Thursday, May 28, 2020

Rodent Problems

Film: The Killer Shrews
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

Every now and then, it’s fun to jump into the shallow end of the pool. You’re not looking for anything too difficult or that asks any real questions. You don’t want to be challenged that much, and your need for entertainment is relatively low. That’s when a movie like The Killer Shrews, bad enough that it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 but not so bad that they were willing watch it, fills the bill. With a running time just under 70 minutes and a paper-thin plot, sometimes it’s all you need when you’ve had a crappy day.

The high concept here is not going to be surprising. Boat captain Thorne Sherman (James Best, most famous for playing Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard) and his assistant Rook Griswold (“Judge” Henry Dupree) show up at a remote island with a cargo of supplies for the people who live there. However, they’re not ready to unload the ship any time soon—there’s a hurricane brewing. They encounter the people who live on the island and discover that it’s a sort of research facility. There is a doctor named Marlowe Cragis (Baruch Lumet), his daughter Anne (Ingrid Goude), lab assistant Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon), Anne’s former fiancé Jerry (Ken Curtis) and, natural, Mario (Alfred DeSoto), the help.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

All of Them?

Film: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.

Siskel and Ebert used to call a particular breed of slasher film a “dead teenager” movie. Like it or not, that’s exactly what All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is. It’s a movie wherein we will reach the end credits with half a dozen or so corpses who, with their ages added together, would barely break the century mark. Most of the clichés that you expect in the genre are here, and while there are clearly some allusions to events like school shootings, there’s not much here that you haven’t seen at least a dozen times.

Mandy Lane (Amber Heard) has blossomed over the summer and now is suddenly irresistible to all of the boys at her high school. Dylan (Adam Powell), a high school meathead, more or less seems to think that commenting on her sudden “hotness” is the best way to get into her pants. He invites her to a pool party, and she consents to come, but only if her friend Emmet (Michael Welch) comes along, too. Emmet is less than popular at the school and spends most of the party being bullied by Dylan and others, who are trying to impress Mandy. In revenge, Emmet convinces Dylan to dive into the pool from his roof, but Dylan can’t clear the jump, smashes his head on the concrete, and dies.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Feet (and Everything Else) of Clay

Film: The Golem: How He Came into the World (Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam)
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

If you were ever a D&D player, you know a little bit about golems. One of the things that you probably know about them is they are prone to go out of control from time to time. This is especially true of the clay variety, the sort built by clerics. What you may not know is that a lot of this is a mythology that comes from the 1920 silent movie The Golem: How He Came into the World (or Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam if you prefer the original German). The fact that the clay creature is created by a priest and control is lost comes straight from this film.

Well…rabbi rather than priest. The title creature is built as a protection for the Jewish people in medieval Prague. The Jews, of course, are being subjected to pogroms and attacks, and have been recently commanded to leave the city by the Holy Roman Emperor. A knight named Florian (Lothar Muthel) is sent to deliver the news to the Jewish people, and specifically to Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck), who has predicted disaster for his people. However, Florian finds himself attracted to Miriam (Lyda Salmonova), Loew’s daughter, who is also the object of affection for Loew’s assistant (Ernst Deutsch).

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Third Time Pays for All

Film: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Format: Blu-ray from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I went into How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (hereafter shortened to just The Hidden World) cautiously hopeful. I love the first movie, and the second one, while not quite as good, holds up pretty well. But trilogies often fail in their third iteration and, despite all best efforts, end up concluding the series on a down note. I had hopes, though. After all, the Toy Story films remained consistently good, and even the unnecessary fourth movie was better than it had any right to be.

The truth is that The Hidden World is probably the weakest of the three Dragon films, but that’s not saying a great deal. While the story does feel like a step down in terms of quality, it’s not a big step down, and it’s coming from a very lofty place. It also benefits hugely from several very important realities of the series. First, we know from the first two films that this series is absolutely willing to have real, significant consequences for its characters. No one is every really safe or invulnerable. Second, it has Toothless, who is one of the truly great animated characters of the current century.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Chop-Chop

Film: Hatchet
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

Of all of the subgenres of horror, torture porn is absolutely my least favorite and a genre I tend to avoid as much as I can. North of that, but not very far north, are slashers. I don’t love slashers in general. I have to be in the mood for them, and I’m not in the mood for them that often. More or less, I don’t really see the point of them. Slashers can be fun, but also feel pointless. There’s no message in a slasher. It’s about body count, and (at least in the best of cases) creativity in the kills. But they are a beloved subgenre for many people, which leads us to Hatchet, a film that wants nothing more than to dive into that slasher past.

Because it sells itself as an homage to classic slasher movies, Hatchet isn’t going to take itself very seriously. This is, I am almost sad to say, yet another version of creating a horror comedy. It does make me question why horror/comedy is such a common genre mashup. There’s an occasional horror musical (like Repo!) and horror romances and horror westerns. Horror and science fiction are so closely tied together that it’s not worth bothering to call it a mashup. But horror and comedy are united in odd ways. I think it has something to do with the nature of comedy rather than the nature of horror. Hatchet attempts a different way to walk that path. The results are…interesting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Columbus Has Red on Him

Film: Zombieland; Shaun of the Dead
Format: DVDs from personal collection on basement television.

As mentioned recently, I collected a bunch of movies to watch during the stay-at-home order. It was more than 50 movies from my collection and from libraries. I’m nearing the end of that initial stack of movies and realized that there were two that would make a great double feature: Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. I mean, how often do you get to watch two genuinely classic zombie comedies together? Other than every day, I suppose—I do own them both. Anyway, it seemed like a great opportunity for a double, and I hadn’t done one of those in quite some time.

Zombieland in many ways is the American answer to Shaun of the Dead in that it’s clearly a zombie movie and clearly a comedy. The two are otherwise vastly different; Zombieland is an entirely American movie in every aspect of it. The character archetypes are fully American, the storyline, the goals of these characters, all of them scream that this was a film meant to very much be America’s response to the British film.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

People Check In, but They Don't Check Out

Film: The Innkeepers
Format: Streaming video from IMDb TV on basement television.

When we all went into self-isolation and sheltering at home, I went to three of the local libraries I use and got a giant stack of movies. I also made a gigantic stack of movies I have bought but never gotten around to watching. Well, I’m close to the end of those two stacks, and, desperate to watch something today, I scrolled through IMDb TV, a service apparently attached to Amazon Prime. The movies come with ads, but there appear to be a bunch that I can’t get anywhere else, so it seemed like a chance to watch one of those. Out of a field of several possibilities, I went with The Innkeepers.

Why did I pick this movie? I’m not really sure. It seemed like a decent place to start, and I’ll likely start hitting this service over the next few days, because there are some movies I’m really interested in seeing. The Innkeepers is one I’ve wanted to see in the past, so more than anything, I guess I was just ready to see something I thought would be interesting to see.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Pick Flick

Film: Election
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

Of all the movies on my Oscars list, there is none that I have been as close to watching and reviewing without actually pulling the trigger than Election. I checked it out of the library on the last day before Illinois libraries locked down completely, and it’s taken me close to two months to get to it even now. This might be the 10th time I’ve checked it out of the library, too, and before now I’ve always returned it unwatched. It literally took COVID-19 to get me to watch it, and even then it took me about 7-8 weeks. And I watched I yesterday and it took me until now to actually review it.

Do I know why? Not really. There was something about it that frustrated me. I think a large part of it was the fact that I knew a little about it. I knew that the Matthew Broderick character had a lot that happened to him in the second and third act, and I hate comedies that rely on embarrassment for the humor. It seemed like that kind of film. I knew it was a movie that featured Reese Witherspoon, and I’m not a huge fan. I knew it was a movie that featured Chris Klein, and I’m even less of a fan. But hey, I did actually watch it finally.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Film: Klaus
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the internet machine.

Watching a Christmas movie in May is perhaps not the strangest thing I have done. It’s not even the strangest thing I have done in the last couple of months. That said, when the Oscar list includes a holiday film, I knew I’d have to get to it sooner or later, and tonight seemed like a good time. The movie in question is Klaus, an animated film from NetFlix, which means that it’s streaming and probably will be streaming for the rest of time, so Christmas film or no, you’ll be able to watch this whenever you feel like it.

Like a number of Christmas films that come before this one, Klaus is more or less a Santa Claus origin story. We’re going to see how the legend started, but in this case, it’s going to come from the point of view of someone else. We’re also going to get some elements of classic drama here. It’s interesting that IMDb classifies Klaus as a comedy. Certainly there are some comedic elements here, but I think it’s far closer to a drama. The humor isn’t really front and center.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Bleak House

Film: The Reflecting Skin
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television

I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Reflecting Skin. I knew this was classified as a horror movie, but this is not the standard sort. There aren’t supernatural monsters seeking to devour the flesh of the innocent. There are no zombies here, no ghosts, and no creeping undead. That there is instead is sort of tawdry human evil the runs through the entirety of this film. There isn’t so much a sense of corrupted innocence here as there is of a world where there is nothing innocent, where even those we would normally call innocent are tainted in a way that was beyond their control, like people trying to live on a toxic waste dump. The world of The Reflecting Skin is one of banal evil, where everything is awful simply because everything is awful. It’s a depiction of the real world if the real world were somehow transported to Hades.

The Reflecting Skin is absolutely a horror movie despite the lack of supernatural boogey men. In fact, there is a mob of serial killers involved in the film, but they are not the focus of the story. What we have, in effect, is a confluence of events and ideas where the absolutely wrong thing happens in absolutely the right way for the worst possible outcome for everyone involved. The Reflecting Skin is a fever dream of fantasy, misinformation, miscommunication, and murder.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper

Film: The Lighthouse
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on basement television.

I use the phrase “fever dream” a lot, I’ve realized, but sometimes there is simply no better way to describe what it is that I’m seeing. The Lighthouse is probably most easily described as that, a sort of slow but onrushing descent into insanity. Everything about the film is designed to enhance that feeling. The story, ultimately, feels like H.P. Lovecraft attempting to tell his own version of a Poe story like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I have no other way to explain this movie, and there’s a part of me that doesn’t really want to try. This is a film that touches something deep and primal and not easily put into words.

At the same time, I’m reminded of a Ray Bradbury story called “The Fog Horn” about two men in a lighthouse. One night, the fog horn attracts a primal creature from the depths of the ocean that has seemingly fallen in love with the noise that the lighthouse makes. Frustrated, the creature eventually knocks the lighthouse down, and then is despondent over the death of the thing that it loves. There’s a deep sadness in that little story, a weird longing and a primal ache, and a little bit of the madness that drives a film like The Lighthouse.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Tapeworms

Film: Parasite (Gisaengchung)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu on basement television.

I imagine there is a great deal of competition among the general streaming services. Netflix nabbing the streaming rights to one thing, Hulu to another, Amazon another, and so on. After all, what you’ve got streaming is how you attract people to your service. Hulu managed to nab Parasite, the first non-English winner of Best Picture at the Oscars. While that might not be much of a win for the average person, for movie nerds, it’s a reason to take Hulu seriously, or more seriously.

Parasite (Gisaengchung, which evidently translates more accurately to something more like “tapeworm”) topped a hell of a lot of “Best of” lists from 2019, and while it was a surprise that a non-English language film won Best Picture, there were a lot of people rooting for it. It’s been on Hulu for a couple of weeks, but because of work issues, this was the first chance I had to sit down and watch it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Hey, Dummy!

Film: Magic
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

When Magic was released in 1978, I had just turned 11. This is important only in the sense that I remember the trailer. It’s one of the few trailers I can actually remember (along with Suspiria) because it’s one of the great minimalist trailers in horror movie history. In fact, the original trailer was pulled from broadcast because parents complained about how scary it was. I have to admit that it made an impression on me.

If you watch that trailer, you’ll get at least half of the point of the movie, provided you think about if for just a second. Seriously, watch the trailer. If you can’t figure out at least the main thrust of the plot from that, you don’t get to read any further.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Title is the Most Shocking Part

Film: Zombi Holocaust (Zombie Holocaust; Doctor Butcher M.D.)
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on the new portable.

Where do I even start with a movie like Zombi Holocaust (also known as Zombie Holocaust, and, in a severely edited version, Doctor Butcher M.D.)? I already think that a great deal of Italian horror is just an excuse for meaningless gore, and with a name like this, I didn’t really think I was going to get anything different. In fact, one of the reasons I grabbed this before going into quarantine was as a way to make myself watch this. I’d checked it out from the library before and just couldn’t bring myself to watch it.

Really, this is everything you expected from a movie with any of these names, or any of the other names (Zombie 3, Island of the Last Zombies, Queen of the Cannibals) under which it was marketed. The bar is set pretty low here. There’s a lot of gore, a substantial amount of Day-Glo blood, and a soupçon of nudity. There’s not a great deal in the way of plot, at least in any way that would matter. Plot, after all, just gets in the way of the gore, blood, and tits.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Reading Rainbow?

Film: The Babadook
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

Being under lockdown has given me the opportunity to watch a lot of the movies I have bought in the hopes of eventually watching. In truth, some of these I inherited in a way as well. Movies on lists I am pursuing that I own are always low-priority, because I can always watch them whenever I want. Lack of access to libraries has changed that for me. It’s meant that now, to watch movies I haven’t seen, I’ve got a back stock that is ready to go. I’ve been working my way through them at a rate of between 8 and 10 per week (along with some movies I got from libraries before the lockdown). Today, it was time for The Babadook.

I had, of course, heard a great deal about The Babadook before watching it. It is, from what I’d heard, another example of the idea that women direct horror movies far better than they have traditionally been given credit for in the past. And, true to form, director Jennifer Kent has directed one feature-length film since this film came out in 2014. Seriously, I’m tired of banging this drum—someone give Jennifer Kent a script.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Space Adaptation Syndrome

Film: Pandorum
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

Pandorum is one of those movies where I don’t exactly know where to start on breaking down the plot. It goes in a lot of directions initially, and it doesn’t always make a great deal of sense in the big picture. That said, I rather enjoyed this movie more than I expected to. In my head, I think I got this mixed up with Primer for some reason, and I wasn’t really that excited about watching another time travel movie after seeing both Looper and Triangle recently.

Anyway, Pandorum is a grimy outer space science fiction movie with a deep horror streak. We start with Bower (Ben Foster) waking up from long-term stasis and freeing himself. It takes him a little time to realize who he is and what is going on. Evidently, in the world of Pandorum being in hypersleep means temporary amnesia for any number of things, including name, location, and purpose. Eventually, Bower figures out that he is a part of the flight crew of a ship called Elysium and that things aren’t going well.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Cautionary Tale?

Film: Monster
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

Aside from the movies that have been on my Oscars list for a year or two, there is still a handful of movies I haven’t watched. Most of these are movies that I can’t find, but there are a couple I just keep putting off. In the case of Monster, it might be that I just didn’t really want to dive head-first into the world of Aileen Wuornos again. The 1001 Movies list is scant on documentaries, but over its history, two of those documentaries are about Aileen Wuornos. How much did I really want to dive into a slightly fictionalized version?

Because here’s the thing—I don’t know how fictionalized this is. The documentaries more or less tried to tell the story of Aileen Wuornos from her point of view, and essentially presented the case for someone deeply disturbed. Monster very much does the same thing. The real Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute who killed a series of Johns. As depicted here, her first victim was attempting to rape her, and she defended herself. Following this, Aileen (played in an Oscar-winning performance by Charlize Theron) essentially decides that all of her clients are going to kill her and she acts pre-emptively. She makes an exception for one person, and also kills another who was legitimately trying to help her.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

"Based on a True Story"

Film: The Conjuring
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

Say what you will about The Conjuring, the producers and director James Wan made something that is terrifying for people of a particular mindset. The story behind the production is that this was handed an R-rating by the MPAA immediately. When asked what could be done to bring the rating down to PG-13, they were told that there was nothing they could do. The film is simply too scary to ever be rated PG-13. There’s no gore, no real violence, not much language, and no nudity. It’s just too scary to be seen by kids without supervision.

So is that really the case? It kind of is. There are some supremely scary moments in The Conjuring, and I appreciate that a great deal. The problem for me is that so much of what makes this movie scary for many people is completely lost on me. The claim is that this story is based on the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of paranormal investigators who have claimed to be involved in real hauntings. Well, that’s fine, but I don’t buy into the supernatural. I don’t doubt that they’ve had some interesting experiences, but for me, things like demonic possession and the like is about as real as pixies and leprechauns. When you don’t have that basic belief, a great deal of the impact of this story is lost.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Bungle in the Jungle

Film: Vinyan
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television

A lot of movies are naturally combinations of other movies or of multiple ideas. Sometimes, those are unique combinations, or at least unexpected ones, while some are commonplace. There are plenty of movies that are essentially “Die Hard on a _______,” for instance. Speed was “Die Hard on a bus.” Some movies are far more interesting combinations of movies. Vinyan, for instance, feels like the novel “The Lord of the Flies” combined with the last part of Apocalypse Now with a sizable dollop of Cannibal Ferox.

If you think that means we’re going to have white people traveling to the middle of nowhere and attacked by groups of native people, you’d be exactly right. We start with the tsunami in the mid-2000s that killed off a quarter of a million people. Among the dead is Joshua, the young son of French couple Jeanne (Emmanuelle Beart) and Paul Bellmer (Rufus Sewell). The couple has stayed in Thailand, and six months later, while at a fundraiser for an orphanage, Jeanne sees footage of a child that she is convinced is Joshua.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Everything All at Once

Film: Night Watch (Nochnoy Dozor)
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television

I have complained in the past about the fact that a lot of anime don’t have a great deal of exposition. I felt exactly the same way with Night Watch (also known as Nochnoy Dozor or Ночноы дозор if you prefer the Cyrillic), which is Russian and not Japanese. Night Watch is based on a novel, which is actually kind of reassuring. The problem with the movie is that it wants desperately to fit all of the material from the book in regardless of whether or not it has time to really help the audience understand it. A hell of a lot of concepts come flying out here right at the start and they aren’t fully explained except through a sort of osmosis.

So where do I start here? The basic premise of the movie is that there are forces of good and forces of evil in the world known as “Others.” The others are essentially human, but have a variety of powers and abilities like vampirism or being able to see future events. The “Light Others,” who are the good guys and the “Dark Others,” who are the bad guys have reached a truce. The truce is enforced by a group called the Night Watch (the good guys watching the bad guys) and a group called the Day Watch (the bad guys watching the good guys).

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Like Father, Like Son

Film: Son of Frankenstein
Format: DVD from personal collection on various players.

One of the great characters in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein is the local police inspector with the trick arm played by Kenneth Mars. I’d always considered him just a concoction of Brooks’s fevered imagination until today, when I watched Son of Frankenstein, the third movie in the series and the last, I believe to feature Boris Karloff as the Monster. It turns out that just as the peasant played by Gene Hackman was a riff on Bride of Frankenstein rather than the original, the police inspector who had his arm ripped off by the monster is canon as well. They even play darts!

Awesomely-named Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) has inherited the family castle and has moved his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson, the character name being an obvious nod to Elsa Lanchester) and young son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to start life anew. The townspeople of the village of Frankenstein are none too happy that someone has returned to the family home, especially when that person is the son of the feared and hated Baron who created the Monster. The Frankensteins are given a cold reception by the townspeople, notably the Burgomaster (Lawrence Grant) and the aforementioned Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill).

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Coffin Something Up

Film: The Oblong Box
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television

You never quite know what you’re going to get with an adaptation. For instance, you might get something that is relatively accurate to the source material with some changes due to time constraints. Jaws, for instance, is similar to the book in a lot of respects (and better in most). You might get something with significant changes for one reason or another. Minority Report has the basic idea in common with the original short story, but little else. Major characters in the movie don’t exist at all in the story, and none of the characters in the film resemble their short story inspiration. And then you get a movie like The Oblong Box. This claims to be inspired from the Poe short story of the same name, and yet the only resemblance the film has to the story is the title and the presence of a coffin.

In the original story, a man encounters someone on a ship off the coast of South Carolina. The man in question is alleged to have a beautiful, young wife but is seen with a wife who is quite unattractive. The man also is traveling with the titular oblong box in which the narrator believes he has stored a piece of valuable art. When we get to the end of the story (yes, spoilers for a 150+ year old short story; deal with it), we learn that the man’s “wife” on the voyage was actually his servant. His wife died shortly before the trip, and it was her body in the oblong box, because, well Edgar Allen Poe.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Le Loup des Baskervilles

Film: Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups)
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

Silly me thought Brotherhood of the Wolf was going to be a werewolf movie. It’s not; as the title of this review would suggest, it’s a great deal closer to the old Sherlock Holmes story of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Our story is going to be told in the past tense, as a sort of reminiscence of a noble named Marquis Thomas d’Apcher (Jacques Perrin as an old man, Jeremie Renier through the bulk of the movie). The reflection he’s going to give us is of this event in his past, when the province of Gevaudan was held in the grip of terror by a marauding monster that killed more than 100 people.

Enter Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a naturalist and taxidermist, who is exploring the flora and fauna of the area. He is intrigued by the stories of the creature and comes to investigate along with his Iroquois companion Mani (Mark Dacascos!). What he learns is that the creature is evidently wolf-like, but much, much larger. He also meets a number of the locals who are properly noble and stuffy. This is particularly true of weasel-faced Jean-Francois (Vincent Cassel), and decidedly untrue of Jean-Francois’s sister Marianne (Emilie Dequenne).

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Personal Demons

Film: The Wailing (Gok-seong)
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

I’ve said for a long time that one of the more interesting national cinemas going is South Korea. South Korean films, at least those that get exported, tend to be interesting, smart, and well-made; evidence Parasite. One of the genres in which South Korea excels is horror. The Wailing is one of those films that people point to not merely to suggest just how good South Korea’s film industry is, but as an example of their exemplary horror movies.

The real question about The Wailing is what kind of horror movie it is. Is it about possession? A haunting? Some sort of plague? It’s kind of all of those and none of those. We start in a small Korean village called Gok-seong (hence the Korean name of the film) where a rash of bizarre murders is taking place. Police officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) is one of the people charged with investigating the crimes. What he discovers is that a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) has recently moved to the village, and the problems started soon after. He also hears rumors about the man that seem to coincide with disturbing dreams he’s been having.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Camera Eye

Film: My Little Eye
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

Horror more than any other genre is indicative of the fears of the country from which they are made. Expect to see a lot of plague-related and confinement-adjacent horror movies in the next couple of years as a reaction to COVID-19, for instance. Horror is also extremely reactive to culture. With the rise of the internet in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s combined with shows like Big Brother, a film like My Little Eye was more or less inevitable.

Stop me when you guess where this is going to go. A group of 20-somethings are recruited to be in a new web show. Five of them are selected and put into a house. If they all stay the whole time, they split $1,000,000. If any one of them leaves (defined effectively as not being in the house at curfew), none of them get anything. We are given a short introduction to our five people, and then when the movie starts, we’re just a couple of days away from the six-month goal.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

I Call it a Kaiser Blade

Film: Sling Blade
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

If you go back far enough in the archive of this blog, you’ll find a response where I say I hope to watch Sling Blade by the end of that year. I think it’s some time in 2012 or 2013. Well, here we are approaching a decade later and I’m just now getting around to it. Best laid plans, spirit is willing, whatever. I’m here now.

I vaguely remember when Sling Blade came out, because everyone thought Billy Bob Thornton was someone who wasn’t so much acting as more or less a real-world version of the banjo kid from Deliverance given a starring role. It really is that deep of a performance, so it’s worth mentioning that Thornton not only had a career long before this, but that he also wrote the play on which it was based, adapted his own play, and directed. I’m reminded of how shocked my mother was when Daniel Day-Lewis walked on stage for his Oscar for My Left Foot. Mom was unaware that he wasn’t physically afflicted and was similarly unaware of his rather robust career before that role.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Don't Try the Croissants

Film: Dead & Breakfast
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

It’s fun, sometimes, to see people at odd points in their careers. Dead & Breakfast from 2004 is a case in point. This weird little indie features performances from, among others, Jeremy Sisto, David Carradine, Diedrich Bader, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Since this is a weird little indie horror comedy, it’s kind of a surprising cast.

And this is a weird little horror comedy. A group of six people, Christian (Sisto), David (Erik Palladino), Kate (Bianca Lawson), Johnny (Oz Perkins), Melody (Gina Philips), and Sara (Ever Carradine, who is David Carradine’s niece). They are headed to Galveston for the wedding of a friend, but have managed to get lost. They end up, of course, in a tiny little town where, because that’s what the genre is, terrible things are about to happen.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Clowns to the Left of Me

Film: Joker
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I try very hard not to read reviews of movies I haven’t seen. That’s especially true of movies that I know or assume will eventually show up on this blog. What this means is that I have no idea of what I’m about to say about Joker is a completely new take on the film or one that is the most common take on it. I honestly have no clue of I’m either off my meds or just repeating something everyone else has already said.

Now that I’ve said that, I also need to say this—you can consider everything after this paragraph to be potentially in spoiler territory. To discuss the film the way I want to and in the sort of detail I think I need to, I almost certainly have to go places that would be otherwise considered spoiler. I’m doing so after this second paragraph because this is where I typically include the “more” break, so if you don’t want the spoilers, just don’t click through.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Superhero?

Film: Harriet
Format: Blu-ray from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I suppose when it came down to it, I knew that Cynthia Erivo was going to be nominated for an Oscar for Harriet. I mean, I wasn’t 100% sure because stranger things have happened than a black actress being snubbed at the Oscars, but given the role and the film, I would have bet money on her being on the docket. Not nominating the actress performing in the title role of the Harriet Tubman biopic would be an oversight that Oscar would never hear the end of unless the movie (or performance) were laughably bad.

Well, that’s not the case, so Ervio got her nomination. The truth is, though, that it’s impossible not to be at least a little bit disappointed with Harriet. This is a movie I wanted to like a great deal. Harriet Tubman was what some (including me) would call a BAMF. An escaped slave herself, she returned time and time again to slave-holding states to help free others and take them north. When the laws changed to allow essentially bounty hunters to recaptures escaped slaves even in northern states, she moved her charges all the way to Canada.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Once Upon a Time

Film: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

Horror movies that can be watched by the younger crowd are tough genre. You have to walk a very fine line between being too scary and not being scary enough. There has to be something actually at stake in the story, which means that we’re going to have to probably have some people killed, but you also don’t want it to be too gory. You want scares, but not specifically nightmares. It should be fun, but not specifically funny. A movie like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark attempts to walk that fine line, giving us a series of mini stories as part of an overarching tale that seems to hit right about at the level of a good campfire tale.

The movie takes place on and after Halloween in 1968 in a small town in Pennsylvania. Like lots of small towns, this one has a past history that is unsavory in parts and has a founding family with dark secrets. In this case, the founding family was the Bellows, and daughter Sarah Bellows has a number of unsavory legends surrounding her, most dealing with child murder. On this Halloween, a group of nerdy kids including Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), August (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajar) attempt to get back at their bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams). It happens that their bully is on a date with Chuck’s sister, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn).

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Hole in the Donut

Film: Knives Out
Format: Electronic copy through Google Play on laptop.

A couple of weeks ago, fellow movie nerd, bad film aficionado, and all-around mensch Jason Soto purchased a copy of Knives Out and offered the electronic version to anyone who wanted it, so I claimed it. It took me a little while to get to actually claiming the electronic copy, but now I have, and I set about to watching the movie with a will. I’m so happy I did. Of all the movies on my Oscar list from 2019, Knives Out is one that I really wanted to see in the theater. Then again, since I pretty much never see anything in the theater, I knew I wouldn’t, but would want to see it as soon as I could.

Knives Out is an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. We’ve got a big house, a dead body that looks like a suicide, conniving relatives all desperate for a reading of the will, and everyone in the house having a motive. True to the form, we’ve also got a gentleman detective, in this case a Southern gentleman named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been called in to investigate what looks like a clear case of suicide, hired by an unknown party via a thick envelope of cash.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Kids Will Be Kids

Film: Battle Royale (Batoru Rowaiaru)
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

When you have a good idea, it’s inevitable that someone will more or less duplicate it. Several years ago, you couldn’t go anywhere without walking face-first into something connected to The Hunger Games, either books or movies. Since it was such a huge hit in pretty much every medium, it’s the one people are going to know, so when they come across Battle Royale (or Batoru Rowaiaru if you want the anglicized Japanese), many are likely to see this more original story as derivative.

I’m not sure what it is about the collapse of civilization that makes people think that the natural human reaction is to hold contests where kids kill each other, but there it is: Battle Royale is one of those stories where kids kill each other at the behest of a government that has decided for some reason that this fits into their world view. We’re told that the “BR Act” was created to help control unruly youth; the upshot is that every year, one class of students is taken to a remote location.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Green-Eyed (Scary) Monster

Film: Mama
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on basement television.

Mama is one of those movies that I’ve wanted to watch for some time but have never pulled the trigger on until now. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case. Its executive producer was Guillermo del Toro, and he’s got something close to a magic touch as far as I’m concerned, so this should be a move that I should love. And yet, I think part of the reason I haven’t been truly excited to watch is that I haven’t heard a lot of people raving about it.

The quick wrap-up is that the movie starts with the economic crash in 2008. A broker (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has killed a couple of his partners and then murders his estranged ex-wife. He scoops up his two young daughters and drives off, too fast for the weather and eventually slides off the road. There’s a cabin nearby, and he takes the girls into it, planning on killing them and then himself. Before is does, though, he swept up by some unseen thing that kills him and protects the two girls.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Probably Lots of Drinking, Honestly

Film: I Know What You Did Last Summer
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

In the world of slasher movies, I Know What You Did Last Summer ranks as one of the dumbest. Seriously, if you didn’t know that this was a slasher movie going in, it could be an entry in just about any genre. A wacky rom-com where the couple dated the year before but broke up? Well, they know what each other did last summer! Hijinks abound! But no, this is what Siskel and Ebert used to call a “dead teenager” movie, where the cast starts with a group of teens and slowly whittles them down.

So, we start in a little costal town in North Carolina where most of the men are fishermen and most of the kids seem to want to get away. The movie takes place on the Fourth of July, which naturally coincides with this town’s little town festival. I guess there are some of those that happen in the summer. As a nearly life-long Midwesterner, all of the local town celebrations that I remember take place in the fall, around harvest. Anyway, a part of this local celebration is electing the new beauty pageant queen. Because we evidently want to think that our main characters have some sort of value, one of them, Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) wins and gets to wear a fancy tiara.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

I Heard You Paint Houses

Films: The Irishman
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.

While I’ve never shirked from long movies in the past, I can’t say that I’m always geared up for them. The Irishman is far and away the longest movie on the latest batch of Oscars, so when I had a spare day to watch it, I did. Kind of. I watched about 2 ½ hours of it and finished it up in the morning. Seriously, it’s a long friggin’ movie. It’s also very much a return to Scorsese’s roots, as well as the roots of much of his main cast. It was probably a foregone conclusion that The Irishman would score a slew of nominations, and now that I’ve seen the movie, I can understand why.

This is the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a simple Teamster who ran a route delivering meat. Through a series of chance meetings and coincidences, Frank became involved in the Pennsylvania Bufalino crime family headed by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Through additional connections, Frank eventually becomes an enforcer and semi-bodyguard for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank, we quickly learn, has no qualms about killing, something he learned in Italy in World War II. As it happens, this turns out to be a very useful skill.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Quatermass Lite

Films: X: The Unknown
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I have a penchant for 1950s science fiction and horror movies. There’s something pure about them that I love. Don’t get me wrong—I love the later stuff and the current stuff, too, but there is a particular vibe to the science fiction in the Cold War/Space Race years that I love. Hammer Studios was a big part of that, and so I’m always interested when one of these comes in over the transom. In this case, that’s X: The Unknown, a film that deals with the idea of nuclear power and radiation in a world that was steal dealing with the literal and figurative fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Like a lot of the science fiction movies from this era, the emphasis is going to be less on the science and far more on the fiction. Soldiers on a routine training assignment in Scotland are learning to use a Geiger counter when a new source of deadly radiation appears, killing one of the soldiers and burning another one badly. Two scientists, Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger) and “Mac” McGill (Leo McKern), both of whom have atomic energy backgrounds, are called in to investigate.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Coronavirus?

Film: Carriers
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Plagues are inherently scary, I think. When it comes to movie monsters, in most cases, or at least some of them, it feels like you can fight back against them. Sure, most of us are going to be dropped pretty quickly by a vampire, but with a sharpened stake, at least you’ve got a chance. Someone’s gonna end up being the final girl, after all. But with plagues, it feels like there’s not much that can be done. With the coronavirus now moving through the world, the idea of a killing pandemic is especially terrifying. So, naturally, I watched Carriers, a film about a virulent plague that more or less wipes out the entire planet.

We’re not going to see a lot of the plague here in terms of masses of people dying. Carriers starts with the unnamed plague having more or less wiped out most of the human population. We have four people driving in a car to start with. These are Brian (Chris Pine), his girlfriend Bobby (Piper Perabo), his brother Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci), and Danny’s putative girlfriend Kate (Emily VanCamp). We learn about the plague more or less from a bit of exposition right before the title card drops. The plague is highly contagious and anyone coming into contact with a plague carrier needs to disinfect anything that that person has touched in the last 24 hours. Plague carriers are also highly contagious themselves, as the contagion is airborne.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

I'm Not Crying, You're Crying

Films: Toy Story 4
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

Fucking Pixar. As a film company, they’ve finally had a few missteps and films that haven’t really attracted much acclaim, but when they are good, there’s no studio better. I was initially very worried when I heard that a Toy Story 4 was in the works. They’d ended the trilogy well, getting the toys through to Andy going off to college and passing them on to a new child. There was nowhere the story needed to go, and tacking on a fourth film honestly felt like it was going to be a cash grab. But I’ll be damned if they didn’t make this work, produce a tremendously good story with some genuine laughs, and get to an ending that makes sense and, hopefully, legitimately ends the series on a very high note.

You should know the basics here. Cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks) and spaceman doll Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) now belong to young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). This is a difficult transition for Woody, who for years was Andy’s favorite toy. Now, he is frequently left in the closet, his sheriff’s badge being placed on cowgirl Jesse (Joan Cusack). Woody is feeling ignored, since all of the other toys are getting played with. When Bonnie goes off to kindergarten orientation, Woody sneaks inside her backpack.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Not Another Power Tool Movie

Films: Saw III
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

I suppose since at this point I’ve watched more than half of them on the main list, I’m actually pursuing the They Shoot Zombies list of horror movies. There is literally no other reason I would have spent time today with Saw III, which is thankfully the last of the franchise on the list. I just hope it stays that way.

The Saw franchise is a great exemplar of the notion that not only do sequels tend to be worse than the original film, but that they get exponentially worse as time goes on. Admittedly, this is a trend frequently bucked, but the basic idea is still a common one, and this franchise might well be the poster child for it. The original Saw is surprisingly good. At the very least it’s a great idea for a film—a serial killer offers people a chance to save themselves by earning their freedom, generally through some trial of terrible physical pain and suffering. The killer, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), has a philosophy that thinks people should appreciate their lives. Most don’t, he believes, and thus he sets up these gruesome contests to make those who survive appreciate the lives they have.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

One is Too Many

Films: The Two Popes
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on basement television.

Say what you will about NetFlix, but the company is aggressively going after talent. At least two of the Best Picture nominees from the recent Oscars were NetFlix movies (Marriage Story and The Irishman), and they are absolutely seeking top talent both in terms of actors and directors. The Two Popes was directed by Fernando Meirelles, the director who also made City of God. For the average person, that might not mean a great deal but for even casual movie fans, that’s a quality pick up.

The Two Popes is not some wacky alternate universe where there are two guys living in the Vatican sharing duties (although that would have been fun), nor is it a clash between the guy in the Vatican and the Coptic patriarch in Egypt excommunicating each other (although that would have been entertaining). No, this is the much more prosaic story of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. We go more or less from the death of John Paul II through to the abdication of Pope Benadryl and the election of Pope Frank. If it seems that I’m being glib, well…I am.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Melt It Down

Films: House of Wax (2005)
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

There are horror remakes and there are horror remakes. The Mystery of the Wax Museum was given a very straight, standard remake in the 1950s starring Vincent Price, with the name changed to House of Wax. It was a lot of fun, adding in goofy 3D effects and playing up the camp. Someone had the bright idea to make a film with the same name, but with nothing beyond the presence of a wax museum in common with the original story. That’s a problem, because the original story was fun, and this version stinks on ice.

The House of Wax remake comes from 2005, right in the middle of a collection of horror movies that decided gore and torture was a good substitute for old-fashioned horror. What this means is that we’ll be focusing a great deal on gore here, using that to generate disgust more than it generates real fear. This is a gross-out movie wearing the clothing of classic horror.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Sucker!

Films: Dracula: Dead and Loving It
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on various players.

How exactly does this happen? There was a time when Mel Brooks was the best and most fearless satirist and comedian in Hollywood. This is a guy who did both Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles in the same year. This was a guy whose first movie as a writer and director won an Oscar for its screenplay. And the last movie he ever directed was Dracula: Dead and Loving It, which is like Stanley Kubrick ending his career with The Room.

This is going to be a relatively short review because it’s goddamn depressing. Brooks was once incredibly edgy. Blazing Saddles--still funny after 45 years—was incredibly edgy in 1974. Characters said things that were dangerous in that movie, and did it for a laugh. And the guy that wrote and directed that movie ended his directorial career with a “comedy” so timid that it takes not a single risk.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Opera, Yes. Phantom? Not as Much

Film: Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on basement television.

I’ve seen multiple version of Phantom of the Opera, and I have to say that going in, I was interested in the 1943 version of the story. Some of that comes from having Claude Rains in the title role. The Phantom is not really one of the Universal monsters in any real sense. There was no series of films concerning the character and no continuing mythology beyond this one story. Part of that probably stems from the fact that, unlike many of the other Universal monsters, the Phantom is literally just a man. He’s not supernatural or devolved or anything else—he’s just a crazy dude with scars.

Another reason I was intrigued by this version of the story is that one of the leads is played by Nelson Eddy. I’m not much of an opera fan and I can’t say I love the stylings of Eddy that much, but it would be interesting to see a role in the film really handled by someone with impressive pipes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Worst of the Worst?

Film: Plan 9 from Outer Space
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on The New Portable.

Just as people are going to go back and forth about what is the greatest whatever in history (greatest basketball player, greatest book, greatest television character, etc.), they’re going to fight about the worst as well. I’ve gone on record as saying that Andy Warhol’s Vinyl is the worst movie I have ever seen, even reserving the ½ star rating on Letterboxd for it. But everyone is going to have a different idea of what’s the worst movie ever made. Sure, Vinyl is my pick, but I’d rather rewatch it than a number of other movies I can think of (Salo, for instance). One of the contenders for many people, at least years ago before the days of the internet, was Plan 9 from Outer Space.

So let’s discuss that for a second. How bad can it really be? The truth is that it can be pretty bad, and it is pretty bad, but it’s nothing like the worst movie ever made. It’s goofy and silly, terribly acted, has a ridiculous plot that makes no sense, and a set design and special effects that were made on a budget less than that for a fast food meal for two. Plan 9 from Outer Space is inept in every way it can be.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Devil's Playthings

Film: Idle Hands
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on The New Portable.

Horror comedies are evidently really hard to make. I say this because so few of them are any good. The vast majority of them appear to be comedy first, horror second. This works out to the detriment of both the comedy and horror elements. Oh, sure, there are some really good ones out there (Tremors, Slither, Shaun of the Dead and any number of others), but most of them aren’t funny and even fewer are actually scary. Idle Hands manages a few laughs and no scares, so I guess in that respect it’s slightly ahead of the curve.

There’s a surprising amount of plot for such a nothing of a movie. At least there are a lot of plot elements with which I need to contend. Anton Tobias (Devon Sawa) is a high school burnout who wants nothing more from life than to sit on the couch, watch television, and smoke a huge amount of pot. This is a philosophy shared with and endorsed by his two friends Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson). Despite his constant television watching, Anton is unaware of a killing spree going on in his town that has recently included his parents. This is despite the fact that Anton himself is responsible.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Why Remake This?

Film: Maniac
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

Remakes tend to have a poor reputation, and with reason. Frequently they are made as something like a cash grab, trying to capitalize on name recognition. There was a decade or so-long trend of immediate American remakes of Japanese horror movies, most of which were terrible and most of which seemed to be nothing more than trying to make a buck from an audience that won’t watch something with subtitles. Still, I can understand the appeal of a remake. Your story is already written, and if you feel like you can add something to the way in which that story was told, the remake seems like a perfect choice. All of this leads me to a single question: of all the movies that someone could remake, why in hell would someone want to remake William Lustig’s Maniac?

Yet, that’s where we are here, with a 2012 remake of a film that feels honestly like the actual film stock was made of oil and grease. This remake features two things that make it perhaps more interesting than the original version. The first is that it stars Elijah Wood as the deranged killer obsessed with mannequins who goes around New York killing women, scalping them, and attaching their hair to his mannequin collection with a staple gun. Do yourself a favor—reread that sentence, since that is the plot here, and decide whether or not this is worth your time. The second potentially interesting fact about the film is that it is filmed like a first-person perspective video game. While Wood appears in pretty much every shot, we see his face only in mirrors and similar objects.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Thing's Starring Role

Films: I Lost My Body (J’ai Perdu Mon Corps)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on basement television.

It seems that in a futile effort to watch as much as possible before the surprisingly early Oscars ceremony this year, I’ve decided to focus almost entirely on the Best Animated Feature category. At least that’s where my reviews have been for the new additions. I Lost My Body is the oddball entry into the category. There’s often one film that is either substantially unusual in some way or that is clearly not made for children. Traditionally, this is the “Oscar is really stretching out to reveal exciting and interesting film” nomination, and it’s one that has no chance of winning.

So what can I say about this film? It’s certainly unusual, and it’s one of those movies that has a long and storied path of getting made. It spent a good seven years in development, only to be released, nominated for an Oscar, and immediately picked up by NetFlix.