Monday, May 29, 2023



Between the drama of David Koresh and Heaven's Gate at the prime of my young adult National Enquirer-reading hunger, the horror of cults has held a deep interest in my twisted brain. It was an odd phenomena of sorts in the '90s. In addition to real life horror stories, you had plenty of pop culture coverage. David Letterman couldn't tell enough purple sneaker jokes, The Simpsons nailed their own take, and forgotten bits of pop culture like NBC's The '70s miniseries dove in. 

Thankfully, the formative years of consuming media didn't actually send me to any real compounds, but as Netflix documentaries and indie films have discovered, people...well, they just love cults.

Naturally, when I see a new movie pop up in the horror section of Hulu with that as its tag, I'm all in. Much like any good follower...

Quick Plot: Jillian and Blair are on the run...well, more like a slow, steady hike. They're fleeing Starlight, a mysterious self-help organization ruled with steely calmness by Chris Messina's Seth. Armed with a meager collection of power bars and a suggestion of a map of their New Mexican mountains, the women set out under the unrelenting sun for freedom.

It doesn't take long for things to take a downturn. Jillian, a long-time member of Starlight who enjoyed the prestigious position of "engineer" under Seth's rank, quickly loses her confidence as the hallucinations kick in. The younger Blair, recruited for her trust fund and kept around for Seth's pleasure, doesn't have much faith in her own survival skills. They bicker about what to do with Seth's stolen laptop, which could punish their tormenter or lead him straight their way. There's also the mystery of what happened to Delilah, the mentor of sorts who served above Jillian before her own disappearance.

Boy does all of this sound promising, and golly does it not deliver! Written and directed by the team of Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite , The Aviary gave me nothing in the way of surprise or satisfaction. Malin Akerman and Lorena Izzo are doing their absolute best and clearly finding solidly interesting beats in their characters, but Cullari and Raite's script is so frustratingly vague that I found it impossible to care. You see exactly where the action is heading well before it gets there, right down to the climax that feels pre-ordained the moment characters start to question what they see. 

We've tread these grounds before, which the film even seems to know. The very decision to give no real detail or insight into Starlight feels as if the writers looked around at the pop culture fascination with cults and said, "nah, they know." Well, yes, we do, so maybe bring something new? And if not new, something involving?

High Points
The dynamic between the somewhat seasoned Jillian and angrier but more innocent Blair is interesting, and Akerman and Izzo really do hold your attention, even in a landscape where nothing is actually said

Low Points
Chris Messina is almost always the most interesting presence in anything he touches, but The Aviary's take on a typical cult leader is so tired that it's genuinely shocking how bland he i sin the role

Lessons Learned
You know you're in a cult if your institution involves levels, sashes, and a charismatic leader

Poisonous berries don't taste much worse than power bars

Like your sanity, laptop batteries don't last long under the desert sun

Whenever I feel this strongly negative about a film, I like to do a little bit of internet skimming to see where the rest of the digital world stands. It's certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes by way of "top critics" scores, and right at the mid-point for "audiences". What does that say? There's a certain sheen to this movie that looks good and makes it FEEL like it should be as well, but to me, it's a house of cards that collapses as soon as you start asking questions. Not a recommend, though I'd be curious to hear anyone who found more here than I did.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Not to Be Confused With the Killer Cat Movie


Netflix no longer has the prime reputation it used to when it comes to horror, but it does manage to obtain some interesting genre films (for the most part, so long as they're not actually made in the US or directly for Netflix). So that's how we come to today's "Netflix Original".

Quick Plot: The London-based Cheryl is, in her words, "in a dip." She's tired of asking the government for assistance and even more exhausted with the looks she gets when she does. She deserves better, and exits her life in order to get it.

Years pass, and we're re-introduced to our lead now living as Neve Williams, deputy head mistress at an English suburb's most prestigious private school, wife to the successful insurance expert Ian, and mother to typical teenagers Sebastian and Mary. Neve seems to be extraordinarily successful. She's run out of room to shelve her academic medals and is proudly throwing her first charity gala at 500 pounds a plate. 

If only her weaves weren't so itchy.

Neve's confidence seems to take a bit of a hit when two young black people enter her family's orbit. First is Carl, her school's new janitor and Sebastian's new weed-supplying best friend. Then there's Abigail, Ian's new receptionist who quickly discovers the way to Mary's heart is proper hair braiding technique. 

To say more about The Strays would give away a big mid-way reveal that reconfigures the rest of the film, so I'll sum up my thoughts before diving into the spoiler deep zone. The Strays is the kind of movie that will likely leave more viewers frustrated than satisfied, and while I don't think it fully delivers on its potential, I found it the kind of ambitious, messy debut that makes me excited in my own confusion. It's a cautious recommendation on my side. 

And now...

The signs are all there for the big twist: Neve left more than just her name behind. The revelation rightfully shakes her clueless family, while Neve/Sheryl continues her focused path to pay off her secret children and continue the life she prefers. The final act takes us to home invasion territory, which is probably the main reason The Strays shows up in the horror section at all. What's fascinating for us as the viewers is that as much as Mary, Sebastian, and Ian are innocent, it's probably a deep rorschach test to see what we actually WANT to happen as Carl and Abi/Dionne let loose. 

Ultimately, writer/director Nathaniel Martello-White never seems to have all of his ideas readily lined up. At just over 90 minutes, there's not quite enough time for us to understand any of the characters (Neve aside) to really know what Neve's actions are doing. Ian displays multiple layers when it comes to his feelings on race (perhaps showing a bit too much liberal pride in employing a black woman, while also giving a fast honest reaction to the idea that he would have raised two black children) but there are simply too many other things going on at once for us to digest it. Mary clearly craves more understanding of her own black identity but how the discovery shifts her world isn't given a single line. And a subplot with Sebastian's basketball bully is left hanging in such an odd way that I had to go back and check some plot rundowns to make sure I didn't miss something. 

So no, The Strays doesn't add up to a solid film. At the same time, there's a LOT here that stews well, plus an ending that feels like absolute perfection. Overall, I didn't get what I expected, but it's something I'll think about for quite some time. 

High Points
The Strays is definitely a case where its cast elevates the material. As Cheryl/Neve, Ashley Madekwe toes a difficult line in playing a woman who has made decisions that are indefensible to everyone but herself. Even more intriguing are Jorden Myria and Bukky Bakray as Carl and Abi, channeling a lifetime of system abuses and abandonment with justifiable rage

Low Points
Aforementioned messiness

Lessons Learned
British waitresses are very bad at reading the room

You don't have to be a dysfunctional family to be further divided by a game of Scrabble

The Strays is an odd duck of a film with no real genre to call its own. I saw it recommended as a Jordan Peele-esque horror movie, but it's probably better paired with something like The Killing of a Sacred Deer than Us. I was riveted and ultimately left a little frustrated, but it still made me excited to see more of what Nathaniel Martello-White can do. 

Monday, May 15, 2023

Hell Is Dinner Theater

The wonderful Station Eleven (both Emily St. John Mandel's novel and the underseen HBO miniseries adaptation) makes great use out of a powerful Star Trek line: survival is insufficient. The same concept is expressed more than once in today's original Netflix horror movie (courtesy of Norway) which also takes place in a sad apocalyptic universe and features a band of traveling actors performing for a depressed, starving audience.

I think the similarities end there, but I'll take any excuse I can find to recommend Station Eleven.

Quick Plot: A world war is in full force, with nuclear attacks devastating Europe. We focus on a sad corner in Norway where stage actress Leo and her husband Jacob are struggling to protect their 10-year-old daughter Alice. Food is in short supply, and hope is even scarcer. 

One day, a traveling showman passes by announcing a one-night-only performance complete with a hot meal in the town's grand hotel. With little to lose, Leo convinces Jacob to make it a family outing. Despite being told that children aren't allowed, the trio find themselves seated at a table with another little girl and her oddly nervous parents. Before they can continue their awkward wartime small talk, it's showtime!

Producer Matthias provides the instructional overture: the stage is the entire hotel, and the audience is to wander the interior grounds wearing gold masks and following the actors as they play out various stories, which range from sexy to homicidal. 

Yes, it's basically Sleep No More.

Jacob is immediately ill at ease while the more theatrically seasoned Leo is willing to go with it. Of course, right as Jacob reluctantly agrees, Alice disappears and things get weird.

Well, weirder than an already unusual apocalyptic dinner theater production.

You can't say too much more about the plot of Cadaver without giving some key directions away. As you can guess from the setup, a good chunk of the tension comes from wondering which of the two paths it will go: either the cast is murdering the audience, or the cast is so good that our protagonists will THINK they're murdering the audience and discover the truth too late. This ain't my first time at the high concept horror rodeo!

I won't say where Cadaver goes, but I will say that with its lean running time and solid commitment to its own theatrical nature, I found myself enjoying the heck out of this Norwegian thriller. Writer/director Jarand Herdal makes good on his odd little premise, and production designer Ondrej Lipensky nails the spooky decadence of a luxury hotel with as equal amounts trap doors and oil paintings. It looks exactly as it should, and it goes a long way in sustaining the theatricality. 

High Points
Herdal makes a smart decision in just how little detail he gives about the current state of the characters' world: there's a vague WWII tone but no clarity in terms of time, location, or politics. It works well, making the landscape of Cadaver an instantly recognizable wasteland without any distractions. 

Low Points
Leo proves to be a formidable force, but for much of Cadaver's runtime, it's hard to break the "has this lady never seen a horror movie?" frustration as she makes terrible decision after terrible decision

Lessons Learned
Never trust a dinner theater production where the food is actually good

When in doubt, taste the blood

Yes, the eyeball of any creepy painting is always watching you. Just accept it

Cadaver doesn't quite get everything it could out of its neat premise, but it's an enjoyable, unique ride well worth its quick 90 minute length on Netflix. Have at it. 

Monday, May 8, 2023

Down the Shaft


Timing can often make or break a film's success. That would be especially true if your film was about an attack on a New York city skyscraper scheduled for a 2001 release.

Quick Plot: Welcome to the Millennium Building, 102 floors of thriving activity located in the heart of the big apple. After a bolt of lightning strikes while the bottom barrel security team is on guard, the building's 73 elevators begin acting a bit funny

There are minor inconveniences at first: a maternity workout group gets trapped, resulting in a few early deliveries but no injuries. A rogue rollerblader is sucked into the maintenance elevator via the parking lot and exits on the top floor with a bang, shooting straight out and 100 floors to his death. And of course, a blind man with a bad haircut is lured down the shaft after his seeing eye dog. 

The building's management, played with appropriate Mr. Rich stiffness by the late Edward Hermann, is able to cover much of it up, especially since Ron Perlman's elevator repair company is willing to play along. Rogue rookie mechanic Mark (Twin Peaks' James Marshall) however, knows something is amiss, as does plucky reporter Jennifer Evans, played by pre-Mulholland Drive, post-Children of the Corn IV era Naomi Watts with a New York accent that gave me hives. All that and I haven't even mentioned my boyfriend Michael Ironside stopping by as a maybe evil German scientist.

There is a LOT going on here, and most of it is fairly terrible. Writer/director Dick Maas was remaking his own 1983 film, a movie I apparently watched just four years ago and remember next to nothing about it. Down, also titled The Shaft, will probably linger a little longer in my head for two reasons: its extremely bad pre-9/11 timing, and the fact that it employed so many treasured character actors.

A lot of them are (thankfully) having fun. Unfortunately, it's pretty unclear whether that's what they're supposed to be doing. The tone is a mess, which means the prevailing note is what takes over...and that is basically "dumb." This is the kind of movie where Naomi Watts has to scream fake rape accusations and terrorist threats to get ahead, and I honestly can't tell if the movie thinks it's funny or horrible. 

For the film's first half hour or so, I was amused with the same level of chuckles that a better-than-average Asylum Studio flick can pull. But folks, this movie runs close to two hours which ultimately feels like a violation of the Patriot Act. 

High Points
I'll never argue with a concept as glorious as "killer elevator" and thankfully, for as messy as Down is, it does have a fair amount of fun 

Low Points
I once entered an elevator in a women's hospital along with a single (very) pregnant woman. It was just the two of us and as soon as the door closed, the lights went off. For about two seconds, I realized a terrifying, exciting truth: I would have to deliver a baby. Every sitcom and Beverly Hills 90210 episode I ever watched was leading to this very moment. By the third second, the lights were back and we safely reached the ground floor, crisis/hero moment averted.

I bring this up to say, how dare a movie include a scene where a batch of heavily pregnant women are trapped in a corrupt elevator only to not give us an actual birth scene

Lessons Learned
Nobody moves up in the world faster than an elevator operator

In the scheme of things, decapitations really don't happen that often

When your career takes a downturn, your alma mater may downgrade your status from "Harvard alum" to "former Harvard graduate"

It's hard NOT to recommend the star-studded evil fake New York skyscraper elevator movie because unfortunately, we just don't get nearly enough star-studded evil fake New York skyscraper elevator movies. I THINK I enjoyed this one more than Dick Maas's original, but how much of that was its quality and how much was my glee at the very hint of a Michael Ironside appearance. This could probably make a fun drinks-with-friends kind of watch, as its goofiness requires a certain kind of audience energy in order to work for the ridiculously long runtime.   

Monday, May 1, 2023

Please Give This Movie a Vasectomy


I often use this introductory space less as anything specific to the featured film and more as a mood setter. Maybe I'm explaining why I chose this movie or describing something random that strikes as the right overture. But today, let me use it as a warning space to spoil my review of a well(ish)-made horror film that's also atrocious.

Breeder, a Danish film streaming on Amazon Prime, is oozing with the kind of keywords that make many non-horror fans gasp and say, "How can you watch that?!" and many devoted horror fans tug on their collars and say, "they're not ALL like this." It's the kind of extreme European cinema that was popular in late aughts, forcing shock value in its subject matter in ridiculous ways.

We're talking sexual abuse, dead babies, pulled teeth, equine eroticism, bodily fluids, and rust. So much rust (possibly because of all the bodily fluids).

Proceed if you wish (my opinion: you shouldn't).

Quick Plot: Elly is a pro runner married to Thomas, a financial investment expert with a whole lot tied up in the mysterious Dr. Isabel Ruben's biotech research company. Ruben has created a groundbreaking treatment that allows men to stop the aging process. Sure, it's still a few years away from agency approval and proper testing, but who can argue with the results?

Well, the non-consenting test subjects, to start. Elly discovers that young women are being kidnapped and dumped in the kind of underground metallic lair that makes Jigsaw's decorating look like Martha Stewart. Ruben employs two sadistic caretakers (The Dog and The Pig) to handle the dirty work, which often includes perks like urinating on screaming women or shooting an industrial staple gun in their faces. Oh, and did I mention that each is also genetically impregnated in order for the fetus to be stripped for parts? IT'S A DELIGHT.

This is the kind of content we got a LOT of back in the torture porn and French extremity booms. It's not enough to just tell a story about a morally bereft scientist: nah, what we REALLY need is a morally bereft scientist who condones grisly torture and foregoes any kind of sanitary standards. We need a heroine who also has a horse fetish and can only find sexual satisfaction masturbating in a barn (don't ask). And because this is important, we'll also have self-important narration.

In case it wasn't clear, I hated Breeder. Directed by Jens Dahl (probably best known for co-writing Nicolas Winding Refn's debut Pusher), it's one of those extreme genre films obsessed with its own grossness. I laughed at this interview where screenwriter Sissel Dalsgaard Thomsen described "the feminist angle". Sure, having an entire prison population of kidnapped women kill their captors with their bare hands should feel satisfying, but when the film has already spent most of its running time making a point to show their strategically bloodied (and, lest it be forgotten, URINATED ON) clothing, you can't expect me to scream "GIRL POWAH".

There are good ideas here, as well as perfectly fine performances from the experienced cast. But once you realize just how motivated this movie is to shock you, it's just insufferable. 
Horror movies are allowed to be long as they're good. When they're just about average and done in such a sloppy, cruel way, it makes everything seem that much more desperate. And most importantly, exceedingly un-entertaining. 

High Points
Remember how I said The Descent 2 had more poop than any film I'd ever seen? Well, Breeder has more pee. This isn't in any way a good thing but I don't know, I guess it's something I'll remember, and I'll take that tidbit over the various fetus piles 

Low Points
I guess it's the odd plotting, but among the many things I hated about this movie, I'll harp on the 100 minute runtime that felt somehow longer than Babylon and every other unreasonably long Oscar nominated film combined

Lessons Learned
The dirtier your research facilities, the more revolutionary the research

A man's weakness is often cream-filled chocolate

Never trust a 61-year-old who appears to be in her early 40s

Ugh. No, you don't need to see Breeder. That was easy!