Smile (2022)

OCTOBER 18, 2022


As a licensed Horror Movie A Dayologist, I make it a point to see every major horror movie in theaters (and a lot of the minor ones too!), if for no other reason than to ensure I have a review up of something people are actually watching, as opposed to obscure DTV stuff from 30 years ago. But the nearly two hour runtime of Smile (along with trailers and travel) meant I needed a three hour block of free time that also coincided with the theater’s schedule, and over the past few weeks such a thing hasn’t existed. Between Screamfest, Beyond Fest, various fall activities with my family, etc. I haven’t had a three MINUTE block of free time, it seems, so I kept watching the movie make money and be discussed without being able to find time to see it for myself. Luckily, the film’s success meant it would still be there when I finally got a chance, now in its fourth week in theaters.

But I had to laugh that it turned out that the day I finally had time was October 18th, which also happened to be the 20 year birthday of The Ring, the film most critics (and even fans) have compared it to (hell even their runtimes are identical: 1:55). In a way it felt like a legitimate way to honor Gore Verbinski’s modern (well, I guess not so modern, now) classic, seeing that it continues to influence twenty years later. At times the similarities were a bit eye rolling – did it need to be a week for the curse to kill you here, too? – but for the most part, beyong the thing being passed from one person to another, the two felt different enough that I barely even thought about ol’ Samara once the movie got going.

(Spoilers ahead!)

A big part of that is due to the fact that, thankfully, the characters in the movie aren’t trying to solve a mystery of where the curse began. Our hero Rose (Sosie Bacon) is a trauma therapist who is also a workaholic; in an early scene we see her leave her office for the day (after learning she’s been there since the day before), and, after a beat or two, her phone rings, for which she rushes back and continues to work. Later we learn that she witnessed her mother’s suicide as a child, so it’s pretty clear to understand why she works so much – helping patients with their trauma is her way of coping with her own. But when a new patient (Kindred Spirits' Caitlin Stasey) also commits suicide in front of her after rambling about being cursed by people who smile, she starts seeing things as well and is forced to not only deal with this, but also finally come to terms with the trauma her mother left her with all those years ago.

That personal connection, perhaps, keeps her from digging into the origins of this particular “virus.” Her ex (Kyle Gallner) is a cop who she enlists to help her track the thing back a ways (Stasey’s character saw a professor kill himself, that professor in turn saw a woman kill herself at a conference, and so on), but it only goes far enough for them to agree it’s not just a coincidence and that something otherworldly must be happening. And that’s great! Any sort of “it all began with this person” type plotting would a. just make it feel more like The Ring and b. distract away from Rose’s plight, as given the ticking clock of her own seemingly unavoidable death she has to decide how to rid herself of it, or perhaps isolate herself and commit suicide without anyone seeing it, leaving the curse without a host to continue to spread.

Of course, that’s some rather grim subject matter, and it doesn’t always mesh perfectly with the demands of a modern studio horror movie (i.e. jump scares) but it mostly works, thanks to Bacon’s endearing performance (real Neve Campbell vibes) and some well-crafted tension scenes from director Parker Finn. Finn makes his feature debut here with an expansion of his short (which also featured Stasey, though is sadly unavailable online at the moment – hopefully it’ll be on the Blu-ray), and fares better than average when it comes to these sort of stretched out redoes. Sure, it can be a little repetitive at times (the movie even makes a joke about how Rose breaks TWO wine glasses in its first act, both times after being startled by the ghostly images that are now following her), but it never bored me and had me pretty much hooked in until the final ten minutes (more on that soon). It’s also kind of funny at times; Rose isn’t afraid to speak her mind and gets in some pretty great lines at her disbelieving fiancé and obnoxious sister, who she resents for leaving when they were younger instead of helping her deal with their unwell mother. It’s also got an all timer bit of morbid humor involving her missing cat; it’s one of those things where you’ll likely realize what’s happening (i.e. where the cat is) a few beats before it actually does, forcing you to squirm as Finn and his editors delay the inevitable just to build up the anxiety about the moment that the poor kitty is “found.”

I also enjoyed how it felt like a low-key take on MeToo stuff, in that you really feel Rose’s frustration that no one believes her, and that’s all she seemingly wants. Nearly every woman who has come forward about their abuse has had their motives questioned, with “she’s making it up for attention” kind of idiocy coming from detractors, planting seeds of doubt into those who might have believed her otherwise. And you see that sort of thing here; when Rose meets Stasey’s character, she of course chalks it up to some kind of mental breakdown, only to go through it herself starting the next day (when it’s, of course, too late to apologize to Stasey for doubting her). Rose’s fiancé, her sister, her boss, etc all keep coming up with excuses as to why she’s acting the way she is, without anyone (except the ex, eventually) even humoring her, let alone believing her. That extreme annoyance is something Bacon’s performance really makes you feel down to your bones; if you’ve ever been dismissive of someone’s claims of this or that, you’re likely to feel mighty guilty about it after seeing her breakdown (at a party scene, if you’re looking out for it).

But man, the ending. I won’t spoil the particulars, but it involves some CGI nonsense and a weak closer that is needlessly pessimistic when you consider the film’s themes of unresolved trauma. It seems to be saying there’s no way of getting past it, and maybe that’s true, but man. BLEAK! And not that bleak endings are bad, but when you couple that with the silly apparition being “battled” and the fact that Rose’s fiancé was just dropped out of the third act entirely, it feels like an ending that was either the result of test screening changes or perhaps a filmmaker having a terrific concept but no ending in mind, and this was the best they could come up with because they had to have SOMETHING. And the more I got away from it (this post is up six days after I saw the movie, you might notice), the angrier I got - it really undid a lot of goodwill, and I truly hope there was a different finale originally that got ruined by nervous execs or whatever, because building up to that climax (and then a novelty pop song on the credits to pour salt in the wound) really felt kind of insulting.

It's not bad enough to derail the whole thing, mind you – just one of those “this coulda been a classic if they just knocked it out of the park at the end” kind of movies that ends up just being pretty good (ironically, it was knocked out of first place by Halloween Ends which has the opposite problem: it’s a little messy/awkwardly-paced throughout but has a great final 10-15 minutes). Without seeing the short it’s hard to know what they originally covered, though given its short runtime (11 minutes) and two person cast I am going to assume it’s basically just Stasey’s scene here in a different fashion, and therefore how it ended wouldn’t really correlate here. Maybe the blu-ray will offer an alternate ending or something that will be a bit more to my liking. Either way, I’m glad the movie’s a hit and, more importantly, I’m glad my gamble of using up some of my precious/sparse free time this month paid off. Well; MOSTLY paid off - the popcorn sucked, but that’s not the movie’s fault, far as I know.

What say you?


The Kindred (1987)

OCTOBER 17, 2022


It’s rare that a bonus feature on a Blu-ray perfectly encapsulates why a movie works as well as it does, but that’s exactly the case for The Kindred. Along with a commentary, a retrospective, and some promotional materials (including the trailer, which kicks off with like 30 seconds’ worth of the monster growling over shots of the cast – imagine seeing something that bold today!?) is a collection of behind the scenes material shot during the film’s production in 1986, and it’s mostly devoted to the FX guys trying to get the monsters to move right for the camera/lighting that was set up. No one seems frustrated or anything, but watching them repeatedly try to get, for example, a little mutant thing inside a jar to pop out the correct way, you can almost hear a producer saying “F it, let’s do it with CGI and move on!”

Of course, that wasn’t an option in the 1980s, which meant that they’d keep trying until they got it right with the superior rubber and latex versions. While practical FX will always be around, the reliance on CG has infested even lower budget productions like this as the software became cheaper (and sadly, it’s probably easier to find a VFX artist than a practical sculptor, regardless of budget), and as a result the charm of movies like this went out the window along with the tangible creatures. The Kindred isn’t going to land on the list of anyone’s favorite monster movies of the decade, as it can’t exactly compete with the likes of The Thing or The Fly, but it IS a lot of fun and more than makes up for its clunkier bits with some truly impressive creature work. And goop. So, so much goop.

Even Rod Steiger joins in on the goopy fun, letting himself get drenched in the stuff as if he wasn’t an Oscar winning actor; it’s the sort of moment you can see coming and figure “Well they’ll turn the camera around and have a double take the hit” but nope! Steiger continues his dialogue as he’s slimed like a Nickelodeon star, and it’s such a weirdly charming thing to see – the commitment of an actor who wasn’t treating this B movie as something beneath him, the disgusting texture of the stuff, the content of the scene… it’s a surprisingly sweet moment, all things considered. Steiger isn’t the only one in the movie to be covered in goo, of course – another actor is submerged in a muddy texture that’s possibly the monster’s excrement, one turns into a fish monster, people are wrapped in slimy tentacles… it’s one of the most viscous movies I’ve seen in years, regardless of era.

And yes, this was my first time viewing (so nostalgia isn’t aiding my positive take), a long awaited moment for me. When I was 8 or 9 it was on cable and I remember starting to watch it while waiting for my mom to finish whatever it was she was doing before we left for a trip, and then recorded the rest when we finally left, but for reasons I can no longer recall I never did go back and finish it (given the rushed way I recorded it, a strong guess would be I forgot it was on the tape before using it for something else). I remember seeing one of the creatures (watching the whole thing now I assume it was the scene where the paramedic is attacked in Steiger’s lab) and that fragmented mental image has been all I had left for literal decades now, so I was stoked to see Synapse had remastered the film and put it out on Blu-ray, as it was never given any DVD release and has been effectively lost since its VHS debut.

That long absence means many of you probably haven’t seen it or barely remember it either, so to quickly explain the plot: a scientist who looks like Michael Bay (evil stepdad dude from Scream For Help, actually) finds out from his dying mother that he has a brother, though he is unable to get anything besides a name (Anthony). So he rounds up some of his colleagues and heads to her isolated home/lab, hoping her notes and experiments can provide him some answers. He’s joined by Amanda Pays (swoooooon) as a former student of hers, who also seems to have her own agenda, and it’s not long before “Anthony” makes his appearance – he’s a slimy monster who starts eating everyone. That’s pretty much the gist of the movie, a sort of cross between From Beyond and a slasher, though a surprising number of the cast end up surviving. But that actually adds to the movie’s charm; they’re mostly pretty likable folks and it’s nice to see how many of them will live to tell the wacky tale (kind of like Tremors in that regard; in fact one of my favorite things about that movie is that it has a relatively *low* body count).

As it’s made by Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter, the team who gave us The Dorm That Dripped Blood and The Power, I wasn’t surprised to see that the pacing wasn’t always great, but that said they had clearly learned from their mistakes on their earlier films, and this was easily their best (the pair would work together one more time on Servants of Twilight before splitting, though they both sit for the commentaries and such so it doesn’t seem to be a personal rift). And some slower action actually works in the film’s favor; the nature of “Anthony” is something the characters have to solve using their science know-how, so if he burst through the floor right away there’d be no reason for them to conduct experiments, and it’s through these talkier scenes we get to know them and how they interact with each other, which adds to the movie’s charm (Peter Frechette as Brad in particular brings some Bill Paxton energy to the proceedings). And I had to laugh at how they isolate a character so they can get some action in there early without it disrupting the others: a character decides she must drop off a giant watermelon at her parents’ house in the middle of the night (it’s their anniversary gift?), only for us to see that the monster has somehow hidden inside the melon, from which he bursts out and kills her as she drives. It’s so insane I had to applaud, and it bought the movie more than enough goodwill to get to the point where the goop really starts to hit the fan.

Synapse’s remastering is (as is usually the case) quite striking, though given the film’s longtime unavailability I can’t compare it to anything beyond my murky cable memory (looks much better!). And it’s got the aforementioned extras, all of which are enjoyable (the retrospective is pretty thorough; several cast members and a lot of the key crew) and I appreciate that they’re there, as the film’s long awaited official release means that they could have just put the film itself out on a barebones disc and it’d still be an exciting day for its fans and those like me who never got to see the whole thing. There aren’t a lot of these relatively “big” genre movies (it did play theatrically and performed fairly well for an indie horror film at the time – in fact it outgrossed From Beyond!) left to be properly released, so as a champion of physical media I see each one like this that comes along to be a huge win and perhaps a sign that the fight isn’t over yet, and we will still get proper special editions for anything else that’s still MIA (as opposed to just being brought to Shudder or something). My dream of getting The Keep inches ever closer!

What say you?


Halloween Ends (2022)

OCTOBER 11, 2022


It's funny: on the same day I was confirmed for a screening of Halloween Ends, the new 4K UHD set of 6-8 arrived at my door. This odd release (which is spread across and finishes two of the series' continuities and contains none of the films that are setting up said continuities) finishes the main franchise's conversion to the 4K format (leaving only the two Rob Zombie remakes), so Halloween "Ended" twice for me in the span of a few hours. And in Resurrection, Laurie Strode famously died - would I be seeing this character die yet again?

Well obviously I won't be spoiling that much, but it's impossible to talk about this movie without getting into something that's been more or less hidden from the marketing (though I feel one could suss it out if they put enough thought into what they were seeing and what they WEREN'T seeing). So if you want a totally clean experience, best to just bow out now and come back later, but I'll leave you with one spoiler-free thought: if you thought Kills was too much of a swing (and a miss), then you best not even bother with this one. This one swings even harder, to the point where you can conceivably forget for a long stretch that it's even a Halloween movie. If your ideal entry has lots of Michael Myers doing lots of Michael Myers-y things, this film is not for you.

(FINAL SPOILER WARNING! Plot details will be "spoiled" but I will not get into the film's ending.)

OK, for those still here, you've presumably seen the trailer or read enough about the movie (or maybe even saw it by now; it's posting before release but these reviews are here forever!) and thus have caught wind of a character named Corey Cunningham. Given John Carpenter's continued involvement the name Cunningham (as in Arnie) can't be a coincidence; he's very much like the Christine protagonist: awkward, shy, bullied, etc. His problems - as is the case with many a Haddonfield resident - began on a Halloween night, though I'll refrain from saying how (if you've seen the movie, I think you can agree it's one of the film's best shocks) except to note that they were in 2019, and now it's 2022 - a four year jump from the events of the previous two films.

It's an odd shift that the movie never really smooths over; for starters we barely know Corey enough to understand how he's changed since then, but it's just as equally "off" that we get no sense of how Karen's death affected Laurie. The movie really needed something like (stick with me here) Avengers: Endgame, where they get their revenge on Thanos in the first 15 minutes and THEN spring the jump forward on us. When we first see Laurie and Allyson here, they're both seemingly over it - Laurie's even decorating her (new) house for Halloween and baking a pumpkin pie! Since the last film ended literally on Karen's death, we've never even seen how Allyson got the news, only a few hours after her dad died, that she lost her mother too. It's the most character driven entry in this trilogy (which has already been more focused on the characters of the three women more than any other entry in the series save maybe Zombie's Halloween II), but it's also bizarrely missing a big piece. (That Karen is represented from a photo taken during a deleted scene of the 2018 film almost seems like a weird acknowledgement that they know they're just kind of brushing her off.)

But anyway, eventually Corey's path crosses with Laurie's, when he's being bullied by some local jerks over his Halloween past, which naturally earns her sympathy. He has an injury, and Allyson is now working for HMH, so she successfully plays matchmaker by bringing him there. Allyson and Corey bond over his injury and also her busted car (he in turn works at an auto shop/junkyard, another Christine nod), go on a date, etc. Meanwhile, Laurie reconnects with Frank (my man Will Patton) and seems to have her shit together for once! She's even writing a memoir about her ordeals; one hopes she can get Sidney "Out of Darkness" Prescott to write the foreword.

You might notice that I haven't mentioned Michael Myers. Well, that's because... he just isn't in it for a while. He makes exactly one non-killing appearance in the first hour (yes, HOUR) of the film, and it's an important scene, yes, but given that this is supposedly the series finale it's very strange how the marquee villain sits most of it out. Did they learn nothing from Jason Goes To Hell? Then again (OK, final spoiler warning!) maybe that's also intentional, because in that one appearance he seems to transfer his evil to Corey, much like JGTH's makers thought the best sendoff for their own boogeyman was to leave him on the sidelines for most of the movie. But at least there he had that great opening in the cabin! Again, this is why I feel the movie really could have used a 2018-set prologue where Laurie (and Allyson, perhaps) tracks him down after he murdered Karen, maybe let him kill some rando (or even Lindsey, who returns but has no purpose), and then let Laurie "kill" him in the usual (read: not effective) manner. Instead they just say he disappeared for all those years, which really rang false to me. He's just in a sewer tunnel in town - we know Haddonfield PD isn't the best police force in the world, but are they really so ineffective that they'd just shrug him off after he murdered over 40 people in a single night? Didn't they, you know, look?

Anyway, yeah: Corey takes on villain duties for the bulk of the film, sometimes even when wearing Myers' mask (so in addition to JGTH, there's a little New Beginning in there). I'm not opposed to this, I should stress - I think it's an interesting idea and I've certainly seen the real McCoy do his thing enough in 11 other films. My issue is both the placement (again, in the "last" film) and the awkward way we return to this world after Kills, where it feels like we missed a movie in between. I know Covid forced them to change plans a bit, but I can't imagine any scenario where they couldn't have just had a less awkward first act that could solve a lot of the movie's issues (shrugging off Karen, Myers' long absence, etc.). I mean, the movie's almost two hours long, brings back every surviving character (not that there are a lot), introduces several new people and locations - it doesn't FEEL like a movie that's hamstrung by the pandemic in any way. To sum up, they're already asking a lot of the fanbase to accept a movie that doesn't have their "hero" in it for the entire first half (and has him split duties for the second half), but they ask even more of us by doing it in a way that seems needlessly clumsy.

Once it gets going, it works really well, and will satisfy folks who were burned by Kills. It's not on kill overload (it's got a decent body count, but well south of the previous film's record high) and there's no "Evil dies tonight" or anything like that - it's just the usual brand of carnage, highlighted by a sequence at the junkyard where the Shape takes on four jerk teens. The movie occasionally dips into the weird melodramatic dialogue that David Gordon Green and his writers seemingly love (most prominently in a bar scene with a victim's father), but never to the point of derailing the whole thing like in the previous film. It doesn't even have any humor of note; a little bit of cutesy stuff between Laurie and Frank and a couple lines from Corey's father are the only attempts in the entire movie at making the audience smile.

And (not really a spoiler here, it's in the trailer and also obvious) the big showdown between Laurie and Michael is very satisfying, although it has very little buildup - you might not even realize that you're watching the climax until it's, well, VERY OBVIOUSLY the climax. I chalk that up to the lengthy setup period and the fact that most movies are seemingly over two hours now; by the time Myers is actually up and about and doing his thing, there's not much of the (1:50) movie left, but without knowing the runtime and just going off the "feel" of the film's pacing you might assume there's another half hour or so to go when he finds himself facing Laurie again. It doesn't help that Lindsey just disappears from the story at a certain point, and it's not until the very end I even realized that Frank was still working as a cop since there was no police presence in the movie (Sheriff Cowboy Hat only appears in two shots in what's essentially an epilogue); after taking forever to get going, they suddenly start racing through things.

The good news is: the stuff that works? It works REALLY well. Jamie Lee is terrific, seemingly fired up after spending so much of the last movie in bed (and perhaps a bit energized knowing it's almost certainly, definitely, for realsies no takebacks, the last time she'll play Laurie Strode), and Rohan Campbell (Corey) is the rarest of things in this series: a sympathetic young male character. Even when he starts doing awful things, it's hard not to root for him to shake it off and beat his demons, knowing they were triggered by just the absolute worst luck (twice!). Patton doesn't have much to do but he seems happy to be there (and his puppy dog affection for Laurie remains the most endearing thing to me), and Andi Matichak has finally gotten to really shine as a lead without being overshadowed by Curtis (in 2018) and the entire damn town (Kills). And with what little he has to do, James Jude Courtney remains an effective Shape - there's still no stalking of note, but at this point it'd almost be weird if there was since Green has shown no interest in it in his previous two outings. And - probably goes without saying - the Carpenter/Carpenter/Davies score is terrific, with Corey's character giving them some new motifs and one big cue in particular (called "The Procession", already available on streaming) is as epic as it should be given the scene it accompanies.

But only patient viewers will be rewarded, and you gotta deal with some weird plot points (Allyson was apparently dating a cop that's like fifteen years older than her? Again, anyone invested in her character's journey over these three films really got robbed of a big chunk re: Karen's death and how it affected her) and some strange "What year is this?" kind of writing (for example, everyone in town seemingly listens to the same FM station? In 2022?). Tone/pacing wise (meaning, ignoring the plot points) it almost feels like THIS should be the middle entry, setting up a Kills-like action packed finale, but instead it's more like an extended epilogue, which might work if the previous film didn't have such a gutpunch cliffhanger. It's bound to be the most polarizing yet of this trilogy (which is saying something!), and I am crushed that it's also heading to Peacock simultaneously, as that means a lot of the angry takes are going to be from people who weren't even fully paying attention to it and/or having the experience interrupted by ads.

I guess the best way to put it is this: it's a bad Michael Myers movie, but ultimately a good Laurie Strode one. Your mileage will vary depending on whose presence is more important to you in these things. And if you're like me, who assigns them (and Loomis, but he's not an option) equal value, it's just kind of bewildering at times, but ultimately ends in a satisfying way, enough to qualify it as a win. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't have to forgive a lot of clunkiness to get there. And here's hoping that "Halloween 14" is a return to the anthology format the series was meant to have in the first place, because there is clearly nothing less to do with these characters and I want everyone who is still alive at the end of this one to just enjoy the rest of their lives offscreen. They've earned it! Leave them alone! But don't remake them, either! Our affinity for them is mainly due to the actors who played them, something Rob Zombie clearly didn't realize. If a remake must be the way to go, do it without Loomis, Laurie, etc. The common complaint about Halloween III is "Where's Michael Myers?!?", not "Where's Laurie Strode?!?", so lean into it if going anthology isn't financially viable (though, I feel it'd be more accepted now especially since H3 appreciation has soared over the years. And if they can get Carpenter and his boys to do the scoring...).

What say you?


HMAD Lives!

If you don't visit the site at least once a week, that's fine - I don't update it every week anymore, so fair's fair! But those who check in regularly were probably (hopefully?) alarmed that the site was completely removed for about ten days. Not offline, legit DELETED thanks to Google's software flagging it as a sp*m site. It took two attempts on my part to convince them that no, it's not that, it's literally just a bunch of horror movie reviews that they were making unavailable at the time of the year the site gets the most traffic. So, thanks for that one, Google.

And no, I still don't know what triggered it - they couldn't be bothered to even let me know it had been restored, let alone why it was removed in the first place. I just kept checking a couple times a day and finally, yesterday afternoon, it was there, in all its ugly white text over black glory (someone somewhere is definitely mad that this didn't force me to start a new site with better design, and to them I say: lol, sorry!). So that sucked, but at least it's back, and none of the reviews I was working on were lost (I couldn't even access my drafts - that's how extensive the removal was!), so beyond scaring me and a few readers, no harm no foul I guess.

But keep this post in mind if it ever disappears again! I'll never take it down on my own (even if I'm embarrassed by some of the older reviews) but if there's another glitch in their software I can't promise it'll return since there's apparently no way to talk to a human being there. They have helpers on their forums and the one guy helping me (named Adam) was great, but even he seemed to be unable to get any strong answers of why it was flagged as such, because obviously if it was a particular review or comment I'd just delete it outright and not have to worry. Cross fingers it doesn't happen again!


Hellraiser (2022)

OCTOBER 4, 2022


I had to laugh when Hellraiser ended and I spied a certain credit among its writers; a bit of information that had escaped me up until now. See, about two thirds of the way through the (two hour!) movie I realized that an opening sequence was really unnecessary and the movie would be much better without it, as it tipped its hand for a mystery that our protagonist was trying to solve. "It's like when they screwed up Dark City with that opening narration!" I thought, and then the writing credits came up and I see David S. Goyer was one of them - the same Goyer who rewrote Dark City! STOP WRECKING YOUR MOVIES, GOYER!

OK, "wrecked" is a strong word. There's a lot to like here, and if you're comparing to the likes of Hellworld and Deader it will come off even better. But this really coulda/shoulda been a knockout considering the talent involved (the other writers and director David Bruckner gave us the terrific Night House) and the fact that they wisely opted not to remake the original (no Frank, no Julia, no Kirsty, etc) and truly reimagine the concept from the ground up. There are some cutesy callbacks from dialogue (a guy asking "What's your pleasure?" when tending a bar got a mild chuckle from me) and Ben Lovett's score occasionally reprises Christopher Young's iconic themes, but otherwise it's a completely new scenario, with wholly original characters beyond new takes on Chatterer and (naturally) Pinhead, who is now played by a woman and has a different tact when dealing with potential victims.

But I can't help but think it would have been closer to knockout territory if they never had that opening bit, in which the film's human villain (Goran Visnjic) lures a partygoer into his secret room and gets him to play with the Lament Configuration, summoning Cenobites and tearing him asunder. Yes, it's a Hellraiser movie and thus it's obvious that these sort of things are going to come into play, but the miscalculation here is that it's not "Hellraiser 11", it's a completely fresh start - which means they have their own rules and zero obligation to do what's expected. And making it worse, the main character is a young addict named Riley who isn't sure if the weird things she's seeing (i.e. cenobites, puzzle boxes coming to life, etc) are real or part of a drug-induced hallucination. Being that it's a remake (from a team who made a psychologically driven thriller) it actually would not only be possible, but kind of daring if she was indeed just killing people herself and chalking it up to some sort of demon (hell, go a bit meta and have her visions be inspired by an '80s horror movie she saw!), but the fact that we know perfectly well what's happening - since we saw some of it before she even got involved! - this angle never works.

So we know she's not imagining anything, and thanks to that opener, we also know who is behind it, another mystery she spends some of the film's considerable runtime trying to solve. There's some half-assed attempt to pass off Visnjic's character (a rich jerk named Voight) as being dead, but... come on. Why would they hire a recognizable actor to play this particular role if he wasn't going to come back and (spoiler for the completely inept) reveal he's lured her and her friends there to be other sacrifices? It's just frustrating, all of the pieces are there to make this a really cool and engaging film (not to mention a terrific way to relaunch a franchise) but it never really (sigh, I gotta do it - sorry) got its hooks into me because I was always so far ahead of the protagonist, in a story that's also too drawn out for its own good. They even much it up AGAIN later, when one of her friends is revealed to be working with Voight, something that very easily could have been a surprise if we found out the same time as Riley, but no - it's explained to us (not her) 10-15 minutes prior, for no reason whatsoever. There's probably a 90-95 minute cut of this movie that would work really well, but instead we get one that keeps narratively shooting itself in the foot while delaying the inevitable.

Also, while rehashing Frank and Julia wouldn't have been wise, they could have at least given us an antagonist on an equal footing with them. Since Voight is supposed to be dead he can't re-enter the story until much later, and Riley and her friends have no real desires to speak of either, to the point where I wondered if Pinhead herself was going to be disappointed that this was all she had to work with. It's kind of amusing that Night House's plot almost seems like it could have been retrofitted into a Hellraiser (a guy regrets opening the box and tries to trick Pinhead with lookalikes to save his wife's soul!) and yet they miss the mark here on what constitutes engaging heroes or villains. The characters not only lack that kind of edge, but some lack any identifying traits at all. Riley's main goal is to find her brother Matt (who disappears and is presumably killed when she first opens the box) and she is joined by his boyfriend and her own boyfriend, but also Matt's roommate, a girl named Nora who - after spending nearly 90 minutes with her - I couldn't tell you one thing about besides... the fact that her name is Nora and she is the Matt's roommate. Remember Kirsty's dull boyfriend in the first movie who they got rid of with a line of dialogue in Hellbound? This movie is populated mostly by people who aren't even as interesting as he was.

All that said, if they put out a lavish coffee table book devoted to the film's design work, I'd preorder two copies: one to keep nice for me, the other to carry around with me so that when I go see a new horror movie with bland sets and no imagination whatsoever to the visuals, I can shove it in the director's face in hopes that they'll take some inspiration and do better on the next one. Pinhead is given a makeover from the neck down, the new cenobites are pure nightmare fuel (their accompanying sound design is terrific too - "The Gasp" in particular unnerved me throughout, and Chatterer's teeth clacking has never been more unsettling), and the new design for the puzzle box is quite striking as well, in all its many forms (part of the new idea is that the box goes through stages as it collects souls). And while the early areas aren't much to look at, a big chunk of the film takes place in Voight's mansion, which is already impressive but is then embellished with iron gates and shields that spread across the entire building, controlled by switches and making the place itself kind of like a puzzle box (I suspect someone involved was a fan of the "Elysium Configuration" in Bloodline!). There isn't much in the way of gore, and it's often disappointingly cut around (like when a character is impaled by a device meant to keep him alive - we see it approach him, and then suddenly it's sticking out of his chest and back, without showing the impact), but there are a number of bits that will upset the squeamish, especially if you have a thing against razor wire and peeled skin.

And by wisely changing Pinhead, comparisons to Doug Bradley never make sense, something the replacements in Revelations and Judgment could never escape. Jamie Clayton's take gives Pinhead (actually named The Priest) an icy, quiet demeanor, playing 4D chess with the characters and letting the smallest change in their expression mark their satisfaction with scoring another victory. They don't get into it too much, but there's a sense that because she's got a feminine demeanor, Riley can appeal to her sympathies while Voight can manipulate her, but in reality "The Priest" doesn't seem to possess the same kind of lingering humanity that we got from Pinhead (thanks to Elliot Spencer). But the filmmakers are smart enough not to overuse them; they only appear about as much as Bradley did in Hellbound, if even that much, making those appearances count instead of positing them as an "icon" who has to be front and center.

I dunno. I seem to be in the minority, and that's a good thing - I want people to love it as much as I wanted to, and I'm legit sad I thought it was just OK. But even if we disagree on the characters or whatever, it's a cold hard fact that the '80s entries were kinkier and taboo-breaking than this, as even some folks who really liked it agree that it's surprisingly tame (there's almost no sex at all; it's possibly the least horny entry in the entire series!), which is odd. Clayton's Pinhead and the design work alone keep it into "win" category if we're going to be binary about everything (which seems wrong when discussing Hellraiser!), and I hope they can use the groundwork laid here to create their own "Hellbound" (i.e. a sequel that expands the world and in many ways improves on the original), but I can't help but feel disappointed that there are at least two of the Dimension ones that I found more engaging in terms of the plot and characters. To each their own, I guess!

What say you?


Dark Glasses (2022)

SEPTEMBER 30, 2022


After Opera, the output of Dario Argento became... let’s just say "spotty" and kindly leave it at that. But it also saw him largely working away from the straightforward giallo type fare that put him on our radars all those years ago, so it was exciting to hear that Dark Glasses (Italian: Occhiali neri) was a back to basics attempt, with no supernatural elements whatsoever. Plus, after a few projects have fallen apart over the past decade, it’s just nice to have ANY new Argento fare, as this is his first film since Dracula 3D all the way back in 2012. The only Master of Horror who is still around that’s made us wait longer is John Carpenter, who isn’t exactly trying to do anything else anyway.

Well I wouldn’t say it was worth the wait, but it’s certainly an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes, which is all I can ask of a guy in his eighties stepping back into the ring after such a long absence. The plot is vintage giallo: a woman named Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli) is blinded after a car accident, and as she tries to readjust to life she realizes that she is still being followed by the serial killer who caused the accident in the first place. And that’s basically it; given the title (which refers to not only her post-accident reliance on sunglasses, but also the ones you use to watch an eclipse unless you’re a hapless moron) I thought there might be some psychic vision or the reveal that the killer was also blind or something, but nah – it’s actually so simple that it almost becomes weightless.

For starters, the killer reveal is a total nothingburger; the movie only has one suspect of note and he’s barely in it anyway. It’s one of those movies where a character needs to say something awkward just to help the audience remember who he was in case they had forgotten, which believe it or not is less preferable than the type where the killer wasn't even in it at all (like the OG Friday the 13th, for example). There’s also almost no police involvement; a pair of cops who do some routine investigation stuff pop up early on, but they are basically phased out of the movie after (spoiler) some other cops are killed, which is odd – wouldn’t that intensify their actions? And there aren’t even a lot of death scenes for Argento to do his thing; a gory throat slashing in its opening minutes seems to be him announcing “I’m back, baby!” but after that there’s relatively little violence at all.

Instead, it’s a surprisingly character driven thriller, focusing on Diana as well as Chin, a young boy who was orphaned in the car accident. Feeling somewhat guilty (she was fleeing the killer and rammed into Chin’s parents’ car) she visits him at the orphanage and tries to make amends by giving him a video game, but as he is bullied there Chin decides she can make it up to him by letting him just stay with her. So the two of them, along with her recently acquired seeing eye dog, become a little makeshift family – and it’s super endearing! I can’t apply the word “sweet” to a lot of stuff in Argento’s movies, but it’s how I felt here – with the added bonus of giving me flashbacks to Cat O Nine Tails’ lovable Karl Malden character.

It’s also easy to like Diana. Unlike some other protagonists who lose a sense, she never seems too angry or stubborn about her predicament – she quickly puts all her effort into having the same life she did. Asia Argento (supposedly meant to play the lead at one point) plays a social worker of sorts who helps her get the dog, shows her how to use a cell phone for the blind, how to use the sounds of the crosswalk meters, etc – and Diana takes to it all eagerly and appreciatively, instead of being bratty and pulling those kind of “This is pointless, I WILL SEE AGAIN!” theatrics we’ve seen in other movies. And she remains somewhat vain about her appearance; at one point she loses her glasses and has Chin pick out a new pair, with the only instruction to make sure they are cute.

So it’s kind of a mixed bag; there’s nothing particularly BAD about the movie, but it’s also a little too straightforward for its own good. Throughout the film I kept thinking “OK yeah but there’s gonna be a weird left field turn right about...” only for that “now!” to never come. At one point Asia takes Diana to a retreat where some other blind folks are, and you’ll probably think that this will produce some suspense highlights (the killer making his way around people who can’t see him, perhaps) but nothing is really done with it. Maybe the budget got trimmed or something and they had to make concessions, but whatever the reason it just feels a bit too stripped down, without the weirdness and wacky plot points that made his “Animal Trilogy” (not to mention Deep Red) so memorable. There’s a scene where Diana and Chin are wading through a little pond and find themselves attacked by snakes – the movie needed more of that energy! But that said, it’s entertaining enough and far from being hateable, so the folks who called for his head (or at least retirement) after Mother of Tears and Dracula (neither of which I minded much, I should note) should be happy to know he’s still able to make something that, while slight, is worthy of his filmography.

What say you?


Pearl (2022)

SEPTEMBER 22, 2022


Thanks to Marvel, sitting through the credits to see something extra has become so commonplace there are entire sites devoted to whether or not it'll be worth you time (beyond, of course, seeing the names of the people who made the thing you just watched and presumably enjoyed if you're hoping to see more). Usually it's a little joke or maybe a promise of a sequel, but X had to be the first to show not a scene, but a trailer for a prequel film that was already made in secret and would be coming along later in the year. And - less of a surprise since it's been announced and Pearl has been out for a few weeks now - this one ends with the promise of another entry titled MaXXXine! The Ti West-iverse is here!

For those who didn't see the previous film (or just forgot), Pearl is the murderer character in X, and (spoiler here!) played by Mia Goth, who also played that film's heroine. Many films have played the "the hero doesn't want to end up like the villain" card before, but I can't think of one where both roles were actually played by the same performer in order to hammer the point home. Of course, Goth was nearly unrecognizable in her old-age Pearl makeup, and there would be no reason to put her in that makeup again for a sequel, so the prequel route makes total sense: Goth gets to further explore an interesting character without being burdened by latex and such, and we in the audience get a new movie that - being made before the first one was released - wasn't dictated by what audiences would demand from a followup.

Which is to say that this isn't "X 2" by any means - I wouldn't even call it a slasher if it wasn't for its connection to the original. It's more in line with the "Psycho Biddies" films of yore like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, except with the obvious difference that Goth is far from "past her prime" - if anything it's the sort of performance that could elevate her career if the right folks can get past their bias against horror (I saw an article the other day saying she'd be up for an Oscar if it wasn't a horror film, which... sigh). Pearl is a farmgirl who longs for a bigger life, convinced she will be a big movie star if she can just get to show the world how talented she is. A chance arrives in the form of a dance audition, but her domineering mother forbids her to go - naturally this means she'll do whatever it takes to get there, and bad things start happening.

Of course, the truth is that lots of girls are just as or even more talented than Pearl, but she can't accept that she's not all that special in the grand scheme of things. The film is set during the 1918 pandemic, and it's easy to see the parallels: Pearl is a lot like we all have been over the past couple years, longing to escape but feeling trapped and for some of us (thanks to increased online interactions as a result in our case) realizing that we're not bringing anything new to the table. We're all making the same jokes on twitter as dozens of others, all posting the same GIFs in response to someone else... even with the hundred year difference in setting, I feel many will (uncomfortably) see themselves in Goth's character, liable to snap if confronted with one more example of how little we matter to the world at large. It's an incredible showcase for Goth; she's in all but one brief scene in the film, and finds that balance between being sympathetic and murderous; in fact she was almost hitting that mark in X, but here, seeing what led her to murder and how she comes to accept her lot in life, is truly heartbreaking. Even after she's killed a few people (all but one guilty of absolutely nothing), you still feel for her - it's a remarkable performance that could be disastrous in the hands of a less capable performer.

That said, I have to admit I was slightly underwhelmed by the film as a whole. Given the way it was made (written during a weekend Covid-mandated quarantine, shot in secret at the end of X's production) it wasn't exactly a shock to discover that there wasn't much meat on the film's bones outside of Goth's performance. Someone compared it to a videogame's DLC, and I think that's apt - it never quite feels like a complete film on its own, as if it was hollowed out a bit before reaching our eyeballs. It doesn't help that the aforementioned teaser (and subsequent traditional trailers) spoil pretty much every one of the film's acts of violence, all of which are presented as shocking moments we shouldn't have seen coming. It's one thing for a traditional slasher to give away some of its kills in the marketing, but here, the movie is basically a "How much can she take before she snaps?" kind of deal and we go in knowing who will be on the receiving end of her rage. Given the 60 year gap between the two films, anyone could have conceivably survived this film without their absence in X being weird, so I wish the trailer had been a little more conservative with what it showed off if only to give the film some needed suspense.

(That said, I forgot her husband's name from X, so they got some of that intrigue back unintentionally, as I couldn't tell you for sure which of the film's two male characters was her devoted spouse in the other film, or if was even either of them!)

On the plus side, it thankfully avoids too much "prequel humor", which is the sort of thing I can't stand (like in one of the Star Wars prequels when Obi-Wan says "You'll be the death of me!" to young Anakin, arrrgh). Pearl stands on a spot marked X when she auditions for a dancing troupe, and I could practically see Ti West smirking as he trained his camera on it and held the edit a beat longer than necessary, as if he too found such gags to be pretty lame and wanted to go overboard. Instead, for the most part he opted to enrich the X experience for those who go back and watch it again, post-Pearl. The bike she rides throughout this film can be seen rotting away in X, and if you happened to notice a wheelchair in the dark basement when Jenna Ortega was trapped down there, now you'll know where it came from. And yes, the gator's mama is in the nearby pond, getting a glorious moment as the film's title appears.

Speaking of the film's graphics, after Goth the best reason to see the movie is the lush, technicolor inspired photography, where everything pops like Wizard of Oz (a film that has more than one direct influence on this one). Given the low-key way the film was made and the fact that X didn't exactly burn up the box office (though it did turn a healthy profit and is far and away West's highest grossing film) I figured that Pearl would go direct to streaming with maybe a minor theatrical run the week before, and I've rarely been happier to be wrong. In fact it ended up opening on more screens than X did (and is on track to make roughly the same amount of money), allowing me to see it on a big multiplex screen instead of a smaller art house one (which would also be a longer drive, I'm sure). I kind of love that the most vivid and striking live action movie I saw on the big screen this year was a cheap horror flick. More like this!

Ultimately, while it's a bit threadbare in the narrative department and contains few surprises to those who haven't seen the trailer, it's definitely worth seeing even if you didn't like X (and goes without saying, you can fully "get" this without having seen it at all), as it's a much different beast. Goth's performance (I haven't even mentioned her monologue near the end - good lord), the visuals, and the lovely score are all top notch and more or less make up for its slightly undercooked screenplay. And as we get more and more exposed to TikTokers and the like who are far more convinced of their talent than anyone else, I find it endlessly amusing that one of the most timely genre films I've seen in a while is set over 100 years ago.

What say you?


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