Ghost Ship (2002)

SEPTEMBER 29, 2020


More than once I have inadvertently written up a review here only to discover I had already done that, but I am pretty sure Ghost Ship is the first example of the opposite being true: I was 100% positive I had watched it for HMAD in the early days, but if that's the case I cannot find the damn thing no matter how hard I try. I searched on the site (both of its search engines!), Googled it, checked my Twitter, etc - all to find a review I swear I remember writing but seemingly does not exist. I know I didn't see it in theaters, so I guess I just watched it in that four year period in between its home video release and when I started HMAD. But I invite you all to try to find the review anyway so I know I'm not losing (more of) my mind!

Anyway, it's better than I remember. My only memory - and I'm sure I'm not alone on this - was the opening sequence, and in my head the review was "that's the only good part of it" but that's not true, as it turns out. It's actually better than Thirteen Ghosts, in my opinion (fair comparison since both films comprise Steve Beck's entire directorial career), and probably better than Death Ship, which its often confused with due to the similar titles and posters. An unsung masterpiece, it is not, but after seeing many lesser horror movies set on ships (Virus, Mary, Rec 4), I can appreciate what this one offers.

For starters, I like that along with all the expected Shining stuff, it's actually cribbing a bit from... Perfect Storm? As is usually the case with these kind of "A small ship comes across an abandoned big ship" kind of narratives (which include outer space versions), the salvage crew's original ship (the Arctic Warrior) is destroyed and forces them to stay on board the haunted one, but before and after that there's a lot of stuff about how they might have to abandon their newfound treasure in order to get back to shore safely. This was Perfect Storm's turning point - the men on the Andrea Gale could have waited out the storm, but it would have meant letting all their valuable swordfish turn bad, so they opted to take the risk in order to cash in (in reality no one knows what the circumstances were that resulted in their deaths since the boat was never recovered, but this sort of "reckless" behavior led the families to sue Warner Bros for making their deceased loved ones look like fools).

Here, they find a lot of gold on the boat, worth just as much if not more than the ship itself, but there's no way to get it all on a raft along with the crew itself. So they set about repairing the rusting derelict ship, which in horror movie tradition is just a good way to split them all up, but I like that they are genuinely doing repairs and making it look like they know what they're doing. One thing that's always kept me a little at bay in Session 9 is that their cleanup crew was seemingly focusing all of their attention on two rooms, which had a real world excuse (too much of the hospital was unsafe to put the actors in) but doesn't help sell the idea of their reason for being there in the first place. Here, you could almost remove the ghost stuff and it'd still work as a sort of survival/race against time kind of thriller.

As for the supernatural goings on, it's hit or miss, but thankfully less reliant on the hokiness that hamstrung Beck's previous picture. As has been reported elsewhere and repeated by Beck on his commentary, the original script (titled "Chimera") was more of a psychological affair with the crew turning on each other (which is why Session 9 came to mind in the first place!) but was rewritten to have more ghosts/people/obvious scares, much to the disappointment of many of its actors - Julianna Margulies has reportedly disowned it like it was Archie Panjabi or something. But they still kept things to a relative minimum - the main ghost we see (the little girl played by Emily Browning) is a benevolent one, and the primary villain appears as a flesh and blood protagonist until his secrets are revealed in the final 15 minutes (the film shares Ghosts' weird decision to race through the exposition when the movie is almost over, resulting in a rushed climax).

Instead, most of the scares are more subtle - doors opening on their own and such, and hallucinations where they think they're eating real food but it turns out to be maggots. There's a real attempt to deliver atmosphere; if anything they might go overboard with it at times, since it seems like a full twenty minutes of the movie are made up of people shining flashlights around. The biggest ghost setpiece is one that has no overt scares until its punchline; it's the one where one character (Isaiah Washington's Greer) is drunkenly wandering around the destroyed ballroom as it gradually reforms to its former glory, with the sultry lounge singer seducing him and leading him to another room seemingly to have some casual ghost sex (hey, we've all been there). Alas, instead of hooking up, MacGruber style, she chooses that moment to become vapor and his attempt to embrace her results in him falling right through her and down the elevator shaft he didn't notice she was standing in front of, impaling himself on some rebar below. Poor sod.

But like Ghosts, the structure holds it back a bit - things are relatively slow-paced for a while, then so much happens at once it feels like you accidentally put the movie on fast forward. One major character's death has almost no buildup, they cut to him underwater only mere seconds before he is caught in something and crushed/torn up by the ship's gears. Another one dies off-screen entirely in a manner that suggests it couldn't have happened quick (he is drowned in a tank that was empty when he entered), even though it seems only a few minutes had passed since he was last looked at. And it doesn't help that the flashback scene that explains how that bravura opening sequence happened (and what transpired immediately after, which the opening version does not) is set to a godawful industrial song written/performed by the film's composer, John Frizzell (whose score is otherwise fine). It's not just a bad song, it's in no way fitting to the visuals it accompanies, making it feel like work to get through when it's actually informing you of what's been going on the whole time. That it goes on far too long just makes it worse. I never thought I'd long for a scene where someone goes to the library to get all the backstory off a microfiche (or even a Google search!) until this sequence entered its 4000th minute.

Sadly, neither Beck nor the moderator mentions it during the commentary, but by that point I kind of figured there wouldn't be much in the way of candid reveals. Beck is pretty diplomatic throughout, with only his pauses before answering certain questions about the rewrites and the post production letting us know that this wasn't a super enjoyable experience for him. He actually laughs when asked if Dark Castle ever contacted him about working on another film, and that's about as directly honest as it gets. But that's what kind of makes it an interesting track to listen to; he's saying a lot by saying very little - except for saying how good the original script was and that he thinks Thirteen Ghosts is the better film, ahem. He also explains why he hasn't made another film - after ten years of false starts on at least six other films, he basically got tired of it and went back to commercial work. But he doesn't seem to be bitter about it, there's an "it is what it is" kind of tone to the whole thing, which is certainly better than whining.

The other features are a mix of new interviews (one via Zoom with Washington) and the original bonus features from the DVD, including Mudvayne's music video for "Falling", a solid track that I actually still hear pretty frequently on the radio (having not realized when it originated, I was surprised to learn it was that old of a song - gun to my head I would have guessed it was from the past decade considering how much airplay it still gets). It also has new art featuring Browning's character instead of the Death Ship ripoff art, though that's still available on the reverse of the sleeve. As a personal bonus feature, to me, the film had a scene featuring a heart locket, which yesterday's movie did as well - back in the original HMAD run, I was always tickled when back to back movies would share some random little thing like that (personal favorite: two unrelated movies in a row that featured a boozy brunette pretending to seduce a handicapped man as part of her evil plan). What little random throwaway thing in Ghost Ship might turn up in tomorrow's movie? I hope it's someone else getting cut in half while dancing.

What say you?


Creep (2014)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2020


Just about all of my favorite horror movies were "old" by the time I saw them; Halloween and Dawn of the Dead were both released before I was even born, and I obviously wasn't there on opening night for the likes of The Thing (I was 2) or any of the Friday the 13ths until they were no longer actually called Friday the 13th (Jason Goes To Hell broke my theatrical Jason cherry). So it's safe to say that, for the most part, a movie's acclaim and/or franchise significance isn't much of a factor when it comes to whether or not I enjoy it. With that in mind, I sadly have to report that the existence of a sequel deflated what I suspect was a big part of the charm for Creep, which is now six years old but "new to me".

When it's a supernatural kind of thing, there's less of a problem with knowing that there are sequels - I am used to the likes of Freddy or zombie Jason being "killed" at the end of one movie only to be revived in the next. But Creep, being a found footage thing, is about a very flesh and blood person, and knowing he returned for the sequel kept all suspense at bay here, because I inadvertently knew how it ended and yet knew almost nothing else about it. My entire knowledge of the film (entire franchise, really) could be summed up with "Mark Duplass played the title character and it's found footage" - I literally couldn't have told you one other thing about it prior to sitting down today. I didn't even realize it was a Blumhouse (Tilt) joint!

Oh, and that it was a horror/thriller, so as soon as the film established its premise I could basically see the rest of it flashing before my eyes. Our hero is Aaron (Patrick Brice, who also directed and co-wrote with Duplass), who takes a job filming Josef (Duplass) as he records a video diary for his unborn son as he is expected to be dead from cancer before the baby even arrives, let alone grown up (if you're thinking "That's the plot of the movie My Life", the movie acknowledges it!). But it only takes a few minutes for Josef to start making Aaron uncomfortable, starting off the series of videos by taking a bath and constantly trying to scare him. As the day proceeds Aaron gets more and more unsettled, and Josef thwarts his attempts to leave. It's obvious Josef is crazy, and - again - Duplass is the one to come back for the sequel, so you don't need to take Advanced Movie Plotting 101 to guess how things are going to end.

That said, it does swerve a bit for its third act (spoiler), as Aaron does manage to escape. The rest of the movie picks up some time later, where Aaron keeps getting weird packages from Josef and realizes he has followed him back to Los Angeles (the first half or so of the movie takes place at Lake Gregory, which is about 90 miles/two hours east of LA). This was a good call on their part; it was getting more and more ridiculous that Aaron would stay behind, even with Josef's attempts at keeping him there (which included hiding his car keys), so it gave the movie a bit of a boost at a time when the last grain of salt would have likely been used up.

But still, it's just these two guys throughout the movie; the only other person we ever hear is Josef's wife Angela on the other end of a quick phone call. Since Aaron is the one holding the camera, that means you're spending pretty much every moment of the first 50 minutes looking at Duplass, and while he's quite good and effectively, well, creepy, it gets somewhat tiresome after a while. Perhaps if he hadn't started being a weirdo as soon as Aaron arrived, it would have worked better? The two men pretty much improvised the entire movie going only by a general outline (similar to how Blair Witch Project was "written"), but it seems that most of what they came up with is "Josef starts talking about something and it gets weird, then he pretends to jump out at Aaron, apologizes, and then they go something else." Angela has a couple of reveals in her quick phone call, but alas they aren't fully explored (perhaps the sequel does?), and while I tend to believe in the "less is more" approach for exposition in my scary movies, here I would have welcomed it if only to break up the repetition.

That said it was kind of fun to go back in time a bit to when found footage was all the rage and people were perfectly OK with getting up close and personal with strangers. In the early '10s it seemed that the gimmick would never really go away, but it kind of has - the Paranormal Activity series has been dormant since 2015 and the failure of the Blair Witch revival a year later pretty much killed it off on the big-screen, with only the occasional indie still employing it. Instead, we've switched to "screen thrillers" like Host and Searching, which have the same kind of appeal but a very different set of perks and limitations. Since the two men are attempting to make a third film, I can't help but think they too should switch to this format - having Duplass' psychopath "Zoom bomb" some unsuspecting folks might be fun, and it would prevent too much of the wheel-spinning that a typical found footage movie has to have (which gets more frustrating with each new sequel, as the PA series proved). Plus they could make it right now! Social distanced movies are all the rage!

Anyway, it's an OK movie, but very much a "you had to be there" kind of thing that would work better at a film festival premiere and absolute zero awareness of what it was. Even the most basic information will tell you where it's going, and while that is OK for a big movie with lots of characters (knowing the plot of Die Hard doesn't spoil Die Hard), there's just not enough here to fully make up for it. They said they were inspired by movies like My Dinner With Andre and Misery - those movies had other characters and better conversations! They even go to a diner at one point and you don't see the waiter; Jean Lenauer is spinning in his grave!

What say you?


Seoul Station (2016)

SEPTEMBER 25, 2020


I enjoyed Train to Busan, but I thought the frequent claims of it being one of the best zombie movies ever made were, at the very least, overblown. It was, you know, pretty good! But so were things like Warm Bodies and The Rezort - where's the love for those equally serviceable/enjoyable movies? The awkward pacing (that train sure stopped a lot) and removal of the film's best character barely over the halfway point kept it out of top 10 contention in my house, but I was still happy to see it find success, though it took me nearly four years to finally get around to watching its animated prequel film Seoul Station (Korean: Seoulyeok), and I will admit it's partly because the sequel (Peninsula) is now hitting the US and I wanted to be all caught up should I get the chance to see it.

I was also kind of unsure how exciting a prequel would be, because Train to Busan didn't have much going on at the beginning. Like Night of the Living Dead, we didn't see the exact start of it, but it was far from a major outbreak - things were still continuing as normal with just the odd thing happening in the background for a bit (let's not forget that Busan's characters were mostly people going to work or school). So in my head, a prequel would be what is usually the least interesting thing about any zombie movie that bothers to include it: how it specifically started. Funnily enough, the night before at horror trivia there was a round on that very thing - they would name a movie (i.e. "Zombieland") and we'd have to identify the cause for the zombie outbreak ("Mad Cow disease"), and for at least half of them my initial reply was "Who cares?" Romero never fully explained it, just follow his lead!

Plus I remember that there was quite a bit of the other film devoted to the hero's work troubles, as they had some kind of connection to what was going on, so I was also worried we'd spend half the movie with an animated version of him at work while his bosses did shady shit. Long story short: I didn't want a prequel! But I'm on the HMAD clock, so whatever. And thankfully I was wrong; it starts a few hours before Busan did and the final 15 minutes are actually overlapping the timeframe, albeit with different characters (best as I can tell, no one from Busan is featured here). I still feel some of its events should have been enough for things to be in more of a panic mode in Busan, but it's forgivable, because honestly - for the most part I think I actually prefer this to its bigger budgeted, live action sibling.

I mention the budget because honestly, the only thing holding this one back is the presentation. The art style itself is fine, but the animation itself is very stiff, and whenever there's a crowd they don't even try to hide how often they are reusing the same zombie (and human) "extras", which is fine for a video game* but doesn't quite pass the smell test in a feature film. It's very distracting for starters, and if you think about it, it's completely unnecessary - as a prequel, they should be keeping mobs of either side of the war to a minimum, because again this is all leading up to a film that is pretty calm when it starts. If this was the prequel to something that kicked off like Dawn of the Dead (i.e. panic, people abandoning their normal lives in droves, etc.) then fine, but when you see the events of the back half of the movie it makes Busan's characters all look like clueless morons.

Otherwise, I found this more compelling and less "stock" (hat tip to Lars Ulrich) than Busan. Smartly, it focuses on a few people as opposed to just a standard absentee dad (I still shake my head that they doubled down on "movie dad" cliches with that guy, missing a recital AND buying a lame gift), and I was a bit stunned to see it focus on grimmer issues than I would expect from an animated movie. Perhaps this is the norm, as I don't watch a lot of animated films for adults, but over 90 minutes the movie tackled prostitution, homelessness, rape, and class struggles - hardly what I was expecting, especially since the live-action counterpart kept things pretty light. Like, if I told you that there's a live action movie and an animated one about the same event, and had you guess which one had a pimp beating one of his girls up and then trying to rape her, would you guess the latter? Because you'd be right.

The opening scenes feature a homeless man struggling to find medical help for his brother, who seems to be patient zero for the whole thing, but it's not long into the movie that it basically cuts back and forth between Hye-sun, a runaway who has been trying to escape her life of prostitution, and Ki-woong, her boyfriend who is fine with her continuing that lifestyle if it means they can pay rent. After a fight they get separated just as things start becoming crazy, and the film is more or less their attempts to reunite as the world around them starts falling apart. Ki-woong is joined by her father, who I kept expecting to feed him to the zombies since he can't stand him, but the two eventually work together and the guy even saves the young man's life at one point. Hye-sun, on the other hand, is joined by another homeless man who helps her get across the city via the subway tunnels and other means.

Naturally, zombies attack on the regular, and it never stops being suspenseful thanks to the back and forth structure. The homeless man could go any minute, leaving Hye-sun alone, and then in the other scenes since both men are trying to find her, there would still be momentum if one of them happened to perish. Plus, being a zombie movie, you're of course just waiting for some human to turn out to be evil, which also adds to the tension (and when it happens, it's actually a solid surprise). And through it all, there's the heartbreaking element that these characters are all disposable in the "normal" world. Hye-sun says she just wants to get home, and her partner weeps that he just wants to have a home at all - it's a pretty sobering moment, especially now as millions of my fellow Americans are going to end up like him if Covid can't get under control. None of these people are bad, they're just the unfortunate reality of a world where the rich jerks in charge simply do not care about anyone but themselves, and that's something we can certainly identify with now. Indeed, in the wake of hearing how much our "billionaire" President pays in taxes, how much of your $1,200 stimulus do you have left in your account? And don't forget we have to pay taxes on it next year!

I haven't seen Peninsula yet, though from what I hear it was a letdown (then again that's from the people who loved Busan so maybe I'll be the opposite on that too). But if you ask me, it's best to just ignore the connection to the films when watching this one. Again, there are no shared characters, and the spectacle of the third act doesn't quite jive with Busan's opening scenes (it reminded me in a way of trying to watch Fulci's Zombie as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead). Just take it as a standalone film that wanted to shine a light on the poor and underrepresented people who will be the first to get killed and forgotten in a plague like this, and - janky animation aside - you'll hopefully agree that it's one of the better zombie films of the past decade.

What say you?

*Funnily enough, I just finally started playing Dead Rising 2 and was again kind of blown away, as I was in the original, at the variety of zombies you can see at once in any given crowd scene. The first game is what made me want to buy a 360 after playing a bit of it at E3 in 2006 - my mind kind of reels at what they can accomplish with the upcoming Series X if the series is revived.


Crawlers (2020)

SEPTEMBER 24, 2020


I wasn't planning on watching two "pod people" movies in a row, but one thing about HMAD that I tried to do as much as possible is not search too long, if at all, for something to watch. The only rule is that I couldn't have seen it (or, on occasion, couldn't remember anything about it from a childhood viewing), so when I loaded up Hulu's horror section and saw Crawlers on the front page, I just clicked it without any further thought. In fact, I thought it was a zombie movie about some drunks being the only line of defense, and that's not what it is at all, so either I am thinking of another movie or I made up a better one in my head based on what little I learned about the film since it premiered back in March.

The title refers to drinking though, specifically pub "crawlers", as it's St Patrick's Day in a college town and thus all the idiots are getting very very drunk. Our heroine, Misty, isn't a non-drinker but clearly isn't excited about getting blackout drunk either, and has only shown up at one of the pubs to support her best friend, Chloe, who is very much the type to get blackout drunk. Upon arrival she is quickly put off by two things: the presence of some frat guys, one of whom may have assaulted her (she woke up in the frat house unsure of what happened to her, no one will spill details), and Chloe's OTHER best friend, a somewhat snobby girl named Yuejin. Chloe and Yuejin go off to play drinking games, leaving her at the pub without much of a reason to be there, occasionally making awkward small talk with Shauna, a local weed/molly dealer who spouts conspiracy theories and has little affection for any of these people beyond selling to them to make a living.

All of this information is conveyed on-screen in a normal manner, but it takes about twenty minutes to get through it all, because the film is actually a flashback being told by Shauna in the present day, complete with freeze frame interruptions and record scratches. Sometimes the movie only resumes for a few seconds before she interrupts again, a device that almost had me shutting the film off and finding something else to watch, an emergency action I say with some pride I've only had to employ ONCE in thirteen years of doing this. Starting off this kind of movie by telling you that someone survives is already kind of a silly move in my opinion, but to constantly break into it instead of letting the audience get caught up in its narrative is just plain stupid.

Thankfully, as the film goes on Shauna's interruptions become more infrequent. However, the writers neglect to take advantage of the solid foundation they set up in that pub scene, which is that both Misty and Shauna can't get anyone to believe them: the former about her assault, the latter about aliens coming to destroy the world (something she grew up with due to her mother, witness to a local meteor crash forty years prior). The parallels could have been fascinating, especially since Shauna's got the proof that Misty lacks (which could pave the way to the ultimate kind of "believe women" scenario) once the pod people begin taking over more and more people, but almost nothing is done with this concept. Misty eventually confronts one of the other frat guys (the obligatory nice one who is in the frat but does not go along with their grosser attributes) and gets to (spoiler) attack the guy who assaulted her without even having to check first if he's an alien, but that's about it for that storyline. They don't even utilize their title; the protagonists are all basically sober, the pub crawl all but completely forgotten after the first twenty minutes or so.

Instead, it focuses more on the fact that Chloe kind of sucks, which allows for a somewhat heartbreaking moment where Misty confronts both her friend and one that's an alien and has to figure out which one is human, with the alien screwing up because it says something nice whereas the real Chloe would only care about herself. What a way to finally realize your "best friend" is a toxic drain on your own sense of self, huh? Unfortunately, it's already crystal clear to us that Chloe sucks almost as soon as we meet her, so while it is indeed a nice bit of writing, it also means we wait the entire movie for one of our protagonists to catch up to us.

I also couldn't help but think they should have confined more of the movie to the pub and/or frat house, since the budget is clearly too small for them to sell the idea of a town-wide invasion. Even the climax, where they go to a "nest" to blow it up has a distracting minimum of antagonists; at one point the nice frat guy does something that supposedly lets the aliens all know they're about to get toasted, prompting a "we got to get out of here FAST!" kind of race for the exit, but our heroes are met with almost no resistance along the way. I think we see less than a dozen of the things in the entire movie, as if they were simply wiping out the town instead of replacing its inhabitants. Every time they go somewhere and we see absolutely nothing along the way to suggest the chaos that is supposedly happening, it makes it harder to buy.

Oh well. I liked seeing Giorgia Whigham (Shauna) again, as she was a bright spot in the somewhat underrated third season of Scream and was all gothed out there so it was fun to see her looking more normal, though in the present day scenes she has her hair blond instead of dark and more "pretty" makeup, a weird choice for a pod person movie unless they plan to make it a point, which of course they do not. And even if it's almost never utilized I enjoy the idea behind the "podding" here, which is that they are more like shapeshifters and just need to bite someone to get their DNA and change instantly - not sure if I've seen that kind of thing before. However, while I can appreciate that they were attempting to marry some legit societal issues with their pod person movie (a tradition that was mostly skipped in yesterday's Assimilate), it was frustrating to see them mostly shrugged off as the film continued, in favor of a wholly obnoxious framing device. And stop with the goddamned name on screen gimmick! It wasn't even cool in The Faculty, 22 years ago! And that movie did these things better anyway!

What say you?

P.S. This was actually the first "Into the Dark" movie I've watched - feel free to recommend some others! I optimistically assume this is not a high bar for the series.


Assimilate (2019)

SEPTEMBER 23, 2020


There are only four official versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007 (the less said about that last one, the better), but there are countless "homages" that take its basic "pod person" plot and do their best to not get sued. Assimilate is one such film, and while it is hardly a classic and nothing you absolutely need to track down, it hits all the beats and gets the job done, which is all you can really ask for when the story has been done so many times and - if you're smart enough to consider it beforehand - realize that an independent film such as this isn't going to be able to go all out with "end of the world" scenarios like the big budgeted studio efforts.

But again, not being sued is a priority regardless of the budget, so your mileage will vary depending on how much you connect to what they're specifically bringing to the table. Here, it's the usual small midwestern town stuff, but the focus is on a trio of teenagers, making it come off like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew trying to figure out what's going on and then survive. Granted, some of that element was already covered in The Faculty, but their parents were largely MIA (Elijah Wood's were the only ones we met, right?) and the town seemingly lacked a police force. Here, not only do we meet all sorts of folks in their town (their parents, the priest, the cops, the neighbors, other students, etc) but the aliens are incredibly efficient and turning them all. By the halfway point there are only four humans left, it seems, which actually ramps up the tension quite a bit because our three heroes are pretty equal, no obvious survivor (or obvious goner) among them.

The fourth human is my man Cam Gigandet from Pandorum and Priest, who I haven't seen in much since. He is the town's deputy, and has a resigned kind of bond with the heroes (who have a Youtube channel where they goof off, so you get the idea he is occasionally required to tell them to get off someone's property or whatever, but knows they're good/harmless kids). As their lone adult ally, you're of course waiting for the moment where he too is turned, so that they can lose all hope (spoiler ahead) but... he doesn't! I mean, he doesn't make it, either, but he goes out protecting them, and has no problem believing their story. Even before he has his own proof (an alien tries to clone him), he allows "Nancy Drew" (actually Andi Matichak from the Halloween revival) to leave her home despite her "parents" (pod folk) demanding that she stay, as if he knows something is up and that she'd be safer elsewhere. So he's set up as a generic kind of character, but they zig where most zag, and I liked that.

The priest, on the other hand, might as well have been an alien as soon as we met him. Creepy weirdo.

I also liked that it kept the "found footage"-y element to a minimum. As our boys are Youtubers, they are filming a lot and one of them even has a little button cam that would provide an easy way for the filmmakers to get around the "why are they still filming?" aspect and even free up the character for more action, but it's largely backgrounded once everything goes to hell, used only for the odd moment here and there (and no full sequences, at least not that I can recall). I mean I know it's 2020 and no one's demanding the POV style anymore, but you can never be too sure - after all, the most blatant Halloween knockoff was Offerings, and that came out over a decade later. And, for what it's ironically worth, has there been a pod person found footage movie? I can't recall one. Untapped territory!

Plus, all the kids were likable, unlike real Youtubers. Matichak is always a charming presence, and the two guys feel like genuine small town kids trying to stave off their boring existence with their show. One of them clearly has a dud home life (no dad, mom has a revolving bedroom door), and we can easily infer he spends most of his time with the other one thanks to that one's mom assuming he will be staying there for dinner (i.e. "as usual"). It's almost a shame that one of them is offed with like a half hour to go, as their brotherly bond was welcoming for a modern horror movie where most teens spend their screentime bickering. Also, they're not both pining after Matichak - there's no love triangle! Wooo!

Weirdly, it has the same pro-social media ending as #Alive, with (spoiler) people using comments sections and the like to let rescuers - and each other - know that not all hope was lost and that there were survivors scattered around. In retrospect, it's kind of a blessing that Don Siegel was forced to add a happy ending to the 1956 version, because it was rather silly to think it could be contained so quickly and most versions since go with the more realistic "it spreads to the rest of the world" idea (The Faculty is a curious one since it leaves it up to interpretation; it's TOO happy and thus suspicious). Here we get a sort of mix - yeah, it's everywhere, but they haven't figured out how to shut down the internet yet, so the survivors can stay in touch. Thanks to the internet, we can pour one out for scenes where someone on a CB radio keeps asking "is anyone out there?" from now on, bless.

Dodgy CGI for the alien parasites and some dragginess here and there aside, this was a pretty enjoyable entry in this sub-genre. It's suspenseful, occasionally gross (the pod people are formed nude and look like corpses, so if you're a necrophile you'll find lots to love), and thankfully wastes almost no time getting to the poddin'. And it's got what may be one of the best "they're a pod person now!" reveals ever, the details of which I won't spoil here but I'll say it involves a person who is seemingly better off as an alien. Also I was glad to see a "small town America" setting that was ACTUALLY a small American town (in Mississippi, to be specific) as opposed to Canada or Bulgaria like most movies of this type. Best of all: nothing as stupid as this scene happens. Good work all around, folks.

What say you?


Pale Blood (1990)

SEPTEMBER 22, 2020


A couple weeks ago, or maybe it was seven hundred years because who can accurately tell time anymore, the internet managed to make 2020 worse for a few hours by spreading word that Wings Hauser had passed away. Thankfully it turned out to be a false rumor, but I already had Pale Blood ready to go in honor to pay tribute, as I not only hadn't seen it, but also understood he was the highlight. Not that that was much of a surprise; he tends to be the highlight of everything he's in, as he's just one of those actors like Christopher Walken or Nic Cage that seems to be operating from another planet than the rest of the cast, bringing excess energy and just pure screen magnetism to even the junkiest fare.

And unfortunately that's where he spent pretty much his entire career, as apart from a bit part in The Insider his classiest movie might have been Tales from the Hood. No, alas most of his movies were like this, where if he wasn't in them you might struggle to think of anything memorable about them a week later. The plot sounds great on paper: a vampire with the hilarious name of Michael Fury (George Chakiris) who doesn't believe in killing (he only takes enough blood to live) arrives in Los Angeles to investigate a series of murders that appear to be the work of a vampire, and while looking around the latest crime scene he crosses paths with a sleazy videographer (Hauser), who has the equally laughable name of Van Vandameer and is also seemingly tracking the murderer. So it seems like it'll be setting up an uneasy partnership as they kinda sorta buddy up to find the killer for their own secretive reasons, right?

Well, that's not what happens. But nothing else happens either, as the killer pretty much retires the second Fury arrives at LAX, making the whole plot feel like an afterthought. Without any new evidence or fresh crimes to look at, Fury just kind of hangs out for a few days, meeting a young woman named Jenny to feed on while also making friends with Lori, a vampire obsessed investigator who helped him find his place and supplies him with info. Meanwhile, Hauser keeps making his weird videos, one of which has Darcy DeMoss (sans "(I'm No) Animal", alas) breaking an egg on her knee and letting the yolk run all over her thigh. The most productive people in the movie are the unseen DJs, as every 15-20 minutes we are treated to another montage of LA traffic and people milling about various locations in the city while a smorgasbord of radio announcers give us traffic updates that rarely, if ever, match up to what we're seeing (they reference the crawl on the 405 over a shot of Melrose Ave in West Hollywood, which is nowhere near the 405).

But at least they're doing something! No one else in the movie is, and you can figure out who the killer is pretty easy since the script can't be bothered to introduce any other suspects. The reveal is delivered with a shrug too, so maybe it wasn't even supposed to be a mystery? Perhaps the script made it clearer at an earlier point and that scene got dropped, inadvertently turning it into a whodunit? Since the movie spends a lengthy amount of time showing Fury arriving in LA (from overseas) the night after the most recent killing, we know it can't be him, so it's... well, I guess I shouldn't spoil it for the people who may be making Pale Blood the first movie they ever saw in their lives.

I will reveal that it's not Sybil Danning, either. For reasons the director neglects to explain on her interview, there's a single shot of Ms. Danning walking down the street during one of those traffic montages, and that is her entire "performance". My friend Matt believes it's actually just a random shot of footage from a movie called LA Bounty, which also starred Hauser and shares some producers, so there is a solid foundation to make the connection, but doesn't help explain why they'd do something so distracting like throw in a wordless shot of a recognizable actress from a different movie entirely. IMDb lists her as "Sidewalk pedestrian", but I prefer Letterboxd's "Woman of the Night", because it makes her sound like another vampire and perhaps the actual killer, which means Letterboxd has managed to come up with a more compelling story than the film itself.

For a while though it's kind of compelling in its own weird way. The old LA shots delighted me, showing off a long-dead Hollywood filled with punks and record shops, now all replaced with tourists and Greek restaurants of varying quality. Agent Orange's catchy af "Bite The Hand That Feeds (Pt 1)" plays a couple times (the band itself even shows up once or twice), which like the shots of LA made me happily nostalgic for a time when horror movies had memorable tunes within the film, such a rarity nowadays (here's hoping Scream 5 can bring back the '90s rock soundtrack along with all of the cast members they refuse to retire or kill off). And the audio is oddly recorded, as if they neglected to add room tone to the mix or something, which gives it all a very dreamlike quality that, while probably not intentional, kind of worked in its favor.

Alas, that sort of thing can't carry the movie alone, and nor can Wings, who has all of the movie's best lines and moments (a dissolve from him shrugging his arms out to a crucifix is applause-worthy) but isn't on-screen every minute. So while he brings the movie back to life, it ultimately flatlines again as soon as they cut to the other characters. Even the final battle with the killer is treated with a total lack of urgency; Fury just tosses the villain into a few stacks of empty boxes and then it fades to the future, where the guy/girl is an institution for their crimes. Yep, his "no kill" rule extends to a murderer, so the body count in this "vampire vs serial killer" movie is, I believe, one (at around the hour mark the killer murders someone to lure Michael out). Long story short, there are a few things here that can appeal to some very niche tastes, but even those people gotta be patient and keep expectations in check.

What say you?

P.S. The film's lone bit of trivia on the IMDb, which is that DeMoss went with Hauser to the film's cast and crew screening (riveting!), seems to come from her interview on Vinegar Syndrome's disc. The only other extra is one with the director, V.V. Dachin Hsu, who now goes by the name Jenny Funkmeyer and very much seems like the type of person who would make Pale Blood. Transfer on the film is very nice though.


The Creeping Flesh (1973)

SEPTEMBER 21, 2020


If nothing else, The Creeping Flesh proves that the scripts were a big part of why Hammer films succeeded and have endured. The film stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and was directed by Freddie Francis, same as any number of Hammer classics, but the script is from a pair of newcomers (for one of them it was his first and last writing credit), and while it's not a disaster by any means, I quickly understood why it is I had almost no awareness of the film's existence until I found it on Amazon Prime when purposely looking for something older to watch. The title seemed vaguely familiar, but when I saw the cast I was curious how it is that it didn't come up more often... until I watched it.

But I was still curious about its relatively obscure status for the first half hour, which established a pretty typical Hammer-like scenario, albeit with the oft-unsuccessful bookending device that shows a crazed Cushing telling a colleague about his last experiment and how he ended up in his current predicament. His story begins three years earlier, when he was working on an experiment and study involving an old skeleton he found on one of his expeditions, believing it to be some kind of missing evolutionary link due to the enlarged size of its skull. He's so focused on his work that he forgets to tend to his young adult daughter, who seems to be confined to the house and lamenting that her mother died when she was so young that she barely remembers her. But we quickly learn this was a lie; her mother was actually at an institution and only passed away in the past few days.

When Cushing makes a trip to the asylum to collect her belongings, we learn that it's run by Lee, so we know something fishy is going on. The two men are half-brothers, apparently, and both competing for some science award, and it was at this point I was hoping that this would be similar to Horror Express, with the two men teaming up to tackle some ancient enemy (perhaps being able to win their prize together like real brothers?), but as Cushing leaves a patient escapes, and it's at this point the movie begins to start to collapse under the weight of its innumerable subplots. Cushing's daughter finds out her mother was alive, prompting a flashback about how she ended up in the asylum, Lee's own experiments fail, prompting him to steal Cushing's research, the escaped guy is causing havoc in the town, etc, etc.

And thus, instead of Horror Express (which co-starred Telly Savalas, as you might recall) I actually started thinking about a different bald dude: namely Horace Pinker. Like my beloved Shocker, this movie just keeps changing gears, to the extent that any quick description would only be summarizing a twenty minute chunk of the movie, just as all those "Shocker is about a killer who can go into the TV" writeups are basically spoilers since that doesn't happen until the third act. Lee - who gets top billing, mind - disappears for a while and only interacts with Cushing briefly, and Cushing himself is also MIA for a bit when the narrative decides to focus on his daughter for a bit. In the movie's weirdest subplot, he injects her with his experimental serum hoping it would calm her down and also prevent her from becoming like her mother (science!), only for her to turn kind of feral but also trampy, wearing revealing dresses and hanging out at the tavern, a far cry from her schoolmarm type attire. You'd expect Cushing to be trying to find her/get her back, but nope - he barely appears in this lengthy section of the film.

So did the serum do this to her, or is she simply afflicted by the same confusing "disease" as her mother? The flashback (which is inside of a flashback, now that I think about it) doesn't really clarify much; we learn that she was a burlesque dancer of sorts who slept around while ignoring Cushing (their lone scene together almost makes it seem like he's a ghost since she doesn't acknowledge him at all), though how she turned into someone requiring hospitalization is unknown - I guess we can just assume it was syphilis? The period setting (1890s) has me thinking that must be the case, and also why they don't seem to actually be treating her but simply tossing her in a cell, but it could have used some explanation. This is a movie that has Cushing's scientist go out of his way to show another scientist that their specimen's skull is twice as large as a normal one by holding a normal one next to it, something neither man would actually need clarified but done for the audience's benefit. Surely they could have lent us the same kind of history lesson on what were then 80 year old medical practices for diseases (and also, name the disease!).

Eventually, the title starts to make sense, as the skeleton becomes animated/revitalized by water, of all things, and starts lurking around on some kind of quest (the point of which is only revealed in the final shot, and it's kind of funny so I won't spoil it here). These scenes are fine; there's a particularly genius bit of planning where the hulking brute (ten feet tall) is going up the stairs and we see a chandelier on the other side of the frame swinging a bit, because he would have bumped it as he walked past on his way to the staircase - that's the sort of attention to detail that I love. But in the grand scheme of things, it's somewhat anticlimactic, as his value as the movie's villain had been diminished by about a half dozen other things demanding the spotlight.

I WILL spoil the big reveal though, because the movie is almost fifty years old and I am warning you to boot. We return to the present day where Cushing (who is very Donald Pleasence-y in these scenes) is finishing up his story to his new colleague, and only then is it revealed (though I guessed it earlier, *pats self on back*) that he is now institutionalized himself, with the "new colleague" just being a new doctor there who is checking up on him. The new guy exits the cell (made up as a lab) and meets with Lee, still running the joint and the proud recipient of that science award. And then we have to wonder if it really happened or if Cushing was simply crazy; the aforementioned final shot suggests it was real, but Lee says they're not really related which is the sort of thing that could be easily proven/disproven (wouldn't there be documentation about their parents somewhere, especially since they were somewhat high profile people?) so it only confuses matters more. And is it a legitimate attempt at "keep the audience talking long after they've left the theater" kind of stuff, or simply a cheap way of waving off their convoluted story? "Oh, that's why it was so erratic - it was a story from an insane person."

(A crazy person who frequently told parts of the story that they were not only absent for, but also would have had no way of knowing later due to the deaths of the only witnesses.)

Granted, neither of the marquee stars had a 100% success rate with their solo films, but when they teamed up it was usually at least fun, so it's kind of a shame to see they (plus Francis) weren't able to really save this one. An OK enough timekiller, sure, but one that stubbornly refuses to utilize its best assets, with a focus problem that will remind you of trying to reign in a hyper child at a toy store. Certainly not worth digging through Amazon Prime's remarkably awful interface to find, at any rate.

What say you?


The Beach House (2019)

SEPTEMBER 18, 2020


Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a decent movie is that a similar one comes along around the same time and is just so much better. That's the case of The Beach House; had I seen it prior to January 24th of this year I probably would have been pretty enthused about (with reservations), but alas that's the day I saw Color out of Space, which covers a lot of similar end of the world territory but more effectively and in a manner much more to my liking. It's like Deep Impact - not a bad movie at all, but a few months later we got Armageddon - why settle for Tea Leoni when you have Bruce Willis? Hell, both films are even exclusive to Shudder (at least as of this writing), so you can't even access it without having a superior version at your disposal.

To be fair, Beach House isn't specifically based on any Lovecraft story, so perhaps the screenwriter had to hold back a bit to avoid being sued, as the story is very much in his wheelhouse. It unfolds very slowly, telling the tale of a young college couple, Emily and Randall, who arrive for a romantic weekend at the latter's family log cabi- wait, no, beach house during the off season, only to discover that Randall's dad has promised to let his friends Mitch and Jane use it at the same time (our young lad didn't bother to ask his dad if it was OK). In what might be the least believable part of the movie, the young horny couple decides to not only stay there, but like, hang out and get high together. Have you ever not only willingly hung out with your parents' friends, but offered them your edibles?

Anyway as they get high they start to notice that there are funny smells outside, and then they start seeing weird color shifts and the like (see what I mean about maybe having to hold back? It was at this point I actually checked if it wasn't actually a loose adaptation) before they all pass out. The next morning they can't find Jane (suffering from Alzheimer's or something similar) and we are told it's weird that no one's around, which might have been a more effective development had we seen anyone but these four people until this point anyway (there hasn't been as much as a gas station clerk or something along those lines). And then... well, spoilers follow!

The source of the threat is a sort of yellowish fog that turns people into zombie/mutant kind of things, and the makeup is usually quite impressive when seen (which isn't often, given the aforementioned lack of people). What we can gather from both visual evidence and an earlier stoned explanation of astrobiology from Emily (it's her major), this toxin is reverting people into a new lifeform, forcing them to adapt much quicker than evolution usually allows. A terrific idea, no doubt, but when there's no world being shown at all it's hard to get into the idea of how it is ending; the cast and scope were so minimal that I wondered if we were being prepped for a twist that revealed the characters were already dead when the film began. Even Romero, who had about 19 cents to spare on his NOTLD budget, managed to offer up some sense of how things were progressing beyond the limits of the heroes' POV, but there's almost nothing like that here. The world seemed dead before the things even showed up.

But the real thing holding me back was the characters: they simply weren't interesting enough, particularly the younger couple. Emily wants to go to grad school, Randall wants to quit college early and just spend their lives vacationing, so they're obviously at that "if we survive this we might break up" stage, but that's about as complicated as they get, and both actors are fine but lack that sort of magnetism that can make up for a script's shortcomings (and they're both too new to generate an instant empathy and concern the way a veteran actor might benefit from). Faring better is the older couple, which DOES get at least 50% of that built-in love since Jake Weber plays Mitch, and he's always welcome in my house thanks to Meet Joe Black and, for the die hard horror fans, brings some end of the world expertise along from the Dawn of the Dead remake. His New England accent is a bit iffy (I can cut him some slack since he is English), but even with his minimal screentime he manages to convey the difficult position he finds himself in, devastated at watching his wife slip away but having to hold it together so that her remaining time is fulfilling. We meet them later and they exit earlier, so they're only in the movie for about half the time as the younger couple, and I can't help but wish the movie was about their journey instead.

Also, there's not enough payoff to justify the slow buildup. It's almost like they skipped the middle act; it's about 50 minutes of setup and then a fairly action packed but also underwhelming final 30, as things go to hell instantly (and mostly off-screen), making the final reel or so just a long "we gotta get out of here!" kind of escape sequence with little reason to be compelled by it, since by then you kind of know how this is going to play out. The brief appearance of other threats are good for the occasional wtf kind of moment, but they also fail to feel like actual threats - it's almost like the two heroes are running through a Halloween haunt maze, with the zombies/mutants being able to only chase them so far before they return to their starting position to scare someone else. The final shot is effective, for sure, but it's a blip on a pretty low pulse instead of a spectacular coup de grace.

And why shoot in Massachusetts and almost never show anything?! I thought perhaps they shot it in California or something and were just trying to hide telltale signs of palm trees, and thus had to keep everything cramped, but no - they really shot at Cape Cod (specifically North Truro, which is almost at the very end of the "curled arm" outlet that you'll recognize from any map of Massachusetts), though you can only really tell from the credits. Presumably a budgetary limitation, but jeez, even the shots on Google Maps street view show more than you ever see in the film. License some stock footage or something if you can't afford any wide shots!

If you're an absolute nut for Lovecraft-y kinda stuff, I'm sure it'll scratch those itches, but if you're like me and fairly indifferent to his work and subsequent adaptations, I suspect you'll find just as little to really like here. It's watchable, for sure, and at 85 minutes with credits at least it's not asking too much time out of your day (indeed, my lone complaint about Color out of Space was that it was a bit too long), but it just doesn't offer up enough we haven't seen before (save for a gnarly impromptu foot surgery, part of the movie's very brief detour into body horror kind of material) in films that gave us more reasons to look past their flaws.

What say you?


The Eleventh Commandment (1987)

SEPTEMBER 17, 2020


I am low-key fascinated by the mid to late '80s slashers that were seemingly made for no one in particular. The sub-genre wasn't exactly lucrative at the box office anymore since most fans were moving on to monster/supernatural driven fare like The Fly and the Elm Street sequels, yet there was still a steady stream of movies like The Eleventh Commandment (aka Body Count - and both titles are offered on letterboxd as if they were separate films, weirdly) that I can't imagine anyone involved was thinking "This will be the one to bring the slasher genre back to box office glory!" Instead, these films tend to be a bit weird, almost as if they were daring body count aficionados to bother with them since they often went out of their way to avoid the things we liked (Slaughterhouse and Berserker come to mind as notable examples of the type).

Indeed, the one line summary for this one sounds very much like a standard bit of slasher mayhem: a guy escapes from a mental institution and leaves a trail of bodies as he makes his way home to get revenge on the person who sent him there in the first place. But it's quickly apparent that this isn't some Halloween/Terror Train hybrid, as the killer, Robert, is a religious freak who thinks he's a priest, quoting from the Bible and punishing those who break the commandments, though I'm not entirely sure where he drew the line there. The main impetus for his revenge mission is going after his uncle Charles, who killed Robert's dad (so, his own brother) and took the man's wife AND his fortune as his own - very much against "Though shall not covet...", right? But... he's killing everyone, and that's a commandment too? Also, one of the only ones he directly quotes: "Though shall not lie" isn't a commandment, so maybe that's the 11th one the title mentions?

Weirder is that for a revenge quest, he kind of sucks at it (spoilers ahead). You'd think after escaping from the hospital and murdering someone there in the process, he'd know that people will be looking for him and he should probably beeline for his uncle before it was too late, but nah. Instead he kills the totally innocent family chauffeur (Maybe there's a 12th commandment? "Thou shall not wear a stupid hat?") and picks up his 9 year old cousin from her ballet class, taking her out on a fun day around Los Angeles that includes a stop at the beach and serving dinner at a soup kitchen, which she legit loves. Then he takes her to a shitty hotel where he is seduced by the lady at the front desk, kills her, takes the kid to sleep in a parking lot somewhere, and then finally - a day and a half later! - heads over to his uncle's place.

And (spoilers continue here, for the record) even then he dilly dallies, practicing a play with the niece in the basement and such. But the real "come on!" moment is a scene where he kills the house butler, who has been far and away the most unlikable character in the film (and yes, I'm including the murderer). He looks like a Charles Gray stunt double, so he's already sort of antagonistic looking before he even opens his mouth, but throughout the movie he's just a total jerk to the film's lone sympathetic adult: the maid, who is also the only one who seems to notice that the little girl never came home from ballet. He's the kind of character you can't wait to see offed, but the movie makes it weird by having Robert show remorse about killing him (he came around a corner and got stabbed by Robert, who was expecting his uncle), denying us the sort of "Good, he had it coming!" reaction by treating it like the only time in the movie where Robert was unjustified.

Also, I won't spoil the particulars, but neither Robert or the uncle are a factor in the film's final ten minutes, which is just awkward af. Instead of a big showdown, we get an overlong prologue about the niece and some last minute exposition from a pair of supporting characters, giving the audience time to contemplate how we just spent 85 minutes watching this guy bungle the one thing he set out to do. The two characters never even share a scene! It's kind of amazing in its own stupid way, admittedly, but it also means you have to be in a very tiny cross section of "I am starved for a new slasher movie" and "I do not want a film that is well done in any aspect" to get the most out of this one.

Or, I guess, you could be the type of person who loved Dynasty but wish it had more stabbings. Robert's family (save the niece) is populated exclusively by rich jerks who all seem to hate each other; even his own mother uses him to further her own evil schemes, which she carries out in between attempts (some successful) in sleeping with just about every male character in the film, occasionally with the knowledge (and consent?) of her former brother-in-law/now husband (who, by the way, is played by Dick Sargent). This stuff borders on sleazy at times, but keeps pulling back; unless I'm forgetting F bombs the movie might even get a PG-13 today since the killings aren't notable in any way, nothing worse than is allowed on basic cable anyway.

I never saw it, but the team of Paul Leder and William Norton also made I Dismember Mama, which has a similar plot except the guy is going after his own mother instead of an uncle, and - far as I can tell - isn't a wannabe priest. And (icky alert!) the murderer actually forms an attraction to the little girl in that one, which thankfully isn't the case here as he merely wants to protect her from his awful family so that she doesn't end up being like them, which is admirable. It's weird that they were ripping themselves off (the girl's age is even the same), but sounds like it'd be an interesting double feature, since the two movies have similar setups but go in very different directions at a certain point.

Vinegar Syndrome's disc has a first for me: bonus features produced in the Covid-19 era! Or at least, the first to acknowledge them as such - there are two interviews (with the actors who played Robert and the little girl) and both begin with a disclaimer that they were produced by the talent themselves (via Zoom or whatever) and thus aren't up to the usual technical snuff. But they're fine, the recordings are clean and it's easy to hear them, plus the casual nature of it is kind of interesting. Otherwise they would be in the studio with the usual nothing background and canned replies, but there's a certain laid back quality that kept them a little more engaging than they might have been otherwise.

Like I said, you really gotta be slasher starved for this one, but there's something kind of endearing about how they seemingly refuse to satisfy the part of your brain that wants to see a revenge carried out, regardless of circumstances. If the body count was a little higher it might qualify for SNDN 2 kind of campy WTF-ery, but it's too low key in that department to qualify, so it's just kind of stuck in the middle of a bunch of bad movie extremes, never topping its first 20 minutes where Robert faces off against a Nurse Ratched type who is played by an abysmally wooden actress, as well as James "Uncle Phil" Avery as an orderly. I hate when a movie peaks early!

What say you?

P.S. IMDb says the movie was released in March of 1986, but that seems to be impossible as there is a noticeable Beverly Hills Cop II poster behind Robert as he walks down the street, and that movie didn't even begin production until November of that year (released in May of 1987). I hereby declare this to be the first and hopefully last time I ever read something incorrect on the IMDb. But I can't find a trailer for this movie so here's one for Axel's sophomore adventure.


Uncaged (2016)

SEPTEMBER 16, 2020


Asian countries frequently get wacky titles when they import our movies; Army of Darkness is called "Captain Supermarket" and the Fast & Furious films are known as "Wild Speed" (Furious 7 in particular was "Wild Speed: Sky Mission") in Japan, for example. Normally they're just kinda goofy, but in this particular case I wish we just had theirs, because Dick Maas' film Prooi (which translates as "Prey", and we have enough of those) became Uncaged, which is kind of generic, but in China they got "Violent Fierce Lion"! Not only is that awesome, it's also more helpful in describing the movie. Uncaged sounds like a prison-set action movie or maybe a documentary about my man Nicolas.

No, this is indeed about a violent and fierce lion, who begins terrorizing Amsterdam after picking off a few folks on the outskirts (including kids! This lion is not discriminating!). The heroes are a zookeeper, a budding reporter (also her on/off boyfriend), and a big game hunter that she used to date; there are other supporting characters but in keeping with the scriptures (i.e. Jaws) we mostly only deal with the core trio. That said, one of the many things I enjoyed about the movie is that it was relatively free of Jaws-y things - there's no "close the beaches" type plot, no celebration to cancel, etc. In fact Maas goes the opposite route - the government officials are quick to act (though careful with their wording as to not cause a panic), and it's the press and townsfolk who think they're nuts.

(If I watched the movie in 2016 I might have rolled my eyes at the idea of the press not taking a grave threat so seriously, but nope, now I know that it's pretty accurate.)

But what elevated this from an enjoyable enough nature gone amok movie to something that made me smile (and get one of those coveted hearts on letterboxd) was the "love triangle" between the three leads. See, the new guy Dave is not the best boyfriend in the world, and Lizzy is kind of getting tired of his shit. So when her ex comes to town to save the day, Dave is understandably jealous and a bit concerned she might go back to him. But then they meet and... they become bros! Jack has moved on, is totally welcoming to Dave, and invites them both to dinner, and they're all pals for the rest. It's so sweet! It's almost a shame Dave has to sit most of the climax out when Jack and Lizzy are trapped with the beast inside a medical school; I was hoping for some more of their newfound friendship.

As for the lion, it's... not a real lion, let me crush those hopes right now. Instead it's a mix of CGI and an animatronic, and while the former looks dodgy at times (a global concern for the film, as there are also a number of lion-free shots that look bad due to poor compositing), the latter is fine and appreciated, since they could have just gone all in on the CGI. Of course this means its size seems to change in a few shots (he looks much bigger in earlier shots than he does near the end, when the up close encounters with the heroes means we get more of the animatronic version), but he's not a "monster" - it just seems to be a normal escaped lion, freeing the movie from any mad science/evil corporation kind of nonsense.

The setpieces are nicely varied too - there's a bus attack that causes massive chaos in the streets, a brief playground bit that benefits from the fact that he's already killed a kid in the opening scene (which, naturally, doesn't show him at all), a couple of one on one chases... the movie may run a little long (1:45ish) but it's never dull. And it's logical enough to accept that the lion can disappear into the woods or whatever, allowing the action to spread out over a few days without it being completely unbelievable. It's kind of the best of both worlds - unlike Jaws or other fish types, there's no safety in simply staying out of the water, since it's in a major city, but it's also small enough to get around (though Maas conveniently skips a few of its entrances, so it'll just suddenly be on that bus) and avoid non-stop detection, so the filmmakers never have to pull a Godzilla '98 and simply "lose" the giant creature.

It's a shame it rarely attacks any of the supporting cast though; we meet some people along the way who seem to be perfect fodder (like some guy who claims Dave made a porno tape of his girlfriend) but they never become lion food. The attack scenes are all good on their own, but the impact is diluted when we never know who the hell they are; the movie ends up feeling a bit overpopulated as a result, so whittling down the named characters a touch would not only give the deaths more impact, but also increase the threat that the lion presents to this world. At times it almost feels like he's attacking people in a different movie, as it's not until near the end that any of its victims has a direct impact on our heroes.

But otherwise it's a blast, the exact kind of escapist fare I wanted and a solid example of why I think Shudder's curation is top notch, because it's sitting there in the spotlight section next to "elevated" horror stuff, early 80s fare, and beloved classics, giving you a little bit of everything without having to dig for it like you do on the other services. And it reminded me that I STILL haven't seen Maas' killer elevator movies (which are referenced via a throwaway bit of dialogue about two people trapped in an elevator), so thanks for that, movie.

What say you?


The Babysitter (2017)

SEPTEMBER 15, 2020


There have been a few comedic horror movies about satanic cults over the past few years, and The Babysitter is... one of them. I mean, it's fine, and technically came before the others (Satanic Panic and We Summon The Darkness are the ones coming to mind, there might be others), but I don't know if there's enough material there to keep mining. Guess I'll know if/when I watch the sequel to this one, which just hit Netflix and served as a reminder that I never saw this one. And to be fair, I never planned to, but two things got me to change my mind (well, three if you count the fact that HMAD is back for a bit and thus I can't be as choosy as I've been over the past 6-7 years).

The first thing was a recommendation from one of my longtime readers (hi Cat!), which is always an easy way to get me to watch something since I aim to please. The second is that (thanks to the sequel's existence and its accompanying press) I realized I had the cast mixed up - I thought Bella Thorne was playing the title character, and this added to my indifference since I find her pretty annoying. But no! Samara Weaving plays the sitter, and she is great! (Thorne, as anyone who saw it already knows, plays one of her pals, and to be fair she's actually pretty funny as a vapid cheerleader who worries no one will want to motorboat her after she is shot in the boob) So I dove in, still not expecting much (I correctly remembered it was directed by McG) but at least more hopeful than I was at any point in time before.

And it's fine! It's unfortunately one of those movies where going in totally blind is a help, as there is nothing to indicate that it's a horror movie until something horror-y happens 30 minutes (more?) into the runtime, so watching it with knowledge of who is still around for the sequel is even less helpful, so if you haven't seen it yet and have remained even more in the dark than I was, I'd say go watch it now before reading any further. Then you can come back and tell me it's better than I had you thinking, and I can ask "but do you feel that way because you got to go in blind and I didn't?" and your mind will be BLOWN, man.

For everyone else - the element of surprise is kind of the draw here, and it's easy to see why the script ended up on the black list for a bit. For the first half hour it's just a standard coming of age kind of deal, with a bullied nerdy kid named Cole crushing on his cool babysitter, who is spending the night when his parents go out of town on a romantic getaway. The babysitter invites some friends over and he plans to stay up and spy on them to see if they're having sex and/or can maybe inadvertently teach him something he can do with the girl next door. Instead, he witnesses them sacrificing a nerd (not unlike himself) as part of their Satanic ritual, only to discover he's their next target. Can he outsmart them all and escape with his life? And maybe kiss his crush and/or stand up to the neighborhood bully in the process?

That's actually the best thing about the movie - it doesn't stop being a coming of age film once the horror element is introduced. If anything, the horror stuff charmingly intersects with it; at one point Cole is being chased by the douchey guy cult member (they're all kind of stock *victim* stereotypes: the it girl, the douche, the cheerleader, the weirdo, and the (I didn't write the movie so don't yell at me) the Black guy) and realizes that his bully is nearby. Rather than kill them both or whatever, the cult douche actually gives Cole a little pep talk and some advice on how to fight back, then lets him go on ahead while he watches. It's sweet in a weird way, and I wish the movie had more of it, with *all* of the members realizing Cole had enough shit to deal with and didn't need to add their nonsense on top of it, or something. But as the occasional surprise button to an otherwise routine chase, it's refreshing.

And by chase I mean "Cole runs in or out of his house", because for some reason he acts like a shopping cart that will lock up if he gets 50 feet beyond his front door. More than once I couldn't see any discernible reason that he couldn't keep running to safety, making the film feel a bit cramped as he repeatedly runs back to where the bad guys are instead of the opposite direction (perhaps they could have had a pet he wanted to rescue or something?). Also, Weaving's Bee is weirdly sidelined for a while, limited to just rolling her eyes at her cohorts or hanging out in the background as one of them chases Cole somewhere, only to return full throttle for the final ten minutes or so. By now it's clear she's the real deal and a huge asset to a film, so I hope the sequel utilizes her throughout instead of reducing her to glorified extra for a sizable chunk in the middle (don't tell me either way!).

The other issue I had was with some of the half-assed Edgar Wright/Joseph Kahn style flourishes, which I can barely tolerate when they do it let alone a... let's just be nice and say "not as inventive" type like McG. Text on screen and the occasional slow/sped up shots pepper the film, thankfully not to the point of overloading it, but it has the opposite effect of simply being intrusive because they're so intermittent. Best to just not use such things at all, if you ask me. McG also inexplicably stages a car crash that both driver and the person he is hitting manage to survive like it was one of the epic ones he presented in Charlie's Angels*, instead of what the script probably called for (i.e. something less visually spectacular). Sometimes less is more, my good man.

But it's cute, surprisingly gory, has two great leads, and has the always welcome Ken Marino in a bit part as Cole's dad (and his mom is Leslie Bibb, another charming presence - I'm glad they are among the ones returning for the sequel). There's a breeziness to it I appreciated for sure, though I couldn't help but be somewhat disappointed that it occasionally flirts with being something even better only to scale back again. I'll get to the sequel in a couple weeks, promise! Also, since it's not available on disc I put the classic Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead in there instead. Dishes are done, man!

What say you?

*Remember when Joey rented it for Dawson thinking something fun/goofy would cheer him up after his dad died in a car crash and then there's like all these insane car crashes in it so Dawson's like "uh..." and Joey's mortified? Man, I miss the Creek. Wonder how my man Pacey is doing.


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