Monday, October 3, 2022

Camp Bacon

Is They/Them the cleverest titled slasher film of all time? If your first instinct is a shrug, let me remind you that it's pronounced "They Slash Them" and now, I see you nodding, and indeed, we are one. 

Quick Plot: Welcome to Whistler Camp, a scenic but horrid place where LGBTQ+ teens are subjected to conversion therapy. They attend willingly...to an extent. Some of the kids genuinely want to be "cured", while others have been threatened by their parents if they don't comply. While the staff initially presents themselves as not the worst human beings in the world, that's soon revealed to be a ruse.


Not surprisingly, camp director Owen is the worst. Returning to summer woods after 42 years, many degrees, and still no Oscar nominations, Kevin Bacon leads a small batch of well-meaning sadists to teach the females how to bake and the males how to shoot. Nonbinary camper Jordan observes the action carefully, hoping to get through the week to be legally emancipated from their parents while helping a few fellow campers along the way. 



If they survive, of course.

It's summer, it's camp, and there are attractive teens in spades. Naturally, that means we've also got a masked killer slashing through the cabins. Of course, that might feel like a relief when the planned activity in the next cabin over is electro-shock treatment.


They/Them is the directorial debut of veteran screenwriter John Logan, whose diverse credits range from 1999's Bats to Oscar nominated films like Gladiator and Hugo. That is indeed what we call range.

It's hard to go too far into discussing They/Them without spoiling its reveal, though I'd be surprised if most horror fans don't clock it as soon as the carnage starts. I'll dance around the details, but if you prefer to go into a movie fully unspoiled, stop here.


They/Them is a well-made movie: the dialogue is clever, the cast is dynamic (and diverse in more ways than one), the visuals are executed quite well. As a film, it's enjoyable. But if you came here for a horror film, you'll likely be disappointed. 

As you might guess, the real horror of They/Them is less an axe-wielding maniac and more Bible-thumping bigots. That makes for a triumphant tale that lets you cheer, but also, you know, not an actual scary slasher. It's exciting to watch talented young actors who would normally be designated to early canon fodder get a full space to shine and SPOILER ALERT not be brutally murdered. But also, since all of the victims are the villains, the fear factor erodes pretty quickly.


The experience brings me back to an important day in my own childhood. I was about seven years old when my family rented Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (this was not an unusual occurrence in the Intravia household). If you recall, this is the first installment in the franchise where children are actually enrolled in Camp Crystal Lake, which should have amped up the impending doom. Instead, it completely killed the terror of Jason Voohrees because that film establishes an important rule: Jason doesn't kill kids.



This devastated first grade me.

How could I ever watch another Friday film knowing I was safe? What was the point? Chucky wanted to possess a kid my age, Poltergeist kidnapped a little girl and allowed a clown doll to strangler her brother. Cat's Eye had me convinced the only thing protecting me at night was the family cat. We identify with horror when we feel in danger, but when Jason showed us the lines he wouldn't cross, the tension is off the kiddie table. 



All this is to say that a key part of many horror films is connecting the audience to the victims, establishing that line of empathy that reminds viewers that were they living in the world on camera, they would be in grave danger. When a genre film toys with that rule, it can certainly still be valid, but it ultimately turns us into distant spectators. Justice might be served, but this slasher doesn't do its job.

High Points
It would have been very easy to introduce the staff of Whistler Camp as immediate monsters, but Logan's script (and especially Bacon's performance) offers them just enough nuance to be more interestingly human



Low Points
See the aforementioned explanation of how this doesn't feel like the kind of horror film it wants to embrace

Lessons Learned
Knowing your Sondheim doesn't make you an ally

Rich kids drink dirty martinis


Never trust a groundskeeper with a ventriloquist dummy collection (actually, never trust ANYONE with a ventriloquist dummy collection)

Rent/Bury/Buy
They/Them is admirable in a lot of ways, and I certainly had a good time watching it. But you do have to go in knowing you're not actually getting a camp slasher designed to scare. Have at it on Peacock. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

Nerd Alert! Summer Reading Catchup


It's strange to think about just how much I love reading, just how much I love writing about movies, and just how little I ever think to write about the books I love reading. Often that's because my brain usually needs to take more time unraveling novels and coming to terms with how I ultimately felt about them, whereas films tend to be a more immediate experience.

So after a summer filled with a whole lot of library loans, I figured there's no reason not to share some of my recent recommendations, all on the genre(ish) side. And since sometimes it's hard to really get a feel for a book without the ease of a movie trailer, I'll throw in some adjacent material to help you figure out if it's to your taste (sometimes literally). 



Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
Do you enjoy the medieval setting of Game of Thrones but find it, well, a tad too clean? Pump up the literal filth, black humor, class inequalities, and cannibalism for the wickedly entertaining Lapvona, a fictional fiefdom ruled by an idiotic glutton who inspires nothing but the worst in his poor starving subjects. While the point of view moves through several slightly less villainous characters, nobody in this miserable world really deserves the reader's love, and yet, reading their awful journeys never feels depressing. There's such a glorious absurdity to the action that it's kind of a delight. Or maybe I'm just a terrible person.

TV/Movie Pairing

The easy option would be a similarly period-set tale like Black Death or Hagazussa, but this book's real soulmate has deeper aspects in common: a fascination with all things food, no restraints on exploring what can be done to a human body, and a larger-than-life spoiled rotten crime lord who can't shut up. Yes, it's Peter Greenaway's beautifully ugly The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. 






Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
When a plane carrying the Miss Teen Dream finalists crashes on a mysterious island, the young contestants are forced to use all of their pageant training to survive in the wilderness. Turns out, catching fish and building storm-proof shelters is much more rewarding than mastering tap choreography and hair removal. Bray, primarily an author of YA fiction, is clearly having fun creating a sort of Idiocracy-esque near future that richly satirizes how corporate America underestimates and devalues teenage girls. The diverse batch of characters are fully drawn, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that rival the best of Miss Congeniality. Some of the storytelling spins a bit out of control and not every subplot is handled cleanly, but overall, Beauty Queens is a whole lot of fun.

TV/Movie Pairing: 



I found Beauty Queens via an article recommending what to read after Yellowjackets, which makes perfect sense because Beauty Queens is sort of the sunnier, more optimistic version of the same basic premise. Less cannibalism, more explosions.



Clown In a Cornfield Series by Adam Cesare
Nothing is more exciting than seeing someone you know and respect create great work that finds a wide audience. Adam Cesare has been in the horror internet circles for some time, and what a delight to see him step into the (very violent) YA horror realm with not one, but two incredibly entertaining slashers. Danger is looming in Kettle Springs, a dying midwestern hamlet harboring growing tensions between the weary adult population and the teenagers they blame for their town's demise. In the middle of it all is Frendo, a corn syrup mascot turned murderous archer (who might just have a few friends). 

TV/Movie Pairing: 

You don't find a better setting for a massacre than a sprawling cornfield, so why not pair this one with another story that understands its appeal: Netflix's There's Someone Inside Your House. Both properties rise above so much other genre offerings because their teenage characters are treated as three-dimensional human beings. It's a perfect autumn double (or triple).



Blood Sugar by Sascha Rothchild
Every book club (I say as someone who adores book clubbing) has read a book like Blood Sugar, but very few boast such a wonderfully lovable and respectable murderous protagonist as Ruby Simon. The self-aware Type-A Miami psychologist might be an Amy Dunne-ish serial killer, but she's a GOOD serial killer, one who only targets the kind of people who hurt the world. Plus, she loves animals! She has a signature pen! She's the best!

TV/Movie Pairing: 


Between the key Type 1 Diabetes storyline and Ruby's physical description, I couldn't shake casting What Keeps You Alive's Hannah Emily Anderson as Ruby. Her Jackie is far more typical sociopath than the less outwardly violent Ruby, but there's something about that film that could operate in the same universe. Both feature terrifyingly smart, in control women who are intoxicating.  



The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
Sometimes you read a book that isn't perfect, but that immediately makes you want to seek out everything else its author has done. That's the case for Catriona Ward's strange, disturbing, and fully twisted The Last House on Needless Street. Narrated (perhaps) by a dangerous shut-in, his abused charge, her vengeance-hungry sister, and most excitedly, a beautiful green-eyed cat named Olivia, this book is incredibly dark, but also, very...heartfelt? There are dozens of surprises along the way and saying anything about the story may spoil some reveals. Know that this isn't an easy read, particularly if children in peril upsets you on the page. But it's unlike anything I've read, and it left me deeply hungry for more.

TV/Movie Pairing: 


For a lot of reasons that will be clearer when you actually read The House on Needless Street, the movie that I found myself thinking of after was Scott Derrickson's recent The Black Phone. Both do an astounding job at capturing the voices of children in danger, and both play with perspective in interesting ways. 

If I remember, we'll do this again towards the end of fall. So heed the words of another famous, less homicidal clown!



Monday, September 19, 2022

The Finnish Twinnith

 


Twins! Old houses! European folk horror!

What's not to want out of a movie with so many keywords?

Quick Plot: Rachel and Anthony have lost one of their twin boys in a car accident, leaving a whole lot of pain and better behaved Elliot behind. In the hopes of clearing the slate, the new family of three relocates to Anthony's ancestral home: a rural, isolated part of Finland that seems to have stopped progressing long before the internet (or at times, electricity).


Anthony attempts to type away on his new novel while Rachel hesitantly settles in, trying to help Elliot through the grief of missing his own other half. The only neighbor who willingly speaks English and attempts to befriend Rachel is Helen, an eccentric town exile who's either delusional or Rachel's only chance at saving her family's collective soul.



Strange things befall Rachel: Elliot's insistence that his brother is alive, nightmares where she's burying the wrong twin, photographs that suggest something demonic has possessed her son, and so on. Anthony is deep into playing the typical horror movie bad husband/dad role, rolling his eyes at his wife's claims and ignoring their remaining son because, you know, he's a bad movie dad.


Directed and co-written by Taneli Mustonen, The Twin is a handsome-looking, competently made thriller that is unfortunately wildly disappointing in its final product. The scenic Finnish setting and Teresa Palmer's performance go a long way in creating and maintaining an eerie atmosphere, but at a certain point, it becomes very clear that the substance is missing. You can only have so many dream sequences before you as a viewer give up.


Once the details become clear (particularly when the movie stops for five minutes to make sure you got them) you can see that The Twin is a mirage of a movie. All of the haunting atmosphere and hazy skies are style without substance. The film seems to be set in modern times, yet Rachel has to get film developed just to prolong the inevitable reveal that SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH HER SON. 



It's those kinds of details that, when you sit back, just feel annoying. 

High Points
The fraught and grieving mother is probably like a perfectly cooked rare steak to many actresses because it demands so much intensity and character weight. Teresa Palmer is well up to the challenge here, making Rachel a deeply troubled but more deeply devoted parent who more than holds the movie on her cardigan wrapped shoulders




Low Points
It's fair to say that at this point in time, with over a century's worth of practice, there's a better way for a major plot reveal than a five minute exposition dump

Lessons Learned
The popular pirate ship amusement ride has its origins in Finnish wedding rituals

Ladies, no matter how perfect he may otherwise be, if you anticipate a future that comes anywhere near the horror genre, never, and I mean NEVER, marry a novelist



Rent/Bury/Buy
If you adore a good European small town setting and a slow reveal, you MIGHT get some mileage out of The Twin. It's a well-made film, just, well, ultimately, not a particularly good one. Use your judgment and find it on Shudder.


Monday, September 12, 2022

I'm Really More of a Morning Apocalypse Person


Apocalypse cults are a lot less charming than they used to be than back in our days of optimism, but that doesn't mean I don't welcome movies about them!

Quick Plot: New York-based Grace is excited to finally have a possible clue into her mysterious past. Having grown up in foster care, she's never met a biological family member, but a South Carolinian private investigator may have a lead. 


After a not-on-the-way-at-all side trip to the Hamptons to meet her boyfriend Jack's family, the pair heads down south to the investigator's sprawling plantation for answers. He's not home, but by nightfall, they're far from alone: a cloak-clad death cult has assembled outside, demanding Grace fulfill her apocalyptic destiny. 


There's not much more to The Long Night. Jeff Fahey pops by for a few minutes, Debra Kara Unger for a few more. Director Rich Ragsdale establishes some grand home invasion-by-way-of-folk horror energy, but if there's one adjective to describe Mark Young and Robert Sheppe's story, it's "unambitious."


Everything basically unfolds how you would expect from reading a one-sentence synopsis and glancing at the poster. Bad cellular reception, blood drinking rituals, goat masked murderers with no discernible identity, and so on.


The only real surprise The Long Night packs is its absolute lack of surprises. I'll spoil a plot detail to illustrate (so skip the next two paragraphs if you have any interest in watching). Early on, Jack is established as a WASPy legacy brat who oozes old money snobbery. When the cultists quietly offer him a way out in exchange for Grace, we spend the next twenty minutes eagerly waiting for him to make his heel turn. It's truthfully the most suspenseful part of the movie. 


And...it doesn't pay off. Jack plays the loyal boyfriend to the end, never really showing any of the conflict of conscience we were expecting to find. Sure, it's nice (I guess?) that not EVERY well-off white guy in a horror film has to be a jerk, but ... well... it would have at least given the movie a pop. 


Instead, everything flows the way a movie about a couple being hunted by a folk doomsday cult would. Sure, the ending has neat possibilities, but not surprisingly, it seems content to merely suggest something bigger than quietly walk away. 

High Points
Scout Taylor-Compton seems to have made a successful career out of the high end of low budget horror, and The Long Night makes a good case for it. She has the perfect kind of screen presence for this kind of movie



Low Points
... and yet, even with Compton's likable performance, we don't know a single detail about Grace that gives us any insight into who she might be

Lessons Learned (The American South Edition)
Being polite is a southern thing



The Klan kills people, not cats 

They don't teach southern rituals at Princeton

Rent/Bury/Buy
Like most new acquisitions on Shudder, The Long Night is a good-looking genre film. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have much on its agenda. You could do worse than give it your eyeballs for 100 minutes, but six months from now, you probably won't remember a thing about it. 

Monday, September 5, 2022

Miner Mayhem


If there's one thing I've learned about horror movies no one's ever heard of streaming on Amazon Prime, it's that they have a lot of axes. 

Quick Plot: Lauren, an adventure tour guide in the Utah canyons, suffers from recurring nightmares involving a ghostly prospector (like you do). Her last trip through the canyonlands left someone paralyzed, but when five millennials win some form a contest that gets them a free two-day wilderness tour, what's a gal to do?

I hate to repeat what I did very recently with The Resort, but there's no other way to break down the tourists than as such:

Influencer
Weed
Jock
Lesbian
and
Asthmatic Crypto Currency Geek


I know you think I'm being cute or simple in this summary, but trust me: this is who these characters are, and by golly, the script refuses to budge. You can feel the not-terrible actors trying to bring SOMETHING to these tropes, but there's simply no room. Lesbian hates men, Weed likes to smoke, Influencer must selfie and use the word "selfie," Ashmatic Crypto Currency Geek has an inhaler, and so on. 


One would assume that Lauren, who's introduced as an actual human being, would lend some form of depth to the proceedings but quite frankly, it's a bit hard to root for her when you realize SHE'S A REALLY TERRIBLE TOUR LEADER. Despite barely surviving her last trip through this space, she underpacks, doesn't charge the satellite phone, wanders away from the five idiots she's fully responsible for watching, and constantly forces a seriously injured man to climb DOWN ridiculously steep cliffs in total darkness rather than climb up. SHE'S THE WORST.


It's not terribly surprising when the evil nightmare prospector starts hacking away at the quickly separated band, though the reveal of exactly how he hunts (and how some are protected) has some interesting ideas to it. 


Writer/director Brendan Devane makes a valiant effort to craft a slasher that incorporates the horrors of American history into its bloodshed. It's a decent concept, and filming in the stunning Utah landscape offers a grand background that could do a whole lot of the work for it. 


But you know...it helps if we could actually see the action. 


Why anyone would make a horror film in this region and not utilize the daylight is beyond me. Sure, CGI blood splatter doesn't look GREAT in the desert sun, but you have CANYONS for goodness sake. When Lesbian and Jock argue about who can climb a treacherous cliff faster, it's hard to have any context because we can't actually see the land.

It's a shame, though not terribly shocking for any first-time filmmaker (to put it in the movie's terms, if I had an Instagram follower for every low budget horror film with bad lighting, I'd be up to 82K too). I can't say The Canyonlands shows promise of greatness, but it had some freshness to its ideas. I wasn't overly impressed, but hey: I wasn't bored. 

High Points
I can't knowledgeably comment on how the indigienous storyline is handled by The Canyonlands, but having recently watched the higher profile Antlers, I can promise you it's a whole lot more responsible than that!




Low Points
I'm serious about the lighting: even with the brightness turned up on both my television and phone screen, there were multiple scenes where the only visible section was the block for the subtitles


Lessons Learned
Octagon skills don’t translate smoothly to the canyons

Gold can drive a man to do terrible things, and a ghost to do even worse



It is very mean to brag about your successful social media presence in front of a nerd

Rent/Bury/Buy
The Canyonlands isn't a particularly good movie, but it moves quickly enough and brings some new twists on a basic wilderness slasher setup. It's not for those with high standards, but if you like lower budget genre fare, it might scratch a certain itch.