Monday, October 17, 2016

Tales From the Southbound

The renaissance of the horror anthology has been wonderful in spirit and mostly terrible in execution. Following the fan love for Michael Daughery's Trick or Treat, it seemed as though every genre filmmaker under 40 was contributing to one collection or another, from the grainy V/H/S series to the often insufferable output of The ABCs of Death.

Needless to say, I've found modern anthologies disappointing (and occasionally, infuriating). But that doesn't mean I've given up on them just yet. 

Story 1: The Way Out
Directed by the trio Radio Silence (they of the disappointing Devil's Due and the 10/31/98 segment of the first V/H/S), The Way Out follows a pair of men on the run from what appears to be an unidentified crime. As they speed their rickety pickup truck down a deserted highway, they are pursued by strange floating skeletal creatures that follow them right inside an ominous gas station.

We'll get back to this.

Story 2: Siren
A trio of young women break down on that same lonely highway, accepting a ride from an oddly sunny 1950s-esque couple who take them back to an ominous meatloaf dinner. Something is clearly amiss, but there seems to be an added weight in how their presumed leader played by Starry Eyes' passive aggressive rival, Fabianne Therese) is seen as being responsible for the untimely death of one of their members. Directed by first timer Roxanne Benjamin, Siren has some fun with its almost Parents-ish vibe. It also feels the most incomplete, as it offers up a lot of unanswered questions. While I generally believe one of the the keys to anthology segments (much like short stories) to be telling a complete tale in under 30 minutes, this was definitely the one story I wanted to see more of.

Story 3: The Accident
The Signal's David Bruckner directs this tight little tale about an ill-fated and too easily distracted man named Lucas whose cell phone chat with his wife leads to him smashing into a young lady in the middle of nowhere (well, Southbound's hell-ish highway). After some internal debating, Lucas calls emergency services and spends the rest of his evening trying to save his victim in an abandoned hospital with only the mysterious, not-quite-right dispatcher voices to guide him.

While it doesn't necessarily do much, The Accident was my personal favorite segment of the bunch. Mather Zickel's Lucas toes an interesting line between being a guilty manslaughterer and a poor unlucky bastard, while the ambiguity of the dispatch voices are just odd enough to keep you on edge. Anthologies are almost always morality tales, and this one serves as a different spin on that idea.

Also, death gurgles are intense.

Story 4: Jailbreak
Patrick Horvath (The Pact 2) directs this one. A raging man storms into a worn-down bar demanding to see his long-lost sister Jesse. The bartender (Orange Is the New Black's Matt Peters) agrees to drive him down that familiar highway to where Jesse is working as a sort of satanic tattoo artist (or something?). It's hard to say too much more without giving away some of the bigger happenings, but let's just say that when your little sister disappears down a highway to hell lorded over by floating skeleton people and bar werewolves, maybe it's best to leave her put.

Story 5: The Way In (aka Story 1: Part 2)A seemingly normal couple is spending a family weekend in a rented home with their teenage daughter before she goes to college. Before they can sit down to their last supper, three masked men show up for some violent payback. The story plays like a fairly standard home invasion, but much like Siren, it also drops some mysterious clues without revealing all of their details.

Overall, Southbound offers a fresh and easily watchable take on the anthology format. Each story leads into the other in an organic way and while there's not a specific wraparound tool used to tie everything together, the themes and basic idea of this purgatory-like road to hell work extremely well when all put together. The styles and tones are more complimentary than consistent, which helps the full picture add up to something fresh.

High Points
As grouches continue to whine about the lack of good horror in the modern era, one can point to the credits of the cast and crew of Southbound to show connections to a slew of good-to-great genre films of late: actors from Starry Eyes, YellowBrickRoad, The Signal, and a few more (not to mention the film's wraparound DJ voice is done by none other than Larry Fessenden)

Low Points
We can't hit all of our CGI out of the park, but sometimes it hurts when almost all of it fouls

Lessons Learned
You know, don't kill innocent people and you won't go to hell or be forced to relieve a horrible monster chase for eternity

Rent/Bury/BuyAfter my increasing embitterment over the new age of jerky bro-tastic anthologies, Southbound is an extremely pleasant little renewal of faith in the genre. The film isn't perfect, but it's a good ride. You can find it on Amazon Prime.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Into the Woods

While Netflix Instant Watch’s selection of horror films seems to focus on newer releases, Amazon Prime has a mix of no-budget newbies and, well, fairly terrible no-budget older-ies from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Following The Boogey Man, it seemed more than fitting to tackle 1982’s similarly cheaply made, non-remembered backwoods horror The Forest.

Quick Plot: A pair of hikers are brutally slaughtered on your average sunny day. Unrelated--FOR NOW--in the civilized part of traffic-congested town, pals named Steve and Charlie decide to go camping to get away from the hustle and bustle of society. Their respective wives, Sharon and Teddi, go all “women can do ANYTHING! even if we happen to be idiots” on them and take their own trip a day earlier. 

FEMINISM, amiright?

Naturally, the ladies learn that camping is HARD. Like, just LOOKING at the stakes you have to use to set up a tent makes the soundtrack do a “wha wha whaaaaa” tuba cue to make sure we get the gist. 

If they were ill-prepared to manage their equipment, you can imagine their skills when it comes to warding off a homicidal mountain cannibal. A pair of echo-voiced children offer some assistance, as their husbands trail behind and squabble in their own elegant way.

Written and directed by Don Jones, The Forest is a pretty terrible little movie. The pacing is bizarre, the characters are bland, and the actual tension is about as tight as the tent the women can’t figure out. And yet...

Look: I, like many a blogger, am a Generation MilleXial weaned on a decade of feeling like the smartest person in school for watching Mystery Science Theater 3000. As a result, I love--nay, ADORE--watching movies like The Forest. Never is this more true than when we learn what drove our murderous cannibal to his ways.

In the most atmosphere-free flashback of all time, we meet our cannibal killer’s former wife, a woman who constantly slept with every mechanic, salesman, and census taker that dared to ring her doorbell while her impotent husband was at work. When our soon-to-be cannibal killer discovers this, he first reacts with apathy, leaving the serviceman to exit the bedroom AND THEN GO AND TRY TO FIX THE HOUSE’S HEATING UNIT. 

That in itself sort of made the movie for me. Because I am simple like that. 

High Points
Any movie--particularly one made in the 1980s--that includes an earnest original title song crooned out with pain will earn some bonus points

Low Points
Aside from the characters being bland and horrid and the action being silly and non-involving, nothing

Lessons Learned
The woods are filled with bears and rapists

Splitting up is usually not a good idea--bonus points for this being spoken by an actual character (who of course, immediately then proceeds to split up)

Never bring a broken bicycle to a pitchfork fight

Deer is always in season when you’re hungry

Wet dirt is occasionally called “mud”

The Winning Line:
“Are you crazy?”
“OF COURSE I AM!” says the man who killed his wife, moved his kids to the woods, and has been eating human beings for the last few years

The Forest isn’t good. That doesn’t mean I don’t recommend it. If you want something of a certain cheese quotient from this time period, you can do worse. 

A ringing endorsement if there ever was one!

Monday, October 3, 2016

You Can't Keep a Good Stalking Doctor Down

Last year, the world got a little bit better when Lifetime aired Doug Campbell's Stalked By My Doctor, a ridiculously good time of a typical obsession film elevated skyscraper levels by the all-in performance of one Eric Roberts. 

One year later, the sun shines again.

Quick Plot: Dubbing himself Victor Slausen (which I like to dream is a Tourist Trap reference), our love-oozing doctor has been laying low in Acapulco, failing miserably at mingling with women a decade younger than him while masquerading as a non-profit world traveler. Things change dramatically when "Victor" revives beautiful California high school senior Amy (a few extra decades younger) with CRP after a rip tide nearly drowns her.

Following his failure with the similarly saved Sophie of last year, "Victor" seems to have learned a few useful tips about wooing a woman young enough to be your granddaughter. For starters, of course, charm her mother. Or, if we're following the Nabokov rules of May/December romance, marry her.

Much like Sophie, Amy has a doofy jock boyfriend who immediately recognizes a stalking doctor when he meets one. Clearly, Victor has a VERY consistent type, right down to her own choice of male companion that isn't a stalking doctor.

Of course, our stalking doctor is not only a stalker, but also, a doctor, so it's only a matter of time before he's sneaking into Amy's house at 3AM to replace her favorite iced tea with his own concoction of laxative-laced brew so that she'll be home sick the next day and he can fake a blood test that leads her to believe her doofy jock boyfriend is a lying cheater that gave her genital herpes.

In case you haven't guessed it, gosh do I love this series.

Was Stalked By My Doctor so aware of itself? It's hard to say, but its followup is in on the joke without letting the joke take it over (a move that keeps the Sharknados of the world forever outside the realm of genuine cult movies). Yes, Victor sitting down to a breakfast of pancakes that have been rather meticulously griddled to spell out "Amy" is ridiculous, but wisely, the object of batter-filled affection plays it straight. Everybody that isn't Eric Roberts performs with the same earnest solemnity as they would for any Lifetime movie, and that, in part, is the key to this movie's success.

See, there are many simple rules when it comes to making over-the-top so-bad-it's-hugely-enjoyable entertainment. When everyone knows and acts as if they're making the next The Room, the results feel insincere. Nobody wants to feel judged for enjoying something bad, and that's often where SyFy and The Asylum falter. Director Doug Campbell is no stranger to the Lifetime movie--he's made .... over a dozen--and he crafts Stalked By My Doctor: The Return following the same routine as any other one. Where his series gets to have fun comes primarily from the bizarre but genuinely invested performance of the one and only Eric Roberts.

"Victor" is a sad, lonely, disillusioned man who also happens to be extremely dangerous. Watching him plot his conquest, you can see that Roberts thought this man out through and through. Just observe how every time he has to look at his age-appropriate partner, he's fighting hard to suppress his disgust at everything about her that isn't Amy. Compare that to the uncomfortable satisfaction he shows when softening his eyes at his younger target, or even the complete nearly orgasmic touch that crosses his face when he discretely sniffs her hair. Victor is as over-the-top a villain as you'll ever find in a Lifetime original, but Eric Roberts doesn't sell it with mere melodrama.

Is this a good film? Of course not. It's a silly self-aware spin on the obsession sub-genre of the TV movie world, but it makes enough smart choices to never cross over into insult-the-audience territory. It's stupid, it's fun, and it will make you cackle. What else do you need?

High Points
This has obviously become Eric Roberts' franchise to rule, and he certainly takes it over with glory, but credit really does need to go to Campbell and his supporting cast for understanding just how to frame Victor's insanity in a more stable universe

Low Points
Look, Eric Roberts tiptoeing in the dark to elude capture in a kitchen while spiking his beloved's iced-tea with laxatives is great and all, but it's a far cry from his American Doll rampage of 2015

Lessons Learned
Career women are not impressed by unnamed yachts

The street names of Salt Lake City were mapped out on an x/y axis and everyone who has ever lived there knows that

Never trust a man who wears a sports jacket to the beach

Lack of Lesson Learned
One of the most serious platforms taken up by the first Stalked By My Doctor (after the whole "not cool for doctors to stalk" thing) was the dangers of texting when driving. How frustrating is it then to see Amy TEXTING WHEN DRIVING on her way to save her mother? DID SHE NOT WATCH THE FIRST STALKED BY MY DOCTOR?

Oh right. No, if she had, universes collide, yadda yadda. Carry on...

Look, if you don't find enjoyment from these kinds of movies, this probably won't convert you to the cult of Lifetime. But if you are willing to open your heart, to let down your guard, to fully embrace the glory that is Eric Roberts maniacally plotting his conquest of love, then you will, I vow, you will be rewarded.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Mall Madness

Between the glory of Dawn of the Dead and the glee of Chopping Mall, the cuteness of Bio-Zombie and the "oh yeah, that's set in a mall too" Elves, shopping malls are simply prime real estate for horror. It looks like India has finally received that memo.

Quick Plot: Amity Mall is about to become the largest indoor shopping center in all of Asia, providing people working on its construction stop, you know, dying mysteriously. 

After the latest security guard casualty, an ex-soldier named Vishnu is called in to oversee the finishing touches before the mall's big opening. The wealthy business men in charge bring their grown children along for the star-studded party and token five minute musical number break.

This is an Indian film, after all.

As most of the guests begin to exit, the handful lingering behind--both for work reasons and sneak-into-closed-stores-and-figure-skating-rinks-for-fun ones--are hunted down by a some very angry, very violent ghosts. Little by little, the stragglers piece together that the men who purchased this property did not do so with the upmost moral code of conduct.

Darr @ the Mall was apparently made originally for television, which explains why it goes on...and on....and on. Two hours of running length isn't normally unreasonable, but boy does it feel unnecessarily epic in the context of a rather simple haunted mall story.

Pacing aside, Pawan Kripalani's Darr @ the Mall has its charm. While the characters aren't really fleshed out in the most interesting ways, the main actors more than make up for it with good, earnest performances. The effects are B-level CGI, but some of the scares pop and the setups--including an aforementioned FIGURE SKATING DEATH--are done with more care than you might find on average. There's even a rather brilliantly done falling-down-the-stairs shot that might be the first time I've ever genuinely felt the horror of that kind of situation (for those wondering, I tend to fall UP the stairs far more often). 

This is a decent, well-made horror movie. I just wish there wasn't so much of it.

High Points
Did I mention there was a figure skating death?

Low Points
Did I mention this is a two-hour ghost story that probably needed about 75 minutes to tell its story effectively?

Lessons Learned
One reason for not being happy all the time is that you're just not drinking all the time

It's not an accident just because you say so

Saris are made from extremely flammable material

It's hard to fully endorse Darr @ the Mall because its running time feels unreasonable. That being said, it's always interesting to see horror from around the world, and this is certainly a quality production. Perhaps it's worth a watch in bits, as it was originally designed to run. Or maybe I just don't have it in me to NOT recommend a horror film that involves a DEATH WHILE FIGURE SKATING.

Instant bonus point awarded. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Pretty Little Repressed Homosexuals

I make no excuses for my love of Lifetime movies. With rare exception, they are usually a guaranteed 90 minutes worth of overacting, unnecessary melodrama, beautiful kitchens, unfinished sets, femme fatales, evil men, inept police officers, and occasionally, insane Eric Robertses. These are all beautiful, beautiful things that rarely leave me bored.

When you take that formula and toss in the keyword "cults," you're somewhat ensured a winner around these parts.

Quick Plot: Melissa, a loyal member of the Church of the Blessed Heart, has committed suicide, much to the shock of her friends and congregation. Suspicion quickly falls on her husband Daniel, a self-appointed prophet who has spent the last few years training a portion of his bible study group for what he believes to be the imminent second coming.

Things get more serious when Adam, one of Melissa and Daniel's friends and fellow cult--er, yeah, we'll just say cult members is brought to the police station by the head of the Church of the Blessed Heart to spill the truth about Melissa's death. Considering Adam is the type of guy who dresses like the character of Mark in Rent but goes to bed with his collared shirt buttoned up to his throat, we know he's a tad unstable.

The film backtracks to show the formation of Daniel's mini-cult-within-a-cult. Having met at a Christian college, Daniel, Melissa, Adam, and a few other white people moved to the church's big southern compound after graduation to devote their lives to preparing for the apocalypse. Charismatic, ambitious, and more than a little sexually repressed, Daniel took it upon himself to start his own faction that followed some tweaked rules from the rest of his congregation. Rotating fastings, the occasional shunning, and systematic cuddling became the norm. Secret gay sex became, at least for Daniel, the reward.

Meanwhile, Melissa gave up her once promising writing path to support Daniel in the hopes that he would eventually share her own prophecy of marriage. Despite seeming to be a little smarter than most of her brainwashed peers, Melissa can't seem to see/accept the fact that the only thing Daniel loves more than the ideas of Kirk Cameron is, quite possibly, the idea of having sex with Kirk Cameron.

Ungodly Acts is not quite your average Lifetime thriller. For starters, there's nary a straight love story to be found, which is quite refreshing. It's rare that a Lifetime film actively focuses on a gay man, but that's absolutely the case in Ungodly Acts. The film doesn't shy away from his sexuality, even as the character certainly wishes it would.

Unfortunately, it does shy away from other items of importance, including WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED. The film takes an odd turn in its final act, throwing a twist with not just a whodunit, but a didnthappenit. I think. Or it just bypasses the villainy of the awful (but at least justifiably confused Daniel) for the bigger issue of the church's corporate board. I. Think.

Directed by Carl Bessai, Ungodly Acts is fairly forgettable, in part because the quality is good enough that one can't actively laugh at the typical silliness that comes standard with the Lifetime brand. At the same time, when it tries to step outside its TV movie limitations (see Low Point), it comes dangerously close to those glorious levels of excess a cheesehound like myself longs for. It's ultimately a little too good for a really good time and too not good for a genuine good time.

It makes sense, trust me. 

High Points
It would have been very easy for Ungodly Acts to turn its earnest Christian characters into caricatures, but the film makes a respectable effort to not just paint its cast as  one-note sheep. Melissa, Adam, Daniel, and Daniel's first shunning target all come across as real people with different pasts that might leave them so vulnerable to a toxic way of life

Low Points
Look, I appreciate ambition in a Lifetime movie, but the "Adam is crazy so we're going to film in black-and-white close-ups" trick felt unnecessary and annoying

Lessons Learned
Lack of sleep can damage a man's prophetic senses

A woman's heart does not have enough room for both prayer and creative writing

The crazier you get, the more southern your previously region-less accent may sound

Look! It's -
Brant Daugherty, best known as the devious and gloriously named Noel Khan from Pretty Little Liars, fully inhabiting the role of a closeted messiah-in-the-making

Ungodly Acts showed up in front of my eyeballs on cable, which made it more than suitable entertainment for a lazy afternoon. I wouldn't necessarily recommend investing much time or energy into seeking it out, but if it falls into your lap, you might find yourself intrigued enough to follow it through. But really, only if you dig cult stuff. Or Noel Kahn.