Monday, September 25, 2017

Dyin' to the Oldies

A supernatural slasher is still a slasher, but when you make it in 1989 and set it in the most 1989 gym that has ever 1989'd, you've got something very, very special. 

Quick Plot: After practicing her dance routine in an empty workout studio, a young woman named Laura is nearly steam roomed to death (or nearly dissolved to death like an alka setlzer, in the words of the very professional LAPD). Odd accidents continue to follow for a full week, ranging from the mild (a hot shower that doesn't relent) to fatal (a muscle man being weight lifted to death by a malfunctioning machine). 

Something is clearly amiss at Starbody Health Spa, a trendy gym whose main selling point is how it integrates technology into the equipment. Lording over the control room is the creepy David, a tech wiz who just so happens to be twin brother of the late Catherine, wife of Starbody owner Michael.

So what became of Catherine, you ask? After pregnancy complications, Catherine lost her baby and became paralyzed from the waist down. With her husband surrounded by a gaggle of young aerobicizers, she went mad, wheeling herself outside and committing suicide via fire. Michael recovered from his loss, moving on to Laura...much to the chagrin of the increasingly hostile David.

Now several unexplained deaths into a regular week at Sarbody, is David using his programming skills to destroy Michael's spa? Is it Michael's lawyer and shady co-owner? Friendly manager Ken Foree? Friendly manager Ken Foree's amazing rainbow blazer?

More likely, it's the spirit of Catherine possessing David, urging him to slaughter gym members in increasingly creative ways. How creative, you ask? Aside from aforementioned benchpress-to-death and steam-room-to-death, there's the inevitable tanning bad meltdown, mirror explosion, power smoothie blender malfunction, and my personal favorite, food-obsessed-chubby-detective-being-locked-in-walk-in-refrigerator-fooded to death. 

Death Spa is basically Carrie if Carrie was a gym member and William Katt wore neon. It's everything you ask for from a horror movie made in the late '80s, but somehow with even more hairspray and joy. It is a beautiful thing.

High Points
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better source for fashion tips than EVERYTHING WORN BY EVERYONE IN THIS MOVIE

Low Points
My own personal gym phobia is the nightmare of being stuck on a treadmill that won't stop moving, so I was mildly disappointed not to see someone be jogged to death

Lessons Learned
Never lift without a spotter

Hacking means experimenting with computer programs

When leaving the house to confront your backstabbing partner and lawyer, make a statement by wearing your Macguyver jacket without a shirt

Death Spa is a terribly wonderful movie. It's more '80s than your acid washed brain can fathom, and more ridiculous than you can dream a little dream. Crack open a can of TAB, line up your cocaine, and queue it up on Amazon Prime for one fun night.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Eat Me

Font choice is not something one should ever take lightly. Consider the prologue of Souleater, which opens in the past with subtitles overloaded with serif, leading me to try to figure out if "beavy" meant something different in the 13th century. 

Quick Plot: Welcome to Bixby, home of Tucker's Motel, a diner, and a house in the woods that contains a souleater. Put that on your postcard and mail it.

If you're like me, you may very well hear "souleater" and think "sin eater" and be taken back to The Order, a film with better font choices but far less energy than today's feature. If you recall, a "sin eater" is a handsome centuries old cursed Catholic who helps sinners get into heaven via a side door that opens with sin eating. A souleater (one word, apparently) just eats souls.

On hand to fight the souleater is weathered priest Father Dolan and his protégé, Spencer. The pair teams up with the local po-lice (including the film's big name grab, Peter Hooten) and Demon and Pike, a pair of grizzled bikers looking for Pike's soul-teasing daughter. There's TRON-esque night vision, mild CGI (that in fairness, makes The Order look even worse), and when in doubt, zombies.

Directed, co-produced, co-written, edited, sound edited, and title designed by Michael Lang, Souleater is, without question, an indie horror film. It doesn't look great, it doesn't sound great, and nobody will be having nightmares after it's over. That being said, it's clearly made with heart and enthusiasm by all involved. The actors aren't going to show up on the list of Oscar nominees anytime soon, but nobody is phoning anything in. That's something.

I can't say Souleater is a good film by most measures, but in its very specific realm of micro-budgeted horror, I can't say it isn't more watchable than a lot of what's out there in bargain bins. 

High Points
I wouldn't be surprised if it was simply a case of casting convenience, but it's always refreshing to see a cast primarily made up of actors on the other side of middle age

Low Points
I could quibble with the dialogue and performances all I want, but at the end of the day, what really gave me the most pain with Souleater was its damned font decisions

Lessons Learned
Priests are second only to rock stars when it comes to leaving a motel room in ruins

The key to impressing a small town Florida deputy is to demonstrate a modicum of skill level with chopsticks

People just won't take you very seriously if your first name is Demon

Never hit a lady in front of bikers

If you enjoy slightly-more-professional-than-homemade horror movies, then Souleater can go on your Amazon Prime watchlist. Personally, I don't have much of a palette for this level of film in my grumpy old age, but I can certainly acknowledge there's still charm in DIY filmmaking for some genre audiences. If that's you, then have fun. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

All In the Family

Here's a new test for the entertainment threshold of a film: let's say you ride the bus every day, as I do here in New York. You get used to the occasional mad man or woman shouting from the backseat about the wrongs of the world or the assets of, say, Aisha Tyler or Cheetos. Sometimes it's far more interesting than anything I might otherwise enjoy on my commute via a movie or magazine. Others, it's not worth the time it takes to hit pause and remove an earbud discretely.

I watched today's feature during my ride home from work, and sure enough, on this fateful Friday, there was indeed a raving yeller who had a LOT to say about current events. And you know what? Said nonsense was indeed less interesting, at least at that moment, than the low budget little horror film I had downloaded to my phone. Now I have much to say about The Chosen and much of it is not positive, but I'll give the film this: it was more entertaining than the angry homeless man on the Bx19. 

Best DVD cover tagline ever.

Quick Plot: Cam is an aimless 19-year-old with a complicated but loving relationship with his recovering alcoholic mother Eliza, recovering heroin addict sister Caitlin, and thus far, safely balanced niece Angie. When Eliza goes away for a long weekend, Cam disobeys her orders by bringing Angie to visit her mother Caitlin, who lives in an unpleasant apartment with some unseemly neighbors.

The sympathetic Cam hears a little too much fighting next door and barges in, breaking up a rumble between a crazed young woman and a blood-marked man who quickly escapes as Angie watches and, it would seem, becomes possessed by the angry child soul-snatching spirit of the biblical Lilith.

With the help of aforementioned crazed neighbor and a mysteriously disappearing/reappearing nun, Cam learns some hard facts: Angie has six days left on earth, after which time Lilith will drag her to hell. The only way to prevent this is to sacrifice six blood-related humans, marking them with a symbol and letting Lilith do the rest. 

Cam is dubious but must have seen enough horror films to know disappearing/reappearing nuns should not be ignored, so when he walks in on his grandmother in the midst of a stroke, he decides to give his finger painting skills a try. Sure enough, some black Lost-ish smoke comes to take her body away. One down, five to go.

Directed by newcomer Ben Jehoshua, The Chosen is an odd little duck. Much like Perkins' 14, it's built on a strong premise that feels like a new enough spin on a familiar and straightforward concept. It clearly values its characters, taking time early on to establish the family dynamics in detail, from Eliza (played by Catherine Keener's sister Elizabeth and yes, I guessed the family connection before looking at the credits)'s recovery and faith to the lazy but maybe deep down, caring Uncle Joey. Cam is a nice kid, and murdering six of his relatives is not something the film treats lightly...

At first.

Somewhere during the running time, The Chosen gets kind of silly. Perhaps its ridiculousness corresponded inversely with the budget running out, as the CGI--which becomes all too prominent towards the film's back half--is, plain and simple, rather laughable. Maybe Jehoshua was smart in lightening his film's tone as the visual look became impossible to present seriously. Think of it as a sort of reverse Heidi effect.

What starts as an earnest family tale about a kind young man trying to protect his niece turns into an odd maybe horror comedy. I say "maybe" because I honestly don't know if I was supposed to be invested or amused at how quickly Cam goes from apologetic to enthusiastic about his murders. By the time the credits abruptly roll to a rap tune, I could only shrug and accept it all in stride. 

High Points
The film's first death is truly upsetting, as the elderly Nanny suffers an attack while falling on cracking knees and gasping for air. It sets a sad and realistic tone that unfortunately, the film doesn't seem to have had the resources to follow through 

Low Points
I totally understand how difficult it must be to make a horror film on a limited budget. I also totally understand that if you know your budget won't pay for LucasFilms levels of CGI, perhaps you should use the bargain bin type more sparingly

Lessons Learned
If doubtful about your girlfriend's claim that you're the father of her unborn baby, save a trip to Maury and get a paternity test the old fashioned way with a simple sacrificial offer to a demon

Duct tape is strong, but whiny prep cousins just might be stronger

Always remember where your uncle's gambling-related bruises are located

Hey! It's- 
The painting from Ever After!

and yes, I know it's actually a real Leonardo da Vinci piece and reproductions are common, but you can't expect me to see an Ever After visual reference and not immediately spin a prequel where the family is actually related to Drew Barrymore's character and why can't I have that movie or at the very least, ANY Ever After sequel right now?

The Chosen has (quite a few) problems, but it also shows a little more heart and earnestness than you often find with movies of its ilk. I can't say it's good or scary, but for a good 90 minutes, I enjoyed watching it, at least more than I did watching the man wearing one shoe complain about the bus temperature. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Because Nothing Has Ever Gone Wrong In An Abandoned Mental Asylum

Abandoned mental asylums! Hot young people! Literal face/offs! What more is a straight-to-Netflix horror movie SUPPOSED to have?

Quick Plot: After a pleasantly grimy prologue wherein a nude heroin user shoots herself in the face, we move on to a quick newsreel about the long-shuttered Exeter School for the Feeble Minded, an asylum that did far more harm than good to most of its young charges. 

Some time later, teenage Patrick is helping his priest, Father Conway (played by Stephen Lang so obviously, a suspicious priest) clean and rebuilt the Exeter building into a youth center. Naturally, Peter's awful friends use said employment position to throw the kind of midnight rave that ends up involving more vomit than alcohol. 

As the crowd dwindles to an acceptable number of mostly extremely attractive twentysomething actors playing teenagers, Exeter proves to be as haunted a place as you assume any abandoned mental asylum would be. Token hot blonde Amber decides the best wind-down is to play Light As a Feather, Stiff As a Board (heLLO 1990s slumber parties!) with Patrick's kid brother Rory as the test subject, only to unleash the demonic spirit of a wronged dead teenager who once occupied Exeter's most dangerous wing. 

As you do.

I stumbled upon Exeter on a random "You Might Like" scroll on Netflix, and I queued it up with the kind of low expectations one must temper when watching a direct-to-streaming film with a bland title and cover. About twenty minutes into the film, I found myself thinking, "this is a very professionally made top of the lower barrel of horror films." Sure enough, when I saw Marcus Nispel's directing credit, everything made sense.

See, as much as Exeter does little new or surprising with its premise and style, it does all of it quite well. There's nothing overly memorable about the gaggle of attractive twentysomething teenagers, but all the actors give completely acceptable and believable performances (playing twentysomethings playing teenagers). Some of the CGI borders on the ridiculous, but plenty of surprise hits of violence actually shock. 

Nispel has a mixed track record when it comes to horror, ranging from the shockingly better than it had any right to be TCM remake to the worse than it had every right to be Friday the 13th reboot. Perhaps what Exeter demonstrated to me was that there is indeed an art to these kinds of fairly disposable but still highly watchable genre films. 

Consider, if you will, Satanic or Bleed (a movie I had to scroll through months of blogs in order to even remember the title). Both are similarly told low (but not micro) budgeted horror movies about pretty people spending one night battling literal demons. And both lack anything of substance.

Exeter certainly has a few aces up its sleeve. Stephen Lang (who I'm guessing is pals with Nispel after they filmed the gloriously kooky Conan remake) is always going to elevate his material, and the actual abandoned mad house setting does a lot of heavy lifting. The screenplay by Kirsten McCallion (who also has a credit on Texas Chainsaw 3D, a movie I'm in the minority for rather enjoying) is solid enough for what it's trying to do, throwing in some decent twists and leaning on dialogue that mostly sounds appropriate for its teenage characters. It's a far cry from a best of the year candidate, but in the ever crowded market of this exact subgenre, Exeter is certainly one of the better ones you'll find.

High Points
Literal face/off aside, Exeter finds a decent balance in tossing in some quality chuckles throughout its run time, both in its dialogue and clever cuts

Low Points
I mean, I suppose it would have been a more pleasant experience if I actively rooted for the partying twentysomething teenagers

Lessons Learned
Following a guy in the woods is how rapes happen

Backwash will seriously compromise the efficacy of holy water

Never be the feather during a levitation game with a full bladder

The Winning Line
"Wait til I sober up. We'll drop my little brother off and get Denny's."
Who says romance is dead when you can a first date with a line like this?

Hey, I'm not saying Exeter is The Invitation of your current Instant Watch selection, but it's one of the more solid horror movies you've probably never heard of to fall into the Netflix bad poster graveyard. Don't expect your world to change or nightmares to get more interesting, but if you're looking for a simple solid 100 minutes of attractive people being creatively slaughtered by a demon, I think I've found the flick for you.