Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Prime Time: Demon House (2018)

I used to love the TV show "Most Haunted". There was a time there when I was slightly addicted. I even watched one of their live events. And then one day I just stopped. There was only so much table-tipping I could stomach, only so much nonsense being spewed by Derek Acorah, and only so much padding around entirely explicable phenomena that were put forward as definite signs of the undead trying to make contact.

It turns out that Zak Bagans, who wrote, directed, and stars in this "documentary", is most famous for working on an American show that is the equivalent of "Most Haunted". I have never seen that show, "Ghost Adventures", but I now know that I definitely wouldn't ever want to watch it. Because Bagans is a mixture of all of the things that immediately start to irritate me. He has to make everything extra dramatic, and emphasises things about three times in a row to make sure you get how dramatic it really is. If any coincidence can be played up for spookiness then it is. And he wears sunglasses in doors. Yeah, not my type of guy at all. Will I also openly question the veracity of what he puts onscreen here, from the witness testimonies to his own encounters? Maybe, but I wouldn't put anything in stronger terms, mainly because Americans can be so damn litigous.

There is a plot here. Bagans ends up buying a house that was at the centre of the Ammons case, an alleged haunting that featured some very dark and disturbing events. The previous residents of the house are so scares that they generally won't even talk to Bagans, for fear of any insidious force reaching them again. So Bagans talks to everyone else he can get hold of, from police officers to a relative of the affected family, and a few more. They talk and he gets to repeat what they say, with added dramatic emphasis. And you get some weird things happening on camera, which you are free to view as real events or not.

The thing is, deep down, I no longer believe in the supernatural, ghosts or demons. I used to. And I still believe that we don't know how everything happens in the world around us, especially when it comes to our death (as we're all made up of energy), our memories, and our sensory perception being affected by both of those things. I also wouldn't stay in any allegedly haunted house for £10,000. I am just too much of a scaredy cat, and my imagination runs wild at the slightest little noise. So Demon House should have worked better for me than it did. I still expected to roll my eyes, but was looking forward to a few small chills and thrills throughout. I got none.

Most of that is the fault of Bagans, who seems so obviously desperate to put himself at the centre of a hot story that he will buy a notorious house, get people around him agitated by his methods, and then posit himself as the one person striving to be strong enough to face the dark forces swirling all around us. I hope I never see him in any feature again. And I'm amazed the house didn't growl "get out" at him, a la Amityville. I know I would have.


Tuesday, 20 October 2020

The Wolf Of Snow Hollow (2020)

Remember the excellent Thunder Road, the film from Jim Cummings that gained him a lot of love, and fans, just a couple of years ago. It was all about a cop trying to keep his head, and his job, while grieving and going through some turbulence in his personal life. Cummings was excellent as the director, writer, and star. And he's equally good here, in a film that walks a surprisingly similar path, while adding an element of potential lyncathropy.

Cummings is John Marshall, a police officer who is working under the extra strain of trying to ensure his father, the Sheriff (Robert Forster), gives himself time to get the right medical treatment that he needs. Marshall is also about to take custody of his teenage daughter (Jenna, played by Chloe East), attends meetings for issues with alcohol, and things go from bad to worse when horribly mauled dead bodies start turning up in his small town. People start to speculate that it could be a werewolf, considering the damage and the fact that there was a full moon, but Marshall thinks that idea is ridiculous.

Once again deftly mixing comedy and drama, but with an added dash of horror this time, Cummings effectively uses The Wolf Of Snow Hollow to slightly push out the boundary line of his comfort zone. So much of this is familiar to those who enjoyed his previous feature, yet the one brand new additional ingredient allows it to feel a step or two removed from just being a retread.

Having said that, the horror of the premise is often left to just provide an undercurrent to the standard tensions and headaches for the small-town police force. I wouldn't want to whole-heartedly recommend this to someone wanting scares or a full-blooded werewolf movie, but I would definitely encourage anyone and everyone to at least give it a go. It's a wonderfully quirky and entertaining blend of Silver Bullet, Thunder Road, and Fargo, so you should know already if there's enough here to keep you amused.

Cummings is once again a perfect fit for his lead role, and manages to keep viewers onside with a character who is essentially quite inept and obstinate at times. Riki Lindhome is just as good in the main supporting role, Officer Julia Robson, and Forster is given a number of little moments that feel sadly fitting for one of his final roles. East is very good as the teen daughter dealing with a difficult relationship with her father, and both Jimmy Tatro and Daniel Fenton Anderson are highlights, the former a partner of the first victim and the latter a grumpy coroner.

I had already seen a decent amount of love for this before getting to it myself, which was a good sign, but it's hard to think of who will enjoy it the most. I think you just have to go into it as a film fan, first and foremost, and forget all about any genre labels. Which I know is the best way to go into any film, but we all know that rarely happens.


Monday, 19 October 2020

Mubi Monday: The Other Lamb (2019)

A look at a cult, the warping of religion, and the constant use of women in assigned roles that serve men, The Other Lamb is definitely an interesting and thought-provoking work of art. It also has a lot of stark beauty throughout. Which makes it a shame that it falls a bit short of greatness, feeling just a little bit undercooked and not quite as focused and sharp as it could be. 

The plot is quite simple. Raffey Cassidy plays Selah, a young woman who is part of a cult under the leadership of Michiel Huisman (“the shepherd”). She is due to become the latest in a series of wives, which is the way to ascend on their chosen path. But the lead up to the crucial moment gives Selah time to consider the truth behind the way she and her companions are being treated. Is it really the right and proper way to show love and enlightenment? Or is it symptomatic of something else, something much more familiar to so many women?

Working from a screenplay by Catherine S. McMullen, director Malgorzata Szumowska creates a constant sense of unease and intrigue here that allows viewers to know, from the very beginning, that the patriarchy and misogyny on display are not going to remain accepted as the norm from everyone involved in the story. 

Selah has some disturbing visions, obviously displaying the troubling thoughts starting to froth and ferment in her mind, and those visions somehow feel both metaphorical and fantastical and also grounded and realistic. Szumowska takes care to keep context to a minimum at the earliest stages, layering it all on as the story goes on and allowing it to enrich the bigger picture. 

There's something wonderful about the way The Other Lamb manages to deliver what you may expect from it while also doing everything in a way that seems to keep holding back any moment of real . . . catharsis/redemption/celebration. There's a very effective, and fitting, end to things, but it's easy to see that some people will be unmoved by it, leaving them to shrug and sigh as the end credits roll while others can still ruminate on the beautiful bleakness they've just been served up.

Everyone does good work here, and I'll also note Mallory Adams for her performance, but the film really belongs to Cassidy. Huisman, as good as he is, actually remains a presence in the film due to the shadow he casts over everyone, the power he holds, and the scenes that have him actually present and interacting with others slightly undermine the idea of him (which I assume is one of the points that the movie is making). Moving convincingly from wide-eyed innocent girl to a young woman who wants to ask some important questions, Cassidy is perfect in the lead role. She's been building up a solid filmography over the past decade, and I see no reason why that will stop happening over the next decade.

Quietly powerful, The Other Lamb is a supernatural-tinged work of art that I highly recommend to those with the patience for it. I think it could also end up pairing nicely with The Beguiled (1971, not seen the new version yet), but maybe it's just me thinking that.


I feel the need, the need for a nice . . . coffee

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Netflix And Chill: A. M. I. (2019)

Let me get this out of the way right now. If I see a dumber "horror" movie than A. M. I. this year then I will be shocked. I knew I was going to get something dumb, I just hadn't figured on it being quite SO dumb. And the horror content is so light that I am really not sure it counts. Without meaning to sound like an ass, I wonder if writer-director Rusty Nixon intended this as a black comedy, and just couldn't quite nail down the tone.

As I sometimes do, I'm going to share the IMDb summary here: "A seventeen year old girl forms a co-dependent relationship with an artificial intelligence on her phone and goes on a murderous rampage."

That's all the description of this movie you need. That's it, the summation is spot on. The only thing it doesn't really make clear is just how quickly things go from kind of normal to absolute insanity. The runtime here is 77 minutes, and I'd say there's almost a full hour of the lead (Cassie, played by Debs Howard) being absolutely bonkers. All because she downloads an AI app for her phone that has a voice similar to that of her dead mother. And if there's one thing her dead mother can help her with it is punishing the betrayal of others by pushing Cassie to murder.

Look, if there's a movie based around a phone app then I will watch it. I know they won't all be like Her. But some of them (like Hellphone) are a LOT of fun. Others (like Bedeviled) are a bit less fun, but still mildly amusing. I even quite liked the silliness of Countdown. So I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and have no problem admitting that. But you still need to make it feel remotely possible, maybe without having a character who is clearly unhinged from the very first scenes.

I feel sorry for Howard, who at least gets to light up a little bit in scenes that have her embracing her insanity. Maybe the solution was to stick with that all along, have Cassie just looking for any excuse to start killing people. Sam Robert Muik doesn't come out of things too badly, playing a boyfriend who is so unrelentingly awful that you can't help but enjoy the route to his inevitable comeuppance. Nobody else makes much of an impression though, with the exception of Veronica Hampson, who arguably starts Cassie on her downward spiral by being an absolute snake.

Nixon may not have created the original story idea here, and maybe something was lost as he expanded it into a feature from that central concept, but he's the one to blame. He makes so many wrong decisions, takes the film down such an absolutely ridiculous path without helping to ground viewers in a way that could prepare them better for the outright silliness, and there are moments when you can visualise a much better movie in your own head. It should be fun. It's not. And the punchline is one of the worst I have seen in years.


Nobody wants to buy me a coffee this weekend? *insert sad face emoji here*

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Shudder Saturday: Psychotic! (2016)

Written and directed by Maxwell Frey and Derek Gibbons, it's not really a big surprise to find that Psychotic! has starring roles for, yep, Maxwell Frey and Derek Gibbons. Because there's no other reason for this to exist, it's simply a vanity project that has about two semi-decent gags in amongst a whole runtime full of tedium.

It's essentially a slasher movie, but the idea is that there's a killer making his way through a group of people who it's hard to care about anyway. I think that is the idea. You also get a playful notion that these party-hopping hipsters are either never too concerned about a real-life problem (aka a serial killer) harshing their buzz and that they're all as destructive to one another anyway, just without the sharp bits of metal to go full on stabby stabby.

There's maybe more to it, but I don't have the energy or enthusiasm to word things any better after suffering through this. The point is that you might get something more from it. I'll still disagree with you that anything more you get is enough to make it worth your time.

The script is a complete mess. It's not funny enough, not smart enough to make the main points that it wants to make, and gives you characters that you just hope to see die as quickly as possible (which I know can often be the case with any slasher movie, but it's not done properly here).

Nothing is helped by the performances either. Frey and Gibbons may have fancied themselves as decent film-makers, which they're clearly not, but it's even worse that they also fancied themselves as decent actors. This may have been done for budgetary reasons alone, but I somehow doubt it. Kristen Martin does well, playing a young woman named Roxy, but she's just about the only decent performer in a cast almost uniformly stacked with people who really aren't up to the task.

The biggest problem with Psychotic! is that it doesn't work in any conceivable way. The slasher element is appallingly mishandled, the comedy is poor, when it is present, and the main idea isn't strong enough to build an entire movie around. This was obviously created by people who thought they were on to a winner, and those people were helped along by others who got carried along by their enthusiasm. Unfortunately, someone should have been brutally honest, which would have saved us all a bit of pain. Although it just avoids being one of the most boring movies I have ever seen, Psychotic! is so bad, with a dash of smugness, that I don't see it being beaten for the title of most annoying viewing of 2020.


Buy me a coffee here -

Friday, 16 October 2020

You Should Have Left (2020)

Although released in 2020, You Should Have Left feels very much like a film that could have easily been a 2000 option. In fact, it has more than a few similarities with a major 2000 hit, which I won't mention here, because that would spoil things somewhat. It's not a bad film, I actually really enjoyed it, but it is quite a safe and predictable one, ultimately.

Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried are the couple who move into a strange holiday home in Wales. It's just them and their daughter, Ella (Avery Essex). And whatever else resides in the house. Because the house definitely has something in there, be it a supernatural presence or just a constant disregard for the everyday rules of physics. Doors lead to other doors, leading to other doors. The house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside (not in a fun TARDIS way). And time moves in mysterious ways once you start wandering through the various corridors and rooms. It's not entirely unironic that Mr Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon stars in a film set in a house which keeps changing by many degrees.

Written and directed by David Koepp, based on the novel by Daniel Kehlmann, what you end up with is a very traditional tale of the supernatural that feels a bit fresh and unique because of the very modern home used as the main setting. Well, it feels that way until you get to the grand finale, which actually provides an explanation that you almost refuse to believe, because it's the most obvious of all possible explanations (in terms of genre plotting, not in terms of everyday life). That doesn't detract from how effective the rest of the film is, and doesn't in itself ruin the whole thing. It's just a shame that there wasn't a more interesting and unique way to bring everything to a close in the third act.

Bacon and Seyfried are both excellent in their roles, despite the latter being about thirty years younger than the former (something I thought would be used within the actual plot, but really isn't . . . so I guess that is still just mainstream movies being mainstream movies, right?), but it's hard to truly buy them as a loving, married couple. Viewers see them with some  strain already on their relationship, and it takes time to tease out the details. Unfortunately, the damage is already done by then. It's almost impossible to think of how they got together, how they connected, and how they have stayed together for as long as they have. Essex is a very good young actress, managing to show a balance between being afraid and having the kind of open mind that can allow children to accept more weirdness than adults would put up with.

This review seems more critical than I intended. The more I thought about the movie, the more I could think of that was wrong. But, and this is important, I didn't really think of all of these flaws while the film was playing. I enjoyed the strangeness, enjoyed the spookiness, even enjoyed predicting some of the third act beats. You Should Have Left is far from perfect, and there are many ways in which it could have been improved, but it's an enjoyable attempt to do something familiar in a way that feels slightly new.


Buy me "a coffee" here, if you like any of my reviews, or even if you hate them and want me to get over-caffeinated -

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Deep Blue Sea 3 (2020)

The first Deep Blue Sea movie remains one of my favourite shark movies of all time. Despite some glaring issues, and any shark movie has to do a lot to swim out from underneath the mighty shadow of Jaws, it's a fantastic mix of fun, thrills, and spectacle. And I never thought it would be the start of a movie series, but here we are. Deep Blue Sea 2, on the other hands, was one of the worst sequels I have ever seen. And I have seen pretty much every major horror franchise instalment (and ALL of the Puppet Master movies).

I wasn't too enthusiastic about checking out this third shark-infested outing. Writer Dirk Blackman has few credits to his name, with the biggest being arguably the worst of the Underworld movies, and director John Pogue didn't really impress me with his helming of The Quiet Ones (one of only four movies he has directed, although he has also written a number of fun screenplays, if you can define The Skulls movies as fun, which I can).

Tania Raymonde plays Emma Collins, a marine biologist studying the effects of climate change on a small atoll that is sinking further into the sea, and is no longer inhabited by more than a handful of people (most of them being part of the science team). Things get interesting when Richard (Nathaniel Buzolic) and Lucas (Bren Foster) turn up, looking for some very aggressive bull sharks that they believe have made a beeline for the atoll. Richard and Emma have some history, whereas Lucas has no such ties. He has the men under his command, and won't think twice about using some of the weaponry and hardware that could cause as much damage to the atoll as it could to the sharks.

While the second Deep Blue Sea movie felt like some low-budget parody of the first, this feels like a fun retread that is happy to sculpt some different meat on to the bones (no, don't ask me why I went with that bizarre and gross metaphor). The sharks are still motivated by certain factors, and the sinking atoll makes for an interesting environment in which to place all the action. And speaking of action, it's so much better this time around than it was in the second film. The effects are decent, the pacing isn't too bad, and the overall effect is to turn Deep Blue Sea into a name I now wouldn't mind being stretched out for a number of tenuously-connected sequels.

Raymonde is a decent lead, Buzolic and Foster are both suitably shady in different ways, and the other standout is Emerson Brooks, playing the toughest member of the science team, and the main hope for leading a fight back if/when things turn messy.

It certainly still feels weighed down by the limited budget and resources, but Deep Blue Sea 3 puts a lot more action and enjoyable shark moments onscreen than you'd expect, especially if you endured the previous outing. It's no classic, still not anywhere close to being as good as the first movie, but it's not a bad way to pass 90 minutes or so.


Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Prime Time: Shakma (1990)

The trailer is infamous, and the film actually manages to live up to that level of excitement, but there are still not enough people who have experienced the full glory of Shakma for themselves. If you are within that demographic, you should really change that.

Shakma is a vicious baboon. He's made even more vicious after being administered a drug that is supposed to calm him down, but ends up having the exact opposite effect. This means that Shakma is an added menace when a medical professor (Roddy McDowall) and a bunch of his students are all playing a live action role playing game in their research facility building. The building is all set up for their game, people speak to one another on various walkie talkies, and Shakma starts to cause carnage and death before the players start to figure out what is going on.

Written by Roger Engle, his only credit, and co-directed by Hugh Parks and Tom Logan, Shakma has the potential to be absolutely awful, considering the silliness of certain plot elements. It ends up being quite thrilling, however, because of how dangerous it feels throughout. A lot of editing and canny camerawork is involved to show the baboon being vicious and violent, but there are still many moments that have you fearing for the cast members.

Speaking of the cast members, McDowall is the biggest name here, but it's obvious that he's been picked for a prime role that allows him to lend his wonderful presence to the film without getting overly involved with the more intense sequences that will involve some of the younger players. Christopher Atkins is the lead, even if that only becomes clear after the opening third is out of the way, and he is joined by Amanda Wyss, Ari Meyers, Robb Morris, Tre Laughlin, and a few others.

But it's Shakma who holds your interest most, especially during the many moments that depict him going absolutely mental at closed doors. Shakma does not like having his routes blocked by doors, that much is clear. He's terrifying for every minute he's onscreen, even when not supposed to be as terrifying as he is later. I would not want to be stuck anywhere with an angry baboon, and Shakma seems to be about the angriest baboon I have seen in my life.

Things are set up well enough, with the measures taken to allow the gamers to play their strange game in peace, and there are logical reasons for most of the major plot beats, making this a more grounded and coherent piece of work than you'd think it would be. I am sure it would have been easy enough for people to be lazy and shrug, "some people are in a building and a baboon goes on the rampage", but kudos to the creators for putting some thought into things, making it a more believable, and slightly darker, film.

Watch it, be thrilled by it, and watch it again. Oh, and definitely head to YouTube to check out the trailer. Shakma!


Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Honeymoon Phase (2019)

Written and directed by Phillip G. Carroll Jr., and starring his wife (Chloe Carroll) in a main role, The Honeymoon Phase is a fairly low-budget sci-fi horror that has an interesting idea at the heart of it, and then spoils that idea by throwing in some mishandled twists and turns.

Tom (Jim Schubin) and Eve (Carroll) are a couple who could do with some money to help them along in life. So they pretend to be married, which means they can enrol themselves in a scientific study of couples that seems to be aiming to find out just what makes "the honeymoon phase" so enjoyable, and how that feeling can endure throughout a long relationship. Things start off well enough, but soon change. Are Tom and Eve being manipulated by the people running the study, or are they just growing apart while forced to spend so much time together?

There's a lot to enjoy/admire here. Carroll Jr. has made good use of his budget, and wisely gone for a film that pushes ideas ahead of any attempts at spectacle and gore. The pacing isn't too bad, although I have issues with the plotting, and the way things are structured (this is a film in which you are told something at the start that taints the whole viewing experience, and I think the film would have been better with a bit more of a straightforward chronological approach to the events). There are two main turns that the plot takes, and I have problems with both of them for different reasons. One isn't given nearly enough explanation, considering how it plays out in terms of timing, while the other just feels disappointingly predictable, considering the many ways in which Carroll Jr. could have taken the material.

It also doesn't help that the nepotism doesn't seem to be a very wise choice, although it may have saved some money in the budget, and made it easier to get some of the scenes shot (not every actress would have gone along with some of the content). Carroll is just not very good in her role, sad to say, and has to suffer at the hands of the script more than Schubin, who is better overall. The two help one another in a few scenes, but that's only temporary. When the script calls for the relationship to start fraying, leading to possible division between the two of them, it becomes more obvious that one actor is better than the other. François Chau is very good in his small role, overseeing the whole study, and Tara Westwood is someone giving the appearance of being helpful, although Eve stops perceiving her that way as she starts to have very different thoughts on the way the study is going.

What we could have had here is a film that thoughtfully looks at how people put on their best faces at the start of a relationship, sometimes wearing masks that slip ever so gradually over time until one partner looks over to find the other unrecognisable. You can still read that into the movie, but it feels entirely incidental. What you get instead is a promising feature debut that suffers from taking a path that seems far less interesting than some others that were available.


Monday, 12 October 2020

Mubi Monday: The Selfish Giant (2013)

Very loosely based on a short story of the same name, by Oscar Wilde nonetheless, The Selfish Giant is the kind of working-class drama that us Brits can do so well, and it's a most impressive feature debut from writer-director Clio Barnard (who would do equally good work with her next film too, Dark River).

Conner Chapman is Arbor, a bit of a scally, to put it mildly, and his best friend is Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Both boys are out to make some cash, with Arbor the more desperate of the two, hoping to help his mother out of some bad debt. Bunking off school when they can, until they are suspended, the two boys spend their time trying to get Kitten (Sean Gilder) to give them a chance. He owns a local scrapyard, and won't question the legitimacy of their finds. But Arbor starts to push more and more, driven by the quest for a bigger payday.

Anchored by two child performances that are simply superb, The Selfish Giant is a film that you suspect from the very beginning isn't going to end well for everyone. Part of you may wait patiently to see Arbor get his comeuppance, but knowing that he drags Swifty along with him makes it always bittersweet when you suspect things are due to go wrong. 

Barnard does a great job of getting the performances from her young leads that match the material without softening the edges. Arbor will make you angry at times, especially throughout most of the first half of the movie, but you get to see moments that clarify his motivation, making him a bit easier to warm to, in between his mood swings and tantrums. Swifty is easily led astray, but you can see a small ray of hope for him to change his life around, especially as he bonds with the large horse owned by Kitten.

Chapman and Thomas are both excellent in their roles, surrounded by a fine selection of reliable adult co-stars, including Gilder, Lorraine Ashbourne, Rebecca Manley, and fleeting appearances from Ralph Ineson, Ian Burfield, Steve Evets, and Siobhan Finneran.

The young leads may not create a fantasy world for themselves, certainly not in a way we usually see with children onscreen escaping reality, but they risk a similar lack of attachment to events around them as they start to reach further and higher for some kind of envisioned rope ladder that they see as a possible escape route from their daily lives. It's easy to believe in though, especially for those who have any experience of poverty and struggles. The more gravity tries to keep you pinned to the ground, the harder you work to believe in anything that may lift you up, whether that is using some of your money to buy lottery tickets or believing that anyone in the government will work hard to help change the circumstances that you've been surrounded by every day.

Not a fun watch, although there are moments of levity here and there, The Selfish Giant is definitely worthwhile. If you're unfamiliar with the struggle depicted here, perhaps just take a moment once the end credits roll to check up on the current stats in the UK regarding poverty, regional economic failures, and the many people who are stuck in a life that seems to be a million miles away from your own.


Sunday, 11 October 2020

Netflix And Chill: Hubie Halloween (2020)

As happens with pretty much every Adam Sandler movie nowadays (every one that isn't directed by the Safdie brothers anyway), the trailer for Hubie Halloween was met with much eye-rolling and groans of despair. Everyone keeps assuming that his next project will be that deliberate attempt to make his worst ever movie after being snubbed by Mr. Oscar. This is, once again, not true. Although it may feel like it to some people.

Sandler is Hubie Dubois, a man devoted to helping the people of his hometown, Salem, and keeping them safe. And none of them really appreciate his work, or the impressive array of extras that he has fitted to his Thermos flask. Maybe that will change this year though, considering there's an escaped patient from a local institution, and a deadly presence that seems to be whisking away a number of residents. The people in trouble may not like Hubie Dubois, but that won't stop him from trying to save them. Which is why the lovely Violet Valentine finds him so attractive.

Directed by Steve Brill, and co-written by Sandler and Tim Herlihy, this is a typical Sandler joint in so many ways. The cast includes Kevin James, Rob Schneider, Steve Buscemi, and more familiar faces (and things start with a fun little gag involving Ben Stiller reprising a role from far in his past), this is a performance from Sandler that has him putting on an annoying voice, and the whole thing requires a suspension of disbelief that will be a lot harder for those who dislike the lead.

The cast all do well though, especially when not playing characters who are harder to believe (Julie Bowen suffers the most here, as her character is the one inexplicably attracted to Hubie). Noah Schnapp and Paris Berelc are Tommy and Megan, a young maybe-couple who help Hubie, and are in turn helped by him, and there are very fun turns from Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph, June Squibb (playing Hubie's mother, and rocking a number of amusingly inappropriate t-shirts), Ray Liotta, Karan Brar, and Shaquille O'Neal. Everyone seems to be having a really good time, but not in the overly smug way that can emanate from films like the Grown Ups movies. In this case, those having a good time onscreen are also helping viewers to have just as good a time. Sandler is arguably the worst person in a main role, because of his penchant for silly voices, but his character is pitched almost at just the right level, firmly in between sweet and innocent and annoying as hell. This film won't win him any new fans, but I don't think he's been bothered about converting people for many years now.

Hubie Halloween is not the funniest film you'll see this year. It's not one of the best. It's not even the best thing that Netflix has delivered in time for seasonal entertainment on the run up to Halloween this year. But it IS a fun family film that actually does a great job of mixing some laughs with a surprisingly hefty dollop of spooky atmosphere. These are safe scares, and this is a safe film, but everyone deserves to enjoy some thrills and chills during October, and this is an attempt to provide a seasonal treat for everyone.


Saturday, 10 October 2020

Shudder Saturday: Boys In The Trees (2016)

Writer-director Nicholas Verso has crafted quite the little gem here, and my biggest worry is that it will be marketed as a horror movie to horror fans who won't quite appreciate the mix of teen angst and fantastical elements. Not that horror fans aren't often an inclusive and accepting crowd, but rather some films are sold in such a way that expectations are created/raised, without a note about the film sitting within the horror genre without really being a more straightforward horror. It happens quite a lot, which is why I often try to note it in reviews, hoping that I can recommend something I liked a lot without misrepresenting it to others.

The film is all about Corey (Toby Wallace) and Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), two teens who are now moving in very different circles after they spent so much time being firm friends. Corey now hangs about with Jango (Justin Holborow) and his little gang, while Jonah is a bit of an outcast, and often the victim of bullying from Jango and co. Corey is also now starting to view himself differently as he considers how he appears to Romany (Mitzi Ruhlmann), a young woman he is interested in. Anyway, events conspire to bring Corey and Jonah together for a walk homeward on Halloween, 1997. Jonah starts to tell some spooky tales, but the scariest thing in the night may be the perils of growing up under the constant weight of peer pressure.

Clocking in with a runtime of just under two hours, Boys In The Trees is a film not rushing viewers towards any kind of spectacular finale. In fact, if you don't predict at least one major moment here then you haven't watched many horror movies at all. It is, to use a cliché, more about the journey than the destination. But that journey is an almost perfect to enjoy on a dark night in October.

There are things that Verso gets wrong, especially when it comes to some of the dialogue scattered throughout the script, but they are all easy to forgive when he gets so much right. The tone throughout, whether it's the mid-to-late '90s vibe, and soundtrack, or the crisp and chilly darkness of an outdoor walk on Halloween, is perfect. The cast, and their performances, all work brilliantly, and help to make it easier to accept the uneven way in which things are weighted, in terms of emotional impact. You also get occasional individual moments that showcase the blending of reality/memories with strange characters and shadows that feel a bit too lively. More of those moments would have been welcome, but the way they come and go emphasise the push and pull between the two leads, one being more reluctant to look back at the past and remember the sense of magic than the other.

Wallace and McGrath work well together, feeling more like brothers at times than friends (which is absolutely in line with how best friends do feel), and they're even good enough to make the sillier lines in the script still feel acceptable. Holborow does what he can with his character, but his actions make him impossible to like whenever he's onscreen. If there's one major flaw, it's that Jango is so constant and forceful in his bullying that you find it harder and harder to believe that Corey would have ever fallen in with him and his crowd. Ruhlmann does good work, and her character feels very much like the kind of young woman who could be both cool enough and also more mature to make some teenage wannabe-Romeo want to change the error of his ways.

Weaving between dreams and nightmares, both real and imagined, Boys In The Trees is a wonderful concoction that taps right into memories many of us will have, even if we've buried them deep in the recesses of our minds. It's well worth your time, and emanates that special Halloween atmosphere from almost every night-time scene.


Friday, 9 October 2020

A Werewolf In England (2020)

Writer-director Charlie Steeds seems like a lovely man. And he's certainly been doing his best in recent years to provide horror fans with a number of British genre flicks. So it's with no great relish that I warn people to avoid A Werewolf In England, which is arguably even worse than most of The Howling sequels (yes, I know what I am saying, unfortunately).

Tim Cartwright is Horrace, a man in charge of a prisoner (Archie, played by Reece Connolly) who is to be sentenced to death. They have to shelter at an inn for the night, and it turns out that those running the inn have some guests marked as potential food for some local werewolves.

On the one hand, fair play to Steeds for not letting his limited resources narrow his vision. Where some people might just figure out a way to make this a modern horror movie with one main creature, Steeds has decided to set this in years gone by, and to show multiple werewolves. On the other hand, there's a fine difference between genius and stupidity. Worrying about making one werewolf that looks good enough to be shown onscreen is one thing. Having more than one, or editing to make it look that way, doesn't feel like a wise decision, especially when things aren't quite as polished and effective as they could be (to put it nicely). The first full werewolf sighting is disappointing, and things don't get any better.

Oh well, at least the script is energetic and full of good humour, eh. No. Those involved with the film may have thought that, but it's not. Humour, like horror, is very subjective, but there's something far too on the nose about the potential metaphor that came to my mind as I had to endure a drawn-out scene in which a werewolf inadvertently sprayed two main characters with liquid shit. Nothing feels well thought out, and the second half feels very much like a lot of padding around whatever gags Steeds thought would be enough to make the movie worthwhile.

I wouldn't say that Cartwright and Connolly were bad, not exactly, but they're given material that needs them to do a lot of mugging and overacting in ways that don't really show them in their best light. Natalie Martins fares a little better, playing an "employee" at the inn, named Jane, but most of the cast are left to the same fate as the leads.

I like the attitude of Steeds, he doesn't seem to be in the mindset that so many others might adopt while working on independent British horrors and he's certainly trying to be prolific without necessarily joining in with the titles that feel like they've come out of some British manufacturing line (the ones that feel like British companies emulating The Asylum). It's just maybe worth remembering that quality over quantity can also be a good thing. 


Nothing like this is IN the movie.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

The Monster Project (2017)

Devon (Justin Bruening) and Jamal (Jamal Quezaire) are a pair of filmmakers who have a plan. Well, Devon has a plan. It involves getting filmed interviews with people who claim to be real monsters. They form a little group, with Devon's ex, Murielle (Murielle Zuker), and Bryan (Toby Hemingway), a recovering addict, and set up to film in an isolated house. The three main monsters to be interviewed are a vampire (Shayla, played by Yvonne Zima), a skinwalker (Steven, played by Steven Flores), and a woman who claims to be possessed by a demon (Shiori, played by Shiori Ideta).

There’s a general rule to supposed “found footage” movies. I may have mentioned it before. The quicker things move into night-vision mode, the weaker it is. The Monster Project turns off the lights about halfway through.

Directed by Victor Mathieu, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Corbin Billings and Shariya Lynn, there’s a decent idea at the heart of this. It also makes a wise decision in having the character of Bryan being someone who may not trust his instincts until things are getting crazier and crazier. It is just a shame that it then settles for being a very standard, and very disappointing, “found footage” movie. I used quotation marks there as this has a number of details that stop it from being as authentic as some other movies done in this style.

The effects are quite well done, and the plotting is about as good as you can expect from something with this premise, but a lot of the dialogue is weak, there are no surprises, and it never feels more energised, even during a third act that starts to feel like the moments that the film-makers were all looking forward to recording.

Zima is the absolute highlight, her vampire character causing friction within the group when she reveals a truth she then claims she didn’t realise was a secret. She is dark, playful, sexy, and deadly all in one. Nobody else comes close to her presence, although Ideta does very well with her turn. Hemingway also does a decent job, which almost makes up for the other leads. Quezaire suffers the most, written almost exactly like the black characters used to show the comedic and misrepresentative examples of stock black characters in Not Another Teen Movie.

That premise is enough to buy this some goodwill, but not quite enough to forgive it for the cumulation of every wrong choice that makes up the second half. Almost worth your time, and I am sure one or two people will absolutely love it.


Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Prime Time: The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Directed by Amy Holden Jones and written by Rita Mae Brown, The Slumber Party Massacre is all about, well, I guess the title tells you all you need to know.

What you have here is a slasher movie that filters the subgenre through a feminist lens. Just kidding. What you really have here is a slasher movie pretty much like every other slasher movie, except the killer uses a really big drill on his victims (even if the deaths still end up somehow being not as bloody as you might think).

Trish (Michele Michaels) is the girl throwing the titular party. She did invite new girl, Valerie (Robin Stille), but Valerie decided not to accept the invite after hearing Trish and her friends making fun of her. She ends up babysitting her sister, Courtney (Jennifer Meyers), instead. But everyone will end up sharing the terrifying experience, surely, or they wouldn’t all be introduced in a slasher movie.

Originally intended to be a parody of slasher movies, Slumber Party Massacre ended up being a more straightforward horror, but nowhere near as straightforward as most. The script from Brown certainly feels more self-aware and playful than many other slasher movie scripts from this time, and the direction from Jones keeps the emphasis on the silliness of the main premise and the light atmosphere of a fun slumber party. The girls chat away to one another, boys decide to show up and try their luck, pizza and beers are to be consumed, and everything feels surprisingly convincing, for this kind of film.

The cast aren’t that memorable, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it means nobody is all that awful either. Michaels is the one setting up the main premise, Stille is someone you always know has the potential to be final girl material (unless she's killed off in a major surprise move), and Meyers is a lot of fun as the typical younger sister who wants to be allowed to do more. Michael Villela is a lot of fun as the killer, Ryan Kennedy is amusing as the "cool" adult neighbour, Mr. Contant, and the always-welcome Brinke Stevens is as welcome as always, in the role of Linda.

A lot of people prefer the daffy sequel to this first instalment. I sit on the other side of that fence. This feels like a really fun time, but without ever sacrificing the small moments of tension and the standard template for slasher movies. As Rick Astley might say, and I paraphrase, "it knows the rules, and so do I". It may not do anything perfectly, but it does everything well. I actually rate this quite highly in any selection of slasher flicks from the 1980s. I hope others agree.


Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Hellraiser: Judgment (2018)

I may have lost count, but I am pretty sure this must be about the seventieth Hellraiser movie, and it is time for writer Gary J. Tunnicliffe to step up and direct, after doing such a sterling job of almost destroying the entire series with his work on the script for the previous outing.

Two detectives, who also both happen to be brothers, Sean Carter (Damon Carney) and David Carter (Randy Wayne), are investigating crimes committed by a deranged serial killer. They don't seem to realise that this is the work of Pinhead (played this time by Paul T. Taylor) and his main assistant here, The Auditor (played by Tunnicliffe). To try and help things along, the two male detectives are joined by a female, Christine Egerton (Alexandra Harris), and things start creeping towards an ending you can see coming a mile or two away.

I think (not completely sure though) that this is a Hellraiser movie written AS a Hellraiser movie (unlike so many instalments on the series that were just movies with Pinhead and cenobites shoehorned in). There are some times when it doesn’t feel Hellraiser-y enough, mainly because so much of the plot feels like a standard serial killer movie, but the horror aspects are very effective throughout.

The one thing I know for certain is that, perhaps due to such a low bar being set the last time around, this is a much better film than the last one. The plot is slim, although Tunnicliffe certainly tries his best to make it feel a bit weightier, and I will admit that there are a couple of really good ideas here, and the use of the demonic entities allows for some excellent set-pieces.

The cast are a mixed bunch. Carney and Wayne are a couple of poor leads, although Harris does a lot better, making the men more tolerable whenever she is sharing the screen with them. Tunnicliffe is enjoyable as The Auditor and Taylor is a worthy successor to Bradley as the most iconic of the cenobites. Having said that, he apparently tried to give a different interpretation of the character, yet it feels very much like he was playing things safe by trying to imitate the best person to forever be associated with the role. I can take or leave everyone else, although I think it is worth mentioning “the jury” as a highlight.

I am as surprised as anyone else might be to say that I quite enjoyed this. It works for fans of the series, and it also works as a fairly stand-alone horror flick. Tunnicliffe has almost done enough to make me forgive him for the previous Hellraiser movie he created. Almost.


Monday, 5 October 2020

Mubi Monday: Gay USA (1977)

There has been a lot for people to be active about lately, from the ongoing attempt to remind people that Black Lives Matter, and not just when yet another person is shot by the police, to the celebrities now drawing a line in the sand and picking a stance on transgender issues. A lot of lovely people are supportive and inclusive, some spiral into what we will now refer to as the Linehan Vortex (for no particular reason at all, I just think it is a fitting name for a behaviour that becomes obsessive and shows more about the people spouting their hate than the victims of the nastiness. I mention these things for two reasons. One, a lot of the arguments now being used to defend transphobia are the same ones that were used to defend racism and homophobia over the years, making this documentary a surprisingly relevant viewing experience. Two, if you ever find yourself saying “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter”, or if you are scared in case the gay agenda comes to fruition and we have an entire planet of gay people living a happy life until the population dies out, please just fuck off. 

Seriously. If you are still reading this then I will assume you are a decent person. If not, and you want to sneakily stay here and read my nonsense, know that I don’t care for your readership. I don’t need the traffic. I don’t do this for money. Or any guaranteed audience. It is mainly my own memory aid, and I am pleasantly surprised when others actually click on anything I have written. 

That slight rant aside, Gay USA is a positive rainbow for these dark days, made up of footage taken during numerous “gay pride” marches throughout America (I have those words in quotation marks as I am not sure when they actually became the Gay Pride marches we know of today). 

You get a lot of soundbites that may seem easy to laugh at, either because they are a bit too cool and groovy or because they are so naive, but it is heartening to see how many people are there, being unafraid to celebrate their sexuality or being visible in their stance as a form ally of those seeking equal human rights. There are a few present who are obviously not fully on board with the whole idea, but they are thankfully few and far between. 

Arthur J. Bressan Jr. managed to assemble some great footage from the various mass gatherings of people invested in the campaign for gay rights, and the final product holds up as a celebration of love, in many forms, and the importance of always fighting for what is right. And there's nothing more right than one human having the same value as any other.


Sunday, 4 October 2020

Netflix And Chill: Vampires Vs. The Bronx (2020)

Gentrification. It isn’t always a completely bad thing, especially when certain areas are rejuvenated and re-energised in a way that helps out local residents. But it is often done in a way with little, or no, regard for the people already living in an area that is about to be changed beyond all recognition. So that isn’t a good thing. Neither are vampires. 

Vampires vs. The Bronx is a film that throws both of these things together in a wonderfully entertaining kid-centric horror that effortlessly feels much more in line with ‘80s flicks than so many other modern films that have tried, and failed, to capture that essence.

Jaden Michael is Miguel, Gerald Jones III is Bobby, and Gregory Diaz IV is Luis, and these three Bronx kids are the ones who discover that vampires are buying up local real estate and planning to snack their way through the Bronx. The vampires are being helped by Frank Polidori (Shea Wigham), and their business front uses the name Murnau to give those in the know fair warning. Can the kids get anyone to believe them? Can they save the neighbourhood, from both gentrification and the vampire menace? And how much will they be able to take away from watching Blade?

Directed by Osmany Rodriguez, who also came up with the story that was developed into the screenplay by Blaise Hemingway, this is one of the most pleasant surprised I have had in months. Admittedly, the trailer piqued my interest, but this benefits from perfect lead performances, pacing and plot progression that only falter in the third act (which may be enough to turn some viewers against it, but it still worked for me), and a real sense of fun throughout. 

Not looking to reinvent the wheel, or familiar vampire movie tropes, this is a film that gives you a checklist of things to look out for . The use of holy water, the suspected vampire who isn’t one, the improvised stake, and much more. You have seen everything here before, but that is only a problem if none of it is done well here. On the contrary, it is all handled with gusto, even if some may consider it a little bit bloodless.

I won’t go on and on about how great the young leads are, but they are, so I will take a moment to mention how good Whigham is in his role, how much fun Sarah Gadon has as Vivian, a newcomer to the area that the kids want to keep safe, and how nicely the cast is rounded out by the likes of Method Man, Chris Redd, The Kid Mero, Judy Marte, and even Zoe Saldana (in a fantastic cameo).

It may not be destined for status as an enduring classic, it may not be as scary as you want it to be, and there are moments of silliness that stretch plausibility (why do people always end up hunting vampires at night?!?!?), but Vampires vs. The Bronx is a perfect film to enjoy in the right company, especially during October.


Saturday, 3 October 2020

Shudder Saturday: Scare Me (2020)

Written and directed by Josh Ruben, who also gives himself a leading role, Scare Me feels very much like a genre film written and directed by someone who gives themselves a leading role. It's a showcase piece, with the wrong person trying to get the most from it.

Ruben is Fred, a wannabe-writer who decides to spend some time in a remote cabin to kickstart his writing endeavours. In a nearby cabin is Fanny (Aya Cash), a writer who has already had no small amount of success. A power outage leads to these two people coming together, and Fanny comes up with the idea of them telling stories to one another, attempting to provide entertainment and scares.

An anthology movie with a twist, Scare Me has gone down well with some horror fans, and I really can't work out how that happened. It failed almost entirely for me, and is only saved by the wonderful turn from Cash.

Although the idea of the main characters telling, and acting out, their tales initially seems like a fun concept, with physical performances being complemented by some wonderful audio/foley work, it quickly outstays its welcome, especially when you realise that you're never going to see more. It then starts to make you wonder why this wasn't simply created as a stage play, or perhaps even some kind of immersive audio-only experience, which could have been fantastic.

Ruben isn't as good as he needs to be in his role, and he doesn't really sell any of the subtler characterisations that bubble up to the surface in time for the third act. Cash is much better, but there are instances when her acting feels as if it is working hard to underline the fact that she is acting, if you know what I mean. Chris Redd, playing a pizza delivery worker named Carlo, brings a fun energy to the proceedings, but it isn't enough to elevate the whole movie.

Of the many problems I have with this movie, the one that may be the most difficult for me to ignore is the fact that almost none of the stories delivered by the performers is remotely scary, or even very good. They are, in fact, mostly forgettable. The joy with an anthology film is that you usually don't have to wait too long to find a story you like, but Scare Me leaves viewers without any proper entertainment to go with the novel presentation.

I really wanted to enjoy this. I'd heard about the format and thought it could be a good way to deliver some traditional fare in a non-traditional way. If nothing else, it featured two people telling spooky stories by a fire on a dark night. Except it didn't. Just that simple concept would have been preferable to this (as happened with the wonderful little gem, The Devil's Business). 

Misguided rather than absolutely inept and horrible, Scare Me just felt a lot more annoying and intolerable to me because Ruben never focused on the strengths available to him. Maybe one of his future projects will be better though, and I'm not writing him off. This was certainly a different way to try to make something with certain limitations in place.


Friday, 2 October 2020

Two Heads Creek (2019)

Norman (Jordan Waller) and Annabelle (Kathryn Wilder) have just laid their mother to rest when they stumble upon a wild secret. She wasn't really their mother. Their mother seems to be a woman named Mary (Kerry Armstrong), who lives in the small Australian town of Two Heads Creek. Leaving the family butcher shop behind (well, Norman finally does that, Annabelle left it behind a long time ago), the pair head down under for a trip that will encompass family matters, a ridiculously upbeat local guide named Apple (Helen Dallimore), and some unpleasant-looking, but tasty, stew.

Directed by Jesse O'Brien, and written by Waller, two people who only have a handful of respective movie credits to their names, Two Heads Creek is sometimes an attempt at the kind of broad splatter horror comedies that we have seen before. Strangely, it also tries to posit itself as a film with some timely commentary on immigration and the constant mistreatment of those viewed as outsiders. I refer to this as strange because it just doesn’t work, especially in the early scenes that show Norman being given abuse by some teens because he’s not a Brit, apparently.

Having given himself a decent lead role, Waller fails to put the rest of his energy into creating a fully-realised environment for both the horror and comedy to better develop and reverberate throughout the slim plot. It’s a shame, especially as O’Brien isn’t able to add anything to the material with his notably competent, but unremarkable, direction.

Waller does better with his acting, making Norman a very likeable and sweet main presence, and he works well alongside Wilder, who is given a character less likely to  think before she gives people her honest opinion of any situation. Dallimore is an obvious highlight, whether being chirpy and cheery or being potentially menacing, and both Kevin Harrington and Stephen Hunter do good work as a couple of the local menfolk, very different from one another in demeanour, but equally dangerous when things take a turn for the culinary. Madelaine Nunn is another highlight, playing Daisy (a resident of Two Heads Creek who takes a liking to Norman), and Gary Sweet is quietly amusing for the way he plays his role. Armstrong, as the missing mother, is okay, but there's no REAL motivation given for the way in which she gets the ball rolling with the main plot.

This seemed to go down well recently at a few festival events, and it's easy to see it being more enjoyable with the right crowd, but I was just disappointed by most of it. Never funny enough, never gory enough, never wild enough, it's a tame film that seems to think it is being bloody and crazy. Cinematically, this is the equivalent of that office "japester" who puts a dollop of tomato sauce on a tampon and turns up to the work Halloween party to tell everyone he turned up in period costume. Know what I mean? It's mildly amusing at first, but gets tiresome when he tells the twentieth person, and nobody thinks he's as clever or funny as he himself does.

That's a BIT harsh on this film, and it's not quite as bad as that, but it's definitely (sadly) not nearly as good as those involved think it is.


Thursday, 1 October 2020

Open 24 Hours (2018)

Vanessa Grasse plays Mary, a young woman with a whole mass of mental health issues, thanks to the fact that she eventually set fire to her serial killer boyfriend. Freshly released from prison, and keen to start making her life more normal, Mary gets a job working at a gas station, on the night shift. After being shown the ropes by Bobby (Brendan Fletcher), it is time for Mary to be alone. Just her and the customers. And the visions of her killer boyfriend doing more killing. But are the visions just in her head, or is he out for revenge. 

Written and directed by Padraig Reynolds, who also gave us the fine little horror Worry Dolls, as well as some other enjoyable genre treats, Open 24 Hours has a lot that it does well, even if there are many moments that we have seen done numerous times before. 

The first thing it does well is the way it shades the central character. Mary is a victim, and traumatised by what she went through, but there's also something more complicated to her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. She was referred to as "the watcher" by many, and Reynolds manages to maintain some ambiguity there as viewers get to consider how much Mary witnessed, and how much she may have found even slightly thrilling. It's a theme that runs through most of the movie, and elevates this above many similar slasher flicks.

The next thing it does well is casting. Grasse is just right in the lead role, showing her nervousness while not overdoing things. She doesn't have a huge filmography yet, but I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for her in any future movie projects. Fletcher is someone I always enjoy seeing onscreen, and does well in his supporting role, a friendly face who also gets some background information out of the main character, helping to get viewers more fully informed. Cole Vigue is suitably menacing as the real/imagined killer, and Daniel O'Meara is both tough and caring as Tom Doogan, the parole officer who wants Mary to at least have a chance to do better.

Reynolds does a great job with the script, throwing in some scares here and there throughout a first half that is all about character development before increasing the tension and potential for bloodshed in the second half. He's equally adept when it comes to the direction, maintaining a nice balance between the gore gags and the complex character at the heart of the story. A couple of moments threaten to make things a bit too far-fetched, but you can say that about most slasher movies. This remains more grounded than most.

There are flaws, and it's hard to say whether many people will enjoy this as much as I did, or whether they will prefer one half over the other, but Open 24 Hours is a film you should definitely give some time to. It does what Reynolds wants it to do, and it does it very well.


Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Prime Time: Driven (2019)

Casey Dillard, who also wrote this film, stars as Emerson, a woman who earns a living driving for some kind of taxi service type of company. She also aspires to be a stand up comic, although that may not happen while she never actually takes the step up to the stage to give it a proper go. Things get very weird for Emerson when she picks up Roger (Richard Speight, Jr), a man who is actually dealing with a demon menace. Although they don’t get along at all, Emerson may end up being the best person to help Roger in his demon-destroying quest. 

Directed by Glenn Payne, Driven is a fun film that feels like it could have been even more fun if two things were changed. First, Dillard could have made the script much more amusing. She does well in fleshing out the main characters, and her own character has enough interesting aspects to her persona without being quirky for the sake of quirkiness, but there’s a lack of sharp wit in the plotting and dialogue. Second, this could have been made years ago. It now feels like a film that will be easily lost in the shuffle of movies that have a lead character working for an Uber-like company or cab firm. 

It would also help to plot this in a way that actually provided any tension, or made you feel that something was actually at stake. That would mean softening some of the edges of at least one character, or perhaps even making a point of explaining the repercussions of the demon problem in a way that signifies end of days kind of danger. 

Although a few other characters appear throughout the movie, it’s essentially a film focused on a driver and her problematic fare. Dillard is very good in her role, and gets to do even better as the second half allows her to develop her character further, and it’s obvious why she excels in a role that she wrote. Speight, Jr also does decent work, but is hampered by the fact that his character isn’t one viewers ever get to warm to. Even in the second half, Speight, Jr is left as a reluctant “hero” who doesn’t appreciate how his actions may impact others, or even how their lives may differ greatly from his own. 

Making movies is all about making what can seem to be an infinite number of choices, and I know that I have the easy life of commenting on them while having never made my own. There are people who may like the choices made here by both Payne and Dillard. The latter certainly seems to have wanted to ground some genre fun in a story that shows someone finding her own ability to bite the bullet and help others. And that is a very good choice to have made. I just wish there had been ways to either make the end result darker or much more fun, or both.


Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Teen Witch (1989)

I'm not saying Teen Witch killed the careers of those behind the camera, but it's the last film written by Robin Menken and Vernon Zimmerman, and the second-last narrative feature from director Dorian Walker. Some of the cast members have managed to continue their acting careers, which seems like a miracle when you see some of the stuff they have to do here.

Robyn Lively is Louise, a typical teenage girl who spends her time in the company of her friend, Polly (Mandy Ingber), swooning over Brad (Dan Gauthier), and wishing she was more popular at her school. After a bike accident leaves her a bit shaken up, Louise ends up encountering Madame Serena (Zelda Rubinstein), a woman that informs Louise that she's due to inherit some magical powers by the time she turns sixteen. When that happens, Louise finds that she can make herself popular, and put everything in place to give her a good shot with Brad, but at what cost?

Teen Witch is quite a mad film, and I immediately resented watching it as soon as the end credits started to roll. I may have been a bit too harsh though. It's very much a film from the 1980s, it's very much a film thinking it provides a story that teenage girls will identify with and enjoy, and it's unafraid to lean into the sillier moments (at least one of which, an impromptu street rap scene, is the stuff of cinematic legend).

Lively at least makes a good, personable, lead. Ingber is also very good, playing the typical best friend who has become resigned to accepting their station in high school, and at least enjoys the fact that she doesn't pander to her peers in an attempt to gain brownie points. Rubinstein is a lot of fun, and Gauthier, well, he just has to stand in the right spot and look like a handsome schoolboy/middle-aged yuppie. Dick Sargent being cast as Louise's father is a nice touch, Joshua John Miller is a pesky little brother, Shelley Berman and Marcia Wallace are teachers affected in very different ways by witchy powers, and Noah Blake and Megan Gallivan both get standout moments.

There are set-pieces here that have to be seen to be believed, and even then I cannot guarantee that you'll believe them, wild events that have no long-lasting consequences, and characters who learn an important moral lesson or two by the time everything ends. And these things irritated me while I was watching the film, but later struck me as elements typical to pretty much any teen movie. It still may not have worked for me (although I am far from the target audience), but it would be unfair of me to mark it down for elements that I have enjoyed in so many other teen flicks.

I was going to end this review by warning people away from Teen Witch. My view of the film has softened though. I think you should watch it at least once. You may even enjoy it. Whatever you think of it, you certainly won't forget it.


Monday, 28 September 2020

Mubi Monday: Space Dogs (2019)

Here's the blurb for Space Dogs, according to the sources where it is listed online (such as IMDb, MUBI, etc). I'm going to just copy and paste it here because it is the best starting point for giving some idea of the mood of the film, a documentary that considers the use of animals by humans in the quest to make better use of advancing technologies.
"Laika, a stray dog, was the first living being to be sent into space and thus to a certain death. A legend says that she returned to Earth as a ghost and still roams the streets of Moscow alongside her free-drifting descendants."

As you might expect, although I am emphasising it right here and now, this is NOT a documentary that animal lovers will enjoy. I consider myself an animal lover, although I don't have that hard a time when it's fictional harm/death on display, and Space Dogs had a number of scenes that I found uncomfortable to sit through, to say the least.

Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter have opted to give viewers an important perspective on the history of the space race, and the subsequent treatment of animals in the name of science. Animals have been used as pioneers on numerous occasions, and yet nobody can really fully judge how any of those experiences change them. If a chimpanzee is sent into space, and returns unharmed, then how can humans know what thoughts have gone through its mind? Considering the effect that space travel can have on human beings, it's not impossible to think of animals being seriously affected by their time away from their home planet.

As well as trying to ruminate on this kind of thing (perhaps a particular "do sheep dream of electric androids?" kind of sci-fi/sci-fact approach), the documentary shows some stray dogs wandering around Moscow, acting in accordance with their nature and not being treated as anything special by those they wander by. This emphasises the chasm between the mindset of animals and the mindset of people, for the most part, but also serves to remind us that we often bemoan the lack of care given to those who were taken in, and used up, by military forces. Astronauts are travellers, yes, but also akin to soldiers, acting on behalf of their nation to take huge risks as they outdo other nations, heading to an isolated spot upon which they can plant a flag to claim it in the name of whoever sent them on their dangerous mission. They often come back to a warm welcome, and can be ambassadors for their sector. Animals are a different matter though. If they come back at all.

Space Dogs may be about space travel, it may show footage of stray dogs, it may also take a turn in the final reel to discuss turtles, but it's also about all animals, and what we owe them. It's hard to truly calculate what animals have done for us over the centuries, and how we can ever really repay them. But starting to remember their contributions more, and to help any that have been abandoned, would be a good start. A stray dog saw the vastness of space. It's not right that so many of them experience a similar cold emptiness while here on the planet they share with creatures able to provide them with warmth, shelter, and safety.


Sunday, 27 September 2020

Netflix And Chill: Bloodline (2018)

Seann William Scott plays Evan, a school counsellor who has a very direct way of helping some of his students deal with serious problems. He kills people, and it often seems to be people who fully deserve it. He's also about to be a dad, so spends his time caring for his pregnant wife, Lauren (Mariela Garriga), and dealing with his slightly overbearing mother (Marie, played by Dale Dickey).

Arguably a strange choice for the fictional feature debut from director Henry Jacobson (with the majority of his time over the past decade spent on documentary works), Bloodline is an enjoyable, grisly thriller that lets everything unfold with an unabashed lean into the macabre humour of the whole situation, whether that's Evan simply doling out fatal justice or his plans being interrupted by a request from his pregnant wife. Despite me only being familiar with the overall premise of the show, I can see this being the kind of thing to appeal to fans of the slightly similar Dexter.

Scott does well in the lead role, playing up his nicer side as he interacts with people on a day to day basis and going about his more bloody business with a very matter-of-fact approach to the deadly deeds. His killing time is him at his most assured, while the everyday life moments have him working harder than anyone else around him, something that is made clear without his performance becoming too over the top (just). Garriga has to play the vulnerable pregnant woman, for the most part, and feels like a passive character until events conspire to give her some knowledge she was previously not privy to. Dickey plays up her bad streak more than anyone else, being the kind of passive aggressive parent who spends a lot of time being critical while supposedly just trying to be helpful, but she's good fun in her role. All of the younger cast members do good work, and Kevin Carroll is the kind of weary and suspicious detective so often found in these kinds of movies.

The script, co-written by Jacobson with Avra Fox-Lerner and Will Honley, is a bit silly when you stop to think about all of the separate elements. Thankfully, it doesn't make you want to stop and think about everything too often. It just moves from one enjoyably twisted scene to the next, trying hard to keep things just as grounded as they need to be, and always poised to take one giant leap into entertaining absurdity. Whether you go along with it or not is a different matter entirely, and I can see people rolling their eyes and dismissing this as a truly awful viewing choice. Personally, I had fun throughout.

It's not really making any major comment on social issues, it's not asking you to overthink the central situations, all Bloodline wants to do is entertain you for the runtime. I think it does that. Some may want more gore, some may want more tension. It's not put together perfectly. But it's put together well enough for all it wants to do. I tentatively recommend it to those who want a movie not aiming to make them overthink things.


Saturday, 26 September 2020

Shudder Saturday: In Search Of Darkness (2019)

I watched this ridiculously long '80s horror doc on Shudder, despite being warned by people who had already seen it. It's all too familiar stuff, and ultimately unsatisfying, sadly, but here's a way to review it without really reviewing it. It's overlong, at almost four and a half hours, and there are no real insights into the genre that you can't find in other, better, documentaries. I'd also have to say that the people picked to comment range from the wonderful to the absolutely awful (but I'll name no names). What it did, however, was spur me to think back on my own relationship with horror films, and films in general.

The babysitter who would let me watch the late-night Hammer horrors while he taped all of the vinyl albums that my parents owned. The Star Wars action figures that my cousins had, that I conspicuously did NOT have (although I don't think I had even seen the movies at that point). Afternoons spent with grandparents while the TV schedule was filled with old Westerns that put me to sleep, with the occasional Cary Grant movie appearing to cheer me up no end. These elements all helped to keep movies in my young mind, but it was the VHS years that set me on a path to obsession and adoration, both with movies and with the horror genre.

My parents rented their first VHS player. It was quite common when they were new. Big chunky TV, and those could also be rented (some even had a coin-slot at the side where you could put 50p in for a few hours, that change paying for the rental and any extra being paid back to customers), and a big top-loader video player. I remember pretending to sleep while uncles and cousins came to visit and watch horror movies. Because horror really sold the format. That seems to be all my parents watched, well horror movies and films like Who Will Love My Children? and Melanie (1982).
So I was excited when I heard they were going to rent the likes of Scanners and Creepshow.
I watched both of those films through eyes squeezed tight to pretend that I was sleeping. Both intensely terrified me. Both gave me nightmares. Both also helped me move from the classic double-bills of Hammer horrors to more modern fare.

I'd already also been freaked out by TV movies such as Don't Go To Sleep and the Salem's Lot epic, but neither of those had the real show-stopping moments that were in the even more recent theatrical releases.

Move forward a few years and I get used to just trying to sit there and be quiet while adults plan their horror viewings for the evening. I saw John Carpenter's The Thing in black and white, on a weird little combo TV/radio device, and I saw George A. Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, and that had tension I had never experienced before. Funnily enough, I caught Night Of The Living Dead on TV a few years later, and I was still slightly shaken by the intensity and power of it.

Don't spend minutes discussing Morricone's great score for The Thing and then put up this image!

I loved Halloween, was bemused by the lack of Michael Myers in Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, and first encountered Jason in Friday The 13th Part 2 (a series I didn't see again until we rented Part 7). Then I met Freddy, thanks to an uncle who had "copies" of every movie ever. Or so it seemed.

A Nightmare On Elm Street freaked me out. I went to bed. I sneakily put my lamp on, thinking I would get up early to put it off again. Yeah, right.
Mum came in and was very angry in the morning.
No more horror movies for me, she said.
"Nooooooooooooo, I'll be fine," I replied.

There was the video van, an old ice cream van converted (I believe) so you could wander into the back and browse a limited selection of titles. I rented the original Freaky Friday many times (crush on Barbara Harris helped) and kept mistakenly renting The Ghost Busters (a video with 2 episodes from the 1970s TV show, NOT the movie Ghostbusters). I also rented Children's Film Foundation movies, but wanted the genre-based stuff. The Glitterball was a favourite.

I saw The Company Of Wolves, wasn't sure of what it was doing, but absolutely loved it (still do, wrote about it in a book and everything).

The Amityville Horror was a "family favourite", and Amityville II: The Possession was wild, especially to a kid who didn't realise the third act was ripping off The Exorcist.
And both An American Werewolf In London and The Howling were shown some love. As well as The Omen movies, but those were relatively glossy and "acceptable" mainstream hits, for the most part.

And I think back on the films that terrified me, that I now can't view as anything other than wonderful horror comedies. Films that I was allowed to rent just by nipping along to a local video store and using the card held in the name of my mother.
Evil Dead II, Re-Animator, The Return Of The Living Dead. Hell, even Creepshow has that E.C. humour all through it. Child's Play may seem ridiculous to many modern horror fans. I was thirteen when I first saw it (night in with a mate, and we figured we could handle it). It was, as we described it to others, "the scariest thing ever!"

I thought I was becoming a trusted teen when we hooked up a cable that meant I could finally watch a video in my own room, as the VCR signal was threaded through to my own little portable TV. It was going to be the next step in my cinematic journey, due to begin with Night Screams.
Night Screams (1987) is a terrible film, but my memory of it is just gratuitous sex and violence. Result.
Except all the sex was fast forwarded by my mum, who was overseeing the film as it also played in the living room.
Fun denied. Dammit.

Is there a point to this ramble? Not really, but maybe there is. Instead of watching all of these documentaries that regurgitate the same information, just reach back into your own memory and recapture that feeling. Whenever you need to. You grew to love the horror genre as you.
Don't start having the impact of it dictated to you by others (not that anyone means it that way as they discuss their love/favourites). And never let anyone tell you what you should like in order to be a "true fan", or how, and how often, you should watch your movies. Gatekeepers aren't necessary. The fact you find the gateways is the main thing. Unless it comes to Jaws. Because, y'know, nobody should dislike Jaws.

There will always be good and bad movies coming out. But nothing changes how you became the film fan you are today, whatever your fave genre.