Blu-Ray Review: The Haunting of Julia (1977)

APRIL 26, 2023


As is often the case, I remembered liking The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle) when I saw it many years ago as a canon Horror Movie a Day entry, but nothing specific beyond that - I was even kind of hazy on the sub-genre it belonged to. But the most surprising thing about re-reading my review (now over a decade old) was that I saw it on Netflix "Instant", back when their streaming platform was still in its relative infancy (House of Cards didn't even exist yet). It's pretty easy to forget (and almost kind of hard to imagine) that their movie library used to be fairly robust with regards to obscure films; nowadays I assume the deepest cuts are probably DTV studio films from the aughts.

But I should have remembered that it had to have been streaming somewhere, because it never even came to DVD outside of a bootleg version that was released in France. That makes it an usual but highly appreciated choice for Scream Factory to add to their growing 4K UHD library, as the bulk of it is just upgraded versions of their own previous releases (the Carpenter stuff, Return of the Living Dead, etc.). The only other one I know of that came to 4K without a Blu-ray before it (either from their own history or the studio's) was Alligator, but at least that had a DVD to compare to. For this forgotten little gem, with the Netflix option long gone, the only thing to compare the transfer to would be either that bootleg French DVD, or the damned VHS tape.

I say that to note that it's not exactly the most mind-blowing ultra high def restoration out there - it actually looks rather soft to my eyes. But just having the movie at all is the real "get" here, and since most of SF's releases of late have been double dips, it's nice to see that there are still titles like this that they can rescue from out of print hell, and in this case complete obscurity. Despite the presence of Mia "Rosemary's Baby" Farrow and Keir Dullea (who once again breaks into a basement looking for the rattled heroine, as he did in Black Christmas - the man has a niche!), the film's unavailability has left it pretty much unheard of by most genre fans, and the fact that it's known by another title (neither of which are Julia, the name of the Peter Straub novel it's based on) doesn't help much. Long story short, it's a gamble for them to go down the more expensive 4K route with a title that most aren't aware of, and I laud them for it.

For those who didn't click back on my old review and/or simply don't know the story, it's very much in the vein of Don't Look Now or The Changeling (which came later), in that it kicks off with the hero (Farrow) losing their child and then being haunted by their memory... or is it an actual ghost? I've never read Straub's novel*, but from what I understand he makes things a little less vague than the movie, which as depicted seems like the filmmaker wanted you to draw your own conclusions as to whether or not she was just having a mental breakdown or if the ghost was actually committing the (relatively high number of) deaths in the film's second half. And if it was a ghost, which one? Her daughter? A little boy who was murdered? Or the evil child that killed him, who was later in turn murdered by her mother when she realized how wicked her daughter was? Again, it's unclear, but on the commentary track director Richard Loncraine spells it out, prompting his moderator to note that all he has to do is "tour the countryside explaining the movie to anyone who is about to watch it."

That's one of the many comments that makes the track an unexpected delight, as the two men are old pals and, as is quickly made clear, moderator/historian Simon Fitzjohn actually likes the movie more than Loncraine does, as the latter feels that Straub's novel itself had some issues (I poked around online and the consensus is that Ghost Story was his improved version of the same kind of story, a sort of "Four Flies on Grey Velvet compared to the later Deep Red" type situation) and he didn't do the best job of fixing them. So the two take little jabs at each other while running through the usual retrospective type commentary, with Loncraine talking about the production, working with Farrow and the others (apparently she caught Rosemary on tv a few nights before shooting started and suddenly decided she didn't want to do the movie in fear of repeating herself; Loncraine had to convince her to stay on), etc, while Fitzjohn gets into the "Where are they now?" sort of thing. It's the sort of track I wish I heard more often, as you usually get a moderator who is just asking questions to the director without bringing much to the table at all, or a historian who is by themselves and goes off on unrelated tangents to fill up the dead space since there's only so much they can know without someone who actually made the movie sitting there with him.

(So if they upgrade Shocker to 4K, I'll be the historian, but I want Peter Berg and/or Mitch Pileggi there with me. Thanks in advance.)

There are also a pair of interviews, one with Tom Conti who plays Farrow's friend/potential new love interest, and Samantha Gates who played the evil child Olivia. They're both fine, if a bit overlong considering their relatively minor roles in the film (Gates in particular is only onscreen for a minute or so, but the interview runs for over ten minutes). Of more interest is a solid critique from Kim Newman, which runs 25 minutes and acts as a sort of mini historian commentary, highlighted by his noting that Farrow's career is most famous for Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and her work with Woody Allen, which has to suck. There's also a fun little visit to the shooting locations as they exist today, a bonus feature I always enjoy as someone who visits such locations for personal faves (the first time I came to LA, I looked for Fletch's apartment in Santa Monica). Loncraine also provides an intro to the film, but like all the other extras (save the commentary) it's confined to the accompanying standard Blu-ray, which puzzles me - it's not even a minute long, could it really not "fit" on the 4K disc with a mere 95 minute film? I only found it because I decided to take the standard disc with me to work (no 4K there) to watch the rest of the commentary on my lunch break.

Other than that, it's a solid release for a film that could have easily continued to languish in moratarium; one of those releases where even a bare-bones presentation would have been enough to make fans happy since there was literally nothing better (unless you're one of those obnoxious VHS champions who find a murky/cropped tape of Die Hard or something and hold it up like it's a treasure as opposed to something that should just be thrown away). I hope it's a successful gambit for Scream Factory as I'd like to see them continue to "save" these movies as often as they can, as opposed to sticking with safe bets like upgrading Army of Darkness or whatever to 4K. Not that I'm against that sort of thing, especially if it keeps the lights on (and you know damn well I upgraded my Halloween releases), but I feel there should be room for both, preferably in equal measures!

What say you?

*I have it here though; I was planning to actually do a comparison when this disc came out, but got swamped on a much larger "book vs movie" project that will hopefully appear in a certain horror mag later this year!


Evil Dead Rise (2023)

APRIL 24, 2023


I think I was about an hour into Evil Dead Rise when I realized why the film wasn’t working for me: like the 2013 remake (which I was also mixed on at best) it was aimed at the people who find Sam Raimi's first two films “cheesy” or “cheap looking” or whatever. On a technical level these two films – which admirably largely eschew digital effects in favor of practical ones – are flawless, no argument there. There's more money to play with, and it's all on screen, with professional actors to boot. But there’s simply no soul to these modern entries, and their relatively large budgets betray the whole appeal of the first film and its 1987 sequel: seeing what a creative and determined guy can accomplish with nothing (on the first one) and then seeing him truly cut loose when he had more money to play with the second time around. That is why the films make for such a great double feature (weird retconning aside due to ED2 not having access to ED1 footage): you’re seeing the progression of a filmmaker (and an actor in Bruce Campbell) on a technical level, while marveling that Raimi had lost none of his gonzo sense of humor in the intervening years.

But let’s face it: the story of the series is not particularly interesting. People read from a creepy book and supernatural forces come forward, killing all but one person, who usually grabs a chainsaw and takes out the immediate threat, but doesn’t stop it entirely. It's just an excuse to cut loose with whatever Raimi (or now, his successors) can dream up, and it's seeing that kitchen sink approach in action that makes them fun - when they're at their best, you truly have no idea what will happen next. Raimi seemed to understand the limitations of this concept, setting the third film in medieval times and turning it into more of a fantasy/adventure film than a traditional horror one, using our affinity with Campbell’s hero Ash Williams to smooth the wildly different tone and approach. For some it worked great – it’s their favorite one! I myself just find it OK, but there are others who wanted things to go back to the scarier roots of the first film. And to their credit, that’s what this film and the 2013 remake did – but they also seem content to recycle Raimi's ideas at the expense of coming up with too many of their own.

The biggest issue with this film (and the remake suffered from this too, now that I think of it) is that there’s no real sense of escalation or pacing. The first film certainly has its slower moments, but there’s a real buildup overall; every time another friend gets possessed things get more and more hectic until the final reel becomes just a nonstop frightfest, with Raimi’s camera constantly swishing around and Campbell being tortured with every turn. Here, writer/director Lee Cronin stages things more like a slasher movie for whatever reason; every time someone dies, there’s ten minutes of not all that much happening until the next possession occurs. And that might be fine if the other characters weren’t aware of the threat, but that’s not the case – the first possessed person makes their grand entrance to all four of the other characters right off the bat, which results in the film being repetitive on top of being poorly paced. A possessed person does something creepy (usually some sort of self harm and/or puking liquid everywhere) as the others watch in terror, then they run into another room of the apartment, regroup, make some kind of escape attempt that puts them in contact with the possessed person, who then does something creepy as the others watch in terror, then they run... you get the idea.

I mentioned the apartment, and that’s the other thing that kept the movie from ever really working for me: they totally waste the potential of the location. For the first time, one of these movies takes place in a big city (LA to be specific, though the New Zealand production obviously limits how much they can really sell us on that idea), with our heroes residing in a big apartment complex that is said to be falling apart and set to be torn down the following month. So one might be hoping for a real expansive romp around the building, like a modern update on Demons 2, right? Nope – we barely ever leave the protagonists’ apartment (and yet the layout for it remains hazy even by the end of the film, despite spending so much time there) and the only other people we see live directly next door. Don’t the other residents hear all of the commotion? Wouldn’t the Deadites roam around the joint looking for fresh victims to help when our heroes have themselves barricaded? I guess we can assume that the impending demolition has already scared off most of the residents, but since our heroes have two neighbors and we see several cars (not the Classic, however!) in the building’s shared garage before anything even happens, there should be at least a few others that could have gotten roped into the proceedings.

The lone exception is a millennial on the 4th floor (our heroes are on the 14th) who we meet as a possessed person in a flash forward prologue set in the woods, but she doesn’t show up again until the very end, showing how she got that way. This little bookend almost makes the movie seem like a prequel to the usual idea, showing how the Deadite force got from Los Angeles to the woods, and it’s rather pointless in the grand scheme of things, but I’ll allow it since a. otherwise we wouldn’t see anything exciting happen for a half hour and b. it has the only good joke in the entire movie, where a Raimi-esque “shaki cam” shot is revealed to be the POV of a drone one of the girl’s friends is using. But on the other hand, this opening suggests the movie will have a sense of humor, which it most certainly does not outside of a few darkly mean-spirited lines. The only other time I laughed was at an out of nowhere slam on the Freddy sequels.

Cronin also makes a miscalculation with his group of victims: a woman named Ellie and her three children, plus her sister Beth. Beth is a typical slacker type who fails to keep up with her sister’s phone calls, managing to miss that Ellie’s husband (and the childrens’ father) has left them, and she has just discovered she got pregnant during one of her (suggested frequent) casual hookups, so we have our character arc: she’s not exactly planning to be a mother, but thanks to the film's events she's going to get a rather intense crash course on being one! That’s fine, but not since Hereditary have I seen a casting director seemingly go out of their way to find people who couldn’t look less alike to play a family. There’s enough of a resemblance to pass the son and the younger of the two sisters as siblings since they at least have the same color hair, but otherwise it was honestly distracting – I kept waiting for some sort of explanation that they were all adopted or something. And Ellie and Beth don’t look anything alike either, so when the inevitable “I have to kill my sister” kind of stuff comes into play, it doesn’t land as well as it should – they might as well be strangers, since they barely interact prior to Ellie's possession. We also know that this big screen Warner Bros movie won’t be killing the little girl (or her protector), so that also betrays the “anything goes” spirit of the first film, where Ash wasn’t any more prominent than the other characters and thus had just as much chance of survival as they did. All of the neighbors are wiped out too early too, another thing that could have helped add some suspense to the proceedings. Sure, we know they're all goners, but the WHEN of it all can generate some tension. Alas, they all die within seconds of their first encounter with Ellie.

Weirder still, there’s not really anything all that inventive with the gore and violence. There’s a big scene set to someone chewing glass, but it’s not even as unsettling as the one in Oculus, a movie that wasn’t being sold on its gnarliness. Most of the effects involve the possessed person puking blood or bile or some kind of goo on another character, which is effective enough the first time but by the 3rd or 4th one might wonder why it is no one tapes the possessed folks’ mouths shut whenever they’re temporarily subdued. The only time it ever starts to feel like there’s a genuine IDEA behind a sequence is when Beth watches some slaughter occurring through the front door’s peephole, which leaves some of the carnage off screen and allowing a quick scare when a body is tossed back into the fishbowl style POV. I also liked the final form of the Deadite menace (I won’t spoil the particulars), the appearance of which is boosted by Beth and the little girl finally leaving their apartment for a change of scenery, but couldn’t help but wish it had appeared sooner. Plus, said scene is in the garage, which just reminded me that there were a bunch of residents who weren’t being utilized, an hour or so after the idea of “the Deadites infect an entire apartment building!” was suggested and never delivered upon. But for each of those scattered good ideas, we're given eye-rolling references to the others (including a "Dead by dawn!" chant), which I'm sure made someone with a Bruce Campbell tattoo cheer on opening night, but left me just wondering why in 35 years the best idea they could come up with is "what if someone else ALSO did this?"

So I dunno. It’s got good reviews and audience scores, and several friends have loved it, but it just didn’t work for me. I kept waiting for things to kick up a notch, but the final scenes (save for the aforementioned "final form" and accompanying obligatory chainsaw bit) aren’t any more intense or imaginative than the ones we saw a few minutes into the runtime during the prologue, and far too much of the movie is devoted to people simply giving “oh my GOD what IS HAPPENING?” kind of looks at the possessed characters (after a while I started wondering if Beth had some kind of Memento like amnesia, since she repeatedly seems shocked to see things she’d already witnessed in the previous scenes). And when it ended, I was aghast to realize that both Renfield and Pope’s Exorcist have more inventive examples of both splatter and dismemberment than this Evil Dead movie, which to me would be like if Ed Sheeran or someone like that was opening for Metallica and somehow managed to put on a more exciting show. Due to the lack of rules for Deadites (which is otherwise fine), it's hard to say what exactly makes this an "Evil Dead movie" as the evil force lacks a repeated presence (meaning a calling card "boogeyman" figure one could slap on mugs and T-shirts), and our new hero doesn't stand out. Even the remake knew enough to play with the idea of who the new hero might be, but here it's clearly Beth from the start and she is never given all that much to do until the final moments. So there’s no Ash (or "Ash"), there’s no cabin, there’s no Classic... the only thing left to live up to the title that they were coasting on would be the “splattery Three Stooges” type of physical action, but they kept dropping the ball and settling for restaging Raimi's moments far too often, content to coast on his ideas while bringing precious few of their own to the table. Just a huge letdown.

What say you?


FTP: Hansel and Gretel Get Baked (2023)

APRIL 21, 2023


I've had Hansel and Gretel Get Baked in "the pile" for probably six years at this point, always thinking "I'll watch it on 4/20, because lol" and then forgetting about it. But with my renewed purpose to actually get through said pile once and for all, I was determined to finally get it over with this time around, though I didn't get to start it until late* and naturally I fell asleep, watching most of it on the morning of 4/21, which actually marks a different celebration (Happy birthday, Antonio Bay!). But whatever, one more pile movie down!

If you don't know by now, I'm not a drug user. I enjoy alcohol (though I've also cut back there!), but have never found any interest in drugs - I had an edible during a bachelor party and took the smallest possible hit off a joint a few years ago, and that is the entirety of my drug consumption in my 43 years on this planet. I've always figured that I'm weird and rambly enough as is, so drugs would just exacerbate those (not always welcome!) habits. Plus I'm allergic to cigarette smoke and figure pot would produce the same effect (in that I find it hard to breathe and my voice starts to sound like that of a demon), so... yeah. Just not my thing!

So naturally I'm not really the target audience for this sort of thing, which if you haven't guessed by the double meaning title, turns the familiar fairy tale heroes into modern day stoners. Well, Gretel is; Hansel doesn't partake, but he gets nearly "baked" (meaning cooked) so it's not false advertising. Anyway, the witch has a special strain that is much desired, and while she has a guy selling on the streets for her, some folks - including Gretel's boyfriend - just stroll up to her door (in Pasadena!) and ask to buy it, at which point she lures them inside and kills them. With each victim she gets younger, so when she first appears she's clearly a younger actress in (not great) old age makeup, but by the halfway point you'll hopefully recognize Lara Flynn Boyle, who seems to be enjoying returning to evil woman territory (The Temp hive, rise up!).

But... that's pretty much all there is to the movie. Someone comes to her door, she gets them inside, gives them some tea or something, and then kills them. Eventually the filmmakers toss some zombies (previous victims) and an evil dog into the mix, but it does little to alleviate how repetitive and glacial the pacing is, despite the seemingly (sorry) high energy premise. I swear a full third of the movie involves Boyle (who never leaves the house) talking to someone at the front door, which made it difficult to find my place this morning as I rewound the Blu-ray (it had resume play, bless them) as every third scene looked the same. People at the door, Gretel (Molly Quinn) wandering around looking for her boyfriend, Hansel (Mike from the Twilight movies, the poor sod) looking for HER, repeat. Eventually some rival drug dealers get introduced, but as with the zombies, it's just a brief interruption to what is an otherwise shockingly low energy and monotonous movie.

It's also not particularly funny, which was surprising. I don't mean "That joke was awful" unfunny, I mean it simply didn't have too many jokes. Boyle tosses in some sinister puns and there's the occasional weird joke, but I was expecting an Idle Hands type tone, and I have to admit I was kind of relieved it wasn't like that. Not that it worked as an actual scary movie or anything, but with the repetitive structure I feel the movie would be completely unbearable if I had to put up with a lot of mugging and puns and poorly edited physical comedy. That it was relatively played straight was, ironically, one of the film's few good points.

And if you were attracted to the thing by seeing Cary Elwes' name on the cover, don't get too excited - not only is he only in the first scene, but he's almost unrecognizable as a nameless meter man, sporting coke bottle glasses and a dorky haircut - he kinda resembles Milton from Office Space. On the other hand, Boyle is in it more than I expected, so that was nice, even if she had to wear that awful makeup for the first half. The makeup isn't the only visual blemish, I should note; the transfer on this Blu is horrendous, as nearly every dark scene has that crushed grey/halo effect going on - I've seen VHS tapes that looked better.

But I mean, I wasn't expecting it to be good, and in fact I figured it'd be some Gingerdead Man level atrocity. That it was merely forgettable and dull was a strangely pleasant surprise. And it inches me one step closer to being rid of the ugly little plastic shelving tray that houses the "pile" from atop my record collection, and once I watch that last disc, I can get another cube and in turn, have room for more records! Thanks, Hansel and Gretel Get Baked.

What say you?

*Because I went to a screening of the first two episodes of Amazon Prime's new Dead Ringers series, which modernizes/enhances the story from the book (and yes, subsequent Cronenberg film) while also making Beverly and Elliot into women, played by Rachel Weisz. And so far it kinda rules? It's funny, dark, sexy... kinda fires on all cylinders, and Weisz is clearly having the most fun she's had since, hell, maybe The Mummy Returns? All episodes drop today, I highly encourage it even if you're crying foul at "remaking Cronenberg" (who, at that time, was coasting on his success from remaking The Fly, so).


Last Gasp (1995)

APRIL 12, 2023


For whatever reason, whenever I would request a film for review from the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome, they would send everything they were putting out that month (I assume this is their standard practice, but don't want to speak for everyone!). And that is a nice way to pad out the collection and occasionally find a gem that wasn’t on my radar (like Cemetery of Terror, or pretty much anything from director Ruben Galindo Jr), but also means I end up with a lot of their filler like Last Gasp. This thing has been sitting in the “pile” (now an actual shelf) for two years because it didn’t sound particularly interesting, but I like star Robert Patrick, so I kept it around for a proverbial rainy day. Which finally came today.

The thing about Patrick is that he is a terrific character actor, rightfully respected and a “get” for movies and shows that need someone who offers his particular “you’re not sure if you can trust this guy” presence (X-Files in particular benefited from this, as he was replacing Mulder on the team but taking over skeptic duties from the now believer Scully). But that skill isn’t utilized here – in fact it’s downright wasted for a story in which his character is proven to be a jerk in his first scene. He’s a real estate developer in Mexico where the locals keep killing his builders for invading their land, so after promising a proper burial for the latest victim (which he instead has the body tossed in a river) he hires a guy to just kill all the locals to solve the problem. The mercenary eggs him on to finish one guy off himself, and then he is possessed by the man’s spirit.

This prompts him to kill people (while painted up and wearing next to nothing like the jungle-dwelling locals, which is slightly problematic but gives Patrick a chance to show off his physique), but… he already had no problem with that, nor was he an innocent victim like Larry Talbot or whoever. The actual hero of the film is Joanna Pacula’s character, who is introduced much later as the wife of a man who disappeared while working on Patrick’s project. Perhaps if we met her first and then gradually learned what was up with Patrick’s character, there’d be some engagement to her plight, but since we have all the answers long before she does (hell, mostly before we even MEET her), there’s little reason to invest yourself in the narrative. They don’t even tease out the mystery of her husband’s disappearance – a randomly inserted flashback tells us he’s dead not long after we even knew he existed, having been killed during one of Patrick’s possession sprees. Weirder, the movie spends like 20 straight minutes with a PI she’s hired to find the man, and we stick with him as if he’s the actual hero of the movie. To be fair, it’s (spoiler for 30 year old movie ahead) slightly surprising when he is killed at the end of the first act, but again this would only work if we hadn’t already known everything. When he dies it isn’t a “oh wow, he’s dead!” moment, it’s a “So why were we focusing on this guy for long?” one. It’d be like if Psycho started out with Norman tending to his mother’s corpse in lieu of the hotel scene with Marion and Sam, but still wanted us to be shocked when she died in the shower.

I assume that the original script was indeed told more from the Pacula character’s perspective, only to be carelessly reworked to get Patrick – still high on his T2 fame – front and center in the proceedings, but unfortunately no one thought to simply make him a decent guy in the process, which would at least give us the sort of American Werewolf in London type tragedy at its center. Who cares if he’s possessed by a vengeful spirit when he was already scummy to begin with? Why are we watching a PI look for a missing car for a man we already know is dead (and also who killed him)? It’s just a baffling approach that renders the movie inert nearly from the start. The only reason to keep watching is – because this was a mid-90s pay cable movie – to enjoy the occasional sex scene, since such things are so rare nowadays. Not that I need nudity to enjoy a movie, but it’s such a taboo thing now that it sadly rates as a novelty whenever I watch an older movie and see it presented so casually, not unlike how odd it looks to see Bruce Willis smoking in an airport in Die Hard 2.

In other words, if our country hadn’t gotten even more prudish than it already was over the past 30 years, this movie would have literally nothing going for it. VS didn’t even bother to produce any new extras of note, which is pretty telling too since they always have at LEAST a commentary or lengthy interview with one of the movie’s principles. Here all we get are some outtakes and the trailer, which does indeed make it look more like a man struggling with a curse than it ever comes off in the finished film. What a dull, pointless movie.

What say you?


Renfield (2023)

MARCH 30, 2023


As a big fan of Nicolas Cage, I was stoked to see him return to the multiplexes last year with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, but was mixed on the movie itself (as I tend to always be when people play exaggerated versions of themselves, i.e. Last Action Hero and the Jay + Bob Strike Back movies). And it wasn’t exactly a huge hit, so I feared it would be a one and done “return” and he’d be back in VOD stuff for a while, but here we are only a year later with a full on big budget studio movie. Renfield isn’t just Cage’s return to would-be blockbuster material (I don’t think Massive Talent was ever expected to be a smash; Renfield needs to hit nine digits at the box office just to break even), but it’s also his return to vampire territory, 35 years after one of his best films: 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss.

Of course, in that film he’s not an actual vampire, he just thinks he’s one (amusingly, the day I saw Renfield in New Orleans via the Overlook Festival, my copy of the new 4K UHD of the similar Martin arrived at home). No such ambiguity here: he’s not just a vampire, he’s THE vampire – Dracula himself. The movie curiously posits itself as a sequel to the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi film, inserting Cage and Nicholas Hoult (as the title character) into classic moments from that film in order to bring us up to speed – we even get Cage delivering the “I never drink… wine” line! If you think about it too much it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (and changes the ending), but it’s fine – it’s just a quick way to establish early on that this is a “what happens next” kind of story, not a modern retelling of the usual tale (albeit from Renfield’s perspective) or whatever, with the added bonus of seeing Cage do a surprisingly solid Lugosi impression.

Anyway, as you can expect from the title the main focus is on Renfield, who is also seemingly immortal thanks to occasionally drinking Dracula’s blood (which can also heal wounds simply from being poured over them). So it’s now the modern day (in New Orleans; not sure what prompts them to move there but it’s a fun location all the same) and he’s quite lonely, having obviously lost his family long ago and living an empty life devoted to nothing but doing his master’s bidding. In order to find fresh victims he joins an AA type group for people who are in/trying to escape from toxic relationships, using the information his fellow members divulge to track down terrible people for his boss to feed on (so like, when one girl talks about her abusive boyfriend, he finds the guy and brings him to Dracula – a fine way to keep Renfield sympathetic!). But after experiencing an epiphany and realizing he himself is in a toxic relationship, he decides to use what he’s learned and try to escape from Dracula’s shadow – something his boss is unsurprisingly not too happy about.

This alone probably could have generated a pretty good movie – not to mention given Cage more screentime – but part of Renfield’s journey is inspired by a chance meeting with a cop played by Awkwafina. She too is fed up with her bosses, who stick her on DUI checkpoint duty (“in a town with drive-thru daiquiris!”) when she really wants to take down the local mob that killed her father (also a cop), which should inform anyone that’s ever seen a movie before that the cops are under the mob’s thumb and her poking her nose in their business is going to get her killed by one of her own fellow officers. While she makes a few appearances in the trailer I was surprised how much of the movie focused on her and the mob story (the latter of which not hinted at in the trailer at all; Ben Schwarz as the Sonny Corleone-esque hothead under the mob boss/his mom, played by Shoreh Aghdashloo*, also has more screentime than Cage), to the extent that it’s basically a two-hander instead of relegating her to “the love interest”. Which is fine in theory; I just feel she’s not a particularly engaging actress who plays the same character in everything, so not only is she not believable as a cop but it’s also asking a lot of the audience who was sold on, you know, Nic Cage as Dracula.

And he’s great! He doesn’t do the “mega-acting” thing all that much (if anything he’s subtle compared to the likes of Gary Oldman in his uncle Francis' movie) and while the movie is basically a comedy it’s very rarely on account of anything he’s doing or saying. He’s a legit menacing presence, with some fantastic makeup in his early scenes as he is left nearly dead from the opening encounter and has to be nourished back to health. In his first big modern day scene he comes off more like The Hunchback (or, to go outside of the Universal Monster canon, Paul McCrane in Robocop right before he meets the business end of Kurtwood Smith’s car), and then each subsequent appearance has him more “intact” until he’s back to his seductive glory – with the actor clearly relishing the process and having different shades to play; going from kind of pathetic/angry to suave and fully in control. So if you’re the type of person who judges the actor’s performances on how many memes it will inspire, you might be disappointed, but if you’re like me and just find him a genuinely talented and interesting actor who commits to whatever role comes his way, you’ll hopefully share my opinion that this is, even if somewhat by default due to his mostly generic VOD stuff, one of his best on-screen performances in nearly 20 years (along with Pig, Joe, and Mandy – I guess single word titles are a good luck charm?). Even the sadly limited screentime (30 minutes would be an optimistic guess?) is ultimately kind of a good thing – he makes his scenes count, and after all this time “away” (he’s never stopped working, it’s just… look, even I haven’t heard of half the stuff on his recent filmography, and I love the guy) as someone rooting for a comeback I love that people will walk out saying “I wish Nic Cage was in it more!”

That’s nothing against Hoult or the other cast, I should stress. Schwarz is pretty funny as the other antagonist, and Brandon Scott James (John from The Good Place) steals just about every scene he’s in as the leader of the self-help meeting group. I mean, I should be clear if you haven’t figured it out from the trailers: this is a horror comedy that is more concerned with the latter part of that equation, and Hoult’s depressed state means he doesn’t get too many laughs himself, so the supporting cast is what keeps the energy high. It’s a pretty short movie (93 minutes) and clearly had some slicing – the credits tout all of the dancers used in a scene that didn’t make the cut (though a few frames are shown in the accompanying stylized animated credits) – but I think it works in the movie’s favor. It’s just plain FUN, racing along through the somewhat generic mob story but engaging us with Renfield’s plight and Dracula’s increasing menace over everyone. You’re never more than a few minutes from another big laugh and/or gory action scene, and that’s fine with me – escapism is a good thing.

Back to the gore, I was at times surprised at how splattery it got. A little too digital at times for my tastes, but I can forgive it when it’s not supposed to be taken seriously anyway. This is no “Rated R because they didn’t feel like trimming out 12 frames to make it PG-13” type movie – there is a shocking amount of dismemberment going on, and most of it comes from our hero. When he eats bugs he gets super strength, and uses it to literally kick villains (mob guys or dirty cops) apart when it’s time for another action scene. And Cage gets in on the action too, decimating a room full of people with his claws and fangs – the R is earned several times over, which is much appreciated for a relatively big budget ($65m!) studio film that, while not technically an original since it’s still a Dracula movie, isn’t exactly a can’t-miss “franchise” movie either like Scream. Let’s put it this way: in order to be counted as a theatrical hit, this will have to be the highest grossing Dracula movie ever (not counting the animated Hotel Transylvania series), so it’s a risky but admirable move from Universal to sink that much into it at all, let alone focus the ad campaign around an actor who hasn’t toplined a major hit in 14 years (Knowing). During the peak of Covid times, there was some talk about how when theaters came back it’d only be surefire safe movies (i.e. Marvel stuff and Blumhouse type horror), with almost nothing aimed specifically at adults, but Universal is consistently shrugging off such worries with offbeat R rated fare – they just had Cocaine Bear (a surprise smash) and later this year they’ll have a talking dog movie that also sports an R rating. Good for them!

Anyway, it won’t be for everyone, especially if the humor turns you off or you’re some kind of purist that can’t get past the idea of this being a sequel to Browning’s film (I guess they also hate Abbott and Costello’s adventure?). And as I said, if you’re like me and find Awkwafina kind of grating, you have to deal with her having as much screentime as its title character, though thankfully she’s not too bad (if, again, not believable) and scores a few good lines (poor Officer Kyle) to balance things out. Hoult and Cage do terrific work and the movie rarely slows down long enough to start questioning things, and I think that’s exactly what makes it a winner. That it also has something to say about dealing with narcissistic personalities and how you can escape from them is just icing on the cake; a message that enhances the goofy fun of the rest of the movie instead of dwelling on it and bumming people out. And unlike the last big Dracula movie (2014’s Dracula Untold) it’s not concerned with setting up a stupid cinematic universe, so that’s another check in the “pro” column.

What say you?



Overlook 2023 Wrapup!

MARCH 30th-APRIL 2nd, 2023


My man Kurt Cobain said it best: "Weather changes moods." After I had a great time in 2018 I planned to go to Overlook as often as possible, only for 2019 to not work out for whatever reason (I honestly can't recall why) and then 2020/21 being torn asunder by covid. So I went in 2022 and... it was just OK. I still enjoyed the conversations and accompanying libations with pals of course, but they moved it further into spring (practically summer) that year, and the excess heat/humidity just made it kind of a drag at times. It's a spread out festival, which is usually fine - it gives you an excuse to see more of New Orleans! But a half mile can feel like a marathon when you're sweating through your clothes *before* you sit down for two hours to watch a movie. So I was on the fence about returning, but when they moved it back to the end of March/beginning of April (i.e. barely out of winter, technically), I decided to give it another chance.

And man, I'm glad I did. I honestly think I enjoyed this one even more than that first one that made me like it so much in the first place. The weather was better (I think I only felt hot/sticky once the entire time), there were more friendly faces than last year, and - oh yeah, it's a film festival - the lineup was much more to my liking. The "worst" movie I saw was still pretty decent, and I think I saw more than ever which meant my chances of a stinker would go up. Of course, in order to devote more time to the movies that means I missed out on a lot of the immersive/live event kinda stuff that makes the festival all the more appealing to attend (as opposed to watching the movies via screener from home), but I still had a great time which is all that matter. AND I managed to gain a few pounds from all the food, so that's... well, not GOOD, because now I need to lose it, but yum! Crawfish! Shrimp 'n grits!

Also, as with last year, I wasn't there on assignment like I was the first time around, where I was tasked with filing reviews ASAP, which meant taking more notes and having trouble focusing on movie #2 when I was trying to think of what to say about movie #1 (and so on). So this was like the best of both worlds scenario: good movies and weather like in 2018, and no need to "work" like last year. I didn't even bring my laptop! Bless. That said, I planned to write a few reviews in full, but my mom came out to visit us in CA the day after I got back from New Orleans, so it's only now, a week after I returned, that I have been able to find time to write anything. So... yeah, you're getting paragraph mini-reviews. I might still do one for Renfield (which I enjoyed!) since that's coming out next week, as opposed to these others which are mostly undated; hopefully I find time for that this week. But other than that omission, here's everything else I saw, in order!

This was described as body horror, but that's kind of misleading - other than a brief scene of a man cutting himself open to put a little light up battery pack thing in his chest, there's nothing Cronenberg-y going on here. Instead it's about a massive heat wave that is seemingly driving all the elderly people crazy; the film opens on an old woman committing suicide, prompting her husband to move in with his son and his own family so that he wouldn't be alone. However the old man is increasingly disturbed, talking nonsense and even making threats toward his son's new wife (he preferred the first wife, who has died). The rapidly increasing temperature is depicted with full screen graphics, so you know it's building toward some kind of unbearable/dangerous temperature, which is accompanied by an epic thunderstorm for good measure. At this point all hell breaks loose, with all the titular Elderly going all "rage virus" like on the younger folks, bringing some shockingly brutal moments along with it. Very little is really explained, but that's OK - it works as a slow burn toward tragic/unsettling violence, while also saying a few things about how the elderly begin to lose control of their minds (and yes, bodies - I guess that's where the "body horror" thing comes from but it's still rather misleading to use it as a genre depiction) and how even their own children see them as nuisances. If you're a fan of Adrian Bogliano's work (particularly Penumbra), or simply enjoy seeing creepy naked old men, you should be into this one.

A well executed period piece about grief and paranoia. Set a few days after Christmas 1945 (so, not long after the war ended), the movie takes place in real time as an Army man (Larry Fessenden in a terrific performance) who recently lost his wife has invited a few of his fellow soldiers over for a reunion, which doubles as a well-wishery for one of them, who is about to face a court martial for war crimes. The nature of his crime (and specifically, whether it was intentional or not) is one of the film's many mysteries that unfold over the 90 minutes, with things kicking into gear as Fessenden's character attempts a seance to contact his late wife. Director Ted Geoghegan (who wrote the movie with his father) does a fine job recreating the look/feel of the films that were made at the time (the credits in particular* really sell the Capra-y era), and the script keeps you guessing over who is telling the truth until the end, giving you just enough reason to believe either party. I was also amused that one of the quintet was played by Ron E. Rains, who I am most familiar with as "Peter Rosenthal", the film critic for The Onion. It also contains a face smashing scene that rivals any "torture porn" era film for how disturbing it is, so that was nice. I believe it's coming to Shudder, so keep an eye out!

I almost didn't see this at all because I got the wrong idea from the plot description, which referred to people hired to trim marijuana plants - I got it in my head that it was a stoner horror comedy, which isn't anything I'd rush out for. I'm so green (heh) when it comes to pot that at a key moment in the film, when a character steals a red colored bud from their boss' special stash, I thought it was a strawberry (if you're baffled: it kinda looked like this, but also in the dark because it's a horror movie). Anyway, I'm glad I was corrected as it turned out to be tied for my favorite movie of the fest. Our group of trimmers (including Alex Essoe from Starry Eyes) are all new to the gig, and mostly don't know each other, and the people who run the joint (sorry for these puns!) are suspicious and creepy, so you're probably thinking it'll be some Texas Chain Saw type thing, but that's not what it is! I mean yeah most of them die, but the vibe is more straight up folk horror; I was reminded of things like Midsommar and Lepterica than any "five young folks get lost and run afoul of _____" type movie. But fear not, it's also gory at times - there's a scene that rivals the puking bit in Fulci's City of the Living Dead! - and even dips into body horror territory as the villains exert a puppet-like control over their victims, leaving their minds intact as their bodies betray them into killing each other. So while it may remind you of this or that other movie at times, it all gels to be its own unique, disturbing, but also weirdly kind of optimistic thing. A true gem, can't wait til the rest of you can see it.

Not a movie, but I took a break from the theater to compete at horror trivia. Our team did quite well! Of four rounds/twenty or so teams, we won one and lost a tiebreaker for another. I won a blu-ray of Orca. And I took a lyft there but walked back, getting to see parts of the city I hadn't seen in the two other times I've been (trivia is always at a different location for whatever reason), so that was nice.

Oh man. I don't even want to say anything about this one as it's coming to Hulu soon and I myself didn't know anything about it - it just happened to be the only film that I could make it to on time knowing I'd be coming from trivia (which was about a mile from the theater) and wanting dinner/possible change of clothes after the walk. I'll tell you the basic plot setup: a woman's birthmark starts to spread/hurt, so she gets it checked out. And that's it. That's all you should know before watching (if Hulu advertises it, don't look!). The surprise happens at like the 20 minute mark, so if you're like "Oh, no way, that's not for me" you've only lost 20 minutes of your life. For everyone else, just enjoy the rest! I had a blast, though the ending did drag a bit and they lean too hard into the main character's paranoia that her bestie is hooking up with her boyfriend. Otherwise it'd tie for fave with Trim Season and the other one which I'm getting to soon (and is also from Hulu, weirdly).

This was the "secret screening" which I was assured by one of the festival organizers would be something I would like. I usually don't bother with these secret things at festivals; I don't like walking out of things and if it turns out to be something that's just not for me (a rape revenge movie, for example) I'd feel stuck. Plus it was 10pm, which is never ideal for my damn near narcoleptic ass. But it turned out to be a pretty good entry in the "play with a cursed object and then try to get un-cursed" genre, focusing on an embalmed hand that, when held while saying "talk to me" would allow you to communicate with the dead. Our teen heroes of course use it as a dare for parties, but naturally things go wrong and our heroine's best friend's little brother ends up putting himself into a coma after the spirit causes him to smash his own head in (two in one day after Brooklyn 45!). So the girl, who is like part of the family to these people and now blamed for his accident, is now racing against time to free him from the spirit that is still haunting him, but thankfully it didn't involve finding out who the ghost was/how it died/what it wanted, like most of these things do. My issue with that kind of story is that it's never anyone we care about, so the movies kind of stop cold to solve a mystery that we in the audience are not invested in. Here the focus remains on the girl and her attempts to just free him/herself through other means, and whether they work or not is naturally not something I'll spoil here, but I will say it results in a knockout final scene. It could have been tighter, but the scares work, the characters are engaging (Miranda Otto as the kid's mom is a particular delight), and it kept me awake at 10pm after three other movies and a lengthy walk, so that's gotta count for something. Coming this summer from A24 (who just bought it - they didn't make it themselves, which is probably why I can say things like "it has a great ending").

Not really a movie, but a presentation from the good folks at Museum of Home Video, which streams online every Tuesday night. The theme was creepy/insane footage that was captured with people's Ring cameras, something I own myself but rarely manage to get even the deliveries it should be capturing, let alone someone doing anything uncouth. Anyway, as one can expect some of the footage isn't all that interesting (most of it was culled from Youtube channels devoted to such things, so I guess they occasionally have slim pickings), but there were some genuinely unsettling ones. One in particular started with a woman and her son coming home like normal, only for the door to shut and reveal a dude had been following them and was possibly only seconds away from entering as well if they hadn't shut (locked?) the door in time. It was an excellent little diversion, highlighted by an intro piece (unrelated to the Ring stuff) with random remix videos, such as a four minute cut of Poltergeist III that just focuses on the excessive number of times people in that movie say each other's names to one another.

As with last year, the Kingcast boys did a live recording after a viewing of a Stephen King movie. But this year's choice was Dead Zone, which I watched not too long ago, so opted to just hang out with pals and get a meal until the podcast portion began. It was fun and I got a shoutout when Phil (who was subbing in for Bryan Fuller, who himself was set to sub for Scott Wampler, who couldn't make it at all) ranted about how every time he was on the show he was making people angry, as this time they were expecting the creator of Hannibal and last time he was asking trivia questions that were hated by the guest (Kate Siegel), and those questions were penned by yours truly. Sorry Phil! Sorry Kate! The recording should be up this week if it's not already.

I was trying to get into Evil Dead Rise at this time, but it was jampacked and it seemed I didn't have much of a chance of getting in (as with other fests, your badge guarantees you get into *a* movie per slot, not necessarily the movie you want the most). But I know I'll see it in a theater soon, so beyond some mild FOMO afterward since I couldn't talk about it, I wasn't too upset about it - especially since I ended up seeing Clock instead, which was the aforementioned "tied for favorite" movie of the festival. It's about a woman with a "broken" biological clock, in that she just doesn't really want to have kids like (society assumes) most other women do by the time they are her age. But her husband wants children, her father wants to see the family line continue, and her friends keep egging her on, so when her gynecologist suggests a clinical trial to "fix" these broken clocks, she decides to give it a shot for the sake of everyone around her. Naturally, things don't go as expected for her, but whereas you might think you know where it's going simply because it's a horror movie, I assure you that you are likely incorrect. Again, I don't want to say too much for fear of spoilers (I'll say this much: it rivals the smash Smile for a scene where the troubled protagonist gives a gift that turns out to be horrifying), but it turns out to be a very dark but also very sad tale of the lengths women will go to just to feel "right" based on what other people think she should be doing with her life, and how devastating it can be. Just leave them be, people! Like Appendage, this is coming to Hulu and well worth your time/suffering through the commercials (that said, SO HAPPY I saw it in a theater!).

I saw the first Becky at the drive-in, which is to say I *attended* Becky at the drive-in, as the screen was too dim to make out much of what happened in the darker scenes of the film (such as the entire climax). So I had to laugh at the Q&A after, when the director revealed that this one was supposed to have a climax at night too, only for them to change their minds only days before shooting to continue the style of the rest of the movie and keep it in the bright sunlight. Not only was this cost effective, but it tied into the material: this time around, Becky isn't trying to hide or evade the bad guys, she's openly egging them on. It's a different set of villains (obviously, since she killed them all) and thankfully not even related to them beyond the fact that they're also Nazis (think "Proud Boys" types as opposed to the skinheads of the original). So you don't need to see the original and in some ways it might even be better if you don't, as it'll dilute some of the novelty of seeing this teenager kill the crap out of some racist douchebags; the only real tie is that she's still trying to figure out the purpose of the key the bad guys were looking for. Seann William Scott is a surprisingly solid menace (the director also said they wanted to continue the "cast a comedian as a terrifying Nazi" theme after Kevin James' turn in the first one), and the whole movie revolves around her trying to rescue her dog, so it's pretty crowd-pleasing. It also has a cameo from Kate Siegel that is an all time howler, as it just fully leans into the absurd premise of the whole (now) series. Bring on a third one!

Alas, my win streak came to an end with this merely "OK" movie. It starts off terrific: an Indian man in London takes the train to visit his parents in the countryside, pulling away only a few minutes after a terrorist sets off a bomb at the station he just departed. At first he just sees it as a shame/tragedy but is trying to focus on more positive matters, only for an old classmate to tweet about how the bomber - caught in a blurry surveillance photo - kind of resembles the man she went to school with. Within minutes, Twitter detectives find someone else's post proving that he was indeed in the building, and that's all it takes for the witch hunt to begin, with all of social media calling for his head (amidst a few - very few - "let's not jump to conclusions" pleas). Eventually he catches wind of this and panics, as his parents have left for the weekend (he's there to dog-sit) and he's unable to get in touch with his girlfriend. This is all the first forty minutes of the movie, and it's quite gripping/all too real, as we've seen this sort of thing happen with mass shooters more than once. Unfortunately, two "good ol boys" decide to take matters into their own hands and show up at the parents' house, which just leads into an extended/overlong home invasion sequence that barely has anything to do with the plot setup. The two attackers rarely speak about why they're there, and for some reason he barely even tries to reason with them in turn, even though he seems to know exactly why they're there. So it's just... you know, a generic home invasion thriller for the rest, albeit without much suspense as he's the only one home (and - spoiler - they kill the dog instantly, burning audience sympathy on top of it). It also never bothers to explain why the cops aren't showing up even after some news outlets name him as a suspect, so it's flimsy as well. The ending salvages some of it by hammering the point home about how these lives are forever altered/ruined by people who just forget about them the next day, but it's a shame that a full half of the movie is focused on such a bland chase scene.

Fans of WNUF Halloween Special should be pretty hooked into this, which takes a similar "actual broadcast" aesthetic, presenting the Halloween night 1977 airing of "Late Night with Jack Delroy", a Carson-esque late night talk show that is currently facing ratings declines as well as some personal struggles for its host, whose wife recently passed from cancer. The backstory is laid out by a narrator (Michael Ironside!) before the tape begins to play, but unfortunately they don't commit to it as well as WNUF folks did - in order to fill in the story, we are shown "behind the scenes footage" whenever Jack goes to commercial, a sort of found footage conceit that doesn't QUITE hold water (how many cameras are filming behind the scenes - in 1977 no less - to give us all these angles and private conversations?) but works well enough to keep the story going. Plus it's amusing to see how much what happens during those brief commercial breaks (such as the first guest's death after he left) affects Jack as he tries to keep things light and breezy for the audience, though as the supernatural possession plot ramps up he cracks fewer and fewer jokes. It could have been a little shorter, but it's an effective Tales from the Crypt type plot done well, and a fine showcase for David Dastmalchian, who also moonlights as a horror host so this is clearly a sort of dream gig for him. It won the audience award for the festival (my fave Clock was runnerup!), so clearly they have a winner here. Plus, it's from the guys who made 100 Bloody Acres, so I was happy to see something new from them.

And that was it, alas. That was the last movie on Sunday night, and while they showed some "encore" movies on Monday they were at night and my flight was in the afternoon, so I didn't get to partake. But since my flight was "late" in the day (last time it was at 6 am) I was able to enjoy one last outing in the city on Sunday night, drinking at a fantastic bar that had skeeball and the same "connected" jukebox service I use here, allowing me to quickly enrich everyone's lives with some Jim Steinman songs. Oh and spend another couple hours with friends who I probably won't see again until next year's fest, which I will definitely attend as long as they don't move it to June again. April or earlier? I'm there!

What say you?

*Not mine! I did the titles for Ted's first film, but not this one. I was a bit jealous of these! I rarely get to do anything that stylish!


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