Monday, October 26, 2020

Behind the Mask (is another one)

Look at me, being timely (for once) with a Halloween-set horror film in October!

Quick Plot: Harper is a college student excited for a Halloween out with friends and far away from her abusive boyfriend. After some loud bar time, her squad heads to a remote haunted attraction, one so extreme that it requires signed waivers and cellphone surrenders.

Obviously, this is not a friendly place. Our staff is composed of members of some kind of violent cult who modify their faces into fleshy masks and murder unsuspecting drunk teenagers with glee. Can Harper and her other blandly (mostly) pretty friends make it out alive? WHO will survive, and what will be left of them?, you might ask.

Made by the writing/directing duo of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, Haunt is pretty much exactly what you expect from its premise. As with, say, Volcano and Dante's Peak or The Silence and A Quiet Place (the latter also written by Beck and Woods), it's impossible to think about Haunt without comparing it to Hell Fest, the other 2018/19 non-found footage horror film following a group of young college kids through a homicidal Halloween house. The film wasn't overly well-received by critics or the horror community, which surprised me because it was bloody, quick, and genuinely fun.

Haunt is a lesser Hell Fest.

It's not bad by any means, and for me, much more enjoyable than some other recent homicidal haunt films (The Houses October Built and Hell House LLC). But...I don't know. It's fine? Katie Stevens is a sympathetic final girl and Harper's backstory of abuse adds some weight to her character, but I just didn't get that much out of its scares. 

If you're going to place your horror film in a setting that's supposed to be the scariest experience its characters can have, I guess I just expect more from you? In my least expressive teacher voice, I feel like my real summation is simply, "I'm not mad, just a little disappointed."

High Points
While I didn't find Haunt's horror segments overly effective, there is certainly some skill at work. I'm a sucker for the "it's coming eventually" trick, and Haunt has some good fun drawing out a "stick your arm in a hole" gag that goes on just long enough to make you inch up on your chair

Low Points
I get that it can easily happen, and I understand that it's an effective genre move, but I can't say it in my Low Points enough: having your beleaguered heroine accidentally kill (and oddly enough, almost always stab) her friend thinking it's her stalker is a mean, nasty trick, and I've been over it for 20 years

Lessons Learned
Just because you planted your own haunt traps doesn't mean you're immune to their tricks

Criminal psychologists know all about 2-way mirrors

In any group of attractive college students, there will inevitably be one prankster who deserves to die

Haunt is a perfectly fine horror film, especially for the Halloween season. For whatever reason, it just didn't do much for me (compared to the incredibly fun time I had with Hell Fest). See if works better for you on Shudder!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Black Mirror Revisit: Black Museum


Third from the bottom in my initial ranking of Black Mirror was the one episode you can't watch out of order, Black Museum. Like most anthology-style storytelling, the segments vary wildly, so much so that I barely remembered a third of the episode upon rewatch. 

But hey: it's hard to be too hard on anything that introduced us to the future Black Panther.

The Talent
Veteran British TV director Colm McCarthy takes on the reins, and if that name sounds familiar even if (like me), you don't live on a BBC diet, that might be because he also helmed the fiercely entertaining The Girl With All the Gifts. Showrunner Charlie Brooker wrote the script, basing the first segment on a story by none other than magician Penn Jillette. Throw in the born-to-be-a-star pre-Shiri Leticia Wright, and you have some pretty promising ingredients.

The Setup
British tourist Nish (Wright) stops to power up her vintage car in the middle of the southwest desert, deciding to kill a few hours at the mysterious Black Museum conveniently located in the middle of nowhere. The owner and proprietor, Rolo Haynes, eagerly gives her a tour through its treasures: artifacts of recent crimes involving technology, many of which come straight from the Black Mirror vault. 

Part of Black Museum's charms are indeed its easter eggs, in this case, props from previous episodes that open up far too many questions about Brooker's universe. Is 15 Million Merits just a graphic novel, rather than a terrifying future dystopia? Does a bee relic from Hated In the Nation imply those many hundreds of thousands of people actually died? It's probably better not to overthink the references...

Especially since they're really not central to the actual plot of the episode, which turns into an anthology framed by Rolo's past exploits representing a neuro technology company. The first story feels as though it would be better serviced by Tales From the Crypt, following a doctor who gets to experience his patients' physical pain without the consequences. Story 2, the most interesting and Black Mirror-y, follows Carrie, a young mother comatized by a car accident, whose mind is then transported into her loving husband before marital woes lead him to swap it out into a teddy bear. Naturally, everything works out great! Finally, the third story tells the sad tale of a wrongly imprisoned black man named Clayton Leigh, who signs over his digital identity to Rolo's company, not realizing that his reward will be an eternity of being executed by a bloodthirsty, often racist paying public.

The Ending
Hey, you can't complain that Black Museum doesn't deliver some satisfaction in its closing moments. Nish, you see, isn't a wandering stranger but the daughter of Clayton Leigh, and she's deliberately sought out Rolo in order to pay him back for all of the pain his cruel indifference has caused her family. This involves freeing her father's digital persona and trading it in for Rolo, who gets stuck as an electrocuted keychain before presumably being burned alive inside his own house of horrors. Nish also saves the Carrie Bear along the way.

The Theme
Hey, did you know technology is dangerous? BLACK MUSEUM DOES.

I guess there's a little more to it in that Rolo's villainy is more specifically tied not just to human cruelty, but the selfish tradeoffs we make, trading our souls for more convenience or career esteem. 

More interestingly and yet less thoughtful is the flirtation with examining race (something consistently frustrating in the Black Mirror universe). The fact that Clayton is a wrongly executed black man isn't something you can ignore, but there's no actual commentary beyond that.

The Verdict
Eh. Black Museum is certainly more entertaining than The Waldo Moment and less soul-crushing than Shut Up and Dance, but much like its unofficial partner White Christmas, the anthology aspect creates an uneven experience. The first story has nothing to say and feels like it belongs in a completely different television universe. The second hits, but also, well, feels quite a bit like a story in aforementioned White Christmas. Leticia Wright helps to make the last segment feel as rewarding as possible, but a simple vengeance tale doesn't really seem that creative 5 seasons in. 

Technology Tip
Any new development that seems too good to be true, asking nothing of you but to weave it inside your daily life, is, without question, something that will destroy everything you thought you loved

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: If you average together the three (4/10 for a story where no one really matters, 8/10 for Carrie's sad tale, and an even 5/10 averaging a 10 for Clayton's fate but a 0 for Nish's sweet revenge) you get 5.repeating6 so...that?
Quality Scale: 6/10; That first segment really brings the rest down
Enjoyment Scale: 6/10. There is some fun to be had in the visual references, and the fact that the episode ends on such grand comeuppance certainly leaves us with a better taste than some of the darker episodes. 

Up Next: Guess it's time to choose a few adventures with #20, Bandersnatch.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Stepford Lives


One of my favorite measurements for a horror movie is to examine what kind of dreams I have the night I watch it. For Vivarium, they were WEIRD.

That's a good thing.

Quick Plot: Gemma and Tom are growing increasingly frustrated by their limited findings in their quest for the perfect home. Having exhausted the nearby possibilities, they decide to check out Yonder, a new suburban development that seems a little far out of the way of Gemma's schoolhouse and Tom's landscaping job.

They're led to Yonder by Martin, an incredibly odd realtor who doesn't seem to know how to speak to other human beings. Yonder itself seems nice enough: street after street of identical avocado green 2-bedroom homes with modern kitchens and compact yards. There's even a pre-decorated baby boy's room just waiting for the right couple to give to their first male child.

Just as Gemma begins to question where the rest of the neighbors are, Martin vanishes, leaving Gemma and Tom to hop back in their car and hightail it out of there. 

Except, of course, there is no way out.

Well, maybe I spoke too soon. After trying to escape a few of the old fashioned ways, Tom and Gemma receive a mysterious delivery in a Blue Apron-style cardboard box. Unlike their past vacuum-sealed tasteless food, this one contains a newborn baby with a simple message: Raise the child and be released.

Talk about society forcing parenthood on childless couples! The child, it turns out, is a weird little thing, one who ages at an exponential rate but remains a rather horrible, inhuman creature who insists on dressing like a Mormon missionary. Tom and Gemma have agreed to treat it like a thing, feeding it cereal to stop the incessant screaming but avoiding any hints of affection.

One day, Tom discovers some sort of gooey dirt underneath his astroturf lawn. With nothing else to do, he starts to dig, hoping he can discover a path out of Yonder or just keep himself busy and farther away from the incredibly creepy Young Sheldon wannabe that wants to be his son. Gemma, a schoolteacher, can't help but become intrigued by the kid's development.

Vivarium is my kind of movie (see my love of the much underrated House Hunting). It's a genuinely unique but focused premise, and writer/director Lorcan Finnegan lays it out with such twisted simplicity that I think I fell in love. Granted, I find the idea of forced parenthood of monster children to be my deepest nightmare, making me an easy mark for this kind of story, but there's a lot more here: a passionate but fragile romantic relationship thrown into a cruel test before it's really ready, suggestions of otherworldy creatures with a terrifying master plan, literal layers of strangeness, and more.

I dug it.

High Points
I truly hope Imogen Poots enjoys genre filmwork because my GOSH is she good at it. This woman deserves a much bigger career than she thus far has, but I wonder if she actively picks her projects because the roles themselves give her so much room to explore. She's as good here as she was in Black Christmas, conveying such a deep well of dying enthusiasm for her life while still having some kind of conscience about her decisions

Low Points
I actually really like how Jesse Eisenberg is used, but I do wish there was just a little more charm to him at the beginning to justify what Gemma really saw in him in the first place

Lessons Learned
I know we all watched The Babadook thinking, "this is the worst child in horror movie existence" but guess what? This kid makes Sam look like Rhoda Penmark as seen by those who didn't suspect her of serial killing. My point here, in terms of a lesson, is that there are simply no bottom to the depths of how awful children can really be

Quarantine has put Vivarium in more prominent spotlight than it might have otherwise, and sure: a story about the insanity of being stuck in one place with the same faces, homeschooling an unstable boy certainly speaks to our time, but in any other year, I think I still would be highly recommending this film. There's a strong sense of discipline at work in Finnegan's work here, and I'm excited to see more. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Into the Culture Shock

Hulu's Into the Dark series has generally mixed reviews, so I'm now thinking I just have really good luck in randomly picking the good ones. 

Quick Plot: Marisol is making her second attempt to cross the Mexican border, seeking refuge in the United States. Her first try ended in tragedy and a brutal rape, leaving her heavily pregnant as she teams up yet again with a no-nonsense coyote. 

The less you know about Culture Shock going in the better, as it takes some sharp tonal turns in genuinely surprising ways. Director Gigi Saul Guerrero (who also did a lot of reworking of the original script by Efren Hernandez and James Benson) brings an incredibly fresh, immediate energy to the narrative, establishing a realistically bleak opening that makes the abrupt switch all the more effective. 

If you've seen Culture Shock or are that odd movie fan who likes to know too much, I'll go into a little more detail here.

As always, you've been warned.

After seemingly getting caught by violent cartel members, Marisol awakens in a bright, Stepford Wives existence where her healthy newborn is being cared by a way too smiley Barbara Crampton. The whole town of Cape Joy is cheerfully planning the big Independence Day celebration, but only Marisol seems to sense the extreme weirdness of waking up every day with perfect makeup and a non-wrinkled A-line dress.

The reveal of Cape Joy being nothing more than an elaborate (albeit surprisingly dirty) virtual simulation is sad and cruel, and fully loaded with important commentary. Like many a recent socially charged genre film, its story merits far more time than a brief 90 minute cutoff allows, which keeps this from quite reaching the echelon of greatness. Still, it shows a remarkably talented and unique voice in its director, and manages to be scary, funny, thoughtful, and surprising.

High Points
Guerrero's direction is wonderfully rich, but the movie would fall apart without Martha Higareda's steely performance as Marisol, who holds virtually every scene together

Low Points
The actual government conspiracy action-y climax didn't quite satisfy the incredible potential of the film's narrative, but an argument could easily be made that the villains were far from the main point of Culture Shock, so I'm not terribly bothered by the ending's slight disappointment (particularly when the final beat and Marisol's specific finale is so satisfying)

Lessons Learned
You can always judge a woman by the quality of her homemade soup

The best way to outsmart a cruel simulation is to not accept dessert

It seems I will never be about to outsmart a cruel simulation

Like the rest of the Into the Dark series, Culture Shock is a quick 90 minute stream on Hulu, and this one is absolutely worth your time. Go in blind and see what you find.