Killer Nun (1979)

OCTOBER 15, 2019


I have only seen a handful of nunsploitation movies, so when I say that Killer Nun (Italian: Suor Omicidi) is one of the more interesting I've seen, you must take into consideration that it doesn't have a lot of competition. Still, as one of the few present day set ones, and a lack of torture or excessive nudity, I'm sure I'd say the same even with a little more hands-on experience with this unusual sub-genre, as director/co-writer Giulio Berruti is aiming for something a little less sleazy and exploitative and a little more psychological than, say, The Other Hell, but not "art house" like The Devils - it lands somewhere in between, presenting a decent (if easy to solve) mystery and some truly memorable bits of insanity and violence.

Speaking of Other Hell, there are two scenes in this movie that had me momentarily convinced that I had seen it before and just forgotten until my memory was jogged by these particular moments. It took a bit to remember they are from that other film, which also came later, so perhaps Hell director Bruno Mattei had seen this one and was intentionally "paying homage" to it? But otherwise they're fairly different; for starters this film has no supernatural elements whatsoever, grounding it in reality even more than the present day setting, which as I mentioned was somewhat rare as the films tended to go back in time to eras where the Church had more power. But it makes sense; the plot hews closer to a standard 1970s giallo than anything else, so a period setting would throw off that vibe I suspect.

Anita Ekberg plays Sister Gertrude, an older nun who is suffering from mood swings and blackouts as a side effect from brain surgery, a procedure that left her addicted to morphine on top of everything else. She is also starting to be openly hostile to the patients that her and the other sisters are caring for (it's a sort of rest home/convent, I guess?); in one insane scene she freaks out on an elderly woman who has put her dentures into a cup, and after chewing her out she throws the teeth on the floor and stomps on them over and over while the poor woman just cries hysterically (and later dies of a heart attack). But someone is also straight up murdering people around the joint, and she believes she herself is the killer (nun), chalking it up to the next logical step of her increasingly mean temper.

Naturally it's not that easy; if she WAS the killer she wouldn't be saying she was. Only someone with next to zero experience with mystery thrillers would have trouble pegging the real culprit, but that doesn't matter much - the fun is seeing both Gertrude and the real killer gradually lose their grip on sanity over the film's 90 minutes. Berruti throws in a few freak-out scenes (usually surrounding Gertrude's morphine usage) that help make up for the film's rather subdued "horror" elements (it goes on a few stretches that barely qualify as thriller fare, such as when Gertrude decides to head into the city to find a rando to screw), and it ultimately more or less fits the giallo definition - Berruti merely sticks closer to the dramatic side of the equation than the horror one that Argento and his imitators often did.

The real MVP of the film (besides that dentures scene; it's really something) is the score by Alessandro Alessandroni. It doesn't sound like a typical genre score, almost closer to western or something, but it works perfectly, and I thank Arrow for putting a decent length loop of it on the menu for me to enjoy whenever a bonus feature ended. As always the disc is well packed with interviews, plus a pretty good historian commentary by Adrian J. Smith and David Flint, where the men go into the history of nunsploitation a bit, comparing it to others using key scenes as examples, and on occasion rib a few of its wonkier moments. They also note how the film is indeed technically a giallo, but also sets itself apart from them as the murderer's identity is easy to solve whereas a true giallo the killer is on occasion a character who was so extraneous that more than once the reveal had audience members saying "Wait, who is that?". I wouldn't have minded more on the true story, howver; they note that it's a real thing that happened in Belgium, but offer up no other details and online info is a bit hard to come across to back it up. But otherwise it's a well rounded track, and reaffirms my belief that historian tracks are always better when there are two or more participants, as they otherwise tend to get too dry.

For more context on nunsploitation, there's a video essay by Kat Ellinger that runs nearly a half an hour and covers a lot of ground, and, much like the commentary, uses films like The Devils and School of the Holy Beast to show how Killer Nun fits into the sub-genre as a whole. It's a bit dry of course (it's an essay!) but it's an essential viewing for anyone like me who has yet to fully dive into this particular kind of film, if only to get an idea of which ones will be more your speed and which might be a bit too out there for you. Then there are some interviews with Berruti, editor Mario Giacco, and actress Ileana Fraia, whose 24 minute interview runs about 10 times as long as you'll see her in the film (she's neither of the leads and plays a character who is sent away relatively early).

If you've never seen any of these kind of films, this might be a good place to start. It's not overly graphic or violent (though there's a murder by facial acupuncture that comes close), the blasphemous elements are rather minimal (hell even Exorcist has that defaced statue), and it's got one foot in the giallo door, easing the transition for those who are a little strict with their definition of "horror" since several nunsploitation films wouldn't otherwise qualify. Arrow's presentation is outstanding and there are enough goodies to keep you busy if you're a fan, making it a solid package all around. Plus, you can easily find it here in the US, so it's got one up on The Devils!

What say you?


Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)

OCTOBER 18, 2019


I've long been baffled by Hollywood's unwillingness to cash in the zombie trend; the original Zombieland made a boatload of money and a couple years later, World War Z somehow managed to become Brad Pitt's highest grossing movie ever despite well documented production troubles. And yet, there have only been a handful of major zombie movies since, as if the studios all decided to let the indie scene (and AMC TV of course) handle things rather than cash in like they usually do when there are two hit horror movies in the same sub-genre. Still, I still assumed Sony would have been quicker to finally get Zombieland: Double Tap going, as it's been a full decade since the original - might as well be a hundred years for a horror property. A big franchise can take that much time off and make its return an event, but not a fresh one like this - they really should have been on Zombieland 4 by now.

But since it took so long, they must have a ton of new ideas and a really good hook that got everyone to finally commit to making a sequel, right? Well... not so much. While there are a few fresh ideas, such as an advanced zombie that is nearly impossible to kill (bullet to the head doesn't work) and some fun new characters, it unfortunately feels like so many other comedy sequels, in that it's closer to remake than "next chapter", hitting a number of the same beats and more or less sticking to the same pattern of action scenes - a slo-mo driven opening set to Metallica and a big finale with a swarm of undead advancing on our heroes who are in an elevated position, with a few scattered and brief fights in the middle somewhere. It got to the point where I almost wished it DID have evil human characters (the lack of which was a big selling point for me in the original) to at least mix things up a bit.

So what IS the story here? Basically, after holing up in the White House for a while, we see that Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are more content with their life than Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone), and after Columbus tries to spice things up my proposing to Wichita, the two women bail. However, when Wichita makes a surprise return a month later, she tells the boys that Little Rock in turn ditched her in favor of a new group of friends (hippies, some of whom are actually in her age group), and thus the trio set out to find her to make sure she's OK and maybe convince her to stick with her sister.

Things are slightly complicated by the presence of Madison, a ditzy blonde played by Zoey Deutch. Columbus found her in the mall, learning she had been holed up in a Pinkberry for years, and as he had just been dumped by Wichita (and Madison in turn had been without any human contact for years) the two quickly hop into bed, leaving Wichita both jealous and annoyed when she returns. So basically they have the ingredients for a new dynamic (while checking in with Breslin every now and then with her hippie pals), but the script seems in a rush to retreat to more familiar scenarios and character interactions, so her role is a strictly supporting one, not a "full fledged new member". Other new characters show up, but most of them are only in it for a few minutes before they're turned into zombies and removed from the proceedings, which isn't enough time to give the film as a whole its own identity.

It also lacks the surprising pathos that helped make the original such a winner. Columbus discovering his parents were dead (and, specifically, Tallahassee being the one to shield him a bit from the news), the true nature of Tallahassee's "puppy"... there's nothing like that for either our returning characters or the new ones, making it feel even more weightless. This along with the limited zombie action (and even appearances; despite a number of wide shots of their car traveling, there's never any stragglers just kind of wandering around nearby - the things apparently only work in groups) has it almost feel like there's no actual danger in the world, let alone any psychological turmoil such a scenario would leave on them. Sure, Madison is funny enough, but would it have killed them to establish any sense of humanity for the character? Or Rosario Dawson's Nevada, who we know even less about? I kept thinking about how well Last Man on Earth (RIP) handled this sort of thing; you'd be laughing at Will Forte in a dinosaur suit one minute and nearly left in tears the next. Considering how much they recycle from the original - why drop one of the best things?

Especially when, you know, it's not that funny either. It's got a few laughs for sure, but rarely anything laugh out loud-worthy (one of the few exceptions: using Madison the idiot to pitch an idea we actually do have in our world - but not in theirs since things stopped in 2009 - summing up how fairly stupid it is when you think about it), and when they recycle things that were so great in the first film - like a driving montage where the seating arrangements keep changing - it just reminded me how much fresher the first one felt. Things truly reach their nadir with the arrival of Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch as a pair who act/talk just like Tallahasee and Columbus (Middleditch's character has "Commandments" instead of "rules", and we watch the two compare their minor differences for what seems like an eternity), leaving me actively annoyed instead of merely kind of bored.

As for the zombie action, it's fine. There's a pretty great one take sequence where our heroes fight off a pair of the new "T-800" zombies (so-named because they're just as hard to kill), and the finale, while brief, has some solid crowd-pleasing moments as a Monster Truck is used to wipe out an entire swarm. But apart from one brief chunk of the climax, no one ever seems in any real danger - including the random hippies who stupidly decided to melt all of their weapons. There's like two dozen of them, most of whom never even speak, so it baffles me they couldn't at least heighten the tension by letting the countless zombies actually get a few of them, especially when there's not even a "we don't need weapons after all" point to be made, as a (smuggled in) gun ends up saving the day anyway.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting a grim drama like Walking Dead or Day of the Dead, but the first film managed to keep things light while reminding us on occasion of the real tragedy and danger at play - Double Tap just focuses on the laughs, and half of them either don't land or are just recycled from the first one. It's amusing enough, but after ten years I can't help but feel disappointed that they didn't come up with any new ideas of note - perhaps the long delay had them wanting to play it safe? God knows there are enough people out there who fear change, so it's possible that they are the target demo here, getting more of the same and only the bare minimum of new material so that it doesn't qualify as a remake. They'll love it, I'm sure, but me, the best I can say is that it more or less held my attention and gave me a few laughs, but I'd be hard pressed to remember much about it by this time next week (I've already forgotten Middleditch's name, in fact). It's nice to spend some time with these folks again, but that can only go so far - eventually there has to be a solid reason for their return, and I never found one here.

What say you?


3 From Hell (2019)

OCTOBER 15, 2019


With the exception of Lords of Salem, you rarely hear anyone say their favorite Rob Zombie movie is anything but The Devil's Rejects, his 1000 Corpses sequel that dropped the Texas Chainsaw-y kinda stuff in favor of a violent revenge thriller that pitted the Firefly family against the brother of a guy they killed in the first film. I wouldn't say Zombie ever sided with Otis, Baby, and Captain Spaulding in that film, but he clearly didn't want us rooting for their hunter (William Forsythe) either, allowing them a few minutes of "triumph" after offing him before they too met their grisly and deserved end in a hail of police bullets. We never actually saw them die, but it seemed pretty unlikely that a dozen cops firing on them would leave any of them alive, and so when he announced the long awaited (?) sequel 3 From Hell, my assumption would be that he'd be returning to the more traditional horror elements of the first film by introducing a supernatural angle.

(NOTE - Some spoilers follow, including details about the film's third act!)

Alas, the title isn't meant to be taken literally - the Fireflys simply miraculously survived their wounds (we're told they were shot about 20 times each) and that's that. I don't know if it was the lowered budget or simple laziness on Zombie's part, but it's kind of distressing that he'd wave away a fairly definitive ending to his best movie with such a half-assed excuse to keep them around (it's in the same eye-rolling territory as Halloween: Resurrection's "she beheaded a paramedic"). Alas, by "them" I mean Otis and Baby; due to star Sid Haig's health issues, Zombie was forced to rewrite his script a bit (Haig fell ill just before production began, apparently) and fill his role with a new character named Foxy (said to be Otis' half brother) played by Richard Brake. The filmmaker was only able to get Haig for one day to give Spaulding a single scene where he is interviewed on Death Row by a documentary crew, and that's it - we're told in the next scene that Spaulding had his lethal injection and died without any fuss the next day.

Yep, he survives being shot 20 times (not to mention the torture from Forsythe) only for a few fluids to do him in. It feels like a disconnect, which got me thinking perhaps there WAS some kind of "they're unkillable" element in the original script that Zombie had to abandon in order to give Spaulding a proper sendoff? The filmmaker has never been one to be too forthcoming with abandoned story ideas (indeed, the making of doc shows Danny Trejo apparently filming scenes for a part of the movie he has no role in whatsoever, but Rob doesn't explain it there or in the commentary), so we'll probably never know - it's kind of a victory that he even admitted the "Foxy for Spaulding" switcheroo. And Brake is fine, but the movie never quite feels like the "end of the trilogy" it should because of Haig's unfortunate inability to participate two weeks before shooting, when sets had been built and actors/locations secured, etc (i.e. too late to wait for Haig to get better, which, as we sadly now know, he never did - RIP Sid!).

But that said, I don't think Rob changed the script so drastically that he created what the real issue is with the movie, which is that it feels too much like Rejects. If I were generally sum up the film, I'd say that Baby and Otis escape the law, meet up with a relative, terrorize and ultimately kill an adult family, then head to a brothel for safety, only for the owner to sell them out to a guy that wants to kill them as revenge for a loved one they killed earlier - that sound familiar at all to you? One of the things that made Rejects work as well as it did is that it took a few of the characters from Corpses and plunked them into a different kind of movie, something I was hoping he'd do again here, but if anything it's not only the same kind of movie, but it recycles a few too many of the same beats as well. Ironically, if not for Brake's presence it'd come off as a Wake Up Ron Burgandy kind of thing where we might as well just be watching alternate scenes from the last movie.

To be fair, it's not really all that bad - it runs a bit long but I wouldn't say I was ever bored, and Bill Moseley and Sheri Moon deliver their expected animated performances, both of them clearly enjoying revisiting their most iconic roles (well, a tie with Chop-Top for Moseley). Baby is crazier than ever, and her scenes in prison are a hoot - there's a guard played by Dee Wallace who seems kind of obsessed with her, and they have a strange allure that almost gives you a glimpse of what a Rob Zombie Ilsa movie might look like. He even lets the characters just stop and talk about their lives every now and then, and while I never stopped missing Spaulding (Otis giving him a bit of a eulogy takes on new meaning with Haig's real life passing since the film was completed), Brake's character had some amusing monologues and a fun chemistry with Moseley - the two of them arguing about Cagney vs Bogart is a highlight. If there's any such thing as a "lighthearted" Rob Zombie movie, you'll see glimpses of it here. And the torture-y kinda stuff has been toned down somewhat; the new "villain" isn't as vicious as Forsythe and the Fireflys off most of their victims fairly quickly (or off-screen entirely in a few cases).

Then again, the bad guy (Aquarius, the son of the Danny Trejo character from Rejects, who is offed by Otis after a chance "reunion" while on a chain gang) doesn't even exist until the movie's final half hour or so, even though they set him off in the first ten minutes or so by killing Trejo. Their antagonist for the first half of the movie is the warden of the prison they're at, played by Zombie regular Jeff Daniel Phillips. More than once it seems like the character is being groomed to embrace his dark side and become a sort of willing accomplice to them, like Robert Downey Jr in Natural Born Killers, who they'll happily use until they don't need him anymore, but nah - he exits the film just past the halfway mark, almost as unceremoniously as Spaulding is written out. It's very awkward, and gives the film a kind of episodic feel that it doesn't quite benefit from in any way that I can see, since our "heroes" just kinda hang out for a while until Aquarius enters the picture. Sure, it's a surprise when these things happen, but it robs the movie of cohesion and momentum - it feels patched together and even kind of sloppy at times. I've long held the opinion that Zombie is a much better director than a writer, but there isn't much here I'd want to use to prove my point.

At least, not in the movie itself. The feature length making of on the disc shows, in some ways more than ever, how hands-on and detail oriented he is when it comes to his sets and staging the action. We see him fixing up a costume, dressing the set, walking actors through their movements, working things out with the camera crew, etc - he is not a guy who will sit in his chair in video village and wait for everyone else to do the work. As always, he frustratingly ends the doc as soon as filming wraps instead of showing us the post process (again, my man isn't all that into showing alternate ideas), but it's an otherwise thorough look at what was a tight - and unfortunately re: Sid, somewhat melancholy - shoot. Rob provides his usual commentary as well, noting a few on-set issues (Clint Howard was apparently late to set for his bizarre but kind of awesome scene) and why this or that scene was difficult, but it can be a frustrating listen since they didn't turn down the sound of the movie as much as you'd normally find on a commentary, so it can be hard to concentrate on what he's saying when you can clearly hear the dialogue or music he is talking "over".

I liked 31 more than most, but it was one of his lesser films for sure, and now this ends up more or less in the same place. After seemingly hitting his creative peak with Lords of Salem (which followed his Halloween II, which I've come to like more and more over the years), it feels like he's kind of phoning things in now, which bums me out - the movies aren't terrible or anything, but they also lack any real spark. After 14 years, what exactly made him decide to return to the Firefly family when he's not really doing anything different? If this was a "Rob Zombie Presents" kind of deal, with some old buddy of his taking over writing/directing duties and respectfully not putting too much of his own stamp on things, I could forgive the sameness, but I kind of expect more from the man himself. Hopefully it's just a brief rut and he'll come back swinging on the next one - which will ideally be something entirely new.

What say you?

P.S. Amusingly, I have this movie on 4K UHD, whereas I never even upgraded the first two from DVD to regular Blu-ray. It's kind of crazy that an entire format passed by while the Firefly family lay dormant.


She Never Died (2019)

OCTOBER 10, 2019


Back in the proper days of HMAD, I used to inadvertently watch sequels to movies I hadn't seen fairly regularly. Mostly it was things like the Hammer series (Dracula and Frankenstein), when I knew I was watching the 5th part of a franchise I had little familiarity with, but every now and then there'd be something more along the lines of She Never Died, which is a "sister" sequel to He Never Died, a movie I hadn't seen and wasn't even aware it was a sequel prior to sitting down to watch it. In fact if I wasn't moderating the post film Q&A with director Audrey Cummings and star Olunike Adeliyi I probably would never have known it was related to another movie; I found out while doing some basic research sitting in my chair waiting for the movie to start, at which point I hoped it wasn't a Saw II kinda deal where the movie would barely make sense without knowing the previous film's plot.

Luckily, it was not - far from it, in fact. If I'm understanding correctly, there is only one returning character, who appears at the very end of the movie in a scene that seems like it's setting up a sequel anyway (i.e. a scene that would probably have you thinking "oh I bet this will be cleared up in the next one"). So if you haven't seen it but want to see this one, I can assure you you're not going to have any trouble, as they merely exist in one universe - it'd be like saying you *had* to have seen Jackie Brown before you saw Out of Sight, simply because they share Michael Keaton's character (an example I bring up because Jackie star Robert Forster just passed away and I want to remind you all of how great that movie is, and how incredibly great he is in it).

Adeliyi plays Lacey, a homeless woman who is fixated on a man named Terrance who frequents a mysterious building near where she sleeps at night. The same building seems to be under surveillance by Godfrey, an aging detective who is apparently tracking this case despite objections from his superior. Before long the two of them meet and realize they share a common enemy, but while Godfrey wants to put him away, Lacey... well, she wants to eat him. Specifically his bones - Lacey is a cannibal but also seemingly has Wolverine-like regenerative powers that require marrow to work, and while she saw Terrance kidnap someone and bring her to his building (which is home to a human trafficking ring), she really wants him because "he has long fingers."

So yes, the movie has some dark humor to go along with its various sub-genres (cannibalism, survival horror, revenge thriller, plus another one that is treated as a surprise but will be obvious to anyone who saw "the original"), but it all works quite well, if you ask me. Maybe because I never saw the other one, but I was never ahead of the movie at any point - characters I thought were definite goners survive the film, while others who I thought would play a bigger part end up being sidelined. Lacey's antihero shtick is a bit well-worn, but Adeliyi's deadpan deliveries of the comedic lines and her physical prowess during the fight scenes kept it from being an issue, and she's surrounded by equally colorful characters that make up for it even more.

Even the villains are charismatic and amusing in their own way; Terrance and his sister/business partner Meredith have a very matter-of-fact way of talking about their business, and more often than not their conversations about their horrible line of work dovetail into something mundane like whether or not Meredith remembered to call their mother. This adds to the film's dry/dark sense of humor, which fell right in line with my sensibilities, and given that I didn't know it was going to be funny at all, I found this sort of stuff to be more compelling than the (minor!) genre elements that got the film into the festival in the first place. A second act scene where Lacey and Terrance come face to face for the first time is incredibly funny; it's almost a shame that this wasn't an "enemies team up to defeat a bigger enemy" kind of deal, if only to watch the two of them interact some more.

Really, the only flaw of the movie is probably due to the budget: it occasionally feels like they had to scale back things that may have been envisioned differently. We see very little of the trafficking business (this may be why the villains end up being kind of likable?) and Godfrey's police department looks more like the back office of a big box store or something, plus there's an abrupt cut near the end that robs us of what should be a big crowd pleasing moment (it plays as a visual gag instead, and it's a decent one, but doesn't quite live up to what we didn't get to see). Even the things that tie it into He Never Died seem underplayed, mostly laid out in what amounts to a puzzling epilogue - the movie honestly could have ended a few minutes sooner and would be stronger as a whole.

Otherwise, it's a winner. No, it's not really horror (some choice gore moments are really the only "horror movie" thing about it), but the way it blends some of the genre's tropes together and comes up with its own take on the material is quite refreshing, which is far more important to me than a movie checking off "zombie" or "monster" movie boxes anyway. From what I've learned about the first film, and what this one sets up at the end, it seems like they have an interesting little mythology coming together, and I hope their plans work out (a TV series followup to He Never Died is apparently in the works). If the money isn't there to properly bring it to cinematic life, it seems like it could easily be adapted into comic form, but I know I can't be the only one hoping to see Henry Rollins and Olunike Adeliyi fighting side by side down the road. Here's hoping!

What say you?


Pledge Night (1990)

OCTOBER 10, 2019


Since original slasher movies were no longer really hitting theaters by the late 80s, the few that were still being made (more or less exclusively for the video market) tend to be a bit "off" in one way or another. The lack of having to care about mainstream appeal, the drive to do something different in a genre few were still paying attention to... there were several reasons why these films don't bother to stick to the proven formula. And with Freddy escaping the pack to become the most commercially successful of the horror icons (hitting his box office peak in 1987-88), it's no surprise that the killer of Pledge Night, Sid (played by Joey Belladonna from Anthrax) is cut from similar cloth, i.e. he's horribly burned and has a tendency to say something "funny" before and/or after a kill.

But again, the movie's carving its own path, so he also doesn't show up for almost an hour (there are two killers - a crazed pledge at first, then Sid). The elements are all there for a standard kind of slasher movie; our protagonists are the pledges for a fraternity, on their final night of hazing before being sworn in as brothers, and the "little sisters" are hanging around to prepare the food and other things they need to do for their oft-disgusting trials - the fodder is established quite quickly. But writer/producer Joyce Snyder was more interested in showing what frat hazing was like than the killer stuff, despite the objections of director/editor Paul Ziller, making it come off as more of a comedy as there's almost nothing to even hint at this being a horror movie in the first 40 minutes or so. Naturally, that might be too much to ask for some folks.

In fact, even though it's a standard "victim of a prank comes back" type of backstory, they don't even show you that part until quite a ways into the runtime, as opposed to the opening scene like pretty much every other revenge slasher like this, which could have bought them some time. And with the relatively large cast, the late start for the carnage means the killer works his way through everyone fairly quickly once he finally gets going, so don't hope for much suspense or chase scenes (it's been a dire week for well paced slashers here at HMAD). It's almost like they just wanted to make a movie about hazing and got forced to add some horror elements in the last week of production.

That said, the hazing half of the movie actually kind of works on its own, despite the lack of slashing. Per Snyder, they're all real things that frat pledges have to go through, and they never make it look particularly fun - sleeping on the hard floor with no blankets, digesting things that probably shouldn't be digested, etc. There's even a bit where they pour honey on the pledges' faces and then drop cockroaches on them - and yes it's actually done for real on camera, making it the most horrifying thing in the movie by far. And it's not just a string of dares; they occasionally have to pep talk one another to get through the next step, allowing the movie to actually humanize (slightly) a frat guy, which is no easy task. The humor is a little dated of course, but it's earnest and in line with frat comedies of the 80s, so there's a sincerity that I found charming. And while they aren't exactly "woke" they're not horrible human beings either - only the head guy who was carrying out some of the harsher punishments (including an ass-branding) fell into "I want to see this guy die" territory; the others were all more or less in that sweet spot of "I don't love this guy so much that I'll be sad when he dies but I'm not rooting for his death either."

So it's a shame that Sid (the killer) doesn't have any real motive for killing them specifically, as they weren't the ones who killed him 20 years earlier. With the Freddy influence apparent I guess it's more of a "revenge on their kids" kinda deal, but with the only parent we see being the mother to the one person Sid doesn't want to harm (for very obvious plot reasons), if that was the intent it doesn't land. It actually worked better when it was Dan, the aforementioned first killer who is just a frat guy who snapped and started offing his brothers. With the simple "he's crazy" plot, it all works just fine - but suddenly Sid just tears through Dan's body (think Freddy's Revenge), and it's like you're watching the sequel already, where the human killer had been offed so they had to go the supernatural route for part 2.

Had the movie been paced normally, this might have worked just fine, but it's like we waited too long for Dan to start killing as is, only for him to be unceremoniously removed from the film in favor of a different killer. It feels like a bit of a reset, so by the time Sid hits his own groove, the movie's basically about to end. I wish Ziller had put his foot down and gotten to the horror sooner - I think this would be easier to recommend if not for Snyder (who put up the money as well) insisting that they basically make two different movies and stitch them together out of nowhere at the halfway point. Closest comparison I could make is From Dusk Till Dawn, but at least there the vampire twist was basically another obstacle between Seth and freedom - this lacks that kind of character journey to keep following.

Vinegar Syndrome's disc looks quite good and has some nice extras, so existing fans shouldn't be disappointed. It lacks a commentary unfortunately, but Ziller, Snyder, and some of the cast all appear in lengthy interviews, and there's a quick piece on how the shooting locations look today, plus the trailer, which unsurprisingly plays up the horror stuff as if it was a throughline for the entire movie as opposed to its final 25 minutes or so. Luckily, I was warned that it takes a while to get going, so I didn't mind it too much - I was more disappointed that the slasher stuff wasn't all that great once it finally started. It's kind of like Killer Party in that respect, but at least that movie's weirdo nonsense (not to mention earlier introduction of the supernatural plot) kept it better paced overall. So I dunno, it's kind of amusing, and there's nothing particularly bad about it, but it never fully finds its footing either. Your call!

What say you?


The Prey (1983)

OCTOBER 8, 2019


The problem with my ongoing quest to see every slasher film produced in the 1980s is that I've seen all the ones that are good, I think - because otherwise I would have been compelled enough to see them by now, right? But at least those old ones that slipped through the cracks can usually offer something interesting, unlike a modern slasher shot for roughly the same money, on someone's iPhone, with After Effects blood FX. Such is the case with The Prey, which was shot in 1979 but not released until 1983, and has two versions available on Arrow's special edition Blu-ray - I remember reading somewhere along the line that it was a pretty dull entry in the "campers in the woods get killed by a mountain mutant" slasher sub-sub-genre, but I didn't know how wacky its production was, and learning about that was probably more entertaining than the film.

In fact I learned some of the backstory inadvertently, as soon as I popped the disc in. Since I got "check discs", which are essentially DVD-Rs with no labeling of use to anyone, and it's a two disc set, I grabbed one of the discs marked "The Prey" with a bunch of meaningless numbers after it, only to be greeted with a message saying that this was the international cut that the director didn't approve of, which seemed odd to me until I realized I had probably put the second disc in and should get the other. But I was already intrigued, so while the other one was loading up I looked online and saw that the "international cut" ran about 17 minutes longer and added a lengthy flashback that explained the killer's origins, while also removing "most of the film's nature footage". This of course meant nothing to me yet since I hadn't seen the film, so I filed the info away and didn't think much of it...

...until about four minutes into the film, after I had seen what seemed like the 47th shot of a wildlife critter (sometimes stock footage, sometimes seemingly shot for the production). It was then that I realized that maybe this so-called international cut might be the superior one, but I had to know what my slasher enthusiast ancestors dealt with in theaters or cable back then, and put myself in their shoes. The wildlife footage never ceased or even slowed as the film progressed - you're never more than about 30 seconds from another shot of an owl, or a vulture, or a bug, or just some flowers or trees. It's clearly padding since the film still doesn't even hit the 80 minute mark (credits run a bit slow too), but the secondary excuse is to try to draw a parallel between the predator/prey relationship between animals in the woods and the killer with his victims. It kind of works, but its minimal impact would be the same if there was just a handful of such shots bookending the film instead of several minutes' worth of the runtime.

Director Edwin Brown doesn't just rely on animals to get the movie up to feature length - we're also treated to things like the ranger character tuning his guitar, or his boss trying a sandwich, plus any number of (seemingly improvised, poorly) scenes where our heroes chitchat. There's nothing wrong with the blather in itself - the problem is that these practically muttered bits of dialogue are the focus of the scene, as opposed to something we are overhearing to show how oblivious the characters are to the dangerous killer watching them as they yammer on. The killer's presence is always announced with a heartbeat motif and POV shots, so we know when he's there or when we're just suffering through amateur actors trying their best to recreate the sort of "So you DO think about things like that, Laurie!" dialogue Brown half-remembered from Halloween a year before he shot this fluff.

As for the kills, Brown makes the rookie mistake of stringing most of them together in a brief span (maybe four minutes?) near the end of the film, instead of spacing them out, but I guess I can forgive that since Halloween was the only game in town at the time and they weren't exactly spread evenly. The difference is that Myers' presence and trick playing kept that film engaging and suspenseful - the laundry room sequence in Halloween is just as scary as any kill, after all - but this movie lacks that sort of thing, so it's just dull. At least the kills are kind of fun; there's an axe murder, a guy rappelling down a cliffside only to have his progress sped up by the killer cutting his rope, and - my favorite - one of the girls running, only to trigger a trap that loops her upside down and slams her into a tree, smashing her skull. It's clumsily staged, but since the one who got killed is more recognizable than the other, AND she neglected to have sex with her boyfriend earlier when the others were fooling around, so I thought she might be the final girl, making it a surprise that she died at all, let alone got the most memorable death.

Despite not loving the film by any means, I was still curious about the longer cut, so I watched it a couple hours later and was surprised to discover that it's actually a better version, and almost wish I had watched it first after all. Yes, it's longer, but they cut all of the animals out, which makes the film seem less aimless; it's still too slow but in a way that feels more like a failed attempt at building suspense as opposed to simply padding the film out however possible. The reason it ends up longer despite removing all of the padding is because it presents a 20 minute flashback sequence that explains who the killer was and how he ended up being burned - but the real reason for the sequence is because the UK distributor wanted more sex in the film. So they cast this sequence with adult film actors, and while the sex scenes aren't exactly hardcore, they're certainly more graphic than one might expect from a traditional slasher of the era. Ironically, Brown had come from an adult film background and was hoping to show he could do other things with this one, only for an uncredited filmmaker to go ahead and practically turn it into one behind his back.

It's also ironic that the director's preferred version is the weaker of the two, in my opinion. But if you love his cut (or both of them) you will be ecstatic to know how jam-packed Arrow's Blu is. Interviews with most of the surviving cast, two commentary tracks (plus an audio interview with Brown that is presented as a commentary), a THIRD cut that basically adds the gypsy/sex sequence to the version that has all of the animal footage, a Q&A from a convention screening, a visit of the shooting locations... even if I flat out loved the movie I don't know if I'd be able to get through it all in a timely manner. I've said it before, and I'll say it again here: every film deserves a special edition like this, so that the people who love it can get as much behind the scenes info as they desire. I may not be able to count myself among this movie's fanbase (it does exist; the convention-based bonus features prove it), but I'm happy for them that they don't have to go without, especially for a film that never even made it to DVD here in the US. Good on you, Arrow.

What say you?


The Lodge (2019)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2019


Having missed the first few nights of Beyond Fest due to unexpected medical issues (bleeding ulcer, I'm OK now I think), I finally got to make my first trip there for The Lodge, which is an unusual way to kick things off. The fest routinely programs wild/outlandish fare (both new and old), and this film is a "slow burn" type that keeps its insanity confined to the mind of one of its characters - the sort of thing I'd expect to watch on a quiet night at home, not at the same festival that frequently employs the use of T-shirt cannons and eating contests. That said, it was an intriguing and mostly successful example of its kind, not to mention the best new Hammer film since Wake Wood, and will do well with folks who don't mind their horror to be a little on the moody and atmospheric side.

Riley Keough stars as Grace, a woman who is about to marry a man with two children from a previous marriage. The kids naturally don't like her all that much, so the dad (Richard Armitage) figures maybe spending the holidays at his cabin will help them bond a bit - especially during a three day period right before Christmas Day that he has to return to the city for some work matters. Naturally, things don't go too swimmingly - a snowstorm confines them to the lodge, which then loses power to boot. And worst of all - one morning they wake up to find all of their belongings missing, with Grace suspecting her will-be stepchildren of doing it on purpose to drive her crazy. But as it gets colder and their supplies run out, could the kids really be to blame when they're at risk as well? Is someone else in the house with them, or are supernatural forces the real culprit?

Naturally I won't spoil that for you, but I will say that up until the point we have our answer, the film works terrifically. Keough (no stranger to slow burn/isolated thriller fare, having appeared in the very undercooked It Comes At Night) has a tough role to play and she handles it well, as Grace isn't just the usual "stepmom" kind of character who oversteps her boundaries and needs to prove herself. No, she's actually the lone survivor of a Heaven's Gate-style cult led by her father (so essentially she's Jennifer Rubin from Bad Dreams!), and clearly hasn't fully adjusted to normal life yet - established by some medication she needs to take, which is of course among the things that go missing along with the rest of their stuff. So as her mind cracks even further, she switches from protagonist to antagonist, as we fear for the lives of the children - all the while remembering that they may be the true villains all along.

And it's easy enough to believe they may be, as this is from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. They are the team that gave us the evil child movie Goodnight Mommy, and the film shares a number of similarities - up to and including spending the entire movie wondering if we can trust its lead actress. Thankfully their approach has improved; I enjoyed Goodnight Mommy but my overall opinion was stymied by the way they handled their key twist, as I never could tell if it was even SUPPOSED to be one (in that it was so obvious to me by the film's twenty minute mark I wasn't sure if it was something they were even trying to hide). Here, it's clear that they don't want you to be that far ahead, allowing for a little more variety in the action and a little less time spent wondering how I as a viewer was supposed to be taking in this or that scene, so overall I found it to be a better film.

Unfortunately, once they do tell us exactly what happened, the movie kind of fizzles. As with Us, it almost might have been better to leave things unexplained, because by opening that Pandora's Box I found myself left with more questions (chiefly among them: what exactly was ______ hoping to accomplish?), and less engaged with the film's climax than I should have been. It's not that the answer is bad on its own, it's just that it's not particularly well developed, and even somewhat contradicts earlier information (can't really explain that one without spoiling, so I'll just say to consider an early scene involving a computer). There's also a curious lack of information about how Grace ended up with Armitage's character - the kids say she's a psychopath "from Dad's books" but his job is so vague I'm not even sure if they mean a book he wrote or a book he owned (and if he's an author, what kind of backwards ass movie writer is this where he has to LEAVE his isolated cabin to get some work done?).

But until then, they really had me hooked in - for proof, I stayed awake the entire time even though I was still very much low energy thanks to my hospital stay (and, as a result of the prognosis, I certainly wasn't partaking in anything sugary or with caffeine). The production design alone made the film worth watching - as with Hereditary, there's a bit of a dollhouse motif that spreads to the real sets, as everything seems just slightly off (in this case, hallways seem unnaturally narrow, while the bedrooms have awkward amounts of space between furniture), and Thimios Bakatakis' camera almost never stops gliding and slow zooming its way around the areas. And it pays tribute to its snowbound horror masters in both overt (they literally watch The Thing) and subtle (Grace's dog is named Grady, heh). Also, Keough sports some very excellent sweaters - as my rare chances to wear my sweaters are the thing I hate most about living in California, I find myself increasingly drawn to people wearing them in movies, the way wannabe gangsters idolize The Godfather and what not.

It's a shame Neon won't be releasing the film until February; its snowy look and Christmas setting would sell more tickets in November or December I'd think, but what do I know? It's the one thing I dislike about reviewing festival films - by the time it's out, I might forget a few things and not have the time for a second watch, so more people will be seeing it and I'll have trouble remembering what they're referring to, especially when by spoiler law I had to be vague with my review and won't be able to consult it for any specific reminders. The blunder in the last reel isn't crippling; it isn't the first and won't be the last movie that couldn't quite maintain its allure in the home stretch, especially among these slow burn types. Here's hoping the marketing doesn't spoil its surprises (the below trailer doesn't give too much away, though as always it's better to go in blind for these kind of films) and that it finds the folks who will enjoy it - and that Franz & Fiala's next film manages to make its ambiguous nature pay off in the end, instead of unnecessarily restraining it.

What say you?


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