Mary (2019)

NOVEMBER 26, 2019


I planned to see Mary at Beyond Fest last month, but my ulcer issues had me being a bit choosier with my outings, as I was still unsure if I was completely back to normal (every minor gas pain *still* causes me to briefly panic). But now that I've seen it, I'm glad I waited to watch at home; it's a smaller film that wouldn't benefit all that much from a big-screen viewing, and as it gets a bit repetitive in the middle I probably would have nodded off anyway and missed some stuff. Plus, I would be denied the making of featurette on the blu-ray, where the little girl playing Gary Oldman's daughter gushes about how excited she was to meet someone from the Harry Potter movies - I love when kid actors are actually, you know, kids, and not precocious (read: annoying).

Oldman plays David, a family man who captains a charter boat some other guy owns, taking tourists out for fishing and whale spotting or whatever - but he longs to own his own ship so he can get a bigger piece of that tourism pie. When a salvaged sailboat turns up for auction at a price that's too good to be true (uh oh) he jumps on the opportunity, which pisses off his wife (Emily Mortimer) because it's a lot of money and he didn't consult her first. But he has a pretty good trump card to win the argument - he forgave her for an affair she had a few months earlier, so she's like "Ah ok, touche" and drops it. But that's enough strife to inform us studied horror movie fans that their personal demons are going to manifest once they're out at sea with nowhere to hide/run.

So yeah, it's basically Shining or Amityville but on a relatively small boat, which is an intriguing concept for a film. Sure, we've had the likes of Death Ship and Ghost Ship, but the keyword there is "ship" - this is a sailboat, not much bigger than the Orca in Jaws. That limits the kinds of scares that director Michael Goi and writer Anthony Jaswinski (who wrote The Shallows, so he knows from minimized settings) can execute - there's no "sneaking off to explore the ship" kind of stuff, nor is anyone able to "split up" in any reasonable manner - the furthest they can get from each other is about forty feet. I assume this is the reason for the framing device, in which Mortimer's character is telling the story of what happened to her now sunken ship and seemingly dead husband - it botches a hefty chunk of the suspense, but it also allows them to break up the action every now and then by cutting back to the police station for a couple minutes.

But even with that helping, it doesn't change the fact that the characters keep putting up with a lot of unexplained events without ever considering returning home. Perhaps in real time it would have worked, as they COULD make that call and then keep running into ghostly occurrences anyway as they tried to make their way back to the mainland, but it takes place over a few weeks, making Oldman seem kind of idiotic. The "we can't afford to go back" excuse never quite lands, because all they're doing is basically testing the boat out before they start putting it up for hire - there's no ticking clock, just misplaced pride. I remember hearing that the family of Billy Tyne sued the makers of Perfect Storm because George Clooney's version of the man was presented as reckless and foolhardy (since they were all lost at sea, the events that led to his and his crew's death are of course, made up), but I think the movie did a great job of making his decision to try to get through the storm (their ice machine broke and they'd lose all of the valuable fish they caught), so I never thought he was a moron. Oldman's character in this movie though? Come on man, go home.

That said, the scary stuff offers a few good chills, in particular a moment where the youngest daughter smashes a glass on her sister's face out of nowhere - it has no real buildup, so it works as a shock just as well to us as it does to her family. And if you, like me, consider drowning and choking among the worst possible ways to die, "enjoy" the scene where one of the influenced characters ties a rope around someone's neck and tosses them overboard, because that's just doubling up. Also, even if the backstory is rather muddled, I kind of like the idea that the thing that haunts the ship and starts turning them crazy is the siren figurehead, because that means Goi can cut to it every now and then all ominously and I can just hum a few bars of Meat Loaf's "Sailor to a Siren" to amuse myself. But also it helped me think of the movie as another one of those '90s Amityville movies where haunted objects from the house went elsewhere and did its thing - maybe the Lutzes had a figurehead for their little getaway boat and it ended up here!

Back to Oldman though - what's with these newer films where the male lead is clearly much older than the role was written for? We see it with Nic Cage a lot (rumored to be originally cast in this, in fact) too; it's not just "he married a younger woman", it's that they have kids and never once does anyone say anything about it. I mean, the guy is in his 60s, but he's talking about how he still wants to run his own business as if he was hitting forty or so - shouldn't he be about to retire? I know having him in the movie makes people more excited to see it than they might be for, I dunno, Michael Sheen or someone that would be more appropriately aged (I am assuming that for whatever reason the filmmakers wanted two UK actors to play the American parents), but can they at least do a quick rewrite to acknowledge his age? It's not so much "he can pass for 45" or whatever - it's that they're banking on our affinity for an actor who has been around for decades. He wasn't 18 when he played Lee Harvey Oswald, you know?

As mentioned, the disc has a making of featurette, where Oldman notes that it's his first water movie (Hunter Killer wouldn't count since his character wasn't on the sub), though at first I thought he said "horror movie" so I was momentarily insulted on behalf of the respective cast and crews of Dracula and Hannibal (if he wants to forget The Unborn, that's perfectly fine). It only runs about six minutes, so there's not much of substance (ditto for the other, even shorter featurette that focuses on the family cast members) but I appreciate them putting SOMETHING on there in this era of "screw it people are streaming anyway". Ironically, that's probably the ideal option for this movie; it's watchable but not particularly great, with a backstory that's too underdeveloped to require your full attention, so I suspect some "let me check my phone while this umpteenth "something is WRONG here" conversation plays out" will be happening.

What say you?


The Fan (1981)

NOVEMBER 21, 2019


It's bad enough when there are two movies with the same name but otherwise have nothing in common (like Alone in the Dark or Crash), but it's even more annoying when they have the same basic plot. You are reading a review of The Fan, a film from 1981 that stars Michael Biehn as an obsessed/psychotic fan of a celebrity (Lauren Bacall), NOT the 1996 film where Robert DeNiro was an obsessed/psychotic fan of a celebrity (Wesley Snipes). For added "fun", they're both based on separate novels of the same name, and there's the 1982 German film where Désirée Nosbusch was an obsessed/psychotic fan of a celebrity (Bodo Steiger). Therefore, allow me to take a moment to do something I never thought I'd do: thank Fred Durst, because his recent film about an obsessed/psychotic fan of a celebrity (John Travolta and Devon Sawa, respectively) is called The Fanatic so we can at least not get that one mixed up with these too often.

Anyway, THIS Fan has been kind of forgotten over the years, as it was not a theatrical hit (it was unfortunately timed for release shortly after John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan of his own) and is only now hitting Blu-ray (the DVD, released in 2002, has box art so ugly I can't imagine it inspired too many blind buys). It was also disowned by Bacall, as the film she signed up for was more of a psychological drama but thanks to the success of Dressed to Kill the producers decided to add some bloody violence, lumping it in with the slasher films of 1981. I wouldn't qualify it as slasher by any means - Biehn's character Douglas has an even lower body count than Michael Myers in the first Halloween, let alone the many masked maniacs that were playing in theaters by the time this was released. That said, it's more violent than the book for sure, as the movie has a sequence where Douglas kills some staff at the theater where Bacall's Sally Ross is performing her play, and earlier he murders a maid who doesn't appear in the book at all.

The book also takes an epistolary form like Dracula, as it's presented in a series of letters and telegrams between the characters. This means some awkward means of exposition (these folks sure do write a lot, no matter how trivial) but is otherwise an interesting way of telling a stalker story, as Douglas' letters get more and more unhinged while everyone else's world goes on without even noticing him (the secretary who actually reads the letters eventually just ignores them, so we're the only ones seeing their content). The movie obviously can't do that, so while Douglas still sends letters, it's only about a fraction of what he did in the book, and in turn that means we learn a lot less about him. The book offers plenty of background info - stuff with his parents, more with his job as a record store clerk (and his hatred of a new coworker, played in the film by Dana Delany), and, naturally, more about his obsession - to the point where he is telling old friends that he is Sally's boyfriend and promises them autographs, as well as booking hotel rooms to take her to celebrate the opening of her play. It's legit unnerving after a while, something the film can't quite capture in the same way.

Instead we get a solid performance from Biehn, whose menace is evident from the first scene. He doesn't chew the scenery as well as some of his other villains (like The Abyss), but - perhaps because I've seen a few "Douglas" types over the years of moderating Q&As here in LA - he doesn't need to be gnashing his teeth and such to come off as a threat, as his demeanor alone will leave you uneasy. As for Bacall, she's fine - her best years were behind her and that was part of the role, but I wouldn't say she was exactly diving into the material. I assume it's because the script changes left her cold about the whole production anyway, but for every moment you see her really coming to life (putting the film into camp territory, especially when she's arguing with her secretary), there are others where she just seems bored, and since the character is kind of a tyrant it gets a bit hard to really sympathize with her. Faring better is James Garner, whose ex-husband/now best friend character never joins her in NY in the book (he's in LA with his new wife; the two never share a "scene" there, only corresponding through their weekly letters) but is around all the time and eventually rekindles his relationship with her. It's kind of sweet to watch!

But alas, the book offers a consistent tone that the movie can't match due to its producers switching gears after they already had a cast in place. Again, it doesn't quite qualify as a slasher, but these scenes are violent and grim, a tonal clash with the somewhat campy feel of the Broadway scenes, not to mention Bacall's character's melodrama of getting old, reconnecting with her ex, etc. It's also erratic when it comes to resolving things satisfyingly; Garner's character disappears for the climax, as do the police who have been shadowing her through half the movie, making their characters feel useless in the long run. And while we see Sally's ongoing struggle with a particular dance move for her play throughout rehearsals, they don't bother showing us its finished form on opening night, making me wonder why they spent so much time on it earlier only to deny us the triumphant moment where she finally nails it. So it feels a bit scatterbrained, making it one of those movies that doesn't have any particularly bad scenes or plot threads, but they never quite gel in a way that makes the film fully satisfying as a whole. It's an easy enough watch, sure, but I can't say it's one I'll feel like revisiting much - which for me is rather insane for a "1981 slasher".

Scream Factory has certainly appeased to its fanbase with the Blu-ray though; there's a new interview with Biehn, another with director Ed Bianchi, and a third with editor Alan Heim, all of which are interesting and fairly candid (it seems Ms. Bacall did not get along all that well with anyone). But the real treat is a commentary with David Del Valle, David DeCoteau, and (Scream Factory guru) Jeff Nelson, who have a grand old time showing their appreciation for the movie (they often sing along to the Raspberry-nominated musical numbers) while also discussing the film's production, the climate of the time (re: violence after Lennon), other films that are in the same vein (Cruising comes up a few times), etc. It's a terrific and funny track, the kind I wish Scream would put out more often - genuine fans of the material who also have something to say.

What say you?


Suspiria (1977)

NOVEMBER 19, 2019


Despite this being the third time I've gotten a copy of it, and seeing it on the big screen at least three times since I started the site, I've somehow never reviewed Suspiria in any form. Usually I do "non-canon" reviews for such things (i.e. movies I've already seen but are worthy of being written about, i.e. all of the Halloweens and other franchise films I covered over the years), but for whatever reason I somehow never got around to putting pen to paper (finger to keyboard) about Dario Argento's iconic classic. What do I pay you people for if you're not going to point these things out to me?

(And we still need to discuss how I managed to review Killer Nun a few weeks ago without ever once realizing I already reviewed Killer Nun.)

My only guess as to why I kept letting it slide: I have fallen asleep every time I've seen the movie, and thus I probably had some sort of "Let me pull that DVD or Blu-ray out and see what I missed first" plan that fell through when the 90 other things I need to do every day took priority. But I don't want you to take that as me being bored with the film or whatever - on the contrary, the last time I watched it (on the big screen, from the same 4K remaster that was used for this very disc) I finally realized *why* the film always knocked me out cold: the first 15-20 minutes are just too goddamn intense. The storm, Suzy's dread-inducing walk through the airport, her struggles to get inside, the murders... the film doesn't let up for an entire reel (more?), so when it does... well, I know it's crass but it's the only thing I can think of to compare, it's basically the same thing that happens after a good orgasm: I feel "spent" and nod off.

And of course, during a theatrical viewing that just means I miss things, but luckily at home I can rewind and see what I was dozing through. And trust me, on Synapse's long-awaited 4K restoration, you do not want to miss a single frame, as this is one of the best remasters of an older film I've ever been blessed enough to see. For some background; I have a 4K TV (from Sony, if you're wondering) but not because I'm much of a gearhead - my previous TV died and I figured I might as well get the shiniest new toy (albeit one within my budget). And so far most of my 4K disc purchases (or review copies) have been of newer films; my only "I've seen this on Blu-ray and now I'm watching in 4K" experience has been Halloween, which looked good but didn't blow me away or anything. The jump from VHS to DVD, and then DVD to Blu-ray, were like night and day differences to my eyes, but so far Blu-ray to 4K has been more like the difference between 4 and 5 o'clock at best, so upgrading my collection once again isn't anything I plan to do.

The Suspiria restoration made me a believer though. The last time I watched at home was on one of the older Blu-rays, and it looked good, but this was a revelation. Some details just pop more than ever, such as the blue iris behind Suzy as she tells Miss Tanner about how Pat mentioned an iris, or the glowing eyes that appear behind Sara before she falls into the razor wire room. (Oh, and never before has it been more clear that it's razor wire and not barbed wire, so there's something, too.) Yes, this means that the off-color fake blood puddle around Pat's roommate looks even more, well, fake, but for every blemish like that there are a dozen examples (such as the detail in all the stained glass that CAUSES that fake blood puddle) that will have your eyes popping throughout. This took them a few years to complete, and the evidence is right there on the screen.

Oh and the movie is still great. I think this is my first time watching the original since the remake, which I enjoyed parts of but overall found it to be too indulgent and sprawling for my tastes, so it was nice to go back to my preferred take on the "a lady goes to a dance school run by witches" story (which also clocks in at nearly an hour shorter). There are a few pacing issues (like when Udo Kier delivers an info dump, then introduces Karl from Exorcist, who gives yet another info dump), but that's an issue that plagued a lot of Argento's earlier stuff, and given that this was his first foray into the supernatural after a string of gialli, it's easily forgivable. The mystery is engaging, Harper's Suzy is an easy protagonist to care about, and the big scare scenes - like the aforementioned razor wire scene - haven't lost an ounce of their effectiveness, even after multiple viewings.

It's also just nice to go back to a time when Argento had the money and time to make the kind of films he excelled at. Especially in this gorgeous restoration, you can just soak in Giuseppe Bassan's production design and the cinematography by Luciano Tovoli, skilled artists who had four *months* to bring Argento's vision to life. Nowadays he gets as many weeks, with budgets that are probably less even without factoring in the inflation. It's easy to say that he got old/tired and that's what brought about the decline of his work, but then you see things like The Irishman and The Mule and realize that maybe the actual difference is having the resources to still work to the best of their abilities. Hopefully someday he (and Carpenter, De Palma, etc) will find themselves with the same kind of freedom that is still afforded to their fellow '70s cinema gods.

Synapse released a thorough special edition on standard blu-ray last year and has ported over all of the bonus features from that release, so supplements wise there's nothing different here: it's got the commentaries, the retrospective, the video essay (which is quite good), interviews, alternate opening title sequence, etc. The real draw here is the actual 4K disc (as opposed to the 4K restoration on standard blu), so only those who have made the leap to the format need apply with this particular release. But I have to say... if there was a film to sell me on the legitimacy on 4K and perhaps get me thinking about upgrading other older films that have been given actual restorations (Die Hard is a possible option since I hate the existing Blu-ray anyway), this is it. Maybe it's just because I've suffered through a faded film print (noooo) and thus have something "bad" to compare it to, but outside of Criterion's Night of the Living Dead release, it is quite simply the best looking legacy release I've ever seen with my own eyes. Enjoy!

What say you?


Unmasked Part 25 (1989)

NOVEMBER 8, 2019


I remember reading about Unmasked Part 25 (aka Hand Of Death) in Fangoria as a young teen, wanting very much to see it but not being able to find it at any of my video stores. So over the years I kind of forgot about it, until Vinegar Syndrome announced they would be releasing it on Blu-ray for the first time, accompanied by a DVD copy since it never hit that format either (at least not in the US). And it had been so long that I had forgotten everything that Fangoria article (or review?) said that made me want to see it, so it was a nice blend of "I really want to see this movie" and "I have no idea what this movie is" - a pretty rare feat.

Luckily it's not a "go in blind" type so I can tell you what it is: a satirical take on the masked slasher movies of the '80s, in particular Jason Voorhees. Our killer, "Jackson", wears a hockey mask that doesn't really resemble Jason's (it kind of looks like the one on the *poster* for New Beginning though) but it's quite obvious he and he alone is the chief inspiration for the character here. They even set the events of the climax on Friday the 13th to hammer it home, ignoring whatever potential jokes they could get out of taking the piss on Freddy or Leatherface. Anyway, he's a Jason-like guy doing his Jason-like thing, but he's getting bored with it - he feels like he's in a rut and only killing randos because that's what is expected of him. But during his latest murder spree he meets a blind woman named Shelly, and rather than kill her (since she can't see, she's not instantly frightened of him) he strikes up a conversation with her and the two fall in love.

From then on it's kind of like Red Dragon's scenes with Reba McClane, as you're left with the rather uneasy feeling of kind of wanting this guy to find peace at last while also constantly worrying that he's going to kill this innocent woman we've gotten to know as opposed to the all-but anonymous jerks he usually offs. But the key difference is that director Anders Palm and writer Mark Cutforth find the humor in the concept, such as when she asks him to engage in rough sex with her and he's quite prudish about it, or when they go to a costume shop and he gets insulted by the idea of her wearing a mask (liking it to how she'd feel if he was pretending to be blind). Eventually his murderous urges start coming back and he feels compelled to do his thing, but for the most part, it's like a weird rom-com bookended by gory slasher scenes.

And yes, GORY. This was notoriously when the MPAA was at their worst for the slasher movies, leaving the likes of New Blood and Jason Takes Manhattan virtually bloodless, and this one was edited for release as well, but the difference is, the producers/studio didn't lose everything like they did for those F13 flicks, allowing Vinegar Syndrome to restore/release the film completely uncut. It was almost kind of disorienting to see how bloody it got at times, because I'm so used to everything from this era being sanitized, and as a bonus the splatter is actually quite well done for the most part, with lots and lots of prosthetics and blood bags doing their heroic duty as Jackson lays waste to two separate groups, with the occasional isolated murder here and there for good measure.

To be fair, the comedy is a bit dated, but it's important to keep in mind that the whole "meta horror" thing hadn't taken off yet. It's not a "spoof" of the films - there are no sight gags or even direct references to the movies we love (even the name Shelly is probably a coincidence, since it was used for a male character in F13 3 - wouldn't they go with Alice or Ginny?), it's closer to a "What if?" kind of scenario, one that might have worked even better if they straight up licensed the Jason character and used him this way. One thing that didn't quite work is that it takes place in London, with Jackson stalking someone's flat in the opening sequence, as opposed to the woods or an isolated home (he does go to one of those at the end, however - though it's more like "we have a really big yard" as opposed to "no one is around for miles"). So it throws off the "let's imagine Jason is getting tired of doing his thing" when he's completely out of his element - he should be kind of excited about the change of pace!

Basically it's a sillier version of something like Behind the Mask, where your love of slashers - and familiarity with their tropes - plays a big part in how much you're enjoying the film. I mean if you absolutely hate "body count" movies (or worse, never saw one) you'd probably find this unbearable, unlike something like Scary Movie which can appeal to a wider audience - this is as niche as it gets. Even the lo-fi look (it was shot on Super 16, swoon!) and plentiful gore lend it credibility that even some straight slashers (especially modern ones) don't bother to earn, and yet it's all in service of a funny (if slightly worn thin by the end) joke. Vinegar's Blu looks fantastic and comes with a pair of commentaries, one with Palm and the other with Cutforth (both moderated by writers), plus the trailer that kind of misleads what the film is ("it's a movie, within a movie, within a movie!" - huh?) and also spoils the ending for some reason - below is a scene instead so you can get an idea of the humor without having the story spoiled. At any rate, it's a nice package for a film that fans - and the curious - would have been happy to finally have at all. No, it won't be for everyone, but if you're a fellow slasher enthusiast like me you'll certainly appreciate the effort.

What say you?


Doctor Sleep (2019)

NOVEMBER 7, 2019


When Michael Crichton wrote The Lost World in 1995, he made the unusual choice to write it as a sequel to Jurassic Park, the film, as opposed to his novel, as Spielberg allowed Ian Malcolm to live whereas he was killed in the original text. Crichton waved away the discrepancy with a half-assed explanation of Malcolm being revived, and the resulting film was able to use the same basic plot of the novel (with some big differences), thanks to Crichton essentially saying the movie version of Jurassic Park was canon, not his own novel. Well, I haven't read Doctor Sleep, but I wouldn't need to in order to correctly assume that Stephen King made no such concession for Stanley Kubrick's version of the events of The Shining, leaving Mike Flanagan in the unenviable position to adapt King's sequel novel (published in 2013) in a way that honored the text but also the iconic Kubrick film that - let's be honest - is the version more people would know nowadays.

And no, that's not me dismissing the book or its own popularity: it's still huge and it holds up quite well (I re-read it earlier this year, in fact), and while it's not my favorite King novel, it is certainly one of his most essential. But in pop culture, the mental image of The Shining is Jack Nicholson saying "Here's Johnny!", it's the hedge maze, it's that damn (overused, now) carpet pattern, etc - all things that are specific to Kubrick's take on the material, which King has famously and repeatedly criticized over the years (me personally? I quite like both versions, though I agree Jack being nuts from the beginning does hurt the story of the movie itself, not just compared to the novel). The best compliment he's ever afforded it, until recently, is that it's a good horror movie but a terrible adaptation, and so his Doctor Sleep novel didn't pay it any mind; it takes place in a world where the Overlook had burned to the ground and Dick Halloran was still alive.

How Flanagan gets around these discrepancies is part of the fun of his film, so I won't get into them all. And in fact, I CAN'T, since again I haven't read it and thus cannot speak for every change or "blend" Flanagan makes in the movie version. All I know is from what I learned on the book's synopsis on the wiki page, and I can sum up with "he keeps the basic plot but changes things as necessary to fit within the Kubrick order of events". For example Dick is indeed accounted for, but as a ghost that acts as a sort of conscience for Danny (Ewan McGregor) as opposed to a living human being as he was in the novel, and (spoiler for those who haven't seen the trailer) while the book climax took place on the grounds where the Overlook once stood, Ewan is able to walk around and revisit all those classic spots: the elevator that gets flooded with blood, the axe-damaged door, etc.

It's an interesting approach, but I ultimately can't help but wonder if Flanagan would have ended up with an even stronger film had he just gone with one or the other instead of trying to serve both masters. From what I understand, Doctor Sleep is not one of King's best works (though that might be due to enhanced expectations for following up one of his masterpieces more than the quality of the book itself), but the plot is quite interesting: a grown up Danny, now fighting his own demons (i.e. booze) has his "Shining" reignited by a young girl named Abra who also shines and has drawn the attention of a group of, well, vampires of a sort, ones who find shiners and feed on their "steam" (think of it as the midichlorians to the Force, easy enough with Ewan around!). Children tend to provide better "steam" as they haven't used up their powers or allowed them to become tainted by the drudgery of the world, they only go after youngsters, so the girl is rightfully terrified and reaches out to Danny to help her. Can he overcome his demons and his own horrific past to stop these monsters?

Well, if you got two and a half hours, you'll find out. I must admit, while the length (only a few minutes longer than the original Shining film, in fact - and certainly shorter than the King-approved miniseries version) didn't scare me off when I heard it, I found the film a bit overstuffed, and couldn't help but wonder if some of its subplots/characters couldn't have been streamlined. It doesn't help that the trailer (again, spoiler if you haven't seen the marketing) sells the movie on "Danny returns to the Overlook" and that doesn't happen until the final 20 minutes or so, meaning you're spending two hours and change on what feels like a lot of pieces being put into place. We have to meet the "True Knot", the name given to the vampire-like villains and see how they operate, we have to catch up with Danny, we have to meet Abra and see her whole deal, etc, etc. And Flanagan tries to give them all equal balance, so the movie feels like it lacks momentum at times, as we cut from Danny getting a new job to the vampires getting a new recruit to Abra trying to block out the sounds of her schoolmates' thoughts, and then back to Danny working his OTHER job (yes, he has two), and so on - it's about an hour in before their worlds start to collide.

And not for nothing, but the completely recast group keeps it from feeling like a sequel the way it might on paper - Ewan is terrific but I never quite bought him as the grown up version of that kid I've watched race around the Overlook hallways so many times. The other returning characters are played by essential look-alikes, and with one exception they are quite good/not distracting, but they're also minimal presences in the film - it's mostly a Danny we don't recognize interacting with entirely new characters, so it lacks that "it's nice to catch up with them" element that can allow something like Force Awakens or Halloween '18 to dilly dally a bit. Hell it barely even feels like a horror movie for the most part, and Flanagan has seemingly toned down some of the story's more supernatural elements - something in the book that is accomplished with shining powers is done with a shootout here.

That said, there is one horrific sequence that is downright disturbing to watch, when the True Knot tortures a young boy before murdering him (pain causes better "steam", apparently). The kid's cries for help are downright gutwrenching, far more than anything in either of the It movies - I've been pretty good lately with my "Now that I'm a dad I get bothered easily" issues but this ramped them right back up again. And it's made "worse" by the casting of Rebecca Ferguson as Rose, the leader of the True Knot, because she's such an inviting presence (this is a woman who has stolen two Mission Impossible movies away from Tom Cruise, mind you) that you're not in any rush for her to be killed or imprisoned for her crimes - she's so captivating I almost wish the movie had just focused on her entirely at times, taking a sort of Lost Boys/Near Dark kind of approach where they attempt to recruit Danny (or Abra) into their number and after a while he decides he wants to break free from them, if only so we didn't have to go stretches without seeing her (or her crew, which for the most part is left underdeveloped) and allowed them to interact before the two hour mark.

Luckily, the dramatic elements work well, so I also found myself wishing that the movie was stripped of its supernatural elements entirety and just focused on the survivor of a horrific event (his father trying to murder him in a snowbound hotel) trying to put his life back together. Again, McGregor is quite great in the role, and I was quite taken with his scenes of hitting rock bottom (a brief drunken hookup has a horrific outcome) going to AA meetings, working as an orderly in an old folks' home, etc. It's very much in line with Flanagan's Hill House series, which also wasn't afraid to put the scary stuff on the sideline for a while in order to work on character development and drama - I just think he found a better balance there than he did here. There's nothing particularly bad or even "just OK" about any one element* in the film - it just never really congeals as a full narrative until it's almost over.

Because of that I suspect I'll like it more on a second viewing, and perhaps with a reading of the book in between. Those who did read it already seem to agree Flanagan improved on it, so perhaps I did myself a disservice going in so blind - they were prepared for its somewhat wobbly structure, whereas I barely even knew what it was about. Flanagan gets a lot right: the casting (a lot of his regulars, plus welcome additions like Ferguson, Cliff Curtis as Danny's best friend, and Jocelin Donahue as Abra's mom), the recreated Overlook, the music, etc, and it's gotta be worth something that I didn't doze off even for a second despite feeling tired during the trailers. The filmmaker has yet to disappoint me, but he's not God - perhaps there's only so much he can do when trying to live up to forty years of our love of The Shining, through an adaptation of a book that by most accounts was a bit of a letdown. Ultimately it's one of those movies where I feel guilty for not liking it more, because there's so much to enjoy/appreciate but it also lacks that je ne sais quoi that sends me racing to social media to encourage everyone to see it.

What say you?

*OK, there is one that's kind of bad, but it requires spoilers, so I'll just be vague and say it involves one of Flanagan's regular actors showing up at a crucial moment during the third act. On paper it was probably fine, but on-screen... sorry, it just didn't work. People were full on laughing at it, and it wasn't supposed to be funny. It's quick, thankfully, but it definitely damages the climax a touch.


Two Evil Eyes (1990)

NOVEMBER 4, 2019


Should movies do away with opening credits, and let people watch them "blind" (granted, the internet and the like would have already revealed the same information, but let's pretend) so that the movie can be judged on its own merits without the big names behind the camera adjust their expectations or biases? It could only help Two Evil Eyes, a film that's perfectly fine and easy enough to recommend to those who enjoy Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and/or anthology style films, but unfortunately doesn't come close to living up to the potential established by its opening titles, which tell you it's from George Romero and Dario Argento. The only other movie that can boast a partnership between these two titans of horror cinema is Dawn of the Dead, aka one of the greatest horror films of all time. Two Evil Eyes, on the other hand, might not even be one of the best horror films of 1990.

Hell, it's not even the best Romero-related film of 1990, as he wrote a segment of Tales From The Darkside as well as the script for Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake, both of which are superior. And he doubles down on reminding us of his legacy by populating his segment with a number of actors from Creepshow, which will likely leave audiences wondering why this film didn't follow suit and have four or five tales that ran shorter instead of two that run about an hour (with no framing device). To be fair, that was indeed the original plan: Romero and Argento were originally going to be joined by John Carpenter and Wes Craven, but when their other commitments got in the way and dropped out, the two men decided to just split the film in half, though why they never decided to add some kind of framework or "host" is beyond me.

So it makes for a strange viewing experience - the closest example would be Grindhouse, I guess, but at least that offered two complete features, plus the fake trailers to sell you on the overall "double feature" experience. There's no such frills here; the movie starts with Romero's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar", then shifts to Argento's "The Black Cat" without any segue or intermission. And while I suppose it's possible some people prefer Romero's, the vast majority agree that Argento's segment is superior, so to sit down and watch this as a movie means you wait an hour for it to get good, or skip past it entirely to get what amounts to a Masters of Horror episode length experience that will leave you unfulfilled if "watching a movie" was your plan for the evening. There's not even any real connection between the two to make it fun; I was hoping some supporting characters would appear in both segments (both take place in contemporary Pittsburgh), but no dice.

Anyway, as I mentioned "Valdemar" isn't exactly up there with the best of Romero's work, which makes sense when you learn on the bonus features that his heart wasn't really in it (Romero wanted to do "Masque of the Red Death" but his ideas proved to be too costly for the production, forcing him to find a different story). "Valdemar" is a strange consolation choice; the original story doesn't have much of a plot, so Romero invented one around the basic idea of a guy caught in a limbo between life and death thanks to a form of hypnotism called mesmerism. Unfortunately, his story isn't all that exciting or unique: it's the ten billionth "woman and her lover kill her husband to get his money" tale, one you could have seen - in half the time - in any number of episodes of HBO's Tales From The Crypt series, which had debuted the year before and was becoming a minor powerhouse for the genre. It picks up in its final 10 minutes (mostly thanks to Tom Atkins showing up as a cigar chomping cop) but by then it's too late to save this from becoming one of Romero's least interesting productions.

Luckily, Argento's fares much better, to the extent that I wish they simply turned his into a traditional feature sans Romero at all (except for maybe as producer). In fact it's a bit longer than Romero's segment as is, so it'd only take another 15-20 minutes' worth of footage to qualify as a feature, which they could have easily added in without really padding things since it has a rather underdeveloped subplot about a local serial killer (played by Savini himself, another Dawn holdover that might enhance your expectations for the film) and a somewhat rushed climax, as if they were making sure the film didn't cross the two hour mark (it comes in literally seconds under, in fact). And it benefits from a better story; Argento updated Poe's classic tale for a modern setting, changing the protagonist into a crime scene photographer - allowing him to work in other Poe references, such as a "Pit and the Pendulum" inspired murder scene - but otherwise stuck fairly close to the narrative Poe wrote nearly 150 years prior.

Plus it's fun to see Harvey Keitel going through the horror movie motions, as he didn't exactly dive into the genre all that often. And he's one of those guys who never phones anything in, so he's fully committed as the drunken asshole murderer who repeatedly kills a cat (and others along the way), but taking it seriously instead of hamming it up - it's a great performance from an actor who I wish embraced the genre more often. And Argento clearly didn't have trouble adapting to working in America - it's got a number of his nutty camera shots (a falling key being one notable example), splatter, and out of nowhere plot turns - come for the contemporary Pittsburgh setting, stay for the nightmare scene set in medieval times! Any fan of the filmmaker can tell you that his decline was about to start, so having missed the film for so long it was great to see "new" Argento that more or less lived up to his talents, before declining budgets and changing studio politics forever handcuffed his abilities, resulting in sub-par efforts.

However you feel about the film, it's inarguable that Blue Underground has put together a fantastic package for it, starting with a new transfer that looked pretty fantastic to my eyes (though I have nothing to compare it to, having never seen it before) and a mother lode of bonus features old and new that require their own disc. The film was previously released on special edition DVD, and it seems they have carried over all of those supplements (including interviews with Romero and Argento) while adding several new ones, including interviews with Madeline Potter (who plays Annabel, Keitel's wife) and composer Pino Donaggio and a very fresh commentary by Argento biographer Troy Howarth, which must have been recorded in the past few months as he notes the death of actor Bingo O'Malley (Valdemar), who only died in June. He's perhaps a bit too enthusiastic about Argento's segment, claiming it's among his best work, but he gives plenty of background on the production, the two filmmakers' careers as a whole, actor bios, etc - he barely ever stops to breathe. The limited edition release also includes Donaggio's score on CD as well as a booklet with an essay by the great Michael Gingold, so if you plan to go through everything on the set, you best take a day out of work.

Ultimately, it was an intriguing and noble experiment that didn't quite stick the landing due to the compromises on participants (a TV show concept was even floated, which would include American AND Italian maestros contributing episodes) and - in Romero's case - story selection, but is still worth a watch thanks to Argento's segment and the sheer novelty of the whole thing. Plus, if you've followed the careers of its two directors, you'd know that this was at the end of their glory years - Romero would only make five more films over the next 27 years until his death, none of them exactly great, while Argento would make one more attempt at breaking into American filmmaking with Trauma before going back to Italy and doing what he could with their own declining film business. Maybe the film itself isn't a classic, but it's from a time when that was still a possible outcome for these masters.

What say you?


Thank you!!!

Hey folks, just wanted to send out another big THANK YOU to everyone who bought a "coffee" (i.e. Ko-Fi) to help out with my medical bill as a result of my bleeding ulcer/two day stint in the hospital. Believe me, I tried making STX pay for it since the stress of them delaying The Boy 2 *again* is probably to blame, but alas they wouldn't accept responsibility. I truly appreciate everyone who donated, and I also hope that you got my personal reply to your donation - because apparently some went into spam! I feel awful about the idea of someone thinking I didn't even say "thank you" so I sincerely hope those instances were few and far between. At any rate I seem to be OK now, and since the doctors couldn't really pinpoint a cause, I'll just keep doing what I'm doing and hope it doesn't come back! Viva la BC!


Countdown (2019)

OCTOBER 31, 2019


Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, producers will stop funding horror movies that are based around modern technology of any sort. Anything that revolves around cell phones or video games tends to be lame at best, and they also usually date themselves pretty quickly as they center on tech that is constantly updating. Luckily for Countdown, the concept of an "app" will probably give it a longer shelf life than some others (those Chat Roulette inspired ones will have to be explained to new viewers, I think), but it still falls back on the same tricks as so many of those others, and ends up falling flat in nearly every aspect when it comes to its horror thriller narrative.

The concept itself is fine: a new app tells you when you'll die, and it's disturbingly accurate, giving our hero a real reason to panic when she downloads it and gets told she has less than three days to live. So it's in the same vein as The Ring's "Seven days!" kind of plotting, and the movie offers a handful of supporting character deaths along the way to give it a bit of a pulse, but it unfortunately relies on a James Wan type demon for its scary business, when it would have been more fun to rip off Final Destination and offer Rube Goldberg-ian death traps to get the people offed on time. For example, the first one we see is a girl who is alone in her bathroom when her time is up - at which point some invisible force pulls her up to the ceiling and drops her down on the side of the tub, smashing her skull. Not a bad death on its own, but it's devoid of any drama/thrills when we know exactly when it'll happen and it just... does? Without fanfare or even any setup?

So basically we wait the entire movie to see how our hero Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) gets around it, and it's never particularly engaging either. At least with a slasher movie (even a generic/bad one) there's some element of basic suspense: will they get away from the killer, even momentarily, or is there a second killer out there, etc. But here, it's like the screenwriters wanted to go out of their way to remind you that nothing much exciting was going to happen. Halfway through Quinn and her love interest (due to die a few hours before her) meet up with a priest who is obsessed with demons and the like, and he informs us that if someone were to prove the app wrong (i.e. die *before* their time) everyone would be freed of their death-counter, but don't bother to have any fun with this scenario and let people live recklessly knowing that they can't die as a result. And by giving everyone we care about more or less the same amount of time left to live, there's never any sense of rising pressure - everyone's due to die near the end of our 90 minutes, no sooner, so we wait.

The demon is also pretty goofy looking, and doesn't appear enough to register as an actual villain, so it fails there, too. To pick up some of his slack, we get a human antagonist in the form of Peter Facinelli, a doctor at the hospital where Quinn works as a newly instated registered nurse. It takes all of three or four seconds of his screentime to recognize that he has eyes on Quinn, and sure enough before long he's offering her a #MeToo on a silver platter, cornering her and reminding her that he gave her a recommendation and thus she "owes" him. A timely plot point to be sure, but they even botch this by (spoilers ahead!) having Quinn try to murder him, because his countdown gives him another 50 years to live so if he dies now the app would be proven wrong, and the demon is nothing but a stickler for his own dumb rules I guess.

Now, I have no love whatsoever for guys like Facinelli's character, but does groping her and lying about it (before she can complain he tells HR she's obsessed with him) warrant killing the guy? I can appreciate the basic idea of killing an asshole to save yourself, but I mean, half the movie takes place in a hospital - surely there's some drunk driver who survived a crash that killed a child that might be a better candidate for being murdered? Or hell, maybe explain the situation to him and have him kill himself to make amends? No, they go with the "let's have our hero spend most of the finale trying to murder a man who has no direct bearing on her situation" route. Stupider (spoilers again) still, he just disappears at one point, as the demon basically intervenes to keep her from killing him and winning, so she tries plan B while he is just never seen again. OK, movie. Then again, this spares her from trying to explain why she just killed a man when the hospital HR people already think she's got problems, so that's a win for her.

Interestingly, while it fails miserably as a horror film, it's actually kind of entertaining as a comedy - and I don't mean in the unintentional "bad horror movie" way, either. There are two supporting characters - the aforementioned priest, played by PJ Byrne (an actual Final Destination vet) and a cell phone dealer/repairman played by Tom Segura - who are legitimately hilarious in their combined 15 minutes of the film. When we meet Byrne he's just sitting in the rectory snacking on communion wafers like they're chips, and Segura only agrees to help our heroes because they give him a credit card he can use to impress his Tinder date, a running gag that continues into the credits. I don't know if the actors were just trying to bring life to their material by improvising, or if the writers perhaps realized that it'd be in their best interest to include genuine humor in the proceedings to offset the unintentional laughter their "scare" scenes would receive, but either way these two guys (plus a handful of other moments, including a good bit with a racist conspiracy theorist they're happy to risk getting killed by convincing him to install the app so they can look at the terms of service.

And yeah, that might be the funniest part of the whole movie: part of it revolves around the fact that no one reads the user agreements. Not only does the demon stick by his rules, he also doesn't hide his intentions, laying things out in the endless TOS that everyone just scrolls past and accepts (hell, even when they get the guy to install so they can read them, they still "blah blah blah" part of it). Between that and the humor I almost got the sense that this was a satirical thriller about our obsession with apps that got rewritten into a pretty dumb supernatural horror movie in the Rings/Chain Letter vein, which would explain why the horror element was so half-assed (and why it randomly dipped into Flatliners-esque territory in the final 20 minutes, with our heroes seeing the demon in the form of loved ones whose deaths they blame themselves for). Or maybe the whole thing was just cobbled together quickly to get it into theaters to have something "scary" out for Halloween. Either or.

What say you?


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