Sunday, December 25, 2016

All the Best

Whatever your holiday of choice is this season, I hope you have a grand one.

Back soon!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Mark Your Calendar

How has nobody ever thought of this before? A horror anthology composed of shorts set on the calendar’s major holidays. It’s a no-brainer.

And, much like Southbound, a pretty pleasant surprise.

Valentine’s Day
Written and directed by the team behind Starry Eyes, the first segment follows a teenage outcast named Maxine (unfortunately nicknamed Maxi Pad) as she nurses an intense crush on her gym teacher while her classmates brutally tease her. There's nothing overly revolutionary about the story or execution, but it's a well-told tale that's perfectly satisfying in its brief running time.

St Patrick's Day
Set in Ireland, this one follows a pleasant schoolteacher who tries to welcome a mysteriously moody new student into her class, only to have, well, a very unpleasant but somewhat welcomed surprise pregnancy via a Danny Zuko-esque snake worshipper. Directed by Gary Hore (Dracula Untold), this is a grotesquely funny and weirdly sweet horror comedy of sorts. Lead Ruth Bradley (wonderful in Grabbers) plays it perfectly, and the final reveal is one of the most adorably weird things I’ve seen in a while.

Easily my favorite, Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) spins a bizarre little yarn about how a curious young girl (the delightful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Ava Acres)’s questions about the specifics the Easter Bunny and Jesus’s resurrection leads to meeting a truly inspired and gross monster creation. The writing is on point here, as the little girl’s conversation with her exasperated mother is funny, smart, and wonderfully disturbing. That’s not even mentioning the odd background decision to decorate the home with an impressive collection of creepy clown art.

Mother’s Day
Kate has a problem: every time she has sex, no matter how many preventative measures she takes, she ends up pregnant. After two dozen abortions, she agrees to visit her gynecologist’s off-the-beaten-path spiritual retreat where a batch of infertile baby-hungry women see Kate as something very, very important. Directed by The Midnight Swim’s Sarah Adina Smith, this is probably the story that most felt like it should have been a full feature. There’s plenty of potential in exploring what it means for a woman to have or not want to have a baby, and while the ending has a nice kick, the story feels almost trapped in the short format. 

Father’s Day
A young woman named Carol (House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue) receives a cassette tape with a recording made by her presumed dead father with instructions on how she can see him again. Carol smacks on her headphones and follows his lead, walking through a beach as she listens to her dad’s intensifying guide recorded on the last day she ever saw him. Newcomer Anthony Scott Burns builds tension with incredible skill, making this, for me, the scariest of all the stories. It doesn’t quite make good on its promise, but it still manages to be a unique spin on the typical anthology tale.

Kevin Smith--yes, that Kevin Smith--tells this revenge tale of a trio of webcam performers who finally take control over their gross and abusive boss. This will probably be the most polarizing of the bunch (as Kevin Smith fare tends to do to an audience) but I enjoyed it well enough. There’s a nice girl power vibe and a satisfying comeuppance, and perhaps most importantly, a short running time that doesn’t let anything out live its entertainment value. 

Legion’s Scott Stewart directs Seth Green as Pete, a nice, but unexceptional dad trying to get the latest new technology toy for his son on Christmas Eve. When the customer who snagged the last one has a heart attack on an otherwise unoccupied street, Pete grabs the gadget and guiltily leaves the man to die alone. Naturally, this decision haunts him, especially when the gift in question (a pair of virtual reality goggles designed to show each wearer his or her own personal fantasies) keeps reminding him of his crime. This is a fun segment, aided a lot by Green’s take on a schlubby dad and some genuine surprises along the way. The ending is a bit abrupt, but again: this is an anthology. We don’t need codas.

New Year’s Eve
An awkward and dentally challenged killer meets women online, kidnaps them, and murders them when he loses patience with their inability to love him. On New Year’s Eve, he scores a date with an attractive younger lady with her own crappy dating history and, well, twists ensue. Made by Adam Egypt Mortimer, this is a fun tale and appropriate way to end the film, as the tone is somehow both lighthearted and appropriately violent. Mortimer also deserves credit for staging a wonderfully realistic, painfully uncomfortable first date.

Lessons Learned
Vets don't get things wrong

Jesus and ET do indeed have a lot in common

If a man doesn’t think you’re worth brand name candy, that is not a man for you


I had heard mixed reactions to Holidays, so my expectations were fairly low going in, but man...I kind of loved this movie. Some stories were certainly stronger than others, but none wore out their welcome (the kiss of death for many a short film). The fairly organic mix of offbeat comedy and genuine horror made for a refreshingly diverse mix of tone that kept me invested throughout. Like any good multi-filmmaker anthology, all the stories have their own identity but never seem to clash. Not to always bring up my favorite punching bag, but I’d take the weakest installment here (probably Halloween) over all of the first V/H/S, and most of the other segments in the more decent sequels. The film is streaming on Netflix and can make a satisfying watch for any season.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Not a Gentle Probe

If you had told me that someone basically made a feature length film adaptation of the final installment of V/H/S 2, the last thing I would probably say is “that sounds great!”

I can admit when I’m wrong.

Quick Plot: A family of five embarks upon an unassuming camping trip through rural North Carolina, an area apparently known for its mysterious Brown Mountain Lights phenomenon that some have suspected may be caused by something not of this world. When they take a wrong turn and come upon a pileup of abandoned vehicles, they realize that they just may have stumbled on some extraterrestrial hunting grounds.

Let's start by acknowledging that Alien Abduction makes one of the best decisions I've ever seen in justifying its found footage approach. Riley, the youngest child, is autistic and, as his sister explains to the first stranger they meet, relies on seeing things through his video camera. It's a brilliant choice that pre-answers the question we always ask in this genre.

Thankfully, that isn't the only good trick up director Matty Beckerman's sleeve. Initially, I was far from pleased to have a bland, somewhat bickering all-American family of unimpressive people as my leads, but the film manages to deepen most of them simply by how they react to the jarring experience of, well, running away from aliens. Oldest son Corey doesn't necessarily register in the film's first half as anyone of interest, but once he loses an important member of his family, his reaction to it is sad, admirable, and believable. 

Similarly, the introduction of an off-the-grid mountain man named Shawn first reads as a typical foray into modern horror's impressions of redneck America at its most obvious. Thankfully, that's not the case. Shawn may live in a cabin in the woods and carry a shotgun, but he quickly shows he's far smarter than the immediate impression given off by his accent and trucker hat. 

In barely 85 minutes, Beckerman managed to do quite a bit. Perhaps most importantly, Alien Abduction packs a few actual scares. The design of the creatures, filled with odd clicks and buzzes, isn’t the most revolutionary, but it’s effective and eerie. The filming style feels real and not TOO nausea-inducing, and the complete lack of information or explanation about what these things are or want adds to the terror our characters have of not knowing what to do. It’s exactly what a low budget found footage horror movie should be. 

High Points
As noted above, there are a lot of things that work about Alien Abduction, but I think what really sells the bulk of it is how the film realizes that lack of explanation is a scary, scary thing

Low Points

Lessons Learned
If the 2016 presidential election hadn’t already established this, I’ll just go ahead and say it: North Carolina may be the beginning of the end


My expectations were on the low end for Alien Abduction, so it’s certainly possible that I was just thrilled to get more than I anticipated. But hey, that doesn’t mean I didn’t genuinely enjoy this. The film is streaming on Netflix and should effectively scratch any alien/horror/found footage itch you might need a solution for. 

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.