Resident Evil (2002)

DECEMBER 28, 2016

GENRE: MUTANT, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

Even though I saw it when it came out, it's still hard to remember that when the first Resident Evil movie came out in 2002, it was the first zombie movie in multiplexes in nearly a decade (the last one was My Boyfriend's Back, which shouldn't even count since it was a Disney comedy). There were a few indie/foreign ones, of course, but the sub-genre - which had never really been a major box office success in the US - was deader than slashers are now. However, video game movies were chugging along at a fairly steady rate, with the previous year yielding Tomb Raider, which is and remains the biggest game-to-movie hit of all time. While nowadays the zombie aspect would be what got it in theaters, back then it was almost a red flag - it's kind of crazy how much things have changed in the past 15 years. Imagine a world with so few zombie movies that we would flock to this one out of sheer desperation!

Given how no other game to live-action movie series has lasted past a 2nd entry, it's also crazy that the series is still going, with the sixth and so-called Final Chapter* hitting theaters next month after a lengthy gap between it and the previous installment, 2012's Retribution. These things came out like clockwork every 2-3 years, but with Retribution's muted reception Stateside (it cleaned up overseas) and Milla Jovovich's pregnancy, we had to wait over four years, which might as well be an eternity for my increasingly forgetful mind. So I figured I'd revisit the series to refresh my memory (I'm gonna try to do the same for Underworld, a series of films I couldn't follow in the first place), and review this and Apocalypse since those came before HMAD (I might also give Retribution a proper review if I have the time, since the joke doesn't work as well now, as people probably forget it came out on the same day as The Master). I honestly don't know if I ever watched this one again since it first came to DVD, so my memory is dim enough to qualify it as a proper HMAD review (instead of a "non canon" one), so it was kind of fun to go back and watch it with fresh-ish eyes.

One thing I never really appreciated before is how the movie really does function as a prequel to the game series, as I forgot that it didn't have a single actual character (well, human character anyway) from the game(s). I recall being mildly annoyed with it at the time, but looking back, it makes sense. While the game series eventually did do their own prequel (later that year, if memory serves), at that point we never really got the whole story of how the outbreak occurred, where the hunters came from, etc. Not that the movie is canon with the game series in any way (it's probably contradictory, if anything), but it's a fine way to go about working within the parameters of that world without boring players with an exact retelling or pissing them off with changes. They throw in references to the hallmarks - the T-virus, Umbrella, Raccoon City, etc. - without screwing up the characters we may love. Indeed, one thing that always bugs me in the movie series as it's gone on is how certain characters are treated, i.e. Barry in the last one. As the franchise has gone on, Alice (Milla's character, an original) rarely meets other original characters, but finds herself allied by game heroes more and more often. It puts those films at a disadvantage that this first one didn't really have to deal with - it kind of has a blank slate here.

That's not to say it's particularly great or even better than the others (I have trouble ranking them since none are great and they kind of blur together, though I know Extinction is my LEAST favorite, at least in my memory - I'll do a ranking when I finish this refresh!), but it's nice to watch without rolling my eyes that a game character was awkwardly shoehorned in (like Claire in Extinction, an obvious replacement for Jill), or being confused at the narrative. They never really adapted any particular game, but they certainly retained the games' insistence on being convoluted. No one stays dead, people just disappear in between entries, clones are thrown into the mix... all I want is to see Milla Jovovich kicking monsters and zombies, why can't they just be satisfied with that? Why all of the gobbledygook? But this one's pretty straightforward - Alice wakes up with amnesia and within a few minutes a bunch of commando badasses take her under their protection (along with another guy played by Eric Mabius) and explain the situation to her as they work to contain the outbreak and make their way back out. I forgot that Wesker and his ilk aren't even in the movie - there's no real human villain until one guy turns on them late in the film. It's just the zombies, monsters, and lasers.

It's also got a lot of door opening, a fun little nod to the older games that used such actions as loading screens. Paul WS Anderson defends it on one of the bonus features, saying that you never knew if a door would lead to an empty hallway or a pack of monsters, and so he tried to incorporate that here - it's actually kind of successful in a "what will be next?" way, though it rarely offers that sort of creeping dread that the game did. One key difference is that the game had you alone and often severely underpowered, making even a single zombie a bit of a challenge in some instances - but these are hardasses with machine guns and three or four other people watching their back. So the film is never scary in the traditional sense, opting for a more action driven style that isn't necessarily a bad thing in theory, but makes Anderson's attempts to live up to the game in that sense very underwhelming. Silent Hill did a fine job of retaining the game's sense of atmosphere and terror, I think - if Anderson was even trying to scare the audience here, he kinda botched it.

But he keeps it moving, and unlike the game he doesn't backtrack - our characters are always moving from A to B to C, not going in circles like the game often had you doing back then (they've since moved past that, and, perhaps partly because of the films' success, also moved more toward action than horror). He's got a big hard-on for Aliens, and so he follows Cameron's lead by offing the badass types at an even clip while letting the "civilians" take charge as it goes, with Alice in the Ripley role. Most of the action revolves around turning this thing on or opening that door, with the backstory about the virus delivered mostly via flashback or expository dialogue from Mabius' character. He also keeps the enemies fresh - they first fight a bunch of zombies, then the dogs, then different zombies, then a hunter, in addition to the ticking clock scenario adding to the excitement. The CGI is a mixed bag, of course, and the film isn't as bloody as it could have been with an R rating (the film's most famous kill, of the laser grid slicing a guy up into little chunks, is almost entirely off-screen, though we get to see that cool oozing eye at least), but the sheer variety makes up for it, and it's of course fun to see two females as the leads in this kind of thing. The games always had a female and male combo, but since the two male characters of note don't do that much (one of them turns villain) and they're the ones on the poster, it does the games one better - you get Jill AND Claire, essentially, instead of one or the other. Even better, no one makes a big deal out of it - one guy questions Michelle Rodriguez's ability to open a heavy door early on, but otherwise it's not any battle of the sexes statement or anything - they're just competent fighters and the guys respect that, end of story. When filmmakers go overboard making their female heroines superior to the males and constantly showing off said superiority, you end up with angry trolls perceiving it as a threat or an insult on men, and all the fun gets taken out of it. Just let them simply BE and only the worst of the worst will be whining into their little void, while the rest of us can simply enjoy or dislike the movie on its own merits without it becoming a target for some ongoing political/social commentary.

Now, you can't bring up this movie without someone whining about how they fired George Romero and hired a guy whose name elicits the same sort of derision usually reserved for Michael Bay and Uwe Boll. Alas, as someone who was also sure that a serious crime had been committed, I read Romero's script back in the day, and it kind of sucked. It was more or less a retelling of the first game, albeit with some odd changes (Chris and Jill were lovers, blah), but it was just dull as dirt. Granted, I played the game so I knew the beats, and presumably a good chunk of the audience would not be as familiar, but I've also read books that got turned into movies and found them engaging, so there's more to it than that. And with that one change he'd already be annoying a good chunk of the gamers, so even though I don't think Anderson made a particularly great film, I DO think his is better than what Romero's would have been like (if that script was used) and that he made the right call to go into prequel/blank slate mode so people could judge it on its own accord. Granted, it'd be a better example if the movie was really good instead of OK, but we gotta take what we can get here.

What say you?

P.S. Since someone might be wondering - as far as the games go, I played 1-3 on the PS1, Code Veronica and 4 on PS2, and 5-6 on Xbox 360 (and RE1/Code Veronica were the primary draws when I bought my PS1/2, respectively). I never finished 2, 4, or 6, however; I got stuck on 2, had too much trouble with the controls on 4 (I've since bought the Xbox version but haven't played yet), and just plain didn't like 6 enough to finish it. I own Zero and the Revelations games but haven't played them yet. I also did the RE-themed "escape room" recently and we were told that we were the 2nd fastest group yet. Boom!

*No horror film with that (or similarly "final") subtitle has ever proven to be the last one.

PLEASE, GO ON...

31 (2016)

DECEMBER 21, 2016

GENRE: SURVIVAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

It legitimately angered me that I wasn't able to see Rob Zombie's 31 in theaters during its confusing theatrical run last fall, where it played for one night (one SHOW, actually) on September 1st or something like that, then again two weeks later for a more traditional run, albeit one I could never find. Per BoxOfficeMojo it actually played until about Halloween, but damned if I ever saw a theater playing it. It is the only one of his films that I haven't seen theatrically, and probably will remain so as it's not likely to have any revival screenings anytime soon/ever. But it's more than my collectivist "gotta see em all!" mentality that annoys me about missing the film on the big screen - it's because I seem to be among the relatively few people who enjoyed the damn thing, now that I've seen it on Blu-ray and spent a good chunk of the viewing wondering what people hated so much about it.

Granted, this might be the most "fan-friendly" movie Zombie has done yet, so if you're not already on board with his sensibilities I can't imagine this would change your mind - it'd be like buying a greatest hits album from a band you've never liked hoping to finally become a fan. As several people have pointed out, if someone never saw a Rob Zombie movie before and had to guess what it was about, demented clowns killing carnies on Halloween would probably be the scenario they imagined, and that's pretty much exactly what this is, with the only question mark being "is Sheri Moon one of the clowns or the carnies?" She's one of the carnies, as it turns out, and with the film often recalling his Devil's Rejects films it's interesting to see her as the heroine instead of villain this time around.

But, Halloween aside, I AM a fan of his films (and really, it's only the stuff he swiped from Carpenter that I really don't like in his first Halloween; I've always said I like the institution stuff - i.e. when he was at his most creative), and while I would have liked to see him branching out again like he did on the underrated Lords of Salem, it's also fun to see him back in his comfort zone, fully embracing the things he likes. Let's put it this way - if he didn't make this movie, in 20 years some big fan of his WOULD, calling it an homage/tribute to Rob Zombie (not unlike the way Neil Marshall's Doomsday was a tribute to Road Warrior and Escape from New York), so I like that Zombie just already made his own homage. AND he got fans to pay for it (the film was crowdfunded), which I appreciate as well; I'm not big on the idea of making movies this way (especially from proven commodities), but I love that Rob got his supporters to fund the exact movie his detractors often accuse him of making. There's something kind of beautifully dickish about that!

So as a fan, I knew what I was in for - the endless F-bombs, the sleaziness (one major villain character is introduced vigorously sodomizing a woman who is just as into it), the horror references (said villain is also watching Nosferatu at the time), etc. But for whatever reason I didn't know that the heroes were adults; I thought it was a group of kids for some reason (I didn't know Sheri was one of the good guys beforehand), so when the protagonists were introduced and included Meg Foster in their number, I got more interested. There's something pretty compelling to me about a woman who is in her sixties going through these motions; there's less of that tragic sense of "their whole life was ahead of them" that you get from the better slasher movies (or if you're just oversensitive) and more of "This woman has probably dealt with enough shit in her life, she doesn't need this too". When Foster dons a chainsaw and fights back against one of the murderous clowns, it's a terrific moment (and the one that had me pause the film to tweet that I really didn't understand why so many people hated this one).

As for the villains, they're ridiculous caricatures and little more; all named ____ Head (Doom-Head, Psycho-Head, etc) and pretty much only in two or three scenes each. While I won't say who lives or dies among the heroes, I don't think it's spoiling much to say that the movie carries on the grand horror tradition of presenting a scenario that the villains have seemingly succeeded at dozens of times in the past, but THIS TIME the tables are turned as their new would-be victims apparently become the first ones to ever put up a good fight back. The title is also the name of the game, played out every Halloween and hosted by Malcolm McDowell and Judy Geeson, in full Barry Lyndon-type garb for no real reason (I won't deny that it makes for a fine visual, however). They offer odds on each members' survival and, when a Head is dispatched, discuss among themselves who to bring in next. So it's kind of got a Running Man vibe in that regard; when the heroes take down one of these renowned killers an even bigger bad is brought in, until they are forced to go with a notorious monster of a man who will assuredly bring them the quick victory that has eluded them this time around. They'd make great toys or model kits, and each one has their own little hook, but there's an episodic nature to their introduction/departure that gives the film a bit of a repetitious feel - it might have been more fun to spring them all at once and let it play out as a five on five deathmatch throughout.

That said, it never really gets boring, and Zombie keeps the scenery changing just enough to keep it from seeming too samey, impressive for a low-budget movie shot in a warehouse. There's a circus type room, some typical tunnels, even a few exteriors - like the villains, there's a sense of progression that elevates it above what it could have easily been in the hands of a less capable filmmaker. Because, and I'll never stop repeating this, Rob Zombie IS a really great director, he just needs a writing partner to flesh out his films and maybe keep them from feeling like they're all part of the same skeevy universe. Lords of Salem felt like a step in that direction, and I can't help but wonder if it was more of a success if he would have continued down that path and maybe even felt compelled to direct someone else's script for a change (the closest he's gotten to letting anyone else write his stuff is when he copied what Carpenter and Hill already wrote in 1978). On paper this is probably close to terrible, but his visual sense keeps it engaging; the film is actually quite great looking at times (particularly in the rare daylight scenes) and, as you will see on more than one occasion on the making of documentary, he's constantly working to make his sets and backdrops more alive. This isn't a guy who will just defer to his DP and production designers while taking the credit as the director, he really gets in there and makes sure his low budget isn't reflected by what's on-screen.

In fact, if you know you'll hate the movie (or already do) I would like to encourage you to rent the disc just to watch the documentary (if you have time, that is - it runs 132 minutes) and see how hands-on he is - you'll see him lugging parts of the set around and dressing them accordingly, and going over nooks and crannies with the crew instead of just sitting in his chair waiting for them to do everything like some of his peers are happy to do. His lack of a filter is also on full display (when a crew member doesn't show up, he mocks him and says that they got a replacement that was better anyway - heh), and you don't even really have to watch the whole thing to see that love or hate the guy, you have to admit he doesn't phone anything in when it comes to the actual directorial craft (it's the writing process that seems to be where he rushes through things). Unlike Michael Lives, it also feels more like a real doc; once again the post production process is skipped over entirely, but there is more with the actors and other crew to round it out, as opposed to that other "doc" which just felt like four hours of random behind the scenes footage. And thankfully very little of what we learn here is repeated on his commentary, which does get into the writing a bit more and offers a few more of his hilariously blunt observations ("No idea who any of these people are" he mutters over the executive producers' credit), though as with his writing, I wish he'd bring someone in on his tracks as they tend to be pretty dry for the most part, and he clearly gets bored after a while - perhaps if he was joined by Sheri or one of his longtime crew he might have a little more fun.

Now that I think about it, even the "preaching to the choir" kind of complaints aren't totally fair. Sheri aside (and Jeff Daniel Phillips, who follows his solid LoS turn to prove he's actually a fairly engaging actor, which I never would have guessed from his Halloween II stuff), he keeps his regular acting troupe to a minimum, working with more newcomers while NOT bringing in his go-tos (Ken Foree, Sid Haig, William Forsythe, etc. are nowhere to be found), and he's never dealt with a confined location before, either (House of 1000 Corpses kept cutting to that one girl's dad out and about, if you recall). And the Halloween setting is about as significant as Thanksgiving is to Blood Rage (meaning: not at all), so even things that seem like he's copying himself aren't really doing that. He also returns to composing for the first time since 1000 Corpses, working with John 5 and others and doing a pretty good job (though I must admit my favorite cue was clearly a lift from The Fog theme). It's not his best film by any means (it's actually his weakest after Halloween, but again I'm a fan of them all so that's not really a dis), but I think it deserves a fairer shake than I've seen it get so far (I remember even some of my fellow Lords of Salem defenders telling me how awful this was after its Sundance screening), and perhaps now that people can easily find the goddamn thing it will earn a few more fans. All I know for sure is, he hasn't lost any of my support with his work here, and as always I look forward to what he does next.

(In film, that is - I never have liked his music either with White Zombie or solo, ironically enough.)

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Sendero (2015)

DECEMBER 16, 2016

GENRE: BREAKDOWN, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)

A while back, I saw a film called Hidden in the Woods, which was seemingly designed to offend as many viewers as possible, or at least inspire some self-righteous asshole to try to resurrect the Video Nasties list. I wouldn't say I loved the film or anything, but I appreciated its sheer audacity, throwing everything from incest to cannibalism at you and never letting another five minutes go by without another gory (mostly practical) murder scene. I'd never want to watch it again, but at least I was engaged on some level, which is more than I can say for Sendero (aka Path), which also hails from Chile and also tosses a lot of these same elements at you, albeit without much of the bravado. Where Hidden was laudable in its rampant disregard for human life and basic taste, this just seems like yet another ripoff of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the like, with only fleeting moments of inspiration to keep it from being a total waste of time.

At least writer/director Lucio A. Rojas doesn't waste time either letting us know what kind of movie we're seeing, or making us wait to get to the horror stuff - our heroine and her pals are more or less introduced making plans for a drive, the car breaks down at the ten minute mark, and they run afoul of the bad guys shortly after that. No points for originality, but at least they score high marks for efficiency, I guess. Unfortunately, just because he was in a rush doesn't mean he had anything new to show us, and the next hour is little more than a series of chase scenes where they try to escape. To its credit, there isn't a lot of torture-y stuff - on the rare occasions anyone is tied up it usually isn't for long, and most of the people who die in the film (on either side) do so quickly. It's not particularly unpleasant, in other words, so if you're turned off by torture stuff but are in the mood for one of these things, it can at least offer you that much.

But man, if a scene goes by that doesn't make you think of another, superior film, it's because you weren't paying enough attention. Chain Saw is an obvious one, but they dip into Mother's Day, Frontieres, a mild touch of Martyrs (or Texas Chainsaw 4 - basically some rich asshole shows up and calls the shots, but they don't explain much about him) and even Calvaire for a bit. That last one is the most intriguing; while one of the captors does the usual gross things to the females, groping and licking them (but always getting stopped by one of his partners before going any further), his brother (?) has a thing for the males instead, and pleasures himself while standing over one after rubbing his chest a bit. Then the other guy stops HIM from going any further, and punishes him by raping him (though he doesn't put up much of a fight, if any). I've seen innumerable male on female rape scenes in these things, but apart from Calvaire (which was much more vague, if memory serves) I can't recall male on male, so... there's something, I guess? But merely putting a male in a spot usually reserved for females (and making the victim one of the villains as opposed to a protagonist) doesn't really change things that much - it's still yet another rape scene in a horror movie that could have used that screentime on something more interesting.

However, all of this could be forgiven, or at least given a pass, if not for the film's biggest sin: its editing. Rojas is the culprit here as well (though Cristian Toledo is co-credited), and I don't know if they just didn't have the footage to cut things together or were going for a certain effect that didn't quite land, but either way it was some truly abysmal work. There are at least two occasions where he is cutting between two action scenes (a fight in the house and a chase scene outside, for example), and there is zero rhythm to how it's presented - the back and forth seems more random than anything, keeping us from being engaged by either scenario, let alone both at once. And in one such instance a character seemingly teleports from one situation to another, suggesting these were separate scenes that played out normally, but spliced together to try to intensify things or something. He also fails more than once to clearly show us important details, like when Ana and her boyfriend stumble upon a truck with a family inside, and ask them for help. Rojas never cuts to the family's faces, so we're not even sure how many of them there are - and thus we just have to assume the little girl that appears out of nowhere a few minutes later was in the truck/is the daughter of the driver. No film is perfect and there are always going to be shots the director missed, but the idea is to keep the audience from ever noticing that, and they really drop the ball in that department.

Speaking of the family, one of the film's unintentionally most entertaining elements is how many good Samaritans are killed throughout the runtime. Since our heroes are almost always on the run, they are constantly stumbling across random people who live in the town (an isolated ranch/farm kinda place), and they're always murdered by the bad guys moments later. In fact, I'm pretty sure more random innocent people are killed than there were in the protagonist group to begin with, which might be a record since most movies only opt for one, MAYBE two such characters (usually a passing motorist or a cop answering a call). But in what becomes true Rojas form by the end of the film, it's unclear who actually murders the last one - it might be one of the bad guys we've met, but the way it's shot and from the vague hints we get that the bad guys are powerful/wide-reaching (so we get a bit of Hostel, too?), it could be a new antagonist brought in to help clean up the mess or whatever. The movie just randomly ends here, which would annoy me if I was at all invested in it.

At least the gore FX are satisfying; Rojas clearly knows that prosthetics are the best and offers a number of sufficiently goopy and bloodied corpses and body parts. There's a pretty great head bashing that rivals Dave Foy's (unrated!) death in Hatchet II, and a wonderful sight gag where a guy's skin is torn off and we see his heart (I think?) pumping since he's not actually dead yet. It's interesting that many of the low/no budget foreign horror films I see tend to make sure they don't skimp in this department like their American counterparts, though when you consider the usual excuse you hear for going digital (no time to do it right) and look at all of the editing blunders on display here, you can't help but wonder if the Americans have a point. Would Rojas have had time to get all those reverse angles and inserts if he wasn't lovingly showing a fake head getting bashed in? Perhaps, but would the movie actually be any good with better editing? Less likely; it might be less puzzling at times, but it'd still lack any decent ideas or exciting plot turns. Maybe not every viewer will have seen so many of these things, but I am willing to bet there will be very, very few who manage to get surprised at a single thing in it anyway.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Incarnate (2016)

DECEMBER 1, 2016

GENRE: POSSESSION
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

January comes early! Incarnate may have gotten released today, December 2nd (in the US at least; it came out overseas last year - it was shot in 2013, mind you), but it feels like a typical January horror offering, in that it's perfectly watchable but nothing more, and sounds like an interesting movie on paper but either didn't get the money, time, or talent (or all three) to really come to life. Movies like Legion and The Rite fit into this category, and it's interesting how many of them deal with exorcisms and other biblical-minded scenarios - why no faith in the sub-genre that produced the most successful horror movie of all time? It's the sort of thing you can wonder about while watching this movie, since it's fine but doesn't demand much of your attention to follow along, nor will you be rewarded for giving it your all.

Hell it doesn't even have a lot of scare attempts, which to me personally is a blessing since this stuff doesn't work on me anyway (there's a halfway decent one in the opening sequence, with someone/something fluttering by the camera without the would-be victim seeing, but there are only a handful of others), but will likely be a bummer for the younger audiences who might be enticed by the fact that we haven't had a big horror movie in a while (Ouija 2 was six weeks ago), and allowed in because of the PG-13 rating. And it's got Two-Face and Melisandre in the cast, so that might also be a selling point, but it's definitely more adult-leaning, opting for character-driven intensity over traditional scares. Again, this is all perfectly fine to me, but the problem is these attempts aren't very successful - it might be for adults, but the execution is remedial.

The biggest problem is that it feels like a first draft of a script, where the writer got all the beats and expected plot turns down (and did a fairly decent job with them as well), but never went back and fleshed things out. Aaron Eckhart's character is being haunted by a demon named Maggie, but there's precious little time given to explaining where she came from and why she has nothing better to do than make his life hell. Maggie's newest target is a little boy with divorced parents, and what could have been an interesting approach (an abusive father having to regain his son's trust and love) is discarded almost instantly, nor do the parents get much of a chance to talk about the situation. See, the boy is obviously quite endangered because of the demon, but the mom (Carice van Houten) doesn't even tell the dad, because he got drunk one night and accidentally broke the kid's arm - that's kind of a dick move on her part, really. Not that I wanted them to magically fall in love again, but when we're told that the demon finds the weak and downtrodden because it's easier to possess them, you realize that the dad being cut out of the kid's life was part of that sadness, and the mom was partially to blame - and there's no real consequence to her for that. Hell I'm not even sure if she realizes it, which just adds to the movie's overall failure to really dig into its more interesting elements.

The script's lack of follow through extends to the production design, sadly. The movie's coolest idea is to treat possession/exorcism with a more sci-fi approach, allowing Eckhart's character to enter the possessed person's mind and help them break free of the demon's hold. These scenes start off with settings that are unique to that person's dreams and fantasies (a park and a carnival for the kid, a fancy nightclub for a lawyer that Eckhart is working with when his character is introduced), but ultimately end up all looking the same - Eckhart asks the person their favorite color and then a door appears, in that very color! And beyond that door is... uh, an empty small room, with a window that they have to jump out of in order to break free. We're told these areas are constructs of the possessed person's mind, so why are the three we see all exactly the same after the first room or two? Is the demon actually constructing this place, and if so, why do they only imagine what looks like a generic hotel in downtown LA? There's a real world location in the film (a friend of Eckhart's who collects artifacts) that has more visual flair than these dream world ones, which seems like a real missed opportunity to give the film some arresting setpieces.

But, again, it's not really that bad. The Inception-y concept may not be fully realized, but it's certainly more interesting than watching the millionth priest shout at the millionth Regan wannabe (and yes, they throw in an Exorcist reference to make sure we know they've seen it too), and I like that Eckhart's character treats it from a completely scientific approach instead of a religious one. In fact he's hired by the Vatican to help out on this particular case, a fun inverse of the usual "when science fails turn to god" approach for these films - it's the little touches like that this that keep the movie treading water where so many other possession films (let's go back to January stuff and invoke Devil's Due) have sunk. In fact I'd be curious if the script WAS more ambitious but scaled back when it got sold to Blumhouse, who refuses to spend any of the money it makes on its giant hits (the average budget is like 6m and their average gross is about 50m). To be fair, it doesn't seem as reshot/re-edited like some other Blumhouse movies, where the second guessing is apparent and frustrating, though some of that test audience-dictated action rears its ugly head near the climax, where they had a visualization of the demon that either looked silly or fake (or just didn't fit with the otherwise grounded movie) and thus tried as hard as they could to cut it out entirely, leaving only a (confusing) arm in a couple of brief shots.

I also liked how Eckhart dove into schlubbing it up for his role, something I wasn't even aware of until it happened in the movie (I only saw half of one trailer for the movie, a while back, so I wasn't even really sure what it was about beyond possession stuff). When we first see him, he's in total handsome suave guy mode, i.e. what you expect Aaron Eckhart to look like on any Saturday night on the town. But that's a dream, and in reality he's got long hair, borderline homeless guy clothes, and he's also paralyzed from the waist down - he goes from Tom Cruise in Cocktail to Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, basically. Given how much flack he took for being a "sexy" version of the monster in I, Frankenstein, I liked that his return to the horror genre was lacking any of that vanity (be it his or the producers') except for when the plot required it. He's also not even all that sympathetic, flat out telling van Houten that he didn't care as much about saving her son as he did getting revenge on Maggie - you know the movie won't actually get so dark that he'd let the kid die if it meant taking out his tormentor, but the sentiment was still appreciated. Basically there was just enough to hold my attention (I stayed awake despite it being a late show!), and in fact I suspect if I was still living up to the "A Day" part of this site I'd like it even more, because I'd be more worn down by all the movies that couldn't be bothered to add anything unique or interesting at all.

This one comes from the BH "Tilt" label, but got a wide release anyway (most of the others, like their Town That Dreaded Sundown remake, went more or less straight to VOD), though I can't imagine it really paying off. According to Thursday preview numbers it won't even make as much as this year's fellow castoff The Darkness, which is a shame since it's better and worthy of a followup if the interest was there (and since Darkness is their lowest grossing wide release genre film, that means this will take its place). Ironically, it'll probably find its audience on VOD and Netflix, where people will throw it on for background noise and end up finding it a bit more interesting than they might have expected. Eckhart gives a fine performance and the supporting cast is solid, and it's got thankfully very few silly moments (the potential for one is raced past before we can react to it - someone dies during an exorcism attempt and the body is taken away by uniformed medics, yet none of them or a cop can be seen asking for an explanation). And it's always nice to see Blumhouse moving the fuck away from ghosts for a change, so props to that as well.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Zombie Massacre 2: Reich Of The Dead (2015)

NOVEMBER 18, 2016

GENRE: MAD SCIENTIST, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)

I didn't review the first Zombie Massacre when I saw it back in 2013, so my memory of it is non-existent. I did tweet that it "wasn't very good", noting Uwe Boll's cameo as the US President to be the highlight (back in 2013, jokes about random maniacs being the President were still funny), but I had to look up someone else's review to double check that the film did not take place during World War II like its sequel, Zombie Massacre 2: Reich of the Dead. It didn't, but it DID involve soldiers, so as unrelated sequels go it's at least got that much going on - I mean I guess there could be some tangential connection, like someone in this movie was the grandfather of a character in the first one, but if you think I'm gonna try to cross-check for the sake of this goddamn movie you clearly don't know me very well.

(Which would make sense, because 99% of you are strangers and probably should NOT know me very well. If you do, we need to set some boundaries.)

The same filmmaking team is behind this movie, but they've changed their MO considerably - the first had the Boll cameo, a lot of action, etc. It was, for lack of a more honest term, fun, whereas this is somber and slow-paced to a fault, like they were trying to mix elements from Black Hawk Down (wounded, trapped soldiers) and Jacob's Ladder (more on that soon) within the context of a zombie flick. On paper, that's a great idea, but almost nothing about the execution seen here could be considered successful. The languish pace is the biggest problem; it's not that it's slow in the "slow burn" kind of way, but more like they only had a 30 page script and opted to just stretch it to feature length. Not since Meet Joe Black have I seen a film allow so many dead pauses in between lines, where even a simple "I'm going over there." "OK, be careful!" kind of conversation can take up a full 30-40 seconds of screentime. And, not for nothing, but Meet Joe Black is a movie about trying to savor every moment, so that approach makes sense - not so much when you're in the middle of a devastating war and also adding zombies to the mix.

It doesn't help that you can actually count the number of zombies in the movie (I didn't actually do that, but it's under 30, I can almost guarantee), with the first one not even showing up until over a half hour into the film - weird for ANY zombie movie, let alone a sequel. Even the ones where the zombies are created in the film and thus need to be set up don't make us wait until the 2nd act to see one, and the war-driven action that we watch until that point is hardly exciting or original. There are only four soldiers, and (not counting some anonymous Nazi soldiers and the zombies) they make up a full half of the cast, which would be fine if they were well-rounded and compelling people, but they're all just generic soldier types you've seen in a dozen or more war films. You know that scene in Saving Private Ryan where Giovanni Ribisi tells that heartbreaking story about pretending to sleep so he wouldn't have to talk to his mom? They go for something like that, but it's like the Asylum mockbuster version of such scenes, and the not-particularly-good actors' delivery doesn't help much. And that's one of the movie's better scenes!

Luckily, the FX are improved over the original. They still use CGI blood spray for bullet hits, but there's some practical red stuff to enjoy, and since there's barely any action our eyes aren't being assaulted by laughable CGI explosions and and the like. In fact, across the board the movie is technically fine - it's well shot and I never doubted I was in 1940's Germany (low budget period pieces are rare for a reason), and it's even got a stylish opening credit sequence (one that was probably only commissioned to help get the runtime over 80 minutes, but still). Alas, there's only so much they can do when their script is so minimalist; it's the kind of movie where I felt like I just missed something because 40-45 minutes had gone by and so little had happened. There's an evil Nazi mad scientist guy who pops up in the 3rd act, giving the movie a bit of spark (the actor playing him is also the best of the bunch, which helps) but it's too little too late, and it also lacks a big action climax that would at least send us home with a bit of an adrenaline surge.

Instead, the movie ends on a confusing and bizarrely unexciting note, to the extent that I wondered if there was a glitch in my screener or if this was actually the first half of a movie that they decided to split in half, Harry Potter 7 style. Neither is the case, so your guess is as good as mine why it ends like this, which seems to suggest a vague kind of Jacob's Ladder twist? I mean, that was my interpretation anyway; a quick check of the IMDb message board confirmed others had very little clue what had just happened, with "It was all a dream?" type questions popping up but very few answers. I'm sure the filmmakers have an answer, but damned if the movie was interesting enough to track it down - I was just happy it was finally over and I could do something else with my time (I ended up watching the Stranger Things pilot again since it had been three months since I first gave it a try - still not drawn in, guys). Still, if you were inexplicably a fan of the first film and were excited about a sequel, I almost feel bad for you - it's different tonally, completely unrelated, and ends on a giant question mark, which would seemingly only promise another entry like this one instead of a true sequel to the original.

Incidentally, that's how I felt about the 3rd Outpost movie, a series that also involved zombies and World War II. The 2nd film ended on a cliffhanger, but then the third one was inexplicably a prequel - and it presumably killed the series for good, as that was a few years ago and there's still no word on a proper 4th film. It's an unfortunate occurrence in franchises; the producers know that the title alone will get the fans of that series to pick it up and thus don't really care, but it still baffles me when filmmakers (like this, the 3rd Outpost movie was with the same people) go in a different route, presumably bumming out the people that supported the previous film enough to keep them employed for another. And then it just sours the brand name, so what's the upside? Beyond making the first movie look like a classic in comparison, I mean. Well, whatever. Donald goddamn Trump is our President now, so the days of a bad horror movie being of any concern at all are behind us.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Black Friday Sale!

I can't recall the first time I participated in a Black Friday sale, but I am definitely a fan of the whole thing. Until now, I've always just been an outside observer (i.e. customer), but this year I have something to sell! My book! But you can't get it in most stores, so don't look for a sale anywhere besides right here - and I won't make you wait until Friday to do it, nor will you have to wait out in the cold (unless you're really bad at using your computer). Starting now, until 11:59pm PST on Friday, November 25th, you can order a copy of the mammoth physical version of the HMAD book for a mere $16.50 shipped - that's more than 30% off the usual price, and free shipping to boot! Amazon hasn't marked it down for a while and even when they did it wasn't this low as far as I can recall, so this is the best price it's ever been (and probably ever will be) for a new copy.

To order, Paypal the $16.50 ($17.50 for Canadian orders, please - shipping is a little extra) to FrightReviews@gmail.com, and make sure to leave your shipping address! Sometimes it doesn't show up automatically, so to be safe just add it under "special instructions" or whatever. I will be sending out the books more or less as the orders come in, so they will definitely arrive by Christmas if you plan to use it as a gift (IT MAKES A GREAT ONE IN MY OPINION!), as the distributor sends them fairly quickly. However, this particular sale is for US and Canada only at this time, so no overseas orders, please. Not only can I not guarantee the ship time, but I also can't offer the same price due to increased shipping costs (I'd end up losing money on the sale - I'm broke enough as is), so you're better off just buying through Amazon Prime or however else you get to skip delivery prices, which is an option I won't have.

Thanks once again to everyone who has purchased the book (either version) and/or spread the word to their friends! It might not have been a blockbuster, but each and every sale meant the world to me and improved what has been a very obnoxious year (both in the real world and my own little one). Happy Thanksgiving and here's hoping next year is better for all of us!

PLEASE, GO ON...

Last Girl Standing

Look there are literally hundreds of slasher reviews here so I figured writing one for Birth.Movies.Death couldn't hurt - but I wanted to make sure you guys saw my take on Last Girl Standing as it won't be on the front page for long (whereas this post about it will be on HMAD's front probably for a month). Cool little take on the slasher concept without getting meta or cutesy. Also: AWESOME fucking mask for the killer. Worth tracking down if you enjoy alternative approaches to my favorite sub-genre.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Army of Frankensteins (2013)

NOVEMBER 11, 2016

GENRE: MAD SCIENTIST, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)

On any other week, Army of Frankensteins would have been the worst part of it, hands down. But... well, you know. However, it's actually somewhat MORE damning of the film that I wasn't able to find much to enjoy about it, since it involved time travel, a device a lot of us wish we could have right now. If the movie was competent on any level that mattered, it might have worked as a bit of a pick-me-up or something, but the unconvincing effects, worse actors, incoherent plot, and (most insulting) punishing length just added to the misery more than anything else. Yes, I do wish I had a time machine myself, but whether I'd use it to stop Hitler 2.0 or merely convince these folks not to make such an ambitious film when they only had 12 cents to make it, I'm not sure. Could I do both?

Indeed, the budgetary restraints were probably their biggest downfall. The narrative is appropriately "stitched together" from a variety of films, primarily Army of Darkness (grocery store clerk goes back in time and gets involved in a major battle, using some of his futuristic technology to help the good guys), Back to the Future (the same guy accidentally causes strife between his will-be great-great-grandparents and has to reunite them to ensure his existence), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (revisionist horror gibberish playing a part in Lincoln's death) and, well, Time Chasers, the movie that was so savagely lampooned on MST3k that its filmmakers actually felt depressed about it. Like that movie, our time traveling hero gets involved in a Civil War, with soldiers and equipment belonging to a reenactment troop that probably could have used a bigger budget themselves. Honestly, I'm sure these filmmakers weren't intending to homage that piece of junk, but I was certainly thinking about that one more than any of those other, superior movies. Then they throw in zombies and a pointless subplot about the hero and his girlfriend BOTH being sexually harassed in the present day bookends (he by his landlord, her by her boss). It's like they had four scripts and opted to shoot scenes from them all until the money ran out. Then shot for another few days anyway.

The other big problem is that the movie is tone deaf - I never could quite decide if it was supposed to be funny or not. I certainly didn't laugh much (John Wilkes Booth inexplicably slapping Mary Todd on the butt as she headed out of their balcony to rush to Lincoln's aid made me chuckle for the irony, given that the Presidency itself was just killed by a man who proudly admits to such behavior), and the 110 minute length and plot revolving around Lincoln and the Civil War (so, in turn, a bit of slavery) doesn't exactly scream high comedy. If they were going for laughs and it simply didn't amuse ME PERSONALLY, that'd be one thing, but the majority of the actors weren't really mugging or playing up their bad dialogue, so I have to assume it was, at best, meant to be FUN, not funny. However, that approach only works if we're still supposed to be taking the story and its stakes seriously (think Amblin movies), which is impossible here since it revolves around a time travel concept that comes out of nowhere.

It also involves the title characters, and believe me - the use of "Frankensteins" when it's an army of the Monsters is the least of the movie's problems. The makeup is actually pretty good, but the rest of the execution for the big lug is a crippling flaw. For starters, he grunts exactly like Phil Hartman playing the Monster on SNL (where are Tarzan and Tonto?), effectively killing any chance of him being scary in the slightest (if anything it's the movie's best clue that it's supposed to be a comedy). Worse, it may be an "Army" but it's only one guy playing him, and these folks don't have access to those great Matrix computers that allowed Keanu to fight a hundred Hugo Weavings at once. So you see a row of digital clones of the guy, and most of the time they don't even bother to have the actor do six or ten or twelve takes of his actions, so they all act more or less in unison as well (they at least stagger the start time of their canned "animation" a bit so they're not 100% in sync, but it's not enough of a difference to avoid giving away that they're copy/pasting clones of one clip around the screen). They TRY to explain this away by working in a device where there's only one real Frankenstein and the others are copies (and will all die if the main one dies, or feel the same injury, or whatever), so it would make sense that they all act/move exactly the same, but all it does is call attention to a shitty effect.

Curiously, bad green-screen work rears its ugly head even in shots without Frankensteins. The last 15 minutes take place in Washington DC (as opposed to on the battlefield in Virginia) as the heroes try to stop Lincoln's assassination, and the non-Monster actors look like they've been virtually placed over plain stone walls and the like, for whatever reason. I know they shot the movie in Oklahoma and not Virginia/DC, but I can't imagine there isn't a single building in these Oklahoman cities that would have worked for these brief shots. After all, the backgrounds are too dark and/or close up to contain any period detail of note, and even if they weren't I assume by this point no one would care if they could see Priuses driving around behind the actors, as long as the movie just got itself over with, so the fact that they didn't just have the actors stand in front of whatever exterior wall was closest at the time is beyond me. Maybe they were going for a Sky Captain/Sin City kind of deal, but for that to work they have to commit to it for the whole movie, not just random scenes. As for the digital blood - well, like the "Frankensteins" thing, I wish that was something that was actually an issue (though they could at least work on the CGI actions - when Frankenstein pulls a guy's head off it looks like it couldn't have been attached in the first place).

There is also a scene in a hot air balloon, so if you're a student of Ebert's list of movie rules, you already got everything you need to know about this thing.

Ultimately, I admire the ambition, but when you're asking for nearly two hours of my time (instead of 80), constantly reminding me of better movies, and doing almost nothing effectively, I can't get excited about it any more than I can my toddler drawing a fairly decent circle, albeit on the wall with a Sharpie. One of the best things a filmmaker do is play within his/her limitations (both budgetary and creative, though the latter obviously takes a little soul-searching to find), because it allows the audience to quickly settle into the world you're presenting. Biting off more than you can chew (and then some - there is really no need for any of the Lincoln stuff at all. Even Time Chasers knew that much) is, 99 times out of 100, a surefire way of letting the audience down, and hard. The team is already in post on a 2nd feature, a giant monster movie called Gremlin (Amblin again!), so hopefully they got enough constructive criticism on their first film to improve on this one. It's never fun to pick on an indie (especially one that doesn't settle for doing the same shit as everyone else), but like I've said a million times - at the end of the day the consumer has to pay the same price for these movies as they do the big budget ones, and thus it's the filmmaker's job to make sure we're getting our money's worth regardless of how much they spent to earn it. The $7,000 Primer is just as valid a time travel movie as the $30m Twelve Monkeys - by the same rule, Army of Frankensteins should engage and entertain just as well as the movies it's cribbing from.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Boo! A Madea Halloween (2016)

OCTOBER 30, 2016

GENRE: COMEDIC
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

It probably won't surprise you to know that I've never seen a single Madea movie, or even anything that Tyler Perry has directed at all (my lone exposure to him was Alex Cross, in which he only starred), so it should go without saying that I only made an exception for Boo! A Madea Halloween was because it looked to be a horror-comedy in the Ernest Scared Stupid/Transylmania kind of vein, i.e. taking existing characters and putting them into a horror setting for one reason or another. But while I had fun with my introduction to Madea (more on that soon), I feel I should warn anyone who might be curious - the ads are kind of a giant lie. Not only does the horror part of the movie (i.e. what the marketing exclusively focused on) only comprise maybe 30 minutes in the back half, but (spoiler, in the purest technical sense) it's also all fake.

To be fair, I wasn't surprised at that - even if no one died, going by what I know of the Madea universe (I read Evan Saathoff's book on the subject, in fact!) it'd be weird to introduce zombies and ghosts to it, even as strange as it gets with its non-supernatural narratives. I fully expected a Scooby-Doo moment where we learn all of the things haunting her all evening had been a ruse, and don't hold it against the movie for going that route. I DO, however, get annoyed that they tell us it's all fake before anything even happens! Madea's antics cause the frat party we see in the trailer to get busted up by the cops, so the frat guys say "We're gonna go get her back!" or something, at which point the "hauntings" begin. Worse, the reveal is equally half-assed - Madea runs from the "zombies" into a church where she is told almost instantly that it's all fake, by a character we haven't even seen before. I mean, there's April Fool's Day, and then there's this.

Plus, as I mentioned, this stuff barely takes up a third of the 100+ minute film. After that early fake-out bit with the clown (also in the trailer), nothing "scary" happens for like 45-50 minutes, to the point where I actually forgot I sat down for a horror-comedy. Until then it functions as a standard comedy about a man (named Brian, also played by Perry) who is having trouble disciplining his 17 year old daughter and calls on Madea for some help. There's a half-baked subplot about the daughter's friend being a good girl Catholic that isn't exactly stoked about going to a frat party, and other diversions like that, but they all function as a means to get Madea yelling at and/or hitting anyone who doesn't share her philosophies. This is best exemplified early on, when Madea first arrives at Brian's house. For reasons I can't discern, she brings along three pals (including Joe, another character played by Perry) and after an endless scene where they each enter the house and sit down, we are treated to an even more endless scene (over 15 minutes, no lie) of the four of them mostly just yelling at Brian for not hitting his daughter. Apparently Madea and Joe (his father, if I'm following things correctly) both subjected him to horrible abuse as a kid, and as Joe explains, he's "not dead", so their methods are proven right and should be continued.

(The idea that their horrible abuse left him so weak-willed and is thus the reason his daughter can walk all over him is never considered.)

The ghost stuff has mostly been shown on the trailer; in fact the trailer actually offers more. Jigsaw does not call Madea in the movie (that phone call scene is in it, but it's her pastor calling her for a donation), and even those establishing shots of a Haddonfield-y town aren't in the movie. But the rest - TV's turning on, Madea being chased, etc. are all there, and all after we've been told it's all a prank, so they're hardly exciting. I was actually more interested in seeing how they explained the "ghost writing" on the mirror, as that's not something I'd expect some dumb frat guy to figure out (the rest is chalked up to "they hacked into the electrical and plumbing" or something equally "whatever, movie"), but they never do. However, by that point I had gotten used to Perry's... let's be kind and say unusual method of filmmaking, so it's not like I was angry when the credits rolled and I still hadn't gotten my answer.

So it's a total wash as a horror comedy, as even if the material was legit it would barely cover the runtime of a TV special. However, as a viewing experience, it was utterly fascinating to me. Again, I've never seen any of Perry's films, so if you're an old fan (ironic or not) this is nothing new, but to my fellow newcomers - holy shit. From Evan's book I knew that Perry was incompetent at certain basic elements of filmmaking, but to actually see it in action (during its 2nd weekend at #1 at the box office, no less) is completely different. Perry frequently laughing (even breaking character slightly) at his lines or the antics of his co-stars, as if the idea of simply cutting and starting a new take never occurred to him, is actually kind of endearing after a while, not unlike an SNL host or cast member trying/failing to hold it together when something goes awry. Less endearing is his inability to use split screen, something you'd think would be a given when he plays three characters, but apparently he figured body doubles would suffice. Alas, they do not, and some of the biggest laughs in the movie involve the non-Perry actors trying their hardest to keep their faces out of the camera (keep an eye on "Madea" endlessly rummaging through her bag when we can see Joe on the other side of the frame).

He also has unusual ideas of how people act. The frat guys are ridiculous and overly obnoxious, which I thought was intentional (they're morons!), but when they panic over discovering that Brian's daughter and her friend are only 17, I had to wonder if Tyler Perry had actually ever met a male college student in his life. Later, Madea goes to the frat house and the guys at the door demand to see her breasts, in a manner that would have you considering the horndog characters in things like Porky's were being far too subtle (this scene also shows off another of Perry's non-skills as a director, clearly zoomed in from a much wider shot, and not even centered properly, as if they were trying to cut people out of the shot intentionally), which is followed by more non-human behavior when they actually go inside (to find the daughter, who managed to sneak out somehow). The dialogue often seems to have been run through a babelizer, and plot points that I thought I was just hazy on because it's technically part 9 of a series turn out to be just bad writing. For example, Brian's wife is no longer in the picture, something I assumed was explained in an earlier film, but apparently it wasn't - they were still together last time, but this movie doesn't explain their separation until near the very end (she cheated on him, apparently), and the kids are played by different actors and have barely aged since they last appeared 11 years ago in Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

All that said, I actually had a good time watching the goofy thing. Laughing with, laughing at... it didn't really matter after a while; I was by myself (and, not that it mattered, but pretty much the only white guy in there), something that I sometimes feel self-conscious about at a comedy since someone just sitting there alone is different than someone laughing alone, but after a while I forgot about that and just enjoyed myself. There's a weird bit where Joe over-pronounces the word "Prostate" for some reason that had me howling, and later he inexplicably breaks the 4th wall (I assume?) to inform us that Madea is "a dude", which I cackled at for a solid 10 seconds. Honestly, even though it's what I was there for, I had more fun with the regular comedy scenes than the "horror" stuff, and it inspired me to finally get around to seeing some of those other films (I'm told Mad Black Woman, Why Did I Get Married, and Madea Christmas are the ones I should zero in on for the full experience, if time doesn't allow me to watch them all). There's something undeniably entertaining about the shoddiness and insanity that Perry puts on-screen, seemingly unaware that he's doing it. It's like a child using swear words - you don't want to condone the behavior, but it's also kind of adorable. And with the others, I will sit down knowing exactly what kind of movie I'm about to watch, without feeling cheated like I did here.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Lake Bodom (2016)

OCTOBER 23, 2016

GENRE: SLASHER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (FESTIVAL SCREENING)

On the rare occasions I have time to kill, I like to read up on old unsolved murder/disappearance cases, partially to freak myself out a bit (some of them chill me more than any horror movie can, especially re: having a kid now), but also to fill the Robert Stack-shaped void in my heart now that whoever owns Unsolved Mysteries had to be a ninny and take down all of the clips on Youtube. I don't get too interested in alien or ghost stories when it comes to the unknown, but show me a case about a girl who was acting strange and then disappeared off the face of the earth one night (preferably with a weird final clue - there was one where the last time she was proven to be alive was with a ticket stub to American Beauty? Did that movie's pretentious sappiness push her over the edge?) and I'm hooked. It was during one of these (usually Wikipedia-heavy) sessions that I first found out about the case that inspired Lake Bodom (formerly just Bodom), a modern-set slasher film that uses a real life murder as a jumping off point but is otherwise largely unrelated.

But you can't blame writer/director Taneli Mustonen for not sticking to the real case all that much, as one of the more memorable things about it is how vague it is. Four teens (two couples) were camping in the woods, and sometime between 4 and 6 am (a detail that always stuck out - it was close to "safe" daylight time) three of them were stabbed to death, one more viciously than the others. That one's boyfriend was the lone survivor, though he had several severe injuries, including being bludgeoned to the back of the head - a detail I bring up because he was later accused and tried (and acquitted) of the murders, which seems odd when he sustained trauma I don't think he could have caused himself, based on the way the injuries are described. Plus some boy scouts who saw the mangled campsite reported seeing a blond guy walking away from the scene, all but clearly establishing a 3rd party who was in all certainty the one who committed the murders. Alas, the killer has never been found - the case remains unsolved and open.

Given the "campers in the woods slaughtered by a maniac" narrative, it's obviously of much interest to slasher fans, so I'm surprised that it took over 50 years for someone to make a slasher movie out of it (in fact, three different ones all around the same time - this one, the 2014 found footage entry Bodom, and another one titled Lake Bodom that is coming next year). The film only briefly touches on the original murders (complete with a blond guy, not much older than the victims, watching them while sharpening a knife) before flashing forward to the present day, where four teens (not couples, it should be stressed) are trying to find the murder spot so that one of them can do a reconstruction. This element is very poorly explained (possibly the fault of the subtitles - it's a Finnish film), as I was never quite sure what he planned to do - take pictures, I think? - or why he was being all secretive about it, to the point where he described his intentions as "complicated" when pressed by one of the girls (who were rightfully starting to wonder if they were in danger).

Luckily, the slashing begins fairly quickly, and despite the minimal number of victims, the pacing is actually far from languid. Mustonen teases us a bit with a few obligatory moments where the friends try to scare each other, but they work well, and since it's relatively early on you can be forgiven for thinking you're watching another would-be prank when our first teen is killed (it's not until blood starts pouring out of their mouth that we are guaranteed it's legit). Then we get the usual panic and chasing for a while, followed by a lengthy flashback sequence where we discover just why these girls agreed to come out into the woods with these two weird dudes they seem to barely know. It's an unusual structure, I must admit - we spend a good 45 minutes or so hearing these vague references to some racy photos that one of the girls was shamed by, and our natural inclination as viewers is to piece it together in our heads, because why would you think there would be a 15 minute flashback scene at the end of the second act? There were a few scenes set in/around school at the beginning, so there was plenty of time to fill us in on this stuff beforehand - why wait?

Well, because it ties into a twist, one that doesn't take too long after the first death to be unveiled, but still one I wouldn't want to reveal either. It's a tough nut to crack - the key to a good twist is to not clue the audience in that there will be one (Sixth Sense is a good example, at least to people like me who saw it opening day and not after people said YOU GOTTA SEE THIS MOVIE'S TWIST!), so they won't be looking for anything. Here, Mustonen kind of split the difference - he left things clunky and vague so that we knew there had to be more to it than presented, but revealed things around the halfway point, so that it didn't drag down his whole narrative. Once that stuff's out of the way things pick up considerably, highlighted by a terrific scene where the killer has two of the friends trapped in their car, which is being dragged by his tow truck. It feels like the most exciting scene a Joy Ride sequel never offered us, and serves as one of the best standalone setpieces in a slasher movie in who knows how long.

So it's got some clunky storytelling decisions, and I had to laugh at the opening text reminding us that there are several theories about what happened and this is merely one of them, when it's not actually about what happened at all (the original murders are never mentioned again after the first act), but overall I think it works. It delivers some good scares and suspense, and hits the comforting slasher beats without taking the ironic approach that has ruined so many other modern body count films. They could have used the original story in a better capacity, but then again - could they come up with anything as scary or unsettling as the fact that the killer might still be out there? And turning the original tragedy into a slasher movie might feel exploitative, so perhaps it was for the best that they sort of just nodded in the general direction of the real murders before focusing on their own story.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

OCTOBER 21, 2016

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

It really annoys me when someone like Chris Pratt or one of his MCU buddies visits a children's hospital (in costume of course) and people start tweeting about how they're only doing it for publicity. Even if that's remotely true, do they honestly think it matters to the kids who have had their not-very-fun lives brightened by their visit? And is it worth risking planting that idea in their head? All they know is, Star-Lord just showed up to talk to them and lift their spirits, and that's all that counts. It's something I was reminded of during Ouija: Origin of Evil, as our protagonists are TECHNICALLY con artists, pretending to talk to spirits on the behalf of their still-living loved ones, but the people are put at ease by what they're making up - so is it wrong?

I don't think so. I mean, sure, it might be a bit sketchy to come up with this idea to put food on the table, but we see mom (Elizabeth Reaser) refuse money from a customer who was spooked by their session (due to one of her daughters going off-script a bit), while still comforting him with assurance that his late wife is no longer in pain. This occurs only a few minutes into the movie, and tells us what we need to know: this isn't a woman who is out to defraud or exploit anyone - she genuinely wants to provide some ease of mind to the people that come to see her. It's not long after that that we learn why she has such sympathy - her husband was killed in a car accident, and knows all too well how frustrating it can be to not get to say goodbye to someone, to say the things you wanted to say, etc. That she's also raising their two daughters alone now also keeps us from thinking less of her, the way we might think about Michael J. Fox's character in The Frighteners or whatever.

"OK, what does this have to do with a scary Ouija board?" you might ask - when she buys one as a prop for her fortune telling sessions, one of the daughters takes a liking to it, and sure enough before long they are being menaced by some real deal ghosts, and also actually conversing with the spirits that people pay them to talk to. But are the ghosts all harmless? Of course not, this is a Blumhouse horror movie, not to mention a sequel (well, prequel) to one that inexplicably became one of their biggest hits despite being one of their most creatively bankrupt offerings. The younger daughter starts doing and saying strange things, a priest (Henry Thomas!) gets involved, things get hairier, their home's secret past is revealed... all that stuff kind of goes through the motions we've come to expect from our modern supernatural horror movies. But the stronger-than-expected character work, and a focus on people who are genuinely good folks who got dealt a crap hand and are trying to work through it (the dad's death seems to be fairly recent, maybe like six months? If they specify, I missed it) give it an easy leg up on the likes of The Darkness or The Quiet Ones.

It's also a giant improvement on the original Ouija, though that can't be much of a surprise to anyone, given the low bar it had to clear - they would have had to turn to a hack like Declan O'Brien to manage to churn out something worse. Instead, they went with Mike Flanagan, who has yet to make a disappointing film (this is probably his "weakest" and it's still good), which inspired confidence right from the start, though the early strong reviews didn't hurt, either. Flanagan's role as writer/director (and editor, for good measure) is the reason I would see a prequel (something I very rarely like) to a movie I very nearly hated first thing on opening day, and I was happy to see he didn't let me down. I can only assume the Platinum Dunes folks weren't too hands on with this one, since it focuses on adults having real conversations instead of teens. Indeed, my heart sank a bit when the older daughter snuck out to a party, introducing a circle of friends that could very well have been our main focus when the scary stuff started happening. But of the three we only see one of them again, a love interest for her who is only in a few more scenes, one of which he's being (quite humorously) dressed down by Reaser's character. I'm sure teens will still be the primary audience for the film, and it offers enough of what they probably came for, but unlike the interminable original, adults should find a lot to enjoy here too.

Besides the character stuff, what works best about the movie is how Flanagan approached the idea of making a prequel. Rather than reverse engineer it from the original film, he went about making it as if it was a film that existed all along, and that the Ouija we snoozed our way through in 2014 was the 30-years later sequel. By that I mean not only do you not have to see the first film to get the most out of this one - it actually works BETTER if you haven't seen it at all (or at least don't remember it), just as a normal movie/sequel relationship would work. Indeed, I forgot most of the original, and thus it wasn't until over an hour into this one that I realized the connection to the first film's characters, but only in a general sense, not in a way that would have me knowing exactly who would definitely survive the ordeal (it'd be like watching Phantom Menace knowing *someone* in the movie later became Darth Vader, just not precisely *who*). If you were planning a refresher (or if you haven't seen the first and figured you'd check its Wiki or something), I would highly encourage you not to do that - Flanagan smartly did not rely on your familiarity for a single thing in his film.

And his approach wasn't limited to his screenplay - he actually put effort into making a film that mostly looked like it could have been made nearly fifty years ago (it's set in 1967). He uses an old-school Universal logo (and neither Blumhouse or Platinum Dune's logos play along with it - seeing a half dozen of these fucking ego trips is a modern trend) and the title comes up with its copyright info along the bottom the way old films used to. And, for the film geeks in the crowd, he even added cigarette burns every 15-20 minutes to signify a reel change (complete with a slight hiccup on the cuts between), because on film is how everyone would have seen the film back in the '60s. And like those older films, it's more concerned with building up atmosphere and character than scaring us every few minutes. I'm not trying to spoil anything by saying so, but most of the spooky bits you saw in the trailer come in the film's final third - it's definitely more a slow-burn than a jump-scare fest, which is actually something it shares with the original. It's amazing what a difference well-rounded characters can make!

I just wish it had more of them. There are basically only five full characters in the movie, and if you remember the original you know the fates of the majority of them. Flanagan's always stuck with stripped down casts (his previous film, Hush, literally only had five people in it), but here I think he could have benefited from opening it up a bit, or at least followed up with characters who only appeared one or two times. We've all seen the bit in the film where the possessed little girl causes a bully to slingshot himself, but what you can't tell from there is that's the last time we see anyone else from the school, and nothing really comes of it. Another trailer reveal involved the girl writing in Polish, and when it gets translated we only hear about the woman who does it, rather than actually see her. It's not that the film feels truncated or anything, just that in his quest to keep the focus on the family, Flanagan sometimes let things feel slightly undercooked. Like the slingshot bit is great for the trailer and all, but with no real payoff in the film (and no other instances of her using that particular ability, to the best of my memory) it could have been cut quite easily.

But look. I can't think of a movie with more red flags - we're talking about a PG-13 Platinum Dunes prequel to a crappy movie based on a board game, which might as well be the standard example for the phrase "recipe for disaster". That it's even watchable is something of a shock; that it's actually a pretty good movie and worth seeing inches on genuine miracle. All the credit goes to Flanagan and his crew, of course, but I think we should give Blumhouse (and the Dunes, maybe?) props for allowing him to do something far more interesting than they probably had in mind (i.e. do the same thing that made them a lot of money last time). It's almost a shame that it's tied to a movie that no one seemed to actually like (despite making the money it did, I've never spoken to a single person who enjoyed it - and I know fans of the Nightmare on Elm St remake), because it'll probably hurt its chances at the box office and as a fan of Flanagan's I'd love to see him get a big win since he's always getting screwed by distribution. But that's just how it goes these days, and regardless of how much money it makes, the fact that Flanagan made a real movie within "the machine" of IPs and franchises and not one but two production companies that are too often content to fall back on their proven formulas is something to be lauded.

What say you?

P.S. If you ARE one of those elusive fans of the original, make sure you stick through all the credits for a little gag that's kind of obvious but will make you smile anyway. If you're not a fan, or haven't seen it - don't bother staying, it won't mean anything and might even confuse you into thinking you're seeing a scene from a different Blumhouse franchise.

PLEASE, GO ON...

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