The Turning (2020)

JANUARY 23, 2020


You know you are getting old when a movie establishes its "period" setting with a news report of something you vividly remember happening. The Turning is based on Henry James' 19th century novella Turn of the Screw, but they didn't go back that far for this umpteenth adaptation (which will be adapted again later this year for Haunting of Bly House). Instead, after an opening scare scene that tells us something that's treated like a reveal later (the first of many signs of tinkering), we meet our protagonist Kate (Mackenzie Davis) as she listens to the breaking news that Kurt Cobain has committed suicide. Welcome to ye olden times of 1994, folks! And to my realization that we're now as far removed from that event as the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr were in 1994, i.e. something in history books. Christ, I am old.

However I'm not so old that I forget how movies work, but even if I was I still would have been joined by several other people in my (sparse) audience in shouting "Wait, WHAT?" (or other, more profane variations) when the credits began to roll. I am not a fan of hyperbole, but unless I am forgetting one I am comfortable saying that this movie has the most abrupt and baffling non-ending I have ever seen from a major studio release. Yes, the James novella ended ambiguously and one could expect a certain degree of "it's up to you to decide" in this one's climax, but... it doesn't HAVE a climax. The movie literally just stops cold after what seems like a setup for a twist ending that would run another ten minutes; if I hadn't been warned ahead of time that the movie's ending was so sudden, I would have been convinced that the DCP had a glitch and it somehow skipped over a chunk.

I say that mostly as a warning; I'll get into specifics later but I wanted to address the film's last minute collapse because I don't want my review to have the same effect as the movie in that it's perfectly fine until throwing a curveball (and ending the game before it gets to the batter, to keep the metaphor going). The 1994 setting aside, it's more or less faithful to the story - Kate is hired to take care of two orphaned children (Flora and Miles) in their stately manor after their previous "governess" (live-in nanny) left under mysterious circumstances, and the only other person in the house is Mrs. Grose, a suspicious housekeeper. Kate is there for all of twelve seconds when she starts seeing and hearing things, yadda yadda - and the ghosts seem to be affecting both children and Kate, but is it... all in her head?

Most of this material is fine. Davis and the two child actors (Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince) are quite good, and Barbara Marten as Mrs. Grose is the MVP, unnerving me far more than any of the ghost stuff with her strict demeanor and slavish devotion to the family. And the estate itself is a terrific location (the Killruddery House in Ireland); the story is set in America (I heard Maine, but I don't recall any particular state being mentioned) but they were wise to use a European manor to give it the gothic flair that is somewhat muted by the "modern" setting. Speaking of which, there's no real reason for it to be set in 1994 instead of 2020 (or 2018, when it was shot); the place is isolated enough to have the "no cell phone" thing working for it anyway and apart from the Cobain news report there's nothing else to firmly establish the time period. Once she gets to the house she only leaves the grounds once, so beyond having a car and a phone to call her friend and dump some of her inner monologue in conversation for the viewer's benefit ("I think Miles hates me" kind of stuff), I can't see anything about the movie being different regardless of what year it took place.

As for the scares, they're... well, I dunno. As I've said in the past, I usually use the crowd to gauge such things since I always see them coming a mile away, but the audience was too scattered to really judge - I didn't really hear much of anything until the end. There's a decent enough one with a mannequin that works mainly because it comes right after a more traditional dud one, so we're not expecting another so soon, but otherwise we will have to assume that the poster and trailer's assurances that it's from the writers of The Conjuring only serve to prove that maybe it was someone else who made that movie as scary as it was. But the real issue, and now we have to get into spoiler territory, is that the antagonist ghost, Quint, is a nothing entity; he's dead before the movie starts, we learn almost nothing about him until the movie's almost over, and he makes most of his 30-40 seconds' of screentime (a generous estimate) in quick shots in a mirror or window. The story and other filmed versions get into the idea that the ghosts of him and Ms. Jessel (the previous nanny) are possessing the children, but that never really comes across here outside of a nightmare scene where Quint and Miles seem to be blending together. We learnt that Quint was an abusive man who seemingly raped Ms. Jessel, but when Miles makes inappropriate comments to Kate every now and then it just comes off as a hormonal, spoiled teenager acting on his impulses, not possession by an older man. If you weren't familiar with the story, you'd probably never make that connection.

Plus, as I mentioned, the opening scene seems to have been added later, because it's pretty clear that Ms. Jessel is dead from what we see in it, yet throughout the movie we're told she just left and the discovery of her body is presented as something that we should be surprised by, so I can only assume that opening scene was added later to get the movie a quick scare at the top so audiences didn't have to wait a whole fifteen minutes to get to the first natural one (if that's the case, then at least I'll give them credit for not doing a flash forward). Then you consider that some of the trailer's big moments (i.e. the spider in Finn's mouth) do not appear in the film, and that Kate has some troubled history with her mother (Joely Richardson) that is never fully established or explained, and you realize that you're probably watching a hacked up version of what was probably a longer (read: slower) but more coherent movie.

But that's the usual kind of stuff - those other movies that might come to mind (Halloween 6, for example, where it would race through any scene of people explaining the plot) at least had identifiable climaxes, something this movie lacks. At first it seems like there's one, albeit a rather uneventful one - things get hectic, Miles finally snaps out of his "evil" mode and sides with Kate, and she puts the kids in her car to drive them away from the house to safety. A nice overhead shot shows them leaving the grounds, and then, out of nowhere, the movie flashes back ten minutes to an earlier scene where Kate got some creepy charcoal sketches from her mother. This time the scene ends a bit differently, then instead of the escape she visits her mother in the institution, and... then the credits roll. That's it. The fate of the children (and Mrs. Grose, who - spoiler again - dies in the "other" ending) is left unknown, we're not sure if she's really at her mother's or if it's a dream, we're never told what the black drawings are, etc.

Even a "she was just crazy and saving the children was all in her head" explanation doesn't work, because we see a ghost before she even arrives there, and a mannequin moves on its own without her or anyone else there to witness it. And Kate's fear of turning out like her mother doesn't have enough material to register - most audience members will have forgotten about the character by the time she re-enters the story by sending the unexplained sketches, and since we are seeing other people have their own scares (Flora won't leave the grounds because she fears she will die, Miles clearly sees Quint's ghost at one point), it never once has that "is she crazy or is this happening" element that is essential for that kind of material to work. Clearly, too many pieces of the puzzle were left out, either by hasty post-editing, endless rewrites (the film was announced with a completely different cast and director as far back as 2016), or some combination of the two.

Worse, it's got the 1994 setting (and somewhere, per the credits, a Screaming Trees CD - at one point she gives an album to Miles that we can't quite see, so let's assume that's it) but no actual '90s music! I was all excited thinking we'd get to hear some old-school grunge, but instead the handful of songs we hear are from modern indie bands? Nothing popular enough to send off the anachronistic alarms to anyone but those bands' fans, since they sound more or less like some of the smaller outfits of the time, but still an odd choice when they went out of their way to establish 1994 in such a grim way and then do nothing else with the dating. Perhaps that got jumbled along the way, too?

Apparently, Spielberg was once heavily involved here; he shepherded the project from its early development and was reportedly on set when filming began, per news reports of the time (the director has recently denied this, for the record). However, his name does not appear on the final version, which is perhaps even more evidence of what a mess this thing is, and another red check on Universal, coming off Cats and Dolittle (also nightmarish productions; at least this one was cheap). A handful of good performances and some nice Gothic atmosphere aside, the only reason to see this movie is to have some context for the day when we see a director's cut or get some concrete behind the scenes info, and also to maybe apologize to William Brent Bell for whatever angry outburst you had at the ending of The Devil Inside. That movie's Return of the King-style conclusive in comparison to this one.

What say you?


Demon Witch Child (1975)

JANUARY 17, 2020


I saw Demon Witch Child during last year's New Beverly all night horrorthon, but as it played fifth in the lineup (starting around 4 am) the idea of me seeing the entire thing was absurd, and even when awake my mind was more concerned with, well, trying to stay awake than letting myself get caught up in the movie's shenanigans. So I missed a chunk of the middle and had rather hazy memories of most of the rest, and so I asked my friend (and trivia teammate) Amy to borrow her copy so I could see what I missed. And in true BC fashion, I didn't get around to actually watching it for almost three months, which means by that point I barely remembered what I saw, either.

But it's fitting that I finally finished "rewatching" today, because as I write this very review there's a bunch of folks at the Alamo Drafthouse in Houston watching Cathy's Curse with a video intro from yours truly, and Demon Witch Child is very much in the same vein, in that it's an Exorcist wannabe that retains the foul mouthed child but none of the quality. It's actually much more of a ripoff of Blatty and Friedkin's film than Cathy's was though; while that one was basically just "evil kid who swears now", this one has the head spinning, the priest, the mom going to see the priest to ask for an exorcism after doctors fail... hell, they even went so far as to hire the girl who dubbed Linda Blair's voice for the Spanish release to play the titular child. There are certainly more shameless Euro knockoffs of certain films, but this still serves as a prime example of a producer seeing a big hit American film and hiring some folks under the strict rule of "do the same thing, but cheaper and in 90 minutes!"

That said, there's one big difference: witches! The plot is a bit fuzzy due to weird dubbing, a very beat up print (from what I understand, the print we saw at the Bev was the same one they used to make this Code Red DVD), and the usual liberal approach to things like logic and coherency that these films offer, but from what I can understand there's a witch who is the prime suspect in a child's disappearance, and after being harassed by the cops she jumps out a window and dies rather than go to jail for her crimes. And so the rest of her coven does what anyone would do - transfers her soul into the still living and healthy body of a 12 year old girl, who - in fulfillment of the scriptures - starts swearing and killing those she considers responsible for the witch's (so, her) death.

And that's all well and good, but the movie can be a bit on the slow side, and somewhat repetitive - she gets fully possessed by the witch (she shapeshifts into the crone, and while the effect itself isn't good, I must say they did a great job of casting as the little girl and old woman share enough of a body resemblance that it does a chunk of the heavy lifting for those scenes), kills someone, goes home, turns back into the little girl, swears at her mom, and then the cycle begins again. In between these scenes are several (read: too many) of the girl's dad, a cop, a newspaper asshole, and a priest all trying to figure out what's going on. The father's political ties almost make it seem like they're cribbing from The Omen, too, but this actually came out a year or so before that one, so they're strictly aping Pazuzu.

One thing they took from that film, not often one of the copied elements, is Regan's ability to mimic voices. She only used it to freak out Father Karras, but our girl Susan uses this superpower to really mess with people, like calling her mother's lover and using her voice to get him to meet her somewhere for a rendezvous, only to kill him. She also does it to a cop while talking to him, prompting him to angrily yell "Hey that's my voice!" in the same manner one might shout after someone who just stole their car or something. These things, along with some other choice bits of nonsense (like the priest's old flame, who became a hooker after he decided to leave her to pursue a life in the clergy) help offset some of the film's slower elements, but - to be fair, like Cathy as well - it can try your patience from time to time in between goofy highlights.

But it's still an enjoyable way to kill 90 minutes; it might never actually be scary or suspenseful, but its gonzo charms more or less make up for it as long as you're not sitting down expecting to be frightened or tense in any way (that said, the ending is a bit of a downer, and she does attack a baby at one point, so be warned). I wish they could find a better print (and perhaps the original audio) to give it a proper presentation, but since we still don't even have Blu-rays of director Amando de Ossorio's far more famous Blind Dead films, I wouldn't hold my breath. Instead, it's packaged with a movie called The Possessed, which is amusing/confusing since DWC itself is also named The Possessed. The other one is about a guy who whips women and cuts their legs off, which sounds real lovely (sarcasm), so I don't know if I'll be getting around to that unless I hear it's worth my while and possible post-viewing shower. Granted, the best way to watch the movie is when you have no idea it's coming and are surrounded with fellow sleep-deprived (read: loopy) horror fans, but not everyone can have that, and the same version from the DVD is on Prime, so that's the next best option if you'd like to see for yourself. Double it with Cathy's Curse - it'll act as a form of birth control!

What say you?


Cats (2019)

JANUARY 13, 2020


I wasn't planning on writing about Cats, because it's not a horror movie (no, I'm not going to joke around and dub it as one, even if the characters unsettlingly resemble humans with fur more than the cats they're supposed to be), but I changed my mind after I had a sorta nightmare about it after my viewing. Not a scary dream per se, but since I very rarely dream about movies I just saw, I found it interesting that my subconscious was still trying to process what I just saw. Indeed, the dream was basically about me being in the theater, trying to comprehend the film's narrative, at one point digging behind the screen where all the "gears" were (I mean, it was still a dream, so part of it made no goddamn sense) to make sure they weren't at fault for the weird nonsense on-screen.

When I woke up, I naturally had no better idea of what the point of the movie was, but it did get me thinking more about WHY the movie didn't work on any level. During my viewing I just laughed along with the rest of the crowd and struggled to get my bearings on the thing, without putting too much thought into why I was finding it so impenetrable, as I needed my complete brainpower just to keep up and even that wasn't enough. The dissection came later, at which time I realized that a huge part of the problem is that the movie never once calms down long enough to allow a viewer to step back and say "OK, this is what this world is, and this is how it works." Instead, you're just tossed into it (almost literally, as the closest thing the movie offers to an audience surrogate is introduced when its owner throws it on the street in a sack) and all of the movie's insanely high number of cats instantly start dancing and singing, and they never stop until the movie is over.

Yes, it's a "sung-through" musical, not one that has isolated songs between otherwise normal scenes. The longest pause (no, I will NOT say "paws", and damn you for thinking I would) is maybe 20 seconds, usually for a character to react to a song for a beat before starting their own. This can be a hurdle for any show if you're not prepared and have your ears properly tuned into the vocals, so perhaps people who are familiar with the stage version weren't as thrown off by the movie's idea of rhythm, but I, a total a newcomer, found it nearly impossible to focus on the lyrics. Why? Because Tom Hooper is a godawful director who never once makes the right choice with his camera and editing, so while a cat is singing about this or that, he's haphazardly cutting to other cats, moving his camera all over the place, and generally making it a god-level challenge to know exactly what we should be paying attention to, what's important, etc.

I should note for people who are just as unfamiliar with this particular show that there is no traditional plot on Broadway; from what I've gathered after reading up on it (again, in an attempt to understand it) is that the play basically has the same thrust as the movie, in that it's little more than a series of "scenes" in which a new cat is introduced, sings a song, and is then whisked away by the villainous Macavity (Idris Elba), who figures he can guarantee ascending to the "Heaviside Layer" (reincarnation/heaven kinda place, except one they all want to go to) by removing all of the other "Jellicle" cats from contention. That choice is made by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), their leader I guess, and she isn't having much of Macavity's shit. So the cats have to stop him and get back so she can make the right call, and I assure you, the way I've described it makes it sound more involving than it is.

The movie bulks up the role of Victoria, one of the background cats in the play. She's the one being tossed off at the beginning, and for about 13 seconds it seems like the movie will be about her learning about this world, becoming something important, and maybe even being chosen herself, or at least having some part to play in the decision. That the play is so plotless that they felt they had to invent a main character for the adaptation was probably the first sign that maybe they shouldn't adapt it in the first place, but maybe it could have worked with a competent filmmaker behind it. Instead, they got Hooper, whose aforementioned directorial ADD undoes the material at every turn. Lead character or not, when you're at a play you have a fixed view on the proceedings, and stage lighting/the confined stage can assure you're focused and not being pulled in seven directions at once. You have no such ability here - Hooper can't even bother to keep from breaking the 180 rule, so their attempts at making it something accessible via Victoria fall completely flat, and after a while she's basically the same background player she was in the source material. When we first meet her she is told Cats have three names, their normal one (that'd be Victoria), their Jellicle one, and a secret one... and that's all there is to that, as she's never referred to by anything else.

If anyone knows one thing about Cats it's probably "Memory", but what they might not know is that the character who sings it is barely seen beforehand (at least, that's the case here - the movie is only 100 minutes whereas the stage show is over two hours, so some stuff got lost), so the song is really doing the heavy lifting there, because it's not particularly moving with regards to the character since we have such a minimal connection to her at that point (it'd be like if Audrey and Seymour sang "Suddenly Seymour" before Audrey II even showed up). Ironically, one of the few other bright spots is Victoria's "Beautiful Ghosts", a new song written for the movie - I can't help but wonder if the thing would have worked if they had taken the basic concept and the best songs and basically started over with a collection of new tunes and an actual plot to tie them together. Instead it's mostly just noise, with occasional moments of relative high quality. Unfortunately, in my opinion anyway, the best songs are near the end, by which point you've probably long given up. Sure, it's good that the most intolerable numbers (Rebel Wilson's and James Corden's) are gotten out of the way early, but when you add that to the aforementioned "you're just thrown into this thing" problem it might be too much to recover from for the average person.

The other huge problem is that the scale of the cats keeps changing, and none of the incarnations ever make any sense. I thought it was just a world run by cats (like how Pixar's Cars is run by cars), but an unseen human drops Victoria off, and later a pair of "bad" cats have her join them as they break into a house, only for the absent owners' dog to realize they're there and try to burst through the door of the bedroom they're ransacking. So they're essentially the same as housecats, but their size compared to the household objects and furniture is closer to that of mice - which is made even more confusing by how big they look compared to the actual mice (also humans in suits) when they show up a few times. Again, the movie never lets you understand how it works on a base level; it's one thing to have specific questions about how this or that would play out in this strange world, but to be kept in the dark about all of its "rules" is simply insane.

Long story short, it constantly feels like you missed the scene before the one you're currently watching, and that continues until the very end, which is actually impressive but doesn't make the movie good by any means. But it's not "so bad it's good" kind of stuff like The Room or Birdemic, either; apart from a few botched FX (yes, even in this upgraded version you still see Judi Dench's ring in a few shots) it's competent on a technical level, and actually doesn't have too many laugh out loud moments that spring from terrible decision making. The performers give it their all (Ian McKellen in particular nails it) despite their hideous costumes and some of the songs are actually catchy, but it can never settle into a groove, because Hooper is too terrible a filmmaker to reign anything in and find one. Exhausting maybe is a better word for it. Again, I suspect it might work better for those who are familiar with the story/songs already and just want to see what it's like in a different format, but I think everyone can agree that this was a misguided project at best. I'm glad I saw it for myself, but it's not even really worth ironic "let's laugh at this" kind of viewing - it's like an actual car crash in that you maybe can't look away but in reality wish never happened in the first place and hope only the guilty parties (Hooper, in this case) suffer from it.

What say you?

P.S. Hilariously, the Drafthouse showed an old PSA about safety from the cast of the Broadway show, and it's possibly a bad idea as it just shows how much better the usual costumes are than whatever it is Hooper was going for here.


Underwater (2020)

JANUARY 9, 2020


If you've seen the trailer for Underwater, you'd probably remember the shots of Kristen Stewart - an employee on a big drilling platform/laboratory at the bottom of the ocean floor - noticing some water leaking from the ceiling before all the walls around her burst open and begin flooding the joint. Anyone who has ever seen a disaster film before would reasonably assume this is something that happens twenty minutes into the movie at earliest, maybe even more - but that's actually the first scene of the film, before we've even met anyone besides KStew's Norah, an engineer who is one of only six people we see in the film (save for two unlucky anonymous sods that try to run to safety and fail). Within moments, the filmmakers establish the very thing that makes the movie work: they're not going to waste much time on the things that ultimately won't matter.

A lot of reviews have compared the movie to Alien, and that's fine (if overblown; the two aren't really much alike beyond "some people are confined with a monster"), but there's actually a number of other underwater-set films in the same vein, such as Leviathan and Deepstar Six (plus another where you're supposed to assume the folks are in space but are in fact underwater, though saying the title would spoil that fun twist), and I think this tops the others*, mostly because it has the good sense to get moving fast and barely let up after. Those others took forever to get going and rarely delivered on the spectacle their one-line synopsis would suggest (Leviathan in particular seemed to favor off-screen deaths), but that's never much of an issue here. It almost seems to take place in real time as the characters navigate their way from their damaged section of the facility to another one (which requires two exterior walks along the ocean floor) that might have escape pods they can use to survive, and there's scarcely a dull or quiet moment until the credits roll.

If anything it perhaps swings too far in the opposite direction at times, as you really need to pay attention and keep your ears tuned if you want to catch all the exposition and character details that the film often races through. Most of the explanation for what Stewart and the others are doing down there is shown via news clippings during the opening credits (which are very Godzilla '14-inspired), including the fact that the movie is set in the future (2050, I believe I read), and it's not entirely clear what certain characters' jobs are - TJ Miller is the comic relief, but I highly doubt he was hired by the drilling company to be that, though if they say what he does on a normal day I missed it. The trailer shows a couple of quick "normal day at the office" shots of a few characters that aren't in the movie, so it's possible there WAS more of a traditional setup that got excised, though it's just as likely they had some B-roll of the actors and included the footage in the spot to just trick us. Either way, it's an interesting tactic to let their present situation inform us who they are and how they work together, and it mostly pays off, but it can feel a bit mercenary at times.

Speaking of Miller... eh. He's the "and" role and you can draw your own conclusions from that regarding how much he's in the film, but I was getting tired of his one-note performances/appearances before he even got "canceled" (the movie was shot in 2017, and had been tossed around on the schedule due to the Fox/Disney merger, though I'm sure Miller's presence hasn't helped). A couple of his lines are funny enough, but I don't think he says anything that's not meant to make the audience chuckle, so it's just tiresome. Everyone else contributes something meaningful, and I was relieved to discover that none of them were evil/cynical humans in the vein of Aliens' Paul Reiser (or Meg Foster, to stick with the Leviathan comparisons), and even though some of them didn't even really know each other (Norah actually has to introduce herself to the first survivor she meets) they all work together and have each others' backs. It's quite refreshing, really - I can't even remember the last time I saw Vincent Cassel playing a normal, caring guy.

Also, they do that thing that Quiet Place did, where a character kind of has to act dumb early on in order to sell the gravity of the situation to the audience. Here it's a guy seemingly knowing he had a faulty diving helmet before being submerged, which gets him imploded almost instantly (which, with the fact that the movie itself doesn't take much time to get to the action, means it's only about ten minutes in) and very clearly proves to the audience that even though there might be monsters out there, they're far from the only thing they need to worry about. Most underwater movies take the time to explain the dangers of water pressure, surfacing too fast, etc - but rarely show the effects, and it can be hard to wrap your head around if you aren't personally familiar with the risks of such things. But when you see a guy explode all over his coworkers because of a tiny crack in his helmet, you know exactly how dangerous their predicament is, monsters or not.

But there are indeed some monsters, and they're kind of great? I don't expect much from our modern creature features, as most tend to be vaguely tentacle/thorn-ridden shapeless blobs of CGI that I couldn't describe to someone later or even recognize if I saw a drawing or model kit without context (the Cloverfield monster is an excellent example of this sort of thing). But these are well designed and appropriately scary, with the ability to unhinge their algae-like jaws and swallow someone whole like a snake. They're used sparingly, but as the film goes on you see more and more of them, leading to a terrific final reveal that legitimately stunned me; not a "twist", just something I wasn't expecting the film to include. And keeping with the seeming commitment to trimming the fat, there's thankfully no explanation for what they are, how they survive, etc - we know they came up from the drilling, and that's all we need to know.

(Skip this paragraph if you don't want some mild spoilers!)

There's also a third scary idea: the bends, or decompression sickness. One character suffers a mild case of it and gets a bit loopy for the rest of their screentime, but they occasionally almost seem to be trying to get you thinking that Stewart (who is quite good) might be the actual killer, not the monsters. There's a scene where she gets separated from the others and starts having quick flashes to earlier moments, and we see her hands shaking every now and then - i.e. standard "they're going crazy" kind of movie cliches, and that's followed by a scene where she finds one of the others and the person almost seems terrified of her. Turns out the other person was just confused and having trouble seeing in the water, and to be honest I'm glad it didn't go that route, but I wouldn't doubt that there was some inkling of that idea in early development. As it stands, it's a nice bit of misdirect, not to mention an extra obstacle for the characters to overcome.

Basically, as "January horror movies" go, it's one of the best, and by that I mean it didn't deserve to be dumped off as one. It's bad enough the studios so rarely greenlight original creature features like this (let alone at hefty budgets), it's worse when they basically ensure that they flop by tossing them out with little fanfare. There's almost no chance that the movie becomes a box office success, and while that doesn't mean a goddamn thing to you or me re: our enjoyment of this film, it does mean that the next dozen or so original monster movies that get pitched to a major studio will almost certainly be rejected, as if it's the audience's fault that they didn't go see a movie with a bad release date and next to no marketing. At its best, the movie is able to rely on that same thing that The Descent did, in that it's almost scary enough without the monsters, and at 95 minutes, even if they DID trim some of the talkier stuff, they didn't do so much that it feels completely compromised like an old school Dimension flick. Nope, for the most part it feels just right, and I walked out having enjoyed myself. Plus I thought of Armageddon at one point, which is always a plus in my house.

What say you?

*Not The Abyss, which is often lumped in with the others despite being a straight sci-fi/adventure film; the creatures are not scary in any way so I don't see it as part of the group, really.


FTP: Red Letter Day (2019)

JANUARY 7, 2020


With four films (and counting) plus a TV series, you'd think we'd know most of the nitty gritty about The Purge by now, i.e. "How often do people retaliate during non Purge hours?" and "Does anyone just use the occasion to rob Gamestop?", but there are still many things about the concept that aren't clear, and probably always will be left that way. It can be a bit frustrating, so one thing that works in Red Letter Day's favor is that it's a stripped down, localized version along similar lines: everyone in a small planned community gets a letter one day that instructs them to kill a certain target or else they will be killed. Of course, they can all stay home and do nothing (the inverse of the "they can't expel the whole class if we all skip school today" idea), but then there's no movie - some people will inevitably embrace this strange version of self-defense killing.

With a more thought out script (and/or better actors) this could have been a solid paranoia thriller in the 10 Cloverfield Lane vein, as for all they know it might be a prank and nothing would happen if they just ignored it, but unfortunately they make a pretty big blunder the movie never really recovers from. In order for the "these are regular normal people forced into something extreme!" concept to land, the writer/director opted to have the characters act as pleasant and good-natured as possible for the first 20-25 minutes, with moms who are best buds with their teenager children, and everyone's constantly teasing each other in a loving away, and neighbors all wave to each other... it's the right idea, but it goes too far in that direction, to the extent that no one actually comes off as a normal person. To me, they feel more like robots mimicking the human behavior they witnessed in daytime TV ads for cleaning products and brew-at-home coffee.

And even later they don't really act natural; the mom of the central trio (dad's out of the picture) occasionally really feels like a mama bear protecting her cubs, but more often than not I found myself wondering if the actress had ever once seen someone worried about their child before. At one point, when both of her kids are in danger (one badly injured, the other missing) a woman (Tiffany "Violet" Helm from F13: New Beginning!) from a church offers to bring the son to the hospital, and rather say "Oh perfect, thanks!" and rush off to find her daughter, she stops to talk about perhaps donating to her church or volunteering at one of their events to make it up to them, as if that would be the first thing on her mind just then? It's one of a few examples where I couldn't buy into the movie's scenario because I was being kept at bay by how unnatural everyone was acting.

On the plus side, there are some terrific practical gore FX (highlight: a very fucked up jaw on a very deserving "victim") and at 76 minutes with lengthy credits (the director credits themselves three times) it doesn't wear out its welcome and is only asking you for a little bit more of your time than an episode of a pay cable TV show. And if you have the blu-ray, you get some excellent Creepshow style artwork on the menu, though it curiously draws the protagonist's son as a jock when in the movie he's like a dorkier Ron Weasley. If you can get past the forced "nice people" performances it's a decent enough timekiller, though these "What would YOU do?" kind of movies really need a more natural setup for the payoffs to land.

What say you?


FTP: The Devil Rides Out (1968)

JANUARY 3, 2019


When The Devil Rides Out arrived from Scream Factory over two months ago I threw it in the "pile", because I thought I had seen it already. But when looking for something to put on a few nights back when it was late but I wasn't tired enough to go to bed, I read the synopsis said "Hmm I don't remember this at all?", and only then did I realize I was thinking of To The Devil A Daughter, the OTHER Hammer movie with Christopher Lee based on a Dennis Wheatley novel. That one I did see, and it's an OK enough movie (per my nearly eight year old review, it's a bit dull and the central mystery doesn't work very well), but this one turned out to be a total delight to me, so I'm happy I picked it out of the ever increasing number of movies in/around that overflowing box next to my couch where all the random screeners and trivia winnings go in hopes of becoming an FTP review someday.

In fact I liked it enough to read the book to compare for a future Collins' Crypt piece, so I won't use up all of my thoughts on the film here. But I will say that a big part of why I liked it was that Lee was not playing the cult leader - he was actually the hero for a change, one of two older men who were trying to save their pal from the satanic cult he had joined. But he doesn't do much action heroics; he leaves that to Leon Greene as the other (younger) guy. Instead, Lee hilariously smirks his way through the film's thoroughly enjoyable opening sequence, where the two men visit their pal at his home unannounced, on the night where his cult has gathered under the guise of an astronomy meeting. Lee knows damn well the guy's mixed up with satanists, but he plays along with the ruse, marveling at his friend's newly redecorated floor (satanic symbols) and such. Honestly I could watch an entire movie of this stuff, sans any horror at all.

Luckily, those elements work well, too. Since Lee is usually a villain and is occasionally vague about certain things (he gives Greene some chemically based protections, but says he has "other protections" without divulging what they are), I spent a good chunk of the movie thinking he was merely pretending to be a hero but in reality trying to build Greene's character up as an eventual sacrifice or something. So that adds a layer of intrigue that for all I know was never intended by the novel or script (adapted by Richard Matheson), and the direct/obvious horror stuff is pretty successful to boot. Late in the film, our heroes have to endure a ritual and fight off the temptations of the black magic, which reminded me of A Dark Song (something no less an authority than Kim Newman points out on an interview, making me feel a bit proud for having noticed it), another strong sequence. The effects aren't that great (Lee hilariously trashes them on the commentary) but the general ideas come across just fine, and the unusual three male hero setup (Lee, Greene, and the guy they were trying to save, played by Patrick Mower) adds much suspense as you're pretty sure one of them will probably die, but who?

The villain is played by Charles Gray (yep, two future Bond villains square off in this!), quite possibly the most sinister looking man alive. Sadly he is kind of sidelined for big chunks, focusing on Lee and Greene's attempts to free their pal (plus Greene's love interest, played by Nike Arrighi) instead of whatever the cult folk are doing in between their sacrifices. But he casts a long shadow even when he's not on screen and gets some great bits, including a hypnosis scene and a climactic scene where he nonchalantly plans to sacrifice a child. Perhaps Wheatley's book has more for him to do (it's 300 pages in very tiny font size, and the movie is only 95 minutes, so obviously they had to excise a lot), though if there's a direct confrontation between his character and Lee's I'll be disappointed it wasn't filmed, as the men rarely interact directly (Greene gets to punch him out though).

Scream's blu is packed, of course; the Lee commentary (shared with Sarah Lawson and a moderator) is older, along with a few old making of specials, but there's a new track with historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr, plus Newman's interview and another exclusive one with Jonathan Riby. And the film has a new transfer, which looked quite good though of course I can't compare it to any previous releases (it appears to be the first Blu-ray release in the US, with an Anchor Bay DVD being long out of print). They have a few more Hammer movies on the way (including Rasputin, which this one was paired with on the Anchor Bay DVD) so I hope it's a sign they are being diligent about acquiring as many as they can - sure, there are some duds in that mix, but I'll sit through a few chores like The Reptile if it means occasionally getting a real treat like this.

What say you?


The Grudge (2020)

JANUARY 2, 2020


I hate when I feel I have to defend a movie I myself was mixed on, but that's the problem with modern movie discussion - too many people on Twitter and Letterboxd seem to think that Siskel & Ebert's thumbs up or down (or Rotten Tomatoes' splat/fresh) are the only options. The Grudge (2020), like most movies, actually ends up somewhere in the middle of the equation, in that... it's fine. It's competently made, well cast (and in turn, acted), has a solid score from the Newton Brothers, a couple of decent scares, and - best of all - doesn't require you to remember the storylines of the previous films, even though it's technically "Grudge 4" than the remake the title suggests (hey, it worked for Halloween '18!). And yet I see it getting half stars on Letterboxd - shouldn't that be reserved for the worst movies of all time?

It's not unlike what happened with last month's Black Christmas, another "OK" movie that made me wish I liked it more than I did if only to fully balance all the negativity being thrown at it. But you can't defend something without it looking like you actually love it, so there's really no winning here - I can just hope that there are others like me who feel that while this is certainly no must-see horror film, it is at least worthy of an A-List reservation (or whatever other Moviepass-like options still exist) or, in a few months, Redbox rental. I should stress that I am no big fan of the other films; I've seen I think eight of the previous entries between the US Grudge films and the Ju-Ons from Japan, and I can't say I'd ever be too interested in watching them again unless I had to for research. I didn't DISLIKE any of them, either - it just never grabbed my "fan" interest the way other franchises have - one and done is enough, and I don't make much effort to track down the Ju-On entries I've missed (such as Kayako vs Sadako, in which the series' villains faced off against the one from the Japanese Ring films).

But like I said, thankfully this one didn't require you to remember much of them, either - though it's amusing to see how many alleged critics think it's a remake when the movie literally starts by explaining how it's in-continuity with the other films. After a million production logos, we start in 2004, as an American social worker named Fiona Landers leaves the familiar house from the other films, talking to a coworker about how "Yoko would have to take over". If you know your series' history (or, like me, refreshed with the Wiki entries while waiting for the film to start), you'd know that Yoko is the original social worker in the 2004 film who was succeeded by Sarah Michelle Gellar's character. Either way, that's pretty much it for how it connects to the others, and that's all we see of Tokyo - after a quick trash bag scare homaging one of the Japanese entries, Fiona returns home to Pennsylvania, and that's where we stay for the rest of the film.

The only other connection of note is that it once again has the criss-crossed timelines, something that they had thankfully done away with for Grudge 3 (the direct to video entry that, for my money, was the best of the three) which I hoped would be continued here, but alas. As always I fail to see the real point of doing this - there are never any major payoffs for the structure and it mostly just tells us that certain characters will be dead before we've even met them. The main character, I guess, is Andrea Riseborough's Muldoon, a detective in 2006 who moves to the town and finds a body with her new partner (Demian Bichir) on her first day. The victim was last seen at a particular house on Breyburn Road, information that spooks Bichir's Goodman out but he won't explain why. So she starts digging, and it turns out the Breyburn house belonged to Fiona, and that her and her family ended up dead shortly after she returned there in 2004.

From this investigation Muldoon also learns of the Spencers, a married pair of realtors who were responsible for selling the house for the Landers in 2005, and the Mathesons, an elderly couple who ended up buying it. And of course since Muldoon herself entered (Bichir's character never did, so he's safe) she is a target now as well, so the movie basically cuts back and forth between the 2004/2005 stuff that ultimately will end tragically for just about everyone involved, and Muldoon in the "present" trying to piece it all together and hopefully not end up as a victim herself. I'm not particularly sure why any of her scenes needed to occur in 2006; tying it to the 2004 events makes sense but everything she uncovers is treated as "the past" and could have just as easily have been 15 years ago instead of a year or two ago, sparing them the need for period details like phones and TVs. Maybe they just didn't want to deal with putting Bichir in makeup, since he's the only one that appears in all three timelines?

Speaking of Bichir, his last spooky movie was The Nun where he was saddled with two younger folks, i.e. playing the standard paycheck-cashing esteemed actor that nearly every younger-aiming horror movie needs to have. But here, apart from Riseborough's son, who disappears for an hour anyway*, the youngest cast member is Betty Gilpin (as one of the realtors) at 34. Riseborough's a bit older than her, and everyone else is at least in their 40s, with some in their 70s (Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison as the Mathesons) - there isn't a single teen or even college aged type in sight. It's a risky gamble on Sony and Ghosthouse's part to populate their revival with older character actors that people like me (turning 40 soon) will appreciate - Shaye, Faison, William Sadler, Jacki Weaver - instead of whoever is on the CW these days.

One that hasn't apparently paid off, since most of the chatter I've seen seems to be that people are bored by it and don't care about these people. The film thankfully doesn't seem to be in any rush to get to jump scares, focusing instead on these desperate, everyday folks who want to make sense of what's happening to them and protect their loved ones as opposed to BOO! moments. The Matheson subplot in particular is kind of devastating; Shaye's character is seemingly in the late stages of dementia or Alzheimers (if they specify, I didn't catch it) and her husband (Faison) is so hellbent on letting her be at peace that he has sought the services of an assisted suicide guru (Weaver) as he sees it as the only option. Knowing her symptoms are more due to the haunting stuff as opposed to a disease he wants to help cure her of is heartbreaking, and Faison nails the struggle. Meanwhile, the Spencers have recently learned that their unborn child will be born with Adrenoleukodystrophy (which I had to look up; the movie just says "ALD" and never explains why they're so upset about it, assuming we'd already know I guess), so they definitely don't have time or patience to be dealing with any angry ghosts as they're unsure if they're able to be fitting parents for a child that will require so much extra care.

Riseborough is also dealing with her own tragedy; her husband died of cancer a few months earlier, and apparently their 6-ish son was the one who found him dead. The first time we see these people the kid is nearly in tears because he found a Lego set that him and his daddy were building together and never finished (which is pretty much the easiest way in the world to get me hooked into a "DO NOT LET ANYTHING ELSE SAD HAPPEN TO THIS CHILD" kind of mood), and the script allows her to have a few private breakdown moments as well. In other words, the script by director Nicolas Pesce (rewriting Jeff Buhler's draft enough to get sole screenplay credit, with Buhler settling for "story by") puts more effort into making these characters well rounded as opposed to walking exposition machines that are required to be around for one of the ghosts to startle or kill.

But as longtime readers know, I never care about those things anyway; I was mostly enjoying their drama unfold through the familiar beats of a Grudge movie. Some of the scares are pretty well done (there's one involving Sadler that got me good) and the gore is more for disturbing effect (such as someone chopping off their own fingers) than of the crowd-pleasing variety like in a slasher. The problem is, as always, there's no real defeating the curse, and again we're told of nearly everyone's fate before we've even met them, so apart from Riseborough and her son (and Bichir, who bafflingly disappears for the last reel anyway) there's not a lot of suspense for the characters, so I get why it's not working for people. It definitely does not succeed as a "scary movie" in the traditional way for long stretches, as the focus is on character development and more adult-leaning situations than anyone should reasonably expect when they see that Screen Gems logo at the beginning.

So since it doesn't really involve any of the previous characters or storylines, if you're a big Grudge fan you will probably find little interest in this revival. But if you enjoy slower paced supernatural fare (The Pact came to mind more than once, as did Oculus) I hope you'll see it my way, that it's an interesting attempt at shoehorning something a little more adult-oriented into a familiar IP. The results aren't always successful, but I'd rather something a little more ambitious like this than something like The Nun (or 2017's Rings update) that is running on fumes and franchise goodwill and nothing else.

What say you?

*There's a scene like an hour into the movie where Riseborough brings her son to work because the sitter canceled, and I swear it had to be moved around in the timeline. Not only is this the first time we have heard of a sitter (something I had been wondering about since she's an only parent who is seemingly always working) but she goes to the office to get information it seemed she already had from a previous scene. I suspect with the back and forth timelines the scene didn't quite fit where it was originally meant to go and it got moved here just to clarify the sitter situation (allowing us to assume that this unseen sitter must practically live there) and also remind us that the kid even exists before he takes on a more active role a few scenes later.


Berserker (1987)

DECEMBER 30, 2019


I can't remember if it made it into the movie adaptation, but one thing I loved in Sphere (the novel) was that the creatures that sprung from the subconscious of the characters had no insides, because while someone might have a strong mental image of a shark or jellyfish or whatever it was (hey it's been like 20 years, leave me alone) looked like on the outside, their mind wouldn't dream up the interior to go along with it, so it simply wasn't there. In other words, it had the right look, but nothing was actually holding it together - something one could also say about Berserker (aka Berserker: The Nordic Curse), a standard past-its-prime '80s slasher (1987 to be exact) that checks all the boxes but never quite felt alive to me.

And that's a shame, because the killer backstory is borderline insane: a berserker is a viking warrior who will dress in animal skins (and snouts) to hunt its victims, as opposed to your standard masked maniac. For a red herring, the movie employs an actual bear (Bart the bear, in fact - kind of a big star back then! He was also in Great Outdoors and The Bear) that we're led to believe is the actual killer since the death scenes are shot in closeup, so you just see a paw swipe someone or the jaws snarling or whatever. It's actually a cheat - when they finally reveal the killer near the end there isn't a single angle where one could believe it was anything but a guy in some loinclothes, but it's an amusing, ambitious attempt at least.

If only it was serving something more interesting! It's bad enough that our characters are right out of the stock slasher handbook, but they all kind of look alike too - there are three blonde women who could all be named Muffy and two blonde men who could be named Chad (as could the brunette guy, for that matter, but at least he's not blonde). Throw a redhead into the mix, damn you! And the movie commits the cardinal slasher sin of killing two of them off almost back to back after an interminable wait, then lets the others all run around for a while, alert to the danger. I can give it some points for not reducing everything to a Final Girl (in fact the men's survival rate is higher than the women's, also unusual), but there's no one else around except for two old-timers, a cop played by John Goff and a mountain man played by George "Buck" Flower, both of whom presumably went home every day and hoped to see a message from John Carpenter (and perhaps they did, since the Fog vets both ended up in They Live a year later!).

When these guys are on-screen, the movie picks up some; granted their conversations have almost zero bearing on anything (at one point they spend a good minute discussing when Flower's character first beat Goff at chess), but there's something dryly amusing about cutting away from attractive and horny 20somethings to let two veteran character actors shoot the shit. After Goff leaves Flower's place for the night we cut back to him every now and then finding signs of a struggle or something else amiss, hoping to find our protagonists before they're all killed and clearly knowing more about what might be going on than he was willing to admit to them earlier (BOTH men do the "don't go up there" routine, hilariously). As for Flower's character... well he disappears for a while, and if you have a guess why then congrats, you've seen a movie before!

(Spoiler for 30 year old movie: he's the killer.)

To be fair it's not a badly made movie; it actually looks pretty good (lots of fog and backlighting, if that's your bag) and the shots of the bear are mostly well integrated, so they weren't all amateurs stumbling their way to the finish line. In fact one of the actors went on to write and star in Iced the following year, so I'm already used to seeing this guy in badly made slashers and this ain't one of them. But all of the most memorable things have zero to do with the horror element; in five years all I'll remember is the jaw-droppingly awful pop songs on the soundtrack (one has a chorus that is primarily "You're a coooooool dude!"), weird homoerotic notes of the shirtless male heroes pouring beer on each other, and the fact that they're all traveling to a cabin that has one room so they're all sleeping (read: fooling around) a few inches away from each other with no privacy whatsoever.

The only exception is the closing shot, where we learn who our Berserker really is via a few dissolves between the muscle bound actor who played him in the kill scenes (when they weren't just using poor Bart) and Flower, who is decidedly less in shape (so it's kind of like a werewolf movie, but one where the werewolf would be mostly human and seemingly wouldn't require a different actor to play his non-werewolf self). Then it freeze-frames on Flower before the credits roll, and it's just a hilarious image that I hope remains burned into my mind for at least three more days. Berserker 2 could have been amazing if they picked up directly where this one left off (they certainly didn't need to introduce too many new characters for a followup since so many of them survived this one) and discarded the mystery angle to let ol' George really cut loose as the villain.

Vinegar Syndrome's blu-ray has the expected extras - a few interviews with cast members and the director (who also provides an intro), but all shot separately so they can't jog each others' memories when necessary or have fun reminiscing as a group, which is how the best of these things play out (see the one on Creepshow for a terrific example). And the commentary is by the Hysteria Continues guys, who are certainly fans of the slasher genre and have more appreciation for some of these lesser films (including this one) than I do, but they tend to run over the same points a lot to make up for the fact that they didn't make the movie and thus don't know too much about its production. And they've already done a few slashers from this era (Trapped Alive, Cutting Class, etc.) so if you've heard those you might experience deja vu since they discuss a lot of the same things (mainly, how the slasher film's glory days were over by then but these movies were still coming along for direct to video audiences, and that they might not be classics but have their merits). Like the movie itself, it's not that any of these things are badly done, it's just that you're going to spend some time thinking "haven't I already seen/listened to this?"

What say you?


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