Welcome!

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 The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story).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.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Don't Breathe (2016)

AUGUST 26, 2016

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I've often noted that the home invasion sub-genre has limited options for as much variety as you see in slashers, survival horror, etc. This doesn't mean the films are getting bad, but it's gonna take some inspired ideas to keep the concept fresh, and that's precisely what Fede Alvarez has done with Don't Breathe, a home invasion movie that swaps the usual roles, making our heroes into the ones that enter someone's home while the villain is the guy that actually lives there. It's not a deconstruction or anything like that, but it offers those same kind of moments and thrills all while playing up the notion that our heroes aren't in their comfort zone this time - they're not even sure how to find their way around the predictably oversized home, with a labyrinthine basement and man-sized air ducts, and a dog that gets to be a mini-villain instead of just getting offed like the poor mutts usually do in these things when the bad guy needs to reduce threats.

Of course, the real hook of the movie isn't the inverse invasion idea - it's the fact that the villain (Stephen Lang) is a blind man. He's no saint (bro), and his senses of smell and hearing have been attuned to make up for the lack of sight, but what really works about the film is that (save for a bit at the end) he's not preternaturally gifted with a sense of perception like Daredevil or Eli (the one with the Book). Lang is fond of firing his gun, but he's a horrible shot; the only times he manages to hit anything of note it's basically by chance, and ends up destroying more of his own stuff than the damn robbers. He also makes plenty of mistakes that he wouldn't had he been able to see; there's a great example in the 3rd act that I can't really illustrate (it involves garden shears), and even with his attuned hearing he walks right past our heroes more than once without realizing that they were within reach. The movie even finds a few moments of levity related to his disability - there's an upside down framed photo in his living room that I couldn't help but smirk at even though it's not exactly the most PC gag in the world.

In fact, I wish Alvarez had spent more time on the sequence where Lang isn't aware anyone else is in the house with him. As anyone who has seen the trailer knows, our heroes are a trio who break into his home, but when he catches and kills one, he is under the impression the man was working alone. There's about 10-15 minutes (less?) where he works to clean up the body and reinforce the entry points, most of which involves the other two having to stay quiet/still to not give their position away, and to me this was more satisfying and even suspenseful than the more traditional cat and mouse stuff that followed. Not that the latter half lacks thrills - Lang's the one who knows his way around, after all, so every single escape attempt (and subsequent scare) is capped with him showing up to block their path, a standard villain move that makes a lot more sense here than in the average slasher. Of COURSE he'll get ahead of them - they're often going slow trying to stay quiet and also trying to find their way around, whereas he's spent who knows how many years finding his way around the place in the same darkness they're currently battling. It never feels like a cheat when he "teleports" somewhere - I totally buy that he'd be able to move around with precision and use their unfamiliarity with the layout to his advantage.

But the quieter bits offered that kind of breath-holding audience experience - you can hear a pin drop in the theater when Jane Levy or Dylan Minnette accidentally step on a creaky board or find themselves pinned down in a bathroom or something as he goes about his business. By the end, they're not even trying to be quiet half the time - it's just stalk n' chase fare with a hook. To put it another way, if he wasn't blind, the first chunk of the movie wouldn't make any sense, but (save for his poor marksmanship) the rest would pretty much play out the same. The film already feels a bit like The People Under The Stairs (poor people robbing some asshole to better their shitty lives), right down to the dog that can pursue them in smaller areas, so I wish there was more opportunity for the blind factor to play a part in his pursuit. I mean, hell, near the end he manages to find Levy like a block away (before you cry spoiler, the movie opens with him bringing her back to his house before rewinding to see how she got into that situation), so I'd be lying if I said I preferred the perverse sight (heh) of a borderline Michael Myers not even knowing he had a couple of victims in the same room.

Also (now THIS is spoiler territory, skip this paragraph if you wish) the script described a bit too much of a hellish life for our heroine to escape from, making it far from likely that she'd be killed or even that she'd somehow escape without the money. It's not enough that her mom was just a drunk that didn't care (in the one scene we get of her home life, she takes care of her little sister while the mom gets drunk on the couch, mumbling insults her way), but we also find out she was abused (locked in a trunk!), and to top it off she promises her little sister that she's going to take her away from their Detroit hellhole in favor of California. In other words, there is little to no doubt she will succeed, so the suspense factor is a bit crippled. Faring better in that department is Minnette's character, who seems to have an OK life and is seemingly just doing this because he's in love with her. When Lang sets his non-sights on Minnette, I felt myself tensing up again, but for her, apart from one diversion I won't spoil (except to say that it yields an INCREDIBLE sight gag involving a stray hair or two), I never really felt she was in any real danger, because I am too attuned to major studio horror movies (even R-rated ones) to buy the idea that she'd be killed off and that poor little sister would be abandoned. Minnette's less noble motives made his survival chances a lot smaller, and in turn his scenes (they're split up more often than not, I think) get back a lot of that nailbiter suspense that was reduced once Lang was on the prowl.

Another thing in the movie's favor is that Lang isn't just some mindless psycho - he's even kind of sympathetic in a few moments. The reason he has money is because he got a big settlement from a rich family whose daughter killed his in a car accident, and it's downright heartbreaking when they find him sleeping with a home video. of his 3-4ish daughter playing and singing playing in the background. He obviously can only hear the sounds of his daughter that was taken away from him so cruelly, and (over emotional dad alert!) in that moment I was suddenly paralyzed with fear that the tape would somehow get broken over the course of the evening. Like, grab the money and leave, fine - but please don't take away his sleeping aid! And a later plot development allows us to feel kind of bad for him (in an icky way) as he deals with another loss - it was unexpected and beneficial to the film's overall strength. I know I called him Michael Myers before, but there's a real guy in there that surfaces every now and then - just enough to keep balance, because while he's "the bad guy", he's also a guy defending his home and property from robbers. In People Under the Stairs, Fool was kind of suckered into the crime - these three are all old enough to know right from wrong.

Speaking of spoilers, I was also happy to realize the trailer was built mostly on scenes from the film's first half. It still gives too much away, I think (i.e. the existence of another person in the house, if not their actual role in the proceedings), but at least there's a point where I realized the only reason I knew what was coming was due to the film's own dumb choice to show a scene from near the end right at the top. It's thankfully vague compared to some others that have pulled this stunt, but there's enough info in what we see - and what we DON'T see - to make me wish they rethought this decision. I get what they're trying to do, in order to "surprise" us later, but it's too obvious that's the plan - better to just not set up that sort of thing at all rather than let us watch the movie wondering when the movie will "catch up" to what we already saw.

Ultimately, I'm surprised I was able to write seven paragraphs about the movie, because what really works about it is how simplistic it is. No one shows up to help the heroes (i.e. a cop who heard a disturbance or whatever), the house is big without being silly (no Halloween: Resurrection style endless basement/tunnel section), no one has long passages of dialogue, etc. It's just lean and efficient, and dark enough to earn its R rating without becoming nihilistic and unpleasant - and far more satisfying to me than Alvarez' previous film, the Evil Dead remake (Sam Raimi apparently still stands by it - he produced this one too). Since it's built on suspense and borderline plotless, I'm not sure I'd ever revisit it (plus I'm not sure I could handle the goofy ladybug shit again), but for the one time it's a damn satisfying thriller that gets more right than wrong, and continues the unprecedented horror hit streak - all five of this summer's major horror releases (this, Purge 3, Conjuring 2, Shallows, and Lights Out) were winners, something that's even more impressive when you consider how weak the big tentpoles have been on average. And even though I don't particularly love the Evil Dead remake, I can certainly agree that Alvarez is no hack, and I hope he sticks around in the genre for a while.

What say you?

P.S. There's a new Screen Gems logo attached to the film, so I feel obligated to share this again instead of the trailer that gives too much away.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Necrophobia 3D (2014)

AUGUST 16, 2016

GENRE: GIALLO (!), PSYCHOLOGICAL
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)

It's rare, but every now and then I see an underwhelming movie at (or, in this case, out of) Fantastic Fest, and my reaction is always the same: I've done something wrong as a viewer. The festival is so fun and its programmers so like-minded (yes, before anyone points it out - I work for one of them), and most of what I see is, even if I don't love it, at least so nutty or unique that I can ADMIRE it, that those odd lackluster entries almost make me feel bad for saying so. Such is the case with Necrophobia 3D, which played at the festival in 2014 - a year I missed due to my son's recent birth, but had I been there I almost certainly would have been at one of its showings, as on paper it sounds exactly like my kind of thing. Plus I still get a kick out of legitimate 3D when used properly, and lacking a home set I usually make extra efforts to see them in their native gimmicky glory.

But this would have been one of those screenings where I start looking at my food instead of the screen, because it landed in that decidedly un-sweet spot of being both hard to follow and also not particularly compelling - the movie didn't do enough to make piecing together its narrative worth the effort. It's got a good hook: a giallo-esque thriller about a man whose twin brother dies and then everyone in his life starts following him to the grave, but there are no viable red herrings to keep the "mystery" afloat, so you're just waiting for the obvious reveal. When it comes, rather early (then again the movie is only 75 minutes with credits so even scenes in the 3rd act are "rather early"), I started wondering if it was a misdirect, and one of the other characters would turn out to be the REAL culprit, but that didn't happen. Instead...

(OK, spoilers are coming!)

...the movie keeps doubling down on its central "twist", which is a Raising Cain kinda deal with multiple incarnations of the same character. Whether they're figments of his imagination or actual physical beings that have come to life somehow, I'm not sure - I even rewatched the last 25 minutes or so and still couldn't come down hard on either answer. Then writer/director Daniel de la Vega throws a fun but even less coherent time travel element into the proceedings, showing that the mysterious phone call our protagonist got near the beginning of the film was sent by one of his doubles here at the end of the (otherwise linear) movie. It's the sort of twist that'd be great if it was the only one in a film (and, you know, had some logical way of occurring), but it's one too many for the film, which - again - already suffered from simply not being particularly engaging. Our killer wipes out all of the supporting cast almost as soon as they become important, and even a 75 minute movie should have time for more than 5-6 important characters - ESPECIALLY for an alleged mystery.

Plus there's no real story. The brother dies, our main man Dante freaks out, then the wife is killed, he freaks out, then a priest is killed... you get the gist. Not that any of the classic giallo movies had current-day narratives that were really terrific, but you'd get the nutty backstory and colorful cast of characters to make up for it, not to mention the usually stylish murder sequences. Here, most of them are fairly quick - the priest is offed almost the second Dante leaves the room, instead of de la Vega giving us a nice buildup with the guy wandering around his church and being pursued by the gloved killer. In fact, I often wondered why they bothered with the 3D - apart from a couple of the scenes where Dante was having a mental collapse, and maybe (if done well) the wide shots of his tailor workshop (mannequins pop up with frequency), there wasn't anything in the film that seemed like it would benefit from the technology, so I am curious what inspired them to do it that way in the first place. If it was five years ago, sure - every other movie was in 3D, it seems. But this was shot in 2013, when 3D was already past its peak popularity, so who knows. Maybe they got a tax break or something? Whatever the reason, not counting post-converts it's the most pointless 3D entry I can recall since the woeful Julia X.

The titular phobia is equally pointless in the narrative - it's the fear of being near a dead body, but this isn't something particularly worth revolving a movie around. For starters, it's not like this is some weird tic - who the hell DOES want to be around dead bodies (well, I'm sure there's a term for it, but it'd be more interesting to watch), and phobia or not, all of the people who die in the movie are very close to him, making his inability to be around them kind of understandable. When a protagonist suffers from a phobia, part of the filmmaker's job is to get the audience - who presumably doesn't feel that way for the most part - to walk in his shoes a little bit. Agoraphobia movies usually do a fine job with this; you and I don't feel any particular fear of going outside, so they will employ heightened sound effects, off-kilter angles, etc. to make the act of walking out the front door seem like a herculean feat. Here, actor Luis Machin just sort of yelps and staggers around, which I'm guessing lots of people would do if they found their brother or wife dead. And by the halfway point he's around corpses in every other scene anyway so it's not even a "thing" anymore.

On the plus side, Machin does a fine job with the various incarnations of his character; the main one, Dante, is kind of a Toby Jones-y nebbish, but the others are like Richard Lynch level menacing - it's a shame we don't get to see much of his brother Tomas, since we'd get a fleshed out third version. Also, I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but the killer's dark appearance and black hat give him a Halloween Man in Black vibe that amused me (especially considering that mystery was equally easy to solve and woefully underwhelming). If the movie threw Druids into the mix I might have actually liked it more, now that I think of it - it's nutty, but not nutty ENOUGH to elevate to "WTF" kind of cinema. It's just got some twists for the sake of having twists, I suspect, and when you consider the 3D, it's not hard to think the movie was an exercise of some sort to try out the cameras for a more elaborate project. You can almost hear a producer asking for some horror script that could be banged out quickly so they could work out the kinks on a movie that would find an audience anyway.

Oh well. I'm all for filmmakers trying to revive the giallo genre, but Necrophobia lacks a lot of the things that make those movies so enjoyable, and doesn't really do anything unique on its own to make up for it. It's watchable enough, and again quite short, so you can't accuse it of wasting too much of your time, but apart from admiring Machin acting opposite himself in a few scenes and the Lost Highway-tinged phone call stuff, there isn't enough here to really make it worth seeking out. I later asked some attendees of that year's Fantastic Fest and few even remembered the title let alone the movie, so it clearly didn't make much of an impression, and I probably would have been downright angry if I picked it over (scans that year's lineup) Spring, Cub, or Let Us Prey to name a few. Of course, that's the nature of fests, and even part of the fun to take such gambles, but it really stings when those gambles don't pay off. The food would have been good though.

What say you?

p.s. I'm not sure when it's coming out to see for yourself, I saw it via screener for my freelance job but that means nothing with regards to a looming release. I couldn't find it on Blu even in other regions, so maybe it's just in limbo? I normally don't bother reviewing movies like this since it defeats the purpose of the site, but it was the only thing I've watched in two weeks thanks to my move (which I'm STILL technically in the middle of doing) and I wanted to post something so you guys knew I wasn't dead.


PLEASE, GO ON...

13 Cameras (2015)

AUGUST 2, 2016

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)

The best thing I can say about 13 Cameras (formerly Slumlord) is that despite a plot (and new title) that revolves around an insane landlord using, er, 13 cameras to film his tenants to get his rocks off, it's NOT a found footage/POV type movie. We see a few moments from his camera angles, of course, but even though the film rarely leaves the house where all of them are placed, writer/director Victor Zarcoff (making his debut here) avoids the temptation to fit in with so many other indie horror films of the past five years. He shot it like a real movie! The cameras are unmanned so no one ever has to awkwardly film a friend's death or a loved one's private conversation with them so we can follow the plot!

Of course, that'd be more exciting if the plot was more interesting. Zarcoff admirably did things right with his directing, but his script left a lot to be desired, and while a motive is never necessary for my horror movie killers, the character work is SO stripped down that it almost feels like we were perhaps supposed to supply our own. Certain Friday the 13th characters have more going on than anyone in this movie: we have our (jerk) husband Ryan who cheats on his (insecure) wife Claire with his (uh... pretty?) secretary Hannah, all under the watchful eye of their (crazy) landlord. That's pretty much it; I kept hoping there would be some wrinkle to the proceedings, a slick twist that would make up for the generic scenario, but nope. Nothing even justifies how dumb our heroes have to be for the plot to work, which makes it even harder to deal with.

For example, Ryan always has the secretary come to the home he shares with Claire for them to have their rendezvouses. For the life of me I can't understand why anyone would do this - obviously he waits until his wife goes out with friends to have his mistress come over, but Claire is pregnant - she can come home early unexpectedly due to being tired/sick/etc. (believe me, many a night with my own mistress - my Xbox - was 'ruined' during my wife's pregnancy when she'd no longer feel up to the plans she made). We are given no reason to believe Hannah has a spouse of her own, so why don't they just go to her place? Oh, right - because then the landlord couldn't spy on them. Throughout the movie I kept believing that we had to buy into this idiocy because it would turn out that the landlord was creepy but also believed in family values or something and would give Claire evidence of her husband's infidelity (or even less complicated - she merely finds his monitors and presumable recordings and finds out for herself as a result of his surveillance). But no! She finds out because the idiot tells his drinking buddy, who tells his own wife - Claire's best friend.

I also toyed with the idea that maybe the landlord would be the hero of the movie, because for a brief period Hannah gets a bit Glenn Close and starts calling in the middle of the night, stopping by for awkward exchanges with Claire, etc. It'd be kind of fun if she turned it up a notch and the landlord was forced to give away his surveillance game (which we know he uses to pleasure himself - the movie offers a lovely visual of him cleaning up his mess after watching them shower) in order to rescue his tenants from a crazy woman. But again, the movie can't be bothered to do anything that interesting - at some point the landlord kidnaps her and chains her up in the house, soundproofing the walls so that Ryan and Claire can't hear her screaming all day. As for how this works, the landlord tells them that one locked door leads to an owner's closet (is that a thing?), and even though they break it open fairly early on (looking for tools) they don't really investigate the basement that it leads to, seemingly forgetting all about it shortly thereafter. I have a cupboard in my home that I've never used (and never will - we're being forced to move next week due to the owner selling our place, so forgive me if HMAD goes silent for a week or two!) and it kind of bugs me - these folks let an entire FLOOR slip their mind.

And true to form, the film does nothing interesting with the idea that a married couple is oblivious to the fact that the husband's mistress is tied up in their basement. Even when they inevitably discover her, Claire doesn't really freak out - Ryan goes running around with a bat looking for the landlord while the two of them hide in the bathroom, with zero awkwardness to it. At this point I've wondered "Why did they bother?" about far too many of the film's subplots, so (spoilers ahead) I couldn't even care much when it ends with a ton of unanswered questions - the landlord kills Ryan and Hannah and kidnaps Claire, keeping the baby for himself. Zarcoff even doubles down on the dumbness of this by including a scene where two cops look around seven weeks later, acting on the landlord's behalf who apparently called them after they failed to pay rent and have seemingly vanished. Are we to believe that a man who has a full time job (seemingly an important one since he has an assistant), a woman who keeps in touch with her mother frequently, and best friends who get involved in their marital problems would disappear with no one besides their GODDAMN LANDLORD calling the cops about their disappearance? Even ignoring the fact that the landlord is hardly a normal looking guy (he looks like Stacy Keach playing Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and talks like Billy Bob in Sling Blade) and would likely be looked at with suspicion by the cops (or pretty much anyone who spent more than 30 seconds with him), this is stupid even by horror movie logic. I can meet a movie halfway on shit like this, but Zarcoff is asking me to pick him up from the airport and drive him 1000 miles in the opposite direction.

It doesn't help matters that the heroes... I won't say "deserve to die", because that's harsh, but I certainly didn't care if any of them lived. Ryan has not one redeeming quality to him (even beyond the infidelity, he's just a dick in general, even to the lady he's banging) and Claire doesn't show a lot of backbone in the face of his betrayal - she kicks him out (actually her friend pretty much does) but calls him back almost instantly when she notices a camera, instead of her friend or the cops. As I've said in the past, it's not necessary to love your protagonists - but there should be a point to it. And it certainly shouldn't be a device employed in this kind of movie, where we in the audience should feel creeped out and sympathetic toward the unwitting victims of the voyeurism. Instead I was just kind of feeling sorry for the landlord that he was stuck with these losers.

The movie showed at Screamfest last year under the Slumlord title; I remember reading the description and thinking it would be found footage (plus Hangman - which I DID like - had a fairly similar plot and two of such things in one week would be pushing it) which is why I skipped it, so I'm glad I made the right call. Even if I fell asleep in the theater it wouldn't have been worth being stuck with it - at least at home on this screener I was able to break up the viewing in two chunks. I don't know why they changed the title to something so lame (plus it starts on a collage of *15* camera angles, starting things off on the wrong foot), especially since the only thing the movie really has going for it is the "slumlord" character - it's almost fascinating watching someone so completely unhinged be treated normally by every other character. If only the movie was more about his day to day life than the sods we're forced to watch along with him; I'd probably be down for a Slumlord 2. 14 Cameras? Not so much.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Train To Busan (2016)

JULY 28, 2016

GENRE: ASIAN, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I'm sure there ARE some, but as far as HMAD (and thus, my memory) is concerned, I've never seen a traditional, non-comedic zombie film out of Asia until now. Train To Busan takes the usual "band of strangers" zombie movie concept and applies it to a fast-moving train, and takes the concept quite seriously - there are a few character-based lines that are funny, but otherwise it's more dramatic than "fun". It didn't even really dawn on me until the zombies really started appearing en masse that I had never seen a Korean (or Chinese, or Japanese, etc) film like it before, when I tried thinking of how others had depicted their own undead and then realized that I had nothing to really compare it to. Again, I'm sure there are some others I just missed, but overall the film I kept recalling was World War Z.

And that turned out to be apt, because I also realized (a bit later) that the film was clearly PG-13, or at least the South Korean equivalent of it (turns out it was K-15, which would be like the PG-15 rating we've often pushed for but will seemingly never get). There's a lot of action in the film, and our cast is reduced to a very small number by the end, but it's mostly splatter-free (95% of the film's blood is either smeared on a wall or on a surface wound) and the deaths are usually played in the "they are swarmed and pulled down out of frame" way, if not off-screen entirely. As for the zombies, none of them get those sort of classic deaths you cheer for - no one has any really destructive weapons (why would they? Most of them were just on their way to work or whatever) so a few baseball bats courtesy of a traveling high school team are all they really have at their disposal - Dead Rising it is not. Even the film's biggest asshole character, when zombified, gets a pretty mild death as opposed to the crowd-pleasing (read: gory and violent) version you would expect from a big zombie film.

But that's (mostly) fine, it's not a knock on it really. It's not like we're starved for that sort of thing - it's more just a heads up for those who might think they're in for a bloodbath. Instead it's more of a survival adventure in a way - our hero Sok-woo is a generic absentee dad (he missed a recital AND got her a dud gift for her birthday - way to double down on the cliches, movie) who is taking his young daughter to see his ex-wife in Busan. Naturally, the film will show him learn to be a real dad, care about what really matters, and all that stuff. It's not exactly the most original character, but it works well enough when placed in context with another passenger, a man whose wife is pregnant and is trying to be the best dad ever already. They meet when Sok-woo is scrambling through train cars with his daughter and shuts the door behind him, momentarily trapping the couple with zombies in the other car. After some hesitation he lets them in, but the damage is done - the other guy is pissed at him and proceeds to call him "Asshole" or "Douche" throughout the rest of the film.

However, the tone of how he says these things changes - he never calls him by his real name I think, but the insult almost becomes a term of endearment as the film proceeds, as the two save each other more than once and fight alongside each other until the end (the end of one of their lives, I mean - not the end of the movie. More on that soon.), giving the film much of its overall appeal. The other guy (named Sang Hwa) is also the film's resident badass, fighting off most of the zombies himself and getting the best action moment when he swiftly grabs a riot shield while running for the train and uses it to bash some ghouls aside. It's possibly the one real drawback of the limited rating - you know he woulda torn one apart with his bare hands if the censors would allow it. Sok-woo is our main character, but Sang Hwa is the guy you'd want the action figure of, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one hoping for his survival more than they were for Sok-Woo's. The actor was in Nameless Gangster, which I saw at the same cinema (the CGV in LA, which plays Korean films as well as some American ones with Korean subs), and I hope I see him in future ventures - he's got great presence.

As for the other characters, it's a pretty stock set - the young lovers, an elderly pair (sisters, in this case), and, of course, a gigantic asshole in a suit who causes several deaths while selfishly protecting himself. Luckily, we don't spend too much time getting to know these people before the outbreak - they each get a quick beat to distinguish them from the extras, but they're all on even ground when the zombies start attacking, making it hard to tell who will die first/become a second main character/etc. The character development comes mostly out of how they act accordingly once their lives are on the line, and the situation is too frantic for them to stop and chat all that often. However, I wish the screenplay had taken the time they spend on Sok-woo's job problems and either cut it out entirely or given it to some of the others, because this stuff is very unnecessary. I don't know if it's a bad translation issue or if these scenes were left over from an earlier draft (or even longer cut of the film), but Sok-woo repeatedly calls into work and gets updates about what cities are safe or quarantined, and also their company's possible connection to what is going on. He's an investment banker, so unless they bought stock in Zombie-Co or something, I can't quite piece together how he is in any way responsible for it. And even if he was, it doesn't really matter to the narrative - there's no attempt at a "cure" or even a bit where people wonder where they came from (they DO refer to them as zombies, however), so it's just needless, go-nowhere exposition that the 118 minute film didn't need.

And that's the other thing - the movie's a bit too long. I was sure that they would eventually stop and get off the train for a bit, because nearly all of these vehicular movies do that (Con Air, Under Siege 2... hell even Speed keeps cutting back to Jeff Daniels at the police station), and also they had the zombie problem contained into a few cars so obviously something had to happen for them to bust out again. But there are actually THREE scenes of the train stopping and our characters getting off slowly, looking around to check for imminent danger and seeking a new shelter (or train, in one case). The appeal is being trapped on a moving vehicle, so stopping three times to get off (one's at the end, to be fair, but it's a lengthy sequence until credits roll) weakens the high-octane feel they're going for. Plus, the first time they get off is the best - they're told to stop where the military will be waiting to bring them to safety (actually quarantine), and make their way from the track through the station down to the place where the military is waiting, only to discover they've all been infected - resulting in a mad rush back to the train. Here's where we get chaos, hero moments, even a few scares - leaving very little for the 2nd stop to introduce beyond a bit of destruction. Reworking this stuff and giving the film one big detour in the middle before getting back on the train and staying there until it was time for the film to wrap up would have improved it overall, I think. It even robs the film of a chunk of its emotional impact, because a major character dies in a sacrificial moment, something that should be paving the way for the big finale, but it's like, barely over halfway through the movie as it turns out, and later someone else dies in almost the exact same way/context, so we should be sad but I'm sitting there thinking "I've already seen this." The very end had me getting choked up because of my now-standard dad traumas (it also swiped a beat from Armageddon for good measure), but had it come closer to the film's other big moving moment, the movie would be a knockout instead of merely "solid".

They got the zombies dead right though. I mentioned World War Z earlier, and they're used in similar ways during the more hectic action scenes - during one of the rushes back to the train two swarms of them collide like waves, causing a pileup with some at the top just kind of tumbling their way back on their feet to pursue their food. There's a terrific bit late in the film where they form almost a sort of net for the others to clamber across - it's such a cool visual, and justifies the stops (for a movie about zombies on a train, its three best zombie moments occur outside), at least in the moment. I also liked how the zombies 'work' here - they're blind, and almost shut down when its dark (train tunnels providing such moments), plus they move in a very spastic manner that gives them a creepier vibe than the average rotting corpse. None of them stand out (except the humans we got to know before they turned zombie, obviously), which is the right way to go about it - they don't distract away from the heroes. If this movie had a line of toys, it'd be of the human, not "Punk Zombie" or "Nurse Zombie" or whatever the hell.

The film is doing quite well in its US run (it's the first of the CGV movies I've noticed on the box office chart), already nearing the top of Well Go USA's all-time chart for domestic releases, and apparently broke some record or other in Korea, so clearly its finding its audience all over, which is great. I've mentioned before that I'm baffled about how few major zombie movies there are in this day and age - and what few there are tend to be comedic (like last fall's underrated Scouts Guide) or gimmicky (PPZ, though to be fair it wasn't as goofy as I expected). R rating or no, this was a legit zombie horror film with an emphasis on characters and even a sense of adventure - even if it didn't hit every mark well, I'd love to see more like that.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Pack (2015)

JULY 21, 2016

GENRE: PREDATOR
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

I like home invasion films, but they need to be relatively rare due to the fact that they're even more limited than the slasher film, which is saying something. The location trapping alone boxes in filmmakers, and since the best ones tend to offer stripped down plotting, copycat attempts often follow suit - the focus remains on the intensity and scares, not plot twists and long speeches. Needless to say, you don't have to worry about The Pack being any different, since it's a home invasion film where the attackers aren't masked strangers, but a pack of feral and very hungry dogs. They haven't been "sent" there, there's no voodoo curse or anything at work - they're just hungry, and our hero family of four... well, they're home.

But swap the dogs for the usual guys and there's really not much separating this from any number of others that have cropped up over the years, which is a bummer. It's an Australian horror flick, which are usually more than just serviceable, but that's all this one is, really. It goes through the motions established by Ils, The Strangers, You're Next, etc - just with dogs instead. We get the opening scene kill of the neighbors, the ominous buildup, the "let's run for the shed to get help", the doomed police officer who arrives and is killed before he can help... it's all the same things you've seen before, so once the novelty of the dogs wears off it gets a bit too routine. The only momentum is, grim as it sounds, wondering who, if any, of the family unit will die. You can assume the two kids will be OK, but the Kiefer Sutherland/Sean Pertwee looking dad or the Essie Davis-y mom are fair game for sure. Plus, again, it's an Aussie movie, which means NOT a Hollywood studio one, so even the kids MIGHT get chomped if the filmmakers want to risk angry viewers.

I won't spoil which of them die (again, if any), but I will thank the screenwriter for adding in some obvious dead meat in the form of a suit who comes to their home to tell them that the bank is about to take back their house and farm due to lack of payments. It's a standard horror movie character beat (I swear I've seen "Final Notice" in more horror movies than all other genres combined), but I like that it actually has something to do with the plot - the reason that they're not making money is because their livestock keeps getting killed by the damn dogs. Anyway, you know this asshole is a goner, but I like that they don't keep him in the house when the attacks come, because then it'd just lead to even more cliches. He'd lock the door behind him and leave one of the family members to die, or waste their limited ammo by firing wildly, or whatever - you just know one or all of those things would come into play. Instead, he leaves after giving the bad news and gets killed after stopping on the side of the road to piss, sparing us the antagonistic human character for the bulk of the proceedings.

This decision also cuts down on the film's amount of dialogue. I swear there are like 40 lines in the movie, most of them during that guy's scene with the parents. I watched a lot of it with "subtitles" (actually closed captioning, because no one knows the difference) because of the AC, and nine times out of ten that text appeared on-screen it was of the "[wind rustling]" or "[dog growling]" variety (also a lot of "[sheep bleating]", which I somehow never knew was the word for the sound sheep make. I am learning!). The family gets separated throughout the house fairly shortly after the dogs show up, and the characters go against horror movie tradition and don't even talk to themselves all that much - it's kind of nice to see people go get bullets without saying "OK, I need bullets" like many of their horror movie peers have done in the past. Since the dogs are kind of a known problem they don't even really have to explain things to their children (read: the audience) when they show up. Opening text tells us that feral dogs are a problem in the area, and that's all we ever need to know - there is no need for further explanation once they show up at the family's farm, so our heroes can spring right into action.

And by action I mean they hide for a bit, then run for a shed. Overhead shots show that their place is HUGE, but alas it's underutilized; I wish they could have done more with its hallways and nooks and crannies. There's a nice bit where the mom tricks one into a room and shuts the door (thankfully, they're not as smart as raptors), and a tense scene where another dog (there are four or so, I think?) finds the kids' hiding spot in a closet, but too much of the action is given to the shed or the immediate area around the window that looks out at the two available vehicles (and that damn shed). I can see the logic when picking these locations: bigger the house, the more potential for the scare scenes, but more often than not the budget and actual shooting logistics (lighting, equipment, etc.) keep them from actually getting to use that space to any meaningful degree. That's why the house for Strangers was perfect - it was mid-sized, allowing them to use almost all of it and thus maximize the suspense that could be generated. We in the audience knew our way around their place after 15-20 minutes - we never get that sense of the geography of this house, making the "invasion" of it less terrifying.

The dogs are good though. As I suspected, and later confirmed on the brief making of, they are a mix of the three obvious elements: real dogs, puppet dogs, and CGI dogs, with the filmmakers careful to use the two fake versions sparingly and maintain the illusion, rather than say "Hey we got this CGI dog that can do anything!" and blow it. Amusingly, the CGI dogs were mostly used for shots where it'd be dangerous for the real ones, standing near fire or whatever - I'm not sure if there are any CGI dogs in a shot with a human. And the puppet heads look real good but would probably fall apart if used extensively, so everything works together to create a pretty realistic depiction. Of course, that means we don't see them exactly tearing someone's face off, but there's a tangibility during the encounter scenes that keeps them threatening. There's a great face-off near the end, with both actor and growling dog in the same frame (possibly a split screen effect, to be fair, but a convincing one if so), and it's legitimately scary in that Roar kind of way, because they didn't cheat with a digital animal. Like Burning Bright, an underrated (and HMAD-book certified!) flick that similarly combines the home invasion movie with killer animals, the minimal action involving the animal actually causing harm to the characters is more than offset by wow factor of just seeing them in the same shot, something that you can't replicate with CGI beasties no matter how good they look or how well the direction/editing is for that scene.

I can't help but think the movie needed another threat, however. Like Cujo; the kid is sick and they're trapped in the hot car - there's something else to worry about besides the title character. Not the case here; their financial issues aren't exactly pressing once the dog shows up, and no one needs to get to any medication or anything like that. It might even be told in real time, more or less, now that I think of it - it's almost TOO straightforward, which I think works better when you're less certain about the safety of the cast (a real-time slasher or Descent type, with a group of pals instead of a family unit, could be terrifying if done right). Even the rare injuries they get aren't severe; no one gets incapacitated and in turn gives them a major hurdle in escaping or anything like that. Dammit, movie - complicate matters!

But hey, for "blue collar" horror, it's a winner. There's nothing BAD about the movie, it's well made and checks the boxes, and the characters are likeable (and actually kind of look like a real family, which is worth a letter grade on its own). Weightless and even routine in spots, sure, but again, the home invasion movie is as boxed in as their characters, and within those parameters (plus the limitations of using live animals as much as possible), it should satisfy its intended audience. Plus, it's been a long time since I've seen a modern killer dog flick (the woeful The Breed is the only one coming to mind, but I'm sure there's another), and it's always good for me to be reminded that man's best friends can also be ruthless killing machines, because I can't help but instantly try to pat any dog I see. Movies like this can help me learn!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Lights Out Review

In the glory (read: daily) days of HMAD, I'd pride myself on offering up a review of every major horror release, and that's a tradition I mostly continue to this day (I know, I never reviewed Conjuring 2 - sorry. It came out while I was on vacation and when I got back I got busy and just never got around to it. I liked it though!). However, on occasion I end up having to review something for my "other" site (the one that IS updated every day, and has millions of readers), and I sure as hell ain't gonna write two reviews. So if you're looking for a Lights Out review here, I'm sorry - you won't find one any time soon (a big special edition Blu-ray, if one exists, might get me to change my mind). However, you CAN head over to BMD for my take on the film from when I saw it last month at the LA Film Festival. Short review: it's not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, but as the fun scare machine it was designed to be, it works like gangbusters, and despite what I say in the review I might actually go see it a second time, if only to give it my 10 bucks (well, Moviepass' 10 bucks, but same thing) and, now that I know it's coming, watch the audience's response to a particular crowd-pleaser moment that I'm still smiling at. So if the trailers left you underwhelmed (or worse, you thought it was just a Darkness Falls remake), I would like to encourage you to take a chance on it this weekend. My review is mostly spoiler-free, if you're worried about that sort of thing.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Ghostbusters (2016)

JULY 15, 2016

GENRE: COMEDIC, GHOST
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

Any regular reader of the site should know by now that I was exposed to and allowed to watch R rated movies from a young age (6 or 7), so it perhaps shouldn't be a big surprise that the original Ghostbusters is not as sacred to me as several other folks - particularly men - my age. I don't even know if I saw it until I was like 8, which means it would have in between Friday the 13th sequel viewings or R-rated comedies like Vacation and Caddyshack (and no, as a kid I didn't realize the Harold Ramis connection across those examples). As a result, since I had already moved on to more "sophisticated" fare, it didn't inform my childhood as much as it did for all of those folks who have been telling Paul Feig to fuck himself and saying even worse things to the female cast of his remake (subtitled Answer The Call in the end credits, oddly), which has the blessing of every living original Ghostbuster (they all make cameos) and original director Ivan Reitman (who produced this one). Remaking this movie doesn't bother me much, is what I'm saying - and as a fan of Feig's other films (not to mention someone who has harbored a crush on Kristen Wiig for nearly a decade) I was excited to see it - for all I knew I could end up preferring it to the original.

Now, let me stress that it's not that I DISLIKE the first film. Not by any means - it's fairly great, in fact. It's funny even on repeat viewings and the story - unlike many other '80s comedies - is actually satisfying for the most part. Despite the fact that it would have been fairly easy for them to do so, the movie's plot doesn't just exist to string the gags together; the jokes are usually organic to the characters and narrative, so coupled with the FX (many of which hold up) it combines to make a film that is very much deserving of its "beloved" status. I'm just saying it's not really SPECIAL to me the way Halloween or Fletch is - it's important to realize that I recognize several films as being great but they're not of any particular significance to me, same as I realize Kobe Bryant is a great basketball player despite giving less than one shit about basketball. Plus, I'm also too old to give a shit about remakes anymore anyway. They can Van Sant Psycho a new version of Fletch with Zac Efron for all I care.

(Please don't do that.)

Luckily for my comments section, I don't have to worry much about the Ghostbros, because I don't think the new movie reaches the heights of the original. It's better than the sequel for sure (I will never understand that one's appeal beyond the finale - how can GB fans appreciate a movie that spends its entire first act trying to suggest that our heroes have become jokes?), and it might even be funnier in spots, but the villain is very underdeveloped and there are (I know this sounds weird) too many damn ghosts. It's like they had a bunch of concept designs and Feig couldn't decide which to use and thus opted to throw them all in, somewhere - the big finale in Times Square presents dozens of anonymous specters that are disposed of too easily. The movie suffers from an abundance of callbacks to the original, but one of the things they DON'T reprise is one that they perhaps should: the montage of them cleaning up NY over a period of time. That would allow for all of the designs to show up without them being an important part to anything - seeing them all used as essentially the big obstacle before fighting the main villain (who, again, isn't fleshed out enough) isn't particularly engaging. Worse, this sequence is also where the FX start to falter; during Kate McKinnon's big action moment (wiping out a dozen ghosts with her proton-handguns, the ones she licks in the trailer) is laughably bad looking, almost as if they shot the scene with someone else and had to quickly superimpose her over the action. I love practical work, obviously, but for the most part the CGI ghosts here are actually quite well done and even a bit scary (the subway one and the mannequin are on the same level as the librarian), so it's a shame the haters will glom on the few bad FX shots as it's otherwise largely a fine showcase for computer trickery.

As for the villain Rowan, on a conceptual level he's great: a bullied weirdo who uses some homemade devices to amplify paranormal activity in those areas, with the intent on having so many ghosts flying around that the wall that separates their world and ours comes tumbling down entirely, bringing about the apocalypse. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all we know about him; he shows up and plants a device while saying "they'll all pay!" or whatever, and that's about as far as we get inside his head. The meta-parallel between him and the online trolls is apparent, but it's almost like they were afraid to get really lay into these sad bastards, so as a result we're held at arm's length from the villain - in fact if you haven't paid any attention to the online vitriol, you might take away even less about his character and motives. There are a couple of moments where we see that no one wants to deal with him (two waitresses argue over which one of them has to wait on him, for example), but it's all tell and no show - he never interacts meaningfully with anyone else. Let us SEE him being "wronged" by the rest of the world, not just sitting there oblivious to two strangers whispering and saying that the world sucks. And it doesn't help matters that due to the way the plot unfolds he's almost forgotten by the time the climax rolls around, as (SPOILER) he is killed about an hour or so into the movie and becomes a ghost that possesses Chris Hemsworth's idiot receptionist character, letting the actor (using his native accent for a change) kind of take over as the villain. Then, with 15 minutes to go, the ghost leaves Hemsworth and takes on yet another form, that of a giant, growling, personality-free monster. There's nothing about this form that recalls the angry sad sack, which to me feels like a giant missed opportunity. Rowan's takeover of Hemsworth at least allows us to enjoy the actor's otherwise under-utilized comic chops (not to mention his dance moves), but even there it has the same problem: the movie can't quite pin down a primary villain. It'd be like if New Beginning was sped up and grafted on to a shorter version of Final Chapter after Tommy killed Jason off - the transition doesn't work at all for the narrative. Doing it twice is just silly.

But there has to be a big monster for them to blast away at the end of the film, because that's what the original had. As I said, there are too many callbacks to the 1984 movie, following its structure almost beat for beat and overloading it with cameos from FIVE of the original cast members (actually six if you count Harold Ramis, who 'appears' as a bust), plus Slimer and Stay-Puft for good measure. Obviously, you want the new team to show some measure of reverence to their predecessors, and one of the cameos works perfectly (spoiler: it's Ernie Hudson's), but Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold overdo it, as if they figure they can win over naysayers simply by constantly reminding them that they too love the original film. Ironically, the deja vu is the same thing that helped sink Ghostbusters II, so you'd think they would have known better. I don't think anyone would argue that this movie is at its best when it's doing its own thing, so it gets almost frustrating that there isn't more of it.

For example, the dynamic of the group is very different. Kristen Wiig is in the sort of Peter Venkman role as the one who is a bit above the ghost hunting stuff, but unlike Venkman she's not even associated with her "Ray Stantz", the Melissa McCarthy character. The two were best friends and wrote a paranormal book together years ago, but then Wiig left that stuff (and McCarthy) behind when she took a job teaching physics at Columbia, while McCarthy has taken a job at some dump college and made a new best friend (McKinnon's "Egon"). When Wiig finds out the book has been republished on Amazon she confronts McCarthy about taking it down so it doesn't embarrass her, just as a ghost shows up elsewhere. So they're sort of forced together, and she has no existing relationship with McKinnon - a big change from the original's trio of pals (Egon was the new guy, but they clearly didn't MEET in the film). As for "Winston", Leslie Jones plays Patty, a subway worker and history buff who the others meet when investigating the 2nd ghost in the movie, and who joins them shortly thereafter, much earlier in the narrative than Winston joined up (before they've even decided on a name, in fact). This lets the group have some "getting to know you" moments the original obviously didn't require, the occasional reminder of the strained friendship between the two leads (a subplot that's largely phased out as the movie goes on, only to resurface near the end), and also more time of the full group working as a team than the original movie had.

It's this stuff that makes the movie work as well as it does. Obviously everyone's tolerance for this or that type of humor varies, but I personally found almost every scene of the four of them just talking to be hilarious, and all four of them get in plenty of laugh out loud lines (even McCarthy, who seems a bit hampered by the PG-13 rating). Not that the ghost-hunting scenes lack laughs, but again those are the scenes where they seem to be constantly using the original film as a guide - the ones of them just sort of hanging out (usually involving some new tech McKinnon designed) are consistently funny, and cementing the idea that they should be reunited for a sequel. Their chemistry isn't surprising since they've all worked together on SNL (three cast members and one regular host), but despite the fact that they're all subbing in for the original's characters in some form, I was surprised at how quickly they took on their own personalities and played off their relative strengths. Unfortunately, this also means that the movie occasionally suffers from some fairly bad editing, because Feig clearly let these four talented and hilarious women play off each other (read: improv) whenever he could, and used the best gags and jokes even if they didn't always flow as well. McKinnon scores a great laugh with some Pringles in one scene, for example - hopefully you're still laughing and thus don't really notice when they're completely gone (and her expression is totally different) in the next shot.

On occasion, the plot suffers from this "hey, something's missing" feeling as well. Feig said his director's cut was something like three hours long; I don't think it feels like it's been reduced by over a third (I'm sure a lot of what was chucked was just more comedy of no narrative use), but there were at least three instances where I couldn't help but feel something somewhat important just got chucked in order to keep things moving. For example, when all hell breaks loose, McKinnon, McCarthy, and Jones are all running around fighting the ghosts for a bit, and at one point they get trapped... and then Wiig shows up and saves them. It plays like she had quit the team at an earlier point and decided to come back to them (think Han Solo showing up to help save the day at the end of New Hope), but we never saw that if so - far as we knew she was just at home when the other three sprung into action. I've already mentioned Rowan's truncated appearance, but that extends to other antagonists as well: Matt Walsh and Michael K Williams play a pair of Feds who are sort of in the Walter Peck mode, but they never do anything worthy of hiring these actors (particularly Williams, who also gets 6th billing despite maybe 90 seconds of screentime). This is nothing new for a modern comedy; Neighbors 2 (which more of you should have seen - it was pretty great!) was just as bad if not worse in that regard, but since the first film's script by Aykroyd and Ramis was famously gigantic and managed to offer a relatively tight narrative in 100 minutes, it's hard not to notice. It's part of the problem of improv; sure you get comic gold, but then it seems like there's a tendency to let the plot falter because test screenings show this otherwise unnecessary bit gets the best laughs. So when they decide 30 seconds needs to be trimmed somewhere, and the choice is between some exposition/character development, or a tangential bit that people will laugh their asses off (like Hemsworth's terrible ideas for their logo), they opt to keep the latter every time.

Also, maybe I just missed something, but all of a sudden Times Square is transformed into the 1970s (no particular year can be determined; the movie theaters are showing Willard (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and Taxi Driver (1976), so it's just random), which no one comments on in any meaningful way and seems like a lot of work for the production for a mere sight gag. Anyone have a good explanation for this bit?

Overall, I liked the movie (as did the audience, who applauded when the credits came up - rare for a Friday morning crowd). I'd watch it again, I want to see the cast come together for a sequel (not the one they tease at the end of the credits though - don't Into Darkness this shit, come up with your own villains, please!), and it left me far more satisfied at 36 than the original sequel did when I was 10. But it also kept mucking up the plot and showing its seams, which A) won't help win over any of the idiots who have been hating on this movie since the day it was announced, but an even more painful B) it makes it hard to really champion, either. "GO SEE THIS FLAWED MOVIE!" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement, and that's exactly what I wished I could give it due to all of the unnecessary hate being thrown its way - even a mega-budget studio movie can feel like an underdog, I guess. So they all deserve recognition for making it a lot better than the disaster it might have been, I can't help but feel Feig could have done a little better, either - it almost seemed like he felt he HAD to throw in those shoutouts (Slimer is particularly awful and unnecessary to boot), and did so half-heartedly, using screentime that could have been used on more of his and Dippold's own ideas. Here's hoping that they have the confidence to truly make it their own next time.

What say you?

P.S. Fall Out Boy's awful cover of the theme song appears in the middle of the movie. Brace yourself.

P.S.S. Comments are moderated here for a reason. Don't bother leaving vitriol, because it will never see the light of day. If you have something constructive to say, fine. Otherwise save it for AICN or IMDb, where pointless drivel is tolerated.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Cell (2016)

JULY 10, 2016

GENRE: TECHNOLOGY, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

As I've said in the past, I am very much a movie before book guy - I know the book will be better, so I can enjoy both rather than go into a movie and get frustrated with everything that they changed or left out. But there are always exceptions (I do like to read after all, and who knows what will be turned into a movie?), and there's also the occasional... er, occasion where I don't like the book much anyway - the movie might actually be an improvement! Such was my hope for Cell, as I thought it was a terrific idea with a killer first 100 pages or so, but ultimately was left underwhelmed by; Stephen King's tendency to botch his endings was in full effect for that one, and the "Raggedy Man" felt like a poor retread of some of his better villains (Randall Flagg in particular). Could a movie fix the book's problems and turn his story into a killer cell phone signal into one of the better King adaptations?

See, I had heard that King changed the ending, and I knew from a few plot descriptions that they weren't following the book to the letter, so I went in hopeful. It didn't hurt that the cast reunited John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson from 1408, which is not only one of the better modern King films, but also a huge hit (the 2nd highest grossing after Green Mile, in fact - though inflation changes that a bit, of course) - as good of a pedigree you could hope for, even if the movie wasn't being distributed by a major studio or given much of as release (I had to drive 30 miles to see it theatrically in a tiny theater). I figured at worst it'd be an OK zombie movie that couldn't manage to overcome its less than stellar source material - certainly nothing new for the horror genre, and even an OK King movie would be better than a lot of them, right?

Alas, saying it was "OK" is almost overselling it. It's not TERRIBLE, but each act is weaker than the one before it, so what started out as a movie I was enjoying and wondering why it got dumped ended up as a movie I wished I had (like one of the four other audience members) walked out early and saved myself some time. Of course, then I would have denied myself the sight of one of the film's primary actors stumbling around as a zombie, which I assure you is even funnier the 2nd time they show it. Again, King's ending wasn't great, but damned if they didn't actually manage to make it WORSE here, and I can't for the life of me imagine why they thought this would be an improvement - they would have been better off copying his ending directly and chalking it up to respect for the text. Granted, King himself is credited with the screenplay, but so is another writer, and the "and" that separates their credits tells us that they weren't working together. So who knows if this is King's ending or not; Cusack tweeted a while back that both he and King had been cut out of the movie's communication process, so we can assume they aren't thrilled with how it turned out, either.

Back to the credits for a minute. Cusack is listed as an executive producer, which means he either sunk some of his own money into it or helped them find the financing to make it (presumably by attaching himself as a star to secure said financing from foreign territories). Alas, there are like twenty other listed executive producers, so when you couple that with the FIVE production logos at the top (none of them you'll recognize), you can quickly ascertain that this was a "film" only in the technical sense. People complain about big studio blockbusters all the time, but personally I find these movies far more insulting - they're thrown together, shot in generic locales (Atlanta here), and designed only to get sold into the overseas markets based on their "star power". It's something I see a lot in the action genre (pretty much every Bruce Willis movie in the past three years falls into this category - one of which also featured Cusack), but rarely for horror films. It's sad to see Sam Jackson joining this little crew (Nicolas Cage, Tom Jane, and Cuba Gooding Jr are other frequent offenders), so hopefully it's just a momentary lapse of judgment for the actor (who has appeared in plenty of bad movies, yes, but they're of the technically more prestigious variety, like Robocop) and not a sign of a dying career. Silver lining, he seems to be aware he signed up for a dud - I can't recall the last time I saw him so disinterested in a performance. He's usually the only source of energy in a lazy film (again, like Robocop), but here he just kind of says his lines and fades into the background more often than not; a brief bar scene where he drunkenly sings some oldie is the only time he seems like he's invested in the proceedings.

Anyway, like all those action movies I mentioned, it quickly becomes clear that one of the main problems is that they're spending too much of their limited budget on securing "names" instead of actually putting it on the screen, so you get a script that probably needed 30-60m to be shot properly, produced for maybe a tenth or (if I'm being generous) a fifth of that amount. And they blow most of the money that they had for actual on-screen production value in the first ten minutes, when the cell-phone outbreak strikes at an airport (not Boston Common as in the book, but it's a solid change) - we get some good carnage, lots of zombified extras, a plane exploding - good stuff. Lloyd Kaufman even shows up, suggesting that perhaps the loss of original director Eli Roth didn't mean that the gonzo splatter spirit he likely would have brought to the table would be gone with him. Cusack (who survives the outbreak because his cell phone died - he's using a payphone at the time) then makes his way down to the subway where he meets Jackson, and they hole up at his place (along with one of his neighbors, played by Orphan's Isabelle Fuhrman) before heading on foot up north to find his family.

This is the good section of the movie, but even here we see signs that perhaps the production wasn't quite up to the task of telling this apocalyptic story. I can forgive the filming location substitutions; as a Bostonian I knew right away that they weren't really there, but I've seen far worse attempts at passing off [name your overused filming location] as my old home. But it was almost oppressively generic - they call it "Boston Airport" instead of Logan, the subway name was wrong (I forget what it was, but it wasn't MBTA), and they didn't even show a Dunkin Donuts - despite the fact that they also exist in Atlanta! I mean, come on - putting a Dunkin Donuts in the shot is an easier method than on-screen text saying "Boston, Massachusetts" to sell the setting; the only distinct landmark I can recall is the Prudential Center as part of a CGI skyline behind them. Everything just felt completely phony, and it just got worse as the movie wore on, as Cusack repeatedly says the name of the NH town he's heading for, but offering no landmarks or geographical info to let us know how close they were. And considering how big the population of Massachusetts is, I also had trouble with its depiction of a zombie outbreak - when they're in the outskirts I guess it's fine that there weren't a lot around, but even in the streets of Boston when they leave Cusack's place to make their way north seem curiously underpopulated - they only have to sneak past one group of like thirty zombies before pretty much being in the clear.

Of course, even if they encountered swarms of zombies every step of the way it wouldn't matter much, as the trio are all expert marksmen, it seems - Jackson's character says he was in Vietnam to explain his shooting skills, but there is no explanation for how Cusack (who doesn't even know how to load the gun) and Fuhrman never seem to miss even when firing while running. As with the book, as things progress with the (goofy) plot it becomes less about the danger of a zombie attacking them and more about the zombies' hive-mind, drone behavior that has them running in circles, so the movie is not only at its best in the first half hour or so, it's also the only time the characters seem to be in any legitimate danger. The movie offers not one but two scenes where Cusack drives a truck through hundreds of the things (they're sleeping in one of them, to be fair) and neither of them carry any tension at all - the second time the shuffling drones just sort of wait until he passes before continuing their endless circling of a big radio tower. At a certain point I almost wished for the introduction of some evil humans, just to give the movie a bit of pep - it'd be better than another scene of our characters walking through zombie-free, depressingly nondescript fields and groves.

It also doesn't embrace its R-rating for the most part, as if they didn't want to put much effort into cutting it down if they had to make it PG-13. There are a couple of isolated gore gags in the airport scene and Sam gets his F-bomb in as always, but otherwise it's shockingly tame - the dozens of zombies they shoot go down without even as much as a CGI bullet hole, and the rare good guy deaths are fairly bloodless as well (one is off-screen entirely, another just gets whacked over the head). My only theory is that they DID want to make it PG-13 (perhaps that would be the "creative differences" cited for when Roth left the project - seven years ago, for the record) and got an R anyway but didn't bother to fight it? At any rate, you can get far more visceral action on Walking Dead every week (easy to compare it to since they're shot in the same state). That said, don't give me any shit about the "zombie" word or tagging - as with 28 Days Later, they are used in the exact same way and have the same anonymity/numbers as they do in any traditional zombie flick. Unless there's proof that the infection can be reversed and the victim will return to normal, it's a zombie movie for all intents and purposes.

Ultimately, the biggest disappointment with the film is that they failed to modernize the source material to any meaningful degree. Sure, we all had cell phones in 2006 when the book was published, but not "smart" phones (even those with cameras were still relatively new, and they didn't even do video yet), an element that barely plays a part in this 2016 (OK, actually 2014) film. Cusack thinks his son might be safe because he never calls anyone, just uses his phone to text and play games, and that's pretty much the extent of modernizing the concept. Hilariously, the timing for the film's late release couldn't have been better, as I and everyone else in the country was spending a chunk of our weekend staring at our phones while playing Pokemon Go - if the (never explained) cell signal originated in real life over the weekend via a stupid game, it would have wiped out the population in half the time. And for what it's worth, I was more creeped out by seeing a dozen people standing motionless in a park (save for their swipes) than I was for anything during this movie. Even the film's attempts at explaining how it works are half-assed and unresolved - they seem to establish that texting someone won't turn you into a zombie, but what about apps? There was a real opportunity here to dive into the fun sociological potential of the concept (that our phones, meant to connect us to our loved ones, are turning us into mindless zombies), but they are content with just more or less sticking to King's decade old novel, poorly and cheaply. Rarely has a professional horror movie squandered so much potential.

What say you?

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