I love historical horror. Set me down with the collected works of M.R. James and I won’t notice a ten-car pile-up outside my window. I am here for basically ever period Dracula film ever made. Carmilla is one of my favorite novellas. The Turn of the Screw is one of my favorite operas. I even love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, fight me. So despite a loathing for Westerns so intense that I cannot even bring myself to watch Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal get it on, I was immediately interested in Dead Birds. There’s horror, there’s a haunted house, there are erstwhile Confederate soldiers getting murdered in disgusting ways, count me in.

So did it live up to my hopes? Well…

Dead Birds is one of those movies with which you can play Professional Movie Review Bingo. You already know all the buzzwords that will be applied to it. Creepy. Atmospheric. Dread. Slow burn. And all of those things apply, they honestly do. But it’s hard not to feel like the story of the movie is a story of wasted potential.

The plot goes like this. There is a bank robbery in which people with brick-thick Southern accents kill each other, and we, the viewer, are somehow supposed to figure out which team we’re on. The bank robbers – a team composed of Confederate Leader, Token Woman, Token Black Guy, Token Kid, That Asshole, and That Other Asshole – set out to find a plantation where, they’ve been told, they can hole up until they’re ready to set out for Mexico and distribute their ill-gotten gains among them. Along the way, they receive the stereotypical Grim Warning not to approach Camp Crystal Lake, this time from a guy looting the random dead like your player character in Resident Evil.

Regardless, they go anyway. The approach to the plantation is one of the more effective settings of the movie – the mansion is a run-down, lifeless, ominous grey building seen in the distance, surrounded in what seems like every direction by dead corn and creepy scarecrows. Once inside the plantation, things only get worse. Some people hear voices. Some people see visions. Some people just straight get eaten by, again, Resident Evil-esque life forms.

(Now that I think of it, this would be a really good game for the RA franchise. It’s the sort of environment that would be amazing if explored in your own time, but suffers from having to follow a camera around.)

Anyway, all these happenings eventually reveal a sort of backstory involving the owner of the plantation, his dead wife, and the plot of Fullmetal Alchemist. People are picked off one by one, and it ends with what I cannot help but see as a really odd homage to Night of the Living Dead, though it would take a fairly long chapter in a George Romero academic festschrift before I could explain exactly why.

As an episode of an anthology like Fear Itself, this movie would have been well above par. Given a half-hour longer a run time and better pacing so that it could go into deeper and more resonant issues than “Look, someone’s getting eaten right now,” it might have been a powerful and memorable movie. The raw material was there. But too much time was spent on irrelevant things, too little time was spent on character building and backstory, and the movie just never quite catches fire.

Did I enjoy watching Dead Birds? Yes. Do I wish it had been a better movie? Also yes. At 90 minutes it could easily have spend more time on the backstory than a couple of fast-cut flashbacks with the same monsters (pancake-makeup-white faces, black eye holes, and mouths full of sharp teeth) that you see in every third horror movie on literally any topic. There was an awful lot that was wasted here that could otherwise have really resonated in the modern era: the plantation owner’s use of his slaves and finally his children to carry out unholy experiments, love that can’t let the dead go (there is the faintest, most faraway echo among the plantation owner and his wife, Confederate Leader and his brother, and Confederate Leader and his girlfriend, and it could have been so complex and deep BUT), and the inevitability of human covetousness and the Bad Things that ensue.

If the movie had gone on for another 45 minutes, maybe all of these things could have been explored. Hell, I’ve seen shorts do it in 15. I just wish this movie had done it too.

So what’s the bottom line? Three stars. Dead Birds has atmosphere and acting talent to burn (including that kid who was in E.T. and holy shit when did he become a buff adult man), good practical effects, and what could have been an interesting plot. It just never quite comes together. Whether that’s the fault of the script or the fault of the run time is debatable. Either way, watch it on Shudder where it’s free, or rent The Wind on VOD.

MV5BMTcyMDkyMDA4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjE5MDExMDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,676,1000_AL_Because come on.  Come on.  No one is going to give The Eyes of My Mother less than five stars.  I don’t care how contrarian you are; I don’t care how much you hate “artsy” movies; I don’t care how opposed you are to all that is beautiful and clear and flawlessly done in a world where the ugly, the graceless, and the inept are increasingly lionized.  If you give this movie fewer than the maximum number of stars, you know in your heart that you are lying; and furthermore, that you are a bitter, cane-shaking old coot who shouts at clouds about those damn kids and their stupid making better movies than your favs from the 70s.

You are the enemy of the grim, gorgeous, monochromatic world to come, less-than-five-star-giver.  You.

The Eyes of My Mother is not just an astonishingly beautiful movie, though it is that; the cinematography, lighting, framing, arresting visuals, and weird, creepy grace of Kika Magalhães as Francisca are reminiscent of the utter gorgeousness of 2015’s Darling, a film I had to watch a couple of times before I could really process anything other than how beautifully shot the movie was.  Like Darling – and other recent entries into the horror genre like The Witch and The Blackcoat’s Daughter – The Eyes of My Mother steers back away from an 80’s-style reliance on gore and jump scares into gothic Shirley Jackson territory, depending for its effect not on the sudden shrieking of violins but on the quiet, unrelenting awfulness of every minute of the movie.

Not that I don’t love gore and jump scares, because I do – and The Eyes of My Mother certainly has gore enough.  But it’s not an end in itself; it’s a means to tell a story about a young woman whose life is as genuinely awful a place to be for herself as it is for anyone else who comes into her orbit.  I’m not sure the genre has seen a character as simultaneously horrifying and sympathetic as Francisca since Norman Bates, and while I doubt that appreciation of The Eyes of My Mother will be as widespread as appreciation of Psycho (because the world is a crappy place full of terrible non-five-star-giving people), I hope very much that it will be as deep and as long-lived.

So what’s the verdict?  Five stars.  If you do not love this beautiful, skillful, queasily heartbreaking movie, then you and I cannot be friends because you have no soul and you probably like tract houses with popcorn ceilings.  Go on about your wretched, empty  existence and watch Honey Boo Boo instead.

MV5BMTY2NTQ3NTEzNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzA0MzY1OTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I put off watching The Blackcoat’s Daughter/February for all the usual reasons – release delays and renaming followed by limited festival release and direct-to-VOD do not usually bode well for a movie.  After seeing it, I’m a little annoyed about all the tribulations this movie had to go through to make it to my TV.  And I’m not entirely down with the renaming – The Blackcoat’s Daughter is  a more attention-getting name, I guess, but February is the name of this film’s soul.

Because let’s face it: despite a game attempt by Hallmark to shoehorn a feel-good consumer holiday into middle of it, no good comes of February-the-month.  February is an icy, desolate stretch of desaturated misery; winter has long outstayed its welcome, spring isn’t even a faint glimmer on the horizon, and everyone around you has started to look pale, hollow-eyed, and just a little bit unhinged.  February the Movie, February-the-month made celluloid, is captured with stunning viscerality in this movie.

The plot is irksomely difficult to describe without giving away the course of the movie, and the course of the movie is really something you should witness on its own terms.  Briefly, two girls (Lucy Boynton as Rose and Kiernan Shipka as Kat) are stuck at a boarding school as winter break begins, Rose because she put off her parents’ arrival and Kat for more ambiguous reasons.  Some distance away, a very obviously disturbed young woman named Joan (Emma Roberts) escapes from a hospital and hitches a ride toward the school with middle-aged couple Bill (James Remar) and Linda (Lauren Holly) in a Car Ride of Creepy so unsettling that I honestly didn’t know who to yell at to get out of the car.  (Particular kudos are warranted for Holly, who delivers a dead-voiced monologue while in shadow, half turned toward a camera in the back seat, that’s one of the most disturbing and arresting things in the movie.)  Also, there is Satanic possession, but that’s honestly the least of anyone’s worries.

Watching these plot threads come together reminded me a great deal of watching Shutter Island‘s slow descent to a terrible and relentlessly logical end: when you get there, nothing is surprising, everything is awful and inevitable, and nothing is left but the small, cold satisfaction of seeing the glass spray fall into place on the freeway.

I read a review that described The Blackcoat’s Daughter as “a tone poem about loneliness and loss.”  And it is, right up to the haunting and powerful last shot.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow burn done right – not the sort of “slow burn” that means you can ignore the screen until the last ten minutes and still have a pretty good idea what’s going on, but the kind where the creeping dread takes hold in the first scene and never quite lets go.  The cinematography, vaguely Kubrickian, is gorgeous and faintly disorienting.  Everyone in the small cast comes across as just… not quite right, in ways that remind me of how Rosemary’s Baby is described by people who like Rosemary’s Baby.   Like The Witch and The Babadook, it’s a nearly flawless example of a recent trend in horror movies that I’m all in for – the retreat from Eli Roth to Shirley Jackson, moving away from splatter films that are shocking but not really relatable and back to stories where the horror isn’t just voyeuristic but deeper and more existential.  I hope there are more like it coming.

So what’s the verdict?  Five stars.  I started out not expecting much from this movie; two hours later I was one stiff gin and tonic away from going out to collar strangers in the street and demand that they watch it.  Do not do what I did and let The Blackcoat’s Daughter languish in your Amazon rental queue.  You should probably just pre-order the bluray, because it looks like this going to be a film that only gets deeper and more disturbing with subsequent viewings.

janedoe_I’m going to be up-front about my biases here: any movie that plays the Gratuitous Animal Death card gets on my shit list and has a whole lot of digging to do to get out.  Not only do I just not like seeing animals die onscreen – or offscreen, for that matter – but I think it’s the horror equivalent of a Hallmark movie – a cheap and insultingly obvious bid for emotional investment that never, ever works to the benefit of the movie.  The Autopsy of Jane Doe plays that card early on, and while I admit that the topic was handled with more respect and care than is usual for horror movies, it put the movie ten strokes down and nine to play, and in the end, the movie couldn’t afford to lose the points.

Now, I hate writing that.  It sucks that I didn’t like the movie more than I did, because my love for Brian Cox knows no bounds and Emile Hirsch was  fantastic in what might have been a pretty thankless role.  And crazy applause is due to Olwen Kelly, playing the eponymous Jane Doe, not only for having the sheer physical stamina to lie naked on a metal table for umpteen days of shooting, but for the skill involved in making Jane’s blank, milky stare look more and more malevolent as the movie goes on.

(While I’m handing out plaudits, here’s one for whoever decided to use that horrifying “Open up your heart and let the sun shine in” song as a running theme.  It was grotesque in the movie; then I looked up the lyrics and it was one thousand times more awful.  And I found it on grandparents.com, which asserted with a straight face that “the only thing happier than this song is hearing all the lyrics crooned by your grandkids.”  If my grandkids started singing it, I’d be on the phone with an exorcist in less time than it takes a nanny to jump off a roof with a noose around her neck.)

My issue was with the second act, when I thought the movie went off the rails.  It starts out looking like it’s going to be a formidable movie.  Jane Doe is found half-buried in the basement of a bloody crime scene.  She gets sent to the makeshift morgue in the basement of the Tilden funeral home, a setup so weirdly sprawling that it looks more like it was intended to be an underground bunker that could hold the whole town in the event of a nuclear bomb.  Cox and Hirsch are a father-son coroner/medical technician team shaken by the recent death of Cox’s wife, ordered to find a cause of death for Jane Doe by morning.  The problem, of course, is that as the autopsy proceeds, fewer and fewer things add up, and the number of things that seem flat-out impossible grows.

I would have loved the first half of the movie if it hadn’t been for the aforementioned Gratuitous Animal Death, and I nearly loved it anyway. Autopsies, as puzzles to be solved, fascinate me, and The Autopsy of Jane Doe goes full-bore into the technicalities.  I loved the characters, even if I never quite managed to become invested in the whole dead-mother grief plotline.  I really, really wanted to know what was going to happen.

Then, as Cox and Hirsch start to actually figure things out, the movie spun into a place that left me squinting at the screen and going “…But why, though?”  Why are the dead in the morgue suddenly walking?  What are they trying to do?  What was the purpose of that one scene in the elevator, and how, from a logistical standpoint, did it even happen?  I feel like half of the Things Intended to be Scary could have been cut out and the movie would actually have been scarier.  (One bit toward the end, involving the ghastly song previously discussed, was a hundred times more horrifying and effective than anything else that had happened in at least the last half an hour).  Cox and Hirsch suddenly turned into Exposition Bros, and the explanation for what was going on left me feeling inexplicably unimpressed and dissatisfied.

In short, I think this was a movie with amazing potential that suffered from a second half in which the director seemed to just give up and throw horror movie tropes at the wall to see if something would stick.  It’s entirely possible, though, that this is one of those movies that gets better with subsequent viewings.

So what’s the verdict?  It took me a long time to decide on this one, just because of that second half.  Four stars, but if it had had lesser actors it would have been a three-star.  Do I think you should see it?  Yes.  But it’s not unproblematic and the whole last half would have benefited from a tighter hand and more coherent writing.  There are four producers and three executive producers (and one co-executive producer, whatever that is) listed on IMDB, which is never a good sign.  I’m curious to see what the director’s cut will look like.

Let Us Prey (2015)

Posted: November 24, 2016 in 4 stars, Let Us Prey, Reviews
Tags: ,

downloadThis is how little I pay attention to things: I just now, watching Let Us Prey, realized that there is an entire subgenre of horror that I will call “Hell Comes to Improbably Small Police Stations.”

There’s Let Us Prey.  There’s the unfortunate Val Kilmer vehicle The Traveler, and the slightly less unfortunate Robert Englund vehicle Inkubus.  There’s Last Shift, Dark was the Night, and you could even stretch a point and include the security guard and empty building in The Abandoned.  Someone’s always a rookie; this someone is probably a woman.  It’s somebody’s first shift, or their first shift at a new station.  There’s a character actor in the central role who is imbued with some sort of vague and sinister religious overtones; he appears to be either having more fun than anyone else in the movie or counting the days until he can retire and go sit on a beach.  You could actually put together an entire film fest of movies that cannot be distinguished from one another by plot or character descriptions alone, and it would not even involve half-naked teenagers in the woods, which is kind of an impressive achievement.

So what does Let Us Prey bring to the genre?  Well, a lot, actually.

This is one of those movies that I put off watching, because between the admittedly pretty awful title and the “Am I sure I haven’t watched this before?” plot, I wasn’t sure I’d be all that interested.  The opening scene cast doubt on that assumption, because it’s gorgeous – the wild Scottish sea crashing against rocks; a driving, eerie score that’s reminiscent of Carpenter’s Lost Scores album but actually better; Liam Cunningham, playing the nameless central character, apparently rising out of the sea with a murder of crows and slouching off toward the hapless village to birth some mayhem.  It’s effective, stylish, and attention-grabbing.

However, I have been fooled by opening scenes before.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Ghost Ship.

The rookie on her first night here is Rachel (Pollyanna McIntosh), and wow, are her co-workers awful.  It’s her, two other cops (Bryan Larkin and Hanna Stanbridge) who apparently exist only to be hideously awful people and then die horribly, and their creepy, twitchy sergeant, MacReady (Douglas Russell, who morphed into Simon Keenlyside in my head every time he was off-screen).  In the cells are a smarmy teenage drunk driver (Brian Vernel), a wife-beating teacher (Jonathan Watson), and a doctor (Niall Greig Fulton).  

It turns out everyone in the station, of course, has Dark Secrets, and Liam Cunningham knows exactly what they all are.  They’re spectacularly awful.  Liam may or may not be to blame for this, depending on who you think his character is supposed to be; there’s ambiguity left around that, wisely in my opinion.  Gross discoveries lead to a third act so flamboyantly bizarre that it might have derailed a film with less solid performances, but here it’s best to just enjoy the ride.

And the performances are well worth watching.  I’m not sure Cunningham can actually do wrong, acting-wise; he’s a rock-solid center for this movie, and beautifully sinister.  Russell keeps tight reins on a role that could easily have descended into camp and pulls it off impressively well.  Vernel is weirdly sympathetic, Fulton manages his shockingly abrupt descent into batshittery with elan, and Watson is just really damn creepy as the living avatar of every high school student’s suspicions about what their teachers are really thinking.  McIntosh holds her own as a Final Girl, and she’s compelling enough in the role of the traumatized Rachel.

Larkin and Stanbridge, while not bad exactly, could have been cut from the movie entirely without doing it much damage – their characters are grimy little evils, banal and unimaginative, oddly tedious in the middle of everyone else’s flamboyant psychotic plumage, without a redeeming feature or shred of complexity.  I applaud the stylistic decision, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t tiresome to watch.    Other than the two of them, however, the ensemble cast makes for a tight, cohesive unit of claustrophobic looniness.

The near-flawlessness of the cast is what keeps me from asserting that the real stars of the movie are the cinematography and the score.  The movie is beautifully shot, a shadowy, pall-covered, blood-splattered joy to watch (the cinematographer is Piers McGrail, also cinematographer on the gorgeous and underrated The Canal, who looks to my great relief to be doing the same job on the forthcoming We Have Always Lived in the Castle.)  The score, by Steve Lynch, is reminiscent of Carpenter’s both in its power and its elevation of the scenes; too many horror movies forget that the score should enhance the movie, not just jangle along behind it like your teenage brother belting out Fallout Boy in the shower while you’re trying to read the news.  Even if you don’t like the genre, the movie is worth watching for the cinematography and the score alone.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  That’s a little on the high side given the film’s flaws, but its virtues outweigh them just enough to tip it out of the three-star category.  It’s an underpublicized gem that shows there’s nothing wrong with following a genre script if you can do it this well.

Just… you know, maybe give it a better title next time.

I have an enormously, wretchedly conflicted relationship with the Conjuring franchise.

On one hand, I love everything about the first movie.  Ghost stories are my favorite of basically any kind of narrative ever, and I adored just about every detail of The Conjuring – from the glorious Lili Taylor and her sympathetic family, to the amazing bond of love and faith between Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, to the completely believable performances from everyone involved, to the sheer creepiness at every turn.  I have watched The Conjuring a dozen times and I never get tired of it.

On the other hand, all this love for the first movie doesn’t play well with my utter blood-in-the-eyes rage at the fact that Ed and Lorraine Warren are (or were, in Ed’s case) real people who made their living selling vulnerable, frightened, superstitious people a crock of particularly evil bullshit.  It’s really almost exactly like watching a movie that casts an amazing actor in the role of Donald Trump and takes enough storytelling liberties to turn him into a deeply sympathetic and lovable character, possibly saving kittens from trees and single-handedly preventing 9/11.  As much as you might adore the character onscreen, you can’t get around the fact that it’s supposed to be Donald fucking Trump, and the cognitive dissonance is not pleasant.

So it was with trepidation that I queued up The Conjuring 2.  Would it, like The Conjuring, be awesome enough to make me forget I was watching a whitewashing of the Donald and Melania Trump of the paranormal world?  Could my heart-deep love for Farmiga and Wilson in anything they do keep my “BUT ACTUALLY NO” rage in check for 134 minutes?

Well, the answer is yes and no.

The whole thing with the Amityville Horror tie-in just pissed me off, as Amityville Horror related things are wont to do.  Because: you know who else were real people?  The DeFeos.  And an unfathomably horrible thing happened to them, and they still have living family who lost loved ones, and those children who were gunned down in their beds by their own brother deserve better than to be a punchline or a plot device.  You want to talk about the Lutzes and their campaign to bilk the mortgage company out of an astronomical loan?  Open season.  Have at it.  But for fuck’s sake have the decency to leave real-life murdered children, real little corpses buried in real graves, out of it.

Eventually, though, the Amityville nonsense went away, and I was reminded of how in love I am with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and the amazing relationship between their characters.  Basically, Patrick Wilson did an Elvis impersonation and sang “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” and Vera Farmiga stared at him all melty-eyed, and that was it for my resistance.

Oh, wait.  There was a plot here.  And to be honest, it wasn’t that awesome a plot.  There was a nun whose scariness seemed limited to glaring at people, and a Crooked Man whose scariness was limited to, I guess, snarling at people, and a hapless old dude, and a foreboding-looking tree trunk of the Poltergeist variety.  There’s also the whole story of the Enfield Poltergeist, which is mostly just an unconvincing frame for Vera Farmiga vanquishing a demon.  The plot was okay, I guess, but not a patch on the first movie.  Also, if I were Vera Farmiga, I would have beaten the living fuck out of a husband who chose the life of a random kid who was probably faking it over our daughter’s right to grow up with her father.  All in all, it was fine, but not a patch on The Conjuring.

So what’s the verdict?  Three stars.  It just barely kept me from projectile-vomiting rage blood all over my TV at the sheer assholery of the real-life Warrens.  A tiny bit less well-crafted, cast with actors the smallest bit less talented and believable, and this would have been an utter exploitative cluster-fuck of a movie.  James Wan seems to have a gift for crafting movies that avoid catastrophe by the narrowest of margins, and this was one, but I hope the next movie in the franchise serves him better than this one.

PS:  I am totally single, Patrick Wilson.  Just saying.


We Are Still Here (2015)

Posted: September 17, 2016 in 4 stars, Reviews, We Are Still Here
Tags: ,

mv5bmjqwmzgzmjczov5bml5banbnxkftztgwndk2mtuxnte-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_We Are Still Here is a slow creeper of a movie that ratchets up to a gorefest of an end that is weirdly, viscerally satisfying.  Paul  (Andrew Sensenig) and Anne (genre veteran Barbara Crampton), grieving over the death of their son in a car accident, move into an old farmhouse outside a small town.  Weird Things begin happening, and shortly we are introduced to the Dagmars, a relentlessly nasty family of ghosts who want their house back.  Which would be bad enough… except that the townspeople want Paul and Anne as sacrifices to whatever dark forces are buried beneath the house.  Faced with ghosts on one side and murderous townspeople on the other, Paul and Anne are in a world of hurt.

It took me a while to warm up to We Are Still Here.  This is because there is exactly one sane person in the entire movie: the hapless husband Paul, who not only has to deal with the fact that his son has died in an accident but also has to put up with his batshit wife, who is convinced her son is haunting the 1800s-era farmhouse they bought to get away from the trauma of his death.  Everyone else in the movie – from the townspeople to the Woodstock refugees (Lisa Marie and Larry Fessenden) who come by to have ill-advised seances and drop the obvious news that Something Is Wrong in the house – is straight-up nuts, and that made it hard to really find anyone to identify with right out of the starting gate.  Mostly I spent the first part of the movie wondering what in the fuck I was watching.

I’m glad to report, however, that the cray grows on you.  First Marie and Fessenden, whose “OMG THE WEIRD ENERGIES” schtick actually becomes sort of endearing.  Then the nutty townspeople, who are the personification of pretty much everything that terrifies urban dwellers about small-town America, reaching their creepfest culmination in Monte Markham’s horrifying town elder, who is willing to do pretty much anything to appease the Lovecraftian darkness apparently dwelling underneath the farmhouse – including making excuses for the mysterious disappearance of the Dagmar family, who are the real ghosts still inhabiting the house.  Then the Dagmars themselves, who I was waving the pennant for by the end of the movie, because those people know what the hell they are about and even the kid disembowels people with style.  I even finally – admittedly in like the last ten minutes of the movie – made my peace with Anne, whose weepiness and slightly bulgy eyes were irresistibly reminiscent of a low-rent Shelley Duvall in The Shining.

We Are Still Here feels like an homage to 70s horror – oddly enough, I got a real Burnt Offerings vibe from it – and its affectionate campiness culminates in a gloriously over-the-top slaughter that fades skillfully down into a quiet, ambiguous ending.  There’s really something for everyone here.  If, like me, you give it the side-eye for the first hour or so, keep going; everything comes together beautifully by the end.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  This movie is a lot like an old house itself; it might smell a little fusty at first, but there are so many little architectural grace notes, so many unexpected and charming rooms and hallways, and overall such a sense of satisfaction and homecoming, that you won’t even be mad about having to replace the boiler.

Twixt (2011)

Posted: December 30, 2013 in 1 star, Twixt
Tags: , ,

I’m just going to admit this up front: I love Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.  I love it deeply, abidingly, and unironically.  I love the cinematography, I love the costumes, I love the sets, and not even the occasional dubious casting decision can shake my devotion.  So when I saw that Coppola had written and directed a film billed as gothic horror, I was pretty pleased.

Then I saw that Val Kilmer stars in it, and I made a sort of “Eeeeennnnngh” sound. 

Let’s face it: Val Kilmer was never that amazing an actor to begin with, and now he makes his money as a sort of paid mourner at the mausoleum of his own career – his job is to show up every so often, remind us that he was in some pretty good movies back in the ’80s, collect his paycheck, and go home.  Nonetheless, I queued up the film in Netflix anyway, hoping for a movie that, if it couldn’t wrest the thick red blood of a good performance out of the turnip that is Kilmer’s acting skills, was at least good enough to carry him instead of the other way around.

Looking at IMDB, I do not see that this movie had any US release outside of the San Francisco International Film Festival.  I am sorry, Coppola, but that is because it sucks out loud.

There isn’t much of a plot.  Kilmer plays a washed-up writer named Hall Baltimore, a name that miraculously will become even stupider as the movie wears on.  He’s at a book signing in Rural Bumfuckistan, where nobody buys any books; his agent is mad at him, and his wife is threatening to sell his first edition of Leaves of Grass if he doesn’t man up and get an advance on a book.  So he’s under the gun and needs to come up with a story fast.

So the faintly creepy sheriff takes him to the morgue, where there’s a body with a stake through its heart.  He says it’s the work of a serial killer.  Kilmer is weirdly uninterested, until he goes back to his motel, falls asleep, and starts dreaming about a strange little girl (Elle Fanning).

And Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin).  No, I’m not joking.  Poe is the ostentatiously pallid Virgil to Kilmer’s Dante, serving as the font of all exposition for what frankly silly plot there is.

See, there’s a group of Goth Caricatures living across the lake.  They’re vampires.  There’s also a creepy priest who for some reason ran some sort of orphanage or something, and killed all the kids because he didn’t want them to become vampires.  He almost killed Elle Fanning too, but she ran off and became a vampire.  And… well, that’s pretty much it.  Nothing gets resolved.  The ghost kids are, I assume, still ghost kids.  Elle Fanning is still a vampire.  Kilmer gets his book advance.  I can’t figure out if he’s supposed to be a vampire or not, since in the scene before Elle Fanning was gnawing on his carotid artery.   Seriously, the movie ends like somebody realized at the eleventh hour that you can’t tie up plot threads when there’s pretty much no plot except “Val Kilmer keeps falling asleep.”

So what’s the verdict?  It hurts me, but one star.  There is no plot.  There is no acting.  The special effects look like somebody did them in Microsoft Paint at three in the morning.  This movie avoided the coveted zero-star rating only because Coppola has earned the right to produce the occasional stinker, but I don’t recommend watching it anyway.  It’s so bad that its badness is actually confusing, like it’s secretly a brilliant parody and I’m just not getting the joke.

Dear Francis Ford Coppola: if this is really supposed to be funny then I take it all back.  Except that it wasn’t actually funny either.  So until someone explains to me where the brilliance is hiding, this is a one-star movie.


Dead Silence (2007)

Posted: August 10, 2013 in 4 stars, Reviews
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I’m a big James Wan fan, so I was pleased to find that Dead Silence is a tremendously underrated piece of Gothic awesomeness.

From the opening sequence, illustrating the process of creating a ventriloquist’s dummy (which is FUCKING HORRIFYING and  reinforced my conviction that only someone with several screws loose would be party to such an abomination), the cinematography is full of beautiful desaturated blues and greys and splashes of vivid red.  The score is ominous and effective.  The visual effects are a delight and never serve as a meaningless distraction from what’s going on in the scene.  This is just a damn well-put-together film.

But is it scary?  Well, yes.  It probably helps if you hold the correct viewpoint, which is that ventriloquist’s dummies are inherently evil offenses against the very fabric of the universe, but it’s scary.  Though honestly a better word might be creepy, because while the scary parts only come once in a while, the creepiness is unrelenting from the first frame to the last.

Our hero, Jamie (Ryan Kwanten), has escaped his small-town childhood to move to the Big City, only to have his childhood track him down in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy who is delivered to his door in an unmarked package.  Jamie’s wife (Laura Regan) thinks this is hilarious – for about the fifteen minutes that it takes Jamie to go get takeout and come back to a bloodbath in his apartment and a dead wife missing her tongue.  This all ties in to the local legend of Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts, who is ridiculously beautiful without the cadaver makeup and amazingly terrifying in this role), a ventriloquist who died mysteriously and had all her dolls buried around her in little graves like dead children. Now she’s a ghost haunting the small town and killing off entire families, and if she catches you with your mouth open, she rips out your tongue.  (This poses a particular problem for Jamie, bless him, who appears to have adenoids and as far as I can tell never closes his mouth during the entire movie.)

Needless to say, Jamie’s determination to find out who killed his wife takes him across Mary’s path pretty fast, with disastrous and not entirely predictable results.

Jamie is that rarest of horror movie heroes – the guy who, when a creepy old lady tells him what to do to stop the killing, does it immediately and without question.  Unfortunately, it’s just as promptly undone by the cop (Donnie Wahlberg) following him around trying to pin his wife’s murder on him.  I liked Jamie; he was sympathetic and not unintelligent, and though he shows the occasional lapse in judgment, they’re largely because he’s having a hard time believing that a ghost and a ventriloquist’s dummy are actually running around carving people up.  Bob Gunton and Amber Valetta are excellent as Jamie’s estranged father and his faintly disturbing new stepmother, and Wahlberg is surprisingly watchable as the hapless New York cop who by halfway through the movie probably had just as awful a phobia of small-town America as I do.

The movie’s only real flaw was its ending.  The alternate ending is on the DVD, and I’m not sure I don’t prefer that one.  The ending that made it into the film is a little puzzling – it comes across as “I have spent the entire movie telling people not to do Thing X, but now I’m going to do Thing X myself for apparently no better reason than that it’s time for the movie to end,” and then the credits roll while you’re staring at the screen wondering if you missed something.  The alternate end needed some editing, but maybe something halfway between would have been better.

So what’s the verdict?  Despite the shakiness of the ending, I’m giving Dead Silence four stars.  It’s actually more like three and three-quarters, but I’ll round up.  Insidious is a better movie, but Dead Silence is a worthy precursor, and has the virtue of not containing Darth Maul.

Inkubus (2011)

Posted: July 3, 2013 in 2 stars, Reviews
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InkubusLet’s get this out of the way first: Inkubus is in fact not a very good movie.

That it’s not a good movie is honestly a little mystifying.  Robert Englund is a joy to watch in anything he does and appears to have a good amount of snarky fun here.  Joey Fatone is effective and affecting as the hapless detective into whose precinct Englund wanders, carrying a severed head.  The redshirt station cops were all eminently watchable in their small parts. Kevin DeCristofano (who has no picture on IMDB so I hope that’s who I’m talking about) is a joy as the guy unjustly arrested for the death associated with the severed head, who spends the rest of the movie explaining to the cops that they’re all going to die in the tone of voice I imagine Mark Zuckerberg uses with small dim children.  Put together, their performances should have added up to a good movie, and yet.

There’s just no there there, ultimately.  Part of the blame for that has to go to the script, which is uninspired – Englund plays an incubus who apparently has to find a new host in the next few hours before he dies, but this is alluded to in one line and then dropped, leaving the impression that all he really wanted to do was go out in one last gory hurrah.  There’s some attempt to provide him with a nemesis in the form of William Forsythe as a retired cop whose family the incubus killed, but it falls flat – Forsythe is given almost nothing to work with except a Stereotyped Tragic Past and a bit of clumsy family drama, and he makes nothing at all of the material he is given to work with, preferring to do the Paycheck Walk from one end of the movie to the other.  I can’t say I blame him, but it didn’t make for much of a subplot.

It’s an excellent setup – an incubus walks into a police station, carrying a severed head, and sits down at the table.  What happens then?  It’s a damn shame that the answer is “Not much, particularly.”

So what’s the verdict?  Two stars.  It’s not a bad movie, at all;  it’s just not a good one.  Watch it if you have the chance, but don’t expect much.  I did enjoy it, more or less, but mostly I just wanted to send the story and cast back to the filmmakers and tell them to start over and give it another try.