Grave Robbers (1989)

OCTOBER 28, 2020


As I've been going through the Friday the 13th boxed set (via the new bonus features, mainly) and jumping around based on my mood, it's easier to see how far the series went into supernatural territory from where it started. When you're watching them in sequence it's a pretty gradual shift, but going from, say, Part 3* to Jason Goes To Hell and then back to Part 2 feels like you're just going into two different series. I bring it up because the back of Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray for Grave Robbers (aka Ladrones de tumbas) specifies that it feels inspired by the "later" F13 entries, and it never really dawned on me that this is indeed something that should be specified, because "inspired by the F13 series" could mean something very simple, like the first few, or something very very silly, like the New Line ones.

But yes, the film seems specifically inspired by Jason Lives and New Blood, though thankfully in the latter case it's just the general appearance of its hulking killer (complete with chains!). The Jason Lives inspirations are plentiful, however - the killer is accidentally resurrected from his grave, the sheriff locks up our heroes believing them to be the killer (only for another recent murder to prove their innocence as they were behind bars at the time), his daughter is in the line of fire, etc. There's even a random bit about how excited one of the cops is to get a new gun, shades of Deputy Rick Cologne and his fancy new laser sight ("Ja-bang!"). You see movies influenced by specific slashers all the time, but it's usually the original - it's rare and, admittedly, kind of charming, to see one that resembles the original in no way whatsoever but feels specifically aping one of its followups.

And hey if you're gonna copy an F13, you might as well go with one of the best. But fear not, it's not a carbon copy at all, and mostly forms its own identity through its rare but fun mix of middle ages/Inquisition stuff (it actually feels a bit like a Tombs of the Blind Dead movie in spots) and body count slasher. There are a lot of characters in it fighting for top billing, which helps stave off some of the comparisons; we have a quartet of camping girls (one of whom is the aforementioned sheriff's daughter), the sheriff and his crew, a priest who knows what's going on, and, naturally, the title characters, a group of six (though two bail out almost instantly and return later) who are planning to steal the gold and jewels from coffins but find a treasure when they accidentally fall into a long forgotten crypt that houses the corpse of a satan worshipper who was executed in the prologue as he attempted to sacrifice a virgin, vowing to return just before receiving the sharp end of an axe. When one of the robbers removes the axe, the killer is resurrected, killing everyone he encounters as he seeks a virgin to complete his sacrifice.

Luckily, the religious/sacrifice stuff doesn't really matter much for the majority of the film - once he's up and about it's about as relevant as Jason's "revenge" mission. The body count is quite respectable, as he makes his way into double digits before all is said and done, though one pair of victims is completely unknown - the deputies just call the sheriff and tell him they found some more bodies (this is the part that proves our noble grave robbers aren't murderers), but I have no idea who they are. It's a bit of a confusing edit actually, because right before this scene is when the two grave-robbing defectors return to the story, so I just assumed it was them, but then they come back again later, so whoever those other randos were is just none of our business I guess.

It's sadly not the only confusing editing choice in the film, but it's otherwise technically sound. As opposed to Italian horror around this time, Mexican productions were thriving, and honestly the production value is better than any indie slasher from America that was being produced by this point. The crypt/graveyard area is fantastic, in fact - it's almost a bit of a shame that they don't stay there long (I actually thought for a bit it would be entirely set there with the guy just going after these folks who are trapped inside). But instead we get a nice variety of locations, including the woods (via the daughter and pals) to give it that proper Friday feel. Also, speaking of the locations - it's so nice to see Mexico looking normal, not with the urine filter American productions insist on applying whenever the country is depicted in their films/shows.

As for the kills, they're surprisingly gory af at times, including a truly gnarly bit where the killer (seemingly under the bed? He has some supernatural gifts so it's possible he's just inside the guy somehow) shoves his fist outward from the guy's stomach/chest in order to grab one of his artifacts that the guy is wearing as a necklace. The amount of guts and grue we see is on par with Rhodes' death in Day of the Dead ("Choke on em!"), and it's downright jaw-dropping to see in a film that's inspired by the later, nearly blood-free F13s that were so mangled by the MPAA. The killer himself is sadly not seen too much (usually just his arm), only getting a few big hero shots near the end, but one of his demises (of course there are multiples!) is one for the record books, where a truck crashes into him and he - being a walking corpse, after all - explodes into dusty chunks. It's actually far more satisfying than his real (?) death later!

Vinegar Syndrome's blu-ray has an informative interview with writer/director Rubén Galindo Jr. (in English), who talks about the film's performance in other markets, how video was the preferred venue for audiences, etc. I was surprised/happy to learn that the film actually played theatrically in the US, though I was unable to find any actual numbers (not surprising, he says it was limited to about 40 screens in Spanish speaking markets, and this was long before extensive box office tracking was a thing) - I would kill to see that car smash with a crowd! There's also a commentary with the Hysteria Continues guys, but having listened to a few others I assume I can skip it without missing much (not really a knock on them; they just don't really ever seem to inform me of anything I'm not aware of myself, which is the only reason to listen to a commentary).

The VS folks send me a lot of their releases, and it's a mixed bag - their tastes and mine aren't exactly on the same wavelength. As a result I sometimes don't get around to watching them, and the backlog builds up, but when one clicks with me like this one did, I get very excited, because it means another gem might be in that growing pile. I know the "from the pile" reviews have been lacking this year, but now that we are near the end of the spooky season revival for the site, I will be doing my best to bring those back more often. It's just crazy that even though I almost never leave my house and work has been reduced due to the pandemic, I STILL find myself with an overwhelming number of things I mean to watch. What will it take to finally empty that box of review copies!?!?

What say you?

*I recently learned that despite not having a 3D TV, I could use my dusty PS VR to watch it in its proper 3D! So even though it's a "middle of the pack" entry it was the first disc I popped in, because after a 3D screening I realized that's really the only way I ever want to watch the film again, and of course I couldn't at home until now. However, it's not the most comfortable way to watch a movie, with the awkward helmet and cords forcing you to stay almost motionless, so I just watched a few key scenes.


Tail Sting (2001)

OCTOBER 27, 2020


2001 was a weird year for horror, as it was kind of in between waves and not producing a lot of successes. The slasher revival was drying up, Sixth Sense and Blair Witch Project's success weren't really being capitalized on as often as you'd expect, and The Ring was still a year away, with the hardcore stuff that dominated the majority of the decade was even further off. So outside of the smash The Others there wasn't much to write about theatrically, and the DTV market was in a transitional phase from VHS to DVD (2002 was the year DVD overtook that garbage format for good), which meant shelf space at the video stores was divided, forcing stores to be choosier with what they stocked on the dying format. Long story short, movies like Tail Sting never really had a chance, as it wasn't good enough to make the cut for VHS but too cheesy to attract renters/buyers on the shinier (and pricier) DVDs when they were blowing people away with the likes of X-Men and The Matrix.

Plus it's simply not a very good movie, though it can definitely improve with some libations and (if safely possible!) a few friends. The description of scorpions on a plane (five years before Snakes) had me thinking they were, you know, regular scorpions, which would be a problem in a confined area with nowhere to land (bless those Australia to Los Angeles flights for allowing for so many plane-set movies to have an excuse not to just reroute to the closest airport). But it's actually giant scorpions, which makes the movie far funnier than I was expecting, because no one bothered to consider that it's difficult for a normal sized human to get around on a plane, let alone a very wide insect.

Director Paul Wynne gets around this potential major problem by... simply not showing how the thing can get from place to place. We will see a shadow on the wall next to a victim, then a giant stinger will attack them, but it's never quite clear where the rest of the scorpion is in relation to everything, as it often seems impossible. Even funnier is how Wynne tries to make it scary in spots, including a breathtaking bit where the pilot enters the cockpit and the scorpion then appears behind him. Ever see an airplane cockpit? You wouldn't be able to miss a normal sized scorpion on the floor if you were to enter, so how the guy managed to seemingly walk past it without coming into contact with it is beyond me. Sometimes it seems to be in the ceiling or something and coming from below, but again there isn't any clear explanation - it would seemingly leave a pretty sizable hole for the people to notice, no?

Naturally this all just makes it more amusing, but it gets pretty tiresome after a while - there's only so many times you can laugh at the same inept motions. To save on scorpion effects (and SLIGHTLY reduce how implausible it is even by giant monster movie standards) they add a few more hurdles, including damaged landing gear and the requisite evil human waving a gun around, but I couldn't help but think how they could have saved themselves the narrative headaches by simply reducing the size of their monsters. As we learn about halfway through the film, these scorpions have been genetically engineered and enhanced thanks to fossilized remains (someone immediately references Jurassic Park so that we don't have to), explaining their size, but even if they were like a foot long they would have retained their "big" factor while keeping the movie grounded in some kind of logic. It seems there should never be a point where they can't see the damn things no matter where they are on the plane, yet the monsters repeatedly "sneak up" on them.

Weirdly, the script does succeed in making the characters kind of memorable, and even surprising in some ways. There are a pair of Muslim brothers who act sneaky and keep saying to have faith in Allah that their plan will work, so even in early 2001 when this was released I'm sure most audience members would suspect they were hijackers, but it turns out that they are actually illegal immigrants hoping to find work in America as electricians. Their skills pretty much save the day! Likewise, there's a German goth guy named Gunther who brought a coffin on board, but we later learn he's just a regular lonely American named Joe hoping to reinvent himself and attract women. It's not really played for laughs - I actually felt kind of bad for the guy! But then he got killed, anyway. And the himbo pilot actually has a sad backstory, forcing the female lead to reconsider her dismissal of him as, well, a himbo.

Oh and someone involved apparently loved Angelina Jolie's filmography because there's a lengthy subplot that seems like a fever dream mashup of Pushing Tin and Hackers, with two misfit types named Brick and Highball (...) hacking into the cell phone companies and crossing it with the passenger manifest to find someone with a working cell they could call to make contact after the radio is fried by the scorpions. These scenes consist of little more than the two of them looking at monitors, typing really fast, and sweating their way through dialogue like "On my count level off to 4,000!" or whatever, and again I couldn't help but think if this stuff would have been necessary at all if they just treated the scorpions as an almost invisible threat, offing passengers silently and causing a rising panic.

Supposedly there's an epic goof of a crew member just standing there, but I missed it. I even rewound looking specifically at the scene described on IMDb, but nothing. But I also noticed that the actor who is supposed to be the scene has his head cropped out of the frame, so maybe they tried to fix it by zooming in on the shot? I say just let these things be - do they honestly think by removing this silly goof that the film can be taken seriously now? The whole movie still sounds like it was ADR'd in a bathroom and it still somehow manages to look like it was shot on a cell phone even though that technology didn't exist at the time, so it's like cleaning up a landfill by removing one broken radio. There's also supposedly a sequel, but... come on. Even if I was doing this every again forever (that two months went by fast!) I wouldn't bother. It was amusing enough at a time when I desperately need to smile, but I won't push my luck with the Tail Sting universe.

What say you?


Hack-O-Lantern (1988)

OCTOBER 26, 2020


I assume it was in Fangoria that I heard about Hack-O-Lantern, probably close to thirty years ago now, and it sounded... well, bad. It sounded bad. But over the years, I've developed an admiration for a particular brand of bad horror movie. I can't stomach too much of the Sharknado-y kinda of stuff, or all that faux-'70s crap that came along post-Grindhouse, but bad movies in the vein of Silent Night Deadly Night 2 or Things (or yes, Cathy's Curse, which this was actually compared to in a Red Letter Media episode) are very much appreciated in my house, and I'm happy to say that Hack-O-Lantern definitely fits within that group.

I think what separates this sort of thing from Syfy trash is, believe it or not, the fact that the former examples are shot on film, but not because it "looks better" (which is a matter of opinion). Unlike today's "You can shoot a movie on your iPhone and edit it on your laptop" thinking, if a movie is shot on film that means there has to be at least two people on the crew who really know what they're doing: someone to load film into the camera, and someone who knows how to edit on a flatbed, both of which aren't exactly things you can just guess your way through and still come out with something watchable. So even if the director is a total novice and the actors are... less than award-worthy, there will still be someone around who took the time to learn these fundamentals the right way (presumably in a film school or extensive workshop) and can guide the amateurs on the crew into getting usable footage and fashion something coherent out of it when all is said and done. Long story short, some people had to take it seriously enough to properly learn how to do it. Nowadays, that's not a guarantee, and it often shows.

Anyway, I knew this movie belonged to that "special" group almost instantly, when a kid named Tommy is playing with a pumpkin and his mother doesn't really consider "Where did the pumpkin come from?" until he accidentally cuts himself trying to carve it. THEN she realizes that the arrival of a pumpkin meant his grandfather (her father) has been over, something that is apparently forbidden, and it's not too long until we find out why the man has been ostracized - he's part of a cult! The kid's dad is murdered by one of grampa's cohorts when he goes to their "church" (a barn) to tell him off, and then we cut to 15 years later, with Tommy falling in with the cult and about to undergo his final initiation on Halloween. Naturally, the mom and his two younger siblings (one of whom is now a cop) aren't thrilled about this, and when the matriarch confronts her father about it and begs him to leave Tommy alone, we learn (icky alert!) that gramps is actually Tommy's real father, having raped his daughter on her wedding day.

(Tommy is the only one that Gramps seems interested in, so we can assume this was a one time thing and the other two kids were actually from her husband, thankfully.)

After this bombshell the movie tones down its insanity a bit, but remains as beautifully awful. As the various characters go about prepping for Halloween, a cult member in a mask starts offing people who are connected to the now grown children, and we are seemingly supposed to assume that it's Tommy carrying out some final tasks for his initiation, but then there would be no need for the mask, so you can spend 11 or 12 seconds guessing who the actual killer might be (it shouldn't surprise anyone). By tracking Tommy as well as his siblings, Vera and Roger (and their own respective love interests) we get to meet several not-great actors throughout the day, all of whom seem to be on different wavelengths from each other as they run through the hilariously awkward script. Few people act normal in this movie, highlighted by a sequence where Vera grills Roger's girlfriend about their recent hook up (because all girls want to hear about their brother's sexcapades!), prompting the girl to, I kid you not, bring her to the outdoor location where it happened so she can point it out! If I ever even imagined a scenario where my brother in law showed me the spot where he first had sex with my sister, I would likely want to die, but for these people it's an exciting adventure.

But my favorite part was a rather pointless scene where Tommy's lover goes to the store to buy beer and some other supplies. The cashier rings her up and says "That'll be 40 dollars," which already piqued my amusement because wow, what an exact amount! The girl hands over a few bills, and normally that'd be the end of it because almost literally any combination of bills you might have to equal forty dollars would be... forty dollars, right? Two twenties, four tens, whatever (if she handed her *one* bill it would be a fifty or a hundred, so change would indeed come into play, but she handed a few over). And then the lady rings it in and says "15 dollars is your change," which means the girl inexplicably handed her $55 for her $40 charge. It's a total throwaway moment, but that's the exact mix of peculiarness and incompetence that makes me love such things.

The movie also contains a full music video in which Tommy is one of the band members, who are wiped out one by one by some kind of devil woman who isn't seen anywhere else in the film. Honestly, that's all you really need to know, and since I couldn't find a proper trailer I have included it instead. This is exactly how it is presented in the film, and it is never referred to again.

Most of the actors in the film are unrecognizable and would never be seen again (though the guy playing Tommy had some bit parts in action flicks like Cliffhanger), but Gramps is played by Hy Pyke, who played the bar owner in Blade Runner and the bus driver in '70s weirdo fave Lemora. He seems to be the only one who is aware of what kind of nonsense he is in, and gives 110% manic eyeball energy to all of his scenes. It's a shame he's not onscreen more often (most of the focus is on the three siblings), but man, when he appears you know you're in for a treat. I particularly like that he seemingly drives around town with a truck bed full of pumpkins at all times, and began imagining how bummed out he must be when they're not in season.

Basically it was a perfect movie for this particular Halloween, where joy is in short supply and watching the standards (i.e. the Halloween movies) just kind of bum me out because normally I'd be seeing them at screenings with friends. Here the holiday is almost incidental to everything; the town's big party is only seen near the end and looks about as populated as the makeshift gathering at the mine's cafeteria in My Bloody Valentine, and the decor is pretty much limited to Gramps' pumpkins. There was just enough random weirdness to keep me engaged, the innocently bad acting (particularly a guy named, yes, Brian!) was sublime, and apart from the killer's identity I can honestly say I could never tell where the movie was going, right until the very end which throws in a twist that makes no sense whatsoever. Bless. If you're a Shudder subscriber, you can watch it now (or maybe you already did with Joe Bob interrupting it) and I highly recommend that you do if you're a fan of such awkward fare.

What say you?


Down (2019)

OCTOBER 23, 2020


I usually stay on top of reading my Fangoria issues when they arrive (though they take me a week or two as I've never been able to just sit down with a magazine - I have to read it in chunks in between doing other things), but somehow I missed issue #2 of the relaunch, which means it is now almost two years old. But it's proof that such things do not have to be disposable, because a brief piece on Down reminded me that A. there were a lot of "Into the Dark" movies for me to watch still and B. this one in particular sounded up my alley, a survival thriller kind of thing with two people stuck in an elevator.

Plus it was directed by Daniel Stamm, who directed the first Last Exorcism (the good one) and thus was someone who could be trusted to deliver a solid genre film despite a visual handicap. In that film it was the found footage gimmick, but here he was even more restrained, as it took place almost entirely within an elevator. The film Devil (which was incidentally in theaters only a few weeks after Last Exorcism) also had an elevator plot, but it split its time between the people trapped and the people trying to get them out/figure out why it stopped in the first place - there are no such heroes here until the final 15 minutes, and the two protagonists get IN the elevator only a few minutes into the runtime, leaving Stamm with a solid hour where the camera only occasionally leaves the 10x5 space for brief cutaways to show the empty lobby or security office.

Unsurprisingly, it's that hour where the film shines brightest. Our two leads, Jen (Natalie Martinez) and Guy (Matt Lauria), are strangers when they start their long descent from their high rise (Trump Tower in fact*) down to the below ground parking garage levels (where they have no cell service, naturally), but when the elevator stops they get to know each other pretty quick. At first they make small talk (Guy with some painful jokes about the situation), then they try to figure out a way out, and when their meager efforts prove fruitless, sit down, crack the wine Guy happened to have (a gift from a client), and begin openly flirting. If you consider it a spoiler to say they eventually start having sex, I have to question why you're choosing Down to be the first movie you ever watched.

But then (and this is a legit spoiler I guess so you might want to back out) almost immediately after they finish their lovemaking Jen says something about how they will go back to their normal lives once they get out (i.e. she plans to reunite with her on/off boyfriend), prompting Guy to snap. At first it just seems like aggro nonsense coming from an emotionally fragile man, but then - sigh - he reveals that their "meeting" and subsequent situation was no accident, he planned it to get to know her after building up an obsession with her thanks to his job as a security guard (not an "upper floor" guy, as he claimed) where he became increasingly frustrated that he was invisible to her.

If that sounds familiar, it should, because yeah, the movie just suddenly turns into P2 out of nowhere. Even if it wasn't particularly "horror", I was kind of into the movie running through a normal relationship (they meet, they get to know each other, they bond, they bang, they fight, they break up) within the confines of an elevator, with the tension coming from just being stuck there. Even when he started freaking out that she didn't intend it to be any more than a fling, I was still engaged by the quirky premise. But as soon as we start getting flashbacks about how he made the elevator stop and is a stalker, I just totally checked out. I've seen that movie already, and it was more exciting and had better use of its holiday setting (all the Into the Darks have some flimsy tie to a holiday; this one was Valentine's Day).

Plus then it just becomes the umpteenth "psycho tries to kill a woman he's obsessed with" movie, instead of allowing both characters to be flawed. Jen does come off as kind of insensitive by not even waiting for Guy to put his clothes back on before announcing she's still hoping to reunite with her (seemingly jerky) ex, despite the two of them building up (if racing through) a connection, but with the reveal this just paints everything in dull black and white. Worse, somewhere around here is when the film's already hokey plot becomes less believable, as we learn they've been in there for 36 hours. The whole reason people don't often do realtime movies is because it paints them into a corner with regards to locations and visual interest, two things that weren't an issue here anyway (Stamm does indeed give the film some visual flair, and the lighting in the elevator changes at a certain point for good measure), so why they stretched the plot out to a day and a half is totally beyond me. Not only does it introduce more questions about how they're functioning (they have a tiny bottle of water and the wine, both of which they seemingly polish off in the first few hours - and then they orgasm!) but also: how long was his security guard shift supposed to last that no one comes by until the very end? He says something about taking someone's shift, but unless these people work 12 hour solo shifts with no break, it doesn't work.

Anyway, the movie just gives up on itself from there on - they leave the elevator, and then the building entirely, losing everything that made it interesting in the process. Lauria's psycho is pretty one note (he's bizarrely given a sob back story after he's already been slapping her around, as if they were trying to momentarily reclaim the equal footing - she even seems sympathetic for a few moments as he tells it!) and Martinez' Jen isn't exactly ready to join Ginny Field and Ellen Ripley in the horror icon hall of fame. The "stuck in an elevator" hook was making up for those generic characterizations, so once they don't even have that anymore I don't know how anyone could be expected to care much about the proceedings. There's a solid death when a would be rescuer is caught between floors, but it's the same sort of thing - I can see (and have seen) that in other movies - I'm here for the confined thriller aesthetics! And they were pulling it off for a while!

Ultimately it's like they lost faith in their own premise or something. Even the boring stalker stuff could have been a misstep instead of a fatal flaw if they stuck the landing, but once they leave the building I just threw my hands up. You're gonna have a "psycho trapped in an elevator" movie and NOT have the hero push him into the empty shaft and let him get crushed by it? That'd be like if Die Hard ended with John shooting Hans in the valley somewhere. Stick to your premise, movie!

What say you?

*There's no overt mention of Trump in the film, but I like how this setting actually helps explain a plot hole. As a felon, Guy wouldn't be hired by anyone to be a security guard... but given that he's also a sex pest, it kind of tracks that Trump folk would pull some strings and enable him.


Monstrum (2018)

OCTOBER 22, 2020


It's a shame that The Great Wall was overshadowed by people complaining about Matt Damon starring in it, claiming the role should have gone to an Asian actor (if they bothered to wait and see the movie first, they'd know the film's plot was about an outsider the rest of the cast didn't trust, so it was kind of the point), because it was actually rather enjoyable save for the dodgy FX. Luckily for everyone, Monstrum hits a number of the same "action + monster in a historical setting" beats but without Jason Bourne or any other white guy around to bother them, and hey, the monster looks better too! Everyone wins. Except Matt Damon, I guess, poor sod.

It's one of those movies that makes me glad I ponied up for a Shudder sub a while back, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish I saw it at the CGV Cinema here in LA if if played there. And it'd be weird if it didn't, since it was a big budget Korean film that has been their bread and butter for as long as I've attended (they also throw in some American films with Korean subs), which means I need to pay more attention to its listings once theaters are safe again. I was thinking the monster was something lion-sized, but it was a proper giant monster that could swallow a man whole and swat away a few of them with one paw, i.e. the sort of thing that would not only be better represented on a similarly oversized screen, but also benefit from a crowd cheering as it wiped out some of the traitorous jerks that tried to murder our heroes.

Perhaps I was thinking "lion" because it actually shared some similarities to Brotherhood of the Wolf? The plot is about a monster that's eating people in the countryside, but it's actually a more complicated issue involving political machinations, not unlike that underrated 2001 film. Weirdly (though this may be a translation error, or just me missing a line somewhere), the plot is seemingly about a conniving cabinet member who is trying to overthrow their king and take the throne for himself, who "invents" the Monstrum story as a distraction for his own murderous shenanigans, and for a while you're legit unsure if there really is a monster or not. But there is, so... he made up a story and it turned out to be true? It's a bit odd.

But who cares? Giant monster! The big guy makes his grand entrance around the 40-45 minute mark, inadvertently saving our heroes from the bad guy's henchmen. The film actually gives us a pretty even mix of giant monster action and normal martial arts/swordplay stuff between the two warring factions, and sometimes we get both at once! Not all of the FX work is top notch, but it's mostly pretty good, and they seem to have some kind of practical element for a few closeups, so no harm no foul. And it stays the same size! So many CGI creatures seem to change size depending on the scene, but it's pretty consistent to my eyes.

It also gives us a solid group to care for. Our hero (Kim Myung-min) is a former guard who was exiled for saving a child from execution (her mother and everyone else around was believed to be carrying the plague), called back into action because he was the best the king ever knew and also knew he could be trusted, and he is joined by his now grown "daughter" and his right hand man (he refers to him as brother but I think it's honorary?). This information is given to us via flashback; when we meet the trio they are barely surviving due to the men being unable to hunt properly, leading the girl to think they're just incompetent - she actually laughs when someone comes to call them into action again. The look on her face when she discovers that they really are pretty capable fighters is a great moment, and they continue to impress throughout (there's a silent neck break moment near the end that's way more badass than anything John Wick did in his last adventure). And Parasite's Choi Woo-shik is fun as a page who accompanies them, due in part to his crush on the daughter. But that stuff never really takes center stage, thankfully; I was dreading an Armageddon style ending where Kim's character sacrifices himself so the two young lovers would be able to live happily ever after, but no - they stay focused on the main plot.

The only thing I didn't like were its occasional video game-esque fight scenes, where the camera zooms in and out of the action and pans around to showcase a different fighter without cutting. It honestly just looks like those canned animations you get in games like Arkham City or Assassin's Creed, where if you pull off a proper combo it gives you a more cinematic animation before returning to the gameplay, except far less engaging because it's a movie, not a game. The only good thing about those in games is a quick break from having to worry about being hit since you'll be invulnerable for the second or two - it's otherwise just distracting, and that's all it is here. I'm sure the actors are capable fighters (or at least, the anonymous stunt guys they're fighting are) but these moments make them look like cartoons. Also not a fan of the strobe-y slo-mo during a few of the attacks, but they are thankfully quick.

I've said on many occasions that Korean films tend to be more in line with my sensibilities than other countries with healthy genre output (certainly when compared to other Asian countries, at least), and this is no exception. It's nothing I'd need to watch a million times, but it's a solid adventure with a great monster, likable and interesting characters, and a genuine plot that kept me intrigued in between the carnage. What more can I ask, besides the director not making it look like a PS3 cutscene on occasion? Not much!

What say you?


Son of Dracula (1943)

OCTOBER 21, 2020


I don't know how I missed Son of Dracula when I was going through the Universal Monster sets in 2007/2008; I thought I was being pretty methodical to make sure I didn't miss anything, but when I "rewatched" it two months ago (I was building a Lego haunted house and had the Uni films as more or less background noise) I realized I had never actually seen it before. So I made a note to give it a proper viewing before Halloween, and here I am to make good on that promise! No Lego distractions, I watched the whole thing dutifully!

Ironically it had no bearing on what passes for "continuity" in these things, because it was seemingly so confusing to whoever picked up the torch next (House of Frankenstein, I believe) that it was ignored. The title suggests that this Dracula (Lon Chaney Jr!) is the son of the Bela Lugosi one, as Dracula's Daughter was, but he never says he was, and at one point just says he is in fact just Dracula (he uses the name Alucard, lol). Weirder still, a supporting character reads a book about Dracula, and we assume this means a historical account of Bela's character, or maybe even Vlad the Impaler or whatever, but then they show a section of it and it's simply Bram Stoker's novel, putting this in another universe entirely. So who knows if/where it fits with the others.

Luckily it's pretty good on its own, if a bit awkwardly presented as a sequel to a movie we haven't seen. A woman named Kay is supposed to be married to Frank, but she is suddenly very distant and fascinated by the occult after returning from a trip to Hungary, even bringing a gypsy woman along with her. She is also quite anxious to be visited by Count Alucard, whom she met there and - obvious to everyone but poor Frank - is clearly in love with him. All of that sounds like an interesting movie, but it all happened before the credits and has to be explained by awkward dialogue that sounds like recap more than natural conversation (it'd be like starting the standard Dracula when he arrives in London and having to explain everything about who he is, Harker and Lucy, etc). Maybe if it was the standard Bela version showing up after all that buildup it'd be a little less clumsy?

Anyway, once he arrives it's all good. Alucard causes Kay's dad to have a heart attack, allowing them to inherit his plantation for whatever it is they plan to do, and they also get married by a JP in the middle of the night for good measure. A heartbroken Frank tries to shoot Alucard, but the bullets pass through him and hit Kay instead, seemingly killing her, driving him even more insane, the poor sod. But then Kay appears to him in jail and his doctor pals realize Alucard is actually Dracula (one of them even writes "ALUCARD" in the most awkward way possible just to tilt the paper a bit and recognize the reverse spelling), so it becomes the usual race to stop him before sunset and all that.

It's nothing particularly exciting, but Cheney's pretty chatty and plays him like a smarmy southern gentleman, which is... a choice! Folks are probably still arguing about whether or not it's acceptable, but I can appreciate him making the role his own (especially if it is indeed a different universe altogether from the 1931 version) and he seems to be enjoying playing a full on villain after the more tragic Larry Talbot. And I had to feel for poor Frank, the guy who got cucked by vampire of all things and then (spoiler for 75 year old movie ahead) had to immolate the love of his life to prevent her from becoming another monster like Dracula. Most Uni movies end on a more uplifting note, but this one basically ends on Frank's shattered face, making it feel like no victory whatsoever. Maybe we can thank this for the similar finale of Cult of the Cobra a decade later?

Weirdly, Kay has a sister named Claire (Evelyn Ankers) who just kind of disappears from the movie after a while, even though it seems she might be pretty interested in finding out why her sister started acting so weird. At the very least you'd think they'd throw her into the finale to be rescued by Frank or the doctors, but nope - she visits Frank in jail for a minute and walks away still thinking he's nuts, and I think that's her only appearance in the film's final 25 minutes or so. Then again maybe they thought it'd be too much depression for the finale; she loses her entire family over the course of the movie so perhaps TWO devastated people as it fades to credits might have been pushing it.

One thing about the movie we can all agree on is that the transformation FX are pretty great for their time. Alucard gets around either as mist or a bat, and we see him change into both (and back) during the film's slightly overlong (again, for its time) 80 minutes. They were done by John P. Fulton, who also figured out a lot of great stuff for the Invisible Man films and later went on to work with Hitchcock on a number of his classics - kind of an unsung hero, I think (in fact he went uncredited on many of the monster films, including this one). The thing about these movies is that they are, admittedly, very talky and without much traditional horror stuff, which is why I won't bother trying to get my son to watch them (if I was going to introduce him to Dracula before ten, it'd probably be Monster Squad or, just for my own amusement, Dracula 2000), but I can see him being freaked out by these shots at least. They still work!

It's a shame Universal didn't bother with any bonus features for the majority of the sequels in these franchises (Bride of Frankenstein being one obvious exception); these are the films that could really benefit from the historian commentaries you always get on Scream Factory's releases of such fare. Why was Cheney in the movie instead of Bela, who was still under contract? Who decided to change it to a contemporary setting (and in America to boot instead of the usual vague European locale)? How did they pull off those FX? You'd have all those answers if this was on one of SF's Universal Horror Collection sets, but here we just get a beat up trailer. Considering how much of this set is actually repeated (you get three copies of House of Dracula inside of it, for example) it almost feels like a bait and switch at times. The transfers are terrific, yes, but never ever pay full price for the boxed set, especially if you aren't a fan of this or that monster and/or already have some of the existing Legacy collections.

What say you?


Tremors: Shrieker Island (2020)

OCTOBER 20, 2020


I more or less enjoyed the first three Tremors sequels, but not enough to race to see the subsequent followups (Bloodlines and A Cold Day In Hell) when Universal relaunched the property about five years back. And normally I try not to skip entries of a franchise when reviewing, but I was offered a code for the newest movie Tremors: Shrieker Island and figured I could make an exception since I knew from experience that it wouldn't be like I'd be trying to follow Saw-level continuity. I looked at the Wiki entries for those two I missed (or, more accurately, didn't see) and got the basic gist of them, and from what I can tell the only character here that was in any prior entry was, of course, Michael Gross' Burt Gummer, who has been the only consistent presence for the series and thus I already knew plenty about him.

Except, I guess, why he is given a Tom Hanks in Cast Away appearance (long white beard, practically nude) and living on an island in solitude when we first meet him here, though it doesn't matter much since he shaves and gets clothes in his next scene, returning him to status quo. But it takes a while to get to him, as it starts with a group of "weekend warrior" (Silicon Valley rich guys) on a hunt led by Richard Brake, whose casting informs us that the character will be a human antagonist at some point. If I'm understanding, people pay him to lead them on a graboid hunt (one seemingly requiring Thailand locals as bait to lure the monsters to where the hunters have set up their guns, a subplot of zero consequence after this opening scene), and in the spirit of Jurassic World he's started genetically modifying them to make the hunts more exciting. Some science types nearby find out what he's up to and worry that his monsters will start breeding and spread, so naturally they call the only person that can stop them: Valentine McKee. Wait, no. Earl Bassett. No, that's not right either...

OK, obviously they call Burt, but to the movie's credit Val and Earl are given a mention when Burt opts to steal their move and lure one to a cliffside so it can plummet to its death. The folks behind Tremors 3 seemed to recognized that maybe people wanted more than just one character to return (Tremors 4, being a prequel, didn't have the luxury), but it seems that these new entries are content with just bringing back Michael Gross, who continues giving 110% even though he's now in his 70s and probably not to keen to be running around in jungles and getting orange goo splattered all over him. However, they also apparently didn't bother bringing back anyone from those other two entries, which is fine for me since I didn't see them anyway, but probably annoying to series fans who might want a little more connective tissue between films (apparently Val's daughter was in the last one - why not bring her along?). Being DTV entries the budget for monster action isn't exactly plentiful, so it seems the least Universal can do is bring back this or that character (along with Burt) to make up for the fact that you practically never see the damn graboids, with the "ground breaks upward in a line" move doing 95% of the heavy lifting.

But in a way, they also brought back Jamie Kennedy's Travis character from the last two films, in the form of a "new" character, Jimmy, played by Jon Heder. I say "new" because... it's clearly just Travis. Jamie Kennedy posted a picture of the script being sent to him along with his announcement that he wasn't returning, so obviously they were planning on having him return, but they clearly didn't spend a lot of time rewriting once they learned he wouldn't be coming back. Because not only do they look similar (as if they possibly already had the wardrobe bought and needed someone the same size) but Burt has a strangely quick camaraderie with him after they meet, and risks his life more than once to save the dummy, i.e. like a guy protecting his hapless son instead of some rando. And it stretches beyond that; Jimmy is introduced hungover and botching a scientific field experiment, something his boss Jas (Caroline Langrishe) seems oddly OK with, even offering him some coffee to help with his hangover. This had me thinking the woman was perhaps Jimmy's mother, only to find out later that the character was actually *Travis'* mother! And to be clear, I didn't know anything about the late casting requirement until after I watched the movie and looked into it - it's just how blatantly obvious it is.

Honestly I don't know why they didn't just say it was the son character and recast; it's not like they'd be the first movie to replace an actor, and for my money it's far less bothersome than saying it's a new character and using him in the exact same way (shades of George Hamilton (technically not) playing Robert Duvall's role in Godfather III, or Jason Patric's character in Speed 2 *just happening* to have the same job/boss as Keanu). Travis is said to be in a Mexican jail for bringing some peyote over the border, which along with Jimmy having to introduce himself to his not-father seems to be the only effort they spent establishing the difference between the two people. Travis' own mother doesn't seem too concerned about him being in jail either, yet is often motherly with Jimmy, which just makes it even clearer how little time was spent reworking the script once Kennedy backed out.

Anyway, Gummer is called back into action, at which point the whole "Shrieker Island" concept is largely forgotten, with the hunters just being some randos that get wiped out almost all at once (per the wiki, the film is supposed to be a take on Most Dangerous Game! Perhaps it was at one point and it got rewritten to the point of being irrelevant?). The only one of the group who leaves any kind of impression (beyond Brake) is Cassie Clare as Anna, Brake's right hand who is dressed as Lara Croft for some reason and clearly the most competent person besides Burt. She's the only one who ever stands up to Brake's sliminess and (big surprise) ultimately breaks rank to help Burt and the others, proving handy with her bow and arrow and such (though, like just about everyone else, doesn't really get much to do when it comes to direct graboid action). Weirdly, Brake's villainy is basically limited to shutting down communications, leaving Burt and the science types unable to call for help; after being introduced as a major player he's largely resigned to being more of an extra headache that Burt and co. occasionally have to deal with. Odder still, he's out of the movie with like a half hour left on top of it, in a very abrupt (it seems to be missing the first half of the scene, in fact) and unsatisfying manner. It's Billy Drago in Tremors 4 all over again!

In fact, it almost feels like they meshed two scripts together; one about Burt and his son helping some scientist types, and the other about a group of hunters ending up uncovering monsters instead of whatever normal game they planned to go up against, with one (Brake) going nuts while the other (Anna) takes charge and tries to save the amateurs. And I use the generic "monsters" because there's something else "off" about the scenes with Brake and his crew - they're very un-Tremors like, as if that script wasn't intended to be a franchise entry. There's no humor or levity at all, the characters are all joyless, and their interactions with Burt and his pals are so limited they might as well have been written on the same napkin they used to create "Jimmy". And it's not helped by the direction of Don Michael Paul (whose entire career for the past decade has been DTV Universal sequels, including the previous two Tremors), who films/cuts everything as if it was some Michael Bay-lite adventure film. The jungle setting is different, but rarely used for anything of note, especially since the graboids appear so intermittently (though the FX aren't too bad when they do appear though, so I'll give them some props for that).

Don't get me wrong - it's a perfectly watchable (if a bit long) movie, and I wasn't exactly expecting a masterpiece out of Tremors 7, but there was a bit too much of a "going through the motions" vibe to it, and I can't help but think that feeling will be intensified for the people who have watched the previous ones. I watched Tremors 4 in 2009, so apart from a drive-in screening of the original over the summer (one I missed two big chunks of due to the bathroom line and my beer-filled bladder) I haven't seen any Graboid fare in over a decade - why am I getting so much deja vu? There's a fun chunk in the middle somewhere where the heroes find themselves with no conventional/modern weapons and have to make do with what they find in an old bunker, and at that point I could feel myself getting into it, but then they set off an explosion, killing a graboid we don't ever actually see, and my interest waned again. And without spoiling the particulars, I can't imagine any longtime fan of the series will be thrilled with what seems like Tremors 8 will have to deal with, so I can't help but wonder if they should have left it alone, or at least let Burt sit the movie out entirely and let people who didn't know exactly what a Graboid was (and in turn how to kill it) find their own ways of surviving, like a soft reset. Or, you know, just gone ahead and went with the TV series that would have brought Kevin Bacon back. Still not sure how they bungled that one. Instead they made... this. A movie I'm already having trouble remembering a few hours later. Oh well.

What say you?

* From what I understand thanks to the wiki of Tremors 5, it was suggested there that Travis was the result of a one night stand, but here Burt and Jas seem to have had a genuine relationship, so I'm not sure if that's a retcon or just an assumption on the Wiki writer. Either way, it just adds to the problem with Kennedy's absence, as it's clearly supposed to be a "hey the whole family is together for the first time" kinda deal.


Love And Monsters (2020)

OCTOBER 19, 2020


I swore off watching new movies at the drive-in a while back, but after having good experiences at Beyond Fest for Synchronic and Freaky, I figured I'd downgrade my ban to a case by case basis. Based on its trailer, Love And Monsters seemed to check all my boxes: it was a action/adventure-y kind of genre movie, not a moody and atmospheric one, so the occasional distraction wouldn't be as much of an issue, and (more importantly?) it seemed to take place mostly outdoors during the day, which meant I'd actually be able to see what was going on. Not sure why drive-in screens seem to be so murky, but occasionally I peek over at other screens and it's been enough evidence to know I shouldn't waste my time and money seeing that particular film there (New Mutants is a recent example; I watched a few seconds on my way back from the bathroom one night and I couldn't tell if I was looking at Anya Taylor Joy or Maisie Williams).

Plus the movie seemed like something designed for the biggest screen possible, and alas here in Los Angeles that remains the drive-in, because we have too many very stupid and selfish people around here for theaters to even be able to reopen for those private screenings (the only thing I'd consider until there's a vaccine). And it just looked FUN, something that's in short supply these days, making it kind of an ideal choice for an outing (I also had some delicious take-out pasta while I watched, as a bonus!). Dylan O'Brien from the Maze Runner movies plays Joel, an artist who explains the film's backstory in the opening sequence - a meteor heading for Earth was destroyed by thousands of missiles being fired at it, but particles from those missiles and the meteor came back down and created lots and lots of monsters. 95% of the population was wiped out and everyone lives in underground bunkers, trying to survive.

Naturally, he doesn't spend the whole movie in the bunker. When he discovers his girlfriend is at a colony only 80 miles away, he - being the only single person in a bunker full of couples - decides to trek there on the dangerous surface, despite the fact that he's pretty much useless when it comes to fighting monsters (he panics, he can't shoot, etc.). But come on, even though in reality it seems he'll be killed instantly, it's a PG-13 studio movie - of course he will survive, get to his destination, become a better monster fighter, man up a little, etc. There aren't exactly any surprises in the narrative; the appeal of the movie is O'Brien's charming performance (especially when he's paired with Boy, a dog he finds along the way), the occasional big action scenes, and the message of how to live in a dangerous world because there's still a lot of beauty in it.

Oh, and the monsters. The monsters! There are several different ones in the movie; in fact I'm not sure if they ever bring one back - seems like they're more keen on introducing new ones instead of focusing on a "nemesis" type one that will keep resurfacing. Most of them are of the "giant ______" variety (frog, crab, jellyfish) but there are some full on "wtf" types as well, and even the giant (thing) ones have mutations that keep the monstrous/scary element in play. In some ways it reminded me of the creature design in Final Fantasy games, where they start with something innocuous like a snail, then make it bigger and add some crazy stuff to it. And there are even a couple of benevolent ones, so that added to the fun because sometimes they would get ready to fight or run and it wouldn't be necessary (also, it just makes more sense - why would a grasshopper turn into a meat (human) eater?).

Even more fun is that a lot of these things are taught to Joel/us by Michael Rooker, playing a survivor Joel meets along the way. Rooker and a little girl named Minnow are heading for a snowy mountain, where the monsters won't bother going (no monster polar bears I guess), and their path crosses with Joel's long enough for them to teach him some basic survival skills, impart a bit of wisdom, and then exit the movie, leaving us wishing they were in it more. After 30 years of watching him play mostly antagonists, I felt conditioned to think he'd be a standard "evil human" in a post-apocalyptic movie, but nope! He's just a genuinely good dude, and I wish he was around longer (to be clear, and I hope you forgive the spoiler - he doesn't die. He's just not going to the same place so we stick with Joel) for us to enjoy the novelty. In fact, that's twice this year (after Fantasy Island, oof) that he's played a guy living outside the system and stops by long enough to help our heroes. I like this new tradition! More hero Rooker, pls.

There's another thing I really, REALLY loved, but I don't know if it qualifies as a spoiler so skip this next paragraph if you want to enjoy it fresh.

For those still here, there's a robot called MAV1S that Joel finds along the way; it looks like a standard Jetsons-y kinda robot but it functions as a sort of Google assistant, showing Joel a map of how much further he has to go, scrolling up pictures of his family, etc. But it's also almost dead and only has a few minutes of battery left, which it spends playing music for Joel to relax to. Her (not his) choice is "Stand By Me", which seems like just a whatever choice - something familiar (the soundtrack as a whole is surprisingly stacked with recognizable but not overplayed tunes - no "Walking on Sunshine" thankfully) and appropriately hopeful. But it's ALSO foreshadowing a scene that occurs five minutes later when Joel has to wade into a river and starts feeling some minor discomfort. He gets to the shore and removes his shirt, discovering that he's covered with leeches - mimicking a famous scene in the film Stand By Me! The song was priming us to know exactly what was happening to Joel before he did! I love that kind of thing.

Basically it's just a breezy, charming adventure movie, the sort of thing folks can really use right now, with lots of great creature designs to enjoy as a bonus (two for two for co-writer Bryan Duffield, who gave us Underwater earlier this year). It's kid appropriate too; even though O'Brien is like 25 he comes off as a late teen for the most part, so younger types will probably still identify with him. I wouldn't have minded a little more action (Rooker's section is mostly talk, alas - after his introduction, saving Joel from imminent death, I don't think he draws his weapon again) but since the tradeoff appears to be more money spent on making the creatures look good, it's certainly forgivable. It's on VOD already, but if you have a drive-in (or have/can afford the private theaters in those select areas) I think it's worth seeing big, if only for the much needed escapism.

What say you?

P.S. It was paired with Alone, which the drive-in website displayed with a poster for the John Hyams thriller (i.e. something I am interested in, even if it definitely would have been hard to see at the drive-in) but it turned out to be a different Alone, which is another version of #Alive (I guess Alone was technically made first, but released second). #Alive was fine, but I didn't need to see another version of it (with only a few surface level changes) a month later, so I didn't have much use for it beyond getting my admission money's worth. Donald Sutherland played the old man neighbor and he was quite good, but otherwise my verdict is that if you absolutely must watch one of these nearly identical movies, #Alive is the better option. They even have an English dub on Netflix so you can't use the language barrier excuse.


Demon Seed (1977)

OCTOBER 16, 2020


Believe it or not, Demon Seed was the first Dean Koontz book I ever owned (why wouldn't you believe it though? It's a very bland fact), though naturally I've never read it. I've only read a handful of Koontz's stuff over the years; in fact, The Funhouse, Intensity, and Twilight Eyes might actually be it. I got nothing against him really, but if I'm in the mood for a horror novel I'm going to gravitate to King or Barker, and that'll take me months so I'll want a different genre, and by the time I want horror again I'll still be looking to those guys (or trashy Paperbacks from Hell kinda stuff). So my man's just a victim of my slow reading habit than anything else.

Now, usually when I see a movie based on a book I own I'll race through it or at least flip around on key moments to see how it compared to the film, but in this case it'd be a pointless exercise because Koontz rewrote the damn thing in 1997, and that's the version I have. Apparently he cringed upon reading the version that was deemed good enough to become a big movie starring an Academy Award winner (a fairly choosy one, in fact - star Julie Christie turned down tons of movies in her prime), so he removed some of its more risque elements and rewrote it to be entirely from the POV of the villainous super computer, Proteus, instead of the dual perspectives that the original version had (the computer's and the Christie character's). I ordered a copy from thriftbooks so I can check it out at some point soon and write it up (vague hint to upcoming project!), but alas for this review I'll only have the movie to go by.

And it's... not bad! Dated as all hell of course, but in a way that's part of what makes it interesting. In this bygone time of 1977, the idea of a computer running all aspects of a house (unlocking the doors, dimming lights, playing music, etc.) was as fantastical as the same year's Star Wars, but now, 43 years later, it's basically just Alexa or Siri connected to your other smart devices. Christie's Susan is a woman whose husband (Fritz Weaver) is in the process of moving out as their marriage crumbled after the death of their child from leukemia, and as he is a robot scientist type he has equipped their house with "Alfred", possibly named after Batman's butler and of equal benevolence and usefulness. She's pretty OK with it at first, but distrusts it - and has her fears confirmed when a more sophisticated version (Proteus) that Weaver is developing in his super lab manages to take control of Alfred and proceeds to lock her in the house, demanding... a child.

Yeah, ol' Proteus is using what it can around the house to develop a synthetic spermatozoa and create life with Susan, for what it merely sees as evolution. To her (and, I hope, everyone in the audience) it's simply rape, and while director Donald Cammell thankfully spares us most of the details (anyone who has seen his final film Wild Side can attest that he's hardly shy when it comes to such scenes) it's still icky as all hell. To keep her in line Proteus threatens a child Susan works with and even kills her friend (Gerrit Graham!) when he comes over to check on her and can tell she is acting out of sorts, but it also continues to make her tea and what not to keep her health up. The script is very vague when it comes to time passing; even with the sped up pregnancy (Proteus - voiced by Robert Vaughn for the record - says it'll only take 28 days) it sometimes seems like only a day or two has passed when it has been weeks, so while I appreciate Cammell not dwelling on the conception I wish he had spend a little more time making it clear how far along we were. Susan's mental state is also a bit hard to track; sometimes she seems more resigned than others, as opposed to a gradual decline.

Speaking of Graham, and spoiler for 43 year old movie ahead, his death in the movie is incredible, as Proteus transforms into something that looks like one of those "snake triangle" puzzles and wraps around him using the edges of its triangles to crush/decapitate him. But that's just a tradition for the actor, as he always seems to die pretty spectacularly in his genre films: his stair-driven demise in Child's Play 2 freaked me out (my stairs had similar spacing under them, so that was a "fun" couple months to my adolescent mind) and of course his Phantom of the Paradise electrocution is a frequently used GIF. Hell he even got killed by a robot again in Chopping Mall! He's like an early prototype of Sean Bean.

Part of what makes the movie interesting to watch now is that Proteus' two biggest displays of its power are from both ends of the political spectrum. Back in Weaver's lab (Weaver is totally unaware of his wife's plight for the majority of the film, having moved out), Proteus uses its advanced intelligence to shut down a drilling project of some sort, because it will kill a number of organic lifeforms in the process, making him come off as a liberally minded intelligence, putting environmental concerns over human profits. But at the same time he is denying a woman any say in what happens to her body, which as we know is seemingly the primary goal of a Republican. Watching this as the GOP races to confirm another Supreme Court justice that will aid them in their quest to make life a living hell for all women got me thinking of a full blown politically charged remake of the story, where a computer is fed all the real information but also misinformation from "post-truth" types and becomes insane simply from that.

Earlier I mentioned Paperbacks From Hell style books that I also read, and weirdly enough the most recent one (The Unborn, by David Shobin) was also about a super computer terrorizing a pregnant woman. The key difference is that her baby was formed the normal way, and the computer - named MEDIC, and connected to all hospitals to access all medical data and assist with diagnoses - became obsessed with her (more specifically the fetus) when she was connected to it during a sleep study. I have to assume Shobin read Koontz's novel and/or saw the movie, because there are a number of similarities, including the computer forcing the heroine to eat a strange diet that its advanced intelligence has concluded is ideal for a pregnant woman. It was actually a pretty good page-turner (a number of those PFHs are sadly pretty dull once you get past their alluring covers), and probably would have been an equally decent movie of its own.

Especially when you consider both of them were playing on what was then a completely unknown realm: computers! I read somewhere that Koontz's novel was criticized not so much for its silly plot but for the idea that someone could have a computer in their home - now it almost seems antiquated to have a traditional desktop as so many people just use their phones or a tablet device for all such needs (I, an old man dinosaur, still swear by them and in fact am writing this very review on one). And, again, everything Alfred does in the movie (before he's basically killed by Proteus) is more or less what we have Alexa doing now without even really thinking about it. Basically, I find it fascinating that a movie that was once considered too far fetched has elements that are dated; its characters were afraid of robots doing things that we now not only rely on, but in some ways find a bit obsolete. "Oh wow, it can turn on "the music"? Who cares! I can make my Echo Dot play specific radio edits of a Meat Loaf song!"

So yeah, it's kind of ridiculous, and the pacing is wonky, but I found it low-key fascinating despite all of that. I honestly can't wait to read the book, which is the first time I've ever felt that way about a Koontz (in some ways I'm even more excited since he found it so lacking that he wanted to rewrite it; also, for the historical record he also calls the movie good in his author's note in the revised version). I'm usually charmed by the outdated "in the future!" elements of older movies, but this one almost comes off as a cautionary tale about the past few years, one we've chosen to ignore. But it also has split diopter shots and a guy getting his head squeezed off, so it's kind of a total package.

What say you?


The Row (2018)

OCTOBER 15, 2020


If they could have just held out a few more months, Moviepass could have saved some face and blamed the pandemic for their bankruptcy and total shutdown of operations. Years from now it'll be a punchline on par with Qwikster and the Virtual Boy, but those of us who lived through it (I was an original member, from the days where we got printed vouchers to use instead of the debit card) might recall that at one point things were looking so bright for them that they helped finance a few movies. One of them was Gotti, which was the most high profile, but they also found time to toss a few bucks into The Row, a sorority slasher starring Randy Couture, a phrase that should already send up the red flags. If your high profile star for a sorority-set movie is a 55 year old bald man, you're doing something wrong and deserve to be a footnote in Moviepass' laughable history.

Sadly this is not a movie where the fighting legend has to don a disguise and join a sorority, because that would have at least been so awful/wrong on a conceptual level that the movie would inspire the same kind of ironic love that has benefited, well, Gotti. No, he's just the father of one of the sorority pledges, and also a cop on suspension after a botched drug bust left one of his fellow officers dead. The amount of time spent on this early sequence had me thinking that one of the drug dealers would turn slasher and go after his daughter (and her friends, of course) for revenge, but no - I think it was just added to give Couture some traditional action beats to play out. It certainly doesn't have any real bearing on the plot; his suspension means he has to do his investigation on the down low, but it barely affects anything. At one point his daughter even visits him at the station - imagine getting suspended but still going to your office!

As for the slasher stuff, the killer is naturally going after sorority girls, and seems to be making some kind of doll from their body parts, as the various girls are found without a leg or whatever. Couture's daughter, Riley (Lala Kent from Vanderpump Rules) finds one body during a hazing ritual, but is otherwise pretty disconnected from the killer's deeds, barely even knowing the victims (makes sense since she's a pledge). Instead she spends most of the movie trying to find out more about her mother, who was in that same sorority and later committed suicide. Whenever she grills Couture about it he clams up, and the house mother also looks troubled when Riley asks about her - COULD IT BE CONNECTED TO THE PRESENT DAY MURDERS?

Only the dimmest viewer could have any other theories, and you don't need to be much smarter to instantly identify the killer when he is introduced, because he's nice. Despite how obvious it is, they still do that thing where the killer is injured during one of his attacks and later the character has a cut in the same spot, yet the script by (who cares) still feels the need to wait another five minutes to actually have him come out and admit he's the murderer. There's some nonsense about an app (described as "Tinder but for greeks") that requires an invite, which pegs the app developer as a potential suspect because he was seen with some of the girls, but I can't imagine anyone ever believing it for a second. And that's the BEST of its attempts at subterfuge.

But the real problem isn't the easy mystery, because I've been able to quickly peg the murderer for several slashers I still enjoyed (Happy Death Day comes to mind, and the recent School Spirit) and the movie doesn't even try to come up with too many other possibilities anyway. No, the real issue is that it completely bungles the slasher element AND the setting, to the extent where it feels more like a serial killer thriller than a traditional slasher. So much time is spent on Couture looking at photographs and butting heads with other cops that we barely spend any time in the sorority house, and in turn/more importantly, its residents are also left by the wayside. There aren't a lot of kill scenes, but they're all pretty much the same - a girl comes home and gets killed fairly quickly. No chasing, no stalking, and worst of all, no other victims - at one point the killer waits until the guy leaves to make his move, which gives the film a misogynist slant that does it no favors. Unless he has a specific beef with each of his victims, there's no excuse to not have some collateral damage - not only does it curb the body count, it denies us the sight of a few dead frat guys in the process! But the killer here only really has an issue with Riley, and she doesn't even really know most of the girls he kills, so it makes no sense that he doesn't off a few bros as well.

So it's either a slasher without any good stalk scenes, a serial killer thriller without a pulse, or a mystery where most children could peg the killer. No matter what it's wholly unsatisfying, ugly to look at (perhaps it's because of Kent's presence that it often resembles an overly lit reality show?), and a waste of money Moviepass could have used to keep the lights on for another week or two. The most interesting thing about it is how many of its actors ("actors") have appeared in those terrible Bruce Willis VOD movies where he shows up for like five scenes because this shares some producers, which got me thinking that it's very possible he was offered Couture's role at one point. If so he probably balked at having to appear in more than two locations (if you watch any of that crap, take note of how Willis' scenes tend to keep him confined to one or two primary locations, because they usually only have him for a couple days and don't want to waste precious time shuttling him around). And sadly it wouldn't have even been the worst thing on his resume if he took the check.

The killer's mask is pretty cool though, I'll give it that much. Kind of ironic since he didn't need it.

What say you?


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