Monday, March 29, 2021

A Very Late Shortening Roundup!

Dolls, it's been QUITE a decade so far, with the vengeful ghosts of 2020 still pushing their fury onto us now. And much like the Oscars, I ended up on a bit of a delay with one of my favorite annual traditions: Shortening Shares!

As has been true for a decade now, every February, I devote the blog to covering films about vertically challenged villains and invite my fellow writers to do the same. I then make sure my readers get an easy link to view their posts...all of which usually happens in our most glorious, least long month of the year.

Well, it's March, which is close enough! 

First, we take an ill-fated cruise to a mysterious island overrun by adorably angry puppets in Attack of the Beast Creatures, reviewed at The Horror Movie Hideout by tedarwinator. It's a delight!

Next, we head down under to Not This Time, Nayland Smith's homebase for some coverage of adorably ghostly early 2000s kids' TV: Scary Godmother and Phantom Investigators. 

Thanks to my pals for joining the fun!

Monday, March 22, 2021

Pretty Little Vloggers

The last time I watched a movie about hot young 20somethings who find themselves in a horror movie set in Moscow, I ended up with beyond dreadful, still infuriating The Darkest Hour. Still, my rule of covering every horror movie starring a Pretty Little Liars alumni is not limited to the ladies, so with Keegan Allen (aka Toby, THE WORST) headlining No Escape, I clicked my Hulu button and dove in.

Quick Plot: Cole is celebrating 10 years as a social media influencer (which I would think would make him something of a senior citizen in that world) by heading to Moscow with his hip pals. A night partying goes awry when some very tough-looking Muscovites make threatening moves on Cole's girlfriend Erin. Guns are drawn, threats in different languages made, but Cole's fan/Russian escort Alexei is able to diffuse the situation cleanly enough. 

The next day, Cole finds out his big anniversary vlog will be an elaborate escape room (not shocking considering writer/director Will Wernick is the same guy behind the OTHER, non-theatrical horror movie about escape rooms called Escape Room). He's disappointed at first, but his pals assure him this will be well-worth the trip.

Now is the time during this review where I instruct you to take out your Saw bingo card, because who boy do we have some references to check. Cole awakens in a room with a sleeping body and instructions to carve into his guts to remove a key that will help free his friends who are all trapped in various torture devies (that really do feel like they were purchased at a discount from Lionsgate's last yard sale). 

The escape room aspect goes away rather quickly as the action shifts to a more straightforward "trapped in an abandoned Russian prison with homicidal dark web vloggers who have seen the Hostel series way too many times" slasher. It's bloody. It's mean. And yes, there's a twist. 

No Escape is one of those movies that I by no means didn't like, but that I'll have an incredibly difficult time remembering that I ever sat down and spent 90 minutes with it. Yes, it feels incredibly beholden to a number of 21st century horror films already mentioned here, and nothing it does is particularly better than any of them. 

But hey: a perfectly slick and mediocre horror movie is still something I enjoy watching, and you know what? I had fun with this. It's basically what I expected, very little more, and sometimes, that's more than satisfying for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

High Points
As much as Cole is painted as your pretty typical pretty boy millennial, he makes an incredibly important and selfless choice when the going gets tough that helps to earn some audience investment into his fate

Low Points
Compared to something like #Horror or the very underrated Spree, No Escape's attempts to weave its social media graphics into the greater film style feels fairly lazy

Lessons Learned
There's really one overwhelming lesson to take from No Escape, but to explain it would be a spoiler. You can probably figure it out as the film nears its conclusion, but No Escape's moral is so blinding (and when you think back on the film, should have been VERY CLEAR to a lot of its characters) that I simply didn't learn anything else!

There are better horror movies about escape rooms (and I mean the shockingly delightful Escape Room) and attractive ugly Americans being served bloody lessons overseas, but No Escape isn't the worst unremarkable horror movie to pass the time. It's dumb, but did you expect much more?

Monday, March 15, 2021

Black Mirror Rewatch: Arkangel


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 #17.

The Talent: Showrunner Charlie Booker writes, with the one and only Jodie Foster in the director's chair.

The Setup: Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a working single mother who just might be a little overprotective of her young daughter Sarah. When Sarah goes missing (very briefly) after a moment of distraction at a local park, Marie decides to try out the beta version of Arkangel, a tracking software that lets you monitor every aspect of your child's whereabouts and health via a tablet.

Arkangel also includes a handy filter program that lets Marie block upsetting images from Sarah's eyes, thus leading the poor kid to see anything sex or violence-related as a very pixelated blob. Worrying that blocking out content is warping her child's sense of morality, Marie finally turns off the program and lets her kid grow up relatively normally, until, of course, the now teenage version decides to try out boys and cocaine.

The Ending: Marie crosses more than a few lines behind Sarah's back, threatening her boyfriend and mixing an emergency contraceptive in her daughter's breakfast smoothie. When Sarah discovers the truth, she erupts, beating her mother with the now broken Arkangel tablet and hitchhiking far away.

The Theme: I said in my initial brief review of Arkangel that it really seems made for nervous parents, and that holds true. This is an episode about the dangers of helicopter parenting and...that's about it. Parenting is hard. Kids need to push boundaries and grow up, and at some point, moms and dads need to learn how to let go and let their children make mistakes. Otherwise, they risk losing the thing they love the most. 

The Verdict: Like many of the episodes that fall in this tier, you can't call this a bad hour of television. It's a well-acted, adequately written story that just doesn't really offer much new in its ideas. 

Technology Tip: As tempting as it may be, just let your kid watch porn and learn about fight clubs the natural way: from a slightly older rebel who will eventually love her enough to let her try his cocaine.

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 3/10. DeWitt is good enough that we understand her actions, but it's hard to feel too bad when her decisions are what they are
Quality Scale: 6/10. Perfectly fine entertainment that never ascends too high
Enjoyment Scale: 4/10. The best Black Mirror episodes are either terrifying, innovative, or deeply human, and this one has a hard time with all of those boxes. Two watches was more than enough for me. 

Up Next (Month): Ready Player 1? We wrap up Season 5 with Striking Vipers

Monday, March 8, 2021

Life's a Beach (& then you die)

Here's the thing: any beach-set horror movie is always going to have a high bar to clear...

A high The Sand bar, if you will.

A few years ago, I was going through a hard personal time. Much like most of us in 2020, my attention span was best suited for smartphone Boggle and car commercials starring dogs. I wanted dumb entertainment, and bless the gods of streaming services that I landed on The Sand.

The Sand is an incredibly dumb horror movie about killer sand. It stars beautiful dumb people who are killed by dumb killer sand. It was all I wanted and everything I needed at the time. I still salute The Sand.

Anyhoo, onto The Beach House, writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown's feature debut now airing on Shudder.

Quick Plot: Randall, a moody college dropout, is taking his aspiring scientist girlfriend Emily to his dad's beach house for some vacation fun. Their romantic weekend hits a snag when they learn that Mitch and Jane, old pals of Randall's parents, are already there. Luckily, the two couples get along so well that a friendly dinner ends with a dessert of very strong edibles.

Jane is dying, and Mitch has been trying hard to give her one last pleasant trip. Their evening is filled with dreamy hallucinogenic night air, but their morning turns sour when Mitch goes missing and Jane is covered in lesions.

Emily and Randall try to squeeze in some beach time, but Randall is seized by stomach pain. Mitch reappears only to go for an endless swim. When Emily tries to bring him back from assumed drowning, she's stung by a gooey alien-like jellyfish.

Clearly, something isn't right in this quiet oceanside town. Jane turns near zombie-violent as Randall's sickness grows worse, leaving Emily to try to find some way to escape the encroaching poisonous fog.

Let me start by stating the obvious: The Beach House is no The Sand. It's a "better" movie in terms of its filmmaking, certainly, but also, way less fun.

So. Much. Less. Fun.

Easily, this is where I found myself checking out of Brown's film. The subtle practical effects look great and the idea of an empty beach town is haunting, but The Beach House simply climaxes too early. I'm rarely a fan of existential white wealthy college dudes, so it was tough to invest anything into Randall's fate. While I love the idea of Emily's bio-chemist education helping to guide some of the environmental mutations we're seeing, there's just so much quiet meandering as she sluggishly tries to crawl to safety that it never quite has the payoff I was hoping to find.

All of this is not to say that The Beach House is not a good movie. The haunting emptiness of its beautiful location hits a certain nerve, particularly in a pandemic-frozen world. I can't say enough how well Brown's use of Emily's science passion works towards subtly helping the audience understand what we're seeing without the film having to spoon-feed it our way. There's very good filmmaking on display here. I just wish the storytelling itself was a tad more engaging in the film's second half. 

High Points
I hate being that film writer who gets distracted by the movie she wanted rather than the one she got, but damnit, I would have gladly taken 90 minutes of Jake Weber and Maryann Nagel being fascinated by millennials. The dinner scene is one of those reminders that when you have the right actors, it can be incredibly rewarding to watch characters listen to each other

Low Points
Lead actress Liana Liberato is very good and Emily is a refreshingly smart final girl, but once Mitch and Jane are out and we still have 45 minutes of movie left, it's hard to stay engaged

Lessons Learned
Never start a dinner party before assessing your wine supply

Grad school is such bullshit

If your partner thinks your education is bullshit, it's probably time to end the relationship (whether by breakup or poison jelly fog)

I've yet to declare a Shudder original (or acquired one) a bad film. The Beach House is well-made, and shows strong promise in writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown. I wasn't overly satisfied, primarily because of its odd choices in pacing, but it's certainly worth a watch. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

All Aboard, If You Have Nothing Better to Do

Some nights, you just really want to sit back, drink some wine, and watch what I predict will be a lousy Dead Pretty Teenagers Who Might Deserve Some of Their Fates direct-to-whatever-was-not-theaters at the time of its early 2000s release horror movie.

Unfortunately, this was one of those nights. 

Quick Plot: An American college wrestling team is touring eastern Europe. Four of the students and their assistant coach decide to party their last night in Russia, leading to them missing their morning train to Odessa and pissing off their pretty awful coach. A helpful English-speaking blond directs them to a Ukraine-bound train she's boarding, and before my cat can cough up a hairball that looks like Eli Roth, it's organ reaping time.

Remember those early post-Saw years in horror? Though I genuinely enjoy and often defend that franchise, I'm also the first to admit that its success bred some terribly ill-spirited, uninspired movies that hated humanity...especially the female kind.

Train apparently began life as a remake of Terror Train, but decided along the way that it would rather be Hostel with a spoonful of Turistas.

But also, with more would-be rapists urinating on a man about to be castrated.

Did I mention the POV is from the soon-to-be castrated dude, which means yes, writer/director Gideon Raff gives us a piss shot.

I added Train to my Amazon Prime queue after seeing the description as "horror on a train from Russia to Ukraine". As someone who's made that train trip twice and knows the terror of those cramped corners and floor toilets, I welcomed a change of setting. I wasn't expecting Shakespeare or, I don't know, something perfectly average, but I don't know that it's ever fun to watch something as outright ugly as Train.

Thora Birch makes a decent final girl, but also one devoid of any sense of fun before the slaying starts. As you'd expect, every victim is an ugly American without any charm and in some cases, with plenty of obnoxious attitude. There are a lot of chains. Not, like, Chain Letter-levels of chain quantities, but still: lots of chains. The gore is gooey and admittedly well executed, but of course, it's all done under that typical 2000s style of literal and figurative darkness. 

This movie hates the world. 

High Points
I was getting incredibly frustrated with the whole idea of a movie making its cast wrestlers only to have them so easily picked off by some very unhealthy looking organ harvesters, but at least the film remembered in its final fight

Low Points

Oh I don't know, probably the fact that after I groaned about a fairly graphic attempted rape, we go a few minutes before another young female character is carried off screaming by a group of lusty soldiers and that's the last we see of her

Lessons Learned
The trick to blending in when in Ukraine? A babushka

Chekhov's Law of Nipple Rings In Torture Porn tells us that if you introduce nipple rings in the first act, you must use use them as tools of extreme pain in the fifth

Eye transplants take less than 24 hours for the subject to be fully active sighted

I didn't realize anybody needed to hear this, much less a premed college student, but don't like, just GIVE your passport to anyone who asks, especially if said anyone has been making rape eyes at you all day

Blargh. I knew what I was getting into from the opening credits, wherein we just got a lot of closeups of oozing body parts, but still: Train is mean, the perfect representation of how unpleasant early 2000s horror was. If you're seeking that reminder, head to Amazon Prime.