If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking 1-2x a week, and it's better late than never! Before reading any of the "reviews", you should read the intro, the FAQ, the MOVIES I HAVE ALREADY SEEN list, and if you want, the glossary of genre terms and "What is Horror?", which explains some of the "that's not horror!" entries. And to keep things clean, all off topic posts are re-dated to be in JANUARY 2007 (which was before I began doing this little project) once they have 'expired' (i.e. are 10 days old).

Due to many people commenting "I have to see this movie!" after a review, I have decided to add Amazon links within the reviews (they are located at the bottom), as well as a few links to the Horror Movie A Day Store around the page, hopefully non-obstructively. Amazon will also automatically link things they find relevant, so there might be a few random links in a review as well. If they become annoying, I'll remove the functionality. Right now I'm just kind of amused what they come up with (for example, they highlighted 'a horror movie' in the middle of one review and it links to, of all things, the 50 Chilling Movies Budget Pack!!!).

Last but not least, some reviews contain spoilers (NOTE - With a few exceptions, anything written on the back of the DVD or that occurs less than halfway through the movie I do NOT consider a spoiler). I will be adding 'spoiler alerts' for these reviews as I go through and re-do the older reviews (longtime readers may notice that there is now a 'show more' which cleaned up the main page, as well as listing the source of the movie I watched, i.e. Theaters, DVD, TV) to reflect the new format. This is time consuming, so bear with me.

Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.


Lake Bodom (2016)

OCTOBER 23, 2016


On the rare occasions I have time to kill, I like to read up on old unsolved murder/disappearance cases, partially to freak myself out a bit (some of them chill me more than any horror movie can, especially re: having a kid now), but also to fill the Robert Stack-shaped void in my heart now that whoever owns Unsolved Mysteries had to be a ninny and take down all of the clips on Youtube. I don't get too interested in alien or ghost stories when it comes to the unknown, but show me a case about a girl who was acting strange and then disappeared off the face of the earth one night (preferably with a weird final clue - there was one where the last time she was proven to be alive was with a ticket stub to American Beauty? Did that movie's pretentious sappiness push her over the edge?) and I'm hooked. It was during one of these (usually Wikipedia-heavy) sessions that I first found out about the case that inspired Lake Bodom (formerly just Bodom), a modern-set slasher film that uses a real life murder as a jumping off point but is otherwise largely unrelated.

But you can't blame writer/director Taneli Mustonen for not sticking to the real case all that much, as one of the more memorable things about it is how vague it is. Four teens (two couples) were camping in the woods, and sometime between 4 and 6 am (a detail that always stuck out - it was close to "safe" daylight time) three of them were stabbed to death, one more viciously than the others. That one's boyfriend was the lone survivor, though he had several severe injuries, including being bludgeoned to the back of the head - a detail I bring up because he was later accused and tried (and acquitted) of the murders, which seems odd when he sustained trauma I don't think he could have caused himself, based on the way the injuries are described. Plus some boy scouts who saw the mangled campsite reported seeing a blond guy walking away from the scene, all but clearly establishing a 3rd party who was in all certainty the one who committed the murders. Alas, the killer has never been found - the case remains unsolved and open.

Given the "campers in the woods slaughtered by a maniac" narrative, it's obviously of much interest to slasher fans, so I'm surprised that it took over 50 years for someone to make a slasher movie out of it (in fact, three different ones all around the same time - this one, the 2014 found footage entry Bodom, and another one titled Lake Bodom that is coming next year). The film only briefly touches on the original murders (complete with a blond guy, not much older than the victims, watching them while sharpening a knife) before flashing forward to the present day, where four teens (not couples, it should be stressed) are trying to find the murder spot so that one of them can do a reconstruction. This element is very poorly explained (possibly the fault of the subtitles - it's a Finnish film), as I was never quite sure what he planned to do - take pictures, I think? - or why he was being all secretive about it, to the point where he described his intentions as "complicated" when pressed by one of the girls (who were rightfully starting to wonder if they were in danger).

Luckily, the slashing begins fairly quickly, and despite the minimal number of victims, the pacing is actually far from languid. Mustonen teases us a bit with a few obligatory moments where the friends try to scare each other, but they work well, and since it's relatively early on you can be forgiven for thinking you're watching another would-be prank when our first teen is killed (it's not until blood starts pouring out of their mouth that we are guaranteed it's legit). Then we get the usual panic and chasing for a while, followed by a lengthy flashback sequence where we discover just why these girls agreed to come out into the woods with these two weird dudes they seem to barely know. It's an unusual structure, I must admit - we spend a good 45 minutes or so hearing these vague references to some racy photos that one of the girls was shamed by, and our natural inclination as viewers is to piece it together in our heads, because why would you think there would be a 15 minute flashback scene at the end of the second act? There were a few scenes set in/around school at the beginning, so there was plenty of time to fill us in on this stuff beforehand - why wait?

Well, because it ties into a twist, one that doesn't take too long after the first death to be unveiled, but still one I wouldn't want to reveal either. It's a tough nut to crack - the key to a good twist is to not clue the audience in that there will be one (Sixth Sense is a good example, at least to people like me who saw it opening day and not after people said YOU GOTTA SEE THIS MOVIE'S TWIST!), so they won't be looking for anything. Here, Mustonen kind of split the difference - he left things clunky and vague so that we knew there had to be more to it than presented, but revealed things around the halfway point, so that it didn't drag down his whole narrative. Once that stuff's out of the way things pick up considerably, highlighted by a terrific scene where the killer has two of the friends trapped in their car, which is being dragged by his tow truck. It feels like the most exciting scene a Joy Ride sequel never offered us, and serves as one of the best standalone setpieces in a slasher movie in who knows how long.

So it's got some clunky storytelling decisions, and I had to laugh at the opening text reminding us that there are several theories about what happened and this is merely one of them, when it's not actually about what happened at all (the original murders are never mentioned again after the first act), but overall I think it works. It delivers some good scares and suspense, and hits the comforting slasher beats without taking the ironic approach that has ruined so many other modern body count films. They could have used the original story in a better capacity, but then again - could they come up with anything as scary or unsettling as the fact that the killer might still be out there? And turning the original tragedy into a slasher movie might feel exploitative, so perhaps it was for the best that they sort of just nodded in the general direction of the real murders before focusing on their own story.

What say you?


Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

OCTOBER 21, 2016


It really annoys me when someone like Chris Pratt or one of his MCU buddies visits a children's hospital (in costume of course) and people start tweeting about how they're only doing it for publicity. Even if that's remotely true, do they honestly think it matters to the kids who have had their not-very-fun lives brightened by their visit? And is it worth risking planting that idea in their head? All they know is, Star-Lord just showed up to talk to them and lift their spirits, and that's all that counts. It's something I was reminded of during Ouija: Origin of Evil, as our protagonists are TECHNICALLY con artists, pretending to talk to spirits on the behalf of their still-living loved ones, but the people are put at ease by what they're making up - so is it wrong?

I don't think so. I mean, sure, it might be a bit sketchy to come up with this idea to put food on the table, but we see mom (Elizabeth Reaser) refuse money from a customer who was spooked by their session (due to one of her daughters going off-script a bit), while still comforting him with assurance that his late wife is no longer in pain. This occurs only a few minutes into the movie, and tells us what we need to know: this isn't a woman who is out to defraud or exploit anyone - she genuinely wants to provide some ease of mind to the people that come to see her. It's not long after that that we learn why she has such sympathy - her husband was killed in a car accident, and knows all too well how frustrating it can be to not get to say goodbye to someone, to say the things you wanted to say, etc. That she's also raising their two daughters alone now also keeps us from thinking less of her, the way we might think about Michael J. Fox's character in The Frighteners or whatever.

"OK, what does this have to do with a scary Ouija board?" you might ask - when she buys one as a prop for her fortune telling sessions, one of the daughters takes a liking to it, and sure enough before long they are being menaced by some real deal ghosts, and also actually conversing with the spirits that people pay them to talk to. But are the ghosts all harmless? Of course not, this is a Blumhouse horror movie, not to mention a sequel (well, prequel) to one that inexplicably became one of their biggest hits despite being one of their most creatively bankrupt offerings. The younger daughter starts doing and saying strange things, a priest (Henry Thomas!) gets involved, things get hairier, their home's secret past is revealed... all that stuff kind of goes through the motions we've come to expect from our modern supernatural horror movies. But the stronger-than-expected character work, and a focus on people who are genuinely good folks who got dealt a crap hand and are trying to work through it (the dad's death seems to be fairly recent, maybe like six months? If they specify, I missed it) give it an easy leg up on the likes of The Darkness or The Quiet Ones.

It's also a giant improvement on the original Ouija, though that can't be much of a surprise to anyone, given the low bar it had to clear - they would have had to turn to a hack like Declan O'Brien to manage to churn out something worse. Instead, they went with Mike Flanagan, who has yet to make a disappointing film (this is probably his "weakest" and it's still good), which inspired confidence right from the start, though the early strong reviews didn't hurt, either. Flanagan's role as writer/director (and editor, for good measure) is the reason I would see a prequel (something I very rarely like) to a movie I very nearly hated first thing on opening day, and I was happy to see he didn't let me down. I can only assume the Platinum Dunes folks weren't too hands on with this one, since it focuses on adults having real conversations instead of teens. Indeed, my heart sank a bit when the older daughter snuck out to a party, introducing a circle of friends that could very well have been our main focus when the scary stuff started happening. But of the three we only see one of them again, a love interest for her who is only in a few more scenes, one of which he's being (quite humorously) dressed down by Reaser's character. I'm sure teens will still be the primary audience for the film, and it offers enough of what they probably came for, but unlike the interminable original, adults should find a lot to enjoy here too.

Besides the character stuff, what works best about the movie is how Flanagan approached the idea of making a prequel. Rather than reverse engineer it from the original film, he went about making it as if it was a film that existed all along, and that the Ouija we snoozed our way through in 2014 was the 30-years later sequel. By that I mean not only do you not have to see the first film to get the most out of this one - it actually works BETTER if you haven't seen it at all (or at least don't remember it), just as a normal movie/sequel relationship would work. Indeed, I forgot most of the original, and thus it wasn't until over an hour into this one that I realized the connection to the first film's characters, but only in a general sense, not in a way that would have me knowing exactly who would definitely survive the ordeal (it'd be like watching Phantom Menace knowing *someone* in the movie later became Darth Vader, just not precisely *who*). If you were planning a refresher (or if you haven't seen the first and figured you'd check its Wiki or something), I would highly encourage you not to do that - Flanagan smartly did not rely on your familiarity for a single thing in his film.

And his approach wasn't limited to his screenplay - he actually put effort into making a film that mostly looked like it could have been made nearly fifty years ago (it's set in 1967). He uses an old-school Universal logo (and neither Blumhouse or Platinum Dune's logos play along with it - seeing a half dozen of these fucking ego trips is a modern trend) and the title comes up with its copyright info along the bottom the way old films used to. And, for the film geeks in the crowd, he even added cigarette burns every 15-20 minutes to signify a reel change (complete with a slight hiccup on the cuts between), because on film is how everyone would have seen the film back in the '60s. And like those older films, it's more concerned with building up atmosphere and character than scaring us every few minutes. I'm not trying to spoil anything by saying so, but most of the spooky bits you saw in the trailer come in the film's final third - it's definitely more a slow-burn than a jump-scare fest, which is actually something it shares with the original. It's amazing what a difference well-rounded characters can make!

I just wish it had more of them. There are basically only five full characters in the movie, and if you remember the original you know the fates of the majority of them. Flanagan's always stuck with stripped down casts (his previous film, Hush, literally only had five people in it), but here I think he could have benefited from opening it up a bit, or at least followed up with characters who only appeared one or two times. We've all seen the bit in the film where the possessed little girl causes a bully to slingshot himself, but what you can't tell from there is that's the last time we see anyone else from the school, and nothing really comes of it. Another trailer reveal involved the girl writing in Polish, and when it gets translated we only hear about the woman who does it, rather than actually see her. It's not that the film feels truncated or anything, just that in his quest to keep the focus on the family, Flanagan sometimes let things feel slightly undercooked. Like the slingshot bit is great for the trailer and all, but with no real payoff in the film (and no other instances of her using that particular ability, to the best of my memory) it could have been cut quite easily.

But look. I can't think of a movie with more red flags - we're talking about a PG-13 Platinum Dunes prequel to a crappy movie based on a board game, which might as well be the standard example for the phrase "recipe for disaster". That it's even watchable is something of a shock; that it's actually a pretty good movie and worth seeing inches on genuine miracle. All the credit goes to Flanagan and his crew, of course, but I think we should give Blumhouse (and the Dunes, maybe?) props for allowing him to do something far more interesting than they probably had in mind (i.e. do the same thing that made them a lot of money last time). It's almost a shame that it's tied to a movie that no one seemed to actually like (despite making the money it did, I've never spoken to a single person who enjoyed it - and I know fans of the Nightmare on Elm St remake), because it'll probably hurt its chances at the box office and as a fan of Flanagan's I'd love to see him get a big win since he's always getting screwed by distribution. But that's just how it goes these days, and regardless of how much money it makes, the fact that Flanagan made a real movie within "the machine" of IPs and franchises and not one but two production companies that are too often content to fall back on their proven formulas is something to be lauded.

What say you?

P.S. If you ARE one of those elusive fans of the original, make sure you stick through all the credits for a little gag that's kind of obvious but will make you smile anyway. If you're not a fan, or haven't seen it - don't bother staying, it won't mean anything and might even confuse you into thinking you're seeing a scene from a different Blumhouse franchise.


Fear, Inc. (2016)

OCTOBER 19, 2016


As I've said before, I don't like to know too much about a movie before I see it, especially at a festival, but I took it to a new extreme last night for Fear, Inc. - I didn't even know what the movie was CALLED until I saw a notice inside the theater (not the lobby, the theater itself, where we sit) telling us our reactions would be filmed. It's Screamfest time, after all, and since I knew I couldn't go on Thursday (horror trivia) I just made my way there on Wednesday without even looking at the schedule. For all I knew it could have been a revival screening of Paul Haggis' Crash for some goddamn reason. Luckily, it wasn't - and it turned out to be a movie that spoke to a number of my sensibilities, which would be like agreeing to a blind date and it turns out to be (name your actor/actress crush).

Basically it's the horror movie version of The Game, the David Fincher thriller from the '90s that doesn't get as much love as his other efforts from the era (until Zodiac it was pretty much my favorite of his films, actually - it took me a while to really warm up to the filmmaker). Our hero is bored with standard haunted attractions and is complaining about them when he is approached by someone working for the title company, who promises a true terror experience catered to them. As with The Game, he is "rejected" when he calls, but of course that's just to throw him off, and because (as we've learned since) he is a major horror movie fan, his experience is catered around his passion, and thus he's impressed with how they reference Scream and Friday the 13th in their attempts to terrify him. But is it really all a game? Are people really dying?

That's where the film primarily differs from The Game, as these folks don't like wipe out your bank account or whatever - they kill your friends and seemingly try to kill you as well. But it still apes that film in that you have to wonder what's real and what's being staged, and I don't think the filmmakers would mind me making the comparison, since the characters actually directly mention Fincher's film as a point of reference to explain what's going on. And that brings me to one of the two things about the movie that bugged me - they spell out too many of the references, which seems unnecessary in a film aimed directly at horror fans. Some are fine, even hilarious (there's one involving a particular Scream character's wardrobe that had me howling), but too many others are awkward and obvious, like when our hero finds his friend tied up to a death trap and says something about Jigsaw - and then their tormentor ALSO mentions the films directly. It was an obvious reference from the visual alone, making even the first clarification unneeded - having a second one moments later is overkill, and groan-worthy.

The other thing that irked me a bit is that there's one switcheroo too many. Perhaps because they reference The Game directly they felt they couldn't get away with a similar single "it was all a game!" reveal, so we have a couple of them, so the main character thinks it's a game, then real, then a game again, then real, then... you get the idea. I won't provide the exact count so as not to spoil anything (don't worry, this back and forth-ing starts rather quickly), but I couldn't help but wish they had stripped the film of at least one switch-up and just used that time elsewhere - perhaps by adding another character into the mix or something. I wouldn't call it a crippling issue, but when you have a character not once but twice re-enter the narrative saying something like "We got you!", it starts to feel padded (there is also an unnecessary prologue showing one of the game's other "victims", adding another 10 minutes to the runtime).

To be fair, this is tied into one of the film's STRENGTHS, which is that they never cheat, and each time you find out it's real (or a game), you can mentally run down the list of things that happened and see that it checks out. The characters race along from one scenario to the next (albeit mostly in their gorgeous LA home), so stopping to check a pulse or whatever isn't ever in the cards, and naturally to us in the audience who knows that none of these people are really dead (several of them were in the audience, in fact), if we believed what we saw on-screen, faked by professional makeup artists and performed by actors, there's no reason to think that the characters in the movie couldn't be fooled either, especially when in a stressful situation. And the "how far does this go?" setup aids some standard scenes, like when the heroes are pulled over when they have something incriminating in the car with them. It's the sort of scene you've seen a million times, but with the added bonus that you don't know if the cop is part of the game or a legit officer (and if he is, will the game people intrude to keep their plans in motion?). The script gets a lot of mileage out of that uncertainty, and despite the lag and repetition that settles in around the hour mark, it at least keeps you guessing about everything's true nature until the very end.

But the film's primary strength is that it's legitimately funny, and the characters are likable. At first glance you might worry you're getting the loser slacker hero and his bitchy girlfriend, but they quickly prove to be much different than that; he's definitely a bit spacey but he's loyal to his friends and we find out why he's a bit aloof, giving him some humanity and unexpected sympathy (for the record, his girlfriend won me over simply by making a pretty tasteless/amazing Natalie Wood joke via Christopher Walken impression). Chris Marquette and Stephanie Drake as their best friends are also charming, and have a valid excuse for not wanting to take part in the shenanigans (they have children, a relatively rare bit of business for this kind of supporting character). However, my favorite of the lot was Richard Riehle, the great character actor who is used perfectly as a nosy neighbor/former actor, which is a throwaway line early on that is important to remember when he is roped up into the game. As for the laughs, some are derived from movie references, but most are character driven ("You guys are GOOD ACTORS!") and it never becomes a spoofy sort of thing. Like Scream, it's comedic without being a comedy, which I think is the key to its strength - they're never obligated to be funny, allowing them to go full scary/suspenseful when they should, something Scary Movie and its ilk can never pull off.

Interestingly, just two weeks ago I indulged in something like this, Darren Bousman's The Tension Experience, which has a real world game you can take part in, but I just opted for the two hour, one-time experience. If you want you can have them do ARG-style things, where they'll call you at odd hours, have you go to random locations, etc. - but even the regular experience promises to rattle those who, like me, sleepwalk their way through haunted attractions at the likes of Universal Hollywood. Each time you go through is different, and there are something like 200 actors taking part to ensure everyone's experience is unique. It is, in other words, aimed at people like this movie's hero, who want to get those thrills that come naturally to his friends, and like the movie there are times during the experience (at least, my particular version of it) where you have to wonder if that person is really part of your group or someone that's part of their game. It's a new sort of immersive experience that is becoming more popular (at least in NY and LA), and thus Fear, Inc. has been timed perfectly to capitalize on it. By name-checking the film's two major influences (The Game and Scream) you're allowed to buy into their reality because, hey, those are movies we saw/liked too, and that's part of what makes it work so well.

The film hits VOD this week, which is not a surprise but still a bummer - it's a crowd-pleaser type that would benefit from big screen showings. Alas, that's just how it's gonna be from now on; we will get the oddball exception like The Witch, but every other horror movie that isn't from the likes of Screen Gems or Blumhouse you can expect to be watching in your own home on "release" day. It's a sad state of affairs; there are only two horror movies coming out in wide theatrical release this month - and one's a fucking Madea movie (the other is from Blumhouse, of course). It wasn't that long ago that a movie like this would definitely get a theatrical exhibition (maybe not 2,000 screens, but it wouldn't be relegated to only NY and LA, either), and I can't help but wonder if movies like Hatchet and Wrong Turn would suffer the same fate if they were being released today. Much like the hero of the movie, people get tired of the same old and want something different - but they also want to share that experience with others, and that's not a guarantee when your only option is watching it at home. But at least it's a festival movie that won't disappear, so take the good with the bad I guess.

What say you?

P.S. despite Freddy and Jason references (the two male leads even dress as them for their Halloween party), there isn't a meta joke about Marquette, who was in Freddy vs. Jason - and for that I thank the filmmakers.


Slithis (1978)

OCTOBER 6, 2016


As a very vocal champion of physical media, you would think I'd want every movie I enjoy to have some kind of spiffy special edition Blu-ray (if you're reading this review in the year 2050, replace "Blu-ray" with whatever tech you have now), which would offer a complete-ish look at its inception, production, and other history. But when I see a movie like Slithis (aka Spawn of the Slithis), I almost don't want it to get that kind of treatment. A commentary or 45 minute retrospective would likely prove that the screenwriter was not an alien mimicking human behavior, and that the actors did indeed know the camera was on them during some of their scenes, and that would ruin a lot of its appeal for me. Finding out these people were humans and knew what they were doing would just make me sad.

Yes, Slithis is one of those special movies where everything is just "off" throughout its 90ish minute runtime, changing what might have been a generic and poorly paced monster flick into a B-movie masterpiece. Every few minutes I was howling at something: the hero reading a story about two dead dogs on the front page of the LA Times; the will-be victim protesting his wife's request to put on a bathrobe before checking out the noises they hear, the random cop who sneezes his way through his one scene until our hero offers him eucalyptus leaves - all of this occurs in the movie's first 10-15 minutes, mind you. There's a guy we meet probably 45-50 minutes into the movie who gets more of an introduction than our main characters (bonus: if Will Ferrell and/or Adam McKay have ever seen the movie, there is no doubt in my mind that he was the inspiration for Ron Burgandy), which includes its own weirdness (a turtle fight?), as if they were introducing a spinoff movie within the edit of their first one.

As for our actual hero, he's the very bitter/bored head of the local school newspaper, who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of the Slithis in order to escape his terrible life of shaping young minds so that he can... get a job at the paper, I guess? Over the course of the film he puts together a sad little crew, including a scientist pal and a boat captain who dives for evidence at his urging (our hero doesn't really DO much beyond know people who actually do the work). He also has a girlfriend (or wife? Sorry, I'm writing this a week later so details are hazy) who the director and/or editor is fond of cutting to even if she's not doing anything or contributing in any meaningful way. Or even reacting properly; the hero and his scientist buddy will be talking about their theories and it will cut to her smiling as if one of them just complimented her new haircut. But weird edits are not uncommon in the film - in that same scene, when the scientist comes over the camera doesn't bother to show him entering. Instead we just hear him do so as the camera remains locked on the living room, so you might just assume they couldn't move the camera for whatever reason, but then not 30 seconds later it pans and tracks the wife as she goes into the kitchen to grab him a drink.

Interestingly, the editor went on to edit a few episodes of Dukes of Hazzard, while the director only helmed one other film - a TV movie starring Bo Duke himself, John Schneider. For all we know they didn't ever pursue these jobs again, but Slithis - enjoyable as it is - offers plenty of evidence that they should leave such things to other folks. The pacing is saved only by pointless jibber jabber that really only works with an appreciative (and possibly inebriated in some cases) crowd. It's nearly impossible to see movies made this far outside the studio system on the big screen today, which means if you're not watching them alone you're with a friend and talking over the slower scenes - and that's where this movie's personality really shines through. The monster doesn't look too bad all things considered, but when it's killing folks it's just another monster movie - it's those quiet moments that I find myself thinking about, like the aforementioned bathrobe bit, or the lengthy cameo by Hy Pyke as a police lieutenant who overacts and mugs his way through his one scene as if he will be executed if he stops bugging his eyes out or shouting random words in his dialogue. Like, when the monster dies you almost wish the movie was only halfway through so we could spend another 40 minutes with all these weirdos.

Or 25 minutes every week. There's a delightfully odd sequence late in the film when our heroes discuss their plan, the sort of scene that you see in pretty much any monster movie. But what makes this one unique is that we see them talk for maybe 20 seconds, and then there's a cut to the four of them in a different spot, lined up differently, continuing the conversation as if they hadn't just changed position. It feels a lot like the hangout shots you'd see in an old sitcom, where the cast is just goofing off and they'd use highlights in between the closeup cards with their credit (think Friends, or, god help us, Three's Company). Except they're just talking about killing a Slithis and had no reason to be moving around so much during their conversation. Some of director Stephen Traxler's now trademark directorial in-confidence is on display here too - the sequence kicks off with a long zoom across the water to where the four are standing, at the end of which he zooms back out a bit (he's still too far to even really see any of them clearly anyway).

For the life of me I can't understand why it was paired with Tourist Trap, as the only thing they have in common as far as I can tell is that they're both late 70s horror movies set in California (was was the third film, The Dark, which was a lot more like Slithis, making Tourist Trap the oddball in both narrative and actual quality). I had only seen the film (one of my favorites, you might recall - and one of very few "non canon" reviews to make it into the HMAD book) on 35mm once before, and it wasn't the best print - this one was better, albeit still faded and occasionally beat up (mainly at the reel changes). It was one of the movies I often requested to show when I screened films there, but was told a print couldn't be found - *shrug* - so it was nice to finally be able to see it there, even if I wasn't hosting. Since it had been a number of years since I watched it, it was fun catching up with it, enjoying Robin Sherwood's all too brief appearance (just like Halloween and Friday the 13th - the girl I find the most attractive is among the first to die!) and laughing along with everyone at Davey's bizarre voice. As for The Dark, I kept falling asleep and eventually just went home before it ended, but I had seen it before (or at least, sat through the whole thing - some parts seemed completely foreign to me, so I probably kept falling asleep when I last saw it there in 2013), and quickly remembered that the film's behind the scenes story is much more interesting than the one on screen. Unlike Slithis it had professional actors and real filmmaking on display, so when it was dull it was just dull - not off-the-wall like this one. Worth seeing for William Devane's unusual performance though.

Long story short, this is the kind of movie I would only want to watch with a repertory crowd (a respectful one, not a bunch of assholes trying out for MST3k gigs). If I watched this at home I'd probably get bored quick, as the monster doesn't appear enough and the lead either can't act or simply chooses not to (he sells insurance now, for what it's worth), making it a tough movie to retain your focus. But in a theater you kind of have no choice but to stick with it, and then it's also magnifying the film's quirky little personality, which shines through JUST enough to make this worth seeing under the right circumstances. You can see the Hy Pyke scene on Youtube to get a taste of the strange madness, but be warned - that's about as good as it gets, so if you spoil it for yourself out of context you might be setting yourself up for disappointment (sort of like the people who have only seen the "highlights" of the Wicker Man remake and assume the whole movie is like that). You've been warned!

What say you?


Beyond The Walls (2016)

OCTOBER 3, 2016


It's easy to see how much the landscape has switched from movies to television when almost anyone can tell you that Beyond The Walls (French: Au-delà des Mur) would have worked better as a film than a "TV series" (more like miniseries, as it runs for three episodes that run about standard TV episode length - 45-50 minutes). The "cliffhangers" that end the first two episodes are really just ends of their respective acts, no different than any other movie, and things are quite padded in the first episode to ensure that first big moment comes at the end of its required length. Indeed, throughout the next two episodes I kept waiting for payoffs for those early scenes, distracting me away from what was otherwise a really good take on the standard horror trope of someone atoning for a past mistake via creepy/supernatural elements.

These scenes include some very specific details that have no bearing on anything else, such as the fact that our heroine Lisa (Veerle Baetens) works as a speech therapist, that she pretends to have a husband in order to avoid social encounters, and, in one peculiar moment, is attempting a casual encounter with a guy she met in the bar, only to give him blue balls as she becomes seemingly more interested in an abandoned car in the garage. I kept waiting for these things, given at least half of the first episode, to really tie into what came later (particularly the dusty car), but not only do they not, she never even explains their significance to the other characters. I mean, there's a difference between some character development and seemingly setting up an entirely different kind of movie - if you stripped that chunk out and showed it to someone, they'd assume they were seeing a Repulsion-esque drama about an unhinged woman. Five minutes' worth of screentime is all it would have taken to tell us that she's lonely (partially by choice), which is really all we need out of this material.

The real plot starts (and I should note that this earlier stuff only bugged me in retrospect once I realized it had no bearing on anything - in the moment it's fine, well-acted, well-made, etc.) when she finds out that she has inherited the house across the street after its owner was discovered dead - and had been so for thirty years before being discovered. She never met him and had no connection to his family, so she's obviously a bit confused, but hey - free house! One she can move into by herself (it's not a humorous movie for the most part, but seeing her lug her mattress across the busy street is pretty amusing), and apparently fix up herself too - I don't care if it's "woke" of me to say so but there are fewer things I find more attractive than a woman who knows how to fix some plumbing and wield a sledgehammer in order to knock down an undesired wall. Naturally, she looks the gift horse in the mouth, trying to figure out why this long-dead man would leave her a house (and how he even had her name to begin with), but before long she's got a bigger mystery to solve - who or what is making the noise behind a wall in her bedroom. She knocks that one down too and finds a secret passageway, which leads to a gigantic, rundown ballroom that in no way could have been included in her newly acquired residence.

Obviously, we're dealing with a more fantastical kind of horror here; in fact it's almost tough to really call it horror at all. Creepy moments (including one right after she enters that ballroom) are plentiful, but I was reminded more of things like City of Lost Children and Neverwhere than anything full-blown terror oriented. Not a knock on the "movie", of course - just a heads up for those who might hear "French + horror" and go in hoping for the next Inside. Lisa meets Julien (François Deblock), a mysterious man who says he has been trapped in there for three years, and the two work together in order to try to find their way out once they realize that they can't go back the way she just entered. Julien has been compiling a map on the walls of the little room he has set up as his base/safe haven, and it's MASSIVE - the movie almost feels like a video game adaptation for a bit, as impossibly large structures are their forte (think the first Resident Evil) and mysterious strangers temporarily helping you along is an element of pretty much every "survival horror" game ever made. But again, the story and characters are more important than the scary things they find on occasion, and director/creator Hervé Hadmar offers the right balance: the world he creates here is fleshed out just enough to keep from being incoherent, but never so much that it's more interesting than our characters' respective journeys.

As mentioned they both need to atone for something - as it turns out, they both blame themselves for a death they feel they could have prevented. When they were younger, Lisa's sister drowned because she was too busy flirting with a guy instead of watching her swim, and Julien was forced to leave his best friend to die during the war. But unlike Flatliners or whatever, their ghosts are not angry or vengeful - they just want to be back together with their loved ones in this endless would-be paradise. Of course we don't know too much about what Julien was like before he got trapped there, but if there is one benefit to the over-time spent with Lisa's day-to-day, we know that there's nothing for her back in the "real world" and it wouldn't be too much of a hassle for her to stay there with her beloved sister, who harbors no grudge against her for what she did. I liked this scenario - ordinarily the thinking would be "she has to escape and get back to her life!" but here I found myself kind of torn; would it really be so bad to stay there forever? Or will this place get her to realize that an ideal, drama-free life isn't really a life at all, because we need the lows to appreciate the highs?

Weighty stuff for a movie that features a minotaur, I know, but that's exactly what made it so intriguing (it's worth noting that despite my usual exhaustion for this time of the year, AND the subtitles for a 2.5 hr experience, I stayed awake the entire time!). It's a fairly well-balanced mix of many genres, offering just enough world-building to make it compelling but not over-explaining everything and exhausting all of its potential (i.e. a prequel or sequel could be enticing, but not necessary). There's horror, drama, romance, and fantasy all offered in equal doses, led by two solid actors playing characters you'll easily care about. In short, even if it was in English it could never be mistaken for an American horror movie from Screen Gems or Blumhouse, and is highly worth your time even with its peculiar three episode structure. It will be available on Shudder soon, where you can choose to watch it like a traditional on-air TV series if you want, but in this day of binge-watching I can successfully assume no one will bother to break it up even if it was six or eight episodes. It's unfortunate that the 3rd episode (which largely takes place outside the "house", though I won't divulge how/why as I think of it as one movie and thus spoilers) is the weakest overall, but the closing moments tie it all up nicely and it's more just a testament to how good the first two are that it seems like a lesser entry. If you're already a Shudder subscriber (and you should be), there's no reason not to watch - if you're NOT already a member, take advantage of a free trial to check it out. Either way, it's definitely worth the time (and reading, unless you speak French), and hopefully Hadmar has plans to expand on this intriguing universe in the future. And kudos to Beyond Fest for giving it a showcase alongside the traditional features, because not only was that production design fantastic to see on a big screen, but it also gave a spotlight to something that might have gone under my radar otherwise.

What say you?


The Void (2016)

SEPTEMBER 26, 2016


So far I've liked but have not loved what I've seen from the Astron-6 team, and The Void follows suit - I can list as many things I liked about it as I can things that annoyed me, but thankfully my main takeaway is a positive one. And that's the fact that they're not doing the same thing over and over, giving each of their films a unique feel instead of going the Robert Rodriguez route and making it hard to tell their movies apart after a while (that there are five or six guys in revolving roles probably makes that possible). Even if I never really love any of their films, if they keep that attitude I'll always be happy to follow their newest endeavors and hope for the best, rather than go in with the weariness I do some other filmmakers who I like more on paper than in their actual output.

It is unfortunate, however, that The Void starts stronger than it finishes - the film ultimately lost me not because of an aesthetic choice (like Manborg - I just got tired of looking at that style after a while) or performance, but simply by going off the rails in its 2nd half, more or less dropping everything that was working for me in favor of Fulci/Lovecraft-inspired weirdness. I'm sure for many of you that may sound like an even bigger reason to see the film, but the first half is strictly Carpenter-tinged, and if you know anything about me you'd know that in my house Carpenter > everything that isn't Carpenter. Plus, it's worth noting that I DO quite like Fulci (Lovecraft I'm kinda iffy on), but his films are batshit from the start - having that kind of thing suddenly wedged into a previously straightforward narrative doesn't quite work - I think I need to be settled in with that kind of thing from the get-go.

And when I say it's Carpenter-y, I don't mean they steal the font and have a synth score, I mean it's literally like a stew of Carpenter's previous plots. The setting is a hospital with a skeleton crew because it's being closed down in favor of another place twenty miles away, making it Assault on Precinct 13 AND Halloween II combined, and then the creature FX are very much Thing-inspired, while the white-robed cult (no, not THAT one) that begins surrounding the joint recalls Prince of Darkness. No points for originality, sure, but the mix-and-match formula was working well, and it didn't hurt that they cast great character actors like Art Hindle and Kenneth Welsh in smaller roles, while handing the lead to Aaron Poole from Rosalind Leigh, who I believe is a newcomer to this group (that's the other thing I like - they don't just cast the same five people in every movie). And as an avowed P13 fan (it's in my top FIVE Carpenter films), I loved seeing that they were paying homage to the individual characters and not just the basic plot (which Carpenter took from other movies anyway): Ellen Wong's character is a lot like Nancy Loomis' in that film, Hindle's character is clearly inspired by Charles Cyphers', etc. This allows us in the audience to both appreciate a nod to one of the master's lesser name-checked films and be surprised when those characters turn out to have different fates.

But almost exactly at the halfway point, the movie takes a weird turn, turning one human character into not just a villain, but a skinless demon-thing that wouldn't look out of place in Hellraiser (and just as prone to silly-sounding speeches about eternity and darkness and all that stuff), more or less dropping the weirdo cult dudes, and transitioning the homage approach to something closer to flat-out ripoff; the film's closing shot is so close to The Beyond that they might as well have just used Fulci's footage to save some money. Ironically, for once the team played things relatively straight - there are a few character-driven laughs, but otherwise this is "serious" horror (with a tinge of sci-fi) as opposed to their usual shtick, and I can't help but wonder if the callbacks would play better in a film that could add "comedy" to its list of genres. It's kind of hard to get really scared or even that tense when you're either smiling or rolling your eyes at yet another reference to a film you saw just like they did, but in a comedic context (like The Editor) it tends to go down easier. I'd be curious to see if the film played better to people who had never actually seen all of those aforementioned films; it's one thing to make your influences obvious, as they did in the first half - it's another to just start swiping whole shots as they do in the second.

One thing I think everyone can agree on, I think, is that the film deserves lots of love and praise for delivering giant practical monsters. Sure it's another lift (The Thing), but it's not like they just broke into Rob Bottin's house and stole his old puppets - they had to design and operate these oversized beasts, and they look pretty great. Lots of real fake blood is strewn about as well; there's a pregnancy gone awry bit that rivaled Inside for "discharge", and while not without some digital enhancements here and there they do things the right way throughout the film - even when I couldn't even really tell what was going on anymore, I was able to at least appreciate the film on a visual level. Had they started tossing CGI at us left and right, my opinion would go from "Flawed but worth seeing" to "You guys owe me money and I didn't even pay to watch it" (well, unless you count my burger and shake - my last Alamo meal as this was my last movie of the festival). Not that I'm vehemently anti-CGI, but when a movie starts to flounder, anything else that's less than ideal seems worse. The script may fall apart, but at least they didn't lose their way across the board, you know?

If nothing else, the film demonstrates Astron-6's uncanny ability to get every dollar of their meager budgets (the creature FX were crowdfunded, in fact) on-screen, resulting in a film that looks more professional and stylish than other indie horror movies with 2-3x the money (often wasted on securing 90 second cameos from the likes of Tony Todd or whoever). It's possible even some of the script's lapses were the result of having to choose between shooting another cool monster scene or a lengthy bit of dialogue and/or a grander character exit (I swear one guy just disappears, and I am 99% sure I saw a character in the background of the climax who otherwise wasn't part of the scene, suggesting a hasty reshoot). I know they plan a sequel, based on the wording of their IndieGogo for the monsters, and I'd be open to checking it out - but hopefully it's not their next movie. I like that they jump around, and would love to see that trend continue as they gradually get better at what they do. Like Ti West, I might not love any of the movies, but I know they're on the right track and offer enough to keep coming back, which is more than I can say for many of their peers. And it was a fine way to close out my return trip to Fantastic Fest (first time back in three years), because I hadn't been able to see too many straight up horror movies and was somewhat disappointed about that. I don't get to see the indie stuff as often as I'd like these days, so I was counting on this trip (my first away from my son!) to get me up to speed, only to end up seeing a lot of action flicks and documentaries. All good, mind you, but I was hoping I'd have at least 2-3 HMAD entries as a result of going, instead of just this one. Luckily, Beyond Fest and Screamfest (plus the New Bev All Nighter, which always yields at least one film I've never seen) should keep this place busy for the October season.

What say you?


Blair Witch (2016)

SEPTEMBER 16, 2016


The funny thing about Blair Witch Project is that on its own, there really isn't much to it - there are only three characters (who are easy to dislike for long stretches of the film) and on-screen action is kept to a minimum. And, most notably, there really isn't much of a story in the movie itself - you get these quick references to things that only those (like me) who will scour BlairWitch.com and the tie-in books will fully understand, but remain relatively unexplored within the 80 minute film itself. That might be because it was never supposed to exist as a pure "found footage" movie as we've come to know them - the material of the three filmmakers lost in the woods was supposed to be part of a more traditional (but fake) documentary, but Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez realized they had something special with just that footage alone. So they released the "lost in the woods" footage on its own as a full-length film and repurposed the rest of the material into The Curse of the Blair Witch and other tie-in specials, making history in the process. I'd be willing to bet if they made that movie as originally conceived it would not have been the success that it was, and we certainly wouldn't be here with Blair Witch, a direct sequel tasked that takes a "back to basics" approach, albeit now with the pressure of reviving a potentially lucrative franchise.

And by "direct sequel" I just mean it's not a meta thing like Book of Shadows, but I want to stress that you barely even have to see the first film - let alone remember it - in order to follow this one. Again, a lot of the original's story isn't actually IN the movie proper, and the target audience for horror movies today probably weren't even in first grade when the film hit theaters, so you can easily sense Lionsgate didn't want to alienate anyone by making it Saw-like in its continuity. Normally I'd scoff at this sort of thing, but I see the studio's point; since it only had one (not loved) sequel, the "franchise" hasn't remained in the general public's eye the way, say, Nightmare on Elm Street has - you can bring that series back without having to worry about the audience knowing who Freddy Krueger is. But Blair Witch is a different story, because even people who DO remember the movie might not have ever bothered to dig deep into the "lore", so the new creative team (Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett of You're Next and The Guest fame) have an interesting dilemma - they have to remind the audience who/what the Blair Witch is while following up a movie that had a campaign that largely depended on outside information. Throw too much of that nitty gritty in, and they can't expect a new audience to follow along... but if they make it overly accessible to newcomers they risk annoying the people who wanted a sequel in the first place. Unsurprisingly, they catered more toward the latter option, creating a film that almost borders on remake territory while largely keeping any "reveals" self-contained.

(Warning: big spoilers ahead - this review is more for those who have seen the film already and/or don't care about what it reveals! If you're just curious if I liked it or not - I thought it was OK. I really like the first act and some standout sequences in the rest, but as a Blair Witch devotee I felt a bit underwhelmed.)

For years we've wondered what happened to Heather in that last shot of the film, and what Mike did after that point, and where Josh went, and how their footage was found elsewhere, and so on and so on... but this film doesn't answer any of that. The plot concerns Heather's brother James* being sent a tape that might be of his long-lost sister (the place takes place in 2014, twenty years after BWP's setting) by some internet conspiracy guy named Lane, so naturally he plans to head out to the woods along with three friends and a whole bunch of cameras. The plan is to locate the spot that this tape was supposedly found and start circling from there in order to see if they can find that house where the footage was shot, and in turn maybe find Heather (they don't seem concerned with finding Josh or Mike). When they meet up with Lane, he asks if he and his girlfriend (Valorie Curry from The Following, the only cast member I recognized) can join them, and off to the Black Hills they go, with Lisa (who is making a documentary, of course) filming their car as they walk away from it - a nice little visual nod to the original.

It's this first act that works best. The plot is laid out with minimal excess, and we're brought up to speed on the first film's story (that the three people went into the woods and were never seen again), plus offered a little of what happened after - one of our main characters, Peter, was actually on one of the unsuccessful search parties. As with the original, they're smart enough to throw in some humor (Peter's reaction to a confederate flag hanging in Lane's home is priceless), and what may be my favorite little Easter Egg in the film: they stay in the same motel room before heading out to the woods. The characters are likable, there isn't much being shot for no reason... and most importantly, as a giant fan of the first film, I was happy to be back in that world again. As I've said, I like Book of Shadows, but it's not really a true sequel - it's more like Halloween III in that it's set in a different universe entirely. This film brings us back to the original world (like Halloween 4!), where our characters have never seen The Blair Witch Project because it doesn't exist (and thus, they've also been spared the shitty parodies), and each little mention of Elly Kedward or Coffin Rock made me smile. It was, so far, exactly what I was hoping for when I heard what the film's plot was.

But as I said, it almost feels like a remake at times, and as it went on I found myself feeling more frustrated than intrigued. It's not like a beat for beat remake, but even by sequel standards it sticks a bit too close to the overall structure; even with my spoiler warning I don't think I'm actually giving anything away by saying it seems they end up in the same house near the end of the film. I can't recall if it was ever explicitly said in the first film, but this was Rustin Parr's house - which had been burned down fifty years before (again, per the lore), so how the hell did they end up running around inside of it? And why couldn't any of the search parties find it? This is one question the movie kind of answers, though it's very vague and mostly just adds more questions to the pile. We've all seen enough movies to know "time travel!" when we see it, and there are some cool touches in the idea that time is moving differently for everyone (our main characters are in the woods for like 3-4 days, yet the clean-shaven Zane ages enough to have a full bushy beard by his last appearance), but the film frustratingly refuses to clarify these concepts in any meaningful way. I know being vague was part of the original film's power - but it was also simpler. Time travel (and other things I won't spoil - partly because I don't know what the hell it was supposed to mean) wasn't ever really considered in the context of the film, because the house-burning history hadn't been explained in the first film (just in the books and website), so only nerds like me wondered about the discrepancy - to everyone else it was just some house in the woods. Part of the first film's power was the idea that maybe these kids were just going crazy and there was nothing supernatural going on at all, but this one cements the fact that these woods really DO have something going on that involves the supernatural. Once you get into that area, I think the audience can reasonably expect some explanation for what is going on, because you can no longer coast on the ambiguity. All of the people who watched Blair Witch Project and walked away thinking that Heather had just cracked up now have proof that they were wrong, but that's it - no follow through. You can't just tell someone they're wrong without offering some hard evidence - it's like telling a kid he's grounded without telling him why.

I mean, near the end of the movie there's a pretty big reveal about that tape that sent them on their journey to begin with, and I'm not even sure the characters realize it. That to me seems like a giant missed opportunity to show us something that we haven't seen in one of these movies. Or maybe we have (I know I've seen a lot, but not all of them), but you know what we HAVE seen, a lot? People running through woods with cameras, and people screaming each others' names because they're not sure where they went, and any number of other found footage tropes that the movie gives us instead. See, part of what made the first film such a phenomenon was how unique it was; I know people love to cite Last Broadcast and Cannibal Holocaust as "doing it first", but that's not accurate. Cannibal Holocaust starts off and for quite some time remains a traditionally shot film, with the "found" part of it not even making half of the runtime if memory serves. And Last Broadcast is, ironically, a faux documentary with talking heads and recreations - the same sort of thing Blair Witch Project was originally designed to be. But BWP didn't offer any outside perspective; from start to finish, we are seeing everything through Heather or Josh's POV (or Mike after Josh disappears). Hell, we never see all three of them in the same shot because one of them is always holding the camera. This allowed the filmmakers (or, the cast) to create a subconscious effect on the viewer that keeps the movie from ever feeling anything like those others - and that's why so many scores of found footage movies since are compared to Blair Witch Project and not Cannibal Holocaust.

I bring this up because the movie seems to forget the audience has seen a lot of these things since 1999, and it's not quite as novel anymore. If anything the style is kind of played out; there are still the occasional winners (The Visit, or even closer cousin Willow Creek), but as of late it's the ones that act more like regular documentaries (The Atticus Institute) or rely on surveillance (Hangman) that work better than the ones that put the cameras in the hands of their characters the whole time. The narrative offers a solution to the usual "Why are they filming?" issue by giving them all little ear-cams (they look like Bluetooth headsets), but in execution there isn't much difference to how it looks to us in the audience - lot of shaky-cam, the usual digital hiccups, etc. The best chance they had to give the film something novel in its look is the fact that Lisa brings a drone along for overhead shots - and it never gets used once for a scare scene. Or, to be specific, its CAMERA never gets used for a scare scene - one of the film's best sequences happens when the thing gets stuck in a tree and Ashley (Peter's girlfriend) climbs up to free it. But before then, it's used for a couple of "Let's get a shot of the woods to see how far they are from civilization" kind of big crane-like shots, and nothing else. I guess it's kind of clever in a way, to introduce new tech (they also have GPS, but it never really factors into anything) but ultimately rely on the good ol' fashioned stuff that worked wonders in 1999 (one character even has a tape-based DV camera instead of a newer one with memory cards), but it doesn't change the fact that the special/unique feeling the original film offered obviously no longer applies.

Indeed, some of the best moments of the movie were kind of independent of the POV approach, in that it was the idea of the scene itself that was interesting, not how they filmed it. I already talked about the tree one, but there's also a terrific bit where Lisa is trapped in a tunnel that probably would have been shot more or less the same way if the movie was a traditional feature (she has two cameras, one that she's pushing and one on her ear, that even offers us two angles of the traumatic experience). And there's a surprising detour into body horror territory, where Ashley - who gets a cut on her foot early on - picks at the wound and finds... well, I'm not sure. But it's a creepy bit that is an exception from the film's frustrating vagueness, because it reminded me of Heather finding Josh's... WHAT? in the first film (if memory of the audio commentary serves it was his hair and teeth, but it's impossible to tell in the film itself). I also liked how the stickmen were used, though the POV aesthetic robs us of a clear look at an incredible reaction to one of them being snapped in half (you can only kind of tell what happened in the aftermath, not in the moment itself). I wouldn't go so far as to say that the movie SHOULD have been shot traditionally, but it's odd how often I was either frustrated by its limitations or just plain forgetting that it was supposed to be someone's POV. With so few handheld cameras and so many characters filming (via cameras we often can't even see on the others, blocked by hair or just the way they're standing), it lacks the intimacy the best of this sub-genre offers, where we always know who is filming and never forget that it's their perspective on the events around them. The movie takes time to establish how it can get around the usual "why are they filming?" pratfalls (the cameras are attached to their ears and basically forgotten, plus they have a tree-mounted cam showing the whole campsite), so it's a sin to keep us from ever getting good looks at this stuff. Why bother setting up a "cheat" if you're not going to put it to good use?

Going over it in my head, I realize that perhaps my main issue is that it kind of feels too much like a real movie? I really love the original, in part because they got it so RIGHT - you can easily dupe someone into thinking it's a legit "found footage" movie (or snuff film - inaccurate since no one dies onscreen, but semantics), because there's nothing that gives away the illusion. Even the end credits barely suggested otherwise since the film was shot by its actors and only had like 5-6 guys behind the concept and execution. Not the case here - the sound design alone is on par with any major Hollywood blockbuster, and it's just a bit too slick and too clean to work on that level, courtesy of the hundreds of crew people who worked on it per the end credits, which are as long as any traditional feature. Not that it's a crippling flaw for audiences (obviously, since you can levy the same "complaint" at Cloverfield and Quarantine and those movies weren't hurt any), and again it seems as if they were aiming more at audiences who had a passing familiarity with the original and would check this out the same way they might check out a remake (familiar title, but not a movie they might have actually SEEN). But I'm not that person - I'm the guy who was disappointed the title didn't have a "3" in it. And as a champion of the POV format when its utilized correctly, I had trouble finding much to pass my little test, where I ask why the movie HAD to be shot this way. Apart from the very last scene, I can't think of anything in it that would have lost its impact if it had been shot with regular camera setups, and since everyone has at least one camera we're never with one character long enough to get into their head the way we could Heather's. The POV was what made the first film so good - here it's more of a handicap.

Ultimately, I'm not sure if at this point, a direct Blair Witch Project sequel (at least, one without the original cast - and Heather Donahue ain't ever coming back) could ever be as fully satisfying as I would want. Too much time has passed, and it's not that I've moved on (I'm not lying - I have the books sitting right here next to me as I started re-reading them when the news broke that "The Woods" was actually Blair Witch), but horror itself has. What was once completely unique is now an over saturated market; just as Halloween II had to compete with not only the original classic but the literal dozens of other slasher movies that came out in 1981, Blair Witch faces the same things (plus a much-hated sequel souring the brand), but with even more time passed and, in turn, far more competition and raised expectations. I don't envy Wingard or Barrett (or even Lionsgate) for trying to achieve what, sadly, might just be impossible. Like I said, I don't dislike the film - there's certainly enough that they got right to make it a decent enough time at the movies, and it will almost certainly be received better than Book of Shadows. But I sure wish it was maybe 2004 right now, and I didn't have dozens of my own reviews saying "it reminded me of Blair Witch", because all of those movies left me almost numb to what this format can offer at its best. Hopefully I'm in the minority and the masses who maybe only watched a few of the Paranormal Activities and Cloverfield can get more out of this trip back to the woods than I was able to. I want another sequel, dammit - just don't make me wait nearly 20 years to get it.

What say you?

*Nerd alert - the brother's name is Randy in the Blair Witch Dossier. It's a canon addition to the overall franchise, so this is technically a mistake on the new movie's part, but I'm guessing the number of people who will pick up on that continuity hiccup is probably in the single digits. Or perhaps just me.


Raising Cain (1992)

SEPTEMBER 14, 2016


Curious - do you folks consider a movie as "seen" if you were so young that you a. barely remember it and b. wouldn't have the proper context to take away as much from it as the filmmaker intended? I usually do, but I'm starting to wonder if I shouldn't, if Raising Cain is any indication. I "saw" it when it hit VHS, making me 12 (maybe just turned 13), but even if I could remember much about it from that one viewing (all I recall: being confused, being smitten with Lolita Davidovich), I hadn't seen anything else of note from Brian De Palma at that stage (the lone, inexplicable exception? Bonfire of the Vanities), and as I watch it now I realize part of the film's fun is seeing him play with his own filmography as much as he does with the usual Hitchcock stuff. PLUS it's easier to follow when you know more about cinematic language in general; I'm sure I would have quickly understood that "Cain" wasn't really there in his scenes if I were to notice that De Palma never cheated and put them both in the same shot, for example.

(Double Impact had already come out - I knew it was possible to do this with one actor!)

While I still haven't seen them all (still no Body Double - much to my chagrin), I've seen enough De Palma by now to realize this one isn't exactly his finest hour, but probably works best for his hardcore fans (as opposed to say, Mission to Mars, which might satisfy you more if you have no idea who he is). Again, he throws in little nods to his past work - the plot feels like a variation on Sisters, and it's probably only his fans that will laugh instead of getting freaked out when a baby carriage starts rolling toward a staircase during the film's climax. Plus it's got plenty of his gee-whiz camerawork, including an epic 4+ minute long-take (a walk and talk, no less) that takes the characters down two flights of stairs and an elevator, finally ending on a corpse's ridiculous death face. The average moviegoer will not notice or at least not think much of these elements, but if you're familiar with his work it's sort of like comfort food, especially since it was his first thriller in nearly a decade.

But whether you're a BDP fan or not, I think we can all agree that the highlight of the film is John Lithgow's performance(s), as he plays at least five characters throughout the film, each with their own unique mannerisms and vocal inflection. Two of them are distinguished by their appearance (one older, one in drag), but the other three are just "off-the-shelf" Lithgow, and yet it's instantly clear when a new personality takes over - in particular the scene where Frances Sternhagen is interviewing him. When he snaps awake (she's hypnotizing him), you can tell right away it's not Carter or Cain, but a new personality we haven't met yet - just from how he's fidgeting and looking at her! Naturally, he didn't even get nominated for any mainstream awards, let alone win any due to the fact that the film was kinda/sorta horror and it also wasn't a big hit (if Silence of the Lambs only grossed 10m do you think it'd win Best Picture? Or even get nominated? Hah!). He DID get nominated for a Saturn award, yet lost to Gary Oldman for Dracula (kinda hard to argue, really), as did Bruce Willis (Death Becomes Her) and Chevy Chase (Invisible Man), which was probably the first and last time Bruce and Chevy were ever up for the same award.

However, a big draw of Lithgow's performance was kind of ruined by the film's re-structuring. When cutting the film, De Palma second guessed himself and didn't put enough faith in the audience to follow his non-chronological narrative, and so he recut it to be in order. This makes it (somewhat) easier to follow, sure, but it also gives the movie a very strange pace, because what was designed to be a twist halfway through (that Lithgow's character was a killer, not the "Mr. Mom" wet blanket he appeared to be in the original version's first half hour or so) was now pretty much the first scene in the movie. This would be fine if it was a movie about a guy living a double life (Mr. Brooks comes to mind), but it's not that kind of movie at all, so the (now) later scenes of him acting like a completely normal guy feel out of place. Because they are! Granted, there's no way in hell that the ads wouldn't have given away the multiple personalities element, so we'd know he was nuts no matter how the movie was cut, but knowing something from a trailer is different than knowing it too early in the full narrative. Like Psycho - even if you know Janet Leigh dies in the shower ahead of time, it's WHEN it happens (i.e. the end of the first act) that makes it such a shock, because even if you knew that her character died you'd probably assume it was somewhere near the end.

Luckily, this new Blu-ray from Scream Factory offers a one of a kind bonus feature - a cut of the film assembled by a fan that follows the original script's ordering. Alas, the new cut's editor, Peet Gelderblom, didn't have access to the scenes that were excised from the theatrical cut as a result of the new structure, so it's hardly a perfect execution (you almost have to watch the theatrical cut first just to know the difference when it jumps back in time), but if you mentally fill in those blanks it's easy to see that it's the superior way to watch the movie. This version keeps us more or less in Davidovich's POV (literally, at one point) for a while, allowing Lithgow's sudden turn to be the shock we were never afforded in the theatrical, and it also keeps the mystery of Carter/Cain's father (also Lithgow) slightly more compelling since we don't meet him 10 minutes in like we do in the theatrical. Both versions leave you guessing if Dr. Nix is truly alive or just another personality until the very end (in fact after about 45 minutes I don't think there's any major reordering at all), but the subplot just flows better in the recut version.

One thing the disc does NOT offer, sadly, is footage of Gregg Henry acting against Lithgow. Even though you never see two Lithgows at once, the actor still needed someone to interact with for the dialogue, and Henry did that for him throughout the shooting (in addition to his regular role as the head cop investigating the missing children). I think it would have been great to see, but alas the movie was shot in 1991/1992, long before anyone thought to record a film's entire production so it could have good blu-ray features. Instead, the disc offers a ton of interviews, including ones with Lithgow and Henry (as well as Paul Hirsch, one of the three editors), and you can't even complain about De Palma not offering one since the disc hits at the same time as the simply titled De Palma, a documentary which is basically a feature length interview anyway and covers all of his films including Cain. Lithgow's runs a half hour and is obviously the big draw, but they're all loaded with the usual fun anecdotes and recollections - it's a bummer they didn't cut them all together for a feature length retrospective (their combined runtime is almost as long as the movie itself, in fact) like they did with Day of the Dead and The Offspring, but it's not a big deal. The 2nd disc offers the recut as well as some background info on how that came together, as well as De Palma's sole "appearance" on the disc - his note saying how much he liked seeing the cut and wished he hadn't second guessed himself in the first place.

Again, I haven't seen Body Double (I swear I'll fix that soon), but I consider Blow Out to be a masterpiece and I really, love Dressed to Kill, and quite like Sisters (moreso after suffering through its remake), so I can't exactly say Raising Cain is an essential De Palma thriller when he has so many great ones to choose from (sort of like how Prince of Darkness is awesome but not even top 5 Carpenter. But it's deserving of more love than it gets, so I'm glad Scream Factory and Universal are working together a lot now, because otherwise there's little chance this minor little gem would have gotten a spiffy Blu-ray release. And I in turn probably wouldn't have gotten around to revisiting it until I decided to do some sort of massive De Palma appraisal/catch-up (I would skip Redacted, for the record), which is something I should do anyway. My favorite is Carlito's Way and it's been nearly 20 years since I watched that one! Plus he jumps genres a lot, so if I did them chronologically it wouldn't be repetitive or anything. I think I'll do this!

What say you?


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