Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

NOVEMBER 8, 2015


I noticed far more writing credits on Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse than the shooting script seemingly would have required, which means I'd have to do research to find out which of them was responsible for the thing that kept me from really liking the movie. Most of it actually really works well, with an endearing trio of best friends at its center and a sweet, if slightly cliched, subplot about how one of them isn't "growing up" as fast as the other two and how they handle their eroding bond, all set against a zombie outbreak that has seemingly wiped out most of their town. Alas, someone thought it'd be a good idea to work an American Pie-esque series of raunchy encounters and subplots into the mix, and it all but kills the movie's potential every time it rears its ugly head.

Since the heroes are 15 or 16, this would make for a pretty good early entry zombie for your budding horror fan if not for all the sexual hijinks. It's one thing for a Friday the 13th-type boob shot before Jason kills the fornicating teens, but one of the three guys talks about sex non-stop, there's a trip to a strip club (yes, an undead stripper does a routine, more on that soon), and in the weirdest moment, a female zombie snags her top on something and exposes her breasts, at which point the horny guy fondles them. Well, tied for weirdest; later on an old lady zombie (Cloris Leachman!) tries to eat his ass but her dentures are out so he doesn't get infected or anything - we just get a visual of an Oscar winner slurping away in dangerous proximity to a teenager's asshole. It's gross and unfunny, and doesn't jive at all with the kid-friendly plot about doing what's right, standing by your pals, etc. It also primes the movie too much for what is its only good gag - a kid is falling out of a window and grabs hold of what he/we think is a zombie's bathrobe belt, only to discover that it's actually the guy's dick. With all the boobs and raunchiness you know a dick gag is coming, and it deflates some of the gag's impact - imagine how funny and shocking it'd be in an otherwise chaste movie? It'd still go against the otherwise PG-13 tone (the violence is no more harsh than what's allowed on Walking Dead), but at least the payoff would be worth it.

That said, I did appreciate that the fat kid of the group wasn't the butt of fat jokes the whole time. He has a toilet moment (someone had to), but otherwise they don't really bother with lame gags - even during the aforementioned window scene (they're jumping out the window onto a well-placed trampoline to bounce to safety), you'd half-expect some dumb Kevin James-y gag where he crashes through the trampoline or can't bounce high or whatever, but he clears it just fine. His dedication to the scout group is also refreshingly not played for laughs; his friends are getting a bit too old to be earning merit badges or whatever, but they clearly still have some affinity for it (and plenty more for him), so he's not painted or treated as a dork or a loser or anything like that. In vague exposition that I assume was truncated, we learn that his father died two years ago, so scouting with his two best pals (and their scout leader, played by David Koechner in a rare non-asshole role) is how he keeps the sadness at bay - and the friends respect that. This could have easily turned into a mockfest both about scouting and the "weird kid" that sticks with it after puberty, but at least one of the writers was smart enough to know that the comedy can stem from genuine character interplay and situations, not by making fun of everything.

As for the zombie stuff, it's fine. They explain it away with some accident at a science lab (the janitor, played by Workaholics' Blake Anderson, snoops around and unleashes it) and it takes a while to really get going, but there's an interesting element to it that I haven't seen much: they retain basic (VERY basic) functions of their pre-zombie life. I mentioned the stripper, and then they encounter a weird homeless guy with an affinity for Britney Spears who, despite being undead, recognizes "Baby One More Time". And sure enough, when they go to a police station for help, a zombie cop does what a normal cop would do - he fires his gun repeatedly at the people he's supposed to be protecting. The filmmakers also split the difference for the whole "fast or slow" thing - they just kinda briskly walk, which I found amusing, and on that note despite being a zombie comedy they don't drown in Romero references (save for the hero being named Ben, but with that as the only one it might just be a coincidence). There's a shoutout to Haddonfield for some reason, but otherwise the biggest reference is probably a Die Hard spoof (it's during the cock scene, which I admit is part of why I was won over by it - the kid falls just like Hans, with the now dismembered cock in place of Holly's watch). I don't know why so many zombie comedies seem to be knee-deep in references to other movies, but it's nice to see an exception.

Oh, and zombies are a thing they know about, which I always love. It's settled in about two seconds; a zombie approaches, someone says "Is that a... no, it can't be!" (or something along those lines), and then it's shot in the chest and survives. Then it's shot in the head and dies, and the shooter says "See? Zombie." and that's that. I've been saying for years that we're long past the time where anyone should be in the dark as to what a zombie is, so I'm glad we're finally getting to that place. This also informs how they make their weapons, in a sequence that thankfully doesn't do the Evil Dead thing with a bunch of quick-cut zooms as the trio gears up for battle. The boy scouts angle is actually kind of underplayed in the film; they're out on a camp trip, but they leave the woods pretty quickly and apart from their badge-covered shirts, the whole concept barely applies until it's time to make makeshift weapons at the hardware store. Closeups of their various badges (archery, engineering, etc) are mixed with them making appropriate weapons, presumably using the knowledge that they've gained over years of scouting. And the weapons are effective - one makes a pneumatic airgun thing (like a cannon used to fire promo shirts) with doorknob ammo that can put a hole through several zombie heads with one shot, and another modifies a weed-whacker. It's always bugged me that in zombie movies, even after the "only to the head" rule has been applied you still see people shooting at chests, so I liked that they actually make weapons that are specifically to take out the heads. And there's even a fun payoff where the one lifer scout has been trying to earn his fire-making badge, and of course finally gets it right to save the day - like the nudity, it seems like these multiple writing teams were all making different movies, and I wish I could see the one that keeps the scouting angle front and center throughout, as I found it quite charming.

So the movie is sloppy, basically. It's not terrible; I was enjoying myself and was impressed with the main kid (Tye Sheridan), but they might as well have color coded the images to match the obviously rewritten (and rewritten again) script. And I couldn't help but think that the best audience for this movie wouldn't even notice things like that, but at the same time, the sex gags (one girl is literally eaten out, I should mention) would be too much for the 9 or 10 year olds the rest of the movie would be perfect for. It's sort of like Deadly Friend in that regard, where I am seriously unsure who the target audience was for this thing. Older horror fans who miss Stifler and the rest of the Pie guys? Has to be a tiny grouping, even tinier than the film's terrible box office would suggest. I was actually surprised that there were like 15 other people in the theater with me, considering that the film was "enjoying" a record-setting terrible weekend - I figured I might even have a private screening. No one seemed super into it, but there was only one walk out, so I guess the rest all felt the same as me: it's an OK movie that was the victim of people making bad, ill-fitting decisions on what kind of movie it should be.

What say you?


Stung (2015)

NOVEMBER 2, 2015


I've said on numerous occasions that a full scale monster movie revival is long overdue, but as long as we get a movie like Stung every now and then, I guess I can make peace with the lack of a glut of such things - quality over quantity, in other words. Stung isn't exactly the Jaws of killer wasp movies (actually, it might be by default, but you know what I mean), but it does more right than wrong, offers a fun Lance Henriksen turn, and gives you two lead characters that are likable and worth rooting for, in an era where having just one seems to be too herculean a task for many modern filmmakers. To me, that's a win, even if the movie isn't really doing anything particularly new.

Let's go back to Lance for a second. Certainly he's taken a number of paychecks over the years, including in other killer bug movies like In The Spider's Web, so his presence doesn't exactly guarantee confidence (beyond "at least Lance's scenes were good", of course). But I was delighted to see that this is the rare movie that actually has him lightening up, even cracking jokes once or twice - he's not the usual hardass authority figure or shady human villain, he's just a small town mayor who rolls his eyes at the sort of crap he's forced to do as mayor. It's the sort of role you could see someone like Bruce Davison or John Heard playing, which isn't often the case for Lance's characters. He also lasts quite a while; it's not spoiling anything to say he dies, but again, we've all seen a number of these movies where he's only in it for like 5-10 minutes, but here it's actually one of the fuller roles I've seen him have in a long time*. His reaction to the wasp outbreak is incredible, too - he just glares at them as if it was a normal annoyance, then grabs his drink and calmly makes his way to safety while everyone panics around him. It's pretty much how I expect the actual Lance Henriksen would react to zombies or whatever might kill us all someday.

But the real heroes are played by Matt O'Leary (Sorority Row represent!) and Jessica Cook, as a pair of caterers for the party where all the shit goes down. O'Leary is pretty great in the role; he's introduced as a sort of slacker/klutz type, but proves to be capable when the wasps attack, earning the respect of his boss (Cook) and Lance in equal measure. Cook is also quite charming, and I like that they seem to save each others lives in equal measures (she might even have one up on him), instead of having one be the alpha dog. I don't want to see him rescue her over and over, but I suspect I'd be just as annoyed/bored if they were trying to "play against expectations" by having her constantly saving his life and be the real alpha - both have flaws and both are equally heroic, and it works perfectly.

Less perfect is the script's lack of patience - I talk a lot about these three because they're all the movie gives us within 15 minutes or so of the wasp outbreak. Sure, you expect a good chunk of the anonymous/minor cast to eat it so we can focus on 6-8 people, but screenwriter Adam Aresty only gives us about 5 minutes or so of that group before 3 of them are killed within seconds of each other, giving the rest of the movie not much to work with when it comes to attacks and kill scenes. Sure, the quick deaths come as a shock when they occur - but at what cost? Suspense gets deflated quite a bit after all this, especially when you know Lance will die too. I liked the movie, but I suspect I'd REALLY like it if there were more characters to bounce off each other throughout the 2nd and part of the 3rd act. I mean, you know who is gonna make it to the credits right off the bat, but that's no excuse for wiping out everyone else so quickly.

At least the kills look good, at times great. Alas, CGI wasps are employed on the regular, but they DO have a practical one to use when possible, and it works pretty great, plus makes the CGI ones easier to forgive. The computer wasps don't even look that bad, to be honest, but it's the fact that they were at least using a flesh and fake-blood one when they could that really won me over. And there are some smaller ones that are practical, at least when squished - they produce this flytrap-esque gluey substance that must have been torture on the actors, and it looks fantastic. Plus there are some surprisingly gory kills, including an eyeball bit that Fulci would applaud. The wasps also kind of nest inside their human victims, so there are some fun bits where legs or the head come bursting out of a dummy corpse - good stuff.

Scream Factory/IFC's Blu-ray has some solid extras, though I would advise skipping the production blogs as they were designed for the web and probably far less obnoxious if viewed once a week instead of all at once. Plus they repeat a lot of the info (and even some footage) on the more typical making of, so just watch that for your behind the scenes fix. And definitely listen to the commentary with Aresty, director Benni Diez, and producer Benjamin Munz as they point out some of the film's minor glitches (such as the very European looking truck that the heroes drive in this New York-set, Germany-shot film), heap praise on the actors, and generally give off a fun vibe that matches the film's. Everyone clearly had their heart in the right place, making it easy to forgive the pacing snafu. It might occasionally feel like a glorified Syfy Original Movie, but really - if those things were even half as good as this on the regular, then "Syfy Original Movie" wouldn't be something we used as a putdown.

What say you?

*Weirdly enough, a few days later I saw another one that had more Lance than expected - but unfortunately it was Harbinger Down, which wasn't a very good movie. That said, at least Lance's scenes were good.


Kristy (2014)

OCTOBER 29, 2015


Well, it's finally here. Nearly three years after Kristy was shot, and after several release dates that came and went (plus a couple of other titles, including Random and Satanic), the film was finally released as a Lifetime Original Movie, which is like the saddest fate one could imagine for a would-be theatrical release (doesn't even get the dignity of going DTV!) Given that the movie was already too late to the party, cashing in on The Strangers nearly five years after that film became a big hit, I had long since given up hope that I'd be able to watch the movie in a movie theater, but I still thought it would at least get something more respectable than this. However, going in I wasn't too sad about its fate - after all, a good home invasion type movie would probably play just as well (maybe even a bit better) at home, right?

Unfortunately, that ties into the main problem with the film - our heroine Justine (Haley Bennett) isn't confined anywhere for more than a few minutes. When I heard the basic plot (a girl staying at her college alone on Thanksgiving gets tormented by hooded killers) I assumed it was a tiny school and/or she'd be stuck in her dorm building for the bulk of the film - which would be a fine setting for some taut suspense. But the script always has her on the run, using the entire (and quite large) campus for its unmemorable setpieces, making the entire film feel like the climactic chase scene from a slasher like Friday the 13th than a "home invasion" type. Not only does this get us thinking about the logic more than we should (a campus that obviously has a large student body and she's the ONLY ONE staying behind for Thanksgiving? It was pretty common at my school and we were like 1/4th its size), but it gets mighty repetitive. We know she won't die anytime soon since there's no one else in the movie of note (more on that soon), unlike The Strangers where they COULD kill Liv Tyler or Scott Speedman at some point because there would still be the other one to carry us to the end of the movie, so watching her outrun and occasionally off one of her tormentors loses its novelty value before the halfway point.

The script also beats us over the head with an early chunk of the film that runs through every single thing about Justine that we will need to know about later. She can swim! She knows how to make an explosive! She can use a bat! Etc. And she even has a foreshadow-y English class for good measure, because screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski apparently cannot let one horror movie cliche go unchecked. He also hates the idea of confining his heroine in what's supposed to be a confined thriller, so she leaves the campus entirely to buy some basic snacks, instead of just having there be a school store for her to use (again, my school had this, and we didn't have in-dorm security guards, a big gate with another guard, etc). H20 came to mind more than once, and even that campus felt more inescapable than this one and being stuck in H20 wasn't even a plot point. Later on her boyfriend, who had left to be with his family, just drives back on campus, and again I had to wonder why no one else was doing this on the regular. Maybe they thought a big campus would be more cinematic, but all it did was seemingly betray the point of this brand of horror and help make it a bad movie.

As for the killers themselves, they're fine. They're part of a thinly developed group of Satan worshipers who murder girls they dub "Kristy" (some sort of Christ connection - why not guys named Chris?) and post videos of said murders to a website. Whatever. They're led by Ashley Greene, who is unrecognizable (boo) and the only one who gets any sort of identity, but their final showdown lacks any real interaction - it's rushed and anticlimactic, to say the least. Their first encounter, at the gas station where Justine is buying her ice cream and Mountain Dew (yep, a college campus that doesn't have a vending machine with cold soda, I guess), has way more oomph to it, and I have to assume that they originally had something bigger planned and just didn't do it (or cut it). In fact most of the film's best scenes occur early on, with the best one oddly being the most extraneous, when she runs to the groundskeeper's shack and gets him killed.

I know that sounds spoiler-y, but that's how the movie plays out - she runs around, finds someone, they are killed, and she runs again. You could cut any such sequence out and it wouldn't affect the plot at all, but this one sticks out in particular because the groundskeeper (James Ransone) had only been introduced in a quick, otherwise pointless shot early on when we're learning all about her awesome swimming and science skills. Why the groundskeeper knows her name is beyond me, but I suspect the whole sequence was a late addition to pad the runtime a bit. Also, there's so much fog in the scene it almost feels like she ran into another dimension, but whatever - it's a fun little sequence that has the killers working together for a change (a lot of the stalking scenes are solo - you almost never see two of them at once after their initial attack). The pool scene was OK too, with Bennett using her breath-holding skills, but again - she's the only person in the movie that's alive/not a killer, and the runtime isn't at feature length yet, so there's not a lot of suspense regarding what will happen next.

Going back to what I said about the movie feeling like a feature length slasher showdown - the key to those scenes isn't the part where the killer's chasing Laurie Strode, Alice, etc - it's when she starts fighting back and using her head. The fact that we know that she'll succeed doesn't matter - she and the movie itself have earned this scenario. This movie doesn't have any of that other stuff - it's just that chase, never ending and without a single fresh idea. I guess I can give it a few points for being completely dialogue free for long stretches, but that's hardly enough to make up for its abrasive genericness. Perhaps director Olly Blackburn didn't want to be confined again (his previous film was Donkey Punch, set almost entirely on a party boat); if that was the case maybe they should have hired someone else to direct. On a conceptual level, this movie COULD work, but it doesn't.

What say you?


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