Sunday, February 28, 2021

Return Trip

Film: Peninsula (Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula)
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

There was a time when you know what you were going to get with a sequel. You were going to get some of what you liked from the first movie, but in general, it wasn’t going to be quite as good as you wanted it to be. Then, we got some sequels that managed to at least play in the same ballpark as the original film. Movies started to follow the video game rule of being at least more than just more of the same. So, naturally, when I saw that Train to Busan had a sequel, I was interested. I honestly should have been a little worried at the title. While you can find this under the name Peninsula, the official title is Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula. That seems like a title that is trying too damn hard.

Peninsula (and this is the title I’m going to use for the rest of this review) takes place four years after Train to Busan, which is convenient, since this was released four years after Train to Busan. What we learn, from a very stilted opening interview that is made up entirely of exposition, is that Korea has been blocked off from mainland Asia. The outbreak, which evidently started in a lab, was contained to South Korea.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Dig It!

Film: The Body Snatcher
Format: DVD from LaSalle Public Library through interlibrary loan on basement television.

There’s something very special about the films that were produced by Val Lewton. With Lewton as the producer, a film needed to work with a negligible budget but still deliver some thrills and scares. The enduring power of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie are indicative of just how good Lewton was at his work. The Body Snatcher is perhaps less well-known, but it comes with a hell of a solid pedigree. It’s another Karloff/Lugosi film (although Lugosi’s role is quite small and Karloff is the real star), and it was directed by no less a luminary than Robert Wise.

The Body Snatcher falls directly into the Burke and Hare realm, the snatching here being (at least initially) grave robbing for the benefit of the medical profession. We have a poor medical student named Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) who is looking to give up the practice because of financial difficulties at home. This revelation comes just after he demonstrates good bedside manner with a crippled young girl named Georgina Marsh (Sharyn Moffett). His teacher, a respected physician named Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), offers Fettes the position of being his new assistant.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

It's Cicada Time Again

Film: The Beast Within
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

Probably since horror movies have been in existence, one of the classic scenes is the transformation. There are plenty of classic transformations. Jekyll to Hyde, man to wolfman, vampire to bat, and plenty more. The Beast Within, for a film that has plenty of plot problems, has one of the greatest transformations in horror film history. That the film itself has a plot that makes zero sense doesn’t change the fact that the transformation that we get to witness is one for the ages.

We start close to two decades before the film’s present. Eli (Ronny Cox) and Caroline MacCleary (Bibi Besch) experience some car trouble in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi. While Eli goes back to the last town for help, Caroline waits in the car. Meanwhile, a creature breaks out of captivity nearby and finds Caroline. Naturally, the creature rapes her, then vanishes.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Not Fade Away

Film: Relic
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on the new portable.

There are some hard truths when it comes to films. When we talk about great horror movies, for instance, the classics of the mid-‘80s and before (and perhaps well into the ‘90s) come from men, generally speaking. That’s not shocking when you consider that most movies of that era were directed by men. But these days, a lot of the more interesting and vital work in the horror genre is being done by women. In fact, if you remove white men from the horror genre right now, you’re not losing a great deal with the exception of Leigh Whannell. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone—use the comments for that.

Anyway, that brings me to Relic, which is the feature-length debut of director Natalie Erika James. I’d heard good things about Relic and was interested to see it. This is a pared-down film, one that works well as a directorial debut because of the scope. James’s work is ambitious in the sense of what she wants to convey with the story, but is limited in the places where she can limit it without damaging that story. There are only a handful of characters here, for instance, and really only three we’re going to spend a lot of time with. While we’re going to move around a bit, most of what we’re going to do is stay put in a single (admittedly disturbingly convoluted) house. Relic runs about 90 minutes and dismisses a lot of frills. It sticks to the story, the characters, and the meaning, and because of that, it works pretty well.

Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing from her house. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcoate) travel to her secluded home to help look for her. Her house is locked from the inside, and there is evidence of a disturbing black mold growing in parts of the house. There are signs that Edna is slipping mentally; primarily this comes in the form of handwritten Post-It notes around the house. Kay and Sam spend a difficult time in the house, plagued by nightmares, spreading mold, and strange noises from inside the walls.

Eventually, Edna shows up again, unaware that she was missing. She appears mentally and physically whole, aside from a large black bruise in the middle of her chest. This bruise looks suspiciously like the mold growing in the house. But Edna is clearly fading. Kay considers putting her in a nursing home. Meanwhile, she has a tender moment or two with granddaughter Sam, but also suddenly turns on her. More and more, Edna’s actions are incomprehensible. Kay finds her behind the house tearing photos out of the family album and eating them, and then burying the album. I’ll stop here. What follows is really the point of the movie, and probably needs to be under a spoiler tag.

* * * BUT WHAT IS THE RELIC? * * *

It’s not hard to see Relic as a sort of allegory about dealing with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, it’s hard not to see it that way. If someone told me Natalie Erika James and/or her co-writer Christian White had dealt with either of those conditions in their families, I would not be remotely shocked. The rot that infests the house is an outward manifestation of the rot going on in Edna’s mind. Her own physical deterioration mirrors the same process.

Much of the third act involves Sam being lost behind the walls of the house. These hidden corridors appear to loop around themselves, and even when she back tracks, she can’t find her way out. They are also filled with the same mold and with piles and piles of junk. These hidden corridors are, metaphorically, Edna’s deteriorating mind. Ultimately, the complete physical deterioration of Edna and the possibility that the same might happen to Kay may mean that Kay will go through this same terrible degradation.

What’s the relic? Possibly this terrible genetic curse handed down from generation to generation. At least that’s my read.

* * * SO THAT’S THE RELIC * * *

This is a story that could have been (and has been) told in a much more straightforward way, assuming my read on the deeper meaning is correct (and, honestly, I can’t see how it’s not). So why make this as a horror movie? Because there are some real horror moments here—some ugly and gruesome moments. The true horror of what’s happening to Edna needs to for the ultimate impact.

This is a smart movie. It’s a little dark in places, but it’s a movie like Get Out that seems far too mature for a first-time director. I’m hoping we see great things out of Natalie Erika James, because based on this, she’s got some chops.

Why to watch Relic: A solid debut from a director I hope gets more work.
Why not to watch: It’s a little dark (physically, not emotionally) in places.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Prodigy Song Not Included

Film: Firestarter
Format: DVD from Kankakee Public Library through interlibrary loan on Sue’s Mother’s Day present.

I’ve jumped on this train before and I’m going to keep jumping on it—Stephen King doesn’t always translate to film well. Some of the movies based on his work are tremendous, all-time classics. Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and others certainly lead the pack. But a lot of his work just doesn’t make the transition very well. Maximum Overdrive comes to mind. And then…there’s a big, squishy middle area with films like Firestarter.

I’d seen Firestarter before, although it had been much more than a decade since my last watch. I remembered enough to be able to recall the basic story. I remembered that this is one of the few King stories that features The Shop, a shadowy government agency that deals with the paranormal, mental abilities, and the like. The people at The Shop would love to have gotten their hands on someone like Carrie White, for instance. The Shop is one of those world-building things that really should have been used more in King’s work.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Lizard Brain

Film: Gorgo
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

I foresee this is going to be a shorter review than normal. For starters, Gorgo is a shorter movie than normal. It is also a movie that appeared in the ninth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, either fairly or unfairly. The big reason that I think this might be a shorter review than normal is that there isn’t a great deal to say about Gorgo. This is, honestly, nothing more than Godzilla with British accents.

“But Steve,” I hear you say, “how can you be that dismissive? Shouldn’t you give the movie a fair shake?” Yes, and I’m not saying I didn’t give the movie a fair shake. But I am completely serious when I say that this is just a British Godzilla. It’s not a point-by-point remake, but the basic idea is the same (there’s even a monster child). Honestly, it’s more like the plot of King Kong being run with a Godzilla-like monster. Kong software on Godzilla hardware, if you like.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Happy Valentine's Day!

Film: Ready or Not
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

A lot of people recommended Ready or Not to me, so when I saw it on the New Arrival shelf at one of the local libraries I use, I figured I should grab it. I’m not surprised that this library had it; they have a fantastic movie collection, something well north of 5000 discs. I go at least once a week just to see what new has arrived.

Ready or Not is classified as a horror-comedy and it sort of is. It’s definitely a horror movie and it very much has some comedic elements, but there are parts of this that are absolutely deadly serious. There’s also a specific moment in this that is—without guts, grue, or hitting any of my specific triggers—one of the most stomach-turning moments I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. This is not a complaint. It’s just a statement of fact.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Going Out for Italian

Film: Innocent Blood
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

Of all of the basic monster types, vampires are probably the ones who have the most movies about them. Most of them make a few changes to the basic idea of vampire lore, anatomy, or what have you, but they all follow the basics. One thing that a lot of vampire movies have in common is the existential dread that vampires seem to feel about being predators. While there’s a little of that in Innocent Blood (also known by the awesome title of A French Vampire in America), the film does away with a lot of that by having the main prey of the vampires be the criminal underworld.

That right there would set apart Innocent Blood from virtually every other vampire movie going. Our bloodsucker, a French vampire named Marie (Anne Parillaud), survives specifically by preying on the worst elements of society. As the film begins, we find ourselves dealing with the mob. She overlooks a potential meal in Joe Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia) and settles instead on another crime figure (Chazz Palminteri). When she’s done feeding, she shoots the mobster in the face to prevent him from coming back.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Poe's Law?

Film: The Raven
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on the new portable.

While I like a lot of modern horror movies (when they aren’t just gratuitously gory), there’s a part of me that truly loves the old school stuff. The Raven is from 1935 and features both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, so it’s very much in that wheelhouse. It’s also a movie that manages to offer only a very tangential connection to its source material. The connections are that one character likes Poe a lot and at one point there is an interpretive dance while someone reads the poem. No, really.

We start with a car accident. Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) crashes her car and lies at the brink of death. Her father (Samuel S. Hinds) pleads with noted but retired doctor Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) to come out of retirement to save his daughter. Vollin is eventually persuaded to do so, and naturally his skill is what pulls Jean through. Shortly thereafter, Jean performs the aforementioned interpretive Raven dance.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Louder the Better?

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

Sometimes I dread writing these reviews. It’s great when I feel like there’s a lot to say about a movie, and most of the time, that’s most movies. There’s almost always something worth picking apart or getting into. With The Relic, I feel like there’s not a hell of a lot to talk about. There’s a very basic monster plot, we have good guy and bad guy scientists, there are a few gruesome deaths and a few unexplained deaths, and there are some Stan Winston creature effects. And, after well over 100 minutes, the credits finally roll.

We start with a scientist (Lewis Van Bergen) undergoing a ritual with a South American native tribe. Something goes wrong for the scientist, at least we believe, when he tries to retrieve what he is shipping back to his museum in Chicago turns out to not be on the ship. Jump cut to Chicago about six weeks later, the ship evidently having gone directly from the Amazon rain forest up through the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan (in the original novel, the ship docks in New York) to reveal a dead crew, many of whom have their heads discovered in the ship’s bilge.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

What I've Caught Up With, January 2021

It was a slim month in terms of catching up with movies on the big list (and it is a big list—still well over 1000 movies on it). I almost completed my rewatch of the whole James Bond filmography, though, getting through all four of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds and the first three of the Daniel Craigs (I’ve finished Spectre by now, just not in January). Naturally, that took up a lot of my movie watching time. Happy Death Day was on the unwatched list as well, but I did a full review of that one—it deserved it. I also finally watched the final movie on the latest 1001 Movies list. For movies that weren’t on the recommended list that I watched anyway, I heartily recommend Behind the Curve, especially if you are feeling good about humanity in general. This one will wake you up to the fact that we are a failed species.

What I’ve Caught Up With, January 2021:
Film: North Dallas Forty

I hadn’t seen this in probably 15 years, and it’s a worthy rewatch. Nick Nolte plays a battered professional football player in the era where the fame and glamour was there, but the money wasn’t. Nolte’s wide receiver Phillip Elliott drinks too much and takes too many drugs, and then takes more to keep playing. This is not a film about the rigors of football, though, at least once you get below the surface. It’s kind of a buddy film between Nolte and Mac Davis, who plays the team’s quarterback. But how good can buddies be when they are mercenaries? While a comedy in many ways, North Dallas Forty is pitch black in the lessons we take away from it. This is among Nolte’s best work on camera.

Film: Dolores Claiborne

Stephen King doesn’t always translate to film well, but sometimes, he really, really does. Dolores Claiborne is an interesting King story in the sense that there is no supernatural element here. No, the horrors are more prosaic, and because of that, a lot more real. Kathy Bates plays the titular role about as well as possible, and she is ably assisted by Jennifer Jason Leigh as her estranged substance abuse-riddled daughter. A good supporting cast helps here as well. The story is a good one, and the reveals are surprising and dark. It’s too long, though. Cut 20 minutes from this, and this is a much tighter and better movie.

Film: Batman: The Movie

When it’s done accidentally, camp can be a lot of fun. Most of the time, intentional camp feels forced and doesn’t work. Batman from 1966 is the exception that proves the rule. This is a completely ridiculous movie in almost every aspect, but it contains so much of what made the original television show fun. Seriously, Cesar Romero gave so little of a shit that he just put the Joker’s white greasepaint directly over his mustache. I’d have loved to have seen Eartha Kitt here instead of Lee Meriwether as Catwoman, but Frank Gorshin was absolutely the best of the Batman villains as The Riddler. This is dumb, but it’s the right kind of dumb. Shark repellent bat spray? Genius!

Film: Easter Parade

Like many a classic musical, Easter Parade is essentially plotless and in this case serves as a vehicle almost a dozen and a half songs from Irving Berlin. Oh, there’s a romance or three involved and some love triangles that all eventually get sorted out in the end, but we expect that going in. Easter Parade is an excuse to watch Fred Astaire dance and listen to Judy Garland sing, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything more or less than that. And, honestly, it doesn’t really need to be anything more or less than that. Plot would just get in the way of Fred doing a tap routine with a drum kit. It’s nice when studios realized where their money came from and gave us films like this one in vivid color, too.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

My Reunion Was Arguably Worse

Film: Slaughter High
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

There are hierarchies in genre, I think. When it comes to horror movies, I am not a huge fan of slashers. Don’t get me wrong—a good slasher can be a great film, and there are plenty that are fantastic, but as a subgenre, slashers are the ones that feel like the lowest common denominator. So when you get a slasher that is stupid, insulting, or just mean-spirited, you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel. And, sadly, that’s where we are with Slaughter High, a movie that starts out unbelievably cruel and proceeds to just as unbelievably ignorant.

High school nerd Marty (Simon Scudamore) is the victim of a series of cruel pranks. Promised sex by popular girl Carol (Caroline Munro), he is instead filmed naked and humiliated by his classmates. By way of “apology,” he’s offered a joint that is laced with something like ipecac, which he naturally lights up while working in a chemistry lab in school. While he’s getting sick, his main antagonist Skip (Carmine Iannaconne) puts something in his chemicals that causes a fire, because that’s evidently a funny prank. The fire causes a gigantic bottle of nitric acid to fall of a high shelf and splash on Marty, disfiguring him. Welcome to the first 20 minutes of the movie.