Monday, September 26, 2016

Mall Madness

Between the glory of Dawn of the Dead and the glee of Chopping Mall, the cuteness of Bio-Zombie and the "oh yeah, that's set in a mall too" Elves, shopping malls are simply prime real estate for horror. It looks like India has finally received that memo.

Quick Plot: Amity Mall is about to become the largest indoor shopping center in all of Asia, providing people working on its construction stop, you know, dying mysteriously. 

After the latest security guard casualty, an ex-soldier named Vishnu is called in to oversee the finishing touches before the mall's big opening. The wealthy business men in charge bring their grown children along for the star-studded party and token five minute musical number break.

This is an Indian film, after all.

As most of the guests begin to exit, the handful lingering behind--both for work reasons and sneak-into-closed-stores-and-figure-skating-rinks-for-fun ones--are hunted down by a some very angry, very violent ghosts. Little by little, the stragglers piece together that the men who purchased this property did not do so with the upmost moral code of conduct.

Darr @ the Mall was apparently made originally for television, which explains why it goes on...and on....and on. Two hours of running length isn't normally unreasonable, but boy does it feel unnecessarily epic in the context of a rather simple haunted mall story.

Pacing aside, Pawan Kripalani's Darr @ the Mall has its charm. While the characters aren't really fleshed out in the most interesting ways, the main actors more than make up for it with good, earnest performances. The effects are B-level CGI, but some of the scares pop and the setups--including an aforementioned FIGURE SKATING DEATH--are done with more care than you might find on average. There's even a rather brilliantly done falling-down-the-stairs shot that might be the first time I've ever genuinely felt the horror of that kind of situation (for those wondering, I tend to fall UP the stairs far more often). 

This is a decent, well-made horror movie. I just wish there wasn't so much of it.

High Points
Did I mention there was a figure skating death?

Low Points
Did I mention this is a two-hour ghost story that probably needed about 75 minutes to tell its story effectively?

Lessons Learned
One reason for not being happy all the time is that you're just not drinking all the time

It's not an accident just because you say so

Saris are made from extremely flammable material

It's hard to fully endorse Darr @ the Mall because its running time feels unreasonable. That being said, it's always interesting to see horror from around the world, and this is certainly a quality production. Perhaps it's worth a watch in bits, as it was originally designed to run. Or maybe I just don't have it in me to NOT recommend a horror film that involves a DEATH WHILE FIGURE SKATING.

Instant bonus point awarded. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Pretty Little Repressed Homosexuals

I make no excuses for my love of Lifetime movies. With rare exception, they are usually a guaranteed 90 minutes worth of overacting, unnecessary melodrama, beautiful kitchens, unfinished sets, femme fatales, evil men, inept police officers, and occasionally, insane Eric Robertses. These are all beautiful, beautiful things that rarely leave me bored.

When you take that formula and toss in the keyword "cults," you're somewhat ensured a winner around these parts.

Quick Plot: Melissa, a loyal member of the Church of the Blessed Heart, has committed suicide, much to the shock of her friends and congregation. Suspicion quickly falls on her husband Daniel, a self-appointed prophet who has spent the last few years training a portion of his bible study group for what he believes to be the imminent second coming.

Things get more serious when Adam, one of Melissa and Daniel's friends and fellow cult--er, yeah, we'll just say cult members is brought to the police station by the head of the Church of the Blessed Heart to spill the truth about Melissa's death. Considering Adam is the type of guy who dresses like the character of Mark in Rent but goes to bed with his collared shirt buttoned up to his throat, we know he's a tad unstable.

The film backtracks to show the formation of Daniel's mini-cult-within-a-cult. Having met at a Christian college, Daniel, Melissa, Adam, and a few other white people moved to the church's big southern compound after graduation to devote their lives to preparing for the apocalypse. Charismatic, ambitious, and more than a little sexually repressed, Daniel took it upon himself to start his own faction that followed some tweaked rules from the rest of his congregation. Rotating fastings, the occasional shunning, and systematic cuddling became the norm. Secret gay sex became, at least for Daniel, the reward.

Meanwhile, Melissa gave up her once promising writing path to support Daniel in the hopes that he would eventually share her own prophecy of marriage. Despite seeming to be a little smarter than most of her brainwashed peers, Melissa can't seem to see/accept the fact that the only thing Daniel loves more than the ideas of Kirk Cameron is, quite possibly, the idea of having sex with Kirk Cameron.

Ungodly Acts is not quite your average Lifetime thriller. For starters, there's nary a straight love story to be found, which is quite refreshing. It's rare that a Lifetime film actively focuses on a gay man, but that's absolutely the case in Ungodly Acts. The film doesn't shy away from his sexuality, even as the character certainly wishes it would.

Unfortunately, it does shy away from other items of importance, including WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED. The film takes an odd turn in its final act, throwing a twist with not just a whodunit, but a didnthappenit. I think. Or it just bypasses the villainy of the awful (but at least justifiably confused Daniel) for the bigger issue of the church's corporate board. I. Think.

Directed by Carl Bessai, Ungodly Acts is fairly forgettable, in part because the quality is good enough that one can't actively laugh at the typical silliness that comes standard with the Lifetime brand. At the same time, when it tries to step outside its TV movie limitations (see Low Point), it comes dangerously close to those glorious levels of excess a cheesehound like myself longs for. It's ultimately a little too good for a really good time and too not good for a genuine good time.

It makes sense, trust me. 

High Points
It would have been very easy for Ungodly Acts to turn its earnest Christian characters into caricatures, but the film makes a respectable effort to not just paint its cast as  one-note sheep. Melissa, Adam, Daniel, and Daniel's first shunning target all come across as real people with different pasts that might leave them so vulnerable to a toxic way of life

Low Points
Look, I appreciate ambition in a Lifetime movie, but the "Adam is crazy so we're going to film in black-and-white close-ups" trick felt unnecessary and annoying

Lessons Learned
Lack of sleep can damage a man's prophetic senses

A woman's heart does not have enough room for both prayer and creative writing

The crazier you get, the more southern your previously region-less accent may sound

Look! It's -
Brant Daugherty, best known as the devious and gloriously named Noel Khan from Pretty Little Liars, fully inhabiting the role of a closeted messiah-in-the-making

Ungodly Acts showed up in front of my eyeballs on cable, which made it more than suitable entertainment for a lazy afternoon. I wouldn't necessarily recommend investing much time or energy into seeking it out, but if it falls into your lap, you might find yourself intrigued enough to follow it through. But really, only if you dig cult stuff. Or Noel Kahn. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Zombie Cleanup In Aisle 5

When any film made in the ‘70s opens with a young girl sporting a Marcia Brady-like patterned dress slitting the throat of a grown man, it probably doesn’t have to work too hard to win me over. Thusly do we enter 1973’s cult classic, Messiah of Evil. 

Quick Plot: Arletty heads to a small coastal town in search of her father, a renowned painter who came to the remote seaside town of Point Dune, California, to work in peace. While she doesn’t find her dad, Arletty does discover his diary, in which he recorded the odd happenings that plagued him in recent months. 

Rather than sit down and FINISH reading the increasingly ominous journal entries, Arletty wanders the mysterious town to ask suspicious locals if they can help. Soon she stumbles upon a trio of swinging hippies, led by the seductive Thom and now spending the night in her father’s modern mansion. When one of Thom’s lady partners decides to split, we see that the town of Point Dune is in the slow process of descending into some sort of zombie-like state of cannibalism.

Messiah of Evil is a strange, strange little film, and ultimately, it’s all the better for it. Written and directed on a minuscule budget by William Huyck and Gloria Katz (screenwriters for Indianna Jones and the Temple of Doom and Howard the Duck), the movie suffered a good deal of financing woes and may (according to some reports) have been edited and released by a team not associated with the original production at all. Oddly enough, such confusion seems to help the overall effect of the film.

The plot is a mess. Motivations are hardly explained. The history of Point Dune’s human-eating cult is somewhat tossed in in the film’s final act (though much of what comes before seems to assume the audience already knows) and there’s the lingering issue that if Arletty had just sat down for twenty minutes and finished her dad’s very detailed diary entries, this whole situation could have been avoided and our pretty redheaded protagonist could be sipping daiquiris on a beach not oozing with the carnivorous undead. 

And yet, the messiness of Messiah of Evil may be part of its charm. The pacing is so inconsistent that the film puts you in a constant state of unease. Scenes of horror, as especially evidenced by Thom’s second girlfriend’s ill-fated trip to the cinema, unfold slowly, quietly, and in such a way that it turns audience impatience into brilliant tension. 

High Points
The film’s ending (hinted at with its opening framing device) does a great job of making the events of Messiah of Evil all the more cruel

Low Points
I suppose the film could have explained or even planted stronger seeds about its blood moon/cannibal cult/devil’s descendent/zombie plague mythology earlier on, but what can you do?

Lessons Learned
You don’t just unzip a man and say good night

Being sleep deprived and going insane due to mutant demon bites will do wonders for your penmanship

Popcorn buckets were gloriously bottomless in the 1970s

Look! It’s—
Royal Dano, always and forever known to be as the first victim of those pesky Killer Klowns From Outer Space playing the part of Arletty’s long-suffering zombified dad

Also, who knew! A founding member of The Blue Man Group

Also of note: the production design is credited to none other than Jack Fisk, he of such noted De Palma classics as Carrie and Phantom of the Paradise (and yes, also the husband of the one and only Sissy Spacek)


I’d long seen Messiah of Evil show up on forgotten movie lists, and I’m quite glad I finally gave it a go (streaming free for Amazon Prime users). The film is something of a mess, but as discussed, those elements somehow work together to create a strange nightmare of sorts that stands quite high in the post-Night of the Living Dead surge of zombie horror. It’s definitely worth a go. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Future Is a Thirsty Place

Look, if your film is set in a post-apocalyptic future, I'm going to watch it.

'Nuff said.

Quick Plot: A few years from now but years since the last rain (yes, I'm confused too) the world has fallen into a The Road-like existence of hunger, thirst, and violence. Holding up strong on an abandoned Oregon farm are Kendall and Dean, a pair of teenage orphans who have watched the world crumble around them.

The smart and resourceful Kendall spends most of her days scavenging old vehicles for a part to help fix a plane that her and Dean have declared their ticket to a better life. Ill from kidney failure, Dean is confined to the indoors while Kendall reports back with less and less hope. Meanwhile, a man named Carson has found a way to tap into the remaining well water supply in the general area, offering his band of rovers as a sanctuary for those who have given up.

Well, the healthy ones who have given up.

The Last Survivors does very little new with its post-apocalyptic setup, but thankfully, it also does almost everything quite well. Directed and co-written by Thomas S. Hammock, the film looks astonishingly perfect. I wasn't surprised to learn that Hammock was the production designer on All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, You're Next, and The Guest (especially when the always welcome Barbara Crampton stops by). While we're not on Fury Road or even Gallowwalkers levels of Namibian desert glory, The Last Survivors is beautifully shot and goes a long way in establishing its dried out rural setting. Even the costume choices show a keen eye, as Kendall's torn clothing often blends right into the landscape.

The other biggest strength in Hammock's hand is lead actress Haley Lu Richardson and her (and the film's) take on Kendall. Wisely, The Last Survivors is more show than tell, and we don't need flashbacks or loaded exposition to understand exactly who this young woman is and how she came to survive where so many others haven't. She's also, refreshingly, a heroic but not saintly person. Kendall and Dean are good people in a world where such a trait is a weakness, but the film doesn't feel the need to hammer down their niceness on us. We get a few examples of how their actions define them while also clearly showing that these are people who will let their conscience go for self-preservation.

There's something that holds The Last Survivors back from being on the same level as, say, Carriers or Stake Land. It's not quite as ambitious, but that's also to the film's credit. Hammock doesn't take on more than his resource permitted, and as a debut film, it's quite strong.

Also, it might make you a tad thirsty.

High Points
Aforementioned cinematography and location choice, as well as its strong, believable female protagonist

Low Points
Aforementioned minimalism

Look! It's -Aside from the lovely genre goddess Crampton, we also get a small turn from Rena Owen, an incredibly gifted New Zealand actress best known for Once Were Warriors (and lesser known, though still affectionately by me, for Alyce Kills)

Lessons Learned
Many things will be extinct should the earth experience a devastating drought in the future, but none more missed than hair ties

Though the majority of personal hygiene will be less valued with the impending apocalypse, eyebrow maintenance will always be key

Respect the carpenter

Always keep a katana in easy reach. You just never know when you'll be decapitating nouveau Tusken raiders

The Last Survivors is streaming on U.S. Netflix Instant, and it's certainly worth 90 minutes of your time, particularly if you appreciate watching quality films made on smaller budgets. Or, you know, if you dig end of the world stuff like a normal human being.