Monday, March 18, 2019

The Mad Man Next Door

Hey, did you know that the '80s are like, totally IN right now? 

Observe the many new horror movies to prove it.

Quick Plot: Davey is a 15-year-old Cape May paperboy with big dreams of becoming the next Spielberg. Until now, suburban life has proven to be fairly uninspiring. Thankfully, local news reports the first interesting thing to ever happen to Davey and his trio of misfit friends: someone within the island is abducting and murdering teenage boys.

For Davey, this is a chance to shake up evenings of manhunt with something actually worth being hunted. Things get especially exciting when he suspects his neighbor, Officer Mackey (Rich Sommer of Mad Men) as the killer. Knowing it will be a tough sell to the adults, Davey and his pals devote their titular summer to collecting evidence (with occasional pauses to spy on the sexy former babysitter next door).

Directed by the Turbo Kid team of Fran├žois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell, Summer of 84 (and yes: I'm annoyed we don't get an apostrophe) feels heavily indebted to the current wave of nostalgia sparked by Stranger Things. That's a good and bad thing. Sure, it's fun to remember the horrors of faces you might know showing up on milk cartons and the freedom of riding your bike around town without adult supervision, but then you realize writers Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith (born respectively in 1980 and 1981) don't actually know how teenagers talked in 1984, and you become incredibly distracted searching for the probable (and many) anachronisms.

The other glaring issue in Summer of 84 is that it toys with its tone, constantly playing with exactly what kind of horror movie it wants to be. What starts as a lighthearted romp suddenly turns into a truly cruel finale, only to then slightly lighten up with no serious mediation in its denouement. Tonal shifts can certainly be used to good effect, but in Summer of 84, it just ends up feeling mean. Much like most visits with Freddy Krueger, the fact that our killer is most likely doing terrible, presumably sexual things to his underage victims is never given any real weight. That would be fine if Summer of 84 wanted to stay in a fluffier realm, but when it ends on such a devastating note, the nature of the entire film just feels inconsistent. 

High Points
Though the quartet of wildly different boys doesn't necessarily fit well together on the page, the young actors have nice chemistry with each other, and the moments where they actually serve as loyal, unquestioning friends are easily the film's best strength 

Low Points
Look, I'm all for including female characters in boys' stories, but if you're going to throw in a token girl, can you first take a few minutes in your writing room to figure out who she is? Maybe it's just that one of the kids is played by The Babysitter's Judah Lewis, but the whole "slightly older dream girl who knows all of your references and exists for no reason other than to be cool" is so over. It doesn't help that the character of Nikki is handled so clumsily, showing up at random moments and being sent off without any resolution. 

Lessons Learned: the 1980s Edition (cumulatively culled from the recent rash of '80s-infused horror movies)
Old meatloaf smells like werewolf crap

Hot blond babysitters love nothing more than flirting with sensitive smart younger teenage boys

All parents are absent and terrible

Look, a lot of horror fans seem to love Summer of (')84, and I'm not here to say anyone is wrong. While I was entertained (and incredibly frustrated) while watching, it's a film that has soured significantly for me the more I've thought about it. It's on Shudder, and probably worth a watch just for you to make up your own mind.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Season Is Open

I don't know what it says about my morality, but there are few subgenres I enjoy quite as much as a good old variation on The Most Dangerous Game. Hence, to Netflix we go for 2016's Happy Hunting (and my conscience).

Quick Plot: Warren is a lifelong alcoholic, eking out something of an existence by selling fake drugs to dangerous meth-heads. When a sale goes wrong, Warren flees, landing in a sleepy Texas border town called Bedford Falls and befriending the tad-too-friendly AA leader Steve, who brings him home to clear his brain cells with his tad-too-cheerful wife Cheryl.

After further clearing his head with a dose of bathroom horse tranquilizer, Warren wakes up bound with a batch of other ne'er do wells. Turns out, every year, Bedford Falls shakes off its tumbleweeds with a human hunt, casting the most undesirable men within city limits as prey.

Deep in withdrawal, Warren proves to be spryer than you'd expect for a man whose sobriety is a thing of distant past. Battling a grizzled senior hunter, trio of bloodthirsty siblings, and the Ned Flanders-ish horrors of Steve and Cheryl, he puts up a good fight en route across the Mexican border.

Happy Hunting is written and directed by the debut team of Joe Dietsch and Louie Gibson (son of Mel). Its pacing is messy, dragging in its first third with a bigger-than-necessary setup and rushing a bit in its middle. At the same time, it's beautifully shot in a steaming desert and well-scored with some fittingly Western-style tones. As Warren, Martin Dingle Wall makes a solid, interestingly flawed center that helps to keep the whole thing together.

It's not a new classic, but Happy Hunting is a solid action thriller that brings some new ideas to a fun subgenre. Plus...

High Points
Bear trap! There's a bear trap and like Most Dangerous Games, I sure do love a bear trap!

Low Points
The only thing I hate more than I love a bear trap is a cruel ending. While Happy Hunting has a harsh spirit throughout that probably doesn't warrant a finale involving ice cream sundaes, there's something especially mean and somewhat culturally questionable about this one

Lessons Learned
Hell hath no fury like a recently widowed relapsed Christian alcoholic

Open windows and most dangerous games are not the best of friends

Any town with a an overabundance of mannequins is not a place to spend the night


Much like Mel Gibson's directorial output, Happy Hunting is a pretty well-put together trek of vicious violence. I don't know that I loved watching it, but it's sharply done, and packs some surprises (plus, bear trap!).

Monday, March 4, 2019

A Short(ening) Roundup!

Another turn of the calendar, another moment to bid adieu to the Shortening! Of course, one can't quite do that alone. Remember, we vertically challenged often need a little assistance. Just ask the random taller strangers we constantly require to reach up for the good cereal cruelly placed on the top shelf at any supermarket.

Over at Senseless Cinema, the one and only Doctor Pseudonymous wheels on over to Canada for the glorious weirdness that is The Pit! I'd honestly forgotten just how bonkers this murderous-boy-and-his-talking-teddy-bear truly is, but the doc goes deep into the details! Head on over (but remember to keep your head down so as to not fall into the titular man-eating orifice).

Way down under at Not This Time, Nayland Smith, we've got the one and only Chris Hewson tackling 1964's Tintin & the Blue Oranges. From what I gather, it's a pretty movie LOADED with kidnappings!

And if your fill of the little is still running low, then plan ahead: on Tuesday night, March 19th, I'll be bringing the tiny terror to Brooklyn by hosting an evening screening of a movie near and dear to my cold blackened heart, Dolls! Get your details here and tickets soon!


Monday, February 25, 2019

(Don't) Feed the Birds

You know what's fairly short, at least in terms of human measurements? A bird. Yes, they immediately fly higher than most of our heads, but you know...9 years of Shortenings means I sometimes have to reach (PUN!).

Quick Plot: Small town sheriff Wayne has one last day on the job before he moves to the big city with his scholarly wife for her research work. Naturally, no good cop can retire without experiencing a raging birdemic.

This one comes courtesy of some shifty Mennonite farmers and their overprotective ways. When mad cow corpses get pecked by a gaggle of ravens, chaos reigns faster than you can clear your throat for a proper Hitchcock impression.

Directed by Sheldon Wilson, Kaw is essentially exactly what you want from a Birds-inspired cheapie, right on down to casting good sport Rod Taylor as the kindly town doctor. Canadian treasure Stephen McHattie lends some quality as the town drunk, and the better-than-it-should-be combination of CGI and a few well-trained avian actors makes it clear that we're not playing in Asylum Studios territory.

Still, Kaw doesn't seem to have the resources or ambitions to overcome its baby budget, leaving it as a pleasant enough SyFy Channel bit of entertainment.

High Points
Maybe it's just the recent influx of anything bird-related coupled with the film's obvious low budget, but all in all, Kaw is surprisingly smart about its bird graphics, cleverly blending real birdings with bargain (but passable) CGI 

Low Points
Rod Taylor aside, it's a shame that there isn't more spark to the townspeople, though credit should be given to the fact that a few stray teenagers manage to make it out with personality

Lessons Learned

Never bring a rifle to a bird fight
Mennonites have very bad hearing (and even worse cattle-raising instincts)

Kaw should be a breezy stream, but unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be readily available. I watched it via a "long wait" Netlix DVD queue disk, the benefit of which is that I had a chance to jump into the extras: an affectionate making-of short and a lovely interview between director Wilson and the classy pro Rod Taylor. 

It's still not exactly a movie worth owning, but if you come across a bargain copy, it should satisfy your itch for a bunch of impressively trained raven thespians plucking the life out of a few good-spirited Canadian actors. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

I Don't Want to Be Unborn!

In the small but fierce subgenre that is anti-choice horror, emotions tend to run high...and quality often low.

Quick Plot: Journalist Trai and his teacher wife Phim grow concerned as their young daughter, Yaimai, begins an unhealthy relationship with an imaginary friend she refers to as “Little One.” Little One seems ominous, luring Yaimai into dangerous situations centered around a mysterious temple and its outdoor mortuary lockers.

Nearby, the temple’s caretaker has his own dark secret: he subsidizes his low wages with a cash bonus he gets for regularly disposing of an illegal abortionist’s trash. Somewhere in the pile of 2002 fetuses, an angry spirit has been born, and it won’t stop until it punishes anyone responsible for its lonely fate.

Directed by Poj Amon and “based on a true story” (presumably about the chain-smoking abortionist, and not the haunted toy that signals a ghost fetus), The Unborn Child is a blatantly pro-life bit of propaganda disguised (for a while) as a horror movie. Honestly, this pro-choice blogger isn't offended by the film's ridiculous politics. The problem with The Unborn Child is that it's boring.

Granted, it's hard to even come close to being nearly as memorable as the tentpole for terrible anti-choice horror, 2011's Unborn Sins. I'm still somewhat convinced that those 80 minutes were nothing more than a fever dream induced by me topping a quesadilla with expired sour cream.

Anyway, The Unborn Child does not involve nearly as much dancing or a line as special as "the spirit of my child turned into a midget freak with homicidal tendencies" (actual dialog from Unborn Sins), but yes, it's technically a better-made movie than aforementioned dairy fantasy. At the same time, if I had to live in a world with only one bad-to-mediocre horror movie about a vengeful fetus ghost, the choice is obvious.

High Points
While the payoff is disappointing, there are certainly strong individual moments of tension and buildup that show Amon to have some strong instincts with the genre

Low Points

There are a LOT of things I can complain about in The Unborn Child so picking one isn't easy, but let's land on the fact that a big, boggling reveal towards the end regarding a main character's real persona demonstrates just how little character development this movie tried to have

Lessons Learned
Much like Hallmark Christmas movie heroines, Thai women go to bed in full makeup and beautifully flattering nightwear

If you're trying to send a fervent anti-abortion message with your movie, maybe don't end it with a soundtrack that incorporates obnoxiously screaming babies

The Unborn Child isn't a terrible movie, but it's messy and dull, and its preaching politics certainly don't help. Still curious? It's on Netflix, which is easier to access than the depths of my fantasies that dreamed up Unborn Sins.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Charlotte's Web

As I've said before, Amazon Prime is a wild minefield when it comes to horror. Its newer indie output is usually less than stellar, but after the joy of Crush the Skull, I've been more and more willing to take a chance on its recommendations. Since nine years of The Shortening has made it harder and harder to find anything featuring killers under 4', to the trenches we go!

Quick Plot: A teenage babysitter has just put her charge to bed and decides to kill the rest of her time on duty watching Night of the Living Dead (shout out to public domain!) and chatting with her horny boyfriend. Unfortunately for her, the creepy doll hanging out in the living room has other plans.

Before you can say "I guess the doll's name is Charlotte because that's what the film's cover art implied even though it's never mentioned in the rest of the movie and Charlotte is the name of a character in one story only", Charlotte (yes, I'm now calling the doll Charlotte for convenience) has the young woman bound and gagged. Her punishment? Being forced to watch a collection of horror shorts.

I realize most of what I've said thus far in this review sounds negative, but to my shock, I kind of enjoyed Charlotte. Like every anthology not named Creepshow, the segments vary wildly in quality, but for what I have to assume was a next-to-nothing budget, the overall product worked far better than expected.

Unfortunately, IMDB lists just about nothing about this film other than the names of the multiple directors (Colin Campbell, John Edward Lee, Calvin Main, Corey Norman, Patrick Rea, and April Wright). Hence, expect little and inaccurate detail as I sum up the stories:

1- My favorite of the bunch, a tale of jealous twin sisters whose rivalry over a doll as children festers into something far more sinister as petty adults. Fun, quick, and clever in its twists.

2- A fairly straightforward, but decently told story about a couple who receive a strange grown woman dressed as a doll as a trick or treater, and the hell that follows.

3- Another babysitter-with-a-boyfriend story. In this case, a young woman teases a little boy with tales of a foot-eating troll, only to meet the monster herself.

4- A strange, rather payoff-less quickie about a man embarking on a demonic sacrifice. Fingers are eaten. That is that.

5- The strongest in the bunch, a light-hearted dark comedy about persistent Girl Scouts--er, "Adventure Girls"-- and their nefarious cookie plans.

6- A wildly different tale in terms of tone, this follows a woman waking up in a basement out of Jigsaw's design guide to find a pedophile murderer tied up at her disposal. It involves a lot of shouting and I kind of hated it.

7- Starring one of the women who didn't win season 1 of VH1's Scream Queens (SIDE NOTE! REMEMBER THAT JAMES GUNN AND SHAWNEE SMITH ONCE HOSTED A REALITY COMPETITION TO PICK SOMEONE TO DIE IN SAW VI???), this story follows a lonely little girl who mysteriously receives a doll who, you might guess, has bad things in mind for the woman who didn't win Scream Queens (Sarah Agor).

8- The final segment centers on a savvy kid who wants to sneak into a horror marathon at a mysterious, meat-filled theater. With a fun and playful twist, it's the right note to end on.

What can you say about eight unrelated short films loosely tied together? That Charlotte works on any level is something of an achievement. None of the segments succeed as actual scary horror tales, but all are quick, and for the most part, offer something mildly new. Considering the dregs of anthology segments I've sat through, that's impressive.

Lessons Learned
Contrary to popular cultural portrayals, trolls actually resemble burn victims with tiny Trump hands

Suburban walls are incredibly soundproof

Evil dolls are terrible influences on young girls, especially in how they make them worry about gluten

Every babysitter will try to have sex while on duty

There are better horror anthologies out there, but as we've seen time and time again, there are a whole lot worse too. Charlotte is a wild mixed bag, but the worst segments go by quickly and the best have some neat fun. It's worth a casual watch, especially compared to some of its Amazon Prime competition.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Losers Weepers

It's here! A whole month of posts about vertically challenged villains, forever known as The Shortening. Evil dolls, terrible children, biting insects, Tom Cruises...whatever is small and deadly, we'll tackle it here.


Quick Plot: Newly separated Alyson moves her bratty daughter Claire into a bargain home with your typical murdery history. Just a year or so earlier, a young boy killed his parents before ending up in the local asylum. When Claire discovers a ratty doll under a floorboard, it's not long before she begins heading down the same path.

First on her hit list: neighbor Marina Sirtis's cat. 

I'm not going to lie about my bias: when your first victim is feline, I'm not going to be on your victim/villain's side.

Perhaps the hardest hurdle to get over in Finders Keepers is just why anyone should care about Claire's possession-by-doll. Sure, the kid doesn't have the greatest parental role models (we're talking Jaime Pressly and the king of Christmas movies himself, Patrick Muldoon), but it doesn't really excuse the fact that she's a miserable thing from the start. 

At least the doll has a neat look.

Directed by Alexander Yellen (whose career primarily involves cinematography on Asylum Studio films), Finders Keepers feels aggressively mediocre, even with (or maybe, because) it contains a fairly star-studded cast for this caliber of film. Deanna Troy purrs through a thankless cat lady part, Tobin "Jigsaw" Bell gets to give terrible psychiatric advice, and poor Justina Machado has her eyes poked out and body set on fire. 

And the brat keeps going.

High Points
There's a stupid slow motion doll toss that made me unreasonably happy, which tells you how much I was reaching for entertainment in this movie

Low Points
Did I mention how much I hated this kid?

Lessons Learned
I know this sounds crazy, but here me out: in the words of trained professionals, separation and divorce can be hard for a child

Never mess with a strange kid's ugly doll

The shorter your haircut, the longer your makeup will stay on your face

Eh. This wasn't the high note I was hoping to open The Shortening on, but it does manage to give us BOTH an evil child AND doll, so I guess it gets some kind of half nod. I got this as a long wait on my Netflix disc queue, which felt even less rewarding than I would have liked.