Beast (2022)

AUGUST 27, 2022


When I saw the trailer for Beast, I had two thoughts:

1. Idris Elba punching a lion in the face is prime cinema.
2. "I bet the poachers are the real threat throughout the movie and they're overselling the lion stuff."

Well, I was right about the first one, of course (Idris Elba punching anything is usually pretty good cinema at the very least), but ironically, I merely WISH I was right about the second one, because while the lion was a suitable horror/thriller villain, the movie never really put anyone beside Sharlto Copley in actual danger. Elba plays a doctor whose ex has recently passed, and he's now the sole provider for two teen girls. As is always the case, he's not ready to be a full time father, he's a bit out of touch with their interests and passions, etc. So naturally, the movie is about him proving that he can be the father they need, whether it's helping them grieve and move on with their lives, or stitching up a wound they got from a crazed lion while in the middle of the African Bush.

All well and good, but... we know he'll make it, because a studio movie isn't going to orphan two teenagers, and also because it's his story from start to finish. I think if the story unfolded from the girls' perspective, showing how maybe the older one (who is 18, the other is about 12) is capable of taking care of them both and maybe don't really need their dad, then maybe Elba's fate could be more of a question mark. Likewise, there's no way either of them are going to be killed, and there are no other characters of note out there with them, so that only leaves Copley, as their honorary uncle/best friend to both parents. He's a nature lover who takes care of the animals in the area (a scene where a lion plays with him like a cat might is both astonishing to watch on the technical side of things, and just plain adorable) and is also an anti-poacher, i.e. someone who will resort to extreme measures to protect the animals from those who are after their fur/bones/etc. Making him the movie's most interesting character.

Naturally, he gets a major wound almost instantly, so there really isn't much suspense to his fate either - a "when, not an if" kind of deal that nonetheless gives the film its most suspenseful moments. There's a scene where Elba is walking him through a quick patch for his wound via walkie talkie, with the lion's location unknown, and you're constantly wondering if the lion is heading to finish him off, or if it's about to pounce on Elba and the girls and interrupt the impromptu medical advice. The movie could have used more of that sort of thing, because once Copley's out of the picture you're just sort of watching it roll along until it hits the 90 minute runtime.

As for the poachers, their appearance in the trailer (surrounding Elba and co. with guns, attacking him) is pretty much their entire role in the movie. The lion shows up and makes quick work of them, once again leaving us only with the people we know the lion won't actually get. Copley's assistant is introduced early but then returns back to their base or something, making him a non-entity, and hell even other animals don't even show up to mix things up. There's a scene of Copley tracking the lion when he sees a gator (or croc, I can't and never will be able to tell them apart) wading past, but that's all we see of it - give us a lion v croc scene, dammit! It's admirable to strip a movie down to its bare essentials, but sometimes they go too far and as a result the movie gets too uninvolving, generating about as much suspense as a movie you've seen a dozen times.

Incidentally, the last trailer before it was for Jaws, which is being re-released on Labor Day weekend in both 3D and Imax. I've watched that movie 30 times and I still hope Chief can hold on to Quint long enough for the shark to swim away or something, so it's even more disappointing that this first time viewing didn't inspire even half that much intensity for any of its scenes. Luckily, the lion itself looked terrific; I never once doubted it was real (it was entirely CGI from what I can understand; no animatronics or whatever) and they thankfully didn't make it a mutant or anything - it's just severely pissed off. That said, I'm curious about the film's R rating, as nearly every bit of violence is off-screen (they find a village that it wiped out; most of the poachers are also dispatched under the brush or while we watch someone else react to it). The parents guide on IMDb says there are two F bombs, but I don't even recall those - it really just felt like a PG-13 movie throughout. Not that that's a bad thing, but when you promise an R and everything is pretty tame, it's hard not to feel like you got sold a bill of goods.

Basically it's a movie that is just aggressively fine. Elba and Copley's chemistry was good, the scenery is of course gorgeous, Steven Price's score is effective, etc, etc... but it just never really got my pulse pounding the way these things should. Director Baltasar Kormákur (who made the incredibly fun 2 Guns and has some survival movie experience with Everest) favors long takes for many of the film's big moments (and even smaller ones, like the girls seeing their mother's house for the first time), and I can't help but wonder if some traditional editing could have given them a little more oomph. It's the sort of movie I often found myself watching at the drive-in during that first covid summer (i.e. stuff that would have debuted on streaming in normal times), where it was generating just enough excitement to make me think "Well at least I'm not sitting in the house", but precious little more.

What say you?


Orphan: First Kill (2022)

AUGUST 25, 2022


Even if it was the year 2010, I would write this same sentence: I am shocked that I am about to review another Orphan movie. Even a prequel, which Orphan: First Kill is, would have been a surprise, as the film (which ended pretty definitively with regards to its eponymous killer) was only the sort of mid-level hit that probably makes everyone happy but doesn't have them rushing to make more. Plus that era of horror was moving in different directions, which is why even some of that year's bigger hits (i.e. Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine) didn't get followups despite being tailor made to launch new franchises. Orphan was, for all involved (including me, a huge fan of it) seemingly a one and done.

And then last year they announced a prequel with the now adult Isabelle Fuhrman reprising her character, and my eyebrow raised higher than it has in quite some time (even weirder, it's a different studio - so it's not even a case of a desperate exec looking at their library and finding something to milk). And while I would have loved the return of Jaume Collet-Serra, I feel replacement William Brent Bell is a solid choice; I know folks are still (pointlessly) mad about Devil Inside, but apart from the misguided Boy sequel I've been a fan of more or less everything else he's done, and as the original Boy proved, he's a director who wasn't afraid to make an audacious reveal, which is what an Orphan film needs to deliver.

But how do you do that when we all know the first film's twist by now? (If you don't, stop reading!) Even if Esther survived for a sequel, we still know that she's really an adult with a gland disorder, so we can't really do the whole evil child routine again in any meaningful way. So they smartly go the prequel route, getting the explanation out of the way in its first sequence (acting as a recap even though it's chronologically earlier) and putting Esther in a different situation. Thanks to one new employee and a guard who has icky designs on her (you can almost hear some neckbeard in the crowd saying "But she IS an adult, so it's ok!") she is able to escape the institute and find a new family.

This time, instead of being adopted (speaking of which - yes, the prequel does smooth over the original's gap in her "institute to orphanage" transition), she pretends to be the long-missing daughter of a wealthy family, after finding her picture online and deciding that she could pass for the child if it's x number years later. Naturally there are some hiccups: she "forgets" that a grandmother died, the real Esther (yes, that's where she got the name, as her real name is Leena) didn't like to paint but she does, etc. But of course the real fun is seeing her murder her way out of a situation when necessary, such as when the cop who investigated the real Esther's disappearance seems to be suspicious of her story.

Up until that point, it's basically hitting a lot of the same notes as the original. I love that film enough to not mind too much; it was like getting a solid cover version of a song I loved, in that it wasn't going to replace the original anytime soon but it was enjoyable enough to have a fresh take. But then there's a plot twist, at which point I full on howled with gleeful laughter at the sheer insanity of what I realized the movie was actually going to be about. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it here, but suffice to say that my fear of a new Orphan being unable to measure up in sheer "wtf, are they really doing this?" were dispeled the second a certain character entered a scene and fired a gun.

Alas I can't say much else about the movie without tipping off the twists, so I'll just say that Fuhrman delivers another chilling performance, and the attempts to make her look like a little girl again are mostly successful. Her face obviously shows her age a bit, but since there's no need to hide it when she's alone (or with someone she's going to kill anyway) it mostly comes down to how well they pull off the size discrepancy, and they're on point there. Fuhrman is only five inches shorter than Julia Stiles (playing the real Esther's mom), but through the usual trickery (apple boxes, doubles, etc) you'll never notice. There's a shot here and there when the scale seems to be a bit off, but usually in moments that you can easily forgive it (i.e. exciting stunts). And even when she's surrounded by the characters who believe her to be a child, her adult face almost kind of works - more often than not they think she's weird or (in the parents' case) believe they've gotten back their toddler daughter after all these years, so naturally they're going to have that "you've gotten so much older!" reaction even if she WAS the real Esther. Long story short, it works just fine. Thank Marvel for the de-aging advancements.

I was also charmed that, despite being a prequel, it felt very timely with regards to a couple of rich prick characters who think they're invincible. Every now and then in the real world we see these sorts being held accountable, but not often enough, so in the same way Saw VI was cathartic for anyone who ever had to deal with health insurance companies, there's something quite enjoyable about seeing a rich prick get what they deserve. It's not like you're ever looking at Esther as the hero, but (unlike the original, in which she only killed innocent/good people) the script smartly lets us smile a little about a few of her deeds. And knowing the twist frees the filmmakers to have a little fun, like when she steals a car and blasts "Maniac" as she drives along. If it was the original (pre reveal) we'd just be rolling our eyes at the idea of a 9 year old being able to drive, but now we know she's been around long enough to learn, and we can just enjoy the scene for what it is.

Honestly I have no real complaints here; the only "problem" with the movie is that it's also debuting on streaming, which means it will be shown to half-focused eyeballs. The first half's relative samey-ness (though not without highlights, such as her escape) will almost certainly have people looking at their phones figuring they "got it", and the midway turn won't register as well. Being a traditional sequel (i.e. copying the beats) is exactly the point, to lull you into a sort of comfort zone only to pull the rug out from under you, but that might be lost on those who aren't giving it their full attention as they (presumably) would in theaters. Hopefully I'm wrong, but *looks around at the world* yeah, optimism is misguided these days. However you see it, I hope you agree that it's practically a miracle that it's even watchable given the long delay/seeming pointlessness of following up a movie with that particular twist. That it's within spitting distance of being just as good as the bonkers original? I bow to everyone involved.

What say you?

P.S. Can't spoil the particulars, but the climax features a visual reference to a rather "iconic" evil child movie that's actually a total snooze (hint: the title is ironic), and I can't help but feel the much different outcome is the filmmakers showing that tepid chore who's the boss.


Blu-Ray Review: Dog Soldiers

AUGUST 24, 2022


As someone who made a quick cameo on one of their first discs (Halloween III, via a clip of a screening I hosted), it makes me happy to realize that Scream Factory has been around long enough to double dip their own releases. They first released Dog Soldiers in 2015, prior to the debut of 4K UHD discs, so now that the format has started to become more mainstream, they've been re-releasing some of their big titles (including those Halloween sequels) with the improved transfers it allows. And I need you all to keep supporting them, so that they can justify redoing Shocker. Horace Pinker needs 2160p, baby!

OK, in reality I don't personally see the need to bother upgrading some of the ones they've put out (The Craft? I'm good!) but in Dog Soldiers' case, it's more than just a mere upgrade. At the time of the previous release, they couldn't locate the original negative, and had to use a pair of actual 35mm prints to make their version from. It didn't look terrible, but obviously the film deserved better, especially since it was shot on Super 16 and thus already had a grainy look that wasn't helped by using a secondary source. Also, the color timing was a bit off, making the film look too bright at times; not to the extent of Halloween's constant changing, but enough to be noticeable.

Both issues have been solved this time around, making the upgrade justified. Director Neil Marshall and DP Sam McCurdy *both* signed off on the transfer (usually it's one or the other for such things), and they actually finally found the negative to work from, so it's just a noticeably improved transfer all around - even if you (like me) can't really tell much of a difference between regular Blu and 4K. And as is often the case, they've added some new bonus features to sweeten the deal, making this release all but completely definitive* and something that should be the last time you ever feel the need to buy it.

I already reviewed the movie before so I'm not going to bother doing that again: my thoughts haven't changed (it's great!) and my backlog is too long to be reviewing movies twice. However, I "lucked out" this week (potential TMI incoming!) by having a vasectomy, which means walking around isn't all that fun and sitting on the couch is how I spend most of my day. This means I had time to watch not only all of the extra features (retrospective doc, historian interviews, etc) but all three (3) commentary tracks that are provided. After spending something like ten hours with this set, I am confident that the only way I could know more about Dog Soldiers would be to go back in time and get myself hired as a crew member.

Two of the tracks are older: one with Marshall (recorded for the previous release in 2015) and the other with the producers. Marshall's is obviously the superior of the two; not only does he have better insight into the film (which he also wrote and edited) but the "looking back" nature keeps him honest about it. He's rightfully proud of his first film, but has been around the block and isn't afraid to be a bit candid at times, which is something director are often hesitant about when they're recording tracks before the film even comes out. You can surmise from both his track and the one with the producers that they didn't always see eye to eye on things (not to the extent of his later Hellboy, to be clear), but it doesn't get too dirty - he just occasionally notes things that they forced upon him (like the history between Megan and Ryan) and how he tried to minimize their impact.

The producers track, however, was recorded back in the day (2002, 2003) and gets into that self-congratulatory mode a bit too much, not to mention occasional references to the sequel they were then sure they would make (Ron Howard voice: they still haven't). One guy barely even speaks as the other one dominates the track, praising the performers and (to his credit) even noting a few occasions where he fought against something only to be proven wrong. Still, it's a bit too obvious that he was the "looking over the shoulder" type of producer instead of the kind that protects/backs up the director, and while Marshall went on to make The Descent, this guy went on to produce DTV junk like Cemetery Gates, so it's hard not to think that he ultimately wasn't adding too much to the table.

The third track is new for this release, from horror writer/professor Alison Peirse. Unsurprisingly since the film isn't that old, she doesn't spend much time on biographical information about its cast or crew as is usually the case for historian tracks, but instead puts it into the context of werewolf films (a genre she rightfully stresses began with Werewolf of London, not the more often-cited Wolf Man) and notes where it zigs when most others zag. She also argues that it often follows the rules of a slasher film (with Kevin McKidd's Cooper as a "final boy"), which I feel is a bit of a stretch but she isn't dismissing my beloved body counters as she does it, so I'm fine with it.

If you don't have the time for her entire track (I always forget that the film is rather long for its time/sub-genre, running an hour and forty five minutes instead of the usual 90ish), you can watch the video essay by Mikel J. Koven and the interview with Gavin Baddeley, which cover some of the same ground as Peirse (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, cross into each others' territory). Baddeley's is also about the history of the werewolf film, highlighting what Dog Soldiers brings to the table (such as the rather gaunt lycanthropes as opposed to the stockier/tougher versions from the likes of Lon Chaney and Paul Naschy) and - bless his courage - correctly points out that while the transformation in American Werewolf is an all timer, the actual wolf itself (the run who runs around Picadilly) is a bit of a letdown. As for Koven, his is more focused on the folklore of the werewolf as a whole (not just movies), going back to the "Werewolf of Bedburg" from the 16th century, though by the end he's also talking about Wolf Man and The Howling. Three "werewolf movie history" pieces and not a single one mentions Big Bad Wolf... for shame.

The other new extra is a lengthy interview with Marshall, recorded fairly recently as he runs down his entire career including The Reckoning, which he notes was a return to his roots as it was low budget and he was given the sort of control he lacked on his previous movie Hellboy (which he completely tears apart). It was nice to hear him discuss Doomsday a bit, as I have a soft spot for that and it has seemingly been forgotten over the years (to be fair, it tanked, so it's not like there's much demand for a collector's edition), plus his recollections of the very first film he worked on, a thriller called Killing Time, which I didn't even know existed.

The longest extra is "Werewolves vs. Soldiers", an hour long retrospective documentary with - finally! - some of the cast members offering their thoughts, including both Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd giving their account of the latter accidentally busting the former's nose in the scene where Cooper has to knock him out. It's said time and time again that the cast really got along like a real squad of soldiers would, but honestly, hearing Pertwee laugh his way through a story where another actor legitimately punched him is all you need to prove it. By this point the other participants are repeating things you've heard elsewhere, but the cast recollections and other tidbits make it worthwhile.

The rest gets into hardcore fan only territory, such as a look at the film's production design, with Simon Bowles, who handled such things. He still has the model they used to plan out the stage set that served as the film's main location, so it's interesting to see all the things they have to consider (i.e. how much outside of a particular window that the camera will see, so they don't waste time dressing part of it that'll never be on screen) and celebrate the low budget ingenuity that is lost on bigger budget movies where they'll throw money away at things like this and then cut an important dialogue scene when they realize they wasted too much time on the other thing. Planning, people, PLANNING! There's also a bunch of promotional stuff, and an early short film from Marshall that... well, he's gotten better since, let's just say that.

As is often the case, the video extras are only on the standard Blu-ray, but thankfully the commentaries ARE on the 4K UHD disc, so you don't have to downgrade the visuals to listen to the folks talk (this is a bizarre oversight I've seen on other releases, and it drives me insane). Marshall's interview alone is worth keeping the second disc for if you're one of those space-saving types who put everything in binders, but if you do that you and I are already on way different wavelengths, so go with your own god there. At any rate, it's a solid set for a film that got screwed twice; first with its initial release (it premiered on Syfy here) and then with its various home video releases, all of which have been compromised in one way or another until now. Took twenty years, but I'm glad the film has finally gotten the respect it deserves.

What say you?

*There's a commentary track with Marshall and some of the cast that originated with its original DVD release, but only appeared on a German DVD. For whatever reason, this track hasn't made its way to any of the other various releases, so I think at this point we can assume it's "lost." Still, something to hope for when the inevitable 8K Ultra ULTRA HD format comes along.


Nine Guests For A Crime (1977)

AUGUST 22, 2022


For the past couple years, Vinegar Syndrome has been releasing three-film sets of "Forgotten Gialli", offering a spotlight to the ones that fell beneath the cracks for one reason or another (rights issues and, occasionally, the quality of the films themselves being the primary culprits). They're on the 5th volume now, and while I haven't watched every film on the previous sets, I'm comfortable saying that Nine Guests For A Crime (Italian: Nove ospiti per un delitto) may be my absolute favorite discovery on these sets thus far. If they could find a movie this fun on even *every other* volume, it'd be worth picking them up and keeping the series going until they run out of options.

Like The Killer Is One Of Thirteen, which appeared on an earlier set, the film is loosely based on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (aka... well, you can look it up. Oof), concerning a group of folks on a secluded island who all seem to have reason to be the killer that keeps whittling down their number. This particular group is a family comprised of patriarch Uberto (Arthur Kennedy) and his three children (two sons, one daughter) and their respective spouses, as well as his sister and his new, much younger bride. And the movie hilariously introduces them all by piling up the red herrings/potential motives: one of them asks if she brought her guns, Kennedy's wife and one of the sons' wives trade barbs about their respective infidelities, the two brothers don't get along, etc. We're also informed about how the boat is the only way to get off the island, and even when they arrive they're still adding more foreshadowing elements ("Where is my underwater breather?" someone muses, forty minutes before someone "drowns"). With so many gialli overloading their final ten minutes with exposition to explain everything, I was completely charmed that this one seemed to be trying to get everything out of the way quickly instead.

(Amusingly, one thing we see when they arrive is a giant cannon but it plays no part in the proceedings. Chekov must be weeping into his gun.)

It's also a supremely horny entry in the sub-genre, which you wouldn't think would be the case considering it's only a family unit (the one non family member, Kennedy's assistant, is the first to die). They're on the island for about twenty minutes before one woman is sleeping with her brother-in-law, and another son is also shacking up with his father's new bride (so, his own stepmother) in plain sight of the old man! And (spoiler for 45 year old movie ahead) while he dies before realizing it, it turns out his wife is actually his first cousin. You get the idea that if there wasn't a standard killer, these folks might end up just killing each other out of jealous rage over everyone being cuckolded by their own family members.

As for the killer plot, it's a pretty decent one, though the math is a little fuzzy when all the pieces are in place (too complicated to explain here, but basically the killer should appear younger than they do). Also it's a little hard to track how everyone is related; I had to laugh that the IMDb actually lists the genealogy next to the character's names ("Lorenzo / Uberto's son") but even they screw it up, listing someone as a daughter of a character they are actually older than. After I finished I rewatched the introductory scene, both to giggle at the foreshadowing (which was apparent even the first time around, but now 100% clear) and just to recontextualize everyone's interactions now that I knew how they actually related to each other. It's not impossible like some movies (looking at you, Home Sweet Home), but definitely takes a little bit of sorting out in your head to keep straight.

And now the most important aspect of any proper giallo: How is the J&B used? Well, I'm here to tell you that, in all the years of watching these things, I've never seen that familiar green bottle introduced so randomly. In the middle of a scene inside, they cut to Uberto's daughter (who is outside) as she makes her away across a patio, grabs a glass, then reaches inside a giant wooden duck (!) and pulls it out, pouring herself a glass. Then it cuts back to the woman inside. It's almost like they realized they had a contract to show the bottle in the first 15 minutes or whatever and desperately inserted the shot in the middle of a scene to make sure they didn't get fined or something. I was cackling for five straight minutes over the audacity.

Hilariously, the bottle is referenced during the disc's lone interview, with actor Massimo Foschi (who plays the son who is banging his own stepmom). It's a bit rambly, including a lengthy discussion of a prop liver he had to eat in a cannibal movie a few years later, but it's got some good stuff, including how he was instructed to make sure that the label could be seen whenever he had to pour a drink. He also keeps the film's vaguely incest-y theme extended to reality, seemingly suggesting he had an affair with the woman who played his sister (when asked about her he says something like "She was better off screen than on" and smiles before changing the subject). The only other extra is an audio essay, though it plays over a still of the film's title card instead of the appropriate footage, so I had trouble concentrating on it.

Honestly, even if the other two films on the set are duds, this one would be a worthy entry to the growing Forgotten Gialli collection (this is the 5th volume, to be clear). The discs aren't as feature-heavy as Vinegar's standalone sets, but ultimately that stuff doesn't matter - it's rescuing these obscure films and giving them a noticeable platform to make sure they find the audience they deserve. Plus, I still feel guilty writing up a review before I've gone through the extras, so when they're jam-packed I almost kind of sigh sometimes, as watching three commentary tracks (cough, the new Dog Soldiers 4K release, cough) means I could have watched three other movies in their entirety with that time. And they could be as fun as this! I haven't even mentioned the all-timer final shot before credits, which had me laughing even longer than I did at the J&B bottle. If you prefer your gialli to be serious, I'd steer clear, but if you, like me feel that the crasser the better, then by all means dive right into this one.

What say you?


FTP: The Velvet Vampire (1971)

AUGUST 17, 2022


At our monthly(ish, damn you Covid!) horror trivia game, we always have a charity to donate the entry fee to, and while it varies from month to month, several bounties have gone to the Stephanie Rothman Fellowship, which helps women filmmakers with their projects. Which is a worthy enough cause for me to never actually look into who Stephanie Rothman was by checking out one of her films, until now, when I found one in my own collection. Indeed, I am certain I won this copy of The Velvet Vampire at one such trivia event, so it's a fitting way to finally get a taste of what she was up to during her relatively brief career.

Well I must admit the movie didn't do much for me, but it's clear that she was marching to the beat of her own drum, at a time where women were given even fewer opportunities to make films than they are now. I wasn't even surprised to see that Roger Corman produced, as he's always seemingly had little interest in following the path of his peers and letting men call the shots all the time. This was the fourth of Rothman's seven films as a director, not all of which were horror but fit comfortably in the exploitation/drive-in market of the '60s and '70s, and I can't help but wonder what she might have accomplished had her career not been effectively cut short by her own desire to make bigger/better films and the industry's hesitation to allow women to make anything more substantial. Feeling stuck in between, she quit the business, and I can't say I blame her.

But she (along with other genre trailblazers like Debra Hill and Amy Holden Jones) inspires filmmakers today, which is all that ultimately matters. And it's not that Velvet Vampire is bad, it's just a "not for me" type, which wasn't too surprising - I've never quite been taken by the vampire genre as a whole. The plot concerns a married couple who is visiting a new friend named Diane (Celeste Yarnall) who loves raw meat and occasionally does vampire-y things, though is fine to go out during the day (provided she wears a giant hat) and doesn't seem to have any powers beyond seducing both of our heroes (though she unsurprisingly has more success with the male). There's some stuff in here I enjoyed, like when Diane sucks the poison out of the heroine's snakebite, noticeably taking longer and being more graceful with the last suck, and seeing the idiot husband get what's coming, but it never stops feeling padded out to meet a runtime. Every now and then the heroes realize "something's not right here..." and decide to leave only to discover that their car still isn't fixed, and it's like they both have mental resets on why they wanted to leave in the first place, making the film feel a bit too stagnant for me. A subplot about a girlfriend of one of Diane's victims also does little to break things up, clearly just added in to make sure it hits 80 minutes. Also, the climax, while fun on its own, feels weirdly disconnected, as it takes place in the middle of Los Angeles instead of in the desert location we've spent the past hour or so in.

And yes, this vampire movie mostly takes place in the desert, and in the daytime to boot. Whether it was a budgetary constriction or Rothman's design from the start, I don't know, but either way it was the right call, because the DVD is of remarkably poor quality (full frame and seemingly taken from a VHS), so if it was mostly at night like you'd expect, I'd probably have trouble making out the images more often than not. It took me back to the Chilling Classics days, and it made me kind of nostalgic for such releases. Yes, obviously I'd love to have 4K UHD transfers of everything, but we all know that isn't going to happen, and it gets easier and easier to overlook the older formats when the new ones come in, and in turn that means closing yourself off to countless movies, as each new format only carries over a percentage of the films that made it to the format before it, and not a favorable one at that. Long story short, if I was someone just starting to dig deeper into horror history, and saw that beloved Chilling Classics set on the shelf, my eyes would pass right over it in favor of Blu-rays or 4Ks.

I've been told Terminal Island is the real gem of Rothman's output, and it certainly sounds up my alley (the plot synopsis gave me a whiff of No Escape, the 1994 action movie that - ironically given my last paragraph - is finally coming to disc after being available only on a non-anamorphic DVD for the past 20 years), so maybe I'll give that a look. As for Velvet, you don't need a DVD - it's on Shudder and Tubi and such (no surprise given the disc's poor quality, it seems to be in the public domain), so give it a look if it sounds up your alley. It's one of those movies I can see myself enjoying more at a different time in my life (or even just in a different mood, today), and at 80 minutes it's hardly going to consume too much of your day to see for yourself. I just can't get into most vampire movies!

What say you?


Fall (2022)

AUGUST 14, 2022


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.


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?


They / Them (2022)

AUGUST 5, 2022


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?


FTP: The Deadly Mantis (1957)

AUGUST 2, 2022


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?


The Cellar (1988)

JULY 28, 2022


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?


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