Monday, October 28, 2019

The Frat Pack

A staple of the VHS slasher era, Hell Night is one of those movies that represents so much of the 1980s horror world: deformed killers, haunted house, teenage sex, and Linda Blair. It's been a good 30 or so years since a far-too-young little me watched it, but now that it's streaming on Shudder, it seemed like the time had come for a perfectly seasonal revisit.

Quick Plot: It's Halloween night, and the big Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity and its sister sorority are throwing their annual spooky bash. After a good few hours of drinking and other usual hijinks, frat president Peter sends four pledges to their big Greek test: spend the evening in Garth Manor, a gloriously gothic mansion that once housed an unhappy family whose birth defects led the patriarch to slaughter his kin.

Left alone, our quartet quickly pair off. Pill-popping Denise and surfer dude Seth head to the bedroom, while good girl mechanic Marti and nice rich guy Jeff make more innocent flirty conversation. Peter and some of the other seniors roam the grounds with a few extra pranks in mind, but before they can give the freshmen any real good scares, each is hunted down by a mysteriously large and grumbling figure.

Directed by prolific adult filmmaker (and helmer of the first few days of Savage Streets' shoot) Tom DeSimone, Hell Night is very much a mediocre product of its time. In this case, that means post-Halloween one-crazy-night teen-filled slashers. 

We have our good girl with the gender-neutral first name, her promiscuous bestie fated to die first, the surprise party filled with dead friends, and most of the other hallmarks you'd expect in 1981. It's surprisingly slow in ratcheting up the horrors, which is unfortunate when that involves a whole lot of small talk between pretty dull characters.

As anyone aware of my feelings on Summer of Fear or Savage Streets knows, I adore '80s era Linda Blair. Unfortunately, even here at the height of her scream queen reign, Marti and her pals just don't get to be that interesting. This wouldn't be so bad if the film didn't insist on giving them so many bland conversations. Our hearts go out to Linda Blair as she eventually sprints away from the killer, but no love is really lost for a boring college romance that thankfully never was. 

Thankfully, Hell Night has enough style up its frilled sleeve to remain quite watchable. The killers are barely more memorable than their victims, but between the candlelit hallways, staked gates, and rich Halloween costume palette, the film ultimately carries enough visual punch to stay in our heads.

High Points
There's a reason I remember Hell Night so vividly: the costumes. Setting your film in a decently propped gothic mansion and clothing your stars in flapper wear and crushed velvet really does wonders for the film, making its visual impact so much more interesting than its otherwise rather rote storytelling 

Low Points
There's a reason these kinds of films became dismissively characterized as "dead teenager flicks," and it's the blandness here that shows it

Lessons Learned
Rich capitalists feeds on the life of the downtrodden poor

Fraternities build relationships you'll have your whole life, although if you're spending the night in a haunted house, that life may prove to be very short

It's not a party until the windows break

Quaaludes are murder on the skin

Fun Fact
Perhaps we have to respect Hell Night for being partially responsible for 1988's The Blob: a young Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont served as (respectively) executive producer and production assistant 

Hell Night isn't overly scary or fun, but it's a good-looking slasher perfectly suited to the October horror season. Queue it up on Shudder for an appropriate autumn watch.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sinking, Not Swimming

While they're probably not the most cost-effective places to film, setting your movie (or hey, reality TV show) on an island will indeed make a visual impact. 

If only your script rose to the occasion.

Quick Plot: The US men's soccer team is heading home after a World Cup match in Brazil (did they win? for the first of its many issues, this film decides it's not important). A few minutes of screentime is devoted to extremely brief introductions, including that of likable coach James Remar.

And just as you find yourself saying, "holy crap! It's James Remar!", the team's plane crashes into an empty, lifeless island populated only by poisonous berries and the occasional oyster. 

James Remar is never seen again.

A good half the players perish, with a few barely hanging on. Trainer Connie (some of The Fast and the Furious's Sung Kang) tries to combine his PT experience with the dinky first aide kid, but it's a struggle. Star player and team captain Slim (Nate Parker) and former Eagle Scout Andreas (Gregory Peck's grandson Ethan Peck) try to raise morale, but it only takes a few rounds of stolen rations and surprise landmines to send the survivors headfirst into Lord of the Flies territory.

Directed by commercial filmmaker Shyam Madiraju from a script by Mark Mavrothalasitis (and idea by Parker), Eden is a fairly straightforward narrative with a dire lack of character development. Some of the actors are charismatic enough to hold our interest, but the film takes too long in differentiating their personalities. The pre-crash character intros are so fleeting and done without context that the transition from civilized athlete to wild island child never sticks for anyone. 

A good chunk of the time, I was trying to figure out who was who, and what trope they were even supposed to be playing. At a certain point, I thought, "oh! they're not easily identifiable because they're more complicated than simple traits." Nope. The film just needed to thin the herd a tad so we're left with our half-baked Ralph, Piggy, and Jack stand-ins. 

High Points
The lack of anything interesting in Eden shouldn't take away the simple fact that any film set mostly on an abandoned island is at least going to look pretty

Low Points
There's a special place in hell for any film that teases a shark attack only to never even confirm whether there was an actual shark

Lessons Learned
The right eye makeup can have a gorgeous effect following a wet plane crash

Dehydration and compression sickness do wonders for hand-to-hand combat skills

Nothing turns a woman on more than man's ability to make netting out of tree fiber

Maybe the reason the United States has never come close to winning the World Cup is that its team is always composed of very dull young men

Eden is not very good. But hey, if you're looking for an attractive-looking film starring attractive young people being mostly boring, it's free on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

There's a Snake In My Mailbox & You're Invited

I dread the day I run out of '90s try-hard sex thrillers. 

Thankfully, it is not this day.

Quick Plot: Meet Bill, an NYC psychologist with a successful enough practice to host him in the upper floors of a high-rise. Normally that's probably good thing, but when one of his unbalanced patients decides to hurl herself outside the window, Bill ends up broke and colorblind.

Yes, you read that right. Witnessing the red pool of blood thirty stories down is enough to rob poor Bill of his ability to see color. Needing a break, Bill heads west to visit his college pal Bob, an even more successful doctor whose book sales and group therapy sessions have kept him living in true '90s LA luxury. 

Bill sits in on one of Bob's (terribly run) group sessions and is introduced to cinema's typical brood of stereotypically, offensively eccentric adults in need of therapy. Witness their wackiness, coupled with incredibly unfairly overtalented casting:

Buck (Lance Henriksen!), a former detective with a dead wife and anger issues

Clark (BRAD EFFIN' DOURIF), a lawyer-turned-obsessive-compulsive-counter

Casey (Shelby's beloved Kevin J. O'Connor, who makes the best cherry coke in the history of the world) a poor little rich boy artist

Richie, (actor unknown for somewhat obvious reasons), a totally responsibly portrayed trans man and yes, the "totally responsibly" comment is meant to be sarcastic

and Sondra, (Miss Scarlet herself, Lelsey Ann Warren!), a kleptomaniac nymphomaniac because if you only have one woman in a cinematic group, she obviously has to be sleeping with everyone

Well before he can cure his patients, Bob is murdered by a mysterious, athletic assassin sporting a pretty nifty retractable knife glove. Detective Martinez (Ruben Blades, having a blast in his own, much more fun movie) is on the case, or rather, he directs Bill to investigate the therapy group and find the suspect, all while living in Bob's deluxe estate. 

It's not really a bad gig, especially after a fender bender brings a very beautiful, very horny, and very young lady named Rose into his (dead best friend's) bed. 

And pool.

And eventually, kitchen table and bathtub

If you knew anything about Color of Night before I even began to recap the very convoluted plot, it's probably that this is a movie with a lot of sex, including an infamous quick glance at Bruce Willis's stand-in's penis that stopped the presses in 1994. As Bill and Rose consummate their relationship, we watch a marathon lovemaking session so long that its couple has to pause for a steak dinner...which is presumably cooked by a nude Rose and I'm suddenly thinking Color of Night IS a horror movie.

A 2 hour, 21 minute horror movie.

Directed by Richard Rush (with some deep controversial editing battles with delightfully named producer Andrew G. Vajna), Color of Night is a glorious example of the very ambitious sexy '90s thriller. Coming close off the stiletto heels of Basic Instinct, it tries to create a new recipe from the same ingredients: mysterious sex-positive femme fatale, bland white yuppy 15+ years her senior, dead bodies, judgmental cops, incredibly complicated and poorly aged attempts to incorporate an LGBTQ theme, and so on. 

It is terrible. 

But also, the kind of try-hard bit of '90s erotica that opens on sexy saxophone-filled instrumentals, immediately tosses a bloody dummy death our way, throws in a horrifically nonsensical multiple personalities storyline better handled by Days of Our Lives, and ends on an original song that was nominated for both a Golden Globe AND a Razzie.

1994 was indeed a good year.

Did I mention the rattlesnake in a mailbox? Or the fact that Dominic Frontiere's score immediately falls into circus-y flute beats when the film introduces its mentally unstable characters? The epic sex scene's transition from pool to bed is done using the connecting thread of hang gliders (I'M NOT KIDDING). You could make a drinking game out of the slow motion shots and be passed out drunk within the film's first ten minutes. 

It's a LOT. And while it's pretty much terrible, I also pretty much loved it. 

High Points
If there's one trope I didn't realize had grown on me over the last few years of diving deep into '90s sexy thrillers, it's easily the "middle aged detective who hates witness with less taxing jobs and more money." Or maybe I just really enjoy watching Ruben Blades spend every moment of his screentime harassing Bruce Willis

Low Points
As much as it's pretty fun to enjoy the soap operatic quality of Color of Night's kookiness, there is something terribly irresponsible about its complete lack of any form of education regarding mental illness and therapy

Lessons Learned
To deny red is to deny emotion

Always guess the cliche and you'll never be disappointed (surprisingly good advice in all things)

In LA, everybody needs a lawyer

When visiting a wealthier friend, always try to time your visit around his impending death. If everything lines up just right, you'll get to spend the next few weeks living in his mansion rent-free

The Winning Line
"Jesus CHRIST!" screams Bruce Willis, with seemingly no self-awareness that he's saying these words while freeing his girlfriend's palms from nails

You can always count on the industrious nerds with IMDB Pro accounts to dig deep:

Mind-blowing trivia indeed

I'm not encouraging anyone to seek out Color of Night, but if you're surfing HBO Go one night and thinking to yourself, "You know, it's been a while since I saw a sex scene that reminded me of Frank and Jane's first night together in Naked Gun," you couldn't find a better fit. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Safe Words Have No Service

It took long enough for us to have an Escape Room-themed horror flick (that's if you don't count the entire Saw series as part of the genre) so it's only fitting that the time is right for other "experience"-themed settings to replace our boring old camping trips and bachelor parties.

Quick Plot: Alex (a fantastic Marcienne Dwyer) and her boyfriend Nathan are heading to the woods for a fun-filled weekend scavenger hunt-ish activity based on slasher films. They're soon joined by enthusiastic goth couple Pitch and Marina, nerdy virgin Larry, and quiet Tim before being thrown into the woods with some mysterious clues and a safe word code to use if things get too intense.

Because this is a horror movie streaming on Shudder, you can gather that there's something a little more ominous at play. The group barely makes it through one night before crazed locals are drawing blood and body parts are turning up in bloody glory.

Of course, there's also the questionable reliability of our lead. Alex begins the film as a seeming straight arrow recovering from some trauma, but before long, we learn that her past is a little more complicated: she's a recovering heroin addict with a powerful prescription that may be creating or covering up serious hallucinations. 

Directed by Preston DeFrancis (he with cowriter Trysta A. Bissett of Lifetime's kooky A Teacher's Obsession), Ruin Me is a sharp little genre film that does something you rarely see nowadays: it keeps you guessing from beginning to end. The pacing is unusual in a very good way, keeping the audience constantly questioning both reality and tone. 

Ruin Me also benefits from being very funny. John Odom's aggressive Pitch is a highlight, and the jokes on the "experience" industry are smartly on point. What's especially sharp is that Bissett and DeFrancis's script understands where humor can work in an intense situation without undercutting the tension (witness It: Chapter Two for an example of how that same idea is poorly executed). 

It would be a spoiler to go any further into the other key to Ruin Me's success, but know that the story's turns have a very real, very important weight to them. There's a vital theme exploring controlling behavior and gaslighting, and Ruin Me handles this with strength and a deep sense of importance. What a surprisingly little treat.

High Points
As someone known for being too competitive in light activities (and who refuses to even attempt an escape room in fear of alienating everyone with her intensity in the face of game pressure), I sure do appreciate Pitch's thirst to win and Marina's rather sweet and knowing habit of talking him down

Low Points
On one hand, I could have taken far more fun with the ridiculousness of the industrious slasher weekend, but truthfully, Ruin Me's quick plotting is also one of its core strengths

Lessons Learned
Dating is for teenagers. Polyamory is for adults

Horror-themed scavenger weekends operated under most of the same rules as your average strip club

Pay close attention to the color of the pills because chances are, others are too


I found Ruin Me to be an incredibly pleasant surprise, one grounded in specific characters on a journey that found a surprising way to keep me guessing. It's a great genre treat for any fan, and as you can expect, it found a good home at Shudder.