Monday, July 27, 2015

What You Don't Know Can Definitely Hurt You

To an optimistic horror fan, there is nothing more exciting than seeing a new theatrically released film but an up-and-coming director that is actually good. We can revisit our classics anytime our hearts start to bleed, but catching a whiff of new talent reminds us that the genre is far from dead.

I felt that way after watching Mike Flanagan's Oculus (for more on that, head over to my podcast, The Feminine Critique for Episode 41). At first glance, this seemed to be a simple evil mirror movie and while I don't  necessarily have a problem with those (see: Candyman, Poltergeist III) such a concept didn't exactly rock my world. But for those who have seen Oculus, you know that it's a far deeper, sadder story about a family torn apart by abuse. I was curious to see if his first full-length film had the same skill.

Quick Plot: Seven years ago, Tricia's husband Daniel vanished leaving no trace behind. Whether he's dead, amnesiac, or derelict, Tricia has finally decided to officially move on by legally declaring him dead by absentia. She's also seven months pregnant with another man's baby and slowly trying to move out of a pretty but poverty-ridden neighborhood in sunny California.

To help out, Tricia's younger sister Callie comes to visit. Callie has her own baggage, having spent several years as a drug-addicted runaway before cleaning up her act and finding God (and a jogging routine). 

Both sisters experience some mysterious unpleasantness as Daniel's death certificate looms. For Tricia, her guilt at writing off her husband has caused terrible nightmares and the occasional day vision of a tortured Daniel trying to harm her. Callie has what seems like more physically sound issues when she bumps into a creepy homeless man in the ominous nearby tunnel pass.

The fact that he's played by perennial genre superstar Doug Jones is obviously a tip-off that something is not right.

To go into any more detail of Absentia may rob the viewer of the right first-time experience, so I'm about to get spoilery. For those who prefer to protect their movie chastity, know that I liked but didn't love Absentia. It's a solid recommend without the enthusiasm of my thoughts on Oculus.

Let's get down to it:

One of the strongest aspects of Absentia is how it sets up a handful of mysteries at its onset. In addition to the BIG question of Daniel’s whereabouts, there’s the identity of Tricia’s baby daddy, the contents of Callie’s box, and the question of the mystery’s man’s “trade” all in the air, as if the film is one giant puzzle composed of smaller ones. Considering we spend a good 45 minutes or so wondering about Daniel’s fate, these added questions (some answered faster than others) helps to further add to the tense uncertainty in the full narrative. 

The downside is that it doesn't all pay off in a way that will satisfy most viewers. Initially, I was somewhat let down by the mystery still left at the end of the film, but as a few days have passed, I've found myself reconsidering. We don't fully understand what has been menacing these characters, nor we do learn the fate of any of our leads. It's frustrating to one extent, but when you think back to Tricia's speech to Callie early in the film, it's also rather poetic. For seven years, she spun different scenarios for Daniel. Now, that fate has passed to her new lover.

Much like Oculus, Absentia is a far richer film than it seems at first glance. Where Oculus took a simple "evil object" story and used it to explore the nature of a child growing up in an abusive home, Absentia does something similar with the limitations of how much we can ever really know a person. It's not quite as sharp as Flanagan's next bigger budgeted film, but it clearly demonstrates the director as someone with a rather fascinating depth. In the meantime, it’s also a rather haunting little watch.

High Points
Not only does Absentia feature genuinely strong performances, but it gets massive bonus points for getting them from people that look like real human beings

There's a lot to commend in Flanagan's screenplay dialog, which gives us a clear picture of the events without resorting to forced exposition

Low Points
That darn REC-inspired cover art

Lessons Learned
In real life, Doug Jones seems like an insanely delightful, enthusiastic, and talented performer. But if you're ever in a movie with him, it's probably best to avoid his presence at all times. Nothing good ever comes out of it

But seriously, this is another reminder that Doug Jones should be king of all things


Absentia is departing its comfy Netflix Instant Watch spot, but it's still well worth sitting down with in old-fashioned physical media form if that's what you're left with. This isn't a perfect film, but it's a strong, unnerving, and new story told with great skill by a man fast shaping up to be The Next Best Thing in modern horror. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

With Open Eyes

There seems to be a new subgenre of horror popping up rather frequently on the Instant Watch services. I don't know exactly how to describe it, but let's say something along the lines of "time shifty, dimensional portal-y" thrillers. Think Coherence, Mine Games, even Forget Me Not. In a few of those cases, the filmmakers have taken a basic slasher pattern and given it just enough shifts to feel new.

For lack of a better definition than "time shifty, dimensional portal-y," we'll just say Don't Blink is yet another "lots of attractive young people go to a secluded location and weird shit happens" kind of flick.

Quick Plot: Lots of attractive young people go to a secluded location and weird shit happens.

I mean, it DOES.

By lots, I really do mean about a full baker's dozen or so. A bunch of loosely connected "friends" (I guess?) are driving up to a winter cabin. Among them are Jack (David Silver himself, Brian Austin Green) and his secretly-but-not-so-secretly pregnant girlfriend Tracy (Mena Suvari), Jack's younger brother, another car filled with the hot-headed Zack Ward, and, well, a bunch of other not particularly defined or interesting fodder for...something.

That something turns out to be the random disappearances of individuals. One moment, you're all sitting around discussing dinner until you realize in the blink of an eye, one of you has simply vanished leaving no trace behind. We've already established quickly and clinically that there's no cell service/characters forgot phones/characters don't have cell phones (thus covering all demographics) so we know there is no help on its way. One trigger-happy drama king in the group with a gun means we'll get plenty of "who are the REAL monsters?" overheated drama. The question is, will we as an audience care?

Sort of, maybe. Don't Blink has a nice and intriguing premise, but it's simply not good enough to do anything that special with it. We start with so many characters that it takes too long to realize which ones we'll have the longest. As a result, one of the final survivors(?) has to give an overly long and dull expositional speech about how this is affecting her life because clearly, the film didn't have its timing right to SHOW that. Our other final character gets a last minute affair that comes out of nowhere and is treated with no weight whatsoever. It's weird.

I didn't hate Don't Blink, but the fact that, while watching it, I found myself thinking about the rather mediocre but MUCH more entertaining Mine Games certainly says a lot about the experience. 

High Points
The rapture-y premise is promising...just not delivered

Low Points
Is it weird to want to be able to see a movie when your'e watching it?

Minor spoiler: the film does not explain what actually happened. This can work if you've given me a film that's interesting with or without a reveal, but since Don't Blink has so little substance, it ultimately left me even more frustrated with the entire viewing experience

Lessons Learned
It's not okay to turn off John Denver

(for obvious reasons)
Things white girls from Iowa can make: bologna sandwiches, babies, potatoes, and sex with their pregnant friends' boyfriends. Things white girls form Iowa can't make: sushi, reasons for having sex with their pregnant friends' boyfriends

The outdoors is actually really quiet

You have to have a phone if you have your own internet site

In times of stressful mystery, one can go from irreligious punk to Bible-quoting scholar in mere minutes

As a stream, Don't Blink isn't terrible, but it's far blander than a whole lot of other options that explore similar territory. At the risk of issuing a rather ridiculous pun-filled ruling, you can blink and miss this one.

I'll be here all week. Don't eat the veal, it's made from cruelty.

Monday, July 13, 2015

I've Had the Case of My Life

I can't quite justify it, but lately, I've been in strange, very fervent mood for cheaply made, super sleazy mid-'90s thrillers.

That's a normal kick, right?

Before you judge me, allow me to say that today's cheaply made super sleazy mid'90s thriller stars God of All Things Michael Ironside and Guess Who Character Come To Life Costas Mandylor. 

I just got a little bit of your respect back, right?

Quick Plot: In the steamy underground of the St. Louis streets, a serial killer is racking up a body count on prostitutes. All the victims have two things in common: their pictures in a once famous, now career-flailing photographer named George Kendall and a sleazy pimp with the non-pimpiest name a pimp ever had.

Sims. The pimp's name is Sims. Isn't that usually a name bestowed upon movie characters that are computer geeks or toy store managers? 

Moving on, hot on the case is Ironside's Sgt. Ernie Hanson and an ambitious district attorney named Carolyn Price. Price is one of those career-minded women whose only priority in life is getting a promotion no matter what the costs. Like everyone else in this movie, she doesn't actually seem to be good at her job, but she's way better at looking like she's good at her job. Naturally, that makes her a minor villain.

Our hero comes in the form of Jennifer Grey's Elaine Taylor, a scrappy (or so the film is telling us) young criminal lawyer trying her best to make partner at a large corporate firm. She becomes assigned to Kendall somewhat by accident, but the mysterious photographer takes an interest in her and her I-watched-a-marathon-of-Law&Order-style attitude.

Did Kendall murder five young prostitutes? It's a question that the audience might care about more than the movie does, as Portraits of a Killer's construction has no urgency about itself whatsoever. Sure, there's an early soap opera-quality fistfight that's exactly as amazing as you want it to be and an excessively terrible use of slow motion in the big climax, but those aside, this is a Dunkin' Donuts quality movie.

I know there's this weird faction of humanity that adores their coolatas and chocolate chip cookie dough flavored coffee and presumably, lazy advertising that doesn't even seem to TRY to make the cardboard food look good, but seriously: everything you can get at Dunkin' Donuts tastes like it was made with as little effort as possible. If there is cheese on your DD sandwich, it came from a very lazy cow. If there is a tomato in your wrap, it came from a plant that spent more time smoking and watching Judge Judy than, I don't know, being a plant.

My point is that Dunkin' Donuts is a bland institution, and Portraits of a Killer is a bland film. It has all the potential to ooze with fun sleaze, but the best we get is a sexy saxophone solo playing over...Costas Mandylor and Jennifer Grey making out fully clothed. 

Now I don't have any real desire to see either of these actors in the buff, but I have equally less desire to see them kiss close-mouthed when they have no chemistry and their characters have no personality. Jennifer Grey is an inexperienced lawyer. Costas Mandylor is a creepy photographer. Dead prostitutes abound and all we can hope for is that Michael Ironside shows back onscreen soon.

High Points
Look, any movie that includes Michael Ironside gets SOMETHING from me

In true film fashion, we get a city coroner who eats his messy dinner just next to a few tables worth of corpses. At what point can we get a movie about (or recipe book from) THOSE guys?

Low Points
When your tone is too chaste for Cinemax AND Lifetime, you're doing something very, very wrong

Lessons Learned
Putting a gun to the head of an alleged criminal during questioning is perfectly okay and acceptable police work

High powered attorney wannabes should always make a point of keeping a formal high powered attorney suit in their office on casual Fridays

The average St. Louis apartment for a low-level attorney is large enough to house a grand piano

When you have caught the interest of both a violent pimp and serial killer, it's probably best to look through the peekhole before opening your door to a mysterious knock in the middle of the night

I have no idea who Portaits of a Killer was made for. It doesn't have enough sleaze, mystery, or Ironside for anyone to claim it as their own, but the slow motion cheesiness at least kept me smiling. This is in no way a good movie, but it exists and is streaming on Netflix. Now if you'll excuse me, I really need to know if formaldehyde fumes makes sandwiches taste any better.

Maybe THAT'S what Dunkin' Donuts needs!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Karma Kameldoon

Is Patrick Muldoon the worst actor alive to actively get work? I say this as someone who was TOTALLY Team Austin & Carrie back in the ‘90s heyday of Days of Our Lives, but with age comes wisdom comes the realization that, well, this guy kind of sucks.

Naturally, that means his presence in a sleazy low budget thriller streaming on Amazon Prime is a must-watch.

Quick Plot: In one of the best credit sequences of all time, a catchy modern pop song plays while we get a fog-hued montage of Patrick Muldoon and Patsy Kensit tearing through 19th century London as Jack the Ripper and his bloodthirsty girlfriend. It’s cheesier than my dream plate of nachos and I’m instantly in love.

Cut to the present, where Dr. Trey Campbell (Muldoon in smart people’s glasses) works at a mental asylum on the Rhode Island coast. He’s so dedicated to his work that his annoying daughter Theresa and even more annoying wife Carly (Cry-Baby’s Amy Locane, who went on to have some of her own very bad karma via a vehicular manslaughter prison sentence) complain that he never has time for them. New England island vacation it is!

Before we can hop on a ferry, we first meet schizophrenic patient Maureen Hatcher, a beautiful murderer currently under heavy restraints in Trey’s hospital. Maureen believes that she’s really Agnes, the reincarnated gal pal of Jack the Ripper, and that Dr. Trey is the current embodiment of the famed killer. It’s a complicated doctor/patient relationship.

As Trey leaves to vacation with his horrid family, Maureen flirts with his substitute doctor. Like a true gentleman, he rebuffs her advances in the name of professionalism only to then pull a Kill Bill and attempt to rape her under sedation. 

It doesn’t end well.

Maureen escapes the world’s worst guarded mental hospital with ease, taking out a few more employees and stockpiling random body parts along the way. She makes a quick stop at a lesbian bar to pick up a similarly sized blond with an even worse southern accent than herself to murder and stage the body in a car accident. The world’s best car accident ever.

One of the signs of a great movie--I mean a REALLY GREAT MOVIE--is spontaneous combustion.

Like a gorilla drinking a martini, it just makes everything better.

Don't lie: Seeing this just improved your day tenfold

In the case of Bad Karma, we get our dose of Best Movie Ever when Maureen props her victim in the vehicle, puts it into drive, and watches it coast over a cliff, blowing up before it hits the water. I may have almost failed high school physics, but I’m fairly certain that this is not possible in modern engineering.

From there, Bad Karma slowly goes downhill. Sure, we do eventually get Patrick Muldoon attempting a British accent, and there’s a lot of inefficient police work and severed hands to keep the cheese cold. We get some token sleaze as Maureen hitchhikes with a dad who puts the moves on her despite his kids being the backseat, but the overall energy just doesn’t quite stay where the dairy queen in me wants it to be.

It’s a hard feat.

High Points
If a spontaneously combusting compact doesn’t get you going, check your pulse

Low Points
Needs more cheddar

Fun Fact
Bad Karma was produced by Mark L. Lester, the demigod responsible for Class of 1984 and far more importantly, Class of 1999. Note that it's never the wrong time to discuss Class of 1999

Lessons Learned
Rhode Island mental hospitals for the criminally insane can also be used as public school classrooms

A gunshot to the shoulder is not nearly as fatal as you think it is, despite your medical school education

Extremely violent mental patients are allowed daily eyebrow plucking sessions

No woman can resist the charms of Patrick Muldoon

Look, there’s nothing GOOD about Bad Karma, especially when you realize director John Hough is the same man responsible for The Watcher In the Woods. But hey, those in the mood for a mildly sleazy thriller with high doses of Patrick Muldoon in a top hat won’t find anything better.