Monday, December 29, 2014

Murder, She Snoozed

I’m an easy mark for a lot of horror movies. Anything set during Halloween? Done. Something with cowboys fighting the supernatural? Obviously. Something involving an apocalypse? Duh. On the resume of Clancy Brown? JUST TRY AND STOP ME.

Also inevitable: anything on Netflix Instant that’s expiring. Hence today’s feature, the nondescript, no-longer-streaming The Skeptic.

Quick Plot: Bryan Becket (Tim Daly) is a jerk whose wealthy aunt mysteriously dies in her Victorian estate. Because he hates his now 40 year old wife, likes money, and seems to really enjoy bothering others, Bryan decides to move in to sell off some of his aunt’s heirlooms.

A minor setback rears its head when Bryan grumpily discovers his aunt has bequeathed the home to a psychic research institute. Couple that with insomnia, ghostly voices around the house, and the fact that Tom Arnold is his partner and one can understand why Bryan is such a grouch.

There are also quite a few unanswered questions surrounding his mother’s death, something psychic-in-training Zoe Saldana shows up uninvited to help investigate. Aided by some repressed memories courtesy of shrink Edward Herrmann and clues that include a creepy doll, Bryan slowly comes to terms with his past.

The Skeptic was ultimately released by IFC Films, although it feels like it would have found a much more appropriate audience via Lifetime or CBS. Daly gives a hard-working performance and writer/director Tennyson Bardwell is certainly trying to find a new angle for haunted houses, but the final product just feels rather dull. There's nothing specifically wrong with it: the acting overall is fine, the cinematography looks great, and the dialogue doesn't feel overly forced. There's just nothing specifically interesting when you're actually watching the movie. In six months, I'll have an awfully hard time telling you a single thing about this film. Except maybe that I watched it.


High Points
Surprisingly, there are a few jump scares that are executed far better than one would expect from a pretty mediocre little ghost movie

Low Points
Did I mention this was a pretty mediocre little ghost movie?

Lessons Learned
Turning 40 will make a woman require emotion

Lawyers get off on logic

When someone just dies is not the time to badmouth them

Guys only cry when they go to Cooperstown

Do not mourn the expiration of The Skeptic on Netflix Instant. It is a death that, much like Bryan’s elderly aunt, doesn’t hurt anyone. This is as mediocre a ghost film as they come, although perhaps there’s something about the many television-friendly faces and quiet nature that might appeal to your own elderly aunt. So I suppose skip The Skeptic unless you’re an elderly aunt. Every film is made for someone, right?

Thursday, December 25, 2014


Cheers to you and yours!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Walken On Sunshine

How is it possible that I’ve gone nearly twenty years without seeing a movie that features Viggo Mortenson as the devil?

I disappoint myself.

Quick Plot: Young Thomas (The Other Chris Meloni, aka Elias Koteas) is just a prayer away from becoming an ordained Catholic priest when he's struck with visions of angels battling violently. It's enough to turn him away from the church and right towards the police force, where some time later, he takes on the investigation involving a dead body of true mystery.

The body, you see, has both female and male genitalia, unformed bones akin to that of an aborted fetus, Hebrew tattoos correlating with ancient biblical text, and no eyeballs. The coroner (played by Seinfeld's Bania, sans the Ovaltine) has no explanation, but Thomas can't ignore the evidence that just might suggest there are angels afoot.

Following a lead left in the hermaphrodite angel's apartment (nothing like casual Friday in the '90s), Thomas heads to a small town in Arizona to see what a recently deceased war veteran has to do with the action. Just ahead of him is the angel Simon (Eric Stoltz), who has some soul cup-in-ball action to do with a young Native American girl named Mary.

I haven't even reached the point where Christopher Walken shows up as Gabriel, a war mongering angel with shoe polished jet black hair and a handy human assistant who'd rather be dead (literally: Gabriel grabbed his soul in limbo following a paused suicide). Virginia Madsen joins the action as a friendly if underdressed elementary school teacher and just for good measure, Viggo Mortenson is a smooth-talking Satan with a hunger for rose petals.

I'm not going to lie: saying all of these things about a single movie kind of makes me want to explode.

In a good way.

I've made no secret that after my husband, Viggo Mortenson is tied with Clive Owen and Michael Shannon as 4th Sexiest Man Alive. You would think, perhaps, that Mr. Mortenson threatening to "lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother's feces" would bump him down a spot. You, good reader, know nothing.

Written and directed by Highlander's Gary Widen, The Prophecy is further proof that the 1990s was a strange, strange decade for horror. Like many a Miramax release, this one sat on the shelf for two years before it landed in theaters in 1995, surpassing any expectation by being a sleeper hit. Between Walken's nutty performance and the film's fairly grand premise, I can understand why.

Who DOESN’T want a film where Christopher Walken plays an angry angel who stops to cheekily tell schoolchildren to study math? The same film that has Not Christopher Meloni opening a lockbox to find a whole bunch of tanned human faces piled up like a businessman’s tie collection? Heck, by the time you toss in Amanda Plummer as--HOLD THE PHONE--an unbalanced psychotic, how can you want anything more?

High Points
I don’t know that it all fully comes together (I guess that’s what the bevy of sequels exists for), but it sure is fun to have such a grand, somewhat ridiculous story that makes God rather morally ambiguous happening about a good old fashioned horror movie

Low Points
Even if he IS played by Viggo Mortenson, there is something ultimately a little pushover-ish about Satan, eh?

Lessons Learned
Contrary to popular thought, getting a suicidal limbo-stuck slave to do your bidding is not easy

Like a movie theater and 7/11, Hell is indeed open on Christmas

Arizona teachers shop from the same clothing catalogs as farmers' wives

Freezers are for bodies, not beer

I don’t know what took me so long to finally catch The Prophecy, but I’m pretty darn satisfied that I finally did. The performances are zany fun, the plot is over the top, and the roses are eaten by Viggo Mortenson playing the devil. The film is streaming on Instant along with a few of its sequels, so I think it’s fair to make a prophecy that I will indeed be seeing more Prophecies in my future.

See what I did there?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Scenes From a Marriage

As I said a few years back with the underrated Deadgirl and The Horde, there are, in the 21st century, only two reasons to make a zombie movie:

1. Use the concept of the undead as symbol or means to explore a deeper theme (i.e., male aggression in Deadgirl)
2. Just make a really f*cking good movie (i.e., The Horde)

Ben Wagner's Dead WIthin is an independent horror film in every sense of the definition. To call it a zombie film is actually incredibly misleading, but it does make my point above so we'll go for it anyway.

Quick Plot: A happily married couple with a baby and yellow lab visit their friends in their secluded mountain home. Cut, rather immediately, to some time later when the visiting pair is now alone in the boarded up house, nary a baby bib, dog dish, or pot roast in sight.

Kim and Mike, we learn, have survived what must have been a national, and probably worldwide pandemic. Symptoms are similar to the rage infected victims of 28 Days Later, with mass aggression being the goal. Those who suffer it exhibit black blood and huge dilated pupils. Also, they're dead before the change. 

We don't get a newsreel or montage to explain this, nor do we need one. We piece it together pretty clearly from the completely natural interractions of Kim and Mike, a happy middle class couple whose date nights have become decidedly less sexy. 

Their days are no better. Mike spends most of them foraging the countryside to bring home clean food, batteries, and the occasional slinky gown. Kim is therefore left alone to clean, paint, mourn, and wonder what goes on outside in the sunny landscape surroundings.

Dead Within credits its lead actors along with Wagner and Matthew Bradford for the screenplay, and it's safe to assume much of their dialogue was improvised. This can often be a blessing or curse, but it works superbly here. Mike and Kim aren't the most engaging or clever pair of characters to be centered in a film, but they're completely believable. The conversations they have--and tellingly, the ones they don't--are exactly what you would expect to hear from a married couple whose only company for a half a year has been each other.

This is, at least to me, a genuinely scary and expertly crafted film. Wagner doesn't shove the plague in our faces. Instead, it serves more as a background fact that's for a while less scary than the human horror of being confined to your own thoughts day in and out. As a result, when the virus begins to play a stronger part, it's somehow even more horrifying to witness. Wagner wisely keeps the menace just outside the characters' (and our) walls for so long that the screams and scratches builds so much of the tension.

There's also the growing stress of Kim, strongly played by Amy Cale Peterson. Is she going insane with cabin fever or could Mike really be plotting something on his daily voyages? Credit goes to both Peterson, actor Dean Chekvala, and Wagner for just how effective the uncertainly proves to be. It's rare that I watch a movie and have absolutely zero idea where it's going, and yet I could not decide who to trust or fear. The movie is probably being sold as "wife goes crazy!" but it's far more complicated than that. We stay with Kim the whole film and as a result, we fully identify with her fears and doubts. Yes, there’s clear paranoia at play, but Dead Within handles it so carefully that our own trust in our senses is completely awash.

High Points
Between both its musical score and the specific noises used for its monsters, Dead Within has one of the best sound designs I've ever heard on a low budget horror film

Low Points
Considering most of the action is strategically confined to the cabin, it was a tad frustrating to not have a completely clear understanding of the house's geography

Lessons Learned
One could easily make an apocalyptic cookbook culled from cuisine featured in the film. Meals served that shouldn't be appetizing, but somehow made me hungry included canned peaches seasoned with nutmeg and the crunchy joys of uncooked lasagna noodles coated in Crisco

I loved this movie. Watching it so closely after the equally great, yet very different 13 Sins helped to give me yet another surge of optimism about the state of modern horror. Dead Within isn't perfect, but it's filmed, scripted, acted, and scored so darn well that it should serve as a prime example of how to make a genre film on a limited budget. The movie is so smart in how it establishes its universe and dangers and perhaps more importantly, knows how to build and time them in such a way that they're genuinely scary. I jumped more than once watching Dead Within (and full confession, said jumping was done a crowded bus commute in the Bronx). This is a strong little movie that knows how to use its resources to maximum effect. Well done, kids.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Somebody Got Married

And it was me!

You probably already knew that, but if you want some of the juicier details, then don your finest fringed tuxedo and best pair of literal kitten heels to wander on over to this installment of Offbeat Bridewhere you can read and see all the highlights from the big day.

Our non-puppet heads are even there, I promise!

Monday, December 8, 2014

I'm Going Out of My Mine

The Pretty Young People Go Into the Woods And Die Horribly subgenre is not a small field, especially on Netflix Instant. Like most of its peers, Mine Games sports an attractive cast, 90 minute runtime, and uninspiring poster. Thankfully, it also has a little more storyline (review spoiler alert: perhaps too much storyline) and an admirable sense of ambition. 

It’s almost adorable.

Quick Plot: A group of attractive recent college graduates embark on a road trip to spend a few days at their friend's secluded cabin mansion in the woods. Attractive young people include the following:

Lyla, the sensible brunette played by Step Up and a whole lot of horror movies' Brianna Evigan
(No, this isn't from Mine Games, but don't you wish it was?)
Mike, her schizophrenic boyfriend who doesn't like to talk about being a schizophrenic boyfriend

TJ, the jock

Lex, his British and obnoxious cousin

Claire, the blonde

Rose, the medium (every group of attractive friends has one)

and Guy, the other guy

En route, driver Mike swerves to not kill a man flagging them down for help but drives on without helping said flagger. Shortly after, the car breaks down just a few miles from the group's destination. They walk on (passing mysterious Northern Lights along the way)  to find their pal's house empty but welcoming, with a note and plenty of cocktail glasses of all sizes and shapes to ensure a good party no matter what your drink of choice might be.

The next day, TJ discovers an abandoned mine that obviously equals THE best place to take psychedelic mushrooms. Rose senses some evil presence is afoot, especially after something seemingly evil grabs her foot. 

See what I did there?

Things get progressively weirder from that point on. It's interesting because with its pretty cast and out-in-the-woods premise, it would have been fairly simple to keep Mine Games (also known  under the cheesier title The Evil Within) in the realms of the easy slasher. Director Richard Gray, working with a whole lot of writers (probably too many writers), instead makes a rather complicated little horror film that leans more towards Triangle than The Evil Dead.

It's a mixed blessing.

Mine Games ultimately has far more ambition than air-tight quality, but that's not to say it isn't an enjoyable watch. The script gets quite tricky once its third act revs up, and while it's admirably suspenseful and occasionally disturbing, I don't think it actually comes together fully. In some ways, that's absolutely fine. I don't mind a film that keeps me guessing. I just usually like to know that I might eventually stumble upon the right answer.

High Points
It doesn’t all work, but come on: I’ll take a horror movie that goes for a complicated plot twist involving worm holes over yet another found footage slasher any day

Low Points
I can't imagine anyone in the mental health field is happy about how horror films have taken to blaming schizophrenia for all the horrors of the world

I might be in the minority here, but is it crazy to want to be able to see a movie? I get that we're in a mine and overhead lighting doesn't come for free, but you know...cinema is a fairly visual medium and stuff.

Lessons Learned
Splitting up is the number one way to get pack raped

In the words of George Bluth Sr., THAT'S WHY YOU LEAVE A NOTE.

In the amended lesson from this film, THAT'S WHY YOU SIGN YOUR NOTE.

For a straight to Instant Watch horror film, Mine Games is better, or at least more interesting than average. Like a lot of time travel-based films, it falls apart with too much analysis. If you can suspend logic, Mine Games makes for a pretty fun, surprising, and even occasionally scary little viewing. One could do far worse with original horror in the 21st century.