Monday, October 31, 2022

Happy Hallo-Meme


As an American, I'm aware that the rose-colored view many of my fellow U.S. liberals have of Canada is probably more than a bit mirage. Still, it's sometimes hard not to think of the great north as a giant marshmallow, particularly when you watch an earnest and kind of adorable little horror movie rich in "sore-ees" and "aboots".

Quick Plot: Unhappy upperclassman Grace is hanging out at her friend Zoe's when they receive what looks like an old school computer virus. Zoe laughs it off as a recurring meme, one she had previously ignored. Grace plays along. The graphic asks you to name your biggest fear (Grace's is the common "vagina spiders") while Zoe shares a childhood story about her somewhat understable phobia regarding pig men. 

Later that night, Zoe is working the overnight shift at a clothing store when her meme-ignoring sin comes back to haunt her via lethal mauling. Only Grace thinks there's a connection there, so her next step is to rope in a programming star named Spencer to help unravel some code. A few expected-to-clever nerd jokes later and Spencer and Grace find themselves back near a computer with a doomed frat boy who laughs off the game, only to soon play his own version of It Follows before dying horribly in front of his classmates. 

The connection is clear, though the investigation takes some interesting turns. While many of Halloween Party's beats are unabashedly modeled on other horror movies, the full reveal that includes imprisoned mutant children (not so lovingly dubbed "balloon babies") certainly has some surprises.

Written and directed by Jay Dahl, Halloween Party is...cute. I know that's not generally the adjective you'd want to associate with horror, but I can't think of a better one. Yes, its characters are Scream-lite self-aware which will indeed merit a well-deserved eyeroll, but the movie never seems to think it's actually clever. It cares enough about its story and players to invest them with urgency. This is, to be clear, a derivative and cheap little film, but it's an incredibly EARNEST, knowingly derivative cheap little horror film. Make of that what you will.

High Points
I'll stay vague to avoid a spoiler, but allow me to acknowledge Halloween Party's use of one of my favorite types of endings: the one that transforms what seems like a singular horror story to one with a much broader footprint. 

Low Points
Budget limitations in mind, there are still ways to work with what you've got in order to create some style but Halloween Party just doesn't seem too invested in even trying

Lessons Learned
If your college has a promising computer science program, be advised that every text you send via campus wifi is being monitored by good-humored nerds

For the good of those around you, keep your biggest fears as individually-targeted as possible

Canadians think very highly of Cleveland

Look! It's - 
Sure, lead Amy Groeing is apparently related to The Simpsons creator Matt, but more importantly, our information dumping former doctor is played by Shelley Thompson, a name that might mean nothing to you but will forever live in many a Labyrinth fan's mind as the cruel stepmother who sentenced poor wet Merlin to the garage

Halloween Party is not going to scare you, but if you love the genre, this is a sweet little valentine of a movie that you might still enjoy. Find it on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, October 24, 2022

Do You Want to Play a (Head)game?


The Saw era has long passed, but horror can never quite shake off a solid premise (especially if it's executable on a low budget). Hence, here we are in 2022 reviewing a film from 2018 that on paper, fits a very early 21st century template. 

Quick Plot: Jackie is a yoga instructor happily enjoying her first date with a wealthy and suave student. After dinner, he takes her to a vaguely '90 nightclub where fellow hot white people are observed by unseen narrators. From mountain climbing to professional tennis, they're (mostly) physical specimens of strength and survival.

Naturally, that makes them the perfect contestants in a murder game! This one is set in a dingy warehouse, the dress code being prison jumpsuits, time limit 12 hours, and the failsafe, a time bomb camera installed in your forehead that will shoot acid into your skull. 

Having fun yet?

The sick thing is...I am! Headgame is a familiar film, one that embraces the Saw-era with its rusty industrial setting and nasty nature, but it also avoids the blatant cruelty that came with so many non-Lionsgate clones. Made in 2018, Headgame isn't exactly the fresh or trend-setting, and the fact that all of its biggest moments are scored by familiar public domain classical opera cues doesn't do it any favors. 

But for all of those shortcomings, Headgame knows exactly what its job is: introduce a dozen characters to die in satisfying ways, toss in a bigger evil gleefully enjoying the show, and center it on a heroine who deserves to triumph over all of them. Along the way, there's a timer countdown and rusty weapons, trained gymnasts, and just enough conversation to develop relationships. It really does work.

High Points
The actual game action moves fairly quickly, partially because the film has an entire extra act outside of it. There's something kind of refreshing in how that gives our horror-hardened predictable expectations a slight twist.

Low Points
While Headgame has far brighter lighting than most horror of this style and budget, it still makes one terrible choice in how it casts and styles its men. There are four in the game, and the two that have visual differentiation (one blond, one bald) are the first to go, meaning we're left constantly trying to decipher which tall brown-haired guy is on which side. They're even in the same shade of jumpsuit!

Lessons Learned
Always label your poison clearly and cleanly

Screw saving the cat: if you want to get the audience on a character's die quickly, have her usher a spider out a window with gentle care

Never trust a man you meet at yoga

Headgame lacks the surprise heart of a Funhouse and big brain of $lashers. It's far from a (head)gamechanger, and it doesn't necessarily offer genuine thrills. But if you came to Amazon Prime looking for a low(ish) budget horror film you hadn't seen before, this is the exact kind of 90 minute romp that you're likely hoping to find. 

Monday, October 17, 2022

Bloodsucking Freaks (and hot dogs)


I have a distinct memory of flipping channels as a teenager and pausing briefly on a cable airing of Mosquito, only to quickly decide it wasn't for me.

How wrong I was!

It's terrible!

In all the best ways.

Quick Plot: A spaceship crashlands in an insect-laden swamp, quickly leading to mutant mosquitoes the size of labradors. But unlike earth-bound bloodsuckers who have a taste and fly away to feed their eggs, these monsters seem to relish the kill.

It's up to a ragtag band of survivors to make it through the weekend, and if you don't believe me, please understand that the big name of this movie is Gunnar Hanson in a mullet. 

And more importantly, IMDB is so concerned that you won't recognize these actors that they lay out the cast's roles more specifically than I've ever seen:

Our "New Park Ranger" Megan and "Megan's Boyfriend, Ray" get sidetracked when a 5' long mosquito hits their car. They hitch a ride with "USAF Meteor Chaser" Parks and quickly discover that the next town over has been invaded. It's a shame, because the alien mosquito onslaught occurs at the height of Cheap Summer Montage season. No more greasy grilling and camera zooms on women's midriffs (most likely because the women didn't actually want their faces in this movie) for THIS audience!

You know that scene in Wet Hot American Summer where the male counselors are spying on the ladies playing with a beachball, screaming, "HIT THE BALL" with all of the eagerness of a teenage virgin? I know that movie was inspired by '80s camp comedies, but I'm now convinced this particular moment came direct from 1994's Mosquito. Observe the schlubby ranger watching women play volleyball, binoculars in hand:

And yes, he will eventually die by alien mosquito. 

LOTS of people die by alien mosquito, and it's pretty glorious. These are real-life practical creations dripping in green goo, draining dummy corpses in Total Recall Mars-atmosphere style. It's gross and painful, and exactly what you want in a movie from this very particular, sadly dying genre. 

High Points
Despite this other bit of IMDB trivia:

the practical effects are a blast!

Low Points
I don't expect smooth sensuality from a low budget '90s monster movie, but is there anything that will destroy romance faster than watching two people roll around naked in a hot tent ON TOP OF HOT DOGS?

Lessons Learned
A radiator takes a pro

Mixing blood lines leads to illiteracy (shouldn't it be the other way around? Don't ask, nobody in this movie has the brainspace to figure it out)

Real meteorologists chase meteors, not the weather

Random Fact
IMDB was firing on all kinds of cylinders with this one, right down to a random fact I learned when Mosquito didn't come up as the first search find:

Who knew? (IMDB, obviously)

Nobody in their right mind would claim Gary Jones's Mosquito to be a good movie, but it's pure dumb fun, and something of a rarity for that particular era of early '90s low budget horror. Grill up some hot dogs and have a watch on Shudder. And seriously: eat them before the 20 minute mark because I guarantee you that after finishing this movie, you will never want to look at a hot dog again, much less put one that may have been crushed by a hairy torso in your mouth.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Totally Tubey (but not, oddly enough, on Tubi)

For whatever reason, Amazon Prime seems to be the least discussed when it comes to horror. Perhaps it's because the service doesn't (to my knowledge) produce any original content in the genre. For a while, it seemed to have scooped up all the rougher cuts of '70s to '90s flicks deemed too unseemly by Netflix, but a lot of that content flowed over to Tubi. Today, I generally find recent low budget but professionally made horror on Amazon, and while some of it can be quite good, it never seems to generate the same level of discourse as a Shudder original.

All this is to say that were Meander streaming on Shudder, I think people might talk about it.

Quick Plot: Lisa is a sad waitress lost on a deserted highway. She reluctantly accepts a ride from a gruff trucker named Adam, only to connect a few dots quickly and realize he's responsible for the fatal stabbing of two women. Before she can tuck and roll, the action freezes and flashes into a very different setting.

Now dressed like a Hunger Games tribute trapped in the air vents of The Running Man set, Lisa finds herself an unwitting player in a mysterious game. A glowing shackle on her wrist includes a timer countdown every time she enters a new wing, where she has to scuttle like a New York City cockroach to safety before fire, acid, or barbed wire can destroy her.

But how much does Lisa want to live? Having lost her daughter in a tragic accident, she seems to be hovering on the edge even before the Saw-ish mayhem begins. Thankfully, she finds a strange, oddly moving friendship in the disembodied alien robot head that occasionally zooms in to help her out.

Meander is a strange little film with a rather clever trick of lulling you into what you think will be a throwback to the early 2000s boom of torture porn in greasy metal art design before slowly revealing itself as something far more thoughtful and almost cosmic. Writer/director Mathieu Turi channels some of Vincenzo Natali's Cube energy in how well he stages what's clearly a limited set into something sprawling. There are things here that I've never really seen before, and boy is that exciting.

High Points
Lead Gaia Weiss is mostly on her own, and while early stretches of silent crawling had me worried, her performance gradually builds. By the end, we understand this woman, even if we know virtually nothing about her life before the tubes. This film could have been a disaster without her

Low Points
While I appreciate the trickery of the film's initial bad guy setup, it takes quite a while for the film to sort of elevate, meaning many an impatient viewer may clock out early

Lessons Learned
If you want half a chance at surviving an alien tube torture chamber, make sure you maintain a slim physique that can fit between sparsely spaced barbed wire

The most boring job in the universe is that of a night watchman

Always be open to making new friends, even if they seem to be the crisply skull of an alien creature impaled on an otherworldly vacuum 

I didn't expect to be so moved by Meander, but what a pleasant surprise this turned out to be. It asks a little bit of patience from its audience, but if you're open to something both sparse and complex, I think you might be pleasantly surprised. Find it on Amazon Prime, where the occasional good genre film can indeed crawl through fiery torture tubes. 

Monday, October 3, 2022

Camp Bacon

Is They/Them the cleverest titled slasher film of all time? If your first instinct is a shrug, let me remind you that it's pronounced "They Slash Them" and now, I see you nodding, and indeed, we are one. 

Quick Plot: Welcome to Whistler Camp, a scenic but horrid place where LGBTQ+ teens are subjected to conversion therapy. They attend an extent. Some of the kids genuinely want to be "cured", while others have been threatened by their parents if they don't comply. While the staff initially presents themselves as not the worst human beings in the world, that's soon revealed to be a ruse.

Not surprisingly, camp director Owen is the worst. Returning to summer woods after 42 years, many degrees, and still no Oscar nominations, Kevin Bacon leads a small batch of well-meaning sadists to teach the females how to bake and the males how to shoot. Nonbinary camper Jordan observes the action carefully, hoping to get through the week to be legally emancipated from their parents while helping a few fellow campers along the way. 

If they survive, of course.

It's summer, it's camp, and there are attractive teens in spades. Naturally, that means we've also got a masked killer slashing through the cabins. Of course, that might feel like a relief when the planned activity in the next cabin over is electro-shock treatment.

They/Them is the directorial debut of veteran screenwriter John Logan, whose diverse credits range from 1999's Bats to Oscar nominated films like Gladiator and Hugo. That is indeed what we call range.

It's hard to go too far into discussing They/Them without spoiling its reveal, though I'd be surprised if most horror fans don't clock it as soon as the carnage starts. I'll dance around the details, but if you prefer to go into a movie fully unspoiled, stop here.

They/Them is a well-made movie: the dialogue is clever, the cast is dynamic (and diverse in more ways than one), the visuals are executed quite well. As a film, it's enjoyable. But if you came here for a horror film, you'll likely be disappointed. 

As you might guess, the real horror of They/Them is less an axe-wielding maniac and more Bible-thumping bigots. That makes for a triumphant tale that lets you cheer, but also, you know, not an actual scary slasher. It's exciting to watch talented young actors who would normally be designated to early canon fodder get a full space to shine and SPOILER ALERT not be brutally murdered. But also, since all of the victims are the villains, the fear factor erodes pretty quickly.

The experience brings me back to an important day in my own childhood. I was about seven years old when my family rented Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (this was not an unusual occurrence in the Intravia household). If you recall, this is the first installment in the franchise where children are actually enrolled in Camp Crystal Lake, which should have amped up the impending doom. Instead, it completely killed the terror of Jason Voohrees because that film establishes an important rule: Jason doesn't kill kids.

This devastated first grade me.

How could I ever watch another Friday film knowing I was safe? What was the point? Chucky wanted to possess a kid my age, Poltergeist kidnapped a little girl and allowed a clown doll to strangler her brother. Cat's Eye had me convinced the only thing protecting me at night was the family cat. We identify with horror when we feel in danger, but when Jason showed us the lines he wouldn't cross, the tension is off the kiddie table. 

All this is to say that a key part of many horror films is connecting the audience to the victims, establishing that line of empathy that reminds viewers that were they living in the world on camera, they would be in grave danger. When a genre film toys with that rule, it can certainly still be valid, but it ultimately turns us into distant spectators. Justice might be served, but this slasher doesn't do its job.

High Points
It would have been very easy to introduce the staff of Whistler Camp as immediate monsters, but Logan's script (and especially Bacon's performance) offers them just enough nuance to be more interestingly human

Low Points
See the aforementioned explanation of how this doesn't feel like the kind of horror film it wants to embrace

Lessons Learned
Knowing your Sondheim doesn't make you an ally

Rich kids drink dirty martinis

Never trust a groundskeeper with a ventriloquist dummy collection (actually, never trust ANYONE with a ventriloquist dummy collection)

They/Them is admirable in a lot of ways, and I certainly had a good time watching it. But you do have to go in knowing you're not actually getting a camp slasher designed to scare. Have at it on Peacock.