Monday, July 30, 2018

Because You Were STILL Home

2008's The Strangers remains a minor gem of its error. Nicely shot and surprisingly bleak, it worked on its own terms. For whatever reason, it's taken a good decade for a followup. Let's see if the wait was worth it.

Quick Plot: After about five minutes worth of production company logos, we visit a quiet, nearly empty mobile home encampment. An older couple is sleeping with their apparently deaf and cute but incredibly useless dog when a stranger knocks on the door. Bad things happen. To everyone BUT the dog.

A few hundreds of miles a way, a downtrodden family of four makes their way towards our recent victims. Mom Cindy (the always lovely Christina Hendricks) and dad Mike are trying to give their rebellious teenage daughter Kinsey a new start at a boarding school. Better adjusted big brother Luke is along for the ride. 

Before the family has had time to settle in for the night, the trio of stab-happy killers who terrorized Liv Tyler a decade ago are back, masks in place and sharp objects in hand. What follows is a lot of stalking, some awful driving, and a bevy of terrible decisions made by frantic prey.

Filling in for The Strangers’ director Bryan Bertino is Johannes Roberts, he of 47 Meters Down. Like the first film, Prey At Night has a better cast than you might often find in your run-of-the-mill slasher. While we don’t get Arthur Miller levels of family drama, Ben Ketai’s script helps to flesh out our characters well enough that the stakes are felt. Cindy and Mike are a tired but loving couple feeling frustrated at the path their daughter is going down, while Kinsey gets actual moments of growth over the course of one horrible night in recognizing what a bratty teenager she’s been. There’s also something touching about how Luke deals with the situation, being a genuinely nice kid who’s not quite at the kind of place where he can pull the trigger on another human being.

I liked The Strangers well enough, and have similar feelings on its sequel. The simple design of the killers is visually interesting. I cared enough about the characters to be invested in their plight, even if I occasionally wanted to reach into the screen to wring the neck of seemingly capable people making mistake after mistake. 

High Points
As far as settings go, an empty trailer park goes a long way. Rob makes great use out of the cheapness of the interiors, showing just how easy it is for a strong hunter to break through walls. Equally effective is the use of a swimming pool and its tacky neon lighting

Low Points

Lessons Learned
In slasher situations, don’t even bother calling the police. They’ll send one yokel with no spacial awareness who will inevitably be gutted before he even has the chance to tell a screaming woman to calm down

Deny a little sister her chance on the baseball field and she will take that anger and turn it into something truly powerful

For goodness sake, when being chased, already remember a simple tip: Serpentine! Serpentine!

Look! It’s—
Bailee Madison, probably better known as the grouchy little girl in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and as Clementine the elf in a set of Hallmark Christmas movies, but will forever to me be a key guest star in one of the greatest Law & Order: SVU episodes to ever feature a deranged Joan Cusack giving nose jobs to a 7-year-old

Also, DOUBLE LOOK! It’s—
Three key members of Night of the Living Podcast, enjoying a bite as extras

Prey At Night is a worthy sequel to The Strangers. Much like the first film, it doesn't break any ground, but works for how it narrows its focus on a small but sympathetic group of soon-to-be victims while terrorizing them with scary stabbings and odd but effective style choices. It's a rainy day rental.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Hungry For Saw'more?

If there's one horror subgenre that defined the 21st century, it's very likely the oddly common "sick men living in remote locations and equipped with endless resources who enjoy super high concept torture routines." For better or worse, 8 Saw films and counting, it continues.

Quick Plot: Beck is a flailing graphic novelist who decides a road trip to a sinkhole-laden ghost town in Florida is exactly what he needs to inspire his next project. He's accompanied by his easily annoyed girlfriend Candace and his doofy younger brother Jiminey (yes, like the cricket).

After a Doritos-catered stop at a lonely roadside diner, the trio finds themselves carjacked and alone in a polluted town with no cell service. A few wise decisions to split up quickly separates the team, only for each to awaken in an abandoned high school-turned-super-high-tech-torture-prison lorded over by bitter townie Ezrin (the perfectly named Cooper Huckabee of The Funhouse) and his scar-covered assistant.

Like all villains in these kinds of movies, Ezrin has an odd and rather elaborate way to pass his free time: capturing random out-of-towners, locking them up, and starving them so that they're highly motivated when he pits them against each other in a battle to the death for a crappy egg sandwich. 

You can guess where things go from here, and Starve delivers the typical germ-ridden concrete battlegrounds with the kind of mean streak we've seen in countless films of the last 15 years, from Raze to Die

Directed by the even more perfectly named Griff First, Starve delivers little surprise, but it does what it does with a higher level of skill than a lot of its competition. The characters are bland and rather awful, but the acting is passable, and some of the production and makeup design works well enough to keep things visually interesting. For 100 minutes, it's enough.

High Points
Perhaps the most interesting moment happens early on, when Beck makes a shocking choice that puts his relationship with Candace into a realistically questionable status...

Low Points
...and it's the film's biggest shame that it fails to explore that conflict deeper, but alas, ravenous cannibals are simply not going to fight themselves 

Lessons Learned
We already knew this from Sleepaway Camp 2, but it's always good to remember just how dangerous a curling iron can be

Gypsies don't pay taxes

There's no place like taking a pregnancy test than a poop-filled toilet in a dirty rest stop

Eh, if you're in the mood for one of the countless more recent Saw-inspired grisly horror flicks streaming on Amazon Prime, Starve is probably in the upper middle tier. If that style has less appeal to you than deciding to kill your brother or yourself for cold french fries, then pass. 

These are the questions we all must ask ourselves as fans of the genre. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Sand In the Place Where You Live

On a 90+ degree day in July, the only retreat one has is burrowing into intensive air conditioning to watch a movie about people without intensive air conditioning. 

Bonus points if they're being eating by sand.

Quick Plot: A gaggle of unreasonably attractive college students party hard on a beach. The next day, a few wake up inside sturdy surfaces -- a convertible, lifeguard stand, table, and most uncomfortably in the case of poor chubby Gilbert, inside a trash can. 

Turns out, their positioning is their (temporary) salvation: some mysterious alien form has hatched underneath the beach, turning the sand into a flesh-eating monster with a burning appetite for sunburnt young people. 

With their phones unreachable and car battery dead, the survivors do what they can to outlast the cruelty of unrestrained CGI. Their horror is our pleasure in every possible way.

The Sand is not a good movie: The Sand is a great one. 

Look, sometimes your mind has been put through a marathon and you just crave something short, dumb, bright, and entertaining. You want to see attractive people in pain, fighting something as absolutely ridiculous as POSSESSED EVIL SAND. If you're lucky, maybe there will even be tentacles.

Spoiler alert: you are lucky.

Directed by Isaac Gabaeff and, according to IMDB, filmed in 12 days, The Sand is the epitome of a dumb summer horror movie. Less than 90 minutes long and never fully clothed, The Sand knows what it needs to do and does it in style. 

High Points
Folks, this is a movie where sand eats hot beach bums. What more do you want?

Low Points
I take it that blond, slightly more literate than her peers Kaylee is supposed to be our heroine, but if that's the case, shouldn't someone have excised the oddly racist insult she hurls at rival Chandra?

Lessons Learned
When dealing with a super angry, super insecure police officer, never ask to speak with his supervisor

Dying sucks, but dying with a penis drawn on your face sucks more

The reason quickie lube men make minimum wage is that oil isn't powerful enough to tear the flesh off of young people

Look! It's- 
Dean Geyer, the dude who seduced Rachel on Glee but more importantly, costarred in the amazing Lifetime film Don't Wake Mommy, something everyone should watch because Ashley Bell is a goddess and it features the weirdest Denise Crosby cameo you've never seen

The Sand is a stupid, stupid movie. But it's July, I'm tired, and a stupid movie about a man-eating beach and terrible CGI tentacles is pretty much all I need in life at this moment in time. So head to Amazon Prime and kill a few brain cells. It will do you good. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Zee Holy Zity

One of the beauties of cinema is that it takes us across the world to places we can only see if we summon the energy and funds to shop cheap international airfare and weather the jet lag. With that said, let's renew our imaginary passports and hop on a fantasy flight to demon-filled Israel!

Quick Plot: We open with a grainy video recap of a failed 1972 Israeli exorcism. As the subject sprouts a pair of wings before execution, we learn a telling Talmud proverb: there is a gate to hell in the city of Jerusalem.

Cut to present day New Jersey, a hell of a different sort. Slowly recovering from mourning the death of her brother, 20something Sarah heads to Israel with her wilder bestie Rachel. Armed with a new pair of Google glasses (which doubles as the film's camera), Sarah falls for an "American" wanderer named Kevin, who leads the ladies to historic Jerusalem for some unwinding in a hostel.

After the obligatory Americans-getting-hammered-with-handsome-locals buildup, something goes very, very wrong in the walled city. Self-proclaimed amateur anthropologist Kevin senses a dark presence, while a wandering crazy man ominously warns of trouble a'coming. He should know, since he was there some thirty years earlier, watching his mother turn into a demon.

Jerusalem is shut down, trapping citizens and tourists together to fight off the threat of a demonic contagion. Sarah and her pals attempt to flee via deep hidden tunnels. That goes about as well as you would expect.

Written and directed by the Paz Brothers, Jeruzalem's title spelling and categorization is a bit misleading. I went into this film expecting a zombie siege. That is not the case, and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Like many a found footage horror film of the 21st century (and details aside, that is indeed the category where Jeruzalem sits), the film would probably be more enjoyable a watching experience had it abandoned its filmic concept for a standard camera approach. The gimmicky web-connected glasses gives us some fun insight early on, but we lose a bit of the suspense when a dark tunnel chase is stuck framed by a shaky human point of view. 

There's also the very typical, very disappointing issue prevalent in 90% of horror: young and bland protagonists. The only thing interesting about Sarah is her sadness over her brother (and in fairness, that pays off rather effectively), while Kevin is set up to be deeper than he ever shows onscreen. Yael Grobglas (from Rabies) and Tom Graziani register best as party girl Rachel and charming local Omar, but with its short window of "real time," the film just doesn't have to ability to do much with their characters.

I'm pointing out a lot of negatives about Jeruzalem because it's one of those early features from a directing team that clearly has a lot more potential going forward. They do an admirable job here, particularly in capturing the feel of a city most of us have never seen and using its own particular nature to mysterious effect. The idea of a sort of long-dormant demonic virus turning civilians into a very different form of the undead is also neat, and I welcome the sequel currently "in development" according to IMDB.

High Points
For as much as I didn't love all of the POV decisions, the final shot is rather brilliant and could only achieved with that style

Low Points
I said it recently with The Open House, and I'll say it again here: post-The Descent, it's simply not fun to have a terrified character accidentally impale a friend because said friend couldn't say, "Hey, it's me" but instead chose to quietly surprise the terrified friend holding a sharp object

Lessons Learned
There are worse bugs to find in your system than one that constantly plays videos of cats

Always listen to what King David has to say

When traveling abroad, consider choosing your lodging based on its proximity to the nearest mental asylum and bicycle supply

Jeruzalem is streaming on Netflix Instant, and it's certainly a decent way to pass 90 minutes. The build is somewhat slow, but it does present a unique variation on the kind of genre film we've been seeing nonstop for ten years. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Third Time's the Charm

When you've got a good thing going, why stop? 

Quick Plot: It's been two years since Sophie Green escaped the clutches of Dr. Albert Beck, the lovesick cardiologist with a dangerous kick for young women. A former bright-eyed aspiring medical student, Sophie has traded her sundresses for a gothier style, complete with insomnia and post traumatic stress syndrome. 

See, closure is hard when the man who kidnapped you, threatened to amputate your limbs, and came thisclose to raping and killing you escaped conviction by charming a vulnerable female juror, just like Pablo Schrieber in that never-ending Law & Order: SVU storyline. Unwilling to let go, Sophie follows Beck to Phoenix where he's accepted a job teaching cardiology 101.

It's the very first day of school when Albert locks eyes with Melissa, a pretty blond who fits his exact type by not only being into older men, but also needing some health help that only he can provide. Meanwhile, Sophie begins a justified smear campaign (is that the right word if the target deserves it?) by starting a petition to have her former tormenter fired. Unfortunately, Albert is one step ahead, leading authority figures to see Sophie as an unreliable drug addict. 

Yes, if you can believe it, what we have here is the third Stalked By My Doctor Lifetime production examining gaslighting. It gets even more interesting when the lovestruck Melissa refuses to #believewomen, going so far as to plan Sophie's murder and coverup to protect her new boyfriend's name. 

Written and directed by the "Stalked By" specialist Doug Campbell, Patient's Revenge is pretty much everything fans of this franchise want. Beautiful unlived-in kitchens, ditzy dads who give terrible advice, and Eric Roberts playing off of, well, Eric Roberts as his conscious takes the form of himself decked out in a Hawaiian shirt, sipping an umbrella-laden cocktail and warning him about the dangers of younger women. 

Did I mention the musical fantasy sequence? It's here, and it's fabulous.

One does not look for feats of cinematic wonder on Lifetime, but Patient's Revenge manages to keep pushing the manic weirdness of the Stalked By series to shockingly fun heights. That's far more ambitious than many a theatrical release.

High Points
I could live a hundred lives and never find an actor better at throwing a temper tantrum at himself than Eric Roberts

Low Points
While the single flashback is played for genuine laughs, it seems a little odd that the events of Stalked By My Doctor 2 aren't really explained as such recent history

Lessons Learned
True love means not being freaked out to discover a photograph of yourself framed in your teacher's bedroom on your very first date

Every sexual predator has his own style when it comes to tying up women

Even the dumbest copy will not be fooled by a Frozen wig

If you didn't enjoy the first two Stalked By My Doctors, I can't imagine why you're still here (and along with that, how you have any joy in your heart). Lack of American Girl doll freakouts aside, this is easily the best yet. Roberts is having a blast, but the real treasure is how the film gives its former victim her own agency. This isn't the a feminist manifesto, but it's nice to see the third entry in a goofy Lifetime series playing with its power dynamics in surprising ways. 

But still: bring back the dolls