Monday, December 31, 2018

Prom Break

No genre has quite the inverse ratio of passionate filmmakers to budget challenges than horror. Nowhere is that clearer than in today's Amazon Prime slasher, a movie that has as much can-do spirit as it does echoes in its audio quality.

Quick Plot: It's prom night, and a sextet of seniors are ready to party. Nice guy Nelson offers up his uncle's isolated cabin, a perfect locale filled with a batch of '80s slasher on tape and a working VHS player. The only downside is that there's been a rash of missing young women in the area. But surely that has nothing to do with THIS evening, right?

Before the ladies can trade their heels for flats, a masked killer begins his hunting, tearing into the young bodies with all the practical effects a Generation Xer can ask for. The highly squirtable gooey blood almost makes up for the lack of an imposing killer...unless someone in the audience has always had a fear of men in windbreaker tracksuits. 

Party Night was written and directed by newcomer Troy Escamilla, a man with an obvious devotion to the kinds of movies most of us rented from our local Blockbuster (or if we were lucky, our independent video store, RIP Long Island's 112 Video). The screenplay blatantly references The Mutilator and some other old school gems, right down to a closet confrontation that feels positively Lori Strode in execution.

Nostalgia aside, Party Night is not exactly a good movie. Made on a minuscule budget crowdfunded via Kickstarter, it's riddled with poor sound quality that I have to imagine came from a lack of good equipment. There's a shot of a text message that's essentially just a zoom in on a cell phone, and the closeness of the camera to the actors' faces is genuinely unpleasant. It's almost like you're getting a found footage horror movie without the setup of it being, you know, a found footage horror movie.

The affection, however, is clearly there, and while the young cast lacks much experience on camera, they're all clearly trying. This isn't a movie you come to for deep analysis or filmmaking innovation, but as a 70 minute waste-no-time slasher, it achieves what it sets out to do.

High Points
While none of the violence breaks any barriers, it's generally well-executed and all clearly practical, a nice switch from the typically terrible CGI we see in low budget horror

Low Points
...with, unfortunately, the exception of the final grand kill, a decapitation that asks its audience to forget everything they know about how the human head is connected to the rest of its body 

Lessons Learned
Pink cell phones belong to girls

The music doesn't matter at prom. It's the EXPERIENCE

Being a good girlfriend in high school means more than just allowing your boyfriend to have sex with you 

Party Night is for a very specific audience: those who can handle low budget limitations for the reward of slasher gore. If that's you, then don your formalwear, hop in your Prom Ride, and find on Amazon Prime. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Holiday Stuff!

From my tacky tree to yours, wishing you all a wonderful silent deadly night and an even shinier new year's evil!

and as always, and forever, be careful of the icy patch!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Little Shop of Triffids

Published in 1951, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids has had quite the legacy, with three film/television adaptations and plenty of blatant referencing in The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later’s handling of apocalyptic hospital scenarios. The first of these, 1962’s Steve Sekely-directed (with, apparently, some later help by Freddie Francis) I snow streaming on Amazon Prime.

Quick Plot: Navy-man Bill Mason (the incredibly broad-shouldered Howard Keel) is recovering from surgery to restore his vision, meaning his bandaged eyes deny him the chance to witness a once-in-a-lifetime meteor shower that’s keeping the rest of London entranced. Lucky for him. The next morning, a now-seeing Bill discovers anyone who watched the out of this world light show has been blinded.

Bill slowly travels through a quickly decaying Europe, picking up a plucky orphan named Susan along the way. The pair have to fight off not only the increasingly dangerous hoards of the blind, but also the titular killer plants. Triffids are large, green, carnivorous, and seemingly immune from any kind of attack. 

Humanity’s only real chance against the triffids just might be in the hands of an angry, alcoholic researcher and his pushover wife. As chaos mounts across the city and rural landscapes, a softer Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-ish prelude between bickering spouses slowly morphs into a scientific breakthrough.

The Day of the Triffids is a fairly loose adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel, retaining the concept and character basics but taking some fairly wide detours in plot specifics. It’s not a shocking decision, since polygamy wasn’t quite the cinematic rage in the early ‘60s. 

Despite side-stepping some of the more risqué elements from the novel, The Day of the Triffids still manages to work as something occasionally rather scary. The triffids themselves aren’t at Audrey II levels of engineering, but there’s something supremely wrong about their design (both in the visuals and sound) that works on a creepy level. The mass blindness is treated with heft. If you were wondering how a pilot who suddenly went blind would handling flying a plane, the answer is of course, “not well.”

Effective scares aside, The Day of the Triffids suffers from some messy storytelling.The pacing never quite clicks, and when I read that the entire island research subplot was added after principal filming ended because the producers realized they only had a 57 minute movie, I wasn’t terribly surprised. 

That being said, The Day of the Triffids worked for me, as it probably would for anyone with a hunger for cinematic apocalypses,. You can see its influence on later work, and it has a certain “the plants are trying to eat us” charm that stands the test of time. 

High Points
It’s a movie that combines killer plants with mass blindness and an apocalypse. What’s not to like?

Low Points 
Yes, it was 1962, but it’s still a shame that most of the women play the important role of standing immobilized by fear and screaming while their men fight the human-eating plant monsters

Lessons Learned (the Blindness Edition)
The only danger in mass blindness is that the victims might accidentally start fires

Surgeons do not perform well under the pressure of blindness

As we also learned in Jose Saramago’s Blindness, all apocalyptic eyesight-based plagues will eventually end in systematized rape

Subtitle Strangeness
For whatever reason (laziness, Martian-ness, etc.), Amazon’s subtitles are just…wrong. Observe some translations:

Dialogue: I’ll tuck you in
Subtitles: I Kentucky

Dialogue: Ms. Durham!
Subtitles: Mr. Rat!

And my favorite, which has no translation because I was too distracted trying to figure out what time travel shenanigans would have allowed Mena Suvari to star in a film made 20 years before her birth:

The Day of the Triffids had been on my to-watch list for years, so it’s great to finally have it easily accessible via Amazon Prime. While it’s no Them! Or The Thing From Another World, it’s entertaining enough on its own merits, and even more intriguing as an early example of the kind of apocalyptic horror that has become fairly common these days. Fans of the novel will probably be annoyed at some of the choices, but in the context of its time, The Day of the Triffids is an interesting capsule. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

What a Big Camera You Have

They made a sequel to Creep! It's a full one minute longer than the first film's brief 77 minute running time. It damn well better earn those 60 seconds. 

Quick Plot: Now calling himself Aaron (the name of his most recent victim), the man we met in Creep as Josef is continuing his odd hobby of befriending lonely people, getting under their skin, and murdering them without warning. The shame is that his heart just isn't in it anymore.

A few hours away, a struggling filmmaker named Sara is feeling down that her documentary web series "Encounters" is tanking in the youtube views. When she sees "Aaron's" Craig's List ad seeking a filmmaker ("fans of Interview With a Vampire a plus"), she decides it's just weird enough to make for the subject of her series finale. 

Of course, Sara has no idea that Aaron is a serial killer, and even after he confesses, she has no real reason to believe him. To Sara, this visit is the chance to finally explore something deep with her camera. Sure, Aaron is testing every boundary and clearly playing his own version of two lies and a truth with every statement that comes out of his mouth, but it's naturally just a tad too late before the reality really kicks in. 

Like Creep, Creep 2 is directed by Patrick Brice and written by Brice and star Mark Duplass. I enjoyed that film well enough, but found the unbalanced nature of pairing such a fascinating presence like Duplass with his bland target (played by Brice himself) a letdown. Creep 2 wisely improves upon this, using the same basic setup but putting Aaron/Josef's chronicler and possible victim on a much more even playing field. 

Played by Desiree Akhavan, Sara has a very specific confidence that allows her to challenge Aaron. With nearly two decades of post-Blair Witch film crews investigating subjects that will doom them in our public conscious, it's not easy to make a found footage horror film about an ambitious young director without leaving your audience sensing deja vu. Thankfully, Sara manages to feel fresh. Akhavan has a brave (if not always bright) energy totally fitting to a an experimental, fresh-out-of-film school documentarian, and her interaction with Aaron goes in a variety of directions you don't quite see coming.

It's a shame then, that Creep 2 has such a poorly executed ending. I won't spoil anything here, and the news that Creep 3 has been greenlit certainly takes some of the frustration out of my initial viewing. But dangit: Creep 2 goes so well for so long, then tosses in an incredibly rushed coda that just doesn't seem to line up with the story we've been watching.

High Points
By golly, is there a more engaging onscreen presence than Mark Duplass? It's also such a treat to see him get to play off such an interestingly drawn character as Akhavan's Sara (and as said earlier, such a gigantic step forward from the first film's costar)

Low Points

Lessons Learned
Death by blender should never be ruled out for execution

Perhaps documenting your fail-safe escape plan isn't the best way to keep a fail-safe escape plan secret

Wolf masks offer just enough peripheral vision clearance for safe country road driving

Creep 2 is a Blumhouse production that goes straight to Netflix, and like its predecessor, it makes perfect sense as a breezy streaming view. Mark Duplass continues to make incredibly weird (in the best of ways) choices, and watching him tap into whatever pleasantly unsettling darkness is within his Aaron is always a strange pleasure. Give it a go. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

I'll Have Another

I Drink Your Blood has a nifty distinction: the first film to be rated X purely for its violence. 

Sign me up.

Quick Plot: A diverse gang of devil worshippers makes camp in a small, nearly empty town filled with some decent abandoned real estate and a whole lot of rats. After raping a local woman, they ignite the fury of her ineffectual grandfather and wildly creative little brother Pete. 

Grandpa tries to exact revenge only to end up being forced to take LSD by a gaggle of hysterically laughing punk satanists high on rodent hunting (happens to the best of us). Peter, on the other hand, has a more solid plan. He shoots a dog infected with rabies, collects its blood, injects it into meat pies at the town's only market for food, and convinces his sister's tormenters to chow down.

As cinematic little brothers go, Peter is up there with the best of them

Since I'm not scientist, I have no choice but to take the movie at its logic that eating rabies-seasoned pot pies will turn the consumer into a ravenous zombie. 

Mayhem takes over the town as the rabies takes its toll, igniting pure savagery in some, suicidal tendencies in others, and insatiable lust in one who just happens to end up naked with a full construction crew. Since rabies (or at least, I Drink Your Blood's version of rabies) is spread by any touch of bodily fluid, it's not long before the whole town is either hunting or being hunted. 

I Drink Your Blood was directed by David Durston after producer Jerry Gross decided, if the internet is to be believed, that  "he wanted to make the most graphic horror film ever produced, but he didn't want any vampires, man-made monsters, werewolves, mad doctors, or little people." 

Success all around! Three years after I Drink Your Blood, George Romero would play with a similar concept in The Crazies (which happens to also costar I Drink Your Blood's Lynn Lowry). The Crazies is a scarier film, but there's an element of wacky fun to I Drink Your Blood that makes it a darn fun watch. It doesn't take long to hit full chaos, and when full chaos involves a LOT of severed limbs, who can complain?

High Points
I am, and will always be, an easy mark for frantic jazz used to enhance insanity, and Clay Pitts' score is perfectly applied in a way that truly takes the wacky tone to the perfect level of escalation

Low Points
You can't give me "old man force fed LSD" as a plot point without the fun of, you know, showing an old man high on LSD

Lessons Learned
You don't have to know about LSD to know abut rabies

The mark of a good machete is one that can sever a head from its body in just one swing

Satan was an acid head

I dug the heck out of I Drink Your Blood. It moves fast, in a wonderfully weird and over the top way. I found the film via a Netflix disc rental, so while it doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere, the disc does come loaded with a batch of special features worth checking out. Bon appetit!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Like a Purge-in

Like any opinionated movie fan, I don't hate to say I told you so. 

Back in 2014, I found myself one of the few defenders of the first installment of The Purge. It's a decent one-off horror film, but more importantly, it was clear that writer/director James DeMonaco was setting up such a fascinatingly ripe world for more explanation. Here's what I had to say/predict:

"There's probably a whole novel that could be written about how the homeless community deals with the event, not to mention the mysterious history of what brought American society to this point in the first place.

My point is that The Purge is a great idea that deserves A LOT of further exploration and thankfully, its box office success seems to have guaranteed that. Perhaps a lot of early reviewers were disappointed with the film narrowing its focus to one family, but now knowing that we'll get more Purges, I'm happy to say that such a decision on DeMonaco's part was the right one."

Two incredibly fun sequels, one prequel, and a genuinely fun TV series later, I'm proud to have been right. I don't know that any of the Purge films have reached truly top levels of filmmaking (Election Year comes closest for me), but every one has been as fun an experience as it was weirdly, terrifyingly relevant in the current political climate. 

Now let's go back to the beginning. 

Quick Plot: After swooping into political power, the New Founding Fathers of America decide to begin beta testing the night that will become the infamous Purge. Due to its isolated location (and more importantly, high low income non-Caucasian population), Staten Island is chosen for the trial run.

The citizens are of mixed opinion, especially with government offering $5000 for any resident to remain in place for the night, with a bonus if they wear high tech body cams (in the form of cat-like contact lenses) and actually participate in the violence. Led by the politically active Nya, the more peaceful Islanders attempt to wait it out in a secure church. Others, including some vengeful bag ladies and drug addicted Skeletor, dig on in, channeling all of their anger at the world into embracing the Purge.

The level of Purge enthusiasm isn't high enough for the NFFA, who send in swarms of mercenaries to up the death count. This comes at the dismay of Dr. Updale (Marissa Tomei!), the ace psychologist who developed the night's concept based on responsibly gathered research only to watch it be corrupted by the racist party now in control.

With its "Keep America Great" tagline, Election Year cemented The Purge franchise as being a dark funhouse mirror version of current American politics. The First Purge fully leans in to smart effect. This is the first Purge film not directed by DeMonaco, and his passing the reins over to Gerard McMurray, a black man, feels incredibly significant.

While all previous Purges have dealt with race, The First Purge is really the first to center itself on the topic. Look, I'm the last person to want less Frank Grillo, but it's refreshing and right that most of the cast members are people of color. DeMonaco's script and McMurray's direction feature diverse characters not just in their physical race, but in how they're represented. 

With all that said, I didn't *quite* have as much "fun" with The First Purge as the last two sequels. This isn't necessarily a fault of the movie; the idea that a genre film is a little too relevant is in no way a bad thing. Horror has always been a powerful tool to explore society's ills, and it's genuinely admirable how DeMonaco has managed to use his series to satirize modern America. 

It's just sometimes hard to watch.

High Points
The First Purge makes a great decision in its leads. Y'lan Noel and Lex Scott Davis are incredibly watchable, and it's impossible not to root for their safety

Low Points
On the flip side, it's something of a shame that Marissa Tomei doesn't get nearly enough to do

Lessons Learned
In Purge math, five bullets are more valuable than one spatula

Never go to a Staten Island church sermon without a fulls supply of liquor

Purge dance parties are going to end exactly how you expect

The First Purge is probably the the film in the franchise that I'll revisit least, but it's an absolutely solid effort and feels like exactly the right installment for this time. I can't really complain about the fourth film in a horror franchise being too politically relevant just because it makes me think too much about the state of the world, right? There are important things happening in this series, and it's exciting to watch. Just...a little less fun. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Gone Girls

Bumping a random flop of a 2012 teen-aimed thriller seemed like a great light way to kill 90 minutes.

Then the world happened.

Quick Plot: Diner waitress Jill lives with her hard-studying college student sister Molly. While Molly spends most of her time immersed in economics books and her boyfriend (pre-Bucky Sebastian Stan), Jill roams a nearby forest seeking evidence of her own alleged abduction a year earlier. 

One day, Jill returns home to find Molly vanished--er, GONE. JIll immediately jumps into action mode, digging for clues at the scene of the crime and calling the detectives who handled her own past cast.

Turns out, nobody believes Jill, neither then nor now. Since no evidence had been found to corroborate Jill's previous experience, the Portland PD has written off the young woman as a pathological liar. The fact that Jill spent some time in a mental asylum certainly didn't help.

Without the law on her side, Jill decides to hunt down Molly's abductor herself. Thankfully, most strangers are pretty willing to help an attractive young woman, especially since Jill has such an uncanny knack for making up elaborate lies on the fly. 

Directed by Heitor Dhalia, Gone premiered in the much simpler time of 2012. Back then, it opened to little fanfare, an 8% Rotten Tomatoes score, and the general consensus that it was an overcomplicated but underwritten PG13 dude. I'm not here to say that Gone is anything worthy of the Criterion Collection, but when you make the randomly mistimed decision to watch the day after Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the highest court in the nation, it's weirdly relevant.

Nobody believes Jill, but the male cops REALLY don't believe her. The film isn't quite good enough to explore that in a way that says much, but there is an extremely dark undercurrent to the idea in 2018. Along with that is the somewhat ahead-of-its-time recurring motif of men encouraging Jill to lighten up and smile. Any woman can tell you why that's a horror in itself.

Is Gone a good movie? Not especially, but it has that kind of earnest intensity that I tend to enjoy. I've always found Amanda Seyfried to be incredibly watchable, and her crazy saucer eyes are used to grand effect here. It's also fun to see a random assortment of attractive character actors inhabit the red herring of the moment, from Jennifer Carpenter as a single mom diner waitress to Wes Bentley as the world's shiftiest rookie cop.

Perhaps more or less importantly, Gone is a different movie when watched in October of 2018. We can thank this vomit of a government for a lot of horrible things, but seeing a mediocre thriller turn into a weirdly relevant social message about believing women? That's a new one.

High Points
While I don't quite know how to feel about the final stinger of Gone, the main ending involving Jill's decision is incredibly satisfying in concept (even if the film is a little too distracted to truly earn it)

Low Points
Red herrings are expected and required for this kind of movie, but there's something annoyingly disappointing about just how carelessly Gone handles its handful

Lessons Learned
The way to a teenage girl's trust is the promise of a Justin Bieber concert ticket

Chasing split tail is for firefighters, not detectives

No woman taking a self defense class wants to be called "sweetie" by her male partner

Hell hath no fury like whatever it is living on the head of Daniel Sunjata's partner

I have no idea who should watch Gone. Like the occasional better-than-it-should-be Lifetime flick, it's probably more enjoyable to my eyes than most. It's also (and perhaps by the time November elections come up, less so) oddly infuriating until it becomes (mild spoiler alert) even more oddly uplifting in its depiction of how women are looked at by authority figures. The world is a strange place.