Monday, January 25, 2016

Best of the Year 7

Seven years ago today (or thereabouts), a seven years younger version of myself embarked upon a journey, a journey not of space but of...well, generally, a lot of terrible movies. But sometimes, when not beholden to sexy early ‘90s TV domestic thrillers or anything involving murderous appliances, I stumble upon actual quality. 

As is tradition around these parts, I celebrate my blogiversary with nothing less than a roundup of the best films I’ve covered over the past year. Put on your fancy monocles and let’s get to it!

More comedy than horror, The Happy House was easily one of the oddest films I watched this year, and that in itself merits it with a place on this list. An irritable New York couple heads upstate to an out of the way bed and breakfast run by a cheerful and conservative widow with a skill for baking and intolerance of bad language. At a certain point, The Happy House switches gears into a very, very different style of film. While it never quite finds the balance in its horror/comedy setup, it remains a surprising little movie that felt like nothing else. 

Less horror than philosophy, Merlin Dervisevic’s Cruel & Unusual (note: without the ampersand, it’s nearly impossible to find on IMDB) is a strange little post-life drama about a miserable ESL teacher named Edgar (David Richmond-Peck) who loves his Philippine wife far more than she loves him. When he ends up in either hell or purgatory,  Edgar is forced to relive his last day until he comes to some sort of peace. Cruel & Unusual isn’t a perfect film, but it’s not afraid to explore some big ideas through believably flawed characters that go on quite a journey.

15. Circle

50 strangers wake up in a strange room standing on lighted areas that will emit fatal electric shocks if they try to move. Also in the rules? Every two minutes, someone will be executed, and that someone can be decided via group voting. Circle has a neat Twilight Zone-esque premise and understands that 90 minutes is just the right amount of time to explore it. 

After losing his wife, a film archivist raises his young son in a house that by the titular and possibly haunted waterway. Like many a new horror film streaming on Netflix, The Canal has terrible cover art that comes nowhere close to capturing its earnest tone. This is a film about a good man and father trying to do his best, and something far older and deeper making that impossible. Filled with heart and good scares, this is a ‘turn the lights out’ watch.

Essentially an Americanized version of Man Bites Dog, Random Acts of Violence follows an entitled but unremarkable British snob killing his way through New York City with all the self-importance of your average hipster. While Malcolm buys his own hype, the movie (written and directed by its star, Ashley Cahill) understands that he’s far more pathetic than his ideas. Like Man Bites Dog, this is a cruel film, but because it’s self-aware, it never feels exploitive. 

Adam Wingard’s followup to You’re Next offers the same strengths: believable family dynamic, incredibly watchable actors, and a fast pace that never lets up. Dan Stevens charms his way into the family of his alleged fallen war buddy, with only the teenage daughter (played by It Follows Maika Monroe) sensing any doubts about his ultimate intentions. While the film is a little marred by its messy military complex subplot, The Guest remains an outstanding example of how to make an action/horror film that does nothing but entertain its audience. 

There are many horror fans out there who hated Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon, and while I can understand how some of it didn’t click (yes, the main couple is Brooklyn hipsters at their most cloying) I still found it a worthy accomplishment and rather heartbreaking film. Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway (both good, even if hiding their British accents seemed a larger challenge than it should have been) play newlyweds about to confront some very dark, very gross mysteries. Made on a small budget, Honeymoon smartly balances what it can show and when. It has its flaws, but it also left me feeling sadder than almost any other film I’ve seen this year. 

Craig Zobel’s dramatization of one of America’s ickiest, most disturbing, and sadly not unbelievable crime stories of recent years is not an easy or pleasant film to watch. Ann Dowd (outstanding) plays the manager of a fast food restaurant who has the ill luck of answering the phone on a busy Friday night. On the other line is an alleged detective reporting that a young cashier has stolen some money, and it’s now Dowd’s responsibility to help with the investigation. What follows is a horrifying mind game into just how little a person might question authority, and just how far he or she might go to please it. 

Look, I didn’t say these were GOOD films. But, you know, ten years from now, I’ll probably remember more about Rats: Nights of Terror than I possibly could about The Canal (which is a far superior film know, doesn’t have the Bruno Mattei touch that generally involves a lot of headbands). SO number 9 Is Rats. Want to fight about it? 

If I could give an award for best first hour of a film, The Taking of Deborah Logan would easily win. This found footage docu-horror starts off so strong and heartbreaking with a terrific, Oscar-worthy performance by Jill Larson playing the titular senior citizen now battling Alzheimer’s with the help of her frustrated daughter (a fine Anne Ramsay). Unfortunately, the film’s ghost story backdrop doesn’t quite connect with the far more interesting human story inherent in Deborah’s condition. That being said, it remains a hearty recommend, primarily for its incredible cast. 

I recorded this ‘50s sci-fi goodie expecting a goofy good time, and was therefore almost disappointed to discover an actual excellent early zombie tale made by Edward Cahn. When aliens invade the United States, they take over the corpses of the recently deceased and announce their plans of world domination. Where Cahn gets even more interesting is with his human characters, an assorted collection of scientists and soldiers still recovering from the moral questions asked by their participation in World War II. The film is a worthy watch for anyone interested in zombie history (as George Romero was clearly influenced by some of its themes) but also makes for a truly strong 67 minutes of post-war horror. 

Joan Crawford romances a younger man and leads a poodle parade in a circus. I really don’t think you need to know any more.

5. Congo

An adorable talking gorilla drinks a martini, an awesomely independent Laura Linney kicks ass, a game and cheerful Ernie Hudson gets the starring role he deserves, and Tim Curry dares to eat Delroy Lindo’s sesame cake. From start to finish, Congo is just a damn good time.

Mike Flanagan wowed me with Oculus (which gets even better on second viewing) so I was eager to see his first foray into horror. Absentia wears its low budget and inexperience on its sleeve, but also bears the mark of an incredibly promising filmmaker with excellent instincts. The story follows Tricia, a pregnant women whose husband vanished seven years earlier, and Callie, her younger sister who’s recovering from a drug addiction. With a low budget but outstanding cast, Flanagan creates a fascinating collection of small mysteries that add up to something far more terrifying. 

With a fresh premise and brilliant lead, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes was one of those great little horror films that helps optimists like me proudly prove that the genre is far from dead. The fantastic Alex Essoe stars as Sarah, a struggling young actress dealing with constant rejection and competition from her “friends”. When a Hammer-esque studio offers her the chance to audition for the lead role in a new high profile horror film, Sarah must decide whether a deal with what might be the devil is worth the career she’s always dreamed of. Plainly and simply, Starry Eyes is a very good horror movie. Isn’t that nice to say in this day and age?

Not quite a horror movie, but still worthy of its place, The Sisterhood of Night is the rare film that cares about, explores, and understands the very unique experience that is being a teenage girl. First-time director Caryin Waechter rounds up an outstanding young cast (including Chronicles of Narnia’s magnetic Georgie Henley, Moonrise Kingdom’s Kara Howard, the unique and awesome Willa Cuthrell, and a a pre-The Visit’s Olivia DeJonge) to explore the complicated waters of middle school friendship. It’s far more fascinating than such a premise might sound.

Marina de Van is not a boring woman. The actress/writer/director has carved out a rather unique niche in genre filmmaking, with the bizarre body horror In My Skin remaining, to my knowledge, the only movie that includes a scene of a woman eating dinner in a fancy restaurant while her disembodied arm sits nonchalantly on the table. With Dark Touch, de Van tells an achingly intense tale of a young girl whose telekinetic powers probably come from a short but deep lifetime of abuse. That the film never actually comes out and says these things makes it even more powerful. On its surface, this is a mere baby Carrie tale, but as soon as you start to really consider what it might all mean, the film becomes something very else entirely. You can still find it streaming on Netflix, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Most Educational Post You'll Get All Year

It’s a new year! Here at the Doll's House, we celebrate such a fact by reviewing some of the many lessons learned over these past 365 days. Take notes!

Culinary Arts
You’re fucked without bacon -- Compliance

Cook a rat in a little vinegar and it’s just fine -- Rats: Nights of Terror 

Always use whole milk when making blueberry muffins -- The Happy House 

One must first apply the batter before throwing your french toast on the griddle --Honeymoon 

Arts, Language, & Literature
The word “everything” means the universe of all things -- The Ghosts of Spoon River 

As far as poets go, Blake’s a badass -- Kristy

World History
The French Revolution could have been avoided if Louis XVI partied like Joan Crawford -- Berserk! 

Climbing the Corporate Ladder
Never beat your boss in chess. You’ll probably be rewarded by being pushed into a den of man-eating cats -- Night of a 1000 Cats 

International Relations
The real problem with Americans is that they don’t play rugby -- Spring

Things you won’t find in Scotland: network signals, working electricity, traffic, bears -- The Blood Lands 

A German sense of humor is no laughing matter -- Random Acts of Violence 

You can’t be a redneck if you’re from Detroit -- Trucks 

The best place to start spreading a message of planetary invasion is Syracuse, NY -- Invisible Invaders 

The Teenage Brain
Fatal Attraction is a popular film among the high school youth of 21st century America -- The Sisterhood of Night

Nothing insults a teenage bully more effectively than a free cosmopolitan in a dive bar -- The Guest

Inviting every guest to bring a doll to an eight-year-old’s birthday party is really just asking for trouble -- Dark Touch 

Health & Fitness
A regular yoga routine will do wonders for your potential as a rock climber -- Preservation 

CPR can pretty easily be achieved by simply beating up a new corpse -- Baby Blues 

Menudo isn’t very good for those suffering ulcers -- Cruel & Unusual

All In the Family
There’s just never a right time to tell your daughter that her mother isn’t dead -- Hush Little Baby 

Science & Technology
Computer geniuses prefer to be called nerds -- Smiley 

The Internet is filled with people that really like boobs -- The Den 

Evolution began with alligators, which turned into dinosaurs, which turned into wooly mammoths, which turned into buffalo -- Mission To Mars 

You have to have a phone if you have your own internet site -- Don’t Blink 

The shortage of quality diamonds is the reason we haven’t yet made lightsabers a commercial project -- Congo 

Psychology 101
When your life is essentially being determined by a popularity contest, it’s probably not the best time to start practicing your non-ironic Donald Trump impersonation -- Circle 

The accepted scientific definition of clinical depression is “when you sit in your room all day being weird” -- Whisper Kill 

Extremely violent mental patients are allowed daily eyebrow plucking sessions -- Bad Karma 

Transportation Potpouri
Savvy 21st century journalists research most of their stories via soccer mom minivan transportation -- The Secret Village 

A haunted car is still just a car -- Phantom Racer 

The Glorious ‘90s
If Dennis Miller is in your movie, you can bet your beard that he’s playing the ex-love interest turned slightly sleazy platonic friend who will end up in a hospital -- Never Talk To Strangers & The Net 

Fashion For Dummies
Floppy blond hair & a turtleneck do indeed a villain make -- Tracks of a Killer 

When attending a mysterious dinner party, consider wearing noiseless flats. You just never know -- Would You Rather  

Super strict futuristic prisons will conduct thorough anal searches to ensure you don't sneak weapons or baby dolls into the facilities, but it will still be okay to sport your own groovy hemp poncho on the inside -- Deadball

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

Don’t wear gold tops if you’re planning on spilling blood on them -- Eden Lake 

No matter how tight the top, how short the skirt, how tattooed the dame, a pair of glasses will sell a hot chick as a doctor with no problem -- Berserker 

Beauty Advice
Burial does wonders for the complexion -- Starry Eyes 

Dating, Sex, & All That Fun Stuff 
Bed may be a gift from the gods, but a handicap port-a-potty is the best place to salami around -- Bruiser 

“Hey Cheekbones, wanna party?” is not a recommended pickup line, even if your target is the very high cheekboned Joan Severance -- Criminal Passion 

Business & Commerce
Sex with a stranger is worth a lot of margarita mix and Wonder Bread -- Forget Me Not 

If you tip your waiter well enough, he just might sneak a batch of Oxycontin and sleeping pills into the tropical mixed drink you order for your friend -- Don’t Wake Mommy

Filmmaking Tips
Nothing says ‘crazy’ more efficiently than a bulletin board filled with newspaper clippings -- The Canal 

All deaths are better when shown in super slow motion -- Hooded Angels 

Basic Survival
When smoking out killer bees, remember not to smoke yourself out as well -- The Deadly Bees 

Always expect a burlap bag to be filled with extremely venomous snakes. If your’e not living by this rule, I really don’t even know how you’ve made it this far -- The Taking of Deborah Logan 

Board Game Skills 
When ouijaing, always say goodbye -- The Ouija Experiment 

Angels do indeed exist, and they are the jerks who hold the subway doors open and make the rest of us straphangers late -- Bless the Child 

Nothing will confound a mermaid with more success than a mere net -- Killer Mermaid 

Doug Jones!

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 -- Absentia

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Mother of a Lifetime

Sometimes, your brain just doesn't work the way it's supposed to. On those days, there's really only one thing you can do:

watch an insane Lifetime thriller.

Quick Plot: Beth is eight months pregnant and insane. "Lifetime insane," which means she still takes great care of her shiny auburn hair and spends her time crashing her married lover/baby daddy's evenings threatening to kill herself or him. Let that sit there for about twenty minutes while we take you to very different place.

Molly is pregnant and not insane. She's married to a hunky nice firefighter named Brad who's never home, and once baby Ava comes along, she's also now, well, insane. Less "Lifetime insane" and more "what I imagine most women who have babies will be like insane" in that she's getting no sleep and no balance in keeping an infant from screaming for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, her pal and coworker Susan (Starry Eyes' Alex Essoe) has just snagged the very promotion that once could have been Molly's. 

In other words, motherhoods sucks.

Just as she's about to take her doctor's advice and see a professional about her postpartum depression, Brad recommends a social website for new moms as a form of home therapy. Because talking to complete strangers is a way better way to maintain your sanity than seeing a psychologist, Molly ditches her appointment and immediately logs in.
In keeping with Lifetime's golden rule that Anyone You Meet Online Is a Crazy And Will Try To Kill You, Molly meets Beth, now the mother of a baby named Robert. Before you can ask which hand is rocking the cradle, the two become the best of friends. 


Is there any channel that knows what you want and gives it to you with as much glory as Lifetime? Between Molly and Brad's beautifully chic unfinished home, interloper Susan's instant audience surrogate role, and Beth's escalating and positively ridiculous craziness, Don't Wake Mommy is the cinematic equivalent of ordering Domino's delivery when on vacation. In so many ways, it's the same as every other (of the thousands) of "crazy obsessed woman steals your life" flicks, and yet it will satisfy you with the absolute certainty of jalapeno cheesy bread.

It might also help that Don't Wake Mommy actually has some interesting talent behind it. Chris Siverston wrote and directed, and that in itself would have probably inspired me to watch it (except I didn't need to know that, because seeing that there was a new Lifetime thriller about  A CRAZY CHICK WHO STEAL YOUR LIFE is usually enough to merit a DVR recording in my household). This is the same filmmaker who made a devastating, well-acted, and quite interesting-looking adaptation of Jack Ketchum's The Lost. It's also the same filmmaker who helped make Lindsay Lohan's downward spiral even more fascinating with the terrible (and kind of awesome?) punchline, I Know Who Killed Me.

Siverston fills his cast with game actors who take the material quite seriously. Essoe, so good in Starry Eyes, is stronger than most who end up in the token Best Friend That Senses Something Amiss And Will Inevitably Pay For It role. Sara Rue is a cheery psychopath, and Ashley Bell holds it all together with a genuinely great performance. For the final kicker, we get what might very well be the most random use of Denise Crosby and creepy baby dolls ever. 

Let's face it: if your movie ends with a random use of Denise Crosby and creepy baby dolls, you're doing something right.

High Points
Following The Last Exorcism, I was convinced Ashley Bell was going to win an Oscar one day. Considering how ridiculously good she is in a Lifetime thriller about THAT CRAZY BITCH TRYING TO STEAL HER BABY, I still am. She is painfully sympathetic and believable as a young mother in over her head, and as silly as some of her material is, she brings a genuine human quality to it. I continue to root for this woman's career.

Low Points
Look, I get that the husbands are never that much more intelligent than Forrest Gump in these flicks, but did Brad have to turn on his wife THAT quickly?

Lessons Learned
Never leave the house without an expensive five pound amethyst crystal in your pocketbook. You want to live, don't you?

Firehouse kitchens feature the finest stainless steel appliances

If you tip your waiter well enough, he just might sneak a batch of Oxycontin and sleeping pills into the tropical mixed drink you order for your friend

I can't tell you that Don't Wake Mommy is a good movie, but it's certainly an entertaining one. Lifetime thrillers aren't hard to come by these days, but some are certainly better than others, and with its strong cast, Don't Wake Mommy is certainly more watchable than virtually every "ripped from the headlines" or "unauthorized true story" cash-in you'll usually find on that network.