Monday, June 19, 2017

Is the Grave About a Size 14?

A great voice can elevate good acting to new tiers of greatness. It can also make it impossible to ever hear an actor speak without being taken back to an iconic role.
Such is often the case for Ted Levine, the man who made generations of plus-sized women avoid helping the needy and forever changed the way we think about lotion (specifically, that it should always go in the basket). 

It's a challenging weight an actor carries, but the good ones manage to overcome it when given enough opportunity.  

Quick Plot: In 1947, a small town's sheriff and deputy toss two bodies into the sea from a precarious hilltop. Afterwards, the deputy, clearly disgusted with the situation, de-badges his superior officer.

Cut to 30 years later, when aforementioned deputy (now played by Buffalo Bill himself in grizzled form, Ted Levine) has long been in charge and now carries the title of Sheriff Waterhouse. One day, his two teenage grandchildren decide to play in that same fated spot. Older Sean leaps into the water, never to bee seen again. The 12-ish Jake (short for Jacqueline and played incredibly well by young Samantha Isler) flees in horror, blaming herself for not making the jump.

Some time passes, but wounds don't really heal. Jake soon learns that maybe, they don't have to, at least if she can trust a trio of mysterious mountain men who perform a magic trick for her and claim to have the ability to bring Sean back from wherever he may be. The only catch? No devil does anything free of charge. Jake must sacrifice her friend Will, who just so happens to be the grandson of a certain familiar former sheriff.

Dig Two Graves goes for an interesting tone, and while it suffers a little from some odd pacing, the overall effect worked for me. It almost falls in that lite "slumber party horror" subgenre that I first thought of with Vincenzo Natali's Haunter. The parallel narratives of the cursed past and soon-to-be-reaping-said-curse future work in a fairly straightforward manner. While the former sheriff's behavior is a tad too hateful villain to fully click, the way it shapes Ted Levine's character works without the writing having to hammer it out.

The heart of Dig Two Graves is Jake's relationship with her grandfather, and it adds a fantastically sympathetic weight to the story. Levine has always been a great villain, but seeing him bond with his grieving granddaughter via hunting excursions and sweet tales of watching his family on film strips before a USO show overseas truly made me forget, at least for 90 minutes, the expression on Buffalo Bill's face when he drops a pile of business cards in front of Clarice Starling. That's not an easy feat.

High Points
I'm always drooling for films to be set in different time periods, and with its late 40s & 70s timeframe, Dig Two Graves does just that with good results. Having Levine's Waterhouse be a World War II veteran allows us some deeper introspection to the character, while keeping the "present" action in the '70s (without, thankfully, trying to hard to BE too '70s) helps to ground the action in a sort of technology-free realm. 

Low Points
While I did enjoy Troy Ruptash's eerily sexy head moonshiner Wyeth, there was something lacking in the overall presentation of the film's more occult leanings that just didn't quite engage me on the same level as Jake's family stuff

Lessons Learned
Carrying a load makes you stronger (and probably a lot more tired)

Quarries are good at keeping secrets (especially when they kill you and have none to tell)

To avoid freaking our your family after accepting a black magic deal, take two minutes and a moist towelette to wipe the glob of blood sticking to your face
Many a viewer--particularly a horror fan with certain expectations--is going to find Dig Two Graves slow and anticlimactic. I, on the other hand, found it engaging and fresh. It's nice to see different tales being told by skilled filmmakers, and while I doubt I'll ever rewatch Dig Two Graves, I'll definitely remember its strengths. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

All Okay Franchises Must Come To An End (until they're rebooted one year later)

Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil series will never go down in history as being the Nightmare On Elm Street of its time, but it would be incredibly wrong to discount some of its achievements. Coming out the same year as 28 Days Later, it took an ambitious step in embracing zombies in an age that hadn't seen an undead hit in over a decade. More importantly, from the very beginning, the movies made an admirable and genuinely successful effort to include not one but always two badass female action heroes. 

Milla Jovovich has such a clear affection for this franchise, and it has shown itself onscreen for six full films. Though the actual products ultimate range in quality and never quite hit the highest tier of horror, that in itself carries them to being something special in their own way. 

Quick Plot: For a series of action horror flicks based on a video game, there's a surprising lack of easy plotting when it comes to most Resident Evil movies. This is perhaps best encompassed by Alice's narrated prologue montage...which takes a full five minutes.

Here's my incredibly concise rundown of what I remember thus far of the first 5 RE films:

Part 1: Alice has amnesia and excellent fashion sense. There's a Cube-like hallway that slices up people, zombies, zombie dogs, hologram British girl, a super angry Michelle Rodriquez, and a Day of the Dead homage at the end.

Part 2, Apocalypse: Everything and everyone is stupid in Raccoon City. No more Cube things, but still zombies, zombie dogs, some sort of zombie giant hybrid monster, and a pimp

Part 3, Extinction: Las Vegas is covered by zombies. Ali Larter helps Alice kill said zombies. I remember nothing else.

Part 4, Something: Wentworth Miller joins the group. I remember nothing.


The only odd thing? It ends, and Part 6 starts, and as far as I can tell, nothing that happened in that one matters.

So here we are, in the swan song of Paul W.S. Anderson's epic (ignoring the fact that a week after I watched this, less than a year after it debuted, it was announced that the series would be rebooted because this is 2017 and we let nothing die). Alice finally has the chance to save the world by releasing an antivirus that would kill all the undead, zombie dogs, zombie pterodactyls, and whatever other CGI creations have been unleashed. 

Alice re-teams with Claire, who now has a new band of feisty (and mostly ill-fated) survivors. Together, they scale through an army of Jorah Mormont clones, zombies, industrial fans, and the return of the Cube-inspired chamber that still makes no sense. 

Look, I'll be honest with you: I am not the person to go to for any kind of sensical recap of what happens in the Resident Evil movies. While I proudly paid to see the first three in the theaters, I've never watched them in full since. I watched parts 4 & 5 (or "the bland Wentworth Miller one" and "the clone one," as I like to call them) off of a recorded SyFy airing while doing other things, like playing Words With Friends or, you know, writing reviews of horror films. I am no expert in Alice's Adventures in Raccoon City. 

That doesn't take too much annoyance out of my sails when Part 6 opens up with no reference to what happened to the few survivors left from The One With the Little Girl From Orphan Who Wasn't the Orphan. Again, I'll fully admit that I might have just missed something, but...did I? Or does Part 6 just start fairly fresh?

I'll put that mild annoyance aside because you know what? The Final Chapter is pretty fun. Unlike most of the other ones, the plot is fairly straightforward with few complications, making it all the more pleasurable to sit back and watch Milla Jovovich wrestle genetically engineered monster thingies. Seriously, if there is one thing Milla Jovovich is good at, it's wrestling genetically engineered monster thingies.

Said monster thingies are never that special (it's been a week since I've watched the movies and I'm having a hard time remembering a thing about any of them) and most of the non-Alice/Claire/Jorah Mormont characters blend into the background so well that I'd believe it if you told me they were also computer generated. But anybody that comes into a Resident Evil movie expecting much more than that hasn't learned a lesson in the last 15 years. 

High Points
It's the high point for all six films, but come on: Resident Evil's commitment to making its female characters heroic and strong warriors is something special

Low Points
That very small part of my brain hung up on things like logic couldn't accept it 15 years ago, and still can't quite let it go: it's a chamber with the ability to laser cut living matter in any configuration, so why, seriously WHY does it not just, you know, LASER CUT IN ONE PASS?

Lessons Learned
Nail guns are cost-effective weapons when fighting zombie hordes

Skyline transportation is not an advisable means of travel in the early stages of a zombie apocalypse

The nice thing about the future is that hands are easily replaceable. The less nice thing is, you know, the zombie apocalypse

As another entry in the Resident Evil series, The Last Chapter is perfectly solid entertainment. As the grand finale of a 15 years-in-the-making 6-film franchise, it's adequate. As a chance to watch Milla Jovovich wear leather and kick ass, it's kind of glorious.  

Monday, June 5, 2017

First Day Is Always the Hardest...Right?

Lately I've been having a little trouble remembering details when it comes to movie recommends. I'm fairly certain SOMEONE I know recommended Last Shift to me, unless that was actually Late Phases or some other movie streaming on Netflix with a two-word title in which the first words started with the letter "L." 

Whoever that was, if you do exist, thanks. 

Quick Plot: Jessica Loren (Juliana Harkavy)begins her first day as a police officer with an overnight shift at a soon-to-be-closed station. Her mission is simple: stay on the premises until a hazmat crew arrives to remove the various needles, pipes, and other drug paraphernalia sitting in a locked evidence room. As of tomorrow, the police will be relocated to a new facility. In the meantime, all distress calls are being rerouted to another precinct. 

Of course they are.

Before Jessica can taste her first donut, things start getting...weird.

Or maybe just whatever the adjective would be for "horror movie."

There's a silent, bearded homeless man who seems to magically appear at will, only to less magically and far more grossly urinate on the floor. The lights keep going out and worst of all, a phone call keeps coming in from a young woman who claims to be held captive on a ranch. This wouldn't be so bad if, one year earlier, Jessica's veteran cop dad hadn't been involved in breaking up a homicidal Manson-family-esque cult who murdered young women on a nearby farm.

Directed by Most Likely to Die's Anthony DiBlasi, Last Shift isn't a mold breaker in terms of its construction or concept, but you know what? It's pretty darn good. Harkavy is essentially onscreen for the entire runtime, and she makes for a relatable protagonist that's easy to root for. DiBlasi and cowriter Scott Poiley's script wisely doesn't try to do too much, keeping the story tightly centered on Loren as she slowly uncovers (both for herself and the audience) the details surrounding the massacre at the Paymon homestead.

DiBlasi has a lot of sick fun setting up his scares while also keeping the situation grounded enough that it's easy for us to believe the a rookie cop wouldn't run out the doors screaming at the first maybe view of pentagram painted plastic bag wearing ghosts flashing by a darkened cell. While her father's backstory is slowly dished out, it's clear that Jessica cares about being a cop and has plenty of reason to see this night out.

The night does not make it easy.

Last Shift isn't a perfect horror film, but it's scary, interesting, and perhaps most importantly, leaves you wanting more. I could have taken another half hour learning about the Paymon backstory, and I wouldn't be surprised if the screenwriters had another fifty pages of unused material. Even the one-scene presence of a weary hooker with a tell-tale bruise leaves you seeing the world of Last Shift as an unsettled place with open-ended horror from every angle. It's incredibly refreshing in its well-defined nihilism. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I need to look at some adorably innocent unlikely animal friends for a while. 

High Points
As anyone who knows of my adoration for The Exorcist III is aware, I love a film that puts some care in establishing imagery through its dialog, and Last Shift is especially smart in this respect. The most impactful example for me came during one of Paymon's followers rambled on about the details of her killing, specifically describing what her victim looked like after she beat her teeth into her head with a baseball bat. Sure enough, we later see such a ghostly figure, and our minds easily make the connection. 

Low Points
Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age/state of the country being what it is, but I was really hoping for a different kind of finale

Lessons Learned
Rural-based satanists take excellent care in grooming their eyebrows

Dead people are pretty messy

When in doubt, listen to your mother

Last Shift is streaming on Netflix Instant, and while it isn't necessarily the scariest indie you've ever seen, it's certainly in the upper tier of recent ones. The film is probably best watched in one (fairly brief) sitting to make its jump scares work best. Give it a go.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Does Medicare Cover Werewolf Bites? Asking For a Friend

Of all the monsters that populate the horror genre, werewolves are easily my least favorite. Sure, history has provided the occasional good one, but 95% of the time, cinematic lycanthropes would belong better on a Party City commercial than a movie screen. Maybe it's just impossible for a human body to ever find the right mix with a canine wolf walk, but even the most tautly told thriller can be instantly killed by the presence of a poorly constructed costume. Some films succeed in spite of this (Dog Soldiers, Ginger Snaps), but so often I wonder, why bother?

Nevertheless, when enough people recommend a movie, I'll give it a go...even if includes werewolves. 

Quick Plot: Ambrose (the always extremely welcome Nick Damici) is a widowed blind Vietnam veteran moving into a quiet retirement community called Crescent Bay. After an awkward goodbye with his somewhat estranged son Will (Ethan Embry), an adorably promising flirtation with friendly neighbor Delores, and a cheerfully rude greeting to the catty welcoming committee (led by Rutanya Alda!), Ambrose settles in for what he assumes will be the first of many uneventful evenings.

It only takes one night of a full moon for Ambrose's new digs to be attacked by a mysterious canine-esque creature. With his loyal dog and Delores torn apart, Ambrose immediately suspects what every horror fan already knows: there's a werewolf in town, and in one month, he or she will undoubtedly return.

Ambrose decides, as one without much worth living for does, that he'll take the next thirty days to prepare for battle. During that time, he also begins catching the local senior van to attend church. It's there that he meets Tom Noonan's Father Roger, a priest who might have a few secrets hidden under his collar. 

Written by fairly new on the scene Eric Stolze (not the one you're thinking) and directed by the great Here Comes the Devil's Adrian Garcia Bogliano, Late Phases does the smartest thing any horror movie can possibly do: it focuses on retirees. Now in truth, Nick Damici is not by any means an old man (if the internet is to be believed and my math to be trusted, he's 58 at the time of this writing and wearing a heavy dose of prosthetics onscreen), but Late Phases gives him enough of a stiffness to let us believe he's closer to the end of his life or, perhaps more importantly, close to the point where he's ready to be done with it all. 

The film slowly drops clues about Ambrose's past, as well as why his current relationship with his son is so strained. His neighbors are similar fleshed out in ways that, plain and simple, make them far more interesting than the usual spat of pretty 20somethings who film most horror movies during their CW show hiatuses. When Delores calls her adult daughter, we watch this sad woman sigh at the excuses on the other line. When she's gutted by a werewolf moments later, the exasperated "I'll call you back Mom" closure takes on a whole new meaning.

I wish Late Phases was at good at its monster game as it is at characters, but unfortunately, it stumbles in its third act with, not surprisingly, some rough werewolf design work. On my end, I was invested enough to the point that I forgave its shortcomings because damnit, I was enjoying this movie. Sure, some of the "who's that werewolf?" mystery was probably less interesting (and mysterious) than the script intended, but I could watch Nick Damici rebuff fussy church ladies all day. Is this a good movie? I thought so. Is it a good HORROR movie? That's a different question.

High Points
Aside from the aforementioned concept of setting a werewolf film in a retirement community, let's give a nice nod to the humor of Late Phases. This isn't a horror comedy in the least, but Stolze's script, Bogliano's tone, and of course, Damici's performance manage to find some genuinely funny moments that never feel forced

Low Points
But some of those werewolf suit seams are laughable in a different way

Lessons Learned
When you're blind, it always looks like you're paying attention

Selling headstones with a senior citizen discount isn't great for business longevity

Mean girls never change, they just get older

Late Phases has its share of problems, but I found this to be a joy of a movie. Damici is such a wonderful presence onscreen, and it's a huge bonus that the film understands how an imperfect, grumpy AARP member can make for a compelling protagonist. It's the kind of choice I'd like to see more movies make...especially those that don't involve poorly constructed werewolves.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Parts of a Whole

In a time of uncertainty, let us take comfort in the things we know we can always count on: the sun shall always rise, Law & Order shall always air in reruns on at least two channels at any given time, and Darren Lynn Bousman will always make ambitious and heavily styled horror movies. 

Quick Plot: Julia is a low level real estate reporter who harbors deep affection for crime ledgers and 1940s detective noir. With blood red lipstick and a wardrobe curated by the most precious of all ModCloth stylists, she spends most of her time avoiding her kind ex-boyfriend cop Declan (The Ruins Joe Anderson) or dining with the only family she has: her older sister Amanda and ailing young son Charlie.
Also, one assumes, accumulating a LOT of style tips from Pinterest.

One night, Amanda's family is brutally and seemingly nonsensically murdered in their home. Ever the investigative reporter, Julia becomes immediately suspicious when the house is sold less than a week after the massacre, and even more unhinged when she discovers the room in which the murder took place has been completely removed.

A little plucky journalism leads Julia to learn that many a "murder room" has been sold over the last 60 years, and all to the ominously named Jebediah Crone (Sons of Anarchy's Dayton Callie, now with hair). All leads seem to point towards a ghost town of sorts called New English, which perhaps not coincidentally turns out to be the birthplace of the adopted Julia.

With Declan at her heels, Julia takes a visit to New English and meets to always welcome Lin Shaye, playing a loopy townie who reveals some of the town's dark secrets. More are to come, of course, but that will involve the ultimate haunted house, decently rendering CGI ghostings, and a dash of violence that isn't entirely unpredictable.

Abattoir is directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, a filmmaker who embodies some of the best and worst qualities of 21st century horror. Bousman cut his teeth on some of the better Saw sequels (parts 2, 3, & in my mind, the underrated 4) before making one of the most polarizing genre movies I can think of, Repo! The Genetic Opera. Unlike his Saw predecessor James Wan, Bousman seems content to stay in the horror genre, continuing to dabble in everything from ambitious remakes (Mother's Day) to horror musicals (The Devil's Carnival).
I genuinely respect Bouseman, and certainly appreciate both his affection for the genre and his energy at telling new stories. Written by Christopher Monfette (who works on the quite good 12 Monkeys TV SyFy Channel series) Abattoir is a genuinely unique tale that, while clearly influenced by common horror tropes, is telling a completely original story.

I just wished I liked it more.
This isn't a bad film by any (genre fan) measure, but it just doesn't fit together as nicely as, say, a mansion in a ghost town composed of a dozen murder rooms. The core concept of a town that was suckered into selling its soul to a false prophet is great on its own, just as the ultimate haunted house made of 60 years worth of violent crime nooks could easily make a decent thriller. Maybe Bouseman's problem lies in the combination. The story has a LOT of big chunks (murder room mystery, ghost town history, adoption secrets, relationship trouble, little boy dying of disease that doesn't mean anything once he's brutally murdered, etc.) and the final product feels as though it never got the script edits needed to make each component count. The cast is adequate (Anderson has always been a fine presence in the genre, and at the risk of sounding cruel, Lowndes is stunning enough to somewhat make up for her fairly bland energy as an actress). Like most of Bouseman's work, there's a lot of visual style that's not quite fully realized in a way that works with the overall tone.  

And yet, I find myself giving the film a mildly passing grade simply because I've never quite seen anything fully like it. It's an admirable attempt to put a spin on a hybrid ghost/detective story, and I certainly appreciate that. 

It just doesn't mean it all works. 

High Points

Low Points
I mean, ugh, it doesn't add up to much

Lessons Learned
In the south, a common expression you might find is "come on in"

Realtors don't have myths

For the many Mad Men fans who've always wondered what became of Sal the art director, worry not: he's comfortable toiling away as the editor of a New York tabloid that nobody reads

Look, for all the complaints about modern horror being stuck in a rut, you have to give a guy like Darren Lynn Bousman some credit for constantly finding new angles in. Abattoir is a highly flawed film, but it certainly gives its audience something new. You can find it streaming on Netflix Instant Watch, so for 90 minutes, why not give it a low expectations try?