Monday, December 25, 2023

Keep the Deadly Games, You Filthy Animal

Over the last decade or so, there have been more than enough articles and video essays on how Home Alone can be interpreted as an extreme horror movie. Whether you see it as a John Jigsaw Kramer origin story or nightmare about adults abandoning children, it has some pretty notable darkness lurking just under the crowd-pleasing exterior. There's a reason it inspired the excellent and twisted pure horror flick Better Watch Out some twenty years after its blockbuster debut.

And yet, just one year before Macaulay Culkin became a household name and millions of kids broke limbs trying to sled down their own stairway, there was an even darker Christmas story about an intrepid little boy enlisting his own gaming skills to protect his mini-mansion from an invader. Long known in the genre film community, Rene Manzor's Deadly Games was one of those hard-to-find legends that now finally has a streaming home on Shudder. In honor of the season, let's roll the getting ready montage and have at it.

Quick Plot: Thomas Fremont lives a charmed life with his wealthy business owner mother, ailing grandfather, and loyal dog (don't get attached). A computer genius who still believes in Santa Claus, Thomas fires up his Minitel to summon the big guy, only to actually engage in dialogue with a psychotic vagrant. Later that day, that same nameless man gets a quick job as a mall Santa, only to be fired for lashing out at a child in front of Tommy's mom.

Bad Santa doesn't take this lightly. When he overhears the Fremonts' address, he makes his way there with blood on his mind. Once Thomas figures out that the white bearded man outside isn't there to give him gifts, he springs into full booby trap-setting action.

That's all you really need to know about Deadly Games, aka Dial Code Santa Claus. Manzor nails a very tricky level of horror that puts our child hero in full harm's way but also gives him plenty to fist pump about. Thomas may be a bit of a spoiled prodigy, but he's also, at the end of the day (in this case, Christmas Eve), just a child. Manzor makes the danger real but never quite mean, which keeps the tone in balance and the energy just right.

I don't know that I'll put Deadly Games on the same seasonal rotation as my beloved Christmas Evil or any Silent Night, Deadly Night (though this is a far superior film to anything in that franchise) but I can fully understand this being a holiday tradition for a lot of genre fans. It's a weird little combination of sweet and naughty, as Christmas should be.

High Points
As Thomas, Alain Lalanne is so perfect at channeling the full gamut of emotions in a kid his age. Bratty, cute, playful, smart, and most importantly, just a little boy who needs his mother

Low Points
It's needed to spur Thomas into action, but by golly, I could have done without the beaten to death dog

Lessons Learned

Once you start doubting Santa Claus, the history of man is next

Nothing moves a plot faster than a need for insulin

Life-sized knight statues are the original panic rooms

I had a good seasonable time with Deadly Games, and will likely add it to the loose list of Christmas-set films that I cycle through every few years. Any genre fan (or Home Alone enthusiast) has no reason not to give it a go. Papa Noel orders it. 

Monday, December 18, 2023

But I Just Got Here

I'm not sure when this changed, but at some point over the last 20 years, big studios stopped making grown-up but mainstream horror. I'm talking your What Lies Beneaths and Sixth Senses, the movies that spark obnoxious arguments about the 100 years war between the definitions of horror and thriller. Sometimes good, often bland, these are the kind of mid-budget movies with movie stars' faces blown up on their poster. Typically, it's the only opportunity to do wild things like pair up Robert Dinero with Dakota Fanning's imaginary friend, or chase Kim Basinger as she watches Christina Ricci's head fall off in the NYC subway.

Stir of Echoes (a good movie that infamously flopped due to its release proximity to the much more audience-friendly aforementioned Sixth Sense) was this kind of film, so it makes perfect sense that its director David Koepp would return with similar fare.

Quick Plot: Theo Conroy is a retired financial whiz married to the significantly younger actress Susannah and feeling every day of their age gap, though they make it work for 6-year-old daughter Ella. Between self-help tapes and humbling set visits, Theo also works through some demons from his past: his first wife's death was enough of a mystery that it put him on trial for murder, and that plus some extra years can complicate a sex life or two.

Their past behind them, the Conroys head to Wales for a quiet getaway before Susannah leaves for her next film shoot. Both parents experience disturbing nightmares (well, horrific dead children for Theo, forgetting her lines onstage for Susannah) and do the smart Insidious-learned lesson of getting the hell out.

Well, they try. An ill-timed text message sends Susannah on her way and Theo and Ella left to brave one last night in the strange rental. Once they discover the interior is somehow bigger than the exterior, doors start closing and the terror unfolds.

Based on a novel by Daniel Kehlmann, David Koepp's You Should Have Left feels very tonally connected to his last horror outing with Kevin Bacon, Stir of Echoes. It has the feel of, how do I say it, a  'real' movie (if you're a horror fan, I THINK you know what I mean?) but at its heart, it's a good old fashioned ghost story that belongs on the same shelf as, say, The Changeling.

No, I'm not saying You Should Have Left is on that level, but it has its moments. Like Stir of Echoes, it finds a new angle into familiar genre territory and understands the importance of grounding it in believable, likable people. I was never quite as scared as I wanted to be, but I was also never bored. This is a solid, if unremarkable little ghost story that plays with just enough surprises to make you wish for just a few more.

High Points
Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried are movie stars for good reason. They're, you know, VERY GOOD at being compelling. We as the audience enter into this setup with our defences up: mainstream cast, wild Hollywood age gap, PG-13 rating. It's not a natural sell, but by golly, they (and strong child actor Avery Tiiu Essex) make it work

Low Points
While I love the fundamental nature of You Should Have Left's menace, a fifth act reveal by Theo feels a bit of a letdown and perhaps most where the more mainstream-yness comes in

Lessons Learned
Wales does not have sufficient olive bars

Old men should always remember sunblock

To better prepare a west coast child for cold weather, make sure she spends some time in Chicago

Based on its online reputation, I was pleasantly surprised with You Should Have Left. Granted, I'm a mark for any story that calls to mind Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves and have nursed a lifelong crush on Kevin Bacon ever since he pole vaulted over some Tremors, but I still think this film will please more genre fans than not. Find it on Peacock. 

Monday, December 11, 2023

Fool Me Once...


As you might remember, a few weeks back, I discovered an oddball Canadian sci-fi horror comedy (maybe) about aliens masquerading as sorority sisters with a plan to seduce college boys for breeding purposes. It was weird. Naturally, the fact that it had a sequel that was ONLY available by Netflix disk in the last gasps of Netflix disk air meant I had to have it.

Here we go.

Quick Plot: A few years after the wild events of Decoys, Luke has survived his alien romp to become an extremely anxious TA at a new university. He's assisting evolutionary professor Buckton, played with gravelly perfection by 2023's it boy Tobin Bell. Luke is also wisely in therapy with psychiatrist Dr. Geisner, played by Dina Meyer and thus giving the world the Saw II/III reunion it's been craving.

Elsewhere, undergraduate frat boys are being terrible, as is the norm. One group decides to do the very 2007-ish activity of a sex contest to see who can bed the most women, and yes, video evidence is required to count. Nevermind that it's a sex crime (or will be in the near future). Most will thankfully die horrible alien tentacle death.

All sport offensively terrible haircuts.

Look, I know 2007 was 16 years ago, but did men REALLY do this to their heads? 

Anyway, the first film's sole surviving decoy Constance (Kim Poirier) is back, now in the role of a doctor with enough sway to convince those who matter that Luke has a few screws loose in his pretty less awful haircut head. It works because Luke acts like a lunatic. Meanwhile, Constance sets her protegees on the male populace, armed now with a handy ability to scan their brains in order to nail the exact sexual fantasy that will keep them ripe for impregnation activities.

Thankfully, young Sam and Stephanie smarten up to the alien invasion and are able to rally the troops with some quick molotov cocktails and flamethrower sprays. We get a bit more action than in the first Decoys, which keeps things moving for a satisfying finale.

Decoys 2 is directed by Jeffery Scott Lando, who I last experienced via the extremely strange Goblin. This is definitely a better film, though much like the first Decoys, it still left me confused as to exactly what I was supposed to be getting out of it. It's too silly to be sexy or scary, but there still aren't enough winks that confirm the filmmakers fully embrace the joke. So credit for feeling like a true sequel, and a mild shrug for being entertaining enough.

High Points
Like the first film, I do believe Decoys 2 understands that there is inherent comedy in the overactive libidos of young men, and here and there, there are sparks of smart jabs
Low Points
There are plenty of things that don't fully work in Decoys 2: Alien Seduction, but I'll be petty and harp on the most glaring: what is WITH the wigwork on these women? Are the actresses actually extraterrestrials with weirdly shaped heads that can't manage a simple dye job? 

Lessons Learned
Ska was big in the mid-Canadian aughts

Flip phones had a much better cold tolerance than today's Apple products

Grad students aren't supposed to be good-looking

Do I regret using one of my last Netflix disk slots for Decoys 2: Alien Seduction? Of course not. Do I recommend you put any effort into finding this movie? Probably not. If you adored the first film (which is more accessible on Peacock) then sure, this is for you. For all others, there's a whole wide world of movies out there. Don't kill yourself finding this one. 

Monday, December 4, 2023

In Your Dreams

Last year, I participated in an overnight sleep study to identify some of my nighttime issues. It. Was. Weird.

Let me set the stage:

It's 10PM. You show up to a hospital that makes the setting of Halloween II look like a bustling ER circa NBC's Must See TV era. There's a handwritten piece of paper taped to a door reading "Sleep Study Patients This Way." You accept the fact that you're actually following a sign to your imminent death, but as long as your insurance is paying, it seems worth a try.

A single employee (seemingly the only one IN this facility) guides you down a wing and opens a door, revealing a miniature Holiday Inn just SITTING across a lab. The nice, hopefully non-homicidal nurse then proceeds to connect 36 wires to various parts of your body, pausing at wire 20 to confirm that you don't need to use the restroom. You then roll into bed carefully, as half of your entire being and a whole chunk of your glue-filled head is now tethered on the left side to a box that looks only slightly more professional than the Lite Brite machine from your childhood.

The nurse leaves, cheerfully announcing that she'll just be a few rooms away "watching."


As the lights go off, the nurse's voice walks you through some eyeball exercises in complete darkness. You now know what eyeball exercises feel like.You're then left to fall asleep which is of course VERY EASY considering your situation and the fact that your body is literally wired.

At 5AM, the same voice gently tells you to get your ass out of bed. The nurse returns to help remove the 107 wires (because they have definitely multiplied overnight), glue still deeply embedded in your head. You shuffle out of the hospital knowing you look like someone who not only has trouble falling asleep, but who has probably also battled an army of angry robot cats when trying. It's quite a sight for the rest of the people at the bagel shop, but you're hungry and sure no one here knows you. You take comfort in knowing you have probably terrified a child or two, just as those dreadful 14 seconds of action in the Superman III climax destroyed your own youth.

Two weeks later, you are issued a mostly insurance-funded CPAP machine. Life actually gets a lot better.

Anyway, what are we here to do? Talk about horror movies of course! Wasn't that obvious?

Quick Plot: Sarah is a student suffering from some kind of sleep disorder. She spends most of her nights grabbing a few z's on a park slide before sneaking back home to grab a hot shower right after her estranged mother leaves the house. When she spots an ad for a local sleep study, Sarah jumps at the chance to earn some cash and a more comfortable bed that isn't made of urine-soaked aluminum.

The first night goes well, but Sarah is (rightfully) unsettled when she discovers one of the scientists, Riff, is following her outside (AND recommending Philip K. Dick novels, no less). She suffers a severe panic attack during a morning debriefing where Anita, the sleep study supervisor, shows her a picture of a man that appears regularly in her mysterious dreams.

Sarah demands an explanation from Riff, who reluctantly reveals his team's goal: to capture the images we experience only in dreams.

I realize how old I sound when I say this (note: this coming from the same 40something who just admitted her CPAP prescription), but I think Come True is what the kids today call a "vibe". Cowriter/director Anthony Scott Burns is vague on the details of his and Daniel Weissenberger's script. We don't know much about Sarah or the source of her troubles, but actress Julia Sarah Stone is compelling enough that we easily follow her journey and wish her the best. We're along for the ride even when we have no idea where it's heading.

Come True has an incredibly distinctive tone. The electronic score does heavy lifting in situating the mood, while blue-hued lighting seems to tint every scene to keep us at a distance. It's all clearly very deliberate on Burns' end, and it does, in SOME way, help us sort through things with the film's twist reveal. More importantly, it's pretty cool.

(again: 41-year-old CPAP user speaking)

That being said, it's also easy to feel frustrated by Come True. Much like Bad Things (ANOTHER CPAP-Y REFERENCE!), this is a film that is deliberate in being opaque. Maybe there's a rosetta stone that someone on their fifth viewing might unlock to reassemble the details for a clear narrative, but to me, it seems clear that Come True doesn't expect that of its audience. It wants to take you on a dream, accepting that the very nature of such a trip means it doesn't have to make sense. If that's the kind of thing that bothers you, stay away.

High Points
Aforementioned performance by Stone, who has to keep us caring even when we have no idea what to care about

Low Points
The more I think about Come True's final beat, the more frustrated I become

Lessons Learned
Insomniacs are not vulnerable to magical nerd charms

The ethics of sleep study doctor/patient relationships are, to say the least, muddy

There's an untapped market in the shoe industry for sleepwalking footware

I wasn't completely satisfied by Come True, and I can see it leaving a lot of its audience in a far more annoyed state than me. But as long as you go in expecting more mood than narrative, you'll likely walk away with some appreciation for the overall effect.