Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (2021)

NOVEMBER 24, 2021


One thing about covid that's interesting is that it's given movies a new possible reason to be underwhelming, as the logistics of mounting a production under these circumstances can be pretty daunting on top of the usual hurdles filmmaking must entail. So when you add in the fact that there has been and possibly will never be a foolproof formula for adapting a video game into a successful movie, it's almost a miracle that Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is even watchable, let alone "OK" and even kind of fun at times. But I could never shake the feeling that it could have been closer to "genuinely good" if it was produced in 2019, or (hopefully?) a year or two down the road.

Literally from the start, something seemed off about the film. It opens on a flashback of our eventual heroes, Claire and Chris Redfield (I'm going to assume you have at least passing familiarity with the games, just fair warning) at an orphanage, with the former being woken up - seemingly not for the first time - by a mysterious figure no one else thinks exists. The scene seems to last twice as long as any opening flashback of its type should, and there are other examples throughout the film that had me wondering if these scenes weren't supposed to take up as much screentime as they do, but merely had to be padded out in order to get the film into acceptable runtime (which, nowadays, means over 100 minutes, as anything shorter suggests it was compromised) as there were other scenes that had to be scrapped because there was no way to do them right under covid restrictions.

Similarly, there are at least two occasions in the movie where it felt like a scene was dropped, with characters appearing in new locations when they were far away the last time we saw them (in one instance, the character seemingly abandoned their spoken plan entirely and went in the opposite direction). There are also some dropped subplots, like armed mercenary types from Umbrella who are seen executing townsfolk, only to never appear again, let alone be a continual threat to our heroes. It's possible these scenes were indeed filmed and merely dropped for pacing or whatever, but when you consider the aforementioned scenes that go on for so long or simply have no followup, only an 11th hour hack job on par with the "glory years" of Dimension could explain these gaps.

No, I suspect covid and/or perhaps a reduced budget had writer/director Johannes Roberts forced into the unenviable position of having to streamline his ideas into something that could still be coherent and offer up the requisite number of scares and thrills. The movie's heart is clearly in the right place, something that will be very apparent to fans of the games who were left cold by Paul Anderson's dismissal of most of its canon. His films had pretty much all of the franchises' main players show up in some capacity, but the plots never really even came close to the storylines from the games (not surprising since they all revolved around Milla Jovovich's Alice, who has no game counterpart).

In contrast, Roberts definitely dives into the first two games, with Chris and Jill heading to the mansion to investigate what happened to a previous team, while Leon and Claire are out in the city as the latter searches for her brother. The movie presents these narratives as occurring simultaneously (the games were a couple months apart, if memory serves), which works just fine in some cases, but also keeps the two leads apart for far too much of the runtime. With Roberts using the Carpenter font and setting up a big chunk of the film's first half in a police station, it's not hard to think about a potential Assault on Precinct 13 style narrative, where you'd have all these characters with different motives all having to band together to fight zombies and monsters (either at the station or the more famous Spencer Mansion), but the movie is almost over by the time Claire and Leon finally meet up with the others.

(Speaking of Leon, the guy playing him is awful and grating. However you feel about how the character was used in the 5th entry in the previous franchise, at least that actor looked and felt like the actual Leon. This guy's like obvious cannon fodder you have to put up with for the whole movie, and seemingly ends every one of his scenes on some variation of "What the f___?" Maybe non gamers won't notice/care, but considering how much of the rest of the movie seems designed to please them, it's a really bizarre choice.)

Instead, we just keep going back and forth between the two groups, which means there are a couple of good sequences on their own (love the bit of a Licker making its presence known by lumbering on the floor above, making the hanging lights sway in succession until it's obviously right above our hero), but a noted lack of tension. Every time we switch to the other team, it's like hitting a soft reset, and by the time things start getting going with their story, it's time to check in with the others again. Plus, two small teams means there's entirely too much "safe" action - there's a noted lack of non-game characters who are around for more than a scene or two, and you don't have to be a game fan to know that the Redfields, Leon, and Jill are not going to die in this would-be franchise (re)starter, so apart from a few well done jolt moments, there's not a lot of terror to be found. There are bits in that first game - some recreated here! - that can still get a little yelp out of me, but too much of this film felt more like the 5th and 6th games, where action took precedence over horror. People say these movies are as fun as watching someone else play a game, but this goes further - it's like watching someone *expertly* play these games, robbing the viewer of true carnage.

I also couldn't understand the point of the 1998 setting apart from being faithul to the games. Umbrella seemingly controls every aspect of this town, so a simple "no cell phones" excuse doesn't work - they just would have blocked them anyway. It's actually kind of ironically funny when a character is given a Palm Pilot and has no idea what it is; if the movie was set in 2021, anyone under like 35 (as the character is) would be just as confused anyway. Roberts tosses in some '90s pop songs (no Steinman though, so Strangers 2 remains his peak in that department), but otherwise there isn't much point to the setting; for the most part you're likely to forget that it's supposed to be set nearly 25 years ago. And really, given its covid-era production (it was shot in late 2020) it almost seems like a missed opportunity to not draw on it for their plot about a virus spiraling out of control.

The good news is, unless you are simply Pavlovian with your reaction to Easter eggs and references to the games (I admit to laughing out loud at a "Jill sandwich" gag), you don't need to be a fan of the games to get as much enjoyment out of it as you can - I suspect newcomers and hardcore fans alike will agree that it misses the mark. It's certainly a decent enough timekiller, but never really rises above its straightforward goal of "being more faithful." Yeah, sure, you nailed that - but most if not all of Anderson's movies are more engaging and exciting, regardless of how they "ruined" this or that character. So in my book, that's not really an improvement; I'd rather a filmmaker tossed everything and made a movie that stands alone rather than watch one where more time was spent on matching the floor plan of a building than thinking of interesting things for the characters to DO in that building.

What say you?


Maniac Cop 2 & 3

NOVEMBER 21, 2021


To me, the true sign of a new format hitting its stride and being here to stay (so, unlike Divx or HD-DVD) is when high profile direct to video stuff starts coming along. You can always count on the studios to jump into the fray with their classics (it seems Warner Bros puts Goodfellas out on a new format the second it exists), and the boutique labels will test the waters with their big guns (i.e. Scream Factory with Halloween 1-5), but it's not until I see the likes of Maniac Cop 2 and Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence hitting 4K UHD that I can truly breathe easy and know that this is the format we will use for another eight or nine years until something better comes along yet again.

In fact, the original film still isn't even out on the format, making the sequels' appearance all the more wonderful. It was certainly a win for me, as I have never actually seen either of them; I remember a friend putting on MC2 one night when having me and a few other like minded "horror guys" over, but we all talked and drank through the entire thing, so when I sat down to watch it properly (a decade later to boot) it was basically like seeing it for the first time. More than once I've gotten questions about the films wrong during horror trivia, so I had them penciled in to finally get around to seeing anyway - what a treat to get to see them all properly remastered and what not!

Anyone who has watched the credits or behind the scenes stuff on the Fast films will know the name Spiro Razatos, as he has served as the main stunt coordinator for all of the mainline films since Fast Five, but he got his start as a regular stunt guy and later coordinator in smaller genre films like this - one of his first credits as coordinator was the infamous Silent Night Deadly Night 2, in fact, which explains why such a junky film has such amazing stunts (I'm still blown away by the car almost hitting Santa Ricky). William Lustig, who directed all three films (though he didn't shoot all of the 3rd one, more on that later) wisely retained his services each time out, and it's what he brought to the table that makes these films so much more fun than you might expect. The stunt work here, especially in MC2, outpaces what you'll find in movies that cost five times as much.

Razatos' work also helps make up for the fact that, you know, Tom Atkins isn't around anymore. While the vengeful titular character (played by Robert Z'Dar in all three) can be resurrected time and time again, the people he kills stay dead, so Atkins doesn't come back for MC2 and (spoiler for 30 year old movie ahead) surviving co-star Bruce Campbell is wiped out in his third scene, which was probably a real shock to audiences then but for me was pretty much the only thing I remembered about it. He is more or less replaced by Robert Davi, who has considerable presence, but is really used better as an antagonist or foil, not a leading man hero. And it doesn't help that his character seems completely different in the 3rd film, though it makes sense when you listen to the commentary by Lustig and Joel Soisson (who finished the film when Lustig quit; the two have patched things up) and realize the role was indeed written for a new character, but due to the demands of their foreign distributors, they had to bring Davi back via rewrite (unless I missed it, it's unclear how, if all, Davi's character - who survived MC2 - was originally meant to be handled in the 3rd film).

Luckily, Lustig stacked his supporting cast with so many ringers that it hardly matters who the lead is. Davi's Die Hard co-stars Grand Bush and Paul Gleason pop up in the third one, as does Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, and Ted Raimi. And in MC2 you get even more! Leo Rossi, Clarence Williams III, Charles Napier, Michael Lerner, and Danny Trejo are all on hand, as is Sam Raimi, reprising his newscaster role from the first film (Ted is the newscaster in 3, but I'm not sure if he's supposed to be the same guy - either way, it's a funny recasting). I was actually disappointed to see producer/writer Larry Cohen didn't rope Michael Moriarty into one of them somewhere.

Lustig has said that the 2nd film is his favorite of all the ones he's done, and while I can certainly see why he'd feel that way, I gotta be honest: I think I actually preferred 3, if only by a hair (I gave them both three stars, if that's how you measure success). Maybe it's because my expectations were so low due to knowing that it had problems (Lustig even took his name off; he's credited as Alan Smithee), but while MC2 is a lot of fun it's basically a straight up action movie with some supernatural elements tossed into the mix, and has that Predator 2 problem (hey, Davi is in that one too!) where the hero spends most of the movie trying to figure out what we already know from the first movie. So the action is top notch, yes, but the story itself is never very involving even by sequel standards.

Badge of Silence, on the other hand, apes Bride of Frankenstein (!) and has Cordell sort of protecting a would-be successor, a female cop who likes to jump into the fray and worry about things like paperwork later. She is brain dead from a shootout, so Cordell stalks the hospital, murdering doctors who don't care about trying to save her while Davi tries to clear her name (some tabloid guys who filmed the shootout made it look like she killed an innocent witness). Not only does this keep the film from feeling too much like a retread (and also doesn't make 2's weird mistake of focusing on a different villain for most of the middle of the movie), but the voodoo-tinged elements and Bride aping puts it back into horror territory. There are still a pair of great action scenes (hard to top 2's car chase, admittedly, but this time Cordell is on fire the entire time so that gives it some oomph), but overall it comes off more as a traditional revenge movie like Dr. Phibes or something, albeit filtered through Lustig and Cohen's warped/grindhouse sensibilities.

Both films come with a decent smattering of bonus features, though the only ones on the 4K disc are the trailers and the commentaries. Nicolas Refn moderates Lustig on MC2, and it's not the best track I've ever heard - Refn is bizarrely obsessed with the film's financing and distribution history as opposed to what is happening on screen, so while there are some good insights here and there (including a pretty funny story of how they landed Davi in the first place), I spent most of the time wishing Lustig had just gone solo and maybe talked more about, you know, the actual movie. However, even if you hate Badge of Silence, I think you'll enjoy the (new) commentary with Lustig and Soisson, as the two have let bygones be bygones but occasionally stumble into awkward territory (on occasion they can't remember who directed a certain scene, Soisson brings up a Fangoria where Lustig mocked him, etc), making it the sort of candid track we rarely get to hear anymore. The rest of the bonus features, all from the previous releases, are on the included standard Blu-ray, and include a Q&A from a screening of MC2, a few deleted scenes, and a retrospective doc for each films. As those Blu-rays are nearly a decade old I'm sure anyone who really wanted them has seen them by now, but it's good that they're all included; as with the commentaries, the retrospectives don't hold back on unpleasant matters about the films' respective productions, so that's always a plus.

A remake (by Refn, in fact) has been in the works for a while, though I'm sure the real life crimes of police officers make a story about a framed cop a hard sell right now, unless they plan to lean into it and update the story for today's world. On the other hand, some folks might take pleasure at scenes of Cordell mowing down entire precincts (as he does in MC2), so I dunno. A remake will certainly get Synapse inspired to remaster the original (again, assuming it's still under their control), so for that alone I'm all for it - these two are going to look lonely on my shelf without the original next to them! (I only had the DVD, and got rid of it a while ago because it was such a bad transfer; I assume if I were to buy the Blu-ray they will announce a 4K before my purchase even got delivered, so I'm gonna let someone else take that bullet.) If you already own the Blus and don't care much about improved transfers, there's definitely no need to upgrade 2, but MC3 is worth buying for the new commentary for sure - or just to, like Lustig himself, give it a fresh look and realize it's really not all that bad.

What say you?


Antlers (2021)

NOVEMBER 3, 2021


If my memory hasn't failed me, Antlers is the last of the delayed horror movies whose trailers appeared nearly every time I went to the drive-in over the past eighteen months (the others were Candyman, Night House, and Spiral). When you add in the times I've seen it before the normal theatrical excursions I've had since (including Night House itself!), I've probably seen the trailer thirty times by now, which could be a record? But if anything it makes me appreciate the movie all the more, as it doesn't really give the whole thing away; despite my overexposure to two minutes' worth of its footage, it was a pretty fresh viewing experience.

Not that the trailer was misleading or anything; it tells you what we're dealing with (a Wendigo) and also shows that its young protagonist, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas, who is terrific) is feeding it and keeping it locked up. But the devil's in the details, and thankfully that's where the trailer didn't show too much, opting for atmospheric scare shots and a general vibe as opposed to spelling everything out. Even basic things, like the fact that Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons' characters are siblings, were things I learned from actually watching the movie, which was just kind of amusing when you consider how long (not)Fox Searchlight has been trying to sell me on it.

That said, while I enjoyed the movie a lot, it does suffer a bit from being based on a very short story by Nick Antosca. The basics are accounted for in his story (teacher, kid, "pet" Wendigo) but if they were to film it to the letter, it'd probably be about ten minutes long. That means adding a lot to the feature, including more on the Wendigo (not even mentioned in the story; Antosca just describes a man-eating monster with, yes, antlers), a bully for Lucas, a prologue about his family, and an abusive past for Russell and Plemons' characters. But it never quite shakes that "expanded from a short story" feeling; Plemons' sheriff character basically has to keep saying "my hands are tied!" or something every time something happens to allow it to keep going to hit feature length, because if the cops were more proactive the movie would be over in about a half hour or so. I think it takes something like three characters to go missing before he finally starts asking questions.

Which means it's great that they casted Plemons, because how can you not love that guy? Let him bumble about, bless him! But he and Russell's character also had an abusive upbringing, and here the script could have used a little more expansion. Not that I want awful details about whatever their dad did to them, but their mom is barely mentioned, and Russell eventually ran away (feeling guilty for leaving her brother to deal with the abuse alone), but has returned to town for... reasons? It's never really explained why she came back at all. We can assume it has something to do with her being an alcoholic; Russell completely nails a wordless "newly sober person dying for a drink" moment with just a mere pursing of her lips (before we even see the booze she's eyeing), but again, details are not forthcoming. In a more densely plotted film, it would be enough (honestly, for a horror movie it's, if anything, an above average amount of backstory), but when the plot is basically "a teacher finds out her troubled student is living with a monster" and little else, these shortcomings are easier to notice.

However, the monster stuff is all great! The creature itself, rarely even glimpsed until the final reel, is a terrific design (fans of The Ritual will be into it) that justifies the film's kind of silly title, and there's a jump scare kill that even gave me a jolt. I was a bit disappointed when I read the story after to discover that the film denied us the second monster Antosca had envisioned (I don't want to spoil the particulars), but the solo act works fine. And thanks to Thomas' performance, it's actually a fairly upsetting sequence of events; you really feel for this poor kid and how much he has lost/loses in the film. Plus, without getting into spoilers, one could compare to something like The Wolf Man or The Fly in that "Antlers" is not a monster by choice; a key flashback moment about an hour into the film is pretty surprising when you discover how far along the doomed character was before losing their humanity.

It's also a lovely looking film, albeit for a grimy-ass town. As usual, Canada is used for our Northwest (Oregon, specifically; a switch from the story's West Virginia setting), but it's a pretty good fit - nothing really stood out as being "off" to my eyes. They didn't even cast Julian Richings or Stephen McHattie! The major characters played by Canadian cast members are Michael Eklund and Graham Greene, whose role definitely could have been fleshed out more (he has no counterpart in the short story but feels like a character whose significance was reduced due to the adaptation process, funnily enough). And producer Guillermo Del Toro brought his Pan's Labyrinth composer Javier Navarrete along for the ride; it's not an "all timer" score or anything but it at least doesn't sound like every other goddamn movie out there. I saw the new Bond the next day and while I liked it a lot, Hans Zimmer's score was lazy even by his modern standards - half the action climax was set to a barely reworked version of his Dark Knight theme. So any time I see a movie with a score that isn't constantly reminding me of fifteen other movies, I feel I should point it out. Encouragement is key!

With a little more character work this could have been a contender for my top 10 of the year (if that was something I bothered to do), but as is I'm just happy to see an original and professionally made "Hollywood" monster movie again, since they are so rare in this world of James Wannabe efforts and sequels. I don't think the long delay helped it any (even Del Toro's name didn't seem to help it much; though maybe that wouldn't have been the case if there wasn't a genuine GDT film coming out in a few weeks), but I'm glad I got to see it in a theater instead of having it become another covid casualty, sent to streaming for audiences who never take one eye off their phone the entire time. Keep up the good fight, filmmakers, and I'll keep buying tickets.

What say you?


Blu-Ray Review: Demons & Demons 2

NOVEMBER 2, 2021


Technically I saw Phenomena (as Creepers) and Zombie (as "Zombie 2" aka "Dawn of the Dead 2") first, but Lamberto Bava's Demons was the first time I watched a movie specifically to watch "an Italian horror movie", borrowed on VHS from a friend who was a little more cultured than I was at that point in my life (16 or 17?). So hundreds of gialli and zombie and whatever the hell those "La Casa" sequels are later, it's fun to go back to what more or less started my affinity for their brand of horror. Synapse has remastered the first film along with Demons 2 and packaged them as one, with lots of bonus features old and new, giving me a fine excuse to revisit them for a rare home viewing. Since they both tend to show relatively often around here, I can't even remember the last time I watched the first one at home - it might have been the Anchor Bay DVD sometime in college? And Demons 2 was a HMAD review from the first few months!

Needless to say the films look the best I've seen. There's a 4K UHD release as well, which is what I requested for review, but they sent me the standard Blu-ray set, which doesn't have as many bonus features and, obviously, lacks the Ultra High Def image I was looking forward to. But suffice to say even the regular Blu looks pretty great for both films, minus the occasional damage to the master print that isn't any fault of theirs (a few exterior shots in Demons 2 look like they are... vibrating? I don't know how to describe it), allowing Sergio Stivaletti's makeup effects to truly shine. The man loves having teeth fall out and get replaced with bigger, gnarlier teeth, and those shots display his practical mastery in all their glory. Italian and English audio is available for both films as well, so long story short it's safe to say these will be the definitive editions for these oft-released films.

And they hold up well! It's been a while since I've seen either of them, and I was pleased to discover that after all these years, Demons remains a favorite when it comes to Italian horror, placing only under a couple of Argento's films if I were to rank the whole lot of them. The opening sequence on the subway still plays great, the pacing is strong, the supporting cast is entertaining... everything is pretty entertaining even before the damn demons show up. And yes, I know I called it a zombie movie when they're demons, but as with 28 Days Later, they function the same way (get bitten and change, swarms attacking, etc) so I feel the label is fair. The key difference is that the more overt supernatural elements allow Bava, Stivaletti, etc. to have a little more fun and imagination with their gore/horror scenes - there's a sort of Evil Dead-esque kitchen sink attitude to the proceedings that keeps you on your toes.

This is even more evident in the second film, where a demon literally comes out of the TV (in an effect that looks like CGI before they had access to such a thing! They figured it out!) and another little Gremlin-y kinda puppet demon runs around for a while. Plus there's an evil dog out of The Thing for good measure. The sequel as a whole isn't as good as the first, and I don't recommend watching them back to back due to the sameyness (it's amusing that of the two returning cast members, one seems like he's playing the same guy while the other is a total 180 from his previous character), but it's good fun all the same, and (spoiler for 35 year old movie ahead) I like that it ends hopefully, instead of the out of nowhere downer end of the first in which our heroine suddenly becomes a demon and is nonchalantly dispatched in a world being overrun. The do-over approach in the sequel doesn't extend to its denouement; our survivors walk out into a bright sunny day and there's no indication that things are about to get worse. Yay!

As mentioned, the Blu-ray version doesn't have as many bonus features as the 4K set, but based on my research it seems everything that got left out are legacy bonus features a fan might have on previous releases anyway. The handful of new features are present on both versions, including a historian commentary for each film. The first movie is blessed with the usually fun track from Kat Ellinger, who is joined by Heather Drain, and the pair do the usual historian stuff but frequently pause their own insightful observations or history lesson by noting a particularly amusing gore effect or line reading, keeping things from getting too dry. This is sadly not the case for the second film, which is a solo track by Travis Crawford that can be a bit of a snoozer at times, as he rarely addresses the film at all and occasionally even seems to be forgetting he's doing the sequel, as he gives a history of movie-theater set horror films that seems ill-fitting for a film that does not take place in a movie theater. He also bizarrely ends it on a downer note about Asia Argento (who made her debut here), discussing her assault by Harvey W, her own sexual assault accusations from a younger actor, and the suicide of her partner - all over scenes long after her character had exited! It's weird, and once again had me thinking that these things need two people conversing over them to stay engaging.

The other new features are visual essays. On Demons 2, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas contributes "Together and Apart", a look at both films and how they use space and their respect locations (and mediums) to tell their stories, noting things like Cheryl going from a crowded subway car to an empty, gothic looking subway station, and how the climax of Demons 2 has the heroes have their final showdown in a television studio, a fitting visual metaphor since TV was the source of all the carnage in the film. If you're not a fan of the films you'll find it ludicrous that anyone involved put that much thought into it, but Alexandra makes a strong case that the films are smarter than they appear on the surface. On the first film, Michael Mackenzie runs through Argento's career as a producer, which naturally means it's not particularly Demons-centric (if anything he seems to have more to say about everything else, in particular Michele Soavi's later Church and Sect films) but if you're an Argento fan you won't mind much; it's not often you get to hear anyone exploring his work outside of his own directorial efforts.

That said, it would have been nice to hear more about the films' actual director, Lamberto Bava. The UHD version has an interview with Bava ("Carnage at the Cinema") but it didn't make the cut for this stripped down release. Instead we get TWO interviews with Argento himself where he says a lot of the same things, though amusingly he says in one he probably won't work with Bava again and in the other says he would love to do that, plus a lengthy chat with Claudio Simonetti (in English; Argento's are in Italian) where he talks about his work on this film and, of course, his other collaborations with the maestro, and an interview with stuntman Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, which is fun until he depressingly notes that Italy only produces about 25 films a year now, down from hundreds as was the case at the time of these films.

Bava thankfully gets to pop up on Demons 2's own set of bonus features, a lengthy chat (also in Italian) where he notes some of the story issues and also that most of the script for The Church (which began life as Demons 3) is his, even if his name was removed from the credits. This is backed up by his son Roy (aka Fabrizio) Bava, who offers his own look back at the work he did with his father over the years, even alluding to being jealous of his relationship with Soavi at one point. Stivaletti also gets to discuss his work on the two films, and finally composer Simon Boswell talks about HIS unintentional career as a composer (he basically fell into it and never really left), which kicked off with Demons 2. It's curious that none of the actors from either film are on hand; I've seen a couple of them at conventions and screenings, so it's not like they're not willing to discuss them (or hard to find), but based on what I can tell from the listing on the 4K UHD version, they don't show up on there either. Also, not surprising, but worth noting - the original commentary for Demons that was on the Anchor Bay DVD remains MIA, as it has for a while now. I was hoping to hear it again because the moderator asks Bava what is happening when the helicopter crashes through the roof, prompting Bava to say "I don't know" - so good. Alas, as with a lot of AB bonus features, it seems to be unavailable for other labels to include, which is a shame.

These remasters are only available together, which might be frustrating for fans who only want the original and have to pay extra for the unwanted sequel, but for those who enjoy both, I really can't see them ever being improved (beyond somehow acquiring those legacy features). Yes, it's a shame that only the 4HD set includes all of the bonus features (on the UHD disc itself; there's none of that obnoxious "movie only and the supplements are on a separate blu-ray" here), but even the stripped down 1080p set has hours of extras in addition to the excellent transfers, so you can't really go wrong with either of them (my guess is that anyone who truly cares about bonus features anymore is also the kind of person who will have upgraded to 4K by now). And if you've somehow never seen the films, there's no better time than the present to enjoy a film about someone who hesitantly goes to a movie theater only for some kind of awful disease to spread throughout the crowd! Wait.

What say you?


Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin (2021)

NOVEMBER 1, 2021


Like most people in the world (including its crew, more on that soon!) I was disappointed with The Ghost Dimension, the alleged "finale" of the Paranormal Activity franchise that didn't really tie anything up and if anything just added more plot threads to the already overburdened canon for the once simple franchise. So when I heard that the revival film, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin (no relation to Patrick Swayze OR Australian sugar cubes) would be a standalone entry with no ties to Katie, Toby, etc, I was kind of relieved. Not only would I get to spare myself a refresh of the last few entries to properly arm myself for the storyline, but maybe there would be a "back to basics" kind of approach that would allow the series to actually be scary again.

Alas, my hopes went out the window in the first scene, when I saw that the film was presented in widescreen. As I've said before, the appeal of the "found footage"/POV aesthetic is that, when it works well (i.e. the first film) you can believe you're watching something that actually happened, which doesn't quite work when it looks exactly like every other movie out there. Some scenes don't even bother to try to sell the illusion of a first person perspective and present their moments in a traditional 3rd person manner, which isn't the worst idea (if anything I've called for it to be tried), but without changing the aspect ratio or putting up a timestamp/red dot "recording" kind of overlay, there's often no real way to know if you're watching POV footage or not. As with IMAX sequences in otherwise standard films, or Freddy's Dead with its "put your glasses on now" gimmick, there needs to be a clear "break" to prime the audience for this kind of change, but that never happens here. There's a dinner scene that is either switching back and forth between the two, or suggesting a very nimble cameraman - the fact that I'm not sure is kind of a problem.

So the movie curiously hamstrings itself with the found footage approach, but "cheats" out of it on occasion with no discernible rhyme or reason, and I spent half my viewing wondering why. The plot calls for cameras, of course; our heroine, Margot, is making a documentary about her search for her mother, who abandoned her as an infant and left her not knowing any of her family. Via 23andme she discovers a relative in an Amish community, so her and her cameraman (plus a kooky boom guy they hire) head there, and thankfully it only takes about nine seconds after their arrival for things to not seem right (I'll give it this much, it doesn't drag out the spooky goings on as much as some other films in this sub-genre). And apart from a few snafus with the POV approach (like an early scene where there is clearly two cameras filming the action but only one has been established), so far it's all more or less in the usual wheelhouse for this sort of thing - but it's at this point it seems that it would have made more sense if the characters dropped the cameras and the filmmakers presented the rest of the story traditionally, with perhaps one or two cam sequences for good measure and also trailers.

In fact, given the religious/demon elements that the film centers on, I couldn't help but think of [Rec] at times, and in turn, think about how that series' 3rd film took this approach, starting off with cameras and then switching out of that mode in order to give the story its ideal presentation. That's not what happens here; the narrative is actually pretty interesting (SPOILER: you might be reminded of The Sentinel), but it's constantly being held back by the needless POV structure. The best of the other films had their characters set up mounted cameras to avoid us in the audience having the "why are they filming this?" questions (no one will question why an oscillating fan is still filming!), but there's no such luck here. As a result, in order to get key information the characters have to film themselves doing everything, even going to the auto parts store to buy a car battery (considering they're in Amish country and have to rely on a tempermental generator to charge things, you'd think they'd be a little choosier with when they turned the cameras on). With every interesting story reveal, I kept thinking how much more engaged I'd be if I wasn't forced to constantly wonder why the cameras were being brought out, or - given that the cams WOULD be abandoned at times - why the director wasn't switching out of it there as well.

And yeah, you can "just go with it" the way you did for things like Parks & Rec (which aped The Office's documentary structure but never actually had a camera crew present in its narrative), but that doesn't quite work for a horror movie. By constantly being flip flopped between being a fly on the wall or being "in their head", the scare potential is constantly being betrayed by (attentive) viewer confusion. When a character descends into a long shaft, it could have been an atmospheric creepfest, and a typical horror film would have a very wide shot to illustrate the depth of the hole and how isolated the character was, but instead we get her POV... sometimes. Sometimes it goes up to her friend's POV, who is sure to grab his camera and look at the hole as he operates the winch. As a result, it ends up being kind of a dull scene (not helped by the fact she goes back up almost instantly), hampered by nonsensical character decisions being made in order for us to see all of it. There's another scene where they have to restart the generator during a snowstorm, and I couldn't help but think how tense it might have been with traditional angles and editing, instead of me wondering "Don't they have flashlights? Why are they risking dropping their expensive camera in the snow to film themselves trudging through snow? Do they plan to use this footage in their family documentary?" It's that sort of thing, over and over, until I just kind of checked out. As with 3D, the POV aesthetic is a tool, and a good one when wielded correctly, but when misused it's just a turn off, at least for me. If you're going to ask me to deal with shakey camerawork, a lead character who we rarely see, etc., there should be some benefit to the approach, but I could find no such thing here.

Which is a shame, because the climax is great. If you participated in any of the "drive thru" haunts that cropped up last year due to covid, you might feel right at home when two survivor characters attempt to escape the burning farm as various possessed (or just angry?) townsfolk chase after them, as does the film's new demon - it really felt like one of those Halloween Horror mazes that I drove through last year because doing them in person wasn't possible. Also the final scene is pretty chilling, as is the implication for what could happen next if this film proves to be a success for Paramount Plus (and yes, I AM annoyed I couldn't see this in theaters; it's actually kind of ironic given its widescreen presentation that this is the first one that actually went direct to video). But alas, too little too late.

Not to mention that this is a weird way to try to revive a dying franchise after six years. Someone from the film likened it to Season of the Witch, and while that is an acceptable point of reference in theory, it doesn't quite work the same way. Halloween III came out one (1) year after Halloween II, a film that seemingly finished off the Michael Myers story for good. This film is coming after a narrative that was riddled with unanswered questions, and after several years to boot, so the fact that it's unrelated AND doesn't even really FEEL like an entry in the series (they don't even do "Night #1"!) makes the Halloween III comparison a poor one. What the series needed was something like H20, a soft reset that brought back the elements and characters we enjoyed and got things back on track while ignoring specific beats that weren't working. I mean, even Spiral had more connection to its older franchise than this had - this often felt like an unrelated movie entirely that was slapped with the PA name.

It was released alongside Unknown Dimension, a documentary about the franchise thus far, covering each film in sequence. One might think it's too new of a franchise to warrant the "Crystal Lake Memories treatment", but one should consider that the films' blu-rays have been noticeably bare bones so far - no commentaries, no behind the scenes pieces, etc. Some have deleted scenes or extended versions (sans any commentary explaining why the scenes were excised), but that's been about it, so this doc is really the first time we've gotten to hear the cast and crew (pretty much everyone of note is here) talk about how their film(s) came together. One entry was basically shot and reshot up until the release date, which finally explains why its trailer had so much footage that wasn't in the film itself. In fact it might have even been the first time I actually saw what any of the directors looked like besides Oren Peli, because I've met him (a good place as any to note I am in the film as well, as a "horror expert" or whatever the hell they call me when I do these things).

It's also refreshingly candid; the director of Ghost Dimension alludes to there being too many cooks in the kitchen and having the 3D element forced on him, and Jason Blum flat out says that one and PA4 are bad. And that makes me wish they had waited a bit longer so they could be frank about the new film as well; the cast and crew appear near the end, speaking from the set about how they want to bring the series back, but noticeably absent from this section is the film's writer, who has noted (via Twitter) that there were unfortunate compromises on this new one as well. If the IMDb is to be believed (...) another film is on the way, apparently (subtitled The Other Side, so we might get someone filming their trip to the dentist to get braces), and will return to the world of Katie and Kristi. But honestly I don't care so much about that as I do the producers taking a good hard look at what made the first film as good as it was and trying to revive THAT, with or without video cameras.

What say you?


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