Monday, November 18, 2019

Family Ties

I've often described myself as a film snob with bad taste, and never is that truer than when I dive deep into the realm of Lifetime-inspired (yes, not even Lifetime-branded) domestic thrillers about handsome strangers obsessing over beautiful but very naive women. 

This one folks, is something special.

Quick Plot: Jamie is heading back home with her awful son Preston to spend some time with her parents in their sprawling small town California home. At the local bakery, she clumsily spills coffee on the incredibly handsome square-jawed stranger who instantly bonds with the seriously awful Preston and seems to show up in every quaint location Jamie heads to. Could there a holiday romance in the air?

Wait, sorry, wrong genre. See, this is REALLY confusing, because Deviant Love is a production from Marvista Entertainment, which is essentially the equivalent of the Asylum Studio for the Hallmark movie. This has long been centered primarily on those cozy cardigan Christmas tales involving overly ambitious career women throwing their established lives away in return for a woodworking widow played by a one-time soap opera actor and the true spirit of Christmas, usually symbolized by a lot of public domain carols. 

Here's the crazy thing: for about 7/8ths of its brief 86 minute running time, Deviant Love IS one of those movies. All of the (pun somewhat intended) hallmarks are there: sage old parents, supportive sister, cloyingly terrible child played by an actor far older than his character's intended age, copious stock footage showing overhead panning of a city skyline, etc. All we're really missing is a town square tree lighting and Candace Cameron Bure interrupting the commercial breaks to hawk some JC Penney accessories.

Deviant Love is directed by Marvista veteran Michael Feifer, the versatile genius who can apparently switch between the hijinks of The Dog Who Saved the Holidays to presumably differently toned Drifter: Henry Lee Lucas within one calendar year. Frozen's Emma Bell does what she can with the rather terrible Jamie, a woman all too eager to believe that her estranged husband is running a drug cartel and spying on her via the refrigerator once her good-looking stalker suggests it. 

As you can probably guess, Jamie's new romance isn't quite as healthy as she'd like to believe, but since her family is somehow even more controlling than the obsessive compulsive suitor with paranoid schizophrenia, it's an uphill battle to get her to see the light, one that ultimately involves repressed memories, a family funeral, and some glorious slow motion. What more do you really need?

High Points
I can't in any way complain about the film's big reveal, which is stupid and weird and wonderful in every possible way

Low Points
Look, I know we're not working with big studio budgets or talent pools, but this movie was filmed in LA: is it really that hard to find three passable child actors? Isn't every citizen of that city carrying a SAG card and headshot?

Lessons Learned
High school friends are always catty and jealous

Only boring kids get bored. Well, boring and positively terrible

Youngest siblings have far better facial memory recognition than the eldests

Dreamboard Alert
Much like the similarly grand Staged Killer, Deviant Love's villain is big on visualizing his fantasies and how to achieve them


Hey, Deviant Love ain't Citizen Kane, nor is it Mother May I Sleep With Danger, but it's just ridiculous enough to make for a bonkers 90 minutes. Head to Netflix and enjoy.

Monday, November 11, 2019

We're All His Victims

In some areas of my life, I’m something of a completist. No, I haven’t made it any priority to make sure I’ve seen the 73 sequels to Children of the Corn, but with only three Candyman films, it always left a minor itch that I’d never seen the third, least respected Day of the Dead. 

So. This is that.

Quick Plot: Caroline is a young LA-based artist who can’t seem to stop painting the man haunting her dreams. Yes, said tall dark handsome stranger is none other than Candyman, still embodied by Tony Todd in full, sexy whispering glory.

Why this young blond, you might ask? Caroline, you see, is the daughter of the late Annie Tarrant, whom you might remember as the main young blond in Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. Kids grew up fast in the ‘90s, meaning it took just four years between films for Caroline to go from fetus to new adult prey to her great great great grandfather.

Candyman finds his way into Caroline’s reality through the usual path, one tread nearly identically two films prior. In this case, her manager, Miguel, convinces Caroline to call Candyman’s name in a mirror at her big gallery opening. 

It goes as well as expected: everyone close to Caroline (including her black female friend, because why change a formula with any self-awareness:?) is brutally hacked up by an 18th century rusted hook, with all circumstantial evidence pointing towards our very white lead. It doesn’t help that the lead detective on the case is a racist jerk eager to take some vengeance on the hot blond who’s spurned his advances for a Hispanic man. 

I don’t know if anything I’ve said so far has given anyone reason to see Candyman: Day of the Dead, and if it has, I apologize. While the Bill Condon helmed first sequel has some high points (namely its usage of New Orleans), Turi Meyer’s third go ‘round lacks just about anything worthwhile. Todd’s screen time probably adds up to less than ten minutes, and much like the previous installment, is essentially reduced to him begging a bland white woman to be his victim. 

It…hasn’t aged well.

Yes, it’s easy to criticize most horror franchises for being slavish to their formulas. But Jason slaying good-looking teenagers and Freddy creating surreal nightmare landscapes for his final girl’s pals work for specific reasons. Three films in, and every Candyman leans on the same exact conflict: Blond woman summons Candyman, who kills those around her, makes her a suspect, begs her to join him, and she refuses. That’s it. 

Couldn’t, I don’t know, this NOT be another tale of a blond woman? Or, I realize this SLIGHTLY varies the framework and couldn’t POSSIBLY be put into action, but what if, I don’t know, blond woman actually says, “You know what? Why not? Let’s DO this.”

Sure, I suppose we do get to finally meet that “congregation” that Candyman has long been teasing, but considering this is 1999, the sight of them being choker-clad goths doesn’t give us much. Straight-to-video horror sequels of the '90s rarely brought much to the genre, but Candyman: Day of the Dead seems to not even try. Yes, that's true of every Children of the Corn save for part 3, but knowing just how good the first film is and how much potential the character has, it's hard not to feel truly let down.

High Points
I suppose there’s something new in the film’s resolution, which turns the tables on the public face of its villain in a way that offers some redemption to the otherwise icky racist tone it toys with

Low Points
Seriously, Candyman, you’re a badass horror villain played by a great actor: set your sights higher

Lessons Learned
Bangs were the big trend of the mid-1800s

Racist cops use daily racial harassment to hide just how much they like someone

I would never judge anyone’s sex life, save for this case: if you incorporate dripping honeycomb into your bedroom activities, you just might deserve to die via CGI bee swarm

Bleh. The law of diminishing returns has never been quite so harsh as with the Candyman series. If your nagging curiosity still lingers, you can find this one on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

Pretty Little Mortician

I will never deny my adoration of FreeForm (formerly known as ABC Family's) Pretty Little Liars. Even without its often adorable nods to horror (witness its Carpenter referencing and Terror Train parody Halloween episodes, for one), it's a glorious combination of soapy overplotting and kooky playfulness. While the young actresses at its center vary in quality, I have deep affection for all and root for them to have successful careers.

Especially if they involve horror films. 

Quick Plot: We open in the last minutes of a failed exorcism of the titular Hannah Grace. Two priests don't make the cut, and Hannah's grieving father takes a shortcut by suffocating his possessed daughter with an adorably hand-stitched pillow. 

Three months later, we move the action to a Boston hospital where former cop and recovering addict Megan (aka Emily Fields, Shay Mitchell) is beginning her job at the morgue's graveyard shift. After a ridiculously fast, notebook-less irresponsible orientation, Megan survives her first night of intaking corpses, scanning their fingerprints, photographing their injuries, and locking them in freezers. 

While it doesn't sound like a great position, Megan takes the job in stride. Staying busy at night helps her to stay out of trouble, and with her AA sponsor just a few floors above, it seems like she's on track for a reliable, if not sunny career change after hesitating to save her partner in a deadly shootout. 

This being a horror film and not a drama about recovery, Megan's world is soon shaken with the arrival of a mysterious Jane Doe. Much like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the entire morgue begins to feel off. Some unethical, but clever police sleuthing leads Megan to identify the body as none other than young Hannah Grace, though certain factors, like eye color and time of death, don't seem to add up.

As you can probably guess, Hanna's second night on the job becomes a little more stressful as Hannah's infected body takes over, sparing no security guard, EMT, or nurse in its wake. 

Directed by Diederik Van Rooijen from Brian Sieve's script, The Possession of Hannah Grace didn't are well when it debuted in theaters last year. Part of it may have been the R-rating, which can often limit an audience, particularly when the face of its film is mostly associated with a show aimed at teenagers. Had it hit PG-13 (something that probably would have just required very minor tweaks) it might have done better, especially since those who licked their popcorn salty fingers at the R-rating tease might have wondered what the MPAA was thinking that day.

Rooijen mines some great tension from his wonderful setting, a sprawling, empty basement morgue that oozes its coldness from the screen. Mitchell is fine as Megan, though a deeper movie could have probably done more with capturing the daily pain of a guilt-ridden addict. There's probably a more effective film to be made that truly taps into this. 

It's not that The Possession of Hannah Grace is a terrible film, despite what critics might have made you think. There's just something missing from the final under 90 minute product that keeps it from leaving much of an impact. 

High Points
In a few key sequences, Rooijen makes a decision so rarely done in modern horror: he refrains from using music or obvious sound cues to highlight something creepy happening in the background. It's not necessarily consistent throughout the film, but every now and then, he lets small touches unfold without forcing the audience to hear them. Boy do I wish we had more of that in the genre

Low Points
It's true of many a studio horror film, but the dull CGI on display in certain sequences feels particularly lazy, especially when other pains seem to be taken to create visual personality to Hannah and her destruction

Lessons Learned
Getting defensive is not the same as getting pissed

In no world is it a good idea to try to induce a jump scare from the new employee who gets to spend midnight-to-7 all alone in a basement filled with dead bodies

The Boston police department has dangerously lax standards when it comes to password criteria

Sandwich-In-the-Morgue Watch
I had very deep concerns that despite being set in a morgue, The Possession of Hannah Grace would deny us the joy of watching an employee in a lab coat dripping thousand island dressing onto a steel table as he devoured the kind of triple decker so expected in a horror film. We don't quite get the full messiness of a stacked sub, but Megan and some coworkers do indeed chow down on some fries, so that's something

My expectations were pretty darn low for The Possession of Hannah Grace, so it's hard to say whether it's decent or just far better than I figured going in. Regardless, it's certainly not as bad as you've probably heard, and when it comes to a shelved studio possession horror film, I think you'll be satisfied enough.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Frat Pack

A staple of the VHS slasher era, Hell Night is one of those movies that represents so much of the 1980s horror world: deformed killers, haunted house, teenage sex, and Linda Blair. It's been a good 30 or so years since a far-too-young little me watched it, but now that it's streaming on Shudder, it seemed like the time had come for a perfectly seasonal revisit.

Quick Plot: It's Halloween night, and the big Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity and its sister sorority are throwing their annual spooky bash. After a good few hours of drinking and other usual hijinks, frat president Peter sends four pledges to their big Greek test: spend the evening in Garth Manor, a gloriously gothic mansion that once housed an unhappy family whose birth defects led the patriarch to slaughter his kin.

Left alone, our quartet quickly pair off. Pill-popping Denise and surfer dude Seth head to the bedroom, while good girl mechanic Marti and nice rich guy Jeff make more innocent flirty conversation. Peter and some of the other seniors roam the grounds with a few extra pranks in mind, but before they can give the freshmen any real good scares, each is hunted down by a mysteriously large and grumbling figure.

Directed by prolific adult filmmaker (and helmer of the first few days of Savage Streets' shoot) Tom DeSimone, Hell Night is very much a mediocre product of its time. In this case, that means post-Halloween one-crazy-night teen-filled slashers. 

We have our good girl with the gender-neutral first name, her promiscuous bestie fated to die first, the surprise party filled with dead friends, and most of the other hallmarks you'd expect in 1981. It's surprisingly slow in ratcheting up the horrors, which is unfortunate when that involves a whole lot of small talk between pretty dull characters.

As anyone aware of my feelings on Summer of Fear or Savage Streets knows, I adore '80s era Linda Blair. Unfortunately, even here at the height of her scream queen reign, Marti and her pals just don't get to be that interesting. This wouldn't be so bad if the film didn't insist on giving them so many bland conversations. Our hearts go out to Linda Blair as she eventually sprints away from the killer, but no love is really lost for a boring college romance that thankfully never was. 

Thankfully, Hell Night has enough style up its frilled sleeve to remain quite watchable. The killers are barely more memorable than their victims, but between the candlelit hallways, staked gates, and rich Halloween costume palette, the film ultimately carries enough visual punch to stay in our heads.

High Points
There's a reason I remember Hell Night so vividly: the costumes. Setting your film in a decently propped gothic mansion and clothing your stars in flapper wear and crushed velvet really does wonders for the film, making its visual impact so much more interesting than its otherwise rather rote storytelling 

Low Points
There's a reason these kinds of films became dismissively characterized as "dead teenager flicks," and it's the blandness here that shows it

Lessons Learned
Rich capitalists feeds on the life of the downtrodden poor

Fraternities build relationships you'll have your whole life, although if you're spending the night in a haunted house, that life may prove to be very short

It's not a party until the windows break

Quaaludes are murder on the skin

Fun Fact
Perhaps we have to respect Hell Night for being partially responsible for 1988's The Blob: a young Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont served as (respectively) executive producer and production assistant 

Hell Night isn't overly scary or fun, but it's a good-looking slasher perfectly suited to the October horror season. Queue it up on Shudder for an appropriate autumn watch.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sinking, Not Swimming

While they're probably not the most cost-effective places to film, setting your movie (or hey, reality TV show) on an island will indeed make a visual impact. 

If only your script rose to the occasion.

Quick Plot: The US men's soccer team is heading home after a World Cup match in Brazil (did they win? for the first of its many issues, this film decides it's not important). A few minutes of screentime is devoted to extremely brief introductions, including that of likable coach James Remar.

And just as you find yourself saying, "holy crap! It's James Remar!", the team's plane crashes into an empty, lifeless island populated only by poisonous berries and the occasional oyster. 

James Remar is never seen again.

A good half the players perish, with a few barely hanging on. Trainer Connie (some of The Fast and the Furious's Sung Kang) tries to combine his PT experience with the dinky first aide kid, but it's a struggle. Star player and team captain Slim (Nate Parker) and former Eagle Scout Andreas (Gregory Peck's grandson Ethan Peck) try to raise morale, but it only takes a few rounds of stolen rations and surprise landmines to send the survivors headfirst into Lord of the Flies territory.

Directed by commercial filmmaker Shyam Madiraju from a script by Mark Mavrothalasitis (and idea by Parker), Eden is a fairly straightforward narrative with a dire lack of character development. Some of the actors are charismatic enough to hold our interest, but the film takes too long in differentiating their personalities. The pre-crash character intros are so fleeting and done without context that the transition from civilized athlete to wild island child never sticks for anyone. 

A good chunk of the time, I was trying to figure out who was who, and what trope they were even supposed to be playing. At a certain point, I thought, "oh! they're not easily identifiable because they're more complicated than simple traits." Nope. The film just needed to thin the herd a tad so we're left with our half-baked Ralph, Piggy, and Jack stand-ins. 

High Points
The lack of anything interesting in Eden shouldn't take away the simple fact that any film set mostly on an abandoned island is at least going to look pretty

Low Points
There's a special place in hell for any film that teases a shark attack only to never even confirm whether there was an actual shark

Lessons Learned
The right eye makeup can have a gorgeous effect following a wet plane crash

Dehydration and compression sickness do wonders for hand-to-hand combat skills

Nothing turns a woman on more than man's ability to make netting out of tree fiber

Maybe the reason the United States has never come close to winning the World Cup is that its team is always composed of very dull young men

Eden is not very good. But hey, if you're looking for an attractive-looking film starring attractive young people being mostly boring, it's free on Amazon Prime.