Monday, November 30, 2020

The Only Thing to Fear Is Midwest America


Yes, I'm still that person who gets physical DVDs from Netflix. My queue is over 200 movies and counting, made up mostly of random cult films or the kind that are not nearly cool enough to make it past any millennial programming the streaming choices on digital platforms. 

The problem with a queue amassed over 10 years is that sometimes, a disk will show up in the mail that I have no memory of adding. Such is the case with today's straight-to-DVD horror flick, a film notable only, as far as I can see, for being produced and having its music done by Slash.

Then again, it does star one of my ultimate film crushes...

Quick Plot: Pastor Dan is moving his wife and three kids to Stull, a rural Kansas town where he has been appointed to take over minister duties being vacated by Pastor Kingsman, played by the always perfect Clancy Brown. The townspeople are excited to welcome a new family, helping them unload their moving truck and baking a gloriously decorative cake for their enjoyment. 

Eldest teen daughter Becca begins a quick flirtation with local farmboy orphan Noah, while middle child Mary decides to have herself a slice while her folks are unpacking, only to discover she's bitten right into a mysteriously marked giant tooth. Noah dismisses it as a product of the nonagenarian baker, but clearly, there's more to the icing.

As Noah and Becca continue their romance, the family heads to the town's summer festival, where Mary becomes mysteriously ill from some spiked lemonade and awakens to discover herself tied up to be a sacrifice to the devil. 

Being the new kid in town is a tough gig.

Turns out, Stull, KA, has a long tradition of turning their new citizens into portals for Satan. Mary becomes a vessel for a veiny CGI demon who slaughters anyone not protected by some biblical Stull rituals.
Like I said: I know nothing about Nothing Left to Fear regarding why I ever found it interesting enough to order in DVD format. It's the sole directing credit of Anthony Leonardi III, who primarily works as a storyboard artist on a grander scale with Game of Thrones and some big budget films. The Kansas setting is a little more interesting to look at than most of this genre's backgrounds, but there's not quite enough done with change in scenery to really make much of it as a backdrop. 

No, I likely added this movie because of my love for Clancy Brown.
Here's the thing about Brown: like my other character actor crush of the same generation who never gets enough respect, he might choose less-than-stellar projects, but he is never, and I really do mean never, not amazing in them. Like Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown gives his work his all, even if the material doesn't necessarily warrant it. 

Overall, Nothing Left to Fear is fine. Its loose Shirley Jackson's The Lottery vibes could have been used to much more interesting effect, but it does tell a fairly fresh story in a genre that so often feels stale. You could certainly do worse, but considering some of this film's strong elements--an attractively sprawling setting, twists on traditional religious horror concepts, Slash scoring, and, you know, Clancy Brown--it just also feels like this movie should have been more memorable. 

High Points
I love a well-done circular ending, and Nothing Left to Fear makes good use of that here

Low Points
Hey, I know a limited budget when I see one (even if it could afford Anne Heche is a fairly wasted role), but in 2013, cheap CGI didn't have to look this much like cheap CGI

Lessons Learned
Nothing turns a preacher's daughter on faster than sheep's blood

First dates are always better when done montage style

There are reasons people don't up and move their family to small towns in Kansas, and perhaps you should consider them before up and moving your family to a small town in Kansas

Well, I had to rent Nothing Left to Fear on DVD for SOME reason I'll never remember in my past, but unless you're a mark for rural or religion-based horror relying on CGI, it's probably not worth hunting down. Should it pop into a streaming site I'd recommend giving it your eyeballs with measured expectations.

Monday, November 23, 2020

When Legends Go Hollywood

After the incredibly pleasant surprise I had in revisiting Urban Legend, it seemed like my duty to watch the rest of the series. Part 2: Final Cut is now streaming on Shudder, and boy oh boy does it justify that $4 a month price.

Quick Plot: At an unnamed, clearly Canadian film university, a batch of students are working hard on their final projects in the hopes of winning the all-important Hitchcock Award. Auteur Travis thinks he has a shot, with his competition being horror hack Tobey, legacy jerk Graham (JoSEPH Lawrence), and hard-working but uninspired Amy. 

Amy's screenwriting block gets broken after a pleasant chat with a familiar face to Urban Legend fans: it's Reese! Loretta Divine is back in action, having been fired from Pendleton University for her refusal to comply with their coverup of 8 student deaths. 

Reese tells Amy all about her 1998 adventures, which prompts Amy to put together her own urban legend-inspired slasher. Coincidentally, just as her filming starts, Amy's pals start dying in elaborate style, though save for your basic kidney ice bath, the kills are more film-based than campfire tale.

Final Cut is based off a script by team Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, who also delivered The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Hellraiser: Inferno. It's clearly of the Scream (or more specifically, Scream 2) ilk, focusing more on film references than the folktales of its predecessor. 

It's a switch that pays off just fine. Sure, there are winky moments of "let's talk about movies," but there are also plenty of visual references that go unchecked, letting film fams nod in appreciation without having everything explained to them as if they were in a film 101 class. Director John Ottoman is far better known for his work editing and scoring films (including, I say with a measured groan, a lot of Bryan Singer's work). This remains his only directorial gig, which is surprising because you know what? It's really fun.

We're still rounding out the '90s, a time where our lead's hip fashion involved a sweater tanktop over a long-sleeved tee and film students considered insulting George Lucas a cardinal sin. In the fine tradition of horror sequels, the film is loaded with before-they-were-famous 2000 faces, including Eva Mendes, Anthony Anderson, and Anson Mount. More importantly, the horror itself has a sense of humor.

Ottoman has a clear understanding of slasher fundamentals, staging some genuinely suspenseful sequences with a spirited wink. Films about film students can often feel obnoxiously self-aware, but Final Cut feels aware that, you know, films about film students can feel obnoxiously self-aware. I don't think Final Cut tries to act smarter than its slasher brethren. It seems to know it's far from the scariest or funniest of its ilk. It's a movie made to have fun with its concepts, and on that front, it works incredibly well. 

High Points
I'm a mark for a good horror sequence on a dark ride, and Final Cut makes outstanding use of this with an old timey miner-themed tunnel of love (with strong Pirates of Carribean overtones, no less)

Low Points
As someone who grew up on a hearty dose of late '80s/early '90s soap opera storylines, I love a good "twin that looks absolutely identical because it's just the same actor" trick, but considering how much fun Final Cut has with itself, it's weird that the Travis/Trevor character is so darn dull

Lessons Learned
Wasted in the only way to fly

I don't ever want to judge another woman's sexual details, but I feel like you're doing something wrong if your sexual fantasy dream involves you wearing unflattering granny panties

Never outright TELL the jaded 911 operator that you've awoken in a tub of ice cubes with a missing kidney. Just say, "I've lost a lot of blood" and let the paramedics take it from there

I had a blast with Urban Legends: Final Cut, from the opening rug pull to its campy coda. Onward to Bloody Mary!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Black Mirror Revisit: Bandersnatch

I'd like to begin my dive into
Black Mirror's Bandersnatch with a snipped from Roger Ebert's 1995 1/2 star review of Mr. Payback, the first (and still kind of only) major film release with an audience interactive element:

I went to see "Mr. Payback" with an open mind. I knew it would not be a "movie" as I understand the word, because movies act on you and absorb you in their stories. An "interfilm," as they call this new medium, is like a cross between a video game and a CD-ROM game, and according to Bob Bejan, president and CEO of Interfilm Inc., "suspension of disbelief comes when you begin to believe you're in control." I never believed I was in control. If I had been in control, I would have ended the projection and advised Bejan to go back to the drawing board. While an interactive movie might in theory be an entertaining experience, "Mr. Payback" was so offensive and yokel-brained that being raised in a barn might almost be required of its audiences.

Despite my love of ambitious cinematic bombs and Days of Our Lives heartthrobs, I myself have never seen Mr. Payback, so I can't speak to its actual quality. Still, reading Ebert's review certainly brought up some ties to Black Mirror's most ambitious episode. 

The Talent: Bandersnatch is another Charlie Brooker script, one that I assume required a lot of walls and red string to put together.  He enlists the help of Metalhead's David Slade to direct, which should have been butter on a bagel for me. Ever since he broke out with Hard Candy, Slade has been a consistently interesting genre director, with some good stuff in 30 Days of Night, his many Hannibal episodes, and the only watchable Twilight film. Throw in the wonderfully unnerving William Poulter in a supporting role and Prevenge/Sightseers' Alice Lowe in a small part and Netflix's fancy choose-your-own-adventure technology, and Bandersnatch was set up to be something pretty great for me.

The Setup: It's 1984, and Stefan Butler is a green game designer with big dreams of selling his spec project to Tuckersoft, the Nintendo of its day (I assume; my video game knowledge stops at beating Street Fighter 2 as everyone but Zangief). He gets the opportunity to work with eccentric gaming star Colin Ritman (the endlessly fascinating Poulter) but struggles with some personal demons, including a sour relationship with his father, the tragic death of his mother, low energy from his mental health medication prescribed by his sympathetic psychiatrist (Lowe), and, like, depending on how you navigate your choices, actual bandersnatch demons.

The Ending(s): Obviously, the main reason to watch Bandersnatch is to see what path your sometimes small, sometimes big choices take you down. Upon my revisit, I spent about 2-3 hours backtracking to try out what I could and as far as I could tell, there is no way to bring Stefan to a happy ending. Maybe he dies, maybe he murders, maybe he's an actor playing a kid who will die or murder, but in every variation, his game ultimately receives mediocre to extremely negative (and often self-aware) ways. Just like life?

The Theme: It's fitting that a show airing on a service that feasts upon our personal data to direct us to watch what it needs us to see would ultimately be all about how, well, we have no actual free will.

The Verdict: On second viewing, I could appreciate the structure of Bandersnatch a little more, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't an impressive, ambitious project. But damnit, why does it have to be so boring? I really hoped I'd feel differently this time around, but even recognizing just how meta the episode is ABOUT its limitations (generally conveyed through the televised game reviews that close out several paths), it's just not fun to watch. Some endings are sad, others are mildly amusing, but not a single one that I reached was actually satisfying.

Technology Tip: What does it matter when everything you do is predetermined?

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 3/10 
Sure, things are generally crappy for Stefan, but compared to the suffering of most Brooker characters, this is a pretty light walk in the park

Quality Scale: 6/10 
The acting is fine, the '80s style is believable, and the overall direction certainly works well...

Enjoyment Scale: 3/10
But I'll be happy to never sit through Bandersnatch again. There's such a drab sense of apathy that permeates the whole however-many-hours you watch, and the charm of a gimmick can only last so long. 

Up Next (Month): Black Mirror goes full feature length with Hated In the Nation.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Keep It Clean, Girls

The central theme of Hulu's Into the Dark is to take a holiday and turn it into a horror story, which has obviously been an effective trick in the genre for several decades and counting. Perhaps more importantly, Into the Dark has been a great tool for introducing new filmmakers and apparently, holidays themselves.

Father-Daughter Day is a thing? Sure. 

Quick Plot: After her mother passed away, teenage Shay went to live with the father she never knew, who also happened to have a daughter her own age named Jo. Nothing scandalous or anti-Christian about that!

Speaking of, horrible dad has an annual tradition of taking Jo to a purity retreat (barf), where loyal daughters wear wedding dresses and make vows to stay chaste until marriage. Jo treats it like a joke, while Shay, eager to please her new father, tries to put on a good face amid the horrors of antiquated sermons and extreme misogyny. 

Along with their less-than-eager roommates, Jo and Shay playfully complete a midnight ritual to summon Lilith, the mythical first wife (and first feminist) of Adam who usually gets cut from most Sunday school lectures. Shay begins to see an ominous female figure lurking about the campgrounds, all as she struggles to find a place between the dubious Jo, sanctimonious father, even worse armed preacher (Jason Street himself, Scott Porter), and a handsome local who makes for a nice summer romance.

Written and directed by Hannah Macpherson, Pure is, like most of the Into the Dark entries, extremely sleek and watchable, even if its 90 minute time limit leaves us without the climax we might have otherwise gotten in a bigger film. The horror comes from deep within the setup, not necessarily the supernatural elements. I probably would have preferred Pure to never even mention vengeance demons or black-eyed visages and to focus instead on the monstrosity of conservative men in power.

Macpherson, a newcomer, clearly understands that men historically regulating womens' bodies (be they their wives or daughters) is true terror in itself. The sheer creepiness of men believing their daughters' sexual decisions belong to them is horrifying, and Macpherson wisely doesn't overplay this. One father is clearly unhealhtily (even by crazy Christian metrics) obsessed with his daughter's weight, while Shay and Jo's dad has seemingly never confronted the hypocritical nature of his own affair. We don't need extreme music or camera shading to let us know who the real villains in this story are. 

In fact, one of Pure's best assets is its intense sunniness. I almost wish Macpherson went the Midsommar route of keeping all the horror in pure shimmering daylight, but there's a certain inevitable conclusion that feels required in its bloody, quick CGI execution. 

High Points
The level of restraint at work in Pure is really something special, especially when you consider this being Macpherson's first full-length film. It would have been so easy to go the Jesus Camp route of overlaying added film tricks to make the men of Pure seem truly despicable, but instead, we see them through Shay's eyes: wrong-headed and entitled, but still clean-cut and seemingly trusting in what they believe. 

Low Points
I suppose it ultimately makes sense when you consider the nature of Pure's real antagonists, but the actual horror elements are probably the least interesting things onscreen

Lessons Learned
People who live in hell are called demons

Father-daughter day is a thing, and a fairly terrible one at that

No preacher is more trustworthy than the one who wears a gun at all times

While it doesn't reach the stunning quality of Culture Shock or the sheer fun of Pilgrim, I still found Pure to be a worthwhile Into the Dark installment. It has a genuinely fresh voice that, hey, as a female horror fan, I deeply appreciate. I probably won't have a reason to think too hard about it any time in the future, but I will certainly be looking out for more work from Hannah Macpherson. 

Monday, November 2, 2020

England's Not So Funny Home Video


Ever since Heather Donohue let her final nasal buildup drop into our souls in 1999, found footage has almost exclusively been associated with horror. Sure, the oddball Project X or Chronicle has occasionally come along to take the style into other genres, but for the most part, shaky cam and "DID YOU SEE THAT?!" dialogue on repeat has been reserved for our kinds of movies.

This makes Exhibit A such an oddball film. Its cover art clearly feels like it belongs next to your Paranormal Activitys and CrowsNests, but the final product is far more akin to Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent. Perhaps its lack of easy classification is why I never heard of this 2007 gem until now.

Quick Plot: Meet the Kings, a middle class British family ready to test out their newest toy: a user-friendly handheld video camera. Dad Andy is a jovial salesman eager to document some family fun, while teenage daughter Judith uses it as a chance to get a closer look at her beautiful sunbathing neighbor. 

Much of Exhibit A unrolls like a simple compilation family film, but there's a sense of immense impending dread that makes you hold your breath for a good portion of its running time. As Andy and mom Sheila start the process of buying a new home and adding a pool to up the selling value of their own, it becomes all too clear that things are not quite what they seem, at least in Andy's professional life. 

Written and directed by Dom Rotheroe (with a story credit for Darren Bender and much of the filming done by the actual cast), Exhibit A is ferociously good, hard-to-categorize film that will leave you feeling more disturbed than a good deal of what passes for straight horror. We know it's leading somewhere dark, but it's the constant squirming sadness of watching a seemingly normal family fall apart that makes the entire 85 minute run time feel interminable. 

As Andy, Bradley Cole plays a man who lives to be the jovial center of fun. When life makes that impossible, he simply can't handle it, and his spirited, long-suffering wife is justifiably past the point of understanding. When their fighting erupts into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? depths of long-simmering hate, we as the audience want to crawl under the Kings' kitchen table and rock ourselves back and forth. 

This is a powerful, disturbing, and incredibly well-made film. I'll likely never want to watch it again, but that won't stop me from recommending it to anyone up for its darkness.

High Points
It's one thing to watch a violent man go crazy and hurt his family, but it's a whole deeper conflict when said man clearly does love them. The fact that Andy, upon discovering a window in Judith's secret sexuality, wants to enthusiastically support her makes it even clearer that Exhibit A is about people, not shocks. This man is not evil; he's just incredibly unstable, and in the end, this story is all the more sad and affecting for it

Low Points
The only negative I have for this film comes in its marketing, which clearly positions it in such a way that most viewers will inevitably sit down expecting a very different style of film

Lessons Learned
You can't disturb the top soil when it's raining!

Girls prefer it if you're not quite so obvious

If you can't talk, you can't sell

Random Spoiler Tie with What Keeps You Alive
Much has been written about the awful "kill your gays" trend that seems to so often target lesbians in television and film. Exhibit A and What Keeps You Alive have very little in common as movies (aside from both being incredibly good and high recommendations from me), but it's fascinating that both end on the exact same note: our heroine, who happens to be a queer woman, letting out the smallest gasp of air to leave the audience with hope that she will live. In both cases, it's a moment loaded with heft because we certainly know she'll have a hard path forward, but still, for all of the dead supporting LGBTQ+ characters we find in our genre stories, there's something to be thankful for in these two cases

Exhibit A is not a film I'll want to revisit any time soon (if ever), but I'd also shout from the virtual rafters that those with a strong stomach looking for a heavy, disturbing, important hard-to-classify genre film give it a chance. I'm shocked that I'd never heard of it until recently, when it should be a title to regularly show up on those constant "best found footage film" listicles the internet seems to love. It's streaming now on Prime and deserves your eyeballs when they're ready.