Monday, April 22, 2019

HGTV Horrors

One of my favorite surprise watches of the last decade of straight-to-wherever-but-not-the-theaters horror is YellowBrickRoad, a film that crashes its landing but serves as a strange, creepy treat up to its last few minutes. One half of that directing team went on to make today’s feature. My expectations were high. 

Quick Plot: Simon (YBR's Richard Dreyfuss stand-in Alex Draper) is a chronic house flipper separated from his city-dwelling, anxiety-ridden wife and their slightly mischievous but good-hearted 12-year-old son Finn. After Finn does some unsupervised cell phone digging, Mom sends him out with Simon to a newly acquired Vermont country cottage for the summer. 

Hoping to renovate the long-empty house into a three-person family home, Simon delves into his project and bonding with Finn. The pair grows closer as they learn some of the odd tics of the house, and even more so once a nervous alcoholic electrician neighbor briefs them on its strange history.

It seems the last occupant was a lonely woman named Lydia who may have been responsible for shoving her husband and son into a deadly piece of farm equipment, Fargo-style. For the rest of her life, Lydia sat in the upstairs window, motionlessly watching neighborhood children...who eventually discovered the reason for her inaction was because she'd been dead for years. 

Happy housewarming!

While spunky Finn is initially thrilled at the possibility that his new home is haunted, the excitement wears off quickly when father and son meet the titular ghost. There's no denying that something is very, very wrong, and Simon wastes no time or dad points in sending Finn on the next bus home, vowing to somehow overcome Lydia's spirit while also doing some serious fixer upping.

Running at just 77 minutes, The Witch In the Window is kind of what I wanted Ti West's disappointing The Innkeepers to be: an eerie, entertaining ghost story that does a lot with a little. Draper and young actor Charlie Tacker are a warm, likable father-son pair, and it's easy to become invested in the fate not just of their lives, but of their relationship. 

Written, directed, edited, scored, and probably catered by Andy Mitton, The Witch In the Window is an intimate film that wisely zooms in on just one set of characters and the horrors they face. I'm not always the biggest fan of restrained ghost stories, often because tension can turn to tedium. The Witch In the Window avoids this fate, possibly because it wastes none of its brief running time. This isn't the scariest movie of its ilk, but it's involving, creepy, and immensely satisfying.

High Points
Simon isn't really winning any father of the year trophies, but he makes all the right decisions when confronted with danger, something incredibly refreshing in a genre that often fails this type of challenge

The Haunting of Hill House has made me look for hidden ghosts in every corner of any TV screen, and The Witch In the Window gives you plenty of eye candy in that regard

Low Points
Honestly, there’s nothing this movie lacks. Sure, I could have used more of Lydia’s history, but at its breezy under-80-minute length, anything more might have robbed the film of its perfectly sized punch

Lessons Learned
People don't go to Vermont for the oysters

Banishment means you have to go somewhere with nothing

Never double down on a good burn

The Witch In the Window is a perfect justification for an on-sale Shudder subscription. It's a small, strong little thriller that you won't find on the other services, and its unassuming packaging would have made it easy to look past in a vast video catalog. It won’t sit with me with quite the same heft as YellowBrickRoad, but it’s well above average for a straight-to-streaming genre film you’ve probably never heard of. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Best Served Desert Hot

Slowly but surely, the last few years have opened up some much-needed discussion on giving more women opportunity behind the camera. Perhaps nowhere does that matter more than horror, where females are so often mishandled, even by well-meaning male writers and directors who simply don't get it. Perhaps that's why Coralie Fargeat has received so much attention for her brutal entry in the rape-revenge genre. 

Quick Plot: Jen is spending a weekend in her married rich boyfriend Richard's isolated home, conveniently located in the middle of the desert. When his hunting buddies show up a day early, things get awkward, but one evening of sexy dancing seems to cool things down.

The next day, Richard leaves Jen alone with the lecherous Stan and cowardly Dimitri. It doesn't take the afternoon sun for Stan to rape Jen, with Dimitri choosing to let it happen while he takes a dip in the lap pool. Richard returns annoyed but pragmatic, trying to buy Jen's silence with a bank deposit and ticket to Canada. 

She's not into it. Jen tries to seize some control by threatening to call Richard's wife, prompting a heavy slap. In shock, Jen takes off barefoot, sprinting through the canyons until Richard pushes her off a cliff and stomach-first onto a sharp branch. Left for dead, Jen rouses herself up with some ingenuity involving a handy cigarette lighter. 

These dudes have no idea what they're in for. 

Written and directed by Coralie Fargeat, Revenge is a pretty straightforward thriller that lives up to its simple title. The hunted becomes the hunter, and a creative, smart, and incredibly resourceful one at that. Rape/revenge is a story we've seen told hundreds of times, but Revenge has some subtle tricks that make it worth discussing.

Yes, the first is that we have a female behind the camera, telling a story typically doused in a sleazy male gaze. I'll defend the original I Spit On Your Grave from its claims of misogyny (it's much more feminist than its very nature suggests) but yes, a woman telling this story makes a difference. 

Actress Matilda Anne Ingrid Lutz is model-beautiful, and the camera certainly loves her perfect, scantily clad body. But consider how this rape is handled: unlike many a male-directed scene, there's no closeup of a breast or lingering on Lutz's body being violated. While there are certainly cinematic rapes that fully capture the horror of the crime, there are unfortunately even more that manage to (deliberately or not) to turn such a moment into something stimulating. Fargeat's decision is to simply not show it. We get the point, and the opening of the act is enough to fuel everything that happens thereafter. 

I don't know that Revenge is a great or even overly revolutionary film, but the more I consider some of its decisions, the more I see why it's become such a big conversation piece over the last few years. In an era where even a seemingly open-minded indie-promoting studio like Blumhouse makes insanely stupid blunders about discussing women behind the camera, Revenge demonstrates how it makes such a difference. Put this exact script in a man's hands and you'd likely end up with small choices that put a very different spin on the action. 

Richard, as detestable a character as the rapist Stan, is buck naked in his final showdown with Jen. It's a very deliberate choice on Fargeat's end, and while it might seem heavy-handed to some, as a female genre-lover who's spent 37 years watching female bodies abused in ways clearly meant to turn on a specific male audience, I say bring it on.

High Points
I'm a sucker for good nature photography, so the way cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert toys with ants and other desert insects just feels darn cool

Low Points
I can forgive Jen not tying her hair back (I don't think she packed a scrunchie in her underwear) but the idea that she'd keep her oversized dangling earrings on throughout this ordeal just feels a step too far

Lessons Learned
The rules of being lost in a forest and a desert are not the same

Nothing stops blood flow with the efficiency of Saran Wrap, though its thinness might open you up to other dangerous points

Smart women sleep in their sports bras

Revenge is currently available through Shudder, and it's certainly a high recommend. Sure, it treads no real new ground, but it's a fascinating case of how perspective matters. 

Monday, April 8, 2019

Lights Out

On the pages of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, Margaery Tyrell isn't much of a presence. She never gets a point of view chapter, and therefore remains a passive pawn in other characters' games. One of the highlights of HBO's hugely successful adaptation has been (especially for readers of the books) how certain actors took lesser characters to new heights. 

As the ambitious, often-married lady of Highgarden, Natalie Dormer brought layers of intrigue to what could have been a mere body to move about Westeros. She showed even more skill in the uneven Picnic At Hanging Rock miniseries, overcoming some age miscasting to remain a fascinating presence. 

All this is to say that I'm rooting hard for Dormer's career. In Darkness marks her debut as a screenwriter, and while it's not quite the genre pic its marketing suggested, it showed up on Netflix and hence, this here blog. 

Quick Plot: Sofia is a blind pianist living one floor below Veronique, the flighty daughter of an infamous Serbian war criminal named Zoran Radic. When Veronique mysteriously tumbles out her third floor window, Sofia becomes a person of interest to everyone, from a friendly detective to Joely Richardson's icy brunette business manager and her puppy-eyed hunk of a brother (Daario Naharis Beta Tested Ed Skrein).

Between coded USB drives, poisoned champagne, and incredibly polished eye makeup applied without sight, In Darkness is an ambitious thriller that wants to do a LOT in its 100 minute run time. Written by Dormer and director Anthony Byrne, it piles mystery upon red herring upon mystery, with at least two major twists and very little room to breathe. 

It's far too much plot, and many of the details pile up in a way that adds to the ridiculousness of the story. Take, for example, the violinist busker who Sofia sees (well, not SEES, but you know) ever day on her afternoon coffee runs. At one point, she asks him to warn her if he sees a certain suspect by playing a lesser known composer. He does...sometime in the middle of the night. Does this accomplished, very clean-cut street musician LIVE outside this suburban coffee shop? Does he actually make cash at all hours? IS HE A ROBOT? 

You get the point. 

I almost wish In Darkness had leaned in harder to some its sillier elements. At times, there's a sense of campiness bubbling right under the super serious veneer, from Veronique's leopard print fashion to Detective Mills' inability to ever not eat. Maybe next time, Dormer and Byrne can embrace the fun. It would be better for all of us. 

High Points
Sofia has a little too much skill at everything to be a believable woman (and the less said about the final twist, the better) but as expected, Dormer remains an engaging presence onscreen who's impossible not to care about

Low Points
There is so much wrong with the final reveal that puts every action before it in question that I won't waste my time here listing it all. Just know that the ending is stupid and kind of makes the whole movie even stupider, despite it trying so hard not to be

Lessons Leaned
Nothing makes a dieting detective hungrier than a visit to the morgue

Grieving lets people see that you have feelings

45-year-old British size 10s don't do dairy

It pains me to say In Darkness is a deeply flawed film, but at the same time, I can fully admit that I didn't hate watching it. It's loaded with beautiful, well-dressed British people being mysteriously sexy amidst classical music, and that in itself has its charms. I wish the script had a little more finessing, but hey: I'd rather a film try too hard than phone it in. Even if I wish it had hung up the phone two minutes earlier.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Party Games

No, Truth or Dare is not an Asylum Studios adaption of the Blumhouse theatrical release of the same title. Much like meteors in 1998, sometimes a random plot point becomes all the rage in one cinematic year. From 2017-2018, that rage was, it would seem, teenage party games.

Quick Plot: In 1983, a group of college kids play a fatal game of Truth or Dare, leaving one lone survivor to live out her remaining years with an acid-scarred face but in a lovely, hard candy filled home. 

Some thirtysomething years later, a new gaggle of ridiculously attractive young people decide to spend Halloween weekend in that same former dormitory. Sure, this time there are cell phone videos, but really, a haunted party game can only evolve so much.

The rules of this version are simple: three rounds of truth or (mostly) dares, to be completed within 48 hours. Those who fail to complete the challenge die in semi-Final Destination ways so that their autopsies can be justified as bizarre accidents or creative suicides. If that doesn't sound Nightmare On Elm Street-ish enough for you, enter a very welcome Heather Lagenkamp to lend some maturity to the proceedings as the sole survivor of the last Truth or Dare massacre.

Directed by The Girl In the Photographs' Nick Simon, Truth Or Dare shares the same mean bone and black comedic sensibilities. That's mostly a good thing: by no means can this actually be called a good movie, but as someone who braved the '90s era of WB stars put through mild torment on the big screen, rougher dead teenager movies have their own certain charm. 

You can find a lot wrong in Truth or Dare -- bland characters, stupid decisions, and cockroach CGI so ridiculous that it's almost adorable -- but if you go in with the same attitude that made me the #1 fan of The Sand (yes, that's the movie about killer sand), then it's the kind of dumb fun horror movie that is weirdly watchable. This is the kind of film where a character announces her vegetarianism only to be forced to eat burnt human skin a few scenes later. 

You know what you're getting into.

High Points
Truth or Dare could have easily contained all of its action in its semi-haunted house, but its choice to break the game up and take it deeper into the real world is somewhat refreshing

Low Points
It's rare to find deep characterization in a movie like this, but it would have been nice to have some sort of character development that wasn't entirely based on who's dating whom. The movie makes a last minute attempt to fit its premise into a deeper "our punishments fit our hidden crimes," but it's so rushed and ultimately incomplete that it comes off as comically inept

Lessons Learned
If your friends refer to your partner as "what’s his face," the relationship is probably not long for this world

Baking soda has a roughly 50% acid protection rate

The power of besties involves being able to provide quick synonyms on call

Truth or Dare is not good, but hey: it's kind of fun. Queue it up on Netflix when you want to turn your brain off and enjoy watching pretty young people cut each other's fingernails. 

Don't act like you're above these things.

Monday, March 25, 2019

It's All About Your Aim

Like every business, Netflix is far from perfect. But for all its rate hikes and questionable politics when it comes to certain programming decisions, the service continues to serve as an undeniably powerful source of spreading cinema to an incredibly wide range of users. One of Netflix’s prime benefits in recent months has been its new import of a whole lot of international genre films.

Sure, some of these are rather politically terrible scared-straight-style abortion horrors (ah, The Unborn Child) but these are films that are otherwise easy to miss. Netflix’s algorithms know me well enough by now to constantly throw blood-covered mask poster art in front of my recommends. Hence, such quick views are how we come to randomly watch a movie like Indonesia’s Target.

Quick Plot: A group of performers (including action movie stars, a YouTuber, magician, and comedian) are gathered together for a mysterious film shoot that quickly devolves into a Saw-meets-And-Then-There-Were-None game, or what I can only assume is what every Escape Room turns into with enough paranoia. Some masked overseer has decided to create a different kind of film filled with real stakes, and our heroes must navigate personal tensions, physical feats, and kooky riddles to survive.

Written and directed by actor Raditya Dika, Target is an oddball genre film that thankfully establishes its comedic tendencies fairly immediately. Even though our cast is presumably made up of future and former action stars (all playing characters with the real actors’ names), they’re all goofballs in one sense or another. It’s endearing once you buy in. 

Unfortunately, and this could certainly be a case of comedy not always translating easily over several oceans, much of Target also just feels somewhat juvenile. An overweight’s character primary tic is that he likes to eat. A gay man’s effeminacy is his defining characteristic. Dika is our default lead, but he’s also the least dynamic of the bunch, which throws off the one major relationship that helps to solidify the story. The final twist is a surprise, but since the film never really knows whether anything should be taken too seriously, it’s ultimately underwhelming.

Target isn’t terrible, but as most genre fans know, few sub-categories of the genre are more uncomfortable to sit through than an inconsistent horror comedy. There’s a lot of charm to Target, and its diverse nature certainly makes it a more interesting watch  than a lot of the other streaming choices. 

High Points
I’m probably a broken record on this point, but when you cast an ensemble film with actors of all genders, ages, and statures, your story will instantly be more engaging 

Low Points
Look, I’m all for an oversized comedic actor having fun with his stature, but it’s 2019: can’t we be done with the token “fat guy eats a lot of food” scenes that are there for the simplest of jokes that, you know, fat guys eat a lot of food?

Lessons Learned
Standup comedians are not celebrities

Always take English lessons, especially if the school is so close to your house

One can never be too cautious when plotting a landing

Target is streaming on Netflix, and at just under 90 minutes, it’s a breezy enough watch for a lazy day. I struggled to stay with its goofy spirit, but if nothing else, there’s something worthwhile about watching a genre film from a country we don’t often see easily

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.