FTP: The Wax Mask (1997)

DECEMBER 16, 2023


There’s kind of a heartbreaking moment on the bonus features for The Wax Mask (Italian: Maschera di cera), where Sergio Stivaletti notes that the movie never got a fair shake from horror fans. Not a direct quote because I don’t have the patience to go back and find where he says it (more on that soon) but the gist is “It was never seen as the exciting debut movie from a FX artist they liked – it was always the movie Lucio Fulci was going to make and I replaced him when he died.” And he’s right; you’d be hard-pressed to find a single review or article about the film from the past 25 years that doesn’t practically lead with “This was supposed to be a Fulci comeback movie,” which is unfair to Stivaletti (for those not privy to the history: Fulci died weeks before production was set to begin). The closest equivalent I can think of would be A.I. being directed by Spielberg instead of Kubrick, but it’s not like the ‘berg was making his debut, you know? We trusted him.

But one thing that’s not mentioned as much is, you know, it’s very likely the movie wouldn’t have been very good with Fulci calling the shots, either. At that point he hadn’t made a good flick in over a decade, and the Italian film industry’s decreased interest in horror (Stivaletti notes it may have been the only major Italian horror film being produced at that time, saying they were more interested in distributing American disaster movies of the era) meant that they weren’t afforded the same resources they had access to in the early 80s. With the story being a period piece, I feel it always would have come off as underwhelming at best, and (ironically) some of the film’s only real memorable moments were apparently things Stivaletti added that wouldn’t have been in Fulci’s version anyway.

I mean don’t get me wrong, the movie’s not terrible – at times it’s actually fairly entertaining. It’s just one of those things where the names you see in the credits (in addition to Fulci, who wrote the majority of the script, it was also co-written and produced by Dario Argento) elevate expectations. If you snipped off the opening titles and showed it to someone without context, they’d probably walk away thinking it was a decent enough spin on House of Wax, where a reporter and the museum’s new employee work together to solve the mystery of why those wax figures look so darn realistic and if it has anything to do with a string of disappearances. There are a few gory murders, some goofy mid-90s CGI shots that I find charming now (man did they love their morphing FX back then!), frequent sex scenes with actual nudity (also charming since such things don’t exist anymore), and a fiery climax that gave off low-key Hammer vibes. Nothing too exciting or memorable, but, you know, it’s fine!

That said, it never really looks all that well, which kept me at arm’s length. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati was Fulci’s DP for a number of his classics, but sadly it looks more like Salvati’s later work with Full Moon (including the OG Puppet Master), where everything is over lit and soap opera-ish. Honestly if it wasn’t for the time discrepancy I’d swear it was shot on video, so again I can’t help but think if Fulci had survived I’d have the same issues with it that I do under Stivaletti’s watch, and if anything I give him a little more benefit of the doubt since he’s a first timer whereas Fulci would have no excuse for it to look this phony (with the fact that it’s supposed to be 1912 even harder to buy when it looks like they shot it with something they bought at Circuit City). And as I mentioned, one of the best things in the movie is an out of nowhere Terminator-esque scene where the villain, revealed to basically be a robot wearing human skin, is melted down to his exoskeleton and chases the heroes for a bit as the fire rages behind them all. It’s delightfully batshit, offering the movie the sort of energy that it could have used throughout in order to offset its deficiencies.

Stivaletti, Argento, producer Giuseppe Colombo, and a couple others (none of the lead actors, alas) are on hand for a retrospective documentary that is annoyingly broken into several different featurettes, despite having the same people in all of them. Like I get that they want to pad the bonus features menu (indeed, I was kind of overwhelmed when I first loaded it up), but why not just have each interview separate? They obviously put together a 80ish minute doc and then cut it all up – next time make that “we need more bonus features” call before wasting the time of the editor who saw their work split into chunks. Especially since you kind of have to watch all of them anyway to get the context of what they’re talking about; like one just discusses the cast and even a child could be able to detect that it’s lacking a proper intro and stops suddenly. Also they’re all in Italian with non-burned in subtitles, so you can’t even cheat and fast forward at 2x (while reading fast) to get through them all. There’s a solid interview with Alan Jones about some of the project’s history and reputation, and a vintage featurette of Argento on the set, where it seems there was some Spielberg/Hooper/Poltergeist kinda stuff going on re: who was actually directing at times. And there’s a commentary, which is fine – I was most engaged by the Italian Stivaletti speaking English and occasionally asking moderator/Severin guru David Gregory to translate (“It’s a… word joke?” Stivaletti questions, with Gregory deciphering what he meant: “Play on words”). It’s cute! Oh and somewhere in there (again, if it wasn’t all broken up I might be able to find it again easier) Argento tells a delightful story about the lead actor Robert Hossein hooking up with one of the film’s actresses, only for her husband to catch them. But Hossein, thinking fast, told them they were just rehearsing their love scene and she was naked so she could start getting used to being undressed on camera. Hahahah, what a legend.

What say you?


Godzilla Minus One (2023)

DECEMBER 3, 2023


Once upon a time, I got invited to press screenings and also went to more festivals, which meant I got to see newer movies before hearing too much about them. Which was great, because I’m (sadly) easily swayed by the hype (or the rumblings) and then end up feeling the opposite way, because my expectations have been skewed in one direction or the other. It’s something I try to avoid as much as possible, but it’s kind of unavoidable, especially when by the time I end up seeing something it’s from buying a ticket to the Sunday night showing of its opening weekend (by which point reviews have been going around for a week or two). But every now and then there’s a movie like Godzilla Minus One, where all the praise turned out to be pretty on the mark.

I should preface the rest of this review by noting that I’m hardly a Godzilla expert, but more of a casual fan at best. I’ve liked most of the ones I’ve seen (not too many; counting the new Monsterverse types I put the total at 12, including this*), but apart from the original and King of the Monsters I wouldn’t say any of them are movies I’d want to watch a second time (even though I have ended up revisiting a few for various reasons). Not that they’re bad movies (well, Emmerich’s is) but it’s just not my thing – I am entertained by them and then kind of forget about them a few days later. So me saying that Minus One might be my absolute favorite of the lot – or at least tied with the original – may not carry as much weight as a die hard aficionado saying as much (and I know some of those types who have indeed declared this their favorite), but hey, it should count for something, right?

Part of why it works as well the OG is because, well, it’s a period piece set around the same time – actually a few years before. Our hero is Shikishima, a WWII kamikaze pilot who is too afraid to carry out his suicide mission and flies to an island where planes are being fixed, claiming a maintenance issue with his aircraft. He’s barely just arrived when Godzilla stomps his way onto the island, killing all but one of the mechanics while Shikishima once again is too afraid to engage in battle. The only surviving mechanic, Tachibana, blames Shikishima for their deaths, and then the poor sod gets an even worse heaping of guilt when he returns to his hometown and discovers his parents have perished in an air raid that might have been prevented if he had committed to his duty as a kamikaze pilot.

It’s an intriguing and utterly messed up take on the “hero needs to atone” story, because basically everyone is mad at this guy for not committing suicide, and he himself feels bad about it. And thus as Godzilla continues to stomp and smash his way around Japan, Shikishima is basically on a path of “I need to kill myself to feel better about all the deaths I might have prevented!”, leaving us in the audience in the odd position of either hoping he continues to be a coward so that he won’t die, or egging on his demise. I kept thinking of the end of Armageddon, when Billy Bob Thornton is basically screaming at Bruce Willis to “push the button!” when pushing said button means killing himself – it’s basically that kind of weird moment stretched out for two hours.

Luckily, it’s not as grim as that sounds. In fact, it’s kind of a charming movie at times, particularly in the middle chunk of the film when it’s essentially Jaws but with Godzilla instead of Bruce. A few years after returning home, Shikishima gets a job on a boat that goes out on the sea to find and deactivate all the mines that were planted in the waters by both Japanese and US military during WWII, only to find G out there as he makes his way back to land. There’s a riveting sequence where they’re trying to use one of the mines they’ve collected to blow him up that is akin to the barrel scene in Spielberg’s classic, and the camaraderie among the four guys on the boat has elements of the Quint/Brody/Hooper dynamic as well. Honestly I would have been just as happy, perhaps even more so, if this was how the rest of the movie played out, with these four guys (each with their own reasons for being there) trying to stop Godzilla before he got back to the mainland, but eventually their boat is proven to be too small for the gig and more military/scientist types come to the rescue for a grander final act.

In fact if I had one minor complaint about the movie, it’s that the waterbound climax lacks the same kind of tension a land-driven one would provide. Sure, the crew of the two big battleships (plus Shikishima in a fighter plane) is at stake, but one of the things about the movie is that he keeps getting bigger, and that scale is hard to judge when he’s just surrounded by water instead of people and buildings. I also find myself puzzled in this sequence, as he appears to be just standing in the water in many shots but the plan involves using the two ships to tie a massive weight belt around him and sink him to the bottom of the ocean below, so he can’t be touching the ground where he is. I guess he’s just really good at treading water? All that said, it’s worth it for their plan B, which is that if sinking him to the bottom doesn’t kill him (from the pressure), they will remotely trigger some inflatable things on the same belt that will make him skyrocket back up and basically kill him from the bends. Again, I haven’t seen all of these movies, but of the ones I HAVE seen, the method of stopping him has never been from something Thom Yorke sang about back when he could still write coherent songs.

The other thing that the water prevents is G moving around with as much force, which is a bummer because he is legit terrifying in this one. The opening sequence with the mechanics is actually full on scary in ways that giant monster movies rarely are – the original Jurassic Park might be the last time I found myself really tensed up from a giant monster scene, as it really delivers on him being a MONSTER as opposed to a force of nature of some sort. Like, yeah, one swing of his tail can knock over a building and kill hundreds, but there’s something far more unsettling about him seeing a person and eating him or deliberately using that same tail to swat him hundreds of feet through the air and let him die when he lands. And by keeping the movie’s giant monster population to just one (another thing it has in common with the original), it avoids any kind of “Well he’s more of an anti-hero because we need him to stop this other monster” angle that too many others rely on, though I understand that the series would get quite stale if it was just “Godzilla is here/back, we have to stop him!” every time. It's a double edged spiky tail.

Naturally, as is always the case despite some erroneous claims to the contrary, a hefty portion of the movie is devoted to human drama, though as with Godzilla himself the material is well above average. Shikishima is a sympathetic hero and his relationships with the other characters are just as compelling as any of the effect-driven scenes. He has a neighbor who lost her children to the air strike and blames him for their deaths, though she slowly warms to him as he does his best to care for a survivor named Noriko, who is caring for a baby (Akiko) whose parents also died. It’s endearing to watch this little makeshift family come together, and I also enjoyed the strained relationship he has with the other guy who survived the opening island attack. Shikishima feels enlisting this man to help him fix the plane he needs to take out Godzilla will help make up for his cowardice then, and so the other man is given his own dilemma: help the man he despises, or do nothing and risk more deaths from the actual threat? So many of the ones I’ve seen have had rather corny human elements (the love triangle in Raids Again comes to mind, or the dull business dealings in Mothra vs Godzilla), so I liked that not only were these more interesting, but actually tied into Godzilla as well. It’s not that they have to put aside their differences to stop him – he’s the root cause of their differences in the first place!

Oh and the music is terrific. I damn near cheered when the main theme really kicked in at a key point during the climax. It was like the “Brothers in Arms” cue in Fury Road in how pumped it got me for the already exciting action on screen.

Honestly, unless you demand a certain number of buildings to be destroyed in these things, I don’t know how you can walk away disappointed with this one as long as you understand that these movies are always at their best when they have compelling humans on the ground that Godzilla stomps upon. Sure, it’s not as destructive as some others (including Shin Godzilla, which was also well received but I found rather average) and those accustomed to the monster brawls might be taken aback by the lack of another kaiju for him to fight, but it’s clear everyone involved wanted to truly get back to what made the original such a classic, and (quite impressively) giving it a modern spin despite the period setting. It really just works on all levels, and I suspect will be the go-to influence for any number of series entries over the next few decades. And I’m stoked it was given a proper US theatrical release, something that’s eluded the series for quite some time (Shin was given a limited release in art house theaters, and Godzilla 2000 was a recut version); since it’s been successful I hope the trend continues from here on out. It should always be just as easy to see the big foreign films here in the US as it is for them to see Marvel and Minions movies there. What say you?

*The others being the original, Raids Again, King Kong vs, Mothra vs, vs Biollante, Emmerich, 2000, Shin, and the three WB/Legendary ones.


Thanksgiving (2023)

NOVEMBER 6, 2023


It's kind of funny that Scream was supposed to kill the idea of doing a slasher film and yet it's only the success of parts 5 and 6 that we finally, FINALLY have the feature version of Thanksgiving that's been in the works for over 16 years, after winning fans over with its faux trailer during Grindhouse (a film that flopped and yet has inspired several films from its fake trailers - this is the fourth after two Machetes and Hobo With A Shotgun) - not to mention all the movies since that aped its dirty/scratched look). Spyglass was the production company that successfully relaunched Ghostface, and smartly not wanting to put all their eggs in one basket, they made Eli Roth an offer to fulfill this long overdue promise. Was it worth the wait?

Somewhat surprisingly, yes! Luckily, Roth and his writing partner Jeff Rendell realized early on that they couldn't just flesh out the trailer (which had no actual story to it, just kills) and make a real movie out of it. Instead, per Roth at a post-screening Q&A, they decided to treat the trailer as a lost slasher of yore and write the would-be remake/reboot/rewhatever of it instead. So there are a few moments from the trailer that are recreated here (the sight of a trampoline produced an audience cheer as if an A-list star just made a surprise cameo), but not all of them, and I think it was the right move - it allowed us to get into the movie as we would any other, but with a few fan service moments like that to remind us that having fun was the order of the day.

It's also got a terrific hook for the obligatory tragedy that sends our masked killer out for revenge a year later: a Black Friday stampede that leaves a couple people dead/injured. The Wal-Mart type store is owned by one of our hero teens' fathers, so they use their privilege to sneak in a few minutes before opening to buy a new phone, prompting the impatient mob outside to break through the metal fencing and storm the store, crushing a security guard, an employee's wife, etc and also breaking the arm of the local high school sports star, ending his promising career. So not only is it an epic way to open the movie and give us some spectacle for the incident (as opposed to the usual accidental *single* death like in Prom Night), but it also opens up the suspect pool more than we are used to for such things. The injured kid could be getting revenge for his destroyed career, the husband could be avenging his wife, etc., while the privileged teens, the rioters, and the store staff are all to blame in some way.

And the killer (named John Carver after the famous pilgrim/governor of Plymouth, MA, where the film is set) is the best kind of revenge slasher, where he mostly sticks to the people who were involved and doesn't add randoms to the mix when it suits him. Since I recently rewatched I Know What You Did Last Summer, a movie I don't like much anyway, I couldn't help but think of how the fisherman actually kills more people who had nothing to do with him/the main group than the ones he was actually mad at. That's not the case here; the killer's identity isn't exactly difficult to parse out, but their motive is actually quite strong (almost sympathetic!) and they rarely go outside of their target group (in fact I think Carver merely tranquilizes a few "in the way" people who had nothing to do with the stampede, but I'm not 100% sure).

Plus, the kills are all on the ridiculous side of things, and many have something to do with cooking/dinner. One gets corn cob holders to the ears, another is basted and roasted, etc - it's a nice change of pace from Scream VI, in which more people actually died by gunshot than knives (if they died at all; another nice thing here - no one's invincible). Roth knows better than to hold back from the gore, and it is glorious right from the start, as a man's neck is lacerated on broken glass as he storms into the store (and then proceeds to try to grab a toaster oven anyway). The MPA has gotten more lenient over the years to be sure, but even on that level, there were one or two kills that had me momentarily wondering if this was some sort of unrated cut, just because you don't see this type of stuff in major studio (Sony!) theatrical releases anymore. Not that you NEED this sort of thing for a slasher to work (Halloween, my favorite, has next to no blood and the kills are all rather pedestrian even by existing standards - nothing like the unicorn in Black Christmas!) but you also kind of want to feel that the person calling the shots loves them as much as you do, and that's a good way to prove it and let you know it's OK to cheer at this or that demise.

Because make no mistake, this is very much a fun slasher film in the vein of Jason Lives or Hatchet, where it's not that you dislike the victims (in general; there's a few you're supposed to hate) but the tone suggests you're not hoping they all get away either. And it's aided by the genuine humor, in particular a local gun/alcohol salesman who is using the events to drum up business but is also seemingly a genuinely good dude that ends up saving the day (not with a gun or alcohol). Roth - a native Masshole like me - also gets lots of mileage out of our well-known anger issues; I don't think the movie is five minutes old before we are treated to our first of many "Faaack you!"s. The accents are also on point; the angrier people have the "Hahhvahhhd Yaaahd" thing going but the people with actual normal volume dialogue keep it in check. Patrick Dempsey as the town sheriff (no Michael Biehn like the trailer, alas) is particularly good, but turns out he's from Maine and has been faking a "normal" one for his whole career, so I guess he was happy to just use his real voice for once. It sadly wasn't shot in Massachusetts, but whatever Canadian town they used is a pretty good stand-in - it's only the lack of decorum (read: Patriots jerseys and Dunkin Donuts cups) that spoils the illusion. On that note, my actual hometown got used as the butt of a joke, so that along with the gruesome death of someone named Collins has me thinking Roth might be mad at me about something (or he just has no idea I exist and it's a coincidence. One of those.).

I only have two minor gripes. One is that the heroine is kind of a blank page; nothing against the performer, but I couldn't tell you a single thing about her by the end of the movie, so she's one of the "final girl by default" types and I expect a little better from Roth in that department, since he played against expectations so well in his earlier films. The other was some wonky plotting regarding "who was there that night", treating it as a mystery of sorts when there isn't one? There's a subplot about the store's security camera footage being erased that results in two weird plot points: our heroine says her father has a backup, which makes no sense once we know who deleted the store's footage, because there's no reason for them to not delete that one too. And I couldn't quite track why they needed it in the first place, because one of our hero teens filmed the whole thing and put it on Youtube, so that along with eyewitness accounts (which apparently just don't exist?) should have been all the cops needed anyway. It felt reverse engineered, as if Roth/Rendell were still awkwardly trying to fit together elements from their trailer or something. And it's more of a funny issue than a serious one, but apparently one victim is identified by their legs, since Carver keeps their upper half for his dinner table tableau (very Happy Birthday to Me/Madhouse) and yet the news reports name the person instantly.

Other than that, I had a blast. It checked so many boxes for me (A masked slasher! Halloween homages! Over the top kills! People with Masshole accents shouting profanity!) that I think Roth would have had to stop the movie cold and have each actor say something derogatory about my mother for me to be not on board with what it was serving. Your mileage will vary of course; I know Roth's style just rubs people the wrong way, but as a fan of most of his films (Death Wish is the only one I dislike I think?) I was happy to see him dive into his first proper slasher, since he's confessed his love for such fare from the early days of his career but had never actually made one. And I know not everyone will find "Hanover sucks!" as funny as I do (it's a "well-to-do" town in Massachusetts, so yeah, they suck), so other audiences might not get QUITE as much of the humor, but I'm confident that the kills, the gore, the all-purpose humor (two things to look out for: a thermometer ding and a cat being fed), and well rounded cast will be more than enough to make your ticket price worthwhile.

What say you?


I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998)

NOVEMBER 2, 2023


Since I wasn't a huge fan of the original, I skipped I Still Know What You Did Last Summer in theaters, only seeing it when it came to the then-brand new DVD format (in fact, it might have been the first movie I watched for the first time on the format? Everything else I was getting at the beginning were old faves). I didn't like it, either, and I've only seen it one other time since, but I happened upon it tonight when looking for something I had seen but didn't much care about to provide background noise as I drifted off to sleep, and to my surprise it held my attention! I watched the whole thing!

Now, I'm not saying it's a particularly good movie, and - again - I don't think the first film is good either, so maybe I'm not the best judge here. But unlike the original it's rarely boring, has a reveal that - while laughably goofy - is at least more engaging than the first one's wet fart of a killer unmasked scene since we never met the character, and has a shockingly good cast of supporting characters, making it more to my liking despite its rampant silliness. Nothing in it may be as exciting as Helen's chase scene in the original, but I tend to prefer a movie that's consistently OK throughout over one that has high highs and low lows. Oh and it's raining this time when Jennifer Love Hewitt screams into the sky, so that's another plus.

Also it had been so long since I watched it that I was misremembering plot points about the film's location and how they ended up there. For some reason, in my memory, they won a trip to Rio by naming it as the capital of Brazil, and I thought it was some epic 4D chess on Ben Willis' part to arrange everything around a wrong answer she might have gotten right. But instead she could have said anything (including the right answer) because the trip is to the Bahamas, and our characters certainly aren't smart enough to question why they'd be asked about one geographical location in order to win a trip to another. I also forgot that Bill Cobbs' character is tipped off to the ruse when Julie tells him how they won, since he knows the answer is wrong, and also that the "radio station" calls them, not the other way around. So while there's still some dumb stuff about the whole thing, it's not nearly as stupid as I had built it up in my head to be over the years.

That remaining dumb stuff (spoiler ahead!) mostly revolves around "Will Benson. BEN'S SON!" It's fine to have a second killer, and they thankfully don't cheat - the script goes a bit overboard to paint Will as a dorky wuss, perhaps, but he never acts scared or anything when no one else is around, and the one sort of "what's going on?" look he gives is to Cobbs' character, which makes sense - he's suspicious that Cobbs knows, but the moment plays fine as a "This guy might be after us" kind of deal. But the sheer planning on him and Ben's part, in that he has to befriend Julie for months, hope like hell that her boyfriend Ray doesn't come along so that he can use the ticket, etc - all to help his dad out, despite (as we learn here) the fact that Ben killed his wife (Will's mother) at some point too. You gotta figure he asked at least once "Do we really need to buy four plane tickets and all this other stuff? Why can't we just go kill her in her house?" Then again, the whole first film revolves around Ben inexplicably trying to murder the teens who think they committed the crime he actually committed himself, rather than enjoy get out of jail free card they were inadvertently handing him, so logic and motive aren't strong suits in the ol' Willis family.

But if you look past all the bad plotting, it's actually pretty fun? Again, the cast is stacked - you get Cobbs, Jennifer Esposito, John Hawkes, Mark Boone Junior, Mekhi Pfifer, and the GOAT Jeffrey Combs all popping up and committing 100% to a silly teen slasher, which is awesome. And yes, a young Jack Black as a Rastafarian dude, which is misguided to be sure, but looking back, it's just another example of how Black is always bringing his A game no matter what the role, something that continues to serve him well 25 years later (we've all seen his tireless promotion as Bowser for this year's Mario movie). One thing I DID remember is that Combs only appeared in two scenes (three if you count finding his body - there are a couple of offscreen deaths), but I forgot how much he clearly hated these idiotic American teens flying in for a vacation during their hurricane season. Indeed, more than once I got the impression that the writers and director Danny Cannon were leaning into the idea that Julie wasn't exactly the smartest horror heroine of all time, and it kind of makes the movie work better than you might expect.

It's also fast paced, something even die hard fans of the original can't claim with a straight face. The whole second half of the movie is basically a nonstop chase, as all four of our heroes find dead bodies and spend the rest of the time running around the island trying to get help and/or outrun the killer, who doesn't bother with silly nonsense like cutting hair and leaving crabs in people's trunks. The body count here is eight (up from five) and the movie is even a minute shorter to boot - the math don't lie! Also, in a rare "smart" decision for this script, a hefty chunk has Julie on the run with two potential victims (Esposito's bartender and best friend Brandy), giving those scenes a suspense boost since you know at least one will be a goner, maybe both (while Julie is safe), so every slash of the hook actually could produce a fatality.

I felt bad for Freddie Prinze Jr though, as it almost seems like they added him into the movie at the 11th hour. He only has a single scene with Julie before he goes off to be in his own side adventure of trying to get down to the Bahamas in time. He pals around with John Hawkes, rides a bus, trades his engagement ring (awwww) for a gun... it's all stuff that could be removed without affecting the main story at all, and without much tension since the killer is obviously on the island. Given the backstory that Ben and his family used to live in the area where the resort is, Will could have been someone they met there, and Ray could have come along from the start - the movie would be less silly as a result, and it'd give Freddie P a chance to actually interact with his co-stars. I assume the plotting was revolved around his schedule or something, but if this was their design from the start, it's needlessly damaging.

So I dunno man, I know it's dumber than it needs to be, but I think the film's bad rep has more to do with Kevin Williamson's absence than its actual quality in relation to the first. They're both kind of stupid movies with a killer whose motives make zero sense, but at least this one seems to be trying to have some fun with itself instead of being so dour and serious. Add in the colorful supporting cast, storm-ravaged hotel setting, and more proactive killer, and I have to confess that I think this is the better movie, if only in a "clears the low bar" kind of way. Sorry for being so hard on you over the past 25 (!) years, I Still Know.

What say you?


Scary Movie (2000)

OCTOBER 30, 2023


I believe I only saw Scary Movie once, during its opening weekend in theaters (back to back with The Kid, of all things), so watching it again now was basically like seeing it for the first time. But I was surprised to see a few gags I remembered vividly, like when Shorty (Marlon Wayans) says everything they’re saying was also in Scream, and the fact that the killer in the movie only killed like one person in the entire thing, with the rest being offed by someone else (i.e. the Drew Barrymore spoof character in the opening ends up being run over by her own parents when she runs away from the killer into the road). And those were relatively niche things – bigger moments, like the fact that the movie is also spoofing I Know What You Did Last Summer, were forgotten entirely.

But the bigger surprise is that it’s actually not that bad (and a Halloween movie, briefly – the opening scene takes place on October 31st)! Since we’ve had so many awful parody movies since (including some of this film’s sequels) it’s actually kind of refreshing to watch one with an actual grasp on storytelling, as opposed to just stringing together a bunch of gags based on whatever pop culture moments came to the filmmakers’ heads when they arrived on set that day. In fact it’s so close to Scream at times that Kevin Williamson should have gotten a co-writer credit, as entire conversations are recreated other than to dovetail into a punchline. The actors in turn also mimic the gestures and deliveries of Skeet Ulrich, Neve Campbell, etc – it’s legitimately impressive how well Shawn Wayans apes Matthew Lillard’s dialogue (complete with excess spittle) during the climax when he outs himself as one of the killers. One of the reasons Airplane works as well as it does is because they took an existing script (a movie called Zero Hour) and just added jokes to it, and that’s close to what the Wayanses did here. 80% of the movie is just Scream, with IKWYDLS taking up maybe 10% (basically just the accident scene and the pageant, plus, of course, "What are you waiting for?") and a few other quick gags from 1999 movies (Sixth Sense, Blair Witch, Matrix) making up the rest.

Blending it with I Know What You Did Last Summer is not only just another obvious target for the time, but it actually keeps them from swiping even more plot points directly from Scream, as Sid’s (er, Cindy’s) mom is barely mentioned and Bobby’s (read: Billy’s) motive has nothing to do with his own mother. Unfortunately, the new motive is incredibly homophobic, as are a lot of the other gags in the film. I know attitudes have changed across the board (they also do the Tatum in the doggy door scene, but as an extended fat joke when the girl can’t get through), but given that the movie actually holds up better than most of these sort of things, it’s kind of a bummer that it couldn’t have been even more “timeless” had it not so constantly relied on the same basic idea that gay is "less than". A line or two that wouldn’t fly anymore is one thing (even the actual Scream has a few fat jokes), but I’d estimate 25% of the movie’s gags boil down to “it’s funny because it’s gay.” Just gets a bit tiresome (hell, it probably even did in 2000, I just can’t remember).

Luckily a lot of gags are just, you know, good gags! Having David “Squiggy” Lander as the principal (originally played by Henry “The Fonz” Winkler) is hilarious, and the scene where everyone else in the theater kills Brenda (Regina Hall) for being so obnoxious while Ghostface just sits and watches the movie is pretty great. And special props to Shannon Elizabeth for getting to show off her comic chops; at the time she was basically just known for American Pie and didn’t get many laughs on her own, but she’s great here as the Tatum/Helen stand-in – instantly forgetting about her dead boyfriend when she hears the won the pageant might have been the hardest I laughed in the whole thing. And I was happy to see Kelly Coffield from In Living Color get a quick cameo as Cindy’s teacher, angrily telling a student to STFU during their boring First Amendment presentation – if I tracked that at the time, it was one of the many things I had since forgotten (Jim Carrey, the other “token white” from that show, which I still quote on the regular, was the lead in another scatological R comedy playing in theaters at the same time, so if Tommy Davidson was in something at the time it could have been a full blown reunion at the multiplex).

And of course, one must appreciate this movie for giving us Anna Faris, who had only been in a few things prior to this and got her first lead here (apparently it was like a last ditch thing for her; she was about to give up acting). She’s one of the most likable comedic performers of the past few decades, and even though the series declined after this one, she always gave it her all while stealing movies away from the leading actors in other things (Just Friends, Lost in Translation, etc). Some of the folks who have starred in other parody films (like the execrable Twilight one Vampires Suck) were essentially never seen again, so it’s a testament to her skills that this gigantic hit (it was the 9th highest grossing film of 2000! It nearly outgrossed X-Men!) may not even be the first thing folks think of when they think of her.

The DVD I watched was given away at an outdoor “Trick r Treating for Adults” event that showed Scream and Scary Movie back to back, which must have been fun for anyone who hadn’t seen the movie before (or, like me, had just forgotten how closely it mirrored it), with all of Scream’s deliveries and obscure lines of dialogue still fresh in the audience’s mind as they were spoofed so specifically in the latter (seriously: Jon Abraham even does Skeet Ulrich’s little finger waving thing when he talks about watching The Exorcist). Alas, we didn’t stay for it as we wanted to get home to relieve the babysitter (weirdly, the same friend I saw SM with all those years ago!), but I’m almost glad it worked out that way, because I probably wouldn’t have ever bothered opening the DVD (it’s not exactly a movie I need to watch over and over) and then I wouldn’t have noticed that despite being a re-released package for the film from Paramount (who now owns this formerly-Disney film) it’s seemingly the exact same disc released in 2000, as it has a bunch of trailers for movies of the time (Gone in 60 Seconds! Hellraiser: Inferno!) despite them, you know, not being Paramount movies (Gone in 60 is still Disney, Hellraiser ended up at Lionsgate). Gotta love how lazy of a release it was, but the time capsule nature of it made me smile. Man, what a time to be alive, when an R rated spoof comedy could outgross the year’s big Disney cartoon (Dinosaur) and the subsequent DVD would, well, exist at all. Now anything like this would be straight to Netflix and be forgotten in two weeks, and perhaps lost forever if they decided not to bother keeping it on their platform due to low viewing numbers. Sigh.

What say you?


Five Nights At Freddy's (2023)

OCTOBER 27, 2023


If anyone ever doubted my commitment to the theatrical experience over streaming, I only have to recount the 4:30 showing of Five Nights at Freddy's at the AMC Fallbrook 7 in Los Angeles, October 27, 2023. I've already gotten bewilderment from friends and it just happened; 20-30 years from now anyone I tell will probably just think I'm a confused old man making up "walked uphill in the snow both ways" kind of nonsense. But trust me, while it's still fresh in my mind, I sat through the entire movie* with a crowd full of teens who had normal volume conversations, wandered around in the theater, filmed the screen for Tiktok/Instagram reels whenever the robots were on screen, etc. All for a movie I could have just watched at home, since it premiered day and date on Peacock.

And the funny thing is it could have been worse! My seat, directly in the middle of row C, was taken by a teen girl who flanked by all her pals, so I knew pulling rank and making her move would just leave me in between a bunch of 12-14 year olds I'd probably have to shush 43 times during the film, and since her actual seat was also taken by someone who wasn't where they were supposed to be, I just sat in one of the handicapped companion seats at the back, where I only had to listen to the nonsense of the people directly around me and let the movie's audio drown out the rest. I mean, the people near me were still morons (including one of the "let's film the screen" dipasses, and a kid who kept inexplicably tossing and turning on his recliner seat like a restless sleeper), but, again: it could have been worse!

Anyway, the movie is fine. I must admit I know next to nothing about the source material, as I played the first game when it popped up on Game Pass (or PS+, I can't remember now) and after about ten minutes shut it off and uninstalled it, finding little enjoyment from its cruddy presentation and boring gameplay, which (for the even less acquainted) involved clicking through security camera angles and making sure the Chuck E Cheese-esque animatronic mascots (including the eponymous Freddy) didn't see you. Riveting stuff. Apparently, it's this game and its sequels that helped popularize the idea of watching others play video games, because the game itself isn't very fun to play but it's fun to watch others get scared, I guess? I dunno. I am "Watching others do things isn't as fun as doing them myself" (or 43) years old.

But the kids who know it inside and out seem to agree it's done a good job of translating the games to the big screen, so I guess the movie is a success for them. And that's fine! Most video game adaptations work so hard to welcome newcomers that it ends up alienating the people who loved the games and made it an attractive IP in the first place (Resident Evil is a good example), so it's nice to see one going the other way. Not that it's impenetrable or anything (though the plot is a bit convoluted, more soon), but given the limited scope of the games themselves, the filmmakers and Blumhouse had an easy gig here: stay true to the games by including stuff from the sequels, keep the budget low, and boom: a film that can spawn its own sequels, and quickly burn through the games' stories so they can start making their own. It's kind of genius in a way.

For those who don't know anything: the movie is about a guy named Mike (Josh Hutcherson) who has trouble holding down a job due to a quick temper and a lifelong obsession with finding out who kidnapped his little brother from a campground when he was younger. He witnessed it happening, and believes that he can find clues to the culprit's identity if he makes himself repeatedly dream about the crime (a poster for where it occurred and a tape of nature sounds ensures he dreams only of this and not, I dunno, being naked at school). Then his PO (Matthew Lillard) finds him an ideal gig: working the night security job at a defunct arcade/pizzeria called Freddy Fasbear's, which needs security because the owner wants to keep the place intact and it attracts vandals. Mike brings his tape recorder and poster along to help him sleep through the gig, but something creepy is happening...

If the movie burned through all of this exposition in 15 minutes, it'd be fine. But it takes around 40 minutes for him to arrive for his first night on the job, because there's even more plot to get through involving his little sister Abby, who he is now responsible for after their mom died and their dad took off. Their aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) wants custody, so he has to prove he's fit to raise her, which is tricky when he keeps losing jobs and his newest one means he won't even be home at night, prompting the need for an overnight sitter with her OWN plot contrivances to add to the mix. Given the target audience, I was legit stunned at how sluggish the pacing was, and how the endless backstory kept the robots off-screen in the meantime. Not that they were likely worried (and given the box office numbers, they were right!) but we already basically had this movie in 2021 with Willy's Wonderland, which was a mercifully brief 85 minutes, so it's kind of baffling that they didn't think to speed things up and maybe streamline the plot a bit. I mean, the title tells you how far along you are, and by Night #3 I already felt the movie should have been close to wrapping things up, runtime wise.

And I haven't even mentioned Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail from Countdown), a cop who keeps showing up during Mike's shift and being cryptic. In fact a lot of the movie relies on people simply not saying anything and being needlessly vague, reaching a boiling point when Mike has the evil aunt come over to babysit but tells Abby "Come here, I want to talk to you about something," which of course makes the girl think he's giving up and letting the aunt adopt her. All he had to do is say "Hey, I have to go somewhere, and I know it sucks, but your aunt is going to have to watch you today," but instead he acts suspicious and opaque for no reason. A late reveal in the movie practically turns Vanessa into an accomplice for the villain, and for the life of me I can't fully grasp why she didn't divulge this information sooner.

The movie also curiously can't decide if the creepy animatronics are evil or good, which would be fine (and fun!) if there was a Krusty doll-style switch on their backs to make them switch, but nah. They take a liking to Abby and make forts with her and stuff, but we've already seen them kill several people by this point (a guy in a cold open, plus a gang of vandals hired by the evil aunt to trash the place so Mike will lose that job, too), so it's a little late for the good-natured "Aww, the lonely girl has friends!" approach it's going for. And when you consider the backstory (which I won't spoil) it's kind of weird to see them get smashed up by Mike in the third act (reminded me of the new Star Wars movies telling us that Stormtroopers are real people who were forced into their gig, and then having our heroes "triumphantly" kill a lot of them anyway).

They look great though. The Jim Henson company made them, and they not only look exactly like the characters in the source material (take that, Michael Bay!), but they move believably too - you see them move around on their own (not faked by hiding the legs or something) but they're still jerky and awkward, without the grace of a human performer to betray the idea. There's one exception, but it turns out there IS a living human inside it, so that's fine. Also, speaking of the human villain, I can't explain the particulars without it spoiling things, but the way the audience is tipped off to their identity is kind of brilliant (for those who have seen the movie, you probably know what I'm talking about, but if not: it involves a knife), and doubly fun when you consider the performer's other best-known role, as they get to be on the other side of such a reveal.

And even though it's too damn long, I was impressed how un-kid friendly it was, with a plot involving murdered children and a few gruesome deaths. PG-13 deaths to be sure, but I mean: someone being torn in half is hardcore even if you're not seeing it fully on display (it's done with shadow). As long as they have the patience for a slower unfolding of a plot than they might be used to, it's a rare gateway horror from this generation that doesn't have the "family friendly" kiss of death on it that can be a turnoff for some (kids or parents). It may be slow, but it's a legit horror movie, not a teen comedy with some spooky trappings. In fact there are actually few moments of levity in it at all; Lillard has a few funny deliveries and the aunt's lawyer is clearly afraid of her, but otherwise it's humor-free.

But again: I'm not the target audience. The fact that I stuck around for the whole thing even as I contemplated murdering the people around me proves it's got some genuine appeal, and with tightening (and a better crowd) I might have legitimately enjoyed the thing, maybe even enough to try the game again. The score was solid, it's always nice to have a male lead in a horror movie aimed at younger folks, and I loved the robots when they were actually on-screen (plus their bizarre Saw-level mechanisms that serve to kill their victims). And as my own kid gets closer and closer to being able to watch a genuine horror movie, I'm always happy to find another possible choice for him to make that jump, even if I don't particularly love it. So it might be a bit too much for say, a nine year old (due to the slow pace and occasional violent death), but for teens who have been kept from R fare thus far, it's a great way to start dipping their toes into the deep end of the genre, both for the more involved story and the potential nightmare fuel. Too old for Hocus Pocus but too young for Serbian Film? Five Nights at Freddy's got you covered!

What say you?

*Except the post-credits scene. I knew it had one, but I also knew that as a non-gamer it would likely just be teasing the sequel with a character I didn't recognize, so I didn't bother waiting. I read a description online later, and sure enough: it meant absolutely nothing to me. But I discovered the cab driver was a popular Youtuber making a cameo for the fans, so... OK, sure.


When Evil Lurks (2023)

OCTOBER 27, 2023


For those not in Los Angeles, our annual Beyond Fest is jam-packed with great, "must-see" events, with a healthy mix of new stuff making the festival rounds, world premieres, and repertory offerings (for the latter, this year gave us the unveiling of the long-in-the-works 4K remaster of The Abyss director's cut, with James Cameron on hand for Q&A - just an example). Perhaps needless to say, tickets for the screenings tend to sell out fast, and you have to fight hard (read: hit refresh a lot) to get to that magical checkout screen, but in one of the many ironies that make up my life, I managed to get a ticket for When Evil Lurks (Spanish: Cuando acecha la maldad) only to not be able to use it due to a scheduling conflict. And then I couldn't make any of its standard showings when it opened in theaters two weeks ago for a limited run prior to its Shudder debut, so alas I had to watch at home, defeated.

Not that it's a tour de force for the senses kind of thing you need to see in theaters, but I just prefer to see films for the first time that way, something that only got worse during the pandemic when I was forced to settle for the drive-in and all its distractions (cars arriving late, various environmental issues like helicopters or nearby traffic, horribly dim screens) for over a year whenever seeing anything new. I can leave my phone in the other room and wait until I have the house to myself (save for the cats), but I still can't have a distraction-free screening at home the way I can in a theater, and while that might be fine for some goofy comedy or even an action flick, a dark supernatural horror film like this can't quite have the same hold on me at home the way it could have in a theater with a respectful crowd (which Beyond Fest ones usually are).

I say all of this as a sort of "grain of salt" explanation, because I can't help but wonder if I would have been as blown away by the film as folks who saw it on the big screen. It's good, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't anything extraordinary either. I suspect two moments in particular (both involving children) have elevated its rep, because of the "rule" that kids don't die in movies, but I mean... they do? We've all rewatched some/all of the Halloween movies recently, and a few young'ns have met grisly fates in those (Buddy in Halloween 3, Bumpy in the 2018 one, plus Billy is nearly killed in H5 - hmm, maybe don't have a B___Y name if you want to survive Haddonfield?). And Quiet Place kicked things off with the death of their kid, and that was PG-13. Sure, it's not a regular occurrence, but while those events are good shock moments here (well one is, the other is off-screen but has an unsettling aftermath), they're not exactly breaking any new ground either.

Outside of those two brief highlights, what you have is a darker take on Mike Mendez' Don't Kill It, where a demon is possessing folks (or animals) but if you kill the host it will just jump into another. A "Cleaner" can exorcise the demon properly, but what kicks the whole plot off is our hero Pedro (Ezequiel Rodríguez, who's got a real Tom Jane vibe that I dug) finding the body of one such exorcist on his land, and they can't find another and the authorities won't help. But it's not that they don't believe him; one of the more interesting things about the movie (albeit not fully explored) is that possessed folks (referred to as "Rottens") are kind of known throughout the area and the higherups just basically shrug it off and consider it something we just have to live with and hope it doesn't affect them directly. I don't know if it was definitely the case, but I read it as a low-key jab at how certain countries (cough, America, cough) ultimately dealt with Covid, and I laud director Demián Rugna for it.

(Also, they specifically say guns are no way to solve the problem, and everyone who uses one in the movie is met with a horrible fate, so that amused me greatly and dded to the "sigh, Americans" vibe.)

Another thing Rugna does that I liked was that it kept switching gears. The first 20 minutes or so all take place on Pedro and the neighbor's property, making it seem like a contained, isolated thriller that will be a slow burn kind of thing. But then after something spoiler-y happens, Pedro and his brother get more proactive, going into the nearby suburbs to rescue their mom and also Pedro's estranged family (his ex wife who has since remarried, his two sons with her, plus the boys' half sister and her dad), and things kick up a notch, as an outbreak of sorts occurs and sends Pedro running/driving all around the area trying to keep everyone safe as the possession jumping gets out of control. And then the third act revolves around a new character with some answers, plus two new locations to boot. It gives the plotting a bit of a random jumpiness, but at least you're never quite sure how things are going to play out, who is safe, etc.

One thing I didn't like isn't the movie's fault though - the subtitle work (the movie is in Spanish) is garbage. The translation is done by someone who was seemingly just going word for word and not always with the correct verb tense, so the longer a line is, the more it tends to be "off" and making you work a little harder to suss out the exact meaning, which is a needless distraction and could be avoided by simply having done the work correctly. I know AI is being used for this sort of job nowadays, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was to blame, but either way we deserve better. This also leaves a crucial bit of backstory involving Pedro's character (and specifically why his ex-wife has full custody of their children) maddeningly unclear, as it seems like it's supposed to be something the audience has to put together as opposed to being spelled out, but that's harder when the translated lines are also incomplete. I am curious if they had a better version for its theatrical showings; they're not burned into the image (and as always with Shudder, they just run on the bottom of the screen even when the credits are there, so you get to squint trying to separate a line of dialogue from the name of the casting director too!) so it's possible they're different.

But other than that, it's an impressively dark possession tale, one that thankfully avoids most of the tropes of these kind of movies (the exorcist is dead right from the start! The police believe it's happening but just don't care!) and has a bit of a mean streak to it that you don't see all that much. I don't know if it's the gamechanger it was made out to be by fest crowds, and I am baffled by the publicity of a "perfect Halloween movie" since it's just dark and hopeless and that doesn't fit the Halloween vibe to me at all (it's a fun holiday and there's nothing fun here?), but a good movie is a good movie, and it's always nice to get one of those.

What say you?


The Seeding (2023)

OCTOBER 8, 2023


Sometimes I have the wrong idea of what a movie is about, but The Seeding was the first time I also had the wrong idea of where it took place. I THOUGHT it was a movie about a couple who run afoul of feral children in the Australian outback, but at least I was somewhat close on the plot (there are feral children, but the plot isn’t a Wolf Creek meets Them kind of thing). Turns out the movie was shot in Utah, and presumably just takes place there too since the main character is from Los Angeles, but I spent the entire thing thinking he was in Wake in Fright territory as opposed to somewhere that’s only like a 90 minute flight away. I think it’s safe to assume that I would do pretty miserably if I was ever on Carmen Sandiego.

Anyway, the movie is about a guy with the very silly name of Wyndham Stone, who is NOT the evil CEO in an ‘80s action movie but a photographer who is out in the desert to get a shot of a perfect eclipse (unlike the versions I always see, where it’s just covering like 1/4 at most of the sun). On his way back to his car he sees a kid who says he can’t find his parents, and tries to help him despite the kid leading him the opposite way of his car (which is on the road that could take them to someone who’d be able to help better than a rando guy who doesn’t even live there – Wyndham’s a bit of a dummy). After a while he gets sick of the kid seemingly leading him further and further away, so he tries to go back to his car, but gets lost as it’s now too dark to see his way. He then descends a very long rope ladder down into a canyon that has a house, and thinks nothing of how peculiar that is (this seemed less weird to me when I thought it was the Outback. Now that I know it’s just Utah, I think the guy is even dumber than I already did).

Living in the house is Alina, a quiet woman who seemingly opted for a life of isolation, but happily offers him food and a place to stay. The next morning Wyndham heads outside to presumably climb back up and find his car now that the sun is on his side again, but the ladder is gone. He tries to climb out, but falls and hurts his leg, and after Alina patches him up a bit, he sees some teens above who offer to help. Naturally, him being an idiot and a jerk, he not only secures himself to a rope they drop (without asking them to just put the ladder down) but starts screaming at them when they pull a little too hard and shake him up a bit. At this point our man finally catches up to the audience and realize he’s been trapped down there on purpose, and it only takes a moment of thinking about the title to know what that purpose might be.

Perhaps needless to say, this is a “slow burn” horror; it’s coming from Magnet but it’s very much like an A24 type of movie, so your mileage will of course vary depending on how patient you are with such fare. There isn’t much in the way of violence (two would-be helpers are dispatched off-screen) and he remains in the canyon for the rest of the movie. I thought for sure there’d be a sequence of him escaping and being chased down/returned, but nope – he tries to climb the rocks out but doesn’t make it that far, and the only other time his feet leave the ground is when he’s being tricked by the kids. And since he’s such a jerk it’s hard to really care if he gets out anyway, so you’re better off tracking Alina and wondering what her deal is. Scattered clues more or less tell us she’s been down there her entire life, without any entertainment or connection to the outside world, which is scarier than anything in the movie. At one point Wyndham shows her his camera so she can see the photos of the eclipse, and accidentally swipes to an older video that has a snippet of a hiphop song, and it’s obvious that she’s never actually heard music before, asking him to replay the brief clip over and over.

Things finally get a little more exciting in the third act, as we finally get our answer re: “Is Alina good or bad?” and events spiral out from there. The movie takes place over a surprising amount of time (passage is depicted by title screens saying what Moon is in the sky, and “Harvest Moon” comes up twice), allowing Wyndham’s mental state to deteriorate to the point of seeming feral himself, and that’s an interesting approach for what is at its core a survival horror movie, but I couldn’t help but feel a little restless at times, wishing the movie would kick into higher gear sooner (and then getting higher than it ever did). You know how in Talk To Me (spoiler) the last scene shows us how the protagonist eventually became one of the anonymous ghosts that people like her were conjuring up for their own amusement? It would have been interesting to go all the way and have Wyndham fully transform into one of the scary people kidnapping random tourists in the middle of the Outback Utah desert, but the movie doesn’t take things that far. The ending is pretty good as is, but it’s also like “Well, yeah, that’s exactly where I thought this would go.”

So I dunno. It’s well made and the actors are solid, and I liked how it flirted with folk horror a bit, but there’s not enough meat on the bones for a 90 minute movie – even those aforementioned “moon cards” seem to just be padding the runtime, playing out over a shot of some vegetables for a far longer time than it takes to read them. And the protagonist’s idiocy and prickly behavior keeps him from being very compelling (I don’t have to love the main character, but I should be invested in what they’re doing either way), so by the time Alina’s character came into focus I started wishing the movie was told from her perspective all along (doesn’t hurt that she gets the best line, though I can’t say it without spoiling things. It involves the C word though!). If you absolutely hate men you’ll probably be a little warmer on it, since it basically boils down to how useless we are, but there are ways to do that while remaining more engaging throughout instead of in spurts.

What say you?


The Exorcist: Believer (2023)

OCTOBER 6, 2023


Obviously there’s no way to know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that if David Gordon Green hadn’t made a trilogy of Halloween films, and if The Exorcist had maybe a few ripoffs but no direct sequels or fifty continued years of would-be successors, The Exorcist: Believer could come out frame for frame the exact same movie it is now and yet be met with much stronger reviews. Apart from a misguided attempt to strengthen its ties to the original film by giving Ellen Burstyn an extended cameo (her first appearance as Chris MacNeill since the original, so take that, Jamie Lee Curtis!), there’s nothing particularly bad about the film – in fact for the first hour it’s quite good, and it has a solid climax! But it’s got those two huge hurdles to clear, and people just like to hate things, so it has sub-Saw sequel ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. And also the sky is blue.

Of course, if you LIKED Green’s (Not “Gordon Green’s”, I keep seeing this in articles and it baffles me. Do these writers (or AI Bots) not know what a middle name is? Do you also say “Lee Curtis” or “L. Jackson”?) Halloween films, and I did, his signing on to this project wasn’t really an issue. But even I can admit there would be something kind of fascinating about the guy who was only mainly known for All The Real Girls and George Washington making a horror debut with an Exorcist sequel, much like the intrigue he was offered in 2017 when they announced he would be making a new Halloween (of course, having Curtis AND John Carpenter on board didn’t hurt his rep), whereas now he’s forever tied into the genre. Honestly, he’s an ideal choice to make an Exorcist sequel, just as Friedkin himself was, post-French Connection, not exactly the most obvious candidate for what would be dubbed the scariest movie ever made. But Green making four films in a row (five if he does the already dated Believer followup) kinda cements his place as a “horror guy”, a moniker that would seem baffling even five years ago. But alas, many did not care much for his Halloween movies (even a lot of folks who liked his first didn’t care for the two sequels), and so residual hatred of Corey Cunningham and “Evil Dies Tonight” makes him a target, so even if he was making a sequel to an Uwe Boll film folks would have their pitchforks and “How DARE he?” chants at the ready. An Exorcist sequel? Forget it.

(It didn’t help that Friedkin passed away not too long ago, making this an ill-timed release on top of it as he was not exactly supportive of the project.)

But even Friedkin (or William Peter Blatty, who made the mostly good Exorcist III) would have to contend with five decades’ worth of sequels, ripoffs, and exorcism-free possession movies that are inescapable to even a casual horror fan. The likes of Evil Dead, Devil, and even Paranormal Activity all exist under the umbrella that Friedkin and Blatty provided back in 1973, even though none of them have a priest shouting things about Christ’s power. So it doesn’t matter who is calling “action” on the set – there’s simply not much uncharted territory for these things anymore, and Pazuzu’s shadow is hard to escape even in an original movie (I bet I mention Exorcist in every single possession movie I’ve reviewed here). Doing a sequel just makes it that much harder for a filmmaker to create something folks can see as worthy of the crown (I suspect Exorcist III’s relatively good reputation is because Blatty was involved and thus got a pass. It’s not exactly a masterpiece either).

All that said, if you can leave all those things out of your mind (or even better, be unaware of them at all), you’ll be treated to what is a mostly solid movie about a man named Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr) who is raising his daughter alone after his wife died in an earthquake while pregnant (the doctors could only save one). So he’s very protective of her, and just to scare borderline helicopter parents like me, on the ONE DAY he lets his daughter hang out with a friend after school instead of coming straight home, she and the friend go missing. They’re found three days later, relatively unharmed but also not remembering where they were (and also thinking it’s only been a few hours as opposed to as many days). Before long both girls start acting weird, and after tests show nothing, a kindly nurse (Ann Dowd) makes a suggestion to Victor that it could be demonic possession, and gives him a book by a parent whose child was possessed. Guess who that is?

Alas, since Victor stopped believing in God when his wife died, he naturally thinks it’s all nonsense, but we know eventually he’ll start to open up to the idea. So he goes to see Chris MacNeill, and she agrees to help him. Unfortunately (spoiler here) she is seriously injured on the first encounter, more or less written out of the movie after that until the final scene, so anyone hoping she’d go full Merrin during the obligatory climactic exorcism will be disappointed. In fact I can’t imagine anyone will be particularly thrilled at how Burstyn is used here; the role is brief (as with Harrison Ford in Blade Runner 2049, they ought to have treated it as a surprise cameo instead of marketing them as a major supporting character) and it seems unnecessarily cruel to watch her get attacked the way she does. The film was working just fine as a standalone, and I truly wish Dowd’s gift of her book would have been enough of a connection to this world without stopping the movie cold for “legacyquel” stuff*. It’s a damaging misstep, to be sure, but not enough to ruin the movie for me. Instead I just went from “Wait, why are people hating this?” to “Oh, that’s why.”

But the last act got me back! There's a surprise reveal involving Victor that kind of floored me and recontextualized a lot of the film, and the intriguing idea that the demon agrees to only kill one child and spare the other, but leaves it up to the parents to decide ("It's Sophie's Choice meets King Solomon!" is probably something you don't hear in pitch meetings a lot). Also, instead of the usual “priest vs possessed” showdown, Chris suggests that there is no definitive exorcism ritual and that every religion has their own ideas, all of which are valid. So we get a handful of priests from several dominations – Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, and some kind of witchcraft/earth-based one (not quite voodoo, but they use roots and dirt and stuff like that) – all working together side by side to save the girls, along with their parents (as if you recall, and if not she reminds you anyway – Chris never witnessed the exorcism herself, but Victor and the other girl’s parents are right there with the priests). It’s a weirdly optimistic movie in that regard; we’ve all been living in an “us vs them” hell since a certain NY businessman announced his candidacy for President, and it seems like every day there’s something new to divide people. Even right now, as the movie hits theaters, I’m seeing “both sides” about an attack in the Middle East in which babies were beheaded. You’d think some things would be immune to a debate (such as, for example, BABIES BEING BEHEADED), but alas, that’s not the case anymore, and I don’t see it ever getting better in my lifetime. So to see a bunch of folks coming together despite their differences is good for the soul, in my opinion.

Unfortunately I do have to remember that I arrived late to this franchise (I was 19 when I saw the original and didn’t see any of the sequels until my late 20s), so I don’t come into these things with as much baggage. The Exorcist didn’t change my life, it didn’t give me nightmares, it didn’t make me a horror fan – it’s just one of many films in the genre I really enjoy despite not having any significant impact on my life or worldview. But that’s not the case for a lot of folks, so it’s only natural that they see these sequels (and the knockoffs, many of which I’ve also enjoyed more than many of my peers) as a massive letdown. They’re chasing a high that nothing can ever replicate, and any sort of memory that the new film might trigger of the untouchable Exorcist just makes the former feel that much lesser. It’s like eating a decent burger when the first meat you ever had was a prime sirloin – you’re only going to react to what it ISN’T instead of what it is.

And I’ll be honest – no, the film isn’t all that scary. There’s a terrific jump scare early on (it involves a scarf) that ranks up there with E3’s much lauded nurse moment for such things, and since a foul-mouthed child isn’t going to shock anyone anymore, Green wisely has one possessed kid carry out a pretty revolting act of violence that is somewhat shocking in its viciousness. But I feel Green actually remembered that the original film is more of a drama than a horror movie for large chunks of its runtime, and also one with lots of characters, to the extent that it’s more of an ensemble. And it’s those elements that Green and his writers are evoking with their film, instead of going for outright horror (an approach only Renny Harlin even kind of approached with his entry, which is no one’s favorite anyway), so it wasn’t really an issue for me. I was engaged with the story and the characters, so I didn’t really care that no one’s head was spinning. As with Chris, the weaker elements of the movie are the ones that remind me I’m watching Exorcist 6; when it’s a movie about a broken man trying to save the only thing he has left in the world, I was hooked in.

That said, I don’t know if I need to see a direct followup to it (it’s currently dated for April of 2025, though I don’t know what will happen now that this one has such negative reviews and only so-so box office – and that’s BEFORE Hurricane Swift takes over the multiplexes and scares everyone else away); the final scene has a nice moment but nothing that demands a “what next?”, and that’s coming from someone who mostly liked the movie. But I had a good time at my AMC that afternoon; the movie gave me a solid scare, which is one more than most movies offer, likable characters, some solid blasphemy (if you track what Dowd’s would-be nun character is saying, having an abortion and leaving the church set her on the path to save a child’s life, so… hahahaha! Eat it, right wingers!), an excellent performance by Odom, Jr., and a moment that legit made me tear up, so I’m not sure what else I could ask for. Green’s direction apes Friedkin’s at times; there’s some hard edits, big moments happening in a matter of fact manner, and relatively sparse use of music (even “Tubular Bells” is underplayed), all of which make it clear he (like me) probably prefers the original cut of the film vs the Spider-Walk/demon face-addled 2000 recut version. No, it’s nowhere as good as the original, but I wasn’t demanding it to be, nor did I go in with my review already written like, for example, a major horror site personality who has been trashing the movie since the day it was announced. Having an open mind is rewarding, I think! The movie's fine! It’s not even the worst Exorcist sequel with one of the actors!

What say you?

* It also would allow the TV show – in my opinion the best of the followups – to remain canon, since Chris writing a book at some point doesn’t conflict with that show’s version of events as far as I can recall. But the character died there, so her showing up in the present day here effectively wipes Fathers Marcus and Tomas out of continuity. Otherwise, unlike Green’s Halloweens, there’s nothing here that rewrites any of the other sequels’ events – they’re just not mentioned.


Totally Killer (2023)

OCTOBER 4, 2023


After Scream, there was some chatter that there could never be a straight slasher again, because how can a filmmaker go through those motions after they’ve all been skewered so smartly (in a film that managed to have more suspense than most of those straightforward ones ever did, to boot)? Luckily folks found a way, with the likes of Cold Prey (2006) and at least the first of the new Halloween trilogy proving it could still be done and even win over fans who could recite Kevin Williamson’s script by heart. But there’s also been a number of “fun” slasher films that owe a debt to Wes Craven's classic, and in 2017 Blumhouse hit on a goldmine with Happy Death Day, which essentially took the plot of a high concept comedy (Groundhog Day) and added a slasher plot into it. And some of the same team gave us Freaky (pitched as “Freaky Friday the 13th”) plus the Happy Death Day sequel which leaned even more into ‘80s comedy shenanigans, proving there was room to explore in the sub-subgenre. So now we have Totally Killer, which is essentially Back to the Future, but instead of Biff we have a masked slasher threatening our hero’s existence.

Just as Happy Death Day acknowledged Groundhog Day in dialogue, Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) is able to use Back to the Future as a quick explanation when she time travels back to 1987 from 2023 (the movie was shot in 2022, so I assume it was supposed to be a more even 35 years, but on-screen graphics say 2023 - *shrug*), as BTTF had been out for two years by that point*. In fact, shorthand is kind of a crutch in the film, as even the time travel plot is introduced as casually as one might introduce someone trying out a new restaurant – Jamie’s bestie is making a time travel device for the school science fair (alongside things like a baking soda volcano no less) and no one really seems alarmed or incredulous about it. And it works! And then Jamie finds the friend’s mom (a science geek who gave her the time travel idea in the first place), who quickly accepts the idea that this young woman is her future daughter’s best friend and needs her help. It’s a bit of an issue for all these high concept slashers, because we’ve all seen the originals (and slashers) and thus are just kind of waiting for both ideas to come to the forefront of the narrative, so they can’t spend too much time prior to the big event and thus sort of have to quickly race through all the setup (something the OGs didn’t – Marty McFly could pace himself a bit, since he was the first). But at the same time, if you’re sitting down for a time travel movie in the first place, it’s probably safe to assume you’re not too much of a stickler for real world logic, so it shouldn’t be too much of an issue that they're basically racing through/past any questions you might have.

Those who sat down for the horror part of this horror comedy might be harder to win over, though. Slasher fans may be a bit dismayed to hear that the balance is shifted more toward racking up laughs than a body count despite the R rating (the PG-13 Happy Death Day found a more even balance), but the kills are on par with something like Scream when they occur, and one is downright brutal as the actress in question really sells her realization that she’s about to die (it gave me flashbacks to poor Rob's "He's killing me!" in F13 4). The resolution of the whodunit mystery isn’t all that surprising either, but unlike Happy Death Day 2U it’s at least something ingrained into the narrative as opposed to something they just sort of threw in because they felt they had to, and Jamie’s appearance in the 1987 timeline throws a wrench into the original order of deaths, so even though we’re told at the beginning who died and when, it gets mixed up a bit to allow for a little more intrigue it might have had otherwise. Long story short, the slasher element may not be as prominent as one might hope, but it’s treated with some thought when it’s in the spotlight. Not sure I love the mask though; it’s a little too far into the goofy look (again, something Happy Death Day triggered), to the extent that he basically just looks like Beavis with an earring.

But I sure did laugh a lot. First off it’s got Randall Park in a bit role, and that guy never fails to make me cackle with glee. He’s the sheriff in 1987 who (naturally) disbelieves Jamie’s story that she’s time traveled and wants to stop some murders before they happen, and every time he waves her off he finds a way to make it hilarious (his response to Jamie's "DNA evidence" nearly left me on the floor laughing so hard). The script also gets a lot of mileage about how Jamie is very much a product of a more accepting/acceptable 2023 environment and is frequently disgusted/stunned by how casual and “unsafe” the 1980s were, perfectly encapsulated when realizes she has to enroll at the school to get close to the victims (and find the killer) and starts to come up with an elaborate backstory only for the secretary in the school office to not care at all and just hand her a schedule. And it’s a nice change of pace for her to discover her mom was kind of a B in high school; there’s obviously some surface similarities to The Final Girls in the plot, but by focusing on the humor and Jamie’s increasing exasperation that her mom could probably use a brush with death to stop being such a jerk, it kept comparisons at bay. Sure, maybe it didn’t have anything as emotional as the mom’s dance in the rain in that film, but I was laughing too often to notice.

It also does something that I don’t think I’ve seen in any time travel movie (spoiler ahead), which is that when our hero returns to her own timeline, her friend’s mom gives her a notebook of all the things that she inadvertently changed in 1987 that present day her should know already (but doesn’t, because time travel). It of course just highlights the very reason that time travel is such an impossibility (anything you change would prevent your own existence), but it’s still a cute idea when (again) you’re just going along with the ride and accepting the silly idea in the first place. Like most people I enjoy Back to the Future a lot, but every time I watch I always wonder about the Marty from the day before, the one who bought the truck and such – where did that version go? Our Marty (Marty #1) goes back in time, changes things, and sets his parents on a different life path, one in which they have a son named Marty (Marty #2) who buys a truck that Biff cleans for him, right? So where does that Marty go when Marty #1 returns? Marty #1 didn’t inherit his memories and life experiences, as he was confused by all of them, so there’s a Marty with those memories/experience who just, what? Disappeared? So this idea kind of meets us halfway on the paradox, which I can respect. I mean, the only time travel movie that holds up to scrutiny with this sort of thing is Primer, which is damn near impossible to follow, so if you have to choose one over the other, I think going with “sloppy fun” over “requires flow charts to follow along” is the right way to go.

So, yeah: it’s a lot of fun as long as you a. aren’t the type to get too hung up on time travel’s inherent flaws from a narrative perspective (as Park says, “they never make sense”) and b. aren’t hoping it will replace Halloween or Friday the 13th as your favorite slasher movie of all time. Both elements are there to serve a fun comedy about how the “awesome” 80s were filled with a shocking lack of concern for people’s wellbeing (the mother with the carful of smoke - *chef’s kiss*) and horrible attitudes that we’ve made great strides to change (there’s a running gag about someone named “Fat Trish”, which Jamie keeps trying/failing to course correct to simply “Trish”). Sometimes it seems like it’s been cut down from a longer story (there’s a VERY minor subplot about Jamie’s grandmother that seems leftover from older drafts, for example), but one can’t fault this sort of movie for just trying to get to the fun stuff as economically as possible, and Shipka is one of those performers who is always game for whatever she's being asked to do, so that goes a long way into making it easier to just go with it. And there’s a gag I won’t spoil here, involving an upcoming test, that was both hilarious AND a sort of “Wait, why has no one ever made that joke before in one of these things?” moment that earned my full appreciation, so: well done! I'm glad I got to see it with a theatrical crowd (thank you Beyond Fest) before it premieres on Amazon Prime; that makes two crowd pleasing slashers in a row that were inexplicably given streaming only releases (last year's Sick being the other) but a prime slot at Beyond for those of us who understand how much more fun these things are on the big screen.

What say you?

*They really should have just said it was 1988, because they also watch a VHS of Robocop, which was barely out of theaters at the time the movie takes place! To the IMDB anachronism page!


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