Monday, September 18, 2023

Eye've Had Enough

The Asylum is a film studio with a very particular reputation, but I've often defended their original films. Yes, their more famous mockbusters and sharknados are silly and more often than not, incredibly lazy, but here and there, their fresher low budget productions offer pleasant surprises. 

Hold Your Breath is not such a case.

Quick Plot: Back in the 1950s, a preacher named Van Hausen became a prolific serial killer with a signature move of gouging out his victims' eyeballs. He even manages to pluck out a few more on the day of his execution by electric chair.

In the present day, we meet a batch of impossibly good-looking and even more impossibly brain-damaged young adults reuniting for the first time since high school for a weekend camp trip. I can't possibly be expected to know or care about their names, so henceforth, we'll refer to them as Sun-In Dye Job Guy & His Horny Girlfriend, 

Mean Blonde, Mean Blonde's Nicer Brunette Sister, Tall Guy, Stoner, and Guy Who Looks Like Sun-In Dye Job Guy But Thankfully Wears Glasses.

They're all awful, and I really can't tell if that was intentional. 

The trip takes a turn when they pass a cemetery and Stoner is too busy stoning to heed Mean Blonde's superstitious warning to hold his breath and avoid being possessed by the soul of someone buried inside. So guess what? Stoner gets possessed by the soul of the eye-popping Van Hausen while the rest of the gang is investigating the abandoned prison that hosted his bloody electrocution.

Oh, and by "investigate" I obviously mean that Sun-In Dye Job Guy and His Horny Girlfriend have sex in the prison morgue while Mean Blonde and her Nicer Brunette Sister playfully tie Tall Guy to an electric chair as a storm breaks out. 

I spent the first half of Hold Your Breath hoping it was a self-aware joke, and the second half with the sad understanding that it was indeed a real attempt to make a horror film. An incredibly dumb and more importantly, unpleasant one at that.

We've all seen Shocker. Even the most diehard Wes Craven fan will say Shocker is very, very bad. But by golly, it's Citizen Kane when placed next to Hold Your Breath. 

The young cast is very good-looking. Their characters are jerks, and dull ones at that. The violence is mostly cheap Asylum CGI-based, which looks as bad as you'd expect, until you get to the graveyard finale and watch a floating ghost fight straight out of the Disney's Haunted Mansion ride and realize, "oh, it's even worse than I expected." The highlight for me was the prison morgue sex scene not because it was a prison morgue sex scene but because it was scored by a song called "Hold Your Breath." 

I'm nothing if not easily entertained by the obvious.

High Points
I don't know, I guess I enjoyed a hand mixer to the eyeball kill because sure, why not gouge an eyeball out with a hand mixer

Low Points
As a lifelong horror fan, I'm not one to complain about gratuitous nudity because I simply don't have the Energizer Bunny-esque funnel of energy it would demand, but Mean Blonde's Nicer Sister's murder feels incredibly icky in its topless execution

Lessons Learned
If you're in the middle of nowhere with a guard tower and fence, you're probably near a prison

Selling weed is one way to pay child support

I genuinely did learn that "Dance Hall" was slang for death row, but what Hold Your Breath taught me was that prisons go ahead and manufacture official signs for such a thing

I don't know what anyone can get out of Hold Your Breath. It's mean, ugly, and pretty terrible. But hey, we're horror fans, and for some of us, that kind of description means an automatic queue add. It's on Peacock if you're one of those weirdos. 

Monday, September 11, 2023

(Cult) Family First


I don't expect much from a horror movie I've never heard of streaming on Peacock, but low expectations have never kept me from watching a horror movie I've never heard of so here we go!

Quick Plot: A mean little prologue gives us the POV, Michael Meyers-style of a man entering his family's house in order to murder his parents and little sister. Considering this movie's runtime is all of 86 minutes, I'll throw out a theory here that our prologue may have been a last minute "we need more minutes" move.

Next, we meet the Powells at their remote cabin. Mom Kathy (the ever feline Debra Kara Unger) is good with granddaughter Zoey and even better with a glass of white wine, while divorced husband Andrew (Masters of Horror alum Johnathon Schaech) has a different task at hand: donning a mask and kidnapping eldest son Justin with the help of deprogrammer Jeff (Stephen Dorff) for a weekend of tough love. 

Also in tow is Samantha, Justin's suffering girlfriend, and Campbell, the estranged brother who didn't get along with Justin even before he joined a violent satanic cult. As soon as the sun sets, the intervention takes a turn as Justin's "real" family shows up in animal masks and black leather outerwear to take him back.

It didn't surprise me to see the first bit of IMDB trivia describing Jackals as a 15-day shoot. Despite a surprisingly recognizable cast, there's something exceedingly quick and small about the production. That's not always a bad thing: director Kevin Greutert spent years editing and eventually directing in the Saw franchise, which infamously began down and dirty. There's certainly plenty of precedent. 

Unfortunately, Jackals clearly didn't have the time or means (or maybe even desire?) to find much meat in the material. It's a perfectly fine concept for a horror movie, and with better-than-average performances from the more seasoned cast, we end up with an adequately made cheap horror film. 

It's hard to know how good Greutert is as a filmmaker: he's responsible for both the best (Saw VI) and worst (Saw 3D) outputs in the Saw series, and Jackals demonstrates some skill but ultimately feels more like an exercise than real attempt at tension. I'm rooting for him to show us more.

High Points
It would be easy for the family at the heart of Jackals to turn into a screaming mess of dysfunction, so credit goes to the cast and Jared Rivet's script for making each Powell their own person with clearly defined feelings on the Justin situation. I wish there was more of it! 

Low Points
There's a predictable line five minutes in about how the cabin gets no reception. This is obviously a requirement for a movie like this, though in this case, the characters are referring to the antenna on the television set. It wasn't until I started looking up information on Jackals that I realized it was set in 1983. 

Why is this a low point, you ask? It's twofold: 1) the fact that nothing in the film in any way indicates it's taking place 40 years ago is telling to the style and production design, and 2) it has a subtle suggestion that the Satanic Panic was justified, which just feels offensive at this point in time. Do better, incredibly quickly made horror film no one's ever heard of.

Lessons Learned
Maybe you're crazy, or maybe you're just a mom

Guns are powerful, but have you ever tried just heating up a bottle of vegetable oil?

Masks might limit your human hunting visibility, but if you have them made from the right material, they also just might protect you from hot bottles of vegetable oil

I can't really recommend Jackals. It's, well, not that good. But it's better than any less-than-3-week movie should be, and has enough good performances to hold things together. Find it on Peacock, which somehow makes perfect sense. 

Monday, September 4, 2023

In the Sea, No One Can Hear You Scream

The best way to force my hand in watching a movie? Threaten to remove it from streaming! Hence today's feature, which had sat on my Hulu queue for an eternity before falling into the "expiring soon" death list. What better time to dive in? (and yes, considering the aquatic nature of Sea Fever, that pun was intentional.)

Quick Plot: Siobhan is great with research and anomalies but bad with talking to people, making her graduate school program slightly more complicated than she'd like. She reluctantly departs on the Niamh Cinn Óir fishing vessel for some fieldwork, where the tight knit crew immediately bristles at her ominous red hair.

Still, a job's a job, and Captain Freya and husband/skipper Gerard plow on, only for the boat to run afoul of some kind of squid-like creature deep in the "excluded zone". Siobhan is justifiably freaked out, but Gerard smells a big payoff. A messy fishing attempt leads to crew member Jack being injured and the boat's winch breaking, but hey! There's a boat nearby!

And naturally, said boat has its own problems: a busted radio and dead crew, some with their eyeballs gouged out. By the time young Jack is burning with his own fever and ocular woes, it's pretty clear to Siobhan that there's a parasite aboard the boat...and most likely, several of its members' bodies.

Written and directed by Neasa Hardiman, Sea Fever wears its Alien and The Thing-references all over its wetsuit sleeve, and I have no problem with that. Though it has some recognizable faces (Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen play Gerard and Freya) Sea Fever is clearly a fairly bare bones production, set almost entirely on the claustrophobic boat. It gives us just enough fairly natural conversations between crew members for us to draw a clear enough picture of who has what at stake, so it's easy to care about their fates without exposition overload. Likewise, Siobhan's awkward data-driven nature is perfectly established and gives us a clear compass as the facts unfold, especially as the film dips into just-ahead-of-its-time morality on quarantine responsibility.

There's something extremely efficient about Sea Fever. Its barely 90-minute length wastes no time, but for the most part, we still get everything we need out of the characters and story. Plus, a giant squid! Okay, we don't get MUCH of the squid (if that's what it actually is) but a jellyfish-y sea monster that eventually causes eye explosions? That's pretty darn neat. 

High Points
Without spoiling anything, I was quite satisfied with Sea Fever's ending, which feels appropriate to the story's nature and emotionally right for the characters

Low Points
With so few characters, I would have liked just a little more time to better understand the one with the foggiest fate (Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Olwen Fouere)

Lessons Learned
Fishermen don't swim because they'd rather die fast

College bars are the ideal location to further investigate the possibilities of UV rays

Crazy idea, I know, but hear me out: if you discover a gooey glowing substance eating away at many layers of metal, perhaps the best course of action is not to touch it

I don't know which streamer Sea Fever moved to, but hop onboard if you can. This isn't the find of the year by any measure, but it's solidly made and incredibly clear-headed about the story it wants to tell. Bon voyage.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Groot Who Walks Behind the Rows

There are essays and encyclopedias to be written about the endless funnel of Children of the Corn movies (and how much that franchise aligns with Hellraiser). The amount of diehard horror fans I've seen vow to marathon the series only to fizzle out midway through could, well, fill a cornfield I suppose. 

Still, whenever one emerges every few years, it's hard not to get just a little bit excited that FINALLY, someone got it right. There's so much potential in the material and yet there's just never been a genuinely good movie to come out of it. Could this be the day that changes?

Grown-up Nelson Muntz thinks not

Quick Plot: Teenager Boydd emerges from the cornfield outside his children's home, armed with a knife and ready to slay the adults inside. The idiotic local law enforcement decides the best way to handle a hostage situation is to fill the interior with gas, which has the unfortunate effect of killing the 15 kids that were resting peacefully inside.

The town of Rylstone doesn't react well. Stores close, neighbors fight, and the corn, which had been treated with commercial grade fertilizer from a bad corporate deal, is now essentially poison. The town is offered a hail mary in the form of a government subsidy to destroy the fields, which appeals to the adults but upsets the kids at a scene in town hall that makes Parks & Recreation look like government at its finest.

Seriously, one townsperson begins laughing at a child in full Simpsons-bullying fashion, then announcing to the whole room that he's going to beat his son later that night. It's a sight to behold.

The minors of Rylstone voice their dissent. 17-year-old Bo, the voice of reason, tries to convince her dad not to go through with it, even going so far as to contact a reporter in the hopes that the publicity can save the town. But it's little Eden (the sole survivor of the opening massacre) who has the real plan, and if you've seen any of the dozen movies in this franchise, you can probably guess what (and who) it involves.

The twelfth installment in any franchise is going to feel familiar, and certainly Children of the Corn (the third film with that same TITLE in this franchise no less!) is going to have to dig to find anything fresh. And by golly, it does!

Now please understand: my definition of fresh doesn't necessarily mean good. It's sort of like how I love a good handful of stale, chewy popcorn. But in reverse.

Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer of Equilibrium and Ultraviolet back in 2020, Children of the Corn is...something. This is a franchise that so often has had to scramble at the eleventh hour to make a quick movie in order to maintain the rights, so it's refreshing to see this variation try some new things (even they mostly come off as very very silly). 

At the heart of Children of the Corn is the same deep motivation that springs the horrific Who Can Kill a Child? to life: the adult world has failed its youth, and at a certain point, the kids will fight back. There's an environment argument thrown in here as well, as the leadership of Rylestone has literally polluted its children's future only to finally decide to destroy it outright. 

All of this sounds probably makes Children of the Corn sound much smarter than the final product is. Wonky CGI doesn't help, and the rushed one crazy night timeline has such a "that escalated quickly" energy about it that it's laughable to take the film too seriously.

All that being said, Wimmer finds some new ground to tread here, which is admirable 12 films into a franchise. 

Well, I THINK he finds new ground. Like most horror fans, I'm incapable of remembering half of the Children of the Corn films I've seen. But I'm a good 99% certain none of the others relied on the adorable friendship between a highly organized homicidal child with prime leadership skills and her giant Groot knockoff, so for that, I'm all in.

High Points
There is no Shirley Temple-sized Oscar gold enough to fully reward young Kate Moyer for the supreme Queen B ME3AN-esque energy she brings to the role of Eden. With her Rhoda Penmark braids and decisive girl boss energy, I can easily say that without hesitation, I'd join her environmental cult in a heartbeat

Low Points
I like the idea of seeing He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Until, you know, I do.

Lessons Learned
An undergraduate degree in microbiology isn't an eternity

So what if your town is lacking resources? So long as they stock pink child-sized gas masks, can you REALLY complain about the quality of living?

Gasoline works differently in the midwest

Telling you that you'll enjoy watching the 12th low budget installment of Children of the Corn is like saying, "just order the chicken fingers, they'll be fine." This is nowhere near a good movie, but I found it wildly entertaining. No, it doesn't boast a grand death-by-voodoo-whittling like Part 2, but if Naomi Watts and Eva Mendes can emerge from these movies with their careers, let's put all our chips in Kate Moyer's basket for her future stardom. That in itself is kind of worth it all.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Murder On the Soviet Express

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm not a true crime person. There's something seedy about reveling in the intrigue of something that has real-life victims, and as an unabashed horror fan, I find it uncomfortably blurs lines that I've spent my life defending. 

That being said, 1995's Citizen X intrigued me: a made-for-HBO movie in its early days of original programming following the real-life case of a prolific Soviet serial killer and equipped with a ridiculously good cast.

Quick Plot: It's 1982 in the Soviet Union, and new forensic specialist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea) has a rough night (and subsequent 8 years) ahead of him. A corpse found in the nearby woods arrives right at closing time, but as Viktor insists the police go deeper in their search, he can't complain when they discover another handful of victims, abused and murdered according to a pattern.

Before he can shower, Viktor is summoned to an early morning council of Soviet officials allergic to hearing words like "serial killer" or "FBI." This is bureaucracy at its tightest, and the best Viktor can hope for in his investigation is for the careful, deceptively ambivalent machinations of his superior Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) to pay off. 

Viktor is a passionate, caring man who sees the problems in front of him and can't understand why the system won't bend. Fetisov has spent his whole career playing the game, gathering intel quietly and never rocking the boat publicly. In its own way, it's a marriage made in heaven.

But there's a lot of hell in between. 

The identity of the killer isn't hidden from the audience. We meet unhappy factory worker Andrei Chikatilo (familiar face Jeffrey DeMunn) early on and see his pattern as Viktor pieces it out: hang around the train stations on the outskirts of Moscow until a target appears. The victims are either children, sex workers, vagrants, or young adults that can't necessarily fend for themselves. 

Viktor nails Chikatilo's routine down so well that he actually captures the man, only for his superiors to scoff at the idea that a respected, heterosexual member of the communist party could do such a thing. Faulty bloodwork leads to Chikatilo's release, and the hunt continues for another few years, along with additional victims.

Written and directed by Chris Gerolmo, Citizen X is an incredibly watchable product of its time. Today, this would be the first season of a limited anthology series vying for Emmys against a dozen similar products. But in 1995, the gaggle of prestige actors trying out Russian accents is kind of charming in its own way.

There's actually a surprising amount of charm to be found in this story about a sadistic child killer. Gerolmo doesn't revel in Chikatilo's violence, instead showing the weight such crimes have on those who directly witness them. There's a rather noble sense of honor about Viktor's pursuit for justice, as well as how Fetisov watches the world around him with caution so that he can play his cards at just the right time and for the right result.

The only time Citizen X really slips into straight procedural is the ending, which suffers by moving closer to Chikatilo and further from Viktor and Fetisov. The abrupt coda feels off, especially since Citizen X seems so clear-minded about what it really wants to explore: this should be a story about how intelligent and more importantly, persistent investigating led to the capture of a monster, not so much a story about the monster.

High Points
There's such joy to be had when you get to watch good actors play off each other, and nowhere is that more true than when Stephen Rea and Donald Sutherland get to develop their tentative teamwork from two wildly different backgrounds

Low Points
It's fun to see a young Imelda Staunton pop up as Viktor's dutiful wife, but like so many of these kinds of "men investigate things" stories, it's also a minor shame that she, as one of the few speaking women onscreen, exists in the story to remind him (and us) that he's a good man

Lessons Learned
If you want to get things done in a bureaucracy, you better know how to avoid making it look like you're getting anything done

Being a hero is enormously taxing

When in doubt, send in Max Von Sydow

I had a shockingly good time watching Citizen X, and this is coming from someone who generally backs away from these kinds of films. Have at it on whatever we're calling the HBO app these days.