Monday, October 25, 2021

It's About Time We Played In An Amityville Dollhouse!

 I hate to repeat myself, but this series keeps forcing me to recap several key points:

- The Amityville Horror (1979) is not a good movie
- The 926 sequels (both official and non) sure know how to have a good time.

Messy exorcisms? Evil clocks? Killer floor lamps that looks like the lovechild of Jack Skellington and every sleazy Italian landlord in the opening of a Law & Order murder scene? Classics I say. 

Surely #8: Amityville Dollhouse has to keep the cycle going, right? 

Quick Plot: Contractor Bill is excited to move his newly merged family into the house he's been building: a '90s McMansion that happens to be located on the same lot where a family burned to death. Trifles, that, since the real problem is having his new wife Claire, her nerdy son Jimmy, and his kids (moody teen Todd and normal daughter Jessica) all get along.

Jimmy, you see, is what we'd call an indoor kid. His only friend is a pet mouse named Max (don't get too attached) and the fact that he bears such an uncanny resemblance to Robin Arryn (that kid who breastfed far too long on Game of Thrones) certainly doesn't help him socially.


Despite some in-fighting, life seems to be going smoothly enough for Jessica's birthday party, which promptly gets spoiled when Todd throws a toy tarantula into the piñata to give Jimmy a good scare. The problem? It's most definitely alive.

Surely said trick has nothing to do with the mysterious dollhouse Bill found in the house's shed, a dollhouse with a layout that might look familiar to fans of the 1979 original. 


While the movie makes no effort in any way to explain the connection, it's clear from the moment the dollhouse makes its first kill that evil is afoot. 

Its first kill is the pink and purple bicycle intended for Jessica's birthday.

Up next, poor little Max, who sneaks into the dollhouse and turns into a Food of the Gods-ish monster puppet, quickly slain when Todd knocks into the toy. As if the tension wasn't high enough, Claire suddenly finds herself aggressively attracted to her teenage stepson, Bill has recurring nightmares about his family dying horribly, Jessica can't shake a tummy ache, and Jimmy is being visited by the decaying ghost of his dead soldier father intent on murdering his replacement. 

All that PLUS evil voodoo dolls and violent bookshelves!

Directed by Steve White (a veteran producer with this as his sole directing credit), Amitvyille Dollhouse is not a lazy film. Take, for example, a breakfast scene that clearly involves a camera shot by way of a lazy susan, giving us an earnest attempt at artful cinematography in a movie that will eventually have our heroes hiding from these things in a laser field. 

Obviously, I had a good time and obviously, you'll get the same basic conclusion I drew from It's About Time and The Evil Escapes, what it lacks in actual scares is more than made up by enthusiastic weirdness. 

I can't think of a nicer thing to say about an evil dollhouse movie. 

High Points
Sure, your Paranormal Activities and Burnt Offerings work by building a steady level of slow building tension, I will never complain about a trashy genre movie just saying "screw it, let's throw in a giant mouse puppet at the 30 minute mark"

Low Points
SPOILERS! As is often the case in Amityville movies, it's a little unfair that the main family is fully spared while those unlucky enough to stop by end up horribly murdered. In the case of Dollhouse, that sad fate falls to the groovy new age uncle and worse, Todd's perfectly pleasant girlfriend Dana, who divulges her sad life story only to constantly be called trash by Bill and Claire and ultimately get her entire face burnt to a crisp. It's not a good look for the film

Lessons Learned
Once a geek, always a geek

There's a notable difference between killing and hurting

Half a bottle of tequila filled margaritas are great and all, but have you tried paying attention to your girlfriend so her face isn't burned off by your haunted fireplace?

Amityville Dollhouse is streaming on my new favorite (and free) service in the world, Tubi. Sure, you'll have to watch the occasional commercial, but if it's the only way you can also watch tiny sock dolls come to life and use books as weapons, you can manage. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Let It Go

If you are one of those people who watched Adam Green's Frozen and said, "this is all well and good, but they look so cold, and if only they were inside a cable car but still stuck in the middle of the winter sky, this would be more for me, and also, can they be Russians dubbed over into English?" then kids, have I got something for you.

Quick Plot: It's New Year's Eve, and a group of fairly bland but mostly attractive young people are trying to catch the last (what IMDB calls) gondola lift to the top of a mountain for a big party. They're late, but the grumpy operator accepts a few extra bucks to send them on their way, then promptly has a heart attack and dies without leaving any record of their trip.

Naturally, things get worse from there. The car is stuck in the middle of mountainous Russia, far out of cellular service and with no record of their whereabouts. Thankfully, influencer Katya's jerk boyfriend Kirill stormed away from the group before the gondola left, meaning after he sleeps off toxic male rage, he just might care enough to raise some alarms about his missing friends.

That is, of course, if other toxic male jerk Roman doesn't murder everybody onboard first.

Remember how I said Flight 666 was both refreshing for not having the Mr. Cooper-ish over-the-top villain, but also a tad dull for it? Well, Break is the exact other side of that needle: without Roman immediately escalating their plight into every-man-for-himself mayhem, Break would be damn boring. With it, it's just not that good.

I can't blame the film itself for being dubbed or the actors for giving performances that were probably far more interesting in their native language, but Amazon or the studio's decision to only have the dubbed version streaming is just disrespectful to everyone involved...particularly the audience that chooses to watch.

That being said, flat line readings aren't the only thing dragging Break down. Being stuck amid an avalanche should be terrifying, but the effect is dulled a bit when our characters are able to stand exposed to intense winter air with a light coat and no gloves and not, you know, immediately get blown away. The randomly inserted soft pop songs certainly don't help, nor does the fact that nobody onscreen is actually worth rooting for. 

It's a slog. 

High Points
Winter horror! I love a good snowy setting!

Low Points
Kirill, who ultimately emerges as something of a hero, is clearly terrible partner material (he all but stomps his feet when Katya chooses to take the tram instead of abandoning all of her plans with her friends and followers). It would have been nice for the movie to recognize this, and it's honestly a tad scary that we're instead supposed to accept that Katya was wrong (witness her punishment) and this man is a hero

Lessons Learned
The party's over when the clementines run out

Bribery is for cops, not ski lift operators

I say it every time, and they never listen: never, and I truly mean never, make a big point of taking a hopeful group picture before venturing into unguarded nature. Whether you're a sassy spelunker or aspiring filmmaker, your chances of success, much less survival, will plummet double digits the minute you put your arm around your pal for the perfect pose

Sadly, Break is not an enjoyable watch, though it would probably get a full grade bump if shown in its original dialogue. If you're a completist on snow-set thrillers, this is a movie that might end up on a checklist...but towards the bottom. There are at least two movies called Frozen that are more entertaining.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: The National Anthem

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Today we go way back to where it all started with Black Mirror's series premiere and my #9: The National Anthem.

The Talent: 
As would be true of most Black Mirror episodes, Charlie Brooker turns in the script. Otto Bathurst, a television director with mostly British credits, takes the reins. While there are some familiar character actor faces, the cast is fairly unrecognizable (at least to your average American). 

The Setup: 
In what is most likely Black Mirror's least altered universe, everyday London is shaken when a beloved member of the royal family is kidnapped. The ransom video is chilling...and odd. For the return of the United Kingdom's Princess Susannah, Prime Minister Michael Callow must have sex with a pig, on camera, for the world to see.

The Ending: 
After sorting through every possible attempt around the terms (body double, CGI, police investigation to locate Susannah), know...

has sex with a pig on camera for the world to see.

Susannah is returned unharmed, the kidnapper found on a noose of his own tying, the first lady still disgusted by her husband one year later, and the world pretty much continuing as it was, the whole ordeal a footnote in Callow's now successful term. 

The Theme:
There are a few ways to look at what The National Anthem is trying to do: a damnation of a highly connected world that forces the general populace to take part in something as awful as pig rape, the clinically detached laws of politics that put the latest polling numbers ahead of anything as trifling as a human life or pig's dignity, and, if you want to be meta about the whole thing, a sort of thesis for what Black Mirror intends to do: hold a slightly skewed reflecting device up against our own society and challenge our own morality. 

The Verdict:
Considering where Black Mirror would go over its 6 season (and a disappointing interactive movie) run, it's rather fascinating in hindsight that The National Anthem serves as the pilot. It's the least fantastical in terms of its world, with really no science fiction or slightly altered technological leaps that would become so expected in later episodes. 

But in a way, that's kind of perfect. The National Anthem feels raw, as if it's Charlie Brooker's barebones introduction to a world on the other side of the pond of The Twilight Zone. There are some plot threads that feel slightly messy (the journalist's ill-fated scoop was apparently supposed to connect us to the hospital staff's whole facility pause to watch the event, which perhaps explains why both character groups feel slightly unfinished) but on the whole, this episode wastes little time and manages to throw out its questions without demanding any answers. 

Technology Tip:
While The National Anthem's drama is heavily affected by the prominence of social media, there's not really much that could have been done that differently in order to change the outcome of events. There is a rather hilarious moment where traditional news media outlets are working through what language can be used on air, only to be outscooped by the internet, where no rules apply.

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 
Can I really quantify this with a number? Those who suffer here, to a wide variety of degrees: PM Callow, his in-name-only wife, anyone with a television screen...and the pig, who never consented to intercourse with a human, much less for said act to be televised. I don't know...7?

Quality Scale: 
Let's stick with the theme and go with a 7/10. For the premier of a series, The National Anthem is a confident, blackly funny introduction to the Brooker universe that wisely doesn't aim to do too much. 
Enjoyment Scale:
While it's far less flashy than most of what would come after, there's some clever humor that manages to settle the action without ever minimizing the fact that this is a pretty awful moral situation. Is it fun to watch? Kind of. We'll stick with what's working: 7/10
Up Next (Month): We'll keep the October spirit pumping in November for Black Mirror's most horror-themed installment, Metalhead

Monday, October 4, 2021

We All Have a Bad Side

Readers, I have a very important question to ask, and I expect honest, relationship-killing answers:

Did you know about Doppelganger?

If you responded "no,", then have I got a treat for you!

If you said "yes, yes Emily, I've always known about this 1993 mashup of dissociative identity order tropes, mannequins in face/off masks reveals, gooey unexplained demon exoskeleton attacks, and nuns running phone sex businesses, but I guess I forgot to tell you", then you are dead to me.

Unless you added "oh! I didn't tell you because there's a dead cat." Then I'd say, well golly, you truly do understand.

Quick Plot: Holly Gooding is a poor little rich girl with a 5'4 problem: her titular doppelganger is making life VERY difficult.

After maybe stabbing her mother to death in the wealthy family's New York City penthouse, Holly flees to LA to sort out her trust fund and visit her institutionalized brother (who just might have murdered their missing father). Despite being, you know, NYC penthouse/trust fund wealthy, Holly decides to rent a spare room from struggling screenwriter Patrick Highsmith and his ill-fated cat Nathan.

Patrick is your typical nerdy earnest good guy writer type hero, meaning he's blander than the grape jelly toast he dresses up with mustard. Thankfully, he has a far sassier writing partner named Elizabeth who lends some fast-talking pop when needed.

As you can expect from any movie about a heterosexual man and woman suddenly living in close quarters, Patrick and Holly become intimate...or do they? After a wild night of dirty kitchen floor sex, Holly is apalled by Patrick's memory of the act and is forced to explain that her double sometimes slips into her life.

As Elizabeth cannily points out, men will put up with a lot of insanity if the sex is good. Maybe it's that Drew Barrymore's doe-eyed innocence is naturally irresistible, but Patrick accepts A LOT: her wild mood swings, a fast-talking FBI agent hiding out in a laser-lit empty apartment next door, and Holly's arrest for the murder of her brother.

I know I've gone into what seems like a lot of detail about the plot of Doppelganger, but it's necessary to explain just how insane this story becomes. Things start getting weird when Sally Kellerman (who I have to assume owed writer/director Avi Nesher a large, "I know where the bodies are buried" favor) shows up in a cameo as, I kid you not, a former nun now running a phone sex operation but still the preeminent LA expert on the subject of doppelgangers. For whatever reason, she keeps a Raggedy Anne doll on her work desk.

What. Is. Happening.

I'm going to spoil the ending(s) of Doppelganger, because I'm terrified I haven't sold it hard enough for anyone to sit through a few commercials on Tubi and stream it free of charge, and that would be a true shame. It's not every day that you stumble on a '90s thriller that whiplashes from soap operatic multiple personality disorder saga to latex face/off disguise reveal and ends with Drew Barrymore being ripped into two gooey monster halves that resemble what the spinal structures of the creatures from Mac & Me would look like in that famous Bodies touring display.

Didja get all that?

Doppelganger's poster looks like it's selling a sleazy pre-Lifetime-but-totally-Lifetime sexy thriller. The fact that Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman's names show up in the opening credits should alert you that some practical FX are going to ooze onscreen, but when you're 80 minutes into a 90 minute non-supernatural film, IT'S A LITTLE BIT SHOCKING. Especially when you're still trying to come to terms with the fact that a half dozen characters (including The People Under the Stairs' Sean Whalen) have actually been Dennis Christopher's abusive psychiatrist in face puddy. THAT'S NOT HOW IT WORKS.

Avi Nesher showed up once before here: for the Cryptkeeper-less Tales From the Crypt movie Ritual, another film that had a lot of ambition in its style. Like Ritual, Doppelganger doesn't fully work as a film, nor does its gender politics age well in any way. There's a lot to squirm about in how the barely 18-year-old Barrymore is ogled by both the camera and every man she encounters, particularly her very own psychiatrist. The film considers him a monster because he dresses up in latex faces and murders at will, but you never get the sense that his lust is actually on trial.

Still, it's pretty hard to discover such bonkers and not walk away elated by its grand strokes.

Why has this movie been forgotten?

High Points
I'm a sucker for a grand, ridiculous reveal, and it doesn't get much wackier than a mannequin club...followed up by...
...whatever the hell this is supposed to be

Low Points
Seriously. This poor teenager has been sexually abused and exploited by her therapist, but it seems to only be considered a crime because he also went on a very bloody killing spree. Eff you, the '90s

Lessons Learned
The best prosthetics can do wonders with altering your facial structure, height, and voice

Common writers' afflictions include weak eyesight and being bad with names

The key to identifying which Drew Barrymore is nice and which Drew Barrymore is here evil doppelganger/rapist-murderer psychiatrist can best be identified by measuring the darkness of her lipstick

Your Moment of Zen
I was a teenager in the '90s, which meant I attended my share of awkward school dances where I, like so many of my peers, attempted to move my body to mediocre music in a way that made me look attractive. It's incredibly refreshing to watch actual hot people do the same and realize, in a true moment of enlightenment, that yes, I did indeed look stupid, but so does Poison Ivy-era Drew Barrymore because you know what? THERE'S NO WAY TO DANCE SEXY TO '90s PARTY MUSIC

The Winning Line
"You don't own me. You're not my father!"

Look! It's -
A fresh-faced (well, as fresh a face as I've ever seen) Danny Trejo as the sexually harassing construction worker whose catcalls are ickily subtitled "foreign language" as if no one in California has ever heard of this thing called "Spanish"

In case you couldn't tell, I realllllllllly enjoyed Doppelganger. It's terrible, dated, offensive, and possibly not that good a movie, but it's also WILD. You can survive a few ads for stock apps on Tubi. Give it a go.