Monday, May 27, 2019

Wet Hot Soviet Summer

Horror movies set at summer camp aren't usually known for their plot complexity, making today's feature a pleasant enough surprise. 

Quick Plot: Teenager Adam awakens covered in black slime and mysterious scars inside a boarded up summer camp infirmary with a couple of corpses keeping him company. While his memory seems to be wiped, a driver's license and some of his own hand-written notes help him piece together the events that led him to this point.

Here's a somewhat linear account of Adam's findings: in the 1980s, Soviet scientists conducted experiments in the aim of harnessing the "hive mind" possibilities inherent in humanity. Bad things happened, and the findings were sealed until some thirty years later when a neurosurgeon (Sean Gunn!) decided to explore the same phenomenon, reopening the files which were then hijacked by the original scientist.

As for Adam, life is less interesting: he's a horny camp counselor decent at seducing his coworkers (including best bud Chad's girlfriend Jess). He tries to tame his ways once he (literally) bumps into sweet anti-cursing Katie, but his romance agenda gets interrupted when a plane crashes nearby. The quartet ride out to investigate, only to encounter a mysteriously zombie-like passenger who pukes some infectious goo on the ill-fated Jess.

With the power down and seemingly no other adults employed at the camp, the group attempts to stay calm amid the chaos, eventually remembering that they're in charge of some 150 children. Possessed Jess stirs the pot, throwing everyone into some dark spaces as the Russian theory of interconnectivity proves dangerously real.

That's a lot of plot for a 90 minute horror movie streaming on Amazon Prime, which is both The Hive's central strength and weakness. When I see a synopsis of such a film that mentions camp counselors, I'm not expecting Inception-levels of complexity. The Hive plays a lot with its timeline, keeping us on the same playing field as Adam as he tries to put things together. It's done quite well, and helps to make what would otherwise be a fairly bland, unlikable character into someone worth following.

At the same time, the constant time jumping and hints of a worldwide infection can't fully compensate for the fact that Adam and Chad are awful people who should in no way be put in charge of kids. 

Directed by James Gunn pal David Yarovesky (he of the newly released Brightburn), The Hive is of far higher quality than its lack of a reputation might suggest. Its cover, synopsis, and placement on Amazon Prime do not suggest any real standards, but it's a surprisingly creative story with decent execution. Had its central characters been a hint more interesting, this movie could have been something genuinely special.

High Points
As much as I would have rather this movie not be about a douchey teenage dude, actor Gabriel Basso does a darn good job, especially considering the challenges when half of your dialogue is your character talking to himself

Low Points
There are certainly highs to find in an ending (mild spoiler) that gives an a rather out-of-nowhere apocalypse, but it's hard to feel anything from it when the movie hasn't really earned that level of grandeur

Lessons Learned
Never enroll your child in summer camp without thoroughly researching the teenage sadists who will be in control

Swearing too much makes you sound stupid

Brooms and baseball bats are decent weapons for self-defense, but when you really get down to it, nothing beats a full a roll of Saran Wrap

The Hive is an impressive feat for such an under the radar horror movie. It never fully grabbed me (probably due to focusing on some pretty bland and awful teenagers) but it's smartly written, well-acted, and genuinely unique in the story it tells. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Snake Eyes

We don’t think of the early 2000s as being any major movement in the horror genre. Following the glossy late ‘90s trend of attractive WB Network stars posed in V-shapes, segueing into the post-millennium boom of J-horror’s American takeover, it was only a matter of time before horror tapped into a meaner, grislier bone (or used a rusty saw blade to grind it off). Torture porn moved mainstream horror cinema into a different direction, which helped to shape the straight-to-video fare like today’s Open Graves.

Filmed in 2006, dropped on the SyFy channel in 2009, and pooped out on DVD by Lionsgate another year later, Open Graves is one of those perfectly ridiculous movies that combines wonky CGI with hot young people in a gloriously terrible way.

Also, it’s basically Jumanji with an occasional boob.

Quick Plot: A pre-credits sequence piles on a messy montage of random torture during the Spanish Inquisition, where Mamba the witch is put to death with her body being turned into a board game (we could only wish to be so lucky). Note that the level of quick-cut violence and nudity collaged together is never really seen again the rest of the film’s running time, leading overthinking horror fans like me to wonder if this sequence was added in post to better fit the style of its time.

A couple of centuries later, a group of hot young twentysomethings are wandering the streets of Spain when Jason (Grind’s Mike Vogel, and sure, he’s done other movies that aren’t Grind, but more importantly, he did Grind) ends up in a mysterious antiques shop. The legless proprietor gives him a familiar looking board game free of charge, which is exactly how you want to spend your drunken nights on the Spanish coast.

Jason, hot and smart surfer Erica (Eliza Dushku, aka Faith the Vampire Slayer), ladies’ man Tomas, and Tomas’s hot girl calendar crew begin the game, which basically just involves rolling dice and reading sepia colored playing cards. The cards either let you roll again or knock you out of the game via ominous poetry. Naturally, said poems prove to be prophetic in early 21st century CGI-filled gore.

Eventually, Jason, Erica, and Tomas figure out that the game itself is haunted. Whoever makes it to the end may have the chance to undo the damage with a winning wish, but there are a lot of venomous snakes, advance age-stinging bees, man-eating crabs, and crazy obsessive Spanish detectives to deal with first. 

Directed by Alvaro de Arminan from a script by Roderick Taylor and Bruce Taylor, Open Graves is a goofy tale that takes itself extremely seriously, which is exactly what you want from a movie like this. Character development stops at “surfer,” “love triangle,” and “lives in a cool lighthouse.” The Spanish coast is a living postcard and everyone is attractive, at least until some outdated computer animation tears their body apart. This movie is no The Sand, but it scratches a similar itch.

High Points
Who can argue with the creativity of deaths on display? Crabbings, snakings, flayings, and intense advanced aging? I’ll take it

Low Points
I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s incredibly unsatisfying for everyone, including the evil deep demon voiced angel/demon apparition of Eliza Dushku who, I guess, has to go through this rather ridiculous process time and time again 

Lessons Learned
Crabs are honest creatures, which I guess makes CGI crabs some kind of hole in the universe?

Unlike their American male counterparts, female Spanish morticians trade sandwiches for shameless flirting

The English translation of “vae victis” is “losers weepers”

16th century Spanish priests had incredible foresight into the 20th century board game market, anticipating its American popularity and wisely printing its instructions and playing cards in English

Riddle Me This
I’ve seen Labyrinth enough times over the course of 30+ years that I can quote the entire screenplay backwards and forwards (it’s a great coping trick for surviving root canals) and yet I STILL do not understand the riddle of the two doors. Well, Open Graves, which focuses on some very dumb characters who prove to make constant dumb decisions throughout these 87 minutes, uses the SAME riddle and somehow, these pretty idiots nail it. Humbled, I am.

If you love a good dumb straight-to-DVD-when-that’s’-how-we-watched-dumb-horror-movies, you will indeed have a fun time with Open Graves. Not surprisingly, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime. Sometimes, this world is a balanced place after all.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Send More Corn Rigs

Sometimes, it's hard to judge the movie you see when the one you wrote in your head is so much more interesting. 

Especially if yours involves musical numbers.

Quick Plot: Vaughn and Marcus are childhood pals looking for one last weekend of wild fun before Vaughn becomes a father. The pair heads out to a remote village to do some hunting, drinking, and in Marcus's case, coke and townie hookup-ing.

Hung over and still reeking of whisky, the men delve into the woods fully armed with not quite legal ammo. Vaughn lines up a clean shot at an adorably unaware deer, only to pull the trigger and discover his bullet landing straight into the head of a wandering little boy. When the boy's father follows close behind, Marcus doesn't hesitate in shooting him to cover their tracks.

The weekend, you can say, is kind of ruined.

Level-headed (maybe?) Marcus insists he and Vaughn bury the bodies and tell no one, assuming the victims to be tourists who won't be missed for some time. Just as they're gearing up to leave town, they discover their tires slashed by some of the angrier villagers who demand payback for Marcus's reckless night of seducing a local lass.

Oh, and by the way: the two dead bodies belong to the leader of the angry, car-destroying pack.

Written and directed by Matt Palmer, Calibre is a small, tense thriller. With all its lead-up to an annual full-village bonfire, I was really hoping it would pull a Kill List and turn into something far weirder with Wicker Man implications. Unfortunately for me, it's just not that kind of movie. 

That's not in any way to say Calibre isn't good. Sometimes, as an overeager audience, we simply get excited about seeing the film we've written in our heads. Director Palmer does such a solid job of building a threatening atmosphere with location and character that it's weirdly disappointing when things are settled in a dark, but not, I don't know, truly primal way.

High Points
I'm a sucker for a cold British countryside, and Palmer uses every layer and muddy boot to strong effect

Low Points
Perhaps it's intentional, but there hit a point early on in the film where I thought to myself, "here we go with yet another tale of bland white professional city men being jerks in the country and paying for it at the hands of oppressed rural villagers." Granted, that in itself is (I believe) part of the very point of Calibre, but it still means dealing with yet another pair of bland white professional city men being jerks

Lessons Learned
Really, I think this can all be summed up with one pretty handy suggestion: maybe don't go hunting with powerful firearms when you're still rather drunk?

Calibre is streaming on Netflix, and it makes for a pleasantly tense little watch when you're in that kind of mood. Yes, it would have been better had the townspeople revealed themselves to be human sacrificers with pleasant singing voices. But isn't that always the case?

Monday, May 6, 2019

Friends to the End

I have never been coy about my love for Lifetime thrillers. Occasionally, you can find a genuinely good film (or more likely, an actual performance) buried inside the perfect never-cooked-in-kitchens in these typical 86 minute packages. More often, you find a fairly phoned-in quickie that follows every beat you expect. But on the best days, those days when this dimension is perfectly aligned with some kind of planetary force, we get bonkers treats like Imaginary Friend.

Quick Plot: Emma (Hallmark holiday princess Lacey Chabert) is your typical poor little rich girl. As a child, her abusive but conveniently wealthy father killed her mother and then himself (this phrase is repeated about seventeen times over the course of this movie), thus giving Emma a generous trust fund but terrible judgment when it comes to men.

Perhaps this is why Emma finds herself married to Brad, a successful psychiatrist who specializes in treating beautiful, troubled women. Naturally, Brad is a cad, flirting mercilessly with his assistant and drawing up paperwork to commit Emma as soon as the ink is dry on his own power of attorney contract with Emma's protective lawyer (for some reason, Paul Sorvino!). 

Brad isn't wrong to be concerned about Emma's health. Despite being a grown woman with a beautiful house, painterly talents, and incredible ability to never have her eye makeup run in the shower or while swimming, Emma can't seem to escape the presence of Lily (12 Monkeys' Amanda Schull), the imaginary friend who brought her comfort as an abused little girl (who, don't forget, saw her father murder her mother and then kill himself).

The white wine drinking game for Imaginary Friend is easily my favorite new Friday night pastime.  

Is Emma insane, or is Lily something more sinister than a mere hallucination? The answer, naturally, is what makes a made-for-Lifetime thriller such a joy.

To go into any detail would be a spoiler, and I dare not rob you of some of Imaginary Friend's joyous tricks. Yes, you might see a big twist coming (even the film's own handling of its reveal feels underwhelming, as if it knows its audience is smarter than so much of its other programming suggests) but what comes after is even zanier, opening dozens of questions on foot travel, jewelry receipts, and zombie makeup. 

If you're still not sold on the merits of Imaginary Friend, allow me to leave you with three words:

Angry art montage. 


High Points
Too often, the dullest part of a Lifetime movie is its inevitably handsome, bland male lead. Ethan Embry's Brad is a far more interesting creation: a skeevy womanizer who endures some serious comeuppance in drawn out glory

Low Points
Look, it's handled VERY specifically in Imaginary Friend, but it would be irresponsible of me to not narrow my eyes at yet another piece of pop culture that uses mental health medication as a tool of villainy

Lessons Learned
Practice is all about hot young nubile patients

Never call your imaginary friend it

It’s always confusing when people have two last names

All the money in the world can apparently only buy one shirt for painting and one bikini for daily swimming exercises

Imaginary Friend is streaming on Amazon Prime, and really, why have you not already downloaded it to your device? It's a ridiculous play on gaslighting that offers a grand reward, all while serving up a variety of Lifetime tropes in a ridiculously opulent estate. Have at it.