Monday, November 22, 2021

The TV Told Me To

It's hilarious to me when someone complains about modern horror being too "political". Is it possible that the same people who complain about Black Lives Matter motivating 2021's Candyman thought 1992's Candyman was some kind of mindless slasher? Did they sleep through the part that explains the legacy of Daniel Ribedou, and just not see ANYTHING social in terms of how a single white lady's beating trumps multiple murders in order to finally bring down a criminal who had previously limited his crimes to his own color?



Anyhoo, I mention this because today's feature is, in a word, political. 

Try not to be bothered.

Quick Plot: Nick is reluctantly bringing his girlfriend Annji to meet his rather awful family for Christmas. While mom Beth is friendly enough, dad Tony is a bigoted jerk, pregnant sister Kate is a ditzy racist, her husband Scott, more muscles than brain, and grandpa (played by the always good-at-being-terrible David Bradley) even worse than Walder Frey.



Nick and Annji attempt to make an early escape before breakfast but hit a (literal) roadblock: the house has been barricaded by some form of unbreakable steel-like substance. Their phones don't work, and the only contact they have with the outside world is their television.



The cable might be out, but their screen has some messages, beginning with the film's very title. Tony, a long-time rule follower and ardent fan of bureaucracy, is quick to assume the messages are government-issued and meant to be followed to a tee. When it tells them their food has been contaminated, Tony forces the whole kitchen in the trash. When a pack of seven dirty needles is sent into their home via a one-way chute, Tony is quick to inject himself with whatever mystery tonic is promised.



Groan, you might say, assuming Await Further Instructions is a commentary on the public's willingness to get vaccinated. Relax: much like the similarly extremely pandemic-appropriate-but-made-pre-pandemic Vivarium, Await Further Instructions was filmed before any of us had heard of COVID-19.



And of course, that's in part what makes it so interesting. Unfolding like a severe Twilight Zone episode, Await Further Instructions is part of that wonderfully off-kilter horror subgenre: part supernatural mystery, and bigger part throw-humans-in-a-philosophical-conundrum-and-watch-them-fall-apart drama. 



The Milgrams --yes, the family name is a tad on the nose, though also something of a surprise misdirect -- are a pretty rough lot. A slightly deeper screenplay might have taken a tad more time in fleshing them out, as some of the film's more affective moments come when our slightly black-or-white characters seem to be actually thinking outside of their narrow boxes. Still, a year plus of watching the worst of humanity make an international pandemic far more deadly than needed makes it hard to, well, be too hard on screenwriter Gavin Williams for creating a cast that would rather trust racist instincts than modern science.



Sigh.

Directed by the late Johnny Kevorkian, Await Further Instructions is not exactly a fun watch, what with the muddy politics and rather terrible human beings. Still, the fact that such a specifically quarantine-set thriller was made two years before we all started debating vaccines and sourdough recipes is rather fascinating, and it's hard to not see the film as an interesting, unfinished commentary on how some portions of society might handle this kind of disaster.


Of course, this being a British film made in 2018, Await Further Instructions is probably more about Brexit than mask mandates, but that's less obvious to a dumb American like myself, and the film I got was thoughtful, if flawed. It doesn't quite go where you might initially expect (both a good and bad thing) and it can be a bit shrill along the way, but it's wholly original and effectively frightening for a variety of reasons, even if some happened after the fact. 



High Points
Plenty of credit where it's due: Await Further Instructions is a genuinely surprising film, with a few plot turns and sudden jumps that I was not necessarily prepared for




Low Points

I get tired of saying it, but it's my (unpaid) job: a figurative dark movie is not legally required to be literally dark. As a rule, most audiences prefer to actually see things when they watch a film



Lessons Learned
There are some ingenious people working in government

When your boyfriend tells you that his family is racist and horrible, you should probably listen



Always stay stocked on bottled water

Rent/Bury/Buy
If COVID-related drama (even unintentionally so) makes you anxious, then you're best skipping Await Further Instructions. For the rest of us weirdos, this is a neat (if imperfect) dose of bizarro what-if. Find it on Netflix if you're so inclined. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: Metalhead


Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Herein lies #8!

The Talent: 
Metalhead easily boasts my favorite director: the underrated David Slade, who started his genre career with Hard Candy, continued with the better than it should be 30 Days of Night, made the only watchable Twilight movie, and served a key role on the outstanding Hannibal. We'll forgive him for Bandersnatch.

The Setup:
Presumably sometime in the black and white future, the world has become a wasteland. A trio of hardened survivors are on a mission to retrieve something for one of the children bunkering down in their safe house, but in order to find it, they have to evade society's new alphas: robotic dogs fully loaded with lethal ammunition.



The Ending:
It doesn't take long to trim the group down to just Bella, a scrappy and resourceful woman determined to bring home a teddy bear to a dying little boy. While she makes a valiant effort at thwarting a particularly feisty metal canine, she ultimately loses the battle, having been hit by some particularly nasty robot dog shrapnel right in her throat.



The Theme:
Metalhead is one of Black Mirror's starkest, simplest episodes, a 41-minute chase that's far more about the action itself than what it represents. Sure, one could dive REALLY deep into overthinking and write a thesis about metal vs. stuffed animals, but really, this is an episode created to scare you.




The Verdict:
And how nice and refreshing that is! Sometimes you just WANT a 41-minute robot dog chase in moody black and white. Like most good but surface-level horror movies, the overall effect of Metalhead does slip a little bit on second viewing, but it's still a ride.

See what I did there?


Technology Tip:
No matter how advanced your robotic design can be, as anyone with an iPhone and stash of dried rice can attest, no modern technology is immune to the dangers of liquid



The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 5/10
While Bella seems nice and incredibly undeserving of her fate, we don't really learn enough about her situation to have her end hit too emotionally hard.



Quality Scale7/10
This is a solid 41 minutes of television made by someone who knows how to stage a good long chase
Enjoyment Scale: 7/10
If you ever wanted The Terminator boiled down to 41 minutes, it's essentially right here for you





Up Next (Month): We work out our most flattering filters in the social media obsessed Nosedive

Monday, November 8, 2021

Leapin' Lizards!



When I see Jennie Garth with highly shaped '90s eyebrows and Kelly Taylor college hair draped in the meaty arms of Costas Mandylor, you can bet I'm diving in.



Tubi, hold my Zima. 

Quick Plot: Someone is murdering attractive and successful blonds in the big bad city of New York (sure)motos, giving them silver tennis bracelets and rose bouquets before tossing them out the windows of their own high rise apartments. I say "someone" because despite this being a VERY specific modus operandi, the press and police can't seem to come up with a clever or catchy serial killer name other than "The Killer".


Meet Meg: an attractive and successful blond in the big bad city (that's sort of New York?) who, you guessed it, lives far up a building with a Chekhovian rarely working elevator. One night, Meg catches the eye of beefcake Paul. They laugh, dance, order room service they don't eat, and even attend a spoken word poetry reading set to jazz. "New York" in the '90s was wild!



And yes, minor spoiler: Paul is "The Killer", and while he though Meg could finally be the one to break his dirty habit of murder, it's not to be. He throws her out the window and moves on.


Luckily for Meg, her window just happens to be located over a perfectly sized ledge, meaning her fall is broken and she's left instead with some bad bruises and that all-too-common ailment known as selective cinematic amnesia. Grizzled detective Frank Lazaro (BILLY DEE F*CKING WILLIAMS) is on the case, with so much world weariness that you almost wonder if Morgan Freeman was taking notes. 


Falling For You is directed by TV veteran Eric Till, an uncredited director on A Muppet Family Christmas, and therefore, one of my (apparently uncredited) lifelong heroes. Based on a play, it unfolds with the kind of rhythm you'd expect from a television woman-in-peril thriller, though there's some slight relief in Meg seizing control of her own fate. 


Make no mistake: this is not Ms. .45 or even Mother, May I Sleep With Danger. It's an earnest, made-for-CBS primetime thriller without the ability to tap into any real sexy or scary energy. Still, when you watch a 1995 TV movie in 2021, one co-starring Lando Calrissian as every stereotype of a rebellious veteran cop, things are simply bound to be entertaining. 




High Points
We can make Kelly Taylor jokes until the next (hopefully) inevitable 90210 reboot hits, but let's be fair: Jennie Garth is an underrated actor. Yes, her California looks and tight little voice might have limited her ability to be cast as Lady Macbeth or a laboratory scientist, but when it comes to holding the television screen, she has that it factor, and it's more than on display here



Low Points
Is there any screenplay device cheaper than "randomly detailed amnesia that means our victim remembers most activities like how to apply makeup but not the face of the man who threw her out a window?"



Lessons Learned
You won't find many blonds at a punk club ... or "Vampire Sex Bars," as it were


There are only two people in all of Canadian Manhattan who read Robert Frost

There are surprise advantages to having a (literally) thick skull




Rent/Bury/Buy
If you're craving a heavy dose of the mid-to-late '90s, Falling For You will likely prove to be as satisfying as a bag of WOW Doritos washed down with an ice cold Surge (look it up, kids). The excitement of soft focus lighting might wear off quickly, so don't get too excited, but it's definitely a dose of a different time. You can find it on Tubi.  

Monday, November 1, 2021

There's Something About Mary

 


When your opening credits play out like a V.C. Andrews keyhole book cover come to life by the power of Italian synth rock, you've got me. 



Quick Plot: Julia is a fairly content teacher at a school for the deaf, while her twin sister Mary rots away in a hospital, a rare skin condition slowly destroying her from the outside in. Julia doesn't seem to mind, since Mary was a cruel child who made Julia's young life a living hell.



Despite a satisfied, well-adjusted life, Julia is swayed to visit Mary by their uncle James, a rather awful Catholic priest who seems intent on the girls reconciling in time for their shared 25th birthday. Mary is in even worse shape than Julie remembers, but somehow, the maladjusted patient manages to escape the hospital and embark upon a killing spree with the help of bloodthirsty Rottweiler.


Look, none of us animal lovers want to ever watch a lovable dog turned into a weapon (particularly when one of its targets is a sweet cat...and I suppose a nice blind kid) but when said dog attacks use a body double less convincing than Triumph the Insult Comic, I'm oddly okay with this choice.


Madhouse is a hoot, which isn't a surprise. Director Ovidio G. Assonitis (who eventually went on to head up Canon Films for a stretch) was well-experienced in spinning out blood-soaked cheese, and he doles it out with relish here. This is a movie that has a woman discussing how nice her favorite fourth grade student is only to cut to his immediate mauling one scene later. 



There's a lack of discipline about Madhouse which, depending on your level of taste, is either a very good thing or possibly just plain dumb. You have kernels of a murder mystery that are instead materialized into plot when a killer rather randomly reveals themselves to be a killer. The potential challenge of whether Julia has sinned by casting off her sick sister adds up to absolutely nothing. But hey! We are treated to one of the greatest tropes to survive the slasher boom:



the dead guest party reveal!

So that's what you get: a fun, fast mess that works because it simply throws whatever it has at the audience. Some of it sticks. Most of it will come off. 

High Points
Most films of this particular ilk invest very little in their performances, but Trish Everly manages to make Julia an instantly sympathetic heroine worth rooting for



Low Points
Maybe it's my fairly fresh viewing of The New York Ripper, but I've been thinking a lot about Lucio Fulci lately and how he managed to explore and even challenge convention, all while making splattery boob-filled schlock. I bring this up because (SPOILER) it's hard in some ways not to compare Madhouse to another Italian horror flick seeped deeply in some of the complications of Catholicism: Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling, which has a lot to say about the religion. Madhouse, on the other hand, features a priest as a sick villain without, it seems, having any interest in his pathology. It feels more like an economy of characters rather than a statement about faith and violence, and while I don't in any way require deep i
ntrospection from my puppet dog killing '80s horror, it just seems like a missed opportunity




Lessons Learned
A sister is the seed of your father and a miracle of your mother's body



The secret to successful surgery is good interns

It only takes 48 hours to train a Rottweiler to murder everyone close to your twin




Rent/Bury/Buy

Madhouse isn't a high point in Italian-American genre cinema (especially when you realize Assonitis had a key hand in bringing the bananas The Visitor into our world) but it's a fun, messy time. I watched it via the library streaming app Kanopy, which is, I'm sure, what Socrates always intended.

Monday, October 25, 2021

It's About Time We Played In An Amityville Dollhouse!

 I hate to repeat myself, but this series keeps forcing me to recap several key points:

- The Amityville Horror (1979) is not a good movie
- The 926 sequels (both official and non) sure know how to have a good time.

Messy exorcisms? Evil clocks? Killer floor lamps that looks like the lovechild of Jack Skellington and every sleazy Italian landlord in the opening of a Law & Order murder scene? Classics I say. 




Surely #8: Amityville Dollhouse has to keep the cycle going, right? 

Quick Plot: Contractor Bill is excited to move his newly merged family into the house he's been building: a '90s McMansion that happens to be located on the same lot where a family burned to death. Trifles, that, since the real problem is having his new wife Claire, her nerdy son Jimmy, and his kids (moody teen Todd and normal daughter Jessica) all get along.


Jimmy, you see, is what we'd call an indoor kid. His only friend is a pet mouse named Max (don't get too attached) and the fact that he bears such an uncanny resemblance to Robin Arryn (that kid who breastfed far too long on Game of Thrones) certainly doesn't help him socially.

 


Despite some in-fighting, life seems to be going smoothly enough for Jessica's birthday party, which promptly gets spoiled when Todd throws a toy tarantula into the piñata to give Jimmy a good scare. The problem? It's most definitely alive.


Surely said trick has nothing to do with the mysterious dollhouse Bill found in the house's shed, a dollhouse with a layout that might look familiar to fans of the 1979 original. 



OF COURSE IT HAS EVERYTHING TO DO WITH THE DOLLHOUSE YOU FOOLS.


While the movie makes no effort in any way to explain the connection, it's clear from the moment the dollhouse makes its first kill that evil is afoot. 

Its first kill is the pink and purple bicycle intended for Jessica's birthday.



Up next, poor little Max, who sneaks into the dollhouse and turns into a Food of the Gods-ish monster puppet, quickly slain when Todd knocks into the toy. As if the tension wasn't high enough, Claire suddenly finds herself aggressively attracted to her teenage stepson, Bill has recurring nightmares about his family dying horribly, Jessica can't shake a tummy ache, and Jimmy is being visited by the decaying ghost of his dead soldier father intent on murdering his replacement. 



All that PLUS evil voodoo dolls and violent bookshelves!



Directed by Steve White (a veteran producer with this as his sole directing credit), Amitvyille Dollhouse is not a lazy film. Take, for example, a breakfast scene that clearly involves a camera shot by way of a lazy susan, giving us an earnest attempt at artful cinematography in a movie that will eventually have our heroes hiding from these things in a laser field. 



Obviously, I had a good time and obviously, you'll get the same basic conclusion I drew from It's About Time and The Evil Escapes, what it lacks in actual scares is more than made up by enthusiastic weirdness. 



I can't think of a nicer thing to say about an evil dollhouse movie. 

High Points
Sure, your Paranormal Activities and Burnt Offerings work by building a steady level of slow building tension, I will never complain about a trashy genre movie just saying "screw it, let's throw in a giant mouse puppet at the 30 minute mark"




Low Points
SPOILERS! As is often the case in Amityville movies, it's a little unfair that the main family is fully spared while those unlucky enough to stop by end up horribly murdered. In the case of Dollhouse, that sad fate falls to the groovy new age uncle and worse, Todd's perfectly pleasant girlfriend Dana, who divulges her sad life story only to constantly be called trash by Bill and Claire and ultimately get her entire face burnt to a crisp. It's not a good look for the film



Lessons Learned
Once a geek, always a geek



There's a notable difference between killing and hurting

Half a bottle of tequila filled margaritas are great and all, but have you tried paying attention to your girlfriend so her face isn't burned off by your haunted fireplace?




Rent/Bury/Buy
Amityville Dollhouse is streaming on my new favorite (and free) service in the world, Tubi. Sure, you'll have to watch the occasional commercial, but if it's the only way you can also watch tiny sock dolls come to life and use books as weapons, you can manage.