Welcome!

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 The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story).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

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

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

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

PLEASE, GO ON...

House Of The Long Shadows (1983)

FEBRUARY 8, 2018

GENRE: COMEDIC, THRILLER
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (BORROWED)

I've repeatedly explained the main reasons I started Horror Movie A Day (eleven years ago this week! Happy birthday, me!), mostly involving catching up on movies I missed and working on my abilities as a writer. But there was another one I don't talk about as much: hoping to find "that movie I saw on HBO when I was a kid", though in reality I probably only saw a few minutes, because only one scene really stuck with me: some people (including a blond woman) on the stairs, sunlight streaming through, and a body turning to dust. This memory had me thinking it was a vampire movie of some sort, but my vague description was not good enough for anyone to help me identify the film. But thanks to Twitter, I discovered that old HBO listings were collected online, and so using my memory of what I was doing at the time (watching TV while my dad packed up our RV for a trip to Canada) and a family photo album that helped me find the date we left for that trip, I was finally able to determine that the film was House of the Long Shadows.

So I asked if anyone had a copy, with my friend Amy coming to the rescue, and then in typical Collinsian fashion I didn't get around to watching it for another six months or so. But that's fine, it was nice to check off this box to celebrate HMAD's latest anniversary, even if I had to "cheat" to find the film. See, my hope was that I would just end up watching the movie in the same random fashion I watched at least 80% of the films I watched for the site, totally unaware that a 30+ year mystery was about to be solved, and freaking out when that vivid memory appeared in full on my television. However, as it turns out, my memory was quite off; I know for sure this was the movie I saw, but the "body turning into dust" was actually a little doll that was filled with maggots spilling everywhere when it was toppled over, and while the staircase of my memory was indeed in the film, they were not on it during the dust/maggot scene. Likewise, there was no sunlight coming through at all, and given the time it was on (around 630-7pm in May) I suspect it was actually just the actual sunset coming through the window near the TV. But that's just how memories work, especially over time - they jumble and get combined, and I suspect if we were to get a Blu-ray of any ten "vivid" memories of our childhood showing us how they actually happened, they'd be much different than they occur in our minds.

What's funny is that when I got older and would start trying to describe the movie online to people who might be able to help, I'd say that it might be a Hammer movie, because now that I'd seen a bunch of them (via HMAD) I realized that the tone - as best as I could a. recall it and b. really consider it as a 5 year old - was similar. So when I finally identified the movie, it tickled me to see that not only was it indeed a British film (again, the sort of thing a 5 year old would have no way of comprehending), but it starred the two premiere masters of Hammer horror: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, making it probably the first time I had seen either man in a film, nearly a decade before I'd know who they were. While it wasn't actually a Hammer movie, describing it as one was inadvertently a better clue than my description of the scene I remembered - I mean if you say "Hammer" obviously someone's gonna start rattling off Lee and/or Cushing movies.

What's even funnier is that it's not even really much of a horror movie, and that I lucked out and remembered one of the few scary bits in the entire thing. Watching now I have even more doubt I watched it all as a kid, because it's too slow and talky for me NOW let alone as someone who probably should have been watching cartoons. Despite the incredibly distinguished claim of being the first film to cast Lee, Cushing, and Vincent Price in a film where all three actually interact with one another (with John Carradine for good measure), the (spoiler for 35 year old movie ahead) "all a set up" nature of its plot leaves very little opportunity for terror, and it takes a while for all three of the actors to even show up in the movie, despite their billing. The plot concerns a writer (Desi Arnaz Jr, fifth billed even though he's in pretty much every shot) who is dared by his publisher to write a new novel in 24 hours while staying at an isolated creepy old house, a bet he gladly takes and sets off with what is supposedly one of the only two keys to the joint. However when he arrives he finds two housekeepers (Carradine and Sheila Keith), and then after a while the other big stars show up one by one roughly every five to ten minutes. The movie is half over by the time everyone's there (second billed Lee being the last to arrive, at the 50 minute mark), so it minimizes the amount of time these titans can really bounce off one another.

Worse, the script has Price and Cushing as brothers (Carradine being their father - a curious casting choice since he's only five years old than them) but Lee as a real estate jerk of some sort who doesn't trust them, keeping them apart for a big chunk of the remainder of the film. And even though they're all top-billed the real stars of the movie are Arnaz and his love interest (Julie Peasgood, the "blond woman" of my memory), so their roles are basically glorified cameos as opposed to the leads. Anyway, once everyone's there it gets more fun, with the family gathering to finally release a murderous brother who has been locked in the attic for forty years after murdering a village girl, only to discover his room is empty. Clearly, it must be him that starts killing everyone off one by one, mostly off-screen, right? Well, if you've seen a movie before, or even just a trailer for a movie, you might know exactly who the brother is, and in order for that plot point to work (i.e. why his family members don't recognize him when he arrives saying he's someone else) Walker and screenwriter Michael Armstrong pull another twist on us: it was all a ruse put on by the publisher to make sure he either won his bet, or gave his writer enough inspiration to write a new book, winning either way.

Of course, for this sort of thing to work, the horror stuff has to stop with fifteen minutes left, so that everyone can "come back to life" and explain how it worked. Makeup! Fake weapons! A lot of sleight of hand tomfoolery! We can ignore the fact that our hero could easily have killed any of these people (or at least the real culprit) at any time - indeed he actually throws the villain down the stairs - but not the fact that the movie runs a too-long 103 minutes and after about 90 they tell us most of what we just saw was complete bullshit. It's one thing for a movie like April Fool's Day where a. it's pretty fun at least and b. it's kind of expected considering the holiday setting, but here it's a bit of a dick move that they didn't fully earn. Even if we ignore the number of times that the horror icon guys were going along with the story even when Arnaz wasn't present to hear it (staying in character, I guess?), the movie is just too drawn out to forgive the ruse.

To be fair, the film is paying homage to "Old Dark House" movies (not "Haunted House", a distinction Walker makes on his commentary), and most of those had "it was all fake" kind of endings too - but in those, there was still a legit danger to the characters. In those, most of the time it'd turn out that the "ghost" or whatever was just a guy who was murdering everyone - for real - in order to collect an inheritance or steal their jewels, but there's nothing nefarious at all here, with the body count set firmly at zero. It's also usually not that easy to figure out who the bad guy is (The Bat, for example - which has Vincent Price! - fooled me), whereas here it's pretty obvious the instant the actor appears since he is claiming to be someone boring and they wouldn't hire him for that. Long story short, the reveal that it was all a game didn't even bother me all that much at first, because I figured they were up to something equally sinister, but instead it ends with everyone throwing a party congratulating each other on their performances. That scene does have Vincent Price calling Christopher Lee a "bitch" (in good humor), which is hilarious, but still.

So, ironically, it's almost a perfect "horror" film for a 5 year old, since the movie itself tells you that it was all make believe, saving the child's parents from having to do it. If it were only like 85 minutes and threw in a bit more spooky business (even the older films had more on-screen action), it'd actually be something I'd want to show my kid in a year or two (not to mention a safer way to introduce him to Price, Lee, etc. than their other films of note). But I think he'd be bored; I'd rather wait a bit longer and let him see these titans in their glory rather than in their twilight (I think this was Cushing's last genre film, actually). As for me, my favorite thing about the disc (besides the trailer, narrated by Price and adding "That's me!" when rattling off the list of actors) was Walker explaining that the film was profitable because HBO paid good money for its broadcast rights - the very thing that allowed me to catch one of its highlights as a young lad. It also helps me realize that the rat movie I saw probably WAS Of Unknown Origin (next to last paragraph explains) and like this, my memory was likely just mixed up with other things, so thanks, movie. Wish you were better, but you've done your part and now you can move on in this world.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

FEBRUARY 5, 2018

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX INSTANT)

It's no secret that a number of franchise movies sprung from original scripts that were rewritten to accommodate an unrelated series. All of the Die Hard sequels (except for the last - and by far the worst - one, oddly enough) began life as other things; for example an original called "Simon Says" bounced around as a would-be sequel to Rapid Fire AND a potential Lethal Weapon 4 before becoming Die Hard With A Vengeance. Dimension has bought spec scripts and turned them into Hellraiser and Children of the Corn entries, with varying results of not-much-success, and when Lionsgate needed a Saw II ASAP after the monster success of the original, they reworked a script called "The Desperate" they were already looking at (with the writer, Darren Bousman, agreeing to do it if they let him direct - a bold gamble that paid off for everyone, since Saw II is the biggest moneymaker of the series). In all those cases, they clearly did a lot of work to make them "fit" (presumably, the original "Simon Says" script did not feature Hans Gruber's brother, for example), but when it comes to The Cloverfield Paradox, originally a script called God Particle, the connections are not only flimsy, but add confusion to a film with enough of its own problems.

Luckily we have 10 Cloverfield Lane to slightly prepare us for the former - that film was completely unrelated until its closing moments, and even then it was a pretty tenuous connection - the monster in the original Cloverfield did not resemble the ones we saw in Lane, suggesting that if they were indeed related, there must be some sort of Mist-level disaster that has unleashed multiple monsters on our planet. The Cloverfield Paradox, which debuted last night on Netflix in an unprecedented manner (more on that soon), more or less explains how this happened via a quick Skype cameo by a conspiracy theorist played by Donal Logue, but does so in a confusing and very vague manner that requires you to fill in the gaps yourself, with the caveat that you might be wrong since there is so little in the film(s) that supports it. Because of the success of the MCU and the Fast and Furious films (particularly when it comes to how Tokyo Drift came to be important), we're getting conditioned to believe that films in a franchise will ultimately "come together" with a big megamix of all the characters it has introduced, but that kind of thinking that will lead you astray if you apply it to this series.

Because (spoiler for the first 10 minutes ahead!) if I'm understanding the point of Logue's monologue correctly, these films (perhaps) all take place in different dimensions, with the common thread being monsters that take advantage of a rift in the universe caused by the actions of the characters in this film. The film's main plot is a Sunshine wannabe thing about a group of international space folk trying to save the planet with a space Macguffin (in this case the "Shepard", some sort of particle accelerator that will give the Earth unlimited energy, somehow), and when they fire up their beam it causes things to go screwy for them - they find themselves suddenly thrown into another dimension. So Logue was right about the catastrophic results, but he also tells us that using this thing will produce side effects, up to and including monsters and "beasts from the sea" being dropped into our world, and not limited to this time but in the past and future as well, so we can assume he was right about that, too. To me, after thinking about it for a bit, I realize he's basically saying to the audience "Stop looking for ways that these make sense as a series of connected films. Every one of them is from another universe, and all future entries will be too, because it allows us to keep taking unrelated scripts and making them into Cloverfield movies without having to worry about a "timeline" or "returning characters" or anything like that."

(The next one is set in World War II, for the record, so.)

Unfortunately, while 10 Cloverfield worked on its own (in fact, it's actually superior to the original), Paradox is kind of a bad movie with or without references to "Slusho" or whatever, and Logue's poorly implemented exposition dump isn't clear enough to differentiate what appears to be direct ties to the first film, which is also confusing viewers to boot. Without spoiling things, a scene near the film's very end features an object from space hurtling toward the Earth, which some people I've talked to believe is the same thing that crashed in the water in the first film (during the home video epilogue). It isn't, but since the ads tout that the film explains where the monster came from, it's easy to see why folks would think it was - and that's something producer JJ Abrams or really anyone else who worked on the film should have realized. Had the movie been good on its own, this sort of thing would be easier to shrug off, I suspect, but since it's such a letdown I think folks are trying to make more out of it than there actually is, to connect it to a film they love and therefore give it more reason for existing.

Sadly, it doesn't seem like Cloverfield-ing the movie was its only issue: someone clearly reworked the opening sequence quite a bit, offering a mostly silent montage (with a baffling number of shots where the actors are clearly speaking dialogue we were originally meant to hear) that shows us that our crew of world-savers have been up there for nearly two years, that their "Shepard" device is not working, and that they are starting to get on each other's nerves. Unfortunately we don't get much in the way of characterization for these people beyond hero Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), so when they start fighting there's no reason to choose a side or even care at all, and the wordless montage doesn't exactly fully depict their frustration or cabin fever, rendering it largely useless in the grand scheme of things. We also don't know much about the world they're trying to save; we're told there's an energy crisis and a brimming World War of sorts, but it's all just say-so, and it seems the major drawback to the energy crisis (in the one scene set on Earth before Ava goes into space) is long lines at the gas station. And really, how bad can the energy crisis be if two years later - i.e. when things are presumably even worse - she's able to call her husband from space and talk to him in real time? Wouldn't that require energy/power of some sort? Wouldn't this kind of activity be one of the first thing that they deny people? Let's keep in mind that the energy crisis is so severe before she leaves for space that they steal a power supply to let their kids have a nightlight and it catches fire and kills them. Or let's not, since otherwise it's pretty stupid that both of these things happen in the same universe.

But that's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about: the movie introduces a second universe when it was already having trouble making one believable enough to care about. That said, when the two universes collide the movie actually gets kind of fun for a bit, almost comically (intentionally!) so at times. There's a woman (Elizabeth Debicki) who in another universe is besties with Ava and is part of the crew, who gets fused to the ship during the universe-blending event, giving us a terrific, Cronenberg-y visual, with wires and pipes threaded through her in a way that is perfectly clear she didn't just get impaled on them in an accident. This also leads to her not trusting certain people because in her version they were traitors, and she's also best friends with Ava in her world where in this one she doesn't seem to exist at all (or at least, no one knows her the way she knows them). Also, Chris O'Dowd plays, more or less, Harry Dean Stanton's character from Alien, and is the best part of the movie even before he gets sucked into a wall and loses his arm when he is pulled out. But it's not "ripped off" or anything - he doesn't even feel pain from it, the wound is cauterized (even though someone says "it's like he was born that way", which doesn't match up to the visual, but by this point I already knew it was a bad movie), and a few minutes later they find his arm, moving around on its own like Thing from Addams Family - and it actually helps them solve the next crisis by writing a message, though not before O'Dowd delivers the movie's best line by a mile: "What are you talking about, arm?"

It's this sort of goofy/trippy thing that the movie really could have used more of, because it's such a total failure as a sci-fi film. Everything they do is vaguely defined, and all of the problems that arise (i.e. things that result in the body count rising, sometimes by via self-sacrifice) are only clear because we've seen them in other sci-fi movies (Sunshine, Event Horizon, Passengers...). There are some fun ideas, such as a character using a 3D printer (primarily used to make bagels) to make a gun, and I guess in the future cement putty has a sort of "app" doohickey that helps it spread over the required area, but everything seems like it was reverse engineered from an idea someone had, with no further explanation considered. There are even potentially interesting ideas and subplots that are brought up and never followed through on, like the fact that in Debicki's version of the crew, there was no Tam (Ziyi Zhang). She says this and we the accompanying "dun dun DUNNNN" kind of moment, but that's the beginning AND end of the matter. It never comes up again, except in your mind when you think "Wait, why did they bring that up? And why did they leave it IN, when the movie was clearly re-worked a bit?" All it does is tell us that things were different in their universe, but we already knew that. A friend told me this is to justify Debicki taking Zhang's job later in the movie, but with everyone so ill-defined, who would have questioned it anyway?

The most baffling decision involves their immediate issue after firing the cannon, before the disembodied arm/people in walls stuff comes up: the fact that they might have just wiped out all of human existence. After the event, they look on their navigational equipment and realize they cannot see their Earth, as if it was just gone, and even start trying to wrestle with the fact that they might have just killed 8 billion people while trying to save them. A fascinating idea, no? Too bad the movie almost instantly assures us that it's not the case, cutting back to Ava's husband Michael (Roger Davies) on Earth, a doctor who is en route to the hospital when a colleague texts him to say not to come because it had been destroyed, moments before he finds a little girl in the rubble of some other building that might have been attacked by a Cloverfield monster (THE Cloverfield monster? Couldn't tell you - we only see a shadow). He then does what you or I would do - takes the little girl, spends no time looking for other survivors (some doctor, eh?) and texts his buddy casually asking if he can use his bunker, the way one might ask their neighbor to borrow some flour. For a brief, wonderful second I considered his buddy might be John Goodman's character from 10 Cloverfield, which would have been my kind of hilariously stupid, but nah. His random unseen friend just has a bunker, I guess, and doesn't need to use it for himself despite giant monsters swarming the city.

We cut back to this stuff a few times during the movie, and it's always jarring, but also frustrating as it's vastly more interesting than the bulk of the space sequences (I've described all of the freaky moments already, I assure you. The rest is straight out of the outer space disaster 101 textbook). Davies is a good actor who brings a lot to his underwritten role, and in 30 seconds we know more about the little girl than we ever do about the people in the space station who have far more screentime. I would have liked seeing them in some sort of Last of Us kinda journey as they make their way to reunite her with her parents, but after a couple of scenes they're more or less dropped from the proceedings, letting a quick text message resolve her plight and giving Michael nothing to do until the final scene of the movie, which entertained me because it reminded me of another part 3 with only the thinnest connection to its predecessors (think Tom Atkins). I also kept thinking that it seemed like they were trying to suggest these scenes were occurring parallel to the events in the original film, but as that one took place in 2008 and this one clearly takes place in the future (undefined, but Michael's phone sports a "7G" network), that doesn't work - and even if it did, we'd still be left with the question of why no one in the original Cloverfield seemed to have a problem with an energy crisis, as it would have been ongoing for at least two years by that point.

OK, by now I'm sure a fan of this film (and there are some, and I am happy that they're able to enjoy it) is just itching to point out that I love Armageddon, i.e. the space movie so dumb that NASA uses it to test applicants, tasking them to find everything wrong in it. And yes, I do, but guess what? It has an INTERNAL logic that allows the movie to work for me, which this movie lacks and is thus why it annoyed me so much. For example, people love to harp on Armageddon's concept that "they can't train astronauts to drill for oil in 6 months, but can teach oil drillers to be astronauts in 12 days." On paper, yes, this is probably very stupid (I'm no expert in either field, so I have no idea), but in the movie, they justify it, repeatedly. Bruce Willis and co. are never once required to do anything astronaut-y (Bruce asks if they do and is told they do not, Billy Bob shouts "Can they physically survive the trip, that's all I need to know!", William Fichtner and HIS crew are shown doing all of the repairs and communications stuff, etc, etc.), and then the "world renowned experts on drilling" have more than a few problems "just drilling the hole", finding it difficult despite their years of expertise. In fact one of them is killed simply from a drilling mishap, not because he didn't know how to operate his spacesuit or whatever, so yeah, I think the astronauts who took a few courses in learning how to operate the drill arm (which they didn't even have, since the whole reason Harry was brought in in the first place was to fix it so it could work in space) might not have succeeded in saving the world. Long story short, it was a silly issue given an in-movie explanation for its existence, allowing the non-pedantic to enjoy the film. The movie can do any stupid thing it wants as long as it provides a justification for it - and this movie fails miserably at justifying anything about itself.

Now, if this mess had gone into theaters as originally planned (for April, if memory serves), it would have been screened for critics who would have warned you away, or it would be hidden from critics who would use that as proof that you should probably stay away. But instead, perhaps sensing its inevitable box office failure, Paramount (who can't afford another flop right now) sold it to Netflix, who then used the Super Bowl to turn it into an unprecedented event. If you recall, last year they debuted a teaser for Bright during the big game, but didn't release it until a year later, giving us a full year to wonder what this movie might be. This time, they teased that the film was coming "sooner than you think" and then, at the end of the game, came back to tell us it was available RIGHT NOW! (I was sticking around for This is Us, so I don't know if they really did time it exactly to the end of the game or not) - and keep in mind that as of four hours before, no one even knew what this movie was called or seen a single shot of footage from it. So they bypassed the usual marketing buildup and gave us a big budget sequel (of sorts) "for free", continuing the tradition of "Surprise! Here's the movie!" that the other two films also managed in their own way. A good idea, except this time it almost seems like they did it because they knew they had a stinker and figured the best chance the movie had at being watched was to make everyone feel like they would be the first in the world to do so. I'm sure it worked; Netflix doesn't release stats/numbers on their titles but the movie was being live-tweeted and hashtagged all night and now people have been making jokes about it and/or trying to explain it all day today, so we can assume that more people watched it than the average episode of one of their original series.

So in that respect I don't know if the movie is a "success" or not for them - if we watched it we already had the service, and they don't have commercials, so how does everyone watching the movie at once generate revenue for them? But let's assume somehow it does - do they care that the movie sucks? Furthermore, does Paramount care that it taints the brand they planned to extend with a WWII set entry due in November? And most importantly: why is this one such a mess? Again, it's not just the clunky Cloverfield-ing that does the script in, it's all over the place even within its own internal story - the franchise tie-ins just make it worse. With the filmmakers inadvertently shielded from doing any press for the film (yet) it's hard to tell who is to blame and where things might have gone wrong, but I sure would love to see an earlier cut or hear a candid commentary track from its screenwriters, who presumably wrote something interesting and then lost some things in a retrofitting that didn't even work anyway. The terrific cast and occasional moments where it starts to become something exciting both deserve better than the final product, and audiences deserve an explanation for the film they somewhat got duped into seeing by treating it as some sort of surprise gift. It's the U2 Songs of Innocence album of movies, basically.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Winchester (2018)

FEBRUARY 1, 2018

GENRE: HAUNTED HOUSE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

When I still lived in Massachusetts, the family took a vacation to California to visit my sister, flying to Los Angeles and spending a few days there, then driving up the coast to spend a couple days in San Francisco. While planning the trip, my mom gave me and my sister a tourist guidebook and said we could each pick a place to go as long as it was more or less on the way; she picked Disneyland I think, and I picked the Winchester Mystery House. Well, we went to Disneyland, but my pick was vetoed for reasons I can no longer recall (I assume it's because unlike Disneyland, no one else wanted to go), so the only time I've ever really seen much of it is in Winchester, which is somehow the first feature film (not documentary) to explore this legendary haunted house (or at least, actually film at it, per the IMDb) despite the fact that it should have been a no-brainer. The possibilities are endless - a modern day story about paranormal investigators checking it out, perhaps in found footage style? A wholesome family buying it and discovering its secrets? Or maybe just a Session 9 kind of thing about a team of unfortunate real estate guys trying to put together a cohesive layout map of the damn place?

See, for those uninitiated, the Winchester house isn't just a mansion - it's a maze, complete with dead-end hallways that serve no purpose and doors that open into walls or, more dangerously, second story drops. The reclusive and eccentric owner, Sarah Winchester, had the place built and rebuilt over and over for nearly forty years, with construction workers and carpenters working on it day and night every single day (though her biographer says this is an exaggeration, and that she would actually allow breaks). She did this to give rooms for the ghosts of victims of the Winchester rifles, a company she inherited 51% of after her husband died, even though she detested the weapons and what they were used for. With a huge fortune (and continued income) at her disposal, she used it to make amends of sorts, and this has allowed the house to continue to thrive as a tourist attraction, as it's claimed to be haunted and even if it wasn't it's just a nutty place to see with its interior windows and slapdash design. So again, there were lots of possibilities for a film version, and the one they came up is rather simple: a doctor (played by Jason Clarke) is hired to evaluate Sarah's mental health, to see if she's fit to continue running the company. Her talk of ghosts and endless construction have got the guys who own the other half of the company rightfully worried that she'll do something nutty and jeopardize the business, so they're hoping Clarke will see it their way and officially write her off as a loon.

But Sarah is played by Helen Mirren, so we know right off the bat she's not crazy and that there really is a ghost problem there, because you don't hire Helen Mirren to play someone who will be pushed aside by a bunch of weasely men in suits. She makes this clear in her first big one on one scene with Clarke, sizing up his drinking problem within seconds and insisting that he knock it off ASAP, and when he says he will you believe him - he won't risk further wrath. Still, I liked this angle; even if the outcome was obvious - it's a big improvement on the usual sort of "skeptical expert is called to investigate if ghosts are real" plot. This allows a number of scenes with the two stars merely talking to each other, with Clarke trying to run her through basic tests and Mirren trying to get into HIS head since she's the one who requested him in the first place as (minor spoiler, we learn it like 30 minutes in though) he had "died" in the past for three minutes and thus might have a particular knack for dealing with spirits and the afterlife. Had he been there specifically to deal with ghosts or lack thereof, like Rebecca Hall's character in The Awakening, we'd just have to watch a bunch of scenes of him fiddling with equipment and denying what he saw with his own eyes for half the movie. Instead, Clarke is on board with the fact that the place is haunted pretty early, which is a nice change of pace.

Unfortunately, the script didn't think of much else to do to give the movie some oomph, so after a promising first act it devolves into a standard Insidious/Woman in Black-y kind of deal with vengeful ghosts being dealt with so they can be at rest and blah blah blah. It hits all the buttons one might expect from this kind of thing - there's a bunch of jump-scares (including a pretty great one involving Mirren and her nephew), objects floating around, loud noises... you know the drill. But why introduce this legendary backdrop and not use it for anything of note? Besides implementing the San Francisco earthquake around the end of the second act (which in real life resulted in the house reducing its number of stories from seven to four), after a while there's no difference between this and any other horror movie house, despite the Spierig Brothers' constant attempts to remind us of how huge the place is by cutting to swooping aerial shots of it every five minutes. We're told that it's easy to get lost, but no one ever really does, and the go-nowhere doors and the like are rarely used either. Plus, despite its size, it feels like 90% of the interior scenes take place in one of four areas: Sarah's office, Clarke's quarters, the room the nephew shares with his mother, and a staircase that is sectioned into four paths, making it look like an amusement park queue line. Clarke bumps his head once or twice, and that's about the extent of him being able to work/spring into action within this supposed labyrinth - it feels like a giant missed opportunity to put a stranger in there and never once have it be much of an issue.

Plus it just feels like an Insidious movie half the time, exacerbated by the fact that Angus "Tucker" Sampson has a supporting role as one of the construction guys. You got the kickass senior citizen telling ghosts off, the kid in jeopardy, and, like the first Insidious, a whole bunch of anonymous spirits with just enough detail to make you think "Huh, wonder what their story is." Yet they focus mainly on one, a guy who shot up a place while wearing a bag over his head. His introduction to the story is quite well done (part of that aforementioned first act that had me thinking this would be a winner), but he poses no real menace to our protagonists, even Clarke, whose character, unlike the others is a fictional person and even primed for being offed on account of his backstory. You don't need a body count for a successful haunted house/ghost movie (see: Poltergeist. Do not see: Poltergeist III, the only one in the series where someone is killed because of the ghost-y stuff), but it helps to at least feel like there's a true danger to the predicament. The earthquake does more of that heavy lifting than the ghosts ever do, which adds to the film's ho-hum final act. Like the Spierig's previous film, Jigsaw, it's one of those movies where I kept hoping that the generic proceedings was misdirection for something grander to come, only for it to end with no such upswing.

Alas, it's at its best when it's simply Mirren and Clarke talking, which probably isn't going to help sell tickets. Mirren is of course one of the best of all time and it's wonderful to have her in a "HMAD" kind of movie, even if it's beneath her talents. She commands the screen like few others and seems to be enjoying going a bit out of her element (this is, I think, her first legit horror movie, though she's been in a few thrillers and sci-fi films), though I hope her top billing doesn't mislead you about her screentime, as she isn't in it nearly as much as Clarke, who we're with for nearly every scene. Luckily for me, I quite like the actor - he's handsome but not in a traditional marquee movie star kind of way, and he's got that Terry O'Quinn/John Vernon kinda vibe to him that will ensure if this kind of more heroic role doesn't suit him he can be a great in-demand villain for the rest of his life if he wants. There's a great bit where he tries to fool Mirren with a magic trick that she susses out instantly (probably even before he finishes the maneuver), and the look on his face is priceless - he knows he cannot pull a fast one on this woman, and I started wishing the movie could just do away with the other characters and let this be some sort of off-kilter "romance" between the two of them as they battle ghosts, instead of stooping to haunted kids making scary sounds.

Basically, it's a January horror movie through and through, but since it's coming out in February I guess I expected a little more out of it. The Spierigs have proven that they are capable (Daybreakers) but fail to give this any real life (the score by one of the brothers is quite nice at times though), and there's only so much Mirren and Clarke can do to keep it interesting. Add in some confusing messaging about guns (it would seem like a shoe-in for an anti-gun approach, but then the bad ghost is defeated by... shooting it) and the fact that we just went through this kind of thing with Insidious 4 and you're left with not a whole lot to recommend a big-screen excursion, even as Super Bowl counter-programming. Save your money to visit the real house or contribute to some kind of gun control charity, because those will have a lasting impact - the movie is already escaping my memory less than 24 hours after seeing it, which is never a good thing. As I've said before, I'd rather see something shockingly bad than aggressively forgettable, but it's much worse when it had all the ingredients for something truly interesting.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Class of 1999 (1990)

FEBRUARY 1, 2018

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

Ideally, Class of 1999's Blu-ray release this Tuesday would have been delayed out of respect for the two students who were killed (along with over a dozen others shot) at their high school in Kentucky last week, and then possibly again after today's (thankfully death-free, so far) school shooting in Los Angeles, because that's what used to happen on the then-rare occasions this sort of horrible tragedy occurred. Anything involving students and violence was delayed or altered, sometimes for even months after such an atrocity (remember when Teaching Mrs. Tingle, released five months after Columbine, was Killing Mrs. Tingle?). But that sort of "out of respect..." maneuver is pretty rare these days, because there are so many similar events (the Kentucky incident was the 11th school shooting in the US this year so far, after one month) that they'll never be able to release it without it being "too soon". There is sadly another always around the corner, because it's not like anything will ever change.

Luckily, unlike the "original" Class of 1984 (this movie is considered a sequel, but there's nothing in common besides the general idea of schools being overrun by assholes), there's no way that this film's terrifying vision of the near future will come to pass, since we're nearly twenty years past its setting and we still don't have android teachers at all, let alone ones that murder the unruly kids. School violence is of course still a problem, but whereas 1984 dealt with it in a fairly believable manner (fed up teachers fighting back) this is straight up B-movie cheese, closer to Terminator than the evening news. With these shootings fresh in my mind (if not the minds of the news cycle, too busy dealing with whatever Donny is up to today as if it will matter in the slightest) I was never more thankful to watch a movie that was so utterly ridiculous, because otherwise I'd probably find it too hard to enjoy.

And enjoy it I did! I mean, yeah, I wish there was more killer robot stuff (this ain't a horror movie, by the way - more on that soon), but even though the best of it is confined to the last act - i.e. when their human skin starts getting shredded and they're leaking green goo everywhere - there's never any doubt that they are indeed androids. From the start we see the Terminator/Robocop-y POV shots from our trio of cyberteachers (Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick, and John P. Ryan) that inform us of their non-human status (Kilpatrick also shows off his robot face under his skin for good measure), and they have superhuman strength and all that, so it's not like Alien or whatever that we're supposed to be surprised someone isn't actually human - but the kids don't know that, which is a bit odd since they don't find out for like an hour and we've known all along. In retrospect it might have been fun to try to hide it from us for a bit, if only to be even more weirded out by Ryan's first big scene, as his exaggerated cheering actually puts the movie into horror territory because it's so unnerving. Then again, knowing he's a robot adds tension to an otherwise pretty funny scene where he spanks the bottoms of two of the punk kids in his class, with a swift and mechanical smacking motion (which reminded me of Buzz Lightyear's karate chop action) that I thought was about to malfunction and impale the kid through his ass with the next hard smack.

Ryan's casting is one of the many inspired choices, as he's probably most famous to horror fans as the dad of the mutant baby in the first two It's Alive films, so seeing him tackle a different kind of evil child is of course wonderful. Likewise it's hilarious to see Malcolm "Alex DeLarge" McDowell overseeing a school overrun by modern day droogs, and it's so rare to see Pam Grier as a villain it's hard to remember we're supposed to be on the teenagers' side when she starts beating the shit out of three of them at once in her chemistry class. But the most delightful part isn't really stunt casting per se - it's just the mere sight of Stacy Keach with goofy contacts and some bizarre haircut that's a cross between a buzzcut and a mullet (and dyed snow white for good measure). He's from the "Department of Educational Defense" (heh) and is the guy in charge of implementing the robot teachers in order to bring the school in line, but sadly spends most of the movie just looking at monitors and saying sinister things, with only the contacts suggesting he too is a robot. But (spoiler for 20 year old movie ahead) he's actually just a damn nut I guess, as he bleeds red when he dies as opposed to the green-blooded robots, meaning he was human all along.

As for the teens, they're a pretty generic lot, and unlike Class of 1984 there are no "good" students to be seen with the exception of the main guy's love interest, who is also McDowell's daughter. Otherwise it seems like everyone in the school belongs to one of the two rival gangs (the Razorheads and the Blackhearts), making them not exactly the kind of people you want to root for. The main guy is named Cody and is played by Bradley Gregg, aka Philip from Dream Warriors (the one who dies as a "puppet"), doing some weird Corey Feldman-y kinda shtick that got old fast. But I kind of liked how the plot unfolded, with the teachers staging some of their kills to incite a war between the two gangs, only for Cody to catch on and band together with his rivals (led by James Medina, who was the most charismatic actor of the bunch but unfortunately passed away in the 90s) for an all out assault on the school. This is when the movie really starts earning its placement in a few issues of Fangoria, with the three androids (particularly Kilpatrick) taking a beating but never stopping, and procuring weapons from their limbs - if you ever wanted to see Pam Grier's arm turn into a flamethrower, this is your movie.

It was during these scenes that I was not only having the most fun with the flick (which I want to stress I had never seen before; it seems like the sort of thing that would have been on Cinemax during my formative years but even if I caught a few minutes at one point, I do not remember it) but also lamenting how far the concept of a "B-movie" has fallen. Not only is the script a step or two above what you'd expect from this kind of junk, but director Mark Lester put together a real crew (including DP Mark Irwin, who used to be Cronenberg's go-to cinematographer and went on to shoot a number of Wes Craven's films, including Scream) instead of blowing the meager budget on cameos and other bullshit like today's Asylum/Syfy level crap. The stunts, practical FX, and pyrotechnics are on par with any studio movie, and it's a shame so much of today's stuff can't be bothered to put that kind of effort into things. It's unfair that this will be lumped in with the likes of Sharktopus or whatever by future generations - there's a distinct difference in the quality and presentation that should be noted, and celebrated in turn.

Speaking of celebrating, it's being released by Lionsgate as part of their ongoing Vestron Collector's Series, which is sort of the studio's answer to Scream Factory and the like - giving the royal treatment to less prestigious fare such as this. It's got a commentary by Lester (I didn't bother to listen, having learned my lesson with Firestarter and Class of 1984 - nothing against him, it's just that some folks aren't that interesting/fun to listen to) and some interviews, including one with the FX guys Eric Allard and Rick Stratton, who did a pretty great job I think and reveal that the robot flood was just transmission fluid (and glitter was put in the squibs for when the robots got shot!). All the other titles are more traditionally horror (such as Gothic, which also hit this week - I wrote about that over at BMD since I already reviewed it here), but even IMDB calls this one an "action-horror" movie so I dunno. I got in a brief Twitter skirmish last week after crying foul at people celebrating that a "horror movie" (Shape of Water) got so many Oscar nominations, when it's not a damn horror movie at all (even Del Toro said as much, and last I checked he's not exactly a snob about horror), primarily because I feel trying to claim films like Shape of Water (which I quite loved, for the record) as horror is just as obnoxious as someone saying something like It is a "psychological thriller". Ultimately it doesn't really matter, but I just wanna do my due diligence - this is "of interest" to horror fans because of the makeup work and the horror-friendly label that it's being released on, but please don't be expecting Chopping Mall set in a school.

I really hate that even escapist fun junk like this has to remind me of the real world, since it kind of defeats the purpose of it. The fact that a screenplay like this wouldn't get considered by even the trashiest producers nowadays is incredibly depressing to me, and what's worse is that I don't see the situation changing any time soon. As of next year my son will be going to school and less than two years from now he'll be the same age as the victims of Sandy Hook - and there's literally no reason to think that by then he and his classmates will be any safer than a child in a classroom today (or a movie theater, or a church, or a mall, or...), due to the fact that our government seems to have no interest in exploring better gun control laws. I want him to grow up watching goofy shit like this and having fun with it the entire time - not just when it reaches the point of absurdity and we can temporarily keep our minds off of the real-world parallels drawn up by the first hour. Ideally, someday, we can be just as amused by the "far-fetched" idea of kids walking around their school with guns as we are to see them get burned up by Pam Grier's flamethrower arm. Let's keep hoping.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Mom And Dad (2017)

JANUARY 15, 2018

GENRE: COMEDIC, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (ADVANCED SCREENING)

After the abysmal Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the Neveldine/Taylor duo both went solo for their next films. Neveldine gave us The Vatican Tapes, which was a pretty bad movie, but Taylor (first name Brian, for the record) struck gold with Mom and Dad, which retains the hyper sensibilities of the pair's other films but with a novel twist: it pretty much all takes place in a suburban home. And it matches Crank for inspired concepts - the plot concerns an epidemic of some sort (details are thankfully left vague, think the original Night of the Living Dead, which offered some theories but never actually came down hard on one explanation) in which parents are compelled to murder their children (but only their own children; they'll just stroll by and act normal around everyone else). Our heroes are a snotty teenage girl and her much younger brother, and the crazed parents are played by Selma Blair and... NICOLAS FRIGGIN CAGE.

Now, anyone familiar with the site knows I'm a staunch defender of Cage, even if his later career choices leave me disappointed, particularly with his genre work (Pay the Ghost, anyone?). But even though it's getting the same kind of lame release as a lot of that junk (VOD with a few theaters) this is vintage Cage, with the sort of performance that reminds me why I love the guy in the first place. Thanks to a few flashbacks, we learn that his character Brent is a bit unhinged even before the virus sets him off, but it's a craziness that any parent can identify with - pent up frustration that his time to have fun and live his life is over. After Blair nags him a bit about a new pool table that he bought (one that's already annoying him due to being slightly unbalanced), he snaps, smashing the brand new table with a mallet while singing "Hokey Pokey", in the middle of a lengthy rant about how much he misses being young and carefree. I saw the film on the tail end of a three day weekend with no daycare, and believe me I totally got where he was coming from.

Don't get me wrong, I love my kid to death and wouldn't hesitate to murder the population of the planet to protect him, but I also wouldn't mind being able to watch a movie of my own liking at home instead of five episodes of Paw Patrol in a row, and I'd love to be able to play my Xbox without him asking to "help" which of course means any progress I make is nil (alas, he's old enough to know when I'm handing him a dead controller and telling him he's one of the NPCs, but not quite able to actually play yet). The only time I really get to have to myself is if I leave the house entirely, which isn't fair to my wife who has the same longing for a bit of her old life and finds it even harder to carve out time for herself due to her more demanding day job. Luckily screenings such as this more or less sync up with his bedtime, making it slightly easier for her while making me feel less guilty, but I'd be lying if I didn't occasionally daydream about moving back home so that we could drop him off at one of his grandmothers' houses on the regular.

While Cage gets the angry outburst version of this frustration, Blair gets the sadder, quieter one, in a monologue that's almost kind of heartbreaking in its warped way. Blair is terrific in the film, making the wise choice to let Cage handle the more showy insanity while she takes a more sardonic approach to the material. It's not that she doesn't feel the same murderous rage, she just contains herself a bit and opts for more manipulative tactics to get closer to her children, providing a great dynamic that goes a long way toward giving the film not only momentum that could easily run out quickly (it'd be tiresome if she was just matching his crazy), but also no clear-cut villain. Yes, they're the "bad guys" in the scenario, and we don't want them to succeed in murdering their offspring - but we're not rooting for their demise, either. And it's kind of cute to see them bonding over their attempts to kill the kids; we quickly get the idea that their marriage is not exactly a perfect one (the vast age difference between son and daughter suggests the younger one was perhaps the result of a last-ditch effort to save the relationship), and thus I can't help but love a movie that is f-ed up enough to showcase two adults rekindling their love during attempted filicide.

For non parents, or for parents who are perfectly content with how everything worked out, the movie should still satisfy you as a pitch-black horror comedy. Taylor is smart not to linger on gory details - in fact, most of the child violence is off-screen entirely, allowing perfectly timed cuts (a train just about to hit a car that a mother parked on the tracks and walked away with the child in the backseat, for example) and sight gags to inform us of the horrible violence that occurred. For example, the family's housekeeper has a daughter, and in one scene we see the woman start eyeing the young girl, looking angrier every time she reappears in frame. We don't see anything happen, but later on she is aggressively mopping the floor and the daughter is nowhere to be seen, so we can pretty sure what happened and where - it's equal parts funny and horrifying, but when spared of the visual, we aren't bummed out by the whole thing, and it saves that kind of tension for our hero family unit. As the daughter is at school when the outbreak occurs (the son seemingly stays home, though he seems to be old enough for 3rd grade?), there's quite a bit of movie that occurs in between that moment and when Cage/Blair start chasing them around their own home, so if we kept seeing on-screen murders we'd be numb to it by the time we got to the characters we care about the most. Not to mention how heartbreaking it is for the little boy, who doesn't understand why his Daddy, who was playing cars and tickling him just a few hours before, is suddenly trying to murder him. The young actor is pretty great, and my heart broke for him every time one of the parents pretended to be OK again, because his face would light up with belief, only for them to shatter the trust again by lunging at him.

But Taylor never loses sight of the black comedy roots, and this is at its most obvious during an all-too-brief appearance by Lance Henriksen as Cage's dad. The otherwise fantastic opening titles (which are a mix of James Bond and giallo) spoil Lance's cameo and pretty much the context as well since they include images of their scenes alongside their name, but it's still pretty hilarious when, an hour into the movie, the doorbell rings and Blair reminds Cage that his parents are coming for dinner. There's no age limit on this virus, so we are then treated to a madcap sequence where Henriksen is trying to murder Cage who is trying to murder his son (with Henriksen having no animosity toward anyone else, of course), with Blair trying to protect Cage while also still trying to kill the kids. It's an inspired bit of casting and a hilarious detour; it's always a delight to see Henriksen showing off his underutilized comic chops (his reaction to seeing his grandson is gold) and seeing Cage divide his time between villain and victim in the same shot is cinematic nirvana, far as I'm concerned.

Obviously the subject matter will be a turnoff for some, and not everyone is as enamored with this kind of sick humor as I am (though it's not really overloaded with it, I should stress - there are maybe five or six bad taste laughs and the rest are fairly benign), so I can see why they aren't going wide release with this one. Maybe at the peak of Cage's star power (the late 90s) it would have done so, not only because audiences were more willing to go along for rides with the man, but society was also less "woke" and the film's sensibilities wouldn't need to be defended. There is an obvious throwback quality to the film, right down to putting the copyright in the main title like they used to back in the '70s, and thankfully the style is evident more in its scripting than direction (i.e. they aren't throwing fake film scratches on it or any of that bullshit). In short, from casting to concept to execution they are seemingly aiming directly at me across the board - basically just a Jim Steinman song short of a perfect movie for me. And it's only 80 minutes! Cherry on top!

What say you?

P.S. I moderated a Q&A with the cast after the film, you can find it here if you want. I was obviously a bit nervous as I've never met Cage and couldn't prepare a lot of questions beforehand as I hadn't seen the movie until just then, but whatever my flaws are were thankfully overshadowed thanks to the guy at the 15:55 mark who... well, just listen and find out for yourself. It's epic.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Before I Wake (2016)

JANUARY 12, 2018

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX INSTANT)

If you were unaware of Before I Wake's long journey to release here in the US, you might be baffled by the "Introducing Jacob Tremblay" credit that appears at its end, since, you know, you've seen him in like five other movies. But it's (mostly) true; when the film was shot in 2013, Tremblay had yet to work on Room and become one of the most acclaimed child actors in ages (though he was already in Smurfs 2, which came out before Before I Wake was shot, so I dunno), and it's a shame that the film didn't get the benefit of the wide theatrical release it was once promised. I still recall seeing its trailer quite a few times in theaters, but the bankruptcy of its original distributor (Relativity*) left it in limbo until it was rescued by Netflix, which is rapidly becoming the exclusive place to find Mike Flanagan's films.

Unlike Flanagan's other films this one is only really a horror film in a tangential sense. The plot concerns Cody (Tremblay), a foster child who is bounced around and has seemingly finally found a good home with Tom Jane and Kate Bosworth, who lost their son in an accident (he drowned in their bathtub). However Cody has a strange gift - when he dreams, his visions come to life in the real world around him, sort of like an inverse Freddy Krueger. At first the things he conjures up are pleasant enough - starting with butterflies and eventually their dead son, who gives the grieving parents fleeting moments of reunion until Cody wakes up in his sleep and pops another soda open. See, the kid knows of his gift and seems afraid of it, and it's not long until we know why - his nightmares also appear in the real world, and they're dangerous. So every now and then we get a perfectly good scare scene (in fact I got jolted twice, which is more than I do for most traditional horror), but there's no traditional enemy to overcome or anything like that - it's just a race to help this kid.

So it's more of a fairy tale, possibly slightly closer to horror than Shape of Water (which I loved, by the way) but in that same ball park of "this will be of interest to horror fans, but isn't exactly a horror movie". And I want to stress that, because I'm seeing lots of negative reviews on the film and I can't help but wonder if it's partially due to the fact that the trailers suggest something more in the vein of Boogeyman or even Flanagan's own Oculus. Ever take a sip of a glass of lemonade that you thought was plain water and end up spitting it out? It's not that you hate lemonade - but when you're expecting something else the brain doesn't register it in time. That can happen with movies too, and it's a disservice to the film to sell it as another supernatural creepfest when it's something more dramatic and touching. I couldn't help but remember the film Dragonfly with Kevin Costner, which was also sold somewhat as a horror movie but ultimately, like this film, wanted to dig deeper and maybe make you tear up instead of shriek.

On that note, I'm happy to report I was not as much of a wreck as I have been in the past couple years when it comes to dead kid stuff. I choked up at a particular moment I can't spoil here, but I had no problems with the earlier stuff, where Jane and Bosworth are dealing with their grief in ways both overt (she goes to therapy) and subtle (before we even learn how their son died, Jane installing railings in the bathtub to prepare for Cody's arrival and looking weary at their presence pretty much tells the story, i.e. "Why didn't we put these in for our first son?"). Hopefully this means I'm just adjusting more to being a father and not worrying AS much of the time as I was in the first two or three years, though it's also perhaps due to the fact that this was not a surprising plot point - the trailers tell us that their son died and that Cody's dreams bring him back, and he's also gone when the film begins, sparing us the trauma of getting to know him a bit before he is taken away. Kind of like John Wick; I knew it was about a guy getting revenge for his dog, so I didn't tear up when the poor pooch died like I might for, well, Wonder, which also has Tremblay.

(I haven't seen it yet, but I frequently check DoesTheDogDie.com to prepare myself for such things. I don't even have a dog!)

The other thing that made this subplot work for me was the smart idea of Flanagan to not assign blame to either parent. At first it seemed it might have been Bosworth's fault, because she seems to to be the one having more trouble dealing with it and also is more concerned when Cody takes a bath for the first time, but later on she pins some blame on Jane, who replies "Not fair", suggesting it was actually under his watch that it happened. We never know the full details (and they don't matter), but this allows us to never start to see either parent as "lesser" the way some (including me) probably would for a movie where a child finds his dad's handgun and the inevitable happens - dad's fault, bad dad! The different ways they deal with their grief is what's really important, and it's heartbreaking to see unfold. Jane wants to move on and "replace" his son with Cody by trying to do fun things with him (if you've ever wanted to see Tom Jane tout the capabilities of the Xbox Kinect, this is your movie), while Bosworth knowingly uses Cody's ability by exposing him to multiple photos and home videos of their son so that his dreamed up version will be more accurate. I don't know how I'd deal with this myself, as I suspect most viewers would (and will hopefully never have to find out), so by keeping the blame neutral, we can sympathize in equal measures.

All that said, it's not a home run, and ultimately ranks low in Flanagan's filmography. Not that it's a bad movie, but something's gotta come in last and this might be it (or neck and neck with Ouija 2, another movie that overall I liked). The main issue is the third act, which is where the film's "on the fence" status with the horror genre gets to be a concern. Some of Cody's nightmares cause harm in the real world, and it's a plot point that is never wrapped up satisfyingly, which is quite odd when you consider that one of the nightmare vision's victims is one of Cody's classmates. After the kid is taken, we are treated to not one but two scenes with the police showing up to ask questions, and both times it's completely skipped over how it's handled. One time it cuts from the cops showing up at their house to a little while later when Jane and Tremblay are building a bed together as if nothing happened. What did the cops ask? Why are they suspicious of Cody? Where are the kids' parents in all of this? It's a major development (it's the first time we really see how damaging his nightmares can be) but it's treated with as much fanfare as Jason offing some random in a Friday the 13th sequel.

It also feels a bit like Flanagan (and his frequent collaborator, Jeff Howard) came up with a fantastic premise for a movie and didn't quite know where to take it. When it's contained to just Cody and the parents, it's all good, but as the world opens up more (and, in its most horror-y element, Bosworth goes to talk to one of the former foster parents in a mental institute to get some exposition, which is more cliche than any of the jump scare setups) it just adds questions the movie doesn't feel like answering in a satisfying way. Cody is also put into deep sleep which manifests enough shit to swarm the clinic he's in, so Bosworth running through this place and seeing all sorts of creepy things threatens to not only fully cement it as a horror movie, but a lame one at that. For its first hour we're not quite sure how it will end up, so seeing it end up in a generic CGI-addled landscape is kind of disappointing. As I've said a bunch, a movie can suck for a good chunk of the time but still be salvaged by a great final reel - but a movie that works for a while and then sputters out won't always have enough goodwill to keep it in the "win" column.

But again, it's worth seeing, and didn't deserve the fate it got, though I guess Hush and Gerald's Game being Netflix releases hasn't really hurt their chances at success; that's just my traditionalist mentality at play. Still, as a longtime fan of Tom Jane's I was hoping this film's success could provide a little comeback for the actor, who hasn't toplined a wide release in nearly a decade (The Mist, where his kid's death was DEFINITELY his fault) - he's too interesting a presence to be relegated to all this VOD stuff, dammit! But however it came along, I'm just happy to see him in a normal role again, and now that this has been cleared off my plate I can finally check out 1922, his third Stephen King adaptation (he's a good fit for King's characters - he's easily the most comfortable one in Dreamcatcher, which is no easy task). As for Flanagan, he's already cemented lifetime curiosity status, so a minor entry isn't really the end of the world. In six movies he's made three great ones, one really solid one (Oculus), and two that are pretty good and worth seeing (this and Ouija) - an enviable track record no matter what order they were released.

What say you?

*They had a choice between this and The Disappointments Room, and they went with the latter. I suspect this film might have grossed more than $2.4m.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Insidious: The Last Key (2018)

JANUARY 4, 2018

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

After the confusingly titled Insidious: Chapter 3 - which was a prequel to the other two films - it would be hilarious if there's another entry after Insidious: The Last Key, as the title suggests a certain finality which has traditionally meant nothing in the genre. But unlike the previous prequel, this one leads up directly to the original's opening (in fact, they overlap a teeny bit), so any future Insidious films would have to be prequels to these two entries as well, or abandon the Elise Rainier character played by Lin Shaye, who died at the end of the first film. I guess they could let her help people as a ghost (in fact, such a thing was set up at the still unresolved ending of Chapter 2), but they'd need a living person to pick up the slack, and I'm not sure if the series could retain its appeal of Elise/Lin being a grandmotherly asskicker helping people with their ghost problems if she was one herself.

As I've said a zillion times on this site, the scares in these type of movies don't really do much for me. I can appreciate a well-crafted one (there is indeed a pretty great one here involving a shadow that is supposed to be Lin's, but careful viewers will note that it isn't hers before they make it obvious), but the occasions that I actually jump or even feel my pulse raise when they set off the scare (i.e. have the ghost jump out, usually behind someone) are so rare that I wish I was famous enough for filmmakers to see it as a challenge. "Let's try to scare Collins!" they'd say, and I'd be like "Just rip off The Eclipse!" and they'd say "The third Twilight movie?" and I'd go "No, THE Eclipse, with Ciarin Hinds!" And yes, the first Insidious was one of those exceptions (I still get a few goosebumps thinking about the angry pacing ghost who charges into their room), but even Wan himself couldn't get me again with the second film, let alone his successors (Leigh Whannell on 3, Adam Robitel here), as they all follow a similar playbook when it comes to the spooky stuff and now I can always see them coming. The crowd was jumping and shrieking in all the right spots, of course, but I'm not there to be scared (just hoping they could get me off guard), so as always I just use their reactions to know if the film is "scary" (apparently it is!).

Unfortunately one of the things I AM there for is the ongoing "mythology" of the series, but after part 2's polarizing reaction (even though it's the highest grossing entry, it's the lowest rated one at Metacritic - go figure) they've shied away from the goofier/plot-heavy stuff in favor of letting Shaye and her co-stars walk around dimly lit rooms saying things like "I can FEEL something is in here...". The ties to the other films (more of them here than in Chapter 3) could be removed without it affecting the main part of the film in any way, so if you've never seen the other films and opt to make this your first, you should be fine. Sure, you might find the sudden appearance of Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne (in old footage, they didn't bring them in to shoot anything new) to be a bit baffling, but that stuff is confined to this film's closing moments, after its own story has been resolved, so you should be able to use your common sense (i.e. "I am watching a sequel to a film I haven't seen, which must be what this scene is referencing.") to figure out that it's just bridging this film with one of the others. I kept hoping for a bigger twist, like that the demon/ghost/whatever going after them in this film would be the original's Lipstick-Face Demon or something, but accessibility seemed to be the order of the day.

That said, I can't fault any decision-making that leads to "we get to keep Lin Shaye as the star of our successful horror series". Shaye has been an ace scene stealer for over 30 years and rarely got lead roles even in DTV stuff, so to see them avoid the obvious route and follow the Dalton family around in sequels after her character died, they made prequels so that she could not only be kept around, but turned into the lead of this big screen, high-grossing franchise. The gamble has paid off; in fact, if you watched the movies in chronological order (which would be 3, 4, 1, 2) you might even get a bit more suspense out of them, because then you wouldn't know that Elise (as well as Specs and Tucker, her assistants played by Whannell and Angus Sampson) made it out of these two entries unscathed. There's a scene here where Tucker sticks his hand between two blades of a non-functioning fan, and thankfully Robitel doesn't play it up as a potential catastrophe because we know damn well Tucker has his arm in the "next" movie - but a non-privy viewer might cringe all the same (indeed, a couple of audience members did vocalize their concern).

In fact she's even more front and center here than she was in the third film, which still split its time between her and the people being haunted in that film. Things kick off with a slightly overlong prologue featuring Elise as a little girl, with Collector star Josh Stewart as her abusive father. He's not too keen on her ability to see/talk to ghosts, and tries to beat the affliction out of her; a trauma that carries over to the present day (well, 2010) and makes her hesitant to help out a man who lives in that same house and is having a ghost problem. The man is played by familiar character actor Kirk Acevedo, so you might expect him to take on a bigger role once he's introduced, but we stick with Elise and her crew as they investigate his/her house, with Elise finding her old things and drudging up painful memories. He may have made the call, but it's really her personal demon(s) to suss out and banish, and so even before they make it a plot point (minor spoiler: Acevedo's character isn't someone that needs "saving") you'll probably forget about him and not really care if he gets to go back to his normal life once Elise is done her job.

It's an interesting approach, and a big part of why the film is an improvement over Chapter 3. The novelty of "The Further" has worn off, and with the prequel element reducing most of the danger level for our heroes, it was smart to give the film a more character-driven slant than its predecessors. The abuse subplot is not something I was expecting, and not only is it surprisingly harsh (for a PG-13 franchise entry, at least), but it gives the series its first true flesh and blood villain in Elise's father, whose secrets are uncovered throughout the film. Unlike Patrick Wilson's possessed dad in Insidious 2 (i.e. someone we like and who will likely be healed), it seems this guy was just an asshole to start with, and the film's best little twist occurs as a result of his actions (for those who have seen the movie - it involves the woman Elise sees in the bathroom). The new creepy ghost (played by Javier Botet) does his thing effectively, but it's the human villains that stand out and give the film its most true sense of danger. It also boosts the comedy a bit, courtesy of Specs and Tucker, who each get their funniest moments in the series yet (for Tucker it's a would-be hero moment that he abandons; for Specs it's a shockingly good ET impression). Their running gag of hitting on Elise's nieces is a bit odd (especially since she treats them as surrogate sons - doesn't she find it icky?), but the two are so likable it's easy to forgive. The chemistry between the three of them is so endearing it's almost a shame that they spend relatively little time together on their ghost "hunt" scenes - can we get a movie of them just hanging out? It also made the movie kind of melancholy in a way; we see her confront her past and find the strength to move on from it - and we know she's gonna be dead in a week or so when the film ends on her getting the call from the Dalton family.

As for the ghost, his name is Key Face, though Key Hands would make more sense. His signature trick (besides popping up and making BOO! faces alongside the expected musical sting) is to turn his fingers into keys that "lock" his victims' voices, and damned if it's not an effective trick. The sound design in the film is quite impressive, both in these scenes where our characters are muted, and in another sequence where Tucker uses some gizmo to make his and Elise's voices sound like they're on the other end of a shitty phone (so they can communicate with the ghosts on the "other side", I guess). It's also much quieter than most horror films you'll see (well, maybe not A Quiet Place); Robitel and his sound team are happy to take a minimalist approach to even some of the scare moments, and Joe Bishara's score is also less pounding than I recall it being in the other films (take with a grain of salt though, as my memory is poor and I haven't seen the other sequels since theaters). I kind of love that a part 4 of a series that has made over $400m worldwide is notable for being quiet, in a world dominated by franchises that often try to deafen the audience with STUFF! to try to hide the fact that they're not very good.

If this is the end of the series, at least it goes out on a relative high note. None of the sequels may have lived up to the original, but let's not forget that it was an unassuming low budget haunted house kind of movie from a time where Wan was still known only as "the director of Saw" (now he gets his name on the posters for movies he only produces), and it was also before Blumhouse dominated the horror landscape as it does now, seven years later. Now that we get these things every couple of months or so it's harder to get that sense of fresh air that we got with the original, and I can't fault them for shying away from the weirder stuff that was offered in the first sequel when so much of the audience was opposed to it. No one's forcing me to go back for more when I know it's going to be more of the sort of thing I've never exactly shined to, but the fact that I'm still entertained (I even stayed awake, for a 10pm screening! Very rare) and would happily see another suggests that it will be an even bigger winner for the audiences who do jump at the scares and won't give a shit about mythology (the annoying kid next to me certainly didn't seem to understand that the film was taking place before the original). The real world scares and further development for Elise's characters more than make up for the been-there, done-that supernatural business (that said, why is The Further so sparsely populated in these? I liked the Haunted Mansion approach of the original), and I'm glad they closed the timeline loop to challenge themselves if there is an Insidious 5.

Long story short - it doesn't deserve to be in the traditionally red flag "first weekend of January" slot! This ain't no Forest!

What say you?

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