Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

JUNE 26, 2019


I was in the very small minority of folks who preferred the original Annabelle to the sequel, but so far everyone I've talked to seems to agree with my sentiment that Annabelle Comes Home is the best of the trio (and thus, the best Conjuring spinoff of them all). Screenwriter Gary Dauberman directed this one himself after writing the previous installments, and I couldn't help but smile that he gave himself the best script to work from; assuming the film makes the same big money the other two did, I wonder if the other directors will be annoyed he never wrote compelling leads and some genuine fun ideas for THEIR entries.

He also got Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga to come back as the Warrens, something that has been limited to reused footage for the others. They're not in it all that much - basically just the first ten and last five minutes - but it gives it that extra bit of validity, and also allows the film to focus on someone we "know", which the other two entries didn't benefit from. In this case, it's their daughter Judy, who is played by a new actress (McKenna Grace from Hill House - she was the young Theo), and it's the rare instance where a recasting pays off narratively, at least for me. Because I couldn't remember how old their daughter was but in my mind she was like five or six, so I spent the whole movie thinking that they recast for money/availability reasons and that it took place after Conjuring 2, a movie that, like the first, I've only seen once and can't remember too many specifics about.

But nope! Turns out the reason the girl was recast was because she needed to be younger, as this actually takes place immediately after the first Conjuring and the original actress would be about 15-16 now. See, I forgot that Conjuring 2 took place like six years after the first, mis-remembering the two films being fairly close to each other in time. So when this one starts with the Warrens collecting Annabelle and bringing her home (i.e. the beginning of the first Conjuring movie), followed by a "six months later" text, I truly thought they were saying "after Conjuring 2". Long story short, every now and then, having a fading memory re: sequel continuity can be a blessing! For all I knew the movie could end with Judy being killed, setting up Conjuring 3!

Still, even if you know she survives, pitting her against the various demons and ghosts from the series in the backdrop of her own home gives the movie more punch than its disconnected predecessors were allowed. The compact timeframe helps too, as the majority of the movie unfolds during one evening, when the Warrens go out of town for an overnight trip (if their journey was an Easter Egg of some sort, I missed it) and leave Judy at home with her babysitter/only friend Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen's bestie Daniela catches wind of her plans and, having an interest in the Warrens (who are in the news as being potential frauds, something that has made Judy an outcast at school), invites herself over to poke around.

And this is where the movie turns into something more interesting than expected. Daniela just seems like the rando who has to set the plot in motion with her meddling (since Judy and Mary Ellen are smart enough not to touch the creepy stuff), but she's got a legit reason for wanting to "make contact": her father was recently killed in a car crash that she blames herself for (she was driving), and she is hoping the Warrens' room full of haunted artifacts will provide her with a way of telling him that she is sorry. Sure, she screws up and the result is a bunch of haunted house/ghost movie scares that a veteran like myself can see coming long before the "BOO!" moment, but the fact that there was a legit and even fairly sad reason for it happening, as opposed to the usual "Oh you have a Ouija board let's try to talk to a ghost!" kinda nonsense, made it more compelling and elevated it above its teen horror peers.

In turn, it made the cliche stuff easier to forgive, because on occasion, Daniela does indeed see her father, but it's the demons messing with her (one such instance provides the movie with its best jolt, in fact) which isn't helping her already rattled mind. Judy's plight is also more interesting than that of her spinoff brethren (including Nun and La Llorona) because she's coming to grips with the fact that this might be closer to her ongoing reality than some isolated incident - it's not a single entity that someone might help her remove for good, it's something her parents brought there by choice! Plus, she is starting to pick up her mother's ability to see ghosts, but she just wants to be a normal kid - her face lights up (for the first time in the movie, maybe?) when Daniela brings over some roller skates, and she is fretting about her upcoming birthday party as it seems her parents' day job and her own demeanor has resulted in a lot of "Sorry I can't make it" replies (at one point she invites Daniela, who she just met, and you can tell Daniela realizes she might be cutting the guest count in half if she says no). So many haunted house movies are of the "We just moved in and things are weird, I wanna go back home" variety - it's interesting to see one more or less from the eyes of a girl who has lived there for years and knows the root of the haunting is sort of her heritage.

As for the babysitter, she doesn't have much of a direct tie to the ghosty stuff - there's some half-hearted "Oh that ghost looks exactly like you" kinda stuff (said specter is a bride who was buried with coins over her eyes for the Ferryman) but nothing really comes of it, and her role is primarily answering phantom doorbell rings and saving one of the two girls whenever necessary. And if you're wondering why they simply don't leave, it's because there's a werewolf outside! In one of the film's smarter moves, the Annabelle doll isn't really the main source for scare moments - she "gets out" of her glass case (as before, she doesn't move on her own, but is manipulated by demons/spirits) and her role as a conduit means all the other things around start using her power to break free of their own confinements. She has to be put back to calm everything down, but it's easier said than done when so many things - including the aforementioned werewolf - are already on the prowl.

It's a shame that they didn't tighten the edit some, though. There's a real funhouse kind of vibe to the third act as one thing after another sets itself upon our trio of young women, but it takes a while to get there (even the Warrens themselves get an extended scare scene of no real consequence, though does add to Farmiga and Wilson's limited screentime), leaving the movie 10-15 min longer than it needed to be. I also wish they did something to justify their R rating - the MPAA chalked it up to "horror violence and terror" but apart from a quick (and hallucinated) stabbing, there's nothing in here to warrant the higher rating, which is a letdown when you are throwing werewolves and some kind of demonic Samurai into the mix (not to mention a potential easy kill in the form of a pizza delivery guy, but he gets to leave without as much as a "is someone there?" kind of bit). I assume at this point, since every Conjuring-verse movie has been R, that they won't do a PG-13 one in fear that it'd look like they had "sold out" or toned things down, but I'm not sure if that's really better than making a legit PG-13 movie (which there isn't anything wrong with!) and calling it R. Kind of like putting O'Douls in a real beer bottle, innit?

Still, far more of it worked than not, and it felt like a real movie as opposed to a scare machine like its predecessor, where I actually DID see it twice and still couldn't tell you much about any of its characters, and often wondered if we looked hard enough that we might see the producer with a stopwatch making sure that there was another jump every five minutes. By smartly moving away from the doll as much as possible and giving the characters (well, two of them) some genuine drama to deal with over the course of the evening, it felt fresh and engaging in ways most prequels never quite manage, even if at the end of the day a lot of it doesn't really stray from status quo. The occasional humor (Wilson in particular is going full Mike Brady) and unexpected melancholy moments - I legit teared up at a scene between Daniella and Lorraine! - safely elevate it above the others in this unusual spinoff franchise, and have me excited again for the third Conjuring after so many underwhelming spinoffs in between kind of diluted the brand a bit (though again, I seem to be in the minority - The Nun actually outgrossed even the Conjuring entries!). Bonus, I kind of love that you can go to a multiplex right now and see TWO evil doll movies (no Toy Story 4 jokes, please), something that I'm not sure has ever been the case. What a time to be alive!

What say you?

P.S. No post-credits scenes, but stick around for the full-screen titles! They're over-stylized and done up like '70s movies - loved em!


Child's Play (2019)

JUNE 23, 2019


The original Child's Play series is most notably the only major horror franchise that has been consistently written by the same person (Don Mancini), and yet the films themselves are probably the easiest to tell apart for a casual fan - seven very distinctive movies from one sole voice. Each one has had its own identity thanks to a specific setting (a military academy! Hollywood! A mental institution!) and even tone - some go for scares, others play up the comedy - yet remain consistent in its mythology and characters. So it's ironic that Child's Play, the 2019 remake that is also the first Chucky movie NOT written by Mancini, suffers from a bit of multiple personality disorder, as if they Frankensteined the script (or at least, the edit - more on that soon) from several versions that had vastly different things in mind. In one movie we got all the jarring at-odds storytelling decisions that previously eluded the franchise for thirty years.

Luckily, at least one of those assumed versions was actually an ideal concept for a Child's Play remake, so it's far from a disaster or anything. In fact it's actually pretty OK overall, and will easily freak out impressionable youngsters who are at that age where they no longer want to play with dolls but are intrigued by the wonders of technology, while making the adults perhaps rethink how many of their devices can be listening to everything they say. In one of its best ideas, the new Chucky isn't so much a generic plaything doll, but an attempt at a cutesy Alexa/Echo kind of device that can connect to your other devices and make life easier. The dolls (called Buddi out of the box, but the owner can give it their own distinct name) can turn on your TV, remind you about appointments, arrange for your rideshare, etc. You ever tell your Echo Dot to add milk to your grocery list or something of that benign nature? These folks can do that with their Buddi, with the added bonus of him being a little friend for your kids as opposed to a little hockey puck on the shelf.

So in addition to finding a way to mock the latest craze (the original "Good Guy Doll" was a spoof on Cabbage Patch Kids; this is on companies insisting all of our devices "talk" to each other), it also allows them to age Andy up a bit, giving the character different anxieties about his doll and also having the adults treat him differently when the "No, Chucky did it!" kind of stuff starts happening. Andy here is like 12 or 13 (the original one was about six if memory serves) so he obviously wouldn't be playing with a talking doll anymore, but one that can act as another device might be appealing, especially to one who has trouble making friends and finds his very capable doll to be an easy way to avoid doing the hard work of coming out of his shell (an early scene has his mother asking him to go outside and make friends - he ends up hiding in the hallway playing with his phone instead of even trying).

I also liked that Chucky was not possessed or anything. As a learning device, it is programmed to pick up on things that people say and do and act accordingly - a walk and talking version of your phone remembering how to spell your pet's made up name or how Gmail can guess you might want to reply "OK, no prob" to an email from someone saying they can't make your birthday party. But a disgruntled employee removes all of the safety features, so Chucky can learn how to swear and (thanks to Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2!) kill. And as his only goal in life is to make Andy happy and be his best friend, he sees Andy's happy reaction to the horror movie, and Andy's sad/angry reaction to people like his mom's boyfriend, and - without a soul to inform him he's doing anything wrong - starts offing people who upset his best pal. It's like the Monster drowning that girl because he doesn't understand the difference between play and reality, essentially, as opposed to an actual EVIL DOLL doing these things because he likes to do it.

So all that is well and good, but as the movie goes on, things start going astray - ironically enough - after Chucky makes his first human kill. Mimicking TCM2's scene where Leatherface puts on the guy's face in an attempt to appeal to Stretch, Chucky cuts the victim's face off and attaches it to a watermelon from the patch the guy inexplicably has, and brings it back to Andy's room as a present. Andy then freaks out, calls over his two friends (his "cool" safety feature-free doll has won him a few pals in the building), and then they decide to use some wrapping paper to wrap it up and throw it away. But he's caught with the makeshift gift by his mom, and his impossibly dumb excuse is that it's a gift for the lady down the hall - who is (and he knows this) mother to a cop. Then he has to convince the lady not to open the gift, then he has to get it back - it's like a bad cringe comedy sketch tossed into the middle of a horror movie, and ultimately the head ends up in the garbage chute where it can be found by the cops later anyway, so why they didn't just delete THIS entire sequence is beyond me, as it all it does is eat up ten minutes of screentime that could have been spent on something that the audience might not find the most implausible thing about a killer doll movie.

I emphasize "THIS" because clearly, the movie got reworked some, something I was convinced of BEFORE the end credits rolled and I saw the telltale "additional editor by" credit in the crawl that you only see in movies that got recut by someone at the 11th hour. Certain subplots never really resolve, and other times people seem to be overreacting to things - which is code for "they're actually reacting to something that got cut and we're hoping you will buy that it's this other thing". This happens most notably in a scene that ends the second act, when Andy is fully aware Chucky is doing terrible things but of course no one believes him. He's yelling about it in the Walmart-y department store where his mom works, and in the confusion/chaos one of his friends accidentally hits his head on one of the store shelves - but the next time we see them, they're all acting like he's this total psycho and no one ever wants to see him again, and the kid who whacked his chin seems more sad than in pain. Turns out (per Reddit and also a friend who was at the test screening) that originally Chucky killed that kid's dog and pinned it on Andy, a sequence that was removed and rejiggered, but with its fallout remaining.

Part of Chucky's plan involved using Andy's hearing aid, which fell off in the scuffle and gets a "Uh oh!" kind of closeup so that the audience is absolutely sure to see that Andy lost it. However, now he recovers it in the same scene (part of a reshoot that occurred in April, apparently), making the whole "he lost it" element mean absolutely nothing. In fact, his hearing issue as a whole never seems to play a part in anything, which is another reason that the movie feels cobbled together - there's probably a version where Chucky helped him with his condition when he's still good or used it to his advantage when bad, but he does neither here - there's a very quick scene where he is seemingly talking directly to the device (a "voice in his head" kind of thing) but it lasts all of four seconds. I can't imagine they went to all of that trouble just to have a bit where only Andy can hear Chucky, especially so late in the film. And then when other people do see that Andy is telling the truth, there's never any kind of "Oh shit, he WAS telling the truth" kind of moment from his mom or the cop, or even any disbelief as to what they're seeing - they just quickly accept it, I guess.

And then there's Andy's dad, who is only really mentioned once, when the kid is first showing Chucky his room (including his strange drawings, another thing that seems to be setting something up only for it to never come up again). When flipping through the sketchbook he comes across a picture of his father, and then he shuts the book saying "that's enough for now", but there's no followup. We know his mom (Aubrey Plaza, basically playing her Parks & Rec character) had him early, and Andy's reaction to the boyfriend suggests he's the latest in a string of losers, so this seemed to be suggesting the father wasn't dead but out of the picture by choice. However, later there's a framed picture of him in the living room, which would be a weird thing for Aubrey's character to have around if he was some jerk who left or was left. Again, two or three different narrative paths, all at once.

Things finally pick back up with the climax, though it's sadly over before it fully gets going. See, Chucky is part of the original "Buddi" line, and now the Buddi 2 is coming - with a big midnight opening at the store Andy's mom works. Chucky manages to tap into all of the devices (by the way, they specifically say he can only do this with his fellow Kaslan Industry products, so I guess these guys own more of our lives than Apple because he never once has trouble connecting to anything), such as drones armed with razors and the other Buddi dolls (including a freaky bear one), then locks the doors and sets everything free for maximum chaos. But we see I think two people get killed; despite the doors locking everyone manages to get away, I guess - or they all just died off-screen, which is possible since the movie is noticeably economical with what it shows us (80% or more of the movie takes place in either his apartment or the store; the rare exteriors are quick and tightly framed). With a blank check budget, I'm sure this sequence could have been a halfway point kind of thing, with Chucky's minions wreaking havoc everywhere a la Gremlins, but instead it became the climax, with everything before it needing to be dragged out to get there so that the film would still be a feature length.

(As for why the Buddy 2 is launching AFTER Christmas, as the movie clearly establishes that the holiday season has just passed, I have no idea.)

I'm sure the original cut was better, or at least, more consistent and less "off", but then again there was probably no real way to get around the other issue, which is that the design of the doll sucks. I'm sure that marketing kept them from making their design too unlike the classic Good Guy version, and so they had to find something in between recognizable and original, but what they came up with is just... BAD. Regardless of its usefulness, I can't imagine anyone would ever want one of these things in their home, and the movie blows its chance to own up to it by not having the Kaslan guy note that the Buddi 2 is "less ugly than its predecessor" or anything like that (though they do now come in a variety of hair colors as parents complained the original one was only available as a ginger, one of the movie's better gags). It seems they wanted to get away from the fact that OG Chucky had two faces (impossibly realized, yes) so tried to get one that was "creepy" but also looked like a normal doll, so he wouldn't have to unrealistically switch back and forth, but that's the wrong approach I think - no one ever cared that Chucky could just go back to looking like a plastic doll after coming fully alive, did they?

As for Mark Hamill, he's a good choice - he rarely yells/snarls/laughs so there's a big enough difference between him and Dourif to work, and he thankfully isn't given lots of one-liners (he only has one, really - and it's kind of amazing in context, which I won't spoil here). Back to the "multiple ideas at once" thing, at times it almost feels like they want us to feel bad for Chucky in that same Frankenstein's Monster kind of way, as he simply doesn't understand what he's doing wrong and just wants to make Andy happy, but they never fully commit to it. That said, if they DID make that movie, Hamill would be perfect for it - his earlier line readings do actually generate some pity for the toy. Bear McCreary's score also does some of the heavy lifting - this movie SOUNDS so much better than it LOOKS, basically. The human actors are all whatever; Brian Tyree Henry is probably the bright spot since he gets some good lines and a big crowd-pleasing moment near the end, but he also never feels essential to the movie and could have been excised without it affecting anything.

So it'd make a good double feature with Ma, now that I think about it, as both movies generate a little goodwill that more or less sustains itself for the runtime, and some nasty/mean-spirited moments that I was surprised to see in a major studio release, but also feel like two movies got made and someone cobbled together the most coherent version they could using equal parts from both. Out of spite they should have focused all of their energy on presenting a screenplay that would measure up to the earlier films, if only to prove that Don Mancini doesn't have to be the only one writing these things, but.. they basically proved Don Mancini should be the only one writing these things. Even he doesn't knock it out of the park every time, but the movies are always interesting in their own way, whereas this one was largely going through the motions. I didn't like Seed of Chucky and never even watched in its entirety a second time, but I can still remember big chunks of it 15 years later - I may have enjoyed this more, but won't remember much of it in 15 days. Call me if they decide to release the earlier cut though - I suspect that despite whatever issues it may have had, it's the more consistent and ultimately more interesting movie.

What say you?


The Dead Don't Die (2019)

JUNE 14, 2019


Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive was one of my favorite movies that year, and remains an easy title to name-check whenever someone asks for a solid vampire movie they might not have seen, so I was hoping that The Dead Don't Die would follow suit, with Jarmusch applying his trademark deadpan outlook (and... let's say "casual" approach to plotting) to the zombie film. Alas, very little about it worked for me, and since horror is not his forte I truly hate the idea that someone who might be interested in the filmmaker trying his hand at genre at this later stage in his career might see this (it's his first ever wide release) and be turned off from checking out Only Lovers, thinking it would be just as interminable.

If you've seen the trailer, you've basically seen everything the movie has to offer - a lot of fun people (Bill Murray! Adam Driver! Tilda Swinton! Tom Waits!) shrugging their way through a Romero-esque zombie outbreak, a joke that's mileage will vary depending on your personal preferences. For me it wore thin rather quickly; the zom-coms that work best (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, etc) all eventually have the heroes get a little more proactive and balance the tone so that it feels like a fully satisfying ride, but here Jarmusch is content to keep it at an energy level barely hovering over zero. Even when heroes Adam Driver and Bill Murray finally do spring into action (a sequence highlighted in the trailer as if it was a third act kickoff, but is actually the film's final scene) there's an air of glibness to it that just didn't work for me.

The plot, such as it is, is at least grounded in some kind of good idea. Unlike Romero's films (Night is name-checked; more on that soon) we get a legit explanation for the undead rising from their graves: polar fracking has caused the Earth to shift on its axis, resulting in any number of side effects such as animals getting confused, the day/night cycle getting screwy, etc. in addition to the zombies (sure, why not?). News reports inform us that it's happening everywhere, but our focus remains on a generic small town and its sleepy denizens. Some of the actors, particularly Chloe Sevigny and Danny Glover, seem to think they're in a real zombie movie and act appropriately (concerned/scared), others, like Driver, just sort of stare blankly at it. And Murray just does his Murray thing, albeit laid-back even by his standards - it's hard to describe a Bill Murray performance as, well, a "performance", really, but relatively speaking it might be the laziest I've seen from him.

In fact, at one point I even pondered if the actors were on the same page as to what kind of movie this was, when the movie itself answered me with a "probably not". Throughout the movie, Murray and Driver occasionally lapse into some fourth-wall breaking by commenting on the movie's theme song by Sturgill Simpson (who appears as a zombie) and whether or not they are improvising through some dull backstory. For their final one, Murray asks Driver how he knows that "things won't end well", a phrase he keeps repeating, and Driver tells him that it's because he read the script. Murray then laments that "Jim" only let him read his own scenes, and whether or not it's true doesn't matter - the point is I felt that I was watching a movie where no one was aware of what anyone else was doing, and here was the movie confirming that was very likely.

In fact I almost considered walking out at one point, and not because it was "the worst movie ever made" or anything like that - it just became clear that I had already seen everything it had to offer after by the halfway point, and reading even a very thorough wiki synopsis would have had the same effect in a tenth of the time. The final straw was when I realized what the zombies were REALLY saying. See, these ones talk, but only one word each, and I thought it was just them talking about the last thing on their mind before they died; for example, the first two we meet just keep saying "coffee" over and over, and it's clear that they died in some kind of vehicle accident, so maybe they were on their way to get coffee when they got hit, right? Nope - later on we meet some that are saying things like "Siri" and "Xanax" and I realized that Jarmusch was making the same joke Romero did FORTY YEARS AGO in Dawn of the Dead, and doing a lesser job to boot. Yes, the zombies aren't much different from the "living" people who are driven by consumerism. Very clever.

(In case you still don't get it, Waits' character spells it out in a film-closing rant.)

This is where I lost what little hope I had left for the film; Night got name-checked a few times (Selena Gomez drives the same car Barbara and Johnny had, and every character that sees it notices) but apparently he never got around to watching Dawn (he would have referenced it too, right? Especially since he's making the same point?), and we have to suffer through 105 minutes of proof. I really only stuck around for Driver, whose deliveries were amusing enough (plus I generally like the guy), and Swinton, who is having the most fun out of anyone playing a Scottish mortician who gets all Michonne on the zombies while walking around like a video game character (when she walks across the street and up an angled pathway, it kind of looks like Pac-Man navigating a maze - it's really quite impressive physical work from the actress). Everyone else's role was too erratic to care much about; Jarmusch's films have always had dropped subplots and out of nowhere resolutions, but the ensemble nature (as opposed to the compact cast of Only Lovers) makes the film feel like its runtime got cut in half by removing scenes at random. Someone will be fine, and then they'll be a zombie the next time we see them - what happened?

Thankfully, I didn't care much - if anything I'm grateful that just meant the movie was shorter. A few scattered laughs and a halfway decent "why" were not nearly enough to make this worth my while; it was neither funny enough to be a good comedy or exciting enough to be a good zombie movie. Maybe if Jarmusch took the anthology/vignette approach of many of his older films and showed each character's story as a standalone segment before rewinding to show another (instead of cutting back and forth between them with no real rhyme or reason), it might have felt less aimless, or at least had larger chunks that worked instead of fleeting moments here and there. But every time it felt like it might pick up a bit, the energy deflated again, and while that tact worked for some (a few of my BMD cohorts loved it), I found myself wishing I was next door watching Dark Phoenix or Men in Black 4 instead. Better to walk out of a lazy franchise entry saying "yep, just as forgettable as I figured it would be" than to walk out of an original thinking of all the other movies that did the same thing better.

What say you?


Knife + Heart (2018)

JUNE 11, 2019


While slasher throwbacks are easy to find and occasionally even successful, few have been able to crack the code when it comes to making a modern giallo film. Things like Amer and The Editor have their hearts in the right place and certainly evoke that bygone era, but it always feels like an homage, as opposed to a genuine entry in the sub-genre. So I am happy to report that Yann Gonzalez' Knife + Heart, a French film that was on the festival circuit a year or two ago, finally gets it right - it's just a straight up giallo, one that uses its influences more carefully and always has its own story and characters at the forefront of its intentions. Every now and then I'd catch a whiff of this or that older movie, but then get pulled right back into their movie as opposed to thinking about any others I may have seen.

Set in the late '70s, our group of protagonists are the cast and crew of an adult film production house specializing in gay porn. A masked killer (leather mask, naturally - and yes he has the gloves to match) has seemingly targeted the group and is offing them one by one, usually using a dildo that doubles as a switchblade (!). The owner of the company, Anne (Vanessa Paradis), is the only one who seems to believe that they could all be in danger (the cops don't care much, given their background) and goes about trying to discover the culprit's identity while also trying to reignite her affair with Lois, her ex-lover who also works as the company's editor. As her only clue is a feather that was found at one of the murder sites, suggesting the killer may have had a bird with him (that'd be one of those rare direct references - you'll likely think of Crystal Plumage), she decides to try to lure him out by basing their newest film around the case.

The gay element aside (the older films were rarely sympathetic toward gay people, and were also "of their time" when it comes to misogyny), there's very little about it that would make it feel out of place alongside Argento, Martino, etc. The murder scenes are effectively lurid and suspenseful, there are some odd moments of humor, and the music by M83 (Gonzalez' brother, as it turns out!) is flat out gorgeous. But what really won me over is the mystery plot, which - like most of the ones I've seen - is impossible to solve ahead of time and largely centers on information that was never divulged or even hinted at in the first hour or so of the film. Some might find this frustrating (I myself probably lambasted a film or two for doing it in my younger days) but it's truly how a lot of them worked, and thus it's perfect.

The only drawback is that the connection isn't quite as solid as I hoped. The motive is clear and even kind of sad in a way, but it's almost completely random that they end up going after the cast/crew of the film, so you don't get that "it was YOU?" kind of moment that's always part of the fun (especially when it makes little sense), because none of them actually know the killer personally and Anne is the only one aware of their backstory at all (which she only learns out of coincidence to boot). Not enough to derail the movie or anything, but just a warning to those who are into the more "you reminded me of my mother who I saw cheating on my father with so I had to kill your friends" kinda nuttiness that we usually get in these things.

As for the sexual content, it was actually tamer than I thought! Considering the setting, and the fact that French films aren't as reserved as American ones when it comes to sex, I was expecting NC-17 level content, but it's not particularly graphic. In fact the only junk you see is on the murderer's dildo weapon, I think - even milder actions like kissing are brief. The basic plot will turn off homophobes and the like anyway, so I'm rather surprised they didn't go all out - it's actually no more explicit than Cruising, which played as the second half of this double feature at the New Beverly (and yes, I stayed awake through both, thank you very much). I had never seen Cruising before, knowing only its plot, and I was surprised to discover I actually preferred this - they're paced almost identically (I'd be willing to bet Cruising was one of Gonzalez' influences, in fact), but this kept me engaged and seemed to be more focused.

(That said, and skip this if you haven't seen Cruising yet, I inexplicably managed to call the twist without even realizing it. In the very first scene, a pair of cops (Joe Spinell and Mike Starr!) are harassing some transvestite hookers in their car when the camera cuts outside of it to show a man in a wide-ish shot, walking into a bar. His face isn't seen, but my first impression was "Oh that's Pacino's character, entering the story." However, it's then revealed this character is the killer... who turns out to (maybe?) be Pacino anyway. Wacky!)

Back to Knife + Heart though. No, it won't be for everyone, but as I've long since tired of the winking attitude toward making these kind of retro films, I was so happy that it WASN'T one of those that I found it easy to forgive its occasional sluggish pace and awkwardly staged climax, where the mystery is solved by being in the right place at the right time not once but twice. Most of the old gialli have plenty of things I could criticize as well, so let's not pretend it's the only one to muck a few things up. By getting more right than wrong, and treating the sub-genre seriously, I was more than sold on it, and hope fellow fans will seek it out (it hits Shudder next week, so that should make it easier). The only thing missing (unless I didn't catch it) was a bottle of J+B whiskey - just supply your own and have a great time reliving the glory era of this fare as if it never went out of style.

What say you?


Trapped Alive (1988)

JUNE 6, 2019


By the mid '80s, the only non-supernatural slashers that were still getting wide theatrical releases were the franchise entries, with very few exceptions. But thanks to independent productions, the genre kept itself alive with dozens of movies like Trapped Alive (aka simply Trapped), which wasn't released until 1993, but was shot in 1988 in upper Wisconsin and apart from its low body count would have fit right in alongside its golden era peers. While a lot of the others of the time were chasing Freddy with supernatural elements, writer/director Leszek Burzynski was content to make his killer just your standard mountain man kind of hulking brute, stalking a handful of victims in a mine shaft without any further plot complications.

I remember reading about the movie in John Stanley's Creature Features book, which I read cover to cover when I got it around 1997 and maintained a list of movies that sounded worthy of my time. And even though he didn't have much good to say about this one, it still sounded up my alley: the protagonists are at odds with each other (it's a pair of young women and a trio of escaped convicts) but are facing a common enemy, the same "the enemy of my enemy is my friend, for now" plot that worked just fine for Carpenter and Romero, and the location was an abandoned mine, a la My Bloody Valentine which was then and is still one of my favorite slasher films ever. And I didn't agree with Stanley on a lot of things anyway, so I didn't want to take his word for it and skip it. Alas, even with six+ years of daily watching, I forgot all about it until Arrow announced a special edition Blu-ray, which hit shelves this week.

As it turns out, Stanley wasn't wrong - it's certainly not a must-see entry in the sub-genre. The pacing is deadly slow; the first legit kill occurs at the 57 minute mark, which would be OK (if still a bit odd) if he was at least stalking the folks and giving us a few quick glimpses at him here and there, but no - it's almost a spoiler to call the movie a slasher at all. Until he finally appears, it's more of a survival thriller, with our group trapped in this mine on a freezing night and trying to find their way out, with the added threat that the prisoners might just kill (or worse) our two heroines. It's almost like the killer is another obstacle as opposed to the primary threat, which isn't helped by the not-great acting, as they often don't even seem particularly frightened by him when he does appear.

But I was still engaged more than you'd think; for a regional production it's actually quite well made apart from those aforementioned weak actors. The mine - all built on sets - looks terrific and the DP shot the hell out of it, so it doesn't have that horrible low-budget lighting that kills the mood on so many similar films. And even though he doesn't appear enough, our miner killer has a great design; kind of a Madman Marz meets Hills Have Eyes mutant sorta thing, and I like that his preferred weapon wasn't the expected pickaxe but a large pincer like thing that he'd drop down and pull his victims up with. Basically, it felt like they were putting in a good effort to make something a little closer to Halloween than Friday the 13th Part Whatever, and while they missed that mark, I appreciate the attempt and found it easier to watch than, say, Memorial Valley Massacre or Iced (other 1988 slashers that were neither well done or seemingly attempting to be any good).

Speaking of MVM, Cameron Mitchell shows up in this one too, albeit only for a few minutes as the father as one of the girls, who is throwing a big Christmas party when she leaves with her friend to go to their own thing (running afoul of the convicts en route). The Christmas element isn't QUITE prominent enough to dub this as a holiday slasher, but still - it gives the movie that extra little bit of atmosphere, and it's always fun to see Mitchell hamming it up in one of these things. He's also the only person in the movie I recognized, though IMDb tells me the guy who played the cop was in the woeful Class Reunion - maybe slashers weren't really his thing? His role in the movie is kind of amazing; he gets the call about the car going into the mine, and while looking around for it he meets a woman who lives nearby. She invites him in to use the phone and maybe, I dunno, 12 seconds later they're hopping in bed, mocking her husband sleeping in the next room and throwing in a pretty great "shaft" related pun for good measure. She pops up again later in a twist that won't surprise anyone, but it was still amusing to see it play out.

The bonus features on Arrow's disc are actually more fun than the movie, in particular the 20 or so minute local news program from the time the movie was shot, touting the "Hollywood comes to Wisconsin!" kind of excitement that no one will ever really feel anymore now that they make movies everywhere, all the time (and half of them aren't even as good as this). The plan for this team was to get a production studio up and running in their little Wisconsin town, and they followed it up with two movies I never heard of (The Chill Factor and The Inheritor) as well as Mindwarp, the Bruce Campbell/Angus Scrimm movie put out by Fangoria. They talk about this in detail on the retrospective, which is also quite good; they're proud of their work without touting the film as a masterpiece, which is always the right approach for these things. And there's a story about Michael Berryman that kind of blew my mind; he was originally hired to play the killer, but was fired for giving script notes! Not for nothing, but maybe he was right?

There are also three commentaries, one with the director, one with Hank Carlson, and another with the Hysteria Lives guys, who barely talk about the movie itself and talk about late 80s slashers in general (at least for as much of it that I listened to; I was getting tired of seeing the movie so many times in a short period so I only got through about half of it). Carlson's one is probably the best since he has a lot of fun anecdotes and the moderator (a former Fangoria scribe) has his own input, whereas the director's is a straight up Q&A where he tells a lot of the same stories he told on the retrospective (it's also not scene specific at all, adding to the Q&A feel). Carlson also provides an interview, and the included booklet has a fun essay by Zach Carlson (no relation, far as I know) about the film's woozy charms, as well as a touching tribute to actor Paul Dean (who passed away in 2012) written by his son. Dean played the killer after Berryman was canned, but was apparently more of an angel in real life - starting a shelter, raising funds for people in need, etc. He could also bench press 655 lbs, so... how is it that this is his only movie???

No one but slasher aficionados need apply, of course - the movie never quite gets going and its best moments are too spread out to make up for it. But I have to say I was happy to discover that it was the rare late '80s indie slasher that wasn't undone by an abundance of hateful characters or zero lack of atmosphere (many of them, including the aforementioned Memorial Valley Massacre, spend too much time in the daylight - this one's entirely at night). Instead, the filmmakers opted not to bite off more than they could chew, doing a few things well instead of a lot of things poorly. Thanks to the Christmas setting, I might even throw it on again this December on one of those nights where I just want to drink a (spiked) hot cocoa in my usually chilly living room and doze off watching something I've seen before. It just has that late night, local access vibe that I'm always nostalgic for, even if it's not exactly the best example.

What say you?


Ma (2019)

JUNE 5, 2019


First Brightburn, and now Ma - I am really getting tired of trailers that not only give away the best parts, but also focus heavily on things that are meant to be reveals in the narrative itself. To be fair, a couple (literally, two) of Ma's surprises were discovered in the film as opposed to its marketing, but I still spent far too much of my time being ahead of the characters, making it hard to get sucked into the story. And that's kind of a problem for a thriller; these movies are largely designed to only really work once, and yet it felt like I was already on my second viewing since I had already seen Ma do most of the crazy things she does in its 95 or so minutes.

Because, alas, this is not a movie about Octavia Spencer wiping out a group of partying kids like some kind of unmasked Jason Voorhees. There's a bit of a body count, though the R rating mostly comes from the language as opposed to violence (it never gets more extreme than the jogger being run over, which - broken record time - was in the trailer), with one curious exception that the MPAA didn't even really mention. The film's R rating was chalked up to "violent/disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use", and it should be noted that "sexual content" usually means people discussing sex or maybe implying it, i.e. something that even a PG-13 could have. But one thing a PG-13 definitely can't have is a shot of a male penis, which this offers courtesy of Luke Evans, whose character is Ma's real target.

See, what this movie really is is one of those "outcast gets revenge on classmates who humiliated her" films, albeit a curiously structured one where it takes nearly an hour for the screenplay to inform us just exactly what happened all those years ago, unlike the similar movies that explain it up front before flashing forward. It's a really horrible prank along the lines of Terror Train (albeit without the corpse; young Ma, really named Sue Ann, was once tricked into performing a sex act on what she thought was her crush but was actually his buddy), but the long build up to it suggests it will twist our perspective and have us rooting for Ma. That is certainly not the case, and since her revenge plot makes little sense, it's hard to see the correlation when the reveal finally happens. The guy that she actually performed on isn't even mentioned again, for starters, even though that'd be an easy target (not to mention someone who could pepper in a little action early on). Weirder still, Evans' high school girlfriend, who was of course in on the prank, is still around in the present (played by Missi Pyle as an adult), but when Ma goes after her she chalks it up to defending Juliette Lewis' character, who Pyle had mocked in the present for having to move back home after a messy divorce. So was Lewis's younger self Sue Ann's only friend or something? Nope, we barely see her in the past and later on Ma seems to consider her part the same group of oppressors anyway.

Further, it makes me wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to wait so long to show it; in fact they actually build up to it with a series of flashbacks of young Sue Ann first catching the guy's eye, going to a party with him, etc. By the time we see what exactly happened, we've already learned in the present that Sue Ann is an outcast, has trouble making friends, and has some curious views on teenaged sex, so not only is the payoff kind of anticlimactic, but the movie would have worked better as a whole by seeing this incident up front and letting us sympathize with her a little and even wanting to see her get revenge only for her to take it too far and shift our allegiance. Now it occurs after it's fully established that she's crazy, which is obviously too late for us to start feeling bad for her. It'd be like waiting until Friday the 13th Part 4 to tell us Jason was a little boy who drowned.

Another wonky creative decision concerns the heroine, Maggie (Diana Silvers, one of the cheerleaders in Glass), whose is Lewis' character's daughter. She is new in town and has no friends, and on her first day at school she is eating her packed lunch in the library by herself when a girl named Haley storms in out of nowhere, introduces herself, and puts her number into Maggie's phone, and then the following day invites her to join them for some drinking. It's such a strange way for Maggie to make friends that I thought for sure she - like Sue Ann - was being tricked into doing something embarrassing by people who were only pretending to like her, and thus parallel Ma's story. Hell, there's even a moment where she tells Ma "I'm stronger than you!" or something to that effect, which practically seems left over from a draft of the script where that was indeed the case.

But no, Haley and the others are legit friends to the end, and furthermore Ma is barely interested in her at all, so I had to wonder why the movie even bothered kicking off with her arrival in town since her "new kid" status has no bearing on anything beyond the aforementioned bit about Pyle throwing shade at Lewis for moving back home. Maggie's irrelevance to the majority of the plot is really hammered home with a clumsy runner about Ma apparently taking their jewelry, which kicks off when a girl we've never seen before runs over to Maggie and Haley in the hallway to tell them about her birthday plans and Maggie zeroes in on her new bracelet. Maggie admires it and we get a lengthy closeup of it, and if you've seen a single movie before you'd know that this means later on Maggie will find that very same bracelet in Ma's basement or something, suggesting something happened to the girl. But when the bracelet does come back later, Maggie's not even the one who notices it - Haley does, even though she wasn't the one that was so fixated on it earlier. As for the bracelet's owner? Who knows, they never mention her again.

It's the sort of thing that had me wondering if the movie was re-edited and re-arranged from an earlier cut. Throughout the movie, the kids (not just Maggie) are put off by something weird Ma does, only to seemingly forget about it the next day and hang out with her again. Even after Haley broadcasts "everyone block Ma's number, she's crazy!" to all of her friends (including Ma! Learn how to hide your posts from specific people, Haley!) they all seem fine with each other a day or two later, as if the scenes weren't presented in their intended order. There are also baffling things like Ma using a dog's blood for a transfusion on someone she just kills a few moments later anyway - why? That, along with the go-nowhere subplots about the jewelry (the way the trailer cuts that stuff together actually works better, ironically enough) and Maggie's similarly erratic relationship with her mother makes me wonder if there wasn't some reshaping or a much longer cut that would have shown more naturally why these folks can't seem to make up their minds about anything.

Still, Spencer's performance keeps it watchable, even entertaining at its best. Since I didn't know the trailer had shown me so much until it was over, I was never quite sure what she'd be doing next, and she doesn't even really try to hide her "off"-ness from the kids; the second time they visit she holds one of them at gunpoint and makes him strip (something they all write off as a joke later even though, uh, it's the same sort of sexually driven trauma she was so broken up about, directed at someone who had nothing to do with it - weird decision #23). I also loved the scenes where she was at work as a veterinarian, because she was clearly terrible at her job and constantly berated by her boss, played by the great Allison Janney - even though I came for a horror movie, I probably would have walked out happier if it was just a workplace comedy about these two trying to keep a small town animal clinic afloat despite hating each other. There's also a hilarious bit where Ma is getting a pedicure and starts cussing on the phone, drawing the ire of an old lady next to her - I could have watched the two of them bicker for 90 minutes, easily.

But alas, with so few thrills, the janky pacing, and missed opportunities, it's hard to say I walked out a big fan of what I DID see. It was watchable for sure; the climax was reasonably suspenseful, and the kids were thankfully all likable (even Haley, introduced as a kind of "pretty popular girl" type, is caring about her friends and never seen being mean to anyone), so it's not a "bad movie" in the traditional sense. But it was like the makers couldn't decide if it was a trashy B movie about a psycho or a serious thriller about the long-term effects of adolescent trauma (something the company's The Gift did so quite wonderfully a few years back), and ended up somewhere in the middle, underwhelming on both fronts. Here's hoping the Blu-ray has a longer cut or at least a wealth of deleted scenes that can rectify one or both problems, though after a few years I wouldn't get my hopes up as Blumhouse stuff almost never gets extended versions (Truth or Dare is the only exception that comes to mind) and even when they HAVE deleted scenes they're often missing ones we know about (i.e. Halloween and its original ending). What you see is what you get, and while that's often good enough, here I needed a little more.

What say you?


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