Monday, April 27, 2020

Friends Forever

Pascal Laugier's Martyrs remains one of the most discussed, most celebrated horror films to come out this century. On the surface, it was packaged like a just another example of the French extremity and torture porn movements that had become the subgenre du joir. Look closer and you see a potpourri of styles, from ruthless home invasion to J-horror ghost story. Watch the whole film and take a breath and you get something completely different: a philosophical conundrum that asks deep questions it refuses to answer. It's truly something special, and one that even gets better upon rewatch.

Hollywood being Hollywood, it naturally got remade and dumped into DVD bins right as the world stopped buying DVDs. Naturally, I rented it via Netflix disc. Because there's always one...

Quick Plot: Young Lucie escapes some kind of torturous warehouse, ending up in the care of St. Mary's Orphanage where she is quickly befriended by the kind Anna. Ten years later, Lucie makes a standard homicidal home invasion call to a seemingly normal white collar family. Anna swings by to help and finds herself in shock at Lucie's shotgun violence, believing her friend to be delusional. As she tries to help clean up the mess, she soon discovers a sprawling torture chamber and trapped little girl named Sam, thus proving Lucie right.

So far, so Pascal Laugier's Martyrs. Written by Mark L. Smith of Vacancy, The Revenant, and the very clever Overlord, Martyrs stays extremely close to its source material until a very specific character decision. If you want it revealed, stop now. If you're one of the eight people in the world who care how the American remake of Martyrs turns out, continue.

Unlike Laugier's original, Lucie survives her attempted suicide only to be re-kidnapped by the philosophical torture gang (is there a better way to describe them?), here led by Kate Burton's Eleanor. Anna gets a few rounds of electro-shock torture but proves a victim rather than titular martyr, though her survival instincts kick in to save her from being buried alive, free young Sam one more time, and display some rather impressive hand-to-hand combat moves in an attempt to save her BFF.

Where Laugier's Anna was flayed full body to the point of martyrdom, Lucie gets what seems like a minor scraping. While it's a ridiculous way to nod to the most powerful image of the first film, the final moments of Martyrs actually have something slightly new to say. 

Anna's love of Lucie was always a fascinating aspect of Laugier's film, so if directors Kevin and Michael Goetz were going to do anything different with their remake, centering that certainly works. Anna has a different arc here: initially dismissed as too weak for martyrdom, she reaches it via a different path and seems to ascend side by side with Lucie.

It's an interesting twist, even if it confuses some of the ambiguity of Laugier's film. In 2008's Martyrs, Anna seems to reach the point the torturers seek. When she whispers what she sees into Mademoiselle's ear, the woman reacts by shooting herself in the head. We're left to wonder what Anna said. Was it so beautiful that Mademoiselle couldn't wait to get there? A condemnation for all her sins? My theory has always been that there was nothing there, because what could be worse than realizing the years of hell you've put innocent children through was for naught?

In the Goetz's remake, Lucie whispers something to a different character, who promptly shoots himself in the face. Anna then puts a bullet in Eleanor's head. There's something...odd about that. 

On one hand, sure. Kill the woman in charge who oversaw the torture of your best friend. On the other...what does that really mean? Should we feel vindication that Eleanor never gets to know what martyrs see? 

My point, I suppose, is that there is something to Martyrs 2015 in how it tried to take the original film and explore some different angles within it. Unfortunately, it doesn't really get too far. 

High Points
I hate a lot of the decisions made in Martyrs 2015, but I do think it's important that Smith's script recognizes the connection Anna has to Lucie to be a hugely important element in their story

Low Points
The amount of Bond villaining that keeps a character alive so that she can hear dastardly plans before being almost executed in an elaborate manner is more ridiculous than the sentence I just wrote

Lessons Learned
When burying someone alive, take a few extra seconds to make sure there's no exit route

Or, if the main goal is to kill said person, just kill them

New weapon of choice: a shotgun, which is apparently extremely easy to aim, deadly to use, and fast to load

Pretty Little Final Girls
And with Martyrs, thus do we complete the first unofficial (of what I hope will be many more) round of Pretty Little Liars in horror films. Lucie shares some of Spencer Hastings' determination, so in its own way, it's kind of fitting that Troian Bellisario (who definitely deserves better) finds herself here.

Look, I'm not going to tell you to spend much energy in tracking down and watching 90 minutes of the mediocre Martyrs remake. That being said, I went into this expecting the pits, something akin to the American Pulse. The Goetz's Martyrs will never make the list of best reimaginings, but honestly, it's very far from the worst. While it certainly feels a bit neutered, it also offers a slightly different point of view on the original material. If you're going to recreate one of the best genre films of the last twenty years, you better have some kind of reason other than "Amurikans don't read." There is something here. Is it worth a watch? Not necessarily, but I appreciate the effort. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Feminine Witchstique

What does one do after birthing a horror subgenre that would turn into a billion dollar enterprise of which you barely profit? Four years after the release of Night of the Flesh Eaters Living Dead, George Romero made the logical career move: directing a feminist allegory about witchcraft that got repurposed by its disappointed studio as softcore porn.

And you thought YOU had a bad day.

Quick Plot: Meet Joan Mitchell, a 39-year-old housewife whose daughter Nikki is about to leave home and whose husband Jack is an awful, abusive workaholic blowhard. Her living room is illuminated by very creepy children lamp statues. Life could be better.

Enter a new neighbor and rumored witch. Joan and her gal pal Shirley visit the mystery woman for a Tarot reading, wetting Joan's appetite for a dive into the supernatural. Things get even more tempting when Joan meets Gregg, Nikki's TA and casual boyfriend. Joan is both repulsed by and attracted to him, something Nikki picks up on and angrily runs away. 

Left alone for a few days due to Nikki's escape and Jack's business trip, Joan heads to the nearest occult shop and stocks up on her witchcraft starter kit. First up is a spell to summon Gregg to her home, though a simple phone call seems to work without the added incense ash. 

It's strange to see Season of the Witch categorized as a horror film, since it seems so clear that it's simply using some of those tenants to explore a very simple (yet very dense) subject. I'm sure many a genre fan expecting more flesh-eating witches and less loud '70s print-wearing homemakers left Season of the Witch disappointed, though probably not as much as those who rented it under the studio's slapped on original title: Hungry Wives.

Romero clearly didn't want to make a mild skin flick, nor was he diving back into the brutal well of gore he mastered with Night. While some of his dialogue feels clunky (particularly nearly 50 years later), the sentiment works. Actress Jan White doesn't feel like the most charismatic of leading ladies, but that's absolutely fitting for the character of Joan. This is a woman who's never had much of a self, and through a random combination of events, is finally coming into her own.

Sure, some of the metaphor is heavy-handed (this is the same man who made Diary of Dead, don't forget) but there's a fundamental simplicity (perhaps because of constant studio cuts to Romero's original cut) that makes the film move at the exact right pace. We only need one scene of Shirley making a fool of herself in front of young people to tell us everything we need to know about how Joan sees herself and her future. This is a woman loosely stuck in a crummy, disappointing existence. The freedom she finds in the promise of witchcraft are paired with the dangers that seem to be warning her in vivid dreams to drive her into some very big choices. It all tracks, and while the wild wallpaper certainly helps, I found it riveting.

High Points
I won't spoil it here, but know that there aren't quite enough words in a thesaurus to say just how much I adored the ending and its implications towards the entire film we'd just seen

Low Points
When you fill your frames with constant closeups of creepy Hummel-ish figurine lamps, you owe it to your audience to have them, I don't know, come alive in a nightmare sequence and terrify us all

Lessons Learned
When your daughter is balled in the next room, you handle it by kicking some ass

Take it from Ruth Gordon: if the mousse tastes chalky, don't eat it

In the early '70s, pregnancy tests were 92% accurate

By all accounts I found, Romero was never happy with Season of the Witch. It's definitely a raw film that could have benefited from a revisit, but as a remnant of its time, Season of the Witch feels like a weird hidden gem...or at the very least, stylish bit of costume jewelry that would look fabulous in a flowered mumu. It's streaming on both Amazon Prime and Shudder, and certainly worth your eyeballs.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Five By Five

Following last week's review of Just Dec's Countdown, we dive into yet another first time filmmaker's debut that ALSO has the word "Count" in its title. I'd love to say this was planned and that there's some big theme brewing, but really, I got nothing. 

Sometimes I wonder why I insist on writing introductions. 

Quick Plot: College student Evan is visiting new age big brother Peyton in the California desert. Upon a scenic mountain hike, Evan catches the eye of Zoe, who's moping through a holiday weekend with four sets of coupled friends. Torn between sleeping on the floor in Peyton's trailer or in bed with Zoe at her amazingly isolated Airbnb, Evan makes his choice.

That night, his new gang pairs some fireside ghost stories with an endless supply of tequila. Evan stumbles upon an urban legend website and reads a quick tale about something called a hisji, a demon obsessed with the number of five. While the gang laughs it off, Evan senses something wrong in the air.

Over the next day or two, things begin to go very, very wrong. What starts as a few power outages and mysteriously unpredictable games of Never Have I Ever morphs into a rash of dopplegangers and violent suicide. 

This is what you get for ditching your caretaker brother for a gaggle of obnoxious teenagers.

Directed by newcomer Elle Callahan (from her and Michael Nader's script), Head Count is an interesting, imperfect twist on the traditional "hot young people fight a mysterious demon in a secluded location" trope. The actual nature of the hisji's evil--how it can only attack groups of five--is executed with a lot of cleverness, forcing the audience to constantly reassess each frame. Callahan stages some genuinely haunting shots, especially in the early stages when we still don't quite know what to look for. 

Perhaps the biggest issue with Head Count comes down to its very title. With a group of ten attractive but mostly personality-free cast members, it's hard to care too deeply about most of their fate. Aside from Evan and Zoe, only Camille (Bevin Bru) and her young Brittany Murphy vibe makes any real impression. Sure, there's only so much time in a 90 minute straight-to-Netflix horror film, but it still feels as though the film makes no real effort to distinguish the group.

As a result, I found there to be a little bit of distance between myself and the finale of Head Count. I was more intrigued by the plotting than invested in the characters' fate, which certainly took some of the fear out of my watch. Still, this is a film made with both skill and creativity, and that's not always easy to find.

High Points
I get the feeling Head Count would be even more interesting on rewatch, as Callahan drops quite a few intriguing visual clues before the audience (or characters) figure out the hisji's rulebook 

Low Points
Look, I know I'm not really ever supposed to care that much about hot young fodder in a horror movie, but I like to at least be able to remember how many are left

Lessons Learned
The best cure for a hot tub that's too hot is a bottle of tequila

Nothing says "not cool" like a lighter decorated with a race car design

Anyone who goes desert hiking in Converse All-Stars, the least supportive sneaker ever made, kind of deserves a fate of demonic proportions

Head Count has some issues, but for one of those pretty people in peril movies that simply appears on a Netflix list, it's a well-made little ride with more than a few surprises. It's not necessarily a must-see, but Elle Callahan is clearly a filmmaker to watch. 

Monday, April 6, 2020

A PSA About Reading the Terms & Conditions

We've had our share of killer dolls, killer beds, killer microwaves, killer wigs...why WOULDN'T we expect to find a whole subgenre about murderous phone apps?

Quick Plot: Courteney and her pals are playing a drinking game when a diet discussion leads them to discover Countdown, a smartphone app that tells you the exact time of your expected death. Think of it as Helena Bonham Carter's Big Fish witch character as a phone icon.

While her pals' prognosis ranges between age 20 and 63, poor Courtney has just three hours on her clock. Her drunk driving boyfriend Evan is unimpressed, though Courtney is smart enough to walk home. 

No matter: Courtney is murdered by an unseen force in her bathroom just as
Evan crashes, the empty passenger seat destroyed. Some time later, Evan is awaiting his surgery when he meets Quinn, a friendly almost-nurse who listens to his ravings long enough to download Countdown. Like Courtney, her numbers aren't great. Throw in a sexually harassing supervisor, ill-behaved kid sister, and guilt over a dead mom and you've got a pretty rough few days left for Quinn. 

Thankfully, she's not alone. Joined by a helpful fellow doomed stranger named Matt and eager-beaver priest, Quinn plots to save a batch of unlucky app users.

Written and directed by first timer Justin Dec, Countdown didn't get the highest reception from critics or fans when it premiered in theaters last year. App-based horror films have a tough wall to climb, since the concept still sounds silly to most filmgoers. Honestly, this is something I don't understand. Movies, particularly the cheaper genre type, are ALWAYS going to grab onto the most zeitgeist-y tools of their time. As I say all the time with social media slashers, why wouldn't a young filmmaker use that platform to reach the exact target audience that uses the technology?

That's not to say that Countdown is by any means great. Clearly descended from the Final Destination school of combining humor with elaborately foreshadowed deaths, it doesn't quite marry its tones as well as I would have liked. There's a lightness fitting of its PG-13 rating, and Elizabeth Lail (poor stalked Beck of You) works well in the lead. Unfortunately, the horror aspect never really clicks into place. 

There are the token demon-faced spurts, lots of darkly lit hallways, and random ghosts-of-their-pasts cameos that seem to complicate the overall nature of Countdown (the app) without adding much to Countdown (the movie). It's messy. 

But hey, dumb horror doesn't necessarily mean unenjoyable horror. I probably enjoyed Countdown far more than most genre fans not because it was scary, but because it had a certain sense of fun. I can't particularly recommend it to most viewers, but there's a good time to be had with low expectations.

High Points
Dec clearly has a pleasantly clever touch, and it's mostly on display with his more extreme side characters. What could be grating--a sarcastic tech guy and unorthodox priest--brings just the right amount of spark to an otherwise dreary tale

Low Points
While there are some decent setups and jump scares, like so many recent horror films, Countdown struggles mightily when it comes to embodying its demons in physical form

Lessons Learned
The way you get fat is by eating too many calories

The real sign that humanity is doomed is that too many people use their phones for texting and Facebook

If you're lucky enough to overdose at just the right time, you just might get some cake

Always read the terms and conditions. Oh, who are we kidding? Most of us would rather accept a supernatural death than actually do that every time we download something

Countdown doesn't play at the same level as a Final Destination or even the similarly styled Wish Upon, but it's perfectly fine for what it is and undeserving of the strangely aggressive hate it seemed to collect upon its release. When you're trying to kill 90 minutes without too much thought, it might prove satisfying enough.