Monday, November 28, 2022

All of Them Believers


One thing to miss about this new world of entertainment run by streaming services: losing that time in college you flipped through channels, stumbled upon a scene where a cheery housewife was electrocuted in front of her young son and Martin Sheen, then had to run to a class only to spend the next 20 or so years wondering what that movie was, and where it could possibly go from there. Had you known the answer was "Law & Order episode complete with before-they-were-famous faces and facial spider egg nests," just imaging what your 20s may have been like.

Anyway, it's 2022 and I finally found said film. 

Quick Plot: Dr. Cal Jamison is ready for a fresh start. You would be too if after a cheerful morning run, you came home to watch your loving wife be horrifically electrocuted by a hotplate and spilt milk as your young son watches on. It's enough to make a man pack up his life and move to 1987 era New York City, where a comfy job as a psychologist for traumatized police officers awaits. 

Cal heads east just in time for a series of brutal child murders to sweep the headlines. Someone is killing young boys of color in what seems like ritualistic sacrifices. Local detective Tom (baby-faced Jimmy Smits) is undone by the discovery, warning his new therapist that everyone is in danger before stabbing himself in the middle of a Harlem diner.

The lieutenant on the case (Robert Loggia!) senses something bigger at play, which slowly takes Cal down a dangerous path of how some of the city's most elite and powerful titans of industry have acquired their strengths. It's a little creepy, a little silly, and definitely more than a little racist.

Voodoo is something no white American should really use as the subject of film. No matter how many positive characters (such as Cal's friendly housekeeper) you toss in, it's basically impossible to not turn your story into one that casts dark-skinned non-traditional Christians as monsters. They talk in TONGUES. They DANCE frenetically. They plant mysterious dust on your stylish compact so your face can erupt in a spider-filled rash. THEY'RE EVIL, you see.

If there's a silver lining of The Believers, it's that (minor spoiler) the actual villains are whiter than a Ritz Carlton tablecloth...though they require the tools and skills of the Caribbean to execute their impressively evil plans. So yes: still kinda racist. 

The Believers was based on a novel by Nicholas Conde, with a screenplay by a pre-Twin Peaks Mark Frost and directed by Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man's John Schlesinger. The film certainly carries the gritty New York energy of those titles, and at times, makes for an engrossing mystery that puts a very specific spin on Rosemary's Baby. But it also seems to exist in a world entirely of its own, one that wants to engage in the lives and practices of Afro-Cubans, but also, has no earthly idea how to do so without marveling at their exoticism. 

It's a shame, and I honestly don't know how much of my thoughts watching The Believers had to do with the movie itself or the nagging feeling that in 2022, it just felt irresponsible. There are some fun (if predictable) big plot swings, high stakes all around, and a nice little punch in its coda that makes this film stick with you. But also, it's, you know, a bit silly and a lot ill-advised. 

High Points
Martin Sheen's Cal is a very particular protagonist of the era: a renaissance man with an FBI profiler's brain, FBI recruit's physical stamina, and CBS-style FBI leading man luck with the ladies. It's a ridiculously written role, but it's the skill and charisma of Sheen that both makes it work and ultimately holds the entire film together

Low Points
I've said enough about the implicit racism of the film, so I'll move on to a missed opportunity: there's a reveal around two side characters that should have deep weight, but never feels fully explored (especially when one has a last minute change of heart). In a nearly 2-hour movie that doesn't seem to mind building out some side characters, I don't really understand why these two are left so unresolved

Lessons Learned
Don't cry over spilt milk: just clean it up quickly with your dirty running socks before it can lead to the electrocution of a loved one

It is inappropriate to tell knock knock jokes before breakfast

In the '80s, it was common for landladies to have professionally done headshots hanging proudly in their bedrooms

In the scheme of Rosemary's Baby-inspired late '80s NYC-set ritualistic murder mysteries, The Believers is pretty rad. It's got A-list talent behind and in front of the scenes, and it tosses more than a few surprises your way. It's also a movie made by (and for) a whole lot of white people spinning something they probably don't understand very well into some wacky plot fodder. I think it's old enough that one can watch it with that grain of salt firmly in cheek and still have a grand time. At the time of this posting, it's streaming on Amazon Prime, though the movie seems to hop services more often than the subway breaks down, so good luck!

Monday, November 21, 2022

You're Tearing Me Apart, Grandma

It's no secret that I love any story centered on the elderly, particularly if it involves murder. Title your film "At Granny's House" and throw it in the basement of Amazon Prime and I'm there. 

Quick Plot: Marion is an elderly* widow living alone in a roomy house that worries her busy workaholic son. To help prevent any dangerous falls, he hires an in-home caretaker then, it would seem, flees the country, never to be seen again.

*Age looks different on everyone, but Marion seems pretty spry for someone who talks about quartering soldiers during "The War"

At first, Marion is a bit cold towards Rebecca, the enthusiastic IT professional-turned-home-health-aide pushing a decaf and oatmeal lifestyle on her charge. They warm up to each other quickly, and soon, Rebecca has Marion convinced that what they really need in their life is to let wandering strangers spend the night in the guest room via "". 


Why, you might ask, is Rebecca so eager to meet financially challenged travelers? Don't ask the movie, which doesn't really have an opinion on the matter. She's bored by the first visitor, a pleasant musician, but the next one to come along commits the cardinal sin of talking on his cell phone during a conversation and well, that means murder!

And that's what happens? A few more individuals pass through. Some leave safely, while others--those who dare answer a text--meet the wrath of Rebecca via the wrong end of a poisoned needle. Marion seems to not notice any of this. 

Things get a tad more complicated when the Steiners stop by. Ted works in IT (cue the instant chemistry) while Linda is between nonprofit jobs. Ted immediately wants to bone Rebecca, while Linda might want to bone her phone. You know how this goes!

Ted joins Rebecca down her homicidal path, convincing Marion that Linda has left him. Marion seems to have no issue with her paid health aide suddenly taking a live-in lover, but when he steals the TV for Seinfeld reruns during her newshour, it's clear that this arrangement won't last long. An investigator shows up shortly after because, shocker, everything points to this house being Linda's last known location and believe it or not, people do actually notice it when someone they know disappears off the face of the earth. 

I realize I've given a lot more detailed a plot description than I normally do for reviews, but there's a reason for it: this movie's story is bizarre. At Granny's House is sort of what The Room might have been if Tommy Wiseau was an actual human being of this earth. There's a lot of sex (involving the writer/director Les Mahoney as Ted, no less) and no clear consistency in character motivation whatsoever. The movie also seems to take place in some slightly alien setting slightly left of our reality: set somewhere in the midwest in a state that has the death penalty, but also in a reality where IT professionals wouldn't think to adjust their IP address when murdering DOZENS of people who have an internet profile directly connecting their last stop as this graveyard of a house. 

There's a lot going on here.

As Rebecca, poor Rachel Alig has to play a bloodthirsty woman who has no center whatsoever. She hates cell phones but loves Ted, a slug of a man who I guess is just really good in bed? Glenda Morgan Brown seems up for the challenge of Marion, but like Rebecca, the movie can't decide what's going on in her head. Is she really losing it? Is she faking slight senior moments to regain control? If she's really as much a sociopath as Rebecca, why put up with Ted stealing her chair at all?

I'm asking a lot of questions. There are dozens more that go unanswered. And honestly, that's something that will keep At Granny's House in my memory longer than many a less-than-stellar genre film. So I can't say this gave me nothing!

High Points
Credit to the cast: they certainly try

Low Points
I've said enough about the actual quality of the movie to now address the REAL issue at play: nowhere in this film's scant running time do we see or hear evidence that Marion has grandchildren, SO WHY IS THIS CALLED AT GRANNY'S HOUSE? Not since Orphan: First Kill have I been so angry at a movie's choice of title words

Lessons Learned
If you hire people every day, you should know better to call an applicant "a pretty girl" during her interview

People who get nonprofit overseas jobs fall off the grid and ignore their friends and families alllll the time

Nothing will bond two generations of women closer than a shared enjoyment of "The Oprah Magazine"

At Granny's House was clearly made by clipping a whole lot of coupons. It's not traditionally good in almost any sense, but those who love tilting their heads at character decisions with a "huh?" moment of utter confusion will surely have a good time. Find it streaming on Amazon Prime!

Monday, November 14, 2022

Long Live the Yellow Lab

You know that Simpsons joke about Homer's deep-fried t-shirt?

Based on the many, many horror films I've seen over the course of my lifetime, you can haunt anything: houses, schools, boats, beds. So why WOULDN'T you make an entire movie about a possessed RV?

Quick Plot: A very early 2000s Saw sequel-era credits montage gives us grainy closeups of someone's gruesome dead lady photo collection, which leads us straight into a teen boy's ill-fated bicycle ride where he sees the door open to a parked camper, walks in, and screams.

Said vehicle has bigger plans: a caustic family road trip meant to mend some long-simmering tensions between grieving widow Charles, his angry stoner son Jay, and family man Steve, with Steve's wife Jennifer (DENISE RICHARDS!) and daughter Olivia also in tow. There's also yellow lab Bentley who, in an act of cinematic brilliance, runs away from the rest of the soon-to-be victims at the very first hint of supernatural danger. 

Bentley is my new hero.

Charles leads his family through some fairly empty desert, picking up a pair of siblings with car trouble along the way. Before you can process that Denise Richards and Mischa Barton are in a movie about a haunted RV (and giving good performances at that), said camper crashes itself and begins its bloody no-holds-barred murder spree, starting with pig-tailed Olivia. 

This movie kills a little girl but spares the dog. I don't use this adjective often, but director Tom Nagel and writers (two of whom are also acting in the movie) Brian Nagel, Jeff Miller, and Jeff Denton: you are brave. 

As you might have pieced together, the RV is, of course, carrying the sociopathic spirit of its last owner, an infamous serial killer. It manifests its horror in some creatively dumb fun ways: turning the radio on by itself, spinning the motor as Charles reaches inside, rolling right over little jump roping Olivia only to follow it up by phantom strangling her mother with the very same bloodied toy. By the time the group has dwindled to a trio, the survivors have one of my favorite horror conversations of recent years where they basically reason out the fact that THEIR RV IS HAUNTED BY THE GHOST OF SERIAL KILLER with barely a shrug because, well, why ELSE could this all be happening? 

Here's the thing about The Toy Box, a movie, in case you forgot, about a haunted RV: it toes a very thin line between knowing it's insanely dumb but still taking itself seriously as a horror film. 

It's a much harder path to go down than it probably looks. Maybe it's just the Tubi feel, but I'm so used to your Titanic 666s and Haunted Boats presenting silly concepts and sheepishly accepting their goofiness without making any real effort to create scares. That The Toy Box seems deeply committed to taking itself seriously is genuinely admirable. It has a sort of "we know you know but by golly, we have to act like we don't know"-quality about it that the film deserves a dose of respect. 

High Points
I can't say that The Toy Box has successful suspense, but there are quite a few genuinely surprising spurts of violence (occasionally teased and flipped around with some Final Destination-ish foreplay) that throw the movie in a rather enjoyable bonkers experience that keeps you on your toes

Low Points
I actually didn't realize The Toy Box Killer was an actual person until I started Googling this movie for some background information. As always, mixing true crime with pulp horror bothers me, and it wouldn't have been that hard to just not use the term "toy box". That being said, considering real-life David Parker Ray's truly heinous history, it's appreciated that Nagel and his team use some restraint (yes, I used that term in a movie about a haunted RV) in terms of the nature of violence

Lessons Learned
After losing your spouse and child, you'll need a few minutes

Starving in a haunted RV is no reason to let your table manners go: that's right, no matter how bleak your nightmare days may be, a lady still uses a spoon to scoop out canned peas

When in doubt about how well you're establishing a horror tone, cut to a closeup of ants

I'm not saying The Toy Box, a movie about a haunted camper, is a high quality film, but it's never boring, and finds more than one way to surprise its audience. Stomach a few detergent ads on Tubi and take a drive. 

Monday, November 7, 2022

Hashtag Horror(?)


By this point in the world and internet, I'm guessing something like billions of words have been written trying to answer the genre-old question of what actually defines horror. It pops up in fury every time A24 puts out a new release or a Silence of the Lambs retrospective makes the rounds. 

Personally, I don't particularly care. The "thriller-ing" of Silence of the Lambs feels insulting, sure, and "elevated horror" is a phrase I'd like to see float in an attic and decapitate itself with a rusty piano wire. To quote the old "I know it when I see it" judicial argument about pornography, that's still the easiest barometer. Do you hold your breath at Clarice's frantic Buffalo Bill basement hunt? Then the film was meant to scare you. I call it horror, many - especially film snobs - do not. I'm not going to lose any sleep or money over it.

I bring up such questions because today's film is an interesting outlier in Shudder's offerings. Shudder is a horror service, exclusively devoted to the genre but wide in its scope in terms of reach (both chronologically and geographically). Sarah Pirozek's #Like has a clear, non-disputable horror premise but had this shown up on Netflix, I doubt anyone would throw it in that virtual bin. And yet, the more I think about its subject matter and how it follows a character facing something truly ugly, the more I'm circling around on the very argument I didn't want to start. 

Horror comes in many forms. Maybe this is just a new one. 

Quick Plot: Rosie is a high school student having a hard time recovering from the loss of her younger sister Amelia. While she manages to get through her junior year on a daily basis, the bulk of Rosie's energy is directed at finding the mysterious man behind the web avatar responsible for Amelia's death. 

Her timing is kismet: through some good sleuthing and some even better luck, Rosie identifies him just as her mom leaves town for a work trip. She zeroes in on Andrew, a local contractor who proves all too easy to lure down her sound-proof bomb shelter. A single spiked beer and pair of handcuffs later and Rosie soon realizes she may be in over her underage head. 

To say more about #Like would be unfair, but one thing must be known before you dive in: this is not exactly a horror movie in the traditional sense. On one hand, Shudder seems like an odd fit for what's really more a good, challenging drama about grief on a Gen-Z scale. On the other, there's a successful trojan horse quality about teasing us with a salacious Hard Candy-esque premise only to turn it into something very human. 

#Like is the narrative debut of writer/director Sarah Pirozek (previously of documentary work) and on that level, it's an incredibly impressive feat. She brings out natural, complicated performances from her cast, and seems to use the filmmaking tics of a thriller to carefully build a world before forcing us to see it isn't quite what we thought. 

This is not an easy movie, nor is it the most fun you'll have sitting back on Shudder. But it's incredibly skillful and brings a lot of complicated questions to its audience, something few films are so eager to try. I don't know how satisfying #Like will be for many audiences (particularly if you say, "oh! something new on Shudder!") but it's impressive, thought-provoking work.

High Points
Sarah Rich has a huge job to do in making Rosie both very smart and very foolish, and the young actress does genuinely incredible work at playing a girl using confidence to cover deeply fragile insecurities

Low Points
I don't want to spoil a film I know has not been widely seen, so I'll just throw out a note to say I'm not sure a certain male character turn was needed, as the film may have been more powerful with even bigger ambiguity

Lessons Learned (the Gen-Z Edition)
Netflix and chill is considered the height of vanilla

"Program and shit" is a great line to have on your resume

The term "unisex" is most closely associated to '70s sitcoms

I wouldn't recommend #Like to someone looking for a revenge thriller or horror movie in general, but if you're in more of a mood for some moral mystery, this is absolutely worth a speedy under 90 minute watch. Give it a go and share your thoughts. I'm curious to hear.