Monday, August 19, 2019

Shoulda Been Beta

Between The Company of Wolves, Interview With a Vampire, and Byzantium, Neil Jordan has always been a special filmmaker to the horror genre, and one with an interesting hand when it comes to women (okay, maybe subtract the incredibly male and even more incredibly erotic Interview from that list, but the other two are very much about their leads' gender). Even with the hugely negative critical reaction to 2018's Greta, I couldn't quite give up on it being something worth a watch. 


Quick Plot: Frances is slowly getting over the death of her mother, healing herself through the power of waitressing in a high-end restaurant and hanging out with her ridiculously wealthy roommate Erica (It Follows' Maika Monroe), whose father splurged for a loft in "New York City."

Let's get the first (of unfortunately, many) complaint out of the way: Greta's landscape looks about as Manhattan as a Hallmark Christmas movie. If my subways were half as clean as the oddly logo'd 6 train in this movie, I'd be using it to host mobile dinner parties.

Anyway, Frances is a nice girl from Boston, apparently too good-hearted for the big bad dangers of Irish York. One day, she spots an expensive purse abandoned on a pristine bucket seat. She promptly returns it to its owner, our titular French pianist (who might actually be the same damaged woman Huppert played in The Piano Teacher) who's so charmed by Frances's good deed that the pair become instant besties. 

Frances is obviously seeking a mother, and with her homemade sauce and sad widowhood, why wouldn't Greta fit the bill? If you've seen the trailer, you know that very quickly (within the 40 minute mark) Frances discovers that this ain't Greta's first time at the befriend-a-young-woman-with-good-handbag-taste rodeo. 

At first, Greta tries to win back the terrified Frances with phone calls and visits, standing like a performance artist in the street to watch her young friend as she waits tables in terror. It doesn't take long for Greta to reveal herself to be faster than The Flash and more durable than Michael Michaels. Also, she can teleport like the Leprechaun.

There is a point in this movie where the only earthbound explanation for Greta's ability to stalk Erica is that there are actually eight Gretas. Folks, I would have sent a check to Neil Jordan if this movie had a twist that involved evil twins or quintuplets. 

Sadly, there's apparently nothing supernatural about a Hungarian widow pretending for no explained reason to be French. Except, you know, the scene where she stalks Erica in an alleyway, sending pictures to Francine at every possible angle and, I kid you not, somehow--IT'S NEVER EXPLAINED AND IT'S MY NEW OBSESSION--ending up sitting smugly on the very bus that Erica hastily hops on to escape the Greta who was...following her. 


Don't worry: the movie certainly doesn't.

Look, based on every single professional and amateur review I'd seen of Greta, I did not expect a quality film. That being said, I did know that I was getting one of the genre's most interesting filmmakers directing one of the world's best living actresses in a juicy role. Surely, SURELY I guessed Greta would have its charms. 

What's so damn disappointing about Greta is how lacking it is in fun. Frances is a complete dud. We know Chloe Moretz can be a fiery performer, but the script's insistence on her character being sweet without giving her an ounce of snazz makes her painfully dull to watch, and pretty impossible to root for. The fact that is a recent college graduate enjoying a life of leisure in a million dollar loft doesn't even let us feel some natural sympathy for her. How hard would it have been to tweak her situation just enough to make her an actual underdog? WE ALL LOVE UNDERDOGS.

And come on: we all would kill for secret Isabelle Huppert triplets.

High Points
This is the kind of movie that has Vivaldi's Four Seasons playing at crescendo when Isabelle Huppert throws a table-clearing tantrum in a fancy restaurant. It's impossible not to feel somewhat giddy at that kind of moment

Low Points
And yet--AND YET DESPITE ISABELLE HUPPERT SMASHING WINE GLASSES--Greta is such a messy, aimless, energy-less movie that it's nearly impossible to find any satisfaction from its run time

Lessons Learned
People from Boston return expensive handbags; people from Manhattan call the bomb squad

The crazier they are, the harder they cling

The only thing less effective in solving crime than the NYC police department is Stephen Rea in a cameo

Dog Alert
I watched Greta on a plane and therefore lacked access to the invaluable "Does the Dog Die(.com)" information I needed, but if you couldn't guess that the sweet schnauzer mutt Greta brings home at Frances's urging would meet a tragic end, then let me sell you a bridge

I never thought I'd discourage anyone from seeing a movie wherein Isabelle Huppert spits gum into another woman's hair, but darn it: Greta is a slog. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a good feature-length set of deleted scenes and alternate endings, because there is so much plain sloppiness in its storytelling that I simply have to believe there were problems offscreen. 

Don't we all.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sticks & Stones Can Break Your Bones But Comments Are Forever

Let the record show that I have absolutely no problem with both studios and independent filmmakers making social media-based horror movies. Whether the end product is a pile of goof or actual commentary, the genre's earnest attempts at being current never cease to be adorable.

Quick Plot: We open on a teenager with streaked makeup, her phone ominously drowning in a fishbowl as she weepingly hammers out "I'm sorry" on loop on a broken laptop

Across town, a group of rowdy high schoolers have a drunken house party. New girl Kristen is eager to fit in, taking shots with queen bee Nicole and joining her as she cyberbullies a former classmate named Morgan with her phone pal Amber. Kristen feels bad, but worse when she discovers some sort of Facebook bug won't let her delete the comments. 

That's nothing compared to Amber, who, you might have guessed, is our frazzled typist from the opening, and now, dearly deceased after jumping off her roof. Nicole begins to experience her own ominous Morgan-inspired visions, while Kristen tries to apologize online. Rather than accept, Morgan sends Kristen a video of her very own doppleganger screaming with a SnapChat filter.

Also, Morgan has been dead for months.

Directed by Tim Shechmeister from a script he cowrote with his brother Matt, Can't Take It Back doesn't have much to say that we haven't heard from Friend Request, Unfriended, and the rest of the Facebook-induced horror canon of recent years. Cyberbullying is bad, yet as is the case for almost any horror genre, the punishment will be vastly worse than the crime.

The cast does a decent job for what it's working with. Lead Ana Coto is a solid presence, while Lexi Atkins makes an entertaining mean girl who sells her role reversal better than you'd expect in a film of this budget. There's also a "youtube star" in the cast, which seems appropriate (even if the fact that I knew nothing about him but was able to guess his identity tells you everything you need to know about his performance). 

It's almost a shame that Shechmeister doesn't lean harder in on his meta casting, as it might have given Can't Take It Back a little more memorability. This is the kind of throwaway genre film that I'll have a hard time remembering in a few weeks, which, in a world of memes and viral videos, could be meta in itself.

High Points
While there's nothing revolutionary in the scares department, Shechmeister does a decent job of staging some moments of violence, particularly in how Nicole's manic trauma unfolds

Low Points
There's just nothing new here, which can't help but feel limiting

Lessons Learned
One can never have too many candles or flashlights on hand to fight off an evil bullied spirit, even if the lights are working just fine

Being a dick to the goth kids will come back to bite you

"I'd rather see Hunger Games 1000" is the ultimate putdown to Generation Z

Can't Take It Back does nothing new, and doesn't do what it does with great skill, but it's an entertaining enough block of 90 minutes. It's streaming on Shudder, so the next time you're looking for a social media slasher, it's something.

Monday, August 5, 2019

I Gotta Crow

With its Peter Pan title and grisly premise, Don't Grow Up sounded right up my alley. 

If only it wanted to go there.

Quick Plot: On a chilly island somewhere in Europe, a group of scrappy foster teenagers discover they've been left alone in their sprawling care facility. After a little too much whiskey, they explore their near-empty town and discover something very, very amiss.

It starts when they chance upon a chatty little girl in the arms of her zombie-staring mother. In a tense, horrifying scene, the mother squeezes her daughter to death, thus revealing some form of outbreak that has turned all the adults into homicidal maniacs.

Think The Children, but reversed. Or Mom and Dad, but not terrible.

Unfortunately, it's also not great. 

Directed by Thierry Poiraud from a script by Marie Garel-Weiss, Don't Grow Up has moments of brilliance but more passages of serious downtime. Running just under 80 minutes, it seems oddly disinterested in nailing any kind of specific pacing. A short horror movie is often a very good thing, particularly when dealing with the kind of murderous outbreak that should have our heroes on the move nonstop. That's just the case here.

You'd think, with that description, that Don't Grow Up would instead be more a character study. It's not, even though it has everything in place to be so. Our leads, the mysterious bad boy with a heart of gold Bastian and the self-proclaimed bored loser Pearl, are played by charismatic young actors who demonstrate plenty of potential. But for whatever reason, we don't really get enough of them in any real meaningful way. They fall flat, as does so much of Don't Grow Up.

We never learn what's causing this behavior, which is by no means a requirement of the genre (see Who Can Kill a Child? or the aforementioned The Children). There's an interesting, also unexplored mystery involved with what constitutes adulthood, as some teen characters turn and others still seem immune. That in itself is a neat theme, but either I'm too dense a film watcher or Don't Grow Up has no real interest in delving deep on the issue. That leaves us with something neither overly thoughtful nor that exciting. 

High Points
That first real scene of horror is genuinely effective, giving me hope that Poiraud has the right instincts when it comes to building tension. Hopefully his next film finds something more solid

Low Points
The overall lack of commitment, both to character and story, just leave Don't Grow Up feeling incomplete

Lessons Learned
In a pinch, perfume makes a decent, fragrant antiseptic

Seeing murdered children is a big hormone booster for British teenagers

Eighteen does not an adult make

My frustrations with Don't Grow Up stem in part from the film's clear ability to have been better. This concept has been executed better. Find it elsewhere.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Have Mercy & Turn the Lights On

If Henry Lee Lucas inspired its share of '80s horror and Jeffrey Dahmer the '90s, it seems almost surprising that the 2010s haven't seen more creepypasta-inspired fare. 

Quick Plot: As an impressionable tween, Marina and her pal Rebecca fell into a Slender Man-ish partnership, murdering(?) a friend in the name of a masked scarecrow named Mercy Black. Marina spent the next fifteen years in a mental hospital under the care of sympathetic Janeane Garafolo. Now a grown woman with great eyebrows, Marina is released into the care of her older, sympathetic but slightly world-weary single mom sister Alice.

Life hasn't been great for Alice, but she's holding up well enough in her childhood home. Son Bryce is a thoughtful, pleasant enough kid whose only real trauma stems from missing his deadbeat dad. Alice's new boyfriend is a scummy true crime buff who views Marina's return as his big chance to write the kind of book that lands him on All Things Considered. His probing questions unsettle Marina, who begins to feel the presence of the monster she had long blocked out.

Has Mercy Black returned, even if she was never quite real in the first place? Bryce begins to fall under her spell as Marina desperately tries to unlock the mystery that has taken over her life. Lairs are unlocked, library books destroyed, and everybody's favorite Gen Xer has a bad time in the woods. 

Mercy Black is a Blumhouse production, and based on its quiet drop on Netflix, not one it had too much faith in. Written and directed by Owen Egerton, it was certainly never going to do Paranormal Activity or even, say, Happy Death Day numbers. It feels like the kind of small budget but handsomely produced film specifically designed to be watched on a mobile device.

The best thing Mercy Black has going for itself is its cast. Daniella Pineda is incredibly watchable, even if the math involved in her detainment seem a little messy (15 years in a hospital would mean she had plenty of experience with that crazy internet in 2004). Elle LaMont looks and feels like Pineda's sister, and their relationship--cautious but caring--is easily established by the actresses. 

Unfortunately, Egerton's script doesn't really serve them consistently. There are so many holes in the sequence of events, with large, gaping details that never add up. The film is filled with interesting characters whose motivations are never even explained, meaning the major conflict of the climax has no real emotional resonance. The fact that Mercy Black is such a short, focused story makes this even more frustrating. A horror novelist, Egerton clearly has good instincts with the genre. It's a shame that Mercy Black just isn't tight enough to let them really hit.

High Points
I'll give bonus points to any movie that names its dog after my favorite Muppet

Low Points
...even if said dog befalls a tragic fate

Also, as I skim through screenshots to find some usable images, it confirms just how literally DARK Mercy Black is, making it frustrating in that you can't actually SEE much

Lessons Learned
Changing your identity will age you a good ten years faster than your peers

When librarians have questions, they head to the internet

Psychiatric hospitals are a wonderful training resource for shaping your eyebrows

There are good things to be found in Mercy Black, but it's sadly not cohesive enough to be satisfying. Slender Man aficionados may enjoy its take on the trope, and for a 90 minute Netflix watch, it's decent enough. But perhaps its potential makes that even more frustrating.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Hell Hath Nothing On AnnaLynne McCord

Sometimes, you see cover art on Amazon Prime and feel a warm, comfy feeling that someone out there knows what you like: elevated Lifetime thrillers about dramatically angry women taking control of their lives. Then you look closer and see the cast involves Billy Zane, AnnaLynne McCord, and Spartacus's Viva Bianca and you wonder if you're actually dead because folks, Scorned...Scorned is heaven.

Quick Plot: We open a very cheap way of showing a text conversation between two hip abbreviations-using cheaters as they discuss their next meetup. Next, we meet the man on the end of it and yes, it's none other than Billy Zane tied to a chair.

Zane is Kevin, a wealthy gentleman with an incredibly active libido. 28 hours before his capture, his girlfriend Sadie (the glorious, never restrained McCord) was predicting his marriage proposal over shots with her best friend Jen. If you haven't guessed by now, Jen happened to be the other woman on that fateful text chain, she with the "magical pussy" and use of "U"s.

After some lakeside lovemaking, Sadie discovers the affair via Kevin's phone. Lucky for her, she's packed a generous supply of Vicodin despite this just being a weekend getaway. Having disabled the former Demon Knight with surprising ease, Sadie lures Jen and her Yorkie puppy Bootsie to their remote mansion for a wild evening of teeth pulling, shin hobbling, taco eating, and so much more.

I'm not going to tease anything here: Scorned is a ridiculous good time.

Emphasis on ridiculous.

Directed by Doll's House royalty Mark Jones (he of the first Leprechaun and the one and only Rumplestilskin) with a script cowritten by Sadie Katz, Scorned understands its Eat-Your-Heart-Out-Lifetime place and GOES for it. Is Sadie faster than The Flash? Sure! Do we get Billy Zane attempting to foot call the police? HELL YES. Even the music choices seem tongue-in-your-cheek clever, which makes perfect sense if you watch the credits long enough to see that Jones wrote most of the lyrics. 

This is the kind of movie that has a character try to get even by shouting, "you flat-chested whore!" One where two women can be lifelong best friends and yet somehow one doesn't really seem to know anything about the fact that her BFF was committed to a mental hospital and given electric shock therapy for seven years. Size 0 Sadie drinks 3/4 of a full bottle of Maker's Mark and is not only still standing, but has the ability to kidnap two people, make a full dinner, blind her boyfriend, and plot an elaborate escape plan by picking up an escaped prisoner at just the right time.

Oh yeah, forgot to mention that.

Throughout Scorned, there are a few probably filmed-in-one-day asides where we discover a heavily tattooed violent criminal is on the run (Checkhov's Law of Prisons in full force). Naturally, we're constantly waiting for him to show up at just the wrong time, a deus ex machina in a film that's already skirting any rules. The way Scorned works this into the main plot is even better than I could have imagined. 

As much as the "b*thces be crazy" subgenre pioneered by Lifetime can be insulting to women, Scorned manages to elevate it into something that might even be empowering. There are no boiled bunnies to be found here, even if there's a constant threat of little Bootsie drying off in the microwave. That's not Scorned's game: Sadie IS crazy, but she's not stupid, and there's something about her determination that's almost, dare I say it, admirable. Not all heroines wear capes: some of them just sport rainbow hair and spaghetti straps.

High Points
AnnaLynne McCord probably doesn't have the A-list career she initially dreamed of, but it's clear that she's become a genuinely interesting actress who makes a point of choosing roles where she can let loose. She's on fire in Scorned, and it's a damn beautiful thing to watch

Low Points
I actually love the yes-they-went-there ending, but if you sit back and try to put the details together, there are a LOT of holes in Sadie's plan

Lessons Learned
Girls put up with a lot of things before they lock you in

The key to making good tacos is cover up crappy meat with tons of spices

You know someone's a villain when she feeds a dog chili

Cigars are less likely to give you cancer than cigarettes, at least according to the Book of Zane

If you're a fan of fun trash, Scorned is an absolute delight. Get your fix on Amazon Prime now.