too busy dealing with whatever Donny is up to today as if it will matter in the slightest) I was never more thankful to watch a movie that was so utterly ridiculous, because otherwise I'd probably find it too hard to enjoy.

And enjoy it I did! I mean, yeah, I wish there was more killer robot stuff (this ain't a horror movie, by the way - more on that soon), but even though the best of it is confined to the last act - i.e. when their human skin starts getting shredded and they're leaking green goo everywhere - there's never any doubt that they are indeed androids. From the start we see the Terminator/Robocop-y POV shots from our trio of cyberteachers (Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick, and John P. Ryan) that inform us of their non-human status (Kilpatrick also shows off his robot face under his skin for good measure), and they have superhuman strength and all that, so it's not like Alien or whatever that we're supposed to be surprised someone isn't actually human - but the kids don't know that, which is a bit odd since they don't find out for like an hour and we've known all along. In retrospect it might have been fun to try to hide it from us for a bit, if only to be even more weirded out by Ryan's first big scene, as his exaggerated cheering actually puts the movie into horror territory because it's so unnerving. Then again, knowing he's a robot adds tension to an otherwise pretty funny scene where he spanks the bottoms of two of the punk kids in his class, with a swift and mechanical smacking motion (which reminded me of Buzz Lightyear's karate chop action) that I thought was about to malfunction and impale the kid through his ass with the next hard smack.

Ryan's casting is one of the many inspired choices, as he's probably most famous to horror fans as the dad of the mutant baby in the first two It's Alive films, so seeing him tackle a different kind of evil child is of course wonderful. Likewise it's hilarious to see Malcolm "Alex DeLarge" McDowell overseeing a school overrun by modern day droogs, and it's so rare to see Pam Grier as a villain it's hard to remember we're supposed to be on the teenagers' side when she starts beating the shit out of three of them at once in her chemistry class. But the most delightful part isn't really stunt casting per se - it's just the mere sight of Stacy Keach with goofy contacts and some bizarre haircut that's a cross between a buzzcut and a mullet (and dyed snow white for good measure). He's from the "Department of Educational Defense" (heh) and is the guy in charge of implementing the robot teachers in order to bring the school in line, but sadly spends most of the movie just looking at monitors and saying sinister things, with only the contacts suggesting he too is a robot. But (spoiler for 20 year old movie ahead) he's actually just a damn nut I guess, as he bleeds red when he dies as opposed to the green-blooded robots, meaning he was human all along.

As for the teens, they're a pretty generic lot, and unlike Class of 1984 there are no "good" students to be seen with the exception of the main guy's love interest, who is also McDowell's daughter. Otherwise it seems like everyone in the school belongs to one of the two rival gangs (the Razorheads and the Blackhearts), making them not exactly the kind of people you want to root for. The main guy is named Cody and is played by Bradley Gregg, aka Philip from Dream Warriors (the one who dies as a "puppet"), doing some weird Corey Feldman-y kinda shtick that got old fast. But I kind of liked how the plot unfolded, with the teachers staging some of their kills to incite a war between the two gangs, only for Cody to catch on and band together with his rivals (led by James Medina, who was the most charismatic actor of the bunch but unfortunately passed away in the 90s) for an all out assault on the school. This is when the movie really starts earning its placement in a few issues of Fangoria, with the three androids (particularly Kilpatrick) taking a beating but never stopping, and procuring weapons from their limbs - if you ever wanted to see Pam Grier's arm turn into a flamethrower, this is your movie.

It was during these scenes that I was not only having the most fun with the flick (which I want to stress I had never seen before; it seems like the sort of thing that would have been on Cinemax during my formative years but even if I caught a few minutes at one point, I do not remember it) but also lamenting how far the concept of a "B-movie" has fallen. Not only is the script a step or two above what you'd expect from this kind of junk, but director Mark Lester put together a real crew (including DP Mark Irwin, who used to be Cronenberg's go-to cinematographer and went on to shoot a number of Wes Craven's films, including Scream) instead of blowing the meager budget on cameos and other bullshit like today's Asylum/Syfy level crap. The stunts, practical FX, and pyrotechnics are on par with any studio movie, and it's a shame so much of today's stuff can't be bothered to put that kind of effort into things. It's unfair that this will be lumped in with the likes of Sharktopus or whatever by future generations - there's a distinct difference in the quality and presentation that should be noted, and celebrated in turn.

Speaking of celebrating, it's being released by Lionsgate as part of their ongoing Vestron Collector's Series, which is sort of the studio's answer to Scream Factory and the like - giving the royal treatment to less prestigious fare such as this. It's got a commentary by Lester (I didn't bother to listen, having learned my lesson with Firestarter and Class of 1984 - nothing against him, it's just that some folks aren't that interesting/fun to listen to) and some interviews, including one with the FX guys Eric Allard and Rick Stratton, who did a pretty great job I think and reveal that the robot flood was just transmission fluid (and glitter was put in the squibs for when the robots got shot!). All the other titles are more traditionally horror (such as Gothic, which also hit this week - I wrote about that over at BMD since I already reviewed it here), but even IMDB calls this one an "action-horror" movie so I dunno. I got in a brief Twitter skirmish last week after crying foul at people celebrating that a "horror movie" (Shape of Water) got so many Oscar nominations, when it's not a damn horror movie at all (even Del Toro said as much, and last I checked he's not exactly a snob about horror), primarily because I feel trying to claim films like Shape of Water (which I quite loved, for the record) as horror is just as obnoxious as someone saying something like It is a "psychological thriller". Ultimately it doesn't really matter, but I just wanna do my due diligence - this is "of interest" to horror fans because of the makeup work and the horror-friendly label that it's being released on, but please don't be expecting Chopping Mall set in a school.

I really hate that even escapist fun junk like this has to remind me of the real world, since it kind of defeats the purpose of it. The fact that a screenplay like this wouldn't get considered by even the trashiest producers nowadays is incredibly depressing to me, and what's worse is that I don't see the situation changing any time soon. As of next year my son will be going to school and less than two years from now he'll be the same age as the victims of Sandy Hook - and there's literally no reason to think that by then he and his classmates will be any safer than a child in a classroom today (or a movie theater, or a church, or a mall, or...), due to the fact that our government seems to have no interest in exploring better gun control laws. I want him to grow up watching goofy shit like this and having fun with it the entire time - not just when it reaches the point of absurdity and we can temporarily keep our minds off of the real-world parallels drawn up by the first hour. Ideally, someday, we can be just as amused by the "far-fetched" idea of kids walking around their school with guns as we are to see them get burned up by Pam Grier's flamethrower arm. Let's keep hoping.

What say you?


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