Monday, July 29, 2019

Have Mercy & Turn the Lights On

If Henry Lee Lucas inspired its share of '80s horror and Jeffrey Dahmer the '90s, it seems almost surprising that the 2010s haven't seen more creepypasta-inspired fare. 

Quick Plot: As an impressionable tween, Marina and her pal Rebecca fell into a Slender Man-ish partnership, murdering(?) a friend in the name of a masked scarecrow named Mercy Black. Marina spent the next fifteen years in a mental hospital under the care of sympathetic Janeane Garafolo. Now a grown woman with great eyebrows, Marina is released into the care of her older, sympathetic but slightly world-weary single mom sister Alice.

Life hasn't been great for Alice, but she's holding up well enough in her childhood home. Son Bryce is a thoughtful, pleasant enough kid whose only real trauma stems from missing his deadbeat dad. Alice's new boyfriend is a scummy true crime buff who views Marina's return as his big chance to write the kind of book that lands him on All Things Considered. His probing questions unsettle Marina, who begins to feel the presence of the monster she had long blocked out.

Has Mercy Black returned, even if she was never quite real in the first place? Bryce begins to fall under her spell as Marina desperately tries to unlock the mystery that has taken over her life. Lairs are unlocked, library books destroyed, and everybody's favorite Gen Xer has a bad time in the woods. 

Mercy Black is a Blumhouse production, and based on its quiet drop on Netflix, not one it had too much faith in. Written and directed by Owen Egerton, it was certainly never going to do Paranormal Activity or even, say, Happy Death Day numbers. It feels like the kind of small budget but handsomely produced film specifically designed to be watched on a mobile device.

The best thing Mercy Black has going for itself is its cast. Daniella Pineda is incredibly watchable, even if the math involved in her detainment seem a little messy (15 years in a hospital would mean she had plenty of experience with that crazy internet in 2004). Elle LaMont looks and feels like Pineda's sister, and their relationship--cautious but caring--is easily established by the actresses. 

Unfortunately, Egerton's script doesn't really serve them consistently. There are so many holes in the sequence of events, with large, gaping details that never add up. The film is filled with interesting characters whose motivations are never even explained, meaning the major conflict of the climax has no real emotional resonance. The fact that Mercy Black is such a short, focused story makes this even more frustrating. A horror novelist, Egerton clearly has good instincts with the genre. It's a shame that Mercy Black just isn't tight enough to let them really hit.

High Points
I'll give bonus points to any movie that names its dog after my favorite Muppet

Low Points
...even if said dog befalls a tragic fate

Also, as I skim through screenshots to find some usable images, it confirms just how literally DARK Mercy Black is, making it frustrating in that you can't actually SEE much

Lessons Learned
Changing your identity will age you a good ten years faster than your peers

When librarians have questions, they head to the internet

Psychiatric hospitals are a wonderful training resource for shaping your eyebrows

There are good things to be found in Mercy Black, but it's sadly not cohesive enough to be satisfying. Slender Man aficionados may enjoy its take on the trope, and for a 90 minute Netflix watch, it's decent enough. But perhaps its potential makes that even more frustrating.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Hell Hath Nothing On AnnaLynne McCord

Sometimes, you see cover art on Amazon Prime and feel a warm, comfy feeling that someone out there knows what you like: elevated Lifetime thrillers about dramatically angry women taking control of their lives. Then you look closer and see the cast involves Billy Zane, AnnaLynne McCord, and Spartacus's Viva Bianca and you wonder if you're actually dead because folks, Scorned...Scorned is heaven.

Quick Plot: We open a very cheap way of showing a text conversation between two hip abbreviations-using cheaters as they discuss their next meetup. Next, we meet the man on the end of it and yes, it's none other than Billy Zane tied to a chair.

Zane is Kevin, a wealthy gentleman with an incredibly active libido. 28 hours before his capture, his girlfriend Sadie (the glorious, never restrained McCord) was predicting his marriage proposal over shots with her best friend Jen. If you haven't guessed by now, Jen happened to be the other woman on that fateful text chain, she with the "magical pussy" and use of "U"s.

After some lakeside lovemaking, Sadie discovers the affair via Kevin's phone. Lucky for her, she's packed a generous supply of Vicodin despite this just being a weekend getaway. Having disabled the former Demon Knight with surprising ease, Sadie lures Jen and her Yorkie puppy Bootsie to their remote mansion for a wild evening of teeth pulling, shin hobbling, taco eating, and so much more.

I'm not going to tease anything here: Scorned is a ridiculous good time.

Emphasis on ridiculous.

Directed by Doll's House royalty Mark Jones (he of the first Leprechaun and the one and only Rumplestilskin) with a script cowritten by Sadie Katz, Scorned understands its Eat-Your-Heart-Out-Lifetime place and GOES for it. Is Sadie faster than The Flash? Sure! Do we get Billy Zane attempting to foot call the police? HELL YES. Even the music choices seem tongue-in-your-cheek clever, which makes perfect sense if you watch the credits long enough to see that Jones wrote most of the lyrics. 

This is the kind of movie that has a character try to get even by shouting, "you flat-chested whore!" One where two women can be lifelong best friends and yet somehow one doesn't really seem to know anything about the fact that her BFF was committed to a mental hospital and given electric shock therapy for seven years. Size 0 Sadie drinks 3/4 of a full bottle of Maker's Mark and is not only still standing, but has the ability to kidnap two people, make a full dinner, blind her boyfriend, and plot an elaborate escape plan by picking up an escaped prisoner at just the right time.

Oh yeah, forgot to mention that.

Throughout Scorned, there are a few probably filmed-in-one-day asides where we discover a heavily tattooed violent criminal is on the run (Checkhov's Law of Prisons in full force). Naturally, we're constantly waiting for him to show up at just the wrong time, a deus ex machina in a film that's already skirting any rules. The way Scorned works this into the main plot is even better than I could have imagined. 

As much as the "b*thces be crazy" subgenre pioneered by Lifetime can be insulting to women, Scorned manages to elevate it into something that might even be empowering. There are no boiled bunnies to be found here, even if there's a constant threat of little Bootsie drying off in the microwave. That's not Scorned's game: Sadie IS crazy, but she's not stupid, and there's something about her determination that's almost, dare I say it, admirable. Not all heroines wear capes: some of them just sport rainbow hair and spaghetti straps.

High Points
AnnaLynne McCord probably doesn't have the A-list career she initially dreamed of, but it's clear that she's become a genuinely interesting actress who makes a point of choosing roles where she can let loose. She's on fire in Scorned, and it's a damn beautiful thing to watch

Low Points
I actually love the yes-they-went-there ending, but if you sit back and try to put the details together, there are a LOT of holes in Sadie's plan

Lessons Learned
Girls put up with a lot of things before they lock you in

The key to making good tacos is cover up crappy meat with tons of spices

You know someone's a villain when she feeds a dog chili

Cigars are less likely to give you cancer than cigarettes, at least according to the Book of Zane

If you're a fan of fun trash, Scorned is an absolute delight. Get your fix on Amazon Prime now. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Sh! I Can't Hear In the Dark!

The last time I took a chance on an early '90s sultry thriller airing on HBO my reward was Faye Dunaway shouting "cookies!" in Tom Holland's The Temp. Twas a glorious day.

With that in mind, I went back to the cable well for 1992's Whispers In the Dark. 

Let's just say we can't all be winners.

Quick Plot: We open on blurry lovemaking, which is basically a bunch of pinkish shapes melding into each other like the finale of Society. Instead of butthead jokes and face melting, we simply get Annabella Sciorra as Ann awaking from a dream and heading to her office, where she gets hit on by Jamey Sheridan, provides counseling to a very well-dressed John Leguizamo, and hears the sexual exploits of Debra Kara Unger's Eve.

Sheridan is Doug, a nice guy pilot eager to whisk the workaholic Ann off her sensibly shoe'd feet.Their first plane ride date culminates in that kind of instrumentally scored sex scene the '90s loved, with Ann declaring Doug "the gentlest man she's ever met".

This being an early '90s sexytime thriller, Doug is more than meets the eye. We're less than 20 minutes in when Ann discovers the mystery man from Eve's detailed stories is none other than her new squeeze. Eve reacts with fury, stealing some of Ann's files before hanging herself...allegedly.

Enter Anthony "Whatever Nationality You Need" LaPaglia as brash detective Morgenstern, a man with a very specific hatred of the psychiatric profession. The suspect list begins to mount as Morgenstern interrogates everyone around Ann, including her mentor/pal/therapist Alan Alda.

Checkhov's Law of Name Actors In Small Parts should answer a lot of your questions, but Whispers In the Dark doesn't seem to have the best handle on how to ask them in the first place. Sciorra is fine in the lead, but writer/director Christopher Crowe (penner of 1996's roller coaster game changer Fear) doesn't really have a great handle on how to put the steam in what's supposed to be an erotic thriller. He gets a lot of help from the always-reliable-to-ooze-sensuality Unger, but her character's gone too soon, leaving us instead with such riveting scenes as Ann hanging out with Doug's conservative Iowan mom as she drives around town to show off the local bank.

Basic Instinct, this ain't. Heck, Whispers In the Dark makes Body of Evidence and Sliver look like bonafide classics, and trust me: that's not easy. 

High Points
If you make it through Whispers In the Dark long enough, you will ultimately be rewarded with one of the more bonkers endings of the '90s involving a beachfront confrontation that culminates in a hook to the face of a beloved sweater-clad character actor, so there's that?

Low Points
A goofy erotic thriller that's neither sexy nor fun is a bland, bland thing to behold

Lessons Learned
Being a detective might be considered low, working class, and unjewish

When hiding evidence, consider a place slightly less exposed than the living room shelf

Nothing says "not guilty" like hogtying up your therapist

'90s era police glass was incredibly breakable

Look, I love the stupid subgenre that is the sexy '90s thriller, but there are dozens of better choices out there. Watch one of those instead.

Monday, July 8, 2019

We'll Always Be Bosom Buddies

TCM remains a nice treasure for the movie fan, but its Underground weekend airings a bonafide goldmine. When I see my beloved Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? airing one Friday followed by a title I'd never heard of, but SURELY was in the same grande dame guignol genre (a term I prefer to the meaner-sounding hagsploitation or psycho-biddy horror), I programmed my DVR faster than Shelley Winters at a swim meet. 

I don't know I was adequately prepared. 

Quick Plot: Stanley and Paul are Baltimore thieves on the run, hiding out in suburban Miami. Paul disguises himself as the titular Aunt Martha, while Stanley romps about town with a string of young women, only to freak out when they make sexual advances. Martha/Paul comes to the rescue, murdering the ladies as Stanley sobs himself into further madness.

Their relationship, you might say, is complicated.

So much so, in fact, that the film doesn't officially acknowledge its sexual nature. Now 1971 wasn't the easiest time to make a film marketed as queer, but one of the strangest things about Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things is the very fact that it doesn't fully embrace itself.

Make no mistake: Paul and Stanley are lovers of some sort, or at the very least, men who share the same bed. The more handsome, younger of the two, Stanley spends a good deal of time doing drugs with conventionally attractive young women eager to get his pants off. The problem, of course, is that as soon as these ladies near his crotch, Stanley falls into a mad state of tears and violence. 

Things get even trickier when Hubert, a heroin addict thief, shows up to blackmail the couple in return for houseguest status. Meanwhile, Paul is constantly fending off the aggressive friendliness of his pregnant neighbor, while Stanley finds himself attracted to her good girl nurse daughter. 

It's a LOT, and I haven't even mentioned the Scooby Doo gang love van and post-mortem C-section that deflates its mother's belly. Written and directed by Thomas Casey (screenwriter of Flesh Feast), SAMDDT is a special little remnant from a very different time in independent cinema, combining spirit of John Waters with Norman Bates and sloppily shoving it into your nose like Stanley's cocaine. Considering its drag-ilicious plotline, I'm somewhat shocked that I've never heard of it.

Is this a classic? No, in part because it's just not that, you know, good a film. But paint my face red if it isn't something special.

High Points
While I wouldn't add them to the list of 1971's Oscar snubs, Abe Zwick and Wayne Crawford (under the name Scott Lawrence) go all out for Stanley and Paul, successfully managing to create real, albeit over the top people in one damn campy film

Low Points
The subtext of Paul and Stanley's relationship is so fascinating that it remains incredibly frustrating that the film doesn't dig deeper into its complexities

Lessons Learned
You don't have to go to parties and smoke pot to be into it

Jack rabbits are notoriously untrustworthy

Some women find childlike men attractive

The Winning (Most '70s) Line
"I hope you have a good astrologist!"
Incidentally, this is spoken by a man who has never held a gun nor watched a movie involving a character that has

Exploitation and cult movie enthusiasts will definitely find a lot to enjoy in (deep breath to say the title one more time) Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things. It's zany, messy, and pretty much unlike anything you've ever really seen. As is often the case with no budget cinema of the time, its quality as a film doesn't quite measure up to some of its more interesting concepts, but trust me: you won't be bored. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Eight Legged Arts & Crafts

If you grew up on a deserted island with no access to cinema, imagine how powerful a movie like Arachnia would seem.


Quick Plot: Professor Mugford has chartered a private plain captained by a man named Sean to fly his team to a dig in Arizona. Also on board is Chandra, his assistant, Deke, a horny grad student, and Kelly and Trina, airheads sleeping their way to a passing grade. When a meteor shower takes their plan down, the group lands on an isolate farmland stretch.

Like any educated group, the gang finds the nearest house and rudely make themselves home, guzzling down the available liquor and running baths in the center of the living room. Farmer Moses Cobb (the farmerest name that ever did farm) comes home a little miffed, but excited by Kelly's nude body and Mugford's specialty in critters. 

See, two generations ago, Grandpa Cobb found a car-sized spider and took him around as a traveling fair attraction. Moses still has the petrified corpse, which Mugford dismisses as a carnival hack. Naturally, our eggheaded misogynist will soon be proven very, very wrong.

What follows is a somewhat adorably cheap creature feature populated with paper mache, stop motion animation, and some incredibly well-aimed molotov cocktails. Writer/director Brett Piper's ear for dialogue is about as keen as his sense of staging, which means we get the kind of conversations that go like this:

Kelly: You ever do it with another girl?
Trina: I don't think so.

In the world of low budget Vermont filmed horror, young women don't even remember whether they've had same sex experiences. This is the kind of movie that has the world's foremost expert in ancient animals constantly referring to spiders as insects or bugs (and never arachnids, despite the title of his movie being, you know, Arachnia). 

Basically, you're dealing with a SyFy level cheapie made with even less money and skill. Considering that means our effects are seemingly 100% practical, there's a huge amount of charm to be found in the homemade efforts, providing you're the kind of horror fan who appreciates that type of thing.

High Points
I can't stress enough how terrible everything looks in Arachnia, but the fact that you're looking at physical creations rather than fast and cheap CGI is genuinely refreshing in our current era

Low Points
There's obviously a LOT that I COULD complain about in a movie like Arachnia, but I'm in a kind mood so I'll instead sit back and let my annoyance at the lack of effective web-based plot details be it

Lessons Learned
Studying dinosaurs makes you a critter expert, even if you can't tell the difference between an insect and arachnid

Self-proclaimed world's best damned personal assistants have a unique set of skills, including excellent shotgun aim 

Always trust in the air force, especially when it's being led by a discount Asylum version of Paul Sorvino 

Folks, Arachnia is by no definition of good a good movie. Its acting is stiff, dialogue laughable, and effects less impressive than most of what came out in the 1950s. That being said, if you're in the mood for dumb hand-crafted fun, you can find it on Amazon Prime.