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If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking a few times a month, and it's better late than never! Most reviews nowadays are labeled "FTP:" and you should read THIS PRIMER to understand why. Also, while they're marked nowadays, many of the site's older reviews (i.e. 2010 or older) do contain unannounced spoilers, so tread carefully! Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.

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Fall (2022)

AUGUST 14, 2022

GENRE: SURVIVAL, THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I do not really have a fear of heights; I've been on top of the Empire State Building (well, the platform part of it, not the *actual* top) and didn't feel any different than I did on the ground. However, I DO have a weird fear of ladders, one that even extends to video games - I'm fine with climbing them, but when it comes to getting back on them to climb down I freak out. So while the primary "scary" part of Fall didn't really get my pulse racing, the reason they're stuck made up for it - their ladder broke apart when trying to climb back down! My apparent worst fear!

For those who haven't seen the trailer or heard the premise (likely, since Lionsgate barely advertised this thing), the movie is about two 20somethings who climb a decommissioned 2,000 foot electrical tower in the middle of the desert for their own personal reasons. Hunter is doing it for her Youtube channel, Becky is planning to spread the ashes of her husband who died a year earlier on a mountain climb (the three loved doing these sort of extreme adventures). They get to the top OK and achieve their personal goals, but are then stuck at the top due to the aforementioned accident. They only have fifty feet of rope, so rappelling down isn't an option, and the smooth pole gives them nothing to use as footholds or whatever. And in a rare novel use of the obligatory "no cell" plot point, they actually had a signal at the bottom (despite being in the middle of nowhere) but now are merely too high up for it to work.

So it's one of those movies like Frozen (Anchor Bay, not Disney) or 247°F where you in the audience is constantly thinking "Why don't they do this?" and then, more often than not, the screenwriters have it covered by showing exactly how that won't work. But there's a sort of dark humor to these experiments you know will keep failing until the movie hits the 90 (or so) minute mark; for example, when Becky (Grace Caroline Currey, who was one of the girls in Annabelle: Creation) tries to charge their drone by using an outlet at the very top of the tower (about 30 feet above their tiny platform), she isn't having too much trouble hanging on and keeping the thing connected - but she IS constantly being menaced by a vulture who is attracted to the nasty cut she suffered earlier. And when they realize that a well packed phone can send a message from the ground, they use up their socks and a shoe to give it a little "box", only for it to be not be enough. But we don't see that at the time, they just show us the phone in pieces later, as if to say "Oh yeah by the way that was a waste of their socks."

Unfortunately, it's also a modern genre movie about two women, so before they even get to the tower we get hints that Hunter (played by Halloween '18's Virginia Gardner) has slept with Becky's husband (Scream 5's Mason Gooding - so much genre sequel cred here!). To be fair, it's not just throwaway "drama" as it often is - the affair left Hunter feeling even worse about it when the husband died, unable to be supportive to her best friend... but it's still the 4000th example of this plot point in the past 15 years or so. The Descent did it perfectly, and I understand why any survival horror movie would want to try to reach that movie's heights, but this one steals it wholesale (the guy dies, the friends drift apart, then reunite due to their shared love of dangerous adventure), complete with the "other woman" having something with the man's favorite saying, tipping off our heroine.

SKIP THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS TO AVOID MAJOR SPOILERS!

The problem with using this device in a studio release (one that was very obviously edited from an R to a PG-13 for commercial prospects; enjoy lots of "freaking") is that we now know Hunter will die, because there's still a puritan "Hays Code" kind of rule in play for like 95% of the movies you see in theaters. Had the two of them just been normal best friends without any drama, there would be more suspense to the proceedings, as while Becky's survival was basically a given, Hunter was a wild card until we discovered this guilty secret. Then it just became a matter of when, and that in itself wouldn't be so bad if (reminder, SPOILERS!) the movie decides to steal once again by ripping off 47 Meters Down (so, even if you read *this* paragraph, skip the *next* one if you haven't seen that one either!).

In that movie, the nitrogen narcosis led to one character hallucinating a happier ending for her and her sister, only for her brain to rewire itself properly and realize that the sister got eaten by a shark several movie minutes earlier. They do the same thing here (though it's just a regular ol' mental break); at a certain point Becky has a suggestion that requires Hunter's other shoe and Hunter says it's not going to work because the shoe is "down there." Becky looks down and sees Hunter's corpse, and she/we realize that an earlier fall - which she supposedly survived by grabbing their rope at the last second - was actually fatal, and Hunter's last 20-25 minutes of screentime has been imaginary. I mean, nearly every genre movie has some kind of "borrowing" in play, but it's rare to see a film swipe major plot points so specifically from others in the same "women are stuck!" sub-genre (one from the same studio no less). The goal of any movie like this is to distinguish itself from others in the sub-genre so it stands out, and this one manages to have more of its own identity in its early scenes, only to start reminding us of other movies at a time we should be fully sucked into this particular situation. Even Tim Despic's score sounds like Descent's (composed by David Julyan) at times, as if they thought that going up really high instead of down into the earth would be enough for no one to notice the similarities.

But outside of that, it gets the job done. Seeing the plans seemingly work only to fail due to an unexpected last second development never stopped amusing me, both actresses were appealing and funny (affair aside, their sisterly bond is strong, and thus they're quick to tease each other as only besties can), and it's only on a very brief occasions that the illusion of their predicament was spoiled by some dodgy FX. The survival elements could have been handled better (they're up there for two days or so with one bottle of water and no food; and there's no shade whatsoever during the day/no protective clothing for the harsh night, but none of it seems to matter much), but director/co-writer Scott Mann manages to keep things visually engaging despite their limited space to move (and he thankfully only cuts to the ground/other characters when absolutely necessary, keeping the camera on them otherwise nonstop).

Plus it was nice to see one of these on the big screen for a change, as it's rare to get the chance unless there's a shark involved. Frozen's release was pretty tiny, and most of the others I've seen went straight to DVD/streaming, with only scattered festival appearances to give folks the opportunity to tense up together. Not that there was much of that with my particular crowd (I eventually moved my seat after the lady in front of me straight up just started watching TikTok videos), but I'm guessing it'll play even better with an audience that's sucked in instead of looking at their goddamn phones. I read that this WAS indeed going to be a streaming debut but some good test screenings had Lionsgate change their mind, so I'm glad taking a chance on theaters is still a thing that can happen (though the box office suggests it wasn't exactly a home run decision). Hopefully the eventual Blu-ray will have the R rated version so we're not stuck with the laughable "Let's get off this FREAKING tower" forever.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

They / Them (2022)

AUGUST 5, 2022

GENRE: SLASHER
SOURCE: STREAMING (PEACOCK)

Ideally, every movie would be a slasher, far as I'm concerned. There's no other sub-genre of film I am more endeared to, and as we've seen from Freaky and Happy Death Day, it's a great way to reinvigorate another sub-genre, by just adding a masked killer to the proceedings (of a body swap comedy and a Groundhog Day scenario, respectively). But alas, the movie They/Them ultimately only really served one purpose for me: proving that throwing a wannabe Jason Voorhees into another movie - in this case, a drama about a LGBTQ "conversion camp" - doesn't work at all, with one half of the equation ultimately canceling out whatever good could have come from the other. Ironically, I've been converted! I was wrong to think a masked killer can make anything work!

In the film, a group of queer teens (all of whom are played by actual queer actors from what I understand) arrive at one of those nefarious camps where the counselors will hopefully wipe out their sinful gay ways (these places actually exist, by the way - feel free to torch them during the offseason if you get a chance). Usually they're run by Christian wackos, but as head counselor Kevin Bacon explains quickly, they're not like that - "This will be the last time you hear "God" here" he says, almost immediately making us wonder what their deal is, then. If it's not a religious thing, who the hell cares if they're gay or not? Well apparently he can't change that, but does want to help them "fit in" better by boosting their skills along gender divides circa 1950 - teaching the men how to hunt and the women how to bake a pie (for the men to eat). Basically he seems to be saying that they can eat their cake and have it too with just some guidance from him and his team.

But he clearly doesn't support trans kids, forcing a non-binary (but clearly "male from birth") to board with the boys and later making one girl stay in the boy's cabin as well when it's discovered she hasn't had her transition. He occasionally shows a lighter, "we're not so different" side to him (bonding with the most outwardly flamboyant boy about their love of show tunes, for example), but his passive aggressive use of the wrong pronouns and such never let us forget he's, you know, doing more harm than good for these kids. Folks made a big deal of Bacon "returning to his roots" (summer camps + Bacon = Friday the 13th, of course) but I actually kept thinking about White Water Summer, the '80s movie where Bacon ran an outdoors adventure thing where he took a quartet of boys and taught them survival skills, but went kind of crazy and ended up terrorizing them. It's clear the same thing is going to happen here: the challenges from the kids (like when the non-binary "boy" wears a dress) are going to get to him and he's gonna drop all pretense of being on their side.

That movie probably would have been fine on its own, but before we even meet Bacon we meet another counselor who is on her way to the camp when she is murdered by a masked stranger, so we know that there's something else going on. The slasher element is very sparse until the movie's final 20 minutes, and after the second kill it's clear that the murderer is only after the counselors. This "rule" basically breaks the movie; we know the kids aren't in any danger, and we also know that it's not Bacon doing all of this, because why would he be masked to corner his own employees one by one and off them? But there's literally only one character it can possibly be: the lone counselor who is sympathetic to the teens and is also introduced as a last minute hire (which, again, makes the mask pointless, but one can assume the other employees wouldn't let their guard down as much around someone they just met as they would around Bacon. There's also the possibility that someone watching is dumb enough to think the killer might be one of the kids, so there's that).

The complete failure of the slasher element keeps the camp drama from working as much as it should. For starters, the attention they need to pay to it, even though it's brief, means some of the kids never get a chance to really shine. Or even speak in some cases; once a body is discovered and everyone goes into high alert, one of the main teens is tasked with taking six others (who have never even been identified by name, let alone given a "moment") to safety, at which point I realized how tone deaf it was to focus a movie on a group who struggle to be heard and then leave half of them as glorified extras. My only guess as to why they were in the movie at all was to pad the numbers out for anyone watching and thinking "How can this place be profitable with only seven kids per season?" But they're not the only ones who get short-changed; one girl is actually there by choice, as she desperately wants to fit in and please her parents, but her arc is basically forgotten once the slashing starts up for real. The obligatory closeted jock starts a relationship with the flamboyant kid out of nowhere, making a moment where he cheats on him fall completely flat as it wasn't clear he was allegedly committed to the other boy beforehand. And with the killer not interested in them, it honestly feels like two different movies jammed together; only the main kid actually interacts with the murderer, during the standard whodunit climactic scene where they explain why they're doing this (but sadly without explaining why they let some of the kids be tortured - and a dog get killed as part of a "manhood test" - before bothering to start their revenge plan).

Something interesting happens after the bodies are discovered though: Bacon drops his tough guy act and is quick to agree that they need to get all the kids to safety. Maybe because I had White Water Summer on the brain, but I expected he'd just go crazier at this point and drag some of them into the line of fire as another "test" or something, but no - however misguided he may be, he does seem to have some kind of protective nature to him. So I couldn't help but think if they found a body earlier - like the halfway point - and let the rest of the movie play out on that note, it might have worked. Like, he gets injured and the kids have to save him, and he realizes that gay or straight doesn't matter, everyone's human... hamfisted? Sure! But at least it'd WORK, and actually combine the two plot threads in a meaningful way.

As I sighed my way through the movie (I haven't even mentioned the P!nk sing-along) I had to keep reminding myself that as a straight white male I will never understand what it's like to be really oppressed and judged for being different, and because of that perhaps I was just missing something. So I did what I rarely do, and looked at some opinions of others before writing my own, specifically some gay friends who had watched it, and... if anything, they liked it even less than I did. Some were even downright angry at how misguided it was (personal favorite, someone saying that the only thing less successful than a conversion camp was this screenplay). Everyone seems to agree that it's actually kind of a win that the movie even exists, and there are some galaxy brain takes of course (someone noting that this story isn't writer/director John Logan's to tell - the man outed himself as gay decades ago! You think it's risky to do that *now*? The man has been through some shit, I'm sure), but it's frustrating that it couldn't also have been, you know, good. I give it a few points for the solid cast and a suitably creepy mask for the killer, but ultimately movies like Freaky do more to advance LGBTQ acceptance with side characters than this one manages when it's the entire focus.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

FTP: The Deadly Mantis (1957)

AUGUST 2, 2022

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

There was a great joke on the Onion about 25 years ago, where the article was a mock cable TV listing and for the Syfy Channel (then Sci-Fi) they had an 8pm showing of MST3K: Quest of the Delta Knightsfollowed by an actual broadcast of Quest of the Delta Knights at 10pm. The joke being, of course, that the show - which used to be on Comedy Central - was perhaps an odd fit for a station that, at that time, was mostly just showing the same kind of movies the 'bots were mocking. So I had to laugh when Scream Factory put out The Deadly Mantis, with (besides a historian commentary) the only bonus feature of note being the episode of MST3k that tore it apart.

To be fair, they've certainly done worse movies. That first season on Sci-Fi (8, for the record) had a bigger licensing budget, and with Sci-Fi's relationship with Universal, they were able to access some better known titles from their monster library, even a relatively big gun with Revenge of the Creature, and it was fun to see them doing movies that a casual fan might have heard of, if not actually seen. People argue that This Island Earth was legitimately too good to be ribbed (counterpoint: it was their big screen movie so it makes sense to go up against a bigger title!), but the likes of this and Mole People, while not without their merits, aren't exactly the cream of the crop. By the end of the season they were back to the same crappy obscuros (such as Overdrawn at the Memory Bank and the immortal Time Chasers), so I guess they either blew their budget at the beginning of the season or lost their access.

But anyway, yeah - not the best giant monster flick of the era by any means. Even Tom Weaver can't help but make fun of it for half of his historian track, goofing on the odd dialogue, unconvincing scares (though one, the arm on the shoulder gag, is wrapped up in Universal's historical use of the cliche, so he keeps his historian hat on), and endless amounts of stock footage - at one point he refuses to speak until the actual movie returns! The horrible comic relief guy, who almost literally faints every time he sees the film's lone female character of note, is enough to sink the film into "for completists only" territory, though he's not the only character you wish the bug would eat and be done with it.

The mantis itself is a solid monster, however, and some of the miniature FX and composite shots are quite good. The attack on the eskimo village is a pretty good highlight, as is the part where the mantis smashes in through the heroes' cabin window. And if you accept the stock footage of warplanes and the like as "action", then it's technically one of the faster paced entries of the era, with TDM making its way from the North Pole to Manhattan and wrecking lots of stuff along the way, even if most of it is suggested rather than shown. But man oh man, the stock footage just never stops, and - as Weaver notes - the high def transfer makes it stand out even more.

Naturally it made for a good MST3k episode though, so I'm glad it was included as I hadn't seen it in over 20 years. And it was nice to watch it after seeing the movie on its own, as they obviously talk over some of the lines so I would occasionally lose track of what the context was for subsequent dialogue. Plus, as with any comedy thing of this type, it's always interesting to see which jokes I understand now that went over my head then, and - on the flipside - which ones have dated poorly (there's one about Kelsey Grammer driving drunk that I probably laughed at in 1997, when he was arrested that one time for driving drunk, an event I've since completely forgotten about). Not sure how often they did this; I know they did it for Mole People too, but not The Thing That Couldn't Die (much to my chagrin as I loved that episode). Ultimately there's very little crossover of "As a Universal monster movie fan I want that movie!" and "Hey, this was an MST3k episode!", so the *opportunity* for it to happen (and for me to notice) is extremely rare. And they still put out standalone MST3k sets anyway, so these might be the only examples. But I appreciate it; it's not often that a bonus feature consists of people making fun of the movie you presumably wanted to own. I'd certainly never buy Mac & Me unless it had the MST3k episode along with it. "Pretty nice...!"

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Cellar (1988)

JULY 28, 2022

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

My son is now 8, and after many unsuccessful attempts he is finally starting to be able to sit through live action movies even when they're not wall to wall "stuff happening." I can still see him getting restless when they get too talky (Avengers: Endgame was rough until the time travel stuff kicked into gear), but he's also doing better at tracking plotlines, so when he's invested enough the action-free chunks don't seem to bug him as much. And he even managed to get through a "scary" movie (Jurassic World Dominion), so there's hope that it won't be long before I could show him a movie like The Cellar, which is a PG-13 monster flick with a lead that's only a little older than he is.

I mean, yeah, there are better "entry point" types I could show him, like The Monster Squad or maybe even Gremlins, but I think some parents blunder by showing their kids nothing but classics, which gives them the idea that EVERY MOVIE is a 5-star must-see. Nah, most movies are like The Cellar, which has its share of issues (a lethargic pace at times, for example) but is worth a watch and has some strong points. In this case, it's got a great monster and a kid-appropriate plot, in that he believes that there's a monster but naturally no one else does, and due to some plot machinations has to resign himself to lie and say he was making it up in order to keep others safe. For example, at one point his pet toad runs into the titular cellar (where the monster is confined) and he is naturally upset about it. His stepmom offers to go down and look for it, but he knows that'll put her in danger, so he says that he actually lost the toad outside somewhere. Since kids tend to think of lying as something that is "bad but I have to do it or I'll get in trouble" without exception, I like the idea of a movie showing them that sometimes a lie is necessary for the greater good.

It also focuses heavily on the kid and his dad (usual bad guy Patrick Kilpatrick, surprisingly strong as a Dennis Quaid-y kinda regular guy) bonding when they don't see each other that much, as the kid lives with his mom in Chicago through the school year and then visits his dad (who lives in Arizona) in the summer. The dad also doesn't believe his stories about monsters, and it ultimately enters into low-key Shining territory with Kilpatrick getting more and more frustrated about everything (including losing his job) and taking it out on his family, but ultimately he realizes his son is telling the truth, and the kid even gets to save his old man's life with his quick thinking. I think my own son would appreciate seeing something like that, and the vibe would get him through the less successful parts.

That would be the aforementioned pacing, as the monster takes a while to make his grand appearance, and the backstory requires some lengthy exposition sequences (it also opens on a flashback for good measure). But I don't really blame director Kevin Tenney for this, as he came on after the film already started shooting under another director, who was fired by the producers for being too slow. Basically they fired the guy on a Friday, met up with Tenney over the weekend, and had him on set by Monday, which means he didn't get any time to fix the issues with the script, and was also locked into a cast, sets, etc. Tenney even admits he took the job because it was a no-lose scenario: if he pulled it off, he'd look great, and if he didn't, then he couldn't really be blamed when he had minimal input "beyond calling action and cut." But we can infer that this was always a bit of a slow burn story, which is fine for some things but a weird approach for a monster movie aimed at kids.

And for what it's worth, his cut is better than the producers' version, as they weren't fully satisfied with his work either and ended up recutting the film, with their version being the one that got sold and went out on video (despite Tenney's previous successes with Witchboard and Night of the Demons, it never had a theatrical run). Vinegar Syndrome's release is the first time Tenney's own cut has been made available, and it's clearly the superior of the two, as the other rearranges scenes at random (making the characters seem erratic) adds some mumbo-jumbo narration that just makes the story more confusing, and even shot new scenes with the young actor, who (being a kid and all) noticeably ages during these non-sequential scenes. Basically, it makes sense that their version had escaped my attention for over 30 years (even as a fan of Tenney's, I legit never heard of it), while his cut, though imperfect, would probably be on those lists of underrated '80s horror or something if it had been out there all along.

Tenney provides commentary for both tracks along with Kilpatrick and Suzanne Savoy (the mom), and all three appear with a few others in a lengthy retrospective documentary. Perhaps needless to say, you're gonna hear some of the same stories if you listen/watch all three supplements back to back, but they're all worth your time nonetheless. Everyone has a good sense of humor about the experience but, being released from a 3rd party, aren't afraid to be candid either, so you get a good mix of dirt and charming self-deprecation. And since the film hasn't had any sort of release since VHS, I assume its fans will be stoked about the blu-ray transfer, giving you good looks at the monster (the nighttime scenes are almost certainly the types that VHS viewers have trouble making out) and lovely Arizona scenery.

Technically this is a "From the Pile" entry but honestly it felt more like the sort of thing that I did HMAD for in the first place: a minor little gem that completely passed me by during release, and also one that didn't deserve its fate as a forgotten obscuro. Everyone involved has done better things (or at least, bigger things; the kid actor actually went on to direct Shrek 3!), but that doesn't make it a total wash either. And if you, like me, are a parent that's forever looking for appropriate stuff to show your hopeful horror-fan kid, movies like this are always a treat to find - in my case it was literally already in my collection. Thanks for the rescue, VS!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

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