Monday, April 23, 2018

Actually, It's an UNdead Pit

Earlier this year, Long Island said goodbye to 112 Video World, the magical realm of VHS tapes that once filled my childhood weekends with everything from hot new releases to Gourmet Zombie Chef From Hell. As we film fans of the '80s mourn the loss of those strip mall palaces, we must accept that the world has changed and while there are no more physical doors to open to find our long-lost movie treasures on shelves, Amazon Prime continues to answer the call, no matter how shoddy the video quality might be.

Quick Plot: We open on a montage of mental patients doing all the typical things mental patients of movies made in the 1980s do. Somewhere between the drooling and head banging, the institution's senior psychiatrist Dr. Swan discovers one of his doctors, Dr. Ramzi, is conducting dangerous experiments on his patients. Luxuriously slow motion violence ensues. 

Twenty years later, a pretty young woman dubbed Jane Doe (stuntwoman Cheryl Lawson) is admitted to the same facility due to her amnesia and possibly, ability to cause earthquakes with her temper. Before long, Jane begins to see visions of the long-dead mad scientist. Not so coincidentally, a wave of violence spreads throughout the hospital. 

Well, WE know there's violence as patients and nurses are brutally torn apart by Dr. Ramzi. Only Jane seems to witness said murders, while the rest of the staff thinks little of its population dwindling. 

Eventually, Dr. Ramzi (or his ghost or whatever) uses Jane to awaken an army of zombies, who promptly chomp their way through everyone but Jane, Dr. Swan, a mad nun with a talent for making holy water, and Chris, Jane's inmate pal who happens to have a talent for bomb-making. Who says you can't make quality friends in '80s mental institutions?

The Dead Pit is the directorial debut of Brett Leonard, who went on in the '90s to specialize in the ubiquitous subgenre of technology amok movies (The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity) and later, the very small niche of obesity-based horror (Feed). The Dead Pit is unmistakably '80s in its parts. Just try to add up the high-waisted panties, Fulci-esque undead, cranky mental asylum nurses, and obvious-but-surprise parent reveals and not calculate 1989.

That's the strength of The Dead Pit, which ultimately isn't a very good movie. It's made on the cheap and shows it, but seems to understand that its audience is there to see messy-faced ghouls hold slippery butcher shop animal parts up to the camera for their closeups. 

What a golden age of cinema. 

High Points
There's certainly some smiles to be had when watching the gooiest of '80s practical zombie effects

Low Points
You know, if you're picky, the script and acting and blah blah blah

Lessons Learned
Not remembering your past doesn't make you crazy (though constantly shouting that at people evaluating your sanity just might)

Double the time, double the money

Junk drawers of '80s era psychiatrists were typically stocked with scotch and loaded revolvers

Eh, The Dead Pit will certainly scratch your itch for 1980s horror, but it doesn't really crush it in the zombie department. It's a decent way to pass 90 minutes on Amazon Prime, but it won't necessarily leave you with anything special after. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Save the Last Interpretive Dance

When the world seems to make a universal decision that a mid-budget studio genre film is so bad that its hot young director is fired from the unrelated bigger budget studio film he's about to make, you can bet my HBO subscription that I'm going to eventually watch it.

Quick Plot: Meet the Carpenters, a strange little family that functions in ways no human beings typically do. Single mom Susan (Naomi Watts, who is incapable of giving a bad performance even when placed in an unreasonably bad movie) works as a waitress at a '50s style ice cream shop/diner that gets a ridiculous amount of customers on weekday mornings. When not playing video games or the ukulele, Susan enjoys getting drunk with BFF Sarah Silverman (who styles herself like Amy Winehouse and flirts with teenagers like any normal human being), 

You might be concerned that Susan's two sons are in irresponsible hands, but fear not: 11-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher of It) is an unearthly intelligent little boy who knows everything about everything, be it financial investments, building Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions that put Pee-Wee Herman to shame, or meticulously planning the murder of a police officer.

Yes, that's a thing. See, all that brainpower seems to literally be hurting poor Henry's brain, which develops some kind of lethal tumor. Thankfully, he's given just enough time in the hospital to get his family (which also includes adorable younger brother Peter, played by Room's Jacob Tremblay)'s affairs in order.

This includes laying out a plan for Susan to murder Walter White's brother-in-law.

Henry's biggest regret in his short life is that he's unable to protect Christina, his classmate who lives next door and is being abused by her stepfather Glen (Dean Norris). Thankfully, he's scoped out the neighborhood carefully enough to lay out the perfect 45-minute murder plan for mom to carry out during Peter's and Christina's upcoming school talent show.

Guys, this is a weird, weird movie.

The Book of Henry didn't make much of a killing at the box office, but it likely killed a good deal of momentum in director Colin Treverrow's career. Hot off the success of Jurassic World, Treverrow was tapped to direct Episode IX in the Star Wars saga. Everything seemed to be in order until either script issues tore the production team or, possibly more believably, enough LucasFilm higher-ups witnessed the mess that is The Book of Henry.

Look, there have been plenty studio releases that rank lower than The Book of Henry in the quality department, but few that are quite as...odd. IMDB's only real illuminating trivia point claims the original script was more a black comedy, which makes sense considering the plot of this movie involves, you know, a 12-year-old boy drawing up plans for his childlike mother to murder their neighbor while his stepdaughter reveals his crimes to the school community via interpretive dance.

Yes, that happens. 

Part precocious child tale, part dead precocious child tragedy, and part complicated murder plan, The Book of Henry would be perfectly fine had it aired on Lifetime. Unfortunately for Treverrow (and really, everyone else involved and the audience) it came to theaters and expected people paying $10+ to watch it leave feeling satisfied. Considering how many Lifetime movies I've seen done better, that is almost criminal. 

High Points
I'm not being sarcastic: the cast of this movie truly does its best with whatever the hell it has been given

Low Notes
The fact that this movie has such good performances is ultimately the thing that hurts it the most, as you see crumbs of a decent story about grief amidst, you know, the movie about a 12-year-old arranging murder from his Tim Burton treehouse

Lessons Learned
Dodgeball isn't an Olympic sport...yet

Lee Pace is an incredibly tall and incredibly attractive human being

You have to watch tech stocks closer than the rest

You might think you're a prodigy, but you can't really prove it until you master one of the nation's few remaining payphones in 2017

The Book of Henry is currently on HBO Go, and let's face it: you should watch it. I mean, you shouldn't if you're one of those strange creatures who only looks for quality in their entertainment, but for the rest of us curious cats too dumb to know better, this is...something. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Nerd Alert! Ghoulish Stories Vol. 1

Is there any art form more underrated than the short story horror compilation? Much like film anthologies, there's just something vastly entertaining about a good collection of 20-50 page tales, almost as if it was a medium specifically designed to create and complete a nightmare.

Hence it makes some pretty good sense that Greg Ansin and Michael Neel, creators of 2009's Drive-In Horror Show, would transfer their film skills to the page in that compact format. Ghoulish Stories (Volume 1) includes eight original horror stories ranging vastly in style from a modern tech-inspired tale to a delightfully demented romance. With a title like "Trampoline Chainsaw Lovers," the latter is easily the happiest piece, filled with some vivid characters and a genuinely sweet relationship at its core.

"iThink the App" starts things off with a quick-moving saga of technology run amuck as a hot new social app encourages users to do whatever it suggests. It doesn't take long before mass murder becomes one of those activities. While the subject matter feels a little common, the pacing is key, particularly for the anthology's introductory story.

In "The Crawlspace," a brother and sister discover some unsettling secrets lurking in their basement. Much like The Closet, Drive-In Horror Show's best segment, "The Crawlspace"'s strengths lie in its young characters. The same can be said of "The Freak", the story that's probably easiest to see filmed. A likable kid ends up with the worst possible summer when his pals decide to prank the town's legendary hermit. Naturally, this doesn't end with a Sandlot-esque resolution involving happy baseball mementos. 

Two of the more grounded stories, "Blackout" and "Two Drop Donuts," have a ready-made Tales From the Crypt tone in building sympathetic protagonists only to mix in some deep hues of moral shadiness. "Blackout" has some excellent atmosphere buildup, while "Two Drop Donuts" treads a somewhat predictable path. Still, if you don't finish the book craving a specially infused pastry, then I long for your willpower.

The most epic story is "Plastic Island." A trio of military divers takes their submarine deep below chartered territory only to discover the future is literally built on garbage. It's the longest piece in Ghoulish Stories, and suffers a little in its early pages with character buildup that feels like too much exposition. Once our team reaches the titular locale however, the action picks up quickly with some truly horrific post-apocalyptic tribal terror. Ultimately, it's a fresh take on a popular storytelling subject, going places that you don't quite expect.

My personal favorite is easily "Nightmare Cards", a high concept tale that feels like a passionate quickie marriage between Freddy Krueger and Pokeman. Ansin and Neel's imagination gets to go to extremes as a variety of monsters (ranging from a sack-wearing axeman to a well-coiffed gentleman) orchestrate creatively violent dreams for children. The visual possibilities leap off the page, making me as a reader long to see a comic book or animated adaptation.

Ghoulish Stories is available in hard copy or digital form, and includes a few illustrations in its appendix to match each story. While some stories are stronger than others, they're all well worth a read, creating gleefully horrible worlds where some considerably awful things can happen. As horror fans, is there anything we want more?

Monday, April 2, 2018

All Are Welcome

The Open House is probably not a movie I'd think to check out on my own, but when my Feminine Critique cohostess sold it to me as "It's good and has a frustrating ending," I find myself simply unable to resist.

Let's go. 

Quick Plot: High school senior Logan Wallace is just seconds away from running an Olympic-worthy mile. Thought his parents are experiencing some financial problems, life seems pleasant enough (unless I'm just an easy mark for the glory of breakfast-for-dinner).

Upon getting some milk and eggs for said glorious feast, Logan watches his father fatally get hit by a car. With no savings, his mom Naomi loads Logan in the car to spend some recovery time at her sister's secluded mountain home. 

With tensions already high, Naomi suspects Logan of misbehaving in bratty teenage ways. His phone goes missing. The water heater is constantly turned off. Items seem to be moved around. Logan is convinced there's something amiss, possibly stemming from the titular Sunday open houses that occur every weekend as his aunt attempts to sell the place. Depressed and tired, Naomi disagrees. 

It's difficult to discuss The Open House in too much detail without giving away its latter half. Before I delve into spoiler territory, I'll give it a mild recommend for those looking for a solid character-based thriller. The cast (primarily Dylan Minnette of Don't Breathe and Piercey Dalton) do a strong job of creating a believably complicated mother/son duo in grief, and the tension works quite a point.

And thusly do the SPOILERS begin.

So, at a certain point, writer/directors Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote reveal that Logan was indeed right: someone has snuck into their home during an open house event, and that someone has an especially sadistic murderous side. Down goes the slightly suspicious Chris, a friendly neighbor with an unconsummated crush on Naomi, the latter who gets to have every one of her fingers broken before accidentally walking into Logan's knife (aka, that thing that worked well in The Descent but now annoys me when it happens in four out of five mean-spirited genre films). 

Logan suffers what might be the worst fate. After being knocked out, he's covered in cold water and left in the cold mountain air, waking up a few hours later in a frozen, barely mobile state. Our once future Olympian can barely move his legs, much less outrun a madman who takes things one step further by removing his contacts and essentially blinding the young man. Just when he thinks he's safe and we find some triumph in his resilience, he celebrates by meeting the wrong end of the knife.


The Open House isn't quite as mean as something like Eden Lake, but that's just because the violence isn't quite as visceral. It's hard to argue with the production, which is solid all around, but it's just one of those cases where I find myself feeling like I've watched something designed solely to make its audience feel bad. We follow this once-happy family destroyed by an accidental death, struggle through finding a way to move forward from there, and then, through no fault of their own, being sadistically tortured and slain by a mysterious stranger who we as the audience don't even get to see. 

What's the point?

High Points
Granted, it would have been an entirely different genre (which might not have been a bad thing), but the conflict between Naomi and Logan is a fascinating and well-done story of grieving the death of a loved one could have made for a fine film in itself

Low Points
Aforementioned "let's build interesting characters and then slaughter them mercilessly" thing

Lessons Learned
Burgess Meredith may have terrified the visually challenged regarding the fragility of glasses, but The Open House confirms my own spectacle-wearing fears that contacts are far from murderous psychoproof

Mountain air will really mess with your athletic breathing

For the love of all things streaming, how many times must I say that when driving in a movie that's CLEARLY genre-based, KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE F*CKING ROAD

Argh. I liked a lot of what The Open House did, but it didn't leave me feeling anything overly positive. I certainly see potential in its cast and creative crew, but sitting through a family drama that ends in cruel violence is a hard ride to recommend. Those especially curious can watch via Netflix streaming. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

I'd Call It Summer of CHEER

You watch enough movies and you become afraid...afraid that there just isn't enough wonder left in the junkyard of Amazon Prime's made-for-TV genre section from the 1970s. 

Then you watch Summer of Fear and find a new reason for living.

Quick Plot: Rachel is a teenage (I think?) tomboy living with her parents and brothers on a Californian ranch. Most of her days are spent riding her beloved horse Sundance, finding boxes to stand on to kiss her foot+ taller boyfriend Mike, and hanging out with her BFF Carolyn (FRAN DRESCHER!!!).

Life takes a downturn when her aunt and uncle die in a car accident, leaving their college-aged (I THINK?) daughter Julia orphaned and alone in the mysterious Ozarks. Despite having not seen the young woman in over ten years, Rachel's parents take the beautiful but slightly odd Julia into their home. 

You don't need a winter's bone to sense something is amiss. Before she's even unpacked, Julia is stealing the affections of Mike, fitting better into Rachel's homemade dress, and stirring up a wild spirit in Sundance. The friendly neighborhood professor (MACDONALD CAREY FROM DAYS OF OUR LIVES!!!) confirms Rachel's suspicions that her cousin is a practicing witch, leading our frizzy-haired heroine the challenge of unmasking the evil in her own home.

I don't know how else to say this other than to employ a lot of exclamation points:


Based on a novel by I Know What You Did Last Summer YA scribe Lois Duncan and directed by a young Wes Craven, Summer of Fear (aka Stranger In Our House) feels like it should be the centerpiece of a slumber party hosted by drag queens. The world's most flammable cars explode mid-air, uncles and brothers shamelessly flirt their younger female relative, and Linda Blair's hair grows five inches with every reel.

Seriously, whatever is happening on Linda Blair's head should have had its own trailer. It's like someone shaved all four of my cats, sewed the fur together into a blanket, spilled the same serum used in Village of the Giants all over the mess, then tried in vain to brush it out. 

AKA, perfection.

High Points
Sure, Rachel is a tad whiney and not necessarily the brightest at setting traps for her evil sorceress cousin, but as a scrappy teen, Linda Blair is a pure joy to watch 

NOT a Low Point
I normally balk at the "special appearance by" credit so prevalent in the '80s, but if said guest star is MacDonald Carey, Days of Our Lives's Horton patriarch himself, it is indeed special

Lessons Learned
The Ozarks are a bed of a lot of folklore and mysticism

In the late '70s, it was customary to keep an autographed photo of your solid feller on your nightstand

If your cousin is from a rural region, it's totally acceptable to have a crush on her

Film Trivia of DreamsIf IMDB is to be trusted, Summer of Fear was filmed a house that was eventually owned by Sinbad. For some reason, this pleases me greatly

Summer of Fear is a thing of glory, at least if you have an unreasonable affection for cheese that involves catfights, witchcraft, and tame rat kings that settled on Linda Blair's head for safety. You can find it on Amazon Prime. Obviously.

Monday, March 19, 2018

You've Got a Stalker

Oh Amazon Prime, you with your grainy late '90s horror titles that no one but the last Blockbuster shelf has ever head of.

I love you.

Quick Plot: As a child, Jana Mercer witnessed a mad man named Calvin Hawks (Dr. Giggles himself, Larry Drake) slaughter her family. Twenty years later, she lives a something Sandra Bullok-in-The-Net life, venturing out at night for interior design jobs, doing video therapy with Sally Kirkland, and otherwise keeping mostly to herself.

Meanwhile, in his dungeon-like prison cell, Calvin has full access to a laptop and AOL. Naturally, he uses his time to instant message the one that got away just in time to make her extra ready for his shocking parole.

As Calvin makes his way home, Jana reconnects with a mysteriously reappearing high school crush, heading back to the very neighborhood where the crime took place. Calvin stocks up on a quality sushi knife and begins to re-hone his skills, practicing first on a batch of pumpkins before moving on to an amazingly sweater vested librarian.

Written and directed by Larry Brand, Paranoia is a strange little late '90s relic somewhat saved from obscurity by Amazon Prime. It wallows a little too deeply in some overwritten ramblings regarding the nature of pain and evil, but manages to entertain enough in 90 minutes, especially with the somewhat bonkers final reveal.

Plus, this movie utilizes a grand dummy death, and as we all know, no movie with a grand dummy death can ever be that bad.

High Points
I'm not saying Paranoia is the feminist revenge fantasy we all want and deserve, but Brigitte Bako's Jana is a refreshingly strong woman who takes action in a satisfyingly badass way

Low Points
A gal can only hear so much musing about what it means to love pain before she wants to gouge her own skin with carefully placed thumbtacks

Lessons Learned
Never underestimate the appeal of Peter Tork to late '90s punkette

If you don't like walls, stay off Park Avenue

Sushi knives should be suitable for buttering toast and slaughtering pumpkins

I'm not telling anyone to put plans on hold in order to watch Paranoia, but those with an Amazon Prime subscription and 90 minutes to get some tasks done with something on in the background could certainly do worse.