Army of the Dead (2021)

MAY 22, 2021


Having seen all of Zack Snyder's live action movies on the big screen (I STILL haven't seen the owl one), I was excited to learn that Army of the Dead, despite being a Netflix release, would be hitting theaters and thus helping me keep my streak alive. But then I saw the two and a half hour runtime, and started having mixed feelings about it. While the length isn't a dealbreaker on its own (even for zombie movies! My preferred cut of the original Dawn of the Dead is almost as long), it's a lot to ask to take four hours out of my life (with travel and trailers) to pay for something I am already technically paying for at home, making this an unusual situation. So I figured that, for one of the very few times in my life, I'd listen to reviews and make up my mind that way.

Since I watched it at home after all, so you can guess that the reviews I listened to weren't exactly raves. There were some, of course, but more than one (I only scanned a few, fearing spoilers and the like) mentioned that it was curiously low on action for such a long film, so I figured the big-budget spectacle I was primarily interested in seeing BIG wouldn't be as excessive as I hoped. Long story short, I think I'd be even more disappointed if I took the time and money to hit up a theater for it, so I opted to watch at home to give it a fairer shot. And for the first hour or so, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it; Snyder hasn't lost his ability to create a fantastic opening credits sequence, and I enjoyed the off-kilter group of characters that were assembled for the movie's big heist. "Maybe I should have gone to theaters after all!" I thought at one point. But, weirdly enough, when they actually get into the zombie-overrun Las Vegas the movie starts to falter, at a time when it should be really stepping up its game. For starters, the movie has a pretty sizable budget, but none of it went to really playing up its Sin City locale; the opening sequence (showing casinos being overrun, with Snyder's famous slo-mo depicting showgirl zombies attacking Liberace impersonators and the like) pretty much gives us all the Vegas-specific action we'll see, unless you count a "Here's how the heist will go" montage of quick shots (most of which are in the trailer) when they're making their plan, which shouldn't count since it's imaginary. Their target is a vault that's inside a casino/hotel, but once they get there it's pretty anonymous and could have just been a branch bank for all it matters. That great shot from the trailer of Dave Bautista mowing down zombies as he runs over card tables is part of what is a sadly pretty brief sequence, and before long they're in generic hallways and rooms again. Worse, Snyder (acting as his own DP) shoots most of the movie in closeup with tiny focus ranges, so there's not a lot of scope to the proceedings; it's so cramped that even when they ARE outside or in a casino or somewhere equally engaging, you can't really make too much of it out.

And this strange choice ended up kind of crippling the movie for me ultimately, because if a Zack Snyder movie isn't wowing you with its visuals, what is it offering? It certainly isn't its character development; Bautista is great but he's playing an incredibly generic "tough guy with regrets" that was actually done better with noted non tough guy Jake Weber in the Dawn remake, and the role is almost distractingly cobbled together from a few Bruce Willis characters (John McClane in the last two Die Hards, Harry Stamper in Armageddon...), so he never really shines as a memorable character of his own. Snyder and his two (credited) writers steal the rest from Aliens, in particular Vasquez and Burke, the latter of whom is played here by Garret Dillahunt, who (spoiler) is the victim of the movie's much ballyhooed zombie tiger. How is this not even the best movie where Garret Dillahunt is eaten by a tiger?

The human villain plot, so obligatory in these things, never makes a lot of sense, either. Bautista is hired by casino owner Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, completely wasted) to enter the city and retrieve the money from his vault before the city is nuked (somehow the zombie infection is limited to just Vegas - they walled the city up, Escape from New York style, but uh... how did they do it so quickly before any zombies got out? We have to buy that no one was bitten and fleed when the outbreak first began?), and that would have been enough. But it turns out Tanaka doesn't care about the money, and just wants a team of hardasses to create a diversion so that Dillahunt can obtain an "Alpha" zombie head, because some of them are special and naturally, they can be used to make weapons. Why he couldn't just say this was his plan in the first place is beyond me (they're guns for hire and knew they'd have to encounter zombies anyway, and with the nuke coming, it seems they could make it easier for themselves without having to waste time planning a heist), but since it makes the central heist a complete Macguffin, it leaves the movie inert as well. It would have made more sense if Tanaka truly did want the money and Dillahunt's character was merely going rogue. Plus no one seems to care that they were being used, nor do they encounter Tanaka again, so it's a very weightless storyline.

Snyder also tosses in a bunch of nonsense that may or may not pan out in planned sequels, prequels, anime series, and who knows what else. There's some stuff with aliens (the original zombie that starts the outbreak is being transferred in Area 51 territory), and even a bizarre suggestion of a timeloop when the team encounter a previous heist team that is dressed identically to them. Cool ideas to be sure, but without any satisfactory explanation or resolution here, it's merely frustrating - this is a movie, not the pilot of a TV show. And given the film's length, I simply cannot comprehend how no one involved could be bothered to point out something like "Hey Zack, this bit here where they say the zombies come back to life in the rain - it never rains in the movie, so it's moot. How about we cut it and make the movie a little shorter instead of giving it yet another go-nowhere plot point?" Likewise, they spend a bit of time early on with Bautista essentially ripping off his crewmates by lying to them about how much money they're being paid, offering each one a different amount - you'd think this would come back to bite him on the ass later, right? Nope. Never comes up, rendering it a waste of time. There's probably a solid two hour movie here, but it comes perilously close to completely falling apart due to the man's inability to tell a straightforward story anymore and use the power of editing to remove any plot threads that end up going nowhere (having watched his longer Justice League, I was a bit prepared for this, as he opted to shoot a completely new scene that sets up storylines he already knew he wasn't going to get to explore).

To be fair, it's possible some of these weird bits are due to having to digitally replace an actor who was accused of grooming underage girls after the movie was basically finished. Snyder cast the great Tig Notaro to replace the (male) actor, but with Covid running rampant he wasn't able to secure the other actors to reshoot the scenes properly (a la Ridley Scott with Kevin Spacey/Christopher Plummer). So Notaro is always in shots by herself (in an interview, Bautista said he still hasn't even actually met her), or noticeably inserted into wide shots, but I assume there are some shots they simply couldn't fix properly. This comes to a head in the climax, where a major character sits next to Notaro (a pilot) in the front of their escape helicopter and is never really seen again. This person motivates another's entire character arc and (spoiler) is seemingly killed when the chopper crashes, but their near total absence once they get on board is bizarre; I even rewound the sequence thinking I must have missed a quick shot of their death, but nope - there's a quick, blurry, and non-commital shot of their person in the front of the chopper after it crashes, but no indication of what happened to them (someone else survives being thrown from the chopper entirely, and another passenger is clearly impaled), so the only way to know they're dead is because they don't show up alive again. But Notaro had nothing to do with some of the other go-nowhere plot points, so there's only so much leeway I can extend in this department.

Problems like this kept piling up until I simply stopped caring, and that's a shame, because it started off so well. Again, the first act or so is solid, Notaro is hilarious (her first scene is an all timer in the annals of "I got a job for you" type conversations), there's a wonderful quick bonding between the cowardly safe cracker and the team's main tough guy (who has a zombie killing saw straight out of Dead Rising* that he sadly barely uses) that I found charming af, and the zombies themselves look pretty great (so does the tiger, for what it's worth, though as someone else pointed out, a non threatening animal would have been more fun, since regular tigers are scary anyway). It's not a "bad movie" in the usual sense; it's just a very frustrating one, because anyone with some basic editing skill could probably turn it into something tighter and thus better. Some movies are underbaked; this is one where they keep adding ingredients to what probably would have tasted just fine on its own.

What say you?

P.S. If you want to see the VFX and makeup teams doing their thing, there's a 30 minute making of available on Netflix along with the movie that I recommend. For whatever issues the movie had, its zombies were stellar and the featurette dives deep into how they were created. Also, we learn why half the movie is out of focus, so that's nice.

P.S.S. Comments are moderated, and I'm well aware that this filmmaker has very vocal fans who quickly resort to trolling whenever someone dares speak against their master. So if you plan to reply in a less-than-civil manner don't waste your time, it won't get through.

*Dead Rising 1 was set in a mall, as Snyder's first zombie movie was. Now his second one is set in Las Vegas, just like the 2nd Dead Rising game was. If this is intentional, I love it, and I hope he makes a third one in a hyper-realized Los Angeles.


Grizzly (1976)

MAY 19, 2021


When Severin announced they were releasing Day of the Animals and Grizzly on special edition Blu-ray, I was stoked for an excuse to watch them again. But as it turns out, I had never actually seen the latter film; in my head I had caught it at the New Beverly in the pre-HMAD days, but unless my memory is even worse than expected, I just combined my memories of Day of the Animals, Prophecy, and whatever else I caught before it was all documented (via this very site) to form some kind of recollection of seeing the film. What a delight to finally actually see it and discover it was better than my "memory"! I thought it was just OK, but no, it's pretty fun!

Now, longtime readers know I occasionally am convinced I didn't see something only to discover I did (in at least one case, I even reviewed it again), but I'm confident that this isn't another of those fried brain cell moments, because a. the lead actress in the movie kind of resembles my mother-in-law, which is the sort of thing that would stick out in my mind forever, and b. the movie has one of the most graphic child attacks this side of Assault on Precinct 13, as the titular bear grabs the kid, squeezes and snarls at him a bunch, and then tosses him to the side, somehow sans his leg even though the attack never suggested anything like that. He then eats the kid's mom for good measure, and while it's not "funny" per se, it's the kind of thing that would have sent the New Bev crowd into a fever pitch.

No, this was my virgin experience with William Girdler's infamous Jaws ripoff, and I was 100% delighted with it. Knowing exactly what I was in for probably helped, as did recently suffering through a pretty bad shark movie (Deep Blood), so it was like the movie gods wanted to set things right by sending this down with the message "THIS. THIS is how you rip off Jaws!" That said, I was kind of surprised that there was no town event; the "close the beaches" plot is pretty flimsy and doesn't even really seem to matter much, as the mayor simply doesn't want to close the park, but the bear is often attacking isolated people (and at one point, leaves the park entirely), so there's no potential smorgasboard or anything. At one point he attacks a camper who is near a bunch of others, but doesn't even bother going after the guy with her sitting a few feet away, let alone anyone else.

But what it lacks in that department, it makes up for in characters, as they are pretty much identical to their Jaws counterparts; hell, the "Hooper" standin (Scott, played by Richard Jaeckel) even wears the same outfit. Andrew Prine more or less fills Quint's role; he's mostly just the guy flying the chopper around while hero Christopher George (a ranger, not a sheriff - very different!) looks for the bear, but he's got some hunter skills and even has a little monologue about bears attacking a tribe of Indigenous people (he, naturally since this is 1976, uses the term "Indians"). They even ditch "Brody's wife" halfway through like Jaws did; George has a love interest played by Joan McCall, a photographer who wants to tag along when they head out into the oc- er, woods to find the bear, but George won't let her come along and that's pretty much that. She only appears in the background of another scene, a weird decision since they establish her as a bit of a take-no-shit woman, so you'd think she wouldn't listen to George and end up in danger anyway (or, if such a thing would fly in the '70s, saving the men/day), but nope. She listens to him and stays home, because that's what Mrs. Brody did and doing something else would mean coming up with new ideas. I love it!

It also has a much hungrier antagonist than Jaws; in fact I was kind of shocked to discover this was a PG movie, as it's pretty graphic at times and even has some brief nudity, which would suggest an R even in these more lenient times of the MPAA. I actually kind of get how Tobe Hooper and co. thought they could get a PG on Chain Saw, since this movie is gorier and has nearly double the body count and managed to score the softer rating. Oh, you wacky MPAA board! So don't be fooled by the PG into thinking that the big guy only gets a few kills; I think he racks up a total of nine in the movie, and they come along at a steady clip, so the movie is rarely dull. Apart from some of the romantic stuff between George and McCall (which is sweet in its way, kind of a precursor to the gold standard set in Alligator) the movie is either scenes of the bear attacking, scenes of our heroes looking for it, or scenes of George snarling at the mayor, who is occasionally reasonable but then switches gears in between lines. Like at one point George says he wants to close off half the park, and the guy is fine with it, but then ten seconds later they're screaming at each other about something else. As a fan of George (particularly his snarling), it offered a number of wonderful moments, particularly an "Up yours!" that got me wondering why that phrase went out of vogue.

Severin's Blu-ray is pretty packed, with two lengthy looks at the career of Girdler (who only made two more movies before he was killed in a chopper crash), two commentary tracks, and a handful of other interviews and archival featurettes (one of which seems to have been assembled for a previous DVD release). Of the two commentaries, the one with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson is the better; they offer the usual biographical info and some "state of cinema then" context along with good natured jabs at some of the movie's sillier moments (and naturally, elements lifted from Jaws), making it engaging and far from pretentious. The other track, by McCall and producer David Sheldon (the two are married) has a number of good anecdotes as well, but they also fall silent on occasion, and Sheldon frequently says he or the other producer actually directed this or that scene, which may be true but kind of feels disrespectful to Girdler at times. So if you only have time for one, stick with Howarth and Thompson's.

The other pieces are all enjoyable, particularly Stephen Thrower's look at Girdler's career as he walks through all of the films he made, spending equal time on each. The other one, with Girdler's longtime business partner, dwells on the earlier ones more then races through the others (Manitou is barely even mentioned at all) as the two of them were no longer working as closely in the latter part of the director's career. I should note if you go through this stuff you're going to hear about Girdler's death at least four times, so if you have a fear of flying this won't help in the slightest. One archival piece features some terrific behind the scenes footage of the crew working with the bear, so that one is definitely worth a look for anyone who thought it made have all been faked with stock footage or something.

Day of the Animals might be a slightly better movie thanks to its ensemble cast and varied antagonists, giving it a little more pizazz, but considering this one's mercenary origins and low budget, I found it to be better than expected. But it wasn't all smiles; as I watched the bonus features and kept seeing the same scenes over and over, I couldn't help but think how fun it would have been to see this sort of thing at the drive-in last summer when I was going all the time. Now that theaters are reopening there's really no need to keep driving all the way out there (especially since their programming has been fairly terrible for the last few months, holding the same movies there endlessly instead of changing it up), so I lament that Beyond Fest was the only outlet really taking advantage of the renewed interest in the venue with repertory programming. And even their selections weren't always exactly "drive-in" fare - I mean, Silence of the Lambs is a Best Picture winner! Hopefully, now that no one needs to go to the drive-in for their big screen entertainment, the programmers opt to dedicate at least one of their four screens to B-movie junk that isn't playing at the AMCs and Regals. Hell even if they were just projecting this very same Blu-ray, it'd be worth the drive in my opinion.

What say you?


King Kong (1976)

MAY 13, 2021


When Peter Jackson's version of King Kong came out in 2005, people either loved it or found it to be bloated, but pretty much everyone I remember speaking to/reading was in agreement that it was better than the 1976 version. And I had to take their word for it, because I had never seen it and, given how little I enjoyed Jackson's, didn't ever really see the need to. But I would get curious from time to time due to its cast, Rick Baker's work, and - perhaps most importantly - my growing realization that I click with 1970's cinema more than any other decade, which meant I would probably like it just fine. And guess what: I did!

Even better, it cemented why Jackson's version never really worked for me (though I haven't seen the - gulp - even longer one, if that was an improvement): he was too infatuated with the original. Not that I blame him; it's a great movie after all, and so many monster movies since owe it a huge debt, making it not just great but important, i.e. the sort of movie you leave alone. He seemingly agreed, which is why his film never finds its own soul, as its constantly bending over backwards to honor the original, which - especially given its mammoth length - just has me thinking about that one the entire time and also that I could have just watched it and gotten home earlier.

Luckily for me, the makers of the 1976 version share my belief that the best remakes are the ones that take the basic concept and create new characters and situations within it. So instead of Carl Denham, Ann Darrow, etc making a movie and running afoul of the big guy, we get Charles Grodin as Fred Wilson, an oil tycoon who has discovered what he believes to be an uninhabited island with a surplus of untapped texas tea, which he hopes to bring back to the US and be a hero (and get richer) for helping the energy crisis. A paleontologist named Jack (Jeff Bridges) gets wind of his plan and sneaks on board, not really trying to stop him but instead convince him that what's there isn't oil but animals, and since he's just as curious he just wants to tag along, document what's there, and get a nice "told you so" out of the deal. Along the way they pick up a shipwrecked actress named (sigh) Dwan, played by Jessica Lange in her first movie, but there's no rivalry between the two men: Grodin's character is married (he even encourages them to get married later on in the movie after they've fulfilled their duties as the leads in a major movie and fallen in love).

Nope, Bridges' competition is, of course, Kong, who they discover when they arrive on the island and run into a tribe. This stuff is pretty similar to the older movie, but by then they've changed enough that it doesn't really hurt things, and Grodin's decision to capture Kong and bring him back has its own unique motivation: having failed to get the oil (and yet promised "the big one" to his investors) he decides to recoup his losses with a new mascot for the company, in the vein of the Exxon Tiger. Sure, at times things seem reverse engineered to get to what are the same beats from the original, but there's just enough that's unique to this version that it rarely enters "why did they bother?" territory.

Curiously, one thing they dropped was the dinosaurs. Other than a quick fight with a giant snake, Kong is the only creature in the movie, which means there's not as much action as in the others (despite the excess length; it's forty minutes longer than the original). I can't say this was the wisest choice; perhaps if there were a few snakes or the fight lasted long enough to be a kind of showcase it would be OK, but it almost feels like something they threw in at the last minute. There's a clear desire to make something like the disaster movies of the era (they even got one of its directors: John Guillermin previously helmed The Towering Inferno), so perhaps they left monsters out so they could get to New York quicker - but they ultimately don't? There's only about 30 minutes left by the time Kong even gets there, let alone starts wreaking havoc.

That said, I found the mix of effects techniques to be quite successful, with respect to limitations at the time. Yes, the blue-screen shots probably look a little too fake (especially on a gorgeous Blu-ray) for a modern audience, but at the time that was the norm, and they do a terrific job mixing the guy in the suit (Baker himself) stuff with close-ups on Lange that utilize giant animatronic hands and the like. They also had a giant robot version, but apparently it didn't work all that well so you barely see it. There's a "commentary" with Baker (actually a very long interview that is spread out a bit to make it last over the whole film)  where he talks about the various problems with the effects, including barely being able to see when he was in the suit due to the hard plastic contacts he was wearing, but you'd never tell from the finished product. I rarely found myself thinking "they could have done better back then"; it was poised as a spectacular event in that regard and I think they delivered for 1976 audiences.

Plus I genuinely enjoyed the characters; Grodin was a hoot as the KINDA but not really slimy oil guy (I kept waiting for him to turn full heel but nope, his only crime is being too optimistic, really), and after so many years of the mumbling old man Bridges, I was delighted to see a new performance of him as a young and coherent leading man, the sort of role that would go to one of the Chris' today. And Lange is a bit green at times, but she's playing a ditzy actress so it fits just fine, and I found her gradual "trust" of Kong to be more believable than Naomi Watts' incarnation of the beauty to Kong's beast, as "Dwan" (Jesus, that name) knows he won't hurt her on purpose but is still pretty hesitant about being clutched and going up buildings, whereas Watts seemed to be enjoying it after a while. The supporting cast is great too: Ed Lauter, Rene Auberjonois, and even John Lone (!) all pop up, as does my man Walt "Crazy Ralph" Gorney as the subway driver (funnily enough, I had to take my F13 blu out of the player to put this one in - Gorneyfest!). Per the IMDb, Corbin Bernsen and Joe Piscopo are in the crowd in New York somewhere, but I didn't spot them.

Scream Factory's blu-ray took me all week to get through, primarily due to the two commentaries for the nearly two and a half hour film. Baker's is loaded with candid and hilarious stories, but I wish it wasn't spread out the way it is, as the breaks that are inserted are often unnatural, not to mention long, so he'll be telling a story that will cut out for 90 seconds or so (with the movie audio returning full blast) before he comes back to finish it up, blowing some of the humorous buildup in the process. But otherwise it's an essential listen, both for budding FX artists as he talks alot about his process and why certain things won't work, as well as why he retired (too many producers getting in his way) and other goodies. The other commentary is by Kong expert Ray Morton, who wrote a book about the big lug and brings a fairly dry but extensive history of this production along with some info on the original film.

And that's good, because now that it's 45 years old and nearly behind the scenes higher-up who made it is dead (Guillermin, writer Lorenzo Semple Jr., producer Dino De Laurentiis, etc), there isn't much of that "authority" to be found here outside of Baker, who obviously wasn't privy to casting issues and legal battles with Kong's rights holders. But instead, we get interviews with the sort of personnel who rarely get to offer their insight: the assistant director, the second unit director, a sculptor, two production assistants... these interviews are all in the ten minute range and give some great "ground level" kind of anecdotes that would otherwise be glossed over for the flashier material, providing an interesting and entertaining look at how this kind of production was mounted back when film shoots could last the better part of a year (the shoot ran from January to August of 1976).

A longer television version of the movie is also included, though after the two commentaries I was kind of sick of looking at everyone (well, maybe not Lange) so I'll save that for down the road. I looked it up and it seems like it's mostly just scene extensions and a few things clarified (like how Bridges' character obtained a crew shirt), all of it added back into the movie so they could turn it into a two night event given how long it was to begin with. Then again, last time I watched a King Kong that lasted three hours I didn't think much of it so maybe I'll just leave it safely in the case (it's on a second disc) next time I get the urge to watch this particular film. I'm getting older and it's getting harder to find lengthy blocks to watch even a normal length movie in one sitting, so unless I hear otherwise I'm going to assume the theatrical version is the way to go anyway. Still, I'm glad it's included, as I'm sure it's the version some folks grew up with after taping it off the broadcast or something. Scream has always been pretty good about including the TV cuts when they were available and it's a tradition I'm glad to see continue.

What say you?



Spiral: From The Book of Saw (2021)

MAY 12, 2021


I'm just gonna get it out of the way first since it's the main question people have had since day one: NO, you do not need to have seen or even have any real awareness of the previous movies to follow/enjoy Spiral: From The Book of Saw. If you've seen the trailer you've also seen the entirety of the film's connections to the previous storyline, i.e. they mention it as a possibility ("A Jigsaw copycat?") for the new threat the (all new) characters are facing, and that's about it. Unlike Jigsaw, which tried to appeal to newcomers and die-hard fans and ultimately pleased few on either side, this one quickly moves on from the tenuous connection and does its own thing, often to its own benefit - though it's occasionally hampered by being "Saw 9" to some extent.

Let's start with what works, since there's more of that. As you probably know, the movie was delayed for a year due to covid, but it feels weirdly timely due to its plot about holding corrupt cops accountable for their crimes. The new killer is targeting dirty cops, and keeping in line with his would-be predecessor, the traps he puts them in have some connection to their actions; in the first one, a cop who lies on the stand to ensure convictions is forced to rip out his own tongue in order to escape with his life, and another who shot an innocent person has his trigger finger (and the other nine) ripped off. Given the protests and "defund the police" type movements that have occurred in the past year (i.e. long after the film was shot), the movie oddly feels "of the moment" and yet simultaneously restrained. With Chris Rock as the hero (a cop himself, but presented as the only non-corrupt one on the force) there will certainly be a sizable Black audience who will cheer for these asshole cops getting their just deserts, but may also wonder why the movie didn't dig deeper unless they too are aware of the film's long delay.

(So let's make it a huge hit, ensuring a Spiral 2 that CAN take the last year into consideration!)

But even in that regard, it's the rare film in the series in which just about every death is one you can feel is justified. With Jigsaw and his accomplices often going after drug addicts and the like (not to mention complete innocents, like Bobby's wife in Saw 3D), it's nice to never have that "OK, did they really deserve this?" kind of moment and just focus on the mystery and Rock's attempts to put it all together without being able to trust any of his fellow officers. His backstory (which, surprise, has a connection to the killings!) is that he "ratted" on a cop who shot an innocent person, which began a chain of events that ultimately left him hated by all the other cops and his Chief of Police father (Sam Jackson, and yes he says his most famous profanity*) losing his job. How and why this all has to do with the present day killings is of course what the movie reveals in due time, so I won't get into that, only to say that it's an interesting way to keep the series' love of flashbacks intact without having to worry about causing any plot holes or inconsistencies with previous entries.

As for Rock (who also came up with the story! He's a legit fan of the franchise!), he is certainly a more believable cop than he was in Lethal Weapon 4 all those years ago, and luckily for him the man has aged well, looking much younger than his actual age of 54 at the time of production. They use this to slightly ridiculous effect at one point, setting a flashback ten years prior (so he'd be 44) by giving him a backwards baseball cap like he was a "kid", but one can assume his character is only supposed to be around 40 (he almost has to be playing younger, since Jackson is only 17 years older than him in reality). And he brings a new idea to the series: humor! Not dark humor, which has crept in from time to time, but actual, Chris Rock-ian humor, sprinkled lightly from time to time just to offer a bit of levity in the early going (for those who may be scoffing, I'll ease your mind by letting you know it's all confined to the first half hour). There's one line to Jackson (concerning a mall) that had me full on cackling, and once I adjusted to it in the early scenes (Rock's first appearance, where he's working undercover as a thief, comes off as a standup monologue) I have to say it worked well.

And again, we're talking about what is technically "Part 1" of a series, so there's no reason to complain "jokes don't belong here" or whatever. Sure, it would be very distracting to have this stuff in Saw VI, but that's not what this is, and it helps establish early on that this is indeed a new thing. I'd liken it to Phase 1 Marvel stuff, where we understood it was all the same world but allowed a. different tones and b. an acceptance of the minimal crossover material. By now, sure, it's weird that Sam and Bucky are the only ones who are tackling a giant terrorist threat in New York (where the hell is Spider-Man, at the very least?), but back then, before they all knew each other, no one thought much of their lack of interconnectedness. Same deal here; not only is it a decade later, but it's an all new set of characters (and a new season! The others always felt "cold" in their minimal outdoor scenes but this takes place during a heat wave) and so the tonal shift is never an issue.

Also, for I think the first time in the series, the real world is specifically established, with references to Forrest Gump and New Jack City (from Rock's own character; didn't he think it was weird he looked just like Pookie?). Characters even discuss things like UberEats and sleep training, which is a foreign concept to the series as these people have never displayed much in the way of normal human activities we can all identify with. It's still unclear where "Metro City" is, though, so they haven't gone completely off the reservoir, but in a weird way it helps us forget about the possibility of Hoffman or Amanda popping up or something, allowing this "new" world to really come to life on its own terms without the weight of eight other films on its shoulders. So much that I can even forgive "Jigsaw didn't target cops", - because he certainly did! - but to suggest otherwise would require them to get too far into mythology, so I will allow this bit of inconsistency for the sake of a cleaner story now.

However, there is one thing that misses the mark revolving the reveal of the movie's villain; I won't outright spoil their identity, but you might want to skip the next TWO paragraphs if you want a cleaner experience.

For those who are still here, even though it's not a traditional sequel, it is still sticking to the basic formula of a Saw movie, and in that respect it doesn't really have any twists, which wouldn't even be a big deal if not for the fact that it's painfully easy to spot who the culprit is. Without being hampered by the established timeline, I was really hoping I could get that giddy "OH S**T!" kind of feeling when I realized what was happening, if I ever figured it out at all before it was spelled out, but I never even got close to that sort of thing here. In fact it was so obvious to me who the killer was that I started expecting/hoping that it was a misdirect, and I even chuckled to myself at one point, because that kind of "you think you see the twist but you don't" move was pulled off quite well in... er, Spiral, the 2007 thriller (where you might start thinking a character is actually all in someone's head because she never talks to anyone else in the movie, only for the twist to be that nope, she was real, and now she is dead). Y'all stole the name but not their clever idea?

(STILL SPOILER-Y!) A friend of mine noted after that maybe after Saw IV's twist, which people had a hard time really following - and may have resulted in the series' declining box office fortunes - the producers may be weary about anything too clever. Saw V didn't even really HAVE a twist, and while Saw VI did, it was a pretty insular one (the bit about William's "family"). The Final Chapter/3D's big twist was Cary Elwes/Gordon's return, but that was spoiled in publicity and the film itself by having him appear in earlier scenes of no consequence, which should have told any viewer that he was going to be revealed as a sidekick (because otherwise why would he come back at all?), and Jigsaw's "half of it was a flashback" concept was also pretty easy to suss out. And while all that is justifiable in some way or other, it seems to me that with an all new story/characters they could at least come up with something as good as "Jigsaw was on the floor the whole time" in the original. But alas, when the guy who I thought was the killer 15 minutes into the movie was revealed to be the killer, I just kind of sighed that it was indeed as simple as I suspected. To be clear, I didn't mind the character being the villain, and his motive is on point (ain't no one gonna feel he's in the wrong, honestly), but felt the way the mystery itself was structured was a bit too obvious. A little subterfuge would have been welcome, basically.

But otherwise, I found myself engaged with the concept and the gradual filling in of the backstory, which we get in pieces along the way and also allows Sam Jackson to sport a mustache in the older scenes to make him look younger. Sam's not in the movie as much as you might hope (I guessed a while back that it was probably four scenes; I was only one off), but it's rare to see him in this sort of thing and he aquits himself nicely. As for the traps, they're not as overly elaborate as you may have come to expect, but they're in line with the simpler ones of the original, and don't rely on too much self mutilation (no "pound of flesh" types); one only required a hard bite down on something to escape death, which, while painful, at least would allow the victim to quickly get it over with, unlike digging out their own eye to get a key or whatever. Charlie Clouser's score is a fine mix of old and new (though using "Hello Zepp" should be illegal without a better twist!) and while I missed his (practical!) transitions, Darren Bousman reigns in some of his flashier sensibilities to match the "back to basics" tone and story. It's even in widescreen to help distinguish it from his three previous films, along with a new color pallette and more exterior scenes than the norm - it's one of his best films as a director, not just within this franchise. It's even kind of scary in a few moments; the old films didn't really have time for scares after a while with so much plot to handle, but here there's a couple of legit jumps.

Long story short, it's hard and even a bit unfair to compare to the Saw films in general - I can certainly say it's the best since Saw VI (though I know that isn't exactly a high bar to clear), but it also feels like comparing a singer's solo album to his band's entire discography. So let's not focus on that, and instead consider how successful it is in terms of trying to restart the series in a way that newcomers can enjoy - and to my eyes, it's a winner. Let's put it this way: if it was its own thing entirely, sans its quick references to John Kramer, my review would basically be "It's a solid thriller slightly hampered by a mystery that's too easy to solve and some surface similarities to those old Saw movies." And for what it's worth, there have certainly been a number of whodunit slashers where I could guess the killer ahead of time and it didn't take away my enjoyment, so it's really only the Saw branding here that made me feel a little let down by that element. So basically, the less you know and care about this franchise, the more likely you are to enjoy Spiral, but fans of the series should, at the very least, feel satisfied with what they have come up with as a way to revive it in a way that doesn't mess with what came before. With varying degrees, we all win!

What say you?

*The movie also has one direct Pulp Fiction easter egg (can't really miss it, but keep an eye on the door to the cold case room) and one other possible one that ultimately has Jackson saying "Ezekiel". Not sure if someone is just kissing Sam's ass or they wanted to pay tribute to chronologically challenged films of yore, but it struck me as a little weird.


Hitcher in the Dark (1989)

MAY 10, 2021


One thing about the IMDb synopses for films is that they can be written by anyone, so they're sometimes a little "off". In many cases, it does some damage to the film by increasing expectations, but in the case of Hitcher in the Dark (Italian: Paura nel buio) it actually helped me enjoy the movie more than I expected. Per the IMDb, it's about a "Sick young man driving around in his daddy's camper, looking for lone stray females to kidnap, torture, rape, and murder", and while that's not wholly inaccurate ("rape" seems a stretch, more on that soon) it paints a picture of a sleazy, hard R, unpleasant movie. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover it's actually relatively tame in those departments; I was afraid I was going to want to take a shower after but by the end I was kind of taken aback by how restrained it was.

Perhaps I was putting too much stock into its director: Umberto Lenzi, who was responsible for movies like Cannibal Ferox (castration, breast impalements, animal killing), Eyeball (eye gouging), and Nightmare City (also eye gouging!). So my (admittedly limited) familiarity with the filmmaker and the aforementioned IMDb synopsis had me thinking it was going to be a difficult watch, but nah. The body count is two, and one is off-screen entirely, so there's actually not a lot of violence (many scuffles though). And I won't grandstand here as it's a sensitive topic and it's not for me to decide what to call it, but for what (little) it's worth, rape is a loaded word that suggests certain things, and yet that isn't possible here, as our killer is impotent, something we discover in a scene where his kidnap victim (Josie Bissett) is willingly offering herself to him. I have no desire to watch "rape revenge" type films like Last House on the Left or I Spit On Your Grave ever again, but I feel this falls well outside that sub-genre.

What's really going on here is that Mark is a rich boy (his father owns a hotel chain; allusions to a certain ex-politician were obviously not intentional) who drives his RV around Virginia, picking up hitchhiking women and killing them. But one day he picks up Bissett, whose name is similar to his mother's, and according to him they even look alike (a framed photo of mom looks nothing like Bissett, but it kinda works since he's crazy). So he kidnaps her but doesn't kill her; instead he cuts her hair off to make her look more like his mom, while she tries to keep him calm and hopes to find a way to escape if he will let his guard down enough. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is tipped off that she got into an RV (the two of them had a fight and she stormed off), so he drives around inspecting every Winnebago he sees, which produces a number of amusing diversions. At one point he walks into one that's parked, and we know that it's not the right one, but Lenzi has him just start inspecting clothes that he finds inside until the owner shows up, says "You smell like a thief from a mile away!" (huh?) and proceeds to fight him. Honestly I cared more about this stuff than Bissett's plight, wondering if the dolt would get himself killed without ever even coming close to his actual target.

Lenzi also stages a few would-be rescue scenes, like when two cops come across the RV parked illegally and start looking at the windows, only to let him go when they find out who his father is. The best is when a guy randomly breaks the passenger window to steal a discman in order to fence it (it's the 1980s, so this would still be a reasonable crime), and rather than go to a pawn shop or whatever, he does what any normal thief does: drives to a random wet T-shirt contest and asks the guys who are obviously trying to focus on other matters if they'd like to buy it. Luckily, our would-be hero just happens to be there and recognizes the discman as his girlfriend's! What luck!

But I mean, this is why the movie actually ends up working, because these silly moments aren't jarringly placed next to graphic violence or even that much unpleasantness. Bissett obviously doesn't love her situation, but he doesn't torture her or anything (the haircut is a more psychologically driven attack; outside of a couple bruises when they scuffle I don't think he causes her actual bodily harm in any meaningful way throughout the film, even after she stabs him!) and there isn't much else to the movie beyond their dynamic and her boyfriend's attempts to find her. So it's like a mildly sleazy thriller peppered with some silliness (I also love when some supporting characters say they're going to go see Madonna perform "on the beach" as if she was some unsigned local act), without the tonal shifts that can sink these things unless you're really in the mood. I mean, it's safe to assume it was inspired by The Hitcher, and yet there's nothing in it as gruesome as even the finger bit, let alone the truck ripping. How often can you say the Italian knockoff is easier to watch than the US original?

Lenzi shows up on an archival interview (he passed away a few years ago), discussing the cast and how he doesn't like the ending, which was forced on him by producers. I agree that it's a little odd, but it works better than most 11th hour additions, especially since it revolves around someone surviving when I wasn't sure exactly how they "died" in the first place (though I guess at one point that person's death would have been made explicit, and the new ending had them cut back on it so everything would work). Plus the final 15 seconds are just a triumph of absurdity; if I saw this with a crowd I'd probably still be cheering. There's also a commentary with Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, who I greatly prefer to the Hysteria Continues guys (Vinegar seems to alternate between the two teams), where even they (read: women) note how surprisingly "tame" it is and how it works to subvert expectations. Not as informative as some of their other tracks, but an enjoyable listen all the same, and I hope they are kept in the inner circle for VS' releases. The very awkward trailer is also included, if you want most of the plot points spoiled and a final moment that makes it look like Mark is the one who is in danger.

It's rare I enjoy any late '80s Italian productions; by this point money was hard to come by for genre stuff and the product suffered greatly. But this one came together just fine; it's a little repetitive since they barely ever leave the RV (Bissett never manages much of an escape; I think she gets about 50 feet away at one point), but that's OK - the fact that it's engaging at all given how dull the other movies of the era often were (such as Deep Blood, which I suffered through a couple weeks back, or Zombie 5, which this borrows some music from!). Good to know they were occasionally able to work around their newfound budgetary limitations and come up with something that hits the spot.

What say you?


Separation (2021)

MAY 2, 2021


Don't get me wrong, the pandemic has been awful; the sort of thing future writers will use for hacky time travel stories ("What if we went back and gave that guy a hamburger so he wouldn't be tempted by a goddamn bat?"). But there have been a few perks to the whole thing: people have used the (forced) free time productively, taken up new hobbies, gotten in better shape, whatever. And for me personally? I have reached a point where a major new horror movie can come out that I know absolutely nothing about. In fact, I only heard of Separation a week before it opened, when I was looking at the theater's advanced showtimes to try to get a ticket for their revivals of the Fast & Furious movies (which I failed to do).

See, normally I'd be sick of the trailer, probably have gotten my mind made up based on early reviews from people whose tastes I know well enough to know whether or not it'll be something I'd end up liking... but I got to go in totally blind. I honestly can't even recall the last time I was able to buy a ticket for a movie I knew next to nothing about, as that's something I can barely even achieve at a festival anymore. And there are other movies coming along within the next couple weeks I'm just as in the dark about; even the big Statham action movie Wrath of Man is something I feel I only learned about a month ago. With the publicity machine for these things having to take a backseat (probably in part because there's still a chance another outbreak causes theaters to shut down again), us moviegoers get to actually be surprised for once. It's kind of nice.

That said, the only thing I did know about the movie is that it was directed by William Brent Bell, which meant reviews would likely mean nothing to me anyway. Except for last year's misguided (being generous) Brahms: The Boy II, I have enjoyed all of Bell's work, but that sentiment is not shared by my peers. To this day people are still angry about The Devil Inside's "missing ending that you had to go watch on the website," which is not what was actually happening there but after nearly a decade I've given up trying to explain to people that it was merely a poorly placed advertisement for their wannabe-viral site, and the film's abrupt ending was in line with most found footage entries (including, uh, Blair Witch Project - perhaps you're familiar?). So basically, if the reviews were rock solid, THEN I'd be worried!

Luckily (for me, not him, or the studio) the reviews are bad, and once again I'm here to defend Mr Bell's apparently very alienating brand of horror. I wouldn't say it's his best film by any means (should I be the first to rank him?*) and it's clearly been tinkered with (more on that soon), but it takes some wacky swings that I admired, so coupled along with my complete ignorance of its plot or even sub-genre, I found myself having a pretty good time with it. The title refers to a married couple in the standard movie partner dilemma: one is a workaholic and thus doesn't spend any time with their daughter, the other doesn't work at all and thus can't really provide for her. An opening "last straw" kind of argument leads to divorce, and during a heated phone conversation about custody (spoiler ahead if you're equally dim on details!) the mom jaywalks and gets run over, instantly killed.

So now the dad has to take care of the little girl alone, and before long freaky things start happening. The nature of them is of course part of the reveal, so I won't spoil them here, only to say that it harkens a bit back to the original (good) The Boy in that there's a twist to the proceedings that keeps the action to a minimum in order to work. This means that impatient viewers should steer clear, as not a whole lot happens in it (the R rating is basically just for language; the mom in particular loves the F-word) and most of the scares until the climax are of the nightmare variety. I had to wonder if I myself would be bored by it if I wasn't finding connections to the material; the dad (Rupert Friend) is kind of a "kid at heart" type who longs to resurrect a project he created in his younger days, which is something I went through myself and only relatively recently kind of gave up on it for good. So seeing a guy I could identify with go through the horror movie motions AND try to be a good dad suckered me in pretty easily, though that obviously won't be the case for everyone.

However, if you like puppets you should be into it! The aforementioned project was a (stop motion, I assume?) animated project featuring a cast of monstrous puppets, and the designs are quite good - think humanoid versions of the supporting cast of Nightmare Before Christmas and you'd be on the right path. He's got normal puppets of the characters that the daughter (Violet McGraw, because by law every major modern horror movie must have one of the kids from Hill House) uses as dolls, but they are menaced by full-sized versions that creep around, loom over their beds, etc. One is played by Troy James, the contortionist who has been making a name for himself using his impressive abilities to play other monsters that don't need to rely on CGI (he was the Jangly Man in Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark), and his big scene is truly unnerving...

...but partly undone because of Friend's near indifference to his appearance. For whatever reason, the actor barely ever reacts to the creepy things he sees; there's even an example in the trailer (which I saw for the first time today, as I wrote the review) where he just watches a portrait burn after a candle tips over on its own. Some are dreams and can be chalked up to dream logic I suppose, but it's an odd choice and kind of hampers a number of the scare scenes, of which there aren't many anyway. But as I mentioned, the movie was clearly retooled some, so it might just be an odd side effect of moving scenes around. There's a scene between him and their nanny (Madeline Brewer) that was either moved from its original position in the film, or simply had its setup deleted, because it starts with her saying that the daughter hates her now and yet there was absolutely nothing like that in the scene before it. Also, a couple scenes before it, she misread her signals and tried to kiss the guy, which you'd think would cause some awkwardness, but in this scene she's asking him to watch movies and get high (and surprised that he says no), which to me sounds like something that would have come before she made her move, not almost immediately after. Near the end of the film there's a montage of all the dad and the daughter's big bonding moments over the movie, and at first they're all ones we've seen but as the sequences goes on we see more snippets of scenes that were otherwise removed.

Don't get me wrong, the movie still more or less works anyway, but I can't help but wonder if panicked producers hacked away at it and switched scenes around in order to get a scare in every ten minutes no matter what. As is the film runs 108 minutes, so we're talking about 10-15 minutes longer than most movies of this sort, and it's easy to imagine a cut running at around two hours, for a horror movie where the "villain" is pretty passive and the scary movie plot takes a while to even get going. This might also explain why some scenes - like a bizarre hallucination scene in the park - go absolutely nowhere. Perhaps there was a followup scene that justified its existence, but got removed for being too talky?

Still, these things didn't bother me too much in the grand scheme of things. I knew after about a half hour or so that this would be the kind of movie I quietly enjoy rather than loudly keep trying to change people's minds on (like, well, The Boy and Stay Alive), and that's fine. With creepy ass puppets, DAD STUFF, and wacky plot points (the dad's comic book writer partner has him take drugs to communicate with the dead!) it was kind of just hitting my particular sweet spots and not even seemingly all that concerned with impressing a large audience, so for that I have to admire it (also, any time I get to use my "Puppet" tag you've already earned a few points). The pacing and plot reminded me of those 1970's "Paperbacks from Hell" I've been consuming ever since that book came out, where they're always kind of slow paced and weird but somehow entertain me all the same. If you're a fellow defender of Dead Silence (and, again, The Boy) you might find yourself equally charmed by its earnest hokeyness, but otherwise you can wait for Conjuring 3 or whatever.

What say you?

*The Boy, Stay Alive, Separation, Devil Inside, Boy 2. Still haven't seen Wer.


The Resort (2021)

MAY 3, 2021


I wasn't a big fan of In The Earth, the new Ben Wheatley film that is notable for being one of the first theatrical wide release films shot during (and even inspired by) Covid lockdown times, but I was impressed by how they used it to their advantage when the plot could rely on it, as well as how Wheatley used it to establish the tone and characters in its earlier (and best) scenes. And I saw it back to back with The Resort, which I assumed was also a Covid-era production because it was set mostly in/around a closed down hotel in Hawaii. The building is mammoth and clearly abandoned for real, and given the prime tourist location I figured there's no way a place like that would be closed down for any other reason but a pandemic.

But as it turns out, the film was shot in early 2018, long before the world fell apart (at least, in that regard). Turns out the hotel was closed in 2016 and set to be remodeled into luxury condos, though they apparently had some delays (the news article I read about the closure said the work would be completed in 2017) so their loss was the Resort crew's gain. Every day the place sat abandoned (and un-demolished) was another day's worth of overgrown brush, dirtied windows, etc that they didn't have to spend time doing themselves to make it look like something that hadn't been used in years.

Ironically, it's the only thing in the movie that rings true, as the rest is horseshit on a level I haven't seen in quite some time. It's barely even feature length (75 minutes with incredibly slow end credits), but still manages to take forever for anything to happen as our quartet of obnoxious twenty somethings (one's an Instagram star!) decide to ghost hunt in the abandoned hotel and, naturally, get menaced by the very spirit they already knew was there. The main girl, Lex, is writing a piece about the ghost and wants to do research, with the other three just tagging along for support I guess - it's hard to say why exactly because the four actors have such non-existent chemistry and vague backstories that I couldn't begin to guess why they hung out. They don't really fight (just a couple bits of "we have to go NOW!" type bickering), I'll give them credit for that much at least, but at least in other modern horror movies - where there's a cheating subplot or a nerd character they invite just to mock the entire time - I can get the impression that they've had history. These people might have met for the first time when action was called on their first scene together.

And that'd be fine if the horror elements were solid, but nope. Again, it takes a long time for the "Half Faced Girl" (cool name, must have taken them all day to come up with it) to show up and start offing them, and there's precious little suspense and literally zero scares before that point. They take their time getting to the island (a scene with the four of them sitting in one of their apartments, discussing their trip and the ghost's story, eats up a full tenth of the runtime, possibly more), and when they get there they dillydally even more by taking the long route to the hotel so they can stop by a waterfall and let the DP ogle their bodies with his camera. Nothing out of the ordinary for this kind of horror, to be fair, but when the actors aren't great and the characters they are playing are so dull, it's a real drag.

All could be forgiven if the long-awaited terror was aces, but nope, it's not much of an improvement on the walking around. We barely see the villain and her half face, one death is entirely off-screen, and - sigh - the movie has a framing device with the survivor telling the story to a detective, killing even more of the suspense for no reason (other than to attempt a twist that is so confusing I almost admired it. Someone on the writing team is a fan of The Beyond, I guess!). There's a terrific gore effect involving a face bring ripped off, and I liked the low-key way they offered a POV of someone being dragged off into the darkness, but even at a mere 75 minutes, a movie has to come to life for more than a 3-4 minute stretch to even enter "worth watching in the background" territory. Hell I might even resurrect the long dormant "crap" label if not for that face rip bit, and also for how much I laughed when they kept cutting back to the present day as she was telling her story, as if to prove she was telling this guy every part of her boring adventure. "And then we walked down the road a bit, talking about how many Instagram followers Bree has..."

I will give them one tiny benefit of the doubt: maybe the film was better at one point, before being so clearly retooled. The credits list a number of characters who do not appear (including a ghost!), and two additional directors listed under "additional photography" (not "1st assistant director" or something - just "director"), so as easy it might seem to place the blame on writer/director/producer Taylor Chien, it's very possible the movie was taken away from him. So who knows what happened to this thing along its three year journey from when it was shot to now, when it's being dumped out for people like me who are still a bit weary of going to the theaters* and thus being very choosy over what they see, but will take a chance on a drive-in excursion. Alas, I'm not here to review their possible intentions, and at the end of the day this terrible movie is what they chose to put out in the world at 10 bucks a ticket or whatever. Don't make the same mistake I did; there are better and cheaper ways to waste your time. It never gets better than its "Dead Minion" poster, I assure you.

What say you?

* I am fully vaccinated, woo! But it seems people have gotten worse re: theater etiquette after a year of watching everything at home. I've been to three normal screenings since I was all clear and two of them had nonstop chatter among the few other patrons. Since the "crowd experience" I miss is generally a good one (i.e. big applause/laughter when appropriate, shutting up otherwise) I think I'd rather just watch certain things at home until the Drafthouse and New Beverly reopen, where noisy patrons are dealt with by the theater instead of fellow paying attendees who don't want to have their experience ruined even further by someone getting aggro after being asked to be quiet.


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