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The Watchers (2024)

JUNE 10, 2024


The 2010 film Devil (which I quite liked) was supposed to be the first of a series of films produced by M. Night Shyamalan but written and directed by others, which seemed like a good idea to me. Unfortunately those other films never materialized, and it’s only now, 14 years later, that we are finally getting another movie where the polarizing but never boring filmmaker is only hand as a producer. But he didn’t go far to find a filmmaker for his long-awaited sophomore effort as an exec, as The Watchers is directed and written by his own daughter, Ishana Night Shyamalan. It's an odd choice, I must say, to make a debut under the shadow of a very famous (and again, polarizing) filmmaker that’s also an adaptation of a novel (a faithful one at that, best I can tell – more on that soon). It’s hard to gauge one’s abilities as a storyteller when they’re not only telling someone else’s story, but also doing one that’s right within the wheelhouse of the guy whose name put a few more butts in seats.

Then again, since the movie isn’t particularly great, maybe it was a smart move. It’s hard to blame her for its lapses when she was faithfully adapting another person’s story. I never read AM Shine’s novel (which came out only a few years ago, so I can assume the pandemic inspired its "trapped in a room" scenario), but I looked at a detailed synopsis online and the film keeps all of its beats—including the goofy ending—intact as written. From what I can gather, the main difference seems to be that the novel focused on a power conflict between the two main characters, and in the film that’s more or less just a couple of arguments early on. The plot, for those who haven’t seen the trailer 900 times over the past few months, concerns Mina (Dakota Fanning), an odd young woman who works in a pet store and goes out at night pretending to be someone else (complete with a wig) to initiate one night stands. Her boss tasks her with delivering a rare bird to a buyer who lives way off the beaten path somewhere, and since this is a genre movie, her car breaks down before getting to her destination. Attempting to walk her way to civilization, she is menaced by unseen creatures, only for an older woman to appear and tell her that she must join her inside a little bunker, “right now!”

While it’d be funny if Mina said “No thanks” and the movie continued following her through the woods without mentioning the bunker again, alas she does as instructed, and learns about her predicament. The creatures, aka The Watchers, can’t come out during the day but at night they want to watch the people in the bunker, who are seen through a wall that’s essentially a two way mirror. The older woman, Madeline, is played by Olwen Fouéré, so naturally it’s on her to explain a lot of this exposition, though the other two people in the bunker, a young guy named Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and a 30ish woman named Ciara (Barbarian’s Georgina Campbell), chip in from time to time. Naturally Mina doesn’t want to stay there and keeps trying to find a way out of the forest, but her plans are continually foiled and she eventually learns to listen to the others when they say “You can’t get out!” There are “point of no return” markers around the forest, and the idea is that if you cross one, there’s no way you can get back to the bunker before nightfall (that these markers exist even though another plot point concerns the days getting shorter is a plot hole we just have to accept). But with the forest so vast and without anything to help guide them, they can’t risk continuing to run straight past the marker and just *hope* to reach safety, so the markers keep them in place.

So the first half or so of the movie is just… that. They run outside and look for supplies, then run back and kind of hang out for the Watchers’ amusement. It’s not a very compelling story (I suspect on the page it’d have the internal monologues of its characters to at least flesh them out), so you’re just kind of waiting to get answers, even when you know they’re probably not going to be very satisfying. There’s an opening scene with a guy running through the woods and eventually being attacked that should have been saved for when Mina arrived, because then she could have learned at the same time we did what the stakes actually were. Instead the audience is ahead of her, so it’s rather frustrating watching her essentially catch up to what we’ve known before we even met her. To make up for it, we are teased flashbacks to why she's ducking calls from her sister and how their mother died, but I can't say it's enough to make her into a well rounded protagonist.

Once they (spoiler) find a secret room under their bunker things pick up. We meet a new character, get an info dump, a change of scenery, etc. But of course, once we start getting all of the information, the movie reaches a critical point, where you’re either going to go along with the reveals, or laugh them off the screen. I don’t want to spoil the particulars, but I was reminded of three movies that I’ll hint at: one of Shyamalan’s less loved films of the ‘00s, another Irish horror that’s fairly recent, and the sophomore film from a modern genre titan. If you can figure out which three movies I am referring to, The Watchers is basically a stew of all those, with a dash of Quiet Place for good measure (that one’s not a spoiler, you can tell as much from the trailer). And not for nothing, but they're all more interesting.

I mean it’s not BAD, really, it’s just very uninvolving. Our characters learn the truth from an info dump presented via video logs on a computer, so there’s not much of a feeling of discovery. The characters themselves aren’t very interesting, and their conflicts get resolved bizarrely quickly (at one point Daniel locks Mina and Madeline outside, but once he finally lets them in, there’s no real repercussion or continued antagonism, everyone just forgets it within minutes). And the last 20 minutes take place away from the woods entirely, so the confined/claustrophobic setup is long gone by the time the credits roll. Mina’s backstory is doled out through a few flashbacks, one of which is a terrific jolt, but what it tells us seems to be foreshadowing an ending that the movie (or book) doesn’t have, and it also breaks up the claustrophobic setting, so I’m not quite sure why it was presented in this fashion.

Ultimately, to me it felt like a movie that was designed more for a streaming service, which is to say: for people to half watch while looking at their phones. It’s all just kind of there, never really coming to life or paying off its occasionally interesting-sounding bits (there’s a line about extra fingers that had me thinking that it might be a takedown of AI, but alas, no such luck). The actors are fine, the scenery is lovely, and I appreciated the goofy final moments just on sheer spectacle alone (again, without spoiling, but when ______ suddenly has ______ as they make their exit, I nearly applauded at the randomness), but I guarantee if I didn’t write this review today, less than 48 hours after seeing it, I’d have trouble remembering much else this time next week.

What say you?


Under Paris (2024)

JUNE 7, 2024


Much like The Exorcist with possession movies, it's impossible to watch a killer shark movie without thinking about Jaws, which also happens to be one of the few undeniably perfect movies ever made (due to its themes and measured pace, I can understand why someone may dislike The Exorcist, but there's literally no excuse for Jaws. You either love it or you're objectively wrong). And it's spawned an entire subgenre of its own; I may put them in with the killer bear, dog, etc. movies here (the "Predator" sub-genre) but if I were to put all of those movies together, I'd guess shark-based entries would make up at least of them. Under Paris is the latest one, but I bet we're only a few weeks away from another.

Sometimes these movies lean into Jaws' mighty shadow, either by ripping it off blindly or offering direct homages/references as if to say "We are doing our own thing, but we respect our master." Deep Blue Sea is probably the most overt example of the latter, as not only do they find the same license plate that Hooper pulled out of the poor innocent tiger shark, but the three sharks in the movie were killed the same way the sharks in the first three Jaws entries were. So it was kind of amusing that Under Paris owes more of a debt to Renny Harlin's blockbuster than to Spielberg's, as the film is loaded with R-rated carnage courtesy of several sharks.

There's also a lot of DNA from the two Meg films, in that the 3rd act revolves around our heroes trying to prevent a disaster at a big event. While the swiping of the "close the beaches" plot point is practically a given with these things (here it's the Olympic triathalon that the mayor refuses to cancel), we have to recall that Bruce the shark never got a big smorgasbord; the one attack on the all important 4th of July occurs at the movie's halfway point, prompting the three protagonists to head out to sea to kill the fish. Here, the opening scene tops the body count of any single entry in the Jaws franchise, and the third act, as in the Megs and some other movies, they watch helplessly as the shark causes major chaos at the event (going on as planned), spending just as much time pulling people out of the water as they do on shark control. This helps keep the Jaws comparisons at bay, which can only help a movie like this.

Also like The Meg, our hero is dealing with a tragedy on a previous underwater excursion. Bérénice Bejo plays Sophia, an oceanologist whose entire team (including her husband) is chomped by the shark in the opening scene. Years later, she discovers the same shark is now swimming through the waters of the River Seine in Paris, which is being cleaned up for the upcoming Olympics (which really are in Paris, making me wonder why Netflix dropped the movie now instead of next month when their marketing would be basically free). Naturally no one believes her, but after convincing a handful of cops to check it out, and they see it for themselves, they have her back for the rest. Unfortunately convincing the mayor to cancel the events is a non-starter, and there is also a group of "save the sharks!" activists who are trying to lure the shark back to the ocean, so the movie has no shortage of potential victims.

Luckily for us sickos, director Xavier Gens doesn't chicken out and keep the body count low. In two glorious sequences (not counting the occasional brief carnage along the way), the sharks make a buffet out of large groups (the activists and then the swimmers), offering up the sort of R rated chaos that the PG-13 Megs shy away from. Legs get eaten off, the water rapidly becomes more red, people are yanked back under the water only inches from safety... it's the sort of stuff that'd have an appreciative crowd hooting and hollering in a theater, but of course that's not an option when it's the latest movie being tossed onto a streaming service where it'll be forgotten in a few weeks. But back on point, Gens manages to bring some of his "French Extremity" energy (he gave us Frontiere(s), if you recall) to what often resembles an Asylum/Syfy type killer shark movie, which is novel. I even got the impression that no one was truly safe, which is nearly impossible in this sort of thing.

I just wish the CGI was more convincing. It wasn't just the plot that had me thinking of things like Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, as some of the VFX shots didn't really look much better than the ones in those Z-grade movies. There's a part where the shark jumps out of the water from under a boat, capsizing it and sending its four occupants plunging into the river, and it should have been a major highlight, but the shark animation was so silly looking it was hard to really get the intended rise out of me. And while we do see some folks torn apart, there is a tendency to just pull someone out and see that they're missing a leg (or both in one case) without showing the attack itself. That trick is effective once or twice, but at a certain point it becomes obvious they're cutting around things that would just look bad anyway.

Also (spoilers here) the ending is abrupt and not very satisfying. I like the general idea, but it's not even a phyrric victory for our heroes, they just don't ever accomplish anything. And (again with the offscreen stuff) the jerk mayor is seen plunging into the water, but not eaten by a shark like they deserve, adding to the generally unsatisfying nature of its closing moments. The "Planet of the Sharks" idea is fine and even intriguing, but there needs to be some kind of "win" to balance it out, either by killing the main shark or at least showing that it ate the human antagonist at the very least. Also it had one of my pet peeves, where people don't even make an effort to survive and just stand there despite it seeming like they had plenty of time to get to safety (in this case, they're in a boat as a surge of water approaches, and they make no effort to, you know, drive directly away from it). The hopeless nature of its conclusion felt like it was from a different movie entirely, souring things just a touch at a crucial moment.

But otherwise it's a good time. Bejo made for a solid heroine, the setting was novel for this kind of thing (a shark movie without a beach?), and it was taken seriously by its makers, which I can always appreciate. Again, it's a shame that it's being dumped to Netflix instead of playing in theaters, because I suspect the visual flaws would be more forgiving with everyone cheering for the moment, but oh well. One thing Netflix offers a theater can not is the ability to change the language, and you should be sure to do so and put it in its native French as opposed to the English dub that plays by default. It's not too bad as far as lip "syncing" goes, but it has that weird tinniness to it that makes it sound phony even when you can't see the actor's face in the show anyway. Plus if you can't understand the dialogue without the subs you won't be able to look at your phone the whole time, which I assume is how 90% of all Netflix content is watched. But even in English, it's a decent entry in this overcrowded sub-genre and should scratch any itch you may be having for such things.

What say you?


This Review Is Not About LONGLEGS

MAY 31, 2024


As a legit Nicolas Cage fan (meaning: I love his work and daringness as an actor, not his ability to generate memes) I was quite curious how I'd feel about Longlegs, because while it gave him a meaty role as a serial killer, it's also a film from Osgood Perkins. And so far, while I haven't DISLIKED Perkins' films (of the two I've seen, Gretel & Hansel and Blackcoat's Daughter) I also felt a disconnect from them; any one shot (particularly Gretel) looked terrific, the actors did fine work, etc., but I couldn't quite invest myself in their storylines. But this one seemed more up my alley just on premise alone, so I figured that plus Cage would, if nothing else, give me enough to chew on and discuss in a review (the other two left me so indifferent I didn't even bother).

But as the title explains, this review is not about Longlegs.

Because as it very sadly turned out, about five hours before the lights dimmed for the movie, I got a phone call from a friend who has, best to my memory, never called me before in his life; in fact he's someone who has bemoaned the idea of people actually calling someone at all when texts or emails would suffice. So I knew it couldn't be good, and it wasn't: he was telling me that our mutual friend, the great Scott Wampler, had suddenly died that morning. After screaming and crying and drinking a glass of whiskey (long before I drove, I assure you), I decided to still head out to the theater, thinking the movie would make for a much needed distraction. But it didn't work; I was unable to focus on much of it, as I just kept thinking of the fact that I was never again going to see or speak to my friend again. For what it's worth, the girl next to me seemed borderline hysterical at some of its scarier moments, so I suspect folks will really dig it when it comes out (this was a special advanced screening; it hits theaters July 12th). But me? My eyes just kind of looked in the general direction of the screen while I wondered things like "What's going to happen to Conan?"

(Conan, his dog, is thankfully in good hands.)

Making it worse is that, while he wasn't someone I talked to every week, I had actually been in contact with him more than usual recently. Scott and our other pal, Russ Fischer, had recently launched a Hellraiser-themed podcast, Jesus Wept!, and they had asked me to come on to talk Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (not that it's a particular favorite or anything, but as the series' most blatant attempt to make Pinhead more of a traditional slasher icon like Freddy or Jason, they thought my masked murderer-loving ass would be an ideal choice to talk about it). Our recording was set for Wed the 5th; I had emailed Scott earlier in the day to double check how we were recording, and two hours later even noted that it seemed odd he hadn't replied as he was usually quite quick to do so. I just figured he was at a movie or something. I cried a lot that day, but I suspect I'll cry even harder on Wednesday when 11 am rolls around and I have a giant hole in my schedule that can't ever be filled.

Scott's not the first friend to pass. Not even the first one in recent memory. But it's hit me so much harder than any have before, and there's a lot of reasons for that. One is that he was an incredibly loyal and supportive friend, a combination that is sadly difficult to come by, at least for me. As I noted, he asked me to be on his podcast, and if you've seen the announced guest list, you know he didn't need to grab random pals of his to get episodes in the can; the lineup included heavyweights like Mike Flanagan, Barbara Crampton, and Joe Lynch, not to mention actual Hellraiser series personnel like Scott Derrickson, Gary Tunnicliffe, and David Bruckner. Seeing my name on their guest list for social media alongside those others was somewhat surreal; my impostor syndrome kicked in high that day, I assure you.

And that's just one of many examples of him thinking of me when he didn't have to, and it certainly wasn't from being in the room when he needed to come up with guest ideas. With me in California and him in Texas, I've actually only spent time with him in person I think maybe four times over the past ten years. But as we were both on the staff for BirthMoviesDeath, there was a period of six years or whatever that we spoke just about every day, via the company Slack we were ostensibly supposed to use for work purposes but mostly treated as an AOL chatroom. Scott joined the site as an occasional writer when he was still working as a bartender at one of the Alamo Drafthouse locations, and over the next few years rose through the ranks to be one of its most prominent voices, to the extent that it's weird to think of a period of time when he *wasn't* there.

He became such a major fixture on the site that by the time Drafthouse laid us all off thanks to Covid, he and Evan Saathoff were basically running it. And when another company expressed interest in buying BMD to keep it going, Scott (and Evan) insisted that I be kept in the fold. That new company turned out to be really bad and we all walked away a month later (far as I know, no one ever offered to save it AGAIN), but it meant the world to me that of all the things they could have demanded, telling this guy "You have to keep paying Collins to write about whatever the hell horror movie he wants every week" was one of them. Again, the LOYALTY! For someone he spent maybe three actual hours with in person in his life! That whole "Out of sight, out of mind" thing can be a painfully real thing, especially here in LA, but it clearly wasn't the case for him, and I loved him all the more for it.

He was also a champion ballbuster, a quality I deeply admire in folks. Like a good roaster, he never took it too far or came off as a jerk, he always found the right balance of "I'm making this joke at your expense but in a way that shows I care enough about you and pay enough attention to know those things about you in the first place." It was an HONOR to get one of his trademark "DESTROYED IN SECONDS!" on Twitter, and if you never got one you have missed out on something special. He was, without doubt, one of the funniest people I've ever met, and our dark senses of humor often aligned. When I thought of a joke that was maybe a bit too mean or bleak for the masses, I would send it to him personally, and not only would he appreciate it he'd usually top it in response. I mean, the guy's handle was ScottWamplerRIP, so the sunofabitch even topped our comparatively meager attempts at gallows humor about the whole thing.

And while I don't want to make it about me, his death unfortunately comes at a time when I'm already in a deep funk about the loss of another friend. Not to death, thankfully, but instead a dumb argument that spiraled into a bigger one. Wasn't the first with this friend (who IS someone I see often/talk to every day, at least until the fight), but it seems it'll be the last, as they've cut all ties with me and responded to my last attempt at reconciliation with outright hostility on their social media. Scott's passing has generated any number of "Tell your friends you love them, you never know when they'll be gone forever" sentiments, but I am still iced out from this person (who also knew him, to be clear; in fact the last time I saw him in person they were there too). I was already pretty convinced that I'd never hear from them again (at this point it would be akin to beating a dead Horse), but this just kind of double bagged that belief. If a death of a mutual friend can't convince them that maybe it's not worth ending a nearly lifelong friendship over some hurt feelings and misunderstandings, I can't imagine anything else will.

So, yeah. I'm very sad about that on my day to day, and Scott was one of the people who could make anything more fun and help keep my mind off those kind of unpleasantries in life. I mean, the guy even had me excited to talk about Hellraiser III for Christ's sake! Seeing his tweets, or the way he could make even the least interesting news break into a must-read article, or just repeating one of our silly in-jokes out of the blue generated the sort of energy that could get me through any rough day, and now that energy source is gone, forever. I lucked out in a weird way from having taken a year or so off Twitter (I'm only really back on because of that other friend; I used to just talk to them all day but now I can't, so I talk to Twitter), because people have been sharing some of his classic bits and a lot of them I hadn't seen before because they fell during that period. I am crushed that some of his earlier "work" is gone due to a change in Twitter handles and his own deletion of older stuff (if you never heard the story of the Krippendorf's Tribe Fan Club, you truly missed out), but there is still a wealth of it on there for your perusal. The Vampire Lord saga alone is funnier than most comedies that millions of dollars were spent on to make, and he was just tossing it off on Twitter without a second thought.

And the writing is mostly all there, though you might need Wayback Machine to read it properly. The name of this post is in tribute to one of his all time best goofs: "This Post Is Not About Batman", and there are countless others. One of his last ever posts on Fangoria.com, where he's been employed since the ending of BMD (his Kingcast podcast with Eric Vespe is part of the Fangoria network) began with "Here’s a news story that’s got the ring of a particularly wild Mad Libs," already making what was otherwise a pretty bland announcement into something worth reading. I was always envious of those who could write up all those daily news breaks that had to be written (for the clicks) and find a way to make them actually interesting to those who did indeed click, and he was second to none as far as I could tell.

I don't know if I'll ever get past this one. We had a running joke about the Ozzy Osbourne song "Perry Mason" that plays quite frequently on SiriusXM, and it's probably going to make me cry every time I see it and instinctively grab my phone to snap a pic for him. We bonded over our mutual love of Fletch, a movie he watched on his birthday every year and now I think I will instead (weirdly enough, he actually died on Fletch's "birthday", that is, the date it was released in 1985), and that'll probably make me tear up too. Despite our geographically mandated distance he left such a big impact on so many things I love; he's the one who convinced me to try "Soulsborne" games, a genre I practically play exclusively now. When Elden Ring came out he mocked me for being so slow with games and he was seemingly a bit stunned when I actually got further into it than he did; a rare thing I can say I bested him at, so it was a source of pride! Believe me, it wasn't easy to best him at anything. When he was asked to be on the Screen Drafts "Alien/Predator" ranking he brought me along because of all the time we spent on the BMD slack talking about the Alien movies - how the hell am I gonna be able to watch Romulus without talking to him after?

Scott also (like most friends; sorry pal, you weren't special on this one) liked to make fun of my taste in music, so I might as well dive into something on that. There's this nu-metal band called Three Days Grace whose most recent record has a song called "Lifetime", and for two years I thought it was a breakup song but, weirdly, I only learned a few days ago it's actually about a dead person. There's a line in there that's gutted me since I heard it: "Who do I talk to when I want to talk to *you*?" and I'm sure he's rolling his eyes and mocking me to the nearest person in the afterlife at me tearing up at it, but it hurts even more now. I want to talk to Scott again. I want to spend two hours day drinking and talking about the shitty Cenobites in Hellraiser III. I want to get another email from him someday that he wants me to come back on Kingcast to do trivia and make another enemy out of some famous person I admire (Kate Siegel apparently wanted to murder me for the questions I came up with when she was the guest). I want him to mock me for constantly talking about Halloween sequels again. I want to go on Twitter and see that Creature from the Black Lagoon icon next to another joke that makes me jealous I didn't think of it first. I want to get another drink with the guy who, when I met for the first time in person, was borderline mad that I had been in Austin for a day and hadn't drank with him yet.

You go through life wanting more friends like him and now he's gone. You go through life being thankful you have someone like him to make you laugh when other things are dire, but what do you do when he's the one who's gone? It's so unfair. I hate it.

That said, hopefully I'll let you know how Longlegs is next month.

What say you?


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