Monday, February 20, 2017

Thorny Family Issues


For many women among and around my generation, V.C. Andrews is something of a patron saint. Flowers In the Attic was my bridge from reading about the Babysitters Club's G-rated exploits to passing through the hall of J.R. Landsdale and Anne Rice. I spent MANY a rainy afternoon envisioning how the Dollanger series should be filmed (because obviously, Jeffrey Bloom's messy 1986 attempt just didn't count), going so far as to predict which roles would be nominated for Oscars, which sequels would be reviewed poorly (Petals On the Wind because it's insane), and what inevitable changes would have to happen onscreen.


I was, to put it mildly, a smidgen obsessed.
Though I didn't know it back then, I was also far from being alone. While I couldn't convince any of my friends to embark upon a 400+ page novel that would have have to be hidden from parents and the Internet wasn't quite the playground of common interests it has since become, the last few years have demonstrated that there were far more t(w)eenagers in the late '80s/early '90s who fell in love with the beautiful, talented, strong-willed heroines who suffered and triumphed (though usually more suffered) through the pages. Not mention the groovy keyhole book covers.

It really did seem like a gift from the gods-Emily-worshipped-when-she-was-eleven when Lifetime committed to adapting Andrews' first pretty-girl-in-peril series. Its take on Flowers In the Attic wasn't without its flaws, but it excused almost every one of them with the masterful acting lesson that is Ellen Burstyn. Petals On the Wind was as trashily over the top as anyone who read the book could have hoped for (to remind you, the book included the following: a sociopath nymphomaniac ballerina, a kind-hearted doctor who's actually miserable because he raped his frigid wife and put her in an insane asylum, a born again but suicidal little sister, our heroine seducing her mother's husband, our heroine torturing her invalid grandmother, our heroine impersonating her mother and revealing all the dark secrets at a fancy Christmas party, and much, much more).
Look kids! It's negligent-turned-homicidal mom Barbie & friends!

Flowers In the Attic and Petals On the Wind were huge ratings hits for Lifetime. For whatever stroke of idiotic logic, the network decided to release the final two chapters with little fanfare, airing the two films on the same night with hardly any marketing pushes. It took my Netflix DVD queue (yes, I still use it) to finally get my hands on the third installment and my once-favorite novel, If There Be Thorns. And since the lead character is none other than a troubled little boy, what better place to discuss it than the Doll(anger)'s House during Shortening season?


Quick Plot: For those who have not been following the tragic exploits of the Dollanger family, here's a quick recap:


Beautiful widow Corinne (beautiful void Heather Graham) locked her four children up in her parents' mansion in order to charm her way back into her dying millionaire father's will. During those four years in captivity, the teens battled adolescent hormones and a mutual attraction that got rather rapey. Eventually, the youngest died, and the remaining three--responsible wannabe doctor eldest Chris, feisty ballerina Cathy, and sad tiny remaining twin Carrie--escaped, building a new life to the best they could. Carrie eventually killed herself, while Cathy had a child named Jory with an abusive dancer (who then killed himself) and another with Bart, the husband of her estranged mother. Bart then died in a fire (not killing himself, for once) and Chris, who could never get over his first love, swooped in to marry Cathy and move her far away to raise their sons in peace and anonymity.


If There Be Thorns picks up a few years into the now Sheffields' idyllic existence. Jory is now a strapping young man who dances and has sex with his girlfriend a lot (seriously) while Bart is...different.

One day, a mysterious, wealthy "old" lady moves in to the mansion down the road along with her butler Johnamos (and I write it that way because he is only ever referred to as "Johnamos", sort of the "Anne Perkins" of his time). This fancy dame, who looks an awful lot like Heather Graham with powder dusted over her eyebrows, is, of course, none other than Corinne Foxworth/Dollanger/Winslow, murderous mother to Bart's incestuous parents. 


Corinne, like all grandmothers who once locked her children up in an attic and tried to poison them with arsenic laced sugar cookies, just wants her kids to like her again. To do this, she spoils Bart, showering him in the usual little boy gifts like pet snakes and bow and arrows. She also, rather casually, informs the already-uneasy kid that his mother and stepfather are also brother and sister. Have a cookie!


Meanwhile, Johnamos takes his own shine to Bart and begins to tutor him on the art of the deal, or whatever great grandfather Malcolm Foxworth's journal is titled. See, Elder Foxworth was something of a religious, horrible man who hated women and sin. The impressionable, newly "holy shit, my parents are siblings" destroyed Bart begins to take Malcolm's words as gospel. Before too long, he's trying to drown his newly adopted little sister and slut-shaming his once loyal older brother. 


Eventually, Cathy and Chris remember that they have children and realize something is very, very wrong.  

I often consider myself a terrible reviewer when it comes to adaptations of books that I have read because I usually find it impossible to not bring all the emotions/insider knowledge that you amass from reading the (usually) more thorough source material to my viewing experience. Thankfully, it's been well over two decades since I read alternating chapters narrated by Bart and Jory Sheffield, so while some of those long ago teen memories did indeed flow back, I think I'm also at a far safer distance to see this film on its own merits.


And boy, what a tale it is. Directed by Nancy Savoca, If There Be Thorns, much like its predecessors, isn't shy about telling the story of, well, a family troubled by, you know, ISSUES. Cathy and Chris are a beautiful, perfect, sexually active couple...who happen to be siblings. Bart is a troubled young boy who might be developing multiple personality disorder. His grandmother is a murderer who whines about her surviving kids not getting over such a silly thing as being locked in one room for four years and, you know, poisoned. There's even an angry blackmailer in the midst!


All of this would work so much better if Heather Graham had an ounce of acting talent, but sadly, every actress who has ever been stalked or deceived or kidnapped in a Lifetime movie looks like Meryl Streep in comparison. It's a genuine shame because she really does bring the weight of If There Be Thorns down. On one hand, it almost adds to the camp value. On the other, she's just really, really terrible. 


If you've followed the series this far, that shouldn't keep you from this one. If There Be Thorns doesn't quite hit the camp notes of the insane Petals On the Wind, nor does flirt with actual goodness like the Burstyn-containing Flowers In the Attic. Still, with its odd tone and utter commitment to V.C. Andrews' tics, I pretty much got exactly what I wanted out of this movie.

High Points
While not made on a big budget, there's an honest commitment to achieving the right visual atmosphere that was so important in the novels. Mysterious fog, secret-riddled woods, and decaying mansions go a long way in situating the viewer in the right tone


Low Points
There's bad acting, and then there's Heather Graham. Boogie Nights aside, has this woman ever given a performance that made you believe she was the character she was playing? Sure, we can blame miscasting for From Hell, but this is her third go around as this character, and MY GOD, it has all of the depth as a cashier reading back your takeout order. 


Lessons Learned
Special people deserve special attention

Nothing kills a ballet career like falling off an 18" high stage in slow motion


Chicks are turned off by incest, even if they otherwise seem to want to do nothing else but have sex with you

In Case You Were Wondering...
...why Bart doesn't seem to be bothered by the infected Cronenbergian gash on his arm, allow me to say that in the novel, Bart has a super rare, super convenient condition wherein he has no sense of touch (?) and doesn't feel pain. It makes sense on the page. Some. It makes some--a little, a tad of sense in the book.


The Winning Line
Chris to Cathy: "He's 12, remember what you were doing at that age?"
There's nothing odd about this line...unless you remember that when Cathy was 12, her older brother (now husband) was raping her


Rent/Bury/Buy
Lifetime seems frustratingly stingy with the Dollanger series, so for the time being, the only ways to legally watch this one is via DVD rental or joining the Lifetime Movie Club (sorry LMN, but I'm already paying too much for cable in part so that I can always default to the LMN channel when I need a small dose of stalkers or seductive stepmothers). That being said, V.C. Andrews fans will enjoy this one as much as the rest of the series, which I'd say rates at least a few dead blond twins and swan beds.  

Monday, February 13, 2017

But Don't All Dolls Trace Back to the Devil?


Here at February's Shortening, we tend to have a few requirements when it comes to filling a full (albeit, short) month with horror movies that center on the wee. Key among them? Dolls. This ain't the Deadly Doll's House for nothing!

Quick Plot: Detective Matt Something has been obsessed with catching a ritualistic serial killer named Henry who brands his victims with a satanic mark. Matt finally gets his guy (after he drills a fellow police officer straight through the head moments earlier) but causes a minor stir with Henry’s mysterious neighbor/guardian Della when he refuses to give her Henry’s box of worry dolls. Evidence, after all, has to be handled professionally.


...Or left in your backseat so that when your crafty daughter jumps in the car, she immediately takes said box and starts to sell said worry dolls to the unsuspecting public.


Let’s talk about the main issue I had with the pretty decent The Devil’s Dolls: Detective Matt Something performs some of the absolute worst police work I’ve ever seen in a movie. The keystone cops of Last House On the Left look like Agent Clarice Starling in comparison. 


After Chloe begins distributing these dolls, bad things happen. Mostly, fairly easily preventable bad things. Sure, the innocent college kids who become possessed and slaughter a convenience store clerk were off the radar, but when Matt is called to his ex-wife’s friend’s house as her husband roams the halls with garden shears, it shouldn’t have been THAT hard to shoot the guy before he appeared from nowhere to get stabby. 


Similarly, just a few hours later, Matt holds his gun on ANOTHER doll-possessed man holding a weapon on an unarmed woman. You would think he might have learned that, I don’t know, shooting the guy in the arm could at least buy the potential victim some safety, but why bother when it’s much easier to let his guard down for the doll-possessed weapon-wielder to inevitably stab his capturee so that Matt can scream --


Details aside, I had a fair amount of fun with The Devil’s Dolls. The violence is handled decently, and most of the characters are drawn clearly enough (and acted better than you often find in the realms of straight-to-streaming) to give you valuable context to care about the danger. There’s a heaviness to the idea of worry dolls being designed to help protect children of abuse, although perhaps it would have been better if that was introduced earlier on. Directed by Rites of Spring’s Padraig Reynolds, this is nowhere near the upper echelon of horror filmmaking, but it’s a fun and grisly enough way to kill 90 minutes.


High Points
There’s a nice hint of a possible (though disappointingly not executed) twist at the very end that lends some weight and moral questioning to the story’s possibilities. While it’s unfortunately not explored, it does elevate the material from your standard “worry dolls possessed my daughter” flick

Low Points
Seriously, how bad a detective can one man a movie wants us to think is a good detective be? Let’s count the bodies that could have easily been saved to find out.


Lessons Learned
When you sell something, that makes you a professional

Yes child. Yes it does
Inventory clerks who hit on you for five years are handy in a cursed worry doll disaster

It’s great to be smart enough to find a way to cut yourself free from a crazed worry doll worshipping murderer, but it’s even better if you’re a tad smarter to hold onto the sharp device you used to free yourself to, I don’t know, maybe defend that same yourself if said crazed worry doll worshipping murderer is nearby


Credits Curiosity
I appreciate any movie that includes a "Doll Design" and "Doll Effects" notation in the opening credits, until I finish the movie and try to figure out what the effects actually were

Rent/Bury/Buy

As an under 90-minute Netflix Instant Watch, one could do far worse than The Devil’s Dolls. It’s better shot and acted than anything Charles Band ever made by himself, which is obviously as grand a statement as saying “the police work in The Devil’s Dolls is worse than that in The Last House On the Left.” So make of THAT what you will. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Thank Heaven For Evil Little Girls


Obviously, we're not about to have a Shortening with AT LEAST one evil child flick. Take it away, Lifetime!

Quick Plot: Eight-year-old Sadie lives with her overly strict grandmother following the death of her father and addiction troubles of her mother, Theresa. Now clean, successful, and about to be married to an even cleaner and more successful man, Theresa takes Sadie back in to complete their sunny suburban dream family.

Despite her cheery disposition, Sadie isn't the little angel her golden locks suggest. Part of this comes from the fact that her cruel grandmother was verbally abusive, and the rest seems to stem from the fact that all the new people around her are generally horrible.


I know bullying is a problem, but do kids really take such an instant dislike to the nice young new girl that doesn't know slang because she was homeschooled? Before she can ask what a candy crush is, the poor kid is being ridiculed by crappy kids Dylan and Alliree.


Yes, that's apparently a girl's name in 2017. The apocalypse is already here.

At first, poor little Sadie really does try her darndest to fit in. Heck, even pushing her creepy grandmother to her death is somewhat justified in her point of view. Continuing on to steal Dylan's toys, mangle them and glue their burnt corpses to his locker, and poison her teacher with nut-containing marzipan while she teases her with an epi pen is, I suppose, more out of line.


You can be pretty sure you're watching the right kind of evil child flick when it includes said evil child doodling extremely detailed crayon illustrations of violent acts against the people who have wronged her. Directed by Curtis Crawford (whose stunning filmography includes The Husband She Met Online, The Wife He Met Online, The Boy She Met Online, The Girl He Met Online, The Guest She Met Online, Cyberstalker, and many, many more), Mommy's Little Girl comes from the upper levels of the Lifetime stable. While all the beats are hit and you can map out the major plot points blindfolded after the very first film, there's also far more skill on display than your average made-for-TV murder romp.

High Points
Lead actress Emily Hentschel is genuinely something special. It's easy enough to find a child actor that can pull off the bad seed vibe, but Hentschel lends Sadie true depth, nailing the full range of a troubled child play-acting at normalcy to the extreme. It's rare that you ever find true sympathy for the token evil child, but Hentschel earns it



Low Points
I realize I'm asking an awful lot from a Lifetime killer kid film, but I guess my only real quibble is that there seems to be a lot of missed opportunities surrounding Sadie's upbringing. We get hints that Grandpa and Grandma were tough guardians who may have tortured poor Sadie with dungeons and discipline, but it just seems like there's a missed opportunity there


Lessons Learned
One of the perks of being VP of a toy company is that you can populate your stepdaughter's room with an arsenal of teddy bears

Successful hairdressers don't just have great hair: they have the bounciest, shiniest locks you ever did see when waking up in the middle of night


Word travels realllllllllly slowly in the suburbs

Samantha is no longer a popular girl's name


Chekhov's Law of a Nut Allergy holds true, particularly on Lifetime


Rent/Bury/Buy
Lifetime movies can sometimes be hard to find if they're not airing during a themed marathon, but the truly devoted little rascals horror fans should put Mommy's Little Girl on their radar. It's rare to find such a nicely layered evil child at the center of your "let's watch an evil child do terrible things" films, let alone one made for a channel whose standards are lower than mine. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Mama's Little Baby Loves the SHORTENING (and also, bread)

The calendar says February, and loyal Doll's House guests know what that means!


That's right: Welcome to the 7th Annual Shortening!

What, you might be asking, is a 7th Annual Shortening?


It's quite simple: February is a short month.


I'm a short lady.


Dolls are typically short things.


SO.

Come the second month of the year, we simply put a focus here on all things little: dolls, evil kids, bugs, cats, gnomes, Tom Cruises, whatever it may be. Other bloggers are welcome to join by emailing me (deadlydollshouse at gmail.com) or posting their links in the comments section of these reviews. So turn in those heels and let's get short!


Monday, January 30, 2017

Best of the Year 8!


As we drive a stake through the blackened heart of 2016 (then proceed to tear out the rest of its cuts for a delectable party mix, cut off its head to use as a soccer ball, and set the rest of it on fire that we then use to make s'mores), the time has come to look back at the best offerings we found here at the Doll's House over the past blogging years.
Let's do it.

It should be said that I'm an easy mark for anything post-apocalyptic, but that shouldn't take too much away from the powerful Into the Forest. With outstanding-as-usual performances from Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood, this drama/thriller finds a huge source of strength in examining its central relationship: a pair of very different sisters suddenly thrust into adulthood in world devoid of all the comforts and values they once knew.  
Like zombie flicks, slashers, and any other overdone horror subgenre, found footage has gotten a rather rotten wrap over the last few years as more and more budding filmmakers take advantage of its low cost charms. It's not an entirely unfair assessment, since let's face it: a bad handheld camera-filmed cheapie is way more insufferable than your worst dead teenager Halloween knockoff. That being said, when the style works, it can produce something incredibly effective, especially with the urgency that can come with our characters being the ones behind the camera. Matty Beckerman's Alien Abduction isn't the most original tale, but it's well-told. A family's woodsy vacation takes a turn when they come upon the apparent hunting (or abducting) grounds for an extraterrestrial race. Its clever filming gimmick (our main character is an autistic boy who uses his camera as a coping mechanism) is a great start, but the rest of the film's tension and character work is equally smart. This isn't the best of the found footage genre, but it's certainly in the high tiers. 
When two noted science fiction writers (and The Twilight Zone scribes) team up, very good things happen. A tad missold by its leering cover art and title, Burn, Witch Burn! is more supernatural drama than horror, but it's still quite a watch. An all-too-confident college professor rather chauvinistically dismisses his wife's interest in the supernatural, leading to some intense and suggestive comeuppance. The gender politics are subtle but very relevant, and the eagle-heavy finale packs a strangely effective punch nearly 60 years later.
Could the horror anthology finally be worth revisiting again? Following a series of (in my opinion) near offensive missteps (V/H/S, The ABCs of Death), Southbound assembles a team of new and young veteran filmmakers to tell a few loosely connected stories about a highway to hell. The cast is filled with familiar faces to the new horror empire, and the stories range from weirdly unsettling to genuinely scary. It's not a home run (few anthologies ever are) but it's a strong entry into an unnecessarily weak genre.
Speaking of good anthologies, the calendar-spread Holidays is even more delightful. From the truly tense Father's Day to Nicholas (The Pact) McCarthy's blackly comedic Easter, all the short films (made by eight different directors, ranging from first timers to some guy named Kevin Smith) hit their mark to varying degrees. Unlike so many anthologies that have come before (cough cough V/H/S), there's no underlying misogyny or easy targets to be found. The stories here include some truly fresh and unique spins on old tales, plus some of the coolest or most adorable monster makeup I've seen in some time.
Why isn't Pollyanna McIntosh more famous? The actress brings A+ level talent and commitment to every role she takes, whether that's the savage The Woman, corporate Exam applicant, or silent punk replicant-esque supervillain swinging a knife at Hap & Leonard. In the crappily titled Let Us Prey, McIntosh elevates her flawed material to something stunning. As the sole good cop spending a night of terror with corrupt policemen, scoundrelly inmates, and Liam Cunningham's supernatural angel of death (or something), McIntosh makes you so invested in this beautifully shot, somewhat sloppily told massacre that you'll walk away frantically checking the internet to look out for the sequel.

5. Insidious Chapter 3
Considering my disappointment with Insidious: Chapter 2, I didn't enter the third installment with high hopes. Thankfully, longtime screenwriter and first time director Leigh Whannell looked at what worked in the series and rather skillfully crafted the best installment yet. Much credit goes to unsung genre film hero Lin Shaye (and Whannell for recognizing her character's potential) who transcends the throne of scream queens to rule as a true horror empress.
Easily the most polarizing pick on my list, but damnit: I loved it. Writer/director Tara Subkoff holds nothing back in taking the worst of teenage girldom and igniting it with over-the-top visuals that remind you just how awful those years can be. I've found that more female viewers appreciated this film than male, probably because they felt Subkoff tapping in to that dark, confusing, maddening place that is the soul of a middle school girl group. I fully understand anyone who saw this film and wanted to turn it off after five minutes, but in terms of my experiences, this was a brilliantly told horror story about something rarely examined with so much pop.
3. Goodnight Mommy
Admittedly, this is a film that suffers greatly on second viewing due to some of its surprises, but that doesn't take away from the fact that on first watch, Goodnight Mommy is uniquely unsettling. After a presumed trip to a plastic surgeon, a pair of close twins begin to suspect their once loving mother has been replaced by an imposter. The film toys artfully with perception while balancing its point of view with austere visuals and sound. You won't forget it anytime soon.

2. Messiah of Evil
How did it take so long for me to discover this strange, special cult classic? A strange movie weirdly aided by its messiness, Messiah of Evil follows a young woman through a seaside European town as she looks for answers for why her artist father vanished. Along the way, we get swingers, drunken harbingers (the best kind), eerie modern art, cannibalism, and some of the tensest foot chase scenes in cinema. The low budget limitations lend a wonderfully odd flavor to the final product, and while nobody would call accuse this film of having the genre's best screenplay, all of the ingredients somehow combine to form something so oddly eerie that the final product is far more than a combination of its parts.  

Oh Karyn Kusama, what a gift you are. An indie that landed on several mainstream "best-of-the-year" lists, The Invitation is a thriller unlike anything else I can think of in terms of how it operates. The story follows an awkward dinner party attended by various college pals, exes, and possibly unstable new members of the hostess's new circle. It's a film that explores grief, trust, friendship, perspective, and so many more broad ideas in such a nuanced, edge-of-your-seat manner that no description can really do it justice. Carve out 100 minutes, sit down, pour some wine, and queue it up on Netflix Instant. It will haunt you long after the credits roll.
Ineligible Winner
I hesitate topping my list with this gonzo 1980 evil kid flick because 2016 was not my first (ice) dance  with it. But if you missed it, guys, The Visitor is everything I want in a movie: gymnastics, figure skating, birdings, lasers, ping pong, little blond sociopaths, and Shelley Winters. It's almost unreasonable for a movie to be this catered to me.