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!


FTP: The Vault of Horror (1973)

OCTOBER 3, 2023


I could have sworn I actually saw The Vault of Horror before, but I apparently just got it mixed up with the half dozen other early ‘70s horror anthologies, which explains why I always get Vault questions wrong at horror trivia. To be fair even when I started watching it it seemed like I had already seen it, because the setup was so similar to Tales From The Crypt’s, with a bunch of dudes (well, Crypt had Joan Collins among them) finding themselves grouped together under mysterious circumstances and proceeding to tell their individual stories about how they might have gotten there. I mean it's technically a sequel as it's from the same producers and based on the same old comic series, so I can't fault it for taking a "if it ain't broke..." approach.

Luckily I found it to be just as enjoyable as Tales, so at least it’s worthy of the name. As I’ve said in the past, I tend to like few anthology films as a whole; the hit or miss ratio inherent to such things makes them hard for me to recommend when all is said and done, making me wish you could just extract a segment (say, "The Raft" from Creepshow II) and not deal with the rest. This also makes me less likely to revisit any of them, though since Vault is packaged together with Tales (via Scream Factory) I took another look at that one, and since it had been nearly 16 years since I last saw it (holy crap I’ve been here for a long time) it was basically like a first time watch, and I even enjoyed the story I didn’t like as much the first time around.

As for Vault, the protagonists are even bigger jerks than the ones in Tales, which at least had the good sense to introduce a few sympathetic characters (Peter Cushing’s, for example) to mix along with them. Here the closest we get to a decent person ends up murdering her jerk husband and cutting his corpse into pieces which she then stores in a bunch of labeled jars – hardly a role model. But I was in the right mood for all the crass behavior, so I had a good time cackling at how reprehensible these people were and then cheering for their demises; a movie with no heroes but plenty of crowd-pleasing moments. The first story exemplifies this attitude the best; it’s a pretty short/simple tale of a guy who wants to find his sister regarding the family inheritance, but not to split it – he kills her so he can have it all (he also kills the PI who tracked her down). Then he treats himself to a celebratory dinner, only to discover everyone in the restaurant is a vampire, all of whom proceed to place a valve in his neck and use him as a blood keg. And that’s it! I love it.

The next one is the one I mentioned, where the lady kills her husband – but he had it coming, as he was an insufferable ass who marries this younger woman only to make her miserable by being so obsessively neat and tidy, screaming at her for things like not buying more tomato sauce even though he has a (complicated) checkmark system in place to ensure that things are replaced when used. I was delighted by this one too, but it also made me feel a bit bad, because I’ve definitely scowled at my wife for not telling me we were out of this or that. Guess I won’t ever do that again, so thanks for setting me straight, fifty year old horror movie. (Still, I’m glad she didn’t watch it with me and point it out, as I’d feel worse!)

The next one was the seemingly obligatory weak link, about a jerk magician and his jerk wife going out of their way to show the audience how a rival magician was pulling off his tricks, then killing the man’s daughter in order to steal a “magic rope” trick that appeared to be the real deal. It felt drawn out compared to the others, and the ending was both abrupt and puzzling (a dead character resurfaces with no explanation – magic, I guess?). And the next one wasn’t exactly a slam dunk either, but was at least pretty short, involving a guy being buried alive as part of a scam only for his partner to leave him there to keep all the money. There’s another twist after that, resulting in what’s probably the most comical of the five stories, but it’s too slight to really register as a highlight.

The final one is pretty great though, focusing on an artist who has been told by the critics and dealers that he’s no good, only to discover that they were lying to him in order to sell his (apparently good!) paintings at high prices and not tell him about it. So he strikes a deal with a voodoo doctor that allows him to paint someone, then do something to the painting that will happen in reality to the person depicted in the painting (so if he paints a guy and then lights the painting on fire, the guy will be suddenly immolated). This leads to some amusing death scenes and a howler of an ending, when the guy leaves his own self-portrait out in the open (he can’t put it away or else he feels like he’s suffocating) and it’s destroyed by paint thinner, heh.

Alas, the disc has no real extras (same for Tales) except for an alternate version of the movie which, best I can tell, censors the gory ending of the vampire restaurant story, and also presents it at a different aspect ratio (it was shot open matte, so while the 1.78 image is the one preferred by the filmmakers, the open one actually has more information at the top and bottom). For reasons I can’t discern, one disc has Tales and Vault, with the other version of Vault on a second disc? Why not put both Vault versions together on one disc for easier comparison? Bizarre decision. But that’s it beyond trailers; no historian commentaries or anything like that, which is a shame as it was an interesting trend in the early ‘70s that basically died out, something a historian could have gone over in detail along with pointing out the original Gaines comics the stories came from and such. Oh well.

But hey, it’s the best time of the year for these sort of movies, as they’re fun but fiendish, and also if you’re like me and find yourself too busy to watch too many movies at home, it’s certainly easier to break up your viewing into chunks with an anthology than it is for a traditional feature. So it’s a bad "Pile" movie, because I’m going to keep it, but I’m glad I finally saw Vault (it’s been in said pile for several years, again because I thought I had seen it already and therefore it would be a rewatch) and gave Tales a second look. Plus, having recently seen an anthology where the segments were all over the place with regards to tone and quality, it was nice to watch one with a little more cohesion.

What say you?


A Haunting in Venice (2023)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2023


I vaguely knew that Kenneth Branagh was going to make a third in his series of Hercules Poirot movies, all adapted from Agatha Christie’s novels, but I didn’t realize he had already completed it until I saw a trailer one day for what seemed like a Conjuring type of movie about a séance gone wrong with Michelle Yeoh and Tina Fey, only for Branagh and his telltale mustache to show up near the end of the spot, the newest entry in this otherwise horror-free series. And even then I was thinking "Well it's just a weirdly cut trailer for a mystery" only for the title A Haunting in Venice to appear, making it quite clear this was a ghost story. I was so delighted at the reveal! Not too many series can get away with that; it’s not like you’re ever going to see a trailer showcasing a moody Channing Tatum being menaced by vengeful ghosts only for Jonah Hill to pop up and then show 23 Jump Street in big blocky text.

(I’d be fine with that, by the way.)

Anyway, this time around Poirot is retired, but his old pal Ariadne Oliver (Fey, clearly enjoying herself with her period clothing and Hawks-ian quick talk) has roped him into helping her prove that a local psychic (Yeoh) is a fraud after failing to do so on her own. Her pitch is that only the great Poirot can figure this out, and if not, then they have to admit Yeoh is the real deal and ghosts are real. Either way she would have herself a basis for a new book, as after a lengthy successful run of novels based on Poirot’s previous adventures, her last few have flopped (presumably because with Poirot retired she had to come up with her own ideas). It’s a sort of autobiographical touch on Christie’s part, as Christie herself got sick of Poirot but due to his popularity kept him around; it kind of reminded me of how George Romero found himself making so many Dead movies in succession at the end of his career (and life, as it turned out) because he couldn’t get money to do anything else. It must be so rewarding to be an artist!

So Poirot goes to the séance, and quickly figures out some of the tricks, but after (spoiler!) Yeoh is seemingly murdered, he locks everyone inside the house (not too hard with a raging storm outside making the Venice waterways constantly thrashing against the house anyway) and enlists Oliver to interview everyone and figure out who the culprit is. But he keeps being spooked; he hears a child singing a song but no one else can, and later he talks to who he thinks is a little girl who stayed behind at the Halloween party that was held at the house prior to the séance (indeed, the original novel was titled Hallowe’en Party* but then finds a photo of the girl and realizes she’s the long-dead daughter of the current owner (Kelly Reilly). Spooooooky!

Basically the movie goes back and forth throughout its runtime: Poirot and Oliver talk to one of the suspects, they make it pretty clear how they couldn’t possibly be the murderer while also opening up possibilities for one of the others to be the surefire culprit, and then Poirot hears/sees a spooky thing and starts wondering if his whole “no such thing as ghosts” worldview is correct. So it’s kind of talky, and… well I don’t want to spoil things for people who have never seen a movie before, but (spoiler, I guess?) it’s kind of a foregone conclusion that Branagh isn’t going to just up and introduce legit supernatural elements into his classy mystery series, so you know there’s eventually going to be a plausible explanation for everything, but that didn’t bug me. It was kind of an Old Dark House movie in that way, as those pretty much always explained away their seeming ghosts and goblins as parlor tricks, but didn’t make them any less fun.

And the real draw is seeing him figure out the mystery, and unlike some of Christie’s other novels (like And Then There Were None) it’s not impossible to do so. That said, I looked at a synopsis for her book (I haven’t read this one myself) and it seemed Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green barely used the original story, borrowing only a couple of character names (sometimes to odd effect; Yeoh’s character of Joyce Reynolds is a 13 year old girl in the novel) and the Halloween night setting. It also didn’t have the séance or any supernatural concepts, so no wonder they changed the title too while they were at it since it’s a pretty lousy adaptation if still considered one at all. But that’s fine; the central mystery of “Who killed Joyce?” paves the way to other mysteries involving blackmail, a secret alliance between two characters, and (again, minor spoiler) the real cause of the so-called ghosts Poirot is seeing, so you’re constantly treated to reveals as opposed to a simple “That person killed her, the end” kind of third act. Even when you think all the culprits have been identified, Poirot reveals he’s figured out another mystery that we didn’t even realize was happening! It’s delightful. Maybe not as cinematically satisfying as watching a dozen A-listers stabbing the hell out of Johnny Depp, but perfectly enjoyable all the same.

It is weird that he went so far off book though considering how faithful the previous two entries (Orient Express and Death on the Nile) were, at least with regards to the mystery (Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot himself was the biggest alteration), but maybe after two movies where he ended up casting people that got canceled in the interim (Depp in the first, Armie Hammer in the second) maybe he thought he was cursed and had to do something drastic to avoid it happening again. Luckily for him and all of us, Jamie Dornan hasn’t assaulted anyone or said anything racist, so phew! (I love Dornan for the record; if you haven’t seen Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar yet, please fix that.). It’s also a smaller seeming film than those; the whole “all-star cast” approach has been seriously reduced (I’ve mentioned the five big names; the other half dozen or so characters are played by folks you might only vaguely recognize at best – nothing against their acting talent of course, just their fame level) and the majority of the movie takes place in a house as opposed to a lavish train or boat. I wonder if he got a budget from the studio first and then decided which book to use? I mean to be fair, Nile lost money so he’s lucky he got another one at all, but it almost seems like the approach was designed to set itself apart from the others entirely.

So it can be a little overly talky and will likely let down huge fans of the first two films since the lavishness and glamor have been so scaled down, but ‘tis the season and all, so if you just want a proper Old Dark House kind of movie with modern production value, it’s a solid choice. It’s the sort of thing I can see myself putting on some October (or September; I start early) night in a year or two with a cup of cocoa and a blanket, dozing off halfway through with a tiny smile on my face. I realize that I end up watching a lot of the same movies every spooky season: the Vincent Price stuff, Night of the Living Dead, the Amicus anthologies… nothing too loud since I watch them late at night, nothing too gruesome as the intent is to lull me to sleep with its cozy familiarity. That limits how many newer films I can add to that collection; putting on a Saw sequel or even one of the more recent Halloween films doesn’t quite have the same charm, and besides I can see that sort of thing in theaters (indeed, tomorrow I’m seeing Saw X!). For when I just want to relax at the end of the day with seasonally appropriate repeat viewings, this is the sort of movie that fits that odd little niche, and it’s always nice to have another.

What say you?

* The new title allows them to do another creepy version of Poirot if this one’s successful enough. A Haunting in Venice 2: Ghosts of Genoa, perhaps?)


Saw X (2023)

SEPTEMBER 29, 2023


Let's get the most important thing out of the way first: the red dungeon logo is back! Lionsgate had phased it out in the early '10s, and since they basically stopped making horror movies it wasn't really an issue, but many fans (including me) were bummed that they didn't resurrect it for Jigsaw or Spiral. But this time they listened, and it really did go a long way into making Saw X feel like we were back in familiar territory after those aforementioned films went so far out of their way to welcome newcomers instead of catering to the hardcores.

It's ironic, then, that this movie also does that, but in a way that is still satisfying to the Saw faithful in ways those two were not. Once again they have designed a film for people who may have given up on the series along the way, but instead of making it a twist (Jigsaw) or just going off in a completely unrelated story that takes place in the same world (Spiral), this one just presents itself as an entry that takes place in between Saw I and II, something that's obvious right off the bat. If memory serves, Saw II took place six months after the first film, and at the beginning of II John "Jigsaw" Kramer is on an oxygen machine and needs help getting around, so anytime we see Kramer up and about, we know it's prior to that film. The only reason we know for sure this takes place after the first movie was given away in the movie's marketing, but treated as something of a reveal about forty minutes into this one, so if you haven't seen the trailers yet, you might want to steer clear if you want to preserve the surprise.

Still here? OK, so we know it's after Saw I because Amanda is shown to be helping John throughout this one, with her face healed up from her appearance in that one. This allows the film something we never really got before: extended scenes of John and Amanda talking, working as a unit, etc. In Saw II her being his accomplice was one of the twists, and of course in Saw III he was at death's door throughout, so it's only been a handful of flashbacks (in III and VI) that we've seen them together with all their facilities intact. And, again, they were flashbacks, so they were overshadowed by whatever was happening in the present day story. That's not the case here; even though it's a prequel story, it's ENTIRELY a prequel, without any present day scenes, no bookending or anything like that. For all intents and purposes, with the exception of "ruining" Saw II's twist re: Amanda (and a post credits scene I'll mention later), you could just watch this one directly after the original and then keep going after there - it's basically Saw 1.5.

It's also director Kevin Greutert's "revenge" of sorts for the untimely box office failure of Saw VI, which despite being universally agreed as one of the best entries, ended up being clobbered in theaters by both the reception of Saw V and the surprise powerhouse of Paranormal Activity. So it's nice to see this one getting healthy reviews AND box office, as once again the target is the healthcare industry. If you recall in VI (though this isn't necessary info to have beforehand, I should stress) John mentioned a doctor in Norway that had a radical treatment he wanted to try, only for his insurance to turn him down (hence why he went after the whole lot of them). This takes place, presumably, shortly thereafter, when John learns that the doctor's daughter Cecilia is also providing those rogue treatments, albeit in Mexico, and has an opening. John heads there, undergoes the surgery, feels optimistic, and then accidentally discovers that the whole thing was a sham, and he was just knocked out with anesthesia for a bit - they didn't even really cut into his head a bit to sell the ruse!

So naturally, he calls up Amanda and has her round up the doctor (Synnøve Macody Lund) and her accomplices, brings them to a fairly standard Saw-esque basement dungeon, and puts them through death traps. But he doesn't do this one at a time, or have them make their way through a building like the groups in II and V - they're all in one room the entire time, each locked into their own unique trap. So John and Amanda will talk for a bit, and then tell one of the four that their test is about to begin, at which point we get a traditional trap scene, and then the cycle repeats. There are some complications of course, primarily another victim of their scam who comes around wanting his money back but doesn't quite agree with Jigsaw's methods of refunding, but it's a refreshing twist to the formula, as most witnesses to trap scenes either have a good reason not to help (Jeff in Saw III) or have to inflict some kind of pain on themselves to do so (William in VI), but here they're helpless, chained to their own trap and rooting for each other to succeed as one getting free would presumably be able to help free the others or at least run for help.

And it really works well! The traps are impressive, with only the mildest deja vu reminding us of others (namely VI) as they're all medically-charged in some way - a self surgery, a radiation wave set to "melt", etc. The story also remains suspenseful even with the prequel element weighing it down some (i.e. we know John and Amanda will succeed/survive), as some new sympathetic characters are worked into the mix and could theoretically survive even though we've never seen them again (this series can retcon anything, so they're never painted into a corner in that way). And Lund is a wonderful antagonist, as her accomplices are a mix of losers that were posing as healthcare practicioners, but she actually has the background and know-how for what she claims to be doing, so when John is explaining the traps to them, you can almost see her smile at times, impressed with the science behind them and also not really caring if any of them die because it's one less person to split John's payment with. This series has always had trouble coming up with worthy adversaries for Kramer, so it's nice to see one who (if she survives) could be on his level but (for once) not a potential accomplice.

I guess at this point I should note it's a slower paced entry than the others; in fact it's the longest entry in the series but has the lowest body count (four, or five if you count the post-credits scene, which I'll get to soon, promise!). They even throw in a dream scene early on to provide the movie with some kind of Saw type moment in its first act, as it otherwise acts as a full on drama for the first half hour or so. Apart from the dream scene and a cutesy joke about what he does for a living ("You're sort of a life coach?" they ask, and he says "Something like that") there is nothing in that first chunk of the film to suggest this is anything but a drama about a cancer patient trying a new treatment, and Bell is clearly relishing having a chance to explore the character in ways we've only seen in brief flashbacks in the past. Telling a complete story, in sequence (the only flashbacks are the usual "here's footage from before now that you know something new" montages), is something the series has literally never done before, as they've all had two timelines or hefty uses of flashbacks (even Spiral), and it pays off in his performance. Shawnee Smith unfortunately doesn't get as much to do (and she's saddled with a hideous wig to help with her de-aging), mostly going through the same inner turmoil she had in III, but again, seeing her and John discuss matters as mentor/mentee (and a whiff of father and daughter) for more than a few seconds in a flashback is a welcome sight.

It could have been a little tighter, though. For example, Amanda makes her grand reveal (the trailer shot) when she helps John kidnap Lund's character, but then we get flashbacks showing how she was the muscle behind the kidnapping of the three accomplices, and we see her pull the mask off for each one of those too. I mean, not for nothing, but she gets them all when they're isolated and then walks around without her mask in front of them for the entire movie, so why she even needed the pig mask in the first place is beyond me, but we certainly didn't need to spend another 90 seconds of the movie watching her do it over and over. Even the trap scenes themselves run a bit long, which has a weird (presumably unintentional) side effect, in that they kind of seem unfair at times. One victim actually does as they're asked with regards to the self mutilation, with another minute (!) to go to put the gory stuff in the device that will unlock their shackles, but the tubing that runs them together is just slow I guess? So they die anyway? It's one thing if they're slow and are "too late" because the clock runs out just before they finish mangling themselves, but to go through all the work (i.e. choosing to live) and then die because the trap was being sluggish seems cheap.

And the post-credits scene (obvious spoilers here, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen it yet) is one of those things that opens up other questions, and also seems to suggest another cheap move on John's part, as he's shown trapping another accomplice (the person who told him about the treatment) along with... Hoffman! Who we haven't seen since Saw 3D and is, in the current timeline, presumably still sitting in that bathroom. Neither of them are masked, so I guess they plan to just shoot the guy if he survives his trap, but being reminded of his other accomplices makes me wonder why, when going up against medical jerks, John didn't enlist Gordon and/or Logan to help out, as they'd presumably be better to have on hand to help with all these medically-centric traps than Amanda the heroin addict. And Hoffman's appearance is spoiled early, when John makes a phone call asking for help, and it could have been to Amanda (or at least, we could have just assumed it was) but he starts the call with "Detective", giving it away early that Hoffman might be showing up (the trailer didn't help, using his one line of dialogue and giving it away to anyone who recognized his voice). Didn't they learn their lesson in Saw 3D when literally no one was surprised to see Elwes pulling off the mask when he already showed up earlier in the movie for a nothing scene?

So there are a couple of missteps, but for the most part it's a fine return to form, offering the best entry since VI and succeeding where the previous two movies didn't quite measure up with regards to toeing that line between making a movie for newcomers and one that can also satisfy, well, the folks who actually keep asking for these things. Fans of Bell as an actor get his biggest showcase to date (even in II and III, when he was still alive, I don't think he's had this much screentime/dialogue), the series gets a formidable opponent in Cecilia, and, via the post-credits scene (a first for the series, save for one on the director's cut of VI), a suggestion that the ongoing story dropped after 3D might actually come back into the fold someday. And we get to see a guy drill his own brains out. What else can you ask for?

What say you?

P.S. Minor spoiler here, but they had an opportunity to tie up a series-long loose end re: how John could afford all this stuff but also needed his insurance to cover his treatments when John finds the doctor's loot, and blew it by having him give it to someone else. Sad!


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