Poltergeist (2015)

MAY 22, 2015


I've noted before that Poltergeist II: The Other Side was the first horror movie I ever saw in theaters, and thus it's very likely that the original Poltergeist was the first horror movie I saw, period (why would my mom take me to a sequel if I hadn't seen the original, especially if I was obviously kind of young for that stuff?). That said, it doesn't hold TOO much of a nostalgic grip on my heart - I quite like it, but I don't watch it over and over nor do I even consider it one of my 10 (20?) favorite horror films or anything like that. Just because it obviously played a big role in my horror fandom (and also made me afraid of clowns for a while there) doesn't mean I hold it sacred, and thus I went into the remake with an open mind.

It didn't take long for that optimism to fade, however. The impressive cast is unfortunately left to flounder by the painfully by-the-numbers script and unenthusiastic direction, turning in one of the more lifeless big-budget horror remakes I've seen in quite some time. I think I have to go back to the Platinum Dunes Nightmare on Elm Street to find a film with THIS much potential and THIS much talent (and, of course, THIS much money) all going toward a film where absolutely no one seems to really give a shit about anything that's on screen. I'd almost rather it was nigh on unwatchable and riddled with awful storytelling, acting, FX, etc - it would at least be MEMORABLE. This was so rote I had to go off to the little walkway into the theater (where I could still see the screen but no one could see me) to take notes on my phone, because I knew that if I waited until I wrote the review hours later, or even until I got into my car, I'd forget just about everything I had just seen.

Let's get the good out of the way, because it'll be quick. As I said, the cast is great. Even a hack like Gil Kenan is incapable of making Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt anything less than the most charming and likable people you're likely to meet, and they do a fine job recreating that easy, lived-in chemistry that Craig The Nelson and JoBeth Williams had in the original. The kids are also good, and Jared Harris is always a pleasure so casting him as Tangina, essentially, was an inspired choice. And while the script plods along using the original as a guide every step of the way, there's a scene that seems to be paying homage to the sequels, with a garage based attack (a la the first sequel's climax) involving a hand coming out of a puddle in the cement (like Poltergeist III). And Rockwell drinks from a bottle and spits up some worms (hallucination scene), in what HAS to be a callback to II's most famous scare. Not that I particularly love those movies and was overjoyed to see them referenced, but I like the idea of giving them a nod anyway. Also, they didn't give anyone the same names - the family dynamic is exactly the same (two daughters, one son as the middle child) but it's not the Freelings (it's the Bowens) and the first names don't match either.

But that'd mean more if they weren't doing the exact same things in the exact same order. The oldest daughter plays more of a role here than the original Dominique Dunne character, but otherwise every single beat is pretty much the same until the final 15 minutes. The tree, the clown, the TV (static instead of snow), the youngest disappearing, the frazzled, sleep deprived visit to the paranormal team... it's all there, with no real diversions of note. It's not a word for word copy like Psycho, but it might as well have been, because at least then we could just settle into their groove in some way. Instead, they will continually offer new wrinkles or ideas, only for the end result to just be whatever happened in Tobe Hooper's movie. It's like, if Hooper was at point A and took a right then a left to reach point B, Gil Kenan would go straight and then take a right - they'd both be at the same spot, so what does it matter what path they took? I kept hoping for a major change, like they were trying to trick us by being familiar only to throw a major curveball (kill off one of the characters, perhaps), but no. The ending is a bit different but in a way that means nothing unless there's a sequel, which I hope there isn't.

The script also feels like the end result of two different approaches, which, like the Nightmare remake (and also The Fog), renders some plot points completely baffling. For example, the dad isn't in real estate this time, he's a recently laid off exec from John Deere, and moved to the house not because it was part of his company, but because they could afford it. Ignoring the idea that a family led by two people who don't work (she's a stay at home mom) are somehow "reduced" to buying a two story home in the suburbs (they throw some power lines up to make it look like a crappy neighborhood, but it's actually really nice and probably a lot better than most audience members can afford), we still have to wonder, then, why does the poltergeist fixate on them? It's the same plot as before - the housing development was built over a cemetery where the graves were left intact while the tombstones were relocated - but without that connection that Nelson's character had to (flimsily) explain why they specifically were being targeted, I spent the whole movie wondering why none of their neighbors were being harassed. There's some hint that the power lines are involved in the freaky occurrences, but their house isn't even the closest one to them, not by a long shot. For the majority of the film, Kenan ignores the existence of the neighbors entirely to avoid explaining this potential plot hole, but then when their house explodes (it's not a spoiler, it happened in the original and I've been perfectly clear that this movie does nothing different) you see cars in every driveway and even a few neighbors in the street watching.

There are also some new touches that add absolutely nothing, like an alarm system that they spend an inordinate amount of time establishing considering there's no payoff. The oldest daughter's cell phone gets fried (presumably from the ghost, we don't actually see it) and Rockwell buys her a new one, and that's that. And Harris' character is a lame TV show host, but he never even tries to use the family's plight for his show (Rockwell says something like "I told him he can't film", but since Harris never brought it up, it carries no weight). It's like half the people calling the shots on this thing wanted it to be identical, and the other half wanted to carve their own path and really modernize it, and Kenan just said yes to both parties, so you have all these potential new ideas to explore getting lip service before the film gets back on the 33 year old track established by the original. It got to the point where I was happy to see some CGI FX because at least it was something that they couldn't be copying from Hooper for a few minutes.

And that's the other odd thing - there are simply no scares in this movie. The clown doll probably would have worked if it wasn't shown in every trailer, and even if it still did it's kind of pathetic that it would be the highlight by far. The tree is less terrifying than the one from Harry Potter, and once Carol Anne, er, Maddie, gets taken they don't even really try for anything else that might jolt an audience (getting under our skin or offering legit suspense, at this point, would be expecting far too much from this enterprise). This is the 2nd major horror release in a row after Unfriended that is bizarrely lacking in even generic terror - it's not that the scares don't work so much as they simply aren't THERE. It certainly FEELS like a horror movie, but Kenan and the writers forgot to add those actual elements; even when copying Hooper it never approaches any semblance of fear or terror. I got more worked up during the trailers for other genre films (Insidious 3 and Crimson Peak) than I did throughout this entire thing, which is embarrassing considering how easy a sucker I am for family horror now that I have a kid (whose birthday is today!). I felt my pulse rise a tad when Maddie comes back unconscious from the other side, but that's about it - and that's like 75 minutes into the movie or whatever. Little late to start pumping the audience's adrenaline, wouldn't you say?

But the cast! It's a testament to all of them, particularly Rockwell, that the movie is even watchable at all. Sure, his droll one-liners are less amusing when his daughter is missing, but he's still making the most of a thankless role and never once acting like it's beneath his talents, which it most certainly is. Ditto DeWitt, who gets even less to do - there's a halfhearted attempt to make the son the center of the movie this time, but with everyone hellbent on copying the movie where he was NOT the main focus, it doesn't really work. But it still keeps mom from diving into the closet to rescue her daughter, which means DeWitt never gets a big moment (there's no pool either; the alternate Kenan offers is the movie's low point, for sure). There should be some sort of law against casting actors this good in a crummy movie like this and not even giving them a big hero moment to make up for the rest of the crap they had to walk through. I hope they were paid well, at least.

What say you?


Maggie (2015)

MAY 10, 2015


Imagine an episode of The Walking Dead where Carl gets bit in the first scene, and the rest of the episode focuses entirely on Rick wrestling with the inevitable as the others keep saying "kill him, now!". It'd probably be one of the best episodes of the series, it would be the one they use when trying to get Andrew Lincoln an award, and for once the dumber audience members might not complain about the lack of zombie action. Unfortunately for Maggie, it's a full length film that amounts to that exact, very minimal plot, and at 90 minutes it's not quite enough to sustain a feature's demands - even if it does have one of the best performances its star has ever given.

Said star is, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a role that could just as easily have been played by George Clooney or Ed Harris or any other elder statesman actor you can think of - there is nothing "Schwarzenegger-ian" about it. Take whatever image you might get in your mind from "a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger" and I guarantee you won't see anything like it in the film. There are only three traditional (meaning largely anonymous) undead in the film, and while they all die at Arnold's hands, it's not played for action heroics (one of them is actually off-screen, in fact). They simply illustrate the tangible threat of a zombie for anyone who's never seen a zombie movie before, and that's their function - this is not a traditional horror movie. The introduction of the first zombie (in a gas station) is sort of a scary moment, but the rest of the film is straight up drama, with the process of Maggie (Abigail Breslin) slowly turning into a zombie playing out the same way a movie about a person with cancer or Alzheimers or whatever would depict the illness taking over.

It's not the first film to take this approach, nor will it be the last. The appeal is seeing Arnold go through these motions, and I couldn't help but think the movie is 20 years too late. I love that the big guy is taking chances and doing different things at this point in his career, but not only is he too old for the role (Maggie is 16ish and his oldest of three children - he's 65 years old!), but the change of pace would have been more eye-opening had it come along when he was still at the top of his game. We've seen him do the grieving dad thing in other films (including End of Days, his only other horror movie) and we've also seen him take on roles that reduced his usual superhuman stature (Last Stand, for example). Hell, even the new Terminator movie seems to suggest he's past his due date. It'd be more effective and exciting to see him in this state in between, say, True Lies and Eraser, where he'd not only be age appropriate but also the idea of him NOT going around blowing zombies away and quipping would be less of a shock.

It'd also help the fact that the movie itself isn't particularly that novel. Arnold's casting is pretty much the only offbeat choice; the story has no real wrinkles to speak of, and you pretty much know how it'll play out once you've met all of its 7 or 8 characters of note. There are a couple of cops who keep checking in; one is older and a friend to Arnold, the other not as sympathetic and very much gung-ho about killing anyone that's infected as soon as possible. Then there's the neighbor family, where the mom (not infected) hides her zombie husband and daughter, all of whom exist for no other reason than to show Arnold a glimpse of what may happen if he ignores everyone's warnings to bring Maggie to quarantine. Or he could take her out himself, which is the advice he gets from his doctor friend who supplies him the cocktail that will very painfully end her life before she turns and becomes dangerous. It's all stuff we've seen before in some form or other (including on Walking Dead itself), so once the thrill of seeing Arnold going through these motions wears off, we're left with something a bit too threadbare and familiar to really hit the nerves it wants to.

I mean, sure, it gets pretty touching at times; there are a few moments of levity between Arnold (I forget his character's name, not that it matters) and Maggie that are wonderful, and it's also where he's at his best. There's a good one where they make fun of his wife's cooking (Maggie is from his first marriage, the woman is dead), and another later where they talk about her mom and his old truck - these scenes more than make up for the (too) many ones that have Arnold and/or Maggie just sort of wandering or driving around the dying world, with director Henry Hobson indulging in what seems like an obsession with focusing on a random object and leaving everything else in soft focus (including his actors) behind it. This is Hobson's first feature after a lengthy career in both video game trailers and title sequences, and I couldn't help but think he was trying to distance himself from that sort of flashiness by slowing everything to a crawl here. I knew there wouldn't be much action (it's a PG-13 movie, for starters), but I was hoping there would be more to the narrative than what I already knew from its one sentence description.

The script by John Scott 3 also shoots itself in the foot by mentioning something far more interesting that we never get to see - the quarantine lab where infected are sent. Apparently they aren't separated; if you were just bit or just shy of being a drooling full blown zombie, you get thrown in the same room, where they apparently let the problem solve itself by just letting them eat each other. Gruesome, sure, but I can't think of anything that's ever dealt with that sort of scenario (sort of like a prison drama), so it's a shame we only hear about it (practically in passing) instead of seeing it. The ending is also a letdown; I won't spoil the particulars, but there's a perspective shift that actually robs the film and its audience of a final moment with a main character. It sounds weird, but I wanted the ending to devastate me, and the choice they take didn't do that - it just left me kind of with blue balls. There's a fade to white, the sort of one where you know the next thing you'll see is credits, and I almost shouted "Oh come ON!" to the other 5 people in the theater (including a very old lady, who made me sadder than the movie - it was Mother's Day, why's she watching a zombie movie by herself?).

I know this is mainly a negative review, but I want to stress that the movie is still worth a look. Arnold's performance (and Breslin's, though that's not as revealing as she's consistently great), the terrific score, and the charming father/daughter bonding scenes are enough to make it worth seeing, though you don't need to rush out right now to do so. I really wanted to like it and was quite anxious to see it (I cut my Skype call to my mother-in-law short to go! And I really like her!), but after 30 minutes I realized the movie had already played its entire hand and we were just also kind of waiting for Maggie to turn, which may have been the point but if so it didn't translate to an effective feature (again, an episode of a TV show would be ideal for this exact scenario/number of characters). As long as you go in knowing that it's so stripped down that it's almost weightless, you'll probably find a lot to appreciate and enjoy, especially if you're a die-hard fan of Arnold's that still looks forward to his ass-kicking adventures with the same fervor you did as a kid. I'll give it this much - his crying has come a long way since End of Days' embarrassing snowglobe scene, so for that alone it's a winner.

What say you?


The Drownsman (2014)

MAY 4, 2015


There have been a number of horror films about people dealing with their fears (The Fear and its sequel, the more recent Fear Clinic), but apart from agoraphobia - a desired affliction for producers because it's a good excuse to not shoot outdoors - most of them present a variety of different things that scare its characters. Someone's afraid of the dark, another one's afraid of spiders, etc. The Drownsman is one of those rare ones to focus on one particular phobia, and it's the FIRST I can recall where said phobia is aquaphobia, aka the fear of water*. Since it's a horror movie, it proves to be not an unfounded one, as one by one her friends realize (too late, of course, since this is a slasher) that their friend isn't crazy - the water really IS out to get them.

Well, what's IN the water I mean, namely the title character. But while her fear kicks off after a near-drowning in a lake, the film quite enjoyably opts to limit the size of the water sources that the Drownsman emerges from. Rather than constantly have the characters find ways to go into lakes, oceans, or even tubs (after the first 20 minutes, in the scene that springs him on the group), The Drownsman comes at them from puddles, leaks, a rinsing station at a salon, even a small spill from a bottle of water. There's a certain Freddy-esque fun to these scenes; just as the Elm St movies allowed anything to happen as long as it was possible for the character to doze off, here he can show up if there's even a drop of water nearby, which in a normal world there almost always is (hell he can get me right now from three different spots in my office alone).

And like some Freddy kill scenes we see our characters being pulled from the real world into the Drownsman's, allowing the movie to sort of double up on its kill scenes. Like, we see them doing whatever and then UH OH WATER! and getting pulled into their desk or a sink or whatever (director Chad Archibald employs some great lo-fi techniques to sell these images instead of CGI - big thumbs up there), and the scenes are usually drawn out in a kind of Final Destination-y way, making them feel like full blown death scenes on their own. But then the character wakes up in The Drownsman's little dungeon (akin to Freddy's boiler room) and they get killed for real, in a less elaborate but not exactly instant death sequence of its own. There are only four or five kills in the movie, but this gives them double the action and even more suspense; you can hope they don't get sucked into his world in the first place, and then you can hope they find their way out of it.

Admittedly, this also allows Archibald to pad his runtime a bit. It's not a particularly elaborate story (not really a complaint, it IS a slasher film after all), and even with the lengthened kill scenes the movie still runs south of 90 minutes with slow credits. I wouldn't have noticed if not for an awkward omission that at first I thought was intentional: there's a curious shortage of male characters in the movie. When we meet our group of four pals (a fifth is introduced later), one of them has just gotten engaged at the party that they've all just exited, and asks our heroine Madison to be her maid of honor. Then Madison nearly drowns (unrelated!) and we cut to a year later, where the now-bride is furious at Madison for missing the wedding. We can see that it's raining, and Madison's eyes widen at the sight of a puddle on the floor near the bride, so we can assume her accident has left her with a paralyzing fear of the water - but why couldn't we just see this wedding? Why does the audience have to piece together something that drives the plot?

Additionally, throughout the film we never once meet the groom, making me wonder for a while if the director was intentionally sidelining all of the males for some reason. It's around 30 minutes before we meet our first male character (an older guy whose daughter disappeared, presumably taken by The Drownsman), and from then on, apart from the big guy himself, I think the only other male is an orderly at the hospital where one of the exposition-y people is housed, someone who has like 15 seconds of screentime. Everyone else, even background extras, is a female - it almost HAS to be a conscious choice, but for what purpose I do not know. It's a relief in one respect, however - without a guy around the movie is the rare modern slasher that doesn't include a goddamn love triangle, and for that I am thankful.

I also appreciated Archibald's direction, which included things like cutaways and closeups (no longer a given, sadly) but wasn't over edited to the point of incoherency. In fact he seems to be inspired a bit by the likes of James Wan; the trips to the Drownsman's domain, bathed in red (but with slices of green here and there) reminded me of Insidious (specifically the Lipstick Demon's lair), and his love of cutaways to dripping water recalls Black Sabbath (a frequent and acknowledged influence on Wan). The script isn't the best thing ever written by any means, but the direction more or less made up for it - Anchor Bay's track record as of late has been pretty woeful, which I know because I've dutifully watched just about everything they've sent me - this and Atticus Institute are the only ones in what seems like a year that I've enjoyed enough to write about. Neither are classics, but their hearts are in the right place and they get more right than wrong, which (again) is rare enough to sadly warrant mentioning.

I just wish the movie was more like its cover art! I admit this one might have been pushed down in the pile of movies I plan to watch if not for the very 80s, big VHS box-inspired cover, which suggested something more schlocky and fun than the film actually offered. It's actually a pretty serious movie, and as someone who is afraid of all kinds of fish (!) I can't really mock the idea of a person shrieking and getting into fetal position because it starts to rain - everyone's afraid of something, and those who aren't afraid of that thing probably find it hard to understand why. That said, I did have to chuckle a bit when (spoiler?) our heroine triumphantly drinks a glass of water to face her fear (she had been getting fluids intravenously), because it's followed by her fairly easily going out in the rain, which you'd think would be the harder thing for her. It'd be like if I beat my ichthyophobia by gobbling down a filet o fish, and then casually wandered into the New England Aquarium. This isn't how baby steps works!

So it's an OK movie, a perfectly good rental - I can't really see a purchase making much sense as it's not the kind of thing you're likely to rewatch. Plus, the Bay didn't bother adding any bonus features whatsoever (not even a trailer), and the audio mix is a bit wonky - the requisite shrieks during the climax were all distorted, prompting me to lower my volume to -45 or so (it's usually -30, -25). Didn't have trouble before then, but it was loud/obnoxious enough to warrant mentioning, especially as it was near the end and thus if you're watching late (as it is a horror movie) the offending part will likely wake a roommate, possibly even a neighbor, if you happen to have it up to normal volume. Otherwise the presentation is solid, and it's an improvement over the team's Antisocial, a not-great "infected" (read: zombie, basically) movie that cribbed a bit too much from The Signal for my liking, though it had some fun ideas (the zombie plague spread through social media!). That one has a sequel already in the can, and this one ends with the seeming promise of a followup - guess which one I'm more excited about?

What say you?

*Don't say Jaws, you wannabe know-it-all. Big difference between a character trait and a narrative.


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