Monday, June 28, 2021

Maximum Overlight

I'm slowly learning that the Amityville franchise has a lot to offer. While for so long, I found the original film an overrated bit of haunted house drama better served by the less-discussed Burnt Offerings, my out-of-order trek through the sequels is proving to be a delight. And much thanks to the fabulous Gaylords of Darkness podcast for turning my eyes to the KILLER LAMP installment, now streaming on Amazon. 

Quick Plot:
The Amityville house is almost clean, but needs a final priest gang  invasion to finish the job. Young Father Kibbler, fairly new to the job, gets bedroom duty where he sees an evil spirit, um, travel from the wall outlet through the cord of an incredibly designed floor lamp, become a Great and Powerful Oz-like bulb face, and cause a power surge that sends the priest into shock.

THIS, folks, THIS is why I love the horror genre.

Despite the injury, the priest team is convinced they've cleared the home of any evil, which is enough for the realtors to throw a yard sale to clear out whatever belongings the Lutzes left behind. A pair of sassy seniors stop by and like any sane Long Islander, spot this thing on sale for $100 (in 1988 money) and know a great deal.


Helen decides to send it westward to her sister Alice as a birthday gag, but not before she slices her finger on the brass finishing and ends up confined to a hospital, her bed surrounded by hazmat plastic because Amityville tetanus is no joke.

Back in California, Alice is grumpily being visited by her newly widowed daughter Nancy (Patty Duke!) and three grandkids: nice enough teen daughter Amanda, animal-loving adolescent Brian, and creepy weirdo Jessica.

A wealthy dame who clearly prefers the company of her household pets and housekeeper, Alice isn't thrilled with Nancy's stay or life decisions, and the immediate onslaught of dead animals, power outages, polluted tap water, oil spills, manic chainsaws destroying her root cellar, and dreaded food dispenser attacks certainly points to this family visit being bad news.

Amanda and Brian are rather heartbroken that their grandmother seems to blame them for what's clearly something supernatural, and eventually, as Father Kibbler recovers to make his own trek to the new haunted house, even Alice has to agree that Amityville's curse has gone bicoastal.

Amityville: The Evil Escapes was technically a made-for-TV thriller, and while some of its timed-for-commercial beats are noticeable, it feels as wonderfully bonkers as the slightly more R-rated It's About Time. Writer/director Sandor Stern was a small screen veteran, though many horror films will know him better from the delightfully weird and absurdly Canadian Pin. Here, he dives into a well-known property with a whole lot of energy.

Lest you forget, THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT A HAUNTED FLOOR LAMP. A garish, rather ugly floor lamp that sort of looks like Jack Skellington's great Italian uncle from Long Island (as an Italian from Long Island, I am indeed allowed to say such things).

The lamp, or evil that escaped Nassau County via the lamp, can possess such items as toaster ovens, chainsaws, windows, and repair vans. It BLOWS UP when hurled down a mountain. It is everything I've ever wanted to be and more. The only way it could have been better had been if instead of the admittedly FABULOUS floor lamp star, there had been a different casting decision wherein Stern went with this admittedly smaller table lamp Helen spots first at the estate sale:


High Points
More often than not, the "little brother" in cinema is an insufferable brat who exists solely to torment his sisters. What a lovely delight that Brian (Aron Eisenberg) is actually the film's most pleasant character, a supportive son who absolutely loves animals and is genuinely devastated that a) they keep turning up dead and b) he's the prime suspect. This is a sensitive kid, and it's rare to see that handled so matter of factly in the genre

Low Points
Look, this is essentially a perfect movie and gave me everything I could ever want right down to the final feline-centric shot. My only beef? We never get the followup. HOW CAN YOU LEAVE ME HANGING WITH THE UNFULFILLED PROMISE OF A HAUNTED CAT????

Lessons Learned
At a certain age, fun is the most important thing

At a certain age, a disgusting purple mummy finger isn't the worst thing

At a certain age, a disgusting purple mummy finger will prove to be fatal

The Winning Line
"Show me where the basement is!"
Has the answer ever not been "downstairs???"

Obviously, Amityville: The Evil Escapes is a helluva good time. Have a go. Now. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

We're Gonna Need a More Infrared Boat

As I said recently when discussing Sweetheart, island-set horror is a rare, but almost always interesting exercise. The endless openness of water and the sense of being trapped on land can often work together to maximize any genre threat. It's often a pricey, dangerous choice for a filmmaker to make, particularly on a small budget.

Sunhats off to Josh and Tess Gerritsen for giving it a sail.

Quick Plot: A scientist is alone on the water, intensely studying her radar and rigging some kind of marine trap. Before we even learn her name or prey, an unseen force seems to take her overboard.

Some years later, we land on a remote island off the coast of Maine, a one-diner community primarily populated by some frustrated fishermen. Marine biologist/Richard Dryefuss long-lost cousin Sam is on hand to lend some advice about where all the sea-dwelling creatures have gone, but his scientific theories can only go so far when the island becomes cut off from the rest of the world.

It doesn't take long for Island Zero to challenge Cabot Cove for the title of deadliest New England town. Invisible (to the human eye) creatures seem to be tearing through the local populace, leaving behind little but a whole lot of goo.

The ragtag band of survivors is small but fierce, composed of a few pleasantly strong character actors (including the lovely Laila Robins, lending respectable gravitas) and, if IMDB trivia is to be trusted, several local citizens who turn in refreshingly natural performances.

Directed by Josh Gerritsen from Tess Gerritsen's script, Island Zero is a far cry from Jaws (a film it clearly adores, right down to its wool-cap wearing old man delivering a monologue about a previous big sea creature run-in) but a genuinely wonderful example of how to make a low budget creature feature with a lot of brains and heart. Perhaps knowing that it couldn't afford to give us elaborate violence, the film instead prioritizes character, spending nearly a full hour introducing us to the various island occupants about to be turned into ceviche. We know their names when we hear of their fate, and it's rare for modern horror audiences to be trusted to care.

Most of the horror elements are smartly done with a variety of tricks, from heat sense cameras to establish their threats to enough justified explanation that the monsters can't be seen with a human eye for us to accept an actor's screams as they battle invisible foes. It works because the combination of good character work and a well-crafted story makes us care, right on down to a surprisingly abrupt, probably frustrating to some but weirdly satisfying to me ending.

High Points
As a deep, DEEP fan of Murder, She Wrote (did YOU cut your wedding cake to the opening theme song?) I have an admitted soft spot for New England-isms, and it's utterly charming to have real accents at play, especially when helped along by the stabilizing force of "real" actors Laila Robins and Adam Wade McLaughlin, who turn in their own dedicated performances 

Low Points
I heartily admire just how smart the Gerritsens were in establishing their island horror without showing much of anything, but yes, at a certain point, I had to wonder if I was genuinely enjoying or just more appreciating their various methods.

Lessons Learned
You can't count on anything when you live on an island

Always peek at your Christmas presents. You never know if they include technology that might save your life

The best way to honor your dead mom is to wear the same haircut

I can't say that Island Zero will work for every horror fan, but there's a lot here to enjoy and even more to respect. Give it a try, now streaming on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: 15 Million Merits

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 lucky #13!

The Talent: Showrunner Charlie Brooker wrote this one with his wife, actress Konnie Huq. The direction is in the hands of television veteran Euros Lyn. More excitingly, this is apparently the gig that got lead Daniel Kaluuya his Oscar nominated role in Get Out. So let's face it: no matter where the episode ranks, it's certainly got that going for it.

The Setup: Welcome to some form of dystopian future England, where most civilians are forced to ride exercise bikes for most of their days, spending the evenings in solitary cells that constantly broadcast mediocre-to-unbearable entertainment.

Bing is one such biker, wasting his days being unfulfilled by the artificial nature of his surroundings. Things take a pleasant turn with the arrival of Abi, a pretty young woman with a natural singing voice that awakens a new form of joy in Bing. He convinces her to enter his universe's version of The X-Factor, funding the audition himself with his titular 15 million merits only to see her drugged and sentenced to a lifetime of unsatisfying porn.

The Ending: Through frugal saving and cycling that would make a fine Pelaton commercial series, Bing manages to earn enough merits to infiltrate the show, using his 15 merits/minutes of fame to tell the millions watching what a crock their world is, all while holding a piece of glass over his own throat. The judges love it and sense a ratings winner. We close seeing Bing still behind glass but seemingly roomier glass, filled with a camera to keep his broadcast going and a better budgeted, but still virtual mirage as his only real comfort.

The Theme: Brooker, who also created the Big Brother-inspired Dead Set, clearly has a lot to say (little positive) about reality television and capitalism. Most of us slave away to buy what those enslaving us tell us to buy, and the only way to beat the system is to win the system and then become part of the system and tada! What a wonderful world.

The Verdict: As the second episode ever to air of Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits is certainly noteworthy in its ambitions. Lyn and his production team manage to make the environment feel as high concept as any Logan's Run-ish sci-fi blockbuster, but as soon as you look closer, it's obvious that the budget here was a far cry from Bandersnatch. Still, it smartly makes some subtle allusions to works like 1984 (the book, film, AND Superbowl Apple commercial) and manages to feel like something weird and grand.

Still, this is one of the episodes that fares a little less kindly on second watch. Kaluuya still drips with charisma that's impossible to not root for, but the overall message feels a bit simple and bitter.

Technology Tip: Since nothing good seems to come out of anything digital in the 15 Million Merits world, it seems like the most useful tip I can glean is...well, a high-tech futuristic vending machine can still be beaten by some smart mechanical lever manipulation. 

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
6/10: nobody gets a happy ending, but since we never really get a glimpse as to what's outside this universe, it's hard to know what a happy ending could possibly be like

Quality Scale:
6/10: Great performances, decent look poppy graphics, but there's a bit more scrappiness that would be cleaned up in future seasons
Enjoyment Scale:
5/10: I appreciate any attempt at a full-out dystopia in 58 minutes, but the effects wear off on repeat viewings.

Up Next (Month): We could have been anything that we wanted to be, so why not head up north for one of Black Mirror's bleakest hours with Crocodile!

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Stepford Tenants

Having recently moved, I can tell you that much like dental visits, apartment hunting needs little special effects to become an effective horror movie.

Quick Plot: Following the death of her mother, Sarah has moved away from her estranged father in order to start fresh in LA. She bumbles through a temp job at a law office with more ambitious plans of finishing her costume design degree. Her only companion is an adorable (AND VERY CLEARLY ILL-FATED YOU'VE BEEN WARNED OKAY) kitty named Giles, a sweet boy who makes apartment hunting a bit of a challenge.

Sarah finds the perfect titular one-bedroom apartment in a warm and friendly building with nightly barbecues but a cruel no-pets policy. She manages to sneak Giles inside, but within a few days, an anonymous neighbor is slipping threats under her door.

1BR moves surprisingly quickly, and about 30 minutes in, gives its big reveal. Stop now if you're planning on watching (something I do recommend, kitty bake aside).

Now that you've seen what you need to see, let's dig in.

Naturally, Sarah's new digs are part of some Stepford-like compound, where a now deceased visionary crafted the perfect community, leaving his descendants to carry on the traditions of torture-induced mind control. That handsome flirtatious neighbor? Obviously more Hitler youth than Hallmark movie love interest.

1BR is writer/director David Marmor's first full-length feature, and it shows a whole lot of promise. As I mentioned during my Vivarium praise, I love this kind of story: idyllic shared communities with secrets just unlock something that's fun to explore, and offer so much room for weird style dives. On that front, 1BR could probably have dived deeper, though I'm sure certain budget restrictions might have played a part there.

is a very strong debut, particularly in its smartly speedy pacing. It won't linger forever in my head the way, say The Stepford Wives does, but there's a lot of good stuff on display, and I hope to see Marmor stay in the genre and continue to develop his voice for some time.

High Points
I don't want to spoil 1BR or another, even better LA-set horror film of recent years, but I will say that the ending, which gave us an exciting "this is much bigger than you think it is" twist was quite satisfying

Low Points
Nicole Brydon Bloom is perfectly fine as Sarah, but it's hard to resist thinking about how much more interesting this kind of story would be if told from someone that wasn't your typical pretty young white woman so often cast as the lead (especially when it throws us a more dynamic sidekick in Celeste Sully's Lisa)

Lessons Learned
Any community that seems too friendly is, without any doubt, completely evil

Any community that doesn't welcome pets is, obviously, completely evil

Do I need to say more?

True horror fans might understand this statement: 1BR feels more like a Shudder original than a Netflix movie, which is a good thing. This is a quick, sharp little thriller that is more satisfying than not. Give it a go.