Monday, August 28, 2023

Groot Who Walks Behind the Rows

There are essays and encyclopedias to be written about the endless funnel of Children of the Corn movies (and how much that franchise aligns with Hellraiser). The amount of diehard horror fans I've seen vow to marathon the series only to fizzle out midway through could, well, fill a cornfield I suppose. 

Still, whenever one emerges every few years, it's hard not to get just a little bit excited that FINALLY, someone got it right. There's so much potential in the material and yet there's just never been a genuinely good movie to come out of it. Could this be the day that changes?

Grown-up Nelson Muntz thinks not

Quick Plot: Teenager Boydd emerges from the cornfield outside his children's home, armed with a knife and ready to slay the adults inside. The idiotic local law enforcement decides the best way to handle a hostage situation is to fill the interior with gas, which has the unfortunate effect of killing the 15 kids that were resting peacefully inside.

The town of Rylstone doesn't react well. Stores close, neighbors fight, and the corn, which had been treated with commercial grade fertilizer from a bad corporate deal, is now essentially poison. The town is offered a hail mary in the form of a government subsidy to destroy the fields, which appeals to the adults but upsets the kids at a scene in town hall that makes Parks & Recreation look like government at its finest.

Seriously, one townsperson begins laughing at a child in full Simpsons-bullying fashion, then announcing to the whole room that he's going to beat his son later that night. It's a sight to behold.

The minors of Rylstone voice their dissent. 17-year-old Bo, the voice of reason, tries to convince her dad not to go through with it, even going so far as to contact a reporter in the hopes that the publicity can save the town. But it's little Eden (the sole survivor of the opening massacre) who has the real plan, and if you've seen any of the dozen movies in this franchise, you can probably guess what (and who) it involves.

The twelfth installment in any franchise is going to feel familiar, and certainly Children of the Corn (the third film with that same TITLE in this franchise no less!) is going to have to dig to find anything fresh. And by golly, it does!

Now please understand: my definition of fresh doesn't necessarily mean good. It's sort of like how I love a good handful of stale, chewy popcorn. But in reverse.

Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer of Equilibrium and Ultraviolet back in 2020, Children of the Corn is...something. This is a franchise that so often has had to scramble at the eleventh hour to make a quick movie in order to maintain the rights, so it's refreshing to see this variation try some new things (even they mostly come off as very very silly). 

At the heart of Children of the Corn is the same deep motivation that springs the horrific Who Can Kill a Child? to life: the adult world has failed its youth, and at a certain point, the kids will fight back. There's an environment argument thrown in here as well, as the leadership of Rylestone has literally polluted its children's future only to finally decide to destroy it outright. 

All of this sounds probably makes Children of the Corn sound much smarter than the final product is. Wonky CGI doesn't help, and the rushed one crazy night timeline has such a "that escalated quickly" energy about it that it's laughable to take the film too seriously.

All that being said, Wimmer finds some new ground to tread here, which is admirable 12 films into a franchise. 

Well, I THINK he finds new ground. Like most horror fans, I'm incapable of remembering half of the Children of the Corn films I've seen. But I'm a good 99% certain none of the others relied on the adorable friendship between a highly organized homicidal child with prime leadership skills and her giant Groot knockoff, so for that, I'm all in.

High Points
There is no Shirley Temple-sized Oscar gold enough to fully reward young Kate Moyer for the supreme Queen B ME3AN-esque energy she brings to the role of Eden. With her Rhoda Penmark braids and decisive girl boss energy, I can easily say that without hesitation, I'd join her environmental cult in a heartbeat

Low Points
I like the idea of seeing He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Until, you know, I do.

Lessons Learned
An undergraduate degree in microbiology isn't an eternity

So what if your town is lacking resources? So long as they stock pink child-sized gas masks, can you REALLY complain about the quality of living?

Gasoline works differently in the midwest

Telling you that you'll enjoy watching the 12th low budget installment of Children of the Corn is like saying, "just order the chicken fingers, they'll be fine." This is nowhere near a good movie, but I found it wildly entertaining. No, it doesn't boast a grand death-by-voodoo-whittling like Part 2, but if Naomi Watts and Eva Mendes can emerge from these movies with their careers, let's put all our chips in Kate Moyer's basket for her future stardom. That in itself is kind of worth it all.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Murder On the Soviet Express

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm not a true crime person. There's something seedy about reveling in the intrigue of something that has real-life victims, and as an unabashed horror fan, I find it uncomfortably blurs lines that I've spent my life defending. 

That being said, 1995's Citizen X intrigued me: a made-for-HBO movie in its early days of original programming following the real-life case of a prolific Soviet serial killer and equipped with a ridiculously good cast.

Quick Plot: It's 1982 in the Soviet Union, and new forensic specialist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea) has a rough night (and subsequent 8 years) ahead of him. A corpse found in the nearby woods arrives right at closing time, but as Viktor insists the police go deeper in their search, he can't complain when they discover another handful of victims, abused and murdered according to a pattern.

Before he can shower, Viktor is summoned to an early morning council of Soviet officials allergic to hearing words like "serial killer" or "FBI." This is bureaucracy at its tightest, and the best Viktor can hope for in his investigation is for the careful, deceptively ambivalent machinations of his superior Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) to pay off. 

Viktor is a passionate, caring man who sees the problems in front of him and can't understand why the system won't bend. Fetisov has spent his whole career playing the game, gathering intel quietly and never rocking the boat publicly. In its own way, it's a marriage made in heaven.

But there's a lot of hell in between. 

The identity of the killer isn't hidden from the audience. We meet unhappy factory worker Andrei Chikatilo (familiar face Jeffrey DeMunn) early on and see his pattern as Viktor pieces it out: hang around the train stations on the outskirts of Moscow until a target appears. The victims are either children, sex workers, vagrants, or young adults that can't necessarily fend for themselves. 

Viktor nails Chikatilo's routine down so well that he actually captures the man, only for his superiors to scoff at the idea that a respected, heterosexual member of the communist party could do such a thing. Faulty bloodwork leads to Chikatilo's release, and the hunt continues for another few years, along with additional victims.

Written and directed by Chris Gerolmo, Citizen X is an incredibly watchable product of its time. Today, this would be the first season of a limited anthology series vying for Emmys against a dozen similar products. But in 1995, the gaggle of prestige actors trying out Russian accents is kind of charming in its own way.

There's actually a surprising amount of charm to be found in this story about a sadistic child killer. Gerolmo doesn't revel in Chikatilo's violence, instead showing the weight such crimes have on those who directly witness them. There's a rather noble sense of honor about Viktor's pursuit for justice, as well as how Fetisov watches the world around him with caution so that he can play his cards at just the right time and for the right result.

The only time Citizen X really slips into straight procedural is the ending, which suffers by moving closer to Chikatilo and further from Viktor and Fetisov. The abrupt coda feels off, especially since Citizen X seems so clear-minded about what it really wants to explore: this should be a story about how intelligent and more importantly, persistent investigating led to the capture of a monster, not so much a story about the monster.

High Points
There's such joy to be had when you get to watch good actors play off each other, and nowhere is that more true than when Stephen Rea and Donald Sutherland get to develop their tentative teamwork from two wildly different backgrounds

Low Points
It's fun to see a young Imelda Staunton pop up as Viktor's dutiful wife, but like so many of these kinds of "men investigate things" stories, it's also a minor shame that she, as one of the few speaking women onscreen, exists in the story to remind him (and us) that he's a good man

Lessons Learned
If you want to get things done in a bureaucracy, you better know how to avoid making it look like you're getting anything done

Being a hero is enormously taxing

When in doubt, send in Max Von Sydow

I had a shockingly good time watching Citizen X, and this is coming from someone who generally backs away from these kinds of films. Have at it on whatever we're calling the HBO app these days.

Monday, August 14, 2023

It Takes Two to Dual Duel


We don't get enough clone movies. I suppose there are some practical reasons for that, but you know what I like? Clone movies. 

Especially bitterly funny ones. 

Quick Plot: Sarah has a rare terminal illness that will certainly kill her, 2% margin of error be damned. Her next steps are to plan a funeral, tell her loved ones (boyfriend Peter and widowed mom), and make the biggest decision of her soon-to-be-short life: whether or not to commission a double.

A double, as you probably guessed, is a private company-produced clone designed to take over your life when you die, thereby sparing friends and family from mourning. Sarah's Double comes out slightly wrong...and by some measures, improved: blue eyes instead of brown, a perfect physique that's a full size smaller than Sarah's, and sexual preferences far more compatible with Peter's taste.

It's a problem made worse with some good news: Sarah's cured! 

In most scenarios, Sarah's Double would be decommissioned (a nice word for executed) but since she's had a full 10 months to become a person, the rules change. It's her legal right to challenge her original to a duel, scheduled one year from the date of filing and broadcast live for hungry audiences. All of Sarah's Original's costs during this time are to be covered by Sarah, and whichever version survives (there can only be one) has to spend the rest of her life paying off the rest of the cloning bills. 

We get a preview of this universe's duels in the film's opening and later, Sarah's personal trainer Trent (Aaron Paul) lays out the rest of the rules: each combatant has access to a table with five weapons, and five seconds to choose one. The match ends when one fighter is dead.

Simple, awful, and yes, kind of cool. And while I REALLY enjoyed Dual and highly recommend it, I should also be very clear to say that this is not actually a film about duels. It's more, well, as you might guess from the title, interested in the "dual" side of this.

What I mean is that at the risk of spoiling something, I feel it necessary to say that you should not come to this movie expecting The Running Man or Raze. That's not the story writer/director Riley Stearns wants to tell. His is far more in tune with something like Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster: a stilted sci-fi black comedy that gives our reality a bizarre new rule only to dull the rest of the world down. It eliminates the wonder, thereby making it a whole lot easier to understand the themes. 

High Points
I've never not loved watching Karen Gillan work, so yes, it's certainly exciting to see her do it two ways. It's also an incredibly tricky performance that requires a LOT of heavy lifting: Stearns' world is already a fairly cold place, but even within that, Sarah is coded as being insensitive. Gillan has a LOT of responsibility here, and she nails it all with something very unique

Low Points
I know, I know: I'm here telling you not to expect much action but that doesn't mean I didn't want more myself. I'm simple that way

Lessons Learned
Awards in the workplace have been proven to boost morale

Doctors are depressed because people cry when they hear bad news

The future may be a dark place where doctors misdiagnose patients without any consequence, but at least we can take comfort in knowing that not only are there multiple variations of nachos, there's also a lot of haunted house-set porn

Dual is streaming on Hulu and I absolutely loved it. It's weird, funny, and has some interesting things to explore. Just know that you're not actually getting a film about duels. Still worth it!

Monday, August 7, 2023

Head Tilt Horror


How do you know when a film is made for pennies? There are plenty of telltale signs, but my favorite is figuring out just how drunk (or dead) you'd be if your opening credits drinking game involved taking a shot whenever the director's last name showed up.

CTRL+F'ing the IMDB page gives me at least 10, which is an automatic signal to grade The Girl In Cabin 13 on a gentle curve. 

Quick Plot: Sunny is the lead in a horror film so therefore, her job is "influencer." I've spoken a lot recently about how that's perfectly okay: it's an "of-the-moment" character type, and one that often justifies plot contrivances (and an actor's perfect makeup in a situation that would otherwise never call for it). Of course, it helps if a movie actually knows what that means.

In Sunny's case, tens of thousands of Instagram accounts follow her as she posts bland pictures of pasta and dull updates about hiking. Fans, apparently, love this stuff.

So much so that one night, a masked intruder comes to the home she shares with boyfriend Brad. Though he's gone before the authorities arrive, the dispatched cop suggests they get away for a few days. Before you can remind our influencer lead that the reason she's on vacation is to NOT be easily found, the couple drives 150 miles away to a secluded(ish) cabin in the woods (presumably #13, though it never comes up leaving me thinking this was a Roger Corman-ish situation where the title came first). Before they're even unpacked, Sunny posts a selfie reel right in front of her new location.

These people are not very smart. 

The chatty caretaker gives us the full lowdown on just how far you have to go to find a phone signal, as well as the helpful fact that the cabin was built by a doomsday prepper to withstand the apocalypse. Somehow, that doesn't protect Brad and Sunny when that very evening, THREE masked strangers show up outside.

Horror evolves, as does the morality it tries (often without realizing) to preach. In the '50s, monster movies told us to distrust science. Thanks to the accidental blueprint of Halloween, '80s slashers went down the Reagan rabbit hole of chastity and taught us that premarital sex was punishable by a machete. Early aughts torture porn dissuaded us from international travel and now, the found footage cycle has evolved into social media horror glut of the new roaring '20s that warns us to disconnect. 

Directed (and co-written, produced, edited, sound designed, drone piloted, probably catered) by Brendan Rudnicki, The Girl In Cabin 13 is pretty aware of what it can and can't achieve with its limited resources. The action stays between the house and woods, and our masked trio is fairly effectively kept as a silent force.

This is not to say that The Girl In Cabin 13 is good or scary, but more that it's somewhat intelligent about the tools it has (and doesn't). That can be respected...if not necessarily enjoyed. 

High Points
Their characters are undeniable idiots, but leads Chloe Marie Rhoades and Stuart Maxheimer manage to stay somewhat likable even when, seriously, having to play a pair of extremely stupid people

Low Points
I fully understand that at times, horror movie characters have to make bad decisions in order to move their plight along but my GOODNESS: these are two very, very dumb people, and while the actors do their best, it's very hard to want them to survive when their brains don't particularly seem to deserve the chance

Lessons Learned

911 GPS is so advanced that it can tell your exact location, right down to the hall closet

Bears can't break through bulletproof windows

Gasoline is not nearly as flammable as you might think


The Girl In Cabin 13 isn't much of anything. If you really like mild home invasion horror where masked killers show their intentions by tilting their heads, it's on Amazon Prime for the taking.