Monday, September 25, 2023

In the Company of Vampires

Allow me to make something very, very clear: I would never intentionally sit down to watch a movie written and directed by Neil LaBute. In fact, I had actually removed House of Darkness from my Hulu queue once I realized it was a product of one of my least favorite woman-hating trolls. 

But then weeks passed, it was early, and I quickly said, "this looks like a quick horror movie with a good poster," pressing play fully forgetting the entire reason it wasn't on my list.

So. Here we are. 

Quick Plot: Hap (scream king Justin Long) drives Mina (Kate Bosworth) home to her sprawling gothic castle to end their first date. He's a city boy who feels unsafe in the country, while she's an extremely confident heiress smoothly calling him out on his various bullshit. It's Justin Long: of course he's playing a smarmy bro.

They flirt, or rather, Hap thinks he's flirting by yammering away with the same effective ickiness Long used in Barbarian. Mina's sister Lucy (GET IT?) shows up to triple the date, giving Hap all sorts of typically gross ideas. He drinks whiskey, they, and at the 80 minute mark, we get to hear a Neil LaBute male character call women cunts. Order has been restored. 

I try to approach every film with an open mind, but when an artist has spent his entire professional career dedicated to telling his audience that women are evil (and doing so with little skill), I don't know that I owe this one a break. 

I'll say this for House of Darkness: it's short. 

It has to be, since it feels like one of the least ambitious films I've ever seen. LaBute obviously comes from a stage background, so it's not terribly surprising that the script reads more play than movie, and the actual staging offers nothing of visual interest. But it's a dull play even at that. 

I had a lot of issues with Barbarian (primarily the third what-exactly-are-we-trying-to-say-here act) but Justin Long's performance was certainly not one of them. He's exceedingly good at playing exceedingly awful, which makes Hap feel like something he filmed on his Barbarian lunch break. Well, in truth, the entire movie feels like it was made over a long weekend.

There's just no real energy, no real sense of danger or even surprise. We have sisters named Mina and Lucy and guess WHAT? They're vampires. Eventually, they kill Hap. Credits roll. 

Now mind you, I have nothing against the concept of dialogue-driven horror. It's just that if that's your style, make it interesting. Make it refreshing. Make it say something, ANYTHING. 

This movie does not agree. 

High Points
Kate Bosworth doesn't get many notes to play here (remember: it's a Neil LaBute script) but she's effectively captivating with the one she gets

Low Points
...if only her character, or any of the four we meet, offered a single surprise

Lessons Learned
If you really feel the need to brag to your friend about the hot rich chick you're about to bang, consider sending a text rather than a regular volume phone call. Also, it's 2023: who makes PHONE CALLS?

Good stories need to begin with "once upon a time"

Trust me: sisters do not ever want to have a threesome with you

Considering where I stand on Neil LaBute's work, I guess I'll concede that House of Darkness isn't nearly as infuriating as I expected it to be. Instead, it's just ... there. And then it's over, and we all will likely never think about it again. 

Unlike some of his other work...

Monday, September 18, 2023

Eye've Had Enough

The Asylum is a film studio with a very particular reputation, but I've often defended their original films. Yes, their more famous mockbusters and sharknados are silly and more often than not, incredibly lazy, but here and there, their fresher low budget productions offer pleasant surprises. 

Hold Your Breath is not such a case.

Quick Plot: Back in the 1950s, a preacher named Van Hausen became a prolific serial killer with a signature move of gouging out his victims' eyeballs. He even manages to pluck out a few more on the day of his execution by electric chair.

In the present day, we meet a batch of impossibly good-looking and even more impossibly brain-damaged young adults reuniting for the first time since high school for a weekend camp trip. I can't possibly be expected to know or care about their names, so henceforth, we'll refer to them as Sun-In Dye Job Guy & His Horny Girlfriend, 

Mean Blonde, Mean Blonde's Nicer Brunette Sister, Tall Guy, Stoner, and Guy Who Looks Like Sun-In Dye Job Guy But Thankfully Wears Glasses.

They're all awful, and I really can't tell if that was intentional. 

The trip takes a turn when they pass a cemetery and Stoner is too busy stoning to heed Mean Blonde's superstitious warning to hold his breath and avoid being possessed by the soul of someone buried inside. So guess what? Stoner gets possessed by the soul of the eye-popping Van Hausen while the rest of the gang is investigating the abandoned prison that hosted his bloody electrocution.

Oh, and by "investigate" I obviously mean that Sun-In Dye Job Guy and His Horny Girlfriend have sex in the prison morgue while Mean Blonde and her Nicer Brunette Sister playfully tie Tall Guy to an electric chair as a storm breaks out. 

I spent the first half of Hold Your Breath hoping it was a self-aware joke, and the second half with the sad understanding that it was indeed a real attempt to make a horror film. An incredibly dumb and more importantly, unpleasant one at that.

We've all seen Shocker. Even the most diehard Wes Craven fan will say Shocker is very, very bad. But by golly, it's Citizen Kane when placed next to Hold Your Breath. 

The young cast is very good-looking. Their characters are jerks, and dull ones at that. The violence is mostly cheap Asylum CGI-based, which looks as bad as you'd expect, until you get to the graveyard finale and watch a floating ghost fight straight out of the Disney's Haunted Mansion ride and realize, "oh, it's even worse than I expected." The highlight for me was the prison morgue sex scene not because it was a prison morgue sex scene but because it was scored by a song called "Hold Your Breath." 

I'm nothing if not easily entertained by the obvious.

High Points
I don't know, I guess I enjoyed a hand mixer to the eyeball kill because sure, why not gouge an eyeball out with a hand mixer

Low Points
As a lifelong horror fan, I'm not one to complain about gratuitous nudity because I simply don't have the Energizer Bunny-esque funnel of energy it would demand, but Mean Blonde's Nicer Sister's murder feels incredibly icky in its topless execution

Lessons Learned
If you're in the middle of nowhere with a guard tower and fence, you're probably near a prison

Selling weed is one way to pay child support

I genuinely did learn that "Dance Hall" was slang for death row, but what Hold Your Breath taught me was that prisons go ahead and manufacture official signs for such a thing

I don't know what anyone can get out of Hold Your Breath. It's mean, ugly, and pretty terrible. But hey, we're horror fans, and for some of us, that kind of description means an automatic queue add. It's on Peacock if you're one of those weirdos. 

Monday, September 11, 2023

(Cult) Family First


I don't expect much from a horror movie I've never heard of streaming on Peacock, but low expectations have never kept me from watching a horror movie I've never heard of so here we go!

Quick Plot: A mean little prologue gives us the POV, Michael Meyers-style of a man entering his family's house in order to murder his parents and little sister. Considering this movie's runtime is all of 86 minutes, I'll throw out a theory here that our prologue may have been a last minute "we need more minutes" move.

Next, we meet the Powells at their remote cabin. Mom Kathy (the ever feline Debra Kara Unger) is good with granddaughter Zoey and even better with a glass of white wine, while divorced husband Andrew (Masters of Horror alum Johnathon Schaech) has a different task at hand: donning a mask and kidnapping eldest son Justin with the help of deprogrammer Jeff (Stephen Dorff) for a weekend of tough love. 

Also in tow is Samantha, Justin's suffering girlfriend, and Campbell, the estranged brother who didn't get along with Justin even before he joined a violent satanic cult. As soon as the sun sets, the intervention takes a turn as Justin's "real" family shows up in animal masks and black leather outerwear to take him back.

It didn't surprise me to see the first bit of IMDB trivia describing Jackals as a 15-day shoot. Despite a surprisingly recognizable cast, there's something exceedingly quick and small about the production. That's not always a bad thing: director Kevin Greutert spent years editing and eventually directing in the Saw franchise, which infamously began down and dirty. There's certainly plenty of precedent. 

Unfortunately, Jackals clearly didn't have the time or means (or maybe even desire?) to find much meat in the material. It's a perfectly fine concept for a horror movie, and with better-than-average performances from the more seasoned cast, we end up with an adequately made cheap horror film. 

It's hard to know how good Greutert is as a filmmaker: he's responsible for both the best (Saw VI) and worst (Saw 3D) outputs in the Saw series, and Jackals demonstrates some skill but ultimately feels more like an exercise than real attempt at tension. I'm rooting for him to show us more.

High Points
It would be easy for the family at the heart of Jackals to turn into a screaming mess of dysfunction, so credit goes to the cast and Jared Rivet's script for making each Powell their own person with clearly defined feelings on the Justin situation. I wish there was more of it! 

Low Points
There's a predictable line five minutes in about how the cabin gets no reception. This is obviously a requirement for a movie like this, though in this case, the characters are referring to the antenna on the television set. It wasn't until I started looking up information on Jackals that I realized it was set in 1983. 

Why is this a low point, you ask? It's twofold: 1) the fact that nothing in the film in any way indicates it's taking place 40 years ago is telling to the style and production design, and 2) it has a subtle suggestion that the Satanic Panic was justified, which just feels offensive at this point in time. Do better, incredibly quickly made horror film no one's ever heard of.

Lessons Learned
Maybe you're crazy, or maybe you're just a mom

Guns are powerful, but have you ever tried just heating up a bottle of vegetable oil?

Masks might limit your human hunting visibility, but if you have them made from the right material, they also just might protect you from hot bottles of vegetable oil

I can't really recommend Jackals. It's, well, not that good. But it's better than any less-than-3-week movie should be, and has enough good performances to hold things together. Find it on Peacock, which somehow makes perfect sense. 

Monday, September 4, 2023

In the Sea, No One Can Hear You Scream

The best way to force my hand in watching a movie? Threaten to remove it from streaming! Hence today's feature, which had sat on my Hulu queue for an eternity before falling into the "expiring soon" death list. What better time to dive in? (and yes, considering the aquatic nature of Sea Fever, that pun was intentional.)

Quick Plot: Siobhan is great with research and anomalies but bad with talking to people, making her graduate school program slightly more complicated than she'd like. She reluctantly departs on the Niamh Cinn Óir fishing vessel for some fieldwork, where the tight knit crew immediately bristles at her ominous red hair.

Still, a job's a job, and Captain Freya and husband/skipper Gerard plow on, only for the boat to run afoul of some kind of squid-like creature deep in the "excluded zone". Siobhan is justifiably freaked out, but Gerard smells a big payoff. A messy fishing attempt leads to crew member Jack being injured and the boat's winch breaking, but hey! There's a boat nearby!

And naturally, said boat has its own problems: a busted radio and dead crew, some with their eyeballs gouged out. By the time young Jack is burning with his own fever and ocular woes, it's pretty clear to Siobhan that there's a parasite aboard the boat...and most likely, several of its members' bodies.

Written and directed by Neasa Hardiman, Sea Fever wears its Alien and The Thing-references all over its wetsuit sleeve, and I have no problem with that. Though it has some recognizable faces (Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen play Gerard and Freya) Sea Fever is clearly a fairly bare bones production, set almost entirely on the claustrophobic boat. It gives us just enough fairly natural conversations between crew members for us to draw a clear enough picture of who has what at stake, so it's easy to care about their fates without exposition overload. Likewise, Siobhan's awkward data-driven nature is perfectly established and gives us a clear compass as the facts unfold, especially as the film dips into just-ahead-of-its-time morality on quarantine responsibility.

There's something extremely efficient about Sea Fever. Its barely 90-minute length wastes no time, but for the most part, we still get everything we need out of the characters and story. Plus, a giant squid! Okay, we don't get MUCH of the squid (if that's what it actually is) but a jellyfish-y sea monster that eventually causes eye explosions? That's pretty darn neat. 

High Points
Without spoiling anything, I was quite satisfied with Sea Fever's ending, which feels appropriate to the story's nature and emotionally right for the characters

Low Points
With so few characters, I would have liked just a little more time to better understand the one with the foggiest fate (Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Olwen Fouere)

Lessons Learned
Fishermen don't swim because they'd rather die fast

College bars are the ideal location to further investigate the possibilities of UV rays

Crazy idea, I know, but hear me out: if you discover a gooey glowing substance eating away at many layers of metal, perhaps the best course of action is not to touch it

I don't know which streamer Sea Fever moved to, but hop onboard if you can. This isn't the find of the year by any measure, but it's solidly made and incredibly clear-headed about the story it wants to tell. Bon voyage.