Monday, July 25, 2022

Dawn of the 32 Seconds Later

The day might come when I don't greet the discovery of a new zombie siege with glee.

But it is not this day.

Quick Plot: On the rougher side of Montevido, young mother Iris is heading to work as a security guard (of sorts?) at an empty fitness center. Her ex surprises her by dropping off their child Tata, who's in for quite a take-your-daughter-to work day.

As is so often the case these days, there's a pandemic on the loose. This one attacks like your standard 28 Days Later rage virus, with one (occasional) twist: after any surge of activity, the carrier is left immobile for the titular 32 seconds. Once that time passes, it's back to your usual biting fury.

Most of the time.

See, science fiction and horror stories need rules. It's what keeps us holding our breath when teenagers can't shake off sleep on Elm Street or screaming "THE HEAD" when a character is firing rounds into the stomach of the undead. Virus 32 seems to make a big deal of its timer gimmick, but that doesn't do much when it's not used consistently. 
If that was Virus 32's biggest issue, I'd still be satisfied. Unfortunately, director/cowriter Gustavo Hernandez (of the original Silent House) is apparently as big a zombie fan as the audience, and works incredibly hard to celebrate some recent hits. The score owes 28 Days Later John Murphy residuals, while both the opening panning shot and pregnancy storyline are ripped straight out Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. 

Horror is often referential, but when the movie seems to deliberately want you to think about films that did this exact thing better, it's...well...odd. 

High Points
A good zombie flick requires a human anchor, and as Iris, Paula Silva makes for a wonderfully genuine mess of a lead

Low Points
Did I mention the movies that do this same thing better? Because the movie itself did...

Lessons Learned
The concept of time can vary from rage zombie to rage zombie

32 seconds is best defined as the time needed to move one plot point around efficiently

It's rude to mistake rum for beer

Virus 32 is a perfectly passable spin on your standard action zombie flick. It doesn't come close to the movies it actively models itself on, but you could do worse with 90 minutes of your life. Find it on Shudder when that very particular mood strikes. 

Monday, July 18, 2022

Sister Sister

I keep rooting for Natalie Dormer to find that next big project that serves her talents. In Darkness certainly wasn't it, and while I liked the Picnic At Hanging Rock miniseries more than most, it seemed to have faded from memory. So how about that thing all young attractive actresses do after their first big project? Lead a PG13 studio-produced horror film! SURELY that'll do it?

Quick Plot: Sara feels a disturbance in the force which can only mean one thing: her twin sister Jess is in danger. Without hesitation, Sara flies to Tokyo where Jess was teaching ESL, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend who's seen this pattern before. 

See, Jess has grown up with some demons. When they were eight, the girls' father shot their mother and then himself as they watched a movie with their grandmother in the next room. Jess was the first one to the scene of the crime and saw their bodies, while Sara looked away. Twenty or so years later, the idea that Jess might have ventured into the infamous Aokigahara Forest to die by suicide isn't hard to fathom. 

But Sara is convinced that her sister is still alive, primarily because she knows she would feel it in her body if she was wrong. She catches the eye of travel writer and fellow American Aiden at her hostel bar and convinces him to take her into the woods with his local guide Michi. 

Ignoring the warnings of every single local she's met about the yurei that haunt the woods and disorient travelers with hallucinations, Sara goes deep. When she finds Jess's tent, she insists on spending the night. Aiden reluctantly does the same. 

Things do not go well.

Let's address the biggest criticism about The Forest first: this is one of those films that probably shouldn't exist in its actual form. Aokigahara Forest is a real place that witnesses dozens of deaths by suicides every year. Producer David Goyer (an association that always gives me pause) apparently conceived the story when he learned about this on Wikipedia (and yes: I got that information from Wikipedia) and couldn't believe no one had made a movie about it. Naturally, he assembled a very western team to do so. 

It's one thing to put Americans (or Brits playing Americans) in Asian stories. The  remake of The Grudge does so to smart effect. But The Forest can't seem to resist pointing out cultural differences without feeling, well, racist. We're two decades into the 21st century, yet The Forest needs to make a dumb "sushi is GROSS" joke? 

Putting some of that aside, The Forest isn't a total abuse of time. Director Jason Zarda shows some good instincts with a few surprisingly effective jump scares. He builds tension well, though the film's overuse of dream sequence reveals becomes tiring. By the time horrors are actually happening, it's hard to actually care. 

High Points
Natalie Dormer isn't doing anything overly special here, but she remains an intriguing presence that makes Sara--someone who's actually pretty terrible--still hold our sympathy

Low Points
I know it was 2016, but weren't we already past the point of American J-horror hybrids relying on grainy quick shot CGI ghost faces being utilized as a film's major scare?

Lessons Learned
Water flows down, not up

If you ever have trouble telling identical twins apart, remember this simple rule: the troubled one has black hair

Violence followed by gunshots followed by silence is generally a scene that you should approach with caution and more specifically, not with the presence of sensitive children

Meh. The Forest is a slightly better movie than its dismal critical consensus would have you to believe, but it still feels like it just never gets to be the movie it could have. Also, you know, it's pretty icky. So have at it on Netflix if that sounds appealing!

Monday, July 11, 2022

Fourth Time's the Charm


I've gone on record as having significant problems with the 21st century horror anthology. The V/H/S franchise has certainly taken the brunt of my complaints, with The ABCs of Death scooping up what was left.

But EMILY! you might yell, horror anthologies are FUN! They condense plots into bite-sized viewing increments! They give lots of filmmakers the opportunity to tell stories! They almost always include a segment involving a killer doll!

Ah, my sweet summer child, I say with weathered lungs, they SHOULD do all of those things. But here we are heading into the FOURTH V/H/S installment and you know what? STILL NO KILLER DOLL.

Still, I'll happily concede that V/H/S: Viral was slightly less mean-spirited than V/H/S 2, which was certainly an improvement over the first installment, so maybe, just maybe, we're on an upswing. 

Quick Plot: An intriguing (but ultimately disappointing) wraparound written and directed by Jennifer Reeder pairs us with a young SWAT team as they barrel into the warehouse that served as the headquarters for a Heavens Gate-like cult. Room to room, they discover mutilated bodies and more importantly, active VCRs running some grisly home movies that comprise our segments:

1. Storm Drain
Written and directed by Chloe Okuno, this one follows an ambitious local news field reporter named Holly as she investigates the mysterious appearances of the "Rat Man". This being an anthology and every character therefore harboring a fatal flaw, Holly's drive leads her and her cameraman a little too far down a sewer tunnel. There's no turning back from a crazed batch of religious fanatics who worship the aforementioned Rat Man (or more formally, Raatma) but Holly just might have the right stuff to emerge with one helluva story.

And also, one helluva anthology segment! Storm Drain isn't the scariest 20 minutes put to film, but it understood the assignment and completed it cleanly. This is not the same story we've seen over and over again in these kinds of films, making it incredibly refreshing and with its stinger of an ending, even more satisfying.

2. The Empty Wake
You're Next scribe (and less successfully, Seance writer/director) Simon Barrett takes us through a rough day at work for Hailey, a young funeral home attendant charged with hosting her first solo gig on a dark and stormy night. Her bosses have threatened termination if she calls them, giving her plenty of reasons to try to power through an increasingly tense evening of mysterious guests and moving coffins.

I was, to put it mildly, incredibly hard on Seance, so it was a huge relief to find myself enjoying The Empty Wake. It's exactly what the second segment of a horror anthology should be, setting up a crystal clear premise and steadily increasing the volume to a perfectly timed crescendo. Nice work.

3. The Subject
Timo Tjahjanto is back from his (whaddya know?) cult segment in V/H/S 2 to tell the tale of mad scientist Dr. Suhendra, who's on a mission to create and perfect cyborg-like creatures via kidnapped strangers. His newest male and female subjects seem to be working out, so much so that they're able to violently tear through the police force that storms through the door and kills Dr. Suhendra. The female subject tries to protect Jono, the one sympathetic member of the force, eventually escaping after the rest of the team is blasted.

The Subject has some neat, gross Tetsuo-like energy that manages to throw in some unique and disturbing concepts while spraying them all in bullets and rocket launcher shots. It's a bit, how do I say it, loud, but thankfully, the beauty of the anthology format is that it can only last so long. Like his segment in V/H/S 2, The Subject is ambitious in its scope, and memorable for going places you don't normally think of in this type of movie. I have no desire to see an expanded full-length version of The Subject, but in this spot, it works just fine.

4. Terror
Written and directed by Ryan Prows, Terror follows a band of awful men attempting to make America great again before they had a slogan for it. The militia has been planning an attack on a government building with a secret weapon in hand: the very flammable blood of a captured vampire. Naturally, these are not the sharpest tools in the stolen ammunition shed, and before the next sunrise, some very violent purging of a different sort will occur.

Terror is the kind of segment I would have dreaded in an earlier V/H/S film, as hearing the racist vitriol of white men can be pretty unwatchable in the wrong hands (even if we know said awful white men will likely experience a horrific death by nature of being in a horror anthology). Thankfully, Prows doesn't overplay his hand. These men are scum, and Prows is mercifully quick in making them pay. Overall, it's a clever angle into the familiar vampire lore, and it uses its short time frame quite effectively.

So...did I finally, unabashedly, LIKE a V/H/S movie? I DID. 

No one is more surprised than me.

Lessons Learned
Maybe, just maybe, like, and I'm just throwing out a suggestion here: don't get blackout drunk around a vampire?

Yes, I'm actually encouraging you to seek out a V/H/S movie, and no, I can most certainly assure you there is not a gun being held to my head off-blog. This was good! 

Still...might have been better with a killer doll. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

You Really Push My Buttons

There's a strong argument for setting any genre film in the past because it saves your writer the trouble of explaining away cell phones and the internet. More importantly, if you choose the 1970s, it lets your set and costume team go WILD.

Quick Plot: It's 1976 in Richmond, Virginia, where attractive but sad Norma and Arthur Lewis are struggling to financially stay above water. He's a NASA scientist with astronaut dreams, while she teaches at a private academy for the tuition discount. When the school changes its policy and Arthur's application is rejected on "psychological grounds" (which are never mentioned again), the Lewises reach desperation.

It's a perfectly timed worst-case-scenario because on that very day, who should arrive but a half-faced Frank Langella bearing a mystery gift: a simple box with a big clown nose button and a million dollar proposition: push it and win a briefcase of tax-free cash knowing someone you've never met will die because of your action.

Norma and Arthur are nice, earnest people cemented into a lifestyle they can't really afford. She suffered a horrible accident in her teens that left her with a few less toes and a permanent limp, while his grandest dreams of scientific exploration are shattered in a way the movie never seems ready to address. They just want what's best for their family, so you can almost understand why Norma, tired from a day of teaching existentialism to sulking teenagers (we've all been there), can't stop herself from pressing down.

What follows is...odd, but if you're familiar with the work of writer/director Richard E. Kelly, probably what you'd expect from the Donnie Darko creator tackling a Richard Matheson short story. There are NASA conspiracies and religious miracles, kidnapping plots and possessed nose-bleeding babysitters, beautifully staged historical library sequences and lots - and I mean LOTS - of distractingly '70s wallpaper scene-stealing.

And I haven't even brought up the southern accents.

Did I enjoy The Box? Most certainly. Is The Box a good movie? No, I would say not. It's ambitious without a solid plan, much like most of Kelly's catalog. But it's also incredibly bizarre, which is a refreshing thing to find in mid-budget studio horror. 

High Points
If you're going to make a convoluted and confused thriller, you might as well make it visually interesting, and that's definitely the case here. From the woe of '70s era bridesmaids dresses to the genuine beauty of some classic southern libraries, The Box has some ace production design that goes a long way

Low Points
Seriously: this plot is a mess, and if forced to give an actual explanation of what goes on in this film, I would receive a failing grade

Lessons learned
To a kid, 35 is old

You ALWAYS get the license plate number

Nothing says Merry Christmas like a production of Jean Paul Sartyr's existential classic No Exit!

I had never heard any ringing endorsements for this now 13-year-old film, but I'm glad I finally gave it a go on the Kanopy streaming service. It's definitely a mess, but not a boring one, and I'll take it.