Monday, June 24, 2013

All Ya Need Is the '80s

Ah, the 1980s era slasher. A time when going to college meant surrendering yourself to the queen bee sorority head, being pretty came with your very own stalker, and amnesia was as ubiquitous as the iPhone.

Quick Plot: Kelly Fairchild (Princess Vespa herself, Daphne Zuniga) is a wealthy freshman tormented by a recurring nightmare and the process of pledging the typical rich bitch sorority inherent in any college-set slasher of the 1980s. A few extra credit sessions with a handsome psychology professor and his awesomely nerdy assistant help to establish that Kelly’s ‘dreams’ are most likely buried memories long covered by amnesia. 

Did I mention the awesomely nerdy assistant?

A quickie side note gives us a wacky insane asylum (as opposed to the un-wacky ones generally found in this genre) where a rachet-y nurse is brutally murdered by a batch of escaped inmates welding a small garden hoe to far better effect than anything done in Santa Claws. More garden hoe homicides lead back into Kelly’s town just in time for the grand climax that conveniently involves freshmen pledges and their beaus spending the night inside a shopping mall.

Let’s make a checklist:
-foggy dream sequence

-lots of cuts to creepy dolls
-mental institution

-shopping mall
-Clu Gulager

-more cuts to creepy dolls
-sorority hazing

Yes folks, this is an ‘80s slasher complete with a gloriously nonsensical twist ending that succeeds at shocking then can’t be bothered to explain itself. Along the way, there’s a strategically placed Tom Selleck Tiger Beat poster, a frat boy bravely sporting shorts far shorter than any of coed's, and a heartfelt confession from the token 'virgin' about how she was sexually abused by her music teacher when she was 12. Naturally, said moment of drama is followed by our plucky supporting character sleeping with the movie's token joke guy, thus surrendering her chances of surviving to the final reel.

In other words, we've got everything we need right here.

High Points
While none of the characters are breaking any new ground, Zuniga and pals are genuinely likable, making us care a little more than we typically would for such a fluffy slasher

Low Points
An ending as wacky as The Initiation’s deserves a proper denouement, sadly lacking here

Lessons Learned
If a woman is turned on in bed, she's insincere

The suppressed desires of your average college student circa 1984 include ballerinas, cowboys, showgirls, construction workers, surgeons, penises, KISS, and mimes

Like beheadings, scenes involving hypnosis are always funny

Look! It’s...
Soap opera queen Hunter Tylo sporting a different screen name (Deborah Morehart) and blond bob as a nymphomaniac pledge who hates bras and loves roller skates

As a breezy Netflix Instant Watch, The Initiation is a goofy good time. The cast is attractive and sometimes naked, the kills are rote but done with some care, and the story packs enough moments of silliness that you can't help but smile. This isn't a classic of its time or even a piece of cheese with, say, Chopping Mall qualities, but when you're looking for a fun scoop of fluff, it works.

Monday, June 17, 2013

If you watch only one movie about a magical teddy bear shrinking a boy so he can travel through his grandpa's innards, let it be this

Netflix's April Fool's Day joke speaks for itself, but the fact that this is an actual movie speaks for humanity:

I don't quite know where to begin when discussing a movie entitled Chasing the Kidney Stone. Do I start with the anamorphic teddy bear that speaks with a Woody Allen-esque delivery and seems violently possessive of his boy owner? The fact that a kids film opens with an extended sexy jazz number set in a smoky blue nightclub? That the 10-year-old main character seems to have a crush on a photograph of his dead grandmother?

Like a Terry Gilliam telling of The Magic Schoolbus, Chasing the Kidney Stone (aka Body Troopers) is indeed a sight to behold.

Quick Plot: As you would expect in any typical live action children's film, Chasing the Kidney Stone follows Simon, a bland 10-ish year old with a magical non-dirty talking teddy bear that uses a chemistry set to shrink him to cellular size for insertion into his sick grandfather's throat. Once inside, Simon proceeds to travel through his beloved pop pop's body, from its sassy taste buds to its no-nonsense gallbladder. 

Along the way, Simon befriends Mapster, a feisty white blood cell with a backpfeifengesicht face, and Alveole, a soft-spoken lung cell sporting Lazy Town-style hair. Together, the trio befriends the out-of-work A.Pendix, has a heart-to-heart (literally) with a Tim Burton styled orchestra, and battles the mighty ‘50s sci-fi villain Halitosis via the power of flamenco dancing.

No, seriously. All of these things happen.

It’s far better than it sounds.

Chasing the Kidney Stone is a typical European children’s film, meaning it’s visually ambitious and kind of insane. You almost wonder if the entire production was commissioned by some kind of experimental private elementary school that thought the best way to spur a fourth-grade interest in biology would be via an expensive fantasy film. If only the world were that wonderful.

Dubbed with a better-than-average English track, this is one of those strange, strange tales that ends up being far more entertaining than any pseudo-educational-slightly-gross film should be. The science doesn't quite line up with any fifth grader's textbook, but there's a strong, nerdy attempt to make knowledge something sort of groovy. It's both admirable AND entertaining, and really, is there anything better?

Right. Passing a kidney stone and the glorious urination that comes with it. I suppose that's pretty damn good. 

High Points
The production and costume designs really are something to see, from the fairies-meet-Borg taste buds rising from the floor to the envious sight of a Bob Fett-like Halitosis surfing down the digestive tract on a peanut half. It’s like Julie Taymor got trapped in a doctor’s office and had to fantasize herself some sort of narrative.

Low Points
I don’t necessarily think that a lung cell is supposed to travel all the way down to the urinary tract, or that a kidney stone is a byproduct of having a broken heart. So while I never was one for acing science class, something tells me that some of the facts might be a little skewed for the purposes of entertainment

Lessons Learned
Kidney stones are quite agile

Crying is for losers

People always underestimate what a teddy bear can do

Most teddy bears fantasize about being born in Ohio

The Winning Line
"The day that I need to get a blood test, I'm going with you."
And that, ladies, is how you know he loves you.

Chasing the Kidney Stone recently expired on Instant Watch, but praying to the gods of the Internet/overly obsessive talking teddy bears with shady moral characters could potentially bring it back. While this is technically aimed at kids, it’s weird enough to charm any cinephile with an appreciation of the bizarre. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Party Favor Mix Bag

As linking stories in a horror anthology go, "clicking on a website to watch short films" has got to be one of the lazier excuses to tie a few segments together. But hey, when one of those segments involves a kid from High School Musical trading in his trademark Justin Guarini perm for a homicidal clown afro, things can't be all bad.

Quick Plot, Web Video #1: In "The Crossing," a pair of crass white power infused rednecks truck it down to the border with a somewhat reluctant gal in tow. The plan? Empty the two Mexican-Americans in their trunk and do bad things, stopping along the way to make (what I assume to be) unrequested free advertising for Beef Links Jerkey, Cheetos, Marlboro cigarettes, Red Bull, and Smuckers Goobers, of which we learn an important trick for getting some extra flavor from moonshine.
Also, there are zombies.

Quick Plot, Web Video #2: Anthologies are generally tricky beasts to summarize, since their short running length almost forces you to say the usually obligatory twist just to crank out a full sentence. Normally, I'd refrain from doing such a thing, but since "Taejung's Lament" is such a dull and pointless yarn, I will SPOIL without too much regret: a sad widower wanders the Korean section of LA, saves a lady of the night from abuse, discovers she's a vampire, and Van Helsing shows up.

I'd like to say I'm kidding. 

I'd like to say nachos grow on trees and subway prices are going down.

I'd like to say a lot of things.

Quick Plot, Web Video #3:Told out of sequence for reasons clear to...someone maybe..., "Re-Membered" follows a hitman attempting to dispose of a few loose ends (I'm here all week! Try the Anne Veal!). It has a few laughs and an engaging performance from lead Christopher Darga, but for its brief running time, "Re-Membered" is surprisingly confusing.

Quick Plot, Web Video #4: Easily Scary or Die's MVP, "Clowned" tells the tale of Emmett, a casual drug dealer with a loyal devotion to his kid brother and the ill luck of being attacked by a rabid party performer. Before you can unsee that topless photo of Vanessa Hudgens, Emmett is turning a cakey shade of white, developing a serious case of Sideshow Bob shoe, and fighting a craving for the sweet taste of children's flesh. It's Metamorphosis with bigger noses, and surprisingly, incredibly enjoyable from its ominous opening to its final comic punch.

Quick Plot, Web Video #5: We're not kidding when we say quick. In 90% less time than it takes to be waiting in line at Marshall's, we learn the story of a young woman whose husband beat her to death, whereupon she remembered the skills of her witch doctor grandfather and came back from the grave for vengeance and to, well obviously, watch a bunch of videos on a website called Frame!

The brainchild of Michael Emmanuel, Scary Or Die falls prey to the typical symptoms that plague anthology films: uneven tones and the token mixed bag of quality. Thankfully, its midsection is genuinely enjoyable, making the slog through the second story (and discomfort of the greasy first) worth it. While there are subtle tie-ins that try to duplicate the skillful interweavings in Trick 'r Treat, Scary Or Die never quite rises to being clever as a whole (especially when one actor shows up in a completely different role in a later segment).
Still, for a new horror anthology to hit Instant Watch and not make me hate the world (cough cough VHS), Scary Or Die is a fun collection well fit for a lazy afternoon.

High Points
There's a reason "Clowned" gets the box cover, and it's just because most people are just, you know, afraid of clowns. While the narration style makes it a little uneven, the blend of comedy ("I can't believe you got bit by a clown") and horror (an eerie dream sequence won't have you taking your little brother for picnics any time soon) is surprisingly well done. This could easily have been expanded into a full-length feature, and it's almost a shame that it's buried here.

As a fully supportive member of the Verbing Nouns Club, I embrace the titling of segment 4 as "Clowned"

Low Points
Was I supposed to laugh out loud at "Taejung's Lament"'s final shot? Also, was I supposed to hate the story?

Lessons Learned
Cheap razors are not the ideal tool for shaving off supernatural clown makeup

Being puked on by your dealer entitles you to one free transaction

When not munching on racists, zombies enjoy killing an hour or so by surfing alternative youtube sites

As a 90 minute Instant Watch, Scary Or Die is quite akin to a bag of Chex Mix. If you can separate and skip the lame circular pretzels (Taejung's Lament) and not pay too much attention to the square ones (The Crossing), there's some mild pleasure to be found in the actual Chex (Re-Membered) and genuine joy in those big 'n spicy bagel chip things (aka Clowned; I guess Lover's Walk is the air inside the bag in this metaphor). Those who like to complain about modern horror will probably find plenty to complain about, but if you're looking for something a little different from the usual slasher fare, this is more than worth a gander.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Take a Dip...If You DARE

As someone whose karaoke repertoire includes a fully accented rendition of Under the Sea, I love me a good water-based monster as much as the next singing crab with a Caribbean accent. That's why I've assembled a hearty gang of bloggers to share their own underwater fears, be they theme park-hating sharks or urine-leaking children.

It’s all part of HeyNOTLP!, a new feature on Night of the Living Podcast’s busy bee blog where once a month, we copy the AV Club format take a horror-themed question and share our answers.  Head here for a salty read and remember to join in the action by tweeting us your own wonders with the hashtag #heyNOTLP.  

Hate reading? Can’t actually read? Have just discovered that you CAN read (since you read this) but don’t like it because you’d rather look at pretty pictures or listen to, well, five people discuss the wonders that is the 2006 slasher comedy Drive-Thru? We’ve all been there, and now you can return by downloading Night of the Living Podcast’s Episode 322, wherein I guest starred to discuss what happens when fast food mascots go bad, Gossip Girl refugees get dead, hobbits get stretched out to star in Citadel, and Irish people attempt to do anything that doesn’t involve Guinness.

Also for your ears: a new episode of The Feminine Critique, wherein my cohostess and I rev up our Game Genies to tackle 1989's Nintendo extravaganza The Wizard and the far more recent, less Clark Bar filled-Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Load up on the vegan meals and go get it!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Don't Tell Mama (What CGI You Saw)

Feral kids and messy crayon drawings, amiright?

Quick Plot: A frantic car radio news report informs us that the financial crisis has led an executive (played by Game of Thrones Jaime Lannister, who shall be known as The Kingslayer until further notice) to shoot his wife. The Kingslayer drives home and grabs his two young daughters, Cathy's Curse-style, for a dangerously speedy drive through snowy terrain. An accident leads them on foot to a mysterious cabin in the woods (waaa-oooooo--oo--oooh), where The Kingslayer tearfully plans on shooting his precious little girls in one of those horrific murder/suicide/family slaughter sprees. Before he can fire, a ghostly figure storms in, saving the day.

Oops. Wrong one.
Nailed it.
Flash forward five years to The Kinglsayer's twin brother (we'll call him Jaime and leave it to our fan fiction minds to wonder if these twins are as close as the Kingsguard member and Cersei) has been searching for his missing nieces while living in a cramped apartment with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica I'm In Everything Chastain), a member of a rock band. We know Annabel is in a rock band because, in addition to her sleeve tattoos and raccoon eyeliner, characters are constantly referring to the fact that she is indeed, and I quote, "in a rock band."

The girls, Victoria and Lilly, are eventually discovered living out a quiet life like Jodie Foster in Nell but with more dirt and less tay in da winds. A psychiatrist with ulterior motives takes charge of their case and places them with Jaime and Annabel in a suburban home. Before you can compare definitions of Insidious to Sinister,  Jaime Lannister is sent to the emergency room while Annabel attempts to fry Spaghettios, bond with two near-feral children, fight off the plot convenience/uptight sister-in-law seeking custody, and defend her new family from a supernatural, supermaternal force the girls affectionately call Mama.

Directed by newcomer Andres Muschietti and produced by genre cinema fairy godfather Guillermo Del Toro, Mama is a good film polluted with some devastating visual choices. The cast is marvelous, from Chastain's sympathetic (at least to me) child-fearing musician (rock band style) to the wonderfully creepy/sweet little actresses cast as the children who should indeed be feared. The nature of the monster has some tragic and genuinely new roots, making the mystery something that's easy to care about.

Then there's the monster itself.

On the Blu Ray extras, one featurette includes an interview with Del Toro describing how they decided on a less-is-more approach with the character of Mama. I'd hate to see the original more-is-more plan.

The concept of Mama is eerily effective: the ghost of a woman suffering post-partem depression in the 19th century trying to make good by adopting a new family? That's great stuff! Having a little girl first describe her appearance with "Daddy, there's a woman outside and she's not touching the floor?" Brilliant! Ultimately showing the ghost as a pixelated J-horror villain who can't move without causing a giant sound cue to menacingly violate us with her presence? Ugh.

Mama is a creepy story. It's got feral children, awkward crayon pictures, things hiding in closets, characters who are virtually blind without easily breakable glasses, quiet-speaking librarians with long braids, and high cliffs with precariously placed branches just waiting to stab jumpers. It's like a perfectly cooked steak that an overanxious chef decided would be improved by adding a bacon-sage-ranch-passionfruit dressing. That's a shame.

High Points
I will never argue with the use of children's crayon drawings to generate creepiness

Low Points
The aforementioned abominable CGI designs aren't the worst put to screen, but the fact that an otherwise atmospheric film relies way too heavily on shoving them in our faces is a tragedy

Lessons Learned
Never trust a moth. When it comes to horror movies, those things never have good intentions

There’s a place for human remains and it’s not on a shelf in a government building

You know it's getting late when the sun is shining brightly through your windows

Mama is a frustrating film. I enjoyed so much about it, which made some of its failings more personal.Still, those who enjoy a good old fashioned ghost story with minor twists will find something of interest here, even if you wish you were occasionally wearing foggy glasses to hide some of what's onscreen. The Blu Ray comes loaded with an impressive batch of special features, including a commentary, the original 3 minute short film, and a making-of documentary that's worth a watch simply to hear a whole lot of grownups say "maMa."