Monday, August 30, 2021

Nail Gun Massacre (but not that one)


You know how you never really outgrow your childhood vices? For some it's nail biting, others, party bowls of cheese puffs, and most of us horror fans, cheaply made slashers set in wooded areas. 

Yup. Who says you have to grow up?

Quick Plot: Graduating high school senior Dominic is using his father's remote cabin for a fun weekend with his crush Ilsa, Japanese exchange student Mariko, and her boyfriend Kenji. His charcuterie plans are thrown asunder when Ilsa shows up with a batch of uninvited guests: her new older bro squeeze Dwane, unrequited crush Marcus, odd pal Rumor, stoner Eli, and smoker Sara.

With the PlayStation broken and radio non-iPod ready, the group decides to kill time the old-fashioned way: a parlor game of Dead Body. Naturally (since the film's title is "Dead Body") things get quite real: Mariko, Kenji, and Dominic are quickly found slain, and with doors locking from the inside, it's clear that the murderer is one of their own.

Dead Body is directed by newcomer Bobbin Ramsey from a script by Ian Bell and Ramon Isao, and clearly, this was made for less than the catering budget of a Marvel film (or even the cast payout for a BlumHouse one). We're pretty much restricted to one house and some woods, with actors you might have seen as character witnesses on Law & Order. Most of the violence occurs under so much darkness that there clearly wasn't too much of a need to go broke on fake blood.

And yet, much like the similarly tiny and game-themed Witch-Hunt, Dead Body manages to be far more entertaining than you might fear for a title you've never heard of streaming on Amazon Prime. It's under 90 minutes and moves exactly how you'd want this kind of dead "teenager" movie to move.

Some of the early arguments about what is actually going down feel repetitive (not ideal in such a short film), but one could argue that there's something of a point to that. I haven't played Dead Body in years, but the film makes it feel like an oral version of Clue, which adds an interesting spin to a fast mass murder mystery.

The characters are idiots, and most on the mild scale of likability, but the young(ish) actors (seriously, I did a few double takes when I realized they were supposed to be 18-year-old graduates and not celebrating a 10-year reunion) are good enough to help the material along. This isn't a hidden gem or new classic, but if you're looking for an old-fashioned slasher on cheap hypderdrive, Dead Body more than satisfies.

High Points
There really is a lot to admire in terms of how Ramsey made such efficient use of what had to be a teeny budget

Low Points
I'm not fully sure what to make of the film's treatment of its two Japanese characters, who exist solely to have a lot of sex while their very white friends discuss how they're always having sex because that's what Japanese people do. It's actually less racist than I'm making it sound, but just sits weird

A Note of Exemption
Time and time again, I've expressed rage at the new trend of opening a movie on a flash of violence that occurs 2/3rds of the way through the running time before flashing a "24 Hours Earlier" note to start proper. It feels cheap and sometimes genuinely spoils certain plot elements and usually, accomplishes nothing but presumably assures an impatient audience that yes, there will be violence in what might be a slow-burn. That being said, Dead Body does indeed open on such a scene, but this is the rare case where it doesn't hurt the storytelling. Instead, it just lets us know from the beginning that this is a whodunit, something the movie doesn't really hide.

Lessons Learned
You apparently don't have to be that smart to get into Harvard

Never underestimate the user-friendly quickfire power of a nail gun (as if we didn't already know)

It never hurts to bring a shovel for a weekend trip, even if you won't have to use it to dig poop holes

Dead Body sits very nicely in the "this was a good elliptical machine watch" at the gym. Find it on Amazon Prime when you're working out.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Don't Forget the Wine

Of all the experiences I've missed out on during the pandemic, one of the absolute dumbest, yet deepest felt, is sharing a giant, colorful charcuterie board with friends, claiming the best cheese first then dutifully eating the last bites so as to get our money's worth. For perhaps this reason alone, I was primed for a horror movie that included an extensively wordy argument about what best goes on a wooden board of delicacies.

Folks, it's been a weird year. Here's a weird movie just for you.

Quick Plot: Jeff is an emerging playwright hoping to score some financial backing for the Broadway debut of his latest work. In order to grease some money wheels, he takes his young wife Haley to a dinner party thrown by the wealthy, weird Carmine.

Haley isn't thrilled to socialize, since her last outing was at a mental institution, but she puts on her sundress and does her duty, even as Carmine's circle of upper class, overly cultured friends proceeds to act stranger and stranger.

Yes, they're some variation of satanists, and yes, cannibalism will indeed show up, along with necrophilia and some very confused psychological explanations for sexual preference. Most of those aspects of The Dinner Party try far too hard to be shocking and gross, but the deeper character-based throughline of Haley's journey from lifelong victim to supernaturally infused sorceress actually has some merit.

The Dinner Party was directed and co-written by Miles Doleac, who also costars as one of Carmine's snobby, sociopath guests, along with his real-life wife Lindsay Anne Williams (who also did the costumes and co-produced). I mention this because it actually helps explain some of The Dinner Party's strengths: for as pretentiously obnoxious as the guests are, they also do indeed feel like a solid group with a long shared history together.  

Overall, The Dinner Party moves a bit like a slog, with some forced grossness and the kind of mean flashbacks to sexual abuse that have unfortunately become all too common in modern horror. It's a bit of shame because Doleac and co-writer Michael Donovan Horn do tap into some new ideas, including long metaphors about opera's ties to violence and female empowerment overcoming some ancient male power dynamics. Had Doleac trusted some of his more unique (for the genre) refined style, I think The Dinner Party could have been something special. 

High Points
I do appreciate a movie that understands IMMEDIATELY how awful its central male character is, and The Dinner Party is very aware of Jeff's toxicity and just how much Haley needs to break away from it

Low Points

Can we please put a moratorium on horror movies opening on a scene of violence that occurs 50 minutes into the runtime, then cutting immediately to the credits and starting its narrative off proper? We can call it the Law of Don't Breathe, plus two dozen other recent titles that seem terrified of losing their genre audience before the horrors kick in halfway through the movie. All it does is throw the story off, then spoil itself when the audience sees a character dressed as he was in the opening and says, "oh, I guess that guy will die since I've already SEEN it happen." So filmmakers: please stop

Lessons Learned
The curse of owning an expensive house is owning an equally expensive security policy

Common courtesy is to bring a 12 dollar bottle of red to a dinner party

Novelist is a more elegant term than writer

At almost two hours, The Dinner Party could definitely have used some more time on the editing slab, and while I do think there are some good ideas and signs of skill, the actual act of sitting through this all at once is not something I'd readily recommend. It's on Amazon Prime (or was at the time of this review) and worth a gander for decently made low budget completists.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: White Christmas

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. This time: my #11, season 2's White Christmas. 

The Talent: Showrunner Charlie Brooker does his usual script duties, while veteran British television director Carl Tibbetts gets behind the camera. Tibbetts isn't a stranger to intense criminal punishment Black Mirror episodes: one year earlier, he directed the even darker White Bear.

The Setup: Two men awaken on Christmas morning to their usual quiet rhythm, working a mysteriously unexplained job in a small cabin located in the middle of nowhere. The talkative Matt (Don Draper himself) decides to divulge his past to the more reserved Potter (Rafe Spall). It's a holiday anthology!

First up: Matt's ill-fated stint as a dating consultant. This being Black Mirror, a Hitch-like service involves contact lenses that let Matt see behind his client's eyes, helping the socially awkward young man land a mysterious stranger who ends up murdering him and herself. Next, Matt a bit too cheerfully describes his official former job working as a programmer for advanced digital assistant technology that creates a miniature clone of paying customers. The catch? Your clone (or "cookie") is, you know, trapped in a lonely existence of forced servitude.

Potter is fairly disgusted by Matt's lack of remorse, but of course, those who live in Black Mirror houses should never throw stones (no matter how technologically advanced of stones they may be). Turns out, Potter's life went off the rails when his girlfriend Beth became unenthusiastically pregnant. She considered an abortion, he became awful, and she turned on the "blocker," a literal form of social media blocks that meant he could never see her or her offspring again (though that didn't stop him from stalking from afar).

The Ending: Well, like current social media legalese, the laws are quite fuzzy, which means Beth's untimely death allows Potter to finally set his eyes on the child he's been following only to discover, like so many a Maury Povich guest, that he is indeed not the father. In the face of utter devastation, his fiery temper is released, killing his would-be father-in-law and leaving his not-daughter to freeze to death over the winter holidays.

It gets better! Worse? I don't know your definitions of fun, so here's the real kicker: Matt and Potter have been in a simulation intended to elicit Potter's murder confession. Once done, Matt is free with his own form of probation terms: complete blocking, meaning the man who made his living off of his charms can no longer interact with others. Potter gets a different form of hell: reliving the moment of his crimes on infinite loop.

The Theme: Much like White Bear (currently my #4 episode), White Christmas has a complicated relationship with crime and punishment. Potter is a murderer, and Matt something of an accomplice (though his legally acceptable legitimate paying job was probably far more morally corrupt than the crime that put him behind bars) but do their comeuppances feel right? It's a question Brooker has clearly always fascinated Brooker, and it comes up again in even darker ways with Shut Up and Dance. Is Brooker just issuing a moralistic warning about the extent of possible punishments? Is it a call FOR these kinds of penalties? Two watches down and I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to take from White Christmas.

The Verdict:
There are things to enjoy in White Christmas: Jon Hamm dialing into the smarmier side of Don Draper, the utter horror of cookies (further explored, to lesser effect, in White Christmas's sister episode, Black Museum), and the twist of revealing "nice guy" Potter to be such a childish, bitter slob. There's some deeply cruel black humor to be found (particularly in its final moments of insanity) but on the whole, it's not a tradition I need to repeat.

Technology Tip:
Look, there's not much Potter could have done with Black Mirror-world gadgets to change his fate, so I'll throw a more traditional, always true mantra out instead: if you don't want a pregnancy test found, do not dispose of it inside your own home

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
If the dating-gone-wrong is a 5/10, the cloning abuse a 9/10, and the leave-a-child-to-die-on-Christmas an 8/10, I guess that puts us a 7.333333 and so on

Quality Scale:
6/10; Hamm is always a dream to watch and Spall taps into a more interesting darkness than you initially think, but much like Black Museum, there's something just off about White Christmas's rhythm. The first story seems more Tales From the Crypt-lite than Black Mirror-daring, while the horrors of the personal assistant tale are given no room to really sit.

Enjoyment Scale:
Eh. White Christmas is another episode that lost a few points on its rewatch, in part because all three stories (four if you count the wraparound) feel more plot-heavy than thematically rich. 

Up Next (Month): War is hell with Men Against Fire!

Monday, August 9, 2021

Tooth, Nail, & Torture

 Remember that post-Saw era of straight-to-what-we-used-to-call-DVDs horror, where titles were one homophone and cover art usually included teeth? 

Found another one!

Quick Plot: After a pre-credit sequence involving a man being skinned alive on a doctor's table, we move on to the tried and true "attractive college students wearing unreasonable clothing while camping" sequence to establish our hot young leads: Nice guy Nick and his secretly pregnant girlfriend Tayler, and slightly wilder Kai and her straight-laced boyfriend Tony. 

While stopping for gas, they meet Diane (Passions' Sheridan Crane/Face/Off host McKenzie Westmore), a lady on the town who needs a lift to her own car parked in the middle of nowhere because obviously, that's the ideal spot to gas a truckload of young people and lock them in a Saw 2-style grunge-filled home.

The group awakens alongside a few other confused souls, all with devices installed in the back of their heads and a large monitor and 22 hour countdown clock in full view. A video tape of a mysterious scientist plays informing them of their new purpose: raise their hormone levels sufficiently for their captors to collect their juices (just go with it) and they'll all be released. The best way of hitting those levels? TORTURE.

(Well, actually, as the Jeff Spicoli-ish lone wolf points out, they could all just have sex, but that would put this in a different genre, so forget we even brought it up.)

After a few false starts, the group agrees to rotate torture duty, trusting that when they hit their marks, the doors will open and they'll limp back home, a few fingers short but fully intact to live the rest of their lives.

These people are idiots.

Vile is credited as being directed by Taylor Sheridan, the now-successful writer behind Sicario and Hell or High Water, though his Wikipedia page tries to downplay any involvement. As first films go, Vile isn't terrible, though keep in mind, I'm saying this as someone who's seen just about every Saw-inspired gross-out flick to come out of the early aughts. Next to, say, Nine Dead, how can ANYTHING be bad?

But also, Vile is not very good. Part of it is the sheer datedness and stupidity of its concept: torture porn was a term that was often misused by mainstream critics, but Vile is LITERALLY about torture, and in a supremely dumb way at that. When a character is madly scrambling through kitchen drawers so that she can plug in a wafflemaker and burn her own back, there's really no other description that fits. 

All the soulful indie rock tunes used to montage sequences of a bound hot person screaming while his or her friends look on in tears can't cover the fact that, you know, this isn't cool or's just pretty stupid. 

High Points
As much as the young and pretty cast leaves little impression, I did appreciate the earnest effort to make it clear that the moral compasses of each person varied wildly, and that Nick was pleasantly consistent in his sense of right and wrong

Low Points
I don't always mind not getting answers in a genre film, but the half-story of Vile's watchers is so muddled that it's just genuinely unsatisfying to learn some, not all the answers we might have wanted. 

Lessons Learned
Even amongst college women, there is a fair amount of confusion over the definition of feminist

When your clock to a violent death is audibly clicking, you should definitely take all the time in the world to artistically determine the order of who gets tortured first

It ain't real torture until the fingernails come off

No, Vile is not particularly good, but it's better assembled than many a similar film of its era and subgenre. Those of you weirdo completists who feel the need to see every somewhat professionally made horror film of the last 20 years can find it on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, August 2, 2021

You Remine Me of the Babe


I've never been a stickler for historical accuracy in a film. In fact, when I see the words "based on a true story" anywhere NEAR the horror genre, I usually make a mental note to skip that flick, because if you're trying to purport that your most likely supernatural story really happened, then you can only go so far with the narrative. If a bunch of hot teenagers got lost in a forest and killed off one by one by a band of magical turtle/tiger hybrids, we would have heard about it, no?

Note to self: get on that script about the backwoods turtle/tiger people.

Anyway, Stay Out Stay Alive, the directorial debut of veteran digital FX artist Dean Yurke, opens with some very serious Times New Roman font telling us that we are about to watch a story based on true events, only for the closing credits to include the standard disclaimer:


Quick Plot: Five attractive early twentysomethings bound by their good looks (seriously, aside from a sister connection, these people should not be friends) head to Owani mine country for a weekend of camping fun. History buff Amy is eager to explore the caves and willing to take kooky forest ranger Barbara Crampton up on her offer of a tour, but the rest of her pretty terrible pals would rather just roast marshmallows and have sleeping bag sex. Well, everyone except single Donna, who decides to take a midnight stroll and ends up buried in an off-map mine.

With her foot pinned under debris, Donna's weekend plans are pretty limited. Pals Reese and Kyle climb down to help only to discover that they've landed right in the middle of a literal goldmine.

The kids get to work on gathering all the riches they can find, figuring they can fill their money bags then call in help for Donna without anyone knowing they stole the gold. Seems like a good plan, save for the Owani curse fairly put upon the future generations of spoiled Americans.

What's neat about Stay Out Stay Alive (obviously not the title) is that despite Yurke's background in digital FX, this is not a movie that relies on cheap CGI to commit to its genre. Instead, the horror comes from the tried and true greed-turning-man-against-itself, as the characters, in varying levels, find themselves becoming the real vessels of terror. Considering the haunting in question is the rightfully angry spirits of indigenous people, it's incredibly fitting that we don't need a monster miner tearing our loose friendships apart.

The film also looks quite good: how much of the set design was practical and how much was rendered is impressively not obvious, and the claustrophobic trappings of a mine are felt when needed.

There was something about Stay Out Stay Alive that just never fully clicked in terms of making me feel much, but in terms of its filmmaking, this is a sharp low budget entry worth some 85 spare minutes. 

High Points
When a writer/director comes from a technical background, you're not expecting much in terms of character building, but much credit to Yurke for investing so much specificity in his cast. This isn't the most interesting batch of pretty little victims we've ever had in a low budget horror movie, but Stay Out Stay Alive is surprisingly invested in making sure their five different personalities (along with their fatal flaws and insecurities) are made very clear early on, ensuring the audience understands their decisions, no matter how dumb they may be

Low Points
Considering it didn't especially do much for the finale, a third act revelation regarding a character's secret felt incredibly unnecessary and lazy, particularly when you're a female horror fan tired of watching females in horror fighting over terrible men

Lessons Learned
The best way to establish a character as being smart is to keep having her say "thesis!"

40 year old stepdads love Volvos

Does it really have to be said? Always, no matter what your instincts tell you, heed the advice of Barbara Crampton

I wasn't expecting much from a title I'd never heard of streaming on Amazon Prime, but Stay Out Stay Alive is a solid B-movie that manages to tell a familiar story with a few surprises. It won't necessarily scare you, but there's a lot to enjoy, and I look forward to seeing more original work from Dean Yurke.