Monday, April 25, 2022

The (Panda) Tribe Has Spoken

I'm a bit of a softie for any form of game show horror, particularly the reality-themed. Maybe it's my competitive nature. It's one thing to fight for your life, but it's soooooo much better when you have to ALSO fight others.

Quick Plot: Welcome to Furca's House of Fun, a Big Brother-ish live stream filled with 8 attractive millennial D-list celebrities (including one played by Culture Shock director Gigi Saul Guerrero). Their skills range from chess to MMA, with a whole lot of reality TV and social media filtering experience in between. Every few days, one contestant will be eliminated based on popular vote, with the last one winning a $5 million cash prize.

Sounds easy enough, but as you just might guess, Funhouse has a few deadly tricks up its sleeve. Our computer generated panda bear cartoon host might seem cute and cuddly at first, but before you can throw in a convoluted product placement, the real stakes are revealed. 

Yes, it's a murder game, because how can a modern horror movie starring hot people with dubious pasts NOT be a murder game? And you know what: it's kind of a delight.

Written and directed by Jason William Lee, Funhouse is, you know, FUN. It takes just enough time introducing its setup to get us fully ready for the fireworks, and once they start blasting, the movie creates a shockingly human center to hold it up. 

We're so used to our physically perfect, morally gross young horror casts to be empty fodder, and when you throw in a reality competition plot point, it's truly a given. What makes Funhouse such a smart little watch is how it slyly flips that expectation on its hashtagged head. Each individual is introduced with an emoji-filled montage highlighting their less than respectable fame, and early conflicts lead us to expect a whole lot of shouting, with the big reveal being that the REAL monster is their own inability to work together. We've seen it done time and time again.

And that's the beauty of Funhouse. Just as quickly as we roll our eyes over a Bachelorette's failed love stories, we find ourselves incredibly invested in her survival. Lee understands that giving his characters just enough room to react to their circumstances and interact with each other goes a very long way in opening them up to the audience. 

It certainly helps that the cast is so solid. Everyone manages to craft both sides of their character: the annoyingly hamming wannabe star AND the vulnerable human in way over his or her head realizing that death is just a few clicks away. The setting fits the aesthetic you've come to expect from this kind of programming: monochromatic confessional rooms, steaming hot tubs, and an endless well of top shelf liquor. And all it takes is the first elimination round to reveal the utter emptiness of their prison. 

High Points
It's a tricky job to play reality fame vampires who earn audience sympathy, but enough good things can't be said about the cast. Everyone finds the right beats, but it's Christopher Gerard as Headstone who really shines, giving us both the short temper tantrums that would make good TV and shockingly raw moments that show his humanity

Low Points
I suppose our main villain is supposed to be pretty insufferable, but a good deal of his 'let me explain what this all means' monologues feel a bit more on the nose than needed

Lessons Learned
There's a big difference between drugging yourself and being drugged

Even the internet can get bored with boobs

If you don't trust your agent, then it's really your responsibility to read the very fine print

I had an absolute blast with Funhouse. It's streaming on Hulu and well worth your eyeballs, particularly if they've consumed their share of reality competitions. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Hell Is Other People (& a Cold Rest Stop)

It's 2022, which means most of our pop culture advertisements come by way of the internet. And yet, today's film, airing exclusively on Hulu, showed up as a trailer...on television. 

Seriously, I just want to acknowledge how strange it is to see an advertisement for one medium on a competing one. It's like when you watch a DVD that opens with an advertisement for the power of Blu Rays (I know, I know: who watches DVDs anymore, you kids scoff).

We're living in strange, strange times.

Quick Plot: Darby is in rehab (again) when she gets a call that her mother is in the hospital with a life-threatening aneurysm. She wastes no time sneaking out, but a heavy blizzard derails her travels and lands her in a visitor's center-turned-makeshift shelter with a batch of four other strangers...including one who has a young woman tied up in his or her van.

What follows is a sort of Hitchcock-lite thriller as tensions rise and cell phone bars fall. There are a few decent reveals and surprises along the 90-minute way so I'll pause on any more story details. We're not really talking about rug pull twists, but director Damien Power is keen to create tension by way of what our lead (and by extension, audience) doesn't know. 

It works well enough, though never to particularly outstanding effect. I was invested in Darby's plight. I was into the snow-trapped atmosphere and one-building setting. But overall, No Exit never grabbed me the way I'd hoped. 

High Points
There's probably more setup to Darby's past than a more effectively taut thriller would have needed, but actress Havana Rose Liu provides a strong presence and more importantly, Darby's characterization ends up being one of the reasons we actually care about this wild night. Yes, she's a mess, but in the face of danger, she makes the morally right decision to put her life on the line for a stranger. She proves herself an exceptional person and it means we as the audience have no choice but to root for her

Low Points
It should be a prosecutable crime to put Dale Dickey in your film and not let her do anything cool

Lessons Learned
Play the man, not the hand

Never trust a weird little white guy with a chip on his shoulder

Reno is all the action of Vegas with half the noise

No Exit is what I like to call a "folding laundry movie." Mind you, I don't actually FOLD laundry, but I do occasionally have to sit down and match-make widowed socks, and this would be the kind of film that would serve as a perfectly adequate backdrop. It's...fine. Entertaining but not quite sharp enough to fully hold your attention. Pair it with a mindless activity and bam! You've got yourself a productive Sunday morning. 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Black Mirror Revisit: White Bear

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. We've reached the pewter medal position with my original #4, the fun-for-the-whole-family White Bear!

The Talent:
Charlie Brooker did his usual writing duties, though he apparently had to scramble to revise his script in just two days after other episodes went over budget and he finally saw his shooting location. British television director Carl Tibbetts takes the helm, returning the next season for the equally dark White Christmas. Also on hand is Michael Smiley in a small part, and as anyone who's ever watched a Ben Wheatley film knows, one should never trust Michael Smiley. 

The Setup:
A woman wakes up disheveled, with no memory of who or where she is. She's in a dank suburban neighborhood, surrounded by strangers who keep their distance but record her every move on their cell phones, particularly when masked Purge-like aggressors start chasing her armed with anything from a rifle to electric knife.

Turns out, a mysterious electrical signal has set the world on fire, turning a good chunk of the population into homicidal maniacs. Our unnamed lead quickly teams up with the resourceful Jem (the incredibly British named Tuppence Middleton), a rebel trying to shut down the transmitter in the hopes of restoring sanity to the world. 

The Ending: 
Of course, there's no need to bust down any radio towers because, in one of the more extreme Black Mirror twists, there is no signal: the entire situation we've watched unfold is an elaborate prison sentence for our anonymous protagonist, now revealed to be the most infamous living criminal in England. Victoria Skillane helped her late fiance kidnap and murder a little girl. Every day, she awakens to the same horror show. Citizens get to participate and watch as she runs for her life in a waking nightmare, only to discover (every day!) the horrible crime she committed. Talk about a life sentence.

The Theme:
Fitting to its chaotic nature, White Bear has a few things to shout powerfully but a bit incoherently. It's obviously interested in the public's appetite and how easily it can be steered down the darkest of paths. Victoria's crime is as bad an act as a human being can commit, but her punishment is more about transferring domain over her to those who think they deserve it rather than actually forcing any kind of penance upon the guilty. There's no arc to Victoria's plight: every day, she spends a few hours running for her life in total fear, only to have another hour of being reminded of what she did to merit it. Then it happens again, with her learning nothing.

And yet, the people -- even children -- who show up to The Victoria Skillane Spectacular get their catharsis. They gleefully watch a stranger they think they know be put on an elaborate trial, reveling in her terror, participating wherever they can. They leave remembering everything and feeling better for it. 

It's a horror show not because of what Victoria goes through, but how enthusiastically the volunteers take part. 

The Verdict:
Is White Bear the most thoughtful, mind-opening episode of the Charlie Brooker universe? Of course not. Is it the closest the series comes to an all-out horror movie? Heck yes, and a manic, enjoyable, admittedly derivative one at that. 

Technology Tip:
It's the rare Black Mirror episode where technology plays a surprisingly small part in the conflict, so I'd say the most useful tidbit is surprisingly mechanical: check your weapons. Always, just check your weapons

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
9/10; Yes, Victoria's crimes merit the most severe of human punishments, but BOY does White Bear find a harsh way to make her pay, and by involving the general public, it takes society as a whole down a dark, dark path. 

Quality Scale:
6/10; Look, I kind of love White Bear, but I also can fully concede that this episode does indeed feel like it was written in a rush and filmed on a sale. There's an unrefined quality to it that kind of works for the grittier, visceral horror show it's going for. But, you know, it also isn't necessarily the highest quality 42 minutes of television. 

Enjoyment Scale:
7/10; As anyone who's read my decade-plus years of horror coverage knows, I don't need perfection to be happy. I just want to be entertained, and White Bear accomplishes that. 

Up Next (Month): 
It's horror of a different sort with the terrifying technology presented in The Entire History of You.

Monday, April 4, 2022

WHAT Is the DEAL With Your Grandparents?


The late Len Lasser had an acting career that spanned 60 years, but it's hard for most to see his picture and not scream a few oft-repeated Seinfeld lines. Raise your hand if you knew that he also starred as a (possibly) homicidal grandpa in an '80s horror film.


Quick Plot: Siblings Lynn and David are left orphaned after their father's passing, having lost their mysterious mother long before. They're sent to live with their enthusiastic grandparents and before you can pull out your best Uncle Leo impersonation, bodies start piling up around them. 

David is suspicious. First, there's the mysterious woman who seems to keep showing up wherever David goes. Since she's played by scream queen Brinke Stevens, he is, of course, right. 

Lynn is a bit distracted. As the older, hotter sibling, she's subject to being sexually harassed (and then, let's face it, assaulted) by a local meathead...who she then agrees to date, because, you know, the '80s?

Grandmother's House is yet another horror film that I had never heard of until the glory of Tubi. It's an odd duck, which is obviously something I welcome in the genre, particularly when it includes my absolute favorite underused element: villainous senior citizens. Grandmother's House is more The Visit than Rabid Grannies, with the horror coming down to the inability of children (okay, teenagers) to have their voices heard by adult authorities. 

Directed by Escape From Witch Mountain's Peter Radar, Grandmother's House doesn't fit your image of a 1988 horror flick. It has an impish mystery vibe about itself that genuinely keeps you guessing as to exactly what's at play. That's not to say this is a light-hearted PG romp. Axe murders and incest have their weight, but if your finale features a showdown between an eighth grader and AARP member, you tend to stand out. 

High Points
Considering its time of production, Grandmother's House seems to be so refreshingly DIFFERENT from what it would have neighbored on video store shelves that watching today, I genuinely had no idea where it might go

Low Points
Boy is it uncomfortable to stomach watching high schooler Lynn be ogled and forcefully (and nonconsensually kissed) by a jerk in a public pool, but it's even worse to see that the consequence of such an action is that you're now dating (though at least there's some comfort in seeing said jerk get a shotgun blast to his stomach). When you add in a last minute revelation regarding another female character's abuse, Grandmother's House's ick factor can't be fully ignored

Lessons Learned
To know geese is to fear geese

You can always count on kids to find trouble on a farm

Keep your cracker jacks or baseball games: nothing tastes better in the swim meet spectator stands than jarred pickles

Grandmother's House isn't a revelation or lost '80s treasure, but it's a surprising little tale that genuinely feels unique, both for its time and in general for the genre. Break out your bowl of hard candy and give it a try.