Monday, July 31, 2023

I Know Who Called Me


Have we reached that point of time where 2008 feels retro? Back when all we could really do with a cell phone was play Snake or hold it above our heads to find bars, there was a predictable onslaught of mobile-themed horror movies. Today's film is occasionally considered the worst of them. 

Naturally, I was eager to watch it.  

Quick Plot: St. Luke's Hospital is in flames, but young Laurel and her teddy bear make it out okay. Put a pin in that, as we now move to college student Shelley stressing out as something spooky occurs at her elaborate koi pond. Her cat disappears, her phone rings, her cat reappears, and a Carrie-ish hand drags her down to sleep with the fishes.

And her cat.

Shelley's best friend Lean is understandably bummed. Visiting pal Beth's post-funeral party doesn't help, especially when they discover an eerie voicemail dated in the future. Could this be connected to Shelley's mysterious post-call death?

Obviously, yes: there's some form of ghost hunting coeds via their mobile lines, and it won't stop until it Final Destinations its way through the whole graduating class.

Beth teams up with hunky sad cop Jack, whose own sister fell victim to the cell phone serial killer right before Shelley. Together, they follow the Law & Order: SVU trail through to discover things that answer some, but far from all of their questions. 

One Missed Call is, like many a studio produced PG-13 horror film of the aughts, a rather bland remake of a Japanese hit (in this case, one I haven't seen). Yes, it's incredibly derivative of The Ring, Pulse, and similar titles, and yes: it's not very good. But when you see that 0% fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating before watching, you can't help but be both disappointed and impressed.

THIS is what the general film critic masses of 2008 thought to be the worst film of the year? THIS?

It has ACTORS. LIGHTING. RAY WISE AND MARGARET CHO (each with two scenes). 

No, that doesn't make this movie GOOD, but it's...fine. Yes, studios made way too many derivative horror remakes in the mid-2000s. The year of One Missed Call's release also coincided with some of the century's best, including original The Children, Let the Right One In, and Lake Mungo. The remake well was drying up, though some of its worst was still to come.

One Missed Call is far from the worst. There are actual characters and occasional tension here. Yes, the dated CGI and predictable plotting probably outweighs the overall skill, but I was never bored or angry. Maybe time has softened the standards I used to have. Fifteen full years have passed, and it's a big enough distance that we can probably be a little more objective. 

I never had a personal affection for this kind of product (which, let's face it, this kind of movie is) but oddly, there's something mildly comforting in watching them today. 

Or maybe I'll just never tire of seeing a messy computerized monster and saying, "so that's what it would look like if Ally McBeal's dancing baby had its own baby with Baby Oospsie Daisy."

High Points
It's a small thing, but I'm fairly certain the end credit font was intended to resemble mobile texting and you know what? I approve

Low Points
The best way to destroy the sense of dread your film has worked hard for is, and continues to be, to introduce roughly rendered CGI at your climax

Lessons Learned
No frat party is complete without a fresh vegetable spread

Checkhov's law of teddy bear closeups reminds us all to pay very close attention to any featured stuffed animal

Between this and her Cassandra arc on Buffy, Azura Skye clearly cornered the marked on self-aware doomed young adults

I can't really tell anyone that their lives would be improved by spending 90 minutes on the American remake of One Missed Call, but it wouldn't be THAT much worse. It's there on HBO Max (or whatever we're calling it now).

Monday, July 24, 2023

Sissy's Spiritual Sister

There's probably a decent project that digs into the professions loved by the horror genre. While television thrives on the timeless possibilities of surgeons and detectives, horror films more closely adjust with the times: a slew of scientist characters in the '50s made monster stories make more sense, the fashion industry thrived on film in the '70s for the style, camp counselors had their day in the slasher boom. If you watched a lot of low budget found footage films ten years ago, you'd be forgiven for assuming ghost hunting was the most popular career for millennials. 

Obviously, this brings me to the most prevalent vocation in today's genre output: 

Quick Plot: Madison has a successful social media following doing that thing that photogenic young Gen-Z women do: selfies and hashtags. Though glamorous at first glance, it's a lonely, unfilling life. Madison is aware that focusing on filters has somehow limited her from actually experiencing the world, and her career-focused boyfriend Ryan certainly doesn't help. Things seem to hit bottom when her passport is stolen right out of her upscale resort safe.

Traveling solo in Thailand, Madison is considering giving it all up when she meets CW, a fellow North American on her own with better travel skills. Together, they enjoy Thai nightlife, delicious noodles, scenic hikes, and living in the moment...especially on remote, fauna-less islands.

That's all the pre-credits act of Influencer, a film I highly recommend and wouldn't want to spoil another moment of it if you haven't already gone past the 26 minute mark. Head to Shudder, watch on, and come back when you're done.

For those who followed instructions:

Obviously, CW isn't quite the friend to the end Madison needed. She's as empty morally as she believes influencers are emotionally. There's a vampiric quality to how CW slips into her victims' online personas, using advanced deepfake graphic and audio design to maintain followers while going through the motions. What exactly does she get out of it? 

It's not fully clear, but I didn't mind some of the film's more complex ambiguity. Cassandra Naud is a captivating onscreen presence who easily carries the movie. We as the audience build a bit of our own guesses as to CW's motivations: with a prominent facial birthmark, we assume she grew up under extremely different conditions than the perfectly packaged Madison and later, nearly interchangeable Jessica. Yet the script (by Tesh Guttikonda and co-written by director Kurtis David Harder) doesn't fill in any blanks, and it's a wise, intelligent decision. 

Influencer didn't quite thrill me with the similarly plotted Sissy, but it's a fine companion and easily one of the best thrillers to drill into its subject matter. I'll be extremely curious to see how it plays on second watch, specifically in terms of CW. 

High Points
There's a tiny minor character detail that helps to do so much to the dynamics of Influencer. Early on, we meet Paul Spurrier's Rupert, a thrice-divorced expat who unsuccessfully hits on Madison with the kind of confidence only a middle-aged white man of privilege can have. It's easy to think of characters like Madison and Jessica as vapid, but Rupert is the perfect reminder of what women of their type have to combat. Sure, it also serves the plot in introducing CW as the kind of cool chick who knows how to put these slobs back to their place, but I think Guittikonda and Harder's script knows that someone like this can give the audience (many of whom immediately bristle at the very idea of influencer culture) some wider perspective.

Low Points
While overall, the film's pacing and storytelling fully worked for me, I don't know that I fully embraced the midpoint time flashback time shift. It seems there to develop the film's least interesting character, and while it's probably needed considering how horrible Ryan seems in the film's first act, there's something about the film's momentum that breaks a bit.

Lessons Learned
The benefits of being divorced three times is that you can identify a broken heart

Never underestimate a former Girl Scout

Fake jade can still do serious damage

Hopefully if you've read this far, you've already seen Influencer but if not, do it. This isn't a perfect film, but much like director Kurtis David Harder's Spiral, it takes a solid genre foundation and layers it in more modern ways. Not surprisingly, it's a Shudder original. 

Monday, July 17, 2023

You Look Familiar...

Please tell me these kinds of things happen to others:

I've spent the last 23 years of my life assuming I'd seen 1995's Copycat, though in fairness, I also spent a lot of those years saying "I can never remember the difference between Copycat and In Dreams." Both were post-Silence of the Lambs mid-budget studio releases about serial killers and their relationships with Oscar-nominated actresses. Both were...well, that might be where the similarities end. Turns out, I'd never seen Copycat! And also, as I discovered today, all I remember of In Dreams (aside from APPLES) is that I always confused it with Copycat.

Who knew my brain had created a Highlander-esque situation for '90s serial killer thrillers?

Quick Plot: Dr. Helen Hudson (the always perfect Sigourney Weaver) is a well-known criminal psychologist with a lucrative writing and speaking career that focuses on her insights into murderers, including the recently escaped convicted monster Daryll Lee Cullum, played by Harry Connick Jr. in a way that makes you wonder how the same charm can make Christmas carols sound like butter.

Cullum tracks Helen down on a college campus lecture, cornering her in the ladies room after brutally killing her security guard. He comes a few breaths away from hanging Helen to death before being caught, leaving our heroine with a severe, understandable case of PTSD.

13 months later, Helen has rebuilt her life, The Net-style. She connects with fellow trauma victims over dial-up internet and gets her deliveries via a good pal clearly marked for death, especially when a new intrepid serial killer begins a tour in Helen's local San Francisco neighborhood. The investigating detectives (the delightfully capable Holly Hunter as MJ and "I always confuse him for Harry Connick Jr." Dermont Mulroney as Rueben) enlist her expertise and by golly, we've got ourselves a mystery.

Written by Ann Biderman and David Madsen and directed by Jon Amiel, Copycat is the kind of grown-up thriller that flourished in the early '90s and for whatever reason, seemed to have gone extinct. Maybe it was the influence of David Fincher's Se7en, which came out to shocked theatergoers just a few weeks earlier in the fall of 1995. The films share a subgenre and valid R-rating, yet they feel like such polar opposites in terms of their filmmaking: gritty and cruel in one, crisp and plucky in the other.

This isn't to imply that Copycat is light-hearted romp. While the post-Halloween 2018 years have made many of us wince when we hear the word "trauma", Copycat addresses the challenges of surviving a horrific experience with intelligence. The very casting of Sigourney Weaver, a bonafide action star who immediately suggests competent, intelligent strength, makes Helen's position that much more interesting. Here's an actress we associate with power put in the vulnerable, human position of processing something that has nearly destroyed her. The journey is fascinating. 

Add to that the absolute perfection that is Holly Hunter's MJ and some ahead-of-its-time understanding of male rage and. Hunter is always a fun performer to watch, especially when she gets to dig into the grit of a character. The plucky female copy would go on to be something of a standard in procedural stories, but her MJ is fresh, complicated, and fantastic. 

It's all the more interesting because our not. And that's a good thing! I won't go too deep into the details (how dare I spoil a movie old enough to now attend its own 10-year high school reunion) but the actual identity of our copycat killer is brilliant in its blandness. As Helen tells us in her opening lecture, these are men who are "quiet, unassuming, nice." Later, Helen finds better adjectives: sad, second rate, boring, and impotent. No one leaves Copycat remembering the killer: it's the women who hunt him worth watching. 

High Points
By golly, is there anything more satisfying than watching two great actresses interact with each other when playing rich, fully developed characters?

Low Points
This is no real fault of Copycat, but watching Holly Hunter down cheeseburgers made me wonder if this is the origin of the now-trite "hot working woman in a man's world who eats junk food" trope

Lessons Learned
A vibrator is a tool of survival

The upside of having a nervous breakdown is not giving a f$ck

Bullet-proof vests don't fit well under Miracle Bras

Time has been extremely kind to Copycat. I found this to be an incredibly enjoyable ride, and not just for its early Photoshop '90s nostalgia. Give it a go via Hulu. 

Monday, July 10, 2023

Just a Spoonful of Nocebo

The filmmakers behind Vivarium team up with Eva Green? HOW QUICKLY CAN I WATCH THIS?

Quick Plot: Christine is an ultra chic fashion designer specializing in children's clothing with the support of marketing executive husband Felix and their bratty daughter Roberta ("Bogs" to those she likes). Upon launching a new line, Christine receives an ominous phone call at work about a mysterious disaster. As she takes in the news, a mangy dog appears out of nowhere, shaking his dirt out and tossing a tick straight at her neck.

A few months pass and Christine has been knocked down a few pegs, both professionally and personally. As she tries to piece her career back together, a stranger shows up claiming to be a nanny hired by the forgetful Christine. She cooks well and has some quick panic attack-fighting tricks, so despite some hesitancy, Christine and Felix decide to let her stay.

Diana is Mary Poppins by way of the Philippines, only, as you will figure out quite quickly, a supernanny with her own motives. Played by Chai Fonacier with a sweet smile and astounding confidence, Diana is the perfect interloper to the colder Felix and flighty Christine. You can feel the walls start to come down and it's a marvel to see how easy it feels in Diana's capable hands. 

Lorcan Finnegan's Vivarium was one of my favorite watches a few years back, and it's a film that continues to grow on me whenever I think back on its themes and style. I came into Nocebo hearing fairly underwhelming reviews from the horror community and unfortunately, I can see why. This is a good film, and one made all the better by the playful performance of Fonacier and the utter perfection that is and has always been Eva Green. But there's a fundamental flaw to the storytelling that will require some spoilers to suss out.

Here's the thing that puzzled me about Nocebo: was I supposed to be surprised? Garret Shanley's script doesn't come out and tell us what caused Christine's initial breakdown, but it feels incredibly obvious 10 minutes in based on the very clear clues. Likewise, without knowing a single thing about Nocebo other than "possible evil nanny movie", I could tell you that Diana must have lost a child in the same tragedy that destroyed Christine's brand. 

This would be fine if the film had more to say or do after the revelation, but, well, it mostly doesn't. As the audience, we're challenged to figure out where our loyalty lies but by the time we reach the 'reveal,' it's hard (I hope) for anyone to still trust Christine as the victim. Overall, while there's a lot to admire about a film that takes a clear stand against inhumane labor conditions, the actual story in front of us just doesn't connect as well as it could without any real element of surprise. 

High Points
Praise Morpheus! I will highly celebrate positive CPAP representation on film, something usually thrown in as a joke. But if EVA GREEN can use one, I don't feel so bad 

Low Points
Aforementioned odd lack of story suspense

Lessons Learned
Medication is great and all but have you ever just tried tickling to reduce panic attacks?

The brattier the kid, the meaner the bullies

Never give a child model chocolate before a shoot

I'm right down the middle on Nocebo. Chai Fonacier is a find, and Eva Green is, as always, incredibly watchable (especially here, where she gets to find complicated notes). But in the end, there's just not much there once you figure out what the film is saying (and there's a good chance you'll do that in the first reel). I'll be curious to know if others have the same challenges, so if you do catch the film (streaming now on Shudder) please stop by and share!

Monday, July 3, 2023

Dawson's Clockwork Orange

As the runes predicted, the time has come to pass: '90s theatrical horror movies I once despised with my teenage might are now things I've come to enjoy with the same relish as a Snackwell's chocolate yogurt. Time does strange things to our tastes.

Quick Plot: Stoner Gavin is out for a walk with his (thankfully safe) dog when he spots a curious scene: an alpha jock refusing his girlfriend's sexual advances, breaking her neck rather than emitting his...fluids. Cops arrive only to have one shot and the other (Steve Railsback!) letting the letter jacket wearing murderer off with warning. 

Meanwhile, the Clark family is settling into their new home in Cradle Bay, the kind of small town that also happens to only be accessible by ferry. A cloud hangs over the ridiculously good-looking family following the suicide of oldest brother Allen (Ethan Embry!), which has been hard on middle child Steve (James Marsden!) and youngest daughter Lindsay (Katharine Isabelle!!!).

Apologies for the constant exclamations, but good golly: there are a lot of pleasant faces here.

They're also all ridiculously good-looking and about 98% white, including the albino character played, of course, by a non-albino actor. 

We had a lot to learn in the '90s. 

Gavin takes Steve under his baggy shirt-wearing wing, introducing him to fellow outcast Rachel via a music video slow motion of Katie Holmes' bare midriff. Like any high school, Cradle Bay has its clearly defined social caste system and at the top are the Blue Ribbons, a "community group" who live clean. Their only vices seem to be the local froyo shop(pe) and the need to bully those who misbehave. 

Having witnessed one commit murder, Gavin is convinced that the Blue Ribbons, coached by school psychologist Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood!), are some kind of cult under serious, possibly surgically-induced mind control. He's right, of course, but that doesn't stop his parents from signing him up, leaving Steve to take up the fight. 

I first saw Disturbing Behavior right when it hit video rental, and as a surly teenage horror fan, it epitomized everything wrong with theatrical horror following the success of Scream. I lumped it in my brain with I Know What You Did Last Summer as one more example of Hollywood misunderstanding a genre I loved. Why was everyone so pretty? Why did everything always end happily? Who did they think they were scaring?

It's been, apparently, 25 long years since Disturbing Behavior quietly came and went (though you wouldn't know by the possibly Dorian Gray-ish skincare regime of James Marsden) and while the characters ARE still too pretty, I can now sit back and say that for its time, it's quite possible that Disturbing Behavior is actually kind of interesting. Scott Rosenberg's screenplay hints at some surprisingly layered questions about teenagers' relationships to sex, as well as well-meaning parents struggling to make the right decisions for their kids. Director David Nutter (who has since gone on to be one of the most successful television directors working today)  doesn't quite break any of the mainstream '90s molds with his choices, but there's a solid core here. 

Under 90 minutes (including a full 3 of those minutes devoted to the opening credits) there's clearly something missing. According to the internet, that's another whole half hour. Not shockingly, the studio wanted Disturbing Behavior to be a teen hit and did everything it could to, well, not allow that to happen. It's clear that storylines and character journeys are cut (the fact that we never see Gavin's dog again is one clue) and as a result, the movie just never really comes alive. 

That being said, I had fun with this movie. Sure, the utter '90sness of its needle drops and wannabe Williamson dialogue is razor on its own (note: no it's not; nobody said "razor" as a term of approval except for Katie Holmes in Disturbing Behavior) but nostalgia aside, there's some meat here. It's impossible not to compare this film to The Faculty, another Body Snatchers/Stepford Wives-inspired high school sci-fi horror of the era. The Faculty is a better movie, and more importantly, a more entertaining one, but weirdly, thinking about the two side-by-side, there's more substance to Disturbing Behavior, even if it never had a chance to be developed. 

I'm not ready to say Disturbing Behavior is a misunderstood wonder, but time has been oddly illuminating to it...or rather, what it could have been.

High Points

One of the biggest whiffs of '90s slashers was how scared they were of sex. Disturbing Behavior kind of naturally embraces that by how it positions the very idea of sexual impulses in the Blue Ribbons' chastity. Like everything else in the film, it's not fully realized, but I appreciate its attempts to at least acknowledge how complicated a role sex plays in the teenage brain (in this case, literally)

Low Points

It's almost cute today, but it really can't be understated much seeing Nick Stahl and Katie Holmes in bad kid costuming feels like dress-up

Lessons Learned

The real path to a janitor's heart is Kurt Vonnegut (so it goes)

Psychiatric hospitals had no sign-in policy in the 1990s

The higher the school spirit, the better the bake sale


I'm not calling Disturbing Behavior a good movie. It's just more fun than I remembered, and more interesting in its potential than I probably realized. If you enjoy messy '90s genre films, it's definitely worth a watch. You can find it streaming now on HBO Max (if it's still called that). You know. Razor.