HMAD is Back! Yes, The "A Day" Part!

Crazy trivia: the "daily" part of HMAD ran for six years and change, but ended almost *seven* and a half years ago! It's been "Horror Movie A Week, Maybe" for longer than I delivered on the promise of the name! Time flies when you have a kid and also suffer through a global pandemic.

Then again, said pandemic is why I'm happy to report that for September and October, I'll be reviving the "A Day" part of the site, to celebrate a Halloween season where so many of us (including me, obviously) won't be able to do much else. Unlike before, thanks to the aforementioned kid (who still needs to be convinced to watch the likes of Hotel Transylvania, let alone the genuine horror I was watching at his age) I'll have to take the weekends off, but M-F I'll be posting with the regularity that has escaped me for seven years. Now that I'm stuck at home all day (and, sigh, have no other writing outlet) there's no excuse. Plus I need the 12 cents I get from Amazon sales, so there's some incentive beyond my need to be more productive.

On that note, I looked into a Patreon thing, but ultimately couldn't bring myself to do it - the site's been free (and ad-free!) for 13 years, so it felt wrong to lock off random reviews behind a paywall. Instead, I will just humbly request that if you do indeed need to use Amazon, that you use my referral link, and/or if you have the extra cash, donate to my Ko-fi. Between BMD shutting down and my work greatly reducing my hours (better than the alternative, of course), money is very tight these days, so every little bit helps. Also, not sure how long BMD will be online now that it's dead, so I'm trying to collect my "Collins Crypt" articles and perhaps cherry pick the best and add a few new ones for a cheap eBook, so keep an eye out for that!

Viva la HMAD, a site never owned by a scumbag! Just my dumb ass.


Pandemonium (1982)

AUGUST 30, 2020


I first learned about the slasher spoof Pandemonium in the mid-'90s, thanks to John Stanley's Creature Features, where he gave it a three star review - generous for the extremely picky author. I was only halfway through A (yes, I read the entire thing like it was a regular book) when I realized his tastes and mine were not exactly in sync, but in these pre-internet days (at least, in my house) the book was invaluable, alerting me to the existence of movies like this; titles that would rattle around in my head for years (decades, now) until they randomly show up at my door someday thanks to the likes of Vinegar Syndrome.

Stanley's writeup mentioned Friday the 13th as a source of inspiration, but I just assumed it was shorthand for "it's making fun of slasher movies". However, while other horror films (particularly Carrie) are clear influences, the movie is indeed very much in line with F13's plot - it even has an opening set in the 1950s before flashing forward to the present day, where a camp is set to reopen after some tragedies, now populated by three young men and three young women (and their boss). The killer reveal also kind of comes out of nowhere, though the culprit is at least established/seen in the prologue - they just aren't ever shown again until the closing moments, when they reveal themselves.

I'm sure this is why I found myself more amused by it than Student Bodies or (blech) Class Reunion, laughing or at least mildly chuckling throughout and only groaning a few times. Of course the hit/miss ratio isn't exactly up to Airplane standards, but come on - Airplane II standards would be a minor miracle for a horror spoof. The problem with all of these things is that they are parodying a genre that demands death and chases, and there's only so much one can do to keep the jokes coming in such moments but not going overboard so that there's nothing to invest yourself in. But Pandemonium, unlike the others, is directed by someone who actually knows how to make a horror movie: Alfred "Alice Sweet Alice" Sole, so he is able to stage the final girl's chase around the school as if it was a real one, instead of just cramming gags in the frame because they don't know how to wrap it up and serve both masters (which is what ultimately sunk Student Bodies for me; the ending is awful).

No, Sole knows to keep it brief, refusing to let the movie wear out its welcome, and the script actually has a decent foundation to build its jokes on - I remember hearing that Airplane was basically just a copied script of a movie called Zero Hour, except they added jokes, and it's not too hard to imagine that this was similarly a straight slasher script (a quickie ripoff of F13, no doubt) that got a rewrite with some gags, as opposed to something that was designed from the ground up as a spoof. Indeed, some of the best jokes are totally extraneous; one in particular could have been added during post-production - a scene where one red herring picks up another red herring (there's an escaped prisoner AND an escaped lunatic) and they start discussing forming a club. It's hilarious and random, and it's just overheard dialogue over a simple shot of a car driving off that could have been in any movie.

This "less is more" approach kind of extends to the production design (incidentally, Sole's original line of work before moving into directing). Having seen countless spoofs over the years my eyes are trained to look at the backgrounds for jokey signs, background players doing silly things, etc, but there's not a lot of that sort of thing. There are sight gags, of course, but they're never of the "blink and you'll miss" type; watching the movie a second time probably won't reveal anything you may have missed the first time around. The payoff is that, sure, it isn't as uproarious as it could have been, but you'll never get a whiff of desperation, either. The "more jokes!" approach can kill a movie like this; better to have three gags a minute where one is good than thirty gags a minute where ten are good - the same success rate, but less time rolling your eyes.

It's also got a pretty fun cast, starting with Carol Kane in one of the most normal roles I've seen her play (second only to When A Stranger Calls). She's the Final Girl, but also has some (very sparingly used) Carrie-like powers, so they get some mileage out of that (including a "stupid but funny" dirty pillows gag featuring Sydney Lassick, who was actually IN Carrie). Judge Reinhold plays one of the victims (they're all introduced as "Victim #_), and Paul Reubens plays the deputy to head cop (and top-billed, though more of an "and" appearance) Tom Smothers, displaying some of the manic energy he'd become known for (this was 1982, so Pee-Wee was still relatively obscure). Also, not to be a buzzkill, but I started watching on Friday night, a couple hours after hearing that Chadwick Boseman had passed away, so I got upset again when Phil Hartman showed up for a quick (very funny, deadpan) line in the prologue, as he too was taken from us far too early and - as I'm sure Boseman's will be - a celebrity death it took a long time for me to really wrap my head around and accept (I STILL haven't gotten there with Bill Paxton, for the record). He was so goddamn good, standing out with just a single throwaway line in a junky comedy - there aren't too many others that can pull that off. I miss him so much.

Your mileage will vary, of course, but for my money it's one of the better slasher spoofs - not exactly a must-see, but the only one I could imagine myself watching again someday. And it's accessible; none of the jokes require you to have seen this or that movie to appreciate (outside of the dirty pillows thing, which is given context anyway, the closest thing to a specific reference is that it takes place on Thursday the 12th, which requires only to be aware of a famous horror movie called Friday the 13th), so that's probably helped its longevity - I could show this to Will in a year or two and he'd probably find it funny without having seen any of the movies that inspired it. Not sure if that would work for the likes of Scary Movie, where your familiarity with specific titles is doing some of the heavy lifting. It was more or less worth the 25 year wait!

What say you?


Blu-Ray Review: Tales From The Darkside: The Movie (1990)

AUGUST 26, 2020


Confession: As a total viewing experience, I think I actually prefer Tales from the Darkside: The Movie to any of the Creepshows (at best, it's a tie with the original). The pacing of Romero's original movie is awkward thanks to the uneven length and ordering of the tales, and the sequel has a big ol' dud kicking things off that it never fully recovers from*. Darkside's framing story, on the other hand, has the rather fun idea of utilizing an old Grimm's fairy tale (Hansel and Gretel, sort of) as a vehicle to tell its other stories, which come from the likes of Stephen King and Arthur Conan Doyle. The celebration of storytelling is evident on both sides of the camera, and that unifying thread makes the film more fully satisfying to me.

It doesn't hurt that there are no dud segments, which is something that can really hurt an anthology film's shelf life - how excited can you get about watching something you already saw when there's a full chunk of it you dislike? Not the case here; the wraparound is fun and each of the three stories are both entertaining and different from each other, with no obvious, standard go-to monsters like vampires or zombies. Nope, we get a mummy (in "Lot 249"), a vengeful cat (in "Cat From Hell") and - whoa - a gargoyle (in "Lover's Vow"), and the best I can say about each one is that I could conceivably watch an entire movie about any of them, or at least something longer like, well, an anthology TV show (albeit an hourlong one like Masters of Horror; the Darkside show was 30 minutes, roughly the length of the segments here). On that note, in my original/more traditional review of the film I said the 3rd story didn't quite work for me because it wasn't long enough, but I've come around on it. The time-jump still feels a little awkward, but (maybe because I'm now a father?) the heartbreaking reveal makes up for it.

But while we're on the subject of how long things should run, I want to bring up - and praise - the full length documentary that's presented on the disc and makes up the majority of its bonus features. This used to be more common on Scream Factory's discs; sometimes they only ran 35 minutes or so, other times they'd be full length, but either way I always preferred them to the solo interviews that they have gravitated toward over the past few years. I know that it's probably more enticing to see a long list of extra features than a single/simple "retrospective documentary", but here's the thing: you'll probably end up skipping some of them unless you have all the time in the world and/or it happens to be one of your all time favorite movies. I got their Escape From LA disc a few months back, a special edition I've been hoping to exist for literal decades (the film was one of the first DVDs I ever got, and I never upgraded it even though it's non-anamorphic), and I probably only watched half the interviews, if that.

However, if they were all edited together into a retrospective doc, I would have dove right in. And in turn, if they took the usual route with this one, I can guarantee I wouldn't have been too excited about listening to the production designer talk for 15 minutes straight, but when she is adding more context to the things that director John Harrison and the KNB guys (all three of them, though Kurtzman is separate from Nicotero and Berger) are discussing, it remained interesting to hear her talk. That said, if you only like listening to actors or writers, don't bother; it's a very directorial/production-focused piece, as very few of the actors are on hand (basically only the two leads from "Lover's Vow", James Remar and Rae Dawn Chong) and except for Stephen King, who almost never does these things, all of the writers (Doyle, Romero, and Michael McDowell) are dead.

But even with those absences, it's still a very thorough look at the film's inception, production, and release. The doc is broken up into six chapters: origins, one for each of the segments, the post production, and final thoughts (sadly, SF neglected to offer a "Play All" function, but as their disc programming continues to be the low point of all their releases this wasn't a surprise. GIVE US RESUME PLAY YOU MONSTERS!), each running about 15 minutes or so and leaving few stones unturned. That said, don't look for any dirt - by all accounts it was a pretty easygoing shoot; the film was produced independently so there was no studio interference, the actors were all happy to do the work (this was Julianne Moore's first movie, and she is said to still be proud of it), and the budget, while hardly astronomical, didn't make them cut short their ambitions. The DP (who also shot Halloween 5!) and Harrison worked hard to give each segment its own style (particularly "Cat from Hell", with its crazy in-camera transitions), and hearing them break down their work alongside the clips just clarifies how fantastic the movie really looks, and makes me lament Harrison never got to do another big movie (everything else was TV).

They also break down the history of swapping the order of the segments, which was alluded to in the old commentary by Harrison and Romero (brought back here) but never fully explained. "Lover's Vow" was originally first, and "Lot 249" would be last, but test screenings showed that the audiences felt the film was peaking early, so they were reversed (with "Cat" remaining in the middle). However this resulted in some minor continuity issues with the framing segment, since Debbie Harry (!) and the kid comment on the stories that the latter is telling, so their footage had to be rearranged as well. I never noticed them, but now I know what they are - she lays down some flowers that disappear a second later, replaced with the full table of food (as she would be well along in her meal prep by the time that footage was originally meant to appear). Cue the "the more you know" gif!

The other bonus features are the aforementioned commentary (which is peppered with long stretches of silence, alas) and a new one by a co-producer that I haven't listened to yet. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram you'd know I've been building a giant Lego haunted house while going through my Universal Monsters set, and I'm a few days late with this review as is (thanks also in part to this *other* Universal horror set, which came out the same day) so I had to skip it in order to finally get this up. But it gives me something to look forward to the next time I watch the movie and want to keep the night going!

What say you?

*There are only two Creepshow movies.


Unhinged (2020)

AUGUST 23, 2020


After Relic I swore off seeing new movies at the drive-in, but I made an exception for Unhinged, because it just seemed too fitting. To recap, in addition to what I feel is subpar presentation for the films themselves, the people around me at the drive-in are far too obnoxious with their headlights and late arrivals, making it hard to focus on the movie. Of course, these "villains" are (let's hope) not TRYING to be distracting, and apparently it's just too much to ask people to figure out how their headlights work (or whether or not they can be entirely turned off at all as long as the car is turned on for the radio), and I know they - like me - are only there because it's the only option.

So it just made sense to watch Unhinged there, because it's about a guy (Russell Crowe) who loses his shit when the driver behind him (Caren Pistorius) leans on her horn after he neglects to notice the light turn green, and decides to teach her a lesson. It's the same kind of situation at the drive-in - are these people jerks, as I see them, and need to be yelled at? Or innocently just trying to find some amusement in this shithole world and not even aware that their headlights are the ones making the already shitty screen look worse? Do they deserve my scorn, or should I cut them a break?

Had the movie dealt with that gray area, it might have been more interesting, something more along the lines of Changing Lanes. But the situation as presented makes it clear who is in the wrong. In real life, we've all been on both sides of this equation, and it's the same thing every time - when we are honking, we know how long the light has been on before they looked up from their phone or whatever. But when we're the one being honked at, we have no idea, and since we're all the heroes in our own stories, always assume the driver behind us was just being an impatient ass and it had been less than a second. That's not the case here, as we get to see that Pistorius' Rachel actually gave him plenty of time (ten seconds, I think?) before honking, and then he STILL doesn't move, so there's no gray area - after the first honk, we know he's just being an ass by not moving. Team Rachel!

Oh and also the opening scene has him murder two people and blow their house up, so it's not like a Falling Down kinda thing where the guy just snapped after too many aggrievances - he was already nuts. I had to wonder if this opening was a late decision, because it doesn't really fit much else about the movie and is only referenced in a few news reports. We don't see Crowe in the truck when she honks at him, and when he catches up to her at the next light, it seems like it's supposed to be a grand reveal for the Academy Award winning actor, as opposed to seeing him right off the bat, killing people in a crazed rage before apparently calming down and driving around the Louisiana suburbs.

Plus it's a sub-90 minute film with three credited editors, so it's not totally out of the question that there was some tinkering. Indeed, there is a curious lack of police involvement throughout the movie, as if someone said "Hey, cops aren't "in" right now and we're trying to make this the first movie people go see when theaters reopen - let's limit their involvement!" At one point Crowe murders a guy in broad daylight, in a cafe, and yet somehow no cops show up? The amount of chaos he causes during the day suggests huge manhunts would be ongoing, but we don't even see a cruiser parked outside of Rachel's own house, long after her involvement has been made clear (due to a threat to her son's school and an attack on her brother and his girlfriend). I don't think these filmmakers are that dumb (they would presumably set the film in the outskirts somewhere to explain the lack of police, not a traffic-addled New Orleans), so I'd be very curious to see if there was a longer/alternate cut at one point before real world events forced some retooling.

All that said, what's left is a total riot if you're of the right mind for B-movie trash fare. I laughed out loud several times at Crowe's carnage, finding it very much in tune with the sort of '70s exploitation fare I'd be cheering for at the New Beverly if it was open. There are two fairly impressive car chase/battle scenes with a respectable amount of flipped/crushed cars, offering the sort of vehicular mayhem we used to take for granted but rarely see anymore (and when we do, it's far more CGI-"enhanced" than the largely practical work we get here). There's even some gore, including a pretty gnarly scissors to the eye gag that would make Jason Voorhees proud (incidentally, Rachel's son is played by the kid from that terrific Wolfie's Just Fine video that was homaging the hedge trimmer scene from New Beginning).

Plus, Crowe barely ever plays a full on villain like this, so it was a hoot to watch him growl and chew the scenery. Almost nothing about the role required his talents or even his intensity - the diner scene is pretty much the only time he has full on dialogue, with the rest just being incidental, "Now you're gonna get it!" kinda stuff. But in a way that just made it all the better - on the page, it could have been played by some lunkhead from the WWE or whatever, but instead they got an acclaimed actor - and didn't class it up for him! I love that! Here's hoping he can get a meaty villain role in a major film again someday (I'm pretty sure this would have gone VOD had there been any competition for them to worry about).

I also love that the movie has what I instantly dubbed as "Fortniteshadowing". Rachel's kid is a fan of the game, and her, trying to feign interest in her son's hobbies, listens to him talk about his new strategy that involves distracting the opponent with what seems like an easy kill only to have a partner come at him from a hidden spot behind. There is, of course, no question that this will be exactly what she does later, but as I spent half the day trying to understand my kid's new obsession with Minecraft (and calm him down when he corrupted his save file and thus lost the house he had made), I was charmed by this kind of plotting. Plus, as always, I am happy when they reference a real world game instead of making one up that would mean nothing. Fortnite is good shorthand as "something kids do", and adds that sort of real world connection that these things often lack.

So it's a pretty fun "turn your brain off and laugh at the silliness" kinda movie, but if drive-ins aren't an option I implore you to stay home and wait for VOD, where you can also add alcohol to the mix if you so choose (only your passengers can do that at the drive-in!). Solstice's touting of being the first movie back, and even encouraging traditional theater-going, is pretty gross in my opinion, not to mention irresponsible. No movie (certainly not this, or Tenet) is worth risking your health or anyone else's if you happen to be an asymptomatic unknowing carrier, though given 45's continued approval I guess I shouldn't assume that people who know full well that they have the virus would care enough about anyone else to stay home instead of infecting them. At least you'll know which ones they are at the screening - they will be the ones who assume Crowe's character is the hero of the film. And if you CAN hit up a drive-in, please - bring a portable FM radio! You don't have to worry about your headlights OR your battery dying, and in turn will not have to worry about a real life road rage incident from the guy in front of you who kept being blinded by your ignorance.

What say you?

P.S. I listened to In Utero on the way in honor of this strings version of "Heart Shaped Box" - can they do the whole album like that?


Universal Horror Collection Volume 6

AUGUST 18, 2020


Whenever I get a collection of movies in a set, I tend to watch them randomly instead of the order they're presented, depending on my mood (and also runtimes; an 80 minute movie is more likely to get picked than a 90 minute one). Of course, since I am basing my viewing order on personal preference, that means the set might peak early for me, and be a slog to finish up as all that will be left is a title that sounded the least appealing. However, in the case of Scream Factory's newest collection of old Universal films, the exact opposite happened - each movie was better than the one before it, so what started as a somewhat lackluster entry in this ongoing series of collections ended up producing one of my favorite of the 24 movies it's brought into my life since it began last year.

Or, in some cases, brought BACK into my life. The first one I watched was The Thing That Couldn't Die, which I had sort of already seen thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000. Of course, as is often the case, my memory of the film is much murkier than my memory of certain quips levied at it; I couldn't remember much of the plot beyond something about a head, but I can probably rattle off a dozen lines if asked ("He might as well turn it into a den!" is a particular fave, in response to a character digging a hole that was shown to be a perfect cubed hollow). As it turns out, I kind of missed Mike and the 'bots, as the movie is kind of a snooze despite only being 69 (don't) minutes long. The "greed destroys everyone" plot that you can find in any number of Coen Brothers movies (or even better, their buddy Sam Raimi's underrated Simple Plan) doesn't quite blend well with a horror film involving possession, as it's hard to tell who has been put under the influence of the disembodied head that serves as the "monster" and who is simply just an asshole.

Plus, the heroine (Carolyn Kearney) spends half the movie with a divining rod, which is an even more ridiculous concept than the aforementioned villain and is in no way interesting to watch play out on screen. The most interesting character is a conniving ranch hand who wants the treasure they find, assuming it has gold or something (anything but a living head, I imagine), so naturally he's killed off by the halfway point, leaving just the dull folks and a lengthy, confusing flashback about how the villain came to be separated from his body in the first place. It's got a handful of fun moments, but for the most part, stick with the MST3k version.

Things picked up a bit with my next pick, The Black Castle, which was from 1952 - the oldest film on the set (which is, overall, the "newest" of the sets so far, as the other ones focused on '30s and '40s fare). So old that its flash forward intro actually works for a change; I tend to hate this device, but here it sets up an interesting scenario (a guy is believed to be dead but is merely paralyzed and about to be buried - very Short Night of Glass Dolls!) instead of merely telling us who will be left alive at the end. The guy is Ronald Burton, whose friends were seemingly killed by a count (Stephen McNally). He wants revenge, and thus he does what anyone would do - makes up a fake name and gets himself on the list to join the count's annual hunt (of a panther, no less) so that he can snoop around the grounds and also take down the count.

He also ends up falling in love with the count's wife, the scoundrel, so that adds a wrinkle to the proceedings. The plot machinations are fun enough, but the attempts to sell this as a horror movie are misguided, to say the least. It's a straight revenge drama, with the only horror elements (besides the panther fight, which lasts about 19 seconds) coming from a few establishing shots of the castle and some brief turns by Karloff (as the count's doctor, who may be an ally for Burton) and Lon Chaney Jr as Gargon, a sort of early model Hodor who does the grunt work for the count. Apparently this was his last film for Universal; it's hardly a great one to go out on but it's not without its charms, and in today's world where the haves treat the have nots like shit, I quite enjoyed that Burton is constantly looking out for working people - he insists his page ride in the warm coach with him during the ride to the castle, arranges for their driver to enjoy a hot meal with them, etc. We need more guys like this in the real world! And if they steal some asshole's wife in the process, so be it.

I then moved on to The Shadow of the Cat, which was way more my speed from the getgo as it featured a meanspirited murder in its first few minutes. As is usually the case, the person was murdered by folks after her inheritance, but what they didn't count on was her cat witnessing it and taking revenge. The conspirators wrangle in some family members to help them murder the cat, but one by one it manages to cause the deaths of the guilty ones. Yes, it's goofy, but I found it delightful, and the cat itself was pretty cute, which was nice since many of them in these kind of things are hissing/ugly jerks.

What's even more interesting about this one is that it's actually an uncredited Hammer production, which historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck explains on his commentary track. Funnily enough, I suspected something was "off" about it right away, as it just didn't have that typical Universal feel, though when I saw Andre Morrell (as the murderous patriarch) and Barbara Shelley (as the only person the cat likes) in the cast I actually thought "did I miss a Hammer credit?", so it was fun to have Hallenbeck confirm that (because of various rights/producer nonsense that's too boring to explain here) the Hammer name didn't appear even though it was clearly one of their productions, in the vein of Scream of Fear or Paranoiac, albeit coming about a decade earlier.

And then finally I reached Cult of the Cobra, which sounded like the sort of thing I'd barely be able to focus on, but as you might have guessed from the intro paragraph, turned out to be what might be my personal favorite film in any of these sets so far. It's basically a Cat People knockoff, except with (big surprise incoming) a lady who can turn into a cobra instead of a panther and - more importantly, at least to me - working under the basic template of a revenge slasher! In 1955! At the beginning of the film, set in "Asia" (that's as specific as it gets! Way to narrow it down), a group of six GI's about to be shipped back home decide to infiltrate a cult meeting because they want one last spectacle before returning to the States. When one of them takes a picture (complete with flash, even though they were told not to take pictures - way to be discreet, jackass) and causes chaos, the cult leader puts a curse on them - one by one they will all die!

Shockingly, they come close to finishing the job (spoilers for 65 year old movie ahead!). Only two of the guys are left at the end - a 66% success rate is nothing to scoff at in these days, when body counts tended to be low. Also, because of its Cat People-y ways, the ending is a real bummer, as our hero - who already lost his girlfriend to the only other GI to live - had fallen in love with the lady, and is now alone again now that she's dead. Most old horror movies end with the monster perishing ("The End" coming up over a shot of the burning castle or whatever) or the hero couple embracing, but this ends on the poor heartbroken sod walking off, alone once again. Such a bummer, and not at all what I would expect from this kind of movie from this era. I kinda loved it?

Tom Weaver provides commentaries on all of the movies (save Cat, covered by Hallenbeck), and he's occasionally joined by others who will talk about the music or something (none seem to be actually WITH him - just brief monologues that were edited in) to break up his usual dad jokes and fulfillment of his historian duties (listing production dates, locations, etc). As always, I find these things more fun when they're with someone instead of the solo tracks, but his dedication to tracking down things like early casting choices (John Saxon was up for a role in Cult of the Cobra!) and where now long-gone locations were is second to none, and on The Thing That Couldn't Die's case he thankfully doesn't try to sell it as anything more than what it is, so that's refreshing.

I'm going to start celebrating the Halloween season a bit early this year, because I'm miserable and stuck inside so I'm hoping it will offer a much needed spirit boost, and I definitely plan to revisit some of these (actually I never finished volume 3, so I can start there) and mix them up with the more traditional classics (Drac, Frank, Wolfie, etc) and Vincent Price stuff that Scream Factory also covered a while back. Now that I don't have to go to work and won't be going to any festivals, I'll certainly have the time to rewatch more than I have in years' past, and these sets make for an excellent option since the films have that old school spooky charm I associate with the holiday. Some folks love to watch the scariest/bloodiest movies for the occasion, but not me - I want lighter fare like this!

What say you?


You Should Have Left (2020)

AUGUST 5, 2020


In an alternate 2020, where life is relatively normal, I use my AMC A-List to get a ticket for a Friday morning (or Thursday night if I'm feeling adventurous) screening of You Should Have Left and wonder why they released such a small movie in theaters, where it was likely to be torn apart by critics and ignored by audiences. Instead, in the real 2020, Universal and Blumhouse seemingly saw the same scenario I did and realized that it wasn't worth saving for theatrical release whenever theaters can open again, and instead gave it the same VOD fate it probably should have been destined for in the first place.

Don't get me wrong - it's actually pretty good! But it's not a "multiplex" kind of movie, even by the already smaller standards for Blumhouse fare. Their formula (one big star, an interesting concept, and a tiny budget) has yielded several smash hits and solid additions to the genre over the past decade, but even they seemingly know that a few of them don't have that extra bit of oomph that can turn them into Insidious type successes. They even distinguished some of them for a while with "BH Tilt", where the films would get smaller theatrical releases or just go DTV entirely, though it seems that moniker has been retired as I can't recall having seen it for a while now.

One such film was The Darkness, another low-key spooker starring Kevin Bacon, which seemingly suffered from some hasty re-editing and what was, at its core, a fairly dull Poltergeist knockoff. You Should Have Left, however, inches into Shining territory, with a family trio (Bacon, Amanda Seyfried as his second wife, and their six year old daughter Ella) living in an unfamiliar, isolated place that seems to harvest some kind of supernatural energy. The nature of the house reveals itself over time, with only the usual cryptic hints from locals to go on, so writer/director David Koepp (reteaming with Bacon for the first time since Stir of Echoes, an underrated entry in both of their filmographies) opts to have Bacon suffer a few nightmares in order to keep the scares coming while teasing out the "We have to leave this place NOW!" kind of proactive behavior until the third act.

He also gets a lot of mileage out of two mysteries involving his protagonists. One is that Bacon's previous wife is dead, and we're told that she accidentally drowned in the tub after taking too much of her meds, but Bacon's anger issues (he listens to self-help tapes and writes in a journal as therapy) suggests perhaps it wasn't just an accident - will Seyfried suffer the same fate? And that leads to the other mystery, which is that she may be having an affair, but is Bacon just paranoid and jealous? She is obviously much younger than him, something that comes up a few times early on ("Are you her dad?" a PA asks when Bacon visits her on her film set - on the day she is filming a sex scene) and never stops being an issue with regards to their physical needs, as she teases him more than once about his lack of stamina. Is she getting her needs fulfilled elsewhere?


Surprisingly, she is. And she doesn't even try to deny it when he finally confronts her directly about it. It's refreshing; far too many of these "is the dad going nuts?" kind of movies rely on pure paranoia, so to have it not only be a legit concern, but also just rip the band-aid off instead of trying to deny it and make him think he's crazy, was a nice change of pace. Plus, he gets in a line almost as good/biting as Closer's "Thank you for your honesty, now f**k off and die", so that's something. And the truth about his wife doesn't even make him all that villainous - turns out she really did OD and drown accidentally, but he could have saved her in time and just opted not to, as he wanted out of the marriage anyway and he hints she was terrible to him. Sure, this probably denies him a spot in heaven, but at least he's not a psycho ready to snap, which again is something we've seen many times before. As a result, Bacon's final scenes and actions come across almost heartbreaking, as opposed to yet another climax where a mother has to protect her child from a totally unhinged father.

Many people have noted that the film is ripping off House of Leaves, the 2000 novel from Mark Z. Danielewski, but that's - as usual - social media ignorance, because the movie is based on a different book (novella, technically) by Daniel Kehlmann. I haven't read either of them myself, but the things people were commenting on (from the trailer, because why watch something and get context?), such as the fact that the house is bigger outside than it is inside, were taken from his novel. If Kehlmann himself was cribbing from Danielewski, then fine, but blame him, not David Koepp. Anyway, these elements don't take up as much of the movie as you might have expected from the trailer - it's not until the third act that Bacon even notices things like "this room is 21 feet long when measured outside but 25 feet when measured inside". The novella, best as I can tell from the wiki synopsis* is more or less the same, though the previous dead wife stuff seems to be invented for the film, and their age difference isn't mentioned either which suggests it wasn't an issue there if it even existed at all.

Otherwise it seems pretty similar, with even small details in the film (such as the local shopkeeper being slow to retrieve items from Bacon's grocery list) coming from Kehlmann's text. I've always said that short stories/novellas should be more frequently adapted than full length novels, since there's often no need to excise so much material that makes the original as memorable as it is, not to mention room for the filmmakers to add their own ideas without angering the existing fanbase. Shorter works such as this can be filmed word for word without having to sacrifice much, and when the text is shorter, the filmmakers can use it as a foundation to create something closer to an original, like the Poe/Corman/Price films that use the story for a climax, basically, and add in an hour of exclusive backstory.

Long story short, it's a perfect fit for VOD. It's only 90 minutes long, has a few solid scares (Bacon waking himself out of a dream by jabbing himself with a broken bottle is pretty choice), some decent story turns, plus - vague spoiler that you can see on the trailer anyway - a particular wardrobe choice that should please anyone who has been a fan of Bacon's genre movies for forty years. And the man is aging nicely; in The Darkness he had his hair darkened and it looked weird, but here he's leaning into it with some gray showing, and I (far more grayer albeit younger) say go for it, sir. It's not a total 180 from what you've seen before, but the riffs on the formula held my interest more than the initial reviews had me believing I would, and for the first time in five months I didn't wish I was at a movie theater instead. Perfect couch movie.

What say you?

*I would have read it since it's only 110 pages, but they're charging 12 bucks for it on Kindle! As the author of a 600+ page ebook that costs five bucks, I can say with some authority that the publisher can eat shit. Call me when it's $1.99 at most.


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