Monday, May 30, 2022

Method Directing


Serial killer mockumentaries have become a common subgenre in recent years, though so many run the risk of having the same ending: if you're playing it straight, doesn't the star subject HAVE to eventually slaughter the camera crew? 

Gillian Wallace Horvat's I Blame Society finds a pretty great way to skirt that issue: our multi-talented killer happens to also (wo)man the camera. Everybody wins!

Quick Plot: Gillian is a struggling filmmaker looking for some validation and stuck on the best compliment she's ever received: that she would make a great murderer. She begins a documentary exploring how she could execute the perfect crime on the perfect victim (the shallow and cruel girlfriend of her pal Chase) before pissing off enough people that she abandons the project. 

Three years later, Gillian is having an even harder time trying to make it in the industry. Sure, there are token opportunities for "people like her" but they're still at the mercy of dude bros who toss around words like "intersectionality" and "inclusivity" just for the sake of meeting quotas. 

So what's an ambitious but aimless professional to do but the one thing she hasn't tried? Gillian goes for it.

I Blame Society is an incredibly funny little black comedy of a horror movie. Sure, it calls to mind Man Bites Dog and a few similar stories, but writer/director/star Gillian Wallace Horvat is so clear-headed in her offbeat tone that it ends up feeling entirely fresh. Her targets are clear, and her humor is poisonous (literally).

High Points
The entire execution of Gillian's first (possibly accidental) murder is so perfectly crafted in how ridiculously it unfolds that it helps to set the rest of the film's tone down the perfectly offbeat path

Low Points
Yes, Gillian is ultimately a terrible person, so if you're the kind of film fan bothered by that, be warned

Lessons Learned
NBC's Hannibal did a lot of things right, but apparently, depicting murder realistically was not one of them

If people threw computers out the window all the time, we'd be tripping on laptops every day

To be in "New York shape" means you have brown hair and probably smoke

I Blame Society is millennial self-aware horror at its best. Have a go of it on Shudder (I've been saying that a lot lately, haven't I?).

Monday, May 23, 2022

Oh Deer

Ever feel dumb? I was a good ten minutes into
Antlers before I realized it was a different movie from Horns.


Quick Plot: Frank, a nice upstanding citizen, is cooking meth in a closed Oregon mine with his associate by his side and son Aiden on watch. Something attacks the men, leaving a complicated new family setup for older (but still elementary age) brother Lucas. 

At school, Lucas tries to stay under the radar, understandable when your weekly chores now involve collecting roadkill to feed your feral dad and little brother locked in the ever-smelling basement. His teacher Julia (sad eyeliner mood Keri Russell) senses something is amiss, having herself grown up a victim of abuse alongside her now town sheriff brother Paul (Jesse Plemons).

Julia tries to reach out to Lucas, but the boy is (UNDERSTANDABLY) hesitant. When she sends her principal (randomly played by Amy Madigan) to visit his home, the carnage spills out.

Or...not? I don't know, if four mangled-beyond-recognition corpses were discovered in a tiny town over the course of 48 hours, wouldn't...someone care? Poor ill-equipped Paul and his even less-prepared deputy (PLAYED BY RORY COCHRANE FOR SOME REASON) take on the case, enlisting the wisdom of retired sheriff (and conveniently inidgenous) Graham Greene to throw in some handy wendigo slaying trivia.

I'm being a little hard on Antlers, and here's why: this movie could have been so much more.

You have an actual cast of good, interesting actors, a decently sprawling Pacific Northwest environment, a classic monster tale with pathos, and some genuinely incredible and surprising practical effects. So why did this movie leave me so...meh?

Two reasons: for one, this is a story that makes no bones about using indigenous folklore as its basis. So naturally, it's entirely about white people. Sure, we've got Graham Greene cashing a check to stop by and expound some exposition, but you can almost see the boredom in his eyes as he rushes through his expanded cameo. Apparently, there were some earnest efforts behind the scenes to stay true to First Nations culture, but it LITERALLY stayed behind the scenes. Here's an interview with filmmaker Scott Cooper about the process:

I had Native advisors for “Hostiles” [Cooper's previous film] as well, and for this particular film “Antlers,” I worked very closely with professor Grace Dillon from Portland State University, who is Native American and is the foremost authority on the Wendigo and has written extensively about it. So from writing the screenplay to the conception of the design of the Wendigo, she worked with me while I was shooting, to the final iteration of it, it was really important to me to have people who knew much more about it who were also of an indigenous culture help guide me.

That's great! he not think it was weird that all this research was placed squarely on Caucasian characters? Look, I'm even whiter than Jesse Plemons so I can gracefully step back from a fight that isn't really mine, but it's genuinely shocking that a fairly mainstream release would be this blatantly...white in 2022.

The other issue I found with Antlers is more a matter of personal taste, and heck, maybe just had to do with my own mood but here goes: everyone and everything in the universe of this movie is sad. This is a town filled with haunted meth labs, abusive parents, recovering alcoholics, inefficient educators, nasty bullies, doomed skunks, and just for the fun of it, extremely gray weather that wraps up the misery with a hazy bow. Not every movie needs to be sing with joy like, I don't know, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, but every second of Antlers' runtime feels like the before part of an antidepressant medication commercial. The scares are a genuine relief.

High Points
Again, I do want to be clear that in terms of filmmaker, Antlers has a lot of quality going for it! Keri Russell and newcomer Jeremy Thomas do an achingly good job of conveying incredibly sad lives lived under a dark shadow of abuse

Low Points
Unfortunately, the script never seems to find the time to know what to do with all of the pain it spilled out in its first five minutes. Is this a story about drugs ravaging a small town, mental illness and alcoholism tearing families apart, or just how many people can die horrific deaths due to bad police training? It's too much, and not enough of any of it to add up to something satisfying

Lessons Learned
Teachers know everything (including the important food fact that ice cream is a vegetable)

Leatherface masks come in wendigo sizes

Who needs a school budget to invest in guidance counselors or therapists when any problem can be diagnosed through crayons?

If you love a wendigo story or crave a new monster design, Antlers is certainly worth a try. I found it frustrating not because it's a bad film, but because it simply could have been so much better. It's currently streaming on HBO Max.

Monday, May 16, 2022

In Canada, "Deliverance" is pronounced "Rituals"


When a recipe works, you keep making it. It's as true for marinara sauce as it is for horror subgenres, and it's why a post-Deliverance world includes more than its share of movies centered on cocky urbanites meeting terrible fates in the vast wilderness.  

Quick Plot: Nearing 40, five former med school pals embark on an annual weekend trip, this time a 15 mile hike through the forests of Canada. Our helpful helicopter pilot sets the stage clearly: they'll be completely alone and out of reach, with no one to reach or hear them until they pass through the deepest parts of the woods.

Things would have gone fine had our quintet not committed the cardinal sin of any group outing horror flick: the dreaded cheerful group photo.

It NEVER goes well.

The trouble begins when the guys wake up to discover their boots missing. Despite ringleader DJ's detailed Xerox'd packing list instructions, nobody bothered to bring a second pair of shoes (see: people have been ignoring the equivalent of group texts since the '70s). DJ doubles back to get help while the remaining four begin to see more signs that they're not alone. 

For starters, there's the severed deer head staked over their tents, a snake perfectly positioned to create a caduceus. The reasonably spooked campers decide to start moving, which drives them straight into a series of impressive booby traps: a loose beehive that leads to Abe's death, and a water set bear trap (MY FAVORITE) that knocks out Martin, DJ's brother. It's up to the morally questionable Mitzi and the group's conscience Harry (Hal Holbrook) to carry him to safety. 

As you just might guess, Rituals is more than a little a product of Deliverance's success. Thankfully, as knockoffs go, it's also a very, very good one. The combination of Ian Sutherland's script and top shelf actors means we get surprisingly deep character development built through dialogue alone. There's 20 years of bravado, guilt, and judgement between the men to build conflict, and that's before we even know just what kind of insane but extremely resourceful psychopath is hunting them down. 

Hal Holbrook (apparently the most expensive thing in the movie) holds it together with the kind of deep presence we don't always find in these lower priced genre flicks. His decades-brewing beef with Lawrence Dane's more selfish (but not necessarily wrong) Mitzi drives so much of the film's third act. Without spoiling anything, their back and forth is ultimately much more interesting than the actual horrors at play. 

High Points

Sometimes it's the non-horror choices that make a horror film so interesting. In the case of Rituals, it's that our soon-to-be-victims are 40something doctors and surgeons, all at different points in their careers (both professionally and morally). It goes such a long way in establishing them as men with a very particular brand of educated confidence

Low Points
While there's some interesting ground suggested by the reveal of the villain, it ultimately feels so much less developed in comparison to how much story we get from the rest of the group

Lessons Learned
A word like "incompetent" can do serious ruin to a man's reputation

Live your life in such a sunny manner that when you die, your friends dub you a gentle boob

Never limit your food supply to what has to be boiled

Rituals isn't the best of its very specific (and prolific) subgenre, but it's certainly up there and will scratch that Deliverance-y itch. Find it on Shudder. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Black Mirror Revisit: The Entire History of You

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. We're now at my initial podium, so let's dive into The Entire History of You.

The Talent:
It's a rarity, but here we go: an episode of Black Mirror NOT written by Charlie Brooker. This one comes from Jesse Armstong, the man being Four Lions and Succession, with television director Brian Welsh behind the camera. Just to up its British cred a few more points, future Dr. Who Jodie Whitaker co-stars. 

The Setup:
Liam is an insecure lawer bombing his latest professional review and not doing much better at home. He meets up with his wife Fi at a friend-of-friends dinner party and immediately senses something off. Maybe it was just a bad day, maybe Liam's just not the social type, or maybe, there's something going on between Fi and the cavalier bachelor Jonas. 

In our universe, we might spend a little too much time trying thinking about facial reactions and gestures, but in Black Mirror's, there's no time to waste: simply play back the 'grain' installed in the back of your neck to rewatch every interaction you've ever had with the same ease you have when fastforwarding Netflix. 

It's as terrible as it sounds. While some, like Jonas's one-night party fling, choose to forgo such technology, most with the means to do so happily have it implanted. Never overthink anything again, right? 

The Ending:
Alternatively, never let anything go. Liam's nagging suspicion about his wife's manner leads him down a whiskey greased path of pain. Jonas and Fi were indeed an item, but a glance at Jonas's grain memories is all Liam needs to confirm the sad truth: their relationship was ongoing, and the timing of a simple screenshot suggests Liam's baby daughter might have a different daddy. 

It's enough to drive a man to messily extract his own grain.

The Theme:
Brooker has pointed out that technology is rarely the actual villain in Black Mirror; it merely provides the means to open windows into our existing nature that may have otherwise stayed shut. That's certainly the case with The Entire History of You. At its core, it's a story about how our own doubts and insecurities will destroy us if we let them. 

There are hints of something else interesting at play, though it gets less room for exploration in the tighter family-based drama. At the cursed dinner party, one of Fi's grain-loving friends rants about the fallacy of our own memories, and how subjective they really are. In a world where every moment can be objectively played back, it's certainly true: a witness's testimony based on recall should indeed be dismissed if grain video captured a different, verified story. But the idea that how we remember something doesn't matter is horrifying because so much of our memories build us into the people we are. Fi may have truly been enthralled by Jonas in her drunken, depressed state, but she's clearly spent the last two years regretting that feeling, rewriting it in her head. Doesn't that count? 

The Verdict:
While The Entire History of You is a strong hour of TV, it doesn't quite pack the same punch once you've cycled through the full Black Mirror run. Its parallels to White Christmas (another story about an emotionally unstable young maybe-father whose discovery of a partner's adultery sends him down a destructive spiral) makes you draw some mildly unpleasant conclusions about men in the Black Mirror's world. Toby Kebbell is great in the lead role, lending extreme vulnerability to a sad mess of a man, but that doesn't mean it's actually fun to watch. 

Technology Tip:
While the terms are different, the general rule still rings true: if you don't want it in cyberspace (or grainland, as it were) delete, delete, delete

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
5/10: This is one of the more identifiable sad human stories (as opposed to the all-out torture tragedy of something like Black Museum) so while it's certainly uncomfortable, it's far from the worst thing that can happen to someone in the Charlie Brooker Universe. 

Quality Scale:
7/10: Even in its lower budgeted first season, The Entire History of You works as a tight, effective hour of television. 

Enjoyment Scale:
6/10: Another episode that suffered a bit on rewatch, offering little extra insight the second time around (and, in fairness to it, after 20+ other episodes that explore similar territory).

Up Next (Month): From domestic drama to space opera, we're boarding the USS Callister!

Monday, May 2, 2022

Poor Unfortunate Souls

Ahoy mateys! 

That's it. That's the intro. Let's set sail. 

Quick Plot: Meet Molly, a troubled soul with very complicated theories about what it means to be a great man. When not working as a cocktail waitress at her boyfriend's dive bar, she spends most of her free time babysitting her adoring nephews and regaling them with stories about the wonderful legend that was her late sea captain father. 

The fact that Cathy, Molly's sister, has no such memories tells you a lot about Molly's state of mind. It's immediately clear that Molly has done some serious disassociation, rewriting her childhood to turn her abusive dad into a hero. She does the same with celebrities who run in her social circle. Football players and television actors represent a very specific brand of masculinity that she craves, and, we soon learn, will take very dramatic steps to own. 

The Witch Who Came From the Sea is a strange, haunting little sea yarn that I 100% bought hook, line, and sinker (and yes, I'm attempting to make some kind of nautical joke so lob your fresh tomatoes my way and I'll make you a spicy shrimp scampi). Screenwriter Robert Thom (of Death Race 2000 fame) apparently penned it for his wife, lead Millie Perkins, and she brings such a weird, twisted energy to Molly that it all kind of makes sense in its own alien way. It's even more interesting a film when you dig through director Matt Cimber's career.

Cimber worked in the theater world for some time before pivoting to B-movies, among them several blaxsploitation flicks and the Pia Zadora punchline Butterfly. More importantly, he spent a good chunk of the '80s creating something near and dear to my childhood: GLOW.  

And yes, by some light internet research, it does indeed seem like he may have been the basis for Marc Maron's character in the Netflix show. 

Like GLOW, The Witch Who Came From the Sea is a complicated beast when it comes to understanding exactly what it's saying about or doing for the female sex. Molly is a fascinating, complicated woman both ahead of and behind her time. She craves the attention of men (and very traditionally "masculine" ones at that) but also has a commendable forwardness in how she goes after what she wants. The Witch Who Came From the Sea feels its 1976ness deeply in the best of ways. 

And not just the fashion. 

Even after decades of devouring horror, it still amazes me in the best of ways how much a low budget, rarely discussed little movie once banned as a video nasty can accomplish so much thoughtful exploration of something so deep. What a world indeed. 

High Points
Perkins is by far the beating pulse of this film, but I'll also throw a nod to cinematographer Dean Cundey (you just might have heard of him if you've ever watched a movie), whose early work here helps nail that dreamy tone

Low Points
Look, Molly's childhood abuse is a huge part of the film, but I can't imagine there weren't better ways to express that than showing such a grisly reenactment 

Lessons Learned
A sailor might curse, but a captain keeps his mouth clean

Only hippies wear glasses

Good men don't have tattoos

The Witch Who Came From the Sea is a strange, special little oddity that's well worth your eyeballs. Find it streaming on Shudder.