I've been trying to substitute comedy specials for social media during the Coffee Hours and it really resets my attitude for another big day of quarantine. Here are what I consider to be the best of the crop -- your mileage may vary.
New In Town
The Comeback Kid
My Girlfriend's Boyfriend
What I Should Have Said Was Nothing
Thank God for Jokes
The New One
Hard Knock Wife
Asian Comedian Destroys America!
The Special Special Special
(If you have access to her newest special, Weakness is the Brand, by all means watch it even though it's not on Netflix)
Happy to Be Here
Talking for Clapping
Live *at the Time
A Speck of Dust
W Kamau Bell
Private School Negro
Latin History for Morons
Just Keep Livin'?
You Magnificent Beast
Can I Touch It?
Garfunkel & Oates
Trying to be Special
On the one hand, I haven't posted in a while. On the other hand, I've been writing small pieces of stupidly oversized articles, which was stupid. So here are a couple lowish-budget horror movies with mixed results.
Written & Directed by Michael Medaglia
It's best to think of Deep Dark as a fable. A bleak, bitter fable with a taste for the freaky stuff.
Now on the one hand; I have a taste for the archetypal tales, and Deep Dark knowingly composes itself within classical motifs. On the other hand, however -- and primarily in the interest of even-handedness -- it is at times so classically grounded that one could construe it as predictable. It added up to a mostly satisfying fable about desperation and deception, jealousy, betrayal and the cost of success.
Deep Dark also wears its film-making influences openly and proudly. Moments recall Cronenberg, Lynch, the Coens and others. First-feature writer/director Michael Medaglia isn't there yet, but he's making the right choices. The film feels both fresh and timeless.
In the time since watching Deep Dark, I find I've come to like it more than I did when it first ended. The experience of watching it was perhaps diluted at the time by my reservations about the lead character, which is a pretty big deal considering he's in pretty much every scene. Looking back at the film, however, I tend to reflect more on the story and the presentation than my minor annoyances with his persistent dysfunction. Hermann is consistently unpleasant and self-pitying. Even when a goldmine falls into his lap, he doesn't pause a beat to acknowledge (much less appreciate) it before he goes to work self-sabotaging. I feel like I would have had a more powerful connection to the story if I'd had more reason to care about him.
Lesbian Vampire Killers - 2009
I don't want to say that Lesbian Vampire Killers is bad, but when something so completely dodges every opportunity to be good, I don't know what else to call it. It's meant to be a kitschy, fun vamp on low-budget exploitation films of a bygone time, but where it's should be kitschy; it's bland, where it should be fun; it's self-satisfied, and where it should be exploitative; there's a spout of flour paste. Wait, what? Yeah, the many lesbian vampires killed simply explode into some gloppy white goo -- and yet NO ONE in this "comedy" thinks to make a joke about ejaculate. I mean, come on.
Anyway, add this to the stack of vampire films that deserve cheesy headlines about "lacking bite."
Discovering the Real Meaning of Christmas Movies
I went through that period in my life where I just groused about the undiscerning quality of so many holiday entertainments and I allowed it to put me off the holdiays, but as I lived longer and learned not to be a grouchy jerk ALL the time, I came to apply my understanding of quality in the media arts to Christmas the same way I did with anything else. There may be a mountain of garbage in your way, but there's always something good for the people who inform themselves enough to stray from the path occasionally.
This should, in no way, be interpreted as a "Best of" list. This is simply what I chose to watch this year. Next year, I'll watch some of the same things, and some I won't. Some are old traditions. Some are new. Some aren't going to be traditions at all, or maybe they just need a break. Traditions are only as useful as their meaningfulness in our current lives, and when they lose their meaning, it's time to air them out.
A Charlie Brown Christmas -1965
It's been a few years since I've seen this, but it turned out to be the perfect complement to my holiday mood this year. For weeks, I've had Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here" looping through my head, and I drift toward the inevitable on a drowsy blanket of melancholy. I had forgotten how much of that mood I shared with Charlie Brown in this first animated Peanuts special.
After who-knows-how-many times that I've seen it, A Charlie Brown Christmas still had surprises for me. I'm not sure what language to use to describe something that might seem dated by the standards of today's audiences, yet remains wildly progressive because most children's entertainment today is beyond moronic. The Peanuts gang don't talk like children, of course, but I didn't know that when I was a kid, which could explain a few things about how I turned out. When you realize how much we're underselling our kids, you get just the tip of the iceberg of how much we're underselling our society. See what I mean?
A Christmas Horror Story -2015
I was thinking last year that I might add a horror movie to my holiday repertoire. The Finnish "Rare Exports" was interesting, but didn't fit the bill. This just might. The semi-anthologized format really works here, allowing the film to touch on different aspects of both horror and Christmas, while making sure that no one story overstays its welcome. In between acts, we get snippets of William Shatner, which is like buttery-rich icing on the cake. It's not the goriest, but it does get bloody, and bloody good fun.
Trading Places - 1983
Trading Places is one of the all-time great Christmas movies and I will fight the grandmother of anyone who disagrees. It's A Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life and Robin Hood and The Book of Job and Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd at the tops of their game in a fable that still feels timely and true. Top of their games? Tops of their games? I'm saying they were both energetic and fully committed to their comically archetypal roles. It's also packed with terrific character actors and Jamie Lee Curtis in her first big post-slasher role.
The story is timeless, although the film will feel dated to candy-ass millennials -- particularly with regard to political correctness. The events may span from Thanksgiving to New Years, but it's all Christmas.
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas - 2011
Now me, I love the Harold & Kumar series. When it was announced that they were doing a third one, and that it would be a Christmas movie, I was excited, but very cautiously so. The second H&K, while hilarious, had been a little too much like the first, with a little too little development for the characters. And of course adding Christmas to something is usually desperate and ill-fated. Fortunately, the creators actually made the effort, and the result is a solid series entry that totally holds its own AND pleases its audience. Funny, raunchy, smarter than it acts and sweeter than you'd guess. I have watched this every holiday season since it came out and it's always a high point in the holiday viewing schedule.
Die Hard -1988
I, personally, like Die Hard 3 the best (Sam Jackson, duh), but that's the only (real) Die Hard movie NOT set at Christmas, so at Christmas, we watch Die Hard.
It's not a great Christmas movie per se, but it's great, and it IS a Christmas movie no matter what anyone tries to tell you.
Arthur Christmas -2011
I didn't think I was going to like this movie. As it turns out; I love it.
By portraying a family who has passed down the "Santa Claus" identity across generations, it parallels the growth of commercialism in Christmas, and the way that that has diminished its meaning. In so doing, it serves as a greater cultural metaphor.
But more importantly, it's wild fun and frequently very funny. Arthur, second son and black sheep of the Claus family is an epic screw-up, but of course he has the heart and soul that the family's militarized gift-delivery operation is lacking. His earnest faith in the meaning of Santa forms the gravity around which all the heart, hilarity and hi-jinks orbit. This is animation suitable for adults, especially since many jokes, references and Britishisms will whiz right past the young'uns.
This film runs deep with quality and talent. The cast is no joke with James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy and Hugh Laurie as the men of Claus, and several other names and nominees in supporting roles. It would be easy to dismiss it, but that would be like getting yourself a lump of coal for Christmas. Why would you do that? Do you hate yourself? Are you filled with shame?
Scrooged - 1988
Scrooged enjoys a fairly good reputation because it is one of the most fun adaptations of Dickens' Christmas Carol. That's not saying a lot because, confidentially, I don't think most people actually enjoy A Christmas Carol as much as you, or they, might think. It's pretty turgid and heavy-handed (Hello, Dickens), the good parts are rarer than you remember, and even if you hadn't seen it a million times, it's just about as predictable as a Swede-penned mechano-pop radio ditty. That being said, the formulaic morality tale has made it fodder for a vast array of adaptations. Come to think of it; is there a more adapted tale? With all the adaptations that there have been (say... Mr. Magoo, The Muppets, Susan Lucci, I assume Urkel did it at some point...), very few of them have been even a little bit good. It's always been a cheap public domain story for sit-coms, cartoons and basic cable to fall back on. Many of them try to be funny and of course few of them truly are. So it's among that peer group that Scrooged shines, but in most other ways, it's somewhat mediocre.
It's not career-retrospective material for Bill Murray. He feels like he's half-assing his way through this one, and not in that good way. Despite its themes of seeking authenticity in Christmas, the whole film feels disingenuous. It's a big, overblown Christmas pageant spectacular, really, with a conference room full of guest actors in bit roles. That makes it fun, but it doesn't really strengthen the viewer's connection to the characters, and the characters are so thin that they really could have used the help.
The film could easily have lost one under-developed subplot and it would have been a benefit. My vote is for the business rival played by John Glover, although I could also let go of the Bob Goldthwait story which felt redundant (splitting the Bob Cratchet character into Alfre Woodard and Goldthwait as recipients of Scrooge/Frank Cross' indifference and cruelty, respectively). It didn't know what to do with Goldthwait until the story needed him again, so following Frank's cruelty to him, the world just continued to knock him down (while meaningful parts of his story take place off screen). It seems gratuitously cruel, and that's far from the only time.
And that's really the biggest problem with Scrooged. No, it's not AS funny as it should be with that cast. But more than that, it's cold. The big emotional breakthrough at the end couches itself in the rejection of crass, commercial Christmas, but it is SO crass, saccharine and ham-fisted that the movie almost feels like a shaggy dog story. On top of the convenience with which all subplots were supposedly redeemed, Murray fakes his way through a finale that either wasn't written or he didn't like. It was as trite and perfunctory as the last three minutes of a Scooby-Doo episode, and as awkward as a PBS pledge break.
I'm not saying there's nothing to like about Scrooged!. But I am writing this down now so I'll remember not to let it haunt my Christmases future.
A Very Murray Christmas - 2015
This is a much better way to spend Christmas with Bill Murray. Not a perfect way, but a better way. Murray's holiday special about a holiday special finds him wracked with self-doubt and feeling hopeless on Christmas Eve. It's a slow start to an old-fashioned variety special, but it manages to wedge in the show's high point, as Murray takes casual-acquaintance Chris Rock captive for the most awkward Christmas duet since Bowie met Crosby.
Once the "show" falls apart and the show moves to the bar, it finally builds up a good head of steam. It's the dressed-down Christmas pageant spectacular befitting the 21st century Murray. In many ways, it felt like an almost-suitable heir to the traditional Christmas Eve episode of Letterman. Paul Shaffer is Murray's sidekick and musical director, whether Murray is on TV, in the bar, or passed out and dreaming of fellow Letterman "TV friend" George Clooney. It played a lot like one of the unrehearsed "bits" that Murray used to do for Dave.
On the one hand, I haven't been able to whole-heartedly endorse A Very Murray Christmas due to its rough spots like the slow first act and some very unpolished performances in places, but now, having re-watched Scrooged! for the last time, on the other hand, that roughness is becoming much more attractive in the light of Scrooged!'s excessive, artificial sheen.
I wasn't sure I would watch it again, but in retrospect, I may not have watched it the right way. It would be better with friends... and some spiky egg nog (let's face it, you'll switch to whiskey after the first nog), gathered around a coffee table playing games, enjoying the glow of the roaring fire and good friends' laughter.
Christmas EveIt's a Wonderful Life - 1946
When a tradition is as rich and meaningful as this one, you don't need to replace it. I know it has a convoluted history of doing poorly in theaters and disappearing until it fell out of copyright, at which point it became ubiquitous Christmas Eve viewing. That just makes me love it more. This was a morality tale about the American heart that needed to be revived and preserved. This is a story that we need to tell ourselves as often as possible; that caring about people is good and that greedy old bastards are bad.
But it's more than that. It's... everything. It's a Wonderful Life incorporates a startlingly broad map of human emotion. That's why we've all had that conversation about noticing something new in it on a third, or thirtieth, viewing. It's hope and heartbreak, guilt and pride, joy and loss, restraint and passion, humor and earnestness. Come on, you KNOW that scene with the phone is sexy as hell.
And there's that inescapable truth about it. Yes, the little guy who cares for others does get the shaft, and we know that's wrong. In fact, that's part of the reason we keep coming back to it. We WANT to be George Bailey. We WANT to be good, to give and care until we're spent... but then we want to know that someone will have our back the way the town finally stood up for George. We want that, but we know that the world doesn't work that way, and we give up. Not like George on the bridge. That's a metaphor for the way we give up in our hearts. We become the townspeople; needy and grabby and too scared to listen. We check in with It's a Wonderful Life once a year to see if we've become a bunch of George Baileys yet... and we find a world that more closely resembles Pottersville.
Maybe if we watch it for another thousand years or two, we might pick up on the town coming together in the spirit of generosity. I mean, surely we'd eventually learn some decency from a two thousand year old Christmas story, right?
The Late Show with David Letterman - Christmas Eve, 2014
I have been watching Letterman's late night shows since the early 80s. Somewhere along the line, I realized that his Christmas Eve show was a tradition for me. As the show had become a tradition for me, it was developing its own traditions. Somewhere along the line, Paul Schaffer was allowed to indulge his most Phil Spector fantasies and bring Darlene Love in to sing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and it was amazing and demanded to be repeated every Christmas until the end of time, or at least the show. I think it was pretty early on when Paul first told his story about the Sonny & Cher Christmas Special, and I missed it if I didn't hear it every year. After the move to CBS, the meatball on the Empire State Building on the pizza on the Christmas tree became a tradition, and then Dave & Jay Thomas' Quarterback Challenge made them part of a bigger tradition -- a tradition that includes the Greatest Talk Show Story Ever Told.
That show is gone now, but I made sure to save a copy of last year's episode. I will be watching it every Christmas Eve for years to come. It's a tradition.
Christmas DayElf -2003
Elf is an explosion of fun like the presents and wrapping paper spilled all over the floor on Christmas morning, and that's why I watch it on Christmas Day. It takes all of the syrupy sweetness that can so often become unbearable, and makes it all work.
I've simply had too much work to do on my books lately, so I haven't been able to write as much, but autumn has really brought on a deluge of horror, so I've been fitting them in where I can. Since this seems to be the season for it, I wanted to touch on as many as I could. Many of these will probably be next year's Halloween Netflix options.
Voices from the Past
|DEFENSE (clap-clap) DEFENSE!|
While it is undeniably exactly what it sounds like (if it doesn't sound like a derivative 80s slasher set at a camp for cheerleaders, you may want to get your eyes checked) it also a comedy -- and a reasonably effective one -- which makes it more than exactly what it sounds like. I guessed the twist early in the film, but I still thought it was an effectively delivered one, which is much better than a "shocking" twist that cheats.
|"Hey Paul, the girls are here!"|
Now this is just random theorizing, but it seems to me that The Convent came along at kind of a weird time for horror movies, which may be partly responsible for the way that it both includes various elements and influences somewhat eclectically, but it also leaves it with a slight sensation that it wasn't completely sure what it meant to be in the end.
It's a comedy-horror, but the balance varies wildly. Coming at the turn of the millennium, it has some of the hip, youthful meta-awareness of post-Scream horror, but it's also way ahead of the curve in terms of paying homage to 80s horror (which has been a minor rage these past five years or so). It does a very effective job of building up the story and the fear, but then it uses such low-budget and poorly-considered creature effects that it's hard to take the running-and-screaming third act very seriously, and not because the jokes keep up the pace of the getting-to-know-you first act.
The opening scene is stone-cold-brilliant, as a rock-and-roll Catholic schoolgirl goes all shotgun rampage on nuns and priests to the tune of Leslie Gore's "You Don't Own Me." Cut to 20 years later, and a bunch of teenagers heading up to the old haunted convent for Halloween shenanigans. Evil is released again (THANKS GOTH-DOUCHE!), and the mystery of the past turns out to be the key to whether or not any of them will even have a future.
The first two-thirds of The Convent have so much character and humor that I was really disappointed by the more generic feeling third act (and demon-zombies that employ black light colors to look demonic), but even the third act had some fun to it. I don't mean to overstate the negatives. It's just that they were so startling in the context of the positives that it bears mention. Final tally; The Convent isn't particularly scary, but it's a heck of a lot of fun.
Comedy-Horror is Having a Good Run
|Bumper is also in this movie|
If Scream was a self-aware deconstruction of the classic slasher, The Final Girls is a meta-aware reconstruction for the next generation. If. They might not be. I'm just talkin'.
On the anniversary of a beloved teen slasher film, the star's daughter and her friends are sucked into the film and forced to survive. This should be a big sleeper hit when it comes to streaming services. People who haven't necessarily kept up with horror in their adult years should get a nostalgic kick out of it. Funny, with heart.
|I'm takin' what they're given cause I'm workin' for a livin'|
Work sucks. It really, really sucks. It saps our will, steals our identity, drains our lives away and leaves us hollow shells.
Bloodsucking Bastards recognizes the parallels between day jobs and night walkers, and makes the most of both sides. I'm not going to compare it to Office Space, but others have, and it's a fair comparison. I'm not sure I've seen a film since then with such biting insight into the drear of the corporate world, but when it wants to, Bloodsucking Bastards bites with ferocity. The horror side might have a little less tooth, but it makes up in blood and vigor what it lacks in bone-chills.
|Gravy has sauce.|
This is a deeply perverse little character-based hostage thriller/cannibal slasher comedy-horror with ample laughs. Like The Final Girls, Bloodsucking Bastards and Cooties, it's stocked with a great cast that keeps things interesting. Director James Roday (star of the series Psych) has a well-honed sense of comedic timing after 8 seasons of the show, which is both a great boon to the film, and a slight drawback. Many of the cast members are alumni of Psych (hand-picked, I would guess), and demonstrate a comfort working together, but there is also a... TV-ness to the delivery and camera work much of the time. I didn't mind that, but I definitely started to notice it somewhere in the second act. I hope that Roday's next feature sees him expanding beyond habits learned in television, which is to say that he should definitely get the opportunity.
|Give me a break, gimme a break...|
Whoever decided to create a movie where schoolchildren go full-on zombie mode on their teachers must have worked in a school at some point, because that's exactly what teaching feels like some days. That also pretty much tells you the story, but it's the jokes, the ensemble cast and the snot-nosed undead menace that make it work and keep it moving.
Be warned; the violence doesn't hold back, which means the zombie fighting may disturb some viewers on a visceral level, and Cooties is counting on that.
|Suspend your disbelief a little harder.|
The idea that Deathgasm touts is, "What if heavy metal were true?" What if the demons were real and the music could open portals into Hell, and whatnot. It's not a bad idea, but it feels a little late to the party and under-prepared. The film Knights of Badassdom did the whole heavy metal/demon summoning schtick earlier, better and funnier, and the video game Brutal Legend did the world of heavy metal mythology much more comprehensively and budget-appropriately for the scale of its subject matter. It ends up being a lightweight demon/zombie outbreak with heavy metal decorations -- which isn't necessarily the worst thing ever, but also isn't anything extra-special.
|Not the Ex|
Yay, Joe Dante is back with a horror movie! Boo, it's not really very good.
Max is too gutless to leave his awful girlfriend, Evelyn. He makes commitments he knows he has no intention of keeping because he just can't face the hard part. Then Evelyn dies, and he thinks he's finally off the hook for having to make choices with his life. Then he meets Olivia and it's like she was written for him. Just one problem; Evelyn is back -- somewhat more zombified than before, and taking all that "forever" pillow talk deadly seriously.
The rest of the movie is a series of variations on the theme of "This is going to keep happening until you man the fuck up, Max." I dunno, man... I've seen every film Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow have made, and a whole mess of other tales about man-boys growing up and taking responsibility, but somehow this one just broke the formula. Max's choices are so craven that I kind of just wished Evelyn would eat his face off and get it over with. Even though she's awful, she's also functioning with only partial information -- specifically, that Max is a coward and a liar. As such, it becomes increasingly difficult to blame her for the situation, and Max's eventual plotting to re-inter her becomes increasingly callous and dickish, while STILL cowardly and dishonest. So why do I care?
Alexandra Daddario is charming as the brass ring -- I mean, love interest -- but the rest of the movie is just an ugly downer, which really isn't a good look for a romantic comedy-horror.
|HONGRAY! Hungry Jack!|
There's a lot of potential in Lumberjack Man, but like a lot of things with potential, it becomes prematurely satisfied with itself and forgets to live. It's a comedy-horror that never really comes to grips with both elements, leaving them unbalanced and poorly blended in the end.
The comedy is delivered in two main ways. The main way is its setting in a Christian summer camp with the young counselors making preparations for their incoming campers. It never quite makes up its mind whether it's satirizing 80s teen campground films, or just remixing them. The other source of comedy is the killer -- a vengeful lumberjack that returns every thirty years since he was drowned in hot maple syrup by a huckster intent on stealing his flapjack recipe. When he returns, he slaughters as many people as he can and uses their blood to top his giant flapjacks. The concept is hilariously ludicrous, but wears a little thin through repetition.
On the horror side, it's really very gory with diverse and horrible kills that often intend to be funny, but less often succeed.
Performances are wildly uneven. Fortunately, the tart and likable final girl seems believably smart enough to survive, and Michael Madsen steals several scenes in an atypical role. On the other hand, why is Adam Sessler here? The film packs in so many victims that the characters who are supposed to matter don't really get enough time to do so.
It's not that Lumberjack Man is a bad movie. It's a totally okay movie, especially if you like really bloody slashers. The problem is, is could have been a really good movie, and it just didn't try hard enough.
Horror anthologies are great Halloween candy for viewers, with short story arcs that work well whether you're having a slumber party with your girls, or passing out candy to the one kid in your neighborhood who still goes door-to-door.
|Form and void|
Doomsday Book is a Korean collection of three short films skewing somewhat more to the sci-fi, but right at home in a sub-genre of horror that still can trace its lineage back through the EC comics of the 50s. The first part is a fairly modern remix of zombie outbreak tropes. This one was the least substantive, but the foreign setting infused it with a bit of fresh vigor. The second is a deeply existential consideration of a robot who may or may not have attained enlightenment in a Buddhist monastery. The third is possibly the most epic shaggy dog story ever told; starting with a girl who orders a replacement 8-ball for her uncle from a mysterious website. Cut to the end of the world.
|Here comes trouble!|
Ten tales of terror tied together with a tether.
The good news is that the various entries by various directors manage to vary less wildly than many other American horror anthos. They cover a broad range of standard horror types, telling simple spooky stories suitable for Halloween. The "bad" news is that sometimes they're just a little too simple. While I've come to find the perfunctory "twist" ending to be a little tedious (especially in anthologies), many of these "tales" felt like they missed some really solid opportunities to include them. I'm not sure how fair it is to fault them for not being something they weren't meant to be, but when the film did so much else right, the missed opportunities began to draw attention to themselves around the third or fourth time.
Still, really solid, and ideal for it's advertised purpose. Tales should grow a nice following on video, becoming a moderate Halloween standard.
|I beheld four riders|
Bone Tomahawk is a horror-western; something that hasn't been done a lot, and rarely well, which is a bit of a surprise, and really a shame. The story is a fairly straight-forward rescue odyssey, with a whole passel of idiosyncratic augments. What really makes the film worthwhile is the texture of the dialog and the great cast that delivers it.
We've seen the concept of the cannibalistic kidnappers/home-invaders/inbred throwbacks/cultists done quite a few times. They're generally built around mutated/insane hillbillies and other such Libertarians. Bone Tomahawk recasts that concept in the Wild West, with the role of the cannibalistic "troglodytes" going to a throwback offshoot of DEFINITELY NOT REPRESENTATIVE natives.
Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a cowboy, is laid up with a broken leg, meaning he has to spend time with his wife (Lilli Simmons) and realizes he actually kinda likes the gal. When she's kidnapped by cannibalistic cave dwellers, it's rescuin' time. O'Dwyer sets out with Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Freakin' Russell), Deputy "Chicory" (Richard Jenkins) and dandyish "war hero" (read: "Indian killer") Brooder (Matthew Fox) to hunt them down and bring her home (and, you know, the other deputy and the outlaw who were with her -- if it's convenient).
It's really a brilliant blend of conventions from both genres. The "long ride" format overlaps perfectly with the growing danger. Horror and Westerns both like a good bloodletting in the end. It does suffer in a few places from its budget. It's generally hoped that viewers won't notice the electric lights in and around town, or that many items of clothing or decor are simply store-bought. Once they get out on their journey, this becomes less distracting.
Again, the story is very simple, with a slow-burn that maybe starts a fire in the stable but doesn't exactly bomb the railroad bridge -- you feel me? A lot of time is spent on that journey, but Russell and Jenkins particularly make that time well spent.
I can't overstate how amazingly good Richard Jenkins is in Bone Tomahawk. I had no idea that the old-timer, Chicory was him until the movie was over, but somewhere around 2/3 of the way into the film, and continuing until the end, I kept repeating to myself "This guy is great!"
Bone Tomahawk isn't a symphony, but when you're out on the trail, a harmonica and guitar can be a much more fitting accompaniment.
Insidious: Chapter 3 - 2015
Over three films, the Insidious series has established a fairly high standard while developing its mythology. The first was good. The second was better, and made the first better as well. Now the third chapter goes back to a time before the others, fleshing out certain characters and filling in their story. Rather than simply telling an earlier version of the same story, it tells its own story, and still works in connections that lead into the previous films.
Quinn, a young woman still struggling with the loss of her mother, is a vulnerable target for sinster forces. Per the mythology of the Insidious world, contact with "the other side" tends to open doors that can allow the cursed dead a path back into the living world. So Quinn is in great danger when she reaches out to the spirit of her mother. While the artifice of Insidious' "other side" had once bothered me, I now accept it as a conceit of the series. Chapter 3 is a very touching ghost story that gives us reason to care. In fact, having rewatched the first two over Halloween weekend, I have come to realize how much the series really is about well-presented ordinary emotions like love, loss and the fear of losing loved ones. It's a remarkably human series.
It works perfectly on its own, independent of Chapter 1 & 2, but it still builds on their collective legend.
I'm on board with Insidious for the foreseeable future.
The Drownsman - 2014
The Drownsman is a fairly ambitious Canadian attempt at creating a new supernatural killer for the ages, and it mostly works. A young woman, having survived a near-death drowning experience, comes to live in constant fear of water, and the entity that hunts her from the water. It reminded me of 90s horror like Urban Legend and Final Destination, with big, new mythology discovered piecemeal as the mystery behind the killer is explored. The story groans a bit under the weight of its own gradual revelations, and the concept gets a little dopey if you think about it, but the tone and the scares are well-managed and it all hangs together just as much as it needs to to get by.
I guess this was kind of supposed to be the "it" horror movie of the year, but I don't think it really lived up to that promise. The idea is like a cross between the transferable curse of The Ring, and an STD. Once the curse has been passed, the victim is stalked relentlessly, albeit slowly.
It did a lot of the spooky/creepy/scary stuff really well, but it bogged down pretty badly in places, followed its own rules inconsistently, and just didn't really make its characters clever problem-solvers. In the end, there are some excellent pieces in a larger mess.
|Totally natural occurrence that couldn't possibly ruin your life!|
Ugh. A variation on the home-invasion sub-genre, in no way improved by Eli Roth. Of the film's many sins, perhaps the greatest is putting Keanu Reeves in a role that demands things which his skill set cannot deliver, like, human emotions. None of the anger, fear, humor, kindness, love or intellect that the character is supposed to express are present in his expressions. As such, there is no real point where the sensible viewer can connect with the character.
He's a family man. We know that because the house is covered with pictures of themselves as though it were a brand they had to convince themselves to support. The family goes away and he stays home to work. A couple of young women show up at his door, unable to find their party or get a cell signal. He lets them in, and despite the alarm bells ringing "CRAZY BITCHES," ends up in a saucy menage. Even his lust is unconvincing. Morning comes, weak man has regrets, and sociopaths have pretty much invited themselves to stay. He flips out. They flip out harder. Ridiculously bad choices continue unabated.
There really isn't even a story here. It's just things that happen on a pretty direct arc -- like a wadded up tissue full of spank-sauce thrown into the garbage. It's A to B storytelling, with no meaningful twists. I don't know what else to tell you. It's just a bad movie. Actually, I wish it were a worse movie. What it really feels, is inert, not unlike Reeves' performance.
We Are Still Here - 2015
Totally uninspired haunting/possession tale. The only "twist" is that the townspeople are "secretly" on the house's side. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Fire City: End of Days - 2015
If you pay much attention to horror movie credits, you've gotten used to what happens when a special effects wizard gets a chance to direct his own movie. You get great makeup effects, but maybe not the strongest story or performances. That's roughly what you get with Fire City: End of Days.
The performances actually aren't all that bad. The creature designs are marvelous. The story, however, skews a little slow and convoluted. Atum, one of the undercover demons living on Earth, is pursuing a mystery that could have ramifications for the balance of power between good and evil. To tell you the truth, I'm having a hard time remembering what any of that was. It's very definitely a noirish pot-boiler mystery in terms of structure, and barely qualifies as horror, outside of the demons and gore. There's really no sense of fear, and not that much tension, which is a problem. The director has potential. The monsters are fab. The script just isn't terribly professional. It feels like fan-fiction for a world you never heard of.
|Now with less wolf!|
A trainload of pissy Brits stalls in a dark wood on the last run of the night. The forest is home to werewolves. Then they die. That's pretty much the entire story.
Howl seems sheepish about completely committing to being one type of movie or another. It shortchanges a lot of its werewolf mythology while trying to treat it in more realistic ways, but then throws out any sort of realism when it comes to consistent application. It treats lycanthropy more like a zombie infection, with transformations being permanent and instantaneous upon death, resulting, evidently, in a bottomless blood lust that exceeds mere animal hunger.
The film is really slow for a lot of the run time. Unfortunately, very little of that non-action time is spent endearing us to the characters, so it largely becomes a process of hoping for certain ones to die sooner than others. Then when they do get killed, it's often in the dark, in quick-cut close-ups. Terribly unsatisfying. Which essentially covers the film as a whole.
|Now with more wolf!|
Oh honey, no.
It's part cabin-slasher, part monster-animal, and just a little bit werewolfy. A big, dauntingly friendly corporation tampers with polar bear genetics to help them survive climate displacement. Then a douchebag photographer shows up at a remote Alaskan lodge for a photo shoot with some boring, skinny girls. Then everyone gets killed by a bear.
Some of the early character interactions worked, and a snowbound arctic forest is still a reasonably fresh setting that comes with some moody, spooky touches that make for a different experience. Parts of the film are really very well filmed.
But for a films whose scares depend on you believing that they are being hunted by a bear, Unnatural completely fails in the bear department. There are bear shots in this film that look like they were edited in for the purposes of comedy. "Hey, what was that?! Let's get outta here you guys, I gotta bad feeling..." and then cut to a soft-focused giant teddy bear behind some trees. It was even worse when the action really kicked into gear. There simply is not a frame of film that makes the bear look even a little convincing. It's like a low budget 80s practical effect, and seems poorly designed to boot.
The characters are largely dominated by the d-bag, which is unfortunate because he's the least believable character in the film. Other than some nice photography, the best thing about Unnatural is the geek moment of having Ray Wise and Sherilynn Fenn of Twin Peaks together briefly on screen again. That's not a good enough reason to sit through Unnatural. If you want Twin Peaks alumni in a good horror movie, watch The People Under The Stairs.
Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story - 2015
A found-footage film based on a "Slender Man" type mythology (basically SM minus the tentacles or mane or whatever, which always seemed a poor design choice to me in the first place). It hits all of the obligatory found footage tropes, and falls into the same traps. This was one of the most abusive uses of of the conveniently-present camera I've ever seen, and yet for a supposedly professional news cameraman, there's never a frame that isn't an ugly, janky mess. Low budget and amateurish don't have to be the same thing. Here, they are.
The following two movies share a rare distinction. I watched them both twice. Now that's not rare. I watch lots of films twice if they're good. I didn't watch these twice because they were good, but because they were so forgettable. How forgettable? Not only did I forget I'd seen them (which almost never happens with me); I forgot I'd seen them until at least half an hour into each of them.
Demonic - 2015
Police investigate the aftermath of a haunted house massacre, realizing the identity of the "real killer" only when it's relevant to the narrative. There's a twist, but not really.
The Harvest - 2013
The main twist in The Harvest is that Michael Shannon is NOT the crazier partner in a married couple with a sickly, chair-bound son. Their tightly-wound world begins to unravel when a new girl shows up outside his window looking for a friend. It's slow-in-a-bad-way with unappealing characters (save for the girl) and a twist that you can probably figure out even if you don't see the movie. Which is a pretty good idea.
Netflix Horror Picks
for Halloween 2015
Last year, I reviewed a horror movie every day for the month of October. Well, that's not gonna happen again, champ. It was also brought to my attention at the time that many of the films about which I wrote were unavailable to the home viewer. So this time, I am putting you in charge of the watching, because I know you like it that way. There are a ridiculous number of top-drawer horror films on Netflix right now (and some real stinkers) so I have prepared this guide for plenty of options to carry you through All Hallow's Eve.
These are, for my money, the best horror movies on Netflix right now. Most of them should appeal to people who just plain enjoy a good movie, whether or not they're strictly a horror fan -- which isn't to say that these are the milquetoast selections. If you only watch one horror movie on Netflix this Halloween season, make it one of these.
The Babadook - 2014
The Babadook is the boogeyman-type character featured in a mysteriously appearing children's book, which begins to cross over into the life of a potentially disturbed young boy, and his potentially disturbed mother. The Babadook is also an effective metaphor for the lack and loss of control felt by a single mother experiencing the kind of over-her-head moment in life that hides just around the corner for more of us than would care to confess it. The manipulation of parental fears is on par with Dark Water or The Shining. Spooky, intense and scary in some very relatable ways.
The Babadook on Media Bliss
Byzantium - 2012
Director Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire) returns to the bloodsucking undead with a very different tale about very different vampires. "Sisters" Gemma Arterton and Saorise Ronan live a repetitious and directionless life, echoing the people that they were when they were alive, yet always running from their past. It's vastly more human than Interview. When I wrote about Byzantium previously, I declared that it was close in the running for my favorite vampire movie ever, and I've only come to hold that view more since then.
Byzantium on Media Bliss
American Mary - 2012
After I first saw American Mary, I went on a raving spree about it. It was an original concept that tapped into some fresh, real, disturbing horror. The one friend whom I know took me up on my suggestion said it was the first time she'd ever cried at a horror movie. After I saw See No Evil 2, the follow-up film by directors The Soska Sisters, I momentarily feared that I'd misjudged American Mary, but another viewing reminded me just how fine a film Mary is. See No Evil 2 is everything wrong with horror. American Mary is everything right.
American Mary on Media Bliss
The Seasoning House - 2012
The Seasoning House is a relentless and brutal film, rooted in real-world horrors. Angel is a captive in a nameless Balkan war sent to a house for sex slaves. Perhaps due to her deafness, and perhaps due to some undefined infatuation on the part of the pimp, she's spared from serving customers. Instead, she's the house servant, forced to give the other girls the drugs that keep them docile and dependent. This thin slice of freedom, coupled with her seeming insignificance afford her the means to fight for her life and freedom when the situation explodes. A misstep in the finale disappoints both the story and the verisimilitude, but not enough to undermine the breakneck tension and the unnerving horrors linger in the conscience.
The Seasoning House on Media Bliss
The Others – 2001
Alejandro Ammenabar's The Others cribs only as much of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw as it needs to saturate the film with all the elements of a classic haunted house film. The story is uncomplicated by the unnecessary. It builds a mystery and suffuses it with spooks, and pays off with a highly effective twist that makes the story a nice complete little gem. One of the top few ghost stories ever.
The Others on Media Bliss
Maybe not quite as delicately prepared as the Choice Cuts, but make up in flavor what they lack in finesse.
Housebound - 2014
Housebound, like Grabbers [below] is an import that recalls the young lions of American cinema in the 1980s. This Kiwi thrillhorror-comedy uses a young woman's house arrest – at her estranged parents' house – as a vehicle for a journey into Hell... or Heck, really. Perhaps a “bloody hell” here or there.
Housebound on Media Bliss
I Saw the Devil – 2010
Bleak, black and brutal, to the point that it either becomes, or reveals that it always was, a savage satire of itself. A strangely brilliant and completely moronic serial killer makes the unlucky mistake of selecting the fiancee of a South Korean special agent, which sets into motion what we assume will be standard (albeit particularly violent) revenge/chase action. When the agent catches the killer early in the second act, it becomes clear that there is much more going on here. What follows is the kind of ode to and indictment of violence and revenge that must have had Quentin Tarantino kicking himself in envy.
I Saw the Devil on Media Bliss
An unexpected collection of elements, twists and embellishments on what is essentially a mystery. Daniel Radcliffe is accused of murdering his true love, and even he can't quite be sure he didn't do it. When he starts growing giant devil's horns, as one does, it could be his damnation, or the key to the truth.
Horns on Media Bliss
Come Back to Me - 2014
The less you know about the story, the better it will be. Seriously, don't even read the blurb on Netflix. I'll just tell you this; it's about a young couple who move into a new home in a recession-ravaged Las Vegas, and then strange and disturbing things start to happen. It's creepy, and then it's really creepy, and then it's OH MY GOD SO CREEPY. If that's something you can deal with, just press Play.
Come Back to Me on Media Bliss
Neverlake - 2012
Jenny is visiting her semi-estranged father in Italy, where he has been studying Etruscan artifacts, particularly those relating certain mysteries about the lake upon which they live. In a ramshackle hospital nearby, she meets a group of children with a variety of mysterious ailments. Nice, creepy haunted mystery.
Neverlake on Media Bliss
Insidious: Chapter 2 - 2013
Insidious 2 requires a familiarity with the first film, which is no longer on Netflix. But if you've seen it and you've been on the fence due to the usual law of diminishing returns with sequels (and horror sequels in particular), then you can probably rest assured. Everybody hates something and everything has someone who hates it, but it is my strongly held opinion that the follow-up is not merely at least as good as the original, but it actually makes the original better by filling in some massive gaps.
Insidious: Chapter 2 on Media Bliss
Teeth – 2007
She has teeth.
Things get... complicated.
Monsters will always have a special place in my heart. Please don't let that be my ironic epitaph.
Monster movies also tend to be some of the most fun, if you ask me, and if you've read this far I am going to take it as implicit that you did.
From Dusk Till Dawn - 1996
This Rodriguez/Tarantino joint is slightly psychotic. It starts out as a brutal crime flick, following a pair of remorseless bank robbers (George Clooney & QT) on the run from a dragnet, and the family of a faithless preacher (Harvey Keitel) on their collision course to a Mexican cantina, just over the border. Then Salma Hayek gives everyone erections, and then the vampires come... from dusk until dawn. Savage, cool, and SO damned fun.
Grabbers - 2012
Speaking of fun, Grabbers recollects the horror/comedies of mid-80s, minus the loudmouth kids. Director Jon Wright backed up my theory with his more recent Robot Overlords, which does bring the kids. In Grabbers, however, an alien invasion of squiggly multipodes requires a more adult solution... a grand piss-up.
Grabbers on Media Bliss
The Host - 2006
This South Korean film about a mutated river creature centers heavily on some sentimental family drama and intense thrills to keep us invested. It's uneven at times and I have some reservations about the last act, but the overall package delivers.
Slashers were never my favorite genre (so take that as you will) but I have come to appreciate them when they do something interesting and/or new with the concept (so take THAT as you will, too).
The story in Maniac isn't really anything new or different, but by doing one other thing differently, it gives the story new meaning. That “one thing” is to show everything through the eyes of a serial killer with a mannequin fetish (Elijah Wood). The viewer is made complicit, no longer as witness, not merely as partner, but possibly as the reason the killing must happen at all.
Saw - 2004
Saw isn't strictly a slasher in the traditional teenage body count way. There is some killing, there is some gore, and there is a sadistic, franchise-spawning costumed killer. Most of all, however, Saw is a brutally intense psychological thriller, predominantly based around two men in a single room. Absolutely worth seeing once. The many sequels become increasingly gore-dependent and nonsensical.
Old School Kicks
If we're going to be perfectly honest with ourselves, there is a definite generational divide in the horror movies of the horror films of today and those of, say, 15 – 20 years past. The technology has changed radically, as have the expectations of a generally more grumpy audience in the 21st century.
But that doesn't mean the old stuff isn't still good.
Wes Craven's New Nightmare - 1994
It's not mere vanity titling that Wes Craven's name leads the title of this very "meta" not-quite-sequel to the Nightmare on Elm Street series he originated. It's Craven's and star-of-Nightmare Heather Langenkamp's dreams. It's an imaginative and entertaining approach to a new kind of nightmare. I like it at least as much as the original, and it makes a nice bridge to Craven's Scream series.
Day of the Dead - 1985
I, personally, am not really a fan of George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, but I really like the sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. Day of the Dead suffers from a little bit of the 1980s, but the story, satire and zombie effects are still as sharp as ever.
I suppose it was meant to be funny at the time, but it's really funny now. A totally 80s splatterfest adaptation of a Lovecraft story that sort of bridges Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to George Romero's zombies. If you love old school creature effects – and I do – Re-Animator is essential viewing. If you're looking for subtlety, that is simply too damned bad.
Nightbreed - 1990
Nightbreed is adapted by Clive Barker from one of his own books. It's part slasher, part “I'm a vampire?” type relationship drama and a LARGE part monster mash. The monster mash is the part that works. Really works. Netflix is currently hosting the recent Director's Cut, which seems to help, although to be honest I couldn't tell all that big a difference. Like Re-Animator, it's essential for fans of creature effects.
Nightbreed on Media Bliss
The series was a breath of fresh viscera when it came out. The stories become progressively messier, but we get more of the gore and freaky monster effects that we came for while the mythology deepens.
These are getting to be good times for fans of the horror-comedy. There are a few on Netflix already, but you should be able to expect more to come.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil - 2010
Turns the slasher film sideways. If the slow-witted yokels are the good guys, who's the serial killer?
Odd Thomas - 2013
An unexpected combination of romantic comedy supernatural thriller. Thomas can see... things, harbingers of ill tidings. He does what he can to help. But when he sees a lot of things, he's going to have to do a lot more. Not terribly horrific, but certainly has ample thrills and a lot of charm.
The Brass Teapot - 2012
Sort of a “monkey's paw” tale about a couple who discover a cursed teapot that pays cash for pain. To what lengths will they go to give the teapot the ever-increasing “kicks” it needs? To what lengths would others go to possess it?
The Brass Teapot on Media Bliss
Zombeavers - 2014
It is what it is, man.
If you're the kind of person who thinks that sounds funny and you'd like to find out if it is – it is.
If you're the kind who thinks that sounds stupid and you're pretty sure it's something you'd hate – it is.
Zombeavers on Media Bliss
There are a TON of “found footage” horror films made these days. Most of them suck. A few are good. Fewer still are on Netflix, but there are some interesting variations on the style, between these and the V/H/S anthologies.
Troll Hunter- 2010
Researchers is Norway pursue the legendary giant trolls of the northern mountains. A series of set-pieces ramps up the wonder and danger with each expedition. It seems like giants shouldn't work this well, but they totally do.
Troll Hunter on Media Bliss
The Taking of Deborah Logan - 2014
A team making a documentary about Alzheimer's patients encounters a subject whose behavior blurs the line between dementia and demonology. The script bites off a little more than the budget can deliver in the third act, and the “found footage” perspective cheats a lot, but it's a good twist on a haunting/possession with a reasonably well-handled metaphor.
Gonna be passing out the candy on Halloween and want so bite-sized horror to get you through the night? Anthologies bear the blessing and curse of their structure. They can be as bad as their worst piece and as good as their best, but they can also give you a lot of different treats to try, and so what if you get a few pennies?
The ABCs of Death - 2012
The ABCs of Death 2 - 2014
The premise of the ABCs series is that 26 international film makers get one letter of the alphabet, and they have to make a short film about death on a theme beginning with that letter. The results are ALL over the place. Some are incredible. Some are mediocre. Some a totally, completely bug-shaggin' insane. A few are even boring, but at least there will be another one coming at you in about 4 minutes. I prefer ABCs 2 to ABCs 1.
ABCs of Death 2 on Media Bliss
V/H/S - 2012
V/H/S/2 - 2013
V/H/S Viral - 2014
Each V/H/S film collects a group of found footage shorts (presented as mysterious video tapes) from different creative teams, then wraps them together with an overarching story about an unknown evil that collects such videos, and uses them as a conduit to spread evil and terror. My order of preference is Viral > 1 > 2, but I'm not necessarily typical.
VHS on Media Bliss
VHS: Viral on Media Bliss
I Been All Around This Great Big World...
By coincidence (or not, or not really) these international films all feature girls (sort of) who may or may not kill. Or something.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – 2014
Made by Iranian filmmakers in California, AGWHAaN is your best bet for foreign arthouse buffs. It's slow, in a good way. It's spare, in not quite as good a way. I felt held at a distance as a viewer which I'm not really used to and not sure I liked, but maybe I needed that. Despite a great deal of coldness, signs of life are revealed by the end of this tale about the death of more than a vampire's dinner.
Thale – 2012
Another fairly spare tale; this time from Norway. Two hazmat clean-up guys are assigned to clean up a remote cabin in the woods – the scene of a recent, grisly death. They're mostly wrapped up in their personal problems, until they discover a long disused secret laboratory housing a speechless girl in a tub of milk. The mysteries concerning her folkloric origins put them in exactly the kind of dangerous position they were trying to avoid.
Thale on Media Bliss
Let the Right One In - 2008
I'm going to do something I never do. I'm going to go ahead and endorse this even though I haven't seen it yet. Why? Why would I do that? I was very fond of “Let Me In,” the American adaptation of this Swedish film. The original is pretty widely considered to be superior, which doesn't really matter to me, but since it's on Netflix and “Let Me In” isn't, we're working with what we have. The story concerns a young boy who is bullied at school and ignored at home. Then he meets a girl with secrets who tells him that they cannot be friends. The impact that they have on each other will change lives, and not just their own.
I will watch it in October because I'm a pro like that.
Won't Kill You
They're not the top shelf hooch, but they get the job done. Suitable for late night snacking.
Black Death - 2010
One of the things I like about Black Death is being able to tell D&D players, “Go check out what a paladin is really like.” Sean Bean heads up this grim band of knights under warrant of the Church as they escort a friar (Eddie Redmayne) to search for a rumored cure to the plague. The combat is brutal. The story is a little vague about where it's going, if indeed it's going anywhere at times in the middle. But it pays off in the end and packs in a twist that actually serves the story rather than itself.
Kiss of the Damned - 2012
A ridiculously gorgeous vampire wrestles with the implications of a new relationship with a human man, and goes ahead and does it anyway. Just as they are embarking on their new lives together, her unstable and self-serving sister shows up to turn sexy-bitey time into bullshit drama time. I was strongly reminded of KotD whenI saw Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive." They certainly have some similarities, but they take those ideas and run in radically different directions with them, and that's not a bad thing in either case.
Kiss of the Damned on Media Bliss
Haunter - 2013
Abigail Breslin's family doesn't seem to notice much, and she's not sure why. They never change. They never question. They just live the same day over and over again. It's a haunted house story that definitely takes things off in its own direction. It doesn't always work when a movie writes new rules for the supernatural that challenge tradition, but Haunter works well enough to keep the tension and the pace ratcheting up all the way through.
Haunter on Media Bliss
Honeymoon - 2014
There were two very similar films in 2014; Honeymoon and The Device. Honeymoon is the much better one.
A pair of newlyweds decide to spend their honeymoon in her family's vacation cabin. Things get weird and super creepy. The weirdness around them agitates their unresolved anxiety about marriage, but becomes much more. The mystery is better than the payoff, but it does enough things right to make it not a waste of time.
Honeymoon on Media Bliss
These listings were roughly accurate as of the first week of October, 2015 in the United States. I can't promise anything you read here will still be on Netflix at any point past then. The assessments will remain essentially true, although they may compare less favorably to the entirety of horror film history, than they compared to what Netflix had available at that time -- y'all dig?