Monday, February 22, 2021

Problem Child

As a child who grew up with a deep affection for, well, murderous cinematic children, Mikey was the kind of holy grail of new releases. The poster's tagline was nectar to my young ears:

Remember, Jason and Freddy were kids once, too.

I haven't seen Mikey since that early rental from that now long gone video store, but seeing it appear on Amazon Prime felt like a true gift and ideal finale for the Shortening.

Quick Plot: Third grader Mikey is fed up with his adopted family, so naturally, he takes the easy way out by luring his kid sister to a drowning death in her pool, electrocuting Mom in the bathtub with a hair dryer, and beating his father to death with a baseball bat.

This all goes down in the first five minutes of the movie.

Mikey is a dark evil child film, one that makes The Good Son look positively PG in comparison. Once he's relocated to a pleasant childless couple, Mikey seems to temper his homicidal tendencies, behaving well for his teacher (Hellraiser's Ashley Laurence) and charming his neighbor pal (Nightmare On Elm Street 5's actual dream child Whit Hertford) and his hot older teen sister Jessie (Josie Bissett!). But the quiet suburban life can only last so long when MIkey's jealousy kicks back in.

Before you can wish him a happy Bloody Birthday, Mikey is back to his old tricks. One archery lesson and the kid's a better shot than Robin Hood.

Why is it always the sociopaths who learn the fastest?

Directed by former television actor Dennis Dimster from fairly prolific television writer Jonathan Glassner's script, Mikey is kind of jaw-dropping in its violence, matching the extremity of the much earlier Bloody Birthday in an era where you weren't really seeing that kind of style on the big screen. By 1992, the Video Nasty era had ended but left a certain border around mainstream horror, and the taboo of children committing such horrible acts was generally played more for comedy than scares. Yes, Problem Child's Junior is an absolute amoral black hole who's simply a sound cue away from being truly evil, but Mikey would still eat him alive.

It's hard to say whether I enjoyed Mikey or not. There's something so black in its nature that you're almost forced to appreciate how dark it goes, but the flip is that you're watching fairly pleasant people meet terrible fates. Oddly enough, I was heavily reminded of 1990's Child's Play 2, which also followed a smaller creature violently murdering supportive foster parents and suspicious teachers.

Mikey plays as a sort of end to the era of harsher horror. By the mid-'90s, slashers were dormant and most of the more violent stuff was sent straight to video stores (and edited by the unjustly bemoaned Blockbuster). I don't know that we needed more films like Mikey, as it really does seem to embody all the kind of awful things a conservative parent might use to justify movie bans. But it's an interesting remnant, a truly dark thriller that doesn't shy away from creative murder methods and humor so black you have to chuckle after the shock drains from your face.

High Points
I keep referencing Problem Child because it really does feel like the fun house mirror version of Mikey, but at least Mikey has the heart to allow its characters to treat the title villain as a kid in need of friends and family, where Problem Child has dialogue edits on television today because of its weird anti-adoption rhetoric. Everyone who meets Mikey says, "hey, cool! Nice people adopted a nice boy!" and you know, that's nice (until he decides to kill them)

Low Points
I can't decide whether it's responsible or reprehensible in how Mikey's script drops hints that its title character was abused. On one hand, there's a layer of heft in suggesting that a boy like Mikey was irrevocably shaped into a monster by what his parents likely did to him. On the other, if the film wasn't going to spend any real investment in making Mikey into a human being, it just leaves us feeling conflicted.

Lessons Learned
If you keep an appliance of any sort plugged in in close proximity to a large tub of water, you're really just asking for a monster child to kill you

To stop your pulse, just stick a ball under your armpit

Drowned little girls must stay in the water for several hours as the police conduct thorough investigations

Mikey is streaming now on Amazon Prime, and evil children completists like me really have no choice but to watch it. Be warned this is a very mean film, but '90s enthusiasts will enjoy the wide headbands and terrible bathroom decor. I guess there's something for everybody after all?

Monday, February 15, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too

NOTE: I'm throwing this post into February's Shortening because you know what? It involves a doll. Granted, the dolls in question isn't evil, but it DOES seem to have the traditional Krusty the Clown good/evil switch in a variation of "clean/foul-mouthed Miley Cyrus," so I think it counts.

I'm breaking my rules here by jumping Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too (whose abuses of the Oxford comma are too infuriating for me to even discuss) ahead of Arkangel, but a mother's overbearing love for her daughter fits February themes even less than a not-evil doll. Upon first watch, this episode underwhelmed me.
 It was pleasant enough and also forgettable. Let's see how take 2 goes.

The Talent: The episode's sole writing credit is to creator/showrunner Charlie Brooker, but it's directed by Anne Sewitsky, a Norwegian filmmaker who was also heavily involved in Hulu's uneven by haunting anthology Monsterland. More broadly, this is the episode known as "The Miley Cyrus One".

The Setup: Rachel is a shy 15-year-old with a moody older sister named Jack and distracted dad. Her only source of confidence comes from the upbeat messaging of popstar Ashley O. She's bolstered by her birthday present of an Ashley Too, a doll-sized robot companion built to perfectly simulate her namesake. Ashley Too encourages Rachel to participate in her new school's talent show, leading to mass teenage embarrassment and Jack hiding the doll in the attic until humiliation blows over.

Meanwhile, the real Ashley O proves to be far less happy than her pink-haired Hannah Montana-ish alter ego suggests. Ashley is suffering under the stifling control of her emotionally abusive aunt/manager Catherine (played by Susan Pourfar, 

who is not The Open House's Piercey Dalton 

...who I had finally accepted was not Hannibal's Caroline Dhavernas).

Note/open question I don't know if I want answers to: do these women look very similar, or am I suffering from that same face blindness thing that Milla Jovovich had in the blood goatee movie?

Longing to escape the confines of her artificial empire, Ashley tries to get out of her contract only to light the flames of the vengeful Catherine, who promptly poisons her niece into a coma that allows Black Mirror-ish technology to scan her brain for one last album.

Back to the Rachel and Jack portion of Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, the girls plug Ashley back in only to accidentally remove some kind of filter, unlocking the real Ashley, who promptly figures out her aunt's evil plan and enlists the girls to pose as exterminators to gain access into Ashley Prime's home and unplug her life support.

The Ending: In a shocking twist by Black Mirror standards, we get a happy conclusion! The real Ashley awakens, exposes Catherine, and gets to presumably live the life she wants, which apparently means covering Nine Inch Nails songs with Jack in dive bars.

The Theme: The fact that I needed three paragraphs to synopsize a single episode tells you that Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too isn't as straightforward as, say Metalhead. Similarly, what is this episode really about? Fame is a mousetrap? Your famous hero isn't perfect? Your grungy sister really loves you?

There's something about Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too and its focus on a big larger than life (at times literally, in a holographic state) personality that makes this episode of the harder to glean any real-life meaning. While it starts as a tale about an insecure teenager, Rachel gets lost in the action. Ashley escapes the life she didn't want, but it's all action-based.

Maybe it's not a bad thing for an episode to just be about its story and not larger implications. Sure, it does drive in the point that forcing artists to still contribute after their deaths is morally disgusting, but to call this episode an indictment on that is a stretch.

The Verdict: At 66 minutes, Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too has the same problem as most of the later season Black Mirror episodes: it's just too long. While not quite as pace-afflicted as Smithereens, it's still frustrating to see how much fat is left on the episode, particularly in the Rachel and Jack portions, which are somehow both too detailed and still underdeveloped.

Putting its imperfections aside, it's hard to deny that this episode is weirdly sweet, and does become quite fun in its final heist-centered act. On second watch, there's not much more to get, other than watching in relief that things aren't going to go nearly as dark as they normally do around these parts.

Technology Tip: For all us normies out there, there's not much to learn, but I guess those with grander ambitions can get the message that you should never sign a contract that fully binds you to a cruel auntager

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 2/10
Rachel's embarrassing talent show performance aside, this might be the lightest episode in the whole series

Quality Scale: 6/10
As television goes, this is 100% watchable and occasionally, very fun. It's also oddly paced and a little too scattered to be anything that special.
Enjoyment Scale: 6/10
As much as I do put this in the upper of the lower Black Mirror tier, it's much more watchable than some other episodes. Throw it on in the background won't crush your soul

Up Next (Month): We return to regularly scheduled programming with the REAL #17, Arkangel.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Mi Casa Es Su Casa Fantasma!

The Shortening should always include a few key elements of miniature horror, primarily, evil children and homicidal dolls. Imagine my joy upon discovering today's feature has both!

Quick Plot: Henrietta is an ill-behaved little girl. When her father Sam discovers she's killed the family cat -- on her own birthday, no less! -- he grounds her and her creepy toddler-sized clown doll to the basement. Back upstairs, her parents are brutally murdered by an unseen, axe-wielding force.

Twenty years later, in nearby Boston, college student/ham radio enthusiast Paul is playing with some toys when he hears a mysterious transmission crying for help. He traces the source back to the same house poor Henrietta's family once occupied and decides to make a road trip out of it with his girlfriend Martha. 

Partying on the same grounds is a quartet of fellow 20somethings led by Jim, who knows a fellow ham radio fan when he sees one and quickly bonds with Paul, who even more quickly realizes the voice he heard on the tape is Jim, who doesn't remember such an event. They decide to investigate, riling up some ghostly energy and the meat cleaver-wielding caretaker in the process. 

Written and directed by Umberto Lenzi (despite being credited to fake names), Ghosthouse is a fun slice of late '80s cheese. A haunted house, evil, staring child, AND killer clown doll? That's a LOT to like, and I haven't even mentioned the film's best/worst character, PamPam.

Look, IMDB lists his name as Pepe, but I CLEARLY heard PamPam and will die on this hill

What to say about PamPam, an obnoxious, petty thief hitchhiker who travels with a prank skeleton arm in the hopes of...landing at empty houses with open boxes of croutons? 

Don't think too hard about PamPam, or the suspiciously chatty funeral director who reveals the true cause of Henrietta's haunting: her own mortician father had a bad habit of stealing his late customers' goods, and the Poltergeist-y clown doll was meant to be buried with a child. Instead, Sam gifted it to his kid, sparking a chain of violence that includes death by mirror, death by unplugged fan blade, death by pool of pasty goo, and more!

High Points
I don't always love a mean-spirited ending, but Ghosthouse's final stinger is joy campily over the top that it left me one satisfied streamer

Low Points
I suppose Ghosthouse could have been a little more memorable if its characters were able to have more personality or even clear relationships to one another

Lessons Learned
Hitching is fun, but the hiking part sucks

Data processing is best described as "computers"

In Denver's battle for the hottest, it's a close race between Kelly LeBrock and Kim Basinger

If it's an '80s horror movie that includes a handful of attractive young people, one of them just has to be named Tina

Not surprisingly, Ghosthouse is streaming on Amazon Prime. It's certainly a fun, disposable time, filled with some bizarre murders and a plethora of creepy clown doll cutaways. What more do you need?

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

My Buddi

After more than 10 years of writing about horror old and new, I hope it's clear to my loyal readers that I have no issues at all with the idea of film remakes. They're a staple of storytelling, from Eve and Pandora to Emma and Clueless. Yes, when you make something as awful as 2009's It's Alive, I'll complain about the details, but the actual concept of re-adapting a previous property is never the problem in itself.

So why, you might ask, did Emily boycott the Child's Play remake?

Boycott is a strong word, especially in the lazy age of the internet. I never made an oaktag sign or signed an online petition. I simply avoided any kind of support or even mention of a movie that I felt was a bit of an insult to a property I cherish.

Unlike almost every other franchise in cinema, Child's Play has always been distinctively Don Mancini's. The first film (one of the most personally influential films on my development as a horror fan) was his real break into the industry, and he remained the screenwriter for every installment (unheard of in horror or any genre). With Seed of Chucky (my personal favorite, probably because its campy sensibilities seem custom-made for my humor), Mancini moved into the director's chair and has been completely in control of Chucky's destiny from that point on. 

Until 2019.

Look, I understand any film studio dusting off its records to see which properties it still owns and can generate a few quick bucks. But unlike Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhes, Chucky was never Orion's; it was Don Mancini's. John Carpenter may have created Michael Meyers, but I'd bet a few packs of cigarettes that he never even saw most of its sequels. Mancini was (and thankfully, is still) working on a Chucky television series when Orion decided to throw the title at a new writer/director team. 

In a business that never pretends to value loyalty, it still felt dirty, and from my own sense of morality and diehard devotion to all things Don Mancini, I vowed to never give 2019's Child's Play any kind of money.

It's on Hulu now, and having heard many a critic or friend whose film opinions I deeply respect give the film hearty endorsements, I figured I could finally watch Child's Play without feeling too dirty.

Quick Plot: The Kaslan company is in high production on its first generation Buddi, an interactive doll that connects to all Kaslan-branded smart devices while also imprinting on your family. As you might imagine, conditions for the Vietnamese factory workforce are less than ideal. When one of the production workers is fired, he uses his last minutes on the job to disable the safety filters in a Buddi before it hits the US market (then promptly throws himself off a building).

Back in a Canadian city standing in for Chicago, young mother Karen is struggling to acclimate her moody son Andy to his new surroundings. When an unsatisfied customer returns a Buddi doll at the department store where she works, Karen gives Andy an early birthday present.

Naturally, said Buddi is that lucky product we saw in the prologue. It's not that Chucky is bad; he's just a sociopath with no sense of right or wrong. Throw on a little Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, bitch about your mom's jerk boyfriend, and before you know it, you're cutting class to cover up his decapitation. 

Kids really do have it harder in the era of smartphones.

Directed by Lars Klevberg from Tyler Burton Smith's fairly clever script, Child's Play was definitely more enjoyable than I was prepared to admit. The tone is consistently snarky without falling down the "is this movie insulting me for watching it?" wormhole so many self-aware films often just can't escape. Sure, Aubrey Plaza brings a very specific eye-rolling energy, but it works for both the character and overall feel. 

As for Chucky, it's hard not to be disappointed when one of our favorite villains of all time is reinterpreted in such a way that loses the very essence of your character. Mark Hammill is one of the most talented voice actors working today, but he's playing a robot, one that almost feels like a weird riff on autism. I don't mind the decision to cut the Charles Lee Ray persona in the name of a new story--in fact, I welcome a fresh take--but it just doesn't quite yield the full zany gold the setup promises.

That being said, I'd be lying if I said Child's Play 2019 wasn't a fun watch. At under 90 minutes, it wastes little time, and has a grand ol' time setting up elaborate, fairly ridiculous murders. I can't deny it points for having a good, mean time, even if I still feel wrong about enjoying it.

High Points
Bear McCreary has become the go-to composer for genre film and television over the last few years, and he delivers yet another quirky score that has its own point of view 

Low Points
While the final act's department store massacre is a joy, the actual ending has a certain rushed abruptness that feels lacking, even with a brief sequel-suggesting but low energy stinger

Lessons Learned
Efforts towards inclusivity onscreen should always be appreciated, but when watching a horror film, always remember that a character with a hearing aid exists solely for said hearing aid to eventually be used against him

Those who wait too long to take down their Christmas lights have no choice but to face the consequences of their inaction

As we learned from Furbies and Bratz, Americans sure do love their ugly dolls

Try as I may, I still feel wrong offering any kind of official endorsement about this Child's Play, but hey: it's fun. There's a point of view with some satirical thought behind it, and the movie manages to provide a few surprises along the way. 

It just...shouldn't have been made under its circumstance.