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APRIL 13, 2018

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

As I've mentioned before (and yet some of you insist I am lying!), I am not a teenaged girl, so my opinion on films like Truth or Dare* should be of little concern to its target audience or its makers. That said, I found it fairly enjoyable and - relative to its sub-genre, not to horror as a whole - rather impressive in some ways, putting it above the films it will probably play alongside at slumber parties for the next few years. In an ideal world, we'd have a new Friday the 13th movie hitting theaters today (the logic of which I never got - why not release them a week BEFORE their namesake day and get a second weekend boost?), but this is a perfectly decent consolation prize for adults, and thus teens will probably like it even more.

The plot is hokey, but so is "a guy kills you in your dreams" and "a videotape will kill you if you watch it", so I'm baffled by the people rolling their eyes at the damn premise. As the trailers promise, our protagonists are playing Truth or Dare, and if they lie or refuse the dare, then they're killed. It's kind of Final Destination-lite, in fact - once our heroes realize the stakes are real and that there's an "order", they find ways to stay alive while the curse moves on to the next person, then cycles back when necessary. We learn some other rules along the way, including one that states that they can't just keep picking "truth" (once they realize the dares they're given are often quite dangerous); if two people in a row pick truth, the next has to do a dare. This does more than just mix up the film's pattern - it actually ties into the heroine's arc.

See, our traditional hero Olivia, played by Lucy Hale, is the totally selfless type who plans to use her spring break going to Habitat for Humanity, and when asked if she'd spare her friends if it meant wiping out an entire country of strangers, she tells her friends they're goners. So even when she can pick "truth" and merely tell a friend something they probably don't want to hear, she chooses dare in order to make things safer for her next two friends in line. Once the demon (of course it's a demon behind everything) figures that out, it uses it against her - daring her to tell the truth, heh. I mean it's not the point and it's going to go over the heads of its target audience, but the underlying theme of the movie is to stick by the people who care about you instead of trying to please strangers (her passion for her Youtube channel is another underplayed element of this), and she ultimately learns her lesson, albeit only after a number of her friends are killed.

As for the others, they're the usual gaggle of stock characters in these things: Markie the blonde best friend, Ronnie the horny asshole no one likes, Veronica the lush, Brad the minority (OK to be fair there are two this time, but they double down by making the Asian guy gay as well), etc. But they're fairly likable versions of these people; even the asshole guy is kind of charming in his own way, and (spoiler? it's in the trailer) he's the first to go, so it's not like we have to put up with him for that long anyway. At first I was ready to write the whole lot of them off when signs of yet another goddamn love triangle reared their cliched heads, with Olivia clearly gazing at Markie's boyfriend, but instead of just a generic way to introduce strife, it's actually kind of a thru-line for the entire movie, and part of the game as well. For starters, nothing's happened between Olivia and the guy - she just has feelings for him that she can't act upon, because she cares about her best friend more (this makes her, I believe, the first modern horror movie character who seemingly cares more about their best friend than getting laid). Second, Markie is constantly cheating on the guy with randoms, trusting Olivia to cover for her - making Olivia's feelings even harder to deal with, as she could easily get what she wanted and not even feel that guilty since Markie's the one in the wrong anyway.

Anyway, this stuff keeps coming back into the game, so again it's just not a lazy excuse for people to be mad at each other and thus go off on their own to get killed. The demon uses it against both of them and the boyfriend at every opportunity, to the point where I was genuinely unsure who, if any of them, would survive, and if they would end up together or not. Plus in between their scare moments we get the more straight forward deaths of their pals, with the demon using their own issues (such as Brad's fear of telling his father that he's gay, or Veronica's drinking habit) to conjure up some psychologically driven dares. Eventually it bogs down to the usual "Oh look online here's an article about this old church and blah blah we have to blah blah ritual" stuff we've seen in a zillion others, but the fact that the characters aren't all jerks and that their death scenes are intrinsically linked to their personal demons (as opposed to the random nonsense of things like Wish Upon) make it more compelling than I originally assumed, keeping my interest. I mean, due to the way the theater was designed and the fact that no one was in my row I could have looked at Twitter or something during the movie without anyone seeing/being bothered, and I DIDN'T. The word "hero" gets thrown around a lot, but...

To be fair, you do have to overlook a couple of dumb things, like the fact that the old lady they go to for exposition has a granddaughter, even though the backstory is that she was a nun at age 19 who cut her tongue out and went crazy, so I dunno when she found time/interest to get knocked up after that. The actors playing the two parents we see are both remarkably terrible; thankfully their screentime is kept to a minimum but considering their importance to their children's storylines it's a bit of an issue that they both seem to be meeting them for the first time in their scenes. And I get the concept of using a Snapchat-y looking filter effect on the faces of the people who are possessed by the game, but it's not creepy at all and overused anyway. I suppose if they used it sparingly it might just produce laughter when sprung on the audience, so at least we get numb to it by the halfway point if not sooner, but it's an odd gamble to take. I mean everyone looks like they are victims of Joker's gas in the Burton Batman, but even they were creepier since it was an appliance instead of a CGI effect (not to mention an unexplained one - why are they all smiling? They just love Truth or Dare that much?)

But they're not fatal flaws - the biggest obstacle it has is that there have been a lot of these "supernatural curse targets a group of friends" type movies in the past couple years (Friend Request, Wish Upon, Bye Bye Man, Rings, Ouija, and Unfriended all came to mind more than once, plus Polaroid, which would have been released if not for Dimension's legal woes), and I'm not sure if "the characters are better written than usual" or "the death scenes aren't throwaway things that look cool" is enough to convince folks to show up. Quiet Place is also only a week old (and, to be fair, better) so it can't coast on starved audiences the way Ouija was able to when it had Halloween time all to itself for reasons I can't recall, and "Jeff Wadlow's best film!" isn't exactly a huge hurdle to clear, either. Basically, it's not great, but it's better than I figured it would be when I sat down (and saw the goddamned Sicario 2 trailer for the dozenth time - yet I still haven't seen one for Bad Samaritan which supposedly opens in three weeks), and I wish it was opening at a time when it had no competition so it would shine a little brighter - or that it was merely just a touch better so I could give it a stronger endorsement without sounding crazy. But the ending is admirably gonzo, if that helps?

What say you?

*It's actually called "Blumhouse's Truth or Dare" on-screen, which is ridiculous. Don't start doing this, guys. Hopefully it's just a one-time thing because of the other movies with that title, but if not... just don't.

Blumhouse's Truth or Dare - Official Trailer [HD] - YouTube
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APRIL 3, 2018

GENRE: MONSTER, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (ADVANCED SCREENING)

The scariest horror movies are usually the simplest - people (including me) may love the Saw sequels, but they're never scary in the slightest, because they're too bogged down in their labyrinthine plots to lull you into being frightened. I'm not sure why so many horror movie writers seem to be ignorant of this, but thankfully, John Krasinski of all people isn't one of them, as his newest film A Quiet Place (his first foray into the genre) is so stripped down to its bare essentials that it practically makes the likes of Halloween and The Strangers seem complicated in comparison. The earth's population has been decimated by monsters that will kill you if you make a sound, and Krasinski is the father of a family trying to survive under those circumstances - that's it. There's no human villain, no team of scientists babbling on, it's just a few days in the lives of these people living out their very quiet life, and how they react when things go astray.

And Krasinski (along with original writers Bryan Woods amd Scott Beck) conveys this without much of an ability to say so, since there are only about a dozen spoken lines in the film. A few newspaper headlines clue us into the monsters' origins (a crashed meteor, not that it matters but I'm sure some joyless twerp would complain otherwise), but the "rules" are laid out in an opening sequence - along with the consequences for breaking them. I liken it to an old arcade game like Pac-Man or Space Invaders - you didn't need tutorials or manuals for those games, as they were simple and quick to grasp just from looking at their basic layout. It's the same thing here; even if you went in blind, it'd only take a few minutes to understand the plot, which is that our heroes need to be very quiet or else they'll die. Communication is carried out through sign language, every action is done gingerly (I never thought I could tense up watching someone try to put a battery down on a counter, but I have now), and you damn well better watch your step to avoid creaky floorboards and the like.

As for the creatures, their design is a mixed bag. They move so fast it's often hard to get a good look at them, but they're kind of like Xenomorph shaped, with heads that unfold like flower petals to reveal their well tuned eardrums (in fact, since they're blind and seemingly can't smell their prey, their heads are basically just giant ears), i.e. kind of generic all purpose modern movie monsters, nothing iconic that you'd instantly recognize ten years later. I couldn't tell if they ever had any practical ones, but I don't think they do, which is a bummer but at least it's high quality CGI and they're used sparingly, plus there's no real "interaction" to speak of - if they're close enough to touch you you're already dead anyway. But it's not free of analog's pleasures - Krasinski and DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen shot on film, and it looks spectacular, in addition to giving it that old-school look the plot itself invoked. If not for an iPod the film could have been set in the 1970s (and to even it out, the song they listen to on it is an oldie: Neil Young's "Harvest Moon"), and I swear it was to give the film that bit of humanity (Krasinski and wife Emily Blunt dance to it, sharing the earbuds) that he didn't just go ahead and make it a period piece.

But look there could be hovercrafts and VR displays on every corner and it wouldn't take away from the main appeal: the movie is scary as all hell. And if you've been reading my nonsense for these past eleven years (Christ...), you should know that's not something I say often. Think of all those great "don't make a sound" kind of scenes in movies (not horror, but the "suspended over the computer" scene from Mission: Impossible would be a good example) as well as every super nerve-wracking monster scene (like when the aliens finally come through the roof in Signs, or the basement scene in War of the Worlds), and string them together/stretch them out for a feature, and that's what you get here. It's also the rare use of LOUD SOUNDS to make a scare that actually makes contextual sense - when someone accidentally knocks something over or steps on a crunchy thing, the sound team cranks up the sound, and for good reason, because every noise might as well be the loudest thing possible, being that the monsters can detect it instantly and move at lightning fast speed to catch you.

Even better, it might be the first horror movie that's cell-phone or talk proof, too. It's not like the film is mute; there's a score and things like wind rustling or water dripping - i.e. rhythmic, natural sounds - don't set them off, but it only takes a few minutes for the film to start affecting your own behavior. I took a sip of my drink and it slurped a bit, so I instantly froze up, and I noticed the lady next to me being oh so cautious as she removed her sweater to put it on the seat next to her. I'm sure there will be assholes ruining it somewhere in the world, but as this was a free radio station screening and I didn't see a single cell light the entire time (and only minimal whispering, though it was a big auditorium so perhaps I just got lucky), there's hope that your crowd will be just as into it and playing along with the whole "shut up or die" approach. The movie only offers spoken dialogue twice; Krasinski and his son talk for a bit behind the masking sound of a waterfall, and the former shares a conversation with his wife in their tiny somewhat soundproof room that they've set up. The rest of the time, any noise you make is liable to get a dirty look from one of your fellow moviegoers, so it's best to follow the rules.

I recently joined Letterboxd, more for my own memory to keep track of what I saw over the year, and thus had to start rating films. I gave this four (out of five), and it woulda been four and a half (fives are reserved for my all time faves) if not for two things. One is, ironically, the score - it's got a lot of that BWAARMMMMMMMM stuff I dislike and it's just kind of generic, so it was intrusive given the whole "quiet" nature of the thing. There's one pretty good cue near the end during a key moment involving the family truck, but otherwise I woulda been happier if Krasinski opted to have no score at all. The other one requires a spoiler about the opening scene, so if you want total blindness skip the rest of this paragraph. For those still here, the opener is a gut-wrenching moment, when a careless action from their youngest son ends his life, and it largely works - but only because the parents inexplicably walk ahead of their two children, one of whom is deaf. I get why Krasinski would want to lead the way, but why Blunt is right behind him instead of her children, who cannot call for help (and in the deaf one's case, hear any danger behind her) is a complete goddamn mystery. I get that they had to hammer home the consequences early on so that we knew just how careful they had to be, but I wish they had figured out a more logical way of presenting it. Still, at least the movie's biggest narrative blunder is at the top instead of the end; I had mostly forgotten about it by the time it was over.

Otherwise, I was totally on board with the film. Sure, if you start thinking about what we don't see you might have questions, like how they were able to establish their routine without making noise to implement it, i.e. stringing up warning lights and setting up radio equipment, and if you've seen the trailer you know that Blunt's character is pregnant, so that raises some possible logic flaws (I satisfied myself by assuming it was an accidental pregnancy and they had neither the knowledge or resolve to terminate it). But 99% of all movies have those kind of issues, and you're kind of missing the point if you try to go beyond what they're showing. It's a scary movie first and foremost, designed to keep you grabbing your armrest or partner's hand for 90 minutes while reminding people like me that you're never above being frightened by what's on screen. I wouldn't be surprised if it grossed over $100m, and I hope it's the start of a new, more Blumhouse-y direction for Platinum Dunes (yep, this deliberately paced, quiet movie was produced by none other than Michael Bay). Plus it's nice to see Paramount getting a win after all their troubles - it's a shame they already blew their chance at doing another Friday the 13th, but that just gives them more incentive to create new ideas like this.

What say you?

A Quiet Place (2018) - Official Trailer - Paramount Pictures - YouTube
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APRIL 1, 2018

GENRE: RELIGIOUS, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

When I was younger and attending Catholic school (for grades 1-8), during Lent we would go to Mass on I think Friday every week and get an abbreviated mass just for the students. Due to the younger crowd, the priest would cater the sermon to us a bit, and one time he delighted me by starting off with "Who has seen Friday the 13th 1, 2, 3, 4...", followed by other franchises (I remember being miffed he went up to 4 for Child's Play, which at the time, 1992 or 1993, didn't exist yet). His point was to explain how the acts of gory violence in those movies were nothing compared to what Jesus went through during his Crucifixion, so I always wondered what he thought of The Passion of the Christ, which is indeed gorier than all those films combined, and all directed at one poor guy (that'd be Jesus).

And I can assume he saw it, because pretty much everyone did in 2004 when it was released. I still remember the entire lobby being jam-packed when the film got out as another crowd waited for the next show, far more people than I had ever seen in the theater (the AMC Boston Common, for the record) even for the likes of Star Wars. The film's North American gross remains the highest for an R rated movie (non-inflated), and it was the worldwide champ until another movie about a guy who rises from the dead took its place (that would be Deadpool). It was a true phenomenon, something no one could have predicted and presumably got a few studio execs fired since every one of them turned Mel Gibson down even though it was a low budget ($30m) production, forcing him to bankroll the movie himself and release it independently. And this was before he was persona non grata, mind you.

Despite that huge success, he went back a year later and recut the film in order to soften the violence and hopefully get a PG-13, for the people who couldn't deal with it in its R-Rated form. This version, however, was a huge bust - just as the original form has box office records, the recut version is still floating high on the charts of worst opening weekends ever. No one wanted to see that version, and for good reason - watching every smack, every lash of the whip, every hammer blow to the nails in his hands and feet, was crucial to the movie's power. And it reinforces what my priest was trying to get across all those years ago - you truly feel the agony this guy went through every step of the way, and every time you feel it can't get much worse or that he couldn't possibly go on any longer, it does, and he does, and you realize you can't really complain about stubbing your toe or whatever ever again.

In a weird way it's also the only real reason to see the movie. The performances are great and it looks very nice (the cinematography got an Oscar nomination, in fact, despite being passed over for any of the more major awards), but as a narrative it's a bit of a misfire, as it requires you to know the story already in order to follow it. The first thing Jesus says in the movie, I think, is scolding Peter for not being able to stay awake for an hour, without informing us what he was referring to, who Peter is, etc. Judas' betrayal comes up shortly thereafter, and again it has almost no on-screen explanation for what is happening - you're just expected to know that Judas was a. one of Jesus' disciples (something we haven't seen or been told) and b. that these assholes weren't sure what he looked like or where he was (let alone why they were looking for him in the first place). And even though I DO know the story I still have no idea what's up with that freaky little baby that looks like the Man from Another Place cosplaying as Stewie Griffin, only that it certainly adds to my justification for making it an HMAD entry today.

Granted, it's a famous story, but a little more context would have gone a long way, especially for those who had trouble with the violence. What little we do get comes in the form of flashbacks, but even those tend to require a passing knowledge of the Bible to understand their significance. Almost no one in the movie is introduced properly (I'm not even sure if Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene has more than a line or two); I just checked against a transcription of the film's subtitles and names like Judas, Mary, and John are only spoken once in the entire two hour runtime, and even less time is spent explaining why they are important. The best flashback has nothing to do with a Bible story (at least, not a major one); it's a scene where Mary comes up to Jesus and tries to comfort him, and we are shown a quick scene of a young Jesus, maybe five years old, having taken a tumble or something and Mary cradling him to soothe him - it's heartbreaking to see the contrast. Whatever you choose to believe about the immaculate conception, his ability to turn water into wine, etc - there's no denying that this man went through several hours of grueling torture, and that his mother had to sit on the sidelines and watch, unable to help her child. As anyone with kids can tell you, your child is never too old to avoid being thought of as your baby that you must protect, so Mary's mental anguish is equal to the physical torture Jesus was enduring.

Luckily, I did know the story quite well thanks to the aforementioned Catholic school upbringing. In fact during Lent the mass would include "The Stations of the Cross", which was a reenactment of this story played out around the church, where the fourteen stations were marked with pictures of each event - the sentencing, the carrying of the cross, the nailing, etc. Of course, this is a little "play" put on by Church volunteers, so when you're a kid it's hard to really comprehend the brutality of what really happened when you see a guy being kinda brushed with a small length of rope, carrying a cross that weighed approximately 10 pounds. "This doesn't look so bad," seven or eight year old me would think, assuming that the Church was presenting it exactly as it happened (though I knew they weren't really killing the guy at the end, because I saw him do it a dozen times).

I'm not sure if it ever really clicked until I saw Mel Gibson's take, in fact; somehow I thought whipping just meant he'd get a lot of red abrasions and bruises on his (clothed) back, and that he was more or less undamaged until the nails went in as he was hung on the cross. But if anything it's a wonder he even had any blood left in his body by the time they got to that point, as they whip his BARE back with "cat o nine tails" over and over, and when you think the commanding asshole is about to put a stop to it, he instead asks his men to turn Jesus over so that they can continue ravaging his front as well. Just as my priest suggested, it was indeed more brutal than anything I've ever seen Jason or Michael do - the most horrifying moment being when one of the "tails" wraps around to his face and swipes his eyelid. The power of the weapon is demonstrated on a wooden table, showing chunks of splintered wood being torn away before they turn their attention to this man's skin, and even in the cut form it's agonizing to watch.

On that note, Jim Caviezel was truly robbed of a nomination. Not only was he speaking a foreign (and dead!) language, he also went through plenty of physical trauma (including a dislocated soldier) and sold every second of his agony, something that's even more powerful in the cut version* as it holds on his face rather than cut to the lashings. In the few flashbacks you get the impression he would make a terrific Jesus in a movie about his usual day to day, and even though I was familiar with him already thanks to Frequency and Thin Red Line and such, he completely disappears in the role. Ironically, one of the actors who stole his rightful nomination was Leonardo DiCaprio (for The Aviator), who would ultimately win the award a decade or so later for The Revenant, primarily because he put himself through a lot of physical agony for it. Even the actual Jesus probably would have been like "This is some bullshit".

Long story short, it's a powerful film if you're well versed in the history, otherwise it's just the longest torture scene in film history that only relents to give some flashbacks that may not make total sense to you. Granted, I'm not sure who would be seeing the movie unless they had at least some idea about it (rabid Mel Gibson fans? People who saw "Rated R for sequences of graphic violence" on the trailer or poster and thought it was part of the mid-00s torture horror wave?), but I think Gibson could have at least offered up a few Cliff's notes to bring those who had let their Sunday school lessons retreat to the back of their memories along with algebra and frog dissection. And it's certainly not the kind of film you'd want to watch over and over (I bought the DVD nearly a decade ago and just opened it for this viewing; I hadn't seen the film since opening night, fourteen years ago), but I highly recommend watching or rewatching it now, with so-called Christians delivering messages of intolerance and hate (indeed, our so-called Christian president tweeted "HAPPY EASTER!", then went into a three part rant about how much he hates minorities). Even if you literally know nothing about Jesus, the film shows a guy going through unimaginable torture and yet still showing mercy and forgiveness to those who wronged him, and how it's not helpful to only love those who love you. Maybe some of these people, most of whom have never experienced more than a paper cut, can learn a thing or two about the guy they supposedly follow.

What say you?

*For the record I watched the theatrical one, then went back and watched a couple of key scenes in their "PG-13" form.

The Passion of the Christ - HD (Trailer) - YouTube
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MARCH 29, 2017

GENRE: POSSESSION, WEIRD
SOURCE: STREAMING (AMAZON PRIME)

A couple months ago, a friend of mine who had just installed a home theater with 4K and 7.1 and all that jazz had a few of us over to marvel at it, but this friend isn't exactly a blockbuster kinda guy, i.e. the movies you'd want to demo a high-end home theater with. I brought a couple of my 4K discs, but what we ended up watching was Blood Beat, a full frame, probably mono film that had been recently released on standard Blu-ray. I mean it probably never looked or sounded better in its nearly 35 year old life, but I can't say I was blown away by the home theater's capabilities (though he did relent and let the rest of us watch a few minutes of Fast and Furious 8, and then I could confirm that I really need to have a proper home theater someday), making it a peculiar choice to show the system off. So I just focused on the movie itself (a novel idea, eh?), but alas I was tired before it even started so I passed out halfway through and when I woke up I had no idea what was going on, vowing to watch the rest later that week.

Well two or three months later, "later that week" is finally here! Obviously I just rewatched the movie from the beginning, because my vague recollections were of no use - "Hunters, a samurai, and I think a painting" was not enough to write a review or even find where I left off. But if you've seen Blood Beat you know that I could watch this movie a thousand times and still not make much sense out of it, so I guess it didn't really matter in the end. For those uninitiated, the film focuses on Gary, a standard Wisconsin man (read: a hunter) who is dating a woman that would rather sit inside and paint all day. Her grown children are coming to visit for Christmas, and when they arrive she immediately gets weird vibes from her son's girlfriend Sarah, and the feeling is mutual. This puts her in a rather antisocial mood, so the others all instantly go hunting, at which point the horror stuff starts happening.

And by horror stuff I'm sure you know what I mean: the ghost of a Samurai that is bathed in blue light and makes sounds that the subtitles refer to as "Mystical Boinging". I mean the movie is actually kind of a slasher in general terms - the samurai ghost thing starts offing people one by one with his sword, but it's all so damn bizarre that it never really gives that slasher vibe. For starters, we don't really see the samurai until the last 20 minutes, so until then it's more of a "presence" than a flesh and blood stalker, and either because of the film's low budget or the director's incompetence (both?) the kill scenes are hardly anything one could refer to as a highlight, which is kind of the whole deal with slashers (especially by 1983). And in one of the film's many unexplained elements, Sarah's orgasms seem to be linked to the killer, so if she's flicking the bean or riding her boyfriend, the kill scenes are intercut with her doing that, making them even harder to follow. I can't even tell if her sexual energy is giving the samurai some life, or if she's psychically turned on by his killing spree. Either way they're having fun doing their thing, I guess.

It occurred to me during the film how many of these "regional" productions are totally insane, and I have to wonder if it's intentional or just an unfortunate side effect of people making a film when they don't really know what they're doing (it's a good a time as any to note that the writer/director of this film never made another, and didn't realize the film was full-frame until he was halfway through shooting). I can tell you from experience that ideas that make perfect sense to you don't translate to the screen and can leave others confused, so I have to wonder if movies like this, or Things, or Disconnected, or any of the other random ones I've found over the years were intentionally vague or forced to be that way because of how they were made. I mean there's gotta be some train of thought that puts the ghost of a samurai in the middle of the Wisconsin woods, right? Unless they were just using the ol' idea balls in the manatee tank (Google it), I have to assume there was a scene explaining it that got cut due to damaged film, or maybe they ran out of time/money and never got to shoot it in the first place.

Anyway, the movie has JUST enough of that sort of inept insanity to make it worth a look. The Samurai talks in a weird computer voice, there's an out of nowhere argument about juice between two equally out of nowhere characters, and the "Samurai vision" and other random effects are almost impressive when you consider when/how the movie was made. But those moments are often separated by long stretches of people just repeating their banal dialogue, long pauses, walking around, etc. so it's fairly dull more often than not. There's a hunting expedition that goes on forever, and I think we spend more time watching two of the characters play Monopoly than we spend watching the samurai in all his/her glory. Plus the disconnect renders a lot of it less fun than it should be - sure, it's awesome when the kitchen goes haywire and we get cans of Tab flying around, but since it's so unrelated to everything else (and barely mentioned after) it doesn't generate that kind of kitchen sink insanity that Evil Dead or Hausu ramps up throughout their respective runtimes. It also ends on some of its most confusing notes (a major demise is suggested while we look at a static shot of a door for ten seconds) and the surviving characters calmly walk out of the house while putting on their coats as if they were going to run an errand instead of escaping a nightmare scenario that left some of their loved ones dead.

I suspect it'd be more fun with a midnight crowd, perhaps during one of those all night festivals where your sleep deprived brain has you thinking you're hallucinating some of this stuff anyway, and the baffled reactions of your fellow moviegoers can generate enough energy to smooth over its rough patches. If you've never seen this sort of thing before, I guess it's a good place to start before you get into the really insane likes of Don't Go In The Woods or MST3k fodder like Manos. But as I've had more than just a taste of these things, I dunno, this one didn't have that je ne sais quoi that'd have me excitedly recommending it to like-minded fans unless it was on the big screen. It was just OK, and that's not the reaction I'd expect from a movie with a synopsis that included the phrase "possessed by the spirit of a Japanese samurai warrior". I actually preferred it when it was just focusing on its poorly acted characters yelling at each other - if it focused entirely on that juice couple, this would be a much more excited review. Oh well.

What say you?

Bloodbeat (1982) - Trailer [edited] - YouTube
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MARCH 23, 2017

GENRE: PSYCHOLOGICAL, THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

When I was 12 I used to grab my dad's video camera and try to make little movies; I distinctly remember tying things to string (not even fishing wire!) and trying to pull off "invisible" tricks after seeing Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Then I'd watch the video and besides being dismayed at how bad my FX shots were (the telephone spinning haphazardly on my string definitely betrayed the idea it was being held by an invisible person), I'd be curious why my images never looked as great as they did in the movies I watched. "They must have a special camera!" I figured, and sooner or later I'd discover that was indeed the case, and those "special" cameras shot film, not VHS tapes. I couldn't help but think about that a few times while watching Unsane, because not only did it not require my full attention during a few too many stretches, but I also kept wondering why anyone, let alone Steven Soderbergh, would want their feature film to look like something a kid could do.

And I'm not exaggerating; much has been made about the film being shot on an iPhone, i.e. the same device a number of you have in your pocket or perhaps are even reading this review on in between Instagram perusals. It's not the first film to be shot this way, but it's certainly the most high profile, made even more interesting when you consider that Soderbergh said he was retiring a few years ago and stuck to that promise for a few years before coming back with Logan Lucky last year. He's got another movie in the can already and another has been announced, which is pretty good for a retirement that was announced five years ago. There are a lot of directors who have made no such announcement and haven't made a single movie since then, but he's done three and has a fourth in the works. Can Martin Brest or John Carpenter "retire" like this? That'd be nice.

Back on point - if he's gonna un-retire, the project has gotta be something special, right? That's where I get tripped up, as this is not only nothing memorable beyond a filmmaking method that does it no real favors (plus if we wanted an lo-fi looking horror movie set in an institution, we have Session 9, which is infinitely better), but it's not even new territory for him. His one-time swan song Side Effects tread a lot of the same ground (a woman in jeopardy, paranoia, evil medical practices, "men suck") and was a much better film overall, so beyond the idea of going into more traditional horror territory I'm not sure what exactly excited him about this script. It's not a bad movie really, it's just one of those ones that never really kicks into a higher gear than its basic premise would suggest, doling out information in a clunky manner that makes it difficult to latch onto anything. Claire Foy plays a lonely workaholic who had a previous encounter with a stalker that's left her frazzled, and she accidentally commits herself to a one day (and then one-week) mandatory evaluation in a psychiatric ward, only to start seeing her stalker among the staff. Is she crazy, or did this guy manage to follow her so well that he was able to get a job at the place one day later?

I'll get into that later since it's spoiler territory, but I don't think I'm breaking the rules to say you find out at about the halfway mark, at which point the movie unfolds more or less like you'd expect having probably seen this kind of scenario play out in both directions over the years. The answer is never as important as the need to make sure what happens next is just as compelling, and unfortunately in this case the script is not up to the task - one you got the answer you might as well go home early. And it's a shame, because there is a late-game "twist" of sorts that is fascinating and kind of original, but it's introduced too late to have enough of an impact on the movie as a whole. Maybe if the narrative switched entirely at this point and focused on this new development, leaving the stalker stuff behind as a sort of slow-burn Macguffin, it would be enough to shift the movie into "must-see" territory, but this plot point is frustratingly left under-explored while also reducing the tension of Foy's dilemma.

Foy, by the way, is the reason the movie is still worth seeing. She made a good first impression on me with Season of the Witch, way back in 2011, but apart from a bit role in Vampire Academy I haven't seen her in anything since, making this the first time I've seen her carry a film. Thankfully she does a fine job; her character isn't the most likable person in the world, but I love how she dealt with the random male losers in her life (the scene with her boss is A+ and timely af) and she handles the paranoia stuff quite well. There's a scene where she dresses down a would-be suitor by theorizing about the women that have turned him down (paraphrasing: "Did she tell you she just liked you as a friend, or did she actually get sick? Or did she just LAUGH?") and it's a wonderful bit of business, and also one of the few times the iPhone-ography pays off, allowing Soderbergh (or whoever the phone owner was; I assume no one else was allowed to hold it in case a private text came through during a take) to swirl around Foy and the other actor in a tiny room as she kept hammering away at him, reducing him to (deserved) tears. Honestly if the movie was nothing more than a series of scenes where she takes down a bunch of MRA dipshits and assorted other stereotypes, I probably would have liked it a lot more.

OK now I gotta get into spoilers, so you should stop here until you've seen the film. Final warning!

But Foy and her razor tongue isn't enough to make up for the fact that the second half of this movie is like a comedy that had all of the jokes trimmed. She isn't crazy - her stalker (played by Josh Leonard, by the way) really did follow her to the institute and get a job as an orderly. We find out later that he killed the real orderly and assumed his identity, but no further explanation, leaving us with two options: his coworkers didn't notice he wasn't the same guy, or that he was just happening to start there on the day after she arrived (so no one would KNOW what he looked like), making it incredibly lucky timing on his part. Especially when you consider the film's other twist, which is that he isn't the only shady/murderous one there, as the hospital is basically a giant scam - they trick people into signing themselves up for treatment (in Foy's case they ask her to sign a few "routine" forms that turn out to be admission papers, because she trusted them enough not to read them first) so they can get the insurance companies to pay them for care the people aren't actually receiving, and will murder anyone who finds out about it. A more interesting movie would have Leonard's character react to this, maybe even use it as an excuse to be a hero for the woman he thinks he loves by helping her escape, but the two storylines never intersect. He even kills another patient who was catching on to the hospital's practice, but (another coincidence) only because the guy was getting close to Claire so he wanted him out of the way. I don't need every question answered in a movie, but when it's the only kind of interesting thing in it, it's impossible not to be annoyed that it get such short thrift in favor of a generic chase through the woods.

And all of that ludicrous plotting that would be fine in a schlockier movie, but that's not what Soderbergh really does and the movie is too bland to look at to really make that sort of thing pop. You need a Brian De Palma or Dario Argento kind of flair to get anyone to buy this (and I can't help but think those filmmakers in particular were on the brain, as Soderbergh cast De Palma regular Amy Irving in a bit part, and "Unsane" is an alternate title for Tenebre), and really dive into the over the top elements and violence, so that the audience is kind of drunk on the sheer bombast of it all. This movie skips over most of its kills (one confusingly so - I have no idea who murdered the dark haired orderly) and due to the obvious limitations of its format can't really go big with its setpieces - even insert shots feel a bit awkward, so the wackier elements of the script fall flat. For every moment where the iPhone made an excellent choice (POV shots of Leonard leering or simply staring at Foy, mostly) there are a few that make me wish he abandoned the experiment after a day of shooting and got real cameras to make the rest. There's a scene where Foy is trapped in a trunk, and it occurred to me that twenty years ago he was shooting - if there is a ranking of such things - the best trunk scene in movie history, and doing it just fine with a big clunky ol' 35mm camera. As with 3D, CGI, etc. there's nothing wrong with the idea of using "lesser" cameras for certain things - but it's still a tool that only serves certain purposes. Just as you'd only use a hammer for nails and not for screws and bolts, the camera you're using should be the best one for that particular job, and while it's fine for the quieter scenes, overall I think the script deserved the full toolbox, so to speak.

Soderbergh makes some other puzzling choices, such as inserting a distracting cameo from one of his frequent collaborators at a very odd time, and cutting away from Claire's perspective at a point where we're still unsure if she's just going crazy or not (and thus answering the question even earlier). Even the reveal that she HAD a stalker is presented in a very awkward way, as if it was previously established in a scene (or even a line) that got cut - it actually makes more sense in the trailer than it does in the film. This is a guy who has made nearly thirty movies that have grossed over a billion dollars in the US alone - why does it often feel like a first feature from some 25 year old kid who managed to get the film released to Redbox by casting Lance Henriksen or someone like that for a day's work? Apart from the acting (not just Foy; it's always good to see Leonard, and Jay Pharoah is also solid as one of Foy's fellow patients) everything here runs dangerously close to amateur hour, and I'd have trouble with some of it even if it WAS from the work of first-timers, while hoping they could learn from their mistakes next time. But this guy's got an Oscar, so I can't help but expect more from him than a movie that has technical AND narrative blunders. I can deal with a few terrible script choices a lot easier if I know I couldn't round up a few of my actor friends, charge my phone, and produce superior results.

What say you?

UNSANE | Official Trailer | In theaters March 23 - YouTube
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MARCH 21, 2018

GENRE: CULT, PSYCHOLOGICAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

Dimension lost Halloween a while back, but they're still holding on to their Hellraiser and Children of the Corn licenses, and just as they did in 2011 with Revelation and Genesis, respectively, they extended their hold by making new entries more or less simultaneously (and once again making me wonder if they'll ever throw their hands up and just do a "Versus" film). And as with Hellraiser: Judgment, Children of the Corn: Runaway is better than you'd expect or that it even needed to be - maybe they are now required to not just make a movie, but make it decent? In fact it's probably one of the best of the Corn films, and while I know that isn't exactly a huge hurdle to clear, it's still worth noting, especially since it's the tenth film in a franchise launched from a lesser Stephen King short story.

When they hired John Gulager to direct this one (he also edited, for the record) I thought it was a great choice, and as a fan of Gulager's work I saw it as a win-win kind of situation. If the movie was bad, then it's not really anything to be ashamed about - the historical record has shown time and time again that it's apparently very hard to make a good movie out of this scenario, as even the best films in this series (the original, Urban Harvest, and the remake) aren't without sizable flaws. And if it was good, then it just shows that he's got some talent and maybe deserves better than VOD sequels to Dimension movies. Luckily it's the latter scenario, on par with those aforementioned "worth watching" entries (and also consistently satisfying than Hellraiser: Judgment, for what it's worth) and in fact is a perfectly enjoyable movie on its own accord - the Corn references are so minimal they could be trimmed out and it would barely affect the runtime.

That said, it's actually a direct sequel to the remake, which surprised me since that one wasn't a Dimension production. Our protagonist is Ruth, who was introduced in that film (played by Alexa Nikolas there; Marci Miller here) and had a vision of herself setting fire to the corn - turns out she really did it and escaped while pregnant, determined to raise her child as far away (but still in the Midwest) as from the group. Because of her unusual past she has trouble finding steady income or a place to live, and it turns out the cult messed up her brain pretty good, so it isn't easy for her, but things start to finally turn around when she gets a gig as a mechanic and is allowed to stay in a vacant home that is currently in legal limbo. Alas, she starts seeing a strange little girl who may or may not be really there, and before long the bodies start piling up. Is the girl a cult member? Is she cracking up and killing these people herself? Or is it her son, who starts acting strange?

The answers will not be surprising to anyone who has seen a few horror movies before, but what was NOT expected was to see this kind of thing in a Corn film OR from Gulager, whose other films revel in bad taste and midnight movie insanity. It's possibly the most relatively classy film in the series, if anything, as the body count isn't particularly high (the diner flashback accounts for most of the violence) and there isn't a drop of dark humor to be found. It's not even supernaturally-driven like the others; most of the film focuses on Ruth and her struggles to make a normal life for her and her son - for example, he wants to go to school, but she can't enroll him because she doesn't have a fixed address. Even if you stripped out the horror stuff, you'd be left with a decent character drama about a woman who was trying to escape a terrible, mind-breaking past, with the sun-drenched Oklahoma landscape and Gulager's widescreen visuals making it nice to look at as well. The kill scenes aren't that bad either; there's a good one inside a garage that is unnerving (partly because it's when I figured out the film's twist) and drawn out just enough to have hope for the victim's survival chances. It would have been expected/easy for the guy who made the Feast films to relish in a movie about evil kids, but by focusing on the adults and going for something more psychologically driven, the film really sticks out as a minor gem for both its franchise and its filmmaker.

But if you're a fan of his work, you'll still recognize some of his trademarks - there's some Super 8 footage (which he shot himself), and both his wife Diane and father Clu (yay!) show up in smaller roles. It's also a nice showcase for Miller, who looks nothing like Alexa Nikolas but *does* resemble Amy Steel a bit, which is fine by me. Steel reportedly wanted to reprise her F13 Part 2 character of Ginny in a sequel set at a mental institute, which we never got, so it's kind of like a consolation prize to get someone who resembles her going crazy after a different horror movie ordeal. She really sells the shitty situation she's in, which you have to recall isn't her fault - she was a kid when she got roped into the cult, not an adult who chose to join one like that one Hollywood-friendly religion. When folks try to escape that I'm usually like "Well, glad you made the right call eventually, but you're still a dumbass", but I sympathize with Ruth, and genuinely felt sorry for her whenever another setback came her way. Even better, she doesn't give excuses - she hides her past for the obvious reasons, so she doesn't try to get anyone else to feel sorry for her in hopes they'll cut her a break.

The only thing that didn't really work was a late-movie development where someone else turned out to be a cult member. If you think about how that character is introduced in the story and how our heroes came to befriend him/her, it's a giant coincidence that they turn out to be actively searching for Ruth and her son, so I wish they had been given a slightly reworked introduction that rang a bit truer. Or if it never happened at all - Ruth's own psychological scars were built up enough that she could have rejoined the cult and/or led her son down that path all on her own, so they didn't really need this third party nudging that along. It's not a crippling flaw or anything like that, but it switches the focus at a crucial point in the movie and kind of lessens the impact of the twist to a degree. Also, in one of the few scenes with the titular Children, we see one who has seemingly risen through the ranks fairly quickly, and it kind of made me want to see a Corn sequel using a mob movie template, with a new recruit rising to the top and then losing it all (except at the end of a sickle instead of a bullet), because I instantly started wondering how they became such a big deal and what sort of shit they had to do in order to get to that level. Y'all gotta arm-wrestle He Who Walks Behind The Rows or...?

It's kind of funny - if there's such a thing as a die-hard Children of the Corn franchise fan, they're probably not going to like this one all that much. There's barely any evil kid stuff, He Who Walks... is mostly left out of it (sit through the credits for his most prominent appearance!), and it's following up on a plot thread from the remake, which was largely dismissed (though I personally find it superior to the 1984 one, though not by much). It'll play better to those who have little to no interest in the series (I should stress that there is zero need to see any of them, even the one it's directly following, as they explain the backstory via flashbacks), but of course the title means they won't exactly be driving to every Redbox in town looking for a copy. That said, I hope it finds the audience of people who can appreciate the attempt at making it more interesting than anyone could have reasonably assumed it would be, and that it's not considered a failure by whatever measures they use to determine wins and losses for these things. As someone who is seemingly cursed with seeing (and reviewing) all of these movies until the end of time, I'd hate for them to go back to "normal" (read: traditionally forgettable/lousy) Corn territory with the next entry just because this one didn't make as big of a splash as the films must make, somehow (why else would they keep spending money to keep the brand going?). Especially now that they're actually doing direct sequels - can Gulager and co. follow up on Urban Harvest's magic corn that was being shipped all over the world?

That'd rule. What say you?

P.S. Unless you own all the others and want to keep that train going, there's not much need to buy this disc. The movie's pretty good but nothing you'll watch over and over, and the lone extra feature is a deleted scene of no interest. A shame since Gulager has done commentaries for most of his other films and they tend to be pretty fun.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN: RUNAWAY - Find it on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital and On Demand 3/13! - YouTube
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MARCH 9, 2018

GENRE: SLASHER, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)

Here's a funny fact: on the weekend The Strangers opened in 2008, it was next to the original Iron Man on the box office chart. Since then, Iron Man's success paved the way for seventeen more films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with two more on the way this summer. These films have told an ongoing story, wrangling the stars from one movie to pop up in small roles in the others, with many of the actors breaking records for how many times they've played the same character as they keep coming back (and not just for the paychecks; most of them seem to genuinely love being part of something so unique). Incredulous as it may seem, the same amount of time has produced exactly one sequel to a masked killer horror movie. The Strangers: Prey At Night isn't the longest wait ever for a part 2 in Hollywood history (even in horror we had longer waits for the first sequels to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, etc.), but it's been a damn long ten years waiting for the next installment in what seemed like a can't-miss franchise. Surely, after all that time they at least can't be accused of rushing it, and came up with something equally memorable, right?

Alas, not quite - but at least they gave it a good try, and it will likely more or less do the trick for those who need their big screen slasher itch scratched. One thing they definitely got right was not continuing the story of Liv Tyler's character, because the randomness and lack of motive is a big part of what made the original work, and going after her again would dip too far into Halloween territory ("That girl... that Armageddon girl... that's Pin-Up's sister!"). This time our targets are a family of four led by Martin Henderson and Christina Hendricks, who are - if I am following the clearly re-edited opening scenes correctly - driving their bratty teenaged daughter (Bailee Madison) to boarding school, with their older/less problematic son in tow. We never know what she did to deserve this punishment or even how far they're going to get there, but because they're strapped for cash they plan to stop not at a traditional hotel, but a family campground resort run by Hendricks' uncle. It's the off season so no one's there... except for the trio of familiar killers (Pin-Up, Dollface, and Man in the Mask) who have already dispatched the uncle and his wife in an opening scene. Not long after the heroes arrive, Dollface comes to the door and again inquires about Tamra, then a family argument separates some of them from the others, and then the cat and mouse stuff begins.

Now, if you strip The Strangers down to its bare essentials, it's about masked killers stalking innocent people - i.e. a movie you've seen 8,000 times, but it had a few things that put it a notch (a few notches, in my opinion) above its usual competition. First and foremost, the characters were stuck in a very awkward situation - Tyler had just turned down Scott Speedman's marriage proposal, spoiling a very romantic getaway in the cabin (there's a bit about rose petals in the tub that legit breaks my heart every time I watch the movie) and leaving their relationship's future in doubt. This is a rarely used concept for any genre, let alone horror, and as someone pointed out, the movie might be interesting to watch even without the killers showing up. There is a clear attempt to recreate that kind of dynamic here, with the daughter being pissed off at the parents who are trying to enjoy their last time together as a family, but it rings a bit false, and being a sequel, there's an unavoidable "let's get to the scary stuff" impatience which might have been softened had the situation been less cliche. How many daughters being angry at their parents have we seen in horror movies? Seven or eight thousand?

The scary stuff in the original was also unique. For starters, they didn't stray far from the house, which wasn't even particularly big, so they didn't even have a downstairs to hide in or anything like that. And that leads to another, even more important thing that made it such a winner: with a compact cast of two (one of whom, Speedman's character, left for a chunk of the runtime anyway) and not much room for chase sequences, the Strangers made themselves known to us a long time before they were known to Liv Tyler - the poster famously just used an image from the film itself, showing one of them just casually/creepily standing behind her in the house while she snuck a smoke break. There was also a strong sense of claustrophobia, as when they DID make their presence known and Liv would try to hide, it often felt like a no-win situation for her, only for the killers to resume toying with her by simply walking away rather than close in for the kill.

Unfortunately, this script (by the original's Bryan Bertino along with Ben Katai) goes in a different, less interesting direction by spreading the characters around the resort, which has multiple trailers, a playground, a construction site, the office, a pool... and also making its strangers more assertive in their actions. I won't spoil specifics, but the body count is not only higher this time but kicks in earlier than you might expect, and it doesn't quite work as a shock so much as a "Oh, well they just blew their wad" kind of thing. Granted, now we know that the Strangers are definitely OK with killing (don't forget, it's Speedman who commits the film's first murder, of his friend who came to help. Until the very end, the masked trio had plenty of opportunities to kill that they simply didn't take), but they could have dragged it out a bit longer and let the murdered person DO a bit more instead of being disposed almost instantly. Plus, with everyone constantly running around, fully aware of their predicament, it opens itself up to too many of the sort of dumb moments that the original largely avoided. No one would accuse those heroes of being geniuses, but most of their actions fell in the usual kind of "OK I'd probably do the same" line of thinking, whereas here we get people who run around on foot looking for someone instead of using their car that the Strangers didn't bother to disable.

It also lacked the claustrophobic element, and worse, rarely uses those other areas for anything memorable. For example, the film is almost over by the time the pool is utilized, when the person being chased is fully aware of what's happening. Why not have someone go into the pool earlier, before they knew anything was wrong, and let a Stranger toy with them/the audience a bit? Not to mention let them be vulnerable by choice, which is always a good way to get the pulses racing. The pool scene is one of the film's highlights, for sure, but it also feels like they could have done so much more with it. We also see signs for a mini golf course, and someone uses one of its putters at one point, but it's otherwise left unused/unseen, which seems like another missed opportunity. All of the elements are there to at least live up to the original's quota for great suspenseful setpieces and moments, but the order of the day here is fast chases and jump scares (one of which works amazing even though it's spoiled in the trailer), and so while it's not bad, it's also not likely to leave you rattled when you get home, either (that the characters aren't even in their home this time adds to that, of course).

And it's particularly frustrating to me, because I spent a lot of time in a similar campground/resort as a kid, and would get a bit unnerved whenever I was there during off-season (to prep our trailer for the season, or close it up once we stopped going) and saw how quiet/empty the usually bustling place was. So I know exactly how it feels to be weirded out in one of those places, and it still failed to generate even half as much raw uneasiness as the original did (which had me a bit spooked later that week when I caught a shadow through the light under my front door late one night). That said, director Johannes Roberts definitely knew one way to win me over: utilizing a pair of my beloved Jim Steinman songs. In a filmed intro they played before the movie, he talked about his filmmaking influences, which were mainly John Carpenter, and naturally that led to him talking about the soundtrack. After talking about the score for a bit, he said that he decided to use pop songs for the first time in his career, adding, almost apologetically, "I hope you like Jim Steinman." As anyone who has read more than five words from me knows, I ADORE Jim Steinman and consider him a personal hero, so using not one but two of his tunes in the film (albeit in the final 15 minutes, by which point I had already realized this one wasn't up to par) was a good way to at least send me out of the theater in a good mood.

Back to Carpenter though, it's important for every person seeing this movie to understand that Halloween wasn't what he was talking about (nor was it Ghosts of Mars, the framed poster of which was behind him in his video, which delighted me). Despite the plots having nothing to do with each other, his biggest shoutouts were The Fog and Christine, which I respect since most people paying tribute to JC go with Halloween, The Thing, or Escape From New York (well, they used to. Now they get sued). So when a car and its driver are set on fire and they keep pursuing a protagonist, you just have to kind of roll with it and, if you can, appreciate that he's going all out with his attempt to homage Christine in this non-supernatural film, rather than let Man in the Mask or one of the others just act like Michael Myers in the film's scope playground. As for The Fog, the homage is basically just stealing the main theme for his new score (not by the original's Tomandandy), which I found very distracting, almost obnoxious at times, but thankfully for Roberts and co. the average (read: younger) moviegoer who thinks of Taken's daughter and Smallville when they think of "The Fog" won't even notice it.

Roberts doesn't just fawn over Carpenter the whole time, thankfully. Most curiously, he employs a lot of zooms that seem inspired by Italian gialli of the 70s, one of which is used for a terrific beat where you think you're about to get an Exorcist III shears kill kinda thing but end up with a more crowd-pleasing alternative. On that note, again trying to keep spoilers to a minimum, this one is less grim than the original, so if that one's bummer ending left you cold I think you'll be more satisfied here, as the heroes do at least get to fight back a bit more. In fact, I think the people who will enjoy this the most are those who didn't see the original at all - and I should stress there's no real need to see it beforehand if you haven't yet, as there is no connection to it (not even an obligatory newspaper clipping about the first film's events). Since they're just doing the same kind of thing, the novelty won't be worn off like it was for me, and you won't be "waiting" for the scattered bits that are more inspired, liked when Man in the Mask has a victim dead to rights in a car and he takes a moment to find a good song on the radio to listen to while he finishes the person off (this isn't one of the Steinman song parts, I should note - but I would have lost my shit if it was "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", even if it was a bit on the nose).

So that's why this is a tough review to write - it all sounds negative, but really apart from the not-great choice to off one of the family members so quickly (though even that might legit shock some and work; just didn't for me) there's nothing BAD about the movie - it's just going through the motions. It almost feels like we're actually on The Strangers 4 or 5 (ideally where they'd be by now, using usual franchise scheduling) and they know that the die-hards will show up and be satisfied to see their now-iconic killers doing their thing again, the way people defend certain later installments of the Friday the 13th or Elm Street series. Maybe I was expecting a bit too much after all this time (to be fair, I know some of the delay was due to various studio issues - this one is not from the same distributor as the original, you might notice), so perhaps I'll like it more in repeat viewings if I ever find the time for them, but for now my final word is that the less you care about the original film, the more likely you are to enjoy its sequel.

What say you?

THE STRANGERS 2: PREY AT NIGHT Official Trailer (2018) Christina Hendricks Horror Movie HD - YouTube
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MARCH 7, 2018

GENRE: GHOST, PSYCHOLOGICAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I rarely write negative reviews of smaller films anymore, figuring it's a waste of my time to tell people not to bother seeing an off-the-radar movie they probably weren't going to see anyway, saving my negative energy for bigger films like Winchester - if I can prevent just one person from seeing that one, it will be worth it! But in the case of The Lullaby (titled Siembamba on-screen, but Lullaby in its marketing), I wanted to use the space to deliver some good news: I no longer get as upset about baby stuff in horror movies! From fall of 2013 (when my wife got pregnant) until about... uh, yesterday I guess, the sight of babies in harm really got to me, as I would start panicking about potential danger my own son could be in while I was watching some dumb horror movie with my phone on silent. But in the first few minutes of this thing, we see a baby get its neck broken, and throughout the film our protagonist is battling postpartum depression and in turn the instinct to kill her own son, complete with hallucinations of actually doing so - and I was fine with it!

Then again maybe I haven't gotten over my paranoia and it's just because the movie was too lousy to let it bother me. It's not like I thought Darrell Roodt, the director of Dracula 3000 and Prey, would be able to pull off one of those "Is she going crazy or is something really after her?" storylines, but even my low expectations weren't even met, as the film wasn't terrible enough to entertain. Instead it was just excruciatingly dull, failing to generate a single scare or even bit of suspense, while also (quite frustratingly!) refusing to go into crazy batshit territory that could have saved it. The term "baby blues" is used once or twice, and I couldn't help but think of that same-named film and how it dove right into things that are in very poor taste (namely, a woman murdering her children), while this one settled for an endless series of scenes where the woman just IMAGINES doing so.

The setup at least holds some promise: a young woman has a child that she doesn't seem to want (her depression kicks in the second the baby is born, in fact), and the only place she can stay is back with her mother, who she has a strained relationship with on account of running away not too long ago. She is having trouble pumping breast milk or getting the child to latch (not that we ever see this; we're just told so an hour into the movie - the baby is rarely shown doing anything but sleeping), and starts having terrible visions of the poor little guy being covered in blood, stored in a freezer, etc. For what seems like an eternity, the movie breaks down like this: she's trying to sleep, something troubles her, she checks on the baby, sees him dead, shrieks, then her mom races into the room and shows her a perfectly fine baby before reminding her about this or that rule of motherhood ("cut his nails", "let him cry it out", etc). Then the cycle resumes, with no clear indication that things are getting worse or how much time has passed in between. The actress playing the mom is fine, but she's also in "total wreck" mode from the start, which doesn't help at all as she looks no more harried at the end than she did ten minutes into the movie. You could rearrange 75% of the film's scenes and it wouldn't make any difference.

We are given precious few breaks from this routine in the form of a psychiatrist who seems to be evil, because he collects butterflies like someone out of a giallo and inexplicably encourages the older woman to leave her very rattled daughter alone with the baby, while also prescribing mysterious pills to the girl. But the script never really follows through with this element; the closest we get to a payoff is a weird look on his face during an epilogue, where she's been put in an institute for the crimes she commits during the film. They also keep teasing out the mystery of the baby's father, suggesting there might be some Rosemary's Baby-style twist to the whole thing, or maybe even the doctor himself (who seems to be fascinated by a story where the townsfolk killed a baby over a century ago). But then, near the very end of the movie we find out she was raped by a guy who she hitchhiked with, a wholly unnecessary scene that is, incredulously, followed by ANOTHER rape scene.

The rapist in this second instance is a friend named Evan who we know has been pining over her for years. In keeping with the film's tradition of dropping the ball on everything and refusing to ever go into interesting territory, he never seems to even acknowledge the baby's existence (he also never seems to notice or care that she looks sick most of the time), settling only for generic "Why don't you like me, we should be together!" MRA shit, as opposed to spending a single one of his 10-15 minutes of screentime telling us anything about him. I don't know why the filmmakers thought we needed back to back rape scenes in the third act of their supernatural story, but for the good of mankind I hope someone at least SUGGESTED perhaps spending less time on rape and more time on making anything interesting. Not that I champion such scenes in any scenario, but when they're part of a film that is grounded in character and have some true reason to exist at the time they do (Leaving Las Vegas comes to mind) I don't think twice about their inclusion. Here, it's just pointless shock value, and tells us nothing. Chloe was already having a rough life when she ran away, and unless I am very confused at how pregnancy works, she doesn't come back home until the baby is born i.e. nine months later, meaning that the attack wasn't even enough of a traumatic experience to send her running back home, realizing how much worse she could have it. It's just awful.

Luckily, the movie gets one thing right: screenwriter Tarryn-Tanille Prinsloo either has a child of her own or did proper research, as they get a number of things about newborns right that you probably wouldn't think of unless you were in the thick of it. For example, one thing I didn't know until I had my own is that baby fingernails are like little Freddy razors and need to be cut constantly, as they can/will scratch themselves up good (very sensitive/still-developing skin plays a part in that), so when it was used as a scare I kind of bowed a bit of respect to the film. Likewise the various problems with pumping/latching will ring true to anyone who had to deal with it themselves; in fact a pump mishap is the closest the movie ever got to offering a genuinely good terror moment. I remember I took some shit for liking Annabelle (the first one) because it was so steeped in "I am a new parent and I am terrified about my baby being hurt" fears, so I have to wonder if a. I'll still be as enamored by the film if I watched it now that I'm better, and/or b. if I saw this three or so years ago if I'd find it more engaging.

Either way, it shouldn't take a personal paranoia for a film to work. I mean, I'm not particularly afraid of a masked killer chasing me around a mine shaft anytime soon, but I still love My Bloody Valentine. A good film's a good film, and this is a very bad one. The scares don't work, the characters are drawn thinner than most slasher victims, and the director kept throwing in pointless stylistic tics like jump cuts that only caused confusion (he also had trouble distinguishing flashback scenes from current day). Nothing about it worked, and if not for the one guy in the theater that wasn't part of my group of four, I probably would have yelled at the screen on more than one occasion. The most interesting thing about the movie, besides the somewhat catchy theme song during the end titles, is that I somehow managed to stay awake despite the fact that it didn't start until after 10pm. I should have just slept.

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The Lullaby Trailer (2018) Horror Movie - YouTube
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FEBRUARY 16, 2018

GENRE: RELIGIOUS, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

Of all the major horror franchises that came along (or at least had their biggest showcase) in the 1980's, Hellraiser was the one I never particularly got into the way I did for the others. I was late to the party in even seeing them; I think I was in high school before I watched the first three, only watching them once or twice before the release of Hellraiser: Bloodline, which was the only one I saw theatrically until Revelations in 2011. And most of the others I only bothered to watch for HMAD entries, having heard nothing good about any of them (and then, adding more negative reviews to their coffers), so now that I'm only updating sporadically I probably wouldn't have exactly rushed to watch the tenth film, Hellraiser: Judgment if not for two things. One is that I was offered a copy, so I could save myself a rental fee or blind buy down the road, and - more importantly - the other is that I heard from a number of people that it was a surprisingly decent entry, not quite hitting the highs of its theatrical releases, but certainly a step up from its DTV brethren.

And they're right! I mean, I wouldn't exactly refer to it as a "good" movie, but it's the only one of the DTV films (and I'm including Revelations in that group, despite its one-week limited release) that feels like a legit addition to the mythology that was established in the first four films. Even the one where Kirsty showed back up didn't really feel like a new chapter in an ongoing story (however loosely it was depicted), but a gimmick used to lure in folks who might be disinterested, like how Marvel (unnecessarily!) threw in Falcon and a setup for Civil War to entice people into seeing Ant-Man. But here, the scenes with Pinhead and some of his fellow Cenobites/demons/angels/whatever almost feel like they could have come from Clive Barker's imagination, and it's a shame the entire movie couldn't revolve around them as these sequences (which make up maybe 25% of the 80 minute film) are clearly where all the budget went, and now that I've seen it for myself, obviously the reason for the film's better-than-average reviews (it's actually got a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than Hellbound as of this writing, insanely enough).

Alas, that other 75% focuses on a trio of cops investigating a Seven-y serial killer who is killing people according to the Ten Commandments, even though "Thou Shall Not Kill" is one of them, the hypocrite. Maybe if we ever really saw him in action and/or the film gave us a few red herrings as to his identity this material would be more enjoyable (if still cliche; how many Biblically minded killers have we seen over the past 20 years or so?), but we mostly only see aftermath. The MO for these scenes is as follows: the detectives arrive on a scene to look at a dead body or some other kind of tableau, talk about this or that clue, then retreat to their wood-paneled office that looks suspiciously like one you might find in a used car lot or construction site. The murder sites are fine, but their office and some of the other sets are so phony looking (again, probably because all the money went into the Pinhead scenes) that it was hard to care much about their (and only their, as no other cops are seen in the film, despite the fact that this killer has seemingly earned a citywide manhunt) investigation into this vaguely defined, rarely seen killer.

It also lacks much in the way of surprises after its first (and best) ten minutes. In the opening scene we see Pinhead lamenting (heh) the advance of technology, and how he is becoming obsolete as people can just go to the internet to have their desires fulfilled instead of going to him (kind of like how we don't really need travel agents anymore when we can just head to Expedia), and I loved that concept. Unfortunately not too much is done with it, but at least it leads into the introduction of The Auditor, who looks like a Cenobite version of Claude Rains as the Invisible Man. His job is to interview would-be victims about their crimes and type them out on a typically monstrous typewriter, at which point the pages will be consumed by the Assessor (played by John Gulager!). He then pukes the results into a funnel where a trio of naked women with their faces ripped off scoop up the gross mixture in their hands and pass judgment. Why they go through all this trouble, I don't know, but I like the idea of them having their own pointless bureaucratic process for what they do.

But then our protagonist Sean (Damon Carney, who I dubbed "Michael Fauxbender" due to his mild resemblance to the actor and that their boring serial killer plot reminded me of the woeful Snowman) follows a couple of clues and ends up in the house, where we see the process again, too soon after the first and more or less spoiling the film's mystery before the halfway point. His "audit" is largely unheard by us, but the lengthy results cause the Assessor to choke during his consumption, and whatever he did has gotten the OK from the higher-ups, who instruct the Auditor to let Sean go. At this point the film starts to resemble one of the later episodes of Supernatural, with angels and demons arguing over jurisdiction and the like, but since it was at least moving away from the serial killer plot I was happy to watch it even if it was largely a repeat of a sequence we just saw 25 minutes or so ago.

In fact, if I had to guess, this sequence (or the earlier one) was added to get Pinhead and the other creations into the movie more. Since 2000's Inferno, the common complaint about these films (besides just kinda sucking in general) is that Pinhead isn't in them enough, even though that's the one thing that they share with the original (where he isn't even named Pinhead yet, but "Lead Cenobite"), so I'm sure there was a push to find a way to include him in more sequences (hilariously, at one point during the serial killer investigation they briefly cut to him spinning a Lament as he sat around waiting, as if to remind us that he was there). And unlike the more expensive Doug Bradley, new actor Paul Taylor (thankfully replacing the guy who played him in Revelations) was probably easier to pay for more days of work, so the reasons to limit his appearance were presumably based more on narrative than money. And Taylor is actually pretty good in the role; his physique is similar to Bradley's, which helps, and he's got a similar enough voice that it's easy enough to accept the transition. Whereas the last guy felt like seeing a kid in a costume, Taylor is someone who could conceivably continue playing the character for future installments and be accepted by the fans, not unlike the initial hesitance/eventual championing of every new James Bond or Batman (remember when everyone cried about Ben Affleck being cast? Some of the same people are now upset he might not come back for more).

Speaking of winning fans over, the makers cast Heather Langenkamp in the film and touted her involvement back when the film was first going into production in 2016, but if you're planning to see it for her, I'd advise against it, as her role can barely even be considered a cameo. She plays the landlord of one of the victims, and her on-screen time is limited to just two shots (one from behind!) as she walks down a flight of stairs, mutters a few things about the tenant, and opens a door. It's the kind of role that would usually be filled by Central Casting and perhaps not even meet the director until the day of shooting, yet she is given fourth billing for this nothing appearance. I'm not even joking when I say that an extra standing behind one of the cops as they wait in line for coffee is actually on-screen more than Ms. Langenkamp, and it's pretty lame of them to use her name/our affinity for "Nancy" to sucker in a few folks who might otherwise have no interest in another (or even their first). I was thinking she'd show up in one of the deleted scenes, but that's not the case. There are only two, and one is just an extension of the opening with the Auditor (played by writer/director Gary Tunnicliffe himself), letting things go on a bit longer but otherwise offering nothing of note. The other is more substantial, showing Sean and the other detective (Egerton, played by Alexandra Harris) talking about God while in a church, which clues us more into Sean's motives and gives Egerton a bit more to do than just ask for or deliver exposition (per Tunnicliffe, she wasn't even in the original story concept, but added at the producers' request, which helps explain why she's fairly extraneous in the narrative). With the the movie being so short I can't say it needed to lose scenes for pacing, but I doubt anyone will watch it and think it should have been in the movie, either. There's also a gag reel which provided some minimal amusement.

Tunnicliffe and his crew should be proud of what they've done here. It's no secret that this film (and the last one) were made quick and cheap by Dimension in order to hang on to their rights to the series (the contracts require them to make a movie within a certain amount of time; failure to do so for the Halloween series is why it ended up at Blumhouse), but he clearly wants to restore the series to its former highs instead of just playing studio lapdog and putting in the bare minimum that they require. The effects are practical, the designs are solid, and the scripts (yes, even Revelations') are far more interesting than the previous entries, where they were rewriting unrelated spec scripts to include Pinhead, which would be fine if the series was more anthological from the start, but there was this cool world opening up (particularly in the 2nd and 4th films) that got unceremoniously dropped when the series went DTV. Even if the results are imperfect, the attempt to get things back on track is admirable, and I hope that Dimension's money woes clear up somehow or (far more likely) the series is handed over to a studio that might realize the potential and give Tunnicliffe (or his replacement, if that was the case) the money to live up to the standards the series set in its initial entries. Until then, at least we have, for the first time since 1996, an entry that is actually worth watching (uneven as it may be), though I should stress that it might take suffering through the likes of Hellworld to really appreciate it.

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HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT Official Trailer (2018) Horror Movie HD - YouTube
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FEBRUARY 8, 2018

GENRE: COMEDIC, THRILLER
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (BORROWED)

I've repeatedly explained the main reasons I started Horror Movie A Day (eleven years ago this week! Happy birthday, me!), mostly involving catching up on movies I missed and working on my abilities as a writer. But there was another one I don't talk about as much: hoping to find "that movie I saw on HBO when I was a kid", though in reality I probably only saw a few minutes, because only one scene really stuck with me: some people (including a blond woman) on the stairs, sunlight streaming through, and a body turning to dust. This memory had me thinking it was a vampire movie of some sort, but my vague description was not good enough for anyone to help me identify the film. But thanks to Twitter, I discovered that old HBO listings were collected online, and so using my memory of what I was doing at the time (watching TV while my dad packed up our RV for a trip to Canada) and a family photo album that helped me find the date we left for that trip, I was finally able to determine that the film was House of the Long Shadows.

So I asked if anyone had a copy, with my friend Amy coming to the rescue, and then in typical Collinsian fashion I didn't get around to watching it for another six months or so. But that's fine, it was nice to check off this box to celebrate HMAD's latest anniversary, even if I had to "cheat" to find the film. See, my hope was that I would just end up watching the movie in the same random fashion I watched at least 80% of the films I watched for the site, totally unaware that a 30+ year mystery was about to be solved, and freaking out when that vivid memory appeared in full on my television. However, as it turns out, my memory was quite off; I know for sure this was the movie I saw, but the "body turning into dust" was actually a little doll that was filled with maggots spilling everywhere when it was toppled over, and while the staircase of my memory was indeed in the film, they were not on it during the dust/maggot scene. Likewise, there was no sunlight coming through at all, and given the time it was on (around 630-7pm in May) I suspect it was actually just the actual sunset coming through the window near the TV. But that's just how memories work, especially over time - they jumble and get combined, and I suspect if we were to get a Blu-ray of any ten "vivid" memories of our childhood showing us how they actually happened, they'd be much different than they occur in our minds.

What's funny is that when I got older and would start trying to describe the movie online to people who might be able to help, I'd say that it might be a Hammer movie, because now that I'd seen a bunch of them (via HMAD) I realized that the tone - as best as I could a. recall it and b. really consider it as a 5 year old - was similar. So when I finally identified the movie, it tickled me to see that not only was it indeed a British film (again, the sort of thing a 5 year old would have no way of comprehending), but it starred the two premiere masters of Hammer horror: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, making it probably the first time I had seen either man in a film, nearly a decade before I'd know who they were. While it wasn't actually a Hammer movie, describing it as one was inadvertently a better clue than my description of the scene I remembered - I mean if you say "Hammer" obviously someone's gonna start rattling off Lee and/or Cushing movies.

What's even funnier is that it's not even really much of a horror movie, and that I lucked out and remembered one of the few scary bits in the entire thing. Watching now I have even more doubt I watched it all as a kid, because it's too slow and talky for me NOW let alone as someone who probably should have been watching cartoons. Despite the incredibly distinguished claim of being the first film to cast Lee, Cushing, and Vincent Price in a film where all three actually interact with one another (with John Carradine for good measure), the (spoiler for 35 year old movie ahead) "all a set up" nature of its plot leaves very little opportunity for terror, and it takes a while for all three of the actors to even show up in the movie, despite their billing. The plot concerns a writer (Desi Arnaz Jr, fifth billed even though he's in pretty much every shot) who is dared by his publisher to write a new novel in 24 hours while staying at an isolated creepy old house, a bet he gladly takes and sets off with what is supposedly one of the only two keys to the joint. However when he arrives he finds two housekeepers (Carradine and Sheila Keith), and then after a while the other big stars show up one by one roughly every five to ten minutes. The movie is half over by the time everyone's there (second billed Lee being the last to arrive, at the 50 minute mark), so it minimizes the amount of time these titans can really bounce off one another.

Worse, the script has Price and Cushing as brothers (Carradine being their father - a curious casting choice since he's only five years old than them) but Lee as a real estate jerk of some sort who doesn't trust them, keeping them apart for a big chunk of the remainder of the film. And even though they're all top-billed the real stars of the movie are Arnaz and his love interest (Julie Peasgood, the "blond woman" of my memory), so their roles are basically glorified cameos as opposed to the leads. Anyway, once everyone's there it gets more fun, with the family gathering to finally release a murderous brother who has been locked in the attic for forty years after murdering a village girl, only to discover his room is empty. Clearly, it must be him that starts killing everyone off one by one, mostly off-screen, right? Well, if you've seen a movie before, or even just a trailer for a movie, you might know exactly who the brother is, and in order for that plot point to work (i.e. why his family members don't recognize him when he arrives saying he's someone else) Walker and screenwriter Michael Armstrong pull another twist on us: it was all a ruse put on by the publisher to make sure he either won his bet, or gave his writer enough inspiration to write a new book, winning either way.

Of course, for this sort of thing to work, the horror stuff has to stop with fifteen minutes left, so that everyone can "come back to life" and explain how it worked. Makeup! Fake weapons! A lot of sleight of hand tomfoolery! We can ignore the fact that our hero could easily have killed any of these people (or at least the real culprit) at any time - indeed he actually throws the villain down the stairs - but not the fact that the movie runs a too-long 103 minutes and after about 90 they tell us most of what we just saw was complete bullshit. It's one thing for a movie like April Fool's Day where a. it's pretty fun at least and b. it's kind of expected considering the holiday setting, but here it's a bit of a dick move that they didn't fully earn. Even if we ignore the number of times that the horror icon guys were going along with the story even when Arnaz wasn't present to hear it (staying in character, I guess?), the movie is just too drawn out to forgive the ruse.

To be fair, the film is paying homage to "Old Dark House" movies (not "Haunted House", a distinction Walker makes on his commentary), and most of those had "it was all fake" kind of endings too - but in those, there was still a legit danger to the characters. In those, most of the time it'd turn out that the "ghost" or whatever was just a guy who was murdering everyone - for real - in order to collect an inheritance or steal their jewels, but there's nothing nefarious at all here, with the body count set firmly at zero. It's also usually not that easy to figure out who the bad guy is (The Bat, for example - which has Vincent Price! - fooled me), whereas here it's pretty obvious the instant the actor appears since he is claiming to be someone boring and they wouldn't hire him for that. Long story short, the reveal that it was all a game didn't even bother me all that much at first, because I figured they were up to something equally sinister, but instead it ends with everyone throwing a party congratulating each other on their performances. That scene does have Vincent Price calling Christopher Lee a "bitch" (in good humor), which is hilarious, but still.

So, ironically, it's almost a perfect "horror" film for a 5 year old, since the movie itself tells you that it was all make believe, saving the child's parents from having to do it. If it were only like 85 minutes and threw in a bit more spooky business (even the older films had more on-screen action), it'd actually be something I'd want to show my kid in a year or two (not to mention a safer way to introduce him to Price, Lee, etc. than their other films of note). But I think he'd be bored; I'd rather wait a bit longer and let him see these titans in their glory rather than in their twilight (I think this was Cushing's last genre film, actually). As for me, my favorite thing about the disc (besides the trailer, narrated by Price and adding "That's me!" when rattling off the list of actors) was Walker explaining that the film was profitable because HBO paid good money for its broadcast rights - the very thing that allowed me to catch one of its highlights as a young lad. It also helps me realize that the rat movie I saw probably WAS Of Unknown Origin (next to last paragraph explains) and like this, my memory was likely just mixed up with other things, so thanks, movie. Wish you were better, but you've done your part and now you can move on in this world.

What say you?

House of The Long Shadows trailer (Cannon Films) - YouTube
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