Monday, December 5, 2016

The Insidiousest

The general consensus at the announcement of 2015’s Insidious: Chapter 3 was an apathetic “oh, they made another Insidious movie.” As we’ve learned from American politics, much of humanity is horrible and awful and is often completely wrong.

Quick Plot: A few years before the actions of the first Insidious, other ghostly happenings occur. Quinn Brenner is a nice young high school senior hoping to make it into college on an acting scholarship. This will take her far away from her well-meaning but typically overbearing dad (Dermot Mulroney) who has put her in charge of the home and her younger brother following the death of his wife.

The only thing Quinn wants more than a killer monologue is to reconnect with her mother, who she believes to be present in her life in ghost form. Quinn reaches out to familiar face Elise Rainier (the one and only Lin Shaye), but the Insidious veteran has been having some problems of her own when it comes to entering The Further.

Elise, you see, recently lost her beloved husband. In trying to reach him, she has instead bumped into that familiar black-veiled senior citizen that once (and in the future) tortured two generations of the Lambert boys. As a result, Elise is a tad gun-shy when it comes to connecting with that other plain of existence.

Quinn, however, doesn’t really have a choice, as she’s somehow awakened an angry, homicidal spirit who’s trying to take her down into his hellish version of limbo. 

Insidious: Chapter 3 is written and directed by new wave horror veteran Leigh Whannell, who’s served as a screenwriter for most of James Wan’s projects. Whannell (who also shows up onscreen as the divisive pre-tie wearing ghostbuster Specs) clearly learned a whole lot from shadowing Wan over the last few years. Chapter 3 fits right into the series, and even offers some improvements.

While I enjoyed Insidious, the first sequel left me fairly disappointed, with the convoluted story getting in the way of the actual horror. Chapter 3 wisely simplifies things. Quinn’s haunting is straightforward and as a result, the film’s jump scares and visual chills hit quite well. We don’t have to know every detail about Quinn’s stalker. He’s just creepy.

The key ingredient in making this film work, however, is something far more special. Lin Shaye is the definition of a veteran character actor. She’s been in the business for decades but rarely seemed to get the spotlight. How nice is it that Leigh Whannell seemed to decide her time had finally come?

Shaye is wonderful in Insidious: Chapter 3, and more importantly, the movie pops because it has her at its center. Quinn’s story is fine on its own and young actress Stefanie Scott connects well, but around the halfway mark, Elise gets to take over and kick ass. It helps that the film develops her story, introducing the tragedy of her husband’s suicide (plus an adorably loyal golden retriever sidekick) to add weight to her psychic visits to The Further. 
This isn’t a game changer for horror, but it’s a solid, enjoyable, and whaddya know, actually scary entry into a successful franchise. This makes me eager to see more Whannell behind the camera, and equally eager to see the upcoming fourth film directed by The Taking of Deborah Logan’s Adam Robitel. 

High Points
34 years of watching horror movies has made me fairly immune to typical jump scares, but dangit, I gasped at least twice at simple scares that just worked exactly as they were designed to. Well done Mr. Whannell

As I said about the first Insidious’s devotion to having its characters NOT make the token cliched mistakes found in every haunted house flick of years past (not moving, not turning on the lights) it’s also refreshing to see Chapter 3 make a clear point of NOT having Quinn’s dad waste screentime doubting his daughter’s hauntings. 

Low Points
Much in the way the first Insidious included a baby sibling purely for the convenience of using a creepy baby monitor, this one seems to include a younger brother just for, well, help with the internet?

Lessons Learned
If you’re food shopping for a teenage girl in any movie made after 1995, always assume she’s a vegetarian to avoid the well-meaning offering of jerky only to have her tell you what I just did

Save the word "literally" for when you're literally being literal (thanks, millennial best friend character who cements her status as the secret mini-MVP of this movie)

You might think you’re tough, but trust me: you’re not as tough as Lin Shaye

Look! It’s--
James Wan cameoing as the director overseeing Quinn’s audition. That’s cute.


I’m genuinely shocked by how much I enjoyed Insidious: Chapter 3. It’s scary, it’s funny, it’s familiar in some ways and incredibly fresh in others. I found the film via HBO Go, but if it turns up near you, give it a go. You don’t necessarily have to watch the first two (and certainly not the second) to enjoy this one. Just enjoy it as a strong little ghost story. I think you’ll be pleased. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Different Kinds of Holiday Horrors

Throw away your high heels and work cell phone, put on your dangerously oversized earrings, and add some whipped cream to your cocoa. It's Cozy Cardigan Christmas Movie Time, and I've got BIG things planned.

Over at my podcast, The Feminine Critique, I'm shooting out mini-episodes faster than a strict career woman can change her ways and save Christmas in a charming small town. On deck is a whole bunch of Hallmark, Lifetime, UP, and FreeForm originals wherein, well, a strict career woman changes her ways and saves Christmas in a charming small town. There's also one about Nick Lachey's younger brother as a rock star who, well, saves Christmas in a charming small town. Oh! And Daphne Zuniga saves Thanksgiving in a charming small town AND she starts as, you know, a strict career woman. 

I have a lot to say about these movies. You can download at iTunes or figure it out here.

If you prefer to SEE me when I talk about Candace Cameron Bure saving Christmas in a charming small town AND you're in the New York area on Friday, December 9th, then come on down to Brooklyn's Alamo Drafthouse. I'll be participating in a very special Kevin Geeks Out comedy show about, you guessed it, holiday specials. You can get all the details here

Hope to see you there!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Lightly Toasted

Amazon Prime’s streaming is an duck of a service. There are some fantastic popular and rare titles available to watch, but the one sentence synopsis and lack of listing a director OR year of release makes it sometimes hard to have any clue what you may be watching. 

Such was the case with today’s feature, a classy little drama with genre touches that seems, based on the title and poster Amazon went with, to instead be a bloody period tale of witchcraft and fire.

Quick Plot: Norman Taylor is a successful college professor with high ambitions of chairing his department. Back home, his wife Tansy has some trouble interacting with his colleagues in social settings, preferring to spend her time alone at their secluded beach cottage. Could it be because it's a safer place to practice THE BLACK ARTS?

Well, yes, actually, and who can blame her when the alternative is playing bridge with stuffy academics? Tansy, you see, has picked up some witchcraft skills after a trip to Jamaica. Though her skeptic of a husband doesn't believe her, she insists that she's been using her spells to help his career advance. Offended by her silly beliefs (Norman, in case you haven't guessed, is a jerk), he forces Tansy to burn all of her occult items. Included in that stash is a locket that just so happens to have a picture of Norman inside.

Naturally--or SUPERnaturally, if you will--the Taylors have to pay. Norman is accused of raping one of his female students, then barely escapes being shot by her jealous boyfriend. Tansy decides the only way to save her husband is to sacrifice herself in his place, but Norman isn’t quite willing to let that happen, nor is the mysterious REAL villain who has been manipulating forces from the very beginning.

Based on the title and poster, I was expecting Burn, Witch, Burn (aka The Night of the Eagle, which makes a lot of sense in the final act) to be more along the Hammer-y lines of a Mark of the Devil or other often Vincent Price-filled classics. In other words, burnings at stakes, dunkings, stocks, bad wigs, and lots of pointed fingers. 

That is not this film.

That’s a good and bad thing. The bad because, hey, I love me a good inquisition exploitation flick. Good because, well, Burn, Witch, Burn is actually quite a strong film. Director Sidney Hayers worked primarily in television, and the style feels almost Twilight Zone-esque in terms of staging and performances. Co-written by, whaddya know, Twilight Zone scribes (and sci-fi icons) Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, Burn, Witch, Burn ultimately plays out like a feature adaptation of a Rod Serling classic. The climax is surprisingly unnerving, even with its 60+ year limitations of aging special effects. 

Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a good old-fashioned birding. 

High Points
Though I wish it had been pushed further, it’s clear that the film is acknowledging some interesting gender issues in terms of its Lady MacBeth-like details. The women in this film will fiercely work towards pushing their men into success, while the partners in question seem to barely deserve their bedside company. 

Low Points
It’s a product of its time, but I can’t help to feel like the happy, Hayes Code-friendly ending feels like a disappointment

Lessons Learned
You can hypnotize the bad, but you can't hypnotize the cards

Cottages are a great way to avoid committees and teas 

Lounging wear for women in the early 1960s was the equivalent of church or campaign-wear in the 21st century

Burn, Witch, Burn is streaming via Amazon Prime, and it’s certainly a strong way to pass 90 minutes. If you’re looking for a quality extended episode of The Twilight Zone, this is certainly your answer. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Roman Holiday

Maybe it all began with Sonic the Hedgehog, but I've always found volcanoes to be, rather naturally, absolutely horrific. The Pompeii eruption that destroyed an entire city way back when is certainly good fodder for the big budget treatment. All it needed, apparently, was a lot of abs.

Quick Plot: It's 500 A.D., and unless you're a miscast Kiefer Sutherland playing a Roman senator, life sucks.

Slaves are sent to the gladiator arenas to die in forgettable glory.

Business folks are forced to make bad deals to secure some kind of stability.

Hot daughters of business people must marry miscast Kiefer Sutherlands.

Oh, and there's a massive volcano set to destroy the entire city via lava, tidal waves, earth fractures, fireballs, rubble collapses, and unhinged miscast Kiefer Sutherlands.

Can anyone catch a break?

Pompeii is a big budget disaster pic that basically asks the question, how can we squeeze a PG-13 rated Gladiator into 100 minutes of Independence Day (or 2012, or whatever your modern CGI-infused apocalypse is of choice). Directed by Resident Evil godfather Paul W.S. Anderson, it tells an extremely familiar story with streamlined efficiency. Consider the cast of characters:
Handsome hero with a childhood grudge, insanely chiseled physique, and secret heart of gold

Lovable sidekick who will start out as our handsome hero's rival before accepting a supporting role and sacrificing himself for the whiter handsome hero he recently befriended

Beautiful poor little rich girl with a conscience and amazing ability to keep her pre-Cover Girl makeup perfectly smudge-proof

Evil, just unrepentant evil villain and his taller right hand man

Everyone's mostly British, because, you know, OLD TIMES. All the villains get their comeuppance, all the helpful but less white supporting cast member die semi-heroically, and the booming soundtrack pauses not once but TWICE when our handsome hero upon his horse has to leap over what could be certain death, only to land safely and cue up the horn section with his triumph.

You don't go into Pompeii expecting innovation. You expect, and receive, all the grape-chewing baddie sneers, the impossible combat scenes that only our hero and sidekick can survive, and computer printed lava raining down upon scores of extras wearing recycled garbs from Rome. To its credit, the movie doesn't really wimp out on delivering the complete wipe-out of a city and its people. There's no Pierce Brosnan or Tommy Lee Jones dispatched to evacuate a plucky band of deserving survivors. This is a historic volcano that annihilated everything in its path.

But hey, the people are still really, really pretty. And the not-quite Spartacus gladiator scenes are sort of the equivalent of saying, "I love a fine boiled lobster served with garlic mashed potatoes in a five-star restaurant but can also enjoy Long John Silver's deep fried cod and basic french fries." This movie isn't better than it could have been, but it's as good as it should have been for being, you know, a mid-big budget PG-13 historical action romp about a volcano.

High Points
Considering the bulk of IMDB's trivia section focuses on it, I don't see why I shouldn't: Kit Harington is typically weighed down by furs and Night's Watch robes on Game of Thrones, so while it may sound crass and shallow to compliment his inhuman 12-pack of a stomach, Pompeii's lingering camera gaze practically begs anyone watching with eyes to say, "wow, that dude really worked out for this movie."

Low Points
It seems like there should be an edict against casting Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss and not giving either anything interesting to do

Lessons Learned
It is shockingly possible to pick a lock with a splinter while chained to a carriage going at least 35 MPH

A man who cries is a man who cannot haggle

Ravenousing (i.e., acting dead when mistakenly tossed in a giant pile of corpses and waiting hours to emerge) is a time honored tactic for surviving massacres

Look, Pompeii isn't a good film, but it's fun and knows exactly what its audience wants. The DVD includes a bevvy of deleted scenes, so a cheap or rented copy won't bore you too badly.

Plus, this:

Monday, November 7, 2016

When the Spelling of Your Title Is the Most Interesting Thing About Your Movie

One can never judge a straight-to-streaming horror film by its cover, but that certainly doesn't stop many a viewer from watching one because it has a good one.

Then you watch it, and remember the adage goes two ways.

Quick Plot: Jo is in a bit of a slump, having lost her track scholarship due to an injury and her faith in her boyfriend after learning that he cheated on her. Now, she spends most of her time arguing with her parents, running, or not paying attention to the two little boys she babysits.

One afternoon, Jo notices Elliot, the younger of her charges, fleeing the ice cream man in mysterious fear. Considering her wears clown makeup, it's not hard to understand why, although Willie, as he calls himself, takes things a little further with a racist puppet show and some creepy overtones to Jo.

Before you know it--well, after a whole lot of nothing, actually--young Elliot disappears right under Jo's negligent watch. Ben, Jo's ex, is convinced that the same shady ice cream man was last seen in the same fateful late where Elliot's shoes (but not body) were discovered. Could this unbalanced dairy lover be a child-killing, ex-high-school-track-star-stalking murderer?

Describing Kruel with the above synopsis has probably led you to picture a fairly standard horror movie. In reality, what you get is essentially a Lifetime flick with maybe 8 oz. more blood.

Written and directed by Robert Henderson, Kruel is ultimately more about a young woman dealing with the fallout from being betrayed by her high school sweetheart. A good 70% of this film's running time is spent on Jo trying to work through her feelings and Ben attempting to win her back.

And then there's sorta an obsessive unhinged one quarter clown.

No, it's not good, especially as the horror movie its cover and marketing sells it to be. That aside, if you're looking for a light thriller about, well, dealing with unfaithfulness in relationships, this is a movie and things happen in it.

High Points
The film is shot well. Lead actress Kierney Nelson works hard. It's a movie. Things happen in it.

Low Points
...just not many things of interest

Lessons Learned
Never get kidnapped in short shorts if you're going to be running through the Okefenokee swamp

Being cheated on hurts, but being hunted by a psychotic clown ice cream man is a whole lot worse

If a conversation continues so long that it turns into a montage, it just may give a kidnapper enough time to swipe a child right out from under you

Unless you've recently ended a relationship because you caught your significant other with someone else and you really feel you need to consider what that means, this is not the movie for you.