Monday, August 28, 2017

A Priest's Tale

Did you like A Knight's Tale? Like, did you LOVE A Knight's Tale and think, in your wildest fantasies, that most of the cast and crew should reassemble for another movie, only this time, it should be a super serious Catholic-themed thriller with terrible CGI?

Boy is it your lucky day!

Quick Plot: Alex (William Thatcher, I mean, Heath Ledger) is a sad priest, possibly because he's forced to be celibate but is also Heath Ledger and therefore one of the most handsome men in the world who should be able to have sex with anyone in the world. When Father Dominic, his mentor, commits suicide, Alex is sent to Rome as one of the last of the Carolingians, an order (or, excuse me, THE Order) specializing in demons and the supernatural. 

Alex is joined by his fellow Carolingian/squire, Thomas (a pre-Robert Baratheon Mark Addy) and Mara (Shannyn Sossamon), a woman Alex once successfully performed an exorcism on. Mara has spent the last few years recovering in a mental asylum, but that's done nothing to dampen her good looks or artistic ability. Also involved in Alex's case is a cardinal named Driscoll, who just so happens to be next in line to be pope.

So what exactly is a ridiculously handsome and moody priest looking for? Why, a SIN EATER, of course.

Yes, I said "sin eater," and you should get used to it because a LOT of people in this movie say "sin eater" and it never quite sounds right, no matter how seriously they say the words "sin eater."

A sin eater (not gonna stop) is a man/demon who can relieve someone on their deathbed of their evils (or, you know, EAT THEIR SINS), thereby granting a non-worthy heretic a bypass into heaven. Because of his handiness with the supernatural and presumed ridiculous good looks, Ledger's Alex essentially becomes headhunted to take over the position (that of sin eater). 

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (yes, the guy who did A Knight's Tale), The Order is a movie in desperate need of a sense of humor. Casting one of Hollywood's leading heartthrobs only to saddle him with a priest's collar and moodiness that makes Jon Snow look like a party boy isn't the best place to start, and the "are they serious about this?" levels of CGI incompetence doesn't help. 

Things do admittedly perk up int he film's final act, with the introduction of an underground zany devil's playground and unleashed Peter Weller. It's unfortunately too little, too late to make The Order any kind of real fun, but it does justify having the film on in the background while you fold laundry or eat cheese or stream A Knight's Tale on another device. 

High Points
It's completely unreasonable, but I'm giving this movie 9000 bonus points for casting John Karlsen in the role of "Eden's Manservant". Karlsen, you see, plays the king in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure but more excitingly, plays Blossum, the manservant to Phinneas T. Prune in the best/worst Christmas movie ever made (and now featured, finally, on Mystery Science Theater 3000), The Christmas That Almost Wasn't. 

Low Points
I forgive the octopi-like CGI because it at least adds some laughs to the otherwise extremely blah pace, so my low point? the otherwise blah pace

But I mean, that CGI...

Lessons Learned
Being in a mental asylum should never hold your eyebrow grooming back

Only doctors can identify if something is a birthmark

Never drink wine with Caravaggio

I watched The Order via HBO Go, but it really feels like the kind of flick best viewed with commercials on TNT. It's not good, but I guess it's somewhat different from what you might expect of the time. And you know, if A Knight's Tale is your jam, I would guess this was made to be your peanut butter, only without a Queen soundtrack holding it all together. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Perkins' Dozen

Quick Plot: In 1999, fourteen children were abducted in the town of Stone Cove (and yes, you will constantly hear "Stone Cold" in your head and everything is better that way).

Ten years later, the town has mostly moved on from the tragedy, with only policeman/grieving father Dwayne Hopper still trying to solve the case. While this has done little help his marriage to the unhappy Janine or parenting of the teen rebel Daisy, it looks like on a fateful night exactly a decade after the disappearance of his son, Dwayne may have met the man responsible for his pain.

While covering the overnight shift at the local holding cell, Dwayne catches the eye of a mysterious prisoner named Ronald Perkins. Something is off about the self-identified pharmacist. Is it that Dwayne has never met him, despite them both being lifers in such a small town? That much like the man who took his son, Perkins seems to be missing a finger right where young Kyle once took a bite? Or that he's just an incredibly creepy dude who is obviously, without a doubt, the man responsible for Stone Cold--er, Cove's pain.

Hopper asks one of his off-duty pals to investigate Perkins' home, a secluded ranch with a very mysterious basement. As you might guess, those fourteen children reemerge, having been caged, abused, and injected with a steady supply of PCP and other drugs.

What follows is an interesting take on ye olde zombie trope, as Perkins' victims raid Stone Cove, tearing its citizens apart with their own bloody hands. As he tries to take charge, Hopper finds himself torn between protecting his town and not further punishing fourteen insane teenagers (one of whom is his own son) who can't really be blamed for their own actions.

Perkins' 14 is director Craig Singer's followup to Dark Ride, and it's a full traveling carnival better (I think that's how math works, right?). The story itself comes loaded with a nice balance of conflict, as our monsters easily have our sympathy for the abuse they've suffered. While none of the characters make ANY smart decisions when it comes to surviving the night, it's easy to consider the fact that if you were being chased by 28 Days Later-ish creatures, you might not be thinking too straight either. 

It's probably for the best that our characters lack fundamental survival instincts, since the gore on display is one of Perkins' 14 strong points. We get our fair share of disembowelments, all done with gloriously juicy practical effects. I would have preferred to actually see most of the action, but bad lighting seems as common as poor cell phone service in the realm of 21st century horror. 

High Points
From a storytelling point of view, the whole setup (which was apparently submitted via a web contest by Jeremy Donaldson) is strong, and Richard Brake's Ronald Perkins is chillingly villainous in his clean-cut evil

Low Points
I can forgive the film's low budget for some of the rough lighting choices, but the actual geography of some of the more intense sequences is muddled and poorly defined, thereby muting the tension

Lessons Learned
When it comes to not-quite-zombie zombie movies, animal activists are always the worst

Affairs are always improved with warm champagne

Best thing about filming in Romania? The creepy eastern European children's parks, of course

I watched Perkins' 14 via HBO Go, so if you have access to that, it's certainly a decent way to spend 90 minutes of your time. After Dark's 8 Films to Die For typically have mixed results (the same series that gave us Lake Mungo and Mulberry Street is also responsible for Tooth & Nail and, you know, Dark Ride) and this one falls fairly squarely in the middle. The fresh premise probably deserves better treatment, but for a straight-to-DVD (remember those?) zombie-ish movie, it ain't bad. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Hello Kitty

When the Persian Ed Wood makes a genre film that includes a cat, you don't have to time me to see how quickly it gets added to my Netflix queue. "Long wait" or no, it is mine. 

Quick Plot: Bruce has been spending some time in a mental asylum following the death of his mother, whose home nurse Susan (Sybil Danning) went on to marry his wealthy father Rachid less than a year later. Declared sane (despite an incredibly inappropriate sense of humor that often sends him on fits of maniacal laughter), Bruce returns to his father's mansion to an unhappy Susan and helpful Ezil, the housekeeper whose favorite song is the first two lines of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

And a cat. Oh yes. A cat.

Samson, you see, was Bruce's loyal little tuxedo. When he went away, Samson declared feline war on Susan, prompting her to exile him but like any darned cat, he returned...the very next day. When Bruce comes home, Samson is eager to impress his master by resuming his battle. 

...which is filmed as this adorable animal actor waves his little paw around while Danning screams bloody murder and someone loops a ferocious hissing. 

It. Is. Wonderful.

Samson is on to something, as Susan has been plotting with her lover/husband's chauffeur Ralph to kill the old man and take his fortune for themselves. Ralph does the deed by forcing Rachid off his yacht in the middle of the ocean, classily giving his boss a choice between death-by-bullet or the slight chance that he can survive in the water and potentially return for a sequel that includes an extended flashback sequence about how he battled sharks and sold his voice to a sea witch.

Okay, I'm getting a little carried away with my zany plotting, but it's not that far off from what actually follows in Cat In a Cage. Spoilers will commence, because honestly, you need to know what goes down.

After Rachid's death, a man wearing a werewolf mask murders Ralph, burying him on the mansion's grounds which Samson rather inconveniently digs up when the police stop by. Later that night, Susan is heavy breathed on to death by the same Bruce-like man who, in the clumsiest exposition ever ADR'd and played over two characters walking on a beach, turns out to be Bruce's violently insane brother Ali, who was hidden in the house for twenty years and taken care of by Ezil (who’s seen trouble). 

This plot point comes up one hour into the movie.

Terrified that the cops will rightfully arrest his murderous secret brother, Bruce grabs Ali, Ezil, and his girlfriend Gilda (played by Yvette herself, Colleen Camp, in a role so thankless that I'm guessing her only payment was the chance to sing the lounge-esque theme song) and embarks on a neverending police chase and shootout. 

If you're like me, you're sitting there on the edge of your seat begging to know the most important question of Cat In the Cage: WHAT HAPPENED TO SAMSON?

How I long to tell you. How I long to know.

See, after Samson uncovers the corpse of Ralph, he simply vanishes from the film, sort of like Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right. Considering he's easily the most interesting character in the film, it's unforgivable. 

I don't mean to suggest that Cat In the Cage would be any better with Samson saving the day or firing the last shot or being revealed to actually be Ali as a shapeshifter. I mean, those twists would make this movie amazing, but still...not good. 

This movie was probably never going to be good.

If the name Tony Zarindast rings a bell, then you just might pronounce the word "werewolf" with a mumbled mouth, for he is indeed the director of that 1995 film wonderfully riffed on in one of the SyFy Channel-era MST3K's best episodes. Zarindast displays the same level of skill here, coaxing wonderfully alien performances from his cast and rolling out his story with the grace of a drunk dad untangling last year's Christmas lights. 

Pretty much everything in this movie is done terribly. Take the score, which for no reason whatsoever, sounds like it should be used to set the scene in The Mummy Theme Park

Side note: Cat In the Cage is, admittedly, a better movie than The Mummy Theme Park. But so is the experimental short my cat shot on my iPhone when his paw landed just right, so it doesn't say much. 

High Points
Well, aside from the gentlest cat attack put onscreen? I love a date montage, and Cat In a Cage gives us not one, but TWO, and both go on just a hair short of Cool As Ice's 12-hour epic

Low Points
Of all the things I could complain about in this movie, what does it say about me that the one that bugs me the most is that the title is so darn misleading? Unless, of course, my theory that Samson is actually Ali holds true, at which point, it's a literal metaphor and it makes this the best movie about a mad man turned into a cat turned back into a mad man ever made

Lessons Learned
It's natural to be quite disturbed over your mother's death

Nothing turns a murderous ex-nurse on more than being slapped

Just because you've named your villain Susan doesn't mean supporting characters can't call her Suzanne


Cat In the Cage is a terrible movie. And if you're here, you probably love terrible movies and will probably have as good a time watching this as you would eating an ice cream sundae. Dig in. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

I'll Buy That For a Doll-ar

I've often written about The Asylum and its occasional knack for churning out surprisingly high quality ripoffs of bigger budgeted horror. For every dozen quickies like Sunday School Musical and A Haunting In Salem, there's that one Paranormal Entity that manages to still be a made-in-one-week-after-the-trailer-for-a-sure-to-be-hit-movie rolled out that somehow makes you say, "Hey, that wasn't so bad."

Like 2011's The Ouija Experiment, today's Heidi is not actually an Asylum property, but from the cover and synopsis, you'd be forgiven for making that mistake. Just look at the artwork here:

And the actual doll featured in the film:

Clearly, Heidi's producers are hoping you'd see the title go by and say, "Oh, that's the spin-off to The Conjuring, right?" Based on its 2014 date, it's hard to know whether Heidi was made before, after, or alongside Annabelle. Much like that film, it centers on a haunted baby doll that doesn't follow the standard conventions of wide-talking Good Guys or stabby tiny porcelain-hand cinema. And despite my instincts and opinion of the first hour of this low budget indie, much like Annabelle, it shockingly works.

Quick Plot: Teens Ryan and Jack do that thing that teens in the 21st century apparently do all the time: record every moment of their lives on videocameras and GoPros. When Ryan gets a gig housesitting for an eccentric neighbor, they see big potential in incorporating a mysteriously unbranded doll found in the attic into their antics. As you might surmise, the doll is named Heidi, and she does not like to be hugged.

Before long, a wave of bizarre violence is spreading through Ryan's life. Aforementioned neighbor (and her poor pet birds) turn up dead, while Jack's massive house party ends in carnage when he and his younger brother are found gutted. We don't have to pull up our bookmark for to know the fate of Ryan's sweet cocker spaniel.

Written and directed on what I assume to be a minuscule budget by newcomer Daniel Ray, Heidi is a weirdly fascinating little found footage tale that either found its footing as it went or is secretly one of the smartest horror films I've seen in quite a while. Like almost every handheld teen-centric indie of recent years, it starts with insufferable leads with racist undertones and yet somehow, 90 minutes later, I found myself thinking, "this was kind of fantastic"

I am as shocked as you are. 

Ryan (Samuel Brian) is nothing special. Like almost every found footage film made in recent years, he's a middle class white kid without a clever bone in his body who tends to say, "what the f*ck?" over and over again when investigating strange occurrences without turning on the light switch. 

And yet...

Look, I'm not really ready to say that Heidi is a great horror film. The acting never really clicks in place, the dialogue is often squirm-worthy, and the characters make some incredibly dumb decisions along the way. But at a very particular point about one hour in, I found myself realizing that I was fully invested in the action. Like Annabelle, this is a film that successfully creates a villain without ever really showing it act. We KNOW Heidi is evil because, you know, we're watching a horror movie called Heidi, but you do have to extend some respect to a no-budget movie that manages to get you to that place of discomfort without giving you the goods. 

When I watched the truly devastating Megan Is Missing a few years ago, I found myself admiring how skillfully the filmmaker had reverse Trojan horse'd me, introducing fairly awful teenage characters that I gritted my teeth at, only to slowly reel me in to the deeper, sadder lives these girls were actually living. Heidi doesn't do this with its characters (who ultimately go from insufferable to tolerable), but it kind of does with its actual storytelling. Did Ray and his team just get more comfortable in front of and behind the camera the longer they filmed, or was this the film's actual intent: trick its audience into expecting another found footage yawn, and slowly turn it into an actual compelling story?

I don’t want to oversell Heidi, but darnit: I enjoyed this film. Once I got past its initial sloppiness, I was genuinely involved in the story, and actually nervous about how it would play out. It’s certainly not for everyone, but as evil doll films go (something I might have a smidgen of experience with), it’s new, fresh, and shockingly, kind of scary.

High Points
Judge me if ye will, but that last got me

Low Points
There are plenty of things to pull apart in Heidi, and your ultimate decision to watch it in full will rest on your patience at getting through some 40 minutes or so of bland characters being kind of awful (and occasionally racist)

Lessons Learned
When organizing a home rave, don't skimp on the bouncer. A quality door man will really take your party to the next level

If you think that a doll is evil and responsible for the death of several people close to you, maybe you should do something more permanent than simply sitting it down in your closet and closing the door

As of 2014, teenagers still use the term “boo yah”

The Winning Line
"His friend, a fellow prankster, was unavailable for comment," is not a comment usually made by a newscaster when reporting on the mysterious death of a teenager. But it sure helps move some exposition along!


It's hard to come out and fully say with confidence that I recommend Heidi (currently streaming on Amazon Prime). Those who have issues with found footage or amateur horror may not make it very far, even with a slim 90 minute run time. But as someone who OFTEN has problems with these kinds of films, allow me to say: give Heidi a chance. Credit to writer/director Daniel Ray and his team. I don’t know how much was intended and how much just sorta happened, but the end result satisfied me.