Sunday, December 30, 2012

Just Another 3-Letter Torture Film About Unhappy People

As Halloween bred its share of Intruders and Prowlers and Bloody Valentines, thus has Saw seen its children reproduce their own Hostels into Nine Deads into Hunger and so on. The rule is simple: assemble a group of strangers who are either miserable human beings, miserable in their current life choices, or a glorious combination of both. Have a somewhat less miserable morally compromised (though not in his own eyes) ringmaster assemble them into a dank and abandoned location in the name of teaching a lesson. Brainstorm a few cool ways to kill someone. Keep a cute final girl around until or after the final reel. Apply generic title (bonus points for it having multiple meanings) and BAM.

You will most likely end up on Instant Watch.

I have an odd affinity for these kinds of second generation wannabe Saws. There's something amusing about how obvious the ploy is, yet young filmmakers continue to get plenty of exposure by following these new rules of straight-to-DVD horror. It's the possession movie of the '70s, the slasher of the '80s, and talky serial killer stalking WB stars of the '90s. In twenty years, we may even find it cute.

Until then, we'll take whatever joy we can get. In this case, it's the fact that Casey Jones looks really tired.

Quick Plot: A sextet of unhappy, formerly or currently suicidal strangers awaken in empty cells under the watch of an angry man with bad hair and a gun. A few non-linear segments introduce us to our victims: a grieving mother, gambling addict, disgruntled cop, disturbed billionaire, guilty doctor, and heroin addled prostitute. Our Jigsaw stand-in's plan is simple: one player rolls a die while another is tied down to something ominous with the number rolled determining how extreme their physical test will be. Example: Russian roulette with the number of bullets based on the roll, or a man submerged in water for a matter of die-rolled-determined minutes. 

Sadly none are treated to a complimentary buffet trip or showgirls performance.

Die is not a special movie, although that doesn't make it incompetent. Director Dominic James achieves a very specific (albeit incredibly ugly) color palette and visual style for his film, from the dingy sweatsuits worn by most of the cast to the brown overcast that seems to emit from every light source. Likewise, the performances are all completely believable. While the characters themselves are fairly one-note, the actors are strong enough to leave convincing impressions that all have more layers underneath.

But you know, I--and I'm sure most of you--have also seen this film before. Maybe even seven times before, and one might have even been in 3D. Our creative killer's mission statement is all about rebirth through trial, but what's new about that? Didn't Shawnee Smith do it with a reverse bear trap to spare?

Die has no reverse bear trap, although it does prove that Elias Koteas is growing more and more into the world wearier form of Chris Meloni.

Now I'm sad that Koteas never guest starred on Law & Order: SVU. 

Such a tragedy has already made me forget what Saw ripoff I was talking about here.

I need to drink less. Or learn how to videoshop Elias Koteas into a scene with Chris Meloni.

Look! Something shiny.

High Notes
Die doesn't do enough with it, but I always have to give my respects to a film (particularly a standard genre one) that is smart enough to diversify its cast with a full range of ages

Low Notes
I challenge myself to remember a single detail about this film in 6 months

Lessons Learned
Heroin addiction will in no way deter your ability to learn a second language with impressive speed

Elias Koteas is not Chris Meloni. Or so they say

Sometimes we are more connected to perfect strangers than we think

(or so a gal can dream)

Die is streaming on Netflix Instant which is where it belongs. Like Hunger, this is one of the upper tier Saw descendents, but it's still a mediocre horror film with little specialness about it. Queue it up if you're in the kind of mood for competent, unexceptional horror. If you're like me, that feeling strikes you more often than it probably should. 

The best way to treat such a symptom, by the way, is by watching Law & Order: SVU.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun...& Maybe Worship the Devil

From glaring gender politics to its tragic record of sexual abuse, there are many reasons a perfectly sane person can posit that the world would have been better off without the ascension of Catholicism. Yet for all the Unborn dybbuks or Baptist Last Exorcisms, has there ever really been a better source of inspiration for horror movies?

Though not a typical genre film, 1971's Don't Deliver Us From Evil is blatantly unsettling and infused with the kind of spirit that can only be found in someone raised with a taste for Communion crackers and rosary beads. You know the type.

Quick Plot: Meet Anne and Lore, two best friends forever who giggle their way through Catholic school making fake confessions to priests and naughty unions with Satan. Both come from well-to-do families but are completely bored by the dullness of their lives and rigidity of their religion. When Anne's parents go on vacation and leave her mostly unsupervised for two months, she and Lore gradually begin to experiment deeper and deeper into their dark nature.

40 years before the teenage girls of Megan Is Missing could flirt with serial killers online, a pair of 15 year olds were stuck with the ho-hum prospects of poisoning a servant's prized pet birds (one at a time, to make each kill more painful) or teasing the dim-witted farmhand with the prospect of statutory rape. Once they hold a DIY black mass using pilfered Eucharists, it's only a matter of time before Anne and Lore cross the point of no return to their innocence.

Directed by Joel Seria, Don't Deliver Us From Evil was inspired by the infamous New Zealand Parker-Hulme murder, the same basis for Peter Jackson's more famous, yet equally unnerving Heavenly Creatures. Both films share an uncanny ability at capturing the thrills and dangers of female friendship at that vital age of need. Anne and Lore are not necessarily bad girls and on their own, they would probably never come close to committing some of their more nefarious acts. But when you put them together, it becomes all too easy for the scandal-seeking Anne to raise hell, especially when the shyer Lore offers nothing but unadulterated support.

With a title like Don't Deliver Us From Evil, you're probably expecting an exploitation-heavy romp into Catholic school girls gone wrong. But Seria's film is far closer in tone to the theater of the absurd from Jean Genet than anything generally found on a Mill Creek pack. This is far less a horror film than a pre-youth-gone-wild tale from a female point of view. Without its shocking climax, flirty title, and sexual freedom, I almost wonder if it would have a far more respectable reputation.

But make no mistake: this is a disturbing film in both its content and execution. Seria riddles his soundtrack with long stretches of angry organ music accompanied by the devilish high pitched giggles of his ill-meaning characters. Anne and Lore are capable of very bad things, more so because they’re too young to understand that they ARE too young. Flashing your buttcheek to the sexually frustrated cowherd might be a game to you, but the sexually frustrated cowherd ain’t playing by your rules.

High Points

The whole of Don't Deliver Us From Evil is quite well-acted, but it's definitely Jeanne Goupil's Anne who takes the show. In her early 20s during filming, Goupil displays a complicated balance of innocence and danger yet never betrays her actual age. Catherine Wagener is also quite good at portraying the quieter Lore, but with her dark features and inner command, it's hard to take your eyes off of Goupil

Holy finale Batman!

Low Points

I suppose one can only watch a girl playfully tease a man only to be shocked by his lechery so many times before it gets a tad old

Lessons Learned

Dim-witted cowherds and easily manipulated servants are not the best babysitters for your wayward teen daughter

You shouldn’t watch people pee

If every man you sexually tease proceeds to try to rape you, perhaps you should stop sexually teasing men


Don't Deliver Us From Evil was released by Mondo Macabre with a nice set of special features, making it more than worth a physical rental and possible buy. This isn't a light-hearted romp in exploitation, but I think its odd tone and undeniable quality lend it to rewatches. This film stuck with me long after I placed it back into its Netflix sleeve, and the more I think about how it created such a unique but sympathetic portrait of these girls, the more eager I am to revisit their tale.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Xmas!

/Life Day/Belated Hanukah/Eventual Kwanza/ Future Little/Russian Christmas/Festivus/Survival of the Mayan Apocalypse/Boxing Day/Patrick Swayze Christmas

Whatever it means to you, I'm off today and my apartment smells like pine cones. So let's take a cue from Mr. Sims and party like it's 1984! 

Tis the season to be jolly and joyous, after all.

Friday, December 21, 2012

DJ Tanner In Your Stocking: Moonlight & MIstletoe

Let's start by examining the box cover to Moonlight and Mistletoe:

Based on the framing, what might you think this film is about? A mismatched love triangle where Tom Arnold fights for Candace Cameron-Burke's heart, battling her blandly handsome hug partner? I'm an avowed hater of the floating head poster, but seeing the full bodies awkwardly photoshopped in positions that don't make any sense isn't THAT much better.

But relax, my little reindeer, for Moonlight and Mistletoe does not ask you to imagine Roseanne's ex-husband pursuing a bleach blond D.J. Tanner. Though you might not guess it from the bizarre cover, Cameron-Burke plays--hold your breath--a no-nonsense business woman who HATES Christmas (shocked gasp) because DAD Tom Arnold has spent his whole life playing Santa Claus.

By whole life, I REALLY mean whole life. Arnold runs one of those creepy year-round Santalands where IT'S ALWAYS CHRISTMAS! While this sounds like a charming idea to some, I've personally always thought such a business to be incredibly off-putting in a Twilight Zone manner. The people inside Snowglobe? Not. Healthy. Then again, I also work an actual job so perhaps it's just that I need a handsome man, fading C-list celebrity, montage, and a few commercial breaks to teach me the true meaning of the holiday.

Quick Plot: All her life, young Holly has had to work as Santa's head elf--not daughter--prompting an eventual move to Boston where the grown up and severely arched eyebrowed young woman acts as any single career gal by speaking on her blue tooth and eating Chinese takeout with chopsticks.

They're all the same.

Now that it's the holly-days, Holly heads home to the country to visit Dad--I mean, Santa--and his new head elf/wood carving assistant Peter. We first met Peter in the prologue where his family made a pit stop at the winter village and he had a two minute conversation with the fellow tween Holly about nutcrackers. Now grown up and handsome by bland family channel standards, Peter has spent the rest of his life carving said nutcrackers because he was always charmed by that elf he met and eventually decided to hunt down her father and work for him for free.

Nope. Nothing weird about that at all.

Being home for the holidays, in case you don't know, is REALLY hard for a career woman like Holly. There's the uncomfortable meetups with old high school frenemies, something Holly thwarts by asking said local if her high school sweetheart's husband still has acne (apparently they don't teach manners at business school). Frenemy's payback is to set Holly up with a handsome, dark-haired fellow city boy (cue ominous music) who works as a financial analyst (cue mustache twirl) and most nefarious of all, is quite eager to help Santa Arnold out with some new financial woes (might as well cut to lair filled with dead orphans stuffed inside dead puppies).

See, Santa doesn't exactly make big bucks, especially when he's played by Tom Arnold as a borderline mentally challenged doofus. Arnold has been ignoring the pile of bank bills, saving them as a Christmas present for his dear daugh--er, elf to deal with. Turns out, the village needs to make $50,000 by New Year's Eve to stay in business, otherwise--with the 'help' of the Evil Financial Analyst--the property goes to cruel land developers who hate Christmas and Deserve To Die.

I mean, they don't SAY that but as an informed audience member, you know the truth.

Also, Holly teaches her pops what a blog is and yes, the results are as obnoxious as you imagine. 

Lessons Learned
Never trust a man who opens his presents on Christmas Eve. It's like the Holiday In Handcuffs equivalent of twisting your Oreos!

Sorry doesn’t feed the cat

50 grand is a lot of money, so much in fact that it will make Candace Cameron-Burke's voice SOUND REALLY ANNOYING

Montage Mania
You can't make $50,000 in one month without one!

Stocking Stuffer or Stuffed With Coal?
You need a lot of eggnog to survive Moonlight and Mistletoe. That or a weird attraction to Tom Arnold. I’m not judging or anything (past crushes include Rick Moranis and Jon Lovtiz) but you know...I’m just SAYING it’s not a good movie. 

And crushing on TA is weird.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Poop In Your Stocking: The Dog Who Saved the Holidays

When I learned that someone had essentially done a remake of Home Alone with an adorable yellow lab cast in the role previously played by the adorable blond Macauly Culkin, I ran to Netflix faster than a Greyhound at the racetrack. Searching for The Dog Who Saved Christmas led me instead to what I assumed to be its alternate title, The Dog Who Saved the Holidays. Imagine my confusion when upon popping in the DVD I was greeted with a trailer for The Dog Who Saved Christmas (starring Mario Lopez as the voice of the title character), only to wonder why a movie is advertising the very movie you're about to watch. But see, THAT trailer was followed by one for The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation, now with Paris Hilton paycheck grubbing along to voice a poodle. Finally, the DVD menu showed me the title of the movie I was about to watch, "The Dog Who Saved the Holidays."

So to recap, this is a film franchise that goes as follows:

The Dog Who Saved Christmas

The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation

The Dog Who Saved the Holidays

Maybe they feared that calling this one The Dog Who Saved Christmas Again would scare off those who never watch a sequel without seeing its source? Or maybe they wanted to be more inclusive? There is indeed ONE mention of Hanuka in this movie, although it's basically thrown in when a bratty child complains about going to church and his dad (played by Kevin James' older brother, proving here that things can always get worse) says something to the effect of "Be Jewish and you can celebrate Hanuka."

Note: the dog (now voiced by Joey Lawrence, presumably because Mario Lopez got too expensive) does not seem to give a sh*t about Hanuka. I declare false advertising.

Quick Plot: Zeus is an extremely talented Labrador living with the terrible horrible no good very bad Bannister family. Dad George (Kevin James' aforementioned brother) is a terrible human being with little manners and two nasty, whiny, ungrateful and disloyal children. Mom Elisa Donovan (whose resume post-Clueless is about 85% these types of Christmas movies, making her the Lance Henrikson of the genre) is okay enough, save for the fact that she's pregnant which means this terrible horrible no good very bad family is getting bigger. Which is terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad.

The Bannisters are heading to Malibu for Christma--er, I mean THE HOLIDAYS where they'll be staying with Babs, George's wealthy sister played by a sad Hostess snowball that tragically ate Shelley Long. 

Co-PRODUCER Shelley Long.

For THE HOLIDAYS, Babs bestows upon this unworthy family an adorable puppy who, as fate turns out, is about as big an a$$hole as the family she joins. Really the only likable characters in this movie are Zeus and Michael Gross as Babs' neighbor, mostly because his role lets us realize that Michael Gross is on the same sacrifice-a-virgin diet plan as Vanna White.

Conflict arises in two places: Zeus' challenge adjusting to his bitch of a little sister (literally) and a pair of thieves who must steal Babs' diamond-encrusted star (not a vaginal reference) in order to pay back their mob loan shark. Played by the once mighty Dean Cain and the always farting Joey Diaz, the duo tries in vain to channel the way superior Wet Bandits. It's not pretty for any of us.

Nothing about this movie is pretty. We're about 10 minutes in when Kevin James' brother prances around his bedroom wearing a color-matched satin pajama suit, all the while begging his pregnant wife for a massage. Yes director Michael Feifer, THAT'S what the ladies want to see in their children's films. Because he is overweight, Kevin James' brother's character constantly farts, as does the OTHER overweight character, and a llama. You think I'm kidding, but were I to track it, I'd say a good 37% of The Dog Who Saved the Holiday's dialogue is just farts.

One of which is Kevin James' older brother

Things are no better in the non-fart filled scenes. Take, for example, a simple conversation between Elisa Donovan and The Sad Hostess Snowball That Ate Shelley Long. For some reason, Feifer chooses to shoot it in extreme closeup, meaning we're off-centeredly shoved in the faces of these two unknowing actresses. This is sad for the otherwise attractive Donovan and truly tragic for the hasn't-aged-great Long, especially since the EXTREME CLOSEUP forces us to stare down some of her otherwise unnoticeable blemishes. Look: I get pimples too, but that doesn't mean a camera is supposed to focus on them.

Sadly the big Home Alone-ish finale doesn't make anything better. After two films of outwitting the bad guys, I expected great things from the Kevin McAllister mind of Zeus. All he actually has to do to thwart Dead Cain and his farting assistant is throw tennis balls down the stairs, fake rabies, and dial 9-11 with his (admittedly adorable) paw. We don't even get a good groin injury!

The Dog Who Saved the Holidays is a rather dreadful little film, mostly because it expects us to care about a group of disgusting human beings and their mean-spirited puppy. Yes, you read that right: I didn't even like the puppy in this film, and she was adorable. That's a problem.

Sass Factor
An angry black car rental employee serves it up well to the terrible human beings who attempt to bribe her into a reservation. Note that the actress Shirell Ferguson-Coleman also stopped by Feifer's A Christmas Wedding Tail to give Kelly Taylor a touch of urban sass

Lessons Learned
A girl shouldn’t have to ask for a man to lick her face

Just because it’s the 21st century is no reason for today’s youth to not say ‘radical’

Cujo is a good movie

Holiday saving boy dogs do not have genitalia

Token Slapstick Alert

Montage Mania
Almost as many montages as there are farts! We get a slow motion dramatic recap of the Bannister family unwrapping presents and singing carols, a token decorate-the-house montage, and what I imagine must be clips from the first two movies as Zeus remembers being adopted by the terrible horrible no good very bad Bannisters

Stocking Stuffer or Coal In Your Stocking?
As I sit here thinking about how much I hated everything about this movie save for the dog, I realize how unhealthy a person I've become because damnit, I know I'm still going to seek out The Dog Who Saved Christmas AND The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation. So what does that say about me? I guess that I deserve coal and dog poop in my stocking. But dear readers, please love yourself more and demand better from your canine holiday cinema. The world should not follow my example.