Monday, July 4, 2022

You Really Push My Buttons


There's a strong argument for setting any genre film in the past because it saves your writer the trouble of explaining away cell phones and the internet. More importantly, if you choose the 1970s, it lets your set and costume team go WILD.


Quick Plot: It's 1976 in Richmond, Virginia, where attractive but sad Norma and Arthur Lewis are struggling to financially stay above water. He's a NASA scientist with astronaut dreams, while she teaches at a private academy for the tuition discount. When the school changes its policy and Arthur's application is rejected on "psychological grounds" (which are never mentioned again), the Lewises reach desperation.


It's a perfectly timed worst-case-scenario because on that very day, who should arrive but a half-faced Frank Langella bearing a mystery gift: a simple box with a big clown nose button and a million dollar proposition: push it and win a briefcase of tax-free cash knowing someone you've never met will die because of your action.


Norma and Arthur are nice, earnest people cemented into a lifestyle they can't really afford. She suffered a horrible accident in her teens that left her with a few less toes and a permanent limp, while his grandest dreams of scientific exploration are shattered in a way the movie never seems ready to address. They just want what's best for their family, so you can almost understand why Norma, tired from a day of teaching existentialism to sulking teenagers (we've all been there), can't stop herself from pressing down.


What follows is...odd, but if you're familiar with the work of writer/director Richard E. Kelly, probably what you'd expect from the Donnie Darko creator tackling a Richard Matheson short story. There are NASA conspiracies and religious miracles, kidnapping plots and possessed nose-bleeding babysitters, beautifully staged historical library sequences and lots - and I mean LOTS - of distractingly '70s wallpaper scene-stealing.



And I haven't even brought up the southern accents.

Did I enjoy The Box? Most certainly. Is The Box a good movie? No, I would say not. It's ambitious without a solid plan, much like most of Kelly's catalog. But it's also incredibly bizarre, which is a refreshing thing to find in mid-budget studio horror. 



High Points
If you're going to make a convoluted and confused thriller, you might as well make it visually interesting, and that's definitely the case here. From the woe of '70s era bridesmaids dresses to the genuine beauty of some classic southern libraries, The Box has some ace production design that goes a long way



Low Points
Seriously: this plot is a mess, and if forced to give an actual explanation of what goes on in this film, I would receive a failing grade

Lessons learned
To a kid, 35 is old



You ALWAYS get the license plate number

Nothing says Merry Christmas like a production of Jean Paul Sartyr's existential classic No Exit!



Rent/Bury/Buy
I had never heard any ringing endorsements for this now 13-year-old film, but I'm glad I finally gave it a go on the Kanopy streaming service. It's definitely a mess, but not a boring one, and I'll take it. 


Monday, June 27, 2022

Hazing Is Hell

 


Maybe one day I'll meet someone who participated in college Greek culture who can tell me the value of hazing. As someone whose freshman roommate would come home crying about mean hopeful sorority sisters circling the fat on her body and making her do laps at 4AM, it's a tad difficult to understand why any (seemingly) intelligent human being would subject themselves to utter humiliation in order to, what, have new friends?



Quick Plot: It's hell week for the hopeful pledges of Phi Up, which means life is about to become a horror movie even if Pledge Night wasn't actually a horror movie. Seriously: a good 40 minutes before we get murders, we have to watch some harried freshmen enact a relay race wherein they go from one side of the room to the other to retrieve a cherry on an ice block...with their buttcrack. And yes, the winners/losers are forced to celebrate by, you know, eating said baton.


Giardia risk aside, young townie freshman Larry REALLY wants in. His mother, a former student at the same university, warns him about some of the frat's dark history. It was just 18 years earlier when an underclassman died in a vat of acid during a prank gone wrong. 


Still, what could possibly go wrong when the big brothers lock down the frat house? Surely the vengeful, hard rocking ghost of said slain student wouldn't, like, possess the bodies of other students, then materialize to brutally murder them in creative ways, right?



Thankfully, wrong! We get PLENTY of wacky kills, including a hand-mixer-to-the-head. Skulls were a lot softer in the '80s. 

Pledge Night was the directorial debut of Paul Ziller, a busy filmmaker who's since gone on to steadily work in television series, Hallmark-adjacent love stories, and a whole lot of cheap Asylum-sounding thrillers. The script is credited to adult film writer/producer Joyce Snyder, and maybe it did indeed take a female perspective to put frat life in such a clear and ridiculous light. Yes, we get a heavy dose of unnecessary boobs at opportune times, but female nudity aside, there is a certain sharpness in perspective regarding the absolute stupidity of college dudes.


Don't get me wrong: Pledge Night is aiming for a gross-out over grad school thesis. The practical effects are Black Roses adjacent and the score is composed by Anthrax, which gives you a good idea of what kind of tone you'll be getting. Fun and dumb. What more do you want from a slasher?



High Points
There's a rather brilliant sequence where the frat president is enthusiastically giving some long-winded history while one by one, his brothers are lured upstairs to die horribly. It's such a funny, weird scene that elevates Pledge Night into slightly smarter than you might think black comedy



Low Points
This is a very dumb movie about very dumb young people and when in doubt, there are boobs. What can you say? 



Lessons Learned
An accident is best defined as something that wasn't done on purpose, but happens

If you own three Toyota dealerships, nothing can hurt you



Back in the '60s, hippies had kids out of wedlock but never achieved anything for themselves

Rent/Bury/Buy
It's strange that Pledge Night isn't better known in horror circles. While it's far from the greatest or dumbest slasher of its era, it's a whole lot of fun with a lot of genuinely memorable and kooky twists. Find it on Shudder. 

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Case for Public School

For almost twenty years now, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have put together some of the more successful and influential independent horror films to generate deep discussion on the internet (though oddly, not much box office receipts). From the humble Dead Birds to the bigger budgeted Blair Witch remake/sequel/rebooqual/whatever-we're-calling-it, they've been prominent.

For me, their record is mixed. You're Next and The Guest are extremely watchable, a lot of which stems from extremely good casts. I've made no bones about how much I despise a lot in the V/H/S series, and while Letterboxd and Netflix claim I did indeed watch Blair Witch, I'm left wondering if I had a Men In Black-ish memory wipe that day because it left such a nothing impression on me. 




So yes, I'm fairly out of step with a lot of the horror community on this duo. But I'm also a sucker for boarding school-based horror and Shudder originals, so why not give Barrett's directorial debut a go?

Quick Plot: A batch of perfectly sized and attractive "teenage" girls do some pranking at their boarding school, jokingly summoning the spirit of a deceased student who took her own life years ago. Something goes wrong, leaving poor Kerrie dead, an apparent suicide out the window.


That opens up a spot at the prestigious Edelvine Academy, bringing in  mysterious new student Camille Meadows. In her first day on campus, Camille succeeds in befriending the uncool (and yet stunning) Helina, and alienating the popular mean girls. A fistfight sends the whole gang to detention where the titular seance unleashes something dark.



Maybe.

Seance is somehow equal parts unusual and bland. Written and directed by Simon Barrett, it's genuinely baffling to me to consider who this movie was made for. 


There are certainly audiences (myself included) that love to watch lighter boarding school horror from the point of view of teenage girls, but NOBODY in Seance ever remotely resembles a teenage girl. Putting aside the bland "I think this is how girls talk" dialogue, not one character gets a shred of distinguishing personality. That runs straight through to Camille. She's so unphased by her new surroundings that we as an audience have no reason to raise our own eyebrows.



I'd almost be less mad if Barrett had gone the other route so common in boarding school set horror. But make no mistake: there is nothing sexy about Seance. There is nothing...well, ANYTHING that really defines Seance. 

I suppose the last act reveal is a bit unexpected, but that's more because it comes out of nowhere (and is therefore incredibly unsatisfying). There's no substance, and sadly, not much style. The spooky scenes are primarily managed by turning down the lights. There's one promising sequence involving ballet, but it mostly just reminds you that dance is woefully underused in horror (and how much better it's been done before).



I wanted to like Seance. I LIKE these kinds of movies, but truthfully, I can't even tell you what KIND of movie I watched. It's muted and restrained, with a few slasher-y killings devoid of much suspense. There supernatural elements are somewhat different from what you might expect, but they're also ill-defined. The finale gives us over-the-top violence intended to shock, but mostly, it's just silly. The denouement is, I suppose, meant to lend some humanity to its surviving characters but all it really does is make you say, "well, that could have been a more interesting story to tell."



It...did not please me. 

High Points
I hate to be this negative, but I found so little to admire in Seance that I'll just take a swing to say, without spoiling, that the actual motivation behind the horror is so ridiculously convoluted that at least I had one element of surprise

Low Points
There's a moment when a character complains about how she was out of sight during a scene and therefore couldn't see anything and while no one was there to hear it, I promise you I audibly shouted, "NEITHER CAN I BECAUSE IT'S SO DAMN DARK." There's nothing fun about that.



Lessons Learned
Expensive and exclusive American boarding schools will age you fast

Even in 2020, the best way to express a character as being bookish is to, you guessed it, make her the only cast member to wear glasses



Every old school has a ghost

Rent/Bury/Buy
I get it. You might be reading this review and wondering how I can actually be harder on this movie than, say, Titanic 666 because sure: Seance is objectively a better film than Titanic 666. But I would watch Titanic 666 complete with Tubi commercials again before I'd revisit Seance. This film is so lifeless and devoid of personality that I'm almost angry. Shudder usually knows better. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

I'm King of the Asylum!


You've probably heard of a movie called Titanic. It won a few Oscars, earned a little bit of cash, gave the world more Billy Zane, and just might have made 8th-grade-Emily cry a few teenage tears. 



The odds are lower that you ever bothered to check out 2010's Titanic 2. 



What, you didn't know they made a sequel?

The beauty of history is that it can't be trademarked, so legally, there was nothing stopping The Asylum from its title (heck, it's the name of the BOAT, see?). Shockingly, I, like most of humankind, have also not seen Titanic 2, but it takes more than Tubi ads to stop me from checking out its 654th entry!

Wait...they didn't make 666 Titanic movies? They just decided to call Titanic 3 Titanic 666? 

HAVE WE LEARNED NOTHING?


Quick Plot: 110 years after the ill-fated voyage of a certain big boat, some ad wizard came up with a very dumb idea: let's do it again! 



Titanic 3 sets sail under the dutiful care of Captain Rhoades. Also on board: a gaggle of influencers, some original Titanic artifacts (because THAT'S what you want to see on a luxury cruise) and the bloodthirsty descendent of the ship's doomed captain. What could possibly go wrong?


As you might guess, a lot! Ghosts, icebergs, and of course, bargain bin CGI that makes you realize those powerpoint presentations you've been cutting and pasting with watermarked Google image searches aren't so bad after all!


When it comes to The Asylum Studios' output, you're likely getting one of two things: lazy filmed-in-a-week greenscreen slobber with a goofy title or concept, or a simple micro-budget genre flick that makes a valiant but doomed effort to create an actual movie. I've never seen a GREAT Asylum film, but I've watched my share of passable to GOOD ones (said with an enthusiastic, surprising tone that sounds like I'm shouting a question). 



So where does Titanic 666 land? To use an apt visual metaphor, I'd say it's capsizing quickly towards the greenscreen slobber. Its setup is perfectly fine, but there's just no OOMPH to the actual action. Save for a tragically underused Annalynne McCord (more on her later), the performances are disappointingly bland. Any sinking ship thriller should at least have the sense to give us the broad ensemble strokes so we have some sense of place and doom when the horror is going down, but Titanic 666 just kind of drifts from moment to the next. It's not shocking when you assume a movie like this was written/storyboarded/filmed/edited in less time than it took Celine Dion to record the dance mix of My Heart Will Go On, but you know, it would just be nice to still be entertained. 



High Points
When five minutes in, Annalynne McCord switches from human voice to influencer vocal fry and it's the perfect sign of how much she knows exactly what she's doing. Say what you will about the um, spoken word poet with a very clear theory on Vladimir Putin's experiences with his mother, but you know what? Girl can serve this type of ridiculous character like no one else. She has impeccable timing for this kind of role, and even manages to convince you there's an actual person underneath the filter. 


Low Points 
(the SPOILER EDITION)
So then Titanic 666 has the nerve to kill her in the first act? And no, this isn't a Drew Barrymore-arguable-cameo-in-Scream situation. The movie opens its story as if Mia will be one of many Poseidon-ish team leads, and just ... disposes of her without nearly enough fanfare. It's a shame not only because McCord is so much fun in the role, but also because no other character comes close to registering as either likable or enjoyably hatable 



Lessons Learned
Mediums and cosplayers demand extra security

If you're going to display valuable 100 year old artifacts on a vessel filled with thousands of (often drunk) civilians, maybe it would be worth another $10 to put them behind locked glass


State of the art engines do not overheat

Rent/Bury/Buy
Nobody goes into Titanic 666 expecting to be scared or impressed, but it would have been nice to have been slightly more entertained. I've seen far worse from the Asylum, but aside from this movie's concept and the all-too-brief antics of McCord, there's just not much to remember about Titanic 666...other than the fact that someone made a movie called Titanic 666. 

Monday, June 6, 2022

I Choo Choo Choose Not to Die

 


In the ever-growing realm of streaming services, Netflix probably has one of the lesser track records for original horror movies. Sure, there are a handful of successes (Fear Street, There's Someone Inside Your House, the Mike Flanagan train) but it just doesn't seem to have much invested in marketing its genre offerings. Maybe that's why so many diehard horror fans seem ready to pounce on its exclusive titles and tear them apart. 

Quick Plot: As Tolstoy once said, all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and in the case of Choose or Die's prologue characters, this one is being driven to monstrous self-harm inspired by an '80s computer game. 


Three months after a particularly violent incident, our action shifts to Kayla, a talented aspiring programmer who can't seem to catch a break. Her job applications get rejected, the eviction notices pile up, a drug-dealing neighbor continues to threaten, and the memories of her drowned baby brother keep haunting. No wonder Kayla's agoraphobic mother is hanging on by a thread.


Enter Kayla's nerdy pal Isaac with a trash pile of techware, including a game that looks suspiciously similar to something we saw three months (or ten minutes) earlier. It's called Curs>r, and the basic graphics entice with a $100,000 prize. Working late, Kayla gives it a spin at an almost-empty diner and in the process, tips the lonely waitress by inadvertently programming her to eat broken glass. 


See, Curs>r is a very simple challenge: at 2AM, you find yourself in front of a screen that asks you to "choose or die." The choice in question is a Scylla and Charybdis of pain aimed not at the player, but someone close to them (physically or emotionally). Kayla enlists Isaac to help trace the location of game's signal and they begin to unravel a mystery that yes, involves evil computer code.



Choose or Die is a silly, silly film, but I found myself having a darn good time. Part of that may stem from my general enjoyment of techno-horror, be it cellular, landline, or social media-based. Choose or Die makes plenty of self-aware commentary about the differences (and our obsession with) the 1980s, seemingly NOT aware how of-THIS-time the film's own story and style feel. It's kind of charming!


Directed by first-timer Toby Meakins, Choose or Die has a fresh, young energy, something I love to see in my tech-based horror but many broader genre audiences seem to reject (Countdown and Unfriended spring to mind, but there are probably a dozen more in the last ten years). In the particular case of Choose or Die, I wonder how much the particular timing of its release fed into the movie's poor reception. It dropped the same weekend Netflix's sagging numbers were made public and its CEO suggested the future was to bring on the advertising. Suddenly, to the horror internet, it was also the worst movie of the year.

I'm not going to throw myself into traffic defending Choose or Die, but I found it to be exactly what I was looking for in a horror movie about a homicidal computer game. It moved quickly, centered itself on a likable lead, and managed to throw in a few surprises in its execution of rather ridiculous sequences. It's Black Mirror's Bandersnatch for the popcorn crowd, only actually fun to watch. 



What's not to enjoy?

High Points
Maybe I'm a softie or maybe I just have too many deep-rooted memories of watching fictional family die in flat Oregon Trail graphics, but I found the scene where Kayla has to navigate her mother through a black-and-screen 2D screen to escape invisible rats surprisingly creepy



Low Points
There are aspects of the third act showdown reveal that are surprising and intriguing, but there's something a little too style-over-substance in how the film treats a certain trio of characters that leaves the ending a little muddier than I would have liked. I'm all for keeping horror movies short and quick, but it feels like we're missing a little bit of explanation right when we could use a clearer setup




Lessons Learned
To be pregnant implies you're both stupid AND lazy

Never pick red



Hell is a karaoke brunch spot that makes you sing for a menu

Rent/Bury/Buy
Unlike the majority of the vocal horror community online, I really liked Choose or Die! It's 90 minutes of creative kills wisely weighted by an emotionally committed cast. I'll take it.