Blood Beat (1983)

MARCH 29, 2018


A couple months ago, a friend of mine who had just installed a home theater with 4K and 7.1 and all that jazz had a few of us over to marvel at it, but this friend isn't exactly a blockbuster kinda guy, i.e. the movies you'd want to demo a high-end home theater with. I brought a couple of my 4K discs, but what we ended up watching was Blood Beat, a full frame, probably mono film that had been recently released on standard Blu-ray. I mean it probably never looked or sounded better in its nearly 35 year old life, but I can't say I was blown away by the home theater's capabilities (though he did relent and let the rest of us watch a few minutes of Fast and Furious 8, and then I could confirm that I really need to have a proper home theater someday), making it a peculiar choice to show the system off. So I just focused on the movie itself (a novel idea, eh?), but alas I was tired before it even started so I passed out halfway through and when I woke up I had no idea what was going on, vowing to watch the rest later that week.

Well two or three months later, "later that week" is finally here! Obviously I just rewatched the movie from the beginning, because my vague recollections were of no use - "Hunters, a samurai, and I think a painting" was not enough to write a review or even find where I left off. But if you've seen Blood Beat you know that I could watch this movie a thousand times and still not make much sense out of it, so I guess it didn't really matter in the end. For those uninitiated, the film focuses on Gary, a standard Wisconsin man (read: a hunter) who is dating a woman that would rather sit inside and paint all day. Her grown children are coming to visit for Christmas, and when they arrive she immediately gets weird vibes from her son's girlfriend Sarah, and the feeling is mutual. This puts her in a rather antisocial mood, so the others all instantly go hunting, at which point the horror stuff starts happening.

And by horror stuff I'm sure you know what I mean: the ghost of a Samurai that is bathed in blue light and makes sounds that the subtitles refer to as "Mystical Boinging". I mean the movie is actually kind of a slasher in general terms - the samurai ghost thing starts offing people one by one with his sword, but it's all so damn bizarre that it never really gives that slasher vibe. For starters, we don't really see the samurai until the last 20 minutes, so until then it's more of a "presence" than a flesh and blood stalker, and either because of the film's low budget or the director's incompetence (both?) the kill scenes are hardly anything one could refer to as a highlight, which is kind of the whole deal with slashers (especially by 1983). And in one of the film's many unexplained elements, Sarah's orgasms seem to be linked to the killer, so if she's flicking the bean or riding her boyfriend, the kill scenes are intercut with her doing that, making them even harder to follow. I can't even tell if her sexual energy is giving the samurai some life, or if she's psychically turned on by his killing spree. Either way they're having fun doing their thing, I guess.

It occurred to me during the film how many of these "regional" productions are totally insane, and I have to wonder if it's intentional or just an unfortunate side effect of people making a film when they don't really know what they're doing (it's a good a time as any to note that the writer/director of this film never made another, and didn't realize the film was full-frame until he was halfway through shooting). I can tell you from experience that ideas that make perfect sense to you don't translate to the screen and can leave others confused, so I have to wonder if movies like this, or Things, or Disconnected, or any of the other random ones I've found over the years were intentionally vague or forced to be that way because of how they were made. I mean there's gotta be some train of thought that puts the ghost of a samurai in the middle of the Wisconsin woods, right? Unless they were just using the ol' idea balls in the manatee tank (Google it), I have to assume there was a scene explaining it that got cut due to damaged film, or maybe they ran out of time/money and never got to shoot it in the first place.

Anyway, the movie has JUST enough of that sort of inept insanity to make it worth a look. The Samurai talks in a weird computer voice, there's an out of nowhere argument about juice between two equally out of nowhere characters, and the "Samurai vision" and other random effects are almost impressive when you consider when/how the movie was made. But those moments are often separated by long stretches of people just repeating their banal dialogue, long pauses, walking around, etc. so it's fairly dull more often than not. There's a hunting expedition that goes on forever, and I think we spend more time watching two of the characters play Monopoly than we spend watching the samurai in all his/her glory. Plus the disconnect renders a lot of it less fun than it should be - sure, it's awesome when the kitchen goes haywire and we get cans of Tab flying around, but since it's so unrelated to everything else (and barely mentioned after) it doesn't generate that kind of kitchen sink insanity that Evil Dead or Hausu ramps up throughout their respective runtimes. It also ends on some of its most confusing notes (a major demise is suggested while we look at a static shot of a door for ten seconds) and the surviving characters calmly walk out of the house while putting on their coats as if they were going to run an errand instead of escaping a nightmare scenario that left some of their loved ones dead.

I suspect it'd be more fun with a midnight crowd, perhaps during one of those all night festivals where your sleep deprived brain has you thinking you're hallucinating some of this stuff anyway, and the baffled reactions of your fellow moviegoers can generate enough energy to smooth over its rough patches. If you've never seen this sort of thing before, I guess it's a good place to start before you get into the really insane likes of Don't Go In The Woods or MST3k fodder like Manos. But as I've had more than just a taste of these things, I dunno, this one didn't have that je ne sais quoi that'd have me excitedly recommending it to like-minded fans unless it was on the big screen. It was just OK, and that's not the reaction I'd expect from a movie with a synopsis that included the phrase "possessed by the spirit of a Japanese samurai warrior". I actually preferred it when it was just focusing on its poorly acted characters yelling at each other - if it focused entirely on that juice couple, this would be a much more excited review. Oh well.

What say you?


Unsane (2018)

MARCH 23, 2018


When I was 12 I used to grab my dad's video camera and try to make little movies; I distinctly remember tying things to string (not even fishing wire!) and trying to pull off "invisible" tricks after seeing Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Then I'd watch the video and besides being dismayed at how bad my FX shots were (the telephone spinning haphazardly on my string definitely betrayed the idea it was being held by an invisible person), I'd be curious why my images never looked as great as they did in the movies I watched. "They must have a special camera!" I figured, and sooner or later I'd discover that was indeed the case, and those "special" cameras shot film, not VHS tapes. I couldn't help but think about that a few times while watching Unsane, because not only did it not require my full attention during a few too many stretches, but I also kept wondering why anyone, let alone Steven Soderbergh, would want their feature film to look like something a kid could do.

And I'm not exaggerating; much has been made about the film being shot on an iPhone, i.e. the same device a number of you have in your pocket or perhaps are even reading this review on in between Instagram perusals. It's not the first film to be shot this way, but it's certainly the most high profile, made even more interesting when you consider that Soderbergh said he was retiring a few years ago and stuck to that promise for a few years before coming back with Logan Lucky last year. He's got another movie in the can already and another has been announced, which is pretty good for a retirement that was announced five years ago. There are a lot of directors who have made no such announcement and haven't made a single movie since then, but he's done three and has a fourth in the works. Can Martin Brest or John Carpenter "retire" like this? That'd be nice.

Back on point - if he's gonna un-retire, the project has gotta be something special, right? That's where I get tripped up, as this is not only nothing memorable beyond a filmmaking method that does it no real favors (plus if we wanted an lo-fi looking horror movie set in an institution, we have Session 9, which is infinitely better), but it's not even new territory for him. His one-time swan song Side Effects tread a lot of the same ground (a woman in jeopardy, paranoia, evil medical practices, "men suck") and was a much better film overall, so beyond the idea of going into more traditional horror territory I'm not sure what exactly excited him about this script. It's not a bad movie really, it's just one of those ones that never really kicks into a higher gear than its basic premise would suggest, doling out information in a clunky manner that makes it difficult to latch onto anything. Claire Foy plays a lonely workaholic who had a previous encounter with a stalker that's left her frazzled, and she accidentally commits herself to a one day (and then one-week) mandatory evaluation in a psychiatric ward, only to start seeing her stalker among the staff. Is she crazy, or did this guy manage to follow her so well that he was able to get a job at the place one day later?

I'll get into that later since it's spoiler territory, but I don't think I'm breaking the rules to say you find out at about the halfway mark, at which point the movie unfolds more or less like you'd expect having probably seen this kind of scenario play out in both directions over the years. The answer is never as important as the need to make sure what happens next is just as compelling, and unfortunately in this case the script is not up to the task - one you got the answer you might as well go home early. And it's a shame, because there is a late-game "twist" of sorts that is fascinating and kind of original, but it's introduced too late to have enough of an impact on the movie as a whole. Maybe if the narrative switched entirely at this point and focused on this new development, leaving the stalker stuff behind as a sort of slow-burn Macguffin, it would be enough to shift the movie into "must-see" territory, but this plot point is frustratingly left under-explored while also reducing the tension of Foy's dilemma.

Foy, by the way, is the reason the movie is still worth seeing. She made a good first impression on me with Season of the Witch, way back in 2011, but apart from a bit role in Vampire Academy I haven't seen her in anything since, making this the first time I've seen her carry a film. Thankfully she does a fine job; her character isn't the most likable person in the world, but I love how she dealt with the random male losers in her life (the scene with her boss is A+ and timely af) and she handles the paranoia stuff quite well. There's a scene where she dresses down a would-be suitor by theorizing about the women that have turned him down (paraphrasing: "Did she tell you she just liked you as a friend, or did she actually get sick? Or did she just LAUGH?") and it's a wonderful bit of business, and also one of the few times the iPhone-ography pays off, allowing Soderbergh (or whoever the phone owner was; I assume no one else was allowed to hold it in case a private text came through during a take) to swirl around Foy and the other actor in a tiny room as she kept hammering away at him, reducing him to (deserved) tears. Honestly if the movie was nothing more than a series of scenes where she takes down a bunch of MRA dipshits and assorted other stereotypes, I probably would have liked it a lot more.

OK now I gotta get into spoilers, so you should stop here until you've seen the film. Final warning!

But Foy and her razor tongue isn't enough to make up for the fact that the second half of this movie is like a comedy that had all of the jokes trimmed. She isn't crazy - her stalker (played by Josh Leonard, by the way) really did follow her to the institute and get a job as an orderly. We find out later that he killed the real orderly and assumed his identity, but no further explanation, leaving us with two options: his coworkers didn't notice he wasn't the same guy, or that he was just happening to start there on the day after she arrived (so no one would KNOW what he looked like), making it incredibly lucky timing on his part. Especially when you consider the film's other twist, which is that he isn't the only shady/murderous one there, as the hospital is basically a giant scam - they trick people into signing themselves up for treatment (in Foy's case they ask her to sign a few "routine" forms that turn out to be admission papers, because she trusted them enough not to read them first) so they can get the insurance companies to pay them for care the people aren't actually receiving, and will murder anyone who finds out about it. A more interesting movie would have Leonard's character react to this, maybe even use it as an excuse to be a hero for the woman he thinks he loves by helping her escape, but the two storylines never intersect. He even kills another patient who was catching on to the hospital's practice, but (another coincidence) only because the guy was getting close to Claire so he wanted him out of the way. I don't need every question answered in a movie, but when it's the only kind of interesting thing in it, it's impossible not to be annoyed that it get such short thrift in favor of a generic chase through the woods.

And all of that ludicrous plotting that would be fine in a schlockier movie, but that's not what Soderbergh really does and the movie is too bland to look at to really make that sort of thing pop. You need a Brian De Palma or Dario Argento kind of flair to get anyone to buy this (and I can't help but think those filmmakers in particular were on the brain, as Soderbergh cast De Palma regular Amy Irving in a bit part, and "Unsane" is an alternate title for Tenebre), and really dive into the over the top elements and violence, so that the audience is kind of drunk on the sheer bombast of it all. This movie skips over most of its kills (one confusingly so - I have no idea who murdered the dark haired orderly) and due to the obvious limitations of its format can't really go big with its setpieces - even insert shots feel a bit awkward, so the wackier elements of the script fall flat. For every moment where the iPhone made an excellent choice (POV shots of Leonard leering or simply staring at Foy, mostly) there are a few that make me wish he abandoned the experiment after a day of shooting and got real cameras to make the rest. There's a scene where Foy is trapped in a trunk, and it occurred to me that twenty years ago he was shooting - if there is a ranking of such things - the best trunk scene in movie history, and doing it just fine with a big clunky ol' 35mm camera. As with 3D, CGI, etc. there's nothing wrong with the idea of using "lesser" cameras for certain things - but it's still a tool that only serves certain purposes. Just as you'd only use a hammer for nails and not for screws and bolts, the camera you're using should be the best one for that particular job, and while it's fine for the quieter scenes, overall I think the script deserved the full toolbox, so to speak.

Soderbergh makes some other puzzling choices, such as inserting a distracting cameo from one of his frequent collaborators at a very odd time, and cutting away from Claire's perspective at a point where we're still unsure if she's just going crazy or not (and thus answering the question even earlier). Even the reveal that she HAD a stalker is presented in a very awkward way, as if it was previously established in a scene (or even a line) that got cut - it actually makes more sense in the trailer than it does in the film. This is a guy who has made nearly thirty movies that have grossed over a billion dollars in the US alone - why does it often feel like a first feature from some 25 year old kid who managed to get the film released to Redbox by casting Lance Henriksen or someone like that for a day's work? Apart from the acting (not just Foy; it's always good to see Leonard, and Jay Pharoah is also solid as one of Foy's fellow patients) everything here runs dangerously close to amateur hour, and I'd have trouble with some of it even if it WAS from the work of first-timers, while hoping they could learn from their mistakes next time. But this guy's got an Oscar, so I can't help but expect more from him than a movie that has technical AND narrative blunders. I can deal with a few terrible script choices a lot easier if I know I couldn't round up a few of my actor friends, charge my phone, and produce superior results.

What say you?


Children of the Corn: Runaway (2018)

MARCH 21, 2018


Dimension lost Halloween a while back, but they're still holding on to their Hellraiser and Children of the Corn licenses, and just as they did in 2011 with Revelation and Genesis, respectively, they extended their hold by making new entries more or less simultaneously (and once again making me wonder if they'll ever throw their hands up and just do a "Versus" film). And as with Hellraiser: Judgment, Children of the Corn: Runaway is better than you'd expect or that it even needed to be - maybe they are now required to not just make a movie, but make it decent? In fact it's probably one of the best of the Corn films, and while I know that isn't exactly a huge hurdle to clear, it's still worth noting, especially since it's the tenth film in a franchise launched from a lesser Stephen King short story.

When they hired John Gulager to direct this one (he also edited, for the record) I thought it was a great choice, and as a fan of Gulager's work I saw it as a win-win kind of situation. If the movie was bad, then it's not really anything to be ashamed about - the historical record has shown time and time again that it's apparently very hard to make a good movie out of this scenario, as even the best films in this series (the original, Urban Harvest, and the remake) aren't without sizable flaws. And if it was good, then it just shows that he's got some talent and maybe deserves better than VOD sequels to Dimension movies. Luckily it's the latter scenario, on par with those aforementioned "worth watching" entries (and also consistently satisfying than Hellraiser: Judgment, for what it's worth) and in fact is a perfectly enjoyable movie on its own accord - the Corn references are so minimal they could be trimmed out and it would barely affect the runtime.

That said, it's actually a direct sequel to the remake, which surprised me since that one wasn't a Dimension production. Our protagonist is Ruth, who was introduced in that film (played by Alexa Nikolas there; Marci Miller here) and had a vision of herself setting fire to the corn - turns out she really did it and escaped while pregnant, determined to raise her child as far away (but still in the Midwest) as from the group. Because of her unusual past she has trouble finding steady income or a place to live, and it turns out the cult messed up her brain pretty good, so it isn't easy for her, but things start to finally turn around when she gets a gig as a mechanic and is allowed to stay in a vacant home that is currently in legal limbo. Alas, she starts seeing a strange little girl who may or may not be really there, and before long the bodies start piling up. Is the girl a cult member? Is she cracking up and killing these people herself? Or is it her son, who starts acting strange?

The answers will not be surprising to anyone who has seen a few horror movies before, but what was NOT expected was to see this kind of thing in a Corn film OR from Gulager, whose other films revel in bad taste and midnight movie insanity. It's possibly the most relatively classy film in the series, if anything, as the body count isn't particularly high (the diner flashback accounts for most of the violence) and there isn't a drop of dark humor to be found. It's not even supernaturally-driven like the others; most of the film focuses on Ruth and her struggles to make a normal life for her and her son - for example, he wants to go to school, but she can't enroll him because she doesn't have a fixed address. Even if you stripped out the horror stuff, you'd be left with a decent character drama about a woman who was trying to escape a terrible, mind-breaking past, with the sun-drenched Oklahoma landscape and Gulager's widescreen visuals making it nice to look at as well. The kill scenes aren't that bad either; there's a good one inside a garage that is unnerving (partly because it's when I figured out the film's twist) and drawn out just enough to have hope for the victim's survival chances. It would have been expected/easy for the guy who made the Feast films to relish in a movie about evil kids, but by focusing on the adults and going for something more psychologically driven, the film really sticks out as a minor gem for both its franchise and its filmmaker.

But if you're a fan of his work, you'll still recognize some of his trademarks - there's some Super 8 footage (which he shot himself), and both his wife Diane and father Clu (yay!) show up in smaller roles. It's also a nice showcase for Miller, who looks nothing like Alexa Nikolas but *does* resemble Amy Steel a bit, which is fine by me. Steel reportedly wanted to reprise her F13 Part 2 character of Ginny in a sequel set at a mental institute, which we never got, so it's kind of like a consolation prize to get someone who resembles her going crazy after a different horror movie ordeal. She really sells the shitty situation she's in, which you have to recall isn't her fault - she was a kid when she got roped into the cult, not an adult who chose to join one like that one Hollywood-friendly religion. When folks try to escape that I'm usually like "Well, glad you made the right call eventually, but you're still a dumbass", but I sympathize with Ruth, and genuinely felt sorry for her whenever another setback came her way. Even better, she doesn't give excuses - she hides her past for the obvious reasons, so she doesn't try to get anyone else to feel sorry for her in hopes they'll cut her a break.

The only thing that didn't really work was a late-movie development where someone else turned out to be a cult member. If you think about how that character is introduced in the story and how our heroes came to befriend him/her, it's a giant coincidence that they turn out to be actively searching for Ruth and her son, so I wish they had been given a slightly reworked introduction that rang a bit truer. Or if it never happened at all - Ruth's own psychological scars were built up enough that she could have rejoined the cult and/or led her son down that path all on her own, so they didn't really need this third party nudging that along. It's not a crippling flaw or anything like that, but it switches the focus at a crucial point in the movie and kind of lessens the impact of the twist to a degree. Also, in one of the few scenes with the titular Children, we see one who has seemingly risen through the ranks fairly quickly, and it kind of made me want to see a Corn sequel using a mob movie template, with a new recruit rising to the top and then losing it all (except at the end of a sickle instead of a bullet), because I instantly started wondering how they became such a big deal and what sort of shit they had to do in order to get to that level. Y'all gotta arm-wrestle He Who Walks Behind The Rows or...?

It's kind of funny - if there's such a thing as a die-hard Children of the Corn franchise fan, they're probably not going to like this one all that much. There's barely any evil kid stuff, He Who Walks... is mostly left out of it (sit through the credits for his most prominent appearance!), and it's following up on a plot thread from the remake, which was largely dismissed (though I personally find it superior to the 1984 one, though not by much). It'll play better to those who have little to no interest in the series (I should stress that there is zero need to see any of them, even the one it's directly following, as they explain the backstory via flashbacks), but of course the title means they won't exactly be driving to every Redbox in town looking for a copy. That said, I hope it finds the audience of people who can appreciate the attempt at making it more interesting than anyone could have reasonably assumed it would be, and that it's not considered a failure by whatever measures they use to determine wins and losses for these things. As someone who is seemingly cursed with seeing (and reviewing) all of these movies until the end of time, I'd hate for them to go back to "normal" (read: traditionally forgettable/lousy) Corn territory with the next entry just because this one didn't make as big of a splash as the films must make, somehow (why else would they keep spending money to keep the brand going?). Especially now that they're actually doing direct sequels - can Gulager and co. follow up on Urban Harvest's magic corn that was being shipped all over the world?

That'd rule. What say you?

P.S. Unless you own all the others and want to keep that train going, there's not much need to buy this disc. The movie's pretty good but nothing you'll watch over and over, and the lone extra feature is a deleted scene of no interest. A shame since Gulager has done commentaries for most of his other films and they tend to be pretty fun.


The Strangers: Prey At Night (2018)

MARCH 9, 2018


Here's a funny fact: on the weekend The Strangers opened in 2008, it was next to the original Iron Man on the box office chart. Since then, Iron Man's success paved the way for seventeen more films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with two more on the way this summer. These films have told an ongoing story, wrangling the stars from one movie to pop up in small roles in the others, with many of the actors breaking records for how many times they've played the same character as they keep coming back (and not just for the paychecks; most of them seem to genuinely love being part of something so unique). Incredulous as it may seem, the same amount of time has produced exactly one sequel to a masked killer horror movie. The Strangers: Prey At Night isn't the longest wait ever for a part 2 in Hollywood history (even in horror we had longer waits for the first sequels to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, etc.), but it's been a damn long ten years waiting for the next installment in what seemed like a can't-miss franchise. Surely, after all that time they at least can't be accused of rushing it, and came up with something equally memorable, right?

Alas, not quite - but at least they gave it a good try, and it will likely more or less do the trick for those who need their big screen slasher itch scratched. One thing they definitely got right was not continuing the story of Liv Tyler's character, because the randomness and lack of motive is a big part of what made the original work, and going after her again would dip too far into Halloween territory ("That girl... that Armageddon girl... that's Pin-Up's sister!"). This time our targets are a family of four led by Martin Henderson and Christina Hendricks, who are - if I am following the clearly re-edited opening scenes correctly - driving their bratty teenaged daughter (Bailee Madison) to boarding school, with their older/less problematic son in tow. We never know what she did to deserve this punishment or even how far they're going to get there, but because they're strapped for cash they plan to stop not at a traditional hotel, but a family campground resort run by Hendricks' uncle. It's the off season so no one's there... except for the trio of familiar killers (Pin-Up, Dollface, and Man in the Mask) who have already dispatched the uncle and his wife in an opening scene. Not long after the heroes arrive, Dollface comes to the door and again inquires about Tamra, then a family argument separates some of them from the others, and then the cat and mouse stuff begins.

Now, if you strip The Strangers down to its bare essentials, it's about masked killers stalking innocent people - i.e. a movie you've seen 8,000 times, but it had a few things that put it a notch (a few notches, in my opinion) above its usual competition. First and foremost, the characters were stuck in a very awkward situation - Tyler had just turned down Scott Speedman's marriage proposal, spoiling a very romantic getaway in the cabin (there's a bit about rose petals in the tub that legit breaks my heart every time I watch the movie) and leaving their relationship's future in doubt. This is a rarely used concept for any genre, let alone horror, and as someone pointed out, the movie might be interesting to watch even without the killers showing up. There is a clear attempt to recreate that kind of dynamic here, with the daughter being pissed off at the parents who are trying to enjoy their last time together as a family, but it rings a bit false, and being a sequel, there's an unavoidable "let's get to the scary stuff" impatience which might have been softened had the situation been less cliche. How many daughters being angry at their parents have we seen in horror movies? Seven or eight thousand?

The scary stuff in the original was also unique. For starters, they didn't stray far from the house, which wasn't even particularly big, so they didn't even have a downstairs to hide in or anything like that. And that leads to another, even more important thing that made it such a winner: with a compact cast of two (one of whom, Speedman's character, left for a chunk of the runtime anyway) and not much room for chase sequences, the Strangers made themselves known to us a long time before they were known to Liv Tyler - the poster famously just used an image from the film itself, showing one of them just casually/creepily standing behind her in the house while she snuck a smoke break. There was also a strong sense of claustrophobia, as when they DID make their presence known and Liv would try to hide, it often felt like a no-win situation for her, only for the killers to resume toying with her by simply walking away rather than close in for the kill.

Unfortunately, this script (by the original's Bryan Bertino along with Ben Katai) goes in a different, less interesting direction by spreading the characters around the resort, which has multiple trailers, a playground, a construction site, the office, a pool... and also making its strangers more assertive in their actions. I won't spoil specifics, but the body count is not only higher this time but kicks in earlier than you might expect, and it doesn't quite work as a shock so much as a "Oh, well they just blew their wad" kind of thing. Granted, now we know that the Strangers are definitely OK with killing (don't forget, it's Speedman who commits the film's first murder, of his friend who came to help. Until the very end, the masked trio had plenty of opportunities to kill that they simply didn't take), but they could have dragged it out a bit longer and let the murdered person DO a bit more instead of being disposed almost instantly. Plus, with everyone constantly running around, fully aware of their predicament, it opens itself up to too many of the sort of dumb moments that the original largely avoided. No one would accuse those heroes of being geniuses, but most of their actions fell in the usual kind of "OK I'd probably do the same" line of thinking, whereas here we get people who run around on foot looking for someone instead of using their car that the Strangers didn't bother to disable.

It also lacked the claustrophobic element, and worse, rarely uses those other areas for anything memorable. For example, the film is almost over by the time the pool is utilized, when the person being chased is fully aware of what's happening. Why not have someone go into the pool earlier, before they knew anything was wrong, and let a Stranger toy with them/the audience a bit? Not to mention let them be vulnerable by choice, which is always a good way to get the pulses racing. The pool scene is one of the film's highlights, for sure, but it also feels like they could have done so much more with it. We also see signs for a mini golf course, and someone uses one of its putters at one point, but it's otherwise left unused/unseen, which seems like another missed opportunity. All of the elements are there to at least live up to the original's quota for great suspenseful setpieces and moments, but the order of the day here is fast chases and jump scares (one of which works amazing even though it's spoiled in the trailer), and so while it's not bad, it's also not likely to leave you rattled when you get home, either (that the characters aren't even in their home this time adds to that, of course).

And it's particularly frustrating to me, because I spent a lot of time in a similar campground/resort as a kid, and would get a bit unnerved whenever I was there during off-season (to prep our trailer for the season, or close it up once we stopped going) and saw how quiet/empty the usually bustling place was. So I know exactly how it feels to be weirded out in one of those places, and it still failed to generate even half as much raw uneasiness as the original did (which had me a bit spooked later that week when I caught a shadow through the light under my front door late one night). That said, director Johannes Roberts definitely knew one way to win me over: utilizing a pair of my beloved Jim Steinman songs. In a filmed intro they played before the movie, he talked about his filmmaking influences, which were mainly John Carpenter, and naturally that led to him talking about the soundtrack. After talking about the score for a bit, he said that he decided to use pop songs for the first time in his career, adding, almost apologetically, "I hope you like Jim Steinman." As anyone who has read more than five words from me knows, I ADORE Jim Steinman and consider him a personal hero, so using not one but two of his tunes in the film (albeit in the final 15 minutes, by which point I had already realized this one wasn't up to par) was a good way to at least send me out of the theater in a good mood.

Back to Carpenter though, it's important for every person seeing this movie to understand that Halloween wasn't what he was talking about (nor was it Ghosts of Mars, the framed poster of which was behind him in his video, which delighted me). Despite the plots having nothing to do with each other, his biggest shoutouts were The Fog and Christine, which I respect since most people paying tribute to JC go with Halloween, The Thing, or Escape From New York (well, they used to. Now they get sued). So when a car and its driver are set on fire and they keep pursuing a protagonist, you just have to kind of roll with it and, if you can, appreciate that he's going all out with his attempt to homage Christine in this non-supernatural film, rather than let Man in the Mask or one of the others just act like Michael Myers in the film's scope playground. As for The Fog, the homage is basically just stealing the main theme for his new score (not by the original's Tomandandy), which I found very distracting, almost obnoxious at times, but thankfully for Roberts and co. the average (read: younger) moviegoer who thinks of Taken's daughter and Smallville when they think of "The Fog" won't even notice it.

Roberts doesn't just fawn over Carpenter the whole time, thankfully. Most curiously, he employs a lot of zooms that seem inspired by Italian gialli of the 70s, one of which is used for a terrific beat where you think you're about to get an Exorcist III shears kill kinda thing but end up with a more crowd-pleasing alternative. On that note, again trying to keep spoilers to a minimum, this one is less grim than the original, so if that one's bummer ending left you cold I think you'll be more satisfied here, as the heroes do at least get to fight back a bit more. In fact, I think the people who will enjoy this the most are those who didn't see the original at all - and I should stress there's no real need to see it beforehand if you haven't yet, as there is no connection to it (not even an obligatory newspaper clipping about the first film's events). Since they're just doing the same kind of thing, the novelty won't be worn off like it was for me, and you won't be "waiting" for the scattered bits that are more inspired, liked when Man in the Mask has a victim dead to rights in a car and he takes a moment to find a good song on the radio to listen to while he finishes the person off (this isn't one of the Steinman song parts, I should note - but I would have lost my shit if it was "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", even if it was a bit on the nose).

So that's why this is a tough review to write - it all sounds negative, but really apart from the not-great choice to off one of the family members so quickly (though even that might legit shock some and work; just didn't for me) there's nothing BAD about the movie - it's just going through the motions. It almost feels like we're actually on The Strangers 4 or 5 (ideally where they'd be by now, using usual franchise scheduling) and they know that the die-hards will show up and be satisfied to see their now-iconic killers doing their thing again, the way people defend certain later installments of the Friday the 13th or Elm Street series. Maybe I was expecting a bit too much after all this time (to be fair, I know some of the delay was due to various studio issues - this one is not from the same distributor as the original, you might notice), so perhaps I'll like it more in repeat viewings if I ever find the time for them, but for now my final word is that the less you care about the original film, the more likely you are to enjoy its sequel.

What say you?


The Lullaby [Siembamba] (2018)

MARCH 7, 2018


I rarely write negative reviews of smaller films anymore, figuring it's a waste of my time to tell people not to bother seeing an off-the-radar movie they probably weren't going to see anyway, saving my negative energy for bigger films like Winchester - if I can prevent just one person from seeing that one, it will be worth it! But in the case of The Lullaby (titled Siembamba on-screen, but Lullaby in its marketing), I wanted to use the space to deliver some good news: I no longer get as upset about baby stuff in horror movies! From fall of 2013 (when my wife got pregnant) until about... uh, yesterday I guess, the sight of babies in harm really got to me, as I would start panicking about potential danger my own son could be in while I was watching some dumb horror movie with my phone on silent. But in the first few minutes of this thing, we see a baby get its neck broken, and throughout the film our protagonist is battling postpartum depression and in turn the instinct to kill her own son, complete with hallucinations of actually doing so - and I was fine with it!

Then again maybe I haven't gotten over my paranoia and it's just because the movie was too lousy to let it bother me. It's not like I thought Darrell Roodt, the director of Dracula 3000 and Prey, would be able to pull off one of those "Is she going crazy or is something really after her?" storylines, but even my low expectations weren't even met, as the film wasn't terrible enough to entertain. Instead it was just excruciatingly dull, failing to generate a single scare or even bit of suspense, while also (quite frustratingly!) refusing to go into crazy batshit territory that could have saved it. The term "baby blues" is used once or twice, and I couldn't help but think of that same-named film and how it dove right into things that are in very poor taste (namely, a woman murdering her children), while this one settled for an endless series of scenes where the woman just IMAGINES doing so.

The setup at least holds some promise: a young woman has a child that she doesn't seem to want (her depression kicks in the second the baby is born, in fact), and the only place she can stay is back with her mother, who she has a strained relationship with on account of running away not too long ago. She is having trouble pumping breast milk or getting the child to latch (not that we ever see this; we're just told so an hour into the movie - the baby is rarely shown doing anything but sleeping), and starts having terrible visions of the poor little guy being covered in blood, stored in a freezer, etc. For what seems like an eternity, the movie breaks down like this: she's trying to sleep, something troubles her, she checks on the baby, sees him dead, shrieks, then her mom races into the room and shows her a perfectly fine baby before reminding her about this or that rule of motherhood ("cut his nails", "let him cry it out", etc). Then the cycle resumes, with no clear indication that things are getting worse or how much time has passed in between. The actress playing the mom is fine, but she's also in "total wreck" mode from the start, which doesn't help at all as she looks no more harried at the end than she did ten minutes into the movie. You could rearrange 75% of the film's scenes and it wouldn't make any difference.

We are given precious few breaks from this routine in the form of a psychiatrist who seems to be evil, because he collects butterflies like someone out of a giallo and inexplicably encourages the older woman to leave her very rattled daughter alone with the baby, while also prescribing mysterious pills to the girl. But the script never really follows through with this element; the closest we get to a payoff is a weird look on his face during an epilogue, where she's been put in an institute for the crimes she commits during the film. They also keep teasing out the mystery of the baby's father, suggesting there might be some Rosemary's Baby-style twist to the whole thing, or maybe even the doctor himself (who seems to be fascinated by a story where the townsfolk killed a baby over a century ago). But then, near the very end of the movie we find out she was raped by a guy who she hitchhiked with, a wholly unnecessary scene that is, incredulously, followed by ANOTHER rape scene.

The rapist in this second instance is a friend named Evan who we know has been pining over her for years. In keeping with the film's tradition of dropping the ball on everything and refusing to ever go into interesting territory, he never seems to even acknowledge the baby's existence (he also never seems to notice or care that she looks sick most of the time), settling only for generic "Why don't you like me, we should be together!" MRA shit, as opposed to spending a single one of his 10-15 minutes of screentime telling us anything about him. I don't know why the filmmakers thought we needed back to back rape scenes in the third act of their supernatural story, but for the good of mankind I hope someone at least SUGGESTED perhaps spending less time on rape and more time on making anything interesting. Not that I champion such scenes in any scenario, but when they're part of a film that is grounded in character and have some true reason to exist at the time they do (Leaving Las Vegas comes to mind) I don't think twice about their inclusion. Here, it's just pointless shock value, and tells us nothing. Chloe was already having a rough life when she ran away, and unless I am very confused at how pregnancy works, she doesn't come back home until the baby is born i.e. nine months later, meaning that the attack wasn't even enough of a traumatic experience to send her running back home, realizing how much worse she could have it. It's just awful.

Luckily, the movie gets one thing right: screenwriter Tarryn-Tanille Prinsloo either has a child of her own or did proper research, as they get a number of things about newborns right that you probably wouldn't think of unless you were in the thick of it. For example, one thing I didn't know until I had my own is that baby fingernails are like little Freddy razors and need to be cut constantly, as they can/will scratch themselves up good (very sensitive/still-developing skin plays a part in that), so when it was used as a scare I kind of bowed a bit of respect to the film. Likewise the various problems with pumping/latching will ring true to anyone who had to deal with it themselves; in fact a pump mishap is the closest the movie ever got to offering a genuinely good terror moment. I remember I took some shit for liking Annabelle (the first one) because it was so steeped in "I am a new parent and I am terrified about my baby being hurt" fears, so I have to wonder if a. I'll still be as enamored by the film if I watched it now that I'm better, and/or b. if I saw this three or so years ago if I'd find it more engaging.

Either way, it shouldn't take a personal paranoia for a film to work. I mean, I'm not particularly afraid of a masked killer chasing me around a mine shaft anytime soon, but I still love My Bloody Valentine. A good film's a good film, and this is a very bad one. The scares don't work, the characters are drawn thinner than most slasher victims, and the director kept throwing in pointless stylistic tics like jump cuts that only caused confusion (he also had trouble distinguishing flashback scenes from current day). Nothing about it worked, and if not for the one guy in the theater that wasn't part of my group of four, I probably would have yelled at the screen on more than one occasion. The most interesting thing about the movie, besides the somewhat catchy theme song during the end titles, is that I somehow managed to stay awake despite the fact that it didn't start until after 10pm. I should have just slept.

What say you?


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