Monday, May 16, 2022

In Canada, "Deliverance" is pronounced "Rituals"


When a recipe works, you keep making it. It's as true for marinara sauce as it is for horror subgenres, and it's why a post-Deliverance world includes more than its share of movies centered on cocky urbanites meeting terrible fates in the vast wilderness.  

Quick Plot: Nearing 40, five former med school pals embark on an annual weekend trip, this time a 15 mile hike through the forests of Canada. Our helpful helicopter pilot sets the stage clearly: they'll be completely alone and out of reach, with no one to reach or hear them until they pass through the deepest parts of the woods.

Things would have gone fine had our quintet not committed the cardinal sin of any group outing horror flick: the dreaded cheerful group photo.

It NEVER goes well.

The trouble begins when the guys wake up to discover their boots missing. Despite ringleader DJ's detailed Xerox'd packing list instructions, nobody bothered to bring a second pair of shoes (see: people have been ignoring the equivalent of group texts since the '70s). DJ doubles back to get help while the remaining four begin to see more signs that they're not alone. 

For starters, there's the severed deer head staked over their tents, a snake perfectly positioned to create a caduceus. The reasonably spooked campers decide to start moving, which drives them straight into a series of impressive booby traps: a loose beehive that leads to Abe's death, and a water set bear trap (MY FAVORITE) that knocks out Martin, DJ's brother. It's up to the morally questionable Mitzi and the group's conscience Harry (Hal Holbrook) to carry him to safety. 

As you just might guess, Rituals is more than a little a product of Deliverance's success. Thankfully, as knockoffs go, it's also a very, very good one. The combination of Ian Sutherland's script and top shelf actors means we get surprisingly deep character development built through dialogue alone. There's 20 years of bravado, guilt, and judgement between the men to build conflict, and that's before we even know just what kind of insane but extremely resourceful psychopath is hunting them down. 

Hal Holbrook (apparently the most expensive thing in the movie) holds it together with the kind of deep presence we don't always find in these lower priced genre flicks. His decades-brewing beef with Lawrence Dane's more selfish (but not necessarily wrong) Mitzi drives so much of the film's third act. Without spoiling anything, their back and forth is ultimately much more interesting than the actual horrors at play. 

High Points

Sometimes it's the non-horror choices that make a horror film so interesting. In the case of Rituals, it's that our soon-to-be-victims are 40something doctors and surgeons, all at different points in their careers (both professionally and morally). It goes such a long way in establishing them as men with a very particular brand of educated confidence

Low Points
While there's some interesting ground suggested by the reveal of the villain, it ultimately feels so much less developed in comparison to how much story we get from the rest of the group

Lessons Learned
A word like "incompetent" can do serious ruin to a man's reputation

Live your life in such a sunny manner that when you die, your friends dub you a gentle boob

Never limit your food supply to what has to be boiled

Rituals isn't the best of its very specific (and prolific) subgenre, but it's certainly up there and will scratch that Deliverance-y itch. Find it on Shudder. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Black Mirror Revisit: The Entire History of You

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 now at my initial podium, so let's dive into The Entire History of You.

The Talent:
It's a rarity, but here we go: an episode of Black Mirror NOT written by Charlie Brooker. This one comes from Jesse Armstong, the man being Four Lions and Succession, with television director Brian Welsh behind the camera. Just to up its British cred a few more points, future Dr. Who Jodie Whitaker co-stars. 

The Setup:
Liam is an insecure lawer bombing his latest professional review and not doing much better at home. He meets up with his wife Fi at a friend-of-friends dinner party and immediately senses something off. Maybe it was just a bad day, maybe Liam's just not the social type, or maybe, there's something going on between Fi and the cavalier bachelor Jonas. 

In our universe, we might spend a little too much time trying thinking about facial reactions and gestures, but in Black Mirror's, there's no time to waste: simply play back the 'grain' installed in the back of your neck to rewatch every interaction you've ever had with the same ease you have when fastforwarding Netflix. 

It's as terrible as it sounds. While some, like Jonas's one-night party fling, choose to forgo such technology, most with the means to do so happily have it implanted. Never overthink anything again, right? 

The Ending:
Alternatively, never let anything go. Liam's nagging suspicion about his wife's manner leads him down a whiskey greased path of pain. Jonas and Fi were indeed an item, but a glance at Jonas's grain memories is all Liam needs to confirm the sad truth: their relationship was ongoing, and the timing of a simple screenshot suggests Liam's baby daughter might have a different daddy. 

It's enough to drive a man to messily extract his own grain.

The Theme:
Brooker has pointed out that technology is rarely the actual villain in Black Mirror; it merely provides the means to open windows into our existing nature that may have otherwise stayed shut. That's certainly the case with The Entire History of You. At its core, it's a story about how our own doubts and insecurities will destroy us if we let them. 

There are hints of something else interesting at play, though it gets less room for exploration in the tighter family-based drama. At the cursed dinner party, one of Fi's grain-loving friends rants about the fallacy of our own memories, and how subjective they really are. In a world where every moment can be objectively played back, it's certainly true: a witness's testimony based on recall should indeed be dismissed if grain video captured a different, verified story. But the idea that how we remember something doesn't matter is horrifying because so much of our memories build us into the people we are. Fi may have truly been enthralled by Jonas in her drunken, depressed state, but she's clearly spent the last two years regretting that feeling, rewriting it in her head. Doesn't that count? 

The Verdict:
While The Entire History of You is a strong hour of TV, it doesn't quite pack the same punch once you've cycled through the full Black Mirror run. Its parallels to White Christmas (another story about an emotionally unstable young maybe-father whose discovery of a partner's adultery sends him down a destructive spiral) makes you draw some mildly unpleasant conclusions about men in the Black Mirror's world. Toby Kebbell is great in the lead role, lending extreme vulnerability to a sad mess of a man, but that doesn't mean it's actually fun to watch. 

Technology Tip:
While the terms are different, the general rule still rings true: if you don't want it in cyberspace (or grainland, as it were) delete, delete, delete

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
5/10: This is one of the more identifiable sad human stories (as opposed to the all-out torture tragedy of something like Black Museum) so while it's certainly uncomfortable, it's far from the worst thing that can happen to someone in the Charlie Brooker Universe. 

Quality Scale:
7/10: Even in its lower budgeted first season, The Entire History of You works as a tight, effective hour of television. 

Enjoyment Scale:
6/10: Another episode that suffered a bit on rewatch, offering little extra insight the second time around (and, in fairness to it, after 20+ other episodes that explore similar territory).

Up Next (Month): From domestic drama to space opera, we're boarding the USS Callister!

Monday, May 2, 2022

Poor Unfortunate Souls

Ahoy mateys! 

That's it. That's the intro. Let's set sail. 

Quick Plot: Meet Molly, a troubled soul with very complicated theories about what it means to be a great man. When not working as a cocktail waitress at her boyfriend's dive bar, she spends most of her free time babysitting her adoring nephews and regaling them with stories about the wonderful legend that was her late sea captain father. 

The fact that Cathy, Molly's sister, has no such memories tells you a lot about Molly's state of mind. It's immediately clear that Molly has done some serious disassociation, rewriting her childhood to turn her abusive dad into a hero. She does the same with celebrities who run in her social circle. Football players and television actors represent a very specific brand of masculinity that she craves, and, we soon learn, will take very dramatic steps to own. 

The Witch Who Came From the Sea is a strange, haunting little sea yarn that I 100% bought hook, line, and sinker (and yes, I'm attempting to make some kind of nautical joke so lob your fresh tomatoes my way and I'll make you a spicy shrimp scampi). Screenwriter Robert Thom (of Death Race 2000 fame) apparently penned it for his wife, lead Millie Perkins, and she brings such a weird, twisted energy to Molly that it all kind of makes sense in its own alien way. It's even more interesting a film when you dig through director Matt Cimber's career.

Cimber worked in the theater world for some time before pivoting to B-movies, among them several blaxsploitation flicks and the Pia Zadora punchline Butterfly. More importantly, he spent a good chunk of the '80s creating something near and dear to my childhood: GLOW.  

And yes, by some light internet research, it does indeed seem like he may have been the basis for Marc Maron's character in the Netflix show. 

Like GLOW, The Witch Who Came From the Sea is a complicated beast when it comes to understanding exactly what it's saying about or doing for the female sex. Molly is a fascinating, complicated woman both ahead of and behind her time. She craves the attention of men (and very traditionally "masculine" ones at that) but also has a commendable forwardness in how she goes after what she wants. The Witch Who Came From the Sea feels its 1976ness deeply in the best of ways. 

And not just the fashion. 

Even after decades of devouring horror, it still amazes me in the best of ways how much a low budget, rarely discussed little movie once banned as a video nasty can accomplish so much thoughtful exploration of something so deep. What a world indeed. 

High Points
Perkins is by far the beating pulse of this film, but I'll also throw a nod to cinematographer Dean Cundey (you just might have heard of him if you've ever watched a movie), whose early work here helps nail that dreamy tone

Low Points
Look, Molly's childhood abuse is a huge part of the film, but I can't imagine there weren't better ways to express that than showing such a grisly reenactment 

Lessons Learned
A sailor might curse, but a captain keeps his mouth clean

Only hippies wear glasses

Good men don't have tattoos

The Witch Who Came From the Sea is a strange, special little oddity that's well worth your eyeballs. Find it streaming on Shudder. 

Monday, April 25, 2022

The (Panda) Tribe Has Spoken

I'm a bit of a softie for any form of game show horror, particularly the reality-themed. Maybe it's my competitive nature. It's one thing to fight for your life, but it's soooooo much better when you have to ALSO fight others.

Quick Plot: Welcome to Furca's House of Fun, a Big Brother-ish live stream filled with 8 attractive millennial D-list celebrities (including one played by Culture Shock director Gigi Saul Guerrero). Their skills range from chess to MMA, with a whole lot of reality TV and social media filtering experience in between. Every few days, one contestant will be eliminated based on popular vote, with the last one winning a $5 million cash prize.

Sounds easy enough, but as you just might guess, Funhouse has a few deadly tricks up its sleeve. Our computer generated panda bear cartoon host might seem cute and cuddly at first, but before you can throw in a convoluted product placement, the real stakes are revealed. 

Yes, it's a murder game, because how can a modern horror movie starring hot people with dubious pasts NOT be a murder game? And you know what: it's kind of a delight.

Written and directed by Jason William Lee, Funhouse is, you know, FUN. It takes just enough time introducing its setup to get us fully ready for the fireworks, and once they start blasting, the movie creates a shockingly human center to hold it up. 

We're so used to our physically perfect, morally gross young horror casts to be empty fodder, and when you throw in a reality competition plot point, it's truly a given. What makes Funhouse such a smart little watch is how it slyly flips that expectation on its hashtagged head. Each individual is introduced with an emoji-filled montage highlighting their less than respectable fame, and early conflicts lead us to expect a whole lot of shouting, with the big reveal being that the REAL monster is their own inability to work together. We've seen it done time and time again.

And that's the beauty of Funhouse. Just as quickly as we roll our eyes over a Bachelorette's failed love stories, we find ourselves incredibly invested in her survival. Lee understands that giving his characters just enough room to react to their circumstances and interact with each other goes a very long way in opening them up to the audience. 

It certainly helps that the cast is so solid. Everyone manages to craft both sides of their character: the annoyingly hamming wannabe star AND the vulnerable human in way over his or her head realizing that death is just a few clicks away. The setting fits the aesthetic you've come to expect from this kind of programming: monochromatic confessional rooms, steaming hot tubs, and an endless well of top shelf liquor. And all it takes is the first elimination round to reveal the utter emptiness of their prison. 

High Points
It's a tricky job to play reality fame vampires who earn audience sympathy, but enough good things can't be said about the cast. Everyone finds the right beats, but it's Christopher Gerard as Headstone who really shines, giving us both the short temper tantrums that would make good TV and shockingly raw moments that show his humanity

Low Points
I suppose our main villain is supposed to be pretty insufferable, but a good deal of his 'let me explain what this all means' monologues feel a bit more on the nose than needed

Lessons Learned
There's a big difference between drugging yourself and being drugged

Even the internet can get bored with boobs

If you don't trust your agent, then it's really your responsibility to read the very fine print

I had an absolute blast with Funhouse. It's streaming on Hulu and well worth your eyeballs, particularly if they've consumed their share of reality competitions. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Hell Is Other People (& a Cold Rest Stop)

It's 2022, which means most of our pop culture advertisements come by way of the internet. And yet, today's film, airing exclusively on Hulu, showed up as a trailer...on television. 

Seriously, I just want to acknowledge how strange it is to see an advertisement for one medium on a competing one. It's like when you watch a DVD that opens with an advertisement for the power of Blu Rays (I know, I know: who watches DVDs anymore, you kids scoff).

We're living in strange, strange times.

Quick Plot: Darby is in rehab (again) when she gets a call that her mother is in the hospital with a life-threatening aneurysm. She wastes no time sneaking out, but a heavy blizzard derails her travels and lands her in a visitor's center-turned-makeshift shelter with a batch of four other strangers...including one who has a young woman tied up in his or her van.

What follows is a sort of Hitchcock-lite thriller as tensions rise and cell phone bars fall. There are a few decent reveals and surprises along the 90-minute way so I'll pause on any more story details. We're not really talking about rug pull twists, but director Damien Power is keen to create tension by way of what our lead (and by extension, audience) doesn't know. 

It works well enough, though never to particularly outstanding effect. I was invested in Darby's plight. I was into the snow-trapped atmosphere and one-building setting. But overall, No Exit never grabbed me the way I'd hoped. 

High Points
There's probably more setup to Darby's past than a more effectively taut thriller would have needed, but actress Havana Rose Liu provides a strong presence and more importantly, Darby's characterization ends up being one of the reasons we actually care about this wild night. Yes, she's a mess, but in the face of danger, she makes the morally right decision to put her life on the line for a stranger. She proves herself an exceptional person and it means we as the audience have no choice but to root for her

Low Points
It should be a prosecutable crime to put Dale Dickey in your film and not let her do anything cool

Lessons Learned
Play the man, not the hand

Never trust a weird little white guy with a chip on his shoulder

Reno is all the action of Vegas with half the noise

No Exit is what I like to call a "folding laundry movie." Mind you, I don't actually FOLD laundry, but I do occasionally have to sit down and match-make widowed socks, and this would be the kind of film that would serve as a perfectly adequate backdrop. It's...fine. Entertaining but not quite sharp enough to fully hold your attention. Pair it with a mindless activity and bam! You've got yourself a productive Sunday morning. 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Black Mirror Revisit: White Bear

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. We've reached the pewter medal position with my original #4, the fun-for-the-whole-family White Bear!

The Talent:
Charlie Brooker did his usual writing duties, though he apparently had to scramble to revise his script in just two days after other episodes went over budget and he finally saw his shooting location. British television director Carl Tibbetts takes the helm, returning the next season for the equally dark White Christmas. Also on hand is Michael Smiley in a small part, and as anyone who's ever watched a Ben Wheatley film knows, one should never trust Michael Smiley. 

The Setup:
A woman wakes up disheveled, with no memory of who or where she is. She's in a dank suburban neighborhood, surrounded by strangers who keep their distance but record her every move on their cell phones, particularly when masked Purge-like aggressors start chasing her armed with anything from a rifle to electric knife.

Turns out, a mysterious electrical signal has set the world on fire, turning a good chunk of the population into homicidal maniacs. Our unnamed lead quickly teams up with the resourceful Jem (the incredibly British named Tuppence Middleton), a rebel trying to shut down the transmitter in the hopes of restoring sanity to the world. 

The Ending: 
Of course, there's no need to bust down any radio towers because, in one of the more extreme Black Mirror twists, there is no signal: the entire situation we've watched unfold is an elaborate prison sentence for our anonymous protagonist, now revealed to be the most infamous living criminal in England. Victoria Skillane helped her late fiance kidnap and murder a little girl. Every day, she awakens to the same horror show. Citizens get to participate and watch as she runs for her life in a waking nightmare, only to discover (every day!) the horrible crime she committed. Talk about a life sentence.

The Theme:
Fitting to its chaotic nature, White Bear has a few things to shout powerfully but a bit incoherently. It's obviously interested in the public's appetite and how easily it can be steered down the darkest of paths. Victoria's crime is as bad an act as a human being can commit, but her punishment is more about transferring domain over her to those who think they deserve it rather than actually forcing any kind of penance upon the guilty. There's no arc to Victoria's plight: every day, she spends a few hours running for her life in total fear, only to have another hour of being reminded of what she did to merit it. Then it happens again, with her learning nothing.

And yet, the people -- even children -- who show up to The Victoria Skillane Spectacular get their catharsis. They gleefully watch a stranger they think they know be put on an elaborate trial, reveling in her terror, participating wherever they can. They leave remembering everything and feeling better for it. 

It's a horror show not because of what Victoria goes through, but how enthusiastically the volunteers take part. 

The Verdict:
Is White Bear the most thoughtful, mind-opening episode of the Charlie Brooker universe? Of course not. Is it the closest the series comes to an all-out horror movie? Heck yes, and a manic, enjoyable, admittedly derivative one at that. 

Technology Tip:
It's the rare Black Mirror episode where technology plays a surprisingly small part in the conflict, so I'd say the most useful tidbit is surprisingly mechanical: check your weapons. Always, just check your weapons

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
9/10; Yes, Victoria's crimes merit the most severe of human punishments, but BOY does White Bear find a harsh way to make her pay, and by involving the general public, it takes society as a whole down a dark, dark path. 

Quality Scale:
6/10; Look, I kind of love White Bear, but I also can fully concede that this episode does indeed feel like it was written in a rush and filmed on a sale. There's an unrefined quality to it that kind of works for the grittier, visceral horror show it's going for. But, you know, it also isn't necessarily the highest quality 42 minutes of television. 

Enjoyment Scale:
7/10; As anyone who's read my decade-plus years of horror coverage knows, I don't need perfection to be happy. I just want to be entertained, and White Bear accomplishes that. 

Up Next (Month): 
It's horror of a different sort with the terrifying technology presented in The Entire History of You.