Monday, August 13, 2018

It's Cookie Time

Has any chunk of pop culture made in the last 30 years aged more weirdly than mid-'90s sexy corporate thrillers? I say this with all the affection in the world. 

Quick Plot: Peter is a high level marketing manager at a cookie company with a little darkness in his past. Estranged form his wife (a young and banged Maura Tierney) and son due to some "Mr. Hyde"-esque behavior, he's now focused on climbing the corporate ladder with a new plan to relaunch oatmeal raisin cookies. He'll have to work his damnest to impress his boss Charlene, played by Faye Dunaway with the exact level of business aggressiveness you'd come to expect. 

His work day takes a turn when his assistant has to exit for maternity leave, opening up a new position for the titular temp. Enter Lara Flynn Boyle in full '90s working girl fashion as Kris, a way-too-good-for-her-job secretary who immediately drops Lady MacBethian vibes all over the workplace. 

Before you can boil a bunny, higher level employees standing in Peter's way begin dropping like flies (or rather, Chekhovian wasps stinging highly allergic Oliver Platts). Meanwhile, Kris continues to impress the rest of the office and find her own name on the shortlist for VP. What's a hotheaded yuppie businessman to do?

The answer to virtually any late '80s to mid-'90s thriller is to get sweaty, tear at his floppy hair, and watch his comfortable existence slip away as his sexier rival gets what she's been working far harder for...until, inevitably, the moral patriarchal majority decides she needs to be punished.

Directed by Child's Play and Fright Night's Tom Holland, The Temp is a the definition of "product of its time," right on down to its muddled re-shot ending which leaves a HUGE plot hole or asks its audience to believe that Kris has insanely high faith in her former boss-turned-rival's ability to drive like a Nascar champ on a mountaintop highway. More importantly, this, THIS, was the initial climax:

As originally shot by director Tom Holland, the climax showed Peter (Timothy Hutton), a young company executive, inside the bakery fighting for his life with the temp (Lara Flynn Boyle). Hutton's character is dipped in dough, sent to the sugar room, falls onto a conveyor belt and finds himself heading straight at the "whopper chopper." They go into the chopper and as he desperately tries to drag himself out, she grabs his leg, the chopper comes down and cuts off her hand. The last we see of the temp, she is sliding toward the cookie oven--Source. 

I mean, why even set your film in a corporate cookie landscape if you're NOT going to incorporate a deadly Child's Play 2-esque factory chase in a violently robotic bakery setting? More importantly, why cast the (admittedly complicated) goddess that is Faye Dunaway if you're not going to make up your mind on her own trajectory until a weekend before opening?

It's a letdown, but in fairness, this remains a movie where a character roadblock is dispatched of via a carefully curated paper shredder accident. It's hard to fully pan such a flick, especially when it also gives us Lin Shaye as an embittered veteran secretary and, you know, Faye Dunaway at Network level intensity but constantly saying the word, "cookies."

High Points
Like many, I remain an extreme sucker for some early '90s corporate fashion, and a documentary (probably more riveting than this) about Lara Flynn's Boyle hair skills could have been Oscar-worthy

Low Points
Confused ending aside, the real shame of The Temp is that much like Fatal Attraction, it squanders its best asset by constantly undercutting her motives. Kris is smart, sexy, and resourceful, and occasionally, the script allows her to make genuinely deep and ahead-of-their-time comments about how she's learned to master the game on such an uneven playing field. A movie about her would have been far more interesting than an unexceptional white male protagonist trying to balance his middling career skills with his libido

Lessons Learned

In the '90s, everyone wanted to go back to the '50s

Much like hot air, success rises to the top

The birthing process is like an NBA game: nothing happens until the last two minutes

In case you haven't figured it out, you can cram a LOT of similes into your corporate speak in the first five minutes of your film

The Temp is available on HBO Go, which makes sense considering it's the kind of middling thriller that would have aired in rotation with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle throughout 1994. It's worthwhile as a product of its time in both a fascinating and frustrating way, but only those with a serious interest in that area need queue it up. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

You've Been Terminated

I've said it before and I'll say it again: considering what a large percentage of the modern world spends its days sitting at computer desks, it's shocking how few office-set horror movies there are. Hence, anytime one shows up, even in the trenches of Amazon Prime, it's a pretty immediate watch on my end.

Quick Plot: Annabelle, an internet webcam stripper attempting to make a go at the office lifestyle, shows up late for a job interview just in time to literally catch Thomas Redmann (Bad Boy Bubby himself, Nicholas Hope) red handed, axe in his hand and decapitated victim at his feet. A quick montage explains that Redmann has been found guilty of five additional murders of shady corporate bigwigs. 

Months later, Redmann has supposedly died in a fire at a mental institution. Instead, he emerges to kidnap Annabelle and a few other random strangers who had some part in his conviction. Chained to a desk, the victims (which include a phony psychic, veteran detective, failed defense attorney, successful prosecutor, and fellow eyewitness) must prove Redmann's innocence while following his fairly straightforward rules. 

I've pined time and time again for more office-based horror films, a subgenre of which is surprisingly sparse (further reminder for why despite its shortcomings, The Belko Experiment was such a welcome treat). Produced by Fangoria (remember them?), Inhuman Resources's best, well, resource is its very setting, and abandoned office building that does indeed lend itself to some W.B. Mason-sponsored arsenal improvisation. 

The rest of it plays decently enough as a low budget post-Saw meets And Then There Were None saga set in a token grimy industrial location. As Annabelle, Kelly Paterniti has a sympathetically plucky Danielle Harris vibe that's easy to root for. Director Daniel Krige keeps the story moving at a decent pace, and the script (by the writing team of Jonathon Green and Anthony O'Connor) offers some worthwhile twists to keep things from falling into trite territory.

Most of the effects are practical, which makes sense when makeup supervisor Tom Savini shows up in an annoying "let's cram some female nudity in here" cameo. A fingernail tear-off feels more try-hard than scary, but the rest of the violence is served with a more effective wink. Inhuman Resources isn't quite a horror comedy, but its best asset is its undercurrent of dark humor. This is never clearer than in its finale, which manages to close the film out on just the right note.

High Notes
It's not shocking that Nicholas Hope would turn in an interesting performance, but it is a pleasant surprise that his character gets a more nuanced backstory late in the game

Low Notes
Look, if your entire cast is Australian, just let your movie be SET where it's obviously filmed instead of forcing your poor actors to stretch their syllables through American accents that they clearly can't handle

Lessons Learned
In a pinch, a severed leg makes for an excellent bludgeon

A regional manager should never be confused with a murderer

Efficient typing skills can be life-saving in ways you'd never expect

Based on its cover and synopsis, I did not queue up Inhuman Resources with high expectations. I still wouldn't come near calling it high quality, but it's decent entertainment for a 90 minute straight-to-wherever black humor horror. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Because You Were STILL Home

2008's The Strangers remains a minor gem of its error. Nicely shot and surprisingly bleak, it worked on its own terms. For whatever reason, it's taken a good decade for a followup. Let's see if the wait was worth it.

Quick Plot: After about five minutes worth of production company logos, we visit a quiet, nearly empty mobile home encampment. An older couple is sleeping with their apparently deaf and cute but incredibly useless dog when a stranger knocks on the door. Bad things happen. To everyone BUT the dog.

A few hundreds of miles a way, a downtrodden family of four makes their way towards our recent victims. Mom Cindy (the always lovely Christina Hendricks) and dad Mike are trying to give their rebellious teenage daughter Kinsey a new start at a boarding school. Better adjusted big brother Luke is along for the ride. 

Before the family has had time to settle in for the night, the trio of stab-happy killers who terrorized Liv Tyler a decade ago are back, masks in place and sharp objects in hand. What follows is a lot of stalking, some awful driving, and a bevy of terrible decisions made by frantic prey.

Filling in for The Strangers’ director Bryan Bertino is Johannes Roberts, he of 47 Meters Down. Like the first film, Prey At Night has a better cast than you might often find in your run-of-the-mill slasher. While we don’t get Arthur Miller levels of family drama, Ben Ketai’s script helps to flesh out our characters well enough that the stakes are felt. Cindy and Mike are a tired but loving couple feeling frustrated at the path their daughter is going down, while Kinsey gets actual moments of growth over the course of one horrible night in recognizing what a bratty teenager she’s been. There’s also something touching about how Luke deals with the situation, being a genuinely nice kid who’s not quite at the kind of place where he can pull the trigger on another human being.

I liked The Strangers well enough, and have similar feelings on its sequel. The simple design of the killers is visually interesting. I cared enough about the characters to be invested in their plight, even if I occasionally wanted to reach into the screen to wring the neck of seemingly capable people making mistake after mistake. 

High Points
As far as settings go, an empty trailer park goes a long way. Rob makes great use out of the cheapness of the interiors, showing just how easy it is for a strong hunter to break through walls. Equally effective is the use of a swimming pool and its tacky neon lighting

Low Points

Lessons Learned
In slasher situations, don’t even bother calling the police. They’ll send one yokel with no spacial awareness who will inevitably be gutted before he even has the chance to tell a screaming woman to calm down

Deny a little sister her chance on the baseball field and she will take that anger and turn it into something truly powerful

For goodness sake, when being chased, already remember a simple tip: Serpentine! Serpentine!

Look! It’s—
Bailee Madison, probably better known as the grouchy little girl in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and as Clementine the elf in a set of Hallmark Christmas movies, but will forever to me be a key guest star in one of the greatest Law & Order: SVU episodes to ever feature a deranged Joan Cusack giving nose jobs to a 7-year-old

Also, DOUBLE LOOK! It’s—
Three key members of Night of the Living Podcast, enjoying a bite as extras

Prey At Night is a worthy sequel to The Strangers. Much like the first film, it doesn't break any ground, but works for how it narrows its focus on a small but sympathetic group of soon-to-be victims while terrorizing them with scary stabbings and odd but effective style choices. It's a rainy day rental.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Hungry For Saw'more?

If there's one horror subgenre that defined the 21st century, it's very likely the oddly common "sick men living in remote locations and equipped with endless resources who enjoy super high concept torture routines." For better or worse, 8 Saw films and counting, it continues.

Quick Plot: Beck is a flailing graphic novelist who decides a road trip to a sinkhole-laden ghost town in Florida is exactly what he needs to inspire his next project. He's accompanied by his easily annoyed girlfriend Candace and his doofy younger brother Jiminey (yes, like the cricket).

After a Doritos-catered stop at a lonely roadside diner, the trio finds themselves carjacked and alone in a polluted town with no cell service. A few wise decisions to split up quickly separates the team, only for each to awaken in an abandoned high school-turned-super-high-tech-torture-prison lorded over by bitter townie Ezrin (the perfectly named Cooper Huckabee of The Funhouse) and his scar-covered assistant.

Like all villains in these kinds of movies, Ezrin has an odd and rather elaborate way to pass his free time: capturing random out-of-towners, locking them up, and starving them so that they're highly motivated when he pits them against each other in a battle to the death for a crappy egg sandwich. 

You can guess where things go from here, and Starve delivers the typical germ-ridden concrete battlegrounds with the kind of mean streak we've seen in countless films of the last 15 years, from Raze to Die

Directed by the even more perfectly named Griff First, Starve delivers little surprise, but it does what it does with a higher level of skill than a lot of its competition. The characters are bland and rather awful, but the acting is passable, and some of the production and makeup design works well enough to keep things visually interesting. For 100 minutes, it's enough.

High Points
Perhaps the most interesting moment happens early on, when Beck makes a shocking choice that puts his relationship with Candace into a realistically questionable status...

Low Points
...and it's the film's biggest shame that it fails to explore that conflict deeper, but alas, ravenous cannibals are simply not going to fight themselves 

Lessons Learned
We already knew this from Sleepaway Camp 2, but it's always good to remember just how dangerous a curling iron can be

Gypsies don't pay taxes

There's no place like taking a pregnancy test than a poop-filled toilet in a dirty rest stop

Eh, if you're in the mood for one of the countless more recent Saw-inspired grisly horror flicks streaming on Amazon Prime, Starve is probably in the upper middle tier. If that style has less appeal to you than deciding to kill your brother or yourself for cold french fries, then pass. 

These are the questions we all must ask ourselves as fans of the genre. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Sand In the Place Where You Live

On a 90+ degree day in July, the only retreat one has is burrowing into intensive air conditioning to watch a movie about people without intensive air conditioning. 

Bonus points if they're being eating by sand.

Quick Plot: A gaggle of unreasonably attractive college students party hard on a beach. The next day, a few wake up inside sturdy surfaces -- a convertible, lifeguard stand, table, and most uncomfortably in the case of poor chubby Gilbert, inside a trash can. 

Turns out, their positioning is their (temporary) salvation: some mysterious alien form has hatched underneath the beach, turning the sand into a flesh-eating monster with a burning appetite for sunburnt young people. 

With their phones unreachable and car battery dead, the survivors do what they can to outlast the cruelty of unrestrained CGI. Their horror is our pleasure in every possible way.

The Sand is not a good movie: The Sand is a great one. 

Look, sometimes your mind has been put through a marathon and you just crave something short, dumb, bright, and entertaining. You want to see attractive people in pain, fighting something as absolutely ridiculous as POSSESSED EVIL SAND. If you're lucky, maybe there will even be tentacles.

Spoiler alert: you are lucky.

Directed by Isaac Gabaeff and, according to IMDB, filmed in 12 days, The Sand is the epitome of a dumb summer horror movie. Less than 90 minutes long and never fully clothed, The Sand knows what it needs to do and does it in style. 

High Points
Folks, this is a movie where sand eats hot beach bums. What more do you want?

Low Points
I take it that blond, slightly more literate than her peers Kaylee is supposed to be our heroine, but if that's the case, shouldn't someone have excised the oddly racist insult she hurls at rival Chandra?

Lessons Learned
When dealing with a super angry, super insecure police officer, never ask to speak with his supervisor

Dying sucks, but dying with a penis drawn on your face sucks more

The reason quickie lube men make minimum wage is that oil isn't powerful enough to tear the flesh off of young people

Look! It's- 
Dean Geyer, the dude who seduced Rachel on Glee but more importantly, costarred in the amazing Lifetime film Don't Wake Mommy, something everyone should watch because Ashley Bell is a goddess and it features the weirdest Denise Crosby cameo you've never seen

The Sand is a stupid, stupid movie. But it's July, I'm tired, and a stupid movie about a man-eating beach and terrible CGI tentacles is pretty much all I need in life at this moment in time. So head to Amazon Prime and kill a few brain cells. It will do you good.