Monday, June 26, 2023

Whistle While You Weaver

Here's something you have to understand about teenage Emily in the late '90s: she was hungry for things just not being served. The box office failures of late '80s fantasies left a void in cinema. No studio wanted to invest the necessary millions in such a risky genre, leading movies like Snow White: A Tale of Terror doomed to die in the straight-to-video dumps. 

I craved this kind of content, and eagerly recorded the Showtime premiere on an empty VHS. It's probably been a good twenty years since I rewound that rickety tape, but when this popped up on the Roku Channel, I figured a rich velvet gown-drenched stroll through memory lane was in order. 

Quick Plot: German Nobleman Frederick Hoffman is traveling with his very pregnant wife over rocky, snowy terrain when their carriage flips over and the driver is mauled by wolves. Thankfully, Frederick is fully armed with exactly what you needed for an emergency C-section in the 15th century: a big knife. 

Not surprisingly, Frederick becomes the single father to the somewhat rebellious Lilli, who turns full brat when he remarries the beautiful Claudia. After pranking her new stepmother on the wedding night, Lilli flees to Claudia's bedroom only to watch her beloved nanny die in fright at the sight of Claudia's mysterious heirloom mirror set. 

Nine years pass and Claudia is finally pregnant, while the teenage Lilli yearns to explore the world beyond her family's sprawling estate. One more act of stepdaughter rebellion coincides with Claudia delivering a stillborn son. Despite an earnest attempt at apology, Lilli's fate is sealed: Claudia orders her mute brother Gustav to murder her in the woods. A pig heart later and everything seems in order in the now roomier Hoffman household. 

Lilli finds refuge with a group of forest-dwelling miners, beaten up men who have angered the authorities for one reason or another. Back home, Claudia tries various spells to kill Lilli from afar before taking things into her own glamour'd hands. 

Snow White: A Tale of Terror was a missed opportunity for its studio, being dumped on video and Showtime without an in-theaters release (the kiss of death in the '90s, the norm now). Director Michael Cohn's career suffered, and the film found a tiny audience in that very small faction of dark fantasy-craving loving girls. We were treated one year later to another Sam Neill fantasy foray with NBC's Merlin miniseries, but for the most part, it wasn't considered a profitable genre.

It's a shame. Snow White isn't, say, Pan's Labyrinth, but give me a world where it performed well enough for us to have had copycats. The Grimm Brothers' fairy tales are notoriously grisly stories and while we've always had plenty of Angela Carter-esque fiction and a horror film adaptation here and there, the kind of earnest embrace that Cohn brings to the style is what so many people (and I'd argue particularly women) crave. On its own, Snow White is entertaining, but it's the overall feel (or vibe, as I understand the kids these days to say) that feels so rich. 

Two decades later, we'd get a few rounds of Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent, franchises led by the kind of Oscar-winning actresses tapping into their inner fantasy drag queen with relish. Sigourney Weaver's Claudia is right up there, and it's a minor shame that it didn't break through at a time that could have led to more of these kinds of projects. Maybe the film's main issue was that it didn't quite nail its tone in a way to make it easily identifiable to a broad audience. The tone is dark, but there's a slight hesitancy to go into full horror territory. We're probably right in the middle of a hard PG-13/soft R, which, I'd wager, might have then cast the film as a tricky sell. 

High Points
Seriously, praise an actress like Sigourney Weaver who just GOES for it. Her Claudia is a genuine well-thought out character: a sympathetic woman who might have started with a touch of the dark side in her trunk, but who so understandably crosses the line. Weaver clearly came to the role knowing she wasn't going to play a stock Disney monster, and she balances the pathos of a sad woman who's experienced deep loss with the naughty possibilities of one willing to go dark with her power. Without question, it's the reason to watch the movie. 

Low Points
It's not uncommon for the villain to outshine the ingenue in this kind of film, but Snow White is particularly criminal in this regard. Lilli is a spoiled brat on paper, and Monica Keena doesn't find a way to elevate her and further

Lessons Learned
Never interrupt a pregnant woman's aria

C-sections are pretty intuitive operations for non-medical professionals, even in the middle of a forest during a blizzard

The way to a stepdaughter's heart is an adorable puppy

I have a nostalgic fondness for Snow White: A Tale of Terror, but I think I can objectively say that anyone with an interest in this kind of horror fantasy will find something worthwhile here. Sigourney Weaver brings everything you wanted and more to her role, all while wearing soem pretty fabulous period costume. The Czecholslovakian locations standing in for the Black Forest are as beautifully scenic, and our castle interiors complete the package. Sure, our heroine is a dud, but this is a movie with plagues! And mine collapses! And Sigourney Weaver trying desperately to make Sam Neill eat the heart of his daughter! 

I think I love this movie?

Monday, June 19, 2023

Offseasonal Depression


It can sometimes be challenging to be a horror fan with little interest in HP Lovecraft. There you are, enjoying a book or movie, fully invested in the story, and suddenly, there are tentacles. You wonder why there are tentacles only to find fan reviews praising said property as being "Lovecraftian." Oh, you say, so that's why there are tentacles.

Onto the feature.

Quick Plot: Marie Aldrich has been summoned to Lone Palm Beach, an isolated Florida town separated from the mainland by a decisive drawbridge. When spring hits, it's a thriving tourist mecca but in the titular Offseason, things are a bit dreary.

It's fitting, since Marie's return stems from unpleasantries. Her late mother, once a successful though eventually unstable film actress, was buried in the island's cemetery and her grave has recently been desecrated. Marie enlists on-again/off-again boyfriend Peter to join her to straighten the matter out but when they arrive, they can't seem to find a single helpful soul.

Sure, there's Emily, the creepy florist who wanders the graveyard with a too-big smile, and the town's only restaurant is popping with revelers who seem ready for a verse of The Landlord's Daughter until Marie and Peter sour their mood. Rightly unnerved, Peter and Marie decide to leave, which goes about as well as you think. 

Written and directed by Mickey Keating, Offseason owes more than a few dinners from the frozen food aisle to the great Messiah of Evil and perhaps an order of fried calamari to HP Lovecraft. As you may have guessed, the sweet little town of Lone Palm Beach carries a deep darkness (and I don't just mean the fact that the movie's lighting is extremely absent). Some time ago, the townspeople made a pact with an aquatic demon and if there's one thing aquatic demons don't appreciate, it's betrayal. 

Marie didn't grow up in Lone Palm Beach and only learned of its existence during her mother's last home hospice days. She assumed the unusual stories were a side effect of her mother's derailing mind, but as she searches for the separated Peter and a path back to the mainland, Marie realizes you can't escape your heritage. 

I'm of very mixed mind on Offseason. I was fully involved and never bored but in truth, I can't exactly call this a well-constructed film. I'm a sucker for this kind of story but if I step back and objectively look at its construction, it comes up pretty short. 

We can barely see what's going on in its first act. Genre stalwart Jocelin Donahue is always a sympathetic presence, but the film is so deliberate in limiting her character specificities to the effect that we have no idea who she actually is (there's a throwaway line about her being a "problem child" that doesn't in any way fit the woman we're presented with). There are neat touches in some of the visuals (particularly some mannequin reveals) but they feel better in concept than execution. Overall, this left me thinking it was a better script than end product.

And yet, all that being said, I ultimately enjoyed my time watching Offseason. I'd say I saw what Keating was trying to do rather than experienced what he accomplished, but I liked what he was aiming for, if that makes any sense. It reminded me of the experience watching Dark Waters, another Lovecraftian folk horror involving a young woman discovering a secret island where her parent owed a debt. That film made less sense but for me, cast the right spell so that the mood overcame its storytelling shortcomings. Offseason doesn't quite have that, but I appreciate the effort.

High Points
Right as I was noting how strange it was that Keating's Carnage Park was effective because it was so gorgeously sun-drenched and how strange it was that Offseason's color palette was basically denim during a wash cycle, I reached a genuinely interesting visually directed scene where Marie confronts the town's shifty handyman illuminated in spurts by the flashing red light of the bridge. It's unique and effective, and shows much better instincts than the entire first act

Low Points
But that doesn't entirely excuse aforementioned denim wash cycle

Lessons Learned
Just because you're cursed doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you

VCRs will forever be the most durable home media technology

The bigger the curse, the better the flowers

Offseason doesn't really hold together, but if you're a sucker for this kind of story like me, you'll still probably find yourself entertained. Streaming now on Shudder. 

Monday, June 12, 2023

I'm Your Number One (Swim)Fan


We all have our favorite films, but some of us have our favorite film studios. A24, Lionsgate, MGM, The Asylum...all have their merits, but let's be real: the warmer of my heart is none other than Marvista Entertainment.

Never heard of them, you say? Do you not spend hours watching Lifetime movies and Tubi content? 

What, my friend, is WRONG with you?

Quick Plot: Chelsea Angel is a celebrated musician who traded her bubble gum '90s pop career for a more unplugged style. Now five months pregnant, she decides to take a hiatus from performing but before she can announce that to her adoring fanbase, her private jet home crashes in the mountains.

Her manager and pilot are found dead, but Chelsea is luckier: she awakens to find herself in chains next to the young flight attendant. Who could have done such a thing?

Yes, obviously, the flight attendant! Who also happens to be Chelsea's number 1 fan. What a fine stroke of luck!

Evelyn King, you see, had a troubled life and the only bright spot was Chelsea's early music. Therefore, logic dictates that Chelsea should make MORE music. A baby is just going to mess that up, right?

Elsewhere, Chelsea's partner Nick is trying desperately to find her, which is a problem when the authorities seem less trained than the officers in Last House On the Left. He's far more successful teaming up with Frank, Chelsea's #2 fan. 

As you can guess, this film has a lot of mixed messages.

And as you probably already figured out, it's also not very good.

I love a Lifetime stalker tale, particularly when it's shameless about its source material. The medium may be different but make no mistake: The Follower is writer/director Damian Romay's take on Misery, a movie I might enjoy a bit (if my most recent Halloween costume is any indication). 

Which should be a lot of fun! Casting Erika "Tell me you love me, I know it!" Christensen as a former pop star now being Swimfanned? Brilliant! 

The movie? Not!

As someone who does an entire podcast on Hallmark holiday movies, I fully understand that most of these network films are made for pennies and in days. In no way do I expect cinematic brilliance or innovation. But energy? That's free.

Christensen plays the most levelheaded kidnapping victim you ever met. On one hand, I suppose it's refreshing to have a hero act rationally in the face of insanity. On the other, it's way less interesting. As Evelyn, Bethany Lauren James has some fun tapping into a fallen manic fangirl, but the actual filming feels so rushed that some of her grander moments just don't connect the way they can, even on this level. A scene where a very pregnant Chelsea waddles away as Evelyn attacks her with a guitar feels more like it was the blocking rehearsal for fight choreography than the climax of the film. 

High Points
Yes, the fact that I just said "Erika Christensen waddles away as her stalker beats her with a guitar" SHOULD make you say, "well that sounds fun" and yes, some of it is

Low Points
The utter lack of self-awareness about why casting Erika Christensen in an obsessive fan movie is funny in itself is such a wasted opportunity that for the many misses this movie makes, this is the biggest

Lessons Learned
Details matter in every act of creation, whether you're writing a song or sewing a creepy doll

The hardest part of any plan is knowing how to manage the rohypnol doses

Picking a lock is as easy as watching a youtube video

On paper, The Follower should have been spectacular (for me). Unfortunately, it's just not nearly as much fun as it should be (for me). If you're not me, have a go at it on Peacock.

Monday, June 5, 2023

You Ain't Nothin' But Hounded

There are only so many stories one can tell, particularly in a 100 year old medium that puts out hundreds of properties every year. It's almost an annual tradition to find a low budget spin on The Most Dangerous Game in the horror genre, and one I welcome. 

Quick Plot: A quartet of thieves decides to take on the fateful one last job stealing an antique ceremonial knife out of a sprawling and isolated estate. Naturally, the owners return early and flip the script.

One blurry van ride later and they're now even farther away from bustling London, dumped into the British countryside and told to take their head start. Leader Leon, his brother Charlie, and their pals Vix and Tod learn the game pretty quickly: it's an old fashioned (and illegal) fox hunt, and they're the prey. 

The hunters are the Redwicks, a family of blue bloods as white and aristocratic as you can possibly imagine. Decked out in red riding gear and the poshest of accents, they treat their murder spree as the highest of sports while our young heroes have to use their smarts to survive. 

The most pleasant surprise about Hounded is that for a typical hunt 'em down horror movie, it has a shockingly kind soul, with characters who act like genuine human beings. Sure, our protagonists are thieves who make their living by (mildly) victimizing (very wealthy) others, but as soon as they're thrust into danger, they stand united. Charlie is shaken and guilt-struck when his escape tactic leads to a hunter's death. It's a rare human moment that most horror films wouldn't think to acknowledge. 

Death is obviously a huge part of the genre, and while many films give that the weight it deserves, these kinds of more action-driven basic stories usually race through the stakes. But the truth is that if most of us were being hunted and ended up killing those trying to kill us, the fact that we just took a human life would hit hard.

Hounded is the directorial debut of Tommy Boulding, who served as the editor for an impressive batch of genre films (including the very good Possum and very fun Choose or Die). It's definitely a strong start, with a solid script by the team of Dean Lines and Ray Bogdanovich. No dogs die and a bear trap goes off. What more can I want?

High Points
I didn't recognize the lead Redwick, Samantha Bond (a stage actress best known in film for playing Moneypenny in the '90s Bond movies) but I know I'll clock that voice in ANYTHING going forward. She plays the cool and collected villain so perfectly to the point that I was weirdly satisfied with the film's ending (I'll tread around spoiling) because as awful a person as her character is, I would watch a whole series built around those striking vocal chords. 

Low Points
Stay with me: this is a negative that's actually a positive. Hounded is barely 90 minutes long and as much of it is chase-based, stays incredibly lean on exposition or much in the way of character details. That helps the film tremendously in feeling like a quick dark ride, and with a first-time filmmaker and low budget, was absolutely the right choice to make. BUT, the low ambitions is what will keep this as a "better than it should be" rather than a "great" little watch, because there's not that much to linger with you. We just don't get enough time with our heroes or history on our villains to really feel like there's much substance. Again, I think Boulding was probably wise to pace his debut as he did, but ultimately, it means I walk away from this film being more excited about what he can do next rather than with what I just experienced. Consider it a double edged ceremonial knife.

Lessons Learned
Money doesn't buy you taste

When planning a robbery, always wear comfortable athletic clothes (you know, in case the tables are turned and you're left playing the most dangerous game)

Rich British humor generally targets fishermen

Hounded (or Hunted, if you find it via Amazon Prime) was a pleasant surprise. It doesn't necessarily do anything you haven't seen before, but it does what you expect quite well, then tops itself with a few smart choices. There's a part of me that wishes it had more ambition to its storytelling, but sometimes a small bite is just enough.