Monday, March 27, 2023

Now Sissy That Kill


Sometimes you hear enough positive word of mouth about a film that otherwise doesn't seem like your thing that you say, "hey, let's give it a try." 

Then you watch it and want to put cheese in all of those mouths because they sure were right. 

Quick Plot: Young Cecelia is a successful Instagram influencer (Elon Mask doesn't just sponsor just anybody!) loaded with internal insecurity, most of it stemming from a deeply hurtful break with her best friend Emma back in their tween years. When she randomly bumps into a grown and engaged Emma while buying tampons (isn't that always the case?) Cecelia lets herself feel a tinge of peace. Maybe they can resume their friendship after all!

This being a genre movie airing on Shudder, it's not exactly the case. Cecelia, formerly known as Sissy and now STILL known that way because people are terrible, takes Emma up on a spur of the moment invitation to her bachelorette weekend glamping in the wilderness. Things are going acceptably awkward until Cecelia discovers who's hosting: it's Alex, the same girl who drove a wedge in her friendship with Emma all those years ago.

Once a mean girl, always a mean girl. Alex is the worst, even if she's spent the last 12 years sporting a Cecilia-induced facial scar. THAT'S WHAT YOU GET FOR BEING MEAN, ALEX.

It should be said: I am 100% Team Cecelia.

So stop calling her Sissy.

Written and directed by the team of Kane Senes and Hannah Barlow (the latter also plays Emma), Sissy, on paper, isn't that new a story. Heck, 85% of '80s slashers stemmed from the same plot seed of "bullied teenager grows up and seeks revenge". But there's something about Sissy so fresh and current that it absolutely nails the assignment in ways that positively thrilled me.

Influencer horror has become as ubiquitous today as found footage ghost hunting was a decade earlier. It's an easy target ideal for the genre for a lot of reasons: it builds in a certain air of unlikability around its characters, it justifies their appearances as always being on for the camera, gives clear motivation to bad decisions, and so on. But most movies centered on this industry don't seem to have much more reason to explore it beyond that. What's great about Sissy is that it doesn't just toss in the profession as a joke: it engages with it directly, first allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions, then letting characters we're getting to know slam down their own hot takes in such a way that we become defensive.

As Cecelia, Aisha Dee oozes a kind of desperate, sweet need for validation that's impossible not to grasp. Even as we watch events unfold knowing there's more to her story than one-sided bullying, we simply can't not root for Cecelia to triumph. There's a moment where Alex is a few seconds away from uploading a video that will destroy Cecelia's life. I have never found myself wishing for a bad network connection with more urgency. 

High Points
I love a good death-by-falling-off-a-rocky-rigid-hill, and Sissy packs a DOOZY. There's also a uniquely shot car accident reveal that does a fine job toying with our perception. THIS MOVIE LOOKS GREAT IS MY POINT OKAY

Low Points
You know what? Nothing. I'm not here to say Sissy is perfection or Sight & Sound's new #1, but it's so clear-headed about what it wants to explore and does so with perfect style that I have nothing to complain about

Lessons Learned
Having a fresh face makes it easier to connect with your body

Never wear a new shirt to a karaoke party

As we learned from another thriller about an unstable woman with a dangerously obsessive personality, use extreme caution in situations that include an oversized and extremely pointy gem rock

Is That a Reference?
With her long blond braids and out-of-time dress, young Emma bears a STRIKING resemblance to a similarly named titular character in an Australian film, and I want to believe this was fully intentional

As you might have guessed, I ADORED this movie. Find it on Shudder. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

9 Soon to Be Dead


We've talked about this before: I have a soft spot for early 2000s Saw-ish low budget thrillers about strangers being locked in a space until one emerges the survivor. I am, at heart, a very simple person.

So here's a new one.

Quick Plot: A foggy credits montage sees 9 unrelated adults chloroformed and abducted, later awakening in a sterile mansion where all of the windows and doors have been bricked shut. A voice from hidden speakers announces the plan: they are strangers, not connected in any way, and only one can walk out the door $5 million richer. That's all he's saying, so have at it.

Surprisingly, a few of the characters have clearly seen a Nine Dead or two and immediately start looking for traps or timers. But nope, our announcer wasn't lying. There are no tricks. Bland food will be dispensed every few hours. The water is running. There are enough sharp objects hanging around to make murder possible. It's all up to them.

"Them" is your fairly typical batch of low budget horror fodder: a sympathetic chorus girl dancer, shamed tennis pro turned party girl, bickering married couple, bitter parolee, aspiring rapper, uppity fashion designer, police officer complete with a loaded gun, and an Irish priest played by Dennis Hopper.

No, seriously.

Seeing Hopper slumming it in a movie I never knew existed is a surprise, but for the most part, that's where the shocks end. Philippe Vidal's script lets the story darken at just the right point, though the immediate mayhem that comes after feels somehow rushed.

Directed by the I Spit On Your Grave remake's Steven Monroe, House of 9 is, to put it plainly (and rhymingly), fine. The better-than-average cast is peppered with European actors that you since recognize as having gone on to have legitimate careers, and it lets them eke out more interesting characters than the fairly flat screenplay lays out. I've seen so many of these kinds of films that I was genuinely pleased to realize the watcher's introduction wasn't a lie. This is a situation organized entirely to see what nine strangers will do to survive (and win a lot of money).

On one hand, House of 9 is far less wackily interesting than a lot of the other random titles that came out around the same time. No aliens, no six degrees of separation connections, no mazes. It still packs the same nihilistic attitude widespread in the genre (and I mean the particular subgenre of the early aughts) but with a slightly (and I mean slightly) higher quality than most of its competition. 

High Points
Sometimes it's hard to clearly identify how a cast elevates a mediocre setup, but let me give you a key example: Peter Capaldi's line reading of "my coat is in there" after the gang has decided to lock the possibly manslaughtering rapper in their bedroom is so perfectly played that it gave me a genuine laugh.

Low Points
All that's to say that there still isn't very much here that you haven't seen before, and most of it is stuff few actually LIKE seeing

Lessons Learned
Artists don't make money (but they do sleep with their glasses on)

When assigning roommates in a volatile situation, maybe read the room a little closer and rather than trust pure chance, don't pair people who have already expressed extreme rage at each other together

Nothing helps to meet that runtime more effectively than a montage taken seriously

If you're part of that fairly quiet horror contingent that actually enjoys exploring the myriad of low budget "strangers trapped in a room until most of them die at the hands of a well-spoken but invisible monster" subgenre, then House of 9 is certainly worth your time. No, it's not "good," but it's far higher quality than a whole else that came out in those early post-Saw years. To my knowledge, it's also the only one that stars Dennis Hopper as a kind priest so if that's your thing, have at it!

Monday, March 13, 2023

I Know What You (COV)DID Last Summer


Having found Sick pretty mediocre, I wasn't sure if I would actually write about it. Then I realized I had a good post title and now, well, here we are.

Quick Plot: It's April 2020, that magical time in recent history when we finally realized the severity of the coronavirus and accepted that life would, for the immediate future, be very, very different. This is especially true for young college student Tyler, who worries about hand sanitizer during his tense foray for groceries only to come home and be murdered by a mysterious masked man with a grudge.

Separately, his classmates Parker and Miri are heading to Parker's perfectly remote and sprawling country retreat to wait out the rest of lockdown (you sweet summer children you). Before you can identify anything about these girls that makes them interesting, the aforementioned stabber has found them, and this time, he's not alone.

Director John Hyams comes with a whole lot of experience directing horror television (including the delightful Chucky). Working with a script from Scream creator Kevin Williamson and Katelyn Crabb, he certainly seems to understand the basics of crafting a small stakes slasher, wisely keeping a brisk running time under 90 minutes.

I just wish I cared.

It's possible that I've officially passed into the grumpy old lady phase of horror movie reactions. I watched Sick a few days after turning one year older, and very quickly found myself grumbling about the fact that I had to Google new teen text acronyms. Like the most recent Scream (or Scream V, for those of us still bewildered as to this series' naming convention), I found myself distracted by just how much these characters did absolutely nothing for me. I didn't particularly like them, and the film's big reveal does nothing to help that. More importantly, I didn't find them interesting.

Now before you become unable to picture as anything other than the female Abe Simpson (I hate onions and would never wear one on my belt, even if it WAS the style at the time) please believe me when I say I like young people! I'm inspired by Gen-Z! They're inheriting the world at its very worst and seem far more ready and willing to make it better.

Parker and Miri, though, just exist, in the same way that the fairly bland protagonists of, say, Graduation Day or Edge of the Axe exist. Not every slasher needs a Gale Weathers or Tommy Jarvis, but when the story is so lean and the action is good but not great, it helps to have something to put your hook in.

High Points
I'm sure it's a moment that's already been heavily meme'd, but yes, the "where's your mask?" qualifier amid chaos is worth a chuckle

Low Points
Without spoiling the third act reveal, the calendar math in every direction is pretty unforgivably flawed

Lessons Learned
The lights on your router illuminate when you send email (did everyone know that but me? Is that a real thing? HOW OLD AM I?)

Cling wrap is a broken leg's best friend

The best way to protect yourself in a home invasion is to keep your counter fully stocked with potential projectiles

I was left pretty underwhelmed by Sick, but it's perfectly adequate if you're just looking to land on a new slasher. Find it on Peacock if you care. 

Monday, March 6, 2023

-A Do (Doo)

All art criticism is subjective. Sure, it's hard to make an argument that Casablanca isn't a cinematic treasure or that Tiptoes is, but at the end of the day, books, paintings, music, and of course, films are going to hit their audience differently. Comedy and horror are the best examples of this, as they require a very specific interior connection in order to achieve their goals as media. Either something is funny to you or it's not, and either something scares you or it puts you to sleep.

In the case of internet sensation Skinamarink, I'm in the latter category. 

Literally: I fell asleep halfway through this movie.

Quick Plot: Something something blurry something.

Okay, I'll try harder. Here's what IMDB says happens in Skinamarink:


Written and directed by newcomer Kyle Edward Ball, Skinamarink is an avant garde attempt to capture a child's nightmare, diving into a sensory experience without any real guidance. That's a good idea! And according to many viewers of Skinarmkink that aren't me, it works!

But oh my, to me, it was 100 minutes of fuzz.

A few points of order, as I think HOW you watch Skinamarink will direct your reaction:

- I streamed to my television via Shudder with the lights out 
- I used headphones direct to my Roku remote control in the hopes of getting the most out of the unusual sounds (recommended if you're watching at home)
- Unusual for me, I kept the subtitles off so I could get a closer theater experience. Since the film randomly subtitles itself when trying to communicate a specific piece of dialogue, I'd also recommend this way of watching
- No phone near me, computer closed, and aside from the occasional cat meow, no distractions

And still...this did nothing for me until 50 minutes in, I broke, paused, and closed my eyes. About 50 minutes later, I woke up, finished the movie (WHICH IS ANOTHER 50 MINUTES), and that's all there is. 

Now. Having said all of that, I do want to be extremely clear: if you can connect to this film, it will probably unnerve you like nothing else. I'm certainly happy to say that I've never really seen anything like this before. Sure, David Lynch has given us multiple nightmares in semi-narrative film form, but Ball's DIY grain and child POV is genuinely new. 

I'm glad to see this kind of film find success. But that doesn't mean I took any enjoyment in the experience.

High Points
As I said, Skinamarink may VERY WELL work for a LOT of horror fans. Heck, my cat loved it!

Low Points
I can handle a style not jibing with my senses, I can handle a filmmaker taking their time to build tension, but why, dear god WHY would you put this out with a 100 minute run time????

Lessons Learned
There is an endless selection of mildly creepy cartoons available through the public domain

Sigh. I found Skinamarink to be a dull, frustrating, WAY TOO LONG experience, but if you were to watch it and tell me it captured your childhood nightmare and gave you even worse ones, I'd fully respect that. I feel like every horror fan kind of owes it to themself to give it a try.

Monday, February 27, 2023

An Annabelle By Any Other Name...

Welcome to the Annual February Shortening! In honor of the shortest month on a blog written by a short woman, all posts are devoted to stories about vertically challenged villains. If you, reader of any height, have your own mini-horror to share, do so in the comments and I'll include you in a final post roundup as the calendar changes!

Horror trends don't die easily. In fact, once they prove viable, they spread through every budget and corner of the world. 

When Annabelle's formula became a bona fide success, low budget horror directors must have squealed with glee. "You mean we can make a killer doll movie WHERE THE DOLL DOESN'T MOVE?" 

Cue Robert, and its dozens of sequels or loose remakes sitting still on some of the free streaming sites. As I do every year in anticipation of February, I'd been circling various sources to find some new porcelain blood. Surely I haven't watched EVERY killer doll movie made with a budget over $10, right? Tubi is positively dripping in the genre, and while I'm sure there are some pearls in those bargain oysters, I don't always have the stamina to risk watching something less well-made than my kittens' artwork. 

Hence this year's safer bet. Netflix has particular standards when it comes to video quality, meaning most of its offerings these days have a higher budget than your typical Tubi find. Indonesia's The Doll (of which there are three installments and counting) has been on my radar for a while and the day has finally come to see how another part of the world sees immobile doll horror. 

Quick Plot: Much like The Conjuring, our story begins with a quick side tale that won't really have much bearing on the rest of the film. A trio of siblings get stuck with a mysterious doll who seems to love playing hide-and-seek. When it inevitably turns violent, they seek out Laras and Rendi, Indonesia's own Ed and Lorraine Warren variants. 
You're probably best off forgetting what I just said, since after the credits roll, we're reintroduced to that very same doll, who will indeed be reacquainted with Laras an hour later (though she seems to have no memory of this). Ah well, moving on!

Meet incredibly attractive young couple Daniel, a construction worker, and Anya, who fixes up dolls. Daniel's new promotion moves them into a high end rental but on his first day on the job, he's stuck in a pickle: his crew refuses to cut down a tree that marks the spot where a family was recently murdered. It doesn't help that there's a familiar looking baby doll attached to it. But orders are orders and before you can be friends to the end, the tree is down and the doll somehow ends up in Anya's hands. 

It doesn't take long for things to go downhill. Strange events befall the couple's new home. Friendly neighbor Niken insists it's supernatural and links Anya up with Laras, who gathers that the doll is holding the angry soul of the murdered little girl. 

Up until the final act, The Doll is pretty darn beholden to the Annabelle blueprint but thankfully, the film takes a rather shocking turn for its grand finale. It's a fairly slow roll into its big climax but I'm happy to say it's worth the ride. Yes, this is ultimately more "haunted ghost child" than "fun killer doll", and yes, I certainly prefer the latter, but hey: this ain't bad. 

High Notes
Some of its CGI style does fall flat, but there are plenty of refreshingly creepy setups (a raincoat comes to mind) that manage to be effectively unsettling in just the style you want for this kind of ghost story. Plus, DUMMY DEATH!

Low Points
My stance on "we can cut to a reaction shot of a creepy doll and call it a killer doll movie" has not changed, even if some films manage to make that aspect work. The doll of The Doll (I don't think she's ever even named) isn't even visually interesting...let alone active. 

Lessons Learned
Evil doll activity smells quite a bit like very bad farts

It doesn't matter if the doll is ugly: what matters is that a boy likes you enough to give it to you

People who love fiction love to make up stories

The Doll probably sits comfortably (obviously: the thing doesn't move) in the middle shelf of my favorite subgenre. I wouldn't revisit this particular film, but it whetted my appetite more than enough to continue with the series. So we say it here: The Shortening 2024 will begin with The Doll 2! (sets Google alert as reminder). 

Maybe by then the damn thing will do more than blink. 

Monday, February 20, 2023

He Sees You When You're Babysitting

Welcome to the Annual February Shortening! In honor of the shortest month on a blog written by a short woman, all posts are devoted to stories about vertically challenged villains. If you, reader of any height, have your own mini-horror to share, do so in the comments and I'll include you in a final post roundup as the calendar changes!

Better Watch Out's Christmas Eve setting might make it out of season for a usual February morning, but for reasons that become clear post-spoiler warning, this film certainly fits this month's theme.

Quick Plot: Ashley (The Visit's Olivia DeJonge) is an attractive high schooler a few days away from moving, making tonight the last time she'll babysit 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller). Yes, he's probably too old to need a sitter, but considering he's nursed a fairly obvious crush on the older blond, he doesn't object. Their evening starts off with the usual hijinks: boy tries to impress uninterested and age-inappropriate girl, girl's boyfriend calls, mystery pizza shows up, and an armed mystery man enters with a shotgun.

To go any further into Better Watch Out would be to spoil a very surprising plot element that is key to discussing the film. If all you know about Better Watch Out is that it's a Christmas horror story about a babysitter and her charge dealing with a home invasion, stop reading after the spoiler warning below. I'm shocked that I went five years without catching the film's actual plot, so much credit goes to the rare marketing restraint. It makes the twist all the more powerful. Ultimately, I'm a bit mixed on the final product, though I do think this is a smartly made tale with a lot of dark things to say. 

Now, stop here all who know no more

Better Watch Out is not a cute story about teamwork: it's a mean little twist on Home Alone where Kevin McAllister has grown a few school years into an incel. The man with a gun isn't an intruder: it's Luke's friend Garrett (played by Ed Oxenbould, also of The Visit) who's been roped into helping Luke in an ill-fated seduction attempt with the shocked and disgusted Ashley. Things escalate quickly and before you can tell Fuller to go easy on the Pepsi, Ashley is tied to a chair, watching in horror as Luke lures her ex-boyfriends to meet their own Wet Bandit-inspired ends. 

Writer/director Chris Peckover made Better Watch Out after Undocumented, an incredibly upsetting found footage-style horror movie that was rather fearless in how hard it looked at the racist American attitude toward immigration. Better Watch Out isn't quite as on the nose as Undocumented, but it shares a very clear sense of despair at the darkness lurking inside everyday souls. 

Luke is an absolute monster, made all the worse by the contrast between the insecure and weak Garrett. Miller and Oxenbould play off each other well, and when you add in Dacre Montgomery and Alex Mikic as Ashley's exes, Better Watch Out does seem to have some interesting things to say about the utter inadequacies of young men. I wish the film made it a tad clearer that Luke was more pathetic than precocious (based on some online discourse, I'm not sure that all viewers agree) but save for the stinger ending, there's something satisfying about watching a kid who thinks he's king be long as you ignore the stinger. 

High Points
Olivia DeJonge has been doing great work since The Sisterhood of the Night. Ashley is a bit underwritten (which may be part of the film's point, as we're seeing most of it through Luke's eyes) but DeJonge manages to create such a clear and natural presence that we're fully invested, and deeply satisfied by the film's ending

Low Points
I watched Better Watch Out via Peacock, which did that thing that many a streaming service thinks viewers want by immediately skipping the credits and heading straight into the next nearby title. This meant it took me three tries to confirm the mid-credits sequence, and boy, I really wish I took Peacock's hint and skipped it. 

Lessons Learned
Huntsman spiders are rampant in certain parts of "the United States"

Duct tape: don't babysit without it

Gross dads breed gross kids (and yes, I know we all love Patrick Warburton, but if ogled Ashley any more, she could have sued him right there and avoided a very bad evening)

I can't say I had a good time with Better Watch Out: its subject matter is so ugly that it's hard to enjoy the brisk 90 minute ride. Still, between this and Undocumented, Peckover has certainly shown that he's unafraid to face current horrors by way of crafting an effective genre film. I'm a little disturbed to see so much discourse about this movie refer to it as a comedy because it makes me think some audiences didn't get the point, but what can you do?