Monday, November 23, 2015

Open Wide

When a person like me hears “was it as bad as Smiley?” in regards to something as bad as The Secret Village, you can count down from two before I proceed to find Smiley streaming on Amazon Prime to see just how rough a watch will be.

And then I question everything I know about my taste level when I finish and say, “you know, that really wasn’t that bad.”

Quick Plot: A little girl introduces her babysitter to a “Skype for strangers” chat site called The Den--

Oops. Wrong movie. This one’s called Hide & Chat and has the exciting twist that if you type “I did it for the lulz” three times, a masked man with a smiley face burlap mask will appear and brutally murder the stranger on the other side of your webcam. Naturally, the shocked babysitter goes home to immediately hop on Hide & Chat, befriend a stranger, and be fatally lulzed.

We next meet Ashley, an innocent college freshman moving in with her harder partying pal Elizabeth--

Wait. That’s not it. Though she may indeed be played by The Den’s Melanie Papalia, Ashley’s roommate is named Proxy. Because that’s apparently a thing (as are the names Binder, Crash, Kells, and Zane). 

Proxy is all about corrupting the willing Ashley, introducing her to pot, alcohol, and group of fellow college students who enjoy web pranks. It doesn’t take long for the obnoxious gang of millenials to spruce up a typical keg party with an invitation to Smiley.

Ashley is horrified by the tale so naturally, her and Proxy go home and triple lulz a stranger together to prove that it’s real. When she tries to report the events, Ashely receives the typical dubious stares from the police officers. It doesn’t help when we discover she’s bipolar and not currently on medication. 

What follows is many a dream upon dream upon dream sequence, as well as a few red herrings and a random performance by Broadway’s Roger Bart as a whiskey happy professor. Directed by newcomer Michael J. Gallagher, Smiley’s biggest problem lies in its tonal confusion. Ashley’s troubles seem to be taken seriously, but the movie as a whole can’t seem to decide if there’s genuine tragedy in these internet horrors. 

High Points
Filing under “other things this film has in common with The Den,” Smiley opens with a shockingly effective jump scare

While we’re on the “things this has in common with The Den,” let’s give a hand to the incredibly likable Caitlin Gerard, who manages to be extremely sympathetic in the lead role, even when the movie doesn’t quite know how to maximize her talents

Low Points
I actually dug the twist ending, but when you start to think back to some of the logic of it, I don’t know that it holds up

Lessons Learned
You don’t get to be king of the internet assholes without making a few enemies (and apparently, a lot of shitty mixed drinks)

Computer geniuses prefer to be called nerds

Dungeonmasters usually don’t get the princess

Common Mistake
I did not do it for the lutz

I did not do it for the lutz

Instead, I did it for the lulz

Pneumonic Device For Life
Look, there’s no shame in admitting that like 95% of the general population, you can never remember which one is Keith David and which one is David Keith. Well folks, I have the key to never mixing this up again, providing you were a fan of Six Feet Under. It goes something like this:

David & Keith were a couple.

This is David.

This is Keith.

This is David Keith.

This is Keith David.

Problem solved. 

Guys, I’ve seen worse horror movies than Smiley. Wayyyyyyyy worse movies. I realize that isn’t a ringing endorsement, but I guess I was just expecting something far less watchable based on word of mouth. It has plenty of dopey moments, but Gerard makes for a sympathetic lead and the internet twist on Candyma/Bloody Mary lore has its own appeal. I’m not telling anybody to invest in a watch, but it’s streaming on Amazon Prime and well, it’s one way to pass the time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Broody Seeds


Just wanted to send out a friendly reminder that I also host a podcast. And more importantly, this week, I host a podcast about The Brood and The Bad Seed. Listen via iTunes or whatever fancy dancy technology you use. 

Bottoms up!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Skyping For Sociopaths

Another day in the 21st century, another found footage horror film on Instant Watch.

This is how we live now.

Quick Plot: Elizabeth is an enterprising young lady attempting to get a research grant that will allow her to spend more time on "The Den," a video chat website that lets you talk to other users across the world. In between adorable stuffed animal penis performances and the occasional decent conversation, Elizabeth stumbles upon the profile of a seemingly normal teenage girl who very quickly begins asking some unusual questions.

It doesn't take long for Elizabeth's new pal--or whoever might be manipulating the profile--to infiltrate her computer, capturing a steamy evening with her and her boyfriend and sharing the video with Elizabeth's professional connections. Things get worse when Elizabeth enters The Den to discover her normal teenage girl pal tied up and murdered right on camera.

Naturally, it's a hard crime to sell to local policemen. Even Elizabeth's boyfriend and programmer friend believe it to be a well-executed prank. We as the audience know better once Elizabeth's computer sends another friend a message to come over, only to have Elizabeth follow up with a visit that reveals her friend to be dying in a bath of her own blood.

As horror fans, we've all probably seen A LOT of found footage indies, some of which have relied as much on Skype-based conversations as they have the dreaded shaky cam. Much like the similarly toned (and very underrated) Megan Is Missing, The Den mixes up the point of view by primarily taking place primarily inside Elizabeth’s computer, sort of like that recent Modern Family episode.

Such a decision could have yielded a very annoying movie, but thankfully, director Zachary Donohue manages to keep The Den’s pacing and mystery strong throughout its fairly brief running time. Lead actress Melanie Papalia is also quite natural and makes you genuinely care about her fate. This is a dark film with more than a dose of nihilism at its core, one that could have ultimately felt nasty and unpleasant if mishandled. It’s vital that Donohue treats his material with weight. Once the real danger becomes apparent, The Den never toys with making light of just how terrible and sad its world really is.

High Points
As Elizabeth, Melanie Papalia is instantly likable and worth rooting for. Found footage video cam horror can't be an easy acting job, but Papalia keeps you on her side throughout the film. It helps that the film actually lets her make pretty smart decisions and impressive self defense instincts as things escalate 

Low Points
...perhaps save for the initial “look lady, you’re putting yourself out there in a world filled with bonafide weirdos. You might want to be a tad more careful 

Lessons Learned
The Internet is filled with people that really like boobs

Never give the boyfriend that you're not that into the password to your computer

Did Strangeland teach us nothing other than nobody really wants to see Dee Snider’s nipple rings? Seriously people, stay out of chat rooms. We should have learned that in the ‘90s


Now streaming on Instant Watch, The Den is a fairly effective little sliver of found footage horror. It’s not necessarily the best of its subgenre, but I found it to be involving and disturbing. Most importantly, the fact that its lead character puts up such a good fight makes it a little more notable than many of its peers. I wouldn’t want a sequel to this particular film, but I eagerly look forward to what director Donohue does next.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Strike Up the Bagpipes

When you've seen one horror movie with a Netflix cover showing a woman on the ground reaching for help, you've probably seen them all.
I hadn't seen this one, so I did. And now I can the previous sentence to say, "I actually had pretty much seen this one."

Quick Plot: Ed and Sarah are a British city couple looking to settle in a more spacious and picturesque local. When a beautiful farmhouse in remote Scotland shows up on the market at a bargain price (in part because the previous owner and his extensive family could no longer afford it) they move in with full DIY enthusiasm.

Before the couple has a chance to reroute their mail, a group of rubber pig mask wearing locals brings on the home invasion, leaving us with a 45 minute chase through the woods.

It's not nearly as interesting as it sounds.
The Blood Lands has been shoving its cover in my face every time I log into Netflix, and the pedigree of the wonderful Pollyana McIntosh (The Woman herself) and short running time made it an easy sell. Clearly, I need to raise my standards.

The location is pretty. The leads are fine (even if they also happen to be yuppie jerks with little to no charm). But essentially, Simeon Halligan's The Bad Lands (aka White Settlers) is a five minute chase scene from something like The Strangers or You're Next stretched into a full-length feature. The villains have no discernible personality other than "hating British city folk who buy their rightful home" and "wearing rubber pig masks." The music is probably the film's best feat, but this isn't the score to Halloween or It Follows. It's just, you know, okay.

It's rare that I'm so baffled by why a movie was made, but when you get to the end of The Blood Lands, I think you might furrow your eyebrow with the same confusion that I did. This is a movie constructed and presented like your standard home invasion horror, but it's weirdly afraid to commit to it. We have a ridiculously long buildup surrounding uninteresting characters, an extensive cat and mouse hunt that offers nothing new, and an incredibly tame ending that leaves you shrugging. These things are not good.

High Points
I've always been a fan of McIntosh, and it's also nice that her character generally shows good instincts in fighting back

Low Points
Aside from the whole "what's the point of this movie at all" thing, here comes yet another film to feature a character discovering another bound and gagged and first ungagging them before, oh, I don't know, untying his hands so that a) he can ungag himself and b) he can help you when the person who presumably gagged him in the first place comes right back

Lessons Learned, The Scotland Edition
Scottish people hate the English with more fervor than I hate onions

Things you won't find in Scotland: network signals, working electricity, traffic, bears

Things you will find in Scotland: bear traps. Glorious, glorious bear traps

The Blood Lands isn't an incompetent film, but it sure is an incredibly frustrating one. It goes on too long with no payoff, and considering the film doesn't crack 90 minutes, that's a pretty rough selling point. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

You Spin Me Round & Round

"Strangers locked in a room and forced to kill each other" is nothing new when it comes to plot descriptions in the 21st century, but when you add a sort of Simon-esque electronic art direction and a democratically determined electro shock system, you've piqued my interest. 

Quick Plot: A varied group of 50 people awake to find themselves standing in a black room with a fancy futuristic floor light fixture spinning around. Think of it as a carnival Gravitron ride with about 75% less chance of vomit. and 85% more chance of sudden death.  

Before long, they discover that every two minutes, one person gets a brief and fatal electric shock. It's in their hands--literally--to decide who dies when, as they can signal and make a fist to vote the next victim. As you can guess, they work together, get along, form lasting friendships, and see the inner beauty inside each other.

Like many a lottery-based horror film, Circle quickly lets its characters showcase some true colors. Impressively, writing/directing team Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione balance the speedy conversations (as none can really last more than two minutes at a time) without being too overbearing in zooming in on a batch of blank slate's racism, homophobia, and other easy targeted traits. It's rare that a film like this actually makes good on its promise to zap characters before they're fully developed, but it happens here as it should.

Circle has the vibe of a Twilight Zone episode crossed with Cube, and that's a very good thing. I was sold on the premise but following the decade-ago success of a little indie called Saw, there have been a LOT of cheaply made horror films marketed on the idea of "strangers locked up in a life or death situation together." 

Let us all take a moment of silence to recall the horrors of watching Melissa Joan Hart attempt to act in the classically terrible Nine Dead.

This could easily have gone down the wrong path. Characters could have been overly shrill and simplistic, or blatantly irritating. Thankfully, Hann and Miscione are wise in balancing their rather massive cast effectively. Sure, we get a token white cop who's quick to judge anybody with dark skin and an obnoxiously corporate superman eager to exploit those around him. This isn't perfect filmmaking, but Hann and Miscione make up for the necessary lack of character development with a consistent and breezy pace. Those who enjoy a good thinker of a horror film will find plenty to enjoy.

High Points
The utter simplicity of Circle's production and sound design is pitch perfect. There are no fancy tricks or effects, just a dark room with very specific lighting and music cues. Considering we spend nearly 90 minutes in this one spot, it's a very strong feat

Low Points
Two days after watching, I think it's safe to say I finally "get" the ending, but it's so subtly executed to the point that it makes the actual first-time watch rather unsatisfying in the immediate aftermath

Lessons Learned
When your life is essentially being determined by a popularity contest, it's probably not the best time to start practicing your non-ironic Donald Trump impersonation

I've queued up many an independent horror film with a big premise and small budget to varying levels of satisfaction, but I'm pleased to say that Circle did exactly what I hoped it would do. Much like The Human Race (another indie charmer that it seems to share quite a bit in common with in terms of style and theme), Circle understands what it can and can't do in its low budget, 90 minute running time. It's something fresh, and in a genre overstuffed with standards slashers and found footage blurs, that's a very good thing.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Put a Fork In it

Anyone who ever took an acting class, particularly during a summer program or high school elective, is probably familiar with Edgar Lee Masters’ The Spoon River Anthology.  The 1915 project is a collection of first-person poems that when put together, paint a deep and sad portrait of the humans that make up a small town. Budding young thespians have, for generations, been assigned a page or two as a monologue. Perhaps one of those young would-be actors was Scott A. Meehan, a writer/director who made his only (thus far) film with 2000’s The Mystery of Spoon River.

Quick Plot: Emma Masters is a corporate attorney trying her darndest to work off her small town history in big city Chicago.  Her rhythm of angry phone calls and people flinching at her power is disrupted when her younger sister calls in need of some legal assistance.

Hopping in her sleek convertible, Emma makes her way back to Spoon River to help her brother-in-law/ex-boyfriend Jesse get out of a confusing murder charge. Jesse was out raccoon hunting one night with his pal Skeeter (because any movie with a bumpkin better have a Skeeter) when they were spooked by some kind of ghostly activity. A gunshot went off, and the police eventually discovered the fatally shot body of a game warden who happened to be black.

Enter a Gail Weathers-y reporter to misinterpret the term “coon hunting” and set off a chain of drama in the otherwise quiet hamlet. Rumors of a racially motivated murder bring in a skeevy team of FBI agents, struggling politicians looking to grab some good PR, and sad little chapter of the KKK. Stuck in the mess is Emma as she tries to save Jesse by digging up the dark secrets of Spoon River.

How to describe The Mystery of Spoon River...

Let’s say you have a friend--or maybe carpool mate- who really likes stand-up comedy. He’s not the funniest guy in your circle or even your Buick, but his heart fully belongs to the art form so much that one day he announces he has rented a theater and will perform an hour-long set. He hasn’t had much or any professional practice, but you know that he’s been rehearsing with a hairbrush microphone in front of his bedroom mirror for years.

You go to the show because all of the good excuses for not going were already taken by the rest of the carpool team. The programs are printed on good quality thick paper stock. The ushers are polite even if they have no idea what they’re seating you for. The chairs are more comfortable than you’d expect. The lighting is good. The sound design isn’t terribly muddled. The production, in a word, is professional...ish.

That’s essentially The Mystery of Spoon River. The lead actors are capable enough, while the ones who show up for a scene or two are, well, less so. The location is rather beautiful and feeds perfectly into the atmosphere of this middle-of-nowhere town rotting away from within. 

But you know, the movie...

Meehan clearly had ambitions. He wanted to explore the idea of a town with secrets eating away at itself, which is great in theory but bad when executed without skill. There’s so much going on between the ill-defined murder, random cemetery loiterer, political drama, greasy FBI witch hunt, and occasional ghost sightings. Early on, we’re introduced to a circle of powerful men who run the finances of Spoon River. 80 minutes later, they come back into play via a 50 year old anecdote told by another character. Meehan has potential in how he tries to lay out Spoon River’s complicated past, but it’s clearly far more interesting and clear to him than it ever comes across to its audience.

High Points
From its rotting cemeteries to autumn leaves, the look of The Mystery of Spoon River is quite striking and goes a long way in establishing the titular town

Low Points
...a town where a lot is going on but none of it seems very interesting

Lessons Learned
The War of 1812 was so long ago

The word “everything” means the universe of all things

You can’t stir an empty pot and expect to end up with mashed potatoes (unless it’s a really awesome bewitched pot)


I have a feeling that the only audience that would actually care about or enjoy The Mystery of Spoon River is that same population of once-young-wannabe-acting students who skimmed through Masters’ poems long ago. It’s too light to be a horror film, too dark to be your grandmother’s mystery, too good to be so-bad-it’s-good, too spoon to be fork, and so on. I enjoyed the film for its earnestness, and at less than 90 minutes on Netflix Instant, it won’t ruin your life if you take the gamble. But I have a hard time thinking of who else might get something out of this one.