Monday, January 17, 2022

They Grow So Fast

Is the real dream of any horror creator, be they a novelist or filmmaker, to eventually get to lend their name over the title of a movie they have nothing to do with? I imagine the paycheck is nice even when the budget is low. Perhaps no one knows this better than Clive Barker, a man who has probably started to name his swimming pools after Hellraiser sequel subtitles and who, in 2006, got to add "Clive Barker's The Plague" to that list. 

Quick Plot: A plague (or fine: Clive Barker's THE Plague) has struck all children under the age of 10, putting them into a comatose state save for two daily seizures that keep their bodies from atrophying. All children born since have come out the same way, leading to governments trying to regulate individuals from even trying to procreate. Ten years later, society is understandably a mess (though not surprisingly, the private healthcare industry is in great shape).

It's also been a rough ten years for Tom Russell (James Van Der Beek), the former smalltown quarterback who ended up in prison after a bar fight turned fatal. Tom returns home to his brother David, armed with the most on-the-nose (and incredibly abridged) copy of Grapes of Wrath ever to be printed and a desire to make good. David could use the help, since his son Eric is one of the lost generation. 

Before Tom has a chance to make more Dust Bowl analogies, Eric --along with the rest of the now-19-year-olds-- awakens from his coma, quickly bashing his father's head in before Tom pushes the silent but super strong kid out a window. 

As you might expect, Eric was just the beginning. The world's best-rested teenagers are ready for action, with their main goal seeming to be the eradication of everyone over the age of 19. Tom quickly teams up with his nurse ex-wife Jean, her brother Sam, the police chief and his wife (the other big name, Dee Wallace), and a pair of just over-the-coma age twin teenagers who can occasionally blend in with their younger, more violent counterparts. 

What starts as a meditative Children of Men-ish speculative horror fiction quickly turns into a messy blend of zombie-ish sieges and religious discourse. Some brief googling leads me to believe The Plague lost a lot between script and final under-90 minute streaming watch. It's a shame, because the premise is clearly rife with possibility, and some of the details (the twins' confusion over where they belong, Tom's need for forgiveness, STEINBECK) are too specific to have been intended for the underdeveloped rush job they ultimately get. 

Director Hal Masonberg (who co-wrote with Teal Minton) doesn't have many credits, but he shows some promise here. Yes, there's a sheen of very cheap and fast filmmaking, but there are also some suspenseful payoffs and for the most part, a cast that knows what it's doing and gives their all, even when the Village of the Damned-ish storyline wanders into a completely different tone of supernatural spirituality. Overall, it's more than a bit a mess, but still: you can see kernels of something decent.

In case you haven't guessed, 39 years of watching horror movies has loosened my standards. 

High Points
When the opening credits were nothing but classical piano, I was worried that we were stuck with the kind of genre film that wasted its budget on a post-Dawson's Creek and was working through a public domain dump for its score. But you know what? The Plague's music, when it IS purely instrumental, is quite good at building the right mood

Low Points
It's always a bad sign when the most fascinating part of your film comes 5 minutes in via a news update about how the world has changed, then you realize the movie you're watching is never going to address that again and instead center all of its physical and speculative action in this one small personality-free town

Lessons Learned
Never trust a grieving mother alone with the zombified version of her daughter 

Moody teenagers have a bond no slightly more optimistic adult can dare break

Sigh. (Clive Barker's) The Plague is busting with promises it just didn't have the ability or resources to deliver on. It's certainly more interesting than most other films of its ilk and budget streaming on Amazon Prime, so you could do worse. Go in with modest expectations.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Black Mirror Revisit: San Junipero

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. We're moving up the list today to my #6, one of the best received of the bunch, the Emmy-winning San Junipero.

The Talent:
Showrunner/writer Charlie Brooker brought in Be Right Back's Owen Harris to direct, fitting in some ways as San Junipero is something of a brighter take on a similar story. Harris would go on to also helm Striking Vipers. Also of note: San Junipero stars slightly-before-they-were-more famous Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

The Setup:
Yorkie is a tourist visiting San Junipero, a pristine beach-side area filled with attractive young people and '80s style arcade clubs. Introverted but eager, Yorkie catches the eye of life of the party Kelly, whose advances send her running. One week later, they're hooking up, but now it's Kelly who's backing away. 

If you know more than one thing about San Junipero, it's that (SPOILER ALERT) "San Junipero" itself isn't real. Like many a Black Mirror world, it's a simulated reality. In this case, one designed as a digital afterlife.

Yorkie, who's been paraplegic for most of her adulthood, is ready to commit herself to an artificial heaven so long as Kelly can join her. But Kelly has lived a different life, one with a husband and daughter, both of whom died without packaging their essence into San Junipero's storage cabinet. Is it fair for her to abandon them at her end?

The Ending:
Apparently, yes, Kelly decides it is. In the rare happy ending for Black Mirror, Kelly and Yorkie are uploaded into the San Junipero cloud forever (or until a power surge wipes them out).

The Theme:
San Junipero hits very differently at different points in life, or more specifically, death. When I watched this episode a few years back, it felt like a breath of fresh, love-conquers-all energy from a show usually intent on crushing any ounce of optimism. We have, on average, 80 something years to get what we can out of life and for so many of us, that's just not enough time. Imagine a world so advanced that says, "you know what? You deserve more!" 

Today, I realize that this interpretation is the Yorkie version. She DOES deserve more, and why shouldn't she have it when her particular era has made that technology accessible?

But for Kelly, San Junipero represents something very different. While there's no real talk of life after death, Kelly does struggle with the idea that making a new commitment so close to her end is a betrayal of those she's loved. This time around, watching San Junipero so close to the loss of my own mother, I was very much touched by Denise Burse's performance as the earth-bound Kelly. Sure, the final song that plays over the credits is the fitting "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," but, well, what if it's not?

I generally fall into Charlie Brooker's school of empathetic atheism, so most of the morality in San Junipero lines up with my own. I suppose, if towards the end of my life, I'm given the chance to blissfully party in a consequence-free holodeck with my husband forever, I'd most likely take it (providing it also came with cheese, dogs, and air hockey). But there's also something that's been nagging me about this rewatch, and I suppose that's simply because I've thought a lot more about death and aging in the past month than ever before. 

Aging sucks. The wiser our minds grow, the weaker our bodies turn, and sure, none of us appreciate what we have when it's there. The idea that we deserve a chance to embody the full freedom of prime health with the knowledge of what came after is incredibly appealing. it real? Isn't the beauty of life the fact that it IS limited? 

Perhaps I can simply enjoy the sweetness of two worthy lovebirds and pretend its unofficial sequel in terms of world building was The Good Place, a similarly themed show that found the perfect way to express what it means to live a satisfying life with its finale. 

In Thornton Wilder's Our Town, his main character asks an omniscient narrator a devastating question that I often think about: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? His answer is no (well, "saints and poets, maybe") but in San Junipero, Charlie Brooker finds a way to cheat. It's a nice idea, but if you catch it in the wrong mindframe, it might not hold.

But maybe that's okay too? In Brooker's world of advanced technology guiding us in new directions, who's to say that a "fake" reality with a copy of your brain isn't good enough? 

Clearly, there's a lot to think about.

The Verdict:
San Junipero has a lot working in its favor: a distinct setting and visual style, whimsical tone, and most importantly, three deeply felt performances. I'm not going to be cute: this is a very good hour of television.

Technology Tip:
More general life than mere scientific innovation: always make a point to discuss your post-mortem plans with your life partner (and be sure to include stipulations for Futurama-esque developments)

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 2/10. There is some weight to Kelly having to make a heavy decision that might be betraying the family she made during her life, but for the most part, this is one of the most shockingly joyful episodes Black Mirror produced (unless you overthink it, like I did). There are additional theories floating around that there's a dark side to this version of the afterlife, but even Charlie Brooker has knocked those down, so let's just take this as a happy win, eh?

Quality Scale: 8/10
Sometimes, the Emmy awards actually get things right. This is quality storytelling done with heart.

Enjoyment Scale: 7/10
Also, it's sweet and pleasant, and hard to not feel warm watching (DEPENDING ON YOUR MINDFRAME WHEN DOING SO!).

Up Next:
We'll take a quick break in February to celebrate the Annual Shortening (wherein I focus the blog on vertically challenged villains) but come March, it's San Junipero's little sister, Hang the DJ!

Monday, January 3, 2022

Bike-mare Beach


The snow might be falling. The temperature is dropping. We're thick in the dregs of 4PM sunset and the winter blues but damnit, that's why film exists as an escape. You want fantasy? You want saltwater breezes and carefully curated tanlines? We got this. Throw on your best fire red mesh t-shirt. We're going swimming.

Quick Plot: It's spring break  - 

Sorry, required reaction when those two words are spoken

- in the wilds of Florida when a biker named Diablo convicted of multiple homicide is executed via the electric chair. His crew insists Diablo was innocent, but when his body disappears and the murders resume, tensions rise higher than the tan lines you get from an above-the-waist thong.

Enter Skip and Ronny, two failed college football would-be stars who come to town to party. Ronny quickly becomes the mysterious Maybe-Diablo's victim, prompting Skip to team up with a bartender named Gail to solve the crime.

And WHAT a crime! This isn't your stabbing, machete swinging slasher. CHILD'S PLAY Nightmare Beach says to that! Our killer, you see, rides a juiced up motorcycle with its very own pop-up electric chair built into the passenger rear.

It. Is. Metal.

This is the kind of sleazy beach slasher that lacks even the restraint it takes to keep a woman's wet, nipple-showing top on during any of its MULTIPLE wet t-shirt contest time fillers. Directed by the aptly named James Justice (aka Harry Kirkpatrick, but James Justice is SO much more fun to say) after Umberto Lenzi lost a battle with the producers, is certainly one of the stranger slashers to battle it out on the shelves of your beloved VHS rental store. Naturally, I mean that in the best of ways.

You get bikers that feel like refugees from the bar in Pee-Wee's Great Adventure. John Saxon shifting his eyes as a dishonest cop. Murders far more creative than anything Jason Voorhes could cook up. And best of all, an actual point to the killings that genuinely does tack on an actual theme to the glorious chaos of the 90 minutes that came before. What more can you ask for from a cheap '80s slasher?

High Points
I'm a simple, simple woman, one made exceedingly giddy by such filmmaking decisions as "let's use as many dummies to simulate murder victims as possible." Folks, Nightmare Beach uses a LOT of dummies, and the world is a better place for it

Low Points
This is a very dumb thing to be mad about, but in such a glorious chunk of low quality but delicious cheese, I find it perfectly valid to be most angry that the token PRANKS guy (you know the type if you've watched any horror or horror-adjacent film from the '80s) who CONTINUES to throw on prosthetics and pose himself as dead even AFTER multiple homicides, just doesn't get NEARLY a painful enough or grand demise. This is a guy who dons greasy fake bullet wounds IN A PUBLIC POOL FOR GOODNESS SAKE, and yet all we get is the discover of his actual real body, while our most lovable character (the ridiculously cheerful and savvy sex worker) is brutally set fire to before our eyes

Lessons Learned
When you're 18, you can do what you want

Men were telling women they'd be prettier if they smiled since at least 1986, though back then, the price of such assholery was a cruel and immediate death

Less a lesson and more a question to keep you up in the middle of the night: who's dumber? The PRANKS guy who does the fake-Jaws shark swim on a crowded beach, or the police officer who fires his pistol at the water?

Nightmare Beach is gloriously steaming on Kanopy, the free-through-your-library service more commonly associated with educational documentaries and Criterion releases. What a time to be alive folks. What. A. Time.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Nuns In the Sun

How many times have you dared to click on a listicle claiming to contain the best horror films you've never seen, only to skim through the same old compilation you've seen time and time again with your eyes rolled so hard they do a full Price Is Right wheel around?

When you stumble upon an interesting looking of a film on Shudder and see 1993 cited as the film's date, it's hard to expect much. SURELY, you say, if it was anything special you would have heard about it by now, right?

It's nice to be wrong.

Quick Plot: Somewhere on a rocky precipice overlooking a violent beach, a nun holding a stone amulet plummets to her bloody death. Was it sinful Catholic suicide, or did a mystery murderer give her a push?

Put a pin in that, as we move our focus to a classy young British woman named Elizabeth. She's journeying to this remote island in order to investigate the isolated convent her recently deceased father has been funding for the last twenty years. Now the sole heir to his fortune, Elizabeth wants to learn more about these mooching penguins and whether they're worth a cut.

Things at the convent are as severe as you'd expect. No television, no phones, no color. Elizabeth expected to find her old schoolpal Theresa there, but that nun-in-training has mysteriously vanished. Instead, Elizabeth is assigned the young Sarah as her companion, a kind orphan who's never left the island (which likely explains her fashion style: sad burlap nun snuggie):

Strange things start to happen on the island, beginning with Elizabeth discovering a horrific painting that suggests a sad fate for dear Theresa. Sarah vows to help her escape but warns that the next boat isn't due for a week, but when that proves to be wrong, Elizabeth is left wondering if there's anyone she can trust.

Surely not the crazy old lady who seems to recognize her, the creepily blind Mother Superior, or the blood-covered local always holding a knife? With this batch, the Caliban-ish first mate who introduced himself by tearing a raw fish apart looks darn good.

Dark Waters
goes a lot more Lovecraftian places, and all of it unfolds in shockingly beautiful photography. Filmed in remote stretches of Ukraine just after the fall of the Soviet Union, it feels out of time in the best of ways. How the HECK was this made the same year as Leprechaun and Ticks

Based on co-screenwriter Andrew Bark's short story, Dark Waters was Mariano's Baino's full-length directorial debut...and unfortunately thus far, his only film. Some web sleuthing suggests he works regularly as an artist, but considering how fresh Dark Waters feels for its time, it's a shame we haven't seen more.

By no means is this a perfect film. While it's clearly going for style over substance, some of the substance could still have used a little more tightening up. The acting is almost certainly a feat of editing and ADR, with the intricacies of human faces doing far more effective work than well-delivered dialogue.

But even with its flaws, Dark Waters is something special. It explores, rather than commits to some fascinating themes regarding religion. The Catholic nuns wear the uniform of an institution we know well, but the film kind of brilliantly plays their rituals as that of monstrous cult activities (which to be fair, are in reality as well). This might be a Lovecraft-inspired tale written by two men, but Dark Waters is also refreshingly female from top to bottom. 

I can't say this film will work for everybody, as it's messy and more than occasionally nonsensical (OR NUNSICAL IF YOU PREFER), but if the tone hits you, it will hit hard. 

High Points
Typically, describing a movie filmed in 1993 as looking like it was found in a dusty Italian vault sealed in 1972 wouldn't be a compliment, but I mean that in the best possible way. Dark Waters has such a striking, timeless look about it, and its sparse dialogue and overwhelming ocean soundtrack feeds into that mystery with so much mood. 

Low Points
I truly don't require clear storytelling in my atmospheric horror, but a few small expository decisions at the film's start to better explain some the basics involving Theresa, Sarah, and Elizabeth would have made it easier to get swept up in the visuals rather than be distracted trying to understand certain connections

Lessons Learned
American currency will buy you a lot of secrets, especially on mysteriously defined island countries

Sometimes it's best to just, you know, honor the dying wish of your father

Here's a really hot tip: the life of a nun, even one associated with demonic cults, is a serious drag. Don't do it girls. '

While I'd put Dark Waters just a few rungs down Messiah of Evil on my next list of surreal(ish) atmospheric classics that deserve more love, my husband spent its 90 minutes trying to keep his eyes open, which is to say that this is likely a VERY hit hard or miss badly watch. My vote: wait for a particularly stormy night, turn the lights off, queue it up on Shudder, and get lost. The worst that can happen is you'll be so bored that you'll fall asleep, which you were planning on doing ANYWAY, so what's the harm? It's streaming now on Shudder, with a fully loaded DVD/Blu Ray available through Severin. Apparently initial releases included a toy demon amulet, but I'm holding out for the version that includes this needlepoint pattern:

Monday, December 20, 2021

Can You Dig It?

Do you, like me, often find yourself wondering why there aren't more sexy thrillers starring Beverly Hills 90210 stars set in the sandy, sweaty world of beach volleyball? I had this problem for YEARS until I found the wonderful podcast Married With Clickers, where a classic episode introduced me to the glory of 2008's Impact Point. 

Put on your sunscreen. We're serving it up. 

Quick Plot: Kelly Reyes is a big(ish) time beach volleyball star who opens the film by losing an important match to bitter rival Jen. The next day, Jen's partner dies in a hit and run, and with a big tournament on the horizon, she's forced to bring Kelly Reyes on as her new teammate. 

Before she embarks upon a new training regime under Jen's boyfriend and coach Matt (played by a baby-faced and mostly topless Joe Manganiello), Kelly Reyes meets Holden Gregg, a sports reporter eager to profile Kelly Reyes in more ways than one. 

After a night of drinks and no dinner, Holden Gregg takes Kelly Reyes back to his place for some fully clothed couch sex that doesn't seem to know where genital positioning. No worries!Holden Gregg and Kelly Reyes have a great time and schedule date #2. 

If you're wondering why I keep referring to Holden Gregg and Kelly Reyes by their first and last names, the answer is very simple: that's what the movie insists on doing virtually any time either character is spoken to or about. It's the Colin Robinson or the Kekoa Shaw of 2008.

Anyway, back to the beach. Kelly Reyes shows up for practice only to be interrupted by a pair of detectives who have serious questions about Holden Gregg. Not the Holden Gregg she had PG-rated Showgirls-y sex with the night before, but the REAL Holden Gregg, who is absolutely NOT the man she had sex with the night before. 

Turns out, Not Holden Gregg is a stalker, one who took Jen's partner out of commission in order to get the object of his affection into the championship game. Next on his list is Matt, who he beats into a coma because in this cinematic universe, David Silver is stronger than Big Dick Richie.

Directed by Hayley Cloake, Impact Point is what I like to call Hot People Horror. Okay, it's more elevated Lifetime thriller than genuine genre fare, but it belongs in the same rotation as The Sand in that we get super attractive people being thrown into some ridiculous situations. 

With sand!

As I so often say, this is not a particularly GOOD movie by your general standards of quality (though in the scheme of beach volleyball stalking thrillers, it has to at least crack the top five), but when you want a breezy summer watch, this is a darn good time. 

High Points
Without spoiling a movie that you'll only see if you actually use Netflix's DVD service, allow me to say that the reveal of Not Holden Gregg's actual identity is pretty neat

Low Points
Look, Melissa Keller is a gorgeous woman and very decent in this movie, but that doesn't really excuse the simple fact that Kelly Reyes is kind of the worst. Her rival Jen (who at one point, comes thisclose to doing a justified Homer-to-Bart-Simpsons-choke on her new teammate) is 100% correct in all of the insults and snide comments she hurls

Lessons Learned
With the dawn of cell phones came the death of the police sketch artist, a tool that would have been wildly useful in identifying a man our victim knew intimately

There's nothing more boring than a winner's quotes

Much like the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, there's little need to have medics on hand at an outdoor directly-in-the-sun sporting event taking place during a heat wave 

Smart complicates things 

Smart complicates things
(look, the movie makes a point of repeating it as if it's a very important mantra, so who am I to not pass along its weight?)

If you're the type of person whose life gets better hearing the words "There's a movie where Brian Austin Green plays a mastermind stalker obsessed with a beach volleyball player," then Impact Point will in no way disappoint you. Currently, it's rentable on Apple TV, but this really seems like the kind of yard sale DVD you might be lucky enough to one day score. And hey! IT'S WORTH THE MONEY! Just LOOK at these special features:

Game. Set. Match.