Monday, August 27, 2018

Empty Nest

In the bizarre age of mail order ancestry blood tests (which seem terrifying to a paranoid conspiracist like me), let us all take a moment to acknowledge that horror movies have long taught us that investigating our roots can only lead to terrible, terrible things.

Quick Plot: "Somewhere in Russia" circa 1966, an isolated farm is taken by surprise when a truck crashes into its barn, revealing a dying female driver and a pair of screaming infants. Flash forward 40 years as one of the now-grown babies heads back to her motherland to meet with a notary and learn more about the lakeside property she's inherited.

Marie isn't thrilled with her new responsibilities, in part because waterfront Russian real estate isn't so exciting for a bitter American divorcee who can't swim. Once she arrives, her enthusiasm hits a much, much lower point.

Maybe it's the zombie-like double that starts shuffling her way, maybe it's the dilapidated property hiding secrets in its broken floorboards, or maybe it's the sudden appearance of hereto unheard of twin brother Nikolai. No matter how you look at it, Marie's situation is less than ideal, particularly when the mysterious house begins to rearrange itself with a serious aggressive streak.

As Marie and Nikolai observe Haunted Mansion-ish hologram flashbacks to their family's troubled history, the pair start to piece together their tragic past. Unfortunately, the house seems destined to relive it.

Released as part of the AfterDark Horrorfest of 2006, The Abandoned is decently made but incredibly forgettable. The script (by Karim Hussain and director Nacho Cerda, with some last minute rewrites by Hardware's Richard Stanley) does some intriguing things in centering itself on a 40-year-old single mother who seems to be stuck in lifelong depression, and lead actress Anastasia Hille makes for a refreshingly more layered final girl than we tend to find in these kinds of movies.  

All that being said, I just couldn't get into The Abandoned. What probably felt fresh 12 years ago in terms of plotting seems fairly rote today. An endless cycle that keeps you in the same setting, no matter how far you seem to wander? Great idea...that we've since seem dozes of times. 

High Points
Any fresh setting is always welcome, and in The Abandoned's case, the isolated Russian (well, Bulgarian) countryside offers some entrancing visuals

Low Points
On one hand, I appreciate Marie being such an atypical protagonist. On the other, it's hard to really to feel much for someone who seems so empty inside

Lessons Learned
When you see your doppelganger, it's time to die (hence why my plan upon seeing a doppeganger has always been to take no mercy)

I know some adults have their reasons, but considering this planet is 70% water, shouldn't we all learn how to swim?

And for those of us who don't, shouldn't we keep better track of our boats?

I was underwhelmed by The Abandoned, but it's a decent little thriller that handles more right than wrong. The tension just didn't click for me personally, but if the premise has interest to you, it's a worthwhile 90 minute watch via HBO Go.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Welcome to the...

You know what five words I hate seeing in film taglines?

Based. On. A. True. Story.

Here's the thing about such a phrase: it instantly tells you that whatever you're going to see is a) within the realm of physical possibility and b) results in your lead surviving. Now granted, the true story in this case is actually pretty fascinating, but still...if you tell me it's based on reality, I watch the whole film with the preordained disappointment that no aliens or unicorns will appear. What an immediate letdown.

Quick Plot: Having finished his service in the Israeli army, young Yossi decides to travel the world and avoid a life of expected responsibility. While backpacking through South America, he befriends the adventurous Swede Marcus, his American photographer pal Kevin, and a mysterious Austrian named Karl begging to be their Amazon jungle tour guide.

Once they're deep into the wilderness, it doesn't take long for dissension to strike amongst the team. Marcus proves too weak to handle the trek, while the self-proclaimed expert Karl turns out to be a fraud who can't even swim. Since rafting down some wild rapids is the fastest way out before the rainy season strikes, this poses a problem.

Marcus and Karl decide to slowly hike back together. Kevin and Yossi begin their water trail only to immediately be separated by the raging waters. The film (mostly) then follows Yossi as he battles the elements.

And my, what elements they are! Fire ants, gooey quicksand, worms that somehow lodge themselves on the east side of Harry Potter's scar, you name it. While Jungle wouldn't particularly fall into the category of horror movie, it does occasionally tilt its hand to have been directed by Wolf Creek's Greg McLean.

Jungle is based on the real Yossi Ghinsberg's experience in the wild (and also dramatized in a 2005 episode of Discovery's I Shouldn't Be Alive!, a show whose title exclamation point can never not make me think of the glory that is I Don't Want To Be Born). The story itself is genuinely incredible, and it's a wonder it took 40 years to make its way to the big screen.

At the same time, it kind of worked better in hourlong documentary form.

The biggest problem with Jungle is that it simply doesn't trust its source material enough to be its own movie. For a good half hour, we're following Yossi without any influence of the outside world. It's riveting, capturing the real horrors of being truly alone in the heart of the wilderness. 

So why cut away and show Kevin getting help from a nearby village?

McLean, or his script, also toy with Yossi's mental setting, flashing back to his family strife before he left to travel. It's the same issue I had with Danny Boyle's celebrated 127 Hours: the reason these survival stories fascinated the world is because it's truly incredible to imagine what a person can do to make it through such an ordeal. Sure, there's an argument to be made for how your past might affect your current situation, but it's such a trite, standard movie trick that sucks all the true tension out of scrounging for birds' eggs and fighting snakes. 

High Points
Hey, you film a survival movie in a wilderness filled with rapids and greenery and the occasional stock image of a fuzzy spider and you'll have an audience impressed

Low Points
Daniel Radcliffe is the other best part of Jungle, so it's one of those things I just can't acknowledge: the actor clearly gave this his all, putting his body through an intense regime and losing dozens of pounds...for this?

Lessons Learned
Monkey meat is positively delicious

Nothing can change a person's mind with quite as much efficiency as a pack of fire ants

Amazonian snakes are surprisingly easy to handle, even on an empty stomach

Argh. Jungle isn't a bad movie, but it just feels like a story that deserved a better telling. You can find it on Amazon Prime...where you can also find the I Shouldn't Be Alive episode.

Monday, August 13, 2018

It's Cookie Time

Has any chunk of pop culture made in the last 30 years aged more weirdly than mid-'90s sexy corporate thrillers? I say this with all the affection in the world. 

Quick Plot: Peter is a high level marketing manager at a cookie company with a little darkness in his past. Estranged form his wife (a young and banged Maura Tierney) and son due to some "Mr. Hyde"-esque behavior, he's now focused on climbing the corporate ladder with a new plan to relaunch oatmeal raisin cookies. He'll have to work his damnest to impress his boss Charlene, played by Faye Dunaway with the exact level of business aggressiveness you'd come to expect. 

His work day takes a turn when his assistant has to exit for maternity leave, opening up a new position for the titular temp. Enter Lara Flynn Boyle in full '90s working girl fashion as Kris, a way-too-good-for-her-job secretary who immediately drops Lady MacBethian vibes all over the workplace. 

Before you can boil a bunny, higher level employees standing in Peter's way begin dropping like flies (or rather, Chekhovian wasps stinging highly allergic Oliver Platts). Meanwhile, Kris continues to impress the rest of the office and find her own name on the shortlist for VP. What's a hotheaded yuppie businessman to do?

The answer to virtually any late '80s to mid-'90s thriller is to get sweaty, tear at his floppy hair, and watch his comfortable existence slip away as his sexier rival gets what she's been working far harder for...until, inevitably, the moral patriarchal majority decides she needs to be punished.

Directed by Child's Play and Fright Night's Tom Holland, The Temp is a the definition of "product of its time," right on down to its muddled re-shot ending which leaves a HUGE plot hole or asks its audience to believe that Kris has insanely high faith in her former boss-turned-rival's ability to drive like a Nascar champ on a mountaintop highway. More importantly, this, THIS, was the initial climax:

As originally shot by director Tom Holland, the climax showed Peter (Timothy Hutton), a young company executive, inside the bakery fighting for his life with the temp (Lara Flynn Boyle). Hutton's character is dipped in dough, sent to the sugar room, falls onto a conveyor belt and finds himself heading straight at the "whopper chopper." They go into the chopper and as he desperately tries to drag himself out, she grabs his leg, the chopper comes down and cuts off her hand. The last we see of the temp, she is sliding toward the cookie oven--Source. 

I mean, why even set your film in a corporate cookie landscape if you're NOT going to incorporate a deadly Child's Play 2-esque factory chase in a violently robotic bakery setting? More importantly, why cast the (admittedly complicated) goddess that is Faye Dunaway if you're not going to make up your mind on her own trajectory until a weekend before opening?

It's a letdown, but in fairness, this remains a movie where a character roadblock is dispatched of via a carefully curated paper shredder accident. It's hard to fully pan such a flick, especially when it also gives us Lin Shaye as an embittered veteran secretary and, you know, Faye Dunaway at Network level intensity but constantly saying the word, "cookies."

High Points
Like many, I remain an extreme sucker for some early '90s corporate fashion, and a documentary (probably more riveting than this) about Lara Flynn's Boyle hair skills could have been Oscar-worthy

Low Points
Confused ending aside, the real shame of The Temp is that much like Fatal Attraction, it squanders its best asset by constantly undercutting her motives. Kris is smart, sexy, and resourceful, and occasionally, the script allows her to make genuinely deep and ahead-of-their-time comments about how she's learned to master the game on such an uneven playing field. A movie about her would have been far more interesting than an unexceptional white male protagonist trying to balance his middling career skills with his libido

Lessons Learned

In the '90s, everyone wanted to go back to the '50s

Much like hot air, success rises to the top

The birthing process is like an NBA game: nothing happens until the last two minutes

In case you haven't figured it out, you can cram a LOT of similes into your corporate speak in the first five minutes of your film

The Temp is available on HBO Go, which makes sense considering it's the kind of middling thriller that would have aired in rotation with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle throughout 1994. It's worthwhile as a product of its time in both a fascinating and frustrating way, but only those with a serious interest in that area need queue it up. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

You've Been Terminated

I've said it before and I'll say it again: considering what a large percentage of the modern world spends its days sitting at computer desks, it's shocking how few office-set horror movies there are. Hence, anytime one shows up, even in the trenches of Amazon Prime, it's a pretty immediate watch on my end.

Quick Plot: Annabelle, an internet webcam stripper attempting to make a go at the office lifestyle, shows up late for a job interview just in time to literally catch Thomas Redmann (Bad Boy Bubby himself, Nicholas Hope) red handed, axe in his hand and decapitated victim at his feet. A quick montage explains that Redmann has been found guilty of five additional murders of shady corporate bigwigs. 

Months later, Redmann has supposedly died in a fire at a mental institution. Instead, he emerges to kidnap Annabelle and a few other random strangers who had some part in his conviction. Chained to a desk, the victims (which include a phony psychic, veteran detective, failed defense attorney, successful prosecutor, and fellow eyewitness) must prove Redmann's innocence while following his fairly straightforward rules. 

I've pined time and time again for more office-based horror films, a subgenre of which is surprisingly sparse (further reminder for why despite its shortcomings, The Belko Experiment was such a welcome treat). Produced by Fangoria (remember them?), Inhuman Resources's best, well, resource is its very setting, and abandoned office building that does indeed lend itself to some W.B. Mason-sponsored arsenal improvisation. 

The rest of it plays decently enough as a low budget post-Saw meets And Then There Were None saga set in a token grimy industrial location. As Annabelle, Kelly Paterniti has a sympathetically plucky Danielle Harris vibe that's easy to root for. Director Daniel Krige keeps the story moving at a decent pace, and the script (by the writing team of Jonathon Green and Anthony O'Connor) offers some worthwhile twists to keep things from falling into trite territory.

Most of the effects are practical, which makes sense when makeup supervisor Tom Savini shows up in an annoying "let's cram some female nudity in here" cameo. A fingernail tear-off feels more try-hard than scary, but the rest of the violence is served with a more effective wink. Inhuman Resources isn't quite a horror comedy, but its best asset is its undercurrent of dark humor. This is never clearer than in its finale, which manages to close the film out on just the right note.

High Notes
It's not shocking that Nicholas Hope would turn in an interesting performance, but it is a pleasant surprise that his character gets a more nuanced backstory late in the game

Low Notes
Look, if your entire cast is Australian, just let your movie be SET where it's obviously filmed instead of forcing your poor actors to stretch their syllables through American accents that they clearly can't handle

Lessons Learned
In a pinch, a severed leg makes for an excellent bludgeon

A regional manager should never be confused with a murderer

Efficient typing skills can be life-saving in ways you'd never expect

Based on its cover and synopsis, I did not queue up Inhuman Resources with high expectations. I still wouldn't come near calling it high quality, but it's decent entertainment for a 90 minute straight-to-wherever black humor horror.