Old (2021)

JULY 24, 2021


In retrospect, a string of box office duds may have been the best thing to happen to M. Night Shyamalan. After a couple misfires in a row (regardless of how you or I felt about them; in fact I'm quite fond of After Earth), the filmmaker either found himself unable to get big budgets or simply chose not to pursue them anymore. Either way he went off and made The Visit, which was a big hit (and proved, again, that filmmakers who knew how to make real movies were also better equipped to make found footage ones) and started a healthy relationship with Blumhouse and, by extension, Universal Pictures. Both outfits are known for letting filmmakers do what they want as long as the budgets are kept in check, a godsend for someone like Shyamalan who, as Old repeatedly proves, has idiosyncratic tendencies that either balance out or simply exacerbate certain weaknesses in his screenplays.

Luckily for me, I'm usually on board with such quirks, and was not surprised to discover how much I enjoyed the film, same as I have pretty much everything he's made thus far. I didn't see Last Airbender or his first two, pre-Sixth Sense films, but of his filmography otherwise, I'd slot Lady in the Water as the only one I didn't enjoy on some level; even The Happening (a close second last in that ranking) has plenty of ironic entertainment value ("Cough syrup") and a fairly solid first half. Like Stephen King, the filmmaker tends to whiff some of the early promise on a misguided ending, but while I wouldn't consider Old's denouement a home run, it's thankfully free of the collapses that made Glass and The Village harder to watch a second time when their solid setups ended up having lousy outcomes.

(SPOILERS ARE AHEAD THROUGHOUT THE REVIEW! Consider this an all purpose warning!)

It's possible that having pre-existing material to draw from helped him a little this time around; I've long said that he could benefit from a writing partner that could reign in some (emphasis on some) of his harder-to-swallow tendencies and refine his ideas into something a little less clunky. Here he is adapting a French graphic novel called Sandcastle, and while I haven't read it myself, some internet sleuthing has led me to discover that the basic plot is the same but he added his own ideas, including the ending. But even though he's being "unfaithful" to the text, I think that having it to fall back on and give him a loose road map of how to proceed with the story kept things working more or less smoothly.

By now you've all probably heard the elevator pitch: some people find a beach that ages them rapidly (someone does the math in the movie, and I think they come up with every half hour being about one year in real time) and also can't seem to escape. This gives the film a depressing ticking clock; they're not trying to stop a bomb or anything like that, they're simply trying to come up with a plan to escape while also gradually realizing that their time on this earth is being whittled away and thus maybe it's better to just make the most of what time they have left. Shyamalan isn't shy (sorry) about hitting us over the head with the basic idea of not wishing your life away; in the opening scene the mom (Vicky Krieps) scolds one child for wanting the ride to the resort to go faster ("Just appreciate what you see around you right now!") while also daydreaming of when her daughter will be older and have an even more beautiful singing voice than she does now.

I of course am guilty of the latter; I frequently bemoan my son being too young to enjoy this or that movie, needing assistance with things that require me to get off my lazy ass, etc.* But I also get sad when it's clear he's gotten *too old* for certain things; I packed up some of his Mickey Mouse Clubhouse DVDs the other day and nearly started crying, thinking of all the times he would excitedly dance to the theme song (and encourage me to dance along with him), an activity he's long since outgrown and will be one of many I'll wish to enjoy just one more time when I blink a few more times and watch him go off to college. That whole "live in the present" thing is so hard to keep in mind, so a movie (a horror/thriller no less) revolving around that concept of our time always being taken away from us is very appealing to me, the kind of thing that will allow me to forgive some blemishes.

I say this because, you know, it's an M. Night Shyamalan movie. By now you should know that will mean some strange performances from dependable actors (Ken Leung in particular seemed kind of bewildered at times), kooky dialogue, a distracting cameo by the man himself (luckily it comes pretty early - he's the guy who drives them to the beach), and - yes - a twist that you either have to roll with or let it kill the whole experience. Interestingly, this time around the twist itself is perfectly fine, in fact it's one of his better ones in many ways - but he adds another wrinkle to it that I found unnecessary. I'll have to spoil it to make any sense, so once again I'm going to warn you off, but I will confine it to the next paragraph, so just skip that one if you're here for minor spoilers but don't want the reveal given away.

For those still here, I kind of loved the surprise twist that the people who died on Old Island were in fact specifically targeted to go there due to their various illnesses, as there is a team of scientists and doctors using the island's mysterious aging properties to find cures for all of the world's diseases. It's a trial and error process, but it apparently works - we learn at the end that one of the victims' deaths proved to be the final key in creating a cure for epilepsy. Had the movie ended there, with the knowledge that these people weren't dying in vain, it would be fine, but Shyamalan opts to have it both ways, and let two survivors spill the island's secrets to the police, shutting down their operation. Sure, what they're doing has some serious moral issues, but I think the film would have been even more successful if the filmmaker let us debate about that for ourselves on the way out of the theater, instead of using his lead character to remove any such ambiguity when he "heroically" shuts it all down and prevents cancer or (since it was shot only a year ago) covid from being cured.

But again, these kinds of slip ups aren't rare in his filmography, so you should be prepared for something like that anyway. However, you might be more surprised by how gnarly the film gets at times, with the rapid aging element being used for less obvious highlights as our group of twelve characters spend their awful day at the beach. For example, wounds tend to heal quicker than they should, which means a few basic "someone gets cut and the wound instantly turns to a scar" kind of things, but also broken bones healing quickly despite being in the wrong place, or a surgery to remove a tumor being thwarted by the skin closing itself back up as they reach in to extract it. Shyamalan's films always kind of tiptoe around being full blown horror films, and while this is no exception, I feel it's the first one that enters EC Comics territory when it comes to some of its effects.

Ultimately, in its own strange way, it functions just fine as a simple "Don't wish your life away, appreciate your life and that of your loved ones" message movie. There are some genuinely sad moments in the film, stemming from both the adults finding themselves facing their twilight "years" by nightfall, and from the children who had their entire adolescence stolen from them. When two adult actors decide to make a sandcastle, out of context it seems silly, but in the film's reality, it's a pair of 6 and 10 year old children whose minds haven't developed enough to fully process what has happened to them over the past day. Yes, there are some inconsistencies with the aging (there are four versions of the son, one of whom is played by Hereditary's Alex Wolff, but only three versions of his sister), but again, there's a "just go with it" quality to Shyamalan's output that any moviegoer should be accustomed to after a dozen films. If you're the type to laugh off his work, this one certainly won't change your mind, but for those who have stuck around for the long haul, I hope you'll agree that this is one of his better films, and admirably more personal despite the concept.

What say you?

*I SHIT YOU NOT he interrupted me as I was writing this very sentiment to help him put a game in the Xbox. Basically I want him to age to the point of being able to figure that out for himself but NOT get too old to want to play said game(s) with me.


Fear Street (Trilogy) (2021)

JULY 2-16, 2021


Even if I hated every minute of the three Fear Street films, I'd at least give Netflix credit for a. attempting something new (for the completely uninitiated, that would be a trilogy of interconnected films released over a three week period) and b. not dumping all three films at once. Some of their binge-loving client base may have scoffed at the notion of having to wait an entire week to see the next chapter (I'd love to see these self-entitled babies deal with watching the first two seasons of Lost in the manner we had to put up with), however I feel it was not only hopefully something they'll consider more often, but also motivated viewers like me to keep coming back.

Because here's the thing: I barely tolerated the first entry, 1994. After a decent opening (one so beholden to the opening of Scream they might as well have just named the soon-to-be-dead character "Drew" for good measure) we spent the next 15 minutes meeting our characters, and they were pretty much all insufferable to me. The heroine, Deena, was basically introduced yelling at her brother, and then after a quick chat with her besties (a pair of drug dealers), she met up with her recent ex-girlfriend and started screaming at her as well. Then we're given the rundown of a historical feud between the two towns of Shadyside and Sunnyvale, something either the budget didn't allow to depict or the makers simply thought dialogue would suffice; we're supposed to understand one town is rich and prosperous while the other is filled with degenerates and claptrap houses, but this distinction is never fully made clear (it doesn't help that the two town names are so similar that I've seen multiple reviews/tweets mixing them up). We mostly just see a bunch of jocks on both sides fighting, which is something that happens in pretty much every town.

So, basically, very little is working. Things pick up a bit when the killings start, because at least the characters don't yell at each other as often, but director Leigh Janiak and her writers make the mistake not once but twice of presenting kills nearly back to back only to make us wait again for the next, as opposed to evenly distributing them over the film's dangerously near-fatal runtime of just under two hours. And yes, Scream also has a long time between kills (after Casey and Steve, the next victim is the principal, nearly an hour later), but it also had the attacks on Sidney (house and bathroom) to make up for it, not to mention a more engaging, personal story as opposed to some hazily defined town curse. There's a bread slicer kill that has been championed on Twitter, and rightfully so - but by that point I had already decided this was Not For Me™ and kind of checked out.

Now, if they dumped all three films at once, I'd likely say "OK, well, I'll get to the others when I'm bored" and - judging from my history with many Netflix shows - probably never do that. But because the next one wasn't around yet, and also because I seemed to be in the minority for 1994, a week of social media hype for the first film and what could happen in the second resulted in me getting more and more interested in watching the second installment, 1978. It didn't hurt that this one promised the appearance of Gillian "Britta" Jacobs (as a brunette no less, my Achilles heel!) and a summer camp setting that suggested something more Friday the 13th-y than the debut entry could muster. Also, while its excess didn't bug me as much as some others, the '90s soundtrack in the first movie would obviously not be a *thing* in 1978, so I was a little curious about what sort of classic rock tracks Netflix would license for a movie aimed at kids who probably considered the first film's soundtrack to be "old" (I realize now that my listening to Dark Side of the Moon in high school is, time-wise at least, the same as a kid in high school now listening to Incubus. Christ).

In short, while most Netflix dumps mean that after a few days no one remembers them, a week of seeing folks' anticipation for the next one had me thinking maybe I should give it another shot. And thus on the day it was released I found myself watching a sequel to a movie I didn't care for, and - thankfully - finding it to be a better use of my time. It still had an alienating way of introducing our leads (more yelling! With bonus physical assault this time for good measure) and some pacing issues, but Janiak thankfully spaced out her kills (and even offed a few of the kids at the camp! *cue "Nature Trail to Hell"*), kept the licensed soundtrack selections to a minimum, and gave us a little more context for the war between the two towns that made it a little more clear to me. Also, it got around one of the crippling flaws of the first one, which is that its trio of killers would just run right by a potential victim if they didn't have any of the "marked" blood on them, which made it feel more like It Follows than a proper slasher, and also severely impacted the suspense when we knew someone would be safe if they didn't have any blood on their shirt. Remember that scene in Jason Takes Manhattan when he just storms through the subway chasing our idiot leads instead of wiping out all the trapped victims, and how disappointing that was? That's what 1994 felt like to me during *all* of its stalk scenes.

No, this guy will go after anyone from Shadyside, which is half the cast. This means we're denied a few things we should have gotten to enjoy, like this or that Sunnyvale jerk getting their due, but at least the potential body count is still high and varied enough to keep things suspenseful. On the other hand, the film revolves around a collossally dumb twist that does not work in the slightest (spoiler ahead, skip the rest of this long paragraph if you want to be "surprised"), which was established in the first film in a very clunky way by introducing Jacobs' character as "C. Berman" as opposed to her full name. The second film focuses on what happened to her and her sister in 1978, with Jacobs telling us her sister died, and then we meet the younger versions: Cindy and Ziggy. So, obviously, Ziggy dies and Jacobs is Cindy, or else she'd be "Z. Berman", right? Well, that's what they want us to think, but there is never even the slightest bit of doubt that Jacobs' character is Ziggy, and Cindy will be the one to die at the end of 1978's story. Near the end, we learn Ziggy's real name is "Christine", to explain the initial, but... why not just omit the word "Ziggy" in the first place? If we only know her in the present as "C", then she could be Christine or Cindy, and we'd still have a mystery, right? But with the clunky "C." nonsense, any halfway intelligent viewer would notice the attempt at subterfuge (ironically, I talked to a few people who were half-watching and never even noticed there was a twist attempt but still had no doubt that Jacobs was playing the grown up Ziggy). Plus, she is telling the story to 1994's survivors, and near the end one of them is like "Wait, YOU'RE Ziggy!" - how the hell was she telling this story about her own tragic past without revealing which person she was in the story? It's just so dumb, and needless.

This aside, I liked the movie more than the first; still had some issues, but overall I found it more my speed, and didn't even need social media peer pressure to get me interested in the third, even if the trailer suggested it was ditching the slasher stuff entirely in favor of witchcraft. Ironically, despite my preference for body count fare, I think the 3rd one, 1666, was the best of the lot; not only did it have almost NO pop songs (because duh) allowing Marco Beltrami's solid score to shine a little brighter, it also dropped just about every problem I had with the others (wonky pacing, aggravating characters) and finally giving us the story of Sarah Fier, the accused witch who may or may not be the root of all of Shadyside's problems. The cast from the other two all come back as their own ancestors (or just others; Sarah is played by the same actress who plays Deena in the 1994 segments, though they aren't related and the movie even tells us that the real Sarah didn't look like her, but thematically it works) and struggle with the old timey accents, but the entire period detail is unconvincing so it fits in a way; almost like you're watching a '90s kid interpret the events through their own mindset as opposed to one rooted in reality (with the Deena/Sarah casting fitting perfectly in that sense).

Fier's story turns out to be more interesting than we'd been led to believe thus far, culminating in a pre-death send off speech that is far and away the highlight of the entire trilogy. And (surprise of sorts coming in) the 1666 part of the tale is only about half of the movie; we then return to 1994 for the finale that ties everything together in an effective way, with the 1994 kids teaming up with Jacobs (1978's survivor) to settle the business that started in 1666, once and for all. Whether it will be enough to win over anyone who flat out hated the first two movies, I don't know, but if you feel the way I did about them I think you'll agree that the way they built on each other almost even retroactively improved the others. I can't say with certainty that I'll ever make time to rewatch 1994 again, but if I did, I think I'll enjoy it a bit more, if only for the sequels filling in all the town rivalry backstory that was driving so much of the first film, and knowing the characters eventually redeem themselves. Also, I tend to find any movie that suffers from a slow pace is usually easier to watch a second time around, now that you're adequately prepared for its lapses.

The final shot of 1666 sets up a sequel, and given the response it seems Netflix would be silly to fail to deliver on that promise, especially given the wealth of RL Stine source material to draw from. Also, I would be remiss not to mention that, as with the recent Freaky, the films do an excellent job at offering representation (both with regards to race and sexuality) without making a big deal about it, which to me is the best way to do it - without making themselves a target for the ignorant, such folks will likely watch without even realizing how natural and easy it can be. So even if the series had to gradually win ME over (to be clear for the skimmers among you, my ranking is 1666 > 1978 > 1994), it's great that the younger crowd it's aimed at will likely see someone they can identify with in this kind of film, something my non straight white horror pals of the same age never really got when we were growing up, as both LGBTQ and POC characters were always secondary at best (the Black guy in Friday the 13th Part 2 doesn't even die! He just disappears! And I don't think the series ever had a queer character at all). On that front, the series is a resounding success, so if they can work on their storytelling a bit and how/when to dole out exposition in a way that is engaging instead of obtuse, they'll have something that truly lives up to the films that clearly inspired them.

What say you?


House of Wax (2005)

JULY 11, 2021


Even if I disliked 2005's House of Wax, I'd be forever indebted to its existence, because in the Fangoria writeup on the film around the time of its release, director Jaume Collet-Serra noted that it was actually more of a remake of Tourist Trap than its Vincent Price namesake. Knowing next to nothing about Tourist Trap, I tracked down a copy and quickly fell in love with it; in fact it's one of the very few DVDs in my collection that I've watched more than once or twice, as there's almost always another good excuse to revisit it. But, sort of as a bonus in retrospect, I quite liked House of Wax too, and watching again for the first time in over fifteen years (Jesus...) proved it has held up nicely.

In fact I'd almost say it was the best Dark Castle movie if not for Orphan, which is, incidentlly, also from Collet-Serra. I credit him with 50% of Wax's succes, if I'm being honest, as the script (by the Hayes brothers) is nothing particularly special on its own. While it admirably moved away from the Price film (naming a character "Vincent" is about the only connection it has beyond the title) and even Tourist Trap (albeit to a lesser extent), it's for the most part a fairly generic slasher on the page. Our characters run through all the cliches: taking a shortcut, having car trouble, poking around creepy places... in some ways it's almost admirable how unambitious it is on that level, as if they knew whatever flourishes they added would be ignored and any such ideas should be saved for another screenplay where inventiveness might be better received (as any Friday the 13th filmmaker can tell you, the more you divert from the formula, the more you risk angering the fanbase). The one thing they do bring to the table is allowing cell phone use and even letting someone be alerted to danger by a phone message, instead of going the usual "no service" route early on like most of these things. So I'll give the writers that much.

But Collet-Serra is giving 110%, so that you might not even notice how on-rails it can be at times, especially to anyone who had seen the then-recent Texas Chainsaw remake, which it often resembles right down to surprisingly killing the heroine's boyfriend first (a move that might even play better now since said boyfriend is Sam Winchester himself, Jared Padalecki, i.e. a guy you'd think would outlast the three other dudes). Crane shots, diopter shots, long lenses... at a time when TV directors were getting these gigs and giving the movies no personality at all, this newcomer was clearly fired up, doing the sort of work that should make it no surprise he'd be helming big budget Liam Neeson movies in a few years. That he wasn't afraid to hold back on the gore/violence (even against the heroine, who loses a finger and probably wouldn't want to apply lipstick anytime soon after her ordeal) was just icing on the cake; even if shot for PG-13 I suspect his efforts would have been noticed and put him on the list of people to keep an eye on in the future.

The other half of the movie's strength comes from the production design. By now this was sort of a guarantee with the Dark Castle movies, but they hit their apex here with the titular house, which (unlike the original) was indeed made entirely of wax, allowing the fiery finale to showcase some truly icky visuals even though blood/violence wasn't really a factor by that point. There's something incredibly gross about seeing our heroes endlessly sinking and clawing through the mud-like house as it slowly caves in around them (I think I heard on one of the bonus features that it was peanut butter), and after seeing a million scenes of the angry killer smashing through a door to get at his would-be victims, it's kind of great to watch one casually slice through it and then peel it apart without really breaking a sweat. Even if you hated the rest of the movie, that ten minute climax would be something you'd dig, I think.

And the wax figures (read: corpses covered in wax) are no slouches either, as Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray run across well over a dozen as they make their way through the town and give us closeup looks at many (one of which the camera lingers on for a bit as if setting something up, but turns out was a *payoff* for a deleted prologue showing her demise). As we learn on the behind the scenes, most if not all of them were actually living people wearing wax masks, as opposed to just dressing up mannequins or whatever. While this may have been a needless expenditure (not to mention set the filmmakers up for gaffes when the actors inadvertenly moved a bit), it pays off - we've seen dummies/corpses propped up in any number of movies, but the unspoken fact that they're legitimately alive gives their scenes (particularly the movie theater sequence) an extra dose of atmospheric creepiness.

As for the cast, they're, you know, doing their job. Even Paris Hilton seems to "understand the assignment" as the kids say today, and I can't tell if it's funny or sad that, despite her notoriety (and the film's "See Paris Die!" ad campaign) she's actually more likeable than anyone in, say, Texas Chainsaw 3D or some of the other films in this vein that came along later. Hell, I'd root for her over most of the people in the two Fear Street movies that have been released thus far, and it ain't out of any particular fondness for the woman - she's just more sympathetic. Her death IS great though, and I'll always wonder if they pumped it up a bit after she was cast. Also, having not seen it since it came to DVD (i.e. long before Friday the 13th 2009), it was funny to see that Chad Michael Murray's role in the film is a lot like the one Padelecki played in F13, as if he took that role if only to make up for being killed off so quickly here. "Now it's my turn!"

Scream Factory's blu-ray has a new transfer that looks fine to my eyes (as I've noted in the past, I'm not particularly diligent when it comes to tracking these things; as long as I don't have to adjust my existing settings or say "Hey, this looks like shit", I think it's a good presentation) and carries over all of the bonus features from Warner's own DVD/Blu. They also add four new interviews, including one with Hilton, who is very proud of her work here and speaks highly of the cast, Silver, etc. Unfortunately, as was the case before there's almost nothing from Collet-Serra across the board; he pipes in with a few soundbites on the fluffy making of, but that's about it. I would have loved to have known why they cut the original opening, as not only did it have a great kill but the movie took its time to get to the carnage, so it would have bought it some goodwill for those who were getting impatient.

Somewhere on those older features Silver notes that the movie will be in theaters on Halloween, but that ended up not being the case as it was moved up to May, and I'd love to know more about that. Not only did that potentially eat into their post production time, but it also may have cost the movie a few million at the box office, as if they waited they would have the star of Supernatural as another marketing hook (the show premiered that September) but also nabbed the people who tend to get more excited about horror movies in October than they do in May. I assume it was because the October schedule ended up being sort of competitive with IP offerings (The Fog, Doom, and Saw II, all with far more built-in awareness than a 50+ year old Vincent Price movie offered), but again, this is the sort of thing the director would probably address if he was on hand to give his thoughts. Oh well. Maybe for the eventual 4K UHD? I'd be down to get it again; that peanut butter wax will look more viscous than ever!

What say you?


The "Original" Cut of Cursed

Sorry for the relative quiet the past two weeks here, but there's an excuse besides laziness for once: I was researching and then writing this mega-article about the original version of Wes Craven's Cursed, which I was finally able to watch thanks to an anonymous friend (read: don't bug me about how to see it for yourself). The article is up now at the Screamfest site, so if you're starved for some BC-ified rambling, or just a Cursed fan who happened by, head on over and check it out. Regular HMADing will resume shortly; yes I watched Fear Street 1994 but didn't like it much, so hopefully 1978 will either be more to my liking or, if not, give me enough to write something on why it's not working for me (though given its serial nature I think I'd still like to wait for the final installment before passing judgment). I also have the new House of Wax blu on deck (yay!) and Purge 5 when I get a chance to see it. So it'll pick up soon, promise!


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