Monday, July 26, 2021

Satanism for Seniors


It's no secret that I love a good genre film with a mixed generational or just older cast. Give me some Late Phases and The Taking of Deborah Logans and I'm instantly intrigued. Sure, sometimes I crave watching hot young people in bikinis and swim trunks get eaten by alien sand in movies such as, you know, The Sand, but my uneducated estimate would wager that something like 90% of horror films are about hot young people who look good in bikinis and swim trunks.

Boy is it exciting when you land on a new film that decides to focus on an age group so often ignored by the entertainment industry...especially when it's really damn good.

Quick Plot: Henry is a doctor nearing retirement age living in a uniquely designed, fairly secluded multi-storied home with his wife Audrey. The couple seems unremarkably white collar normal until their morning routine takes a turn: breakfast ends early as Henry drags a heavily pregnant young woman inside, tying her to a bed in their carefully soundproofed attic.

Henry and Audrey have no desire to hurt young Becker, you see: they just need her body to do a satanic ritual that will transfer the soul of their late grandchild into the baby she's days away from delivering.

Typical grandparent stuff. 

I was intrigued going into Anything for Jackson because aside from the fresh character angle, this is a film directed by a filmmaker I know well. This isn't shocking, since in just 7 years, Justin G. Dyck has over 30 directing credits to his name...most of which are made-for-Hallmark-adjacent-channels Christmas romances.

As some of you know, I do an annual podcasting marathon on what I've dubbed Cozy Cardigan Christmas movies.Over the years, I've become fairly fascinated by just how formulaic they are, and how some filmmakers are able to overcome some of the limitations to produce actual good work. I don't know too much about Dyck's career plans, but from what I can see, he's spent the last few years working fast, probably learning a good deal of the craft and how to film on the cheap in Canada.

And honestly,  his recent entry, A Puppy for Christmas, is surprisingly delightful.

Screenwriter Keith Cooper has a similar career background, with a robust resume dripping with the kind of cheese I'd drunkenly melt over any late night movie club

Please don't let your (likely) dismissal of the holiday genre influence your decision to watch Anything for Jackson, because by golly, it's quite good. Veteran character actors Sheila McCarthy and Julian Richings (whose face you surely remember being cubed in Cube) are so incredibly sympathetic as grandparents in way over their head, and Cooper's screenplay and Dyck's direction lean into their age with humor without cracking easy jokes. These are genuine, loving people willing to do some very dark things, and their own clumsiness at doing so makes the story something truly heartbreaking and unique. It might even call to mind another wonderful recent horror film about lost children, the grand A Dark Song. That's a very good thing.

Also, it's scary! From an overly aggressive teeth flossing apparition to a sheet-clad trick-or-treating ghost loaded with trauma, Dyck's monsters feel truly fresh in a genre that so often goes for trends.

High Points
Everything? This movie is grand.

Low Points
There is a bit of a gloomy quality to some of the lighting, which could almost be justified by the wintery Canadian setting, but also, you know, feels a bit muddy

Lessons Learned
No one has more time than a grieving family

If you can't say it, you shouldn't be doing it

Public libraries make suitable settings for satanic rituals

Anything For Jackson is the kind of movie that makes you justify that small monthly Shudder subscription fee, even if you go weeks forgetting you have the channel. It's scary, funny, and most importantly, new. This is what we horror fans dream of finding in new genre entries.The Sand,

Monday, July 19, 2021

Stick To Your Patterns

We're a long ways away from where we should be, but by golly, it sure is nice to see more horror in the hands of female filmmakers.

Quick Plot: May is semi-successful author whose books are sort of self-help bibles for working women. She lives with her husband Ray in a pleasant home that one day, becomes the daily target of a masked killer.

Every night, this mystery man returns to try to murder May, and every night, the police do their duty in stopping by to take down notes and remind May how lucky she is to have survived. She's also, we learn, lucky to have a husband that supports her even after she fumbled, lucky to have a nicely sized advance even after her last book didn't meet expectations, and always, it's implied, lucky to have not been sexually assaulted.

Written by lead actress Brea Grant and directed by Natasha Kermani, Lucky is a genuinely fresh genre film that has a lot on its mind, and somehow gets in and out in less than 90 minutes. We've all seen our share of Groundhog Day-inspired slashers, but that's not quite what Lucky is doing here.

What IS Lucky doing? Interestingly enough, a lot of asking questions without expecting any answers. The horror is almost besides the point, and by the time May realizes her final girl battles are part of a new routine, the audience isn't (or in theory, shouldn't) be expecting to jump out of their seats. The monster isn't meant to be the tall dude with the knife.

I made the mistake of wading through the internet to see what kinds of conversations Lucky was sparking, and folks, it's a bit dire:

Even some of the "certified" reviews make a point of painting May as "unlikable" and "deeply flawed," which, to my read of the film, is exactly the point of the story it's telling. Is this happening to May because she thinks she is "deeply flawed," having (MINOR SPOILER) cheated on her pretty awful husband? When we (MAJOR SPOILER) discover May isn't alone in her new daily torment, the message becomes clearer. Women are punished by a variety of powers, including, and occasionally most heavily, their own internalized self-hate.

Onscreen for the film's full runtime, Brea Grant is fantastic as May, playing a very genuine woman whose put-together life is being torn apart by something that's been inside of her for far longer than her status as prey. Her script and Kermani's direction flirt with a sort of grounded, theatrical surrealism that helps to put the audience in May's state of mind. It's not that she's going crazy: it's that the world is treating her as if she is. Is there anything more terrifyingly relatable than that?

High Points
I love a heavy string score, and Jeremy Zuckerman's music has such an odd plucky quality that keeps Lucky feeling just slightly wrong in a way that pairs well with Kermani's sense of off-centering the overall mood

Low Points
I don't mind not walking away with clear answers, but there is a decided sense of unfinished business (which, it could certainly be argued, is part of May's life) with Lucky's ending that holds it back

Lessons Learned
The first step to self-improvement is confronting your own patterns

Hammers are a great self-defense tool but do cause rust poisoning

Being hunted by a mystery madman is no reason to let your complicated hair routine get stale

Lucky is going to garner strong reactions on all sides, and much like the equally divisive Black Christmas, it's awful difficult to read criticism without clenching your teeth. Much of the negative discourse around Lucky feels like the very POINT of why Kermani and Grant made the film in the first place. Also much like Black Christmas, this is far more interesting as a study in using horror tropes to explore misogyny than as an effectively scary horror movie, so know what you're going into and head to Shudder to get it.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: Crocodile

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 #12.

The Talent:
The Road's John Hillcoat directs Charlie Brooker's script, with Possessor's incredibly layered Andrew Riseborough in the lead (the beauty of the Icelandic landscape plays an important supporting role).

The Setup:
Back in her roaring 20s, Mia was a bit of a party girl, drinking and dancing the night away with her boyfriend Rob. That stopped early one morning when still drunk, they hit and killed a passing cyclist. Rather than do the honorable, self-incriminating thing, they tossed the body in a lake and called it a day.

15 years later, Mia has changed her ways, thriving in a new, responsible life as a star architect and mom. Unfortunately for her, Rob has had a harder go of things. He stops by her hotel for some reconnecting as she attends a work conference. Now sober, Rob is ready to make amends for their crime. The cover story of Dwell Magazine is not.

Never underestimate a motivated woman with a lot to lose.

Meanwhile, insurance investigator Shazia is using some fancy The Entire History of You-ish technology called Recaller to close the case on a pedestrian struck by a self-driving delivery van. Turns out, Mia happened to glance out the window just in time to witness the accident. Of course, that was just after she murdered her ex, and since Recaller  brings up a visual of your memory, Mia's crime is now in the hands of a sweet, doomed Shazia.

The Ending:
Having never read an O'Henry tale, Mia races through a careful but incredibly swift murder spree, driving out to Shazia's home to get rid of her husband (the only other person who knew Shazia's whereabouts), and, because a baby can still be used for Recaller, her adorable infant son. Mia cooly stumbles into her son's elementary school production of Bugsy Malone as the police discover the crime scene and the most surprising star witness: Shazia's newly acquired guinea pig, whose cage was posed in front of the murders, making him a far more effective recaller than, we discover, Shazia's blind son.


The Theme:
No matter how careful you cover your tracks, no matter how little guilt you have over your actions, in the surprisingly moralistic universe of Charlie Brooker, murder will always be punished (the price might just be very, very high). 

The Verdict:
I admired, but didn't necessarily enjoy Crocodile the first time around, but on second watch, it's grown in my estimation. John Hillcoat nails the icy tone, which works so well with Andrea Riseborough's chilly, terrifyingly compartmentalized demeanor.

Part of what might have upped Crocodile's standing for me are some of the behind-the-the-scenes tidbits I learned regarding just how key Riseborough was in its development. She initially came in to read for the investigator part before suggesting to Hillcoat that the lead be female, a challenge Brooker apparently took on with some enthusiasm. Per Riseborough's fascinating AV Club interview below:

There were lots of conversations about that in the beginning. Would people sympathize with a woman who does what Mia does? To which my response was, “Well, if we don’t see a woman do that often, then that’s why we should do it.” Because women kill all the time. And are life-givers, and preservers, and takers. So wouldn’t that be fascinating to explore the psychology of that?

I want to say, "I can't imagine Crocodile with the lead being male" but that's because I've seen that story told thousands of times, and nothing would stand out in the slightest if we had to watch yet another man mess up and try to cover his tracks. But when you flip that script, it simply opens up new questions and layers.

Plus, who can really be mad with any piece of pop culture that references the great Paul Williams' work on Bugsy Malone?

Technology Tip:
The more I think through what could have prevented the tragic end of Crocodile, the more I come back to the inconsistencies of Shazia's job safety. How does a company with the budget to create and utilize MIND READING TECHNOLOGY not have more security structures or tracking involved in their agents' investigations? If Shazia could have just logged her work, Mia would have likely realized she had no way of getting out of the mess she put herself in. So I guess the lesson here is document, document, document?

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
9/10; THAT BABY IS VERY CUTE. The only reason we don't go for a full perfect score is that if nothing else, Brooker did spare the guinea pig.

Quality Scale: 
8/10; The cruel twist ending, the beautiful cinematography, and the true commitment to making Mia so uncompromising earns a whole lot of points

Enjoyment Scale:
7/10; Once you approach Crocodile knowing that the episode's most pleasant character and her sweet baby boy are doomed, it's far easier to sit back and enjoy the black humor inherent in Mia's path.

Up Next (Month): Have yourself a Hammy little White Christmas!

Monday, July 5, 2021

The Day Aftermath


Ever since the Sci-Fi Channel (as it was known, back in the ancient '90s) aired The Day After one sunny Saturday afternoon in my adolescence, I've been one of those weirdos with an unhealthy obsession on all things nuclear war. Born in 1982, I (probably thankfully) missed most of the actual Cold War scares, but a good decade or so later, the terrifying possibilities of a world made ill even after the fighting ended seemed like exciting nightmare content.

You'd think that the horrors of the last few years would make me slightly less enthused by this kind of content, and yet, on the morning I got my first Pfizer vaccine dose, I found myself thinking, "well, things are finally turning up, so how 'bout I entertain myself with something incredibly depressing?"

I have undiagnosed problems. That is accepted.

Quick Plot: Hunter, a medical student, is wandering through Kansas when a nuclear bomb hits the heartland. He quickly teams up with teenager Jennifer and her younger brother Satchel, who is instantly blinded by the blast. They're quickly joined by level-headed Elizabeth and find shelter in the basement of a farmhouse filled with a few others.

There's kind Jonathon, whose sick uncle Wendell owns the house, hot-headed Brad, and Brad's very pregnant wife Angie. They're soon joined by Jonathon's pal Rob, who brings horror stories of just how terrible the outside world and those still living in it have come to be.

Everyone gets sick and mostly die.

Seriously, that's the gist of Aftermath.

Sure, we have a few waves of attacks from the infected (who we're told are totally not like zombies in the movies, but who totally act like zombies in the movies) but basically, this is a story about a group of okay people who struggle to stay alive and have a horrible time of it. Think The Divide, but with less suspense.

Aftermath (also known as Remnants) is not a poorly made film. It makes decent use of a limited set, and more importantly, understands that its biggest strength is its experienced cast and their ability to craft specific characters in the little time they're given. C.J. Thomason is fine as the stalwart lead, Monica Keena's Elizabeth is a stabilizing force, Edward Furlong manages to find the layers in what could have been a one-note redneck stereotype, the always welcome Andre Royo (The Wire's Bubbles) is, you know, always welcome, and Ross Britz and Tody Bernard are a sweet daft nephew/dying uncle combo.

Directed by Peter Engert from Christian McDonald's script, Aftermath clearly cares about its characters and, well, probably wants us all to know that nuclear war is very bad. If you don't believe that and would prefer to have 90 minutes worth of skin peelings thrust in your face to really drive the point in, this is the film for you.

High Points
It would have been very easy to take more setup time, but Aftermath rather wisely springs into action, throwing everything (and everyone) at us so quickly in a way that lends a very effective urgency to the front-loaded pacing

Low Points
Whoever's decision it was to, out of nowhere, use freeze frames in Aftermath's climax should have to sit in a radiation-filled basement with Edward Furlong for at least one hour and think about what they've done

Lessons Learned
There are no "no smoking" laws in nuclear fallout shelters

Always keep a few extra books in the basement, unless, of course, you REALLY want to spend the rest of your life with The Wizard of Oz (not a bad way to go, actually)

As if we didn't already know this, remember: when the radiation poisoning sets in, life will be terrible and harsh and you'll have to work very hard to survive a very terrible and harsh life, so...I don't know, jump INTO the blast rather than away from it?

I can't think of anyone who would actually enjoy Aftermath. Again, let me be clear to say this is a finely made film, but it's so darn miserable that it's almost funny, but not with that deeper, world-weary importance of something like Threads. If that makes it attractive in any way, head to Amazon Prime!