Strait-Jacket (1964)

AUGUST 21, 2018


I don't know if it was spoiled in the William Castle documentary I saw a few years back or if I'm just THAT GOOD at movies (it's probably the former), but for some reason I spotted the twist in Strait-Jacket almost instantly, which probably took some of the fun out as I wasn't allowed to be as surprised as audiences were in 1964. But I still had a good time with this more low-key - and largely humorless - Castle film than the others I've seen, and since I think it's the first Joan Crawford movie I've actually seen in its entirety, whatever enjoyment I lost from knowing the twist was supplemented by some nostalgia. As a kid, I saw some of Mommie Dearest on TV and it freaked me out (the wire hanger part), as I didn't understand "camp" or know who Crawford was or anything - I just saw a lady with "paint" on her face (part of makeup regimen, I [now] assume) beating her daughter with a hanger as the child begged her to stop. Even now it kind of upsets me to think about it!

For those uninformed, Crawford (played in that film by Nurse Ratched herself, Louise Fletcher Faye Dunaway - my memory was getting jumbled with Fletcher as the evil woman in Flowers in the Attic!)) was a beloved actress, but according to her daughter (the author of the book Mommie Dearest was based on), she was a goddamn nightmare of a mother who cared more about her career and reputation than she did ever loving her own children. Some of her colleagues have denied the daughter's claims, others have supported them, so only they know if the events in the book are true, but there's certainly no denying that Crawford was a very demanding woman who made many enemies during her career. In fact, after listening to the commentary and bonus features on the disc, I started getting the impression that if she wasn't so tyrannical the movie might not have been as interesting as it is. For starters, the role was originally written for a woman to wear a fat suit, but she steadfastly refused and forced them to rewrite it, so (spoilers for 50+ year old movie ahead!) we end up with someone wearing a creepy AF Crawford mask, which unnerved me a bit, something a fat suit wouldn't likely have done.

As for why the person is wearing a Crawford mask... well, have you seen Psycho II? OK, well this is pretty much the same movie, with Crawford in the Norman Bates role. At the beginning of the film, she murders her husband (a very young Lee Majors! I was watching his S3 episode of Ash Vs Evil Dead on the same day, so that was funny) and the woman he's cheating on her with, and sent away for twenty years. When she's let out, she's trying to adjust to a normal life and reacquaint herself with her daughter, but she gets weird phone calls and sees disembodied heads and people start dying, so it seems she's gone crazy again. But if you've seen Psycho II you'd know that's not the case, and it's someone just trying to drive her crazy and pin some murders on her, with the mask being a damn good way of selling the idea.

I won't spoil the identity of the killer here, but I was tickled how similar it was to Richard Franklin's film, and began thinking that it had to be intentional, because this film was written by Robert Bloch, who as we know wrote the novel Psycho. But what's less known is that he wrote a sequel novel himself, one that they didn't use for the film (it involved a movie being made about Norman's life, and it was very rapey), but since so much of the plot of this film and the one they made (written by Tom Holland) is similar it's almost like he should have gotten a credit anyway. Adding to the fun "trivia" about the whole thing is that Castle's earlier film Homicidal was knocked as being a Psycho ripoff, so it's also like they kind of "paid him back" by ripping off his movie to make their Psycho sequel.

Also Psycho-ish - the last scene of the movie, where everything is explained via rambling exposition. It's a scene that's rather amusing because of how clunky and unnecessary it was, but as the bonus features tell us, it wasn't supposed to be in there. The script ended with the murderer talking to themselves, but Crawford didn't want to be left out of the film's final scene and demanded an epilogue that put her in the spotlight! So again, her insatiable ego resulted in a film that gave me more to talk about 50 years later, so thanks for that, Ms. Crawford. Because otherwise, it's kind of a snoozer at times, feeling like what might have been an OK episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents stretched out to 95 minutes, which is a bit long by the standards of B movies of the day (and is the longest of any Castle film I've seen). Again, maybe some of the fun was dampened because I spotted the killer so early, but I mean... I still enjoy Sixth Sense even though I know Bruce is a ghost, you know?

There's enough good stuff to make it overall enjoyable though, particularly anything involving a young George Kennedy as the Lenny-esque farm hand who not only gets the spotlight in the film's best little scare moment (he thinks someone is following him in/around some hanging laundry, and a shirt sleeve somehow wraps around his throat), but (spoiler) is the victim in a pretty effective decapitation scene. This one didn't have any of Castle's usual gimmicks (apparently, his financial advisers told him to knock it off), save for some cardboard axes given out and Crawford making some in theater appearances, but I can imagine that bit would have stunned folks out of their seats back in the day, as we weren't yet used to seeing heads getting knocked off like we are now. I also liked how they used the familiar Lizzie Borden rhyme ("Gave her mother forty whacks...") but applied it to this film's killer, and again, the killer wearing the Crawford mask is a pretty freaky visual, so it didn't need a plastic skeleton floating by or whatever to get the jolts he craved.

But the bonus features offer the most enjoyment on the disc. Not only does the film historian commentary (by Steve Haberman and David J Schow, plus Constantine Nasr, whose name is curiously absent from the packaging) provide genuine info about THIS movie instead of just going off on endless tangents about the actors' other movies like too many historian tracks often do, but they offer some honest critiques of the film while also touting its high points, and even disagree (good-naturedly!) about a few things, making it far more fun than most of its type. They even read a letter from Crawford where she dismisses the film and says that if she wasn't a Christian woman she'd kill herself if she ever saw Trog on a marquee, so remind me to watch Trog as soon as possible. Then there's what's gotta be a first, or at least, one of the very few: an interview with an actress who wasn't in the movie, because Crawford had her fired! It's a pretty funny story and she doesn't seem to be too hung up on it, so it's an inspired addition, as is another interview with her publicist, who must have been the hardest working man in show business during her reign. There's also a retrospective documentary from a previous release (so fair warning to picky viewers, it's not in HD) and some screen tests, making it one of the more fleshed out packages for one of Scream Factory's pre-70s fare releases.

The film arrives alongside a special edition of The Tingler, and they have (or at least HAD) House on Haunted Hill from the Vincent Price set and did I Saw What You Did a couple years back, so I hope this means more Castle packages are coming. There are still a few I haven't seen (Mr. Sardonicus!), and I'd love to have a boxed set of them all if they could pull it off (and since they managed to get all of the Halloween films in one set, I believe they can do anything). Sure, seeing them in theaters with the gimmicks intact is more fun, but his blend of humor and horror makes most of his films essential viewing, especially at this time of the year. Plus it'd be easier to justify keeping one like this, which I doubt I'd personally want to watch again, but might blow the mind of my kid once (OK, IF) he starts watching horror movies, since I'd like for him to start with smaller ones like this before diving into anything truly gruesome. As he gets older I find myself entertained by watching HIM watch things, which would be helpful for movies like this that were inadvertently spoiled for me by the films that took inspiration from it.

What say you?


Slender Man (2018)

AUGUST 10, 2018


I pay zero attention to "Creepypasta" type nonsense, so I never heard of the Slender Man story until I saw a news story about a pair of dumbass 12 year old girls who stabbed their friend in an attempt to appease this made-up boogeyman and "live with him in his mansion" (the girl they stabbed survived and recovered, thankfully). Since then there have been other, less severe incidents stemming from people thinking this guy is a real thing, but since they're all in jail or institutionalized Sony will have trouble reaching their target audience for their film about it, i.e. idiots that buy into the idea that he's real, which is the only way I can see anyone being scared by his presence in this woefully undercooked flick.

The main problem with the film is that it seems to assume we all know the story well, or, at least, that it's as universally known an urban legend as the man with the hook or the "calls are coming from inside the house!" kind of scenarios. But, you know, it's not - it's an internet thing with origins only dating back less than a decade ago; even "Leroy Jenkins" has a more storied pedigree. The movie gives a bit of context early on, when our group of four teenaged girls amuse themselves during a sleepover by going online and trying to summon him (prompting the usual "What's (this thing that the others know about)"/90 seconds of exposition conversation that peppers just about every supernaturally driven horror movie post-The Ring), but after that he just shows up for jump scares. Imagine if Candyman never gave Tony Todd anything to do beyond show up in underlit backgrounds, with no backstory or connection to the protagonist, and... well, you'd probably still have a better movie than this.

In fact I got the sneaking suspicion that at some point in development, the writer planned to do a fictionalized version of the real-life stabbing tragedy, but either got cold feet or was forced to change it by the powers that be (possibly even after shooting, since the trailer shows two major sequences that are not in the film). The plot really kicks off when one of the four, Katie (Annalise Basso from Oculus), disappears during a field trip to a cemetery - but the scene actually showing that (kidnapping? murder?) is jarringly absent from the film, cutting from the girl just looking at one of the tombstones to a few hours later, when everyone is wondering where she is. Given that it's only about 20 minutes into the movie - i.e. time for a traditional scare scene - its absence is very awkward, but would be necessary in the long run if one or more of the other girls had something to do with her disappearance. Plus, throughout the movie main girl Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles) seems to be dodging direct questions about the disappearance, as if she knew more than she was letting on, and apart from nightmares is conspicuously left alone by Slender Man who keeps appearing to the two remaining girls.


So it all seems to be heading toward some sort of half-assed High Tension thing (most tellingly in a scene where she tries messaging the same mysterious Slender Man website contact who has been talking to the others, only to get no reply. HMMMMM...), but then it gets dropped in a rushed, incredibly anticlimactic sequence where her sister goes into a coma for some reason and she goes off to confront Slender Man, who... sucks her into a tree, I guess? Then there's an epilogue about how he spreads like a virus, and the film ends. So did Katie get sucked into a tree too? Why did their other friend Chloe just turn into a zombie of some sort? Why was Hallie acting so suspicious every time someone asked about Katie's whereabouts? It's clunky AF, and joins the film's already overstocked collection of problems.

Such as the fact that it's not even remotely scary. And no, I'm not talking about me simply not being scared - the theater had a good sized crowd for a weekday matinee (half full-ish) with plenty of the target teens among them, and I didn't hear a single gasp/scream during the entire film (the D- Cinemascore suggests this was not an anomaly). Almost all of the scare scenes play out identically: someone hears a creaking/stick breaking kind of sound, the image gets a bit warbly thanks to a bunch of After Effects filters, and then they see Slender Man (Javier Botet, of course) standing in a corner or something before he starts to move toward them, often accompanied by CGI tentacles and/or spider-legs. Then they either wake up because it was a dream or they disappear from the narrative and our heroine seemingly doesn't care much. The only effective moment in the entire movie comes about an hour in, when Hallie starts making out with her Miles Teller-y boyfriend and starts hallucinating him making all these weird faces, which made me laugh because if they kept going and had sex, he'd just be making *other* weird faces.

Another insurmountable issue is that our characters are the least interesting batch of horror teens in ages; you'd have to go back to C-listers from the early '80s slasher heyday to find a group this less distinguished. The only girl who seems interesting is the one that disappears first, leaving us with three that might as well be interchanged from scene to scene. There's some early attempts at what you'd think would be foreshadowing, such as Hallie's running prowess and her little sister's desire to be a part of their group, but neither element is mentioned again, and I honestly know less about Hallie's other two friends (one of whom is played by Joey King, who is 0-2 lately between this and Wish Upon) after spending 90 minutes with them. And pretty much *only* them, as the male characters and parents become literal background extras as the film goes on, to the point where I wasn't sure if Hallie's mother was in the hospital or if it was just a nurse since they didn't bother to give a closeup of the woman (or names to either parent; even though Michael Reilly Burke is a familiar enough character actor he's just "Hallie's Dad" in the credits). Not that calling him "Bill" would solve the movie's problems, but if you're going to minimize every other character to this degree, why can't the ones that are in focus be more developed?

It's possible that they DID have all of that characterization and I simply couldn't see it, however. Since Peter Hyams is in director's jail I would have to go back to AVP: Requiem to find a major release film this murky and underlit, with two would-be standout sequences being so dark I literally had trouble telling what was happening. I even wondered if something was amiss with the transfer itself, but every now and then we were treated to a nice establishing shot of the northern Massachusetts locale, so I know they could photograph things properly and that it wasn't the theater projecting it wrong. And I often wondered why they even cast Botet at all since his interactions with cast members were so brief and often overshadowed by his CGI appendages, making it a pointless decision to use a real actor at all when you consider how many of his appearances are in blurry backgrounds that could have been achieved just as easily with visual FX.

You see how bad this movie is? It has me saying "CGI would be better". Ugh. The theaters in the Milwaukee area where the stabbing occurred have declined to show the film out of respect for the residents who were affected by it; it would be a good thing if every other town joined them in solidarity. So you're safe, Winchester, for this is right now the frontrunner for worst major release horror movie of the year. And don't see that as a sort of "challenge"; I assure you this is not the "fun" kind of bad like Gotti or whatever - it's just a slog. Just watch the documentary, which is what I wish I had done instead.

What say you?


The Meg (2018)

AUGUST 4, 2018


For almost as long as we've had movie websites devoted to rumors and info about upcoming films, The Meg has been in development. It has been kicking around since 1997 at various studios starting with Disney, gone through any number of directors (including Jan de Bont and Eli Roth), and pretty much seemed like a movie that would never actually get made, like The Crow remake. But score one for persistence, as it's finally been made with director Jon "Where the hell is National Treasure 3" Turteltaub and a cast led by Jason Statham, in his first top-billed role for this type of big budget summer blockbuster (the costs are reportedly around $200m, and to think, Sony once refused to let him star in the $40m Ghosts of Mars because he wasn't a big enough draw). But only because the shark is unbilled.

The shark, of course, is the REAL draw here, and it's certainly an impressive sight. Due to the PG-13 rating we aren't always treated to the full view of its carnage, but the VFX wizards have put their full resources (and budget) into making sure it looks good when it makes its big appearances, so that you fully believe Statham could, at any moment, kick it in the face. And unlike the giant shark in Jurassic World and its sequel, it doesn't just pop up for two scenes (that get spoiled in the trailer anyway), there are a number of face-offs between it and Statham's crew throughout the movie, building to the big beach scene where it has a smorgasbord awaiting it. Again, it's PG-13, so don't get TOO excited (Piranha 3D it ain't), but it caused enough damage and racked up enough of a body count to satisfy me.

But to be fair, adventurous fun is the goal here, not blood and guts, and last I checked Jaws didn't have much of that sort of thing either. And unlike most shark movies, the heroes feel somewhat responsible for the thing's wrath of terror, as it was trapped under a layer of (science mumbo-jumbo) in the Mariana Trench, perfectly happy with the other fish that were down there, but then the scientists come along and put a hole in that layer to go explore. The Meg (short for Megalodon) attacks them and breaks through the hole, so it's on them to stop it before it reaches the mainland. Along with Statham (a rescue diver with the obligatory tragic past) there's the researchers who run the underwater station, the rich moron that paid for it all, a computer hacker (because of course there is), a security kinda guy... it's very Crichton-y with regards to its crew, and like the best Crichton novels it's not readily apparent who will live and who will die.

Except, of course, Statham, who has one too many close encounters with the shark that really should have been trusted to another character. The end of the film, when he goes on a potential suicide mission, has the necessary suspense, because maybe they WILL kill off their action icon hero (worth noting that this was in development at Disney around the same time as Armageddon). But early on, when they're just trying to put a tracker on it and things like that, there are two sequences in a row where Statham's pretty much the only one in immediate danger, and it doesn't quite work. Cliff Curtis is introduced as Statham's "old buddy" type and is seemingly the muscle for whatever problems usually arose before they unleashed a prehistoric shark, but for some reason I don't think he ever once goes in the water, which is a waste - he's exactly the kind of actor who could have this kind of glorified cameo role and die first, but also stick around until the climax and maybe get offed there.

But again: FUN! You don't WANT any of these folks to die, because they're all pretty charming and they have a good camaraderie. I wouldn't say I got sad when anyone died, but I never rooted for their demise either. Even the requisite asshole guy, a doctor who thought Statham was crazy when he claimed he saw the giant shark in the first place, has his merits and ultimately makes peace with Statham (it's more satisfying and believable than Dom Toretto forgiving him, at least). And the actors all seem to be fully aware what kind of movie they're in; they're not winking at the camera exactly, but there's a slight twinkle in their eye as they give their occasionally ridiculous dialogue the gravitas it needs - they're all more Sam Neill than Jeff Goldblum, in other words. And Statham gets to use his underutilized comedic chops on occasion, which seems to please him, and he also gets to make cute with the mandatory little kid, reminding me yet again that he's pretty much the only one of these "Expendable" action guys who hasn't made a kiddie flick ye (but keeps dipping his toes in with things like this and the baby sequence in F8).

The 3D is also quite fun, and worth the extra 3 bucks or whatever it is now. The conversion tech has come a long way in the past 8-9 years, so it's largely free of those weird errors that take away from the fun (like when someone's arm seems to grow 10 feet long because the conversion software screwed up), and there are just enough "in your face" gags to make audiences feel they got their money's worth without the movie becoming a chore in 2D (like chunks of Friday the 13th Part 3, which screened in 3D the night before at the same theater - they're doing a festival). Hell I even ducked at one "comin at ya!" moment, and I can't even remember the last time that happened (though to be fair I rarely bother with 3D anymore), and at times I regretted not waiting until this weekend to see the film in "4D", which adds water spray and motion seats to the deal. I know it's August and your summer blockbuster budget is probably depleted, but I assure you this is a movie designed to be engaged with in as silly a manner as possible.

The screening was paired with Jaws 3D, which was just as horribly dull as I thought it was in 2D (I ended up walking out; the old school 3D gives me a bit of a cross-eye and while it was worth it for Jason's hockey mask debut, it most certainly was not to watch a bunch of people walk around at Sea World), and Deep Blue Sea, which didn't need any kind of gimmick to be awesome. I still consider that the alpha and omega of shark movies that are not Jaws, but The Meg stacks up admirably with it, and as long as you can get past the PG-13 aspect (Deep Blue Sea was gloriously R-rated at times) I think if you're a fan of that one you'll have a good time with this. I don't know how well it'll hold up at home by yourself (and most likely in 2D), but with a packed crowd of people laughing and cheering at the right moments (nearly everything Winston Chao says had our audience howling) it's pretty much the last summer movie that will offer up those kind of popcorn thrills. Maybe it wasn't worth twenty years of development, but hey, at least they finally figured it out and made it work. Take THAT, Dark Tower movie!

What say you?


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